Notes on Ruskin: the Ideal

This will be the last of these, as I’ve finished the book, and am now Observing Nietzsche flop-sweat his way through Why I Am So Wise. I kind of want to smack him, but Ruskin has proven a very informative read. For a 19th Century Englishman, he is both articulate and relatively concise. And he has given me interesting aesthetic ideas to poke about with.

For example:

The Greek Sculptor could neither bear to confess his own feebleness, nor to tell the faults of the form that he portrayed.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life”, pg. 44

This is a reference to the Hellenic habit of idealizing its subject, as contrasted to the Gothic willingness to dance with the Savage and Grotesque. Ancient Greeks, we are told, even carved the backs of columns, the ones the public would never see, while the more practical romans would leave them rough, because who cares? This is because the Greek was aiming at a true Form, a divine Ideal. The permanent expression of a higher ideal is, or ought to be, what all architects aim at.

The Nation whose chief support was in the chase, whose chief interest was in the battle, whose chief pleasure was in the banquet, would take small care respecting the shapes of leaves and flowers.

ibid, pg. 46-47

Here’s he’s contrasting Early Medieval Germanic Art, a simple form, with High Medieval Gothic Art, which has embraced Naturalism. This would seem to be a rebuttal of my point about Art emulating Ideal, but it isn’t. Barbarians idealize the chase, the battle, and the banquet as expressions of power and granduer, which in their theology is the very essence of divinity. Valhalla is very Heaven.

No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple; which refuses to address the eye, except in a few clear and forceful lines; which implies, in offering so little to our regards, that all it has offered is perfect; and disdains, either by the complexity or the attractiveness of its features, to embarrass our investigation, or betray us into delight. That humility, which is the very life of the Gothic school, is shown not only in the imperfection, but in the accumulation, of ornament.

ibid, pg. 54-55

Another prophecy of Brutalism, which expresses nothing but the power of the organization that builds or occupies it. It is Cyclopean, Titanic. And contrary to the Cathedral, which is open to all, high or low, rich or poor, and a center to the life of the whole community, the skyscraper or government office block is for no one but those who have business with it. It is closed off, a fortress of money or of rules, acting to exercise power over those who will never darken its doors. The corporation as the Nietzschean Superman.

Your iron railing always means thieves outside, or Bedlam inside – it can mean nothing else.

ibid, pg. 75

The Need of Myth

We are used to hearing about Myth as untrue, and also as “a special kind of truth”. I like the religious definition of “a story that tells a sacred truth,” as this cuts to the heart of it. That’s really, one suspects, what Tolkein was getting at with Middle-Earth: telling a story that told deep and real truths. In this sense, Myth becomes a kind of synonym for Art.

Let us now, by way of comparison, imagine abstract man, wihtout the guidance of myth – abstract education, abstract morality, abstract justice, the abstract state, let us imagine the lawless wandering, unchecked by native myth, of the artistic imagination; let us imagine a culture without a secure and primal sacred site, condemend to exhaust every possiblity and feed wretchedly on all other cultures – there we have our present age, the product of that Socratism bent on the destruction of myth. And here stands man, stripped of myth, eternally starving, in the midst of all the past ages, digging and scrabbling for roots, even if he must dig for them in the most remote antiquities. What is indicated by the great historical need of unsatisfied modern culture, clutching about for countless other cultures, with its consuming desire for knowledge, if not hte loss of myth, the loss of the mythical home, the mythical womb? Let us consider whether the feverish and sinister agitation of this culture is anythign other than astarving man’s greedy grasping for food – and who would wish to give further nourishment to a culture such as this, unsatisfied by everything it devours, which transforms the most powerful, wholesome nourishment into “history and criticism”?

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, pg. 110

I have often found Nietzsche to be a passionate and entertaining mountebank: he talks nonsense, but he does so in a way that hits upon realities, incants the inexpressible. I have read that he was intended for the ministry; he makes a fine shaman. And this passage hits upon a reality. Why is our age so devoted to superheros? Why do we fight over them as past ages fought over gods? Because of the need for myth, some emotional primality, some ur-sense. The more we bust Myths, the more we long for them.

We are not, and never will be, as rational as we imagine. Some part of our deeper brain has needs that abstraction cannot satisfy. Words are not merely vehicles of argumentation, but of entrancement. This does not exist for no reason, or devil’s anti-reason. That which exists, fulfills a need.

