Sunday, January 31, 2010

View from Hamilton


Something went horribly wrong for this shopping cart.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Further to the New Digs

I've been talking lately about expanding into greener pastures: in Internet terms, that would be a more active site. No offense to the readers here, lurkers and all. (And, of course, I won't abandon GSM!) But I'd like to try putting my thoughts up against a tough crowd of very active debaters.

So, in that vein, I should note that I will soon be entering a two-week trial period at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Things haven't been hammered out yet, but I'm thinking I'll extend the "blogging the canon" project there. After two weeks, we'll be able to tell if it's a good fit. If not, I will return with my tail between my legs. But, again, I will never abandon you here, my (very quietly) adoring public! I'm still Rufus from the block. (Oh God, I apologize for writing that.)

Actually, I highly recommend The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. The blog deals mostly with politics, but they do so with a goal of breaking out of the tired left/right dichotomy and boring culture war stances. To quote their masthead:

"The contributing writers hail from various points along the political spectrum, but all hold a deep and abiding commitment to the exploration of ideas outside the foray of rhetorical and ideological cul de sacs.
The entries are less posts than they are dialogues with an aim towards sustained discussion on topics and issues that lay at the foundations of our lives. This approach, we hope, will provide readers with a thoughtful and searching alternative analysis."
I believe that great art and literature should lay at the foundations of our lives. But this brings up a question: Rufus, what does "blogging the canon" have to do with politics? Not a lot really.

Admittedly, however, it's surprisingly hard to talk about "the Western Canon" in North America without politics entering into it. If your goal is the preservation of the cultural patrimony, it's assumed you're a "cultural conservative"; and of course, I am in that sense: I do want to conserve the culture! But that doesn't mean I want people to go vote Republican and defend "family values" or whatever. I like to think of myself more as a curmudgeon than anything else. I don't know who curmudgeons vote for; we just bitch about everyone!

Besides, the point is to start talking about culture outside of the culture war stereotypes. The most genuine "cultural conservative" I've ever known was a professor who was a political anarchist, and absolutely dedicated to convincing young people to make Plato, Homer, Moses, and Dante part of their mental furniture. I think that the "great books" should be a part of everyone's life. Because, ultimately, reading these books is good for you. They make you more fully human!

Anyway, the League of Ordinary Gentlemen outpost will either succeed, or it will crash and burn. Either way, feel free to visit me there and post questions, insults, or jokes.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

At the End of Yonge St from Fixinmytie on Vimeo

Yonge Street in Toronto- one of the longest streets in the world, and a good idea of what Southern Ontario looks like in general.

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"The Suppliants" by Aeschylus

"Hateful, and fain of love more hateful still,
Foul is the bird that rends another bird,
And foul the men who hale unwilling maids,
From sire unwilling, to the bridal bed.
Never on earth, nor in the lower world,
Shall lewdness such as theirs escape the ban:
There too, if men say right, a God there is
Who upon dead men turns their sin to doom,
To final doom. Take heed, draw hitherward,
That from this hap your safety ye may win."
- The Suppliants, Aesychles.

Aesychles is sometimes called "the father of drama". Of the great Greek dramatists, his plays are the oldest; although probably not the first in actuality, they're the oldest that still survive. I point out this potential answer to a Jeopardy question because Aesychles helps to illustrate something about the canon: he shows how it's surprisingly coherent, raising questions that have yet to be answered.

A digression: What got me interested in all of this in the first place was reading the French Romantics for my dissertation and realizing that these 19th century writers, who are so completely modern in so many ways, cannot be understood fully without having a good understanding of the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Kant and Virgil- to begin with. Entire generations grew up steeped in this tradition so, when they wrote, they were taking part in conversations that have outlasted any blogospheric debate. In other words, for people not so long ago, this was culture and it was a totally living thing, as compared to how most of us experience it- distant, dead, and something to cram for the midterm! For me, it was the shock of realization that these texts are still living, contrary to the impression I always got from my professors.

Which brings us to The Supplicants, once considered the oldest play we have (now the second), and still startlingly relevant now that everyone has the people of Haiti in their thoughts, because it asks: "Are societies ever in the right in turning away refugees?" Admittedly, the refugees here are in a somewhat bizarre situation: the fifty daughters of the prince Danaus, the Daniades, are fleeing Egypt where their Uncle, Aegyptus, is trying to force them to marry his sons, their cousins. They will eventually be claimed and forty-nine of them will kill their husbands on their wedding nights. But, in the play, they have arrived en masse on the shores of Argos and they want to be granted asylum.

We're introduced to the Danaides first and it's hard not to sympathize with them- they're fleeing being forced into marriages, and hence sexual relationships that they find morally abhorrent. Incest is the oldest human taboo and one every society has shared. All nature rises up against it, as the Danaids claim in the above quote: even birds would fain pollute their race. One notices that there is plenty of incest in the ancient creation stories, such as the Egyptian; but that's because the gods can commit incest- it's in those stories to prove that they're gods and not like us. Humans have always had a visceral repulsion towards incest- King Oedipus will gouge out his eyes before too long. The Danaides, all fifty of them, have decided they will either take asylum in Argos, or the noose.

In a sense, the Danaides face something women throughout history have faced when they say, "save me from marriage with a man I hate." Marriages are still arranged of course; there's not much talk of love when it comes to a woman's marital destiny. In fact, Plato suggests (in the Symposium) that true love is to be found outside of marriage. The historical norm was for virgins to be offered up to men they barely knew on their wedding night. Aeschylus's comparisons between predatory young men and birds of prey still ring true. Marriage was a woman's fate, regardless of her wishes. The Danaides, of course, face something worse. Nevertheless, there are young women in many parts of the world who will still relate to the Danaides when they say: "Never, oh never, may I fall subject to the power and authority of these men. To escape this marriage that offends my soul I am determined to flee, piloting my course by the stars."

(Rodin's Danaide statue.)

The King, Pelasgus, would seem to have a fairly easy choice to make here. Basic morality compels him to protect these maidens in need. In addition, he has reason to believe that Zeus protects them, and no one can go against Zeus and fare well. I think we still see granting refugee status as a simple moral imperative; we just cannot turn away victims to be further victimized, if we can protect them. Ah, but there's the rub- at some point, we cannot protect them. How much security can we provide before we compromise our own safety? In this case, Argos is a relatively small city-state and the fleet of fifty hot and bothered Egyptians are soon coming to claim their wives, and there's good reason to believe they will make war over this. ( Clearly, the pickings were pretty slim in Egypt at this time!) Will Pelasgus follow the moral imperative even if it means getting his own people slaughtered?

And what if this other culture simply does things differently? Does the law of Zeus apply to those who worship other gods? Luckily for the Danaids, they are not a different people at all, but are also of the Argive race, which is again important here, as it was in the Iliad and Odyssey. Descent matters for the Greeks, having one foot still in the tribal world. Kin and clan matter. The mythological background: Io, a priestess of Hera was seduced by Zeus. In order to keep his mistress on the down low, Zeus turned her into a heifer, but his wife Hera got wise and tormented Io with a gadfly. Driven to distraction, Io eventually wandered all the way to Egypt and Danaus is among her descendants. So, when they show up in Argos, the Danaides and their father are reconnecting with racial kin. Even these exotic foreign refugees are from the same family.

What will be their fate? King Pelasgus chooses to let the people decide, a move that terrifies the maidens. Will the Argive people respond to the moral imperative, or will they seek to protect their own security? What do populations do when the two are at odds? Making the choice as a group, will they just find mutual support in taking the coward's way out? Will the maidens end up like Kitty Genovese: victimized because the onlooking crowd doesn't want to get involved? Does democracy result in heightened ethics, or do we sink lower together? If the choice is between turning a blind eye to the rape of these outsiders or having their own children get slaughtered, what is the right thing to do?

