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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Review: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Review: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Civilisation:  A Personal ViewCivilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room

I must admit immediately that I have never read nor even laid eyes on this book. I’m sure it’s lovely. This review is, rather, about the television series, which I’d wager is twice as lovely.

Civilisation is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Clark takes his viewer from the Dark Ages, through romanesque, gothic, the Renaissance, the Reformation, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, impressionism, through the industrial revolution and the two World Wars, all the way up to when the program was made in the late 1960s. This is a remarkable amount of ground to cover for a show with 13 episodes, each 50 minutes long.

Not only chronologically, but in subject matter, this documentary casts a wide net. Although the show’s primary emphasis is on architecture and art, Clark also dips into literature, poetry, music, engineering, politics, and wider social problems like inequality, poverty, oppression, and war. Of course, for lack of time Clark cannot delve too deeply into any one of these subjects; but because the presentation is so skillful and economical, and the selection of material so tasteful, the viewer is nevertheless satisfied at the end of every episode.

The documentary generally shifts between shots of Clark facing the camera, talking to the viewer, and extended, panoramic shots of churches, monuments, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mountains, while beautiful music plays in the background. Clark himself chose the musical accompaniments to these visuals, and they are uniformly splendid (and this is one reason why I recommend the documentary over the book). More than perhaps anything I’ve seen on a screen, this series is rich, lavish, sumptuous. As the camera pans over the altarpiece of a church, while Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion plays in the background, it’s so lush and gorgeous that it almost gives you a stomach ache.

Aside from these visuals and music, the main attraction of the series is Clark himself. He comes across as refined, cosmopolitan—almost a freak of erudition. But for all that, he is charming and witty, if ultimately a bit cold. One of the strongest impressions I got was that Clark was a man from another time. He looks out of place as he walks through the modern streets, crowded with cars and buzzing with urban life. He has many misgivings about the modern world: he is anti-Marxist, anti-modern art, and certainly didn’t understand the student protests and hippie culture flourishing at the time. In his own words, he was a “stick in the mud,” and I think felt alienated from his time because of his intense appreciation, even worship, of Western art.

This brings me to some of this program’s shortcomings. Most of these are due to the time in which it was made. This is most apparent in the first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wherein he argues that civilization almost disappeared during the Dark Ages, and comes close to crediting Charlemagne as the savior of all subsequent culture. This requires that he completely discredit both Byzantine and Muslim culture (not to mention Chinese), both of which were doing just fine. He repeats the tired stereotype about Byzantium being a fossilized culture and treats the Muslims as simple destroyers. Later on in the series, he has some uncharitable things to say about the Germans, which I think was a product of growing up during the World War.

A more serious flaw might be that the series bites off more than it can chew. The questions Clark poses to answer are vast. What is civilization? What makes it thrive? What makes it fall apart? Deep questions, but his answers are by comparison shallow. Civilization requires confidence in the future; they cannot be built on fear. Civilization requires rebirth, the constant search for new styles and ideas; but it also requires continuity and tradition, a respect for the past. Civilization is pushed forward by men of genius (and in this series, they’re all men), who enlarge our faculties with their godlike creative powers; men like Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, men who are timeless and yet who forever alter the face of culture.

These are interesting answers, but they seem rather superficial to me. They describe, rather than explain, civilization. But of course, this is a documentary, not a monograph. And although Clark asks and tries to answer many questions, I think his primary goal was simply to inspire a sense of the worth, the preciousness, the grandeur of the accomplishments of European civilization. He wants to remind his viewers that our culture is fragile, and that we owe to it not only beautiful paintings and poetry, but also our very ability to see and appreciate the beauty in certain ways, to think about ideas in a certain light, to live not only a happy but a full and rich life.

Maybe this seems pinched and old-fashioned nowadays. Still, I can’t help thinking of all the times that a friend, a fellow student, or even a teacher has made a blanket statement about “Western culture,” “Enlightenment ideas,” “scientific materialism,” or some such thing, while seeming to understand none of it. (I’ve probably done this myself, too.) I’ve been in classes—serious, graduate-level classes—where, amid condemnations of “Western” ideas and gratuitous namedropping of Western philosophers, I realized that I was the only person there, professor included, who actually read some of these authors. I’m not making this up.

I suppose this is just a callow intellectual fashion, and it will eventually pass away. And I also suppose that this might be slightly preferable to the idiotic self-glorification of “European man” that prevailed in earlier times. At present, however, this program is a wonderful corrective to our bad habits of thought. It’s an education, a social critique, and a joy. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

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Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Alistair Cooke's AmericaAlistair Cooke’s America by Alistair Cooke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution. It says: ‘Topless Pizza Lunch.’

(As in my reviews of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, this review focuses on the documentary, not the tie-in book.)

This documentary is a window into another time, when the public intellectual was a far more respected institution. Nowadays it is hard to imagine a popular program that contained long stretches of a man simply talking into a camera; nor it is easy to think of a contemporary program so fully dominated by the personality of one person. As the subtitle of this program indicates, this is “A Personal View,” not an attempt at impartiality or objectivity. Cooke is giving us America as he sees it, through the eyes of a highly-educated, well-traveled English immigrant.

The 13 episodes of the series follow a chronological scheme, beginning with the French and Spanish colonists and ending with the (then) present day. The exception to this is the first episode, the best in the series, in which Cooke tells his own story—coming to America as a young man during the Great Depression, and taking a road trip out west. As for the other episodes, there are few surprises in Cooke’s choice of subject: the English dissenters, the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, and so on, all the way up to the Cold War. We see Ellis Island and the Oregon Trail, New England foliage and the Hoover Dam, Hippie communes and Black Baptist churches—a panorama of American scenes.

In many ways this series falls short of the other two major BBC documentaries of the time, Clarke’s Civilisation and Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Cooke’s America has none of the gorgeous cinematography of the former nor the innovative editing of the latter. Indeed, the shooting style of the documentary is remarkably basic—which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but in this case it imbued sections of the documentary with a soporific effect. Another difference in quality was due to the level of insight that the programs offer. Cooke, though no chump when it comes to American history, seems an amateur when his expertise is compared to Clarke’s grasp of art and Bronowski’s understanding of science. I was consistently interested, but I cannot say I came away from the program with any deep sense of insight into my vast homeland.

All this being said, there are some delightful sections in the program. Cooke has a great knack for finding fascinating props. He holds up a vial containing tea preserved from the Boston Tea Party, or he holds the manuscript of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in the Morgan Library, or he itemizes the typical equipment and supplies taken by families on the Oregon Trail. And if the information he presents is not exactly striking, his easy eloquence and gentle wit give his facts a pleasing ring. Cooke’s voice—with his faultless Transatlantic accent—was made for broadcasting, and transmits a sense of confident sophistication that is entirely rare today. Most valuable for us is Cooke’s convincing sense of being above partisan politics—an intelligent observer unbound by any tribe. Again, could any similar program exist today?

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NY Museums: The Morgan

NY Museums: The Morgan

Just as royalty and nobles have played a crucial role in Europe’s art, providing money and stability to artists, in American history very rich patrons have played an equally important role in the establishment of cultural institutions. From Carnegie, to Frick, to the Rockefellers, great business tycoons have used their enormous wealth to bring culture to the masses; and in this respect J.P. Morgan is no exception.

Unlike the above-mentioned robber barons, Morgan was not an industrialist; his specialty was money itself. A son and eventually a father of a banker, finance was in Morgan’s blood. He had dealings with every major player in business and government of the age, and was instrumental in the creation of the era’s major conglomerates: General Electric (which hailed from Thomas Edison), United States Steel (from Carnegie, Schwab, and Frick), and AT & T (from Alexander Graham Bell)—to name just a prominent few. A large man with a deformed nose, he struck the unflappable John D. Rockefeller as moody and impulsive. But this iconic money-changer and pharaonic materialist was not bereft of an appreciation of higher things.

The Morgan Library & Museum sits right in midtown Manhattan, on Madison Avenue and 36th street. The main building looks quite similar to the Frick: a severe, grey, neoclassical structure. Adjoining this is an attractive brownstone building; and the complex is completed with a sleekly modern—and rather discordant and tasteless—box of an entryway, built in 2006 to help organize the space. This is where the contemporary visitor enters and pays.

No photos are allowed inside the complex, so I am forced to rely on my paltry memory.

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John Pierpont Morgan

As one would expect, the house is richly furnished. The original entrance hall is gorgeously decorated, with Renaissance-style wall frescos and Pompeian motifs; even the floor is attractively patterned. Anyone visiting the banker would know immediately that this was financial royalty. Morgan’s study, where he made decisions that shaped the economy, is a deep shade of scarlet—the rug, the wall paper, the furniture. Morgan himself, with his handlebar mustache sitting under his bulbous nose, presides over the fireplace in the form of a portrait. Few rooms give such an indelible impression of power.

The next room accessible from the entrance hall was, I believe, previously the librarian’s office; now it contains a fine sampling of Morgan’s impressive collection of Babylonian cylinder seals. These are small circular objects made of hard stone, about an inch long, inscribed with delicately carved reliefs. They were used as a sort of signature or official seal, by rolling the seal over soft clay to create a horizontal image. Dozens of these seals were on display in the room. Since the seals themselves do not look like much, they were shown alongside an impression made with the seals, wherein the images can be clearly seen. These typically involve scenes of gods and royalty, and are quite beautiful works of art. Certainly it is a much more elegant way of indicating ownership and approval than illegibly scribbling our names.

