Archive for May, 2007

Only in Canada

May 31, 2007

Many odd things have been done in Canadian legislatures, but few, I think, have been strange in this particular way: Frenzied fawn runs rampant at N.B. legislature. Apparently a wayward deer wandered into the legislative house in Fredericton. The poor thing was rather confused, and did some exploring:

Once inside the building in the heart of Fredericton, the deer entered an elevator and exited. It then got into the legislature’s press gallery, where it reportedly trampled at least one workstation and left clumps of fur.

When the security guards began to chase it, it made a spectacular exit through a window. I’m pretty sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen in other countries.

A Month of Music

May 31, 2007

May has been a bit of a hodge-podge musically. As I mentioned in last month’s monologue, I entered the month well aware that the merry month of May is also, and not coincidentally, Mary’s month of May. Pieces that saw heavy rotation included, therefore, settings of Salve Regina by Victoria (both a glorious version for eight voices and a gorgeous stripped-down version for one) and Part, as well as Josquin’s famous four-voice setting of Ave Maria. Dufay’s intricate Missa ‘Ave Regina Ceolorum’ had a few airings, and in a similar spirit I was trying to learn the chant for Regina Caeli, with some success.

May was also dotted with liturgical festivals, most notably Ascension Thursday (celebrated in Canada as “Ascension Thursday Sunday”) and Pentecost. On the former I listened to Palestrina’s Missa Viri Galilaei in a stirring performance, complete with the appropriate propers, from La Chappelle Royale and Ensemble Organum. For Pentecost it was Palestrina again, this time his Missa Dum Complerentur together with a number of Pentecostal motets from the Westminster Cathedral Choir, and I bellowed along to Vaughan Williams’ famous setting of the hymn Come Down, O Love Divine. Perhaps someday I’ll compile a top-ten list of hymns; this one is sure to make the cut.

Early in the month I was rooting around at a second-hand CD store and was rewarded with a 9-disc set of the orchestral works of Richard Strauss, with Rudolf Kempe conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden. These are considered to be among the finest, if not the finest, collected recordings of this repertoire, and I’ve had my eyes open for them for several years. All of his major orchestral works are here: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben, Don Quixote, Tod und Verklarung, as well as some lesser known works such as concerti for horn, oboe, and violin. I’m glad I found this set at a good price, because as much as I admire the quality of the playing and the sound, the music itself fails to get under my skin. Strauss’ orchestra is just too opulent and voluptuous for my tastes, just so much over-baked sturm und drang. The one piece that did catch my fancy was Metamorphosen, a study for 23 solo strings. It is an intriguing late work that is texturally quite a lot sparser than is typical with Strauss.

As luck would have it, a charming disc of Strauss’ chamber music also crossed my path this month. This music is rarely heard, but I found it delightful. The disc contains a number of Strauss’ works for cello and piano, coupled with similar works, also rarely heard, by Max Reger. Highly recommended.

En route to and from work I’ve been listening to a set of lectures from the Teaching Company on the piano sonatas of Beethoven. The lecturer is Robert Greenberg, who has done a number of lecture series for the company, and he is excellent. His Nyew Joysey accent and affection for outlandish similes (a contrasting episode in a late sonata is “like pickled pigs’ feet in your corn flakes”) are endearing, but that would be thin gruel if he didn’t also have a firm grasp of the material and know how to communicate it. I’ve enjoyed the lectures, and have been pulling a few of the sonatas off the shelf as the lectures have progressed. My favourite sonata remains the last (No. 32), but my understanding of the music has certainly improved in the meantime.

After that, the playlist is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. A potentially bright discovery that I’m still sitting with is Grayston Ives’ Missa Brevis, recently recorded for Harmonia Mundi. It’s a simple work that falls easily on the ear, and, in the hands of a reasonably capable choir, would be well suited to the liturgy.

At month’s end I indulged myself a little by pulling out Daniel Amos‘ classic 1984 album Vox Humana. It’s a heavily synthesized, new wave pop-tart record which would be unbearable were it not for the excellent songwriting shining through the electric artifice. I was bebopping most unrespectably to that memorable futuristic fantasy It’s the Eighties (So Where’s Our Rocket Packs?):

I thought one day I’d walk the moon
And drive a car without no tires
And have a robot run the vacuum
And date a girl made out of wires

Well, one out of four isn’t too bad. (I suppose that the meticulous parsers among us will also grant the second item.)