Aeschylus is responding to the stirring interest in democracy, which will be established in Athens two years later. He sets up the case for and against the Suppliants much like a courtroom drama. It's important to note that, for the maidens, it is not clear that democracy will lead to an ethical culture at all; they might well get thrown to the predators. For contemporaries, such as Aeschylus, it wasn't clear either. It still isn't.

However, for my money, Aeschylus screws up the play when it comes to the public vote, leaving it off-stage. This is the main source of tension in the play- a great way of staging The Suppliants would be to have the audience vote on the fate of these refugees. Instead, Aeschylus sets up tension about the vote and then has Danaus come on stage to inform us how it went: Good news! The maidens will stay. (Maybe I should have said "spoiler alert"!)

Of course, including the Argos public on stage would be extremely difficult. The play is already almost comically complicated- after all, the "Chorus" is made up of fifty women, who are also protagonists in the story. Drama is not yet perfected. Perhaps the reason that I've yet to see a performance of The Suppliants is that it's likely hard to stage it without it degenerating into farce.

Nevertheless, the quick denouement is a real let down. I'll admit that I felt a bit ripped off and yelled "What are you doing, Aeschylus?!" at the text. My wife has, thankfully, come to expect these sorts of outbursts; the cat was a bit frightened. It's still very disappointing to me how Aeschylus plays this off as a very easy choice, when the whole play argues that it's not an easy choice. Sticking our neck out to protect the weak and victimized is never as easy as it should be. Not in this life. Sure, the Argos democracy "does the right thing". But the point of the play is that these debates will take place in democracies for generations to come because it's seldom written in thunder what the right thing might be.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Odyssey

It seems that more students are assigned the Odyssey than the Iliad in High School; we see a lot of freshmen at Mall U who have read the former already and are now reading the latter for the first time. I suppose the Odyssey is just a more enjoyable story, with daring do, exotic locations, adventure and true love. It has inspired several later writers, most famously James Joyce, and is very accessible to a first-time reader. Knowing the mythology helps, but it's not necessary. The Iliad, in contrast, is intense, violent, and a bit dismal. Personally, however, I far prefer the Iliad. It's a more serious story, with higher drama, and the Odyssey reads a bit like a story for young boys.

The story itself takes place ten years after the end of the Trojan War, which means that there are most likely books missing in between the two stories. Achilles is dead, Menelaus and Helen have reconciled, and most of the soldiers have returned to their homes. All but one. The story begins in Ithaca, where Penelope and her son Telemachus are waiting for the long-overdue return of Odysseus. He has been gone for years now and the natives are getting restless. The local nobility are hanging around the house, drinking and making sacrifices, and trying desperately to woo Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. She is awaiting his return, but undecided about the suitors. On the one hand, she allows them to hang around; on the other, she has been tricking them into thinking she will marry once she finishes weaving a shawl, which she has been unweaving each night, perhaps the most creative example of cock-teasing in literature! She years for Odysseus, weeping each night; yet it seems likely that he will never return.

Telemachus is frustrated with these noble wooers and sets out to find news of his father. The local elders are no help, their sons after all trying to wed Penelope, so he sets off with the sailors for Pylus and Sparta to get news of his father. Or, at least, maybe his father. Descent matters here; it makes a difference if one is descended from the semi-divine race resulting from people and gods mating, or from the merely human race. It matters for Telemachus because, if he is not truly of the semi-divine race and the son of Odysseus, he likely won’t survive the ordeals he faces. In a striking passage, we are reminded that Telemachus does not know for sure who his father is because no man knows his parentage with absolute certainty. This is, after all, before Jerry Springer’s paternity test!

He has the help of Athena though and does the work of a dutiful son. Telemachus is sort of the ideal son of a great leader; loyal, brave, and able to manage the house while his father is gone. In Old Regime France, a famous and contentious novel fleshed out the story of Telemachus, giving good advice for the descendants of great leaders and, thereby, casting aspersions on the current King! It’s also noteworthy that Telemachus, if he finds his father is dead, will be responsible for marrying off his mother to one of her suitors.

In Pylus, King Nestor entertains Telemachus and tells him how the Greeks destroyed Troy and departed after the war. In Sparta, he is entertained by Menelaus and Helen, now reconciled- only fair, given that she was blinded by Aphrodite when she strayed. Menelaus tells him that his father is being kept on the island of the goddess Calypso, who has taken him for her lover, and cannot return. It has now been about two decades since his father left and Telemachus has never known him.

Athena begs Zeus, who sends the messenger Hermes with an order to Calypso to let Odysseus leave. She has him build a raft and set off, but soon Poseidon wrecks his raft, stranding him on the island of Phaecia. In a delightful scene, young maidens washing their clothes on the seashore discover Odysseus and take him to meet the king. He takes part in athletic games and recites stories of the war, including the story of the Trojan horse, and what happened afterward. A recurring theme is the importance of storytellers. The Iliad and Odyssey were recited by traveling storytellers, and such bards pop up throughout the story. When Penelope rages against a storyteller who sings of her husband, he stands up for the profession, telling her to hate the message, not the messenger.

Much of the story is told in episodes. Odysseus and his men are blown off course and visit the isle of the lotus-eaters, becoming intoxicated and wishing to stay. He leads them next to the island of the cyclops Polyphemus, who captures them and is, in turn, blinded by them. This is what sets his father Poseidon against Odysseus, and the god of the sea gets revenge by toying with the crew for years.

They next narrowly escape the cannibal Laestrygones and spend a year on the island of the witch Circe, who also falls in love with Odysseus. Finally leaving, they sail to the Western edge of the world and visit the land of the dead, guided by the spirit of the prophet Tiersias. Note the similarity to the older Mesopotamian story: Gilgamesh also sails to the edge of the world to be guided through the netherworld. Odysseus communicates with the spirits of the dead. His mother has died of grief, and now lives here in a world of darkness, devoid of joy. The Greeks had nothing to look forward to after death. Also of note is Agamemnon, who warns Odysseus of scheming women like the one who did him in. He assures Odysseus that he has a good wife in Penelope, but get home soon to kill the suitors!

Humans are toyed with by the gods in these stories and subject to fate. When bad luck befalls Odysseus, it is because he has angered some god, and when luck or good ideas come his way, they're sent by the gods as well. He is fortunate to have an advocate in Athena, but very unlucky to have angered Poseidon. Here we get a sense of the Greek religion: we make offerings to the gods in order to curry favor with a particular god who looks after us. Some of this carries over to the early Hebraic religion- the Israelites make frequent burnt offerings to God. In the Odyssey, we witness the sacrifice of a heifer in close detail.

Note also the importance of being a good host to travelers- things turn out very badly for the cyclops because he tries to eat his guests- always a bad idea! Hospitality is important in all the stories of this time. Often characters in the Old Testament make the mistake of maltreating angels or protected people of God and pay the price. Conversely, guests have to do right by their hosts: all of Odysseus's problems come from blinding his host. Throughout the story, he and Telemachus rely on the hospitality of the island-dwelllers they encounter. One interesting thing- often their hosts bathe and oil them! One would be advised not to ask for similar treatment today. But, in the world of 700 BCE, in which travelers often put their lives in the hands of their hosts, and vice-versa, hospitality is a paramount virtue.

Okay, that's enough for today. If I think of anything else, there can be a part 2 for The Odyssey. Spoiler alert: Odysseus gets home. Like I said, I'm not as fond of the Odyssey as the Iliad, but it's a nice way to spend some time reading.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Iliad (part 2)

Note: One reason I wanted to blog about "the great books of the Western canon" was that I've actually found very little personal writing about them on the net. A number of teachers and professors have posted their lecture notes, which are helpful for getting the academic background about these stories. Otherwise, the pickings are slim, and the notes themselves seem a bit too mannerly. Do academics actually pick up on how freaky and bizarre, violent and perverse most of these stories actually are? Or is that just me? I do worry a bit about lazier and less scrupulous students stealing from these notes. However, there is one thing that I think would make that a really bad idea: I'm a full-blown weirdo.The parts of these stories that interest me are salacious, ultraviolent, perverse, and inappropriate. And I tend to go off on rambling tangents. So, if you want to clip and paste these notes and turn them in to your teacher, you will probably fail.