800px-Cylinder_seal_Shamash_Louvre_AO9132
This image is from the Louvre. It is in the public domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons

From here I went to the central attraction of the museum: the library itself. Even if it had no books at all, it would be a beautiful space—the ceiling as richly decorated with allegorical friezes as El Escorial’s royal library. Three floors of oaken bookcases line every wall up to the ceiling, each one filled with venerable volumes covered by a protective screen. On the ground level there are display cases that showcase some of the library’s treasures. And these are beyond anything I had expected.

320px-Gutenberg_bible_Old_Testament_Epistle_of_St_Jerome
A page from the University of Texas copy of the Gutenberg Bible (public domain)

Here is the finest collection of manuscripts and rare books that I had ever hoped to see. To begin with, there are three Gutenberg Bibles, the first book published with moveable type in Europe, one of the most iconic books in history. While the invention of printing was, no doubt, a great advance in the history of our species, it must be admitted that the Gutenberg Bibles look rather plain next to the older, handmade ones nearby. The most famous example of these is the Morgan Bible, or Crusader Bible, a brilliantly illuminated Bible showing scenes from the Old Testament, but depicted as if it had occurred in medieval France. (Thus it is easy to mistake the images for depictions of the crusades.) The images are chaotic and violent, but no less compelling for being so; and seeing it such vivid illustrations between the cover of a book does make one a little nostalgic for the days when books were handmade.

Morgan_Bible_10r

The most ornate book in the collection—and the first in the Morgan Library catalogue, MS M.1—is a book of the gospels from the 9th century, around the reign of Charlemagne. (I admit that I cannot remember if I actually saw this book in person, but I did see it in a documentary that mentioned the library.) The cover is a mass of ornately decorated gold, encrusted with precious jewels. The amount of material wealth devoted to this single volume beggars belief—though it does seem a little ironical to decorate a book about Jesus of Nazareth, arch-enemy of the money-changers, so resplendently. While I am on the topic of ironies, I must also add a point made by the journalist Alistair Cooke, that while these super rich tycoons—Carnegie, Frick, Morgan—were buying up the treasures of Europe, they were benefiting from waves of European immigrants willing to work long hours for low wages. And so these robber barons exploited the huddled masses of Europe to buy up its treasures.

Morgan_Beatus

But it is difficult to be indignant for very long when you are looking at such beautiful books. The Morgan Beatus, for example, is a brilliantly illuminated copy of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana, with bright yellows and reds and oranges, showing us a world redeemed and a world aflame. Then there is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a wonderful example of gothic illumination. As with so many other illuminated manuscripts, the mind boggles at the amount of time it would have taken to paint a single one of these ornate pages, much less a whole book of them. An example of this is the Farnese Hours, illuminated by Giulio Clovio over a period of nine years. Clovio was a friend of the young El Greco, during his early years in Italy, and the Greek painter created a portrait of the old Italian master, pointing to this masterpiece of Renaissance illumination. The book was completed in 1546, 100 years after the Gutenberg Bible was printed, already the waning years of the art of illumination.

Farnese_hours

Still more exciting than these beautiful books, for me, were the original manuscripts on display. These are the notebooks and pieces of paper where authors and composers first wrote down their masterpieces. Among these is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with his edits still preserved, as well as nine novels by Sir Walter Scott, including Ivanhoe. Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Lord Byron, and William Makepeace Thackeray also are in attendance; and in music there are handwritten examples from Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and even Bob Dylan (the latter obviously not acquired during Morgan’s lifetime). It is thrilling to see the preserved handwriting of these men (and yes, they are mostly men), since they can appear so unreal behind the printed page. The artists become living, working, fallible souls when you can see them scribbling and scratching out. Even the most iconic works of art were the process of trial and error.

I must say that I was stupefied by the end of my visit. The collection had exceeded my every expectation. Few places are as inspiring as a beautiful library. The museum is a magnificent tribute to the ways that we have preserved and transmitted our culture—in all its manifold facets. From the Babylonian cylinder seals to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” humans continue to scribble, print, draw, paint, and inscribe our art and ideas for the benefit of people in distant times and faraway places.

But there was still one more thing to see. The Morgan has a temporary exhibition space, and when I visited this was dedicated to an exhibit on Henry David Thoreau. This was a stroke of luck, since I had recently finished rereading Walden.

Thoreau

Considering the scanty possessions that Thoreau left behind, the exposition was astonishingly complete. There was Thoreau’s writing desk, over a dozen volumes of Thoreau’s diaries, and Thoreau’s walking stick (notched so that he could measure things on his walks). Also present was every original photograph (there are only two, admittedly) taken of the man. The exhibit was filled with information about his life and extracts of his journals. Seeing his humble collections gathered all in a heap—his scribbled and illegible handwriting, his beat up desk, his pocket-sized images—spoke more eloquently of his life’s project than all the fanciful phrases he ever assembled. And just as with the original manuscripts, seeing his original possessions helped to turn Thoreau from a distant voice into a living, breathing person.

NY Museums: The Frick

NY Museums: The Frick

As a child in Manhattan, growing up on the Upper West Side, I visited the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. It is a little boy’s paradise: dinosaur bones, stuffed lions and elephants, and my favorite—the whales. Later, in high school and college, I developed a taste for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was first drawn to the Arms and Armor room—swords and guns, another boy’s paradise—and then progressed to the Egyptian and Greek antiquities. It takes little sophistication to enjoy cursed mummies and violent gods.

But it was not until I moved to Europe, and began visiting art museum’s here, that I developed an appreciation for sculpture and painting. Thus it was only during one of my summer trips back home to New York that I finally visited one of the finest art museum’s in the city: the Frick.

The Frick Collection is housed in the former mansion of Henry Clay Frick, who was one of the great robber barons that dominated the Gilded Age of America. He made his fortune by selling coke (the carbon fuel, not the drug), and achieved industrial dominance by partnering and eventually merging with Carnegie’s steel company. Despite his success and wealth, he is a difficult man to admire. Like many tycoons, he was adamantly opposed to organized labor, and played a key role in repressing the Homestead strike—a violent confrontation in which 9 strikers and 3 pinkerton detectives were killed, and which caused a major setback to the labor movement. He was so hated by laborers, in fact, that the anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed (Frick would die in 1919, at the age of 69, of a heart attack) and Berkman spent 14 years in jail as a consequence, where he wrote a famous memoir of his experience.

800px-Henry_Clay_Frick
Henry Clay Frick

But whatever Frick’s defects in the realm of social justice, no one can accuse the man of bad taste. He accumulated superlative works of art during his lifetime; and, fortunately for us, he donated his house and his collection to the public upon his death, to be used as a museum. Along with Rockefeller and Carnegie, Frick is yet another example of a robber baron who managed to be both cutthroat and civic minded.

The museum sits across from Central Park, on 5th avenue and 70th street, about a 10 minute walk south from the Metropolitan. From the outside the mansion is not especially impressive: a squat neoclassical building, the color of granite. It has none of the conspicuous stateliness of Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion, located just up the road (it is a part of Cooper Union now). But the inside is not nearly so restrained: each room is richly decorated, with the finest furniture, chandeliers, mirrors, and wallpaper that money could buy. I have walked through my share of palaces in Europe, so I am used to seeing affluent interiors; but I still found myself gaping as I walked through the house. In the giddy years before income taxes, the robber barons could accumulate more wealth than Old World despots.

320px-Philip_IV_of_Spain_-_Velázquez_1644

But of course the absorbing interest of the museum is not the interior decoration, however sumptuous, but the paintings on display. Though relatively small, the Frick has one of the finest collections of old masters in the city—perhaps in the country. Relatively few works by Velazquez are available outside of Spain. New Yorkers are fortunate: the Metropolitan has a handful, the Hispanic Society has three, and the Frick has one—a portrait of Felipe IV. Typical of Velazquez, it is a masterful work: we feel we are standing right in front of the king. The Spanish monarch’s magnificently regal outfit—painted with such delicacy that it is almost tactile—contrasts sharply with the awkward and gangly figure who wears it, with his monumental Hapsburg chin sticking out below his curled mustache. Most impressive of all, Velazquez manages to imbue this unpromising figure with a certain kingly dignity—his eyes calm, thoughtful, careworn, but in control.

320px-La_fragua

The other two members of the Spanish triumvirate are also in attendance: Goya and El Greco. I especially like the former’s contribution to the collection: The Forge. It is an excellent example of Goya’s ability to convey strenuous action while preserving the harmony of the composition. The stocky figures, contorted with effort, nevertheless combine to form a solid triangle in the center of the painting. I also enjoy the gloomy, almost liquid blackness that engulfs the figures, emphasizing their solitary grandeur.

