Review: Howards End

Review: Howards End
Howards End

Howards End by E.M. Forster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is the little things one bungles at. The big, real ones are nothing when they come.


The last time I reviewed a novel by E.M. Forster, I wound up blubbering with praise; and now I find myself in similar circumstances. As with A Passage to India, I find Howards End exemplary in every respect: the themes, characterization, the prose, the pacing, the plot. I ought also to mention Forster’s versatility. Though rarely funny, Forster is capable of romantic lyricism, gritty realism, and flighty philosophy. Most convincing of all is his control. Nothing is overdone or heavy-handed—which requires a mixture of technique and taste. While exploring social problems, one never feels that the novel is being unduly interrupted; while constructing a character into an archetype, one never feels that the individual is lost; and the story, though carefully plotted, rarely feels predictable or contrived.

Yet Forster is not a great novelist for his skill alone. He is great because of his insight. More than any novelist I know, Forster is able to connect the inner with the outer life (which is the theme of this novel, and the source of its most famous quote: “Only connect”). Forster is able to show, in other words, how social and economic circumstances breed characters; and how even intelligent and well-meaning characters fail to escape the bounds of their class and nation. He shows, for example, how the money inherited by Margaret and Helen allows for their mental freedom; how Mr. Wilcox’s life of business molds him into a well-meaning shell; and how, despite his best efforts, Leonard Bast cannot help but be shaped by his poverty.

However, if the novel has a message, it is this: even if the inner life is powerless to change material circumstances, it is ultimately the more important aspect of life. This is because, when a tragedy strikes, and mere business acumen or worldly knowledge will not suffice, it is emotional fortitude that is required. Mr. Wilcox has a sort of false strength—a fragile ego he hides behind, a sort of masculine bluff which is easily shattered. Margaret, by contrast, is able to endure tragedies because of her self-knowledge. She is not afraid of the darker aspects of her mind; thus she can look with equanimity upon herself and others, accepting their flaws while seeing their potential. This is what Forster means by “connect”: connecting “the beast” with “the monk”—that is, admitting one’s desires instead of hiding behind a false screen of decency. Only so can we achieve self-knowledge.



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Don Bigote: Chapter 6

Don Bigote: Chapter 6

The story until now:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs
  5. Don and Dan Find God

Don and Dan Find Themselves

“Tell me what you saw,” Dr. Krajakat says, in a low soothing voice, to Don Bigote.

“It is somewhat obscured in the misty recesses of my memory, but I clearly remember the exalted feeling of having made an important discovery.”

“Yes?” the doctor says coaxingly.

“Perhaps discovery is not the right word… It was more like a vision, a sort of sense of being in a world where every wrong is right, a kind of utopia of freedom and righteousness—blessedly free from the dastardly conspiracy that so plagues the world today…”

“And did you see…  her?”

“Her?”

“Yes, her.”

“You mean, the mother?”

“Yes, her! Mother Ayahuasca!”

“I did!” Bigote says, with a tone of eureka. “I remember it all now… She came to me from above, like an angel, with her flowing green hair and her flaming red eyes… and she picked me up and held me in her arms, and whispered something in my ear…”

“What was it?” the doctor hisses.

“That… everything, everything is opposite.”

“Yes!” the doctor says, throwing up his hands in triumph.

“I think he’s ready,” Pierre says quietly.

“Yes, I agree,” the doctor says. “I quite agree.”

§

“Listen,” I say, “you can’t trust these people. They’re all loonies here.”

We are sitting, alone, in our bunk beds in the campsite.

“I believe at least most of them are not Canadian, Chopin,” Bigote tells me. “In any case, I do not see why you are so alarmed. If these people were working for the conspiracy then they surely would have pounced already. What would be the point in waiting?”

“But, dude,” I say, “just think about it. We’re out here in the middle of nowhere, everyone is a hippie on drugs, and this doctor wants to send you into some cave. I mean, how can they know it’s safe? There could be bears, snakes, wolves, or… whatever there is in Portugal. Or you can get lost, or fall into a pit, or the walls can collapse and you can be trapped like those miners in that country on the news.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Bigote says. “I have no fear for my personal safety. Besides, the chance of attaining knowledge which, very possibly, will be vital in our battle against the conspiracy, is worth whatever the concomitant risks of this procedure. And if something happens to me, you will be left behind to carry on the mission.”

“So you’re seriously going into the cave?”

“I am.”

“You’re gonna trust these people you just met with your life?”

“Most heartily.”

“Well then,” I say, “I’m going with you.”

“Now, now, dear Chopin,” Bigote says, laughing, “I am flattered by this display of squirish loyalty, but do not be rash. I am a man of experience and training, and, moreover, owing to my comparatively advanced age, it could hardly be argued that an accidental death would be greatly tragic. But in your case there is an obvious and manifest difference; you are young, and (the conspiracy permitting) you have many years ahead of you, some of which may indeed be happy.”

“If you’re going, I’m going,” I say, crossing my arms.

“Pray reconsider.”

“I’m not leaving you alone to be killed by these crazies.”

“Oh, such words are harsh.”

“This is the way it’s gonna be,” I say, imitating my mom.

Now, I am hoping that by insisting on going with him I might get him to wise up to the loco-ness of this plan. It’s a gamble, I know. But what else am I going to do? I am in way too deep with Bigote now to back out. We’ve broken who knows how many laws; we’ve seen people killed, and then stolen their stuff. I mean, it’s all the way or bust, the way I see it.

“If this is how you feel,” Bigote says, “then so be it.”

Oh shit.

§

“This is the entrance to Sub World,” Dr. Crackerjack (or whatever his name is) says, pointing to a small sliver of an opening in a hillside. “This is where Mother Ayahuasca dwells. The cave was discovered about a decade ago by a married couple on a picnic. The two of them stumbled in, and now the both of them are high shamans in the rainforests of Brazil. We pilgrims have been visiting the magic cave ever since. It works wonders.”

“I am thoroughly intrigued,” Bigote says. “Let us waste no more time!”

“Wait!” Pierre shouts, as Bigote starts marching towards the cave. “We have got to tie you up first.”

“Tie us up?” I say, already so nervous my bowels are misbehaving.

“So you don’t get lost,” he explains, and then pulls out two long nylon chords from his backpack. Quickly and expertly, he wraps one around my waist, ties it securely, and does the same with Bigote.

“They are prepared,” Pierre says to the doctor.

“Okay, now the both of you, listen to me carefully,” the doctor says. “Walk into the cave slowly. Be careful, since it is completely dark inside, so take care not to hit your head or to fall. However, this stage of the journey only lasts a few minutes. Eventually you will see a light in the distance. Follow it. The rest will be clear.”

“I thank you for your counsel,” Bigote says. “And now, no more words. For it is a time of action.”

Pierre and the doctor nod gravely. Bigote turns to the cave and begins to march. I follow him, trying my best to walk normally despite the knot of anxiety in my abdomen.

We reach the cave’s mouth. Like he’s an astronaut in a movie or something, Bigote turns to me, nods, and then steps into the cave. I mutter a kind of fake prayer (you know, the kind of weird under-the-breath wishing that even non-religious people do), try to walk inside, but then I panic and hesitate for a second. A part of me says, fuck this, let’s go back. Then I worry that I’ll lose track of Bigote in the darkness, so I gulp down my nerves and walk inside.

I hit my head on the rocks immediately.

“God fucking shit…”

“Peace, Chopin,” Bigote’s voice says, ahead of me. “This is no time for obscenities.”

“Sorry, sir, it’s just these rocks are so hard.”

“Indeed, they are quite durable, as I have myself noticed through observation. Unless I am mistaken, the cave is primarily granite.”

I walk forward, hands out in front, until I bump right into him.

“Careful, my faithful companion,” Bigote says.

“Oh, sir, I don’t like this,” I say, grabbing onto his arm so as not to lose him. “Can we just sit down here for a few hours, and tell them it was great when we come out?”

“What an idea!” Bigote laughs.

We are edging forward, him in front, me behind, clinging to his boney arm. Normally I’d feel weird in this situation but, you know, when you’re in a cave different rules apply. This is what I’d always say to my buddies when we were in the man cave.

We move on in total silence and total darkness, the only sound the soft padding of our feet on the rocky ground as we slowly shuffle forward. It feels like how I imagine it is to be in one of those sensory-deprivation chambers that I saw on a video that one of my friends—well, she’s not really my friend, but I follow her since she’s sort of cute—posted on LickFace™ a few months ago. It’s like these things where you go into a pod that’s full of warm water, and when the door closes you can’t feel or see or hear or smell anything, and you’re supposed to be like super zen or something like that (though I gotta say so far this cave is not at all zen). I don’t know, it’s something people in Norway to do, I guess because they’re bored from the snow.

For about five minutes nothing much happens. Well, it could have been an hour for all I know. Time is hard to estimate when your in a cave like that. But just then, somewhere in the blank space in front of us, we hear:

Thump.

“Oh my god of my god oh my god,” I say, and hug Bigote’s waist. “We’re gonna die.”

“Calm yourself, Chopin,” Bigote says. He tries to keep moving ahead but I hold him there.

“Let go of me, you fool.”

“Shhhh,” I say, squeezing him as tightly as I can.

We listen for a few moments. I’m breathing hard from panic, and Bigote is huffing from trying to breathe with my arms clenched around his chest. I’m sweating like I’m trying to work off a hangover at the gym, and I feel like my legs are made of jello shots.

And then:

Thump.

