Meyer Schapiro is one of those critics whose idea of criticism is to use it to weave a story of his own out of the story or visual experience he is examining, this principle applying just as much in art criticism as it does in literary criticism where, for example, Lionel Trilling wove his own story of the nature of morals out of the story he found in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park”, however contrary that interpretation might be to an accurate one. Schapiro does so, moreover, in the discursive prose style of the typical scholarly essay, where observations are made to elaborate on an early announced theme, rather than in what might be considered the more artistic story like process of suspense and release that can be found in, for example, Erich Auerbach’s classic essay “Odysseus’ Scar”, where the author uses the recognition scene in “the Odyssey” to tell a story about the difference between Greek and Hebrew culture, something it would not have occured to Homer to consider even if it is a story very much on Auerbach’s mind. (What are produced in these essays are stories because they are full of the unfolding drama of the particular in conflict with the general, Auerbach telling us of ways to distinguish the Greek from the Hebrew, there being many more that are not referred to. That is different from most scholarship which makes no bones about subsuming limited evidence to a particular thesis).Read More
Voting is the closest that I, as a secularist, come to having a sacred liturgy. I vote so as to receive its blessings, which is to participate in electing some of my fellow citizens to office, but also to make me feel that I am not merely an observer but a part of the political process, my vote every bit as valuable as that of Andrew Cuomo or Donald Trump. So I shed a tear when the person at my polling place gave me a sticker saying “I Voted” that I attached to my jacket. Old codgers are excused for doing that.Read More
The lawsuit brought against the Harvard University admission process breaks new ground in the discussion of affirmative action. Previous cases in the affirmative action debate that were settled in the Supreme Court decided that race could be considered one factor in deciding whether to grant admission to a candidate, even though the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the laws would lead one to think that race, religion and national origin should not be used as a basis for discrimination, even to achieve a good end, because it violated the idea that one could not be deprived of life, liberty or property (and admission to an elite college is a matter of some value) without due process of law, which means that the rights of a person cannot be abridged without a trial of personal culpability for a wrong. Sandra Day O’Connor in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) declared that the Fourteenth Amendment had to be suspended for a while, perhaps a generation, so that the nation could right the wrongs of discrimination. Creating a diverse student body that included African Americans justified what was constitutionally unpalatable.Read More
People say that we live in a post-truth age. What they mean by that is that people not only do not agree on facts or on the interpretation of facts but, beyond that, do not agree that there are commonly accepted standards for gauging truth. People are free to make any claim, however outrageous it may be, and not have to ground it in evidence or have it open to criticism. People can simply stew in their own juice of cynicism. Clearly that is the case in politics, where President Trump is rife with remarks based on bile that he asserts but cannot defend and feels no embarrassment that his remarks cannot bear the weight of being scrutinized for their truth, the establishment of truth inevitably a collective process wherein everyone recognizes that there is something objective out there, something that can be confirmed to any reasonable observer, whether or not that is in keeping with your political or emotional predilections. Paul Krugman, for example, is ever outraged by the fact that Paul Ryan and other Republicans have no respect for the truth and simply lie to their heart's content so long as it serves their political purposes. But this problem is not limited to politics. Serious scholars wonder if truth is a chimera invented by philosophers to cover up the fact that some people are simply advancing one ideology or another, all of us prisoners of a point of view that is not objective. Nobel Prize winning economists like Daniel Kahneman have built reputations by saying that people almost always get things wrong, preferring their superstitions and their predilections to what a rational approach to the world would dictate. I want to employ some standard philosophical concepts to get around the post-truth arguments and suggest what is really at stake.Read More
The review in The New Yorker of the Delacroix show currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was curiously and unnecessarily dismissive of the artist, treating him as both banal and overbearing. I think that was because Delacroix is so clearly a Romantic, which is an age so out of favor at the moment, what with its Orientalism, supercharged emotions and flamboyant militarism. It is true that Delacroix is not up there with the true greats, like Picasso, who makes us reimagine the topology of the human shape, or Rembrandt, whose lined and craggy faces testify to their humanity, or Vermeer, who sets people and their identities within the world of extension when he, for example, shows the spaces between the dustmotes in the air. But Delacroix does have his virtues as an artist, if not as a philosopher or as a humanist, and these I wish to catalogue.Read More
A reader, Daniel Nikolic, asks a good question. He wants to know if there is a grain of truth in Noam Chomsky’s views on international relations that goes beyond his exaggerated statement of them. My answer to that is a categorical “no”. Either the theory of imperialism is true or it is false. That theory, which goes back to C. Wright Mills and before that to Lenin and where he got it, the British writer, J. A. Hobson, claims that the main explanation for international relations is that nations want to capture one another’s territories so that they can exploit the mineral wealth of the place and the labor of the inhabitants for the economic benefit of the imperialistic nation. The contending theory, that of realpolitik or geopolitics, is that nations are in quest of ever increased security, however powerful they are, so that their risk in dealing with other nations goes down. International relations is like a game of monopoly. You want enough money so you can afford to pay the rent even if you land on an expensive property owned by an opponent. You take risks only when you have no alternative, such as when you put all your money on a hotel hoping not to land on an opponents property because your only chance of survival is if the dice run your way. Sometimes nations are in that quandary, as Britain was in 1940, but most of the time you roll the dice when you are secure enough to withstand misfortune, as was the case in both Vietnam and Iraq, where the United States could sustain defeats and yet quickly rebound. There is so much the imperialist model cannot explain, as why we went into Vietnam, where there were no natural resources discovered until after the war was over, and which we can now access because Vietnam is an ally rather than an adversary, while the theory of realpolitik can explain all of international relations, back to the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.Read More
