Friday, June 3, 2011

Back to the Good Letters

It is amazing to me how reading again, and again, yields so much more from Dawn 2 Decadence.

I find myself puzzled, however, by the following two sentences:
If we look for what is common to the Humanists over the centuries we find two things: a body of accepted authors and a method of carrying on study and debate. The two go together with the belief that the best guides to the good life are Reason and Nature.

I can see how study and debate link up to "Nature," but I'm having a hard time understanding the idea that "Reason" is linked to a body of accepted authors, and especially since it to an extent contradicts the goal of understanding Nature.

The group thought inherent in the idea of "Accepted authors" seems limiting. True, physics broke new ground with Max Planck, Einstein, and others, but that seems to be on account of a new understanding that yielded tremendous value, and a much closer approximation to reality. Also, we know that Einstein's "special relativity" yields contradictory results to "quantum mechanics," but that doesn't mean we reject one or the other in the sciences. Science yields that it does not have enough understanding at present to unify these two fields.

The Humanities, on the other hand, seem to be much more lemming like. With very few exceptions, I do not like modern day classical music. It tortures my ears. Yet, it seems that's what is now necessary because of the "Accepted Authors." The same goes for art. Purple architecture, etc. The modern day "Political Correctness" grates on me with its inconsistent axioms. And it seems even the sciences are falling into this trap. AGW has a set of "Authors," they have not been willing even when pressed by the Freedom of Information Act to divulge their data and methods, which means the results can not be replicated (except by a small group of the initiate), and I have severe reservations about String Theory, which seems to be everything at once, or nothing at all (no predictive value).

Accepted authors is not consistent with Reason. Or perhaps this is merely a sign of the degeneration of our times, and a new, wrong way of "Who gets to select the Authors."

Saturday, September 4, 2010

About ready to return

With about 10 days off since mid may (including a 5 day vacation in the boundary waters), I am almost on top of my work. That's 12 - 23 hour days! It's been brutal.

But my project is nearing being under control. So I anticipate my return to Barzun.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This article seems relevant

When I ran across this article about a person in the UK who violated an animal rights law, it reminded me of Barzun's comments about how everything is given "rights."


I also find it ironic how the abstract world of "fairness" plays out, as is clear in this article.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Early" chapter post

I was reading "The Artist is Born" Friday before last before family chaos overtook my evening, and there was a very important paragraph (to me) that I wanted to push out.

It's an area that perplexes me, and one that is, I think, a fundamental topic.
The sheer number of Renaissance treatises tells us something about the nature of a cultural movement. One tends to think of what goes by that name as comprising a handful of geniuses with a group of admirers, patrons, and articulate supporters whose names appear (so to speak) as footnotes in smaller type. Actually, it is a large crowd of highly gifted people--the mass is indispensable. This is a generality. And these many co-workers must be great talents, not duffers. They may be incomplete or unlucky as creators, their names may remain or turn dim, but in retrospect we see that this one or that contributed an original idea, was the first to make use of a device. Together, by what they do and say, they help to keep stirred up the productive excitement, they stimulate the genius in their midst; they are the necessary mulch for the period's exceptional growths.
I've had this thought over and over again. It is at the foundation of my views on society.

I believe in Einstein. I believe in Newton. I believe in Grigoriy Perelman.

These people made quantum leaps. Newton spent seventeen years working on Calculus and physics in isolation. Einstein spent three years in isolation solving general relativity, and hyperbolic calculus. And Dr. Perelman spent his life living with his mother, solving the Poincare Conjecture and rejecting the million dollar prize for solving it.

These are my icons. These are the shining examples of people confronted with the unimaginable imagining it. At present, I'm unaware of any current idea that invalidates Einstein's equations, for instance.

On the other hand, I wonder what would have happened if Einstein had been born a (genetically short) million years ago. What could an Einstein have done then? The introspection required would have left him vulnerable, or any of the above, to say the least. The society plays a role: it has to allow these imaginative people to exist, and their insights to flourish. How many paths are unexplored? Who is to say? And who is to say which of these unexplored paths are inferior? It makes my head swim.

Insofar as the idea that there are many involved in a cultural movement, supporting it, perhaps that is true for fuzzy things like whether the trinity is one or multiple instances of the same thing. I'll leave that to Barzun.

The reason this is interesting to me is the question of wealth. I believe in our current society wealth accumulation is a factor of society, and geniuses marshaling the forces of luck, social mores, and people to obtain tremendous hereditary power from one social genre to the next. I'm firmly opposed to that, and to the extent that Barzun supports that idea, is the extent to which I'm willing to yield to Barzun's notion that "It takes a society."

