Archive for April, 2012

Great moments in opera: Madama Butterfly

April 29, 2012

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, consistently ranking in the top 10 most frequently performed works in the world’s opera houses (though it is only Puccini’s third most popular work, ranking below both La boheme and Tosca!). There is much to like about it: a central character whose faith and fidelity win our admiration even as her misplaced trust brings about her ruin, a touch of Japanese exoticism, and a gorgeous score. The opera premiered in 1904, and was revised several times before assuming its current form in 1907.

Lieutenant Pinkerton is a US Navy man who takes a wife — Butterfly — during an extended stay in Nagasaki. They conceive a child together, but Pinkerton departs soon afterward. The heart of the drama turns on Butterfly’s faithful and patient waiting for his return, which endures for years before being crushed by Pinkerton’s return in the company of his American wife.

The highlight of the first Act is the love duet for Butterfly and Pinkerton, Vogliatemi bene (Love me well). All is well at this point in the story, and the duet is ravishing. It is sung in this concert excerpt by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, with subtitles:

In Act II we have the opera’s musical high point: Butterfly’s heartbreaking aria Un bel di (One beautiful day), in which she dreams of the day when she shall see Pinkerton’s ship return to the harbour, and she shall once again see his face. The great Renata Tebaldi sings it in this clip, without subtitles, but they are hardly necessary in this case:

Pinkerton does return to Nagasaki toward the end of Act II, but in Act III Butterfly learns that he has forsaken her. Retreating into a private room, she takes her family’s ceremonial knife and sings Con onor muore (To die with honour). Blindfolding her child, she stabs herself and collapses on the floor just as Pinkerton rushes in. The finale is sung here by Patricia Racette in a 2009 production from the Met, with English subtitles.

Burtt: Foundations of Modern Science

April 25, 2012

The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science
E.A. Burtt
(Dover, 2003) [1932]
352 p.

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

– Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic

I begin with this quotation because it gives us a vivid portrait of the predicament into which the metaphysics of modern science has led us. We have arrived at a picture of the world, and an understanding of our own place within it, which is, in a great many respects, hostile not only to the conception of human nature that reigned prior to the modern period, but, one is tempted to say, to even the most basic notion of man as a rational and moral creature. This situation, which I in certain moods can see only as an impasse, has come about in part because we have adopted a particular view of the natural world. It is the burden of E.A. Burtt’s classic book on the philosophy of science to outline this view, and to describe the historical circumstances in which it developed.

It developed out of something, and it is worth trying to sketch the basic contours of what preceded it. For late medieval man, nature was qualitative and inherently intelligible. Things has natures which were in principle knowable, and the whole natural order, though not itself intelligent, was nonetheless teeming with teleological relations. The texture of the world was thick: objects presented themselves to the understanding as unities, rich with colour and sound, and the beauty they conveyed to the mind was a modest but real intimation of a deeper, more permanent order. If man was considered to be, in some sense, above nature, this did not prevent his being at home in the world, for it was a world in which the human experience of will and desire, or the love of beauty, or the longing for knowledge was perfectly intelligible.

The birth of modern science did away with this view of things, perhaps with good intentions, sometimes with good reasons, and unquestionably with great success. Eventually it bequeathed us a world in which we appear as aliens, a world devoid of purposes, stripped of meaning, colourless and silent, comprised solely of bodies moving in space and time in a manner described by mathematical relations. We see the world as a massive machine, functioning according to fixed principles, best understood by examining its basic parts, and wholly governed by temporal (or, in Aristotelian terms, efficient) causation. Paradoxically, given the concomitant massive increase in our capacity to manipulate the natural world to serve our ends, the very framework whereby the world might be intelligible to us has been dismantled; we are reduced to speculation and inference based on neural signals produced by particles impinging on our sensory organs. The realm of qualities, purposes, and meaning, which can scarcely be entirely dispensed with, but which can find no place in the world so conceived, has been confined to scattered, and increasingly mysterious, things called ‘minds’. And now, with the turning of the wheel, the attempt is made to close the circle: to absorb even minds, hitherto the shelter for all those aspects of reality not compatible with the mechanistic, mathematical framework, into the framework itself. Our situation is, to say the very, very least, dramatic.

A thorough rehearsal of the historical development of the modern view would be a book-length project — indeed, it would be this very book — but I can sketch the main trajectory. Generally speaking, there are two important streams of thought to consider: the mathematical and the empirical. Both had roots in the medieval period. Though largely independent as they developed, they both informed the thought of Isaac Newton, who formulated an influential fusion of the two.

The revival of interest in Pythagorean thought was an important factor. Pythagoras had famously claimed that the world was made of “number”, and though the meaning of this claim was perhaps somewhat mysterious, it exerted a certain fascination. Late medieval astronomers showed a particular interest, and for intelligible reasons. It is easy to see, for example, how the sciences of astronomy and geometry, a physical science and a mathematical one, were considered closely related. In fact, Burtt argues that in the minds of at least some astronomers, astronomy just was geometry: astronomers studied the geometry of the heavens. To such men, it was natural, and even tempting, to believe that what was true in geometry was also true, in some sense, in the heavens. Thus when Copernicus proposed his heliocentric theory of the cosmos, the fact that it was mathematically simpler than the prevailing Ptolomeic model was interesting, and suggested to some, if not in Copernicus’ generation then certainly in the succeeding ones, that its mathematical simplicity was itself providing physical insight into the actual structure of the cosmos.