It sounds closer this time. I lose it completely.

“Oh please oh please, let’s go!” I start crying and babbling hysterically. “Oh, sir please let’s get out of here. Oh! Owowowow!”

“Will you quit that nonsense!” Bigote says, and tries peeling my arms from around his waist.

“Look you, whatever you are!” he then shouts into the darkness. “Unlike my assistant here, I am unafraid of things that go bump in the night! So, beware, for that makes me dangerous!”

“Oh god, please somebody help us!” I scream. My eyes are streaming tears, my nose is dripping mucus, and I’m farting uncontrollably. My arms and legs are frozen in place—Bigote’s stuck in my embrace—we’re completely defenseless. This is the end, I know it.

And, just then, we hear another noise. It sounds like:

Psssssfffffftt.

In other words, it sounds like a hissing and slightly wet fart. A sharp shart, if you will.

I don’t know whether this is a good or a very bad sign… but the sound keeps repeating. I listen in wild fear, mentally trying to make sense of what it could be… a bear? a snake? a rabid beaver? But the more I listen, the more the sound begins to take shape. Yes, it is most definitely flatulent, but it also has a certain… articulation. Wait, it’s somebody speaking!

“Pssslease pffdon’t fffffffpanic,” the fart voice says. “You have arrived.”

§

The cave is gone. Either that, or we’re gone. I’m not a philosopher or anything, so I don’t know. Point is, we’re not in the cave anymore.

Instead, we’re in a room where all the surfaces are made of little pieces of glass, like a fun-house or something. It’s super trippy. Everywhere I turn, up, down, right, left, I see myself in a thousand little pieces. And since everything is reflecting everything else, the room is multiplied infinitely in every direction. Like I said, it’s super trippy, and it gives me a stomach ache—as if I wasn’t feeling weirded-out enough already. Worse than the mirrors is the smell. It’s nasty, like something rotten, or like that one time I did an experiment in chem class using sulfur. But the worst part of all is that there is someone in this room with Bigote and me…

It’s a man, I think… He’s completely naked, so it should be easy to tell. But he’s standing on his arms, with his legs up flapping in the air, and his ass pointed right towards us. A pretty hairy ass, too, which is why I think it’s a dude.

“Welcome,” he says. But the voice doesn’t come from his mouth… He literally farts the words out of his upturned ass. I gag a little.

“How dare you act so obscenely, you curr!” Bigote shouts.

“Please be calm,” the ass retorts. “I assure you that I mean no disrespect.”

An uncomfortable silence follows, as Bigote and I try to figure out what’s going on. Finally Bigote says:

“Are you Mother Ayahuasca?”

At this, the ass explodes into staccato, rapid-fire farts: pft-pft-pft-pft-pft-pft. I think it’s laughing. I gotta admit I’m very impressed. One of my buddies back home can fart on command, but he has nothing like this level of control. This guy could be on a TV show. When he settles down, he says (or farts, not sure):

“I apologize for laughing, but everyone who comes down here asks me that, even though I implore them, when they return to the surface, to dispel this myth. And frankly, I do not see what a hallucinogenic concoction from the Amazon rainforest has to do with us, down here.”

“Who are you then?” Bigote says.

“My name is Harry,” the ass responds, folding his upturned legs with dignity. “And I am a member of the Subterraneans.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The Subterraneans. You see, thousands of years ago, when people began to settle down and start farming, a small group of dissenters decided that the agricultural life wasn’t for them. The rigid schedule, the bland and steady diet, the sedentary lifestyle—they found it to be an unbelievable bore. So they struck out to find another way. Eventually, during a bad storm, some of them got lost in this cave and never found their way out. Over the millennia we have adapted to our new domain. Indeed, I think you will find that we are much happier than you surface dwellers.”

“So why are we here?” Bigote asks.

“Well, you see your surface bodies would be completely unable to cope with the conditions inside our city, so we have constructed this chamber to allow for communication between our two worlds. The mirrors, you see, are to magnify the meager source of light we have available. And the atmosphere is equal parts oxygen and methane (you likely have noticed the smell), so that we both can breathe. We, of course, have no need of light or mirrors in Sub City (as our capital is called), since our world is pitch black, and our eyes have long since atrophied from disuse.”

“I see,” Bigote says. “But why are we here in the first place?”

“Ah, well it’s part of a new government outreach program. We decided that diplomatic isolation was no longer a defensible policy in a globalizing world, and so built this chamber to make contact with the surface world. The fact that ayahuasca rituals take place here was a lucky coincidence.”

“So,” Bigote says, hesitating, “you are here to explain your world to us, is that right?”

“Correct.”

“My attention is yours.”

“I believe the best procedure is for you to ask me what you wish to know. I will answer as best I can.”

“How are you speaking out of your ass?” I blurt out, dying to find out.

“Chopin, how rude!” Bigote says.

“No, it’s quite alright,” the ass says. “Everyone asks me that. In short, the lack of oxygen deep underground caused a change in our biology. We switched from breathing oxygen to breathing methane, and our anuses thus became the primary mode of communication. The ability to delicately manipulate objects or to run quickly are also of little use where we live. Thus, we switched from feet-walking to hand-walking, freeing our muscular feet for the heavy lifting needed in carving out our existence underground.”

“That’s crazy, dude.”

“No, it is evolution.”

“Well,” Bigote says, “I suppose I should start with the most obvious question: Is your society, too, under threat by the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy?”

“What is that?”

“Why, it is the most dastardly plot in all of history! It is a scheme formed by the alliance of the religion of Islam and the nation of Mexico, along with various other groups such as feminists and vegans, in order to destroy western society as we know it!”

“It is a conspiracy formed between a religion and a nation?”

“Yes, that is exactly it.”

“Oh no, that is not a problem here,” Harry says. “You see, we have found that religions are more trouble than they’re worth. Centuries ago, we had a lot of problems with this institution. Everyone was getting all worked up over which god to worship, what god said what, who was the true prophet of god, what kind of hat god wants you to wear, what kind of food god wants you to eat, and on and on. So eventually we just decided to abolish all religion.”

“Even Christianity?”

“If that is a religion, then yes.”

“That’s monstrous!”

“Whatever you may think, it has worked out quite well. We haven’t had any violence due to conflicting supernatural beliefs in hundreds of years. We did the same thing with nations, too, since we found that people would get similarly worked up over which nation was the best—with the best customs, the best food, the best culture, and all the rest—so we decided that nations are formally illegal.”

“My God!” Bigote says. “But some nations are the source of brilliant and vital traditions!”

“We have found through experience that any group that does not include everyone, and which requires its members to eat, act, and think a certain way, causes social issues that are best avoided through unity. That is why we also outlaw special diets (except for medical reasons) and political parties.”

“But if all this stuff is against the law,” I say, “then half of your people must be in jail.”

“Why, you surface-dwellers are always shocked when I say this, but we have no jails in Sub World.”

“Let me guess,” Bigote says, “mass execution?”

“The thought of such barbarism!” Harry said, fart-chuckling. “No, no, nothing of the sort. We have a very efficient process for dealing with people who break the law. First, they must publicly apologize in front of a large crowd. This is to engender a sense of shame and responsibility. Then they must complete a certain number of community service hours, which normally consists of some menial task, such as garbage collection. Meanwhile, they attend therapy and rehabilitation sessions, in which they are given the psychological and social support to properly readapt to society. This is followed by a probationary period, in which they are provisionally allowed to return to normal life, with periodic monitoring to ensure their proper readjustment.”

“I highly doubt the efficacy of this procedure,” Bigote says.

“Oh, I assure you it’s quite successful. My father once had to undergo this process because he got a speeding ticket in his mole-mobile. And now he obeys the speed limit ‘religiously,’ you might say.”

“That is all fine and dandy,” Bigote says, “but what about the unrepentant criminals? Surely there must be a certain number who refuse to participate, or who are too violent to be amenable to such gentle correction.”

“There have been cases in the past when rehabilitation was impossible, and the criminal was sent into exile into the deeper recesses of the caves. But such a thing has not happened in generations. You see, our criminal system is not simply recuperative, but preventative. Yearly psychological examinations, administered in schools (and all of our teachers undergo psychological training), allow us to catch troublesome cases early, when therapy is most effective.”

“Excuse me the luxury of disbelief,” Bigote says, waving his hand. “But I doubt that all the therapy in the world can eliminate our violent tendencies. Surely, there must be assaults and murders in your society.”

“Yes, occasionally.”

“And you are saying that you do not administer a harsher punishment to those who take a human life?”

“In the case of murder, the perpetrator is forced to attend a meeting of reconciliation with the family of the victim, in order for the criminal to realize the full extent of emotional pain he has caused, and in order for the victims to avoid harboring self-destructive hateful or vengeful feelings. The ceremony ends with everyone rubbing their anuses together, which is the traditional gesture of goodwill in our society.”

“This is absurd! Such a procedure hardly satisfies the dictates of justice! The perpetrator of such a heinous act must suffer. To force the family of the victim to forgive him is cruel! They have a right to be angry.”

“I assure you, for generations we tried to use a system of castigation—corporal punishment, isolation, imprisonment, even death—to deal with crimes, but the end result never fully satisfied. Harsh punishments had the double drawback of making criminals unavailable or unfit for useful social roles in the future, while failing to act as a serious deterrent to other would-be criminals. So we had lots of crime and lots of prisoners. Furthermore, though there was a sense of emotional satisfaction in punishing wrongdoers, we found that indulging in such sentiments led, in turn, to anti-social behavior on the victims’ part, thus perpetuating a cycle of violence.”