We dramatize the weather, the traffic, and other impersonal phenomena by employing exaggeration, ironic juxtaposition, inversion, projection, all the tools a dramatist uses to create, and the psychoanalyst uses to interpret, emotionally significant phenomena.

We dramatize an incident by taking events and reordering them, elongating them, compressing them, so that we understand their personal meaning to us – to us as the protagonist of the individual drama we understand our life to be.

David Mamet, “Three Uses of the Knife”, pg. 3-4

The greatest sin we can commit against ourselves is to refuse to be human, to demand godhood of ourselves. We are not gods, and God forbids us to think of ourselves as such. Myth invits to share in what is greater than ourselves, not to supplant it.

The Three Tiers of Aesthetics

A long essay, but worth your time, which dovetails nicely with other things I’ve written on the subject. Our Cranky Professor lays out three “approaches” to aesthetics/beauty:

  • The Psychological Approach – In which one experiences beauty as an individuated response to the appearance of a thing. A Flower is Beautiful.
  • The Rational Approach – An understanding that beauty runs parallel to order. A well-ordered thing is a beautiful thing, whether or not you enjoy looking at it. The Human Brain is Beautiful.
  • The Mystical/Spiritual Approach – The idea that Beauty is rooted in the supernatural, as a reflection of a cosmic truth. The Buddah is Beautiful.

These can intersect (there are those prepared to argue that the Psychological Approach is simply the recognition of what is found in the Rational Approach), but what I like is that it covers the multiple meanings found in the word “beautiful”. Recall when I wrote this:

On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.

Originality is Not Art

This issue is handled by Approach Theory. Something can be “rationally beautiful”, while not eliciting a psychological response. A thing can be beautifully constructed, and still boring. This helps me understand what Camille Paglia was blathering about when she praised the end of Revenge of the Sith as a work of profound art.

The Mustafar duel, which took months of rehearsal, with fencing and saber drills conducted by sword master Nick Gillard, was executed by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor at lightning speed. It is virtuosic dance theater, a taut pas de deux between battling brothers, convulsed by attraction and repulsion. Their thrusts, parries, and slashes are like passages of aggessive speech. It is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping. The personal drama is staged against a physical one: wrangling and wrestling, Anakin and Obi-Wan fall against the control panels of a vast mineral-collection plant, which now starts to malfunction and fall to pieces. As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with natures brute primal power.

Camille Paglia, GLITTERING IMAGES, pgs. 188-189

Stipulate that George Lucas had all this in mind when he made the scene. Stipulate that Revenge of the Sith is the closest thing to the pony in the pile of turds that is the Prequel Trilogy. It’s still a boring movie to watch, and this scene is only slightly less boring. For one thing, it goes on way too long. For another, the emotions Paglia find in the scene are turned on an off like switches, a problem that abounds throughout theses movies. Suddenly Obi-Wan is in tears, yes, and McGregor does his level best to make it real. But there’s been nothing building to this moment. We haven’t seen Obi-Wans’ face grow in passion. They’ve been staring at each other and fighting for what seems like an hour. I don’t suddenly feel attached to McGregor’s performance. It leaves me cold like everything else in this trilogy does. I understand what Paglia’s saying. I can see truth in her assessment. It doesn’t change my individuated experience of the film one bit, and I’ve watched this scene since I’ve read this book. The prequels are still dull robot-kabuki decanted in a lab.

Thus, adopting an awareness of Approach can go a long way towards settling our various disagreements about aesthetics. It recognizes the subjective and the objective. Read the Whole Thing.

Lucretius’ Poetic Epicureanism

There once was an Epicurean Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus, who lived in the 1st Century BC. I say “Epicurean” as a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicureanism began as a combination of an empirical epistemology (we can know things only insofar as we can observe them), atomistic materialism (there is nothing but atoms and the void) with concomitant naturalistic evolution, and a kind of agnostic Deism which early Buddhism would find agreeable. The simplistic reduction of all this, “seek pleasure, avoid pain” made the word “epicurean” a synonym for “libertine”. Mass awareness always destroys nuance.

Lucretius was an Epicurean of the old school, however, and composed a poem to Preach the Good News of Epicurus, called On the Nature of Things . It is not the most entertaining of works. Poetry can be a good vehicle for philosophy, but overall Lucretius appears to be one of those fellows in love with the sound of his own voice. I don’t mind volubility in Virgil; he’s telling a ripping yarn, and while the plot of the Aeneid moves slowly from point A to B, there’s plenty of action on the way. But listening to Lucretius tell me how good his arguments and sound his proofs are gets old quickly. Roman Stoics, at least going by Seneca, had at least the good sense to be laconic.