Johannes Kepler made a more radical claim: he argued that the mathematical order discernible in nature was itself the cause of the observed facts about the world. The real world was, in his mind, just the mathematical harmony discoverable in it. The strangeness of this idea ought to impress us: it was not that the world exhibited certain regularities such that aspects of it could be modelled using mathematical concepts exhibiting those same regularities — what we might call an instrumental use of mathematics — but rather that a mathematical description penetrated to the core of being, yielding a foundational understanding of the natural world. This essentialist view of mathematics was to prove very influential. An epistemological consequence followed: genuine knowledge of the world amounted to knowledge of its mathematical structure; mathematics provided not just a description of the natural world, but an explanation of it.

Kepler’s ideas influenced Galileo, who also believed that mathematical order implied necessity in nature. Galileo’s special contributions were, first, to explicitly abandon final causality as a principle of explanation in the physical sciences, and, second, to clarify the distinction, still hazy for Kepler, between the emerging concepts of primary and secondary qualities. The idea that final causality should be given up in favour of efficient causality had medieval precendent (in the thought of John Buridan, for instance), but until Galileo’s time it had not gained much traction. No doubt the waning influence of Aristotle was part of the reason why the time was ripe, and it is likely that the appeal of mathematical physics was another factor: it is more difficult (though not obviously impossible) for final causes to be given a mathematical formalism. To those seeking to construct a mathematical description of nature, therefore, and especially to those who believed that nature was intrinsically mathematical, final causes could have no appeal and provide no insight. The interesting question for these men was no longer ‘why’, but only ‘how’. The world so conceived was mechanical in substance: it consisted of bodies moving in space and time according to fixed mathematical relations. (Indeed, space and time now began to acquire status as fundamental metaphysical notions, which they certainly had not had in Aristotelian thought.) It is crucial to notice, in this context, that it was the method, inspired by a particular view of the natural world, that disposed with final causes, rather than, say, a particular discovery about the world.

The distinction between primary and secondary qualities was motivated — and, arguably, created — by the adoption of the mathematical concept of nature as well. Primary qualities are those features of an object that truly inhere in it, which cannot be separated from it. Secondary qualities, on the other hand, though we commonly ascribe them to objects, do not truly belong to them. For an Aristotelian, for instance, the redness of a red ball may be accidental, but it is still truly a property of the red ball that it is red, whereas for the early moderns like Galileo the ball only seems red, but it is not actually so; its redness is a secondary quality ascribed to the ball on the basis of certain peculiarities of the human senses; its redness exists only in the mind. The distinction between primary and secondary qualities arose for early modern scientists because they were committed to a mathematical view of nature, yet certain features of the natural world were not amenable to mathematical treatment. Those aspects of the world which could be treated mathematically — size, shape, position, motion, magnitude — were called “primary” and were considered real properties of objects, whereas those aspects which resisted mathematical treatment — colour, sound, smell, not to mention more intangible qualities like beauty or goodness — were called “secondary” and were relocated from objects to minds. Thus, on this view, objects in the external world possess only primary qualities, and second qualities are confined to mental life. Indeed, “man is hardly more than a bundle of secondary qualities”. Burtt comments on this state of affairs:

Observe that the stage is fully set for the Cartesian dualism on the one side the primary, the mathematical realm; on the other the realm of man. And the premium of importance and value as well as of independent existence all goes with the former. Man begins to appear for the first time in the history of thought as an irrelevant spectator and insignificant effect of the great mathematical system which is the substance of reality.

The mention of Descartes is natural enough at this juncture, but before continuing that line of clear and distinct thought it is worthwhile to pause a moment to reflect on the motives and the evidence for the mechanistic, mathematical view of the world. If Burtt is correct, this conception of the world is by no means a discovery of the sciences, but rather a methodological stipulation. What evidence is there for it? The question is more difficult to answer than one might expect. The incredible success that the sciences have enjoyed in describing a vast range of physical phenomena strongly suggests that there is something right about the general view, for under its guidance we seem to have gained real insight into the physical world. Moreover, we know that the atomic hypothesis is broadly correct: there really are particles moving around in space and time. But this is not really contested; the question is not whether this view is correct, so far as it goes, but whether it provides an exhaustive description. Is there nothing more to the world than these particles? The fact that the investigations of the sciences have never discovered anything which could not be fit into the mathematical framework, while sometimes cited as evidence for the truth of the framework, is nothing of the sort. Methodological limitations are being conflated with ontological ones. Is it, after all, a coincidence that the world as conceived by the mathematical physicist answers so perfectly to his needs?

