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There is no need to embellish upon the record of timeless verse that comes to us from the Hellenes. Its achievements continue to echo through the annals of history, not merely to inform, but to awe. The contributions from strong women remain especially visible, I would argue for more than in other cultures broadly termed the West (to what degree this results from chance I do not know). These women include the likes of Kassiane, Theodorou, Karelli, Aravantinou, Votsi, and countless others — and this is all to say nothing of its female warriors, political leaders, and troublesome muses.

Someone who has been considered both a troublesome muse (the tenth, according to Plato) as well as a poet who could only have come out of legend is Sappho. Unfortunately, the vast majority of her work is lost to antiquity and those who lived in it. She is best known in general discourse as a lesbian poet. This is hardly surprising– she lived in Lesbos! But this is surely not the most important characteristic of Sappho, nor, really, is it related to particularly defining motivation. Sappho’s truest concern was love, and a comprehensive appraisal of her work must study that concern in the context of her time.

As someone who studied Sappho many years ago, I always vowed to return to her again in the future. I found that opportunity when I encountered Anne Carson’s book, If Not, Winter. Compellingly, its translator/editor does not set out to write or revise history. In this way, Carson’s compilation of the entire corpus of Sappho’s work puts Sappho brilliantly into the context of her time. By not bloviating (or worse, fulminating) on the issue of her gender identity and sexual temptations, Carson leaves these issues unmarked in the discursive sense. Had she drawn attention to them, she would have marked them, thereby insulating the original author and her subject material from the general readership. Instead, Carson promptly deals with the issue on the second page of her introduction to the work, casually dismissing concerns:

Controversies about her personal ethics and way of life have taken up a lot of people’s time throughout the history of Sapphic scholarship. It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?

Gladly! Many other arguments still rage regarding Sappho. For instance, scholars are not sure whether or not she was literate. One thing scholars seem to agree on, however, is that she was a brilliant musician, who composed her poetry to be sung with the lyre. At a time when poetry was both more dominant in general culture and less prevalent in the publication, her poetry must have been almost universally considered alluring and powerful. Even from only the sad, small, precious fragments that survive today, there can be no doubt of this. Consider this, the only surviving, complete poem:

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, my heart

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s
golden house and came,

yoking your car. And find birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
through midair–

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.

If you think that a full analysis of this poem is beyond me, you would be right. Nevertheless, I should point out that there is a real narrative unfolding, with multiple voices, confused intentions, and possibly, in light of the role of angels as pointed out in the last post, some extraordinary angst. If we knew more about her, we might know how much was conscious irony and how much was sincere. It seems as though these words are just the tip of the iceberg, while so much more meaning lies beneath the surface. This is part of why the translator decided that the subheading of the book would be “Fragments of Sappho.” But the main reason is because the translator chose to place each and every remaining fragment of Sappho’s work on their own pages. In this manner, she accords all of Sappho’s works an equal dignity. Sometimes the fragments are only a sentence, phrase, or word long.

As compiled, the fragments seem like golden rays of light revealed through dense clusters of summer leaves. We cannot get a sense of the full day, but we know both the resplendent glory of the fragments as well as their soothing nature: somewhere, far away, another human, perhaps not so unlike us, lived with dilemmas we could empathize with and figured out some insight that we, too, could arrive at in time.

In another poem, Sappho writes of love, saying that “what you love” is the most beautiful thing on earth. She explains this by using Helen of Troy as an example, before her mind turns to her lost love, Anaktoria. The last half of the poem is mostly removed and it is difficult if not impossible to tell what she was talking about. After her lament, Carson translates the gaps as:


out of the unexpected.

Out of the unexpected! Is it possible that Sappho ended on an ambiguous, but hopeful note? Does it refer to paradox? Did it resolve with a moral tale? We cannot currently know the answers to these questions. But we have posed a great many of them, and therein lies the main use of Sappho for the modern day reader. I think Carson understood it better than any of us. For each fragment, we must deal with a new set of questions that we can only arrive at by assessing the meaning of Sappho’s fragments in relation to our own narrative experiences. For example:

do I still yearn for my virginity?


I might go

Or as she exults in her ability:

yes! radiant lyre speak to me
become a voice

Each of these echos resounds, for we know Sappho’s power. It would be as if someone had to assess Michael Jordan’s career from a complete video of his 1991 NBA Finals, highlights from 1992 NBA Finals, a clip of MJ swinging a baseball bat, a few clips of Jordan dribbling up court from 1997, 1998, and 1999. We might be acutely aware of how inspiringly talented MJ was from the evidence we possessed alone, and the accolades awarded by his peers (we have some of this of Sappho as well). When I read these fragments, I have a sense of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Carson is our traveler in an antique land, perusing that ancient language, reading its extraordinary lyrics, dealing in all the relics. Sappho sculpted her own “shatter’d visage,” and we may wonder if a woman who knew so much happiness would be immortalized in a frown, though this may be all we have left. Carson delivers each fragment, no matter how small, to give us a sense of the “colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” as the “lone and level sands” of antiquity “stretch far away.”

Another fragment:

neither for me nor the honey bee

Needless to say, Sappho’s poetry is referred to for its highly erotic content. More interesting to me is how the author translates from the original Greek (placed on the left-hand side of each page there is a fragment, translated in English on the right). Carson uses words such as sweetbitter, honeyvoiced, mythweaver, songdelighting. These are not words that we really have in English, but their composition follows standard rules for word formation and seem to be quite intelligible. Translators should never shirk from creating new words in order to translate. We need some frame of reference to understand these terms, after all. And if these new words help us see things we already understood in new ways, like a metaphor might, then these truly expand our power of comprehension, opening our minds to possibilities that we had never before considered. For example, typically, when we think of our “past,” we think of what is behind us. Not so in Cherokee culture. For them, the past is ahead of them, in front of their eyes anyway, because they can see it.