Okay, so returning to the Iliad, I've laid out the storyline and characters, and I want now to talk about some of my favorite scenes in the text. The Iliad is the sweeping story of a world-changing war; yet, it's anchored by specific human incidents that are psychologically illuminating and fascinating. Here are some of my favorites:

1. The scene in which the old Trojan first witness Helen and say: "No one could blame the Trojans and Greek men-at-arms for suffering so long for a woman's sake. She is fearfully like the immortal goddesses." They do want her out of the city because they recognize what her being there has brought to Troy; but they also understand why this woman was worth fighting a war over. People often say that the Greek tragedies are great because the characters are so passionate. This scene comes to mind.

2. Aphrodite favors Paris because he gave her the golden apple and, in return, she has granted him the woman Helen. After he is nearly slaughtered in combat with Menelaus, Helen cools to the young stud. Aphrodite encourages Helen to go to his room and have sex with him to cheer him up after the battle and she openly defies the goddess: "Mysterious goddess, why are you trying to lead me on like this? You are plotting, I suppose, to carry me off to some still more distant town, in Phrygia or lovely Macedonia, to gratify some other favorite of yours who may be living in those parts?

Or is it that Menelaus has beaten Paris and wants to take me back home, me, his loathsome wife- so now you have to come here to try to lure me back to Paris? No, go and sit with him yourself. Forget you are a goddess. Never set foot on Olympus again but go and agonize over Paris, go and pamper him, and one day he will make you his wife or his concubine. I refuse to go and share that man's bed again- it would be quite wrong."
Helen has no intention of being pimped out by Aphrodite again and openly defies a goddess- and is smacked down for it. I love the idea that it's the gods who make us horny and irrational, and the image of a mortal woman haughtily defying a deity. The gods play humans like instruments, but the strongest can hurl defiance at them and, in doing so, become a bit like gods themselves.

3. Hector takes leave of Andromache. The great warrior and son of the Trojan king, Hector, leaves for the battle and his wife Andromache begs him to stay home. This is a heart-rending scene. Hector has to go and fight- and die- in the war because his stupid little shit of a brother seduced and stole the wife of a King who treated them as guests. Hector has no respect for Paris, but he still feels compelled to do his duty and protect his city. He is obligated to fight to the death for an unworthy cause. Even worse, Andromache is asked to give up her husband and the father of her child because his brother Paris stupidly seduced a Greek king's wife. For one moment, we can all see the way out- Hector can, if he so chooses, leave to be with his wife and son; but instead, he will leave them alone with unguessable grief. He was born and raised to be a warrior and win glory instead of family and security; it's a lousy trade-off.

4. Achilles mourns Patroclus. After sending his comrade to fight in his armor, Achilles loses his closest companion and, even before he hears the news, the horses weep with the knowledge. When he does hear the news, Achilles collapses to the ground, pulling his hair out and pouring the soil over his head. His mother comes to him and Achilles tells her that now, "my dearest companion is dead, Patroclus, who was more to me than any other of my men, whom I loved as much as my own life... I have destroyed Patroclus." Now, Achilles no longer wants to live. But this is to the Greeks' advantage. Since he is fated to die in the War anyway, Achilles can return to avenge his companion without any fear.


5. Now on the rampage, Achilles is attacked by the River Scamander (pictured to the left) which rises up and tries to drown him for having clogged its waters with dead bodies! I love this scene because it's so totally bizarre and surreal, and I also love the idea of nature itself rising up in outrage against the horrors of human warfare. If only.

6. Achilles kills Hector and, in his rage and sorrow, won't allow anyone to claim and dispose of the body. This is an outrage in the ancient world- there must be a funeral. Finally, Priam, Hector's father, comes to Achilles and begs for his son's return. He tells Achilles that he himself is the age of Achilles's father, but will never see the return of his son after the war. Priam kneels down before Achilles- the man who killed his son- and begs forgiveness. The two of them break down weeping together. It is one of the most moving and startling images in the book, and the end of the story; two men broken by war and conflicting loyalties- Priam having lost everything and hanging on to his family duties; Achilles having avenged his companion's death, but fated to die.

When I read the Iliad in High School, it never really registered for me that it really is a great book. Homer is masterful in weaving together heroics, bloody battles, the imminent divine and the cripplingly human in a story that sucks you in and holds your attention. In doing so, he presents the full panorama of human types and behavior. I haven't a clue whether the academic approach keeps Homer with us as a living part of the culture, or simply turns it into a museum piece. But compare the Iliad to, say, Avatar or the latest Star Wars crapola, and it becomes crystal clear why it's been read for the last 2,700 year.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Art for Today



"Achilles before the dead body of Patroclus" (1624) by Dirck van Baburen, acquired last year by Museum Schloss Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel. It seemed suitable for today.

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The Iliad (about 700 BCE) (part 1 of 2)

Western literature begins with the Iliad and, until very recently, it was assumed that no educated person in the West could have skipped reading the story. The story of a few days towards the end of the tenth year of the Greek war with Troy, the epic most likely refers to an actual war, remembered long after and filtered through a storyline of gods interacting with men, and men being undone by pride, anger, arrogance, and lust. Kierkegaard wrote that the Iliad was the perfect epic because it combined a great poet with a great subject matter. Even today, it stands up as a flawless story abounding in heroics, psychological drama, and ironic commentary on the lives of men.

The epic in fact begins with a delicious irony: we’re going to hear a song about the damage caused by Achilles’ uncontrolled anger, and yet it’s clear from the start that it’s the arrogance of his commander, Agamemnon, that’s causing all the trouble. Agamemnon, as leader of a Greek fleet besieging Ilium, has taken for his own concubine the daughter of the local priest of Apollo and his arrogance has moved the god to strike the Greeks with plague. Finally agreeing to return the girl, Agamemnon decides instead to take Achilles’ own slave girl, a direct slap in the face of his greatest warrior. The war has been raging for nine years already and all Achilles has to look forward to is glory after his death, and now his supercilious commander has insulted him in front of all the other warriors. In a sense, the Iliad begins with a question we can all relate to: what to do when your boss is a jerk?

In the larger sense, Achilles faces the dilemma of how the individual subsumes their needs to the collective good. It’s hard to live in society for any of us; but Achilles really is the greatest warrior and the son of a man and a goddess, Thetis. Even as a demigod, he has to stifle his will in order to live within an order of his inferiors. Agamemnon is an old fool, and nobody would fault Achilles if he killed him. This is a warrior culture in which the order of authority is not set in stone, but negotiated at nearly every minute. Agamemnon is the ruler because he asserts his authority and argues down anyone who challenges him. He is getting older and irrational. But, in order to win glory, Achilles will eventually have to fall in line under this old fool.

The Iliad is the story of how Achilles finally overcomes his own anger and follows his destiny; for much of the story, he just sits out the fighting and lets the Greeks get slaughtered. The gods have their favorites and fight as angrily among themselves as the men do. Zeus agrees for Thetis’s sake to let the Greeks suffer great casualties, which in turn angers his own wife Hera, who roots for the Greeks. Hera and Zeus are really one of the greatest feuding couples in Western literature. Meanwhile, the greatest warriors all experience divine interventions from gods and goddesses that often only they can see.