“Such dry logic may have its certain appeal,” Bigote spits, “but we are creatures of sentiment, and our emotional natures cannot be denied.”

“We have come to the opposite conclusion,” Harry replies. “Long experience has taught us that many emotions, positive or negative, can have unintended negative social consequences. Love is an excellent example of this phenomenon.”

“Oh, I would like to hear this.”

“Our original hypothesis was that individuals would naturally be best able to choose a partner for themselves. But this had puzzling consequences. Separation was common, and many couples who remained together reported high levels of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, especially when children were involved. After some investigation we were forced to conclude that individuals are inept at choosing partners. In well over three-fourths of the cases we looked into, the choice was unambiguously sub-optimal. Curiously, it is not that individuals are, on the whole, bad judges of character: they do well in choosing friends. Rather, we found that the intense feelings of passionate love commonly involved in courtship severely clouded people’s ability to make wise decisions about a partner.”

“So then how, in your infinite wisdom, do you manage marriage?”

“It is a simple system. First, love-matches are heavily discouraged. We have anti-love campaigns in school, and anti-love poems, songs, and stories are very common in the media, illustrating the danger of this temptation. And we have found that, in the absence of media promoting the idea of romantic love, it very rarely develops spontaneously. Our studies have shown that most love is merely the imitation of fictional tropes—and, of course, imitating fiction is not sustainable. In the rare cases that a couple does spontaneously fall in love, then they are assigned community service in different communities, to ensure the destruction of the relationship.”

“You are monsters!”

“I admit that it seems rather hard when we have to separate an enamored couple. This happened to one of my cousins, a few years back, a terribly excitable girl. But the social stability achieved through this process speaks for itself.”

“Social stability?” Bigote says. “How can loveless marriages be stable?”

“You see, love is allowed to develop within the marriage, but not to precede it. When a person is ready to marry, they follow this procedure: they apply to the Department of Partnership. Then psychologists evaluate members of the opposite sex (or whatever the case may be, depending on the individual’s preference) among the individual’s  friends—the theory being that freely-chosen friendship leads to more stable marital bonds than passionate emotional choice. When a suitable match is found (using various psychological criteria), the marriage is proposed, and continues with the consent of both parties. And I am happy to say that this procedure has almost entirely eliminated divorce. You see, when love is not involved, people enter a relationship with moderate and realistic expectations, and so are seldom disappointed enough to wish to leave.”

“This is a travesty!” Bigote snorts. “This is like solving the problem of heart attacks by putting everyone into an artificial coma. You have robbed life of all its poetry!”

“Poetry is a matter of taste,” Harry replies. “And in my opinion our anti-love poets produce some truly beautiful lines. For my part, I have been in a happy marriage for thirty years, and have not grown tired of my wonderful wife even once.”

“But this whole business of letting committees decide things, it’s preposterous,” Bigote says, waving his arms. “You can never achieve greatness in any realm of life through mere procedures and logic and calculation. Passion is the spark that sets fire to our life, and makes them worth living.”

“For a long time, there were many in Sub World who agreed with you. And of course we have exhaustively tested out this hypothesis. But ultimately we have had to reject the idea that passionate desire is socially useful. In many realms of life, it is quite the opposite—socially destructive. Take politics as an example.”

“Go on, then. Tell us how wrong we are.”

“Well, for a long time it was assumed that the people who were the most motivated to be politicians should be the ones in charge. Thus we experimented with a democratic system, in which these individuals would compete for votes, the theory being that the person who receives the most votes would be the one who is the most skillful leader, the most motivated worker, and the most ideologically representative of the population. But we were mistaken in this. Time and time again, the people who won were merely charismatic. While some proved to be capable leaders, the large majority were exalted mediocrities, whose only true interest was power and prestige, and who were willing to say anything to get it.”

“I admit that this has been our sad experience on the surface world as well.”

“Another problem we ran into is that our leaders, once established, bred an incestuous community. By this I mean they would mainly associate with one another, becoming an isolated class. Rather than working on behalf of the community, they merely worked to further entrench themselves in their positions. Sure they would appear to oppose one another ideologically. But this was mainly a show to convince their voters of their own legitimacy.”

“Again, I have seen it happen all too often,” Bigote says. “So what did you do about it?”

“The solution was easily found, once we abandoned the idea that people should follow their passion to become leaders. Rather, we realized that the reverse is the case: people with no interest in leading should lead, since they are the least likely to be corrupted by access to power. Thus we have replaced elections with a lottery. A person randomly chosen is more likely to represent the views of their community, rather than the interests of the elite. But of course even a normal person may have their judgment warped through access to executive control: so this is why we strictly limit the amount of time that any person can spend in the government. For most positions the term limit is one year. After this year is up, the next leader is chosen through another lottery process. It is called the Yearly Shuffle, and it’s a great festive occasion. My grandfather and my sixteen-year-old daughter were both chosen so far.”

“My word!” Bigote says. “A lottery!? Very well, I admit that such a silly procedure may help to eliminate corruption. But this comes at the cost of great leadership. Where would the world be if Charlemagne, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Ronald Reagan were passed over by some random process, or were only allowed to rule for one year! Yes, there are plenty of corrupt politicians in the world—of this I am much too certain—but great talent naturally rises to the top, and compensates for this human waste!”

Just then I feel a strong pressure on my abdomen—and it isn’t what it usually is.

“Ah, it appears it is time for you to go,” Harry says. “Give my regards to that doctor up there, and do let him know about Mother Ayahuasca.”

Suddenly I am tugged from behind with so much power that I fall backwards, lose my breath, and black out.

§

A confused mass of voices reaches my ears:

“Are they alright? Wow, they smell awful. How’s their breathing? Normal? Get the smelling salts. Keep them on their sides, that’s it.”

Slowly the world stops spinning, and I begin to recollect myself. Asleep? Was it all a dream?

Someone sticks something under my nose, and I am overwhelmed by a powerful rancid smell.

“Jesus fucking hell,” I say, sitting bolt upright and thrashing around with my hands. “Get that shit away from me.”

“It appears that he is fine,” Pierre says. “We pulled them out before the methane got to their heads.”

“Tell me, young one,” Dr. Krajakat says to me, smiling, as he bends down towards me. “Did you see it?”

“See what?”

“The… the place where everything is opposite?”

“Opposite? I’ll say! Down there, everything is ass backwards!”

Historic Hudson Homes: Kykuit

Historic Hudson Homes: Kykuit
John D. Rockefeller Sr.

By common consent, the richest man in modern history was John D. Rockefeller. At his peak he was worth at least three times more than the world’s current richest man, Jeff Bezos—over $300 billion to Bezos’s $112 billion. In a world before income taxes or antitrust laws, it was possible to amass fortunes which (one hopes) would be impossible today. Strangely, however, this living embodiment of Mammon did not have extravagant tastes. To the contrary, for a man of such unlimited resources Rockefeller was known for his simple, even puritanical, ways. According to Ron Chernow, a recent biographer, Rockefeller had a habit of buying homes and keeping the original decoration, even if it was absurdly out of keeping with his own taste, just to avoid an unnecessary expense.

Thus when John decided to buy a property near his brother William’s estate (Rockwood), near the Hudson River, he simply stayed in the pre-existing houses. (William’s Rockwood mansion has since been torn down, but the property has been transformed into a wonderful park.) The spot Rockefeller chose occupies the highest point in the Pocantico Hills overlooking the Hudson; it is named Kykuit from the Dutch word kijkuit, which means “lookout.” Likely enough Rockefeller would have been satisfied indefinitely with a fairly modest dwelling, had not his loyal son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., decided to take charge of a manor house to be built for his father.

Junior and his wife, Abby Aldrich, set to work on an ambitious, architecturally eclectic design. They worried about every detail, as they knew how exacting and finicky the paterfamilias could be; the planning and construction took six painstaking years; the couple even took the precaution of sleeping in every room in the house, just to be sure that it was perfect. Nevertheless, John the father was unsatisfied; and he could not conceal his dissatisfaction. He was disturbed, for example, that the servants’ door was right underneath his bedroom window, so he could hear it clapping all day. Eventually (and doubtless to his son’s dismay) Rockefeller concluded that the house needed to be completely remodeled; and thus the current, Classical Revival form of the house came into being.

(An amateur landscape designer, Rockefeller was also dissatisfied with the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, whom you may remember as the designer of Central Park. Senior decided to do the landscaping himself.)

As in Sunnyside, tours are given by the Historic Hudson Valley. But you cannot go directly to the Kykuit property. To visit, you must buy a ticket in the gift shop of Philipsburg Manor, another historic site (a 17th century farm) in Sleepy Hollow, right across from the Cemetery. After you sign up for a tour, you board a small bus, which transports you on the 10 minute ride to the property. A cheesy informational audio clip plays during the trip, giving some brief background information about the family and the property. This sets the scene for the tour guide. I have, incidentally, heard that the content of the tour can vary significantly depending on the guide’s interests.

