Art and Purpose

Day 63: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

Remember the movie The Devil Wears Prada?  That designer brand, Prada—they’re based here in Milano.  You would think there would be swarms of little devils marching all over this town to get their shopping done.

It’s interesting.  I’ve never really thought about this: what sort of outfits does this Prada-wearing devil really like to wear?  I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff during settimana della modo, the annual city-wide fashion week.  Does he like jean jackets with one arm torn off?  Maybe something frilly with all kinds of colorful feathers?settimana-della-moda-donna-milano-2012

To a fashion-industry outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of these things.  They are “fashion-statements,” but what exactly is being stated?

Usually when we “state” something, we use language to do it.  Regular old language, like English or Italian or what have you.  So there’s obviously something metaphorical about the concept of a “fashion-statement.”  It forms a comparison between fashion and language.

Actually a lot of art forms make analogies to language.  In music, there’s the concept of phrase—a coherent musical thought with a beginning and ending.  Italian musicians take it a step further; the word frase also means “sentence.”  Even painters think of their work as language.  We’re all poet wannabes.  Meanwhile poets themselves talk about poetic images and the musical lyricism of verses.

If all the arts are like language on some level, then they all have similar purposes and similar obstacles to accomplishing those purposes.  So what is the purpose of language?

Well, writers might have some pretty good insight when it comes to a question like that.  Kurt Brindley recently asked a bunch of them why they write.  The answers were pretty interesting.  You should definitely go check it out.

dsc_8770But purpose is a funny thing.  A lot of philosophers these days are skeptical that there really is such a thing as purpose.  Like, back in the day, Aristotle used to explain natural phenomena teleologically, in terms of their purpose.  But today, some people say there really is no purpose behind nature.  A rock falls to the Earth because that’s the way physics works, not because the rock intends or longs to return to its proper place.

But language isn’t a part of natural science.  I think it’s less controversial to argue that a human phenomenon like language has a purpose.  Humans made shoes, and shoes were made for walking.  They’ve even written a song about it…

So here’s my answer to the question: human contact is the end purpose of language.

img_1178Here’s what I mean.  The end purpose of a pen is writing.  If you use a pen to write something that makes your friend cry, that doesn’t mean that crying is the function of the pen.  The pen still functions as a tool of writing.  Crying is only an ulterior effect.

The same is true of language.  Zak, if you write an email to a coworker that results in some restructuring of your company, that doesn’t mean business is the purpose of language.  Language itself still functions merely to bring you in contact with that coworker.  The rest is only incidental to that function.

Some people say that language played a role in evolution.  A species that can use language to cooperate is more fit to survive.  But the survival value of linguistic clarity is only an accidental byproduct of its main function.

Anyway, sorry for just vomiting random thoughts all over the place today.  I guess the point I’m trying to make is that human contact is the end purpose of art.  We can evaluate art—even weird art like flamingo jackets—in terms of its potential to fulfill that function.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Image sources:milanandoblog.blogspot.it & www.justfashionmagazine.com

Socrates was Smart

Day 55: Friday

Good morning Zak,

Under the present circumstances I am reminded of something the wise old Socrates once said: “there is nothing more annoying than someone who quotes the wisdom of Socrates on almost every occasion.”

Maybe you don’t remember that one.  There’s a long tradition of falsely attributing things to Socrates, so it’s hard to know what the dude actually said.  For all we know he might have said that.  He might also have said, “come on guys, stop pretending to quote me all the time.”

Can you imagine being Socrates?  This is one of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about.  I mean, how frustrating would that be.  Like, one of my students represents me and my views however he wants in his books, and then those books get read for millennia after my death.  And I’m just supposed to be cool with that?

Zak, you raise a serious moral question. 

“Thinking about healthcare as a business feels kind of grimy at times — you are making money off of those who desperately need help, many times in order to live.”

This is the sort of thing that could keep a person in your shoes up at night.  But to me, it’s just a mildly entertaining intellectual exercise.  I’m not in your shoes.  Your shoes are like, ten sizes too big for me.  But in the face of an issue like this it would be nice to have access to some real wisdom…

The other day I walked past a mom with two boys practicing their multiplication facts:

“Tre per quattro.”

