Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wagner and more coming to a theater near us

The schedule for the 2010-11 Met Simulcast season offers two works by Wagner, along with ten other operas, including unusual works of Rossini, Puccini, and John Adams ("Nixon in China").

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Never, with Nietzsche, say "never"

Attempting to slot Nietzsche into a narrow, predictable pigeonhole is a doomed enterprise. With all the dialectical energy directed against Judaism and Christianity in his works, there is nonetheless a fidelity to the qualities and power of whatever book he's reading -- an inability to deny the extraordinary wherever it may be found. In this case, from Chap I of Beyond Good and Evil, entitled Prejudices of the Philosophers, the book is the Old Testament:

52. In the Jewish "Old Testament," the book of divine justice, there are men, things, and sayings on such an immense scale, that Greek and Indian literature has nothing to compare with it. One stands with fear and reverence before those stupendous remains of what man was formerly, and one has sad thoughts about old Asia and its little out-pushed peninsula Europe, which would like, by all means, to figure before Asia as the "Progress of Mankind." To be sure, he who is himself only a slender, tame house-animal, and knows only the wants of a house-animal (like our cultured people of today, including the Christians of "cultured" Christianity), need neither be amazed nor even sad amid those ruins—the taste for the Old Testament is a touchstone with respect to "great" and "small": perhaps he will find that the New Testament, the book of grace, still appeals more to his heart (there is much of the odour of the genuine, tender, stupid beadsman and petty soul in it). To have bound up this New Testament (a kind of ROCOCO of taste in every respect) along with the Old Testament into one book, as the "Bible," as "The Book in Itself," is perhaps the greatest audacity and "sin against the Spirit" which literary Europe has upon its conscience. Beyond Good and Evil

Im jüdischen "alten Testament", dem Buche von der göttlichen Gerechtigkeit, giebt es Menschen, Dinge und Reden in einem so grossen Stile, dass das griechische und indische Schriftenthum ihm nichts zur Seite zu stellen hat. Man steht mit Schrecken und Ehrfurcht vor diesen ungeheuren Überbleibseln dessen, was der Mensch einstmals war, und wird dabei über das alte Asien und sein vorgeschobenes Halbinselchen Europa, das durchaus gegen Asien den "Fortschritt des Menschen" bedeuten möchte, seine traurigen Gedanken haben. Freilich: wer selbst nur ein dünnes zahmes Hausthier ist und nur Hausthier-Bedürfnisse kennt (gleich unsren Gebildeten von heute, die Christen des "gebildeten" Christenthums hinzugenommen -), der hat unter jenen Ruinen weder sich zu verwundern, noch gar sich zu betrüben - der Geschmack am alten Testament ist ein Prüfstein in Hinsicht auf "Gross" und "Klein" -: vielleicht, dass er das neue Testament, das Buch von der Gnade, immer noch eher nach seinem Herzen findet (in ihm ist viel von dem rechten zärtlichen dumpfen Betbrüder- und Kleinen-Seelen-Geruch). Dieses neue Testament, eine Art Rokoko des Geschmacks in jedem Betrachte, mit dem alten Testament zu Einem Buche zusammengeleimt zu haben, als "Bibel", als "das Buch an sich": das ist vielleicht die grösste Verwegenheit und "Sünde wider den Geist", welche das litterarische Europa auf dem Gewissen hat. Jenseits von Gute und Bose.

An anniversary and personal aside

It struck me the other day that this blog is nearly at its fifth anniversary. Of course, the classics group has been in existence far longer -- I've been happily participating since, I think, 2001 -- joining the group in the middle of Homer's Odyssey as I recall. It was a few years before the idea of making some online notes about our readings occurred to me.

The blog's first post, of Oct. 7th, 2005, was entitled "A few links to start with," and concerned sources for Hesiod, Genesis, and the Enuma Elish, a reminder of the days at the Fruitville Library where we looked at cosmogonies from the Greeks, Hebrews, and others, discovering intriguing differences, and becoming acquainted with myths of origin that have returned again and again through the subsequent years.

