The tree of life

March 16, 2016

I wrote a short appreciation of The Tree of Life for the 52 Movies series at Light on Dark Water. It has been posted today, and can be found here.

the_tree_of_life_movie_poster_01


Wonder and imagination

March 10, 2016

Here’s a quite wonderful lecture by Anthony Esolen on education and the imaginative life, in which he circles around that most wonderful of plays, The Tempest.


Barfield: Saving the Appearances

March 3, 2016

Saving the Appearances
A Study in Idolatry
Owen Barfield
(Harcourt Brace, 1957)
190 p.

I forget exactly how it came about that I added Saving the Appearances to my reading list some years ago. I expect that it may have been under the influence of C.S. Lewis, who knew Barfield well and once called him “the best and wisest of my unofficial teachers”. One of the more memorable sections of Lewis’ wonderful book The Discarded Image appears to have been inspired directly by the present book, so perhaps that was the connection that brought me here.

Saving the Appearances is a book that digs down to bedrock, and then keeps digging. Things you may think of as basic and uncontroversial are interrogated and made doubtful. As he says, “a great deal of the complexity of my argument is due to the deep-seated error, with its consequently innumerable ramifications, which that argument has sought to unravel”. It’s a rather difficult book in that respect, full of unfamiliar ideas — unfamiliar to me, at least. One of the many questions I have about the book is whether the ideas he presents, and the language in which he presents them, are original with him or are part of a larger conversation that I’ve not been aware of until now. Sprinkled through the text are references to anthropologists like Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl, so perhaps his jargon and his approach is borrowed, at least in part, from them.

Roughly speaking, the book is an examination of how modern Westerners experience the world, and how that mode of experience differs from that prevalent in other cultures and earlier periods in our own culture. And by “experience” I mean something very basic: the very way in which we perceive things, prior to any conscious or reflective engagement with them. It is a book about philosophy of perception, philosophy of nature, epistemology, culture, history, and religion. It covers a lot of ground in a short space, and raises more questions than it answers.

Barfield begins by defining a few terms on which he relies throughout, and I cannot see how to summarize his argument without first doing the same.

One basic idea is that of a “representation”, which he variously defines as “something I perceive”, or “something experienced”. It is not the thing itself (which he calls, by contrast, “the unrepresented”), but a mental construction which, generally below the level of consciousness, folds in sensory data, beliefs, memories, imagination, and feeling. We do not perceive with our senses alone, but with our whole being. As we mature we quite naturally compare our private representations with those of others, and adjust them accordingly. The result is a set of “collective representations”, which are cultural in scope, and which reflect those aspects of things which a particular culture thinks worthy of attention. Collective representations affect our most basic apprehension of the world; they are the phenomena we experience. For Barfield, the world as we experience it is a system of collective representations.

A second key idea is what he calls “participation”. It is more difficult to grasp, for reasons that will become clear shortly, but it means something like this: the activity of the mind whereby things are experienced as full of meaning, charged with a significance that is at once natural and also personal. A participating consciousness experiences an object not simply as an inert thing, but as a kind of window into another or deeper reality, a reality within which a being like us faces back toward us, as in a mirror. Again, participation is not, at this point, to be thought of as a self-conscious or reflective process, but as an immediate one. In participation, there is a general “entanglement of subject and object, of psychology and natural history, of divine and human, of word and thing.”

It might also seem a strange idea, but he, citing the work of anthropologists, argues that in fact it is the near-universal mode of consciousness for humanity. Consider, as a case in point, medieval Europe. Their sensory experiences were the same as ours, naturally, but their collective representations were different, and their consciousness was participatory. They thought it natural that literal and symbolic significance be conjoined in things. Barfield argues that they not only attributed symbolic meaning to things, but actually experienced things as having symbolic resonances. To them this was not, as it seems to us, a superfluous patina on top of raw experience; it was raw. For a medieval person, “the ordinary way of looking at, and of thinking about, phenomena, was to look at and to think about them as appearances — representations. For which, therefore, knowledge was defined, not as the devising of hypotheses, but as an act of union with the represented behind the representation.” Reading this, anyone with experience of medieval Scriptural exegesis or medieval epistemology is going to feel the hair on his arms standing up, because this is exactly right. And since participation involves one in a personal encounter with significance-laden phenomena, it naturally informed and influenced their religious experience. “For medieval man, then, the world was a sort of theophany, in which he participated at different levels, in being, in thinking, in speaking or naming, and in knowing.”