The translator in this case, Ms. Carson, appends thorough notes explaining difficult, tricky, or ambiguous translations. They certainly contain many insights. My favorite is the the discussion on the Greek word koma:

koma is a noun used in Hippokratic texts of the lethargic state called “coma” yet not originally a medical term. This is the profound, weird, sexual sleep that enwraps Zeus after love with Hera; this is the punishing, unbreathing stupor imposed for a year on any god who breaks an oath; […] Otherworldliness is intensified in Sappho’s poem by the synaesthetic quality of her koma–dropping from leaves set in motion by a shiver of light over the tree: Sappho’s adjective aithussomenon (“radiant-shaking”) blends visual and tactile perceptions with a sound of rushing emptiness.

My favorite definition is the first. That Zeus! Anyway, you will come to see the words synaesthetic and synesthesia much more often in the coming years, as I sense a resurgence of interest in the subject. Essentially, it is the fusion of senses, be it one’s seeing music or numbers, feeling texture in colors, and so on. Some say it comes from a curious biological happenstance in about 3% of the population, whereas others think it merely figments of people’s imaginations. ( The same debate rages over Fibromyalgia. ) Synaesthesia does not necessarily give anyone an advantage in comprehension or some extra computational capacity. If one is forced to see colors in numbers, and the colors are random noise, then this may actually distort an understanding of numbers.

Whatever the basis for synaesthesia, it seems that it fills a role similar to fictions. In my post, “The Angels Within,” I discussed the role of fiction and literature in our lives as filling a need. Simply, fiction can fill gaps in our identity, take us to places we could not otherwise go though we desire to, and allow us an escape from spatiotemporal confines. If we have explored the meaning of our most common adjectives, phrases, and emotions, then there really isn’t much space for the quality of being transcendent. Synaesthesia solves that problem. Fusing the senses might convey a sense of the ethereal or it might seem like it is opening a door into a world where the rules are entirely different. Either way, the concept synaesthesia allows us to transcend ordinary meanings, as if we lived in R^3 but suddenly inhabited R^5 or R^6; the point is that the possibilities would seem comparatively endless.

Poetry probably has a superior capacity to convey the essence of the synaesthetic because the more words you have, and most other literary forms have more words, the more anchored these new terms, concepts, and sensations become in what is already known. The power of the synaesthetic, however, lies precisely in its formless, abstract qualities. If Sappho’s poetry refers to words such as aithussomenon (“radiant-shaking”), then we might gain from a closer reading of what is left of her work.

Still, Sappho’s numerous actual expressions of love and longing will remain the most resonant aspects of her work. They certainly seem at least the equal of any opera that I have seen, and granted, I have seen only a few. From my favorite part in Puccini’s Tosca:

The stars were gleaming,
The ground was fragrant…
The creak of the garden gate,
light footsteps in the sand,
the smell of her hair. She came
and fell into my arms.

Oh tender kisses, sweet caresses,
While, trembling, I beheld
Her beautiful form freed of its gown.

Gone forever is my dream of love.
Time has fled, and I die in despair!
I die in despair,
But never have I loved life so much!!

Compare it to some of Sappho:

I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me.

with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.

And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

But if not, I want
to remind you
]and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets
and roses
]at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

And with sweet oil
you anointed yourself

and on a soft bed
you would let loose your longing

and neither any[          ]nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent

no grove[           ]no dance
]no sound

The book itself admirably translates Sappho so that we may have a glimpse of her in her own context, but also in a way that preserves her and puts her in a highly respectful position amongst fellow poets and artists. New York Times reviewer Dinitia Smith seems to agree that this book is an excellent compendium of Sappho’s work:

Of course Sappho also composed poetry: erotic, sensual, desperate poetry, filled with the anger of desire, wonder at the beauty of the desired one, the sweet languor of gratification. And now her verse has been elevated to new heights in a gorgeous translation by the poet Anne Carson, who is also director of graduate studies, classics, at McGill University in Montreal. […] Sappho’s poetry is filled with a golden eroticism. It is redolent of Attic sunshine, the sweet smells of the Aegean, Grecian meadows.

Other fawning reviews of If Not, Winter may be found here. She will long be a part of our discourse on fiction. Perhaps Sappho herself had some sense of the gravity of her issues and the life she breathed into them:

someone will remember us
I say
even in another time


In the last post, “The Angels Within,” I discussed the relationship of fiction (and literature) with the human condition. Kermode and Vargas Llosa argued that fiction filled a gap between who we are and who we want to be. Considering that economics is the study of human behavior and our choices in a world filled with scarcity, it ought to shed some light on our humanity to figure out how fiction serves these needs and if it continues to do so today.

Many authors believe it does not.

According to the Wikipedia article on the “Death of the Novel,” certainly the definitive source on the subject, authors have hypothesized the impending death of the novel for years. Critics as renowned as Barthes and authors as notorious as Vidal have weighed in on the subject. Actually, the article has some interesting notes that I wish to tie together. The article mentions various persons’ theories for the death of the novel, including “the rise of nihilism in European culture,”  there being no significant people to write about, and “the mortality of the post-war generation of American novelists.”

All of these explanations are right. They each shed different light on the fundamental cause of the death of the novel, which, while perhaps exaggerated in scope, has indeed come to pass.

First, the nihilists. The rise of nihilism in European culture has not been limited to Europe; it has extended through to the entire West, and have no doubt, it will metastasize to the rest of the world as “progress” continues apace. The nihilism of European culture is not really consistent philosophical nihilism as such, rather it is an overweening meandering over the discursive landscape full of meaningless regurgitations, aphorisms, and moanings of half-formed ideas as though they are deep insights. Poppycock. It is no coincidence that this pervades the left-loving intelligentsia at the same time that the cost to the formation and transmission of information shoots through the floor. The staggering promulgation of media smashed the entrenched fragmented ethical hierarchies, thereby sweeping away the anchors of meaning and culture. The vapid utterings of so-called European nihilists remains.