If I were to highlight a few key themes from our readings -- not an easy exercise, as the works we've been dealing with possess extraordinary thematic range -- I'd probably start with three:

a) Stories of generation (like the ones we started with) allow certain possibilities of how stories are told - and preempt others, giving rise to highly articulated traditions with distinct genres, modes of narrative and styles. We've adverted several times to Erich Auerbach's Mimesis in this regard.

b) Western "tradition," as T.S. Eliot reminds us, is a way that minds and texts have linked across centuries -- kind of a long, slow macro-conversation. An element in a tradition can be a monocultural growth, as the Book of Samuel appears to be vis a vis the Old Testament, or bi-cultural, as with the poetics of Horace in relation to Greece, or it can be cross-cultural, as we find with poets who craft large systemic visions, like Dante or Milton. They're grappling with powerful yet deeply incompatible assumptions about the nature of reality inherited from the classical world on the one hand, and from the Bible, Old Testament and New, on the other. Then we have Nietzsche, who seems to be having an intense exchange less with a single text than with all ancient Greece at once.

c) The third "theme" I'd choose is more of a meta-theme, as it concerns our modus operandi rather than the content of works we've been reading. By reading aloud, listening closely and discussing them with attention to their unique qualities, our group apparently has been doing something both rare and suddenly fashionable, engaging in what is called "close reading," or "slow reading." Strange to say, the act of experiencing a text by actually reading it -- whether it's Augustine's Confessions, or Dickinson's "These are the days when Birds come back" (130) -- is not so common as to be undeserving of note or notoriety.

There's a brief piece entitled "The Return to Philology" that speaks to this third aspect of what we've been doing. It was written perhaps 30 years ago by one of my profs. Here's the salient bit, his description of a Harvard Humanities Course taught by Reuben Brower in the 1950s.
Students, as they began to write on the writings of others . . . were not to make any statements that they could not support by a specific use of language that actually occurred in the text. They were asked, in other words, to begin by reading texts closely as texts and not to move at once into the general context of human experience or history. Much more humbly or modestly, they were to start out from the bafflement that such singular turns of tone, phrase, and figure were bound to produce in readers attentive enough to notice them and honest enough not to hide their non-understanding behind the screen of received ideas that often passes, in literary instruction, for humanistic knowledge. ~  The Resistance to Theory.

While it sounds somewhat Draconian in the way it's stated, one could say we've been adherents of its principles without quite so fussily formalizing them (much as  Moliere's M. Jourdain finds he's long been "doing prose").

I'd welcome your thoughts on themes from our reading that have been significant for you. Also, as a way to spend time, this rocks! I'm look forward to future macro and micro conversations with gratitude and delight.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Did Milton Write a Bawdy Ditty?

NPR considers the possibility:
A little-known poem has been retrieved from the Oxford University archives, which appears to reveal a 17th century attempt to besmirch the reputation of John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost. The poem is a bawdy ditty laden with sexual innuendo, and is labeled "by Milton." However, since Milton is best-known as a great religious and political polemicist, it hardly fits with the rest of his work -- and some academics believe the poem was actually the work of a jealous political rival.

The poem in question with more about it on HuffPo.

Birth and Rebirth in Nietzsche's Die Geburt der Tragödie

There's no simple way to talk about The Birth of Tragedy. As many note, it's "a young man's work;" Nietzsche felt compelled to write it, and equally compelled, many years later, to take it apart, regretting especially sections 16 - 25 which foretell a German cultural rebirth, thanks to the midwifely exertions of Richard Wagner in the wake of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer.

What's clear is that in writing it, Nietzsche was committing professional suicide, as Marianne Cowan notes in her intro to Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks:
The Birth of Tragedy presented a view of the Greeks so alien to the spirit of the time and to the ideals of its scholarship that it blighted Nietzsche's entire academic career. It provoked pamphlets and counter-pamphlets attacking him on the grounds of common sense, scholarship and sanity. For a time, Nietzsche, then a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, had no students in his field. His lectures were sabotaged by German philosophy professors who advised their students not to show up for Nietzsche's courses. WP
It seems fair to say that Nietzsche wrote under the pressure of several enthusiasms: for Greek culture (especially early tragedy); for music (especially that of Wagner); for epistemological questions (represented mainly by Kant); as well as by several critical obsessions -- a detestation of his contemporary German world of newspapers, politics, "Alexandrian" music and decadent sensibility.

