Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Yet More on Angels

I’ve been thinking about angels a fair bit recently on account of the fact that my wife and I moved houses this last spring. Hard to see the connection between those two topics, I know. But it’s there.

Shortly after we moved, a realtor friend responded to my newsy message about all the problems we were suffering in the new place (and still are, to a not inconsiderable degree):

… I sympathize with your after move feelings. In addition to what to do with [all your] stuff, issues with the new house are appearing. This is because the house typically goes into shock when a new owner arrives and it starts acting out. You want to be there, but the house is not sure it likes you or the new arrangement.

Patience is the key. Gradually, the house will accept you and all will be well.

I tell all my clients the above and may have already shared this with you.

I realized with something of a shock that this had the ring of truth. The house seemed to be *resisting* us.

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Gottschalk’s Banjo Fantasy & Other Items of Americana

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869) was the American musical superstar of the mid-Nineteenth Century.  The issue of a German-Jewish father and a Creole mother, he early demonstrated executive prodigality at the keyboard and his knack for effective composition. During the Civil War, Gottschalk proclaimed his loyalty to the Union and toured the North playing his patriotic fantasias to wildly receptive audiences.  A longtime resident of Oswego, New York, I feel compelled to report that Gottschalk visited that fair city no less than three times between 1858 and 1864, professing his belief that its young women were the fairest in all the States!  “The Banjo,” described in French as a “fantaisie grotesque,” takes inspiration from what in Gottschalk’s day went by the name of “Negro Music.”  It develops an original, largely rhythmic motif, and quotes Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” in its finale.  There is more by Gottschalk below, as well as songs by Henry Clay Work. A New Yorker, Work was Foster’s equal by any measure, but, because his fondness for “Slave Dialect” offends PC, he is today little known.

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The Tone Poems of Jean Sibelius

Sibelius 11 Gallen-Kallela Sibelius Portrait (1894)

Portrait of Sibelius with Landscape (1895) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

In an increasingly ugly world the sources of beauty constantly increase in value but at the same time they become increasingly difficult for ordinary people to discover and explore.  The garbage of pseudo-art so crowds the scene that the chance-encounter with beauty – by which in the past young people especially found themselves bowled over by aesthetic experience that altered their lives – occurs with ever greater infrequency.  The fewer the number of people who already know of something nourishingly beautiful, the fewer docents there are to discover those things to others.  Beauty often occasions an analog of conversion.  Beauty suggests transcendence.  The modern world, however, takes a stance of rigorous opposition to transcendence, which it categorizes among the falsehoods that have, in their pestiferous way, survived the cleansing power of rationality to confuse and delude those who might otherwise devote their services to the enlightened order.  The modern world hates the beautiful, which is why it has made a cult of ugliness.  Ugliness never gets in the way of utility, but beauty does.  Beauty distracts the attention from the petty concerns of a totally immanent world.  Beauty fosters non-conformity.  It nourishes the soul, which, like transcendence, is not supposed to exist.  The present essay addresses one particular, musical source of beauty knowledge of which the author wishes to disseminate among as many others as possible.  The present essay also explores the important philosophical question whether the non-verbal arts can carry a semantic content – that is whether plastic and music can generate meaning.  The artist under discussion in the following paragraphs is one dear to the author of those paragraphs.  His encounter many decades ago with that artist’s work constituted, and powerfully so, a conversion to beauty.  The author wishes to repay his debt. The first order of business is to answer a question.