Of course, none of the people I mentioned hold that hereditary power. They all sought something else, something internal, and I hope that light never goes away.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A stone, a leaf, a door

I really enjoyed this chapter. It describes the development in thinking about the worldly, as opposed to, spiritual life. It also points to something about human nature, the desire to discover the lost or the hidden. This chapter is historically out of order.

Petrarch is born in 1304, and as a humanist is interested in this world's experiences. Similarly, Forcino is born in the mid 15C. We see a Greek school in Italy opened in 1453. We hear about Pico della Mirandola, who wrote "On the Dignity of Man." The entire chapter seems devoted to pre-reformation trends. The trends are about the development of an interest in worldly that were somewhat tolerated by the church, and in the case of the Greek school, the church had a causative role.

There must be a purpose for putting these chapters out of order. In Chapter 1, all I could think was the reaction of a man to a church that had the tight, sumptuous yielding grip of the people in its hands. Luther's reaction was against the corruption of the church. The reaction of the populace was a rejection of the (unequal) corruption. But now we see other elements. We see the interest in the worldly at odds with the spiritual, a kind of debasing of the spiritual. This is the PRIMITIVISM Barzun describes as an element of return to simpler times.
All this is a is due the Middle Age's attitude toward history. They merged time and space indiscriminately. They mingled fact and legend and miracle, and being preoccupied with eternity, they "took" sameness and continuity as more real than development and change--hence, no history in the modern sense"
In other words, Humanism was the beginning of something: the beginning of an understanding of our own world, and in some way a "splitting" of spiritual and worldly. I do love the ending of the chapter:
Such was the scene that revolted the young Luther. Viewed with his eyes, humanism was only a name for worldliness. The low morals of high church-men often justified his verdict, yet on the whole, the Humanists were perhaps more truly Christians than the run of the mill priests and monks or the fanatic Evangelicals who lived by violence yet deemed themselves saved by by faith. . . .
Another interesting part of the book is the near obsession with the book. From the "Form" of a sonnet, to the typefaces, the reverence of books . . .It almost seems there is a mystical attribution to the books themselves "They must be true." I've known several people who have become fascinated with fonts. I'm not surprised with Barzun's anger towards having languages humans can't understand (bar codes) written on things.

I come back again to the placement of this chapter. Why historically out of place? I can only surmise it is done so to "set the record straight." We view Luther and his Evangelicals as the breaking up of the church, and paving the way for the sciences. But Barzun makes us see these elements were in place long before the Reformation. In chapter two, we see Barzun taking a swipe at the idea the reformation was necessary for the intellectual blossoming:
This stand was in effect dictated by their Protestant enemies. One could say in a roundabout fashion, it was these Bible-ridden revolutionists who got Galileo condemned for his astronomy. (middle of page 40)"
Barzun has a lot of convincing to do to me if he is to make me believe progress would have been as fast as before the reformation. I'm waiting to read more.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chapter 2, belated

I found Chapter 2 interesting, but it was hard for me to get a good handle on it. I really can't a find a main theme to it just several observations:

This chapter is really packed with information. I have read it several times and each time something new stands out.

I liked Barzun description of the various layers of ritual and saints that were built up by the Catholic Church. I actually have a book that shows the Saints for each day of the year. I particularly liked St. Sythe, saint of lost keys. Though I am an atheist, I could use Sythe in my house. The Catholic Church seems similar to the modern state in that over time it will try manage every aspect of a person's life.

Two chapter into the book and only three themes have been introduced. Will any of the other themes have their origin in the Reformation?

I found it surprising that Barzun wasn't harsher in describing John Calvin. Calvin may have been Lenin to Luthor's Marx as far as spreading the faith, but as a leader he seems closer to Stalin.

I liked the criticism of Max Weber and R. H.Tawney work linking capitalism to Protestant work ethic. It is pretty clear that realty is a bit more complicated, but it is interesting how an idea can become established fact.

I may be overstating this but I detect in Barzun a sense of futility of the human condition and human institutions. Revolutions may bring EMANCIPATION but that is not true freedom because "Old shackles are thrown off, tossed high in the air, but come down again as moral duty well enforced". The Catholic church trained Jesuits to mission to the New World and to Europe, the bright minds undermined the dogma they learned so well, the church became a "infamous thing" to crush. Calvin spends his life codifying the "proper" Christian beliefs and creates a parallel to the Jesuits mission but he cannot control Reform. This was probably an impossible task considering the Catholic had centuries to it's build it's layers of control, one lifetime is too short a time.