Returning to Descartes, it is clear that his division of the world into res extensa and res cogitans was a natural development of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities: primary qualities belonged to the former and secondary qualities to the latter. Descartes, too, was convinced from an early age that mathematics was the key to genuine knowledge; his entire philosophical project was constructed on that assumption. Even more than some of the other early modern natural philosophers, Descartes was attracted by the idea that nature was not just mathematical, but geometrical. He resisted the idea that motion could be reduced to mathematical formulae only by attributing to bodies non-geometric qualities (such as mass); his famous vortex theory was a remarkable, though unsuccessful, attempt to produce a geometric theory of gravity. With Descartes the idea that nature is purely mathematical becomes tautological, for he defined the world external to the mind as consisting only of extended objects possessing primary qualities, with everything else pushed into the subjective realm of mind. In consequence, the mental realm was, for him, not a possible object of scientific study, for it consisted precisely of those qualities, attributes, and powers which eluded scientific methods.

Not everyone, however, was content with a sharp distinction between the physical and mental. Hobbes attacked Cartesian dualism, and made an attempt to subsume everything, including mind, into the res extensa. He was not successful, but his following has waxed greatly in the meantime. The question of whether that project can possibly succeed is an exceedingly interesting one that can, however, not deter us now. Instead, I simply note that, whether on the Cartesian or the Hobbesian side, many of the basic concepts were shared: efficient causality, mathematical description, bodies in motion, reductionism, and mechanism. The formulation of the metaphysics of modern science was substantially complete.

We have yet, however, to take account of the second principal stream of thought that informed the Newtonian synthesis: the empirical tradition. The principal figure here is Robert Boyle. Empiricists were, in general, less radical than their counterparts in the mathematical tradition. They resisted the push to reductionism, making productive use of concepts such as heat, weight, hardness, brittleness, etc. which could not obviously be ascribed to individual atoms. Boyle had moderate views: he valued qualitative descriptions, maintained the reality of secondary qualities, and was willing to entertain the existence of final causes. He also took a modest view of human knowledge, being suspicious of grand explanatory systems and thinking it often necessary to be satisfied with probable explanations rather than certainties. Paradoxically, it was he who began to point out certain skeptical consequences of the ideas propounded by those intent on obtaining genuine and certain (that is, mathematical) knowledge: if the picture of the world as conceived by Galileo and Descartes was correct, if the soul knows the world only through the effects of bodies impinging upon the senses, and if the world is not intrinsically ordered toward intelligibility, skeptical consequences follow. I will return to this point below. We should also note, however, that despite some differences, Boyle also accepted many of the new assumptions of natural philosophy. His view of man was largely Cartesian: “engines endowed with wills”.

In Isaac Newton these two traditions found a common advocate and were, to a large degree, integrated with one another. Newton’s basic method was, first, to work from observation and experiment to principles (in keeping with the empirical tradition), and then from principles to other phenomena (as in the mathematical tradition). Experiments were always involved at both the beginning and the end of an investigation, and the physical principles were always expressed mathematically. His synthesis has proved remarkably robust. Burtt notes, “Newton enjoys the remarkable distinction of having become an authority paralleled only by Aristotle to an age characterized through and through by rebellion against authority”. Though some of his scientific ideas have been superseded, his basic approach to scientific studies and the metaphysical system within which it was expressed remain dominant today.

Naturally, the emergence of the modern metaphysics of nature had an effect on theology. The relationship of God and the world has always been an important theological question, and it could not but be touched by a revolution in our views of nature. The repercussions within theological circles were sometimes comical — or would have been, had so much not been at stake. Henry More, for instance, gave this list of attributes: “one, simple, immobile, eternal, perfect, independent, existing by itself, subsisting through itself, incorruptible, necessary, immense, uncreated, uncircumscribed, incomprehensible, omnipresent, incorporeal, permeating and embracing all things, essential being, actual being, pure actuality” — as attributes of space! Space, he argued, was “divine presence”; even God, being real, was thought to be a res estensa! Malebranche too said something similar. Robert Boyle, as before, was more moderate in his views, but was nonetheless clearly under the influence of the mechanical worldview. He stressed, very wisely, that God was known naturally and normally through the world’s regularity, not through irregularities (that is, miracles); in his view, God maintained the “general concourse” of the universe as an harmonious whole. His view of God tended toward the Deist; he described God, using a phrase that was to have an unfortunate legacy, as the artificer of “a rare clock”. This general view he bequeathed also to Newton, who made a hash of it: he thought of God as providentially intervening in the world to “repair” it when necessary. For instance, he believed that God needed to intervene to keep the stars (which would tend to collapse together under the influence of universal gravitation) apart from one another. Burtt dryly notes that “to stake the present existence and activity of God on imperfections in the cosmic engine was to court rapid disaster for theology”. As time passed, under pressure from thinkers like Hume and Kant, the need for (and the knowability of) this God became more doubtful. The general story is familiar enough, but it is worth contrasting the God so conceived with the conception of God that was compatible with medieval metaphysics: in the medieval view, God had no purpose, but was the ultimate object of purpose, the final end of everything; natural processes were thus themselves examples of his providential action. In the modern view, he was demoted to custodial duties, his actions confined to the service of a greater end: the order and mathematical harmony of the universe.