Happy Birthday, GKC!

May 29, 2007

It turns out that the fall of Constantinople is not the only notable historic event with an anniversary today, for May 29 was also the birthday of G.K. Chesterton. I know this only on the authority of others, but, then again, so did he:

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.

Autobiography (1936)

Over at the Chesterton and Friends blog they are having a Chesterton celebration, with one special post for every day between now and June 14, the date of Chesterton’s death. It looks excellent, and I’ll certainly be making regular visits over the next few weeks.

Sailing to Byzantium

May 29, 2007

On Tuesday, 29 May 1453 the city of Constantinople fell to the armies of the Ottoman Empire, and so the Byzantine Empire and its splendours came to an end. This poem is about many things, but it serves here as a modest remembrance of what Byzantium was and meant to the Western imagination — and what it can still mean today.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

– William Butler Yeats

Faerie fare

May 28, 2007

Tree and Leaf
J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins, 2001)
160 pp. First reading.

This little book collects together some of Tolkien’s shorter works in a variety of genres: an essay, a short fable, a poem, and a verse drama.

The essay is his famous On Fairy Stories, in which he attempts to rescue the fairy tale from the dustbin into which modern literary criticism has consigned it, and defend it as a legitimate and important branch of literature. It’s a very interesting piece for a number of reasons. The world of Faerie which he loves is not the same as the fairy-world most familiar to us. When the nineteenth-century shut fairy tales up in the nursery, the vigour and stature of the genre gradually decayed, but Tolkien insists that Faerie — the true, sturdy tradition of fairy stories — is not only, or even especially, for children. Instead he defends fairy tales, or fantasy, as particularly ambitious forms of imaginative literature in which a Secondary World is created. This Secondary World has value not because it throws light on our own (though, like all works of men, it will do that), but for its own sake. In fairy stories the human capacity for imaginative creation stands forth most purely.

Fairy tales and fantasy are frequently dismissed in our own time as “escapist” fiction. Tolkien is aware of this label, but he affirms it rather than denies it.

Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

He also defends the venerable tradition of happy endings in fairy tales, even coining a new word to describe the kind of plot twist for which the fairy story is especially well-suited: eucatastrophe. Eucatastrophe is a sudden and unexpected turn for the good. Whether one thinks stories with such an element ‘escapist’ or not will reveal much about one’s underlying view of the world. Does the world itself, after all, have a happy ending?

The short story in this collection is Leaf by Niggle, a wonderful fable about a painter who labours for years over a single painting of a tree, only to discover (in a fine instance of eucatastrophe) that his creation has more reality than he had known. I have read that Tolkien disliked allegory, but this story begs to be read allegorically. Perhaps he didn’t dislike it all that much.

In one of their many discussions about the nature of mythology, C.S. Lewis had described myths to Tolkien as “lies breathed through silver”. The comment provoked Tolkien to write the short poem Mythopoeia, dedicated to Lewis, and included here. It is written as an address by Phylomythus (Myth-Lover) to Misomythus (Myth-Hater), and defends the value of mythology and story against the tyranny of brute facts and the immediately tangible.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
That quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
That seek no parley, and in guarded room,
Though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
Weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
Hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
Their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
And steer through winds contrary toward a wraith,
A rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

The final element of the book is a short historical drama called The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth. It is set on the night following the Battle of Maldon, which took place in 991. It is night, and two soldiers are searching the battlefield for the body of their fallen commander Beorhtnoth. Though based on a short passage from an Anglo-Saxon poem on the same subject, it is apparently a re-creation, not just a translation. It is a fine example of alliterative verse with an heroic temper. In some ways I think it the best thing in the book.

All in all, then, I found this a delightful collection. On paper it might look like an odd concatenation of texts, but in fact (which, I admit, is also on paper) they work together very well. I can see myself returning to all four of the pieces in the future.