Second, are there really no more important people to write about? Granted, it would be hard to come up with another Douglas MacArthur, of whom biographer Geoffrey Perret once wrote that he lived the most interesting American life. But the popularity of biography has not waned. Could this point be related to the nihilist point…? Perhaps there are merely no significant people to write about in the wake of determinism and the inevitability of history a la Marx. Since the argument is ludicrous on its face, we can dispense with it, but let us remember it for the sake of discussion later on.

Third, the mortality of post-war American novelists. I think that it might be a bit presumptuous to assume that the novel is dying because post-war American novelists are dying. New markets for literature are opening up all around the world as the cost to creating and publishing literature continues to decline. Some of my most interesting times in Indonesia were spent translating novels (although some of my worst times in Indonesia were doing the same… thinking of the translations of various Japanese novels far better read in their native language or English…). Putting that aside, the author’s mocking point was that “when a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him,” meaning that when the post-war generation died, the novels the like of which they penned die with them. The author may have unwittingly been right, but for the wrong reasons.

Entrepreneurs loaded the gun. Politicians like Reagan and Thatcher negligently waved the gun around shooting wildly. And so: Capitalism killed the novel. Some might not long mourn its departure, believing that nothing intrinsic about the novel was particularly valuable. This would be a mistake. Just as haiku, typically 17 syllables, matches the average length of a human utterance of 16-18 syllables, implying that the form of haiku conformed to an organic essence of humanity, so too did the novel conform to an essence of humanity. Just what that essence is must be the subject of another post.

Simply, there are two related problems for novels. One, other media (journalism, non-fiction, television, etc.) now tell the tales once told by novels more succinctly, which appeals to the West, a world in which the opportunity cost of time has quickly risen just as surely as information costs have precipitously dropped. The value of a tale as long and convoluted as War and Peace no longer seems as great as the value of reading three books on completely different subjects or more relevant NYT bestsellers or learning three foreign languages (which is probably what I could have done in the time it took me to deal with Tolstoy). And are we really that interested in realist fiction? No. What does it do for me that these new media don’t do better? Nothing. Two, the subject matter of novels that may best belong to novels — long tales of love, heroism, adventure, tragedy, romance, and even science fiction — can only be done so many times in so many ways before the demand in the market decreases. Now, of course the novel is not going anywhere and it is not really dead. This is what I meant by the exaggeration of the claim in terms of scope. However, as a percentage of the total fiction being created, the percentage must have waned over the past few years. There is nothing to suggest it will stop. Why would I read about a fake general whose life includes epic campaigns for freedom on three different continents over fifty years whose extraordinary rise was just as brilliant as his meteoric fall when I could just read about Douglas MacArthur? Take this example from Old Soldiers Never Die:

The general was the quintessential twentieth-century incarnation of the tragic hero as immortalized by great playwrights down the ages. MacArthur’s complex nature and dramatic life made him the living breathing brother of Coriolanus, Hamlet or Macbeth. Like the tragic heroes of the theater, he would finally be brought down not by his enemies but by an immutable fault line that ran through the bedrock of his character. When the SCAP got airborne from this remote coral island, MacArthur was set on a direct course to the ultimate destination of all tragic heroes: the spectacular, irreversible fall.

Ho! I’ll take another non-fiction biography, please. There are other benefits to reading these books over fictionalized versions. I learn history that I can talk about with other people that goes beyond dreamy (or dreary) discussions on character, the inevitable lessons that such fiction might have to offer. Now I can discuss real consequences as well as the imagined. That’s not a trivial benefit that factors into people’s economic cost-benefit analysis when deciding between fiction and “non-fiction.” So this is not at all to say that there has been a death of fiction, for as Milosz says, even completely factual biography is all fiction. But it is to say that the relative benefits of novels, whose ideas have been cast and recast in many ways, now pales compared to the relative benefits of non-fiction (a type of fiction in our terms) because its stories are always unique as well as useful in ways novels never could be.

This suggests many things. I think amongst them is that as novelists attempt to distinguish themselves from other novelists and their conventions for profit (profit need not be financial, it could be artistic satisfaction), they will adopt increasingly unconventional styles and themes. Unconventional styles could include narrative structure, the prose, or even settings. I am reminded again of Indonesia. While there, I had one particularly rewarding experience was translating Saman by Ayu Utami, an experience I don’t think I am likely to soon forget. It provided me with many colorful phrases that I would cannibalize for my own use of Bahasa. The words that conclude the book are frankly unfit to print, in any language (which makes me wonder about the seemingly demure young man and woman who recommended it to me), but it reminds me a lot of Night by Bilge Karasu, a Turkish writer. Both novels have met with wild acclaim and both jar the reader (see the NYT review’s take on this) with substantial leaps across time and frame of reference. At the end of both novels I was exhausted, but in an oddly satisfied way. Both novels continued to haunt me for years, and, in fact, haunt me to this day. We should expect more of it.

We may also expect the continued swelling of importance for journalism, be it by blog, radio wave, or television. Tom Wolfe, a tremendous novelist, lazily warns of the very real demise of the novel in a five part series on Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge series hosted on National Review. Wolfe described the problem as follows:

Right here, as we speak, the novel is dying a horrible death. It really is. It’s had it. And soon it’ll be in the same position as epic poetry was in the early 19th century. That had always been the great genre. But non-fiction will continue. And the memoir and autobiography will never die, never has died. And they’re interesting because they’re like Wikipedia, some of it may be true.

Robinson asks an excellent question related to my aims in this post, “When did it happen that in this country that the formative novelist, the great novelist is Mark Twain, when did it happen that American letters became possessed of precious, little stories instead of big, boisterous stories that fit the temper of the country itself?”

