On Intention (part 3)

(read from the beginning)

Tim: On this rare occasion, while I’m in the lead, allow me to reciprocate your question from earlier. Why do you pursue your profession? Why are you in the health care business?

Zak: To help people. A lot of adults are forced to work just for money. I count myself fortunate that my line of work can also be altruistic.

Tim: That sounds generally reasonable, but less so in the context of our current discussion. What if your actions don’t effect the good ends you have in mind? What if your company just devolves into another one of many cases of corporate greed in America? Then you would be only another business man.

Zak: So you’re a communist?

Tim: No, today I’m too busy being a fatalist to be anything else. I don’t propose a solution to systemic avarice, I only recognize it as a problem.

Zak: But you’re not only a fatalist, you’re also a miscreant. This “massive structuralist mechanism” of yours, if it’s not a machine, then what is it?

Tim: It’s the fatal consequence of a vast web of interdependent states.

Zak: Interdependent states? States of the world?

Tim: If you like. Or of the language that construes human experience within that world.

Zak: But how are they interdependent? There is structure, but what kind of structure? Is it communist or monarchical?

Tim: Well…

Zak: I’m almost afraid to ask: returning to language specifically, does one linguistic decision determine those that follow, in some kind of hierarchy, or are all decisions created equally?

Tim: Have you seen the way I write poetry?

Zak: That’s why I was afraid to ask.

Tim: But I will concede. Generally speaking, in order for language to function, a society or an individual must make some decisions before others, and those preceding decisions necessarily limit the ones that follow.

Zak: For example?

Tim: For example. When the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes collectively decided that the porto-english language would not adopt the Romantic system of grammatical gender, they may have limited the structural function that gender could play in the society at large. Not all nouns would necessarily carry a feminine or masculine connotation, the attribution of adjectives would be more ambiguous, and male/female would be more of a private distinction than a social institution.

Zak: And hence the gender distinction is supposed to apply not at all to public social functions, like the work place, the family etc, but only to the bedroom.

Tim: Somehow that is supposed to be the case at present, although this structural mechanism will continue to guide society toward its natural consequence. We have proto-english speakers to thank, at least in part.

Zak: Ok. So each structural choice is predicated on the ones that come before it.

Tim: Where are you going with this?

Zak: Precisely where we should have begun: providence.

Tim: I knew you had a trick up your sleeve.

Zak: In fact. This whole structuralist mechanism of yours consists in a series of contingent entities. New words are predicated on old ones, subordinate clauses depend on main ones, etc. But the chain of dependency can’t regress infinitely—

Tim: —Or can it?

Zak: I’m a classicist, so no: there must at some point be a primal Word from which all language derives its meaning. A Word which means nothing other than itself. Fate, then, is not actually fate at all. The whole universe is really one massive Text, written by the authorial hand of providence.

But the will of Zeus was carrying out its end.

‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, plans to give you a hope and a future.’

One must wonder whether your philological notion of textual “corruption” is not blasphemous to the Divine Intention, which is, of necessity, fully realized through the intelligent manipulations of the structure that recontextualizes and redeems human fallibility. Is not the authorial intent of man rather a corruption of the all encompassing Text written by the hand of God?

Tim: Then all human effort is vain?

Zak: How does that follow?

Tim: All literature written by men is like a palimpsest from the medieval period. Just like a medieval scribe, God intends to, and will, scrape off the original writing to make space for a new text. Then what’s the point of writing the original?

Zak: You’re the one that bothers with that. You should tell me, what’s the point of composition?

Tim: It’s pointless.

Zak: Have you read Boethius’ On The Consolation of Philosophy?

Tim: I’ve read the menus at some very fateful steakhouses.

Zak: Then what about Seneca’s essay On Providence.

Tim: With equal regret, I have experienced providence’s intentions for that much meat.

Zak: You should really learn Latin. Get some culture in your life.

Tim: A fair critique.

Zak: Anyway, we mustn’t suppose that recontextualizing is the same thing as undermining or invalidating the original. It is, in fact, much more artistic. It’s about finding unusual uses for preexisting material. God is a master jazz improviser who allows himself the liberty to make mistakes, always with the foresight and virtuosity to work around those indeterminacies so that they don’t result as mistakes at all. A “wrong note” or a “corruption” might easily turn into a highlight of the whole composition.