God, however, has not been the only victim of skepticism in the light of modern metaphysics. I noted earlier the paradox that a view born principally of a desire for genuine and sure knowledge of the natural world should itself produce skepticism about that same knowledge, yet it is quite true. A universe consisting merely of atoms moving in space inclines one more or less strongly toward nominalism — that is, to the view that the world is not inherently intelligible, our concepts being merely conventions that do not correspond to real things. Moreover, the ascent of atheism itself intensified skepticism, for if the world is not underwritten by an intelligence, what reason have we to suppose it can be grasped by our intellects? “It was by no means an accident,” writes Burtt, “that Hume and Kant, the first pair who really banished God from metaphysical philosophy, likewise destroyed by a sceptical critique the current overweening faith in the metaphysical competence of reason. They perceived that the Newtonian world without God must be a world in which the reach and certainty of knowledge is decidedly and closely limited, if indeed the very existence of knowledge at all is possible.” And, in a kind of reductio ad absurdam of the mechanistic metaphysics, the effort to extend it into the mental realm results, as it apparently must according to the terms available, in the obliteration of specifically mental life itself and those things belonging to it, such as the very concept of knowledge. It is the ultimate apotheosis of skepticism. But that is a topic for another time.

At the end of this long analysis, I suppose the question hanging in the air is: if not this, then what? How should I know? I am as beholden to the modern assumptions as much as anyone — and, as a physicist, I am perhaps beholden more than most. Yet I can see the problems clearly enough, and I can see, too, that the positive arguments in favour of the currently dominant view are surprisingly weak. It seems likely to me that we are guilty of allowing our method to dictate our ontology, which is a clear fallacy.

Yet it is far from clear how best to respond to the situation. One possible step would be to reappraise the rejection of final causality. The sciences have in any case never been entirely consistent in rejecting them: biologists in particular find it hard to resist making teleological claims when they discuss their subject, and there may be resources within physics as well for a restoration of final causes (I am thinking of teleological interpretations of the action principle in both classical and quantum mechanics). It is sometimes thought that final causes, having to do with goal-directedness and purpose, require the existence of a presiding or immanent intelligence or will, which requirement seems to imply either personification of nature or theism, but actually this is not true; Aristotelian final causes imply neither. Second, we may reconsider our commitment to reductionism: even if it is true (as it is) that the world is comprised of particles in motion, is it really true that an understanding of the properties of those particles is, in principle, sufficient to understand everything else? Are the physical properties of ink molecules on a sheet of paper really enough to account for the meaning the written word conveys? It seems obvious that a bridge is out somewhere. A richer metaphysics could provide room, once again, for serious and honest engagement with non-mathematical aspects of reality. But I am a feeble philosopher, and such things are far beyond my competence.

In the meantime we are left with a view which, though having been wonderfully successful in certain respects, ultimately has no place in it for you and me: rational beings who think about things from a first-person perspective and act in the world out of our own freedom. As such, the battle is joined.

Kathleen Ferrier singing “Ma bonny lad”

April 24, 2012

Taking my own excellent advice, I’ve been listening to Kathleen Ferrier over the past few days, including, on the strength of an article recommended by Francesca, her folk song recordings. It has been a while since I last heard them. I was struck by the beauty of this song in particular: “Ma bonny lad”. What a voice!

Great moments in opera: Rusalka

April 23, 2012

Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka is among the most popular Czech operas in the repertoire — not that there is a great deal of competition. It premiered in 1901, and though it has apparently enjoyed considerable popularity among Czech speakers in the meantime, I believe that it is only in the last few decades that it has become widely known in wider opera circles.

The story is based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale about a mermaid who falls in love with a man and is granted the opportunity, in exchange for her voice, to leave the sea to gain his love — the same story that inspired the Disney film The Little Mermaid. The resemblances don’t go very deep, however: in Dvořák’s version, Rusalka is betrayed by the prince, kills him with a kiss, and ends the opera as a water demon.

The music of the opera is quite beautiful. There is a good deal of wet and watery music, and Dvořák seems to have given the harp a prominent place in his score, lending it an enchanting quality. The vocal writing is pleasant, if not extremely memorable — with one notable exception: in Act I, when she first falls in love with the man, Rusalka sings the Song to the Moon, which surely ranks as one of the loveliest arias by Dvořák or anyone else. It is a beauty.

It is sung in this video by Anna Netrebko; I have posted this video before, mostly to make fun of it. Nonetheless, beggars cannot be choosers:

Happy birthday, Kathleen Ferrier

April 22, 2012

Today would have been the 100th birthday of the wonderful English contralto Kathleen Ferrier. She had one of the most distinctive and affecting, if not most conventionally beautiful, voices of the century.