I. What is a Tone Poem? The genre of the symphonic poem or tone poem traces its origin to the free-standing concert overtures of Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Hector Berlioz, but also to the picturesque sequences in the actual symphonies of the same composers. Beethoven’s characteristic overtures, such as the three Leonore Overtures for the opera Fidelio (1805) and his Coriolan (1804) and Egmont (1810) Overtures, undertake to represent by purely musical means the essential personal qualities or virtues of a dramatic or literary character. Beethoven obviously assumes the possibility of such an endeavor although musicological spoilsports, especially in the Twentieth Century, have asserted the opposite.  They argue that music can express nothing but itself and that it can convey no semantic content in the way that verbal expression conveys such content.  According to this assertion, the auditor who buys into the assumption and believes that he has indeed apprehended the musical representation of a character, or anything else, has in fact deluded himself.  Igor Stravinsky argued as much in his stern-faced Poetics of Music (1942), originally delivered as a series of lectures at Harvard.  Roger Scruton upholds the thesis in his massive, intimidating Aesthetics of Music (1997), a type of musicological Critique of Pure Reason.  The program, both men argue, remains extrinsic to the work, and might even get in the way of the listener’s proper apprehension of the work.  One doubts, however, that Beethoven or Mendelssohn or Schumann or Berlioz suffered from delusion.  The confidence of their assumption that music might articulate something other than itself, along with itself invites respect.  One could counter Stravinsky and Scruton with the proposition that if hearing characters, stories, and landscapes in music were a delusion, the delusion would have long since so deeply ensconced itself in the composer’s intention and the audience’s expectation that it might as well be real.

Not only personality and character, but also landscape and event constitute the subject-matter, so to speak, of the Beethoven type of concert overture and of the Early-Romantic picturesque in music.  Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (1832) offers a case in point, as does the slow movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830), the former with its conjuration of emotions associated with a vision of the Western Isles and the North Atlantic and the latter with its onomatopoeias of two distantly heard shepherd’s pipes answering one another and the approach and recession of a thunderstorm – all in the countryside.  The Swedish composer Franz Berwald offered his overtures Elfenspiel  (1841) and Erinnerungen an den Norwegischen Alpen (1842), the one purporting to give a glimpse into the mischief of the gnomes and leprechauns and the other to articulate the memory, no doubt tinged with the proper awe, of the Norwegian mountains.  Skeptics like Stravinsky and Scruton aside, the plausibility of a musical semantics has never lacked in philosophical advocacy.  Oswald Spengler, who regarded music as the highest expression of the Western spiritual and artistic impulse, broaches the topic in his Decline of the West, Volume I (1919).  In his chapter on “Music and Plastic – The Arts of Form,” Spengler writes that “the formative impulse that is at work in the wordless arts can never be understood until we come to regard the distinction between the optical and acoustic means as only a superficial one.”  According to Spengler, “A ‘singing’ picture of Claude Lorrain or of Watteau does not really address itself to the bodily eye any more than the space-straining music since Bach addresses itself to the bodily ear.”

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The Visionary Music of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax

Bax 03 Later in Life Portrait-Photo

Sir Arnold Trevor Bax in His Fifties

The name of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax (1883 – 1953) hardly qualifies as a household reference even among people with serious musical interests.  Yet Bax claimed a significant following in his day and in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, after a long period of diminished currency, his large tranche of compositions finds near-complete representation in the catalogue of recordings.  What would have seemed impossible in 1970, that three complete recorded traversals of Bax’s seven numbered symphonies would one day compete with or complement one another and that these would vie with two partial traversals and numerous one-off items, is today a fact.  Indeed, a recording now exists of Bax’s early, unnumbered and discarded symphony, written as a graduation exercise when he attended the Royal Academy of Music as a piano and composition student.  The twin phenomena of Bax’s virtual disappearance from musical consciousness in Europe and North America and of his subsequent reappearance are themselves of interest, since they offer a glimpse into the relation of art and ideology in the Late Modern Period.  In this way, Bax remains anomalous.  Other English composers – although it might be more accurate to call Bax a British composer – suffered abasements of their reputations in the aftermath of World War Two, not least Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but none suffered from such a full eclipse as Bax.  It was the usual pattern of modern arrogance. The postwar musical establishment in Britain, while embracing the supposedly inevitable trend of abolishing beauty in art, simultaneously directed sustained contumely against the musical tradition and its practitioners.  Elgar became the icon, quite unfairly, of a now-despised Edwardian imperialism.  Snarky critics referred to the English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams as “cow-pat music.”  Despite this, Elgar’s music and Vaughan Williams’ continued to be performed and recorded.  They always had advocates.  With his death, Bax vanished.