That said, one or two passages do leap off the page as good analogies:

Men shot; the hills
re-echoing hurl their voices toward the stars;
the cavalry whele, then suddenly post and pound
with earthquake power across the open fields.
Yet high in the hills there is a place from which
They seem a motionless bright spot on the plain.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, II.327-332

This perspective-shift serves to explain a problem with atomism described several lines above (II.309-310), that of “why, though all the basic particles are in motion, their total seems to stand at total rest.” Lucretius is at his best at moments like this, painting a picture to honor the bright and illumine the dark parts of his adopted philosophy. I argued in my post about “Cuties” (remember that? That was only a few months ago. This year is a lifetime) that Art achieves its highest form as a vehicle for ideas. It does not have to do that consciously in order to be successful, but it can aim for immortality that way. There’s no reason that someone in 21st-Century America should have found this in the poetry section of a Barnes & Noble, other than its a higher and nobler form of Art. Stylistic quibbles aside, that merits the consideration.

Caligula will have things to say about him, as I have mentioned.

Old Favorites: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

A while back I made a vow to ignore the pulsating mediocrity of our degenerate film industry and embrace film classicism. This hasn’t exactly panned out how I envisioned it, as there’s only so much scratch you can throw around for Criterion Blu-Rays when you have mouths to feed. However, a flash sale enabled me to get my hands on an old favorite: Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation of Macbeth. It goes under the title “Throne of Blood”, and I was first introduced to it in my younger days.

Its plot recreates Macbeth entirely, making only changes in naming and dialogue (Washizu, the Macbeth of this story, copies MacBeth’s first line “So fair and foul a day I have not seen,” pretty fully, though). In the place of Medieval Scotland, we have Spider’s Web Castle, seat of a powerful daimyo (the petty kings of Medieval Japan), which appears at the opening and closing of the film as an ruin with a monument, like Shelley’s Ozymandias. There’s an idea that while the past may be dead and buried, and the things that animated ancient struggles nothing more than vanity and chasing after wind, nevertheless their ghosts still haunt us. The past is past, but it is also prologue, even if we don’t fully understand the story.

Re-setting the Macbeth tale of ambition, regicide, tyranny, and comeuppance in Japan allows the cruel nihilism of the story to find a spiritual home in that country’s Zen and Shinto worldview. Shakespeare’s play ignores Catholicism, letting the Heathen witches dominate the tale, giving Macbeth an oracular doom he is no more able to counteract than Oedipus was. In Throne of Blood, the Three Wierd Sisters become a Single Spirt, a kami that laughs at man in a cosmic sense, a being unto-death. He is not here to corrupt Washizu, to accomplish some chaotic goal. He simply does not care, because there is nothing to care about. Life is to be glorious and short, like the cherry blossom. What else would it be?

Another element of the story is it’s staging. Elements of traditional Noh acting and costuming were brought in. This lends the film a genuinely wierd and primal tone, in keeping with a tale of blood and thunder. Everyone looks like they’re about ready to burst under the strain of struggling. This is especially true of the Lady Macbeth composite, Asaji, who’s makeup renders her visage nearly demonic. She has an expanded role in this production, the constant needle in Washizu’s heart, twisting him to further his ambition. Kill or Be Killed, she wheedles, stoking dead coals of fear into bright bloody deeds. I’ve always considered Lady MacBeth to be all talk, as incapable of using a dagger as she is of conceiving a child. Throne of Blood doesn’t upend that conception as much as illustrate the power of talk, the devilish way rhetoric can get inside our heads. Gorgias would be proud.

The critical hot take is that this is the best film of MacBeth there is. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom said it was the only successful version. I would disagree, as the most recent version with Michael Fassbender has a bold and striking production value, and Fassbender breathes life into the title character better than any version I’ve seen. But Throne of Blood, in cutting the story loose from its usual setting, lets us see the character and drama apart from the obligatory Bardolatrous reverence. That is a great service, worthy of renown.