Her singing career, which lasted only just over a decade, was curtailed by her untimely death, from cancer, in 1953.  Her recorded legacy is of small compass, but highly treasurable. She is perhaps best known for her (to my ears, somewhat lumbering) renditions of English folk songs, but in Mahler she was, if not quite unequaled, at least unsurpassed.

One really should spend the entire day listening to her, but, as a start, here are two short songs. The first is “O Waly, Waly”, which shows off her appeal in the homespun English repertoire, and the second is her heart-breaking version of Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”. This last, especially, is what used to be called a “classic of the gramophone” — one of the finest treasures from a century of recorded sound.

Happy birthday, Kathleen Ferrier.


April 20, 2012

A couple of friends have web sites which they feel could use a little more exposure. These links are my meager offering:

  • My good friend Daniel Bader runs an informative site about bipolar disorder called Bipolar Today, including a very active and characteristically fascinating blog.
  • Another friend, Daniel Santoro, is a lawyer, and a good one.

Applied physics

April 18, 2012

A friend sends a story about a professor who used physics to get out of paying a traffic ticket.

The paper outlining his argument is available here. I like the abstract (“The paper was awarded a special prize of $400 that the author did not have to pay to the state of California.”), and the paper itself (pdf) is a fun read. The physics involved is not beyond a high-school level.

Fine art of friendship

April 17, 2012

Last night I dreamed, repeatedly, of this song: “Fine Art of Friendship”, by King’s X. It came back to me again and again in different guises. In one dream I was explaining to my wife how difficult it is to play on the guitar (not that I would know), and in another we were watching instructional videos showing how to play the chords, pluck the strings, etc. Later in the dream a large group of people were pretending to play the song on “violins”, the violins in question being made of wooden spoons.

I have no idea why this particular song should have been on my mind. It has been months, if not a year or more, since I last heard it. In any case, here it is:

A pretty good song! I can think of worse ways to pass my hours of sleep.

Belloc round-up

April 13, 2012

Hilaire Belloc is a writer who has long interested me, not only on account of his being the hind end of Shaw’s famous ChesterBelloc, but also on his own account. What little I have known of him, garnered from reading a few of his books and from the occasional reference here or there, has intrigued me: he was a writer of prodigious output, a sometime politician, a world-class grump, an historian, a bellicose Catholic, a sailor, a tramp, a real man. His many books span an unusually broad range of genres: history, biography, memoir, travel, economics, politics, religion, and fiction too. Though it is true that many of them have passed out of print, and that he is relatively little read today, he was a very fine writer; much of what he wrote deserves to be remembered, and some of what he wrote is essential. Into this last category, especially, I would put his magnificent travelogue The Path to Rome, which is bursting with vitality and imagination, and which I believe ought to be read by everyone.

Some months ago my slow-burning curiosity flared up and I purchased three of his other travel-related books. All three were good and worthwhile, though not equally so. What follows are some brief thoughts on each.

The Four Men
A Farrago
(Oxford University Press, 1984) [1911]
177 p.

The finest of them was The Four Men, a genre-busting book that does its best to defy description. The premise is that four strangers — we are given to understand that they embody four sides of Belloc’s own gargantuan personality — all natives of Belloc’s beloved Sussex county, are travelling home together, on foot. As they walk they talk — and do they ever. In these pages one finds songs and stories, poetry, history, drama, recollection, and instructions on how to cure a pig. The tone is by turns comical, ironic, boisterous, ribald, lyrical, or melancholy. The book is a kind of minor miracle, for although it starts modestly enough one eventually wonders what worthwhile subject will escape its notice: love, religion, friendship, family, home, art, beauty, truth — nearly everything is here, in one way or another. It’s a wonderful book, a delightful book from start to finish, and one that I intend to read again.

[Worth memorizing for future use]
When in any company one man is found more courageous and more merry, more manly, more just, and more considerate, stronger, wiser, and much more holy than his peers, very generous also, yet firm and fixed in purpose, of good counsel, kind, and with a wide, wide heart, then if (to mention smaller things) he is also of the most acute intelligence and the most powerful in body of them all, it is he that is made the drudge and the butt of the others.

[Troubled by love]
In her absence — during the long nights especially — there returned to me the drooping of her eyes: their slow and generous glances. Waking and far off from her, when I saw in some stranger that same rare lowering of the lids I was troubled.

Her voice, because it was her very self, so moved me, that whenever I heard it upon my way to her doors, whenever I heard it speaking even in the distance no matter what things to another, I trembled.

Her name, which was not Mary nor Catherine, but was as common and simple a name, was set above the world and was given power over my spirit. So that to hear it attached even to another or to see it written or printed on a page everything within me stirred, and it was as though a lamp had been lit suddenly in my soul. Then, indeed, I understood how truly there are special words of witchcraft and how they bind and loose material things.