I. In The Brandy of the Damned (1963), Colin Wilson, in assessing English music, wrote of Bax that, “When one turns from Vaughan Williams to Sir Arnold Bax one confronts another of those problems whose answer may be obvious to future ages, but that seems unanswerable today: Why one should be held in high regard and be so well represented on record, while the other is ignored.” Wilson characterized as “the composer of seven symphonies that are in many ways as remarkable as those of Sibelius” and “of a large number of fine piano works.” Wilson recognized Bax as an exponent of Romanticism although not of the blatant Romanticism of, say, Tchaikovsky; rather Bax’s aesthetic appealed to Wilson as “delicate, subtle, [and] intelligent.”  In seeking an answer to his own question, Wilson observed that “although [Bax’s music] is romantic music, it has none of the easily remembered melodies of Sibelius or Tchaikovsky”; and “this means that Bax does not make an immediate appeal to the kind of unsophisticated listener who knows each composer by his best-known melody.”  Wilson argues that the subtlety of Bax’s scores might explain why they go unheard in the concert hall, but not why they are (or were at the time) so thinly available in recorded performance.  In the early 1960s, Wilson was one of the few writers of musical sensibility even to take heed of Bax.  He deserves credit for that despite his characterizations being a bit off the mark.  Everyone can hum the tune from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, but who can hum the opening subject of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, as striking as it is?  Bax does have a relation to Sibelius, not least in being more concerned with musical, especially symphonic, processes than with melody, as such.  Nevertheless, pace Wilson, Bax wrote numerous memorable melodies.

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The Degenerate Bottom Revisited

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“Forever Marilyn” (2011) by John Seward (born 1930) in Palm Springs

Kristor’s recent essay, “The Arms Race to the Degenerate Bottom,” reminded its readers of the downward or subscendent trend of aesthetics under the by now longstanding regime of liberal modernity.  Recently also JM Smith made reference in one of his Orthosphere entries to Billy Wilder’s film The Seven-Year Itch (1955), starring among others Marilyn Monroe. Miss Monroe is my topic. In a state of heightened awareness after reading Kristor and JM (if “heightened” were the word, which it is likely not), I was quick to notice that the cultural mudslide in whose beginnings Miss Monroe participated — in various ways — is still prone to feature her prominently, as though honoring its own inception (if “inception” were the word, which it is likely not).

John Seward Johnson II, a.k.a. John Seward (born 1930), is a sculptor apparently well-known to the art-world, but hitherto unknown to me. Johnson created his twenty-six-foot tall bronze statue of Monroe in 2011, basing it on the skirt-lifting scene from Wilder’s film, where Monroe stands over a grate in the sidewalk. The statue, which resembles Seward’s other work, all of which looks like it was intended for audioanimatronic display at one of the Disney parks, originally stood in Palm Springs, but has recently gone on tour to Stamford, Connecticut, where it is spending the summer.

The sculpture’s painted garishness no doubt accords itself with the prim sleaziness of Palm Springs, which I would describe as Las Vegas without the casinos but with at least as many cocktail waitresses, pole-dancers, and call-girls. When one thinks of primly sleazy places, however, one hardly thinks of Stamford.

The photograph below shows “Forever Marilyn” from a frontal perspective. —

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“Forever Marilyn” in Stamford (Angle 1)

The photograph that I have placed below the “continue reading” toggle again shows “Forever Marilyn” frontally but from a different and revealing angle. —

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The Arms Race to the Degenerate Bottom

The race to the degenerate bottom is not steady. On the contrary, it always accelerates; for, it is an arms race.

You can see this with any medium that depends for its survival on the attention of many minds: advertising, entertainment, journalism. All outlets of such media compete with each other for attention. The one that is the most extraordinary wins the competition. So the competition is to discover which outlet is the most abnormal, thus attractive of notice. Whatever was the most abnormal during the last round must be surpassed in the current round in order to gain notice: the most abnormal recent instance resets the bound of normality.

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Chaos and Order; the right and left hemispheres

Chaos and Order; the right and left hemispheres

In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist writes that a creature like a bird needs two types of consciousness simultaneously. It needs to be able to focus on something specific, such as pecking at food, while it also needs to keep an eye out for predators which requires a more general awareness of environment.

These are quite different activities. The Left Hemisphere (LH) is adapted for a narrow focus. The Right Hemisphere (RH) for the broad. The brains of human beings have the same division of function.

