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

schermata-2017-02-07-alle-12-39-25

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