(It as at this point that Barfield makes the suggestion that the reader might walk out at night and make the imaginative effort to put oneself in the mindset of a medieval person looking at the starry sky, a suggestion followed up and realized so memorably by C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image.)

On the other hand, our culture — and by this I mean Western modernity — is distinctive, and perhaps unique, in this respect: we are generally not aware that our representations are representations. We do not think that we participate in phenomena; to us the things we encounter in the world are independent of us, and intrinsically meaningless. They are “facts”. Such representations, which are not experienced as such, Barfield calls idols. The term is potentially misleading, as we’ll see in a moment, but what is gained by its use is the resonance with “false idol”, because for him the most important feature of our presumed-to-be-just-there representations is that they are false.

I think Barfield is right that we do take the phenomena of our experience in this way, at least most of the time. But if that is so, why is it so? If we are different from other cultures in this respect, how did we come to be different?

Barfield argues that there have been two historical movements that have undone the psychology of participation, and we have been influenced by both. The first is the one that comes immediately to mind: the scientific revolution. The scientific revolution was a movement from an awareness of the meaning of phenomena to a preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. Its architects aimed to abstract those aspects of the natural world that could be treated mathematically, and were therefore “objective”. All else receded into the mind and the realm of the “subjective”. And, as Burtt argued so convincingly in his history of early modern science, what began as a methodological tactic soon became confused with an ontological judgement. To wit: only the mathematical structure of things is truly real. Since purposes (final causes) and essences (formal causes) could not be mathematized, they were judged not objective. On such a view, the objects we experience “out there” in the world must be independent of us; they are defined that way. Were we to attribute meaning of any kind to them, we would be making a blunder. In such a world a participating consciousness is throttled.

But there has also been a second cultural stream tending against participation: Judaism. Barfield explains:

The children of Israel became a nation and began their history in the moment when Moses, in the very heart of the ancient Egyptian civilization, delivered to them those ten commandments, which include the unheard-of injunction: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This is perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened. As far as we know, in every other nation at that time there prevailed unquestioned the participating consciousness which apprehends the phenomena as representations and naturally expresses itself in making images.

For Israel, the natural world is not God, nor are the names of things names of God. The “entanglement of subject and object” which is the mark of participation meets an obstacle. Rather, the natural world was created by God as something independent of and distinct from Him, and it lacks the quality of personal disclosure that is perceived by a participatory mind. The many injunctions against idol worship in the Hebrew Scriptures take on fresh significance in this light: for Israel’s neighbours, idols were not merely objects, but entities charged with meaning, for such they naturally appear to a participating consciousness. But the Psalmist insists, over and over again, that idols have no “within”; they are merely things, dead in themselves, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Such phrases were not empty rhetoric; they were aptly phrased assaults on a prevailing temptation.

Now, there are certain advantages to idolatry (in Barfield’s sense). There is no doubt that the methods and abstractions characteristic of our scientific age have given us an unprecedented ability to manipulate nature for our own ends, and we have all benefited in many ways from that ability. The modern attitude to nature has also opened up a new way of relating to it emotionally, a way in which her difference from us is part of the attraction. Think of a naturalist’s selfless and attentive love for the natural world. But we have lost something as well, not least a sense of continuity with our ancestors. Take again the case of Scriptural interpretation, a practice which straddles the historical divide between the ancient world and ours. For a non-participating consciousness like ours, a text is either an historical record or a symbolic representation, but not both. For earlier readers in our tradition it could be both. In fact, the traditional account of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments assumed a participating consciousness, so much so that Barfield concludes that “in one most real sense, the Old Testament was lost with the Reformation”.