It happened soon after the Second World War.  There was a key essay by Lionel Trilling, who was a [Professor at Columbia] who also had a huge following among, let us call, the “charming aristrocracy” and he said the day of the realistic novel is over. Its been done, its been done to death, and besides, we live in a fractured society now and you cannot do a slice of life and pretend that this slice of life is giving you all the life int he country. The future of the novel is in the novel of ideas.

Wolfe goes on to give some early novels of the late Norman Mailer as examples of this, including Barbary Coast. Robinson points out that Updike and Mailer criticize Wolfe’s work as journalism, not literature. Wolfe responds:

Something like journalism, which is written precisely so that the great masses can understand, would be looked down upon by the charming aristocracy. In fact, in American literature, an essentially journalistic approach has been behind– [PR interjection] TWAIN for goodness sake, Hemingway– every success. Hemingway went about writing novels that way, but even more to the point, Sinclair Lewis, our first Nobel prize winner in Literature, to do a novel about his hometown in Minnesota. He didn’t just draw on his memories, he went back! Taking notes on every area of life. John Steinbeck, in case of Grapes of the Wrath, went to the San Francisco News and volunteered to go out and write a series on migrant workers who were pouring in from the Dust Bowl in the mid-to-late 1930s. He didn’t know anything about them.

Were you to believe Wolfe and some of the claims made in this post, you might fear for the survival of the novel. But this is where the essence of humanity comes back in. No doubt the novel will survive so long as it continues to fill some sort of niche in human needs, but they may not be the consistently traditional forms we are used to (and largely bored by these days), nor will they probably resemble the tales told so often before. And for many story-telling purposes, they will be replaced by other fictions, be they blog posts, biographies, or scientific treatises.

As for the perpetuity of angels, they may truly be nearer death than the novel. The challenges presented by so many combating forces for the increasingly partitioned territory of identity (states, tribes, religions, tv shows, sports, games all now make claims!) tugs people in many directions at once, and they absorb more information from more sources than ever before. News, jargon, and blog posts such as this one replace the fictions of complementarity once known as angels. Their survival depends on the ability of angels to represent something that can never be described by consistent arguments and discrete lexicons. They depend on the inexplicable and our willingness to admit the existence of the inexplicable in the full mysteries of the universe.

Some truths are for a time and some truths are for all time. In terms of the former, we read editorials and blogs that speak of facts and ideas whose dilatory relevance is overwhelmed by the passage of time. Impressions and cultural stereotypes also come to mind. They occur in discourse and are useful for a time, but they don’t help us peel away the layers of noise, media, and culture that obscure the fundamentals of human nature — though, naturally, they themselves arise from these fundamentals.

The discipline that peels away these layers is economics. Far more than the study of how production is organized, or the methods by which an economy may be managed, economics is the study of human behavior. It concerns itself, at root and through its most robust microeconomics, with the inner core of the human being. From these truths, all other elements of the human condition emerge. This includes art. While art, especially contemporary art, is generally considered well beyond the domain of economics (mostly by those involved in the arts community since they know nothing of economics), it is only by the grace of its truths a constant in our consciousness.

In this post, I illustrate this concept through works by the renowned literary critic Frank Kermode and famed author Mario Vargas Llosa, who is, incidentally, father of libertarian commentator Alvaro Vargas Llosa.

In The Sense of an Ending, which memorializes the author’s lectures delivered at Bryn Mawr in late 1965, Kermode concerns himself with fictions of “the End.” In his words, “ways in which, under varying existential pressures, we have imagined the ends of the world.” But his effort is not only to chronicle the way these narratives have changed through time as it might be for most other literary critics, though he does do this. Rather, his aim is far more ambitious. He seeks to “help us to make sense of our lives.” In his highly alluring argument, he states that:

The great majority of interpretations of Apocalypse assume that the End is pretty near. Consequently the historical allegory is always having to be revised; time discredits it. And this is important. Apocalypse can be disconfirmed without being discredited. This is part of its extraordinary resilience. It can also absorb changing interests, rival apocalypses…. It allows itself to be diffused, blended with other varieties of fiction– tragedy, for example, myths of Empire and of Decadence– and yet it can survive in very naive forms. Probably the most sophisticated of us is capable at times of naive reactions to the End. […] Given this freedom, this power to manipulate data in order to achieve the desired consonance, you can of course arrange for the End to occur at pretty well any desired date.

Your first thoughts surely turn to the Global Warming Apocalypse now unleashed on the West — but the point is that this is a very powerful cultural meme that will likely always be with us. There are times when Apocalypse is not so much on our minds, and it is not very much on our minds now, though in the mid-1960s many feared a nuclear holocaust. This possibility could still very well come to pass, of course, and movies portending our end won’t be going away any time soon. So it’s one thing to describe its presence. It seems fairly obvious. But really, why are we so preoccupied with Apocalypse? Ends? Kermode does not give any answers. But he does give us some hints:

It is worth remembering that the rise of what we call literary fictions happened at a time when the revealed, authenticated account of the beginning was losing its authority. Now that changes in things as they are change beginnings to make them fit, beginnings have lost their mythical rigidity. There are, it is true, modern attempts to restore this rigidity. But on the whole there is a correlation between subtlety and variety in our fictions and remoteness and doubtfulness about ends and origins. There is a necessary relation between the fictions by which we order our world and the increasing complexity of what we take to be the ‘real’ history of the world. […]

Emphasis mine! Kermode alludes to the increasingly discordant and fractured narratives that purport to be histories of the world, but he means it to pertain to more than just history a la “Nero was a Roman Emperor,” “MacArthur waded ashore at Leyte Gulf, then soon delivered a rousing speech to the Filipinos,” and “Swahili used to be a tonal language.” He’s saying that something is going on with how we view the world and our relations to each other, as a result of our re-evaluation of the beginning and our relationship to the End. Soon, in my view, he alludes to Spenser and Shakespeare as prime movers in examining these frayed ends in the human conscious:

The discords of our experience–delight in change, fear of change; the death of the individual and the survival of the species, the pains and pleasures of love, the knowledge of light and dark, the extinction and the perpetuity of empires–these were Spenser’s subject; they could not be treated without this third thing, a kind of time between time and eternity. […]

Now Macbeth is above all others a play of prohecy; it not only enacts prophecies, it is obsessed by them. It is concerned with the desire to feel the future in the instant, to be transported beyond the ignorant present. […] Macbeth is saying that if an act could be without succession, without temporal consequence, one would welcome it out of a possible future into actuality; it would be like having hurly without having burly. […] Nothing in time can, in that sense be done, freed of consequence or equivocal aspects. Prophecy by its very forms admits this, and so do plots. It is a truism confirmed later by Lady Macbeth: ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’ The act is not an end. […] But only angels make their choices in non-successive time, and ‘be’ and ‘end’ are one only in God.

Emphasis mine. Kermode shows that there’s something in the human condition vitally concerned with time. An obsession with Apocalypse becomes only a part of something even more fundamental. Somewhere, bound up in this obsession, are concerns with memory, angst, second chances, patience, waiting, hope, and identity. But why?

Enter Mario Vargas Llosa, an author of whom I have written on this blog. He has several books of essays out and once made a valiant run for President of Peru. In the compilation of essays known as Making Waves, he writes of lost friends, Sandinistas, Thatcher (he loves her!), Botero, and feminism. These books of essays are like printed blogs, really. In any event, I quite like his writing, and in one essay, he has something that approaches an answer to the question that vexes us. From “The Truth of Lies”:

Ever since I wrote my first story, people have asked me if what I write is ‘true’. Although my replies sometimes satisfy the questioners, every time that I answer that particular enquiry, however sincerely, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling of having said something that never gets to the heart of the matter. […]

In effect, novels lie — they can do nothing else — but that is only part of the story. The other part is that, by lying, they express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, disguised as something that it is not. […] Men are not content with their lot and almost all of the — rich and poor, brilliant and ordinary, famous and unknown — would like a life different from the one that they are leading. Novels were born to placate this hunger, albeit in a distorted way. They are written and read so that human beings may have the lives that they are not prepared to do without. Within each novel, there stirs a rebellion, there beats a desire.

Let’s stop for a second and make something clear. The author is essentially calling all texts lies. How can this be? Well, let’s consider what truth is. You could read a passage that states nothing but simple facts about MacArthur being relieved of duty by President Truman in 1951. The passage could state, with simplicity and clarity, that MacArthur sent letters to Republican congressmen that infuriated the President. You could state that MacArthur hated Truman’s orders regarding the restraint to be exercised in attacking the North Korean and Chinese forces. It would all be true, and yet, by virtue of leaving so much out, it is a lie. It could be a lie because of the way the events are told, or restructured, but without every possible bit of information, they are lies. This is what Vargas Llosa is saying anyway. He is not alone in thinking this way. I am reminded of Nobel-winning author Czeslaw Milosz, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Captive Mind (an absolute must-read for any conservative, including the libertarian strains). Milosz writes:

Obviously, all biographies are false, not excluding my own…. They are false because their
individual chapters are linked according to a predetermined scheme, whereas in fact they were connected differently, only no one knows how.

Now we are getting somewhere. Vargas Llosa writes that novels and fiction are supplying a demand in us, that we always want more. We are not content with our own lot. This does not necessarily mean we are unhappy. It means that we always think we can do better, or do something else. One may be perfectly content with one’s lot in life. Perhaps a man has retired to a small cottage in the countryside with his wife, his children are all successful, and this is all he thinks he desires. This is true to a point. But I bet he would desire the state to last, no? And then for a state of happiness to last for his children? He may desire a swift death– and this is still something to desire. So let us not challenge Vargas Llosa on this point, though it is something that I think may go unappreciated by many modern economists. However, it is given its due by the Austrians, for it is one of the most fundamental assumptions of Ludwig von Mises’ economics. His magnum opus, Human Action, is predicated upon it. (An implication of mine is that economics, at its most powerful, will one day more formally assimilate this blending of literature and psychology. It hasn’t happened yet.)

And so Vargas Llosa is not being too general when he writes that fiction is preoccupied with giving us the lives we are not prepared to do without. Surely, these narratives have kept the flames of our intellects alive since time immemorial. One need only think of the epic poems once memorized by men, now forgotten due to the ineluctable pull of marginal utility and the wiles of other fictions to satisfy our hunger. Vargas Llosa continues:

The fantasy that we are endowed with is a demonic gift. It is continually opening up a gulf between what we are and what we would like to be, between what we have and what we desire. But the imagination has conceived of a clever and subtle palliative for this inevitable divorce between our limited reality and our boundless desires: fiction. Thanks to fiction we are more and we are others without ceasing to be the same. In it we can lose ourselves and multiply, living many more lives than the ones we have and could live if we were confined to the truth, without escaping from the prison of history.

Men do not live by truth alone; they also need lies: those that they invent freely, not those that are imposed on them; those that appear as they are, not smuggled in beneath the clothes of history. Fiction enriches their existence, completes them and, fleetingly, compensates them for this tragic condition which is their lot: always to desire and dream more than we can actually achieve.

When it freely produces its alternative life, without any other constraint than that of the limitations of its own creator, literature extends human life, adding the dimension that fuels the life deep within us — that impalpable and fleeting, but precious life that we only live through lies.