As the bus rolls in, through the gates and beyond the walls—passing by a “play house” still used by the Rockefeller family (many of whom still live somewhere on the massive estate)—one gets a sense of the private, exclusive, and isolated world inhabited by the world’s richest man. Widely known and, for a time, almost universally hated, Rockefeller needed to create his own refuge. My favorite detail was the tunnel underneath the mansion that was used to make deliveries without disturbing Rockefeller’s rest.Kykuit_facade

The bus deposited us in front of the house, near an impressive Oceanus fountain, copied from a fountain in Florence. Ivy crawls up the stone facade, all the way up to the neoclassical tympanum. An eagle crowns the top, displaying the family crest. From there the guide led us up onto the porch, where two strikingly modern statues stand flanking the doorway. This is a constant feature in Kykuit: the juxtaposition between classic and contemporary tastes. John D. Rockefeller himself had very little taste in art, conservative or otherwise; his son, Junior, was enamored of the past—Greek, Medieval, even classical Chinese. Meanwhile, Junior’s wife, Abby, and his son, Nelson, were important patrons of modern art. Thus the house is an, at times, uneasy incorporation of these divergent tastes.kykuit_side

As a case in point, there are beautiful examples of Chinese porcelain on display throughout the house, protected by plexiglass cases. (The guide explained the glass was installed to protect them from playing children.) In a room used by Nelson Rockefeller there is also the vice-presidential flag, commemorating his term under Gerald Ford. Nelson wanted to be president himself, and he had the experience to do it—he was the governor of New york from 1959-72—but according to Ron Chernow, his divorce made him an unpalatable candidate. (How times have changed!) There were also portraits of the Rockefellers, and a phenomenal bust of the bald, decrepit, and yet mesmerizing John D. Rockefeller Senior—whom I was excited to meet, since I had just read a book about him.

After this, our guide led us into the gardens. The most notable feature of these are the modernist statues scattered about—gruesome metal bodies amid neat hedgerows. Unsurprising for such a commanding spot, the view is excellent. On a tolerably clear day you can see all the way to Manhattan from the back porch. I imagined lounging on an easy chair, sipping some very posh drink—for some reason a mint julep comes to mind—and contemplating the Hudson. But of course the Rockefellers were Baptist stock, and teetotallers all, so the drink is pure fantasy. Beyond view (and beyond the scope of the tour) was the reversible nine-hole golf course that Rockefeller used with Baptist scrupulousness; after God and Mammon, golf was his top priority. Likely Rockefeller Senior would have been shocked and appalled by the massive modernist statue (resembling an alien squid) that was airdropped by helicopter into place on the property during his grandson’s tenure.

Then we made our way inside to visit the art gallery in the basement. This includes original works by many modern artist, the most famous being Andy Warhol; but the best works on display are undoubtedly the Picasso tapestries. These were commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, to be made by Madame de la Baume Dürrbach, for the purpose of making his works easier to display. The biggest of these tapestries was a copy of Guernica, now on display at the United Nations building. Of the ones in this private gallery, my favorite is of Picasso’s Three Musicians (the original hangs in the MoMA). Even when I toured Kykuit as a child, tired, hungry, and very bored with all this old-people nonsense, I was impressed that a person could have Picassos in his basement; and my opinion has not changed.

To speed through the tour somewhat, we eventually boarded the bus again to go back to Philipsburg Manor. However, we did stop at the stables on the way back, which was filled with antique horse carriages and old luxury automobiles. In addition to being an avid golfer, you see, Rockefeller Senior also loved to go riding in his carriage and, in later life, to take fast drives in his fancy cars. (A strange detail from the biography is that, in later life, the upright and conservative Rockefeller would grope women during these rides. He was a man of many contradictions.)

This fairly well sums up my visit to Kykuit. It is an impressive place—six floors, forty rooms, and twenty bedrooms. Even so, considering Rockefeller’s vast fortune, and considering the kinds of monstrous mansions that other rich families—most notoriously the Vanderbilts—built for themselves, it is a restrained edifice. One can see the old Baptist tastes coming through, even amid all this wealth and splendor. Even so, I cannot imagine living in such a private world, so far removed from pesky neighbors and city noise. But the Rockefellers apparently had no trouble house; Nelson Rockefeller lived in it up until his death in 1979, when it was donated for use as a museum.

Before ending this post, I should also mention two nearby Rockefeller monuments.

The first is the Union Church. This is one of two non-denominational churches (the other being Riverside Church in Manhattan) commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It is an attractive and modest building, made of cut stone with a steeply slanting roof. Though the church does have an active congregation, most of the time its main use is as a tourist attraction, also administered by Historic Hudson Valley. The church is notable for its stained glass. The rose window was designed by the modernist pioneer Henri Matisse; according to the guide (I was the only one on the “tour”), it was the last work the artist ever completed. It is a simple, abstract pattern, yet subtly interesting to look at. More memorable, however, is the series of stained-glass windows completed by Marc Chagall, using Biblical scenes to commemorate deceased members of the Rockefeller family. Though I am normally not greatly fond of Chagall’s work, I must say that the strong, simple colors of Chagall’s windows created a pleasant atmosphere—if not exactly profoundly religious.

Stone Barns

The second is Stone Barns, a center for sustainable agriculture established by David Rockefeller (Junior’s youngest son). (Sharing the Rockefeller talent for long life, David passed away just last year, at the age of 101.) The center lies on the edge of the Rockefeller State Park, alongside Bedford Road, surrounded on all sides by rolling farmland; in fact, the park’s paths extend into the property, making it a lovely place to stroll about. The buildings of the complex are completed in a style reminiscent of Union Church, as well as of the Cloisters museum in Manhattan: deep-grey cut stone. The farm is dedicated to growing high-quality produce and livestock without using anything “artificial.” Some of its products are served in the famous Blue Hill restaurant on the property—a place so absurdly fancy and expensive that, judging by the way things are going, I doubt I will ever get an opportunity to try. The menu, which costs $258 per person, consists of many different courses of artisanal dishes using esoteric ingredients. I have bought cheaper transatlantic plane tickets.

Historic Hudson Homes: Sunnyside

Historic Hudson Homes: Sunnyside

Washington Irving haunts my corner of Westchester like a beneficent ghoul. As a quintessential New Yorker, and the first American writer to gain international prominence, he left monuments to his memory scattered about everywhere. In my native town of Sleepy Hollow, he is inescapable: our municipal statue, our high school football team, and our most famous landmark, the cemetery—not to mention postcards, ghost tours, haunted hayrides, and all our other identifying symbols. Irving was clearly a generous person, as he donated his own name to the town next door, Irvington, where his house still remains as a tourist attraction.

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Washington Irving

In the grand scheme of the universe, Sunnyside is quite close to my own domicile. Yet when, like me, you lack a car; and also, like myself, you enjoy walking places, the journey can take a long while. Luckily the walk there is very pleasant, since Sunnyside is right next to the Aqueduct trail that extends from NYC all the way to Croton. The path took me through the heart of Tarrytown, across Route 9, and then past Lyndhurst mansion—another historic Hudson home, an extravagant neo-gothic castle once owned by Jay Gould. After that I passed by a large property owned by the Belvedere Family Community (otherwise known as Unificationists), who have chosen this picturesque spot to bring about world peace.  

By the time I reached Sunnyside I was tired and very sweaty. But paying customers, even smelly ones, are seldom turned away. Sunnyside is run by the Historic Hudson Valley, an organization which administers several other sites along the river (such as the subject of my next post, Kykuit). To visit you must sign up for a guided tour, which you do in the gift shop (as you are conveniently surrounded by overpriced books and paraphernalia); the price is a little more then $20. As I waited for the tour to start, I was tempted to buy a copy of Irving’s History of New York, his breakthrough piece of social satire; but I remembered I already have a copy on my Kindle. For all its social ills, technology does occasionally save us from gift-shop prices.

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An artist’s rendering

In minutes, the tour commenced. Our pleasant guide, who was dressed in period costume, took us to our first stop: a ripe old sycamore tree, planted in the heart of the property. It has been growing there since 1776—respectably middle-aged for a tree but not exactly venerable. Our guide then directed our attention to the property itself. Apparently Irving was an amateur gardener and landscape designer, and helped to mold his property according to his romantic tastes. Here there are no French gardens, with neat hedgerows and grid-like walking paths, but something more akin to the English Gardens in Munich: a blend of planning and nature.

Of course, the property was originally much nicer, since it extended all the way to the Hudson River. But when the Hudson Line railroad was completed in 1849, it cut off his property from the water; and I cannot imagine the country-loving writer had much affection for the noisy, screeching, fuming locomotives chugging before his windows. Even today, the whooshing of the Metro-North disturbs the peace of this hitherto isolated spot. In fairness, the Metro-North has compensated by naming a few of their train cars after the famous writer and his creations—Headless Horseman, Knickerbocker, Ichabod Crane, Rip Van Winkle, and so on. I should also note that the observant rider on the Hudson Line can catch a glimpse of Sunnyside between the Irvington and Tarrytown stations, somewhat south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

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The West Façade. Photo by Beyond My Ken; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

The building of Sunnyside itself is arrestingly modest—indeed, hardly bigger than my own suburban home. Its exterior bears the whimsical and fanciful humor of its maker. Most obvious is the Dutch stepped-gable, which shows how fascinated Irving was with the original Dutch inhabitants of this region. (His most famous characters, and even his own pseudonym, Knickerbocker, bear testimony to this interest.) On the river-facing side of the house he put the date 1656—a date which only roughly corresponds to the first cottages build on this land by Dutch settlers (in the 1690s), and which shows Irving’s love for mixing fact and fiction heedlessly together (as he did in his history of New York and his biography of Columbus). And last we come to the so-called Spanish tower, whose sharply swooping roof is modeled after Spanish golden age architecture (such as the El Escorial). Irving, you see, spent a good many years in Spain as the American ambassador (I cannot even escape him here!), so he was naturally interested in Iberian architectural styles.