Barfield perceived a kind of revival of participation in the early twentieth-century. Not that it was entirely dead prior to that, of course. He points to Blake and Goethe as major figures who had very strong instincts toward participation, and such instincts set them very much at odds with their times. But he caught the scent of participation — an appreciation that things can bear intrinsic symbolic content — especially from Freud and Jung, and he thought this significant because their ideas caught on widely on a cultural level in very short order. Granted, even they made only partial steps: for Freud, symbolism was still always in the mind alone, without a real connection to the outside world; Jung, with his ideas about the collective unconscious, went further but not all the way. And, in any case, I think it is fair to say that the Freudian and Jungian moment has passed, leaving little more than a residue. Is participation deader than ever?

Well, maybe not. At the end of the book Barfield raises the prospect of something he calls “final participation”. The idea seems to be that here, on the far side of idolatry, a new kind of participation becomes possible based precisely on a conscious awareness that phenomena are representations. In final participation the percipient knows that he is involved in creating representations, and his imagination enters into the process directly. How this can elude the veto cast by the non-participating mind is hard to understand: isn’t this exactly the “gloss” that the parsimonious literalist objects to? But Barfield contends that either we will find a way to final participation or proceed further and further into idolatry and the elimination of participation, but elimination of participation is the elimination of meaning and coherence from the cosmos.

In his final pages he turns to consider the sacramental system of Christianity, one of the very few contexts in the modern world where things retain a sense of the “within”, of being more than just themselves, that is characteristic of participation. “The tender shoot of final participation,” he writes, “has from the first been acknowledged and protected by the Church in the institution of the Eucharist… In the physical act of communion as such, men can only take the Divine substance, the ‘Name apart’ directly into the unconscious part of themselves”. If true, the sacraments are thereby one of the keys to the recovery of meaning and the return of an enchanted world.

***

As I said at the outset, the book raises more questions than it answers. Foremost among them in my mind is a doubt about the meaning of “participation”, which is obviously central to the whole book. I suppose he would say that it is natural for one raised in a non-participatory culture to have trouble with the concept, especially since it is, properly speaking, not a concept at all. Still, I’d have benefited more from the book if it had spelled things out more clearly on this critical point.

Lying beneath this complaint is another set of questions about the metaphysics of “representations”. The usual philosophical bifurcation is between realism and nominalism; in the former, things have real, particular natures independent of human minds and knowledge consists in knowing those natures, and in the latter our categories of thought are mere conventions without any real corresponding structure in the nature of things. The notion of representations seems most consistent with nominalism: on the one side is “the unrepresented”, atoms and the void, which we can never know in itself, and in which there is nothing to know, and on the other side is phenomena, consisting of mental constructions folding together sensory inputs and a variety of mental resources and ingrained habits. Yet at the same time Barfield seems to be taking the position that it is through participation that we know the world most fully and truly, and that idolatry, our besetting sin, alienates us from truth. I worry that he concedes too much to the metaphysics of the materialists when he characterizes “the unrepresented” as merely atoms and the void.

Another question arises from his account of how idolatry triumphed over a participating consciousness in the West. He attributed the victory to the combined efforts of two forces: Judaism and the scientific revolution. Yet we know, from his own arguments, that medieval Europe had a participating consciousness, so it would seem that the scientific revolution was the decisive factor, and that Judaism, despite its influence on Christianity, had little to do with it. And this makes a certain amount of sense, because insofar as participation is naturally expressed through the making of images and the death of participation is accomplished by a prohibition on the making of images, the very fact that in Christianity the prohibition on images was relaxed points to a relaxation of the assault on participation. The same comment can be made about sacramental theology, which seems positively to encourage a participatory consciousness. The possibility remains that Judaism condemned a certain kind of participation (as expressed through the making of idols) but that Christianity permitted another kind. Indeed, Barfield’s closing remarks about the Eucharist, cited above, connect the sacraments to “final participation”, which one only arrives at after having gone through the long dark.