If the story of Achilles and Agamemnon revolves around their quarrel over a woman, the Trojan War is also fought over a woman: Helen. The wife of the Greek king Menelaus, Helen was seduced by the young Paris (again with divine help) and taken to Troy, triggering the Greek cities to band together and send a fleet of 1,186 ships and probably 100,000 men to attack the city. In one of the great scenes in the epic, the old men of Troy, when first seeing this woman who will launch one of the great wars of history against their city, say to one another that she was worth it. Helen’s is, quite literally, the face that launched a thousand ships.

Amazingly, we will discover in the Odyssey that, following the war, Helen and Menelaus got back together! Note the similar theme too: in the Iliad, the greatest war of prehistory is launched by a cuckolded husband and an unfaithful wife; in the Odyssey, Ulysses goes through hell in order to return home and prevent his wife Penelope from being seduced by her many suitors. In the Iliad, Homer’s view of women at first seems much more in line with Hesiod, his contemporary, and at odds with the civilizing harlot of Gilgamesh. Western literature, instead, begins with unbridled female sexuality as a force of destruction. It’s complicated though. As much as we moderns might wish to see the Iliad as a patriarchal story in which men are warriors and women are property (and it is that too); it still has to be remembered that one woman’s sexual sovereignty is powerful enough to destroy Troy and nearly destroy the Greek fleet. Consider the strangeness of this- imagine if Michelle Obama shacked up with the son of the French President and, as a result, the entire US military was sent to war with France! And yet, none of the Greeks find this strange! In other words, the flipside of patriarchy is the almost supernatural power it assigns to the very female sexuality that patriarchy exists in order to channel into marriage. This isn’t just the story of the face that launched a thousand ships; it’s about the pussy that sent thousands of men rushing to their deaths. I’m guessing most High School humanities courses don’t discuss this aspect of the story!

The other reason these men rush to their deaths, and a subject those teachers love to discuss, is kleos: the glory that survives after one’s death. It is known, almost from the beginning, that Achilles will not return from this battle. His life is destined to be short-lived and filled with combat. He literally has nothing to look forward to after death; the underworld is a place of forgetting that’s almost like endless suspended animation. These men jockey and clash with each other because all they really have to look forward to in life is being remembered as heroes after their deaths. Their lives are both short and intense. Achilles talks often about this glory and we, as well as Homer, know that he will be remembered as a great hero. But, in the end, he will become a hero by losing everything and sacrificing himself. He is the first self-sacrificing hero, of a great many, in Western literature. Part of being a hero in the West is willingly giving oneself over to death. Achilles is the first self-sacrificing hero in Western literature; and Christ is the utmost self-sacrificing hero.

The greatest loss, however, is that Achilles will ultimately lose his beloved comrade, Patroclus, due to his own anger and shortsightedness. In Greek literature, fighting men often have relationships akin to love relationships. One of the other themes in the story that likely goes unmentioned in those civ classes is that Achilles is effectively in love with Patroclus, a theme that Greek listeners would have easily picked up on. The death of his buddy is as devastating as that of Enkidu is for Gilgamesh. These are men who live together and fight together; they might satisfy their lusts with captive women, but they are emotionally devoted to one another in a way that the Greeks would have understood fully. In fact, it must be pointed out that this bond of love and devotion between the men is purer and more elevating, in this story, than all of the examples of heterosexual love, which lead to destruction. Now, in the Odyssey, Homer will write the story of a great love between a man and a woman; but here the story is of the great love between two men.

There is much more to the Iliad than sexual desire and male bonding, however, and Homer is downright cinematic in the way he blends the history of a decade-long war, epic battles, and the emotional lives and loves of individuals. There is enough, in fact, that the Iliad will have to occupy two posts!

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Today in French

One of the things that gets tricky with learning another language is that there are some words that sound and are spelled very close to English words, but have different meanings. For instance, actuellement in French is more like "currently" than "actually".

Here's one that tricked me recently: Spirituelle. It is an adjective that does, indeed, mean something like "spiritual" in French. However, another, more common, meaning is "witty".

We were watching a French film called Entre les murs (Called "The Class" here), and there are these snotty street kids in the movie who keep making their teacher miserable. Often, he responds to their jibes by ironically telling them they are "spirituelle". It took me a minute to realize that he wasn't insulting their religion!

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The Epic of Gilgamesh (about 2000 BCE)

(Welcome back to "Blogging the Canon"! For this installment, we jump back in time by more than a millennium and in space to ancient Iran.)

The Mesopotamians lived in a world that, at first, reminds one of the Ancient Greeks or even the Egyptians. There is the same interaction with a plethora of gods who guide men, but often remain indifferent to them. There is the same acceptance of hierarchy, kingship, and the priestly class as the natural social order and analogues to the Divine order. There is the same surprising acceptance of war and violence, and a taste for heroics. And there is the same world order that is both naively straightforward and surprisingly cruel.

Such is the case with The Epic of Gilgamesh, a story that was first recorded in Sumerian before 2,000 BC and in the most familiar Akkadian version about 1,000 years later, and which likely records the story of a real King from around 2600 BCE. And what a King! King Gilgamesh of Uruk was a huge and beautiful warrior who led the construction of the city walls; no small feat in Ancient Mesopotamia. We can assume this meant the use of conscripted labor from the citizenry and he soon earned the enmity of the people by his tyrannical ways. In desperation, they appealed to the gods to get him off their back. This, then, is an ancient story about good government, as well as a lesson for humanity. It suggests that the key to being both a good king and a good man is to know your limits.

The goddess Aruru decided to create a companion for Gilgamesh; from clay, she sculpted the wild-man Enkidu. Also huge and covered with hair, Enkidu lives in the woods and represents the first narrative of wild humanity being tamed by civilization. In this case, he’s civilized by the harlot Shamat who risks life and limb to couple with him. They screw for seven days and seven nights and Enkidu is left physically weakened but given the gift of reason. Sex leads to enlightenment!

Enkidu and Gilgamesh don't exactly "meet cute"; Enkidu is shocked to hear that Gilgamesh has been going to the wedding parties of his citizens in order to exploit his right as king to screw the bride before the groom (it's good to be the King of Ur, apparently) and chivalrously takes off to fight him. They clash, but as soon as it is decided that Gilgamesh is the alpha male, they become buddies. There are some who see this sort of warrior comrade culture as a euphemism for homosexuality; while others see it as the ultimate inoculation against feminizing man-love. I tend towards the former interpretation; harlots aside, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are emotionally devoted to one another.

The two heroes have adventures together, defeating the ogre of the cedar woods, Humbaba, and slaying the Bull of Heaven, sent after Gilgamesh rejected the sexual advances of the Goddess Ishtar. As punishment, the gods kill Enkidu, taking him to a bleak Netherworld. In general, the gods lives askance to humanity in the story, occupying palace-like temples and being treated as royalty, but playing less of a role than they would in religious scriptures. This is not a religious tale at all in fact.

It's more the story of human mortality and weakness. Gilgamesh is devastated by the death of Enkidu and rails against the unfairness of it all. Anyone who has lost a loved one can recall how unjust and inexplicable death is, how permanent and unyielding. The real success of the story, and probably why it's endured so long, is that, for all of its strangeness and extinct gods and goddesses, it's a story of friendship, love, and loss. Gilgamesh stays with his dead friend, grieving bitterly, until the maggots come forth from the body. Then, he sets out to find a way out of dying.

Gilgamesh sets out to find the legendary Utnapishtim and his wife, a couple who survived the Great Flood by building an ark and taking aboard animals of every species, before finally landing on the Mountain of Nimush and waiting until a bird returned with sign of dry land; in exchange, the gods granted him immortality. One might recognize (and many have recognized) the similarities to the Biblical story of Noah. It seems most likely that variations of the story existed for centuries, most likely referring to an actual flood in the region.

Gilgamesh eventually realizes that he will not be granted immortality and resigns himself to his eventual demise. As the story ends, we are reminded that he built the walls of Uruk, a task that will live on long after him.