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The Spanish Tower. Photo by Beyond My Ken; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

My memory of the interior is necessarily more vague, since you cannot take pictures. In any case, there are few surprises—a study filled with books, a living room with a piano for social events, a bedroom (where Irving happened to die), and so on. My favorite object on display was a little watercolor, apparently by Irving himself, depicting his legendary meeting, as a boy, with his namesake George Washington. (According to our guide, it cannot be determined whether this meeting actually took place.)

Irving had little more than twenty years to enjoy his cottage, from its construction in 1835 to his own demise (he died of a heart attack in the bedroom upstairs) in 1859; and this was interrupted by his long stay in Spain. Though he chose the spot for its picturesque isolation, considering it a kind of writerly escape from the noise of Manhattan, he seldom had peace: besides the railroads, he had to contend with many visitors, both invited and uninvited. If we had to look for a modern parallel to the fame Irving enjoyed, we would have to choose a figure such as Stephen King or George R.R. Martin. Both he and his house were a sort of American monument, gracing the covers of magazines and attracting tourists. Besides this public attention, the bachelor Irving shared his house with his brother Peter, and Peter’s daughters, whom had fallen on hard times. Irving’s very presence transformed this country escape into a center of American culture.

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Washington Irving meeting George Washington

There is little more to add. After Washington’s death the family lived on in the house for several generations, only finally parting with it in 1945. For its preservation we must thank a man who is quickly becoming one of the heroes of this blog: John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who bought up the house and turned it into a museum. For any lovers of literature or history in the Hudson Valley, it is well worth a visit.

NY Museums: The Cloisters

NY Museums: The Cloisters

Sitting atop one of the highest points on the island of Manhattan, overlooking the palisades of the Hudson Valley stretching northwards, is the most convincing slice of Europe in New York—perhaps in the country. This is the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum, specializing in medieval art and architecture.

Like any great museum, the story of the Cloisters begins with a person and his vision. In this case we have George Grey Barnard, a European-trained sculptor and collector, who managed to acquire a large collection of medieval sculptures, pillars, and and tombs during his time in France. He did this by focusing on stones that had been the victims of pillage and war—often repurposed by local populations for mundane needs. This was an especially amazing feat, considering that Barnard—an exuberant and impulsive man—was not wealthy to begin with, and had terrible spending habits which often landed himself on the verge of financial ruin.

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John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

It was during one of his periodic pecuniary crises that he was forced to sell his collection to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a man who could hardly have been more different—puritanical, reserved, prudent. But the two men shared a love for medieval art; and Barnard’s collection was the first step towards Junior’s dream of opening a museum in this romantic niche of Manhattan.

Things moved rather swiftly with the world’s wealthiest man financing the project. After the acquisition of Barnard’s collection in 1925, Junior had Fort Tyron Park built around the chosen site (designed by the descendants of the designer of Central Park); then, he had substantial sections from abbeys in Catalonia and France shipped to New York, where they were incorporated into a single structure. The museum was then donated to the Metropolitan Museum, and the park to the city. The result is an oasis of medieval Europe in uptown Manhattan.

It is interesting to compare this museum to the one founded by Junior’s wife, Abby Aldrich: the MoMA. They are a study in contrast. The MoMA sits right in the center of the city, surrounded by activity and noise; its design is sleek and modern, with a vertical orientation and sterile white walls. The Cloisters is situated far from the city center; indeed it is somewhat inconvenient to visit the museum, since it is so out of the way. The surrounding park is quiet and bucolic, a haven from the noise and stress of city life. The museum building itself is an attempt to recreate the past: using traditional materials and techniques to mimic a bygone age. If the MoMA tries to break with tradition, the Cloisters tries to break with modernity. It is a wonder that Junior and Abby got along so well, since they had such diametrically opposed attitudes to art.

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The Cloisters is exceptional in that the building itself is one of the main attractions. Whenever possible, the original materials have been integrated into the structure, creating a faux-monastery, complete with quasi-churches and pseudo-cloisters, where imaginary monks perform invisible rituals. There are several ornamented doorways, with sculptures climbing up the sides and crowning the top. Some walls display decorative friezes—Biblical scenes and medieval bestiaries—and the windows shine with colorful stained glass. The cloisters have authentic columns, complete with Romanesque capitals; and there are three gardens where rare plant species pertinent to the medieval mind are grown. (Apparently, the madonna lily is associated with love and fertility.)

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As for the museum’s collection, on display are fine examples of every type of medieval plastic art: paintings, altars, carvings, sculptures, reliquaries, sarcophagi, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, and tapestries. For the most part these are not organized by medium or style, but by their architectural setting: they are placed to create a harmonious and authentic experience. Thus walking around the Cloisters is akin to exploring a great cathedral, whose every chapel contains distinct works of art, organized by religious themes rather than academic categories. The final effect is not an emphasis on any one piece in the collection, but on the collection as a gestalt: an integrated, aesthetically captivating space.

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Nevertheless some pieces to stand out for special comment. One is the Mérode Altarpiece, whose central panel depicts the annunciation. It is a wonderful example of Dutch realism, showing a celestial scene taking place in a modest Dutch living room. I particularly like the Virgin’s round, plump face, and her carefree expression as she idly reads a book, not even bothering to look up at the angel bearing news of universal significance. In general the interior is convincingly painted—filled with fine detail, especially the book lying open on the table—but the perspective is a little uneven, as you can clearly see when comparing the table to the room. The kneeling figures of the donors are on the left-hand panel, looking appropriately wan and penitent. On the right, Joseph (looking considerably older than his wife) is busy at work as a carpenter; and behind him, through the window, we can see what is obviously a lovely Netherlandish town. (Biblical scholarship was not highly advanced in those days.)

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Besides Rockefeller Junior, an important early donor to the museum was J.P. Morgan, who contributed a few items from his incomparable collection of rare manuscripts (most of which, however, he kept for his own museum downtown). Among these are the Cloisters Apocalypse, the Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, and the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. This last is particularly impressive. A “book of hours” is a prayer book, usually made for wealthy patrons, containing prayers appropriate for different times of the day. In this case, Jeanne d’Evreux was the third wife of king Charles IV of France (reigned 1325-28); and the book was executed by the Parisian artist Jean Pucelle, who was a witty inventor of drolleries (the little designs that frame the text in an illuminated manuscripts). In any case, the book is a terrific example of gothic illumination.

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Yet my favorite work—and I suspect the favorite of many others—is the famed Unicorn Tapestries. This is a series of seven tapestries, depicting the hunt, capture, and (possible) rebirth of a unicorn. Its provenance is mysterious: First recorded in the possession of La Rochefoucauld family many years after their creation, then looted during the French Revolution (reputedly used to cover potatoes), the tapestries were ultimately acquired by Rockefeller Junior, who adored them and could scarcely bear donating them to the museum. But eventually his charity prevailed over his aesthetic greed, and now the tapestries hang in the museum for all to see.

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What is immediately striking is the quality of their workmanship and preservation. I have seen a fair number of tapestries by now, and most are not nearly as detailed nor as vibrant. Scholars debate nearly everything about the works—their meaning, their relationship to paganism and Christianity, and even the order in which they should be seen. Nevertheless some basic narrative is obvious. A group of hunters sets out in the forest; they encounter the unicorn by a well, surrounded by other beasts; they attack; the unicorn defends itself, killing a dog with its horn and kicking a man; but the unicorn is surrounded, killed, and brought back to the castle (apparently with its horn missing). But there is one tapestry that is difficult to account for, showing a unicorn standing inside a fenced enclosure, alive and with horn intact. Where does this image fit in? Should it go first or last? Does the unicorn come back to life?

This last interpretation makes some sense, considering that the unicorn was used as a symbol for Christ during the Middle Ages. Still, the metaphor of hunting a unicorn seems odd for symbolizing the path to Christian salvation. Are the hunters supposed to be those seeking Christ’s wisdom, or is this rather a metaphor for the passion and death of Christ? I can hardly give a coherent answer; but the ambiguity only adds to the tapestry’s magnetic power. Yet even as images alone, the series is compelling: the lush forest, the atmosphere of fantasy, the dynamic encounters with the unicorn.

I am spilling words on these exceptional works, yet I feel I am failing to do justice to this museum—whose effect is never dependent on the excellence of a single piece. Indeed you might say that the building itself is the greatest work on display. Despite being a melange of elements—incorporating churches and monasteries from different eras and different regions—the Cloisters convincingly brings the visitor into the Medieval mindset: of chivalry, romance, nobility, and, most importantly, Christianity. Indeed, arguably the architectural eclecticism of the museum accurately captures the feel of medieval religious structures, which were often built over hundreds of years and incorporated several different mediums and styles.

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So if you have any interest at all in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend taking the A train uptown (190th street station) to visit this shrine to a bygone age.

NY Museums: MoMA

NY Museums: MoMA

I have always been prone to conservative tastes in music, literature, and art. I remember having long discussions in high school about the emptiness of contemporary music and the inanity of modern art (at the time, I knew close to nothing about visual art, ancient or modern). Every painting I encountered from the 20th century only confirmed my prejudices—using a minimum of technical skill to create images that were either incomprehensible or simply dull. At the ripe age of eighteen I mourned the decline in standards and the decadence of our culture.

Luckily, my tastes have broadened somewhat since then (though not as much as could be desired), and I have come to cherish the Museum of Modern Art as one of the great museums in New York—indeed, of the world.