But why does he see in the sacraments a “tender shoot” of final participation, and not a hangover from original participation? After all, the sacraments pre-date the scientific revolution.

I’ve gone on long enough. There is an odd, but interesting and stimulating book.

 


A vulnerable persons standard

March 2, 2016

In an effort to get more and better safeguards for vulnerable patients into the forthcoming assisted suicide/euthanasia legislation, a Vulnerable Persons Standard was launched yesterday.

This Standard is consistent with the Carter ruling that legalized these “procedures” in Canada, but it proposes much tighter restrictions and better oversight in order to provide protection for patients who might request assisted suicide or euthanasia “when what they want and deserve is better treatment – to have their needs for care, respect and palliative and other supports better met.”

For those of us who are opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia, this Standard can only be a half-measure. It cannot prevent all such “procedures”, but it may prevent some. Under the straitened circumstances imposed by the Supreme Court I see it as a morally praiseworthy initiative.

It has already attracted the support of numerous medical and legal organizations. (Full disclosure: my wife is one of the advisors to the Standard.)

Read the Standard here.


Pundits weigh in

March 2, 2016

Last week I wrote about the recommendations to Parliament made by a committee of MPs to guide legislation of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada. As I said then, the recommendations are irresponsible in the extreme. In the past few days, a number of responses to the Committee’s report have appeared in Canada’s leading newspapers, and I think it is worth drawing attention to them.

The Toronto Star, which is Canada’s largest left-leaning paper, was gently but unequivocally critical of the recommendations, seeing them as needlessly inflammatory and potentially dangerous:

Given the fraught nature of this file, compassion and caution, not compulsion, should be the government’s watchword as it goes ahead. A physician’s first duty is, after all, to do no harm.

A Toronto Star columnist, Thomas Walkom, also highlighted the apparent unwillingness of the Committee to consider the implications of its recommendations for the vulnerable. “Death, it seems, is easier.”

And just today — and frankly rather astoundingly — the Toronto Star has run an op-ed by Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, arguing for conscience protections for doctors:

When the state goes beyond its legitimate but limited role and suppresses conscience rights, I am reminded of a man whose employer told him to do something against his conscience. He courageously replied: “You employ me; you don’t own me.”

Just before the recommendations were issued last week, the Globe & Mail ran a prescient column by Margaret Somerville of McGill University, who has been one of our leading public voices urging skepticism about the putative goods of assisted suicide and euthanasia. She focused on the Liberal Party’s plan to whip the vote on the grounds that assisted suicide and euthanasia are allegedly “Charter issues”:

This “hide behind the Charter” strategy resonates with an “obedience to higher orders” defence to wrongdoing (“it wasn’t my decision, I was forced to do it”), which the law has never accepted as valid.

Also in the Globe & Mail, constitutional lawyer David Baker and University of Toronto professor Trudo Lemmens have written a scathing critique of the Committee’s work:

Essentially all disabilities can be included in the open-ended criteria for access, extending the law beyond the persons with irreversibly declining capacities at the end-of-life that the Supreme Court ruled upon, and disregarding the court’s determination that “psychiatric disorders” were expressly excluded, as well as children, even if children would only have access three years after the new legislation is introduced. The committee further recommends access by advanced directive for people suffering from dementia, which most agree would create a practical and ethical minefield.

In the National Post, Andrew Coyne puts the Committee’s report in context, arguing that each step in the process of legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia has extended the conditions under which it would be permitted:

So the court not only opened the door to assisted suicide, but opened it a little wider than it had been asked to. Nonetheless, it remained confident that the door would open no further. Indeed, the ruling arguably depended on it. The Crown’s case for retaining the prohibition, after all, had rested on the concern that the logic of assisted suicide would not permit it to be limited to the sort of narrow circumstances the court had in mind. Expert testimony was called on the experience in Belgium and other countries, where eligibility for assisted suicide has been extended to children, the mentally incompetent, and others.

The court found this sort of “anecdotal” evidence unpersuasive. These countries, it said, had a very different “medico-legal culture” than ours. In Canada, the “risks” of legalized killing could be limited “through a carefully designed and monitored system of safeguards.”