Tim: You make me feel unconscionably warm and fuzzy.

Zak: If to contradict the Divine was a mistake on the part of man, that blemish rises to something more beautiful in the context of soteriological sacrifice. Contradiction, after all, presupposes that the entities involved are not one in the same thing; when the Divine substitutes himself on our behalf, this presupposition is rendered false, and the contradiction that follows becomes ineffectual.

Tim: So the significance of human action depends on the structural context determined by Providence.

Zak: Precisely.

Tim: But it’s strange, isn’t it?

Zak: What?

Tim: Do you really think that context and structure are the source of meaning, or is it the other way around? Is my meaning the consequent of the relationships between words, or are those relationships determined by what I intend to express?

Zak: Maybe a bit of both. Why?

Tim: If Providence is sovereign over structure, my intentions do not factor in at all, because in the face of Divine Imperialism they are powerless to determine meaningful linguistic relationships. This is all very existential. It means that we have no access to the authorial intent of our fellow man.

Zak: I do suppose you’re right… I do… unless those intentions and the strategy of Providence should result in one and the same thing.


On Intention (part 2)

(read part 1)

Tim: It’s just… Let me ask you this—did Beethoven write the ninth symphony “rationally and thoughtfully”?

Zak: I imagine he did.

Tim: And Einstein, was he mad and absent-minded when he discovered Relativity?

Zak: I see no reason to believe so.

Tim: And what about that calculated feat of engineering, was Mr. Andrews at all perfunctory when designing the Titanic?

Zak: No, I suppose he was not.

Tim: Then explain to me this. Why on earth, when to all appearances these men acted perfectly reasonably and in good conscience, why or for what shortcoming did their respective works become the foundation of the atomic bomb, the boat grave of more than 1,500 people, and a favorite music to unify that certain nationalist party during the former half of last century? What moral fault did these failures reflect?

Zak: Well I don’t know.

Tim: So Good intentions, at least in this case, don’t equate to Good ends?

Zak: In this case they do not.

Tim: Zak, have you ever been to a frat party?

Zak: My school was too Christian.

Tim: Have you seen the way some people hug each other when they’ve been apart for a few minutes?

Zak: You’ll have to be more specific.

Tim: That absurdly over-the-top gesture. You know, some people think it makes them look high class. They seem like they’ve had too much coffee or something.

Zak: hmm.

Tim: In Milan people kiss each other. Right cheek then left. But sometimes they just kiss the air, sometimes it’s a very empty formality… like a woman finally telling a man for the first time after ten years that she loves him, thereupon only to leave him.

Zak: That’s very specific.

Tim: The point is, what’s the moral weight of those words: “I love you”? Are Good gestures always equivalent to Good will?

Zak: I suppose they are not.

Tim: So Good outcome does not entail Good intention nor Good intention Good outcome.

Zak: It risks appearing so.

Tim: “It risks appearing so?” Now you just sound silly; if only there were an effective way to translate those Platonic Greek phrases.

Zak: εὖγε!

Tim: Further to that point, I’d like to take a moment as the author of this dialogue, to personally apologize for its aesthetic failures. I assure you that they are not the outcome of bad intention, only of bad planning. Usually I like to make my characters vague and mysterious enough that the reader can’t tell if they’re boring. In this case, I didn’t have the time or energy, so the secrete’s out: my characters are two dimensional at root.

Zak: Are you calling me shallow?

Tim: Not you, just your persona.

Zak: Got it. Well I’m sure the readers can overlook that. The philosophic pedantry is entertaining enough in itself.

Tim: That’s very generous of you. I guess sometimes bad writing is better than good writing. Anyway, as I was saying, we appear to have very little control over the outcome of our actions.

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

We’re all caught up in this massive structuralist mechanism. I wouldn’t call it a machine, but I understand why some people might have a predilection for that image. As each of us slowly parishes from this life, we are overwhelmed by external forces over which we exhibit no agency. All this runs contrary to intuitions about our moral capacity for action.

Zak: Moral action is impossible?

Tim: Well the issue is essentially this: I may have control over my own use of language, but insofar as significance is predicated on context, I cannot control that, because I can’t control the language of those around me. In that case, what’s the point of being able to control one’s own words in the first place?

Zak: I’m not sure I follow.