Like many New York landmarks, the MoMA is a product of the Rockefeller family. Specifically, it was conceived and funded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, along with two of her friends.

Abby was the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who himself had a great love of art. However, he and his wife had diametrically opposed tastes. Junior was fond of Chinese porcelain and medieval art (which led him to develop the Cloisters Museum, uptown), while his wife was enamored with modern art. This occasioned not a few marital squabbles, since the straight-laced and puritanical Junior considered modern art to be degenerate and scandalously uninhibited. To add insult to injury, Abby wanted to demolish their old home to make way for the museum. Nevertheless, Junior offered the requisite financial support for his wife’s project, and so the MoMA was born. It opened in 1929, just a few days after the financial crash (while Junior was busy dealing with Rockefeller Center); and this opening marks a watershed in the institutional acceptance of modern art.

Upon entering the MoMA, the visitor should go all the way to the top, the fifth floor (American style), and then work her way down. Nearly all of the museum’s most famous paintings are to be found in this gallery, so it is best to go with fresh eyes.

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Almost immediately you will find the most famous painting in the collection: Starry Night. Like La Gioconda in Paris or The Birth of Venus in Florence, Starry Night is always surrounded by a swarm of buzzing tourists. Predictably, this detracts from the viewing experience. Much of the pleasure of a great painting consists in minute observation; and this is doubly true of Van Gogh’s works, which are so thick with paint that they are nearly tactile. In any case, I need hardly say that Starry Night is one of the great images of Western Art, as instantly recognizable as Guernica or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The swirls in the night sky have been as overanalyzed as Mona Lisa’s famous smile: as turbulent manifestations of the artist’s epileptic visions, or as a profound insight into the physics of nebular star formation, or as an allegorical representation of Christ.

While I think Starry Night is undeniably among Van Gogh’s best, I admit that overexposure has diminished my enjoyment of the painting. It is like hearing a song played one hundred times on the radio: even if it is a great song, it will lose interest eventually. In any case, the painting is exceptional in many respects. Unlike the majority of Van Gogh’s mature work (characterized by the artist’s strong commitment to observation), it contains several imaginative elements. For one, the village in the distance is an invention: it was not visible from his window at the monastery in which he was staying. More striking, the swirls in the sky seem to be a purely imaginative detail—not only invented, but fantastical. Are they clouds, wind, or a spiral galaxy? Nothing quite seems to fit, which is strange in a painter so obsessed with working from nature.

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Starry Night Over the Rhône

The final result is a painting whose effect is somewhat different from Van Gogh’s other mature work. The Starry Night Over the Rhône, for example, is typical of the artist in that, despite not being “realistic,” it evokes the sensation of an actual starry night. The Starry Night in the MoMA, however, evokes a quite different feeling: that of a cryptic, quasi-mystical utterance.

Another famous painting in this gallery is Henri Rousseau’s The Dream. It features a nude European woman reclining on a couch, in a reclining pose reminiscent of many European female nudes, such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Goya’s The Naked Maja. But she is not in a living room, but deep in the jungle, surrounded by exotic birds, tropical plants, two lions, and an African person playing the flute. The style is exaggerated and cartoonish, not exactly dreamlike but heavily stylized. The woman’s portrayal, for example, is almost Egyptian in its perspective: her body facing forward but her head entirely in profile, with both of her braids somehow in front of her chest. My favorite aspect of the painting are the large, hypnotic eyes of the lions, which serve to make the animals seem terrified rather than terrifying.

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However, I must admit that, on the whole, I do not find the painting terribly captivating to look at. I do appreciate it as a kind of satire of bourgeois dreams of the exotic: the gentile French woman, dozing in her salon, lost in daydreams of the lush forests of the Africa. And perhaps the snake tail sticking out from the bushes, and the fruit hanging on the tree above, tell us that this imaginary Eden is liable to implode when faced with actual knowledge.

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In the next room there are several works by Picasso, including what I consider to be, after Guernica, his greatest: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (In this case, Avignon refers to a street in Barcelona where prostitutes would congregate, not to the city in France.) It is a brutal, disturbing work. Picasso painted it in 1907, when he was still relatively obscure and was embroiled in a rivalry with the older Henri Matisse. At the time there was widespread interest in so-called “primitive” art, such as that of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and pre-Roman Iberian sculpture. The painter Gauguin (who died in 1903) also contributed to this interest, since he had spent the last ten years of his life on the island of Tahiti, and had cultivated a “primitive” style in his late works. (This can be seen in Gauguin’s The Seed of Areoi, also at the MoMA.) Picasso combined this interest in the exotic with his admiration of Cézanne, whose daring landscapes pioneered the geometrical simplification that would become the basis of Picasso’s mature style. (The MoMA features several excellent works by Cézanne, including The Bather.)

 

The result is a painting utterly unlike any other in Western art. Five nude prostitutes gaze at the viewer, who is supposed to be a potential customer in their brothel. But there is not a hint of sensuality about these ladies of the night. Indeed, the extreme distortions of their bodies, and the mask-like form of their faces, transforms them into threatening monsters—particularly the two women on the right, whose faces bear the obvious influence of African art. The women have been literally objectified: reduced to distorted, two-dimensional placards. But the objectification turns them into objects of fear rather than desire; their curves are sharpened into knife-blades, their frontal gazes—traditionally a sign of invitation—are instead frightening blanks, devoid of any discernible emotion.

Compare this work with Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), completed just the year before; it shows us a colorful landscape full of voluptuous nudes, luxuriating in sensual pleasure. This is the ever-beguiling fantasy of sex. Picasso shows us the reality beneath the fantasy, the ugliness that we push into the shadows. For the relationship between the viewer as client, and the prostitutes gazing back, is dehumanizing for both parties. The women are visibly dehumanized—turned into thin masks, which perform their sexual function without pleasure or pain, without lust or hatred, but only a blank apathy. For his part, the client’s desire for sex becomes yet another financial transaction, performed mechanically—without enthusiasm and even without real desire—to fulfill mundane biological urges.

Perhaps I am reading too far into the painting, but for me the image represents the consequences of a repressive sexual morality: wherein a single man’s only opportunity for sex is the brothel, which in turn fuels a market that preys upon vulnerable women, pulling them into a cycle of poverty and abuse. Yet this is only one of an endless list of interpretations, as the helpless critic struggles to make sense of this pitiless image.

It was not a long way from these distorted forms to Picasso’s major breakthrough: cubism. Several cubist works of his hang nearby, as well as those of his partner in cubism, Georges Braque. I must admit that these works of “high” cubism always leave me cold: they are monochromatic and chaotic images, with at most the purely intellectual interest of a crossword puzzle. But there is no denying that cubism was the most influential movement of the period; through the painters’ experiments with perspective and abstraction, a new idiom was developed, a pictorial language that Picasso (among others) would later use to great effect.

Not far from here is a room mostly dedicated to works by Marcel Duchamp. Now, Duchamp is one of the most influential figures in 20th century art; in his program, The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes dedicates ample time to his work, and most of what he says is quite positive. For my part, I have been unable to penetrate this artist’s work, in part because he seems to represent what I generally dislike about modern art: namely, its abandonment of aesthetic qualities for intellectual games or self-involved irony.

duchamp_moma

An example of this is his piece To Be Looked at (From the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour. It consists of two panes of glass with a magnifying lens mounted in the middle. On the glass is a geometrical design of a three-dimensional pyramid. The glass was unintentionally cracked during transport, which greatly appealed to Duchamp’s sense of random creation. I can see that the piece is a sort of ironic comment on science and perspective; the design and the lens suggest the meticulous representation of space, and yet it is a mere parody—the image through the lens is distorted and fuzzy. It is also a sort of ironic comment on the act of seeing in a gallery, since the viewer must dedicate a frankly unrealistic amount of time to experience the visual distortions induced by the lens. In other words, the whole point of this work, which uses symbols of seeing scientifically, is to see badly. Yet is it interesting to look at?

Another example of Duchamp’s work is Three Standard Stoppages. He made this by dropping a meter-long thread onto sheets of glass, so they it fell in haphazard shapes, and then gluing the threads to the glass. Afterwards, he made wooden “rulers” (whose length is less than a meter, since the thread is curved) using these shapes. The idea (or so the MoMA audioguide explains) is to show the arbitrariness and the boringness of the standard meter, as opposed to the spontaneous naturalness of these shapes. This is a fine idea; but again I do not see the point of creating a work of art which only serves as the prop for an argument. I remain old-fashioned enough to think that it should be beautiful in itself; this is one of my many intellectual shortcomings.

De_Chirico's_Love_Song

A room nearby is dedicated to the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Indeed, the MoMA has perhaps the world’s greatest collection of this elusive artist’s work, including his most famous painting: The Song of Love. Like so many of Chirico’s paintings, it is a baffling image: a rubber glove hangs from a wall, next to a beautiful antique bust (of Apollo?), with a green ball on the ground in front—all of this in a cartoonish urban landscape. Like many, I can only hazard a guess of what this all means. I suppose that the powerful juxtaposition of the bust and the rubber glove is suggestive of different interpretations of the human body—one a unique idealized image, another a prefabricated utilitarian object—indicative of the many cultural manifestations of the same underlying reality. But, really, whatever interpretation we choose to impose, the image persists; and it is memorable.