That was a year ago. The court’s ruling has not yet taken effect, and already we have the report of an all-party joint committee on “physician-assisted dying” recommending legislation that would go far beyond what the court prescribed.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Medical Association has expressed its disappointment with the Committee’s failure to recommend protections for health-care workers who refuse to participate in death-dealing. The CMA has consistently been strong on this point, opposing also the provincial medical colleges, such as those for Ontario and Saskatchewan, who have abandoned conscientious protections for their physicians.

There have been some hear-no-evil, see-no-evil responses to the Committee’s work as well, but all in all I take the above commentary to be broadly encouraging. There may yet be the will to override the Joint Committee’s awful recommendations.


A publishing event

February 29, 2016

I find it hard to imagine any list of great literary figures of the past century that does not include T.S. Eliot at or near the top. Therefore it seems worth noting, and celebrating, the recent publication of a massive annotated edition of his poetry, in two volumes, from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Volume 1 contains the verse for which he is most admired: Prufrock, The Wasteland, Four Quartets, and so on. In this edition we get about 300 pages of poetry, handsomely and spaciously presented, followed by a whopping 1000 pages of notes. Volume 2 is shorter — a mere 700 pages — and mostly contains his less-known poetry, plus his poetry for children.

Because of complications with publication rights and access to Eliot’s private papers, this is the first time that a full scholarly edition has been put together. It’s a major monument to one of our major writers.

I was able to borrow the first volume from our local library. During Lent I have been slowly working my way through Ash-Wednesday, and enjoying myself greatly.

The University Bookman has a nice review.


Unassisted, Canada commits moral suicide

February 26, 2016

Last year the Supreme Court of Canada, in Carter v Canada, struck down legal prohibitions of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, alleging to have discerned a right to such procedures lurking somewhere in the background, unnoticed until now, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court ordered Parliament to draft legislation to regulate these procedures, and gave it a deadline. Today the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying tabled its recommendations to Parliament, and, my friends, the situation is about as bad as it could be.

Two weeks ago, before the recommendations were public, our Prime Minister announced that all members of the ruling Liberal Party would be required to vote in favour of the legislation, whatever it turned out to be. This was the first indication that it was going to be very bad indeed.

As for me and my house, we have been fighting this every step of the way — writing editorials, writing letters, making phone calls, drafting submissions, attending meetings — and I must say that the Committee’s report is profoundly disappointing.

First a word about language. As usual with issues of this sort, euphemisms abound. The Committee adopts the phrase “medical aid in dying” to cover both assisted suicide and euthanasia, preferring it to “physician assisted dying”, which had been used by the Supreme Court. Both are highly objectionable, and for the same reason: they blur the distinction between palliative care, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. In this post I shall use the acronym ASE for assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The report makes 21 recommendations to legislators. Among them are:

  • ASE for minors. “Mature minors,” to be sure. The meaning of this phrase is unclear. It is worth noting that this recommendation is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court ruling, which restricted access to ASE to adults.
  • ASE for non-terminal conditions. Adopting the vagaries of the Supreme Court nearly word for word, the Committee recommends only that patients have a “grievous and irremediable condition”. The Committee actually recommends against Parliament clarifying what that phrase might mean.
  • ASE for psychiatric patients. There has been great concern over how patients suffering from psychiatric disorders might be treated under the incoming law. The Committee recommends both that psychiatric patients have access to ASE, and that psychological suffering be a legitimate criterion for accessing ASE.
  • No required waiting period. The Committee recommends that “guidelines” for “a period of reflection” be “flexible”. This puts at risk patients suffering acutely or terrified by a recent diagnosis.
  • No advance oversight. The Committee recommends against a review process where eligibility under the law could be assessed. This recommendation, if adopted, will make it very difficult to know if the law is being abused.
  • Public funding? This one is unclear. The Committee recommends that only individuals who are insured under Canada’s health care system have access to ASE — in other words, no euthanasia tourism — but it does not directly say that the procedures themselves should be insured.
  • Coercion of conscientious objectors. This is an issue that has been fiercely contested in the past couple of years in Canada, as many physicians have been fighting to carve out a space for themselves to practice medicine without being undermined by this assault on the principles of their profession. There are two targets here: individual physicians, nurses, and pharmacists on one hand, and Catholic hospitals on the other. Last year the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, which regulates the practice of medicine in Ontario (where I live), changed their policies on conscientious objection, henceforth requiring physicians to either provide the objectionable procedure or provide an “effective referral” to someone who would. But those who provide an “effective referral” — meaning a referral to someone who will do the procedure, and a referral for that express purpose — are complicit. Again, many physicians fought that policy change at the time, partly on the very grounds that the Supreme Court was about to rule on ASE, to which the new policy would apply. Those physicians were told they were alarmist and that everything would be fine. Now the Joint Committee has adopted exactly the same language as the Colleges did: “effective referrals” are to be required “at a minimum”. I’ve not seen that last phrase used in this context before, and I really wonder why it was included. It is very troubling. Also troubling is that institutions will not be permitted to abstain from performing ASE. If a patient is worried about being subjected to pressure to consent to ASE, there will be no safe hospital in Canada.