[A dream]
I woke and shuddered. For in my dream I had come to a good place, the place inside the mind, which is all made up of remembrance and of peace. Here I had seemed to be in a high glade of beeches, standing on soft, sweet grass on a slope very high above the sea; the air was warm and the sea was answering the sunlight, very far below me. It was such a place as my own Downs have made for me in my mind, but the Downs transfigured, and the place was full of glory and of content, height and great measurement fit for the beatitude of the soul. Nor had I in that dream any memory of loss, but rather a complete end of it, and I was surrounded, though I could not see them, with the return of all those things that had ever been my own. But this was in the dream only; and when I woke it was to the raw world and the sad uncertain beginnings of a little winter day.

The Cruise of the Nona
(Houghton Mifflin, 1925)
343 p.

I am now off to sail the English seas again, and to pursue from thought to thought and from memory to memory such things as have occupied one human soul, and of these some will be of profit to one man and some to another, and most, I suppose, to none at all.

So writes Belloc in the prologue to this account of several journeys which he made along the English coast in his boat, the Nona. The book is part travelogue, dwelling on the coastal features, the character of various ports, the sea currents, but also part memoir, fantasy, diatribe, and love letter. I do not know for certain the manner in which Belloc wrote it, but he implies, more than once, that he wrote each evening, his anchor weighed, both about the events of the day and the thoughts they suggested to him. It is a book about life, therefore, from a man on a solitary journey and in contact with “the salt of reality” (as he puts it). The narrative is structured around his travels, but these serve as only the flimsiest of frames; truth be told, it is about as unstructured as a book can be without falling to pieces. Belloc knows it: he writes, “It is in the very character of this book, of its essence, nature, and personality, that it has only an accidental beginning, no real end, and nothing in particular between the two.”

Nothing in particular, but that is not the same as nothing. Interwoven with the travel narrative and observations about the sea and the coastline — much the least interesting aspect of the book, in my opinion — are Belloc’s reflections on pretty much everything under the sun: Parliamentarians, Mussolini, the weather, truth, the outbreak of World War I, atheism, literary fame, tides, religious education, learning songs, Catholicism, democracy, socialism, the press, philosophical rationalism, political corruption, prose composition, the importance of anchors, abuses of academic authority, and on and on. Whether one enjoys all this will hinge on whether one enjoys Belloc’s company, for the book is full of Belloc himself. I suppose that I do like him, and the evidence is that I did enjoy the book.

Many of his reflections — if that is not too placid a word to use in connection with a man as robust and combative as Belloc — turn on the sailor’s relationship with the sea, and with what the sailor learns from it. “I say that the sea is in all things the teacher of men,” he says, and this is so not least (but also not only) because “it is during the sailing of the lonely sea that men most consider the nature of things.” This sort of sentiment is a commonplace of the contemplative tradition — remove yourself from distractions and the cares of this world and a space will open up for consideration of deeper things — but I have not often seen it arising in connection with manual labour and practical work. It makes a great deal of sense, however, and is perhaps implicit in the very structure of the Benedictine life: ora et labora. (It is worth noting, too, that mystical sailors are not unknown to Catholic tradition.)

The sailor, especially on a small vessel, is grounded (as it were) in the blunt physicality of things, the unavoidable reality of the world, without the mediation of theory or ideology. On the sea, things are continually splashing into one’s face. Belloc contends that long exposure to this kind of life teaches respect for truth:

Now at sea there is no advocacy. We are free from that most noisome form of falsehood, which corrupts the very inward of the soul. Truth is one of the great gifts of the sea. You cannot persuade yourself nor listen to the persuasion of another that the wind is not blowing when it is, or that a cabin with half a foot of water in it is dry, or that a dragging anchor holds. Everywhere the sea is a teacher of truth. I am not sure that the best thing I find in sailing is not this salt of reality.

Or, putting it in a slightly more negative way, the sea is the foe of abstraction:

The sea, which teaches all wisdom, certainly does not teach any man to despise human reason. I suppose there was never yet any Kantian fool or worser pragmatist who would not have been cured of his folly by half a week of moderate weather off the Onion.

That’s a jolly way of putting it. There is perhaps some tendency to romanticize “the simple life” going on here, but it must be admitted that Belloc was not just a literary sailor, some kind of seafaring English Tolstoy, who praised the peasant from the comfort of his study. He was a real sailor who spent many hours at the tiller, which surely earns him some credibility. More to the point, the claims he makes are plausible: those of us prone to abstraction can feel, as though by an instinct of self-preservation, that manual labour is somehow at odds with us. The sheer stubbornness of things is befuddling, but instructive. I know whereof I speak, and yet I can certainly sense the appeal of the kind of hard-nosed experience that Belloc describes: the feet braced on the deck, something heavy in the hand, wind in the face, salt on the tongue. By such means one has the sense of being in touch with something real, something that cannot be conjured away by an act of will:

It is one of the glories of sailing that you are under the authority of the heavens, and must submit to the whole world of water and of air, of which you are a part, not making laws to yourself capriciously, but acting as servant or brother of universal things.