La_danse_(I)_by_Matisse

Another memorable image is Dance (1) by Henri Matisse. The work in the possession of the MoMA is a preliminary work for a decorative panel in the Heritage Museum, Saint Petersburg. If you keep in mind that this naive image was created in 1909, you can get an idea of how revolutionary it must have been. For there is not a hint of realism in the work; not only do the figures lack detail, but their postures are impossible—anatomically and perspectively. The landscape consists of two blobs of color, slashed across the canvass. And yet it is an utterly convincing image of joyous celebration. The freedom from realism is transformed into a freedom of all restraint, a kind of basic delight in movement and release. The painting is also a convincing demonstration that childlike can produce lasting art.

800px-Kazimir_Malevich_-_'Suprematist_Composition-_White_on_White',_oil_on_canvas,_1918,_Museum_of_Modern_Art

I have a much more negative opinion of another so-called childish piece in the collection, White on White, by Kazimir Malevich. Malevich was the creator of the Suprematist movement, which emphasized the use of basic geometrical shapes—squares, circles, lines, and so on—with a black-and-white color scheme. White on White consists of an off-white square positioned diagonally in a white canvass. Neither this painting nor any other of the Suprematist works on display produce even the slightest iota of emotion in me; they are not visually interesting or intellectually stimulating.

But I should not pause to cast aspersion, but should dwell on the paintings that I do like. Among these is, naturally, Claude Monet’s wonderful painting of water lilies, stretched out on an enormous canvass (well, actually three canvasses). In the later part of his life, Monet retreated into his own estate; here following Voltaire’s advice, he cultivated his own garden. This became his artistic haven, where he would sit for hours, working. The most famous and stunning results of this aesthetic quest are these enormous representations of the surface of his lily pond. (Monet made several of these; most are collected in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.) The work is unmoderated aesthetic bliss: the swirling colors are so inherently peaceful and pleasant that they induce a sort of meditation, an artistic absorption in color and light.

waterlilies_monet_moma

I see that I am rattling on and on, as I tend to do, so I will restrict myself to two more paintings. But be advised that this list is only representative of my tastes, and does not adequately reflect the wealth of beauty on display.

As a somewhat begrudging fan of Dalí, I was delighted to finally see his Persistence of Memory. This image is so famous that it requires no description. Nevertheless, I think it is worth pausing to savor this painting’s brilliance. For no painting I know is such a convincing depiction of time. Contrast this work with another whose subject is time: The Ages and Death, by Hans Baldung. This painting, which hands in the Prado, represents time by showing its effect on the female body. It is an exceptional painting, well executed and well conceived; but it has none of the haunting power of Dalí’s work. For here time itself ages—it melts and droops pathetically. In Baldung time is universal, inescapable, and adamantine; but for Dalí time itself takes place in a larger environment—that suggested by the rocky landscape—and is itself subject to change. This leads us to ask: what is ultimate, after all?

pollock_moma

The last painting I will mention is Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950. Admittedly, giving the name of a certain Pollock seems silly, since I at least would be at a complete loss to pick one out of a slideshow. Nevertheless I do want to single out this painting, and Pollock’s work generally, for its extraordinary energy. Though superficially random, any amount of inspection will reveal that, in fact, Pollock exerted an extreme level of control over his paint drippings. The result is a sort of explosion of human movement, an exploration of gesture, a kind of visual dance, where the overlapping colors create a rhythmic sensation, and the blobs of paint sticking out of the canvass make it nearly tactile.

If she is at all like me, the visitor will be quite exhausted by the end of this gallery. Yet this floor, although it contains the majority of the MoMA’s most famous works, is only a small fraction of its total exhibitions. On the next floor down are the more contemporary works, from 1940 to 1980. I will pass over this gallery in silence since, for me, visual art after the Second World War is hit or miss—and usually the latter. Below this, on the third floor, is a rotating special exhibition on architecture. When I went last year it was a fascinating exposition dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright; this year it is dedicated to communist Yugoslavian architecture. On the second floor (European first floor) the collection continues from 1980 up to the present. Finally, on the ground floor is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller sculpture garden, a peaceful place full of bizarre statues, plants, and benches, which is perfect for having a short rest.

This does it for my virtual tour of the MoMA. It is well worth a visit, not only because of its wonderful collection, but because it is one of the most significant institutions that governed artistic taste in the 20th century. Next, I will examine a museum founded by Abby Aldrich’s conservative husband: the Cloisters.

Review: 1491

Review: 1491

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I should begin by saying that this book is not what I expected, which necessarily entails some disappointment. I was hoping for a more in-depth look at the major pre-Columbian societies and cultures. What this book instead offers is a sort of overview of trends in research in this area, highlighting how these trends contradict the popular image of the Americas before European colonization. This is, of course, also a valuable and worthwhile topic—and, considering the book’s popularity, many have found it to be so—but I nevertheless must admit that, after putting down the book, I still have only a hazy notion of the actual cultures in question.

Mann sets himself to undermine the popular notion of scattered groups of savages in a pristine, ahistorical paradise, living lightly off the land in a perfect harmony with nature. He sets out to show that, first, there were orders of magnitude more people in the Americas than was originally suspected; second, that humans arrived in the Americas far earlier than previously thought; and third, that pre-Colombian societies radically altered their environment. The picture that emerges is of a continent teeming with complex civilizations, each one manipulating the world around them in unique ways.

Due to the limited and often indirect evidence available to researchers, and the comparatively nascent state of the field, Mann is unable to give a textbook-like overview of pre-Colombian societies. Our knowledge is simply too fragmentary; there are too many scholarly disagreements. He instead chooses to focus on individual scholars and their lines of research, showing how these converge to suggest the aforementioned new conclusions. The advantage to this method is that his narrative is enlivened with the stories of real research; and it also allows Mann to give a more realistic impression of the state of our knowledge. But the disadvantage is that this book often reads like an extended Nat Geo article—the report of a journalist tagging along on research expeditions—rather than the bird’s-eye view I was hoping for.

Another major drawback is that, by focusing on pioneering research, Mann is unable to give answers that are wholly satisfying, since the field itself has not yet reached a stable consensus. The research he relies on for his section on pre-Colombian population, for example, uses a combination of indirect evidence and simple speculation. Granted, I was convinced even before opening this book that European diseases caused significant depopulation after first contact. But whether the fatality rate was as high as 90%, as he suggests, is difficult to accept without more decisive evidence. Personally I find it hard to believe that one-fifth of the global population (to use his figure) could die off without leaving a far less ambiguous archeological trace.

That the research is in this state is not, of course, Mann’s fault; yet he is not merely reporting the results of different experts in the field, but choosing those whose research most strongly supports this book’s thesis. This put me naturally on guard, since I know from my brief time studying archaeology how varied scholarly opinion can be in a field where evidence is necessarily scanty, incomplete, and suggestive. This being said, I do want to emphasize that I was convinced of Mann’s major points; it was only the details that put me in a dubious state of mind.

Mann’s habit of focusing on the research that most forcefully bolsters his conclusions is part of a more general tendency to overstate his case. For example, I find it difficult to accept Mann’s assertion that the first generation of European colonists did not have a decisive military advantage over their American counterparts (which supports the thesis that disease was the decisive factor in the conquest). Steel blades, guns, and mounted cavalry were all landmarks in military technology in Eurasia, so I do not see why they would not lend an advantage in this context. I also could not swallow Mann’s argument that American Indian cultures played such a decisive role in the emergence of Western liberalism and individualism. Now, I have little doubt that the example of egalitarian, non-coercive societies did play a role in this development; but Mann makes it seem as if Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire were reliant on this example.

But I should stop nitpicking a book which is thoughtful, well-written, well-researched, and which dispels many obsolete myths. And, really, it is my fault for choosing a book on new revelations, when I really wanted to learn more about the religion, art, architecture, and science of these vanished civilizations.

(I should note one error I caught. Mann says that the Spanish missionary Gaspar de Carvajal was born “in the Spanish town of Extremadura.” But Extremadura is region, or an autonomous community, not a town; Carvajal was born in Trujillo, which is indeed in Extremadura.)

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Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's DreamA Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen,
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Both times that I have encountered this play, it has failed to make much of an impression on me. I fear that I am insensitive to the atmosphere of enamorment and enchantment that so pervades this work. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the few of the bard’s plays whose plot he himself wrote. The result shows that, while brilliant in nearly every other dramatical ability, plot was not one of Shakespeare’s gifts. The play is a whimsical tapestry, a historically absurd mélange, a jury-rigged skeleton on which to hang his romantic poetry.

As is typical of Shakespeare, his lovers are mostly devoid of intrinsic interest. There is not much that allows the reader to distinguish Helena from Hermia, Lysander from Demetrius; their love-sick pinning all blends together into an impassioned monotony. This, of course, is wholly intentional; the farcical scheme of the love potion reveals that the lovers’ choice is wholly arbitrary—even random—and that the passions are due entirely to the lover and not the beloved. This is standard Shakespeare fare, even if it is spiced up with the device of the fairies.

The standout character is, as so often happens, not a lover at all, but a jester: Bottom. He is the liveliest and most loveable character in the play, a thoroughly upright and decent man. His most striking feature is his imperturbability. Being transformed into a monster hardly phases him; and meeting the fairies of the enchanted world strikes him as no special cause for alarm. Also notable is his apparent indifference to the amorous advances of the fairy queen. Being so lauded and desired does not augment his ego one bit, nor does it prompt him to

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Review: Two New Sciences

Review: Two New Sciences

Two New Sciences/A History of Free FallTwo New Sciences/A History of Free Fall by Galileo Galilei

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But in what seas are we inadvertently engulfing ourselves, bit by bit? Among voids, infinities, indivisibles, and instantaneous movements, shall we ever be able to reach harbor even after a thousand discussions?