A hero is a person who exercises a virtue to a high enough degree to place his or her self at risk either to body or soul. A warrior is a hero because he risks his life for his country or people and is rewarded with medals or trophies. A saint is a hero who exercises a fidelity to a holy virtue, such as forgiveness or charity, sometimes at the risk of life, but often as not in comfort, as is the case with the Fathers of the Church, though there are those who go so far in their pursuit of knowledge, like Abelard, that sainthood is denied to them, given that saints need not be a perfect person, and Abelard was certainly not that. There are also heroes of literature. Joyce is heroic because he spent eleven years composing “Ulysses”, a book that broke ground in how to compose or read a novel, making extraordinary demands on its readership, when Joyce could have settled for composing more conventional ones like the one that had already made him famous, “The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man”, and so made him a renowned novelist of the sort Thomas Mann was.Read More
Susan Sontag got it wrong when she said that photography was in part distinguished by the fact that there were so many good photographs to absorb. The same is true of all painting. A little bit of craft combined with a minimal eye for color and a good eye for perspective and composition can create a painting where you are transported into the texture of its life simply by looking at it before ever getting on with the job of seeing how the parts hold together or even noticing some of the more obscure parts, much less whatever meaning or meanings the painting may hold. It is the nature of the form that makes painting so beguiling, allowing itself, for example, to be noisy (like George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey”) or quiet (like Henri Rousseau or most Impressionists, even when they are drawing crowds of people), or else to be rich and tasty, sweet, like Matisse, or tart even if bittersweet, like Picasso even at his most romantic. Paintings invoke all the senses, not just the eye, including, not least important, a mind’s eye that turns itself to history and to abstractions. These remarks suggest that it is painting rather than the painter that makes for art. The medium has the resources to express a great number of things and any number of craftspeople working at their trade can provide satisfaction to their viewers, just as any number of novelists can tell stories well enough so that stories can engage our eternal desire to know what happens next.Read More
Waiting for Susan Collins to make the speech in which she announced her support for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh was very dramatic because it made me think of the two different paths the nation might be headed down if she took one side or the other. If she opposed Kavanaugh, it would be a setback for Trump, though some commentators have said it would increase the turnout of conservatives for the midterms, while if she supported Kavanaugh, it would be a victory for the #metoo movement, which has taken central stage in national politics without the apparatus of being a movement, and might lead more and more women to take part in the midterms. Now, her vote determined, we face a rough few weeks of campaigning on, among other things, whether our sons or our daughters are more in danger. All this comes about because the Senate is so broken that it can’t even manage to get an objective investigation into whether a nominee has committed a criminal offense, the Democrats saying the FBI was curtailed by the White House, and the Republicans saying that the investigation was good enough. I don’t think either Chris Coons or Jeff Flake had this in mind just a week ago when they insisted that the FBI look into the matter. They expected a definitive finding. (Chris Coons was wrong when he said on “Meet The Press” today that the Senate confirmation process was a job interview and not a trial and so a credible accusation is enough to deny an appointment. But it is a trial, whether conducted in a faulty manner or not, because it reaches a conclusion of guilt or innocence. Either the reputation of the nominee is ruined by turning him down or his reputation is merely tarnished because he has been accused but approved anyway. We needed a definitive investigation.)Read More
Kate Atkinson’s recently published novel “Transcription” is a very good minor novel. A major novel, for its part, is when an author invites his readers to enter a social world slightly skewed (or more so) from the world with which they are familiar and thereby to observe the lives of people who are slightly skewed (or more so) from people with whom they are familiar in the “real” world. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and James Joyce are major novelists. Minor novels, on the other hand, are plays on generic types of novels where the author adds a touch of style or insight that distinguishes the novel from others of its type. Kate Atkinson has adapted the spy novel for these purposes. She is less interested in character than is John Le Carre and less interested in the turns history can take than is Alan Faust, and doesn’t pretend to the deep and dark seriousness of Joseph Conrad. She most reminds me of a novelist of a previous generation, Muriel Spark, who also had a light, fey touch in dealing with metaphysical metaphors, although Spark’s frame was never, as I remember, a spy story.Read More