At the end of all his ruminations and digressions (a few of which are appended below), Belloc returns to the theme of the sea as a teacher, summing up in a final, heartfelt peroration:

The sea has taken me to itself whenever I sought it and has given me relief from men. It has rendered remote the cares and the wastes of the land; for of all creatures that move and breathe upon the earth, we of mankind are the fullest of sorrow. But the sea shall comfort us, and perpetually show us new things and assure us. It is the common sacrament of this world. May it be to others what it has been to me.

I don’t know about you, but that wins me over. I want to go sailing.

[The truth hurts]
. . .a modern poet, spared to middle age in spite of the wrath of God, famous for that he could neither scan nor rhyme — let alone think or feel — once made a speech in which he carefully set out those things which had been said against Swinburne when first that meteor flamed across the heaven of English verse. The modern poet next read to this assembly the things that had been written against himself when he first blurred into the murk of our evening. He triumphantly concluded: ‘What was said against Swinburne they have said against me!’ Then there arose an aged writer of reviews, a man whose hair, whose voice, and whose aura were all three of delicate silver. He said: ‘Yes! But in what they said of him they were wrong; in what they said of you, they were right.’

[On ignorance of Catholicism]
Here is the corporate tradition which made Europe: the Thing which is the core and soul of all our history for fifteen hundred years, and on into the present time: the continuator of all our pagan origins, transformed, baptised, illumined; the matrix of such culture as we still retain. For any European not to know the elements of that affair is to be in a blind ignorance of all his making, and, therefore, of his self.

[On Parliamentarians]
[They] are ridiculous, not only by the absurd disproportion between their nominal powers and their capacities, but more by their ambition — which swells out to bursting the little vessel containing it. They have not talent, save for intrigue against fellow politicians: they cannot speak or write, let alone do, anything worth hearing. None the less would you find, if you could take the tin lid off their hollow minds and look in, a froth of insane vanity, bred of years of speech-making; a more than kingly assurance bred of knowing no control and of immunity; and (what is astonishing in men of such calibre) ambition itself. A paltry ambition, to be sure: an ambition to fill the newspapers: but still, ambition.

[History of Protestantism]
The upsetting of the Bible authority, then, did not produce in the nations of Protestant culture a revolt against the Protestant rule of life. That is not what happened. But what did happen was a bewilderment, a chaos, a disintegration of all the solid things which had stood firm in the North from the first generation of the seventeenth century down to the first generation of the nineteenth. The Protestant culture did not separate into a clerical and an anti-clerical, a traditional and practicing as against a mocking temper: it moved in the main as one. But it moved, eddying and changing continually, like a great cloud of dust following on the crash of a building. It continued, after the catastrophe, to whirl and change: so much so, that no one can tell at this moment, or could tell under the very different spirit of, say twenty years ago, what form the ultimate settlement may take.

[How to win an argument]
Rattle them. Believe me, in battle you must be fierce. The louder the victim’s cries the nearer you are to victory.

Hills and the Sea
(Marlboro Press, 1990) [1906]
233 p.

Bringing up the rear in this particular group of Belloc’s books is Hills and the Sea, a collection of short essays, each related, in one way or another, to travelling. This travelling is not tourism, something which Belloc abhorred with all his soul. For the most part he is not visiting great monuments or famous sites, but small inns, small villages, empty fields, lonely waterways, and he is trying to put himself in contact with the spirit of the place, its history and the lives of those who have made it what it is. The book brings up the rear not because it is not worthwhile — there is quite a lot of excellent material in it — but because, being what it is, it lacks the cohesion of a sustained narrative, and it didn’t hold my interest as the others did. The writing is splendid, though, as I hope the examples below illustrate, and some of the essays are finely wrought little jewels, something I particularly enjoyed after the sprawling, haphazard books discussed above.

[Uses of history]
Every man bears within him not only his own direct experience, but all the past of his blood: the things his own race has done are part of himself, and in him also is what his race will do when he is dead. This is why men will always read records, and why, even when letters are at their lowest, records still remain. Thus, if a diary be known to be true, then it seems vivid and becomes famous where if it were fiction no one would find any merit in it. History, therefore, once a man has begun to know it, becomes a necessary food for the mind, without which it cannot sustain its new dimension. It is an aggregate of universal experience, nor, other things being equal, is any man’s judgment so thin and weak as the judgment of a man who knows nothing of the past. But history, if it is to be kept just and true and not to become a set of airy scenes, fantastically coloured by our later time, must be continually corrected and moderated by the seeing and handling of things.
– “Arles”

[Rest and refreshment]
In such a place, and with such hosts to serve him, be wears of the world retire for a little time, from an evening to a morning; and a man can enjoy a great refreshment. In such a place he will eat strongly and drink largely, and sleep well and deeply, and, when he saddles again for his journey, he will take the whole world new; nor are those intervals without their future value, for the memory of a complete repose is a sort of sacrament, and a viaticum for the weary lengths of the way.
– “At the Sign of the Lion”

[Anxiety at evening]
It is not true that the close of a life which ends in a natural fashion — life which is permitted to put on the pomp of death and to go out in glory — inclines the mind to repose. It is not true of a day ending nor the passing of the year, nor of the fall of leaves. Whatever permanent, uneasy question is native to men, comes forward most insistent and most loud at such times.
– “The Autumn and the Fall of Leaves”

[Touching real things]
Do you know that glamour in the mind which arises and transforms our thought when we see the things that the men who made us saw — the things of a long time ago, the origins? I think everybody knows that glamour, but very few people know where to find it.

