Saturday, 23 June 2018

Can Tolstoy explain Anna Karenina?

Writers are notorious for not being able to communicate adequately a justification of their writings. As a reader, you read a great novel, and you look for some explanation of the reading experience. So, once I had finished reading Anna Karenina, I looked for some external description of the power of the novel. Of course, I did not expect a full explanation from Tolstoy explaining how he managed to create such an overwhelming reading experience, but nonetheless, given the title of his treatise What is Art?, it is tempting to think he might be able to describe why that novel was so powerful.

The key theme of What is Art? is the infection theory:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art … Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
Of course, Anna Karenina comprises many separate stories interwoven, and as a reader I will have a response to each of them. As a reader I respond to good or bad characters as they are presented to me. But there does remain, after reading a vast novel such as Karenina, the perhaps foolish feeling of a single work; and if it is a single work, does it create in this reader a single over-riding impression? Perhaps the impression I have is that of Konstantin Levin, by no means perfect, but struggling to make some kind of meaning from his life. That “impression” is indeed a feeling, perhaps, as Tolstoy says, similar to the boy recounting an experience with a wolf, even if the experience never took place:
a boy, having experienced, let us say, fear on encountering a wolf, relates that encounter; and, in order to evoke in others the feeling he has experienced, describes himself, his condition before the encounter, the surroundings, the woods, his own light-heartedness, and then the wolf's appearance, its movements, the distance between himself and the wolf, etc. All this, if only the boy, when telling the story, again experiences the feelings he had lived through and infects the hearers and compels them to feel what the narrator had experienced is art. If even the boy had not seen a wolf but had frequently been afraid of one, and if, wishing to evoke in others the fear he had felt, he invented an encounter with a wolf and recounted it so as to make his hearers share the feelings he experienced when he feared the world, that also would be art.
Does is convince? Yes. Is that a sufficient explanation of Anna Karenina? Certainly not, since that novel contains far more than evoking a feeling. Nonetheless, as a justification for creative writing, I think it is a good start. It isn't even necessary for you to have experienced the wolf to be successful in communicating the feeling of an encounter with it. 

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Are there good and bad metaphors?

George Lakoff is famous (according to Wikipedia) for the “conceptual metaphor theory”, which is that people are influenced by the metaphors they use.

Intrigued by this claim, I read the short book Metaphors We Live By (1980), by Lakoff and co-author Mark Johnson.  Sure enough, by the end of the book, the authors demonstrate (to their satisfaction, if not to mine) that if you choose the wrong metaphor, then who knows what might happen. “Drastic metaphorical differences can result in marital conflict”, state the authors, a claim I never expected to encounter in a book about linguistics. If Adam thinks marriage a haven, but Eve thinks marriage is a journey, then problems lie ahead. No doubt there will be disagreements, but not, I think, because their metaphors have landed them in different places.

How did metaphors become a yardstick (nice metaphor, that) of the good life? In terms of argument, the book proceeds as follows: it’s what I call the “slyly introduced hammer blow”. If you want to say something controversial, don’t say it upfront, but dress up your argument in the most persuasive terms that nobody could disagree with. Then repeat the process two or three times until, when the reader is lulled into acceptance of your drift, you insert something highly contentious. Don’t say it is contentious; simply state it follows logically, as night follows day.

Hence, Metaphors We Live By begins by saying much of human discourse uses metaphor – I can’t deny that. The metaphors we use can often be grouped, and Lakoff and Johnsen capitalise the names of these groups,  a charming gesture. Thus, we have groups such as

TIME IS MONEY, e.g. “I’ve invested a lot of time in her.”

TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE, e.g. “Do you have much time left?”

 The argument proceeds without controversy, in easily understood steps such as these, until suddenly signs of metaphors are linked to morality.  For some strange reason, Lakoff and Johnson object to metaphors that do not fit into one of their metaphor groups. Hence the seemingly inoffensive phrase “the foot of the mountain”, which is condemned outright:

“Examples like the foot of the mountain are idiosyncratic, unsystematic, and isolated. They do not interact with other metaphors, play no particularly interesting role in our conceptual system, and hence are not metaphors that we live by.”

Where did this argument come from?  Commentators have been complaining for years about “stale” use of language, and “dead” metaphors, but they are not usually trained linguists.  For Lakoff and Johnson, the metaphors we use have to be those that “enter into our everyday lives” – otherwise they are dubious.