Tim: Perhaps Beethoven wrote a symphony which, to him, expressed the beauty of the human experience and the brotherhood of man. For all that intention, he could do nothing to stop posterity from contextualizing it as an expression radical nationalism… nor, for that matter, from repurposing it yet again, this time as the official anthem of the United Nations. At the present moment the piece may happen to enjoy good fortune, but the whole case just speaks to the fact that language is whore. She submits freely to anyone and everyone.

Zak: Indeed, context matters. But usually I’m the one to point out the futility of the arts. Where are you going with this?

Tim: I have no control over where I’m going.

Zak: Hmm. Then let me ask you this—why do you compose music? Is it just to dwell on the powerlessness of human existence?

Tim: It’s a good question. A very strategic one.

Zak: So what? Is composition just another thing you can’t control? You would stop if you could?

Tim: I have no way of knowing what I would do if I could. But the whole crises forces us to reconsider what it means to be an author and what moral duty is involved, if any. Like Aeneas, the author is tossed and thrown at the whims of the high sea. He has essentially no control over where he will end up, but he may have an intention.

Zak: So authorial intent is important?

Tim: I don’t know how important it is from the perspective of the reader, but the creative processes certainly presupposes some form of intention. One may defer causation to a plethora of external sources, but at some point, supposing that even in a small way the author is a liberal agent, he must exercise a certain degree of will in every action, including that of poetry.

Zak: Then he has an intention, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Tim: But it does.

Zak: How so?

Tim: It simply does—as simply and surly as Beethoven is not accountable for World War II. Why outcome should matter is what needs explaining. Intention, as our intuitions tell us, is the central subject of moral discourse; if an intention is good, it is Good without reference to anything outside itself.

Zak: Go on.

Tim: If we are honest, it’s easy to recognize that the best kind of goodwill is the kind that’s indifferent of the object to which it is referred. The Just man donates to charity not because he thinks his money will be useful, but only because he wishes to express that he cares. That willful act of expression stands for itself. It relies on no audience (rhetorical or otherwise) and even no actual beneficiary. The potential situation, which exists inside the mind of the man donating, suffices as context to give the action meaning.

Zak: But the actual outcome is irrelevant?

Tim: The Just man’s intentions, not his fortunes, are what we have in mind when we call him a “good” person.

Zak: Then reading consists in uncovering that first intention, that potential situation, which has been corrupted by external circumstances, such as social context and error in textual transmission.

Tim: Now you’re thinking like a philologist. And I thought I was the one living in Italy for too long.

Zak: So you accept this word, “corruption.”

Tim: I’m a fatalist, aren’t I?

Zak: Today you are. Tomorrow you’ll be something different. I meanwhile will keep on strategizing over my same chess game.

(continue reading)

Whining and Lament

Day 100: Wednesday

Good Morning Zak,

So I really enjoyed your post about the top 1%.  To answer your question, I think I may be in the top 1% of devil’s advocates… or maybe pedants.

I think I’d prefer the title, devil’s advocate.  “Pedant” sounds a little too severe; it makes me think of the surprise concert lectures some artistic directors feel compelled to throw in after pieces of an otherwise perfectly pleasant evening.

Nothing against lectures in general, but giving them for an audience that’s expecting music is like giving eggplant to someone who thought they were getting chocolate cake.

Anyway, the point is, I’d like to take a minute to play devil’s advocate to your concept of the top 1 %

From your post: “being in the top 1% in the world in musical ability won’t cut it”

Now, Zak, I think you’ll agree that when we talk about being in the top 1%, we’re talking about something objective.  For there to be a top 1%, there needs to be a definitive ‘good’ and a definitive ‘bad’ that appertains directly to the object in question.

Today’s Sames and Opposites: what’s the difference between morality and mortality?

Most people have the intuition that morality is an object that works like that.  There are good moral choices and there are bad moral choices.  (Whether we can discern between the two is, of course, an entirely separate question.)

Naturally, it’s the letter t.  Let’s pause a moment to appreciate the combination hashtags on this post: #mortality, #funny

But when it comes to things like music or the arts in general… there our intuition is generally less clear.  It doesn’t seem impossible that the labels of good and bad art might derive less from the object than from the subject who perceives it.

All this is just my eggplanty way of saying that it’s not obvious whether there really is a top 1% for aesthetic decisions.

On the other hand, not all decisions that an artist makes are so subjective…  What’s the difference between poetic lamentation and plain and simple whining?