What possibilities have we dreamed! It seems so difficult to make sense, from the rich wonders we have imagined, both beautiful and terrible, light and dark, gray and grayer, of how all our fiction relates to our fundamental human desires. It’s still not even clear what the demand really is: just to live another life? To get ideas? To compare one’s self to an ideal and get ideas? I think it’s something akin to the latter. Vargas Llosa beautifuly portrays fiction as the enemy of the totalitarian state, and to those who would attempt to impose a narrative on others. One wonders how long such a narrative may persist…

And what of our preoccupation with time? In relation to our consideration of fiction, does it act like a companion that guides us, as Jean-Luc Picard wondered, or is it the fire in which we burn, as Dr. Soran believed? (Video of the battle here.) Whatever the case, Kermode believed that our relationship to time is complex, still best expressed in paradoxes but in fiction:

In apocalypse there are two orders of time, and the earthly runs to a stop; the cry of woe to the inhabitants of the earth means the end of their time; henceforth ‘time shall be no more.’ In tragedy the cry of woe does not end succession; the great crises and ends of human life do not stop time. And if we want them to serve our needs as we stand in the middest we must give them patterns, understood relations as Macbeth calls them, that defytime. The concords of past, present, and future towards which the soul extends itself are out of time, and belong to the duration which was invented for angels when it seemed difficult to deny that the world in which men suffer their ends is dissonant in being eternal. To close that great gap we use fictions of complementarity. They may now be novels or philosophical poems, as they once were tragedies, and before that, angels.

In the next post, “The Death of Angels,” I propose examine how the modern age may be changing the epiphenomena of our human condition through fiction.

Post-Script: If any of this is interesting to you, I strongly encourage you to look at Kermode and Vargas Llosa’s work. I’m just trying to string some concepts together, so with these excerpts I give them unjustifiably short thrift, but there’s so much in their works to sit and enjoy.

As I so often do when considering this relationship, I turn in conclusion to Herbert Muller’s The Uses of the Past. I bought the book for $0.10, not knowing what it was, rushing to get the bargain buys at a Friends of the Library book sale. I just dumped the book in my shopping cart and it was the best $0.10 that I ever spent. In many ways, it is like Dimnet’s landmark work of the early 20th century and was published only a few decades after it. Muller’s words express, far better than any I have yet read, the wonder and the depth of the relationship between architecture and the soul. In The Uses of the Past, Muller proposes to examine the Hagia Sophia so that he might learn:

Upon close inspection, indeed, St. Sophia is an everlasting wonder in its anomalies. Its basic construction is honest, forthright, superbly solid; the more the architect learned about the secrets of its structure, the more he marveled at the resourcefulness and skill with which its builders had carried through an undertaking as bold and magnificent as the world had known, or yet knows. At the same time, there is hardly a straight line or a true curve in the majestic structure, even apart from the wear and tear of centuries. Everywhere one sees an exquisite care in the refinements of decoration, and an amateurish crudeness in the rudiments. The splendid columns of porphyry and verd antique are typical. There capitals, and the arches resting in them, are elaborately carved; their bases are so roughly finished as to shame an apprentice. And in inconspicuous places even their ornamented capitals are likely to be unfinished. Everything stands; but everything is wavering, bulging, or askew. [Admiral’s emphasis.]

Do you get a sense of the sensuousness that Muller gives the Hagia Sophia? Out of this magnificent edifice, we can hear the statements of civilization, leaders, workers, designers in their different voices echoing down the millennia. In the end, the structure, like humans, is neither good, nor bad. It stands as a testament to its own beauty; an end in itself. Out of this, Muller derives his insights:

What, then, does St. Sophia have to tell us? I should not restrict its meaning to the few implications I have chosen to stress from the drama of fourteen hundred years. I should insist only that there is no one simple meaning, and that we must realize the profound incongruities of the drama if we hope to rise on stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things. St. Sophia remains an inspiring monument, glorious and vainglorious. It is a symbol of humility and pride, of holiness and worldliness, of the power of faith and the limitations of faith. It is an everlasting triumph, of a society that failed. It may epitomize all the great societies and golden ages of the past, which also failed and still inspire. It calls for reverence, and irony. […] [M]y reflections failed to produce a neat theory of history, or any simple, wholesome moral. Hagia Sophia, or the ‘Holy Wisdom,’ gave me instead a fuller sense of the complexities, ambiguities, and paradoxes of human history. Nevertheless, I propose to dwell on these messy meanings. They may be, after all, the most wholesome meanings for us today; or so I finally concluded.

To the extent that architecture, in its canonical form of being, can give us this sense of complexity, ambiguity, and paradox within the human spirit — and deliver us to these messy meanings — it must act most surely of the arts upon the soul.

Once renowned author Ernest Dimnet spoke thusly of architecture:

Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul.

Is it possible? There certainly seems to be evidence for uses both good and bad. For the latter, one need only consider the reputation of dark mirthless Socialist architecture promulgated from Moscow through Berlin. But perhaps the architecture was not soulless, by any means, even as it bent the souls of those around it. The souls were indeed bent, but never broken. As Sudjic writes:

Architecture is used by political leaders to seduce, to impress and to intimidate.

Of course, we know that Sudjic may not be the best authority on architecture, for he has so consistently overestimated the influence of the top-down relationship between design and culture. [You can judge for yourself by reading it, please avoid the numerous nonsensical but glowing reviews of it on the internet.] For example, his theory largely discounts the spirited campaign of some designers within the Soviet bloc who were able to subvert authority and the galling conformity mandated by the state, as shown in Frederic Chaubin’s work. In the wake of stultifying cultural controls from the politburo, the case that architecture may act on the soul in positively transforming ways is being made as well, for the peoples of the former Soviet bloc have burst forth with frenzied excitement and anticipation for what is to come. They are anxious to see the shapes and forms the soaring human spirit may take. We wait with bated breath, for example, to see the results in Warsaw, where Zaha Hadid’s Lilium Tower (seen right) is going up. The soul is more than mere darkness or light, however, and we have already discussed how it may be transformed. Part of the adventure of living is finding the new frontiers of experience and the soul, and this is where architecture may yet be at its most powerful. It can connect, inform, reflect, augment, lift, and distend– and perhaps it can do a great deal more than that.