The claims about the moral value of choosing the right metaphor are only fully stated in the book’s final chapter, when the authors become positively lyrical. I bet you had no idea that by adopting the correct use of metaphor, as described by Lakoff and Johnson, your life will be less “impoverished”.

I completely agree that in a conversation, “meaning is negotiated: you slowly figure out what you have in common.” But to say that the well-known “conduit” principle, which states that ideas are objects, linguistic expressions are containers, and communication is sending, is “pathetic” or even “evil” seems to be overstating the case.  “When a society lives by the Conduit metaphor on a large scale, misunderstanding, persecution, and much worse are the likely products”.

How then should we use metaphor? That isn’t so clearly described, but there is a reference in Chapter 30 to “appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives”, in other words, that provide “self-understanding”. If self-understanding is possible through metaphor, why not then claim that metaphor enables “ritual”, “aesthetic experience”, and “politics”- and the authors have a section dedicated to each of these topics. Why politics, for example? Because “a metaphor in a political or an economic system, by virtue of what it hides, can lead to human degradation.” Lakoff & Johnsen quote the metaphor “Labor is a resource” and point out the labor could be “meaningful” or “dehumanized”. This seems to be an extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that words in a language determine the way we think. It recalls the famous Roman proverb quoted by Marx in Capital, “Pecunia non olet”, meaning that cash – coins and, today, notes -  carry no associations from the possibly illegal and devious things they might have been involved with in an earlier transaction. For Lakoff, metaphors seem to be like coins, in that coins do not carry associations of the situations in which they have been transacted, but some moralists believe that they should. For Lakoff, the simple phrase “labor is a resource” is deeply suspicious: “the blind acceptance of the metaphor can hide degrading realities”, since phrases such as these are often used in a context where labour is seen as a cheap, undervalued resource.  Yet Lakoff himself earlier in the book has no difficulties with TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE.

Next time I use a metaphor, I’ll think carefully about how it can enter my everyday life.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Thoughts about the Afterlife

Last Judgement, Beauvais Cathedral, 16th century
One of the odd things that struck me on reading Dante is how obsessed he is with the afterlife and the Church's emphasis on judging the world. So absorbed is he in describing the afterlife, it seems, that he does not appear to notice the ludicrousness of apportioning everyone in human history to a specific location in the afterlife, like marking an examination. Today we laugh at the scales being used to weigh the souls of the dead for their moral goodness, but clearly at the time it was taken very seriously - and few seemed to notice who it was holding the scales.

Philip Almond's book, Afterlife: a history of life after death (2016), mentions this point:
Almond ... notes that as early as the fourth century Ambrose was wanting to acknowledge that a straight division between saved and damned at the point of death was morally crude and unnecessarily harsh. He also acknowledges that the historic preoccupation with purgatory and hell (more than heaven) has been largely for psychological and political reasons - namely to motivate a good and obedient life.[Vernon White, review of Afterlife,TLS, November 4 2016]
Somewhere here the obsession with the afterlife seems to have overtaken ideas of tolerance and acknowledgement of human doubt; something that still occurs today, where attachment to a principle continues to outweigh ideas of reasonableness. It makes those scales of judgment just slightly less endearing.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Buildings to house art: The Fitzwilliam Museum

Pretty simple to design an art gallery, you might think. You need wall space, plenty of it; not too much direct sunlight. Perhaps something distinctive about the building to make it clear it is not just a big house or warehouse. Yet if designing a gallery is so simple, why does the actual building that surrounds the pictures we look at make such a difference to our experience? Or to put it another way, why is the Fitzwilliam such a failure as a structure, compared to, say, the Ashmolean in Oxford?

These thoughts are prompted by a reading of Lucilla Burn’s The Fitzwilliam Museum: a History (2016), an interesting if uninspired volume, which reveals more about the building than about the collection (perhaps inevitably, in a single volume).  

The Fitzwilliam Museum was built in three major stages. First, the original museum, designed by George Basevi from 1835 and opened (incomplete) in 1848. The entrance hall was  then revised by Edward Barry and completed 1875. This initial building scores very highly as a object to be admired, but as an art gallery it was (and is) useless. The main galleries are all situated on the first floor that can only be reached by a huge ostentatious staircase that turns back on itself. The hall is so opulent that no art could ever compete with its gaudiness. 
Even Michelangelo's Last Judgement would be overwhelmed by this entrance [Zhurakovskyi - Own work, CC0,]
Paradoxically, the entrance hall has a convoluted feel to it; it does not feel like a grand entrance, for all its splendour. There are many more impressive staircases than this, for example Juvarra's Palazzo Madama in Turin:

The Marlay and Courtauld Galleries were the first major extension. They add two storeys to the left of the main building. Designed in the 1920s, they fail (as most buildings would fail, alongside Basevi) to live up to the grandeur of the original building. 
The Marlay Corridor
The most noticeable thing about these galleries is their feebleness. These galleries give the impression that they considered for a moment about competing with the Basevi block but then decided not to compete with the main building, so they retire a discreet distance back from the original front. In doing so, they waste considerable space - they are essentially corridors on two floors with glass cases, and it looks as though the contents of those cases has varied little since the galleries were opened.
A view probably unchanged in the last 50 years
The Courtauld Galleries, an extension a few years later, tried to emulate the least art-focused part of the original Fitzwilliam – the staircase. Again, there is a grand staircase with exquisite detailing, but which is absolutely useless for displaying art.
Courtauld Galleries - great staircase, not much art
After the Courtauld and Marlay extensions, further additions to the Fitzwilliam have been almost apologetic. In the 1960s David Roberts built a further extension, to the left of the Courtauld Galleries. This building is now largely obscured by perhaps the only truly successful architecture in the whole gallery, the Museum Courtyard - most of which isn't a new building at all. This Courtyard is cleverly created by adding a roof between the Roberts Building and the Courtauld Galleries. At a stroke a dreary external courtyard became a lively meeting place and cafĂ©, that provides an invitation to the galleries beside it (since you can see inside the Courtauld Galleries – a further problem with the original Fitzwilliam, which reveals absolutely nothing of its contents from the outside). At least you can say this Courtyard actually takes into account what is already there, rather than plonking another block alongside earlier buildings without any relationship. 
The Courtyard, successfully linking the cafe and the museum
However even the Museum Courtyard is not without its failings. The entrance  to the museum, the one used today by the majority of visitors, does not look or feel like an entrance. It has an apology of a canopy; there are doors that open automatically the wrong way (opening out to hit the visitors as they enter); and does not integrate with any other structure in the Gallery.
This is where most of the 750,000 visitors a year enter the Fitzwilliam - between the dustbins

All in all, the Fitzwilliam staff deserve sympathy for trying to make some sense of a very poor collection of original buildings.  When the inevitable Lottery Fund moneyarrives, I hope the opportunity is taken to rethink the entire museum and to create some sympathetic and inspiring surroundings for art. There is little sign of that in the existing infrastructure.  The first buildings I would remove are the Marlay and Courtauld Galleries.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Why Caesar crossed the Rubicon

Before I start, I should clarify I don't aim to give a full explanation just why Caesar crossed the Rubicon. But I hope to give one example that doesn't convince. So here we are looking at the method of justification rather than explaining the event itself.

I’ve always enjoyed reading T P Wiseman’s reviews in the TLS, as they always provide clear and well-substantiated argument either supporting or (as here) critiquing a book he is reviewing.

In this case the book isn’t so important, but the method of argument is revealing. The review is of a book about Caesar (TLS June 10 2016), looking at one of the moments in Roman history moment we all know about. Wiseman quotes Edward Freeman, writing in 1859: “Men look to this period of Roman history for arguments for or against monarch, aristocracy, or democracy”. It is, of course, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, taking his army into Italy, leading to civil war and the end of the Roman republic.

Wiseman explains this moment with reference to a passage by Cicero: his contrast of “optimates” and “populares”.

There have always been two groups of men in this state who have been eager to be involved in the affairs of state and to play a pre-eminent part in them; of these groups one wanted themselves to be considered populares, the other optimates. Those who wanted what they did and what they said to be pleasing to the crowd (populus) were considered populares, while those who acted in such a way that their policies found favour with the best people (optimi) were considered optimates. Who, then, are all these best people? Optimates are all those who are not guilty of crime, who are not evil by nature, who are not raving mad, who are not encumbered in their domestic affairs.

Cicero, pro Sestio 96-97

A reasonable interpretation of this is that it is sensible people (like you and me) are optimates, while simply pleasing the crowd is wrong. But on the basis of this passage alone it’s difficult to know if Cicero is siding with one party or the other – or even if such groups exist.

Wiseman then quotes Sallust  to gloss who these optimates are. How about this for an argument?

Sallust did not use the term optimates. For him, Cicero’s “best people” were “the powerful few”  or “the arrogant aristocracy”, and blamed the troubles of the time on their greed and ruthlessness … Sallust saw … the interests of the few in conflict with those of the many as far back as the beginning of the republic”.