800px-Johannes_Vermeer_-_De_Soldaat_en_het_Lachende_Meisje_-_Google_Art_Project

The Dutch masters are also here in force. Frick managed to get his hands on three Vermeers. My favorite of these, Officer and Laughing Girl, shows all the hallmarks of his style: an interior room lit from a side window, with a homely girl in the center and a detailed map in the background. In this case the girl is chatting with a soldier, seated with his back to us. Is she being courted, or is there something more scandalous afoot? From a purely technical perspective, the most extraordinary feature of the painting is the map, which is so beautifully and accurately rendered as to beggar belief. Rembrandt is here, too, with two works. One of these is a self-portrait, showcasing himself as a florid gentleman with a sword strapped to his hip. The other paintings is rather more mysterious: The Polish Rider. It shows us an armed man in slightly exotic garb, mounted on horseback. Scholars cannot decide who this person is supposed to be; he is called “Polish” because of the style of his hat and dress; but beyond that there is little but guesses.

800px-Rembrandt_-_De_Poolse_ruiter,_c.1655_(Frick_Collection)

We can also see a work by the greatest of English painters, J.W. Turner. The Harbor of Dieppe is entirely typical of his style: a bright yellow morning, a shimmering sea, and a large perspective with dozens of figures and boats. Nothing about the painting’s content is profound or especially moving. Its appeal is mainly to the eye—it is a joy to behold, since Turner captures so perfectly the warmth and the brilliance of a summer sunrise. Standing in front of the painting, you can almost feel the sun on your skin. How can paint be made to glow so intensely? In this glorious landscape of light—Turner paints the sun twice, in the sky and reflected in the sea—we can also sense the magic of all ports of travel: a place where different corners of the earth mingle, a gateway to the wide world, beckoning us towards the beyond.

800px-Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_The_Harbor_of_Dieppe_-_Google_Art_Project

In the interest of brevity, I will skip over many other worthwhile paintings to get to the two great masterpieces of the collection, both by Hans Holbein. They hang on either side of the great fireplace in the center of the mansion. To the right is a portrait of the English politician Thomas Cromwell, and to the left is the Renaissance humanist Thomas More (famous for inventing the word “utopia”). The two were adversaries in life. Cromwell aided Henry VIII in his quest to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, which resulted in England’s break with the Catholic Church; meanwhile, More remained loyal to the Pope and opposed the new marriage. Despite this opposition, the two men shared the same fate: beheaded by the order of the king. More was beheaded for opposing the establishment of the Church of England, and Cromwell because he helped arrange the king’s next marriage (after Boleyn was duly decapitated) to the German princess Anne of Cleves (who did not please the king, but who escaped execution). These were dangerous times for love.

Holbein_frick

The two portraits are masterful. Each detail is so sharply defined that you can lean in very close without noticing the brushstrokes. Both men sit in sumptuous rooms, and Holbein obviously delighted in painting the fabrics of their gowns, the tablecloth, the cushions. And, as in any great portrait, the personalities of the sitters shine through. Cromwell appears suspicious, scheming, intelligent, and alert; he is a man grasping for power and influence, and wary of all impediments. More’s portrait is a study in contrast. He is dignified and focused. Unlike Cromwell, who gazes sideways with narrowed eyes, More stares straight ahead. His eyes are soft and sensitive, almost like a poet’s, and yet the expression is far from naive; it is, rather, experienced and far-sighted. It is easy to picture such a man dying for his principles, just as it is easy to picture Cromwell plotting to bolster his influence with the king. The two portraits are complemented by Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII himself, which I have seen many times in the Thyssen in Madrid. As you stare past the corpulent face into his black beady eyes, you can tell that this was not a man to be trifled with.

I left the museum deeply impressed. By any standard the Frick has a marvelous collection of paintings, all the more remarkable for being here in America and for being showcased in a historical mansion. Whether you are a tourist or a New Yorker, I urge you to visit.

St. Patrick’s and 30 Rock

St. Patrick’s and 30 Rock

New York is a city bent on the future. Every new generation overtops the next, in the relentless march skyward. This is especially apparent when we compare two of the cities landmarks which are right across the street from one another: St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center.


St. Patrick’s Cathedral

St. Patrick’s is not the first Catholic cathedral in the city of New York. It replaced a building that is now called St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (nowadays merely a church), which is still standing, further down town. It is easy to see why the authorities wanted the old structure replaced: it has none of the grandness and grandiosity that the cathedrals of great cities are supposed to have. Construction began on the current cathedral (the land had long been owned by the church) in 1858, and was completed twenty years later. When it was finished the towering spires must have dominated the landscape from miles around—since what is currently midtown Manhattan is far north of the former population center. Nowadays, of course, the gothic spires look almost dainty compared to the highrises nextdoor.

stpatricks_facade

The cathedral presents an impressive face to passersby on the sidewalk below. Designed in a resplendent neo-Gothic style, where pointed arches push relentlessly skyward, its orientation is entirely vertical. This is the classic aim of gothic architecture: to draw the looker’s gaze towards heaven. But now, ironically, the cathedral has the opposite effect: it provides relief from the relentlessly vertical structures of midtown Manhattan. The city block on which the cathedral stands is a breath of air in an otherwise claustrophobic space, a note of contrast in an otherwise monotonous wall of buildings. And besides what it gains from its surroundings, the cathedral’s façade is lovely in itself—dense with decoration and design, so very different from the walls of concrete and glass that normally encase the sidewalk.

stpatricks_inside

Visiting the cathedral is free. To enter, you must only let the people in front check your bags. The interior is no less impressive and harmonious as the exterior. Indeed, it is almost too harmonious. Much of the loveliness of European cathedrals consists, for me, in the fact that they were built over a long period of time. The buildings were shaped by several generations of workers and artisans, using different materials, in different styles, with different techniques. As a result the visitor can really feel the time that has gone by in the cathedral, can sense how the building played an integral part in the community’s life for hundreds of years.

The visitor to St. Patrick does not get this sensation, since the whole aesthetic is unified. The same materials, the same styles, and the same techniques were used throughout the space. The decoration on the chapels, the walls, the choir, the altar, and the stained glass is all of a piece—very well done, but somehow sterile when added together. Another element that adds to this sensation is that the builders of St. Patrick had modern tools and technology to work with; and as a result, much of the artwork has a kind of manufactured perfection that is simply not seen in old cathedrals. Of course this is the trouble with any revivalist art: in seeking to replicate the artwork of the past, without going through the trouble needed in those days to make it, the revivalists produce only a sort of empty copy: superficially perfect and yet lacking in emotional power.

stpatricks_inside1

If I am being harsh on St. Patrick’s, it is only because I am comparing it with some of the great cathedrals I have had the pleasure of seeing: Toledo, Prague, Chartres. But this is an unreasonable comparison, since St. Patrick’s was not made in analogous circumstances. And even the harshest critic must admit that, all told, it is a lovely building—pure, bright, balanced. I feel refreshed every time I visit, and grateful every time I walk by on the street.


Rockefeller Center

Across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral is another New York landmark: Rockefeller Center. This building complex—19 distinct buildings in all—is centered around a plaza, made famous by the massive Christmas tree placed there every year. Thousands of workers commute here every day—to clean, to sell, to sit behind a desk—and thousands more tourists come to experience one of the best views of New York, on top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the tallest building in the center.

Though I have lived in or near New York City my whole life, I had not visited the Top of the Rock until this very year. This is a common occurrence: residents neglect the great monuments and attractions of their own cities, only to seek them abroad. It is a little strange, since seeing the sights of one’s own city is cheaper and easier than going elsewhere; what’s more, it provides an opportunity to learn about local history, which enriches the experience of living in a place. Yet there are good reasons that residents stay away. Tourist attractions are crowded and expensive. The Top of the Rock is a case in point: it costs $36 for a visit that will likely last under an hour; and the visitor will likely be elbowing crowds half the time. A certain mindset is necessary to justify the expense with the experience, a mindset that is common enough while traveling but rare during workaday life.

But my time spent living abroad has turned New York City into a quasi-foreign town, which I can enjoy like any other tourist. So even though I was put off by the price, I decided to visit.

I bought my ticket online, which comes with an entrance time. At the designated hour I walked through the doors, went up the stairs, passed through a metal detector, and got in the line for the elevators. On the walls were images and panels of information, explaining some of the history of Rockefeller center. The line moved too quickly to really delve into the story, but I happened to know some of the from reading Ron Chernow’s biography of the Rockefeller paterfamilias. Rockefeller was not a project of the Oil magnate, however, but of his son, John D. Rockefeller, Junior. A man deeply involved in charity, with the world’s largest fortune at his disposal, Junior wished to help the Metropolitan Opera relocate. Thus he bought this plot of land from Columbia University in 1928.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the stock market crashed a year later and the Great Depression ensued. The Metropolitan Opera could not relocate, so Junior was stuck with a massive development in a sinking economy. To avoid going bankrupt himself, Junior had to compromise on his principles. A hater of modern art, a lifelong teetotaler, and certainly a prude, Junior nevertheless approved designs for an Art Deco building complex complete with Radio City Music Hall, where patrons could enjoy alcohol while they contemplated dancing girls. Thus there are some notable artistic works on display, such as the Atlas statue across from St. Patricks and the Prometheus statue in the Plaza’s fountain. Despite this and other adornment, however, the buildings themselves are quite plain and brown.

After I passed these information displays I was herded to the elevator. The employees did a good job in keeping the crowds moving and organized, but even the best crowd control is not a pleasant experience. Admittedly, they tried to alleviate the discomfort: the woman who operated the elevator drummed on the walls and told jokes. The elevator itself was also memorable. It shot up to the top floor sixty-fifth floor in under a minute; and as we were elevated, images were projected onto the clear glass ceiling, while sound effects played. It was an audiovisual experience.