[From Mythopoeia]
I would that I might with the minstrels sing
And stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
That cut their slender planks on mountains steep
And voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
For some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
That keep an inner fastness where their gold,
Impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
To mint in image blurred of distant king,
Or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
Heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
Erect and sapient. Before them gapes
The dark abyss to which their progress tends —
If by God’s mercy progress never ends,
And does not ceaselessly revolve the same
Unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
Denoting this and that by this and that,
Your world immutable wherein no part
The little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
Nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

Little Gidding, IV

May 27, 2007

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre —
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


May 26, 2007

There’s fresh news to report about my Chesterton blog. Some weeks back I was contacted by Sean P. Dailey, editor-in-chief of the excellent Chestertonian magazine Gilbert. The Hebdomadal Chesterton had come to his attention, and he wondered if he might mention it in the magazine. I gave my blessing with all my heart and, sure enough, the current issue gives the blog a brief but encouraging mention.

Thank you, Gilbert!

Freedom flighters

May 25, 2007

Today at lunch a colleague cited “a recent study” purporting to have demonstrated that fruit flies exhibit free will. A quick search indicated that the study has been making headlines at Reuters, MSNBC, Slashdot, and a great many other news sources.

I don’t think I am committed to the view that fruit flies do not have free will, but since the alleged findings of this study immediately struck me as unlikely, and even comical, I must in fact think that they don’t. It’s worth taking a few minutes to look into the matter more closely.

First of all, if you read the scientific paper that has spawned the news articles you’ll find that the phrase “free will” appears nowhere, and, it seems to me, with good reason. The experiment went something like this: they placed fruit flies in a completely white environment in which there could be no visual input that would provoke a fly to zig in one direction rather than zag in another. Then they mapped the actual flight paths of the flies, tried to model those paths using deterministic or random models, and found that they could not. They concluded that the flies exhibited “spontaneity”, which they attributed to “brain circuits which operate as a nonlinear system with unstable dynamics far from equilibrium”. I am not an expert in this area, but it sound like they are claiming that the behaviour is chaotic (in the technical sense). It seems worthwhile to point out that if the fly brain is a nonlinear system with unstable dynamics, then it is deterministic, though unpredictable owing to fine sensitivity to initial conditions and perturbations.

Given those results, it is surprising, in an interesting way, that at least one of the authors (Björn Brembs) would start talking to the press about “free will”. His reasons for speaking in this way are unclear, but a plausible reconstruction might be something like this: the fly’s behaviour matches neither a random model nor a (predictable) deterministic one; it therefore looks spontaneous, or free; therefore flies have free will. That Brembs thinks this conclusion compatible with his more sober claim that the behaviour is caused by a nonlinear system in the fly’s brain is quite revealing. Since he does not hesitate to simultaneously claim that the behaviour is both free and determined, on condition that it is unpredictable, he evidently identifies freedom and unpredictability. They are for him the same thing.

This raises some interesting questions. A preliminary, and perhaps slightly cheeky, question is whether more advanced techniques in the analysis of nonlinear systems could render the behaviour non-free; in that case a fly’s possession of free will would be contingent on a technical shortcoming, which would be odd, to say the least.

But it is more interesting to observe how the conception of free will implied here differs from the common view. The common view, if I’m not mistaken, and roughly speaking, is that a being has free will if it is able to choose intentionally and without necessity between alternatives. This power of choice and freedom is, in the West at least, deeply bound up with our ideas about personhood, for freedom is usually taken to be one of the distinguishing marks of a person. This power, moreover, is usually said to have its seat in the soul. I’m not sure I know what is really meant by that, and I am reluctant to endorse a dualistic view of the human person, and I honestly don’t have a clear understanding of what freedom is or how it is possible, but I can say that whatever I think free will is, the “free will” discovered in this study isn’t it. In my mind, freedom and determinism, whether unpredictable or not, are incompatible. On some days I don’t see how one can be committed to a materialistic view of the world and still admit the possibility of genuine freedom; on such days I evidently regard free will as a spiritual power of some kind. A materialist, it seems to me, would have to engage in equivocations on “free”, which seems to be exactly the strategy adopted here.

In fact, given the authors’ commitment to materialism it is worth noting that even if fruit flies exhibited genuine free will, understood as some kind of spiritual power, they would be unable to see it. Instead, they would attribute the free behaviour to “a nonlinear system with unstable dynamics”. This phrase functions for them not as an explanation, but as a way of saying “We don’t know”.