The report is also notable for what it does not recommend. It does not recommend a mandatory psychiatric assessment for those requesting ASE. It does not recommend that the cause of death (ASE) be put on the death certificate — though it does recommend that statistics on ASE be collected, so perhaps the legislation itself will mandate the former in order to facilitate the latter. It does not recommend that the next of kin of a patient who requests ASE be notified. It does not recommend that patients have access to palliative care before becoming eligible for ASE. All of these safeguards were advanced during the consultation process, but were apparently rejected by the Committee.

One safeguard which the Committee does recommend is that ASE can only be provided if two physicians sign off on it. But it could be any two physicians, not necessarily ones who know the patient well, and not necessarily the first two physicians consulted. In other words, patients can shop for physicians who will sign off.

All in all, an appalling set of recommendations that bodes exceeding ill. If these recommendations are adopted by Parliament — and they almost certainly will be — Canada will have the most radical ASE policies in the world. In particular, the requirement that conscientiously-objecting physicians provide an “effective referral” is not in force in any other jurisdiction, much less “at a minimum”.

We’ve got a bona fide fight on our hands.

The sole bright light is that a small group of four Committee members (including a vice chair) issued a dissenting opinion which is stapled to the back of the Committee’s official report. It is sensible and humane and I recommend that you read it.

**

If anyone is interested in learning about how Canada got into this mess, I recommend reading “A Right to Voluntary Euthanasia? Confusion in Canada in Carter,” John Keown’s scholarly overview of the court cases, and the principle arguments deployed therein, that eventually led to the Supreme Court’s decision last year. Or, if you prefer, here is a lecture in which he covers much of the same ground.

 


Books briefly noted

February 23, 2016

A few quick notes on books I’ve read recently. The theme for today is Books With Subtitles:

veryshort-medievalMedieval Literature
A Very Short Introduction
Elaine Treharne
(Oxford, 2015)
144 p.

I acquired this book in the hopes that it would help extend my list of “to read” medieval literature. I was interested in learning about medieval masterworks a little off the beaten trail (viz. not Dante, Chaucer, or Malory). As such, I was fairly disappointed with the book, which makes only brief mention of particular works. Instead, the book takes a wide view of medieval literature, discussing its social context, some principal themes, methods of book production, and so on. It has a rather academic tone (“Literary spaces, literary identities” is the title of one chapter, for instance). This is fine; no doubt it was what the author was going for. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.

veryshort-classicalClassical Literature
A Very Short Introduction
William Allan
(Oxford, 2014)
135 p.