Once at the top, I found myself in an enclosed space with balconies. By following the signs I ascended up to the outdoor observation decks. And there it was—New York City, for miles all around. It was a typical summer day in the city: hot, muggy, overcast. The humidity in the air diminished the visibility somewhat, making things in the distance appear vague and grey. Still, the view was astonishing.

topofrock_north

topoftherock_tall
432 Park Avenue

If I looked north I could see Central Park, with the Great Lawn, the Reservoir, and the Metropolitan Museum. On the left flowed the Hudson, with the George Washington Bridge in the far distance; and on the right I could see the Harlem and the East rivers. This view must have been more impressive in the past, since lately a spate of skyscrapers have been constructed in the space between Rockefeller Center and Central Park. The tallest of these, at 432 Park Avenue, is a residential apartment building that is even taller than the Empire State Building. Indeed, if you discount the antenna on top of the One World Trade Center, it is the tallest building in New York. Its huge height (1,398 feet, 550 feet taller than 30 Rock) is accentuated by its thinness, which looks almost unsafe. Two similarly tall and skinny buildings are going up directly north of 30 Rock, which will not improve the view.

topofrock_south

The view south is even more impressive. Front and center is the Empire State Building, towering over its surroundings. The ability to see this iconic structure from a level height is why 30 Rock, and not the Empire State Building itself, is the best view of New York. (30 Rock is not nearly so pretty from the Empire State observatory.) Beyond, down near Wall Street, the One World Trade Center stands like a ceramic blade; and if I squinted I could just make out the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. On a clear summer day, or better yet on a clear summer night, the view would be perfect. (But sunset tickets costs extra.) The views to the east and west are not quite so interesting: On one side is Queens and Brooklyn, and on the other is New Jersey.

topofrock_observatory

One thing that becomes immediately apparent from up high are the centers of real estate development. The tall buildings of New York are concentrated mainly at the southern tip of Manhattan and in midtown, from about 36th street upwards, with a notable gap in between these two areas that stretches from the Village to the Empire State Building. The newest concentrations of skyscrapers are, as I said before, between Rockefeller Center and Central Park, and also in the new Hudson Yards developments on the west side. Proceeding further north, the building size abruptly drops off in the area next to, and north of, Central Park.

topoftherock_stpatricks

I stayed on the roof for about an hour, enjoying the new perspectives. Pedestrians were nearly invisible on the sidewalks below, and the cars looked smaller than toys. Even St. Patrick’s Cathedral, directly underneath, looked dainty and delicate. The steady hums of air conditioners on the tops of neighboring buildings was clearly audible, as they fought against the summer heat. Helicopters flew by, traveling up and down the rivers, almost at eye level. I could not regret spending almost $40 to get up here. It is refreshing to see familiar things from a new perspective. Suddenly an imposing and monolithic place was turned into an oversized jungle gym.

Don Bigote: Chapter 5

Don Bigote: Chapter 5

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

Don and Dan Find God

“Dan, I am afraid I cannot hold it any longer.”

“You sure, sir? There must be a McDonald’s nearby.”

“My dear boy, first of all, McDonald’s is one of the strongest links in the chain of conspiracy, extending all the way from AppleBee’s to Outback Steakhouse. They put mind-control serums in the food, making the populace more docile. And second, I am in a state of dire urethral and bladereal emergency.”

“But where does Taco Bell figure into this?”

“Just stop, Chopin!”

I pull the grey sedan to the side of the road; the tires crunch on the gravel as we slow down. Bigote has the door open before we even come to a full stop. He unbuckles his seatbelt and attempts a flying leap out of the car—a man propelled by the force of nature—and immediately tumbles and falls, hitting his face on the open door, and then rolling into a somersault and springing to his feet. His nose is bleeding profusely and a steady stream of urine, surprisingly vigorous for an old guy like him, appears in no time. I observe all this through the rear-view mirror.

“I told you about drinking all that Diet Pepsi, sir,” I say, after getting out. “It’s a killer.”

“I would appreciate if you could maintain silence while I am in this undignified state,” he replies, the stream still going strong.

“Well I guess I’ll go, too.”

I unzip my fly and search deep down for the urine I know is lurking in the depths. I push and squeeze, and feel a tension somewhere behind my navel, and scrunch it like a sponge, trying to get all the liquid out. I am a little embarrassed of my pitiful tinkle, compared to Bigote’s mighty Niagara.

We both finish.

“Are you okay, sir?” I say, looking at the read streak of blood down his shirt and face, left by his still-bleeding nose.

“Nothing to worry about, Chopin. Blood is but the stuff of the gross material body. The soul is made of finer matter, and cannot escape through the aperture of the nose.”

“Well why don’t you plug it up anyway,” I say, and hand him the tissue stuffed in my pocket.

“Once again, I am much obliged to you,” he says, and stuffs bits of the tissue up his nose.

“So, Mr. Bigote, sir,” I say, “I hate to bring this up again, but where are we headed?”

“My most ignorant and naïve companion, for the upteenth time, we are on our way to Santiago de Compostela.”

“Which is a city?”

“It is the city where the body of St. James was discovered, making it one of Christendom’s great pilgrimage sites.”

“And what’s that to us?”

“You know, your barbarous mode of speech, and persistently philistine questions, do provoke in me great feelings of pity and, at times, rage at the conspiracy which has so debauched your mind, my most benighted squire.”

Bigote has been getting a little testy lately.

“Debitched or not, I’ve been driving for a long time, man, and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.”

“Stuff and nonsense, Chopin. It is impossible to go and yet remain, as Isaac Newton proved.”

“Listen I don’t see what physics has to do with San Diego con Carne.”

“Santiago de Compostela.”

“Yeah.”

“Allow me to explain this in plain terms. St. James is the patron saint of Spain. He was a great inspiration for the reconquista and, it is said, actually appeared in battle to aide the Christian forces against the invading Muslims. As such, visiting the shrine dedicated to Santiago may have much to tell us in our quest against the Mexican-Muslim conspiracy.”

“Well, as long as I can get BJ’s and beers there, it should be fine.”

“I assure you, Chopin, they have every civilized amenity, including pyjamas.”

I walk back over to the driver’s side and tug on the door.

“Uh oh,” I say. “It’s locked. Try your side, sir.”

“It does not open, from which I deduce that it is locked.”

“Yeah…” I say, patting myself down, looking through my pockets. “Pretty sure I left the keys in the car.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We’re locked out.”

“You imbecile!” Bigote said, pounding his fist on the car. “You dunce!”

He is an awfully judgmental guy for someone covered in dried blood, with red tissue coming out of his nostrils.

“Sorry about that, sir,” I say, trying my best to sound real sorry.

“Do you realize the extent to which you have put our entire operation in jeopardy by such a careless and routine oversight?”

“Well, can’t be that bad.”

“I beg to differ, knave, and to differ most hotly. For tow truck personnel are inevitably informants of the conspiracy. Indeed, nearly every individual involved in traffic violations or car repair is directly connected to the central database, which the conspirators use to track the whereabouts of their nemeses. They will find us out immediately, Chopin.”

“Guess we just got to break a window then,” I said.

“I suppose we do, Chopin. Would you like me to try?”

“Be my guest.”

I am pretty excited for what is coming next.

Bigote winds up his body like a spring, and delivers a massive karate chop to the passenger window. His boney hand bounces off with a loud ‘crack.’

AAAAAHHH!” Bigote says, clutching his hand.

“Oh shit, sir, did you break anything?” I try to say this with a straight face.

“It is too early to tell the extent of the physical damage, Chopin. But it is safe to say that this glass is especially made to withstand assault. Try it with a hefty stone.”

“You got it,” I say, and pick up a loose piece of asphalt nearby. Then I chuck it right at the window from point-blank range. But my hand slips and the asphalt hits the door right below the window, bounces off and hits me in the nuts, sending me to the floor.

My world collapses like an accordion into a tight ball of breathless pain. All time and space disappear. I see the face of God, and He looks like my mom. I smell oil and stale beer and imagine that this is what everything must smell like when you’re dead. Then, I snap out of it a little, and find myself sprawled on the ground clutching my crotch.

“Owowowowow,” I say, when I can find my breath. “God damnit.”

“Chopin, are you alright?”

“Just dying over here, don’t worry about it.”

“These damn feminist, homosexual, gluten-free conspirators! You see, Chopin, they have infiltrated all the regulation agencies. In the past, automobile companies could use whatever grade of glass they pleased. In those days you could shatter a car window with a pebble. But in their mad quest to limit our blessed freedom, the socialists created regulations, stating that these windows must be resistant to kinetic assault. And now you see how clever they are? We are locked out of our own vehicle!”

“Well, technically we stole it,” I say. I have stopped hyperventilating now and I am struggling back to my feet.

“Hello, friends, do you need some help?”

My blood runs cold when I hear this voice. Who the hell is that?

“Why, who might you be?” Bigote says, all suspicious-like. I limp over to his side as quick as I can, hoping to prevent Bigote from shooting anyone. Remember, we still have those pistols from the dead drug runners.