One of the boys was literally jumping up and down with energy, anxious to beat the other to the answer.

“Quindici!” “Dodici!”

We train little people to be very fast at these kinds of things.  I remember those days of training myself.  They might as well have thrown us circus peanuts when we got the answers right.

Some people know other things in the same kind of way.  Things besides math facts.  Many of us haven’t outgrown the habit.  For grownups in higher education, the fastest and loudest person… to identify the source of a Shakespeare quotation… wins the smartness contest.  That’s why we have standardized testing.

But, Zak, something’s just occurred to me: when thinking about a moral issue like healthcare monetization, the ability to quickly recall a large number of Shakespeare quotations is actually not that helpful.  I mean, I’m trying to remember… did Othello ever say anything smart about medicine?  Maybe if we recite the lines loudly enough the answer will come… “O THAT THIS TOO TOO SULLIED FLESH WOULD MELT!”

“The sages there were marked with dignity
And grave authority their faces showed.
They spoke infrequently with gentle voices.”

-IV.112-4, Inferno

One day, Zak, we’re going to make ourselves a nice little locus amoenus, a “pleasant place.”  You’re going to build us a library like you always say, and we’ll find one or two friends who will sit, read, and think… especially think.  That’s really all one could ever ask for.  Nothing beats rich conversation (well, nothing except for the fast, loud person who beats it).  For as Socrates himself once said, “the answers to the modern public health crisis lie in proper legislation and systemic reform.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

The Modern Man

Day 51: Monday

Good morning Zak,

“I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.”

-Steven Wright

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One of the so-called Elgin Marbles, British Museum

Do you ever wonder what’s with that?  Like, what on earth happened to about half the limbs on these statues?  Well, most of the damage can be accounted for by factors you would expect, like weather, other natural forces, accidents…  But not all of it.  Some of the changes to these statutes are the result of a very intentional human process: bowdlerization.

Dr. Thomas Bowdler was a physician and social activist of the 18th and 19th centuries.  He’s best remembered for his 1807 publication, The Family Shakespeare.  This was like the P.G. version of Shakespeare.  All the offensive material had been removed, making it appropriate for children.

Since then, Bowdler’s name has been turned into a verb: to bowdlerize, meaning “to expurgate, or censure inappropriate material.”  For example, the medieval church bowdlerized some classical statues by covering up or removing the private parts.

One day people will speak also of timothizing and zakifying things… I’m not sure what it’ll mean.

Anyway, here’s a question: what is the significance of bowdlerism from a purely artistic point of view?  Is The Family Shakespeare just as good as the original?  Or does it maybe lose something, inhibiting the full breadth of Shakespeare’s original poetic vision?

Shakespeare’s plays are of course heavily influenced by the plays of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Those guys were a little more liberal than the Christian society of Bowdler’s 19th century England… especially when it came to things like sex, violence, nudity…  But sometimes we tend to think of the cultural difference too dualistically—as if the ancient Pagans were some kind of wild hippies compared to the restrained Christian society that followed.

The truth is, even the ancient Greeks had their forms of censorship.  Physical violence and other obscene acts were considered an abomination to Dionysus, the god of theater, and were not permitted to take place on stage.  On the other hand, Christians are not always so restrained.  Occasionally in Christian literature, poets will attempt to glue the missing genitals back on to our concept of man:

“Pleasant and fitting both their use will be
When time and mode and measure do agree,
Else withering from the root all lives would fail
And that old Chaos o’er the wreck prevail.
Conquerors of Death! they fill each empty place
In Nature and immortalize the race.”

-Bernardus Silverstris, De Mundi Universitateº

Other poets too have since tried to piece together our broken form:

ONE’S-SELF I SING

One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far, The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Until tomorrow,

Tim

º Ed. Barach and Worbel, Bibliotheca Philosophorum Mediae Aetatis, II.xiv.155

A few random thoughts…

Day 49: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

Some writers prefer keyboards with strong “key action.”  They like the computer to make loud satisfying click sounds as they write.  Author John Green says that the rhythmic thud of the spacebar contributes to his flow and drives his writing forward.  I’m writing this entry on a Mac computer, which have notoriously soft…  Wait a minute.  Shhhhh… Do you hear that?  That music?

