Teletubbian Existentialism

Day 104: Monday

Good morning Zak,

I understand you’re moving into a house. That’s a major decision—like the time I decided to start brushing my hair before shaving instead of the other way around. We’re all making big changes.

Does your new house have space for the famous library you’re going to build us?

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You’ll get why this picture is here in a minute…

Speaking of books, in an old Italian book from the seventies I remember seeing the phrase fare quattro chiacchiere show up. It means “to make four small talks.” These kinds of expressions are common in Italian. In Italy, you never make just one of anything. You can also “make two steps,” to take a walk, or “make two tosses,” to play catch. These days it’s always two, not four. No one has time anymore to make four whole small talks.

I’ve also started watching a television program called the Teletubbies. For those unfamiliar, the Teletubbies is a high quality show produced in a serialized format for the purposes of both entertainment and learning. Aesthetically, I find it to have a lot in common with the music of Claude Debussy. Nothing ever happens, but somehow you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time. For example, there will be a moment of great suspense as one waits for Tinky-Winky’s reaction to Po, who is just getting ready to pull an orange lever that makes a loud sound. Hardly occurrences, these kinds of thespian situations are typical of the series, giving it its defining charm.

The character Po is, in my view, a mischievous little devil. She’s small and innocent on the outside, but like most of us, she’s actually very troubled within. In fact, I would argue that Po’s socio-psychological issues and paradoxical comportment constitute one of the central premises of the series—which is ultimately a study in character and identity rather than development and plot.

I’m teaching my Latin students about the locus amoenus, “pleasant place,” in the Aeneid I.157 ff. That’s the part of the poem where Virgil literally wastes fifteen lines on an idyllic description of the Carthaginian coast. Nothing happens. It’s completely unnecessary, as if Virgil wanted to throw a big wrench in the face of classical aesthetic principles. Oddly I feel one almost gains more insight into the meaning of the text from those fifteen lines alone than from the whole rest of the poem…

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…told you it would make sense.

Hiking in the alps, I met an elderly man who lives on the mountain in a former monastery. He invited me into his idyllic home, introduced me to his family, and made something like eight small talks that really weren’t that small. He said he used to work as a train conductor in the city, but he’d helped voluntarily to move debris with a horse and wagon, back when they were digging a tunnel through the mountain. Though completely unnecessary, the anecdote provided some insight into what kind of person this Mountain Man actually is.

Zak, sometimes I’m afraid the purpose of most of life and poetry is only to defer the Existential Question. The present is only the necessary consequent of the past and the antecedent of the future. It’s nothing in itself. Aristotle says that each event in a play ought to follow by causal necessity from the thing before it and ought to necessitate everything that comes after it. There’s no room for waxing lyrical about pleasant landscapes.

But the Teletubbies are an affirmation of life. They believe in running around the ever-sunny Elysium of Teletubbyland without any particular goal. Teletubbyland is a symbol deeply embedded in the human consciousness. It’s that place, flowing with milk and honey, where one day human nature, no longer a slave to necessity, will reveal itself for what it actually is. It’ll be like Mountain Man—acting simply out of his nature and not out of compulsion.

I’m not sure how much truth there really is to radical Teletubbianism. Is it really necessary to do away with antecedent and consequent all together in order to arrive at the innate nature or purpose of a thing? We’ll see how long I can stay interested… In the meantime, I expect to see an idyllic and pointless library when I get back to the States.

’Till next time,

Tim

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.

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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,

Tim

What are words, even?

Day 96: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So here’s one for you: What did the Python-programmer say after computing this expression?

list = [[2, 3], [5, 9], [2.359, 3.0], [92.1, 2], [3.0, 2.592]]

sum([anum[i] for anum in list for i in range(2)])

Stay tuned to find out.

I’ve spent the last couple days mostly just programming in Python, so if this post doesn’t make sense, you’ll know why.

If you ever want definitive proof that the Humanities and the Sciences are fundamentally incompatible, try writing a poem after a long computer-programming spree.  I just realized that the last three strophes I’ve written all inexplicably begin with the same word, ‘class’; the first line of each ends with a colon instead of a comma.

But seriously, computer science does take a lot of mental processing power, even if I shouldn’t be telling a U Chicago health-care professional that science and humanities are incompatible… I guess that’s not a very liberal-artsy thing of me to say.

But, Zak, I have a question: what’s so liberal about the liberal arts?  How do they have anything to do with politics?  And even if they do, why are they more blue than red?

For that matter, why is there such a thing as ‘light blue’ but not ‘light red’?  Is pink so distinctly feminine that it needs its own separate name?  What’s feminine about pink anyway?

On my side of the pond things are different.  Here in Italy there’s no such thing a ‘light blue’.  That’s called azzurro.  I’m teaching my English students the names of the colors.  They all insist on distinguishing between ‘blue’ and ‘light blue’ in English…  What I’m trying to tell you is that there are literally more colors in this country than in the US.

It’s a strange world.

Zak, I’m willing to concede that the way each culture partitions these various categories may be more or less arbitrary.  There may be nothing absolute about the divisions between red, pink, science, blue, humanity, liberalism, or Donald Trump…  But which came first, the chicken, or the word we use to distinguish said young-domestic-fowl-raised-for-meat-and-dairy-products from the so-called “egg”?

In your last entry:

“Tim, I didn’t learn drinks could have calories until I went to college.”