“My name is Pierre,” a boy with a funny French accent says. “I see that you are having trouble with your automobile.”

He’s about my age, wearing a black backpack, a grey hoodie, some ragged jeans, and he’s holding a walking stick. He smiles and I can see that he has spotted yellow teeth.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, trying to sound menacing.

“I was walking along when I saw you two pull over to, uh, make water. I saw you had a bad accident,” he says to Bigote. “Are you alright?”

“I am an old warrior and am long immured to such trifling injuries, but it is very kind of you to ask.” I can tell from Bigote’s tone that he is contemplating something very stupid.

“Well, I see that you cannot get back into your car,” Pierre says.

“Very observant.”

“Would not you like me to help? I am an expert in these things, you know.”

“In breaking into cars?”

“Precisely.”

I look at Bigote, who eyes the Frenchie with a narrow gaze.

“Be my guest,” he says finally, after a long pause.

“But in return,” Pierre says, “I would very much like it if you would give me a ride.”

“If it is on our way,” Bigote says.

“Oh, it is on everybody’s way.”

And with this puzzling remark, Pierre whips his backpack around, and pulls out a coat hanger from the front pocket. Then he straightens it out into a little wire, leaving only the hooked end, and presses it against the little crease of the passenger door, and then wiggles it back and forth until, with a little jerk, it pops into the car. He angles the hanger so that it hooks the little doorlock knob, and gently pulls it out and up, unlocking the door. All this is done in less than thirty seconds.

“There you are!” he says, turning around and smiling.

“Very kind of you,” Bigote says, and whips out the semi-automatic pistol from his belt. But the gun flies out of his hand, dropping down on the asphalt road with a thud, going off in the process with a horrible Bang! Before I even have time to react Bigote swoops down and picks up the gun in his left hand.

“Jesus Christ, Fuck!” I say. “What the fuck was that, man?”

“Are you hit, Chopin?”

“No, man, but why did you throw the gun like that? Are you nuts?”

“It’s my right hand, Chopin. I cannot grip anything. I think I broke my fingers from trying to smash the window.”

“Oh, great. Well did you kill Jacques?”

“It’s Pierre…” he says. He threw himself on the ground when he saw the gun, and is now getting back to his feet. “And I am unharmed.”

“Get back on your feet you conspiratorial scum, and die like a man,” Bigote says. “Now, say your prayers—to Muhammad, Hillary Clinton, El Chapo, or whatever other devils you dogs pray to.”

“What is this?” Pierre says, standing and throwing his hands up. “Why are you doing this?”

“Oh, an obliging French vagrant just happened to be strolling by when our car broke down? Very convenient,” Bigote says.

“Woah, woah, woah, woah,” I say, putting a hand gently on Bigote’s arm. “Let’s not jump to conclusions, sir.”

“Chopin, I admire your impulse towards mercy, but we have everything to lose and little to gain by letting this man live. He may be innocent, but he may very well be an agent sent here for the very purpose of sabotaging us, ensnaring us in his cleverly-woven net.”

“But sir, there must be a way to tell if somebody is a genuine member of the conspiracy.”

“Well, do you have some aluminum foil and a cup of water?”

“No…”

“Then we must resort to circumstantial evidence. Search his backpack, Chopin.”

“Yes, sir. Hand it here, Jacques.”

“It’s Pierre…”

“Shut up, Napoleon.”

Pierre nervously hands the bag over, and then sticks his hands back in the air. I open up the outside pocket.

“Cigarettes, a map of Portugal, five loose condoms, insect repellent, a harmonica, and a pickle.”

“Hmmmm,” Bigote says. “Go on.”

I open the main chamber.

“A bottle of Jack Daniels, a little tin can filled with weed…”

“Weed?”

“Marijuana, sir.”

“I see. Proceed.”

“Seven purple radishes, some sliced jalapeños, a partially eaten bag of cheetos, a frying pan, a package of bacon, a compass, three packs of cigarettes, a fork and knife, a flashlight, a plastic bag full of mushrooms, and a… a pornographic magazine.”

“And his pockets?”

Pierre scrounges in his pockets and gives me two big handfuls.

“Some gum, lots of coins, guitar picks, toothpicks, a wallet.”

“Any I.D.?” Bigote barks

“Yes, it’s in French but it says Pierre Lacrosse.”

“Go on.”

“An entire head of garlic, some packets of salt and ketchup from McDonald’s, a few batteries, and some little blue pills, which I believe are ecstasy.”

“That is correct,” Pierre says.

“I see,” Bigote says. “Well, I think the evidence is strongly in favor of his innocence.” Bigote clicks the safety on and holsters the pistol.

“Oh, mon dieu,” Pierre says.

“How did you come to that conclusion, sir?”

“Elementary, my dear Chopin. He had a harmonica, and music is forbidden in Islam; he had bacon, a pork product; and he had alcohol, another violation of the tenets of that nefarious creed.”

“Couldn’t he have been fooling us?” I say, just to figure out how this guy’s mind works.

“He may, indeed, Chopin. I see you are learning their trickery. But the presence of a pornographic magazine cleared up any doubts. For the human body is veiled in Islam; and, besides, feminists cannot abide pornography, since it shows attractive women; and, on top of that, the gays condemn all heterosexual attraction as too ‘natural’; and, finally, vegans consider sex to be an act of animal consumption. So it is very unlikely that the conspiracy would use pornography, even for the purposes of trickery.”

“But I thought all those guys were in favor of porn, right? Like, isn’t it the rightwing people who don’t like porn?”

“Ah, now you see the brilliance of the conspiracy, Chopin. The conspiracy publicly supports porn for its degrading moral effect, but refuses to partake of it themselves. They are dastardly, and will not hesitate to bend their morality to suit their needs.”

“Boy, you sure are smart, sir,” I say. “Excuse my boss,” I then say to Pierre, in a whisper. “He’s just a little paranoid about terrorism.”

“I understand,” he says. “One can never be too careful. So, can I get that ride?”

“Of course!” Bigote says, “and please excuse me for being such an ungrateful host.” And we all pile into the car.

“So, uh, do you know where you’re going?” I say to Pierre.

“Yes, it is only a few kilometers up this road. I will tell you when to stop.”

We drive on without conversation for fifteen minutes or so. I can see Bigote out of the corner of my eye. He is twisting his head this way and that, scanning the surroundings like an alert bird. His mustache has—if this is even possible—grown still more bushy during our time on the run, and now seems to extend outward in all directions like a bramble. Pierre, meanwhile, sits in the back, whistling “Let’s Get it On” by Marvin Gaye. Seems like a chill dude.

“Stop! Stop! Here it is!” Pierre says suddenly.

“You sure, man?” I say.

“Yes, yes!”

I pull over to the side and we slow to a stop. I look around and see nothing, not a building, a sign, nor a driveway.

“Where are you even going?” I ask him.

“Into the forest.”

“Are you on a hiking trip?”

“Oh, no, I’m going to an ayahuasca ceremony.”

“Ayahuasca?” Bigote asks.

“Oh, sir, I think this is a wonderful opportunity!” I say, thinking fast. “Ayahuasca is a powerful tool that may help us in our fight against the conspiracy!”

I’ve always wanted to try it.

“Indeed?” Bigote says, stroking his stache.

“Oh yes,” Pierre says. “Ayahuasca can change the world.”

“Then let us go!”

§

“Tell me again what this ‘ayahuasca’ substance is, Chopin. I am having difficulty following your explanation.”

We are stumbling through the forest on a vaguely marked trail, following the Frenchie at a distance of a few dozen feet. He seems to know where he’s going. I am a little worried that he’s leading us into a trap or something; but both of us are packing pistols—not that I know how to shoot mine—so I am not too worried. At the very least I am taking this baguette-eating euro-hippie down with me.

“Well, sir,” I say to Bigote, trying to sound all knowledgeable-like, “the thing is, nobody really knows what ayahuasca is. The recipe was discovered by the Aztecs, but the secret was lost after all of them died, from rape and pillage and stuff like that. But it’s like this substance that lets you see reality with, like, super vision. I mean that you know all this stuff you didn’t know before. Like magic.”

“If I am following your explanation correctly, Chopin, this is a potent substance developed by the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Mexico?”

“That’s it.”

“And they used it in their rituals in order to gain a higher experience of reality?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“And somehow this recipe has been recovered?”

“You see, some people escaped into the forest and kept making the stuff, even after most of their friends and family died from the rape and pillage, and nowadays people pay to be part of ceremonies where they drink some of it and go through the whole deal.”

Bigote stops dead in his tracks.

“This is brilliant, Chopin!” Bigote says, throwing his hands up in the air. “Brilliant! This is the missing piece of the puzzle!”

“The puzzle, sir?”

“Don’t you see, Chopin? This is how the Muslims and the Mexicans communicated back in the time before Columbus crossed the ocean, allowing them to coordinate their nefarious plans before Western civilization even got started off the ground.”

“Hold up a second, sir. Are you saying that the Mexicans and the Muslims were plotting all the way back then? That’s just crazy, dude.”