I found the explanation of the Eurcharist and Predestination very helpful. They are not easy concepts to understand and without the parallels to the modern variety I wouldn't be able to see the appeal of Calvinism.

This was a tough chapter to read, but even harder to write about. I need to shift into a higher gear to catch up.


March 8, 2008

DFTD Chapter 3 “The Good Letters”

OK—I think that I have understood some of what Barzun is presenting. Part of my problem with this material is my weak credentials in history and, in particular, the definitions of key words such as humanism.

One possible take on this is the departure of religious figures from ‘pure religion’ that retains the mystical aspects of ceremony, ritual, symbols, the Latin Mass, etc. It seems that he is opposed to much of the behavior of the elite who subscribed to the art and life style associated with the Renaissance and that focused on ‘this world’ and not the life after death. (Perhaps the painting that serves as the book cover is his vision of life during the Renaissance. I’m almost certain that the statue in the background is Michelangelo’s David.)

I am amazed by the intensity of the debates that governed the fate of some of the more controversial characters described in these early chapters, including Severtus and Savonarola, both of whom were burnt at the stake. But, as I read other reports on these characters, I learn that complex social, financial and even sexual factors played central roles in their fates. For example, Savonarola was a hugely successful Dominican friar whose emergence was linked to the disparity between the elite (and it was the wealthy elite who fostered and supported the advanced cultural achievements of the Renaissance) and the common man. Savonarola, amongst other activities, purged Florence of homosexuals, ‘plundered’ the homes of the rich and burned their possessions in the famous “Bonfire of the vanities”. His almost fanatical preaching of the need to destroy the vestiges of worldliness were enhanced by the devastations of war and the introduction of syphilis into Florence near the turn of the 15C. Apparently he exploited millennialism (and the associated fear that these were the Last Days) as well. But, eventually his powers waned because his spiritual focus on things not of this world led to economic hardships on the people. Pope Alexander VI eventually had his way and, after days of torture, he signed, with his remaining right arm, his confession that led to his being burnt at the stake in the same place (La Piazza della Signorina) where he supervised the Bonfire of the Vanities.

All of this historical review is an attempt on my part to understand Barzun’s treatment of Savonarola. On page 55 Barzun writes: “The Italian Humanists witnessed one fit of Evangelical zeal and it was enough.” I walk away from this chapter with the sense that Barzun’s considers humanism to be a contributor to the decadence he uses in the title of his book. Maybe he is striving for ‘pure faith’ and, perhaps, he views Savonarola’s fire and brimstone as one of the last gasps before the descent into irreversible decadence, a state of affairs that is the consequence of innovativeness, humanism, dedication to the sensual aspects of the arts, etc.

“As for the Humanist methods, it is the one still in universal use. Its conventions are commonplace everywhere in government, business, the weekly magazines, and even in schoolwork—who has escaped “research”? who dares ignore exact quotation and date, consulting previous work, citing sources, listing bibliography, and sporting that badge of candor, the footnote?”

Why so negative? Perhaps he prefers the mystical, at least the mysticism defined by the ‘True Church’. I think that he opposes the reformation, humanism, innovation, materialism, worldliness, sensual art and, to the extent that any of these aspects of his ‘modern era’ are reinforced the science, he opposes science or at least the scientific method. This may be too broad a sweep but, I think, that some of his thoughts go in this direction. Interestingly, I have not yet discovered what he promotes. I plan to search in my reading of FDTD those historical events that Barzun endorses.

This is an interesting aside—I recently joined FaceBook at the invitation of my son Paolo who wants to use this medium as a means of sharing some of his musical videos. Upon joining I was asked to include a photo. The only one I had was a photo taken by my colleague Jim Tanko for purposes of the University. I think this was taken about 10-15 years ago so it may be hard to recognize me from the photo.

I got a message yesterday from Emre Isin, a former graduate student who worked with me and how now works at AstraZeneca in Sweden. He wrote:

“I was pleasantly surprised to see you in Facebook, professor. And a good photo, too. Resistant to the years.”

It was the “Resistant to the years.” that led me to “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde and to a review of his biography. He lived a debauched, decadent life that led to a famous trial and his incarceration at hard labor for 2 years. Following release he tried to join the Church but his request was denied. He died at the age of 46 in poverty. The following quote records the end:

"He was conscious that people were in the room, and raised his hand when I asked him whether he understood. He pressed our hands. I then sent in search of a priest, and after great difficulty found Father Cuthbert Dunne ... who came with me at once and administered Baptism and Extreme Unction. - Oscar could not take the Eucharist".

The story is interesting because many of the issues touched on by Barzun in these early chapters are reflected in Wilde’s life.