So he tells us a story of the birth of an art form - tragedy - out of the spirit of another art form - music. What follows is merely an effort to describe and summarize his argument.

Nietzsche referred to the nature of the relation of Apollo and Dionysus as "the capital question" (die Hauptfrage). In Nietzsche's story, they tend to be associated with a variety of artistic and cultural polarities, e.g., painting vs. music, verbal differentiation vs. harmonic unity, the power of statement vs. the power of voice, culture vs. nature, science vs. art, prose vs. poetry, classic vs. romantic, spatial vs. temporal, eye vs. ear, stillness vs. motion, recognition vs. revelation, contemplation vs. action, figurative vs. proper* meaning, and the like.

The Apollonian dream is an unavoidable, uncontrolled response (it holds out "the head of Medusa" (sect. 2))  that shelters us from the sheer annihilative power of Dionysus. At the heart of Greek tragedy is the chorus of dancing satyrs -- not optimistic middle-class cafe goers -- who are rapt in an apprehension of the God who dissolves all that is, and because that apprehension is intolerable, a dreamlike realm of extraordinary beauty is thrown up as a shield -- the tragic hero and his tale, on the stage.

So we have the originary progenitor, Dionysus, only apprehended through music, who fathers, or causes, the counterblow of the plastic, visual realm of the Apollonian. In tragedy these two art forms, or modes, strike a balance that is perfect in Aeschylus, already slipping in Sophocles, and, by the time of Euripides, whom Nietzsche accuses along with Socrates of destroying music, is thoroughly debased.

Just as Euripides reduced the gods and heroes from mythic stature to characters not unlike ourselves in his plays, Socrates placed the word, the intellect, the logic and method of scientific inquiry above the wild dance of the satyrs, and has led us on a voyage of discovery unlike anything that came before. Socrates is the major articulation in Nietzsche's "history," since he at once ends the glory days of Dionysus and Apollo, and begins the voyage of the scientific mind.

Science gives us the world made over in an image the human mind can fathom. But look around us, Nietzsche says -- do we see a culture that nourishes Homeric visions and Aeschylean magic? Something important has been left out -- ignored, suppressed, or destroyed -- along the way. In section 15, the original ending of the book, the good ship Socrates runs into trouble:
But science, spurred by its powerful illusion, speeds irresistibly toward its limits where its optimism, concealed in the essence of logic, suffers shipwreck. For the periphery of the circle of science has an infinite number of points; and while there is no telling how this circle could ever be surveyed completely, noble and gifted men nevertheless reach, e'er half their time and inevitably, such boundary points (Grenzpunkte) on the periphery from which one gazes into what defies illumination. When they see to their horror how logic coils up at these boundaries and finally bites its own tail -- suddenly the new form of insight breaks through, tragic insight which, merely to be endured, needs art as a protection and remedy. (Kaufmann trans. p. 97-98).
Nun aber eilt die Wissenschaft, von ihrem kräftigen Wahne angespornt, unaufhaltsam bis zu ihren Grenzen, an denen ihr im Wesen der Logik verborgener Optimismus scheitert. Denn die Peripherie des Kreises der Wissenschaft hat unendlich viele Punkte, und während noch gar nicht abzusehen ist, wie jemals der Kreis völlig ausgemessen werden könnte, so trifft doch der edle und begabte Mensch, noch vor der Mitte seines Daseins und unvermeidlich, auf solche Grenzpunkte der Peripherie, wo er in das Unaufhellbare starrt. Wenn er hier zu seinem Schrecken sieht, wie die Logik sich an diesen Grenzen um sich selbst ringelt und endlich sich in den Schwanz beisst - da bricht die neue Form der Erkenntniss durch, die tragische Erkenntniss, die, um nur ertragen zu werden, als Schutz und Heilmittel die Kunst braucht. Project Gutenberg EBook.
A few interpretive comments: Nietzsche tells a story of origin which becomes a story of destiny. The logic of his narrative presents Apollo, Dionysus, and Socrates as three interrelated entities who are necessary to each other even as they remain,  in various and not simple ways, antagonists. Smiling Socrates ended the tragic Dionysian era, and at the end of his scientific quest, inevitably (unvermeidlich), lies the horror that lay behind the glorious culture he killed, auguring a new tragic culture on the horizon.