The LH governs the right side of the body, the RH, the left side. With birds, the left eye (RH) looks for predators, the right eye (LH) focuses on food and specifics. Since danger can take many forms and is unpredictable, the RH has to be very open-minded. Continue reading

Nicolas Berdyaev on the Despiritualization of the West

Berdyaev 01 Portrait Face Forward

Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948)

My long-term ongoing project involves reading backwards into the critique of modernity, resurrecting from the archive writers who fifty, seventy-five, or even one hundred years ago, intuited prophetically where such trends as democracy, utilitarianism, and the technocratic conception of science were taking mankind – and who foresaw accurately just how deformed morally and socially Western civilization was likely to become.  The writers in question, with a few exceptions, are today largely forgotten or are remembered under a false image or for spurious reasons.  The names of Karen Blixen, Gustave Le Bon, Jorge Luis Borges, Julius Evola, René Guénon, Hermann Keyserling, Peter Ouspensky, Oswald Spengler, T. Lothrop Stoddard, and Sigrid Undset, among others, have appeared in a series of articles, most of them at The Brussels Journal.  I wish, however, to devote the present occasion to a renewed discussion of the Russian writer-philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whom the encyclopedias of ideas classify variously, not to say confusingly, as a Christian Existentialist, a Russian Nietzschean, a Neo-Platonist, a follower of Vladimir Solovyev, or an out-and-out mystic and subjectivist.  Berdyaev is perhaps a bit of each of these, while being also much more than any of them.  Academic philosophers have either never heard of Berdyaev or, knowing of him at second hand, perhaps from an encyclopedia article, and being unable to fit him into any Positivist or Postmodern framework, dismiss him summarily.

One might fairly assert that Berdyaev did himself little good publicity-wise by cultivating a style of presentation which, while often resolving its thought-processes in a brilliant, aphoristic utterance, nevertheless takes its time, looks at phenomena from every aspect, analyzes every proposition to its last comma and period, and tends to assert its findings bluntly rather than to argue them politely in the proper syllogistic manner.  In Berdyaev’s defense, a sensitive reader might justifiably interpret his leisurely examination of the modern agony as a deliberate and quite appropriate response to the upheavals that harried him from the time of the 1905 Revolution to the German occupation of France during World War II.  If the Twentieth Century insisted on being precipitate and eruptive in everything, without regard to the lethal mayhem it wreaked, then, by God, Berdyaev, regarding his agenda, would take his sweet time.  Not for him the constant mobilized agitation, the sloganeering hysteria, the goose-stepping and dive-bombing spasms of modernity in full self-apocalypse.  That is another characteristic of Berdyaev – he is all at once leisurely in style and apocalyptic in content.  Berdyaev was quite as apocalyptic in his expository prose as his idol Fyodor Dostoevsky was in his ethical narrative, and being a voice of revelation he expressed himself, again like Dostoevsky, in profoundly religious and indelibly Christian terms.  Berdyaev follows Dostoevsky and anticipates Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his conviction that no society can murder God, as Western secular society has gleefully done, and then go its insouciant way, without consequence.

The titles of Berdyaev’s numerous books, especially when taken in chronological order, tell a story all by themselves: The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), The Meaning of History (1923), The End of Our Time (1924), Christianity and Class War (1931), The Destiny of Man (1931), The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1934), Christianity and Anti-Semitism (1938), Slavery and Freedom (1939), Spirit and Reality (1946), and The Beginning and the End (1947), among many others.  There is also a posthumous Truth and Revelation (1954).  I call attention to the earliest of the listed titles, The Meaning of the Creative Act.  Berdyaev began his career as a philosophical writer (he never completed his doctorate) with an ambitious study of aesthetics, his theory of which locates the purest manifestation of the highest value of his worldview, freedom, in the labor that generates the work of art and beyond that in all the highest effects of the artwork in its context.  At the end of Berdyaev’s life, he wrote the essays that constitute Truth and Revelation, one of his several ventures into the philosophical-theological sub-genre of theodicy, in which he invokes a “creative response to the appeal of God.”  Whereas in the Catholic and even more so in the Lutheran and Calvinist variants of Christianity there is, according to Berdyaev, a strong “sociomorphic” or “legalistic” distortion of Christian doctrine; in Russian Orthodox commentary, by contrast, “the coming of the Christ has been understood not as a reparation for sin, nor as the offering of a ransom, but as the continuation of the creation of the world and the appearance of the New Adam.”  In Berdyaev’s view, “What God expects from man is not servile submission, not obedience, not the fear of condemnation, but free creative acts.”  Berdyaev adds in an aside that, “I wrote on this subject some while ago in The Meaning of Creativeness,” that is, The Meaning of the Creative Act.  Thus Berdyaev’s work exhibits a remarkable closure, returning at the end to its beginnings, linking as it were its omega with its alpha.