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Canadians Looking to try Democracy

Yesterday, there were rallies across Canada protesting Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament and marking the day that the Canadian Parliament was to have returned to session. I was a bit anxious about the anti-prorogation rally in Hamilton, mostly because the local radical left was taking part. If we were going to come out in the cold to gather, and most likely make the local news, I was hoping we would look very mainstream and dull. I dressed as square as possible in order to convey that we’re not the radical fringe. Meanwhile, the local collective info-shop was planning to have a “die-in”, just the sort of self-centered attention-grabbing stunt that makes a protest look like an elementary school play session. Happily, though, the die-ins and drumming circles didn’t come off and the crowd was older and very mainstream. It looked like a group of Anglican ministers actually.

The media outside of Canada is completely oblivious to this story (of course), so perhaps a slight bit of context is in order.Prorogation means suspending Parliament and essentially ending their usual session early; locking the doors and sending them home. The idea is to prorogate Parliament when they complete their legislative agenda early, in order to save everyone’s time and money. The Prime Minister calls for prorogation by contacting the Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) and getting permission.

Prorogation is an option in all Parliamentary democracies; however, aside from Canada, it’s never really used because there’s a taboo about it. The first time that Harper prorogued last year it set a precedent because it was to avoid a no-confidence vote, which hadn’t been done since King James tried, failed, and lost his head. There is some argument that John A. McDonald pulled a similar maneuver in Canada about 90 years ago, but again, it’s pretty much unheard of. When Harper prorogued this time, the official argument was that Parliament should focus on the Olympics and the economy. The prisoner abuse scandal that is seriously hurting his party was not sited. Incidentally, this prorogation was announced over the Christmas holiday.

So, the fact that the crowd at the protest was made of people in their 50s and 60s is significant. Canadian baby boomers are pissed. The first prorogation was something that disturbed people, but they were willing to turn a bit of a blind eye. This time, mainstream Canadians are sick of paying people to work who can choose to stay home and get paid every time the political tides turn against them. Canadians value “peace, order, and good government”; as compared to the American, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; and so this sort of behavior offends their sense of uprightness. This sort of thing is why they voted out the Liberals in the first place.

The Facebook group was started by a handful of university students and, thus far, has only 210,000 members; this is, however, more than all of the other Canadian political parties’ Facebook groups combined. It is hard to judge by the protests- Toronto had about 3,000 people; in Hamilton, we had 300 at best; nevertheless, there were protests in over 60 cities. The fact is that Canadians are not rabble rousers; the country gained its independence by keeping quiet and not pushing for independence after all. So, for each protester, one could imagine a hell of a lot of angry Canadians who aren’t comfortable protesting. None of this bodes well for Harper.

Conservatives originally came up with the tone-deaf talking point that prorogation doesn’t matter because, after all, ordinary Canadians don’t care what their government does. Who even knows what prorogation means?! Come on! Let’s go watch hockey!

In the last three weeks, the Conservatives have dropped 15 points in the polls. If elections were held today, they would lose enough seats to possibly seat a Liberal government. Polls also show that Canadians, particularly baby boomers and the young, strongly disapprove of what Harper did. This is important because many Baby Boomers voted Conservative because they felt the Liberals were entrenched and corrupt and Conservatives offered a transparent, democratic, and functional alternative. In other words, they didn’t expect that Harper would start floating trial balloons on how far democratic government could be rolled back for the aggrandizement of the Prime Minister.

This brings us to the more recent Conservative argument, and I’m also not making this up: they did it to. The Liberals have prorogued Parliament, several times, when they were in power, and there was often a suspicion that they were doing it for nefarious purposes. Admittedly, they never actually declared that they were proroguing to avoid a no-confidence vote, but the suspicion is there. To me, this is sort of a stupid argument: I didn’t live in Canada until about the same time that Harper came in and I never heard of prorogation until last year. Having heard of it, the practice, when used this way, strikes me as profoundly undemocratic. Imagine if a President whose popularity was sinking was able to shut down Congress for months and send everyone home? Imagine if the pending bills all died at that point? 37 pieces of legislation in Canada are now dead. It’s absurdly monarchical.

And I’d like to now point to the ruling in the Canadian Supreme Court of Two Wrongs vs. A. Right, to suggest that this is the sort of shit that Canadians were sick of when they elected the Tories four years ago. Instead of following through, Harper explicitly modeled himself after noted egomaniac George W. Bush. He even does the same petulant pouting in press conferences, bitching about the other parties and the press instead of offering anything constructive. It’s only a matter of time before he’s bitching about the voters.

When I see people out in the cold on a Saturday marching for Democracy, I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterson’s line about Christianity: it’s not that it’s been tried and found wanting; it simply hasn’t been tried. The Canadian governmental system is as anachronistic as the steam engine, and as given to freezing up and failing. Ideas like the Prime Minister assigning members of the Senate, or kicking MPs out before they can gain real experience are so obviously wrong-headed that it’s a wonder they’ve remained the norm.

Canadians as such tolerate a clearly-dysfunctional government for a number of reasons: the American government is so clearly worse, Canada’s government is seemingly unimportant in world affairs, the parties tend to govern almost identically, and finally, there has been so much corruption and incompetence in Canadian government that people expect very little. Nevertheless, Canada is a large and important country, and after weathering the recession so well, it is more important than ever. It could be a role model for the rest of the world, but first Canadians have to realize that they deserve a better government than they have.

My sense is that Stephen Harper has pushed them to that realization.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Today in Canada



Image: Canadian Press photo of anti-prorogation protesters in Toronto today. Thousands of protesters showed up in Toronto, and about 60 other Canadian cities to mark the date that Parliament would have gone back to work. Hamilton was one of those cities and I'll have some pics and thoughts about the protest tomorrow. Tonight, however, we're off to see Tafelmusik for their "Intimate Bach" show.

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Friday, January 22, 2010


I think I found that manburka...

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

"The Grandmother"



Reading Hesiod and thinking about planting seeds, organic growth, and agriculture in general made me think of this film for some reason.

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Hesiod: Works and Days

Welcome back, canon fans! Today's installment of "Blogging the Canon" comes to you from the eighth century BCE, Boeotia, on the Gulf of Corinth, and will help you to become a successful farmer.

Hesiod is an old curmudgeon. He’s cynical, provincial, grouchy, none too fond of women or lazy people, and actually not too fond of most people. It’s hard to read him without hearing the voice of Archie Bunker or your miserable grandfather. Of course, much like your miserable grandfather, he also has some good advice, once you get past the ugly qualities.

His main bit of advice is the grandfatherly “Buck up, kiddo! Life is hard! That’s all there is to it!” Life has to be hard. The gods keep the secrets of easy life away from men. Prometheus was able to snatch the gift of fire for man, pilfering it from the gods; but this angered Zeus, who vowed to curse men. He sent the seductress/bitch Pandora to give them “all the gifts” (Pandora: “all the gifts” in Greek) like disease, pains, and evils. Hesiod, in general, believes that all women are seductive, wily, wiggling traps that lead men laughing to destruction. The gods keep men helpless, but women don’t help either. One imagines it would have been hard to set Hesiod up on a date: "Jenny, this is Hesiod. If he seems shy, it's just because he thinks you're a treacherous slut. Hesiod, this is Jenny..."

There was, however, a golden age for men; in fact, there was a “golden race” that lived in ease and comfort when the old gods lived under Cronos. The next generation created by the gods was a “silver race”, who lived easy lives but behaved foolishly and Zeus hid them in the underworld. The “bronze race” came next, but they were even worse: boorish, warring, vulgar and brutish; so Death claimed them. But Zeus made a fourth race, the demigods, whose heroics are still celebrated in the works of Homer, Hesiod’s contemporary; these are the warriors who took Troy. Unfortunately, they were followed by the far inferior fifth race; the “race of iron”, people who are impious, selfish, crude, and stupid: in other words, the race we belong to! And so Hesiod is an early chronicler of cultural decline. His one hope is that Zeus will eventually get sick of us and snuff us out.