Every man knows that he has in him the power for such revelations, and every man wonders in what strange place he may come upon them. There are men also (very rich) who have considered all the world and wandered over it, seeking those first experiences and trying to feel as felt the earlier men in a happier time — yet these few rich men have not felt and have not so found the things which they desire. I have known men who have thought to find them in the mountains, but would not climb them simply enough and refused to leave their luxuries behind, and so lost everything, and might as well have been walking in a dirty town at home for all the little good that the mountains did to them. And I know men who have thought to find this memory and desire in foreign countries, in Africa, hunting great beasts such as our fathers hunted; yet even these have not relit those old embers, which if they lie dead and dark in a man make his whole soul dusty and useless, but which if they be once rekindled can make him part of all the centuries.

Yet there is a simple and an easy way to find what the men who made us found, and to see the world as they saw it, and to take a bath, as it were, in the freshness of beginnings; and that is to go to work as cheaply and as hardly as you can, and only as much away from men as they were away from men, and not to read or to write or to think, but to eat and drink and use the body in many immediate ways, which are at the feet of every man. Every man who will walk for some days carelessly, sleeping, rough when he must, or in poor inns, and making for some one place direct because he desires to see it, will know the thing I mean. And there is a better way still of which I shall now speak: I mean, to try the seas in a little boat not more than twenty-five feet long, preferably decked, of shallow draught, such as can enter into all creeks and havens, and so simply rigged that by oneself, or with a friend at most, one can wander all over the world.

Certainly every man that goes to sea in a little boat of this kind learns terror and salvation, happy living, air, danger, exultation, glory, and repose at the end; and they are not words to him, but, on the contrary, realities which will afterwards throughout his life give the mere words a full meaning.
– “The Channel”

Great moments in opera: Manon Lescaut

April 11, 2012

Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s third opera, but it was the first to meet with widespread acclaim and to have earned a secure place in the international repertoire. It inaugurated a decade of triumphs — being followed by La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. The choice of subject was perhaps unusual, not because there was anything odd about adapting an 18th-century novel, but because Massenet had had a success with the same story just a decade earlier. Perhaps Puccini simply thought he could do a better job of it (and all indications are that he would have been right to think so).

The story is that of a doomed love affair. There are three principals. The Chevalier des Grieux falls in love with Manon, but another man, Geronte, far wealthier than Des Grieux, also falls for her.  She, seduced by Geronte’s money and the promise of a life of privilege, agrees to marry him, but does not give her heart. Later, Des Grieux and Manon are caught together by Geronte, who has her thrown in prison — presumably for adultery. Manon is put on a ship, together with a group of prostitutes, bound for the outer darkness (that is, for America). Des Grieux begs leave to accompany her. Upon reaching America, they wander about in a desert (‘near New Orleans’, we are told) until they run out of water and Manon dies.

I had actually never heard the opera before this week. I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I loved it. The music is gorgeous, the singing beautiful, and the melodies graceful and plentiful. I was at no loss to put together a set of ‘great moments’.

We begin in Act I. Des Grieux first sees Manon in the town square and sings a song in praise of her beauty: Donna non vidi mai (Never did I see a woman). Here is Placido Domingo; no subtitles, but the point is clear enough.

In the second Act, Manon is with Geronte, living a life of luxury. Yet she sings a sad song, In quelle trene morbidi (In these silken curtains), in which she reflects on the fact that her wealth does not make her happy, and she longs for love. Here is Kiri Te Kanewa:

My favourite part of the opera, on first hearing, was the finale of Act III, in which Manon is being herded on board the ship bound for America. The scene works very well: Manon is preceded by a sad parade of courtesans under the same sentence, leaving Manon and Des Grieux a few moments to express their grief at the prospect of separation.  After a brief display of foolish bravado, Des Grieux begs to be permitted to go with her, and his wish is finally granted. Here is Domingo again, but this time with Renata Scotto singing Manon. No subtitles, unfortunately. The clip is a bit long, but worth it.

In the fourth and final act, Manon and Des Grieux wander through a blasted landscape (near New Orleans, remember). They sing a passionate, desperate duet, Sei tu che piangi? (Is it you that cries?). Here are Domingo and Te Kanewa again.

Des Grieux goes off in search of water, leaving Manon alone to sing her big, heart-wrenching aria, Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Alone, forsaken, abandoned). It builds to an awful cry of Non voglio morir! (I do not want to die!). Here is Anglea Gheorghiu, in a studio performance. Usually I like to select stage performances for these highlights, but this is too good to pass over.

The opera ends, as I mentioned, with Manon’s death bringing the curtain down. It is terribly sad, of course, but also terribly successful, and Puccini was to use the same formula in his next few operas. About which, more anon.


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