When most people think about the Copernican revolution, the name that comes most readily to mind—more even than that of Copernicus himself—is that of Galileo Galilei. It was he, after all, who fought most valiantly for the acceptance of the theory, and it was he who suffered the most for it—narrowly escaping the tortures of the Inquisition. It was also Galileo who wrote the most famous book to come out of the revolution: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, whose publication most directly resulted in Galileo’s punishment.

Some years ago I read and admired that eloquent work. But lately, after slogging my way through Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler, I have come to look upon Galileo’s famous dialogue with more suspicion. For it was only through the work of Kepler that the Copernican system became unquestionably more efficient than the Ptolemaic as a method of calculating celestial movements; and though Kepler was a contemporary and a correspondent of Galileo, the Italian scientist was not aware of the German’s groundbreaking innovations. Thus the version of heliocentrism that Galileo defends is Copernicus’s original system, preserving much of the cumbrous aspects of Ptolemy—epicycles, perfect circles, and separate tables for longitude and latitude, etc.

Added to this, the most decisive advantages in favor of Copernicus’s system over Ptolemy’s—explaining why the planets’ orbits seem related to the sun’s—are given little prominence, if they are even mentioned. Clearly, a rigorous defense of Copernicanism would require a demonstration that it made calculating heavenly positions easier and more accurate; but there is nothing of the kind in Galileo’s dialogue. As a result, Galileo comes across as a propagandist rather than a scientist. But of course, even if his famous dialogue was pure publicity, Galileo would have a secure place in the annals of astronomy from his observations through his improved telescope: of the lunar surface, of the moons of Jupiter, of the rings of Saturn, of sunspots, and of the phases of Venus. But I doubt this would be enough to earn him his reputation as a cornerstone of the scientific revolution.

This book provides the answer. Here is Galileo’s real scientific masterpiece—one of the most important treatises on mechanics in history. Rather inconveniently, its title is easy to confuse with Galileo’s more famous dialogue; but in content Two New Sciences is an infinitely more serious work than Two Chief World Systems. It is also a far less impassioned work, since Galileo wrote it when he was an old man under house arrest, not a younger man in battle with the Catholic authorities. This inevitably makes the book rather more boring to read; yet even here, Galileo’s lucid style is orders of magnitude more pleasant than, say, Kepler’s or Ptolemy’s.

As in Two Chief World Systems, the format is a dialogue between Simplicio, Sagredo, and Salviati (though Galileo cheats by having Salviati read from his manuscript). Unlike the earlier dialogue, however, Simplicio is not engaged in providing counter-arguments or in defending Aristotle; he mostly just asks clarifying questions. Thus the dialogue format only serves to enliven a straightforward exposition of Galileo’s views, not to simulate a debate.

The book begins by asking why structures cannot be scaled up or down without changing their properties. Why, for example, will a small boat hold together if slid down a ramp, but a larger boat fall to pieces? Why does a horse break its leg it falls down, but a cat can fall from the same distance entirely uninjured? Why are the bones of an elephant proportionately so much squatter and fatter than the bones of a mouse? In biology this is known as the science of allometry, and personally I find it fascinating. The key is that, when increasing size, the ratio of volume to area also increases; thus an elephant’s bones must support far more weight, proportionally, than a mouse’s. As a result, inventors and engineers cannot just scale up contraptions without providing additional support—quite a counter-intuitive idea at the time.

Galileo next delves into infinities. This leads him into what is called “Galileo’s paradox,” but is actually one of the defining properties of infinite sets. This states that the parts of an infinite set can be equal to the whole set; or in other words, they can both be infinite. For example, though the number of integers with a perfect square root (4, 9, 16…) will be fewer than the total number of integers in any finite set (say, from 1-100), in the set of all integers there is an infinite number of integers with a perfect square roots; thus the part is equal to the whole. Galileo also takes a crack at Aristotle’s wheel paradox. This is rather dull to explain; but suffice to say it involves the simultaneous rotation of rigid, concentric circles. Galileo attempts to solve it by postulating an infinite number if infinitesimal voids in the smaller circle, and in fact uses this as evidence for his theory of infinitesimals.

As a solution to the paradox, this metaphysical assertion fails to do justice to its mathematical nature. However, the concept of infinitely small instants does help to escape from of the Zeno-like paradoxes of motion, to which Greek mathematics was prone. For example, if you imagine an decelerating object spending any finite amount of time at any definite speed, you will see that it never comes to a full stop: the first second it will travel one meter, the next second only half a meter, the next second a quarter of a meter, and so on ad infinitum. The notion of deceleration taking places continuously over an infinite number of infinitely small instants helped to escape this dilemma (though it is still unexplained how a thing can be said to “move” during an instant).

Galileo had need of such concepts, since he was writing long before Newton’s calculus and too early to be influenced by Descartes’s analytical geometry. Thus the mathematical apparatus of this book is Greek in form. Galileo’s calculations consist exclusively of ratios between lines rather than equations; and he establishes these ratios using Euclid’s familiar proofs. Consequently, his mechanics is relational or relativistic—able to give proportions but not exact quantities.

This did not stop Galileo from anticipating much of Newton’s system. He establishes the pendulum as an exemplar of continually accelerated motion, and shows that pendulums of the same length of rope swing at the same rate, regardless of the height from which they fall. He asserts that an object, once started in motion, would continue in motion indefinitely were it not for friction and air resistance. He recounts experiments of dropping objects of different masses from the same distance, and seeing them land at the same moment, thus disproving the Aristotelian assertion that objects fall with a speed proportional to their mass. (Unfortunately, there is scant evidence for the story that Galileo performed this experiment from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.) Galileo also makes the daring asserting that, in a vacuum, all objects would fall at the same rate.

There are still more riches to be excavated. Galileo asserts that pitches are caused by vibrating air, that faster vibrations causes higher pitch, and that consonant harmonies are caused by vibrations in regular ratios. He exhaustively calculates how the time and speed of a descending object would differ based on its angle of descent—straight down or on an inclined plane. He also shows that objects shot into the air, as in a catapult, descend back to earth in a parabolic arc; and he shows that objects travel the furthest when shot at 45 degrees. In an appendix, Galileo uses an iterative approach to find the center of gravity of curved solids; and in an added dialogue he discusses the force of percussion.

As you can see, this book is too rich and, in parts, too technical for me to appraise it in detail. I will say, however, that of all the scientific classics I have read this year, the modern spirit of science shines through most clearly in these pages. For like any contemporary scientist, Galileo assumes that the behavior of nature is law-like, and is fundamentally mathematical; and with Galileo we also see a thinker completely willing to submit his speculations to experiment, but completely unwilling to submit them to authority. Far more than in the metaphysical Kepler—who speculated with wild abandon, though he was a scientist of comparable importance—in Galileo we find a true skeptic: who believed only what he could observe, calculate, and prove. The reader instantly feels, in Galileo, the force of an exceptionally clear mind and of an uncompromising dedication to the search for truth.

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Review: ¿Qué es filosofía?

Review: ¿Qué es filosofía?

¿Qué es filosofía?¿Qué es filosofía? by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have always believed that clarity is the courtesy of philosophy…

When I picture Ortega to myself, I imagine a man seated in the middle of a room full of books—the atmosphere smoky from frequent cigarettes—banging furiously away at a typewriter, going at it from morning till evening, rapidly accumulating piles of written pages by his side. Ortega was so prolific, and wrote about so many different things, that he could have filled an entire journal by himself—and nearly did. I have read only a fraction of his collected works, but this has included: an analysis of love, a political reckoning of Spain, a diagnosis of the social ills of Europe, and essays on literature and modern art. Now added to this list is an introduction to philosophy.

What I most admire in Ortega is this flexibility and his fluency: his omnivorous interest in the world and his ability to write smooth prose about complex issues. What I most deprecate is his tendency to rush headlong into a problem, sweep away controversy with grand gestures, and then to drop it at once. In other words, he is profligate with ideas but stingy with systems. His theories are always germinal; he leaves to others the difficult work of rigorous arguments and concrete applications. This is not damaging in cases such as aesthetic criticism, where rigor is hardly possible anyway; but it is ruinous in the case of philosophy, where logical consistency is so crucial.

The result of his approach is this series of lectures, which does not give a coherent view of philosophy’s history or its method. Instead, Ortega offers an essayistic series of opinions about the shortcomings of previous incarnations of philosophy and where he thinks philosophy should go next. I say “opinions” because, crucially, Ortega does not offer anything resembling a formal argument. This makes it difficult to accept his conclusions and, worse, makes it difficult to understand his opinions in the first place, since without the supporting skeleton of an argument his views remain formless.

Nevertheless, a short summary is still possible. Ortega derides science for being concerned with merely “secondary” problems, and mysticism for being irrational. Materialists metastasize existence into something inhuman and discrete, while idealists (such as Descartes) divorce the subject from his surroundings. Ortega’s solution is his phrase, “I am myself and my surroundings,” considering human experience—composed of the interpenetration of subject and surrounding circumstances—the basic fact of philosophy. In this, as in his emphasize on human freedom, he fits in well with existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre. But he differs from then, first, in writing legibly; and second in his strong emphasis on reason.

I think there are the germs of some worthy ideas contained here; but in order to really understand the ontological and epistemological ramifications of his positions, he would have to argue for them in a way entirely absent from this book.

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