People often allege that narratives of cultural decline are ubiquitous: no matter how strongly we might suspect that our culture is declining, Socrates thought the same thing, and so ‘twas ever thus. This is actually not true- Socrates had good reason to think Athens was in decline, because it was. Moreover, we can find just as many examples of thinkers throughout history who have looked to past generations and seen themselves as progressing, in fact all of history as a teleology of progress reaching every upward. The reality, of course, is that cultures decline and progress all the time and in ever-repeating cycles. Today is no guarantee of tomorrow.

So, for those of us in the race of iron, what hope is there? Hesiod has all sorts of advice: avoid pride, rule our communities with justice, shun violence, plan for the future, be courteous to our neighbors, don’t trust a woman, don’t swindle anyone, store up supplies for the winter, and, above all, work hard and diligently. Hesiod knows farming and much of “Works and Days” tells us when to plant and harvest, how to plow, what sort of slaves and tools we need, and what to wear during each season. Clearly, this is an agricultural society whose crops come with difficulty. Hesiod probably lived in Boetia, on the Greek mainland. If we hope to set sail, he tells us to wait until fifty days after the solstice, in late August.

In general, however, we should just remember that Zeus is always watching us and act accordingly. Zeus achieves, in Hesiod, a status almost akin to that of the Hebrew God. But not quite. Like Yahweh, Zeus hates most being challenged by humans, like an angry father with wayward children; when he lashes out the results are worse.

So much has changed in our world; I would have no idea how to tend to a field and am generally not even sure where the food I purchase came from. I couldn’t till a field without putting an eye out. Nevertheless, we still have to work. In the present economy, we consider ourselves lucky to work, although as a dissertation-writer, I’m currently working for free. Should we work so hard? It seems that no matter how many technological or social improvements we make, we end up working harder than ever. Maybe the gods really are keeping us in the dark.

(Tune in next time for: The Epic of Gilgamesh, "Same canonical time, same canonical station!")

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Today in Fashion



Alexander McQueen's latest startling fashions from a recent show in Milan. Like most of his stuff, this makes me giddy.

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Art for Today

Saturn Devouring His Son- Francisco Goya, 1819-1823

Of course, the image of Cronus devouring his children in the last post is not as well-known as this horrifying painting by Francisco Goya. The assigned title is Saturn Devouring his Son, taking the Roman name. Goya painted it in the early 1820s. After having bought a house in Bordeaux, the painter, now in his 70s and distressed about mortality and civil strife in Spain, painted disturbing images all over the walls of the house. This was one. It has since been transferred to canvas.

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Hesiod: Theogony (725 BCE)

Okay, here begins this weird project- blogging the canon- with a rejiggered writeup on Hesiod....

In the beginning, there was Chaos. Most early cosmologies agree on this. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš embodies chaos in the goddess Tiamat, a badass bitch who must be destroyed before civilization can commence; she is also winter, but what great poetic insight it is that chaos is winter! The Bible is unique in describing the chaos as formlessness and darkness with God bringing light, and thus skipping over the void altogether. In most of the polytheistic mythologies, however, Chaos danced drunk in the void, screwed in the darkness, and spawned all sorts of wild monsters. This seems to me the more accurate account, told here by Hesiod in about 725 BCE.

Hesiod begins by evoking the Muses, those nine “fresh-voiced daughters of Zeus” who call on men to sing and speak beautifully. By supernatural means, the Muses guide us as we create literature or lead kingdoms through our speech. The uncanny ability of some men to cast a spell over each other with their honeyed words is a recurrent theme in Western literature down to the present, likely because the democratic republic is a recurrent governing structure. Hesiod describes leaders, poets, and singers in the same Mused group. Perhaps, we’re more skeptical now about great oral persuaders. We think of them as Don Juans, great seducers- as Hitler described political leaders- with the public as a virginal damsel in distress! We think all too often of Hitler in general, but especially when describing the ability of hypnotic orators to shift public opinion. The ideal orator to the founders of modern democracy was Cicero; our jaundiced eyes think of Cagliostro or Machiavelli. Perhaps we need to revive the Muses, beautiful women schooling us in how to seduce through our words.

The Muses call on Hesiod to describe the Old Gods, the primitive deities whose fighting hashed out the current order that rules on Mount Olympus. He’s a bit of an anthropologist, here, detailing the earlier polytheistic panoply that, compared to the rowdy roundtable discussions on Mount Olympus, appears downright savage. This is saying something: the Greek gods weren’t exactly models of congeniality themselves. But there is something more irrational and lurid to the early gods; they’re pure inchoate Id, like something out of the psychopathological imagination. This is characteristic of most early creation myths.

But Hesiod is not writing a cosmology, but a theogony- a geneology of the gods, here establishing Zeus as their King. Eric Voegelin writes, in characteristically difficult prose: “The theogonic speculation of a Hesiod was not the beginning of a new religious movement in opposition to the polytheistic culture of Hellas.” Nevertheless, here Zeus does achieve near omnipotence and there is a brief mention of a creator “God”. The Hebrew shift to a single deity radically removed from mundane existence has not yet come to Greece; but the old immanent polytheism isn’t exactly cutting it either. This suggests the work was written in a time of social crisis.

According to Hesiod, in the beginning, there was Chaos; then appeared Earth (Gaia), Love, and the murky depths of the underworld, Tartarus, all by a sort of spontaneous generation. This was a time of great creation: Chaos gave birth to Night and Erebos (more Underworld); Earth gave birth to Heaven; Night & Erebos gave birth to Day; and finally Earth mated with her son Heaven (Ouranos) and gave birth to the Ocean, and eleven gods, the Titans, including the clever Cronos, who would become his father’s enemy, and later be killed by his own son, Zeus. Greek creation mythology, and actually all early creation mythology, abounds with incest and the war of sons against fathers.

Here, Ouranos provokes Gaia’s anger. Repulsed after she gives birth to three monsters, he shuts the beasts up inside of her, which understandably rubs her the wrong way. Gaia then tries to turn her sons against their father, succeeding with Cronos, who takes a jagged sickle and cuts off his father’s genitals, throwing them over his shoulder! Ouranos had a fairly impressive cock; the splattered drops of blood produce the Furies and Giants from the soil, while the severed schlong, bobbing Bobbit-like in the ocean, becomes Aphrodite.

Dark Night, meanwhile, gave birth to Blame, Distress, the ruthless Fates, Work, Nemesis, Forgetfulness, Famine, Strife, Fights, Murders, Lawlessness and Ruin, and other abstracted horrors. The gods and goddesses flood the world with offspring, in fact, and it becomes difficult to keep the beasts in Hesiod’s menagerie straight in your mind. He writes too much! There are some kind gods, such as Leto and Hekate, who help humans, but nothing can protect them from the more capricious and vicious gods. Men would have no chance of surviving in this wild jungle of gods and monsters, and the world of the Greeks seems terrifying, hounded on all sides by cruel forces beyond human control.

Eventually, though, the gods fell in line under a powerful ruler. Cronos becomes something of a tyrant, but is haunted by the thought that one of his children will overthrow him. After Cronos forces himself on the Titan Rhea, she gives birth to the first Olympians: Demeter, Hestia, Hades, Hera, Poseidon, and Zeus. Afraid of his children, Cronos swallows them, but Rhea has other plans. She hides Zeus and gives Cronos a stone to swallow, causing him to throw up the other children. Zeus and the Olympians will eventually defeat the Titans, driving them underground, and then he will dethrone Cronos and become the King of the Gods.

Mortal men are created in this time, and Prometheus steals fire for them, angering Zeus. But men are powerless over gods. They’re also powerless over women. No romantic, Hesiod believes that Zeus created womankind to deceive and manipulate men. Without a wife, man dies alone; but even a good wife is half-evil. Hesiod’s misogyny gets tiresome; to him, all women are Raymond Chandler fatales.