“It may seem insane, Chopin, but I assure you this conspiracy reaches back into the furthest depths of time. Now, admittedly it was mysterious how the Aztecs and the Muslims coordinated in the Dark Ages. But what you tell me is true, Chopin, and this drug does give you a different experience of reality, it is possible that Mexicans and Muslims could attune their minds by taking the drug simultaneously, on different parts of the globe, and thus coordinate their thoughts. Or perhaps the Muslims smoked hashish… ”

“Woah, dude.”

“Yes, it is a bone-chilling thought. Nevertheless, we must suppose some sort of supernatural mode of communication in order to explain the otherwise extraordinary extent of coordination between these two apparently separated cultures. But is it really so surprising? Can it really have been a coincidence that the Aztec and the Muslim empires thrived at the same moment in history? Can it be pure chance that they both subsided in power—or, to be more accurate, appeared to subside in power—as the star of Europe was rising? No, all of this is too much to be believed. What is more, can anyone honestly believe the stories of these Spanish conquistadores easily conquering whole empires with a handful of men? It’s preposterous! The whole thing has been planned from the beginning, Chopin, and in the utmost detail. Both cultures agreed to feign a decline and fall, allowing the Europeans to think that they were the dominant force, all the while plotting how to take over and destroy Western culture, while harvesting its fruits for themselves.”

I sort of spaced out halfway through this, since even for Bigote this was a big conspiratorial wad to blow. And in any case I quickly learned that if you just say “Wow!” at appropriate intervals, he is totally satisfied… I guess a lot of married-couple sex works in the same way. This is why I never want to get tied down to one girl. I mean, it’s not like there aren’t some nice, smart, attractive girls in the world. But for a whole life? Give me a break. Like, variety is the spice of life, baby. Same with friends—with family, too, now that I think about it. Got to change things up every now and then or it all gets so stale and boring, amiright? I love hot dogs, but I don’t want to eat nothing but hot dogs forever and for all time. Same thing with everything and everyone else.

I’ll hand it to Bigote, though. He drones on like nobody else, but he still manages to surprise me pretty often. He’s a special dude.

“We’re here!” Pierre says, as he holds the branches of a little bush open, as if parting the curtains. “Isn’t it lovely?”

Bigote and I catch up and peer through the brush. The ‘retreat’ isn’t a whole lot to look at. There are five smallish cabins, made of wood, all arranged around what looks like a fire pit. Some logs are on the ground, for benches I guess, and empty beer bottles and plastic bags and other trash is spread around. Looks a lot like where went to after prom, some dank place called Stone Beach, though this is a lot cleaner. Might be fun.

“Where are all the inhabitants?” Bigote says.

“Oh, they must be off on a meditation walk in the forest. Let’s go find a spot.”

We follow Pierre into one of the cabins. It’s dark inside—no lights, no lamps, and just a little window on the far end. It seems like Pierre’s been here before, since he reaches for a flashlight hanging on the wall. As he illuminates the cabin I see about five or six double-decker bunk beds. A few of them are covered in stuff—old clothes hanging off the railings, backpacks, socks and underwear and things everywhere, with some empty wine bottles and beer cans lying around.

“You guys can stay here,” Pierre says, gesturing to an empty bunk bed.

“We are much obliged,” Bigote says.

“Do you want to be on top or on bottom?” I say to Bigote.

“As a seeker of wisdom I always prefer to have the higher vantage point, from which I can take in my surroundings.”

“Ah, ok…”

“You sound upset, my good assistant.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine. It’s just I usually like the top.”

“An admirable impulse, Chopin, but I am afraid that your subordinate position dooms you to an inferior level of the bed.”

“But are you really the boss if you haven’t paid me yet?”

“Everything in good time, my good assistant. Have no fear, your money will come. Yet we have more pressing matters to attend to than mere fiduciary concerns. For example, my hand requires some medical attention.”

“Allow me,” Pierre says, and comes over and shines his flashlight on Bigote’s outstretched hand. It’s real ugly: His fingers are all bent and crooked and his hand is as red and swollen as a tomato.

“You really messed yourself up, man,” I say.

“Yes, I appear to have done so,” Bigote replies. “It is well that my hand has gone numb, or else the pain would be very intense. I believe I am in shock.”

“If you allow me,” Pierre says, “I can help with this.”

“What, you’re both a doctor and a car thief?” I say.

“I have some practice with both,” Pierre says. “Will you follow me?” He leads us outside and then to another cabin, where Pierre quickly locates a first-aid kit. “Wait here,” he says, goes away, and comes right back holding some little popsicle sticks.

“Let us go outside into the light so I can help you.”

We sit down on some logs that are serving as benches outside a big fire pit, full of black ashes. Pierre gets down to work, using the kindling boards as splints, one for each finger, and then wrapping the whole thing in gauze. It looks like he’s done this kind of thing before, not that I’d really know.

“So,” Bigote says, as Pierre is working. “Tell me about yourself Pierre. What brings a young Frenchman into these parts?”

“Ah, this is a long story, monsieur.”

“I do not think we are pressed for time.”

“Ok, I will tell you, since you very kindly did not kill me before.

“I am from a little town near Bordeaux, out in the countryside. I grew up on a farm along with three sisters. My mother died when we were very young, so we only had our father to take care of us. It was a simple life, a hard life. I had to wake up before dawn every morning to milk the cows. And that was not all. Since I was the only boy, he had me do everything—sowing, planting, harvesting, and all of this agricultural business. For a long time I did this and I was content.”

“The farming life is one of the most honorable and necessary professions,” Bigote says, and then winces as Pierre tightens a bandage.

“It is, for those who are made for it. But my mother was not from a farming family. She taught my eldest sister, Claudine, to read when she was young, and then Claudine taught the rest of us. Father never gave us money for books, never had any to give. But mother had left her little library in a cupboard. Father never touched them, and he told us we should not waste our time, but gradually I grew interested. I would read at night, before bed, though normally I was so tired I fell asleep after five minutes.”

“This is an inspiring story of autodidacticism! Literature can truly open our minds to new worlds!” Bigote was red in the face from pain now.

“You are right. This is what happened. I started reading a book called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and it changed everything. It opened my eyes. I realized that I was living a shallow life of conformity, working for distant capitalist masters, and that I wanted to experience new things, to really live my life for myself.”

“So what did you do?” I say.

“Well, the first thing I did was I tried to find plants I could smoke on our farm. I used my Father’s old wooden pipe and tried many different species. The corn did not work. The bean sprouts could not catch on fire. The hay burned but did nothing. Finally I found a weed growing next to the house that made me see naked women whenever I closed my eyes, and I heard voices of cats and coyotes if I cupped my ears. Naturally I began smoking it very often. But my Father caught me. He said, ‘What are you doing, Pierre, my son? This is bad for your health. Please stop.’ But I told him, no, that I was expanding my consciousness.

“He left me alone for a while after that, hoping I would stop. But I had no intention of stopping. I found another plant that, when you smoke it, you feel 100 feet tall and your mouth tastes like bee stings. I started smoking that, and soon I had given up on all that dreadful farm work. But my Father, he is very narrow-minded, very much of the old world. So he took his pipe when I was passed out in the barn, and hid it from me. I guessed it was him immediately, so when I woke up I went to him, and said, ‘Hey, old man. Give me my pipe. I’m expanding my consciousness.’

“He said, ‘My son. Look at yourself. You are becoming an addict. Why are you doing this? I love you, son, and I want life to be like the old days.’ But I just laughed at this old-fashioned nonsense, and said, ‘Dad, enough of this trash. Give me the pipe.’ But he refused. So I decided to do something really daring, really crazy, really beyond the norm, and I pushed him. I pushed him right down the stairs and he broke his hip. My sisters began screaming, cursing at me. That’s when I knew they were too conventional for me. They took the old man to the hospital, and while they were gone I packed up and left.”

“Woaaah, dude,” I say.

“Well,” Bigote says, hesitating, “I suppose your father could have been a member of the conspiracy…”

“I do not know about that,” Pierre says, “but I have been living on the road ever since, expanding my consciousness beyond all the bounds of convention. That is why I am here.”

I consider whispering to Bigote that we should skedaddle, but just then a tremendous racket pierces through the dusk. We all look over.

Coming through the forest is a parade of people—shrieking, wailing, bawling, laughing, yodeling, and in general making a big racket. There must be around 20-25. Most of them are relatively young. They are all half dressed. Even the women are topless; but I can’t say I’m really interested, partially from the fear, but also because they all have this kind of wild hippie look to them. You know, knotty hair and dirty skin. They aren’t the bathing type is what I mean. At their head is this middle-aged guy with a kind of feather headdress on, blowing a horn.

“Didn’t you say they were meditating?” I say to Pierre.

“Yes, it’s called primitive howling meditation. It’s one of Dr. Krajakat’s patented methods.”

“Hey, is that Pierre?” the headdress man says as he approaches.

“Doctor!”

“Oh, Pierre!” he says, hugging him. He has a thick Russian accent. “I’m so glad you could make it! And who are your friends?”

“Oh, this is Dan, and this is Don Bigote,” he says. “They almost killed me earlier.”

“Splendid!” the doctor says, looking at us.

“We have come to seek your wisdom and to test out this ancient technique of, uh…”

“Ayahuasca, sir.”

“Yes, the ancient technique of ayahuasca, in order to better understand the world we are living in,” Bigote says.

“Well, that is splendid, just splendid! You have come to the right place! In fact, we are just about to begin the ceremony!”