Now, if you interpret Rome around the period of Caesar as being the interests of the many v the interests of the few, with Caesar siding with the people to curb the excesses of the elite, then the argument is clear; we know where we are. Caesar, as Wiseman states, “was the greatest popularis of the time. When Cicero refers to “those who want their words and deeds to be welcome to the multitude”, he must have had in mind Caesar’s consulship three years earlier”.

There’s just one problem with Wiseman’s argument – the quote Wiseman uses to explain the term misses one key word. Surely if Sallust didn’t use the term “optimates”, how can this quote be used to back up Cicero’s presumed distinction? In our understandable wish to follow the author’s thread, we take Wiseman’s word for it, until in retrospect we realise the quotes as they stand don’t in themselves cohere. The crossing of the Rubicon, on this evidence, will remain a mystery to me.


America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper

There is a certain satisfaction on viewing an exhibition devoted to a single theme; in this case, the early 20th-century vision of the United States, an America of tall buildings, huge bridges, grain towers, trains, and silos; an idea that may well be more powerful than the reality.

This Ashmolean show doesn’t fit that vision precisely. Despite the title, the exhibition neither starts chronologically with O’Keefe, nor ends with Hopper, and neither of those artists is typical of the exhibition. I suspect these two names have been inserted to the exhibition title as the most recognised artists in the exhibition. The public likes a recognisable name. 

It’s worth considering why they are not typical, why O’Keefe and Hopper are both somewhat at variance with the main theme of the exhibition. While the show as a whole has quite remarkably almost no recognisable humans in any of the works, both O’Keefe and Hopper move towards the human: O’Keefe because her art, even when abstract,  always appears to be based around the forms of the human body. Her patterns remind the viewer of human forms. Alternatively, she paints a recognisable view, such as the East River from her hotel. 

With Hopper, it’s rather different. Hopper is always trying to tell a story. Hopper’s paintings are never just a landscape, or a building captured; no, there is a story here. Even when humans are absent, Hopper is still telling a story. For example, Dawn in Pennsylvania has a deserted railway station platform and a train just disappearing. So where is this train going? Have we missed it? There is a drama here.

In contrast, where this exhibition excels is in a kind of inhuman purity. Objects and patterns are displayed, whether representational or abstract, as shapes that are satisfying in their own right. Perhaps the best example of this is the famous Paul Strand photograph entitled White Fence. Although the title states New York, the fence could be anywhere. This is just a fence, forming a satisfying pattern.

Similarly, some of the representational images are moving towards the abstract by simply taking a shape – in the case of the picture above, Le Tournesol [Sunflower], by Edward Steichen – and moving it towards pure pattern. The result is one of those rare occasions when the pictures truly interact with each other. Each new image, representational or abstract, is a study in creating satisfying shapes out of something seen. So a lithograph such as American Pattern – Barn, by Benton Spruance, is as the title suggests, a barn that is everywhere yet nowhere; a pattern of America.

In that sense, Hopper and O’Keefe are the odd men out. For me, the show is perfectly summarised in Charles Sheeler’s Bucks County Barn.  It could well be a specific building in a specific place, but the treatment is so reduced the formal shapes – two solid blocks at ninety degrees to each other -  that we observe the pattern, not the specific building. It’s only on closer observation that you notice just a few inconspicuous details that introduce a jarring note that that formal perfection: a broken fence, repairs in the roof. This, you feel, is a vision of America. 

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Quote of the week: Stefan Collini on assessing universities

Image by Luke Jones, CC BY 2.0

Writing in the London Review of Books (Diary, 10 May 2018), Stefan Collini complains about new ways of measuring universities, including his (Cambridge):
Last year the government introduced a new wheeze. Universities are now awarded Olympic-style gold, silver and bronze medals for, notionally, teaching quality. But the metrics by which teaching quality is [sic] measured are - I am not making this up - the employment record of graduates, scores on the widely derided National Student Survey, and 'retention rates' (i.e. how few students drop out). These are obviously not measures of teaching quality; neither are they things universities can do much to control, whatever the quality of their teaching.
Whatever the relationship of university teaching to the first two metrics, the third is another matter. Mr Collini states that teaching quality is not in any way linked to students dropping out, and that universities have no control over it. Perhaps at Cambridge the undergraduates are so grateful to be admitted that they put up with whatever teaching they are offered, and will remain there regardless, but it would be reasonable to assume in lesser institutions some causality between quality of teaching and retention rate.