His misogyny extends to the gods, of course; the highlights being goddesses conspiring with their children to kill their mates. But I think it’s part of a larger war of all against all. The fundamental nature of the world is war. Mythology anthropomorphizes the forces of nature, but it also reveals something about how these people see human societies. For Hesiod, even the order of civilization is maintained by the regular use of violence.

(Okay, Canon fans! Tune in next time for: Hesiod: Works and Days)

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This Blog for Sale: Inquire Within

I took a break from blogging for the last week or so, mostly because I felt a bit weary about this specific endeavor and the Internet more generally. Sometimes, you ask yourself, “What am I doing here?” and fail to come up with an answer.

I can say what I have been doing here until this moment. It seems to me that I have four main topics: 1. Personal life, 2. Academia/Education, 3. Art and Culture, and 4. Politics. Lately, I seem to be focused on the third, which is certainly more interesting to write about, although I find that most people have stronger opinions about the fourth.

In terms of (1) personal life, I consider things like recipes, personal anecdotes, and photos from Hamilton as spices that flavor the blog, and will continue including them. As for (2) academia, I’ve regularly ground my axe here. It is fascinating to watch the university, a cultural institution that grew out of the Church in North America, trying to remake itself along the lines of consumer capitalism. As someone who has more traditional ideas of education, it’s also disconcerting; but I’ve realized that banging that pot over and over gets a bit tiresome. Also, the decline of academia is hard to stop in a culture that doesn’t much worry about such things and, in general, believes that academics are out-of-touch elitists. Who really cares about grade inflation, for example?

So, the real mission becomes proselytizing for more enriching and elevating art and culture, outside of the university. Academics are often terrible at selling their interests to anyone else. We do what we do for a reason, which we fail to articulate. With a few exceptions (Margaret Soltan comes to mind) academic blogs are often as insular and boring as academics themselves; they tell you often about how dim undergrads can be and the minutiae of creating a syllabus, and very little about the intellectual thrill of studying humanity in all its permutations. Part of this derives from the fact that academics feel very uncomfortable talking about anything outside of their particular training for fear of looking like a pisher. If you are trained in 17th century English theatre, for instance, you avoid discussing Molière.

As might be painfully obvious, I have no such qualms, and indeed think there is a value in writing about cultural topics without extensive training, if only because you can thereby avoid writing like an academic! Ideally, I would like to write about art and cultural history in a sort of Auntie Mame/ Vanity Fair voice, and I want the discussion to be open to everyone. I’ll get to that in a minute, but I think it’s clear that topic 1 is good for a bit of spice, but relatively minor, and topic 2 has been absorbed completely by topic 3- art and culture.

Topic 4 is politics and it must be clear by now that I have little hope for politics. I live in Canada, a country in which our Prime Minister has explained shutting down Parliament in the middle of a session, in order to avoid a political scandal, by claiming in interviews that the press is blowing it all out of proportion and most Canadians really don’t care what their government does. So far, it looks like he’s wrong; however, many Canadians also believe that Canadians don’t care what their government does. The apathy is born from the fact that the government generally doesn’t accomplish very much.

As for America, their political culture is decadent and depraved. The government is now, as far as I can tell, incapable of doing anything, aside from waging wars, unsuccessfully. It’s amazing to drive through cities like Detroit, Cleveland, or Buffalo because they’re physically falling apart: they look old and decrepit, like parts of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, they have 10 percent or more of their people out of work, and their states are receiving stimulus money; and yet, they can’t manage to spend that money putting those people out of work repairing the bridges and roads and public buildings that are about to collapse!

And it’s like this with everything. If the US faces concrete problems, which it does, it will simply not be able to deal with them in the future. Part of this, of course, is the endemic corruption in the government, not to mention the powerful role of lobbyists and business interests. But part of it is a dominant mentality that politics is a sport, and so, if one party puts forth a pragmatic solution, the other party has to oppose them out of hand. The point is preventing the other team from gaining a point; as for the good of the country, screw that.

There’s an example of this in John Walsh’s autobiography. He explains how there used to be no national database of missing children. So, if a child was abducted in Florida and turned up in Ohio, the only way the cops in Florida would know is if the police in Ohio called every single police department in the country. Thus a bill was introduced to create a national database of missing children in the FBI, seemingly the most clear-cut good idea imaginable. The Republicans opposed it. Why? Because a Democrat proposed it. And both of the national parties do this with every single piece of legislation! It’s just a game.

What’s really staggering though is that this is how the American public understands governance! Rooting for one’s favorite team, to score a point against the opposing team, has shut out any sort of serious discussion about how the country might, collectively, solve serious problems. Even weirder, political bloggers seem increasingly to have no real ideas at all and a burning animus for anyone who doesn’t share their non-ideas! Democrats make no effort whatsoever to explain what it is they believe or why they believe it; tending instead to lazy, arrogant snark about Republicans, who for their part really do seem to lack a coherent governing philosophy! In turn, political blogs are getting pithier and meaner. So is the culture.

So, I have no hope for politics- but you might notice that it again leads us back to culture! After all, a society without a real culture will find itself, when facing serious problems, unable to reflect seriously on them and, instead, making non-arguments like, “I can’t vote for that guy! He doesn’t hunt or fish!” Art/Culture allow us to step back and think about “people” and “societies” more generally. The reason American political culture is so anemic is because American culture-as-such is so anemic.

Ultimately, we can’t get away from the fact that America is unique among countries in that essentially all of its culture comes from media companies. I can make fun of the CBC or “Canadian content” rules along with everyone else; however, what it means is that Canada has a few outlets left for art and culture that is not immediately “bankable”. In the US, all culture is a product, and therefore the real cultural elites are the accountants. Culture can train us to be thoughtful, creative, compassionate, and serious; or it can train us to be passive, shallow consumers. Ultimately, therefore, a democracy is only as good as its culture.

So, then, finally, what I want to write about is culture, in the “High Culture” sense that in North America means “Intro to Western Civ 101” courses, but in a style that is more lively and engaged than academic. I’m sick to death of the High/Low culture distinction. I want to write about The Aeneid the same way every other culture blog is currently writing about Avatar. I’m all for syncretism, though- let’s talk about all the great art from the beginning of time to the present! And because I see this as inherently intellectual and implicitly political, I don’t want to write about academia or politics.

And I want better digs! I love what we do here, but I’d like to do it on some sort of group site, such as True/Slant, that has more readers and where I can fuck off for a week, if I want, and not fear losing anybody’s attention. Also, given the direction I’d like to go (which would be totally in line with the art Holly posts here) I’d imagine that “Grad Student Madness” isn’t a great name anyway. I think what we do here is valuable and enjoyable- and fun- and so currently, I’m making a concerted effort to “sell” it to someone with a better, and more active site. Consequently, even gabbing about art for the sake of art eventually has to be marketed!

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Monday, January 18, 2010


What can I say? We live in Canada- thus, plenty of pictures of trees.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Nicky - Has a Big Bowl of Fruity Pebbles on a Disco Ball Encircled By his Favorite Shoes, Posters, Beauty Products & Cereals in The Business Corner of His Bedroom at His Mom's House

Click through to see an abundance of very full photographs. People, objects, perhaps meanings. Even the titles are generously endowed with words. I can't say that I find these aesthetically appealing... but I also can't stop looking at them

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hello, I Must Be Going

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Notes on Fedoras

It was one of the great disappointments of my life: living through the internet boom in the Northern Virginia “tech corridor”, I watched as several men around me became very successful, and yet insisted on dressing as if they were at a fraternity beach party. The “Friday casual” look, so named because its adherents seem to have only a casual relationship with adulthood, became de rigueur within the Internet bubble. Most devastatingly, grown men insisted on wearing baseball caps everywhere, and none of them were baseball players. It was then that I realized the importance of a stylish hat; like a woman’s scarf, it can complete an outfit. While a bowler or a top hat convey style, and it’s hard to go wrong with a well-made Trilby, I would like to suggest that being able to pull off a fedora, without wearing a protective layer of irony, is bona fide sophistication.