This is more like it. In an effort to organize my Greco-Roman reading lists, I nabbed this brief volume to get a bird’s eye view. I could hardly have done better. Allan gives a brief introduction to the historical and social context for classical literature, and then proceeds by genre — epic, lyric poetry, drama, historiography, oratory, pastoral poetry, satire, and novel — summarizing the principal features of each literary type and highlighting a few of the principal works. I didn’t need him to tell me about Homer or Herodotus, but I’m happy to have a better understanding of where Horace and Juvenal fit into the picture, not to mention Plautus and Petronius. My reading list is now in pretty good shape, I’d say. I faint to think how long it will take to get to all these books, but it is nice that there is always more to look forward to.

kapilow-what-makesWhat Makes It Great?
Short Masterpieces, Great Composers
Rob Kapilow
(Wiley, 2011)
314 p.

Rob Kapilow takes about twenty short pieces of music, mostly excerpted from larger works, and examines each of them in detail, highlighting the compositional techniques and describing the musical structure. The pieces are presented chronologically, beginning with the early eighteenth century (“Spring”, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) and finishing with the early twentieth century (“…Des Pas sur le Neige”, from Debussy’s Preludes). They range in length from about one minute (the ‘Trepak’ movement from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite) to ten minutes (Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde), with the median being around 3-4 minutes. The book is written at a level appropriate for a general reader with some musical education: each piece is illustrated with numerous excerpts from the score, so he assumes a competence with musical notation, and he uses some, but not too much, technical language to describe what the composer is doing. This is just the sort of mini-listening project that I relish, and it was enjoyable for me to see the musical logic of the various pieces unveiled. For instance, the piece by Debussy is one that I’ve heard numerous times, but I’d never stopped to appreciate the fact that it is based on such a simple musical idea, suitably varied and lavishly harmonized. Likewise, I’d not discerned the musical reasoning informing a little piece like Schumann’s Traumerei, or the way in which Bach’s Prelude in C grows from a tiny musical seed. The book is full of little insights into the craft of musical composition, and I found it very enjoyable.

physics-on-your-feetPhysics On Your Feet
Berkeley Graduate Exam Questions
Dmitry Budker & Alexander O. Sushkov
(Oxford, 2015)
216 p.

This was great fun. I did not have to take many oral exams during my graduate studies, but this book gives a flavour (minus the stress) of what I might have encountered. The authors have selected about sixty oral exam questions given to Berkeley grad students over the years, providing both the questions and, on the flip side, the solutions. The questions are drawn from across the spectrum: mechanics, fluids, electromagnetism, squalid state, nuclear & particle, astrophysics, optics, and molecular physics. Because of the oral exam context, none of the questions can call for lengthy calculations; more often they lean on physical intuition, approximations, and a basic (but wide) knowledge of principles. Which is not to say that they are easy! Admittedly, I have been out of the game for a decade now, and I am getting rusty, but these questions are meant to be challenging, and they succeed. Still, I enjoyed trying my hand at one question each day. I’d like to find another such book and continue the practice.


Messiaen and the celestial city

February 19, 2016

Alex Ross has a nice short essay in The New Yorker on Messiaen (Hat-tip: The Music Salon). Ross writes mostly about Des Canyons aux Étoiles…, the orchestral work Messiaen wrote about the Grand Canyon:

“Zion Park and the Celestial City,” the final movement of “From the Canyons to the Stars . . .” (1971-74), dwells for a short eternity on a hyper-luminous chord of A major. What makes it unlike any A-major chord in history is the noise that wells up within it: clanging bells, bellowing gongs, an upward-glissandoing horn, the sandy rattle of a geophone (a drum filled with lead pellets). This supreme consonance seems less to banish dissonance than to subsume it.

Ross writes that the continuing interest in Messiaen’s music “suggests that the composer is destined to be the next Mahler — a cult figure who becomes a repertory staple.” I hope so! A few years ago I missed hearing a live performance of his Turangalîla Symphony, and I’m still kicking myself.

Here is “Zion Park and the Celestial City”, featuring that wonderful A-major chord:


St André Bessette

February 15, 2016

I wrote a short piece on St André Bessette for the 52 Saints project at The Three Prayers. Janet posted it yesterday.

If you’ve come here having read Janet’s remarks at the bottom of that post and are looking for my Antarctica project, you’ll find it here, broken links and all.


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