In the sections following 15 we hear strains of another Nietzsche -- not the cool analytic philologist or gifted philosopher of aesthetics, but Nietzsche the scathing critic of contemporary society. A prophetic note enters as he foresees a new beginning in which Germany is to play a central role. We may sense that the book founders at this point, but it seems doomed to do by the structure of its argument. Like the head of the ourobouros, the seeds of that future rebirth are there from the beginning of his tale.

*This particular polarity is made much of by Paul de Man.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Reflection of contradiction

Raphael, Transfiguration

"Here is the reflection of eternal contradiction, the father of things. (ist hier Widerschein des ewigen Widerspruchs, des Vaters der Dinge.)" Birth of Tragedy, Sect. 4.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Nietzsche's Eris

Philosophy leaps ahead on tiny toe-holds; hope and intuition lend wings to its feet. Calculating reason lumbers heavily behind, looking for better footholds, for reason too wants to reach that alluring goal which its divine comrade has long since reached.
That's the young Nietzsche, from notes written (but left unpublished) around 1873, the same time he produced The Birth of Tragedy. The notes were intended for a separate book to be entitled Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, which now exists in English translation under that title. In it he addresses several of the pre-Socratics, and apparently intended to carry on with several more, but never completed the book.

According to Marianne Cowan, translator of Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Nietzsche's preoccupation with Hellenism stemmed from a pedagogical concern:
Nietzsche's most deeply felt task at this time was undoubtedly one of education. He wanted to present the culture of the Greeks as a paradigm to his young German contemporaries who might thus be persuaded to work toward a state of culture of their own; a state which Nietzsche found sorely missing.
Cowan then cites Nietzsche directly, in a passage worth noting for its attitude toward and understanding of philosophical and philological learning:
There is a certain kind of thoroughness which is but the excuse for inactivity. Think of what Goethe understood about antiquity: certainly not as much as any philologist, and yet quite enough to enable him to engage in fruitful struggle with it. One should not, in fact, know more about a thing than one can oneself digest creatively. Moreover the only means of truly understanding something is one's attempt to do it. Let us try to live in the manner of the ancients -- and we shall instantly come a hundred miles closer to them than with all our learnedness. Our philologists nowhere demonstrate that they somehow strive to vie with antiquity; that is why their antiquity is without any effect on the schools. (Nietzsche's emphasis)
This agonistic vision imbued Nietzsche's writings on the Greeks with fervor and dialectical verve. In a sense, he was competing with them, and wanted his students and readers to strive with them, to outdo them. For in that duel lay the path to cultural growth. In the above passage he also wrote:
To get past Hellenism by means of deeds: that would be our task. But to do that, we first have to know what it was!
To which he added:
My aim is to generate open enmity between our contemporary "culture" and antiquity. Whoever wishes to serve the former must hate the latter.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Job and Milton

Our brief time with Job left many of us wanting more. It's a book full of extraordinarily rich poetry, a fact which sometimes gets lost amid the briefs and court papers we compile in our minds in order to arraign and indict (a) God, (b) Satan, (c) Job, (d) his friends, (e) all the above. A book that generates so much resistance and diverse responses in its readers might warrant a bit more attention. The good news is, we can return to it anytime we like.

Perhaps when we get to Book 7 of Paradise Lost - the account of the Creation - we can spend a few minutes reading aloud from the final chapters.

See, for example:

out of the ground up rose
As from his Laire the wilde Beast where he wonns
In Forrest wilde, in Thicket, Brake, or Den;
Among the Trees in Pairs they rose, they walk'd:
The Cattel in the Fields and Meddowes green: [ 460 ]
Those rare and solitarie, these in flocks
Pasturing at once, and in broad Herds upsprung.
The grassie Clods now Calv'd, now half appeer'd
The Tawnie Lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from Bonds, [ 465 ]
And Rampant shakes his Brinded main; the Ounce,
The Libbard, and the Tyger, as the Moale