Beatrice hath betaken herself to heaven,
on high in that dominion where God’s angels
are at peace, and you, O ladies, are left
bereft of her.

-Dante, Vita Nova XXXI

That’s one way to elegize.  Here’s another:

Alas, with what deaf ears
Death hears my wretched cries
and savagely refuses
to close my weeping eyes!

–Boethius, Cons. Phi. I.m I

Now, I won’t pass judgment on someone in pain; I know that only makes things worse. I wouldn’t judge an artist for writing a lament one way or another… However, that doesn’t change the objective fact that whining is like fecal matter where you’re expecting eggplant.


Remains from Pompeii Volcano

To be fair to Boethius, I must point out that the author himself includes a sober palinode shortly after the passage cited above (I.m II).

What I’m trying to say is that even in the arts we don’t really have time for this kind of nonsense.  There’s very little time.  As each of us slowly parishes from the Earth, we get to decide what kind of expression to make along the way.  We can whine or we can make a sound of thankfulness, but we can’t delay the inevitable end.

Until tomorrow,


The top 1%

Day 98: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

I went to a beautiful concert last night. The program was truly beautiful:


Beethoven Overture to Egmont
Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn
Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 (Reformation)

I was also well rested and, thankfully, had less stress from work and school. I was able to truly appreciate the music.

One thing I observed during the break was how good these musicians were, and how difficult it would be to ‘make it’. In school, being in the top 1% (99th percentile) on standardized tests would be remarkable. In a room of 100, that means you’re the best. Which is very impressive. Yet despite that, being in the top 1% in the world in musical ability won’t cut it — after all, with a world population of 7.5 billion people, being of 1 in 75 million may not work. In fact, according to some quick google searches (look at the rigor I put into that!), total professional musicians may well be under 1 million people worldwide.

Yet this got me thinking. Everyone has to be in the top 1% at something — be it music composition, photography, juggling, baking, banking …or even facts. In fact, many top 1%s might be on facts — related to their job, sports interests, family — or even random things, such as facts about trains, planes, cranes, or the ever-present aches and pains.

What things are you in the top 1%? Knowledge, skills, etc.

Looking forward to comments and learning more!

Until tomorrow,


A Child Could Have Drawn it

Day 97: Friday

Good Morning Zak,

So it’s no secret that lots of people find contemporary art disillusioning. When most people think of modern art they probably think of scribbles and random shapes and lines. It’s become almost a cliche; these proported masterpieces look like they could have been painted by a child.

Well that’s exactly the premise of the project I’ve begun with my students at the elementary school: if a child could draw it, then why not ask one to go ahead and do so?


My example of the project

We’ve been studying Kandinsky. You know, the random-shapes guy.

Today’s “Sames and Opposites:”


“Area for dogs”

Humans are different from dogs; there are no areas for humans.

Seriously, none!  The dogs have absolutely no reservations about following us even into church…

But back to Kandinksy.  As the poster-boy of the so-called Expressionist movement, Kandinsky is one of those figures that shows up in every textbook.


Composition VIII, Kandinsky

So how random are these shapes, actually?

Well, in music, we tend to associate the Expressionism with the so-called Second Viennese School, a movement that probably represented the acme of structural rigor in Western Music history.  Like, these guys were intense.  You wouldn’t wanna sit down to tea and cookies with one of them.

So anyway, it’s basically the exact opposite of random.  The music of Weber, Berg, and Schoenberg is about as far from random as you can possibly get.

BTW I know it might seem reckless to just haphazardly mush all different art forms together under the same umbrella term of ‘Expressionism’, but… well… it probably is reckless.  The main reason we do it is because of Schoenberg’s several famous encounters with Kandinsky, who was a synesthete.

Synesthesia is the phenomenon in which one type of sensory stimulus (such as Schoenberg’s music) causes a person a second type of sensory experience (imagining colors, for example).  No cure for this has yet been found… fortunately.

The funny thing about Expressionism and the Second Viennese School is that when people say the music sounds random, well, frankly, they’re right. When Schoenberg told his student, John Cage, that he had no sense of harmonic structure, Cage—in his typical chillness—just did away with structure all together.

What surprised some people was that the new music of Cage and the American school ended up sounding basically the same, despite being—quite literally—completely random. Now days people flip coins, roll die, and use other aleatoric processes to choose pitches.