In my opinion, a true fedora is distinguished by the material: if it’s not felt, it’s not a fedora. The soft felt makes the hat easy to handle and they can generally stand up to a great deal of abuse. The fedora is creased down the crown, a bit like the Homburg, but is distinguished by also being pinched in the front. It is also similar to the Trilby, but with a wider brim and the center crease. The name comes from an 1882 play by the Parisian dramatist Victorien Sardou; a character named Princess Fédora wore a similar hat. They caught on in cities by the turn of the century and were widespread in Hollywood movies by the 1940s. Of course, many of us first admired the fedora thanks to Indiana Jones’s brown model, or perhaps the numerous black and grey fedoras bobbing through film noir.

On one hand, there’s something very “urban working stiff” about fedoras. You can imagine a 40s gumshoe wearing one, scowling and hunched over his dinner in an automat, just before walking the rain-slicked streets back to his coldwater flat and making himself a highball. You could also picture Jack Lemmon wearing one in a cutting 50s comedy about life in the corporate world. It is this association with buttoned-down Eisenhower America that has largely killed off the fedora for everyday use. It is a pre-sexual revolution style and can seem a bit stuffy.

However, the fedora also hearkens back to high modernity and the idea that clothes can convey a certain dignity to the working stiffs who wear them. Modernism was largely concerned with this democratization of class and elegance: it would no longer be necessary to live on Park Avenue to dress and live like a swell. The spirit of the 60s, in which the children of the peerage democratized their own right to “slum it”, thus horrifying those Eisenhower stiffs who were less than a generation removed from poverty themselves, resulted in a sort of inversion of values: Paris Hilton dressing like a street urchin is “sophistication”, while the middle class dressing gracefully is considered “elitist”.

In the end, these fads matter not a whit; the fedora still looks sharp. Like the little black cocktail dress for women, the fedora is always in style for men (and women incidentally). And, in recent years, celebrities have been wearing fedoras with a refreshing frequency, leading some to suggest that they are making a comeback. In truth, they never left.

Of course, just as clothes convey dignity to us, we in turn should convey dignity to our clothes. A fedora should be worn with an appropriate outfit- no tee shirts and jeans, please. And, while fairly sturdy, they should be treated with more care than Indiana Jones treats his. If maintained, a fedora can stand the test of time. My Grandfather wore the same fedora for nearly fifty years. And it was always in style.

(Note: This is a shorter version of an article I'm shopping around to journals. Feel free to suggest any changes.)

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Today in (Amateur) Art

"Electric Robot" by yours truly.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Socrates, Experts, and Populism


It occurred to me that the recent distinction I made between book knowledge and knowledge gained by doing an activity repeatedly is actually very similar to a distinction made by Socrates in the Gorgias dialogues. Socrates makes the distinction between Techne, what we could call a skill, and Empeiria, which is nicely translated as a "knack". Techne we gain through knowledge, and so it can be taught in a classroom, while a knack is something that we gain through experience; Socrates (or perhaps Plato) sees it a knack as a sort of fake skill. And yes, this is the sort of thing I think about before falling asleep!

On one hand, what Socrates is saying is not controversial. In specific, he thinks that rhetoricians, or speech-makers, have a knack, but not a real skill. He believes that political leaders have the real skill that speech-making imitates. I think few of us would have a problem with the idea that politicians are the fake version of genuine leaders!

However, there's an authoritarian implication here because Plato (I think more accurately) believes that the people who have genuine knowledge (as techne) should therefore lead, while people with an acquired knack, should not. In fact, it's most accurate to say that Plato does not believe in democracy; not entirely surprising since his teacher was killed by the will of the people! What he is arguing here, and more clearly in the Republic, is that democracies fail because the people who actually have the knowledge to lead are few in number and, in a democracy, they have to bend to the will of the masses, who don't know what they're talking about, for the most part. If an expert has knowledge that can help the state, Plato believes they should be listened to, whether or not the mass of uninformed people agree.

You can see where this leads to a sort of technocratic rule by experts, which is exactly what Plato wants. In fact, he'd rather that the majority of people be given convenient, pleasant myths to keep them in line and be kept away from all political power. It's understandable why authoritarians have always been attracted to Plato. However, when we watch democracies try, and fail, to address issues like climate change, because they can't sell their entire populace on what's already a scientific consensus, one wonders if Plato wasn't on to something.

Of course, if we recognize the authoritarian aspects of giving political power and prestige only to those who have the degrees and book-learnin', we should also recognize that populist argument that maintains people who have learned by books or taking classes are "out of touch" and less intelligent than the "real people". This argument is especially enduring- many Roman comedies, for example, center on the clash between an arrogant, bookish city-slicker and the wiser, laboring peasant.

Given how much government regulation is sold by appeals to "scientific opinion", it is understandable that working people would come to resent scientists. A recent example: while in Maine, I was talking with a fisherman about the government body that regulates fishing, which is widely-hated, of course. His take on them was, "They have all these scientists who tell them that fish stocks are depleting. Meanwhile, fishermen are catching as much as they ever did. But these 'experts' say they have to throw back the 'endangered fish'!" If you can imagine, he pronounced the word 'scientist' in much the way you might describe something that gets stuck to your shoe if you walk through a public park without looking where you step! A "scientist" then is akin to a troublemaker, a know-it-all, an elitist, and someone, most importantly, who has fake knowledge, as compared to the authentic knowledge of people who work with their hands.

You can hear this populist argument made in any number of fields. What struck me about the argument made here recently by a former reader that climate scientists are led astray by their "interest" is that the suggestion is that, by being funded, they cannot be wholly objective. In other words, pretty much everything we call scientific research is questionable in that it's all funded by someone else, which subconsciously motivates researchers to tell funding bodies "what they want to hear". If it's possible to still do research in this scenario, I don't see how.

The stronger critique is essentially Foucault- it's that scientific knowledge is a form of power, and nothing more at its root. It's interesting how often one hears this argument made about both climatologists and evolutionary biologists: they're said to maintain an illegitimate "scientific establishment" that creates a false discourse to maintain its power. The suggestion is that science as a collective description of the physical world cannot exist. We cannot know how things are because, as humans, we are all self-interested.

I often hear a similar argument made about higher ed- it's seen as somehow being a hindrance to genuine learning because academics are isolated from "the real world". Not only are academics seen as having a very specific sort of knowledge instead of being objectively "smarter"- which is exactly what I would say!- they're seen as being objectively dumber than the volkish, blood and soil peasantry, which does "real work", such as construction or masonry. In the last election, it actually looked like a plumber would lead them!

The populist argument is anti-elitist, but often borders on outright contempt for the "so-called intellectuals". Maybe not even outright: in history, it's often been a short hop from kicking an intellectual to goose-stepping. Blaming the problems of society on its critical thinkers often implies we should instead rely on "action" for its own sake. Forward motion is placed at odds with the eggheads who would hold us back by questioning everything we do. Of course, this wasn't just the position of fascists- the Maoists, for example, were quite good at kicking the professors who stood in the way of forward motion. The Khmer Rouge went so far as killing the glasses-wearers because they were "intellectuals" and the real work of history would be done by the peasants.

Plato, of course, saw where society's discomfort with people who ask difficult questions, and stand around thinking patiently about them, can and does lead. Ideally, societies should operate by separate spheres, I think. The scientists can stick to science, the politicians stick to politics, the economists stick to economics, and the people should not be asked to make decisions on matters of which they have no real understanding, nor to follow regulations based on knowledge they have no access to.

But, that'll be the day.

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