What of the mountain monuments? What of the local chapels (see below)?

It would be best if you did not ask me why I was watching this, but let’s just say I am a fan of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (TWOK), as in… well… it’s my favorite movie of all-time and I have seen it thousands of times. Truly.

Okay, that out of the way, Nicholas Meyer, who directed the movie, has the best commentary I have ever heard for a Director’s Commentary. It is especially so due to the director’s keen awareness of art, in general. He speaks of the historical relationships of artists working together on something, or artists’ relationships with the subject matter of the work, or the Director’s role in making a movie. Meyer ascribes much importance to authenticity in his work, showing in the legendary death scene, to be sure.

In any case, I have always thought one of the more intriguing subjects Meyer brings up is his philosophy of creativity under pressure. Whereas Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP) had been one of the most expensive movies ever produced, and remains the most successful Star Trek movie in inflation-adjusted terms, because in terms of marginal cost, the $200 million worldwide box office revenues were considered relatively poor returns for $35 million cost. People just didn’t understand the movie in its glory. I did, but I digress. So after TMP’s costly production, Paramount pared down the budget for the next movie to $11 million. The movie went on to gross about $170 million, making the Paramount executives seem like geniuses. [Side note: TWOK had the largest opening weekend of all-time til then.]

But the real genius may have been Nicholas Meyer, who said that working under the pressure of a small budget for a Star Trek movie demanded successful innovation. It’s kind of like the misunderstanding over evolution. Many think that because we needed eyes, we evolved to have them. Not so. The eyes conveyed an advantage to those who had them which manifested itself in successful reproduction. In terms of art, Nicholas may actually be on to something. Perhaps it would be not unlike Jan Pokorny’s work in adapting historic buildings for reuse — a challenge that could lead to tremendous innovation.

So is there a divergence in artistic outputs between schools where methods are more disciplinarian, taught under strict pressures of time and technique or more laissez-faire, where artists have no restrictions? The correct answer is: it depends. Meyer thrived under the budgetary pressures, as no doubt many artists do. But another artist in his place may not have made such a terrific movie. It is hard to believe anyone could make one that comes even close, really. For every tortured Soviet pianist, there’s an untamed physicist or mathematician contributing valuable insights from her or his couch. For every athlete who trains every waking minute to excel, there is an athlete who succeeds based on talent alone.

These divergences are, in the end, the proof that art cannot and never should be regulated. There’s no general solution for economic development for the same reasons. As Vulcans would say, we humans have infinite diversity in infinite combinations (IDIC), which makes attempts to simplify us into equations futile. No amount of creativity under pressure can change that.

Over the course of six months, I have on occasion discussed a broader definition of art than most are accustomed to — I have made the argument as well as I can that art is everything that is not nature. This jars with our feeling that art with little effort involved in its creation, such as a refurbished urinal or Pollock paint splatters can be considered art. Or perhaps that more “low-brow” examples such as a Wal-Mart center design, a fence, or a car design ought to be considered. We do not have to accept the boundaries on the domain of art imposed on it by people with specific agendas in delimiting it. Rather, I argue that we should push the boundaries as much as possible in order to appreciate human ingenuity, whatever the education level or vocation of the creator(s).

One especially difficult concept to appreciate, even if one does accept what I have written so far, is that politicians may be artists, too. We wouldn’t dare to accuse some of our most hated politicians (Truman, Bush Jr.) of being *artists* but sadly it is true.

Daniel Bell provided a sociological perspective on art’s domain that is useful here: “Art is the aesthetic ordering of experience to express meanings in symbolic terms, and the reordering of nature-the qualities of space and time-in new perceptual and material form. Art is an end in itself; its values are intrinsic.” I agree with Bell, but am mindful of the warning that historians may by the means of the particular form of abstraction we know as narrative, portray movement through time, something most others artists may only hint at (and yes, I love ending sentences with prepositions).

There’s always a balance to be struck, though, for the more time the narrative covers, the less detail it can provide. It’s like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in which the precise measurement of one variable renders another one imprecise. (Almost like photograph vs. Impressionist painting, I’m thinking… ack, tangent….) Then, because our minds are networks of some curiously associative sort, every time we come across a representation of a referent, we reflexively alter the image and identity of the said being. In other words, we humans travel from one place to another, constantly refashioning ideas and meanings in our heads, compromising and comprising our individual aesthetics. In other words: are always judging.

And if advocates from sociobiology are right, that scenario-building, “the construction of alternative scenarios as plans, proposals, or contingencies… [as] social-intellectual practice for social interactions and competitions,” performs a key role in the aesthetic sense, then politicians dream high art indeed. So what aesthetics might inform a politician and derive from her or him? This is what I am fascinated by. One might, as I said before, decline to accept either George W. Bush or Harry S. Truman (blech) as artists. To what extent, after all, do our modern day Presidents and politicians really wield the paint brush?

Nevertheless, a look into politics may yet yield some interesting perspectives. In the next post, I will apply this artistic sensibility to Vaclav Havel, a beloved Czech playwright and politician, and then to a book review of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

In my Art Law class, I once lambasted the notion of ‘the public interest’. No, I did not wield Margaret Thatcher’s argument that “there is no such thing as society” (a quote, incidentally, that has grown to such proportions that no one remembers the context… accordingly, I urge you to check that link). Rather, I attacked it because using that as a policy justification for an action, especially in the arts, will lead to specious results and open the door to twisted perversions of what is really in the public interest.