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Of Possible Interest

Wyst

My essay on the late Jack Vance’s 1978 dystopian Novel Wyst: Alastor 1716 appears at The Gates of Vienna, by the courtesy of its webmaster “Baron Bodissey.”  Wyst, the third installment of Vance’s “Alastor” trilogy is a carefully plotted thriller-satire that takes on the cliches of socialism and egalitarianism.  I give the first two paragraphs below. —

Towards the end of a long life, the American genre writer – and merchant seaman, jazz-man, and master of many trades – Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) produced an amusing autobiography entitled This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009); the book also carried a parenthetical and apologetic subtitle, Or, More Properly, This is I.  In the subtitle Vance takes a jocund swipe at grammatical pedantry, and therefore at pedantry and Puritanism generally speaking, but he also affirms his passion for order, of which grammar is the linguistic species, without which (order, that is) freedom and justice, both of which he held as dear as anything, would be impossible.  There are a number of scholarly anthologies devoted to Vance’s authorship and at least one book-length single-author study of his fiction, Jack Rawlins’ Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance (1986).  It is a pity, however, that no intellectual biography of Vance exists.  This is Me gives the essential details of its writer’s curriculum vitae, but it is largely bereft of information concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation.  So is Rawlins’ study although it remains otherwise useful.  If only, like Henry Miller, Vance had written his version of The Books in my Life!  Concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation, however, one might plausibly infer and arguably surmise a few probabilities.  A writer is liable to be a reader, a prolific writer a prolific reader.  A merchant seaman, as Vance remarks in his autobiography, finds himself with a good deal of time on his hands.  Vance, who had briefly studied English at the University of California Berkeley, spent long stretches at sea during the Second World War, with a good deal of time on his hands.  Two plausible guesses in respect of books that would have impressed themselves profoundly on Vance as he passed his time in their company are The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.
The Count of Monte Cristo would have supplied Vance with a plot-line, that of righteous and carefully schemed vengeance against arrogant and powerful offenders, which he used in his own brilliant way many times.  Two books of Vance’s Alastor trilogy, Trullion (1973) and Marune (1975), are vengeance stories, as are all five volumes of The Demon Princes (1964 – 1981).  As it did for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and science fiction writer James Blish, among innumerable others, The Decline of the West would have deepened Vance’s sense of meaning and large-scale patterning in history; and it would have stimulated his interest in the comparison of cultures.  In Spengler’s theory of the Great Cultures, as he called them, each Great Culture has a distinct physiognomy (Spengler’s term) that imprints and flavors its institutional manifestations and pervades the mental outlook of its every individual.  A major element of Vance’s fiction is to establish through detailed description the distinct physiognomy – or as he calls it in a coinage of his own, the esmeric – of each of his fictional worlds and their societies.  The Decline would also have honed Vance’s sensitivity to the crisis of European civilization, just as it had for Fitzgerald and Miller.  Once again, the breakdown of social structures and the descent of civilization into renewed barbarism interest Vance almost obsessively.  Vance’s authorship contains many other signs of Spengler’s background presence, not least in its tendency to insert extended philosophical discussions, sometimes as footnotes, into the unfolding story.  In Vance’s later work, commencing with The Demon Princes, references occur to a certain “Baron Bodissey,” who seems to have been the Spengler of the settled cosmos, or the “Gaean Reach,” in the long-colonized solar systems of which, and among immensely old societies, Vance’s stories tend to occur.  Spengler saw his Great Cultures as living entities.  Vance’s Ecce and Old Earth (1991) quotes Bodissey’s study of “The Morphology of Settled Places,” in which he argues that “towns behave in many respects like living organisms,” a decidedly Spenglerian proposition.