Enough Was Said T’inspire a Better Mind – On Reading The Aeneid

I have a nicely-bound, Heritage Library edition of John Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid by Virgil. I’m working my way through it, or at least the first 4 books of it, as research for the deep edit that’s going into The Meditations of Caius Caligulia before I publish it. It also makes for a fun refresh of the rhetorical schemes and tropes I studied in grad school: my notes are filled with Greek terms codified by Roman scholars.

But more than that, Dryden’s lively pentameter lifts the story. As my Latin is poor, I could not dare read the original, but this Early-Modern translation has the right archaic feel for something that, like the Iliad and Odyssey, is at least partly a funeral oration for the collapse of the Bronze Age, an event that left its echoes in Scripture as well. Virgil, long-winded as he could be, also had a marvelous sense for imagery:

And here and there above the waves were seen,
Arms, pictures, precious goods, and floating men.

Aeneid, Book I

I like that Dryden satisfies himself with the half-rhyme in order to give the second line it’s full weight: our mind can form the picture quite easily, and it gives an immediacy to what amounts to the opening scene of our story. Note something else: Virgil chooses to begin the story in media res, with Aeneas, son of Troy, already driving his fleet halfway across the Mediterranean, already on his way to become the distant founder of Rome. We then flashback to the sack of Troy by the Greeks, as Aeneas, blown ashore on Carthage, tells his tale to Queen Dido.

And had not Heav’n the Fall of Troy design’d,
Or had not men been fated to be blind,
Enough was said and done t’inspire a better mind.

Aeneid, Book II

This is a triplet, i.e. three lines rhyming, of which I have found several scattered throughout. Most of the poem is couplets, so these stand out. Given that Virgil wrote in a dactylic hexameter, this is no doubt Dryden’s interpolation, as he was well-known for throwing triplets around. Dryden has been criticized for too loosely translating Virgil, a criticism he embraced, decreeing that the poem would read too dull in English if translated to plainly. I have to say I’m with Dryden on this. Here’s another example:

We leave the narrow lanes behind, and dare
Th’unequal combat in the public square:
Night was our friend; our leader was despair.

Aeneid, Book II

The closing chiasmus is so tasty that I want to find excuses to quote it. Book II is filled with grand phrases that capture the horror that Homer finishes the Iliad before relating:

On the bleak shore now lies th’abandoned king,
A headless carcass, and a nameless thing.

Aeneid, Book II

The strenght of this couplet fills me with admiration, especially the “nameless thing”, the translation of a great and powerful man into nothing makes clear that this story is playing for keeps, and to hear the hero speak it gives him a genuine pathos. I had heard this poem sneered at in my youth, as a dull gong banging in blood. I am glad to know that, as always, “they” are wrong.

“Tenet” is Bad, “Sound & Fury” is Good

Twitter impresario Mencius Moldbugman stomps on the Last Film in Theaters with both feet.

Apparently Nolan has been utterly corrupted by his early Hollywood success and is now incapable of directing something better than mediocre (which is kind of the vibe I got from Dunkirk). Apparently Tenet is two hours of rampaging nonsense. I don’t know if that is true or not. But I’m even less inclined to see it now.

This is part of a longer Thread of Worse 5 Movies of All Time, which are also somewhat interesting, and relatively obscure, so it’s worth reading, if only to absorb another human’s thoughts about Art. 50 First Dates, is on there, and who can resist Adam Sandler films getting savaged as they deserve?

But why lament Bad Art, when we can discuss Good Art? In the next Shallow & Pedantic podcast, we’re going to be chatting about the nexus of Samurai films and Westerns, and part of that is going to be spent on Sturgill Simpson’s 2019 film Sound and Fury, which is not really a “film” so much as it is, well, honestly, this YouTube commenter summed it up best:

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a respected alt-country star went into surgery and, in its aftermath, refused pain killing narcotics and instead just took a bunch of weed?

Imagine then, in his fugue state, he decides to take a departure from country and produce a crazy good synth rock album. Now imagine he decides to have the entire album animated, writes a vague anime screenplay, goes to Japan, and has some of the top anime artists compete to see who could be the nuttiest in producing his vision. He then puts it all together in a 45 min montage that can only be described the three way love child of Heavy Metal the movie, Akira, and The Wall.

I actually thought this level of unrestrained creative expression from a popular artists had died sometime in the 1980s. Maybe it did but, if so, Sturgill Simpson resurrected it here.

Jeffrey wyshynski 2 months ago

It’s my favorite thing I’ve seen all year, and it’s on Netflix. And I don’t even really like Anime. You should check it out.