I have been rereading big chunks of Jane Austen recently and a lot of what she observes is applicable to the present state of sexual politics, whether in Norristown, PA, where Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to ten years in jail for sexual transgressions, or in Washington D. C., where Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court is being held up by a consideration of what might have been sexual transgressions he committed as a youth. Jane Austen is familiar with the things that can transpire between men and women. In “Pride and Prejudice”, both Kitty, Elizabeth Bennett’s sister, and Darcy’s sister have been seduced by Mr. Wickham, and the best solution is to get Wickham to marry Kitty in exchange for paying off his gambling debts, and get the couple shipped off to a remote army base. But that does not mean that Jane Austen thinks that girls are adverse to being courted by men. Girls like boys; they are flattered by their attentions and compliments and can feel themselves to be in love with them on the basis of courtships that we would consider today very limited. And young women know their minds well enough to decide what will be a satisfactory match. Charlotte Lucas will settle for Mr. Collins, despite his deficiencies of character, and Jane Bennett will find a love match with Mr, Bingley that sets her up very nicely, while Elizabeth Bennett will come to love Darcy, the two of them having prickly personalities no one else in the neighborhood could put up with.Read More
Judge Kavanaugh’s story is evolving every day and so it is useful to try to stand back and make some observations that may withstand whatever else happens this week much less how Dr. Ford comports herself on Thursday, should that hearing actually go forward. These observations may seem obvious but they are accurate and they do explain where we are now in the interconnection between politics and sex.
The first thing to observe is that accusations of sexual harassment are the Communism of our time. A career and a reputation can be ruined by such an accusation just as was the case when charges of having been a Communist lost people their jobs and reputations during the McCarthy period. Judge Kavanaugh will always have a cloud over his head even if he makes it to the United States Supreme Court, just as Clarence Thomas does, who is associated with the Anita Hill testimony more than he is with the judicial record he has piled up since he joined the Court. The violation of sexual decorum leads to outrage, even if we do not know how prevalent this is in American society even if Feminists claim that this is a long standing scourge that has malformed the lives of many women, and even if it is not clear how serious the allegation is, since both exposing oneself and attempted rape are this week thought to justify similar responses. The accused perpetrator becomes the outcast, the Other, separated by the rest of us by his (or her) mark of Cain.Read More
In Shakespeare’s major tragedies, there are two kinds of movements. The stages of a plot are symmetrical in that an initial situation, such as Hamlet coming home to the wedding of his mother so soon after the death of his father, is complicated by developments that reach some kind of climax in Act III, and then what follows is the unraveling of those events, which usually means that a person who has risen high, such as a Hamlet welcomed home with much pomp, is brought low, thought a madman, before he is done in because he is now disposable, in a duel arranged for that purpose. The same thing happens to Macbeth, who is amazed at his good fortune until he comes to bear the weight of his deeds and so sees a ghost and so drives forward to what he must know is his inevitable fate. Anthony arrives in Egypt as king of the world and ends as the tool of the queen.Read More
Alfred Bierstadt’s 1870 painting, “The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak”, is an iconic representation of the American West whose formal properties tell a lot about the American landscape and also about the art of landscape painting in general.
“The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak” covers a lot of territory. In its center is an ice covered peak, and below that is a lake, and further in the foreground is an Indian settlement, with tepees under the trees or grouped out in the open and Indians congregating or moving their horses, all the bustle of a well organized community. The Indians are dressed so as to show that it is not warm in this part of the Rockies, but they are comfortable and so as civilized as a pre-literate society can be. There is an unimpeded view from the Indian camp across the lake to some waterfalls and then to the giant mountain behind. The unimpeded view is the key to the painting, more than its contrast of colors, the green of the trees and the land on the apron of the lake, the blue of the lake, and then the increasing white of the waterfalls and the mountain behind. The Indian community can consider itself nestled next to the lake, with nothing to fear from nature, because they have so many layers of separation between themselves and the uninhabitable mountain, that just a part of their scenery. The scene is welcoming. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such a vista from your own front porch! That would not be the case if a viewer saw the area abundant in fog coming from the lake and the mountain, or if the Indian community were hidden behind a ridge that gave it some shelter from the weather. Maybe, at another time of year, the landscape would be more foreboding of what nature might have in store, but here it is not, and I think the unimpeded view accounts for that.Read More
Jane Addams wrote her 1910 book, “Twenty Years at Hull House”, in the form of a memoir. Education deserves this kind of treatment when what is being laid out is an experimental approach based on institutional innovation. Indeed, many of the writers in the Reform education movement of the Sixties and the Seventies, such as Jonathan Kozol and Herbert Kohl, pursue that same genre: how I came, in my own experience of the world of education and the people I met there, and the programs in which I took part, to develop my ideas about education. Addams supplies a biography of the institution she founded along with the interesting people she met there in addition to a good deal about herself: how she was as a little girl frightened at night and it was only the soothing voice of her father that calmed her down, which is very much the recipe she wants to apply to the poor. This shared writing strategy may be the result of the fact that educational reforms are always in the making, hardly ever completed and, by the way, almost inevitably disappointing, in that success stories don’t manage to get themselves replicated, and so you point out the success story as long as that lasts, rather than tell the statistical story which documents that success rarely lasts very long.Read More
W. E. B. Du Bois is still important both for what he says about the education of Black people and as that applies to the education all other people as well.