Think about it. One could make an argument that virtually anything is in the public interest and who will decide what truly is or isn’t? If two things are, who will decide which is more so in the public interest? (And is there such a thing as the public interest? There is no such thing as society! errr, uhhh… strike that….) This battle is not new. In property law, for instance, there has long been the problem of “eminent domain” in the US. Eminent domain is a power created by the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, stating: nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation. We recently had a much-maligned decision out of the US Supreme Court, Kelo v. New London, that ruled a taking given to private interests may a public use in certain situations, such as job growth and economic development, which are the main reasons eminent domain is employed in many areas around the US as local governments strive to change blight into prosperity. The majority in favor of the government power, four liberals and the moderate/conservative Justice Kennedy, supported the broadening of the public use concept while three conservatives and the moderate/conservative Justice O’Connor thought the distinction between private and public use had been grossly discarded. In other words, the liberals support the government having broad powers over property by way of the government determining what a public use is — essentially whatever it wants it to be. [I have terribly simplified this and encourage you to read the opinions and issues involved in detail. Between 65% and 93% of Americans reacted negatively to this decision and it says a lot about differing interpretations of government power.]

In Latin America, the social function doctrine holds similar sway. As I currently understand it, many countries such as Brasil and Colombia explicitly ascribe to the “social function” of property doctrine in their country’s respective constitutions. The doctrine is essentially that states hold the ultimate ownership, as sovereigns, to all the property in their territorial domains and they “allow” other owners so long as the use/ownership serves a social function. As you might suspect, this is an incredibly amorphous standard that could be abused. Who decides, after all? One scholar of the subject recently told me that thousands of pages could be written in a single book about the concept. I replied that it makes perfect sense because it can be twisted into anything you want it to be, and mean anything you want it to!

So I have wasted a lot of your time in coming to this point, but I write all this due to Donn Zaretsky’s comments regarding the O’Keeffe paintings at Fisk University. Recently, the court settled the issue by preventing Fisk’s sale of the works particularly on grounds of the public interest. While lauded by some, the legal reasoning is quite rightly lambasted by Zaretsky:

I’m still puzzled by this whole approach. I’m as in favor of the public interest as the next guy, but isn’t it also in the public interest that Fisk be able to field NCAA athletic programs? Isn’t it in the public interest to improve the chances of Fisk’s very survival as an institution? And how exactly are we supposed to measure the effect of various states of affairs on the public interest? If Fisk keeps the entire Stieglitz Collection, but has to cancel its NCAA sports program and make who knows what other sacrifices as a result of its precarious financial condition — what is that, like a “72” on the public interest scale? But if Fisk gets to keep 99 out of the 101 works in the collection (plus the right to exhibit one of the other two for four months every four years) but also ends up with $25 or 30 million to solve lots of its other problems — is that a “70”? Or, what if it gets to share ownership of the collection with a new museum in, say, Arkansas, so that it winds up with $30 million in the bank and anyone who wants to see the works just has to time his visit for the right part of the year? What public-interest score does that get? In short, the “public interest” game gets pretty slippery pretty fast. It’s easy to wave your magic wand and say “public interest” — in an ideal world of course it would be best for Fisk to keep all of the works (at least for the people of the state of Tennessee; perhaps not so much for the people in Arkansas) — but the question is always compared to what? It’s not at all obvious to me that the current state of affairs is, on the whole, better than some of the alternatives that emerged during the course of the litigation.

The facts of this case may indeed lead to the conclusion that the paintings may not be sold. I have only had a mild interest in the case and cannot say for certain. However, I think we should turn around and watch the shots coming at us from astern: too often art law is determined by considerations of the public interest. Make no mistake about it, the public interest is a negligible if not completely valueless consideration when considering restrictions on the alienation of art. Ultimately, we will pay the price for restricting it in the public interest by stagnation in art.

Appreciation for the arts has varied with time and with taste. For the nonce, arts of many kinds are in vogue — and we are surrounded by art, fashion, taste, vogue, music, and design of all manner. At a time when many believe that we do not have enough arts in schools because we are supposedly teaching to tests, and in a time when many decry funding for the arts, the fact of the matter is that humanity at all class levels have never been so aware of art in the entire history of humanity. This is not entirely due to technology, as it owes in part to the monopoly profits of strong intellectual property laws, but it is a fact.

So we have a tremendous amount of art in our lives. Humans have to use language to discuss art, and it’s too easy to employ hierarchies, ordering, and different degrees of adjectives to art. Some believe that, depending on our language, we are hard-wired to do so. In any event, one might wonder if, absent commentary and criticism, we might think that all art is equal — or given a certain specialty, perhaps *more* of it might be equal. (In the market, one might speculate this already occurs due to the primacy of goodwill value in the art, i.e. the value of a name.)

I read some interesting commentary on this subject and it’s hard to come by. In a lengthy NYT bio of legendary pianist and Texan Van Cliburn, there’s some debate over the merit of piano competitions. How do judges decide, after all? It’s similar to many types of art competitions in that the dilemma is what categories do you select for judging and how do you pick which is better in any given category? How does one grade feeling in piano performance? Is it easy for the judges to  be biased? All these and many more questions challenge the convention of judging in art for the sake of competition. Van Cliburn himself has never been a judge, and never wants to be. He explains:

“I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I’ve never been on a jury. It would be the hardest thing ever for me to do. I’m too understanding of why a person did a passage this way instead of that way.”

Could this be a paradigm for future aesthetic appreciation competitions? Or discussions?  [Apologies for errors, brevity, and lack of coherent thought as I typed this at 0330….]

Recently, some have called into question the copyright of public monuments and some buildings. All is not fair in fair use and copyright, after all. But today I came across this cool link off FOXNEWS that links to the webcams of places all around the world. Catholicgauze is shocked for some reason.

If the Encyclopedia Britannica is right that everything not of nature is art, and I think it is, then check out the art of the Sydney Harbor, the Great Pyramids, Moscow, or lovely Krakow!

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