I Am Mildly Distracted Right Now, but Also Writing.

As is the most of the country. Not the writing part, but the distracted part. Lots of things are demanding my attention, and the weight of the current political clown show casts a pall over merely creative activities. I would like to take a nap, but I am too angry.

On the plus side, I’ve returned to a project that I had almost shelved, as it features opportunities for eloquent violence. A sad tales best for winter, and now is the winter of our discontent.

It’s a Western, called Death Riding, and it’s merely a novella in a larger tale that may or may not be related to The Sword. Which reminds me, that book needs an editor. And possibly an agent.

The return of Death Riding owes itself to Pulp by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, which is a page-turner of a graphic novel, one worth owning in hardcover. It pays homage not just to Westerns but to the Pulp era, and reminds us that Westerns had a strong pulp following in those days. They could again.

Movies are Short Stories, TV Shows are Novels

This is going to seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.

A “Feature Length” film is one 60 minutes or longer, according to the Screen Actor’s Guild. Most movies are somewhere between 80-120 minutes, although some popular films, such as nearly all the Star Wars movies, are longer (The Last Jedi, the longest one, is 152 minutes, or 2 hours and 32 minutes).

So to watch a movie is to take 1-3 hourse out of your day. And that’s usually done in one sitting. Very rarely do you watch a movie, stop halfway through, and then finish the rest later. Halfway through a movie, you’re usually invested in the story, and want to watch the rest. Movies are dense, quick-structured, A-B-C storytelling. They have to be to get you to sit through them.

Short stories, are stories less than 7,500 words. That is a quick read, giving an author not very much time to:

  • Establish setting
  • Establish character
  • Establish conflict
  • Build conflict
  • Resolve Conflict

Hence, short stories are dense, leaving as much unsaid as said, and stripping everything down to the meat. There is no more description, dialogue, or anything else, than their needs to be. Raymond Carver is the exemplar of the form for this reason.

Hence, these are the forms of efficiency. You strap in and you take the ride. You expect the story to reward your attention with immediate payoff. Movies are short stories.

TV Shows, on the other hand, are episodic. An Episode is a self-contained story that takes place within a larger context. Each successive episode reveals more about the characters, because the pressure of writing demands it. Even a TV show that intends to repeat a situation ad infinitum – a “situation comedy”, for example – finds that in cannot. Each episode adds to the character.

In times past, this growth was largely incidental, a process of creating new scenarios for the characters each week. This had more in common with the old penny dreadfuls, in which new chapters were published each week, and writers paid by the word, increasing the incentive to drag out the story and add new characters. TV Shows are kept on the air until their audience starts to leave, then they are given a hurried ending that most people find unsatisfying. See everything I’ve written about How I Met Your Mother for further elucidation.

So the production of TV shows still leads to dragging plots out, but the rise of “prestige” dramas and “concept” comedies yields the concept of an overall arc over a show or a season. The whole of a TV program can now tell one long story, and the episodes are mere chapters. The advent of streaming, and therefore binge-watching, a show, correlates to this phenomenon.

The best way to think of something like Breaking Bad or Maniac is as a visual novel. The problem with this metaphor is that, unlike modern novels produced and sold as a discreet unit, TV shows are ordered by-season. This is a function of cost. A book publisher is willing to take the risk on a print run, because that’s peanuts compared to funding the batallion necessary to produce a TV show. Hence, while a novel is always finished, a TV show will only continue so long as it maintains an audience. There’s a tension between immediacy and narrative built right into the structure.

This explains the aforementioned habit of TV Shows to screw up their finales. Most of the time, as with Seinfeld, a show has nothing particular to say, and so a finale is simply a process of saying good-bye. But when there’s a concept, an overall narrative and arc, the need to give an ending reflecting an audience’s emotional commitment becomes paramount. But it’s impossible to give proper attention to everything, and the longer a show goes on, the more true this becomes. This is why the last season of Game of Thrones felt so rushed, why fans left it so unsatisfied (The tendency to gloss over realities from the published world of the books did not help). There were so many threads left hanging, so many interesting things that they could have done, but which were not.

Thus, my current mood with regard to TV shows. I’m more in a movie mood, so I can enjoy narratives properly built and executed, rather than meandering their way and then getting cut off like a sausage. I’ve born disappointments enough from the attempts to transcend the structure.