I said above that the usual understanding of freedom is involved in some way with intention. This seems to me a crucial point, for it highlights the close relationship between freedom and interiority. How is it possible that we attribute free will to one another? I think it is because each of us has first-hand experience of his own freedom, and extends that freedom to others on the basis of their being so much like himself. If that is true, it is not clear how we could ever confidently claim that a creature like a fruit fly has free will, for we have no access to their subjective experience.

I’ll make one further remark about the concept of freedom underlying this experiment and the interpretation of it. It is telling that when they designed an experiment to test for “free will” they thought to present the fly with no visual stimuli, reasoning that anything else would introduce bias in the fly’s flight path. In other words, they conceive of freedom as unconditioned choice. This is a pervasive, but peculiarly modern, view of freedom. I don’t know when it originated; I associate it with Kierkegaard’s (unfortunate) insistence that faith, in order really to be faith, must be without reason. If you have reasons for belief, you don’t have true faith; if you have reasons for your choices, you don’t have true freedom. On this view, a rational person cannot be free because he always has reasons for doing what he does. On this view, freedom and goodness are at odds with one another, for our attraction to the latter takes away the former. This is very muddled thinking.

The older view is that the truly free man is the one who consistently chooses the good. Each of us is confronted every day with a variety of goods. The goods themselves exist in a hierarchy: the good of existence is higher than the good of a satisfying meal, for instance. We are, by nature, attracted by the good. We are biased. Yet it remains within our power to reject the good, or rather to choose a lesser good in place of a greater, thus distorting in ourselves the true reality of things. In this view, the good man is predictable: he always chooses the good. And he does so freely, which is to say, out of love. This pre-modern conception of freedom strikes us as somewhat strange, and I’m aware that I don’t fully grasp its implications, yet I believe it has much to recommend it.

Do flies have freedom in this sense? This experiment can’t help us decide.

But I suspect not.

For to seken straunge strondes

May 21, 2007

Chaucer: A Brief Life
Peter Ackroyd (Chatto & Windus, 2004)
191 pp. First reading.

I’ve enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s literary biographies in the past, so when I saw this slim volume discounted at a local bookstore, I immediately scooped it up. It turns out to have been a slim volume in substance as well as shape. Not that it is shoddy or uninteresting — on the contrary, Ackroyd covers all of the basics and writes well — but there’s only so much to say, and it turns out to be not very much.

Chaucer was a civil servant and diplomat, and was among the wealthiest of fourteenth-century Londoners. He lived most of his life in London, moving to Kent toward the end of his career. He seems to have been well trusted within the royal court, and was regularly sent to handle delicate or secret negotiations on behalf of the king. The picture Ackroyd paints is of a man who is modest and self-effacing, but shrewd and good-humoured. Certainly all those elements are present in his poetry.

It was interesting to learn that Chaucer was not known as a poet during his own lifetime — or, at least, not well-known. Manuscripts of his poems did not begin to circulate until after his death, but at least some of his poems, such as The Book of the Duchess, seem to have been written for recitation in the royal court. At that time, and under those circumstances, the writing of poetry, especially large scale works, must have seemed an unlikely means to fame. We can imagine Chaucer coming home after a long day’s work and sitting down to his manuscript… — well, actually, we don’t have to imagine it, since he said it himself:

For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon,
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fully daswed ys thy look.
– The House of Fame

Yes, indeed, “domb as any stoon”. Sometimes sturdy Middle English says best what’s to be said. I feel that way tonight.

Literary biographers are obliged to discuss the literary works of their subjects, and Ackroyd does not shirk his duty. He covers most of the mid-scale works, from The Parliament of Fowls to The Legend of Good Women to Troilus and Criseyde (to which he grants the hopeful title “the first English novel”), but of course the greatest space is given over to The Canterbury Tales.  I really must find time to read them through in their entirety.

It was also intriguing to learn that Chaucer produced English translations of the Romaunt of the Rose and of Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae. What wouldn’t I give to get my hands on the latter! (I would need to give about $25, according to I might just do that.)


The Lord of the Rings, altered and abridged

May 18, 2007

Somehow it’s not quite the same.