The reputation of W. E. B. Du Bois is firmly established on the basis of his accomplishments as an editor, advocate, and as a sociologist who a hundred years ago produced numerous statistical studies of the conditions of black life. The breadth of his vision and accomplishments is admirably spelled out in David Levering Lewis’s magisterial two volume biography. Du Bois, however, is deeply involved, early in life, as someone who teaches reading to ex-slaves and then is a young professor explaining poetry and literature at Atlanta University, an all Black institution. He is deeply involved in considering what an ethnic education means for a group that is not even as of yet considered to be an ethnic rather than a racial group.Read More
In my mind’s eye, I am watching tow television screens, one showing the response to the anonymous N Y Times editorial citing resistance to Trump within the inner circles of the White House, and the other screen showing the hearing on whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Some commentators have claimed that the two dramas are interconnected in that a President under such a cloud as is Trump should not press forward with such a weighty nomination. But Trump is still President. The issues involved in the two dramas are very different and so let us explore them separately. One is about an unprecedented breakdown in the organization of the White House and the other is about what it means to be a very, very conservative judge, which is hardly a new question.Read More
The underlying context for so many ideas and practices regarding government is territoriality. A government presides over a particular geographical area even if its borders are uncertain, enforcing laws and customs as it sees fit on the people who live in that territory rather than having jurisdiction over people because those persons belong to some group, whether ethnic or religious, whose interests the government sees as its own. That means governments intrude in the lives of nomads who pass through their territory, as well as native Indian tribes whose land has become incorporated into some jurisdiction defined by the government. This idea of territoriality is traced by anthropologists to the time when agriculture became domesticated and so the wealth of a territory was something worth fighting over and so warlords and kings gained power by conquering one territory or another and so gaining access to its cultivated acres. But it might also be the case that warlords took to the domination of territory because that was all they could do, which was something short of commanding the hearts and minds of the inhabitants which were at the disposal of the gods of the local territories if even that, given that religion was ceremonial rather than deep. Moreover, government may have preceded territoriality in that it may not amount to anything more than the warlord deciding he and no one else has the power over life and death, and that he can enforce that on any territory or set of clans that come under his rule even if only temporarily before he moves on to another site. Either way, nations and tribes become identified with their territories more than with their values or customs. America is beautiful from sea to shining sea and a tribe regards its traditional lands as sacred.Read More
John Singer Sargent is such an excellent portraitist that he not only shows different faces to be different, which is very different from when Rubens painted a number of Rubens faces, he also uses different techniques to paint each of those faces. It is as if each face is an experiment in finding a way to render it. This focus on faces, however much Sargent dresses up his often not very pretty subjects in glamorous and carefully painted colorful gowns, replaces, for the most part, a concern with setting that would place the subject in their social context, as would be the case with Gainsborough. The faces speak for themselves to the extent that faces can speak to us at all and so makes of Sargent, often dismissed as a mere society painter, the greatest portraitist since Vermeer.Read More
A trope is a storyline that can be applied over and over again. So the hero off on a quest or the girl left at home to whom he will return are two tropes or part of the same one, this one as old as Homer, in the case of the Odyssey, the girl not being a young thing but his long separated wife. One things learned from studying literature is not to be caught up in tropes that seem to be the common wisdom when all they are are ways of imagining a situation that excludes other ways of doing so. If I, myself, have made a contribution to the #metoo debate in this blog, it is that the trope of males being obnoxiously aggressive is not the only way to imagine the interaction between employers and employees, however much that may be an accurate way of describing Hollywood and its casting couch culture. I remember a time when the organizing principle for interpreting the relation between men and women was romantic, men and woman sparring with one another until they engaged in a clinch and a kiss, the aggressive bully an exception rather than what is always to be looked out for. Better to think of Beatrice and Benedict or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan than of Harvey Weinstein.Read More