I’m pretty sure drink-calories work just the opposite of colors.  There are more of those in the US.  Actually, between you me and the wall, I suspect that soda-pop may be one of the primary sources of the whole obesity problem in America…

Secondary sources may disagree…

That last sentence was just for the humanists, but the Python joke is dumb enough for all of us:

“That’s some sum.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Sunshine

Day 93: Monday

Morning, Tim!

I’m glad to get back to it after a wonderful Easter break.

Sunshine is a beautiful thing. Nature thrives, and it makes a bit of America-nada possible. It makes you want to write poetry:

Life abundant, sharing space

Bird with a bow tie grins from ear to ear

Fluttering onward, twigs and sunshine

A sweaty beginning to the day

I’m most proud of stealing your ever present poetry reference to bow ties.

I do hope all is well in Italy, and I look forward to hearing of your springly adventures.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Peanut Butter

Day 80: Friday

Good morning Zak,

So I’ve been thinking a lot about peanut butter recently.  Especially about its texture.  There’s something very interesting and unique about that silky quality it has.  It can take just about any shape, but it always has the same generally smooth and even consistency.

We don’t have peanut butter here in Italy.

Zak, one thing I’ve noticed through my experience as a composer and a poetaster is that writing takes a bit of frivolity.  Writers are usually the sorts of people who take pointless things very seriously.  Things like pyjamas.

That’s one aspect I admired about my composition teacher in undergrad.  You could present the most pointless and ridiculous ideas to him, and he would always dive right into them with you head first.  There wouldn’t be even a moment of hesitation to ask how worthwhile something really was.

In the end, I think pointlessness usually does turn out to be worthwhile, but an artist needs to be willing to invest in something while it’s still just pointless.  There was once a 34 year-old man who started spending all his energy thinking about four little notes.  He was clearly just wasting his life, and if he had any sense he would have dedicated himself to something more useful.  But then we wouldn’t have Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

In your last entry:

“I’ve been a bum of a correspondent recently. […] I have allowed myself to become overwhelmed.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used to think that lyricism was kind of pointless at its core.  Lyrical poetry could express its meaning just as clearly without so many rhymes.  Lyrical melodies could be taken out of a composition without really disturbing its functional structure.

But none of that is actually true.  Lyricism is a fundamental part of communication.  If even our everyday language were fully devoid of lyricism, it would quickly become unintelligible.  That starts to happen whenever we write complex sentences with lots of prepositional phrases and parentheticals.  Try reading this sentence:

“At a time in the history of Western thought of serious skepticism toward teleological thinking in general, I admit that a theory of semiotics based on the purpose of language may seem like a naive proposal.”

Don’t hurt yourself.  I had to revise this because each of the prepositional phrases seemed isolated from the overall flow.  When you read it aloud, it sounds like the individual bricks are falling apart and the overall building is crumbling.

A certain amount of lyrical peanut butter is needed as mortar to hold together the meaning of language, even when it’s prose.  Rhythm and euphony are not just fun games for people with nothing better to do.  They are an essential function of human expression.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

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

It’s All a Jumble…

Day 57: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

“When man wanted to make a machine that would walk he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg.”

-Guillaume Apollinaire

Descending melody is a universal in world music.  Every culture that we know of has some examples of melodies that generally start high in pitch and end low.  Ethnomusicologists think this is simply due to the nature of our physiology: whenever someone breathes out to sing a melody, they start with a lot of breath and end with very little.  This makes it natural to descend in pitch toward the end of a melodic line.

If I were to indulge myself in speculation about this, I might even take the explanation a step further.  It seems like downward motion is a pretty universal part not only of our physiology, but of all of nature in general.  I mean, here on earth, things pretty much always move downward if nothing stops them.  Water, tree branches, trees themselves…  I guess in that way descending melody is a lot like Cage’s 4’33’’; it’s the sound of nature when people don’t interfere that much.

The so-called “lament meter” in ancient Hebrew poetry is probably an example of this.  Although we don’t have direct evidence of the original melodies, the lopsidedness of the poetic meter itself seems to evoke a diminishing energy toward the end of the verse.  The first part of the verse (the first “colon”) is generally longer then the second.

I feel like there’s something inherently lament-ful about this kind of verse structure.  Isn’t it kind of sad how everything on earth eventually falls back to the ground and dies?  Everything except for some small amount of helium, which, I understand, escapes the atmosphere because it’s so light.

But the really strange thing is how relatively rare this melodic typology is within Western concert music.  Our melodies tend to climax about two-thirds of the way in.  In a sense, you could maybe say our musical tradition is about contrasting the entropy the natural world with the creative energy of human life.

“Right, well, I mean… this piece behind me, I call it ‘The Afous II.’  And, I mean, it’s really about how confusing, you know, society is.  Because, you know, it’s all a jumble, isn’t it.”

-Adam Savage

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A river or a waterfall might tend to flow downward, but human discourse generally moves the opposite way: I say something, you say something, and eventually we reach some kind of logical consequence… an agreement or a main point or something like that.  Contrary to the entropy of the natural universe, human conversations, or “language games,” tend to snowball, accumulating more energy as logical discourse progresses.

Here’s a a very famous lament, which climaxes, no less, toward the end of each strophe.

God, who created all that comes and goes
and shaped this faraway love,
give me strength, since I already have the intention,
so that I see this love far away
in reality and in a fitting place
so that rooms and gardens
shall seem to me to be new palaces.

-Jaufre Rudel, source

Until tomorrow,

Tim

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