The piece you are hearing is titled 4’ 33’’.  It was composed by John Cage in 1952.  I’m not sure what it sounds like to you, but where I am sitting, it includes the occasional opening and shutting of doors, the flow of water as a roommate uses the bagno adjacent to my room, and the depressingly quiet trickle of tiny little key clicks.

Okay, so technically these sounds aren’t really John Cage’s 4’33’’.  No one’s performing that piece here at the moment.  But in a way, 4’33’’ is a song that’s always happening: you see, Cage’s composition calls for the performer to sit at their instrument and do nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.  During this period of time, just like during any other period of time, sounds will occur naturally by chance.  People will breath, cough, shift in their seats…  Someone might fart or drop something…  It might start raining outside…  Cage claims that all of those collective noises are a piece of music.

Anyway, Zak, I think your movie reference is exactly on point. The Brother’s Bloom portrays our concept of “poetic vision” quiet nicely.

“The reason I like the movie so much is because there is just that—commitment to the story: […] the perfect con, where in the end everyone gets just the thing he wants.”

There’s something very compelling about the image of a master con artist insidiously working all things together for some calculated purpose of his.  I think at some level we all would kind of like to imagine an artist like that working behind the apparent chaos of our lives.  It’s a common thing to wish for—almost cliché.  I mean, wouldn’t it be great to know that life is guided by poetic vision and not by mere chance?

“Indeed, when someone said that there was in nature, just as in animals, a mind, a cause of the good, cosmic order and of all the arrangement of things, he seemed like a sober man compared to those before him, who argued otherwise.”

-Aristotle, Metaphysics 984b

Who can say how much truth there really is in this kind of idle fantasizing.  I once tried having a conversation with the allegedly conscious “mind in nature.”  Then I stopped a moment and thought about what I was doing.  I was just a crazy man talking to trees.  I could say the trees were conscious if I’d like… if that would bring me some kind of consolation.  But what would I mean by conscious then?  I could also say that my potato salad is in love with me.

Anywho, the weird thing about John Cage’s piece is… well… John Cage.  I mean, did Cage really compose it if he doesn’t have a say in how it sounds?  Usually I think of an artist as an individual with some kind of conscious agency in their work.  A lot of people find the sounds of nature to be beautiful, but we have difficulty agreeing about whether there is a poetic vision behind them.  Poetry normally has an author.  Someone rhythmically hammering away at the cosmic space bar, driving the story forward to its end.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Paradox

Day 47: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

So a while back I posted this word-cloud representing the frequencies of individual words in the love poetry of Cino da Pistoia.

schermata-2016-11-13-alle-18-02-25

My point in posting this was to illustrate Pistoia’s great obsession with death.  Morte is one of the most common words in his poems.  But Pistoia is by no means alone in this.  Many love poets have a similar morbid fixation.  The tendency can be traced all the way back to the beginning of love itself.

Love began around 1100 A.D.  Before that, it wasn’t really a thing.  Seriously.  I mean there was such a thing as friendship or erotic passion or fondness or charity… But “romantic love”?  The notion of some kind of noble or ennobling passion for which one should make great sacrifices—that more or less began in Languedoc around the turn of the second millennium.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
-Love Story

Could someone please tell me what on earth that line is supposed to mean?

Anyway, for as long as love has existed, the sentiment has almost always been accompanied by a sort of psychotic preoccupation with death.  Even the troubadours—the first true “love poets” in the modern sense—were like this: if Freud were somehow able to transcend the threshold of time and sit one of these guys down for a free word-association test, no doubt the pairing between the words amors and mortz would be as natural as it is automatic.

“And Rudel knew that she who embraced him was the countess.  And immediately he regained his sense of hearing and smelling, and he praised God that He had sustained his life until he had seen her.  And then he died in her arms.”

The association remains deeply engrained in our subconscious even today:

“To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.”

-Mary Oliver, from “In Blackwater Woods”

So that’s weird, isn’t it?

Anyway, Zak, you raise a good question:

“If we love others in part because there is potential to become beautiful and they are not yet there, how and when do we engage them in change?”

So basically, if we take poets seriously when they say that love is supposed to be some kind of transformative experience, how does that transformation actually work in practice?

The internet is full of opinions.  I don’t offer you an answer here because I don’t have one.  All I can say is that the collective wisdom of Western poets throughout history tells us that love is a kind of death.  Some people like to call it a petite mort.  However petite or not this poetical death really is, the concept creates something of a paradox: poetical death is also the (pro)creative impetus of new human life.

It’s not at all strange that romantic love suddenly became the central topic driving most Western literature after the middle ages.  Really, the sentiment embodies everything our society ever wanted out of a story.  Writing a good story is about having a vision and being willing to suffer for it.  Pursuing life, even at the cost of death.  That’s what the heroes in every epic have done since the dawn of man.  It’s also likely what we humans will continue to do for as long as this crazy little adventure of ours keeps us turning the pages.

Well, we’ll also continue to do other things… we’ll probably also keep pooping.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

You’re Ugly

Day 45: Friday

Good morning Zak,

I don’t have much to write today.  I think I’ll just use this entry to curate a few quotations…

Quotation 1

Since the middle ages mainstream love poetry has pretty much always centered around idealizing the beloved.  I think that’s basically what people mean when they talk about “romanticism.”  But as long as romanticism has been the dominate feature of secular literature, there have also been charming little reposes from it…

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;”
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 130

Lines like these make me wonder about Shakespeare’s love-life.  I mean, I know the last couplet of this poem is something of an apologia for the rest of the thing, but I still have trouble picturing this woman just falling into his arms as he tells her that her breath stinks (ln. 8).

However that may be, as poetry the sentiment is simply lovely.  Of course, this kind of anti-romanticism is predicated on the predominance of romantic sentiment in society at large.  It’s fun to call your mistress ugly in a love poem only because it goes against the grain of the genre as a whole.

Quotation 2

“I buy you rogaine
when you start losing all your hair,
sow on patches
to all you tear.”
-Ingrid Michealson, “The Way I Am

Apparently Michealson likes this kind of irony too.  I’m putting this song at the bottom of today’s entry.

Both of these quotations are about the outward appearance of the beloved.  Basically Shakespeare and Michealson are both saying the same thing: you’re not hot, but I love you anyway.

Or does “sowing on patches to all you tear” carry some kind of metaphorical meaning?  That’s a pretty jejune way of reading it… right?  I mean haven’t we moved past the days when everything in art was somehow supposed to signify something other than itself?

Quotation 3 & 4

“You take me the way I am.”

This is Michealson’s version of Shakespeare’s final couplet…

“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”

Both very charming little passages.  There’s something philosophically appealing about the notion of being accepted along with all of one’s flaws.  Warts and all, as it were.

But the more I think about it, the more I feel there’s some kind of deeply rooted fallacy in the ideological fabric that underlies this poetry… Both poems are reactions against romanticism.  If they cannot be called realist they are at least anti-idealist.  And yet, when I reflect on my own identity—the way I am—outside of any kind of idealist point of view, I must admit that I am not that satisfied with myself.  I have my reservations about the prospect of being taken precisely the way I am.

For sale, buy as is.

I’m going to just go ahead and give you my opinion here.  There is nothing truly poetic or beautiful about man unless it is his potential to become beautiful—not the way he is but the way he may be.  Let scientists and historians report the facts of nature and society; the duty of a poet is to look at humanity with an artistic vision.  To see not actuality but potentiality…

and preferably not to confuse the two.

Until Monday,

Tim

P.S. Consider this my confession: I dropped the ball, and we missed precisely two weeks of the daily blog.

Light

I open the gate
that leads to the future,
and step into Tuesday.
It gets on my shoe.

A littlest bit
of eternalest evening
creeping away
escapes from this poem.
Cryptic as night.

The brightest polyptych
piece I’ve yet seen
sitting on my toilet
depicts me a scene
of one little bow tie.
Broken in one piece.

It flips through the years
like channels online,
slips out of sight,
and of silence.
My fishes have rights.

I won’t write the name
signed by the painter
with the upper right conner
in invisible ink.

Today has just finished.
It truly is Tuesday
scraping my shoelace,
A vision of light.