You heard me, aleatoric.  It’s a more pretentious version of the word “random.”

Frankly the only thing wrong with the phrase, “a child could have made that” is the connotation.  The negativity is insulting to children.  As far as the art itself goes, though, the observation is entirely accurate.  Contemporary sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic are united by a prevailing interest in child-like wonder over narrative positivity.

Until tomorrow,


The Music of the Spheres

Day 94: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s cloudy outside in Milan.  I don’t really feel like writing.  I think I’ll just curate other people’s words today.

Quotation 1

Allow me to start you off with a piquant taste of French existentialism, as it were.  The vintage year on this one falls somewhere in the 17th century.  Of course we all know the French have been existential for at least that long:

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

-Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Quite memorable, isn’t it.  I know this line about the emptiness of the universe has become kind of trite and overused, but I think there’s a good reason for that.

It was inspiring enough for 20th century composer George Crumb to cite it in the preface to his piece Makrokosmos.

Quotation 2

But the naturalistic pessimism of the 20th century is really too much for me sometimes.

In the Middle Ages people used to think that the planets made music as they revolved around the Earth.  The proportions between their respective orbits created a perfect, mystical harmony called Musica Universalis or “Music of the Spheres.”

The ‘silence’ which frightened Pascal was, according to the [Medieval] Model, wholly illusory; and the sky looks black only because we are seeing it through the dark glass of our own shadow.  You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

Item 3

Well no… it really doesn’t.  Here’s what the proportions between the revolution frequencies of the eight planets really sounds like:

That’s the sound of a 20th century universe, the sound of humans and all living things gradually perishing into chaos.

Quotation 4

But that’s what imagination is for, right?

Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors.  But if you accepted the Medieval Model you would feel like one looking in.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Maybe the godawful dissonance of the planets and all the apparent chaos of the universe is just a part of a larger harmony too great for us to perceive.

Quotation 5

That’s what early medieval philosophers proposed in response to the dualistic heresy known as Manichaeism.

Faced with the misgiving that in the world there may be established a dialectic of uncertain outcome between good and evil, the Scholastic tradition seeks to confirm the positivity of all creation, even in the apparent zones of darkness.

-Umberto Eco, Scritti sul pensiero medievale

Maybe that sounds like a naive proposal in modern times… maybe naivety is a good thing.

Until tomorrow,


More like America-nada

Day 92: Friday

Good morning Zak,

Zak, you’re too clever for me.  I think I must have spent twenty minutes mulling over your use of the letter ‘d’ before I got the pun.

Anyway, you raise a good question: is technology partially responsible for the Excess I’ve been whining about?

When I first got music notation software, I went through a phase of writing all my music directly into the computer.  Eventually I stopped that and went back to writing by hand before copying into a notation program.  The quality of my music improved drastically at that point.

I know correlation is not the same thing as causation.  But I do think there’s something to this…

A lot of music and art in general is predicated on the mechanism of pattern recognition.

“In effect aesthetic pleasure derives from the fact that the soul recognizes in the material the harmony of its own structure.”

—Umberto Eco (In reference to the views of Ugo di San Vittore)

I don’t know if the physical process of writing by hand makes it easier for me to recognize patterns.  At the very least, it makes the artistic processes much more intimate.

But patterns are a big deal.  The more arcane a pattern is, the more rewarding it is when our brain/soul recognizes it.  But if it’s too arcane, of course, there’s the danger that we won’t recognize it at all.

I’ve written before about the pattern of pairing love with death in medieval poetry:

“All I can say is that the collective wisdom of Western poets throughout history tells us that love is a kind of death.”

That’s maybe one of the most interesting patterns in Western literature.  It’s something that resonates with us all on a fundamental level.

That’s why people like the story of Paolo and Francesca so much.  Frankly I get a little annoyed by the excessive popularity of Inferno Canto V.  The fame of Francesca’s little vignette has tragically eclipsed the rest of the Divine Comedy in popular culture.  I went to Bergamo and saw this excessively Romantic depiction.

While the hipster in me is, as I said, a bit annoyed, I do understand why people like this kind of thing.  This story should be popular.  When we experience a piece like this, our soul recognizes in the material the harmony of its own structure.  We understand on a fundamental human level that life couldn’t really be a thing without love to the point of death.

That’s easy to recognize.  As far as other patterns go… a hyphen may be well advised.

Until Monday,