§

It’s night now. Everyone is sitting in a big circles around a bonfire. There’s a big metal cauldron on the fire that the doctor has been fussing with.

I feel bad vibes, I gotta admit. The people give me bad vibes. They are all crazy-eyed and they look like they’re the kinda people who have orgies—and not the fun kind with a bunch of hot women, but like sweaty, grimy orgies with pudgy guys involved. Also, this Doctor Crackerjack guy is always smiling, and not in a nice-to-see-you way, but in a I’ve-done-too-many-drugs way, where there’s like a crazy edge do it, you know? Like a couple more rides on the merry-go-round will send him tumbling into another dimension. Maybe it’s just me, but the vibes are there, man.

I’m sitting on a log next to Bigote, who has been oddly silent and grave. Everyone is pretty silent, really. They’re all just watching this doctor guy with his caldron. It’s like a cult, man. People are so nutty. Drugs exist just to have fun: trip out with your friends, or dance maniacally all night to electronic music. But people turn everything into a creepy religion thing. Maybe ayahuasca isn’t as cool as I thought it would be.

Finally it’s time to start. Tin cups are passed around. Then the Doctor picks up the cauldron (it’s not that big) and starts going around solemnly filling up each person’s cup. Jeez, I hope this isn’t a poison Kool-Aid situation. He pours my cup, then Bigote’s. I look down at it. It’s a murky, greenish, brownish liquid. Actually, it looks pretty familiar… Yes, it looks just like that stuff Bigote gave me on the beach that made me shit my insides out!

I look over at Bigote. He’s smiling. “It’s an ingenious concoction, don’t you think?”

That’s it. There’s no way I’m drinking this.

“Before we begin,” the doctor says gravely, after everyone is served, “I want to address some words to the people who are doing this for the first time.” He looks at us. “This is not like mushrooms or LSD. You are not merely going to hallucinate. You are not going to dream, or have a trip. You are going to be visited by Mother Ayahuasca. Now, I am not going to comment on whether this goddess is real or not, but she undoubtedly exists, and she exists to help us, her children, find peace, find happiness, and find the truth. Do not fight this process. Do not push away Mother Ayahuasca. Let her inside your heart, and she will heal you.”

Then he raises his own cup: “To her!” And everyone downs the drug. Everyone, that is, except me. I quietly poured mine into the pushes behind me.

A few minutes go by in silence. Not much happens. I’m expecting everyone to start gagging and keel over. But no, apparently it’s not cyanide. Then, about five minutes in, that’s when the moaning starts. Everyone starts to like groan and mumble, like how people do when they’re asleep and having a dream. This gets gradually louder until people start making all these weird ape-like hoots and a sort of howling sound. Meanwhile, Bigote hasn’t said a word.

Then suddenly someone stands up and shouts: “I am the king of France and you are all my subjects!”

And another: “I am emperor of all the world and I order you to make me a pyramid!”

A girl this time: “I am a living god and I demand  a sacrifice!”

And then everyone gets up—except Bigote—and starts saying all this stuff. Here’s the gist of it:

“I am a devil’s child! I can breath in the sun and spit out the moon! I can fly up three million miles and back in the blink of an eye, ladies and gentlemen, and I can kick the earth off its orbit with one toe. When I’m hungry I eat asteroids and when I’m thirsty I drink the rings of saturn! Do not look at me with your naked eyes, or you will go blind. My voice is loud enough to melt brains and beautiful enough to melt hearts! My heart is a black hole and my bowels are a cosmic nebula! I am the one responsible for night and day, winter and summer, storm and snow! I rule over the boundless expanse of the universe, dictating what planets will support life, what life will go extinct, and what stars will explode. Destroying civilizations is my hobby! Yes, yes, look at me for I am the great omnipotent force that is the basis of all reality!”

This is a summary of the kind of stuff everyone started to say. I guess they really had killed their egos.

During all this, Bigote still hasn’t said anything. He’s just sitting here, staring out into space, totally silent. I’m starting to get a little worried…

“Sir?” I say. “How are you feeling?”

“I can see it now,” Bigote says, slowly and in a deep voice, like he’s hypnotized. “I can see the secret to everything.”

“The secret to everything? What is it?”

“Everything… is… opposite…” he says, and then falls backwards off the log like a stone—dead asleep.

Review: Marianela

Review: Marianela

Marianela (Los mejores clásicos)Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Benito Peréz Galdós is yet another of those Spanish authors whose wide fame in their own language is equalled by their wide obscurity elsewhere. In Spain his reputation as a novelist is second only to Cervantes; and yet the English translation of this book, one of his most famous, is out of print. This is a shame, since Galdós was a writer of rare gifts, a fountain of stories written in beautiful prose. In many ways he is reminiscent of Lope de Vega: both a critical and popular success, whose celebrity did not get in the way of his output. For like the golden age playwright, Galdós was extremely prolific. Apart from his few dozen—and often lengthy—social-realist novels, he wrote five series of historical novels, forty-six novels in all, covering the 19th century in Spain. Dickens was a slug by comparison.

This book is about Marianela, called La Nela, an orphaned, “deformed” adolescent who lives in the mining country in Cantabria. She is described as having spotty skin, thin hair, a malproportioned face, and most notably an underdeveloped body for her age. She is the “lazarillo,” or guide, to Pablo, a blind young man from a rich family. The two fall in love, and share many passionate sentiments on their walks together. But then the brilliant doctor, Teodoro Celepín, comes to visit Pablo, examines him, cures his blindness, and, well, Marianela’s life gets considerably worse. It is a simple story with a tragic arc.

For me the outstanding quality of Galdós’s writing is his prose. It is elegant but readable, balanced but energetic. Though there were many words scattered about that I did not understand, I never felt lost; to the contrary, I read quickly, avidly, completely sucked into the story in a way that is rare for me with Spanish books. As with many novelists, there are two main registers of Galdós’s writing on display: scene-setting description and dialogue. Galdós excels at both. The conversations between La Nela and Pablo, though sentimental in a way that only enamored teenagers can be, was totally convincing. And his description of the desolate, charred, and barren landscape of the mines is an excellent example of how a scene can contribute to the narrative of a book:

El vapor principió a zumbar en las calderas del gran automóvil, que hacía funcionar a un tiempo los aparatos de los talleres y el aparato de lavado. El agua, que tan principal papel desempeñaba en esta operación, comenzó a correr por las altas cañerías, de donde debía saltar sobre los cilindros. Risotadas de mujeres y ladridos de hombres que venían de tomar la mañana [beber aguardiente] precedieron a la faena; y al fin empezaron a girar las cribas cilíndricas con infernal chillido; el agua corría de una en otra, pulverizándose, y la tierra sucia se atormentaba con vertiginoso voltear, todando y cayendo de rueda en rueda hasta convertirse en fino polvo achocolatado.

And in English:

The steam began to hiss in the boilers of the big car, which operated the workshop equipment and the cleaning machines at the same time. The water, which played such a principal role in this operation, began to run through the high pipes, where it had to jump over the cylinders. The guffaws of women and the barks of men who came to take the morning [drink aguardiente] preceded the task; and at last they begun to turn the cylindrical sieves with a hellish shriek; the water ran from one to the other, spraying and splashing, and the dirty earth was tormented with dizzy turning, rolling and falling from wheel to wheel until it became a fine chocolate powder.

Few authors could provide such a gripping description of an industrial process and also present us with a character as memorable as La Nela. She is self-contained but selfless, self-willed but self-abnegating, intelligent but ignorant, a person who was given nothing and so expects nothing, but whose isolation caused her to form a novel perspective. Her notion of the world is pagan; she sees things in mythical, poetic categories that lead everyone around her to chastise her for being unchristian. Her tragedy, like so many, is the plight of undeveloped potential; in other circumstances, she may have done remarkable things; but being born poor, orphaned, and “ugly” has confined her to being a guide.

I have said all this in praise of Galdós prose, his scene-setting, his characterization, but of course there is more to this story. Thematically, this book is also quite rich—the relation between inner and outer sense, between inner and outer worth, the relation between knowledge and love—but I will not get into that. This book was too enjoyable to belabor it with heady analysis. To conclude, this novel has convinced me that Galdós is a master of the craft. I am eager to devour more of his books.

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Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American WestBury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books whose great merit was in undermining itself. When it was first published, in 1970, it must have been a shock to the Americans who grew up reading and watching movies about the heroic coy boys, settlers, and soldiers who settled the West. It was—and to an extent, remains—a key part of our national myth. But like so many national myths, it left unnoticed the people who were repressed, marginalized, or exterminated on the road to the country’s greatness. Books like this one, a people’s history, told from the perspective of the vanquished, are a necessary corrective to this, and perform an important moral function in our society: shining a light on the misdeed perpetrated by our national heroes.

The greatest testament to the success of a book of this type is to render itself obsolete, and I think this is what has happened in this case—at least, to an extent. For by the time I went to school it was the Dee Brown version of the West, not the Buffalo Bill version, that was taught to us. (Admittedly this must vary a lot depending on where you go to school; I come from quite a liberal area.) Thus the story told in these pages was, however depressing, entirely familiar: broken promises, cultural misunderstandings, blatant dishonesty, and wholesale slaughter. As a result I admit I did not enjoy this book as much as I expected, for everything that Brown narrated was fully expected. Of course, there were moments that pierced through even my dullness, such as the description of the Sand Creek Massacre, which was as horrible as anything I have read about the Holocaust.

Brown is a strong writer, and evokes people and scenes with the power of a good novelist. But I was disappointed at how much of this book is given over to descriptions of battles and skirmishes. The pattern was always the same: the Indians are promised land, the whites decide they want the land after all, tension escalates, and then conflict ensues—with the American military usually coming out the victor. I think it was important that Brown narrate this fighting from the other perspective, since it formed such a cherished part of our myth, but apart from sheer drama I did get much out of it. I would much have preferred that Brown dedicate space to the customs of the groups he is describing—the Navajo, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and many more. Without this, we get a sense of brave cultures being swept away, but not a sense of what was actually lost.

A few more criticisms come to mind. Though this book is well-researched and well-sourced, it is clear even at a superficial reading that Brown has imaginatively embellished quite a bit in order to get the novelistic style he was after. More importantly, now that we are (hopefully) moving past this Spaghetti-Western version of American history, I believe a different kind of book is needed. Any book that tells the story exclusively from one side, either victor or vanquished, will leave important parts of the story out. Apart from more ethnographic description of the American Indians in question, I would also have liked a much deeper analysis of the government and settlers. This would have given more insight into why these interactions played out the way they did.

But these criticisms are somewhat unfair, since they are predicated on the book’s success. Without a doubt this was a necessary book, and Brown did us a service in writing it—and in writing it so well.

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Review: Epitome of Copernican Astronomy & Harmonies of the World

Review: Epitome of Copernican Astronomy & Harmonies of the World

Epitome of Copernican Astronomy and Harmonies of the WorldEpitome of Copernican Astronomy and Harmonies of the World by Johannes Kepler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Earth sings MI, FA, MI so that you may infer even from the syllables that in this our domicile MIsery and FAmine obtain.

Thomas Kuhn switched from studying physics to the history of science when, after teaching a course on outdated scientific models, he discovered that his notion of scientific progress was completely mistaken. As I plow through these old classics in my lackadaisical fashion, I am coming to the same conclusion. For I have discovered that the much-maligned Ptolemy produced a monument of observation and mathematical analysis, and that Copernicus’s revolutionary work relied heavily on this older model and was arguably less convincing. Now I discover that Johannes Kepler, one of the heroes of modern science, was also something of a crackpot.

The mythical image of the ideal scientist, patiently observing, cataloguing, calculating—a person solely concerned with the empirical facts—could not be further removed from Kepler. Few people in history had such a fecund and overactive imagination. Every new observation suggested a dozen theories to his feverish mind, not all of them testable. When Galileo published his Siderius Nuncius, for example, announcing the presence of moons orbiting Jupiter, Kepler immediately concluded that there must be life on Jupiter—and, why not, on all the other planets. Kepler even has a claim of being the first science-fiction writer, with his book Somnium, describing how the earth would appear to inhabitants of the moon (though Lucian of Samothrace, writing in the 2nd Century AD, seems to have priority with his fantastical novella, A True Story). This imaginative book, by the way, may have contributed to the accusations that Kepler’s mother was a witch.

In reading Kepler, I was constantly reminded of a remark by Bertrand Russell: “The first effect of emancipation from the Church was not to make men think rationally, but to open their minds to every sort of antique nonsense.” Similarly, the decline in Aristotle’s metaphysics did not prompt Kepler to reject metaphysical thinking altogether, but rather to speculate with wild abandon. But Kepler’s speculations differed from the ancients’ in two important respects: First, even when his theories are not testable, they are mathematical in nature. Gone are the verbal categories of Aristotle; and in comes the modern notion that nature is the manifestation of numerical harmonies. Second, whenever Kepler’s theories are testable, he tested them, and thoroughly. And he had ample data with which to test his speculations, since he was bequeathed the voluminous observations of his former mentor, Tycho Brahe.

At its worst, Kepler’s method resulted in meaningless numerical coincidences that explained nothing. As many a statistician has learned, if you crunch enough numbers and enough variables, you will eventually stumble upon a serendipitous correlation. This aptly describes Kepler’s use of the five Platonic solids to explain planetary orbits; by trying many combinations, Kepler found that he could create an arrangement of these regular solids, nested within one another, that mostly corresponded with the size of the planets’ orbits. But what does this explain? And how does this help calculation? The answer to both of these questions is negative; the solution merely appeals to Kepler’s sense of mathematical elegance, and reinforced his religious conviction that God must have arranged the world harmoniously.

Another famous example of this is Kepler’s notion of the “harmonies of the world.” By playing with the numbers of the perihelion, aphelion, orbital lengths, and so forth, Kepler assigns a melodic range to each of the planets. Mercury, having the most elongated orbit, has the biggest range; while Venus’s orbit, which most approximates a perfect circle, only produces a single note. Jupiter and Saturn are the basses, of course, while Mars is the tenor, Earth and Venus the altos, and Mercury the soprano. He then suggests (though vaguely) that there are beings on the sun, capable of sensing this heavenly music. (The composer Laurie Spiegel created a piece in which she recreates this music; it is not exactly Bach.) Once more, we naturally ask: What would all this speculation on music and harmonies explain? And once more, the answer is nothing.

Kepler’s writing is full of this sort of thing—torturous explorations of ratios, data, figures, which strike the modern mind as ravings rather than reasoning. But the fact remains that Kepler was one of the great scientific geniuses of history. He was writing in a sort of interim period between the fall of Aristotelian science and the rise of Newtonian physics, a time when the mind of Europe was completely untethered to any recognizable paradigm, free to luxuriate in speculation. Most people in such circumstances would produce nothing but nonsense; but Kepler managed to invent astrophysics.

What gives Kepler a claim to this title was his conception of a scientific law (though he did not put it as such). Astronomers from Ptolemy to Copernicus used schemes to predict planetary movements; but there was no one underlying principle which could explain everything. Kepler’s relentless search for numerical coincidences led him to statements that unified observations of all the planets. These are now known as Kepler’s Laws.

The first of these was the seemingly simple but revolutionary insight that planets orbit in ellipses, with the sun at one of the foci. It is commonly said that previous astronomers preferred circles for petty metaphysical reasons, seeing them as perfect. But there were other reasons, too. Most obviously, the mathematics of shapes inscribed in circles was well-understood; this was the basis of trigonometry.

Yet the use of circles to track orbits that, in reality, are not circular, created some problems. Thus in the Ptolemaic system the astronomer used one circle (the eccentric) for the distance, and another, overlapping circle (the equant) for the speed. When these were combined with the epicycles (used to explain retrogression) the resultant orbits, though composed of perfect circles, were anything but circular. Kepler’s use of ellipses obviated the need for all these circles, reducing a complicated machinery into a single shape. It was this innovation that made the Copernican system so much more efficient than the Ptolemaic one. As Owen Gingerich, a Copernican scholar, has said: “What passes today as the ‘Copernican System’ is in detail the Keplerian system.”

Yet the use of ellipses, by itself, would not have been so useful were it not for Kepler’s Second Law: that planets sweep out equal areas in equal times of their orbits. For when a planet is closest to the sun (at perihelion) it is moving its fastest; and when it is furthest (at aphelion) it is slowest; and this creates a constant ratio (which is the result of the conserved angular momentum of each planet). Ironically, of the two, Ptolemy was closer than Copernicus to this insight, since Ptolemy’s much-maligned equant (the imaginary point around which a planet travels at a constant speed) is a close approximation of the Second Law. Even so, I think that Kepler moved far beyond all previous astronomy with these insights, jumping from observed and analyzed regularities to general principles.

Kepler’s Third Law seemed to have excited the astronomer the most, since he even includes the exact date at which he made the realization: “… on the 8th of March in this year One Thousand Six Hundred and Eighteen but unfelicitously submitted to calculation and rejected as false, finally, summoned back on the 15th of May, with a fresh assault undertaken, outfought the darkness of my mind.” This law states that, for every planet, the ratio of the orbital period squared to the orbital size cubed, is constant. (For the orbital size Kepler used half the major axis of the ellipse.)

While it is no doubt striking that this ratio is almost the same for every planet (this is because the planet’s mass is negligible compared with the sun’s), it is difficult to completely sympathize with Kepler’s excitement, since the resultant law is not useful for predicting orbits, and its significance was only explained much later by Newton as a derivable conclusion from his equations. Kepler, being the man he was, used this mathematical constant to fuel his metaphysical speculations.

However much, then, that Kepler’s theories may strike us nowadays as baseless, crackpot theorizing, he must be given a commanding place in the history of science. The reason I cannot rate this collection any higher is that Kepler is extremely tiresome to read. In his more lucid moments, his imaginative energy is charming. But much of the book consists of whole paragraphs of ratio after ratio, shape after shape, number after number, and so it is easy to get lost or bored. Since I have a decent grasp of music theory, I thought I might be able to get something out of his Harmonies of the World, but I found even that section mostly opaque, swirling in obscure and impenetrable reasoning.

The great irony, then, is that Kepler’s writings can strike the modern-day reader as far less “scientific” than Ptolemy’s; but perhaps we should expect such ironies from a man who helped to inaugurate modern science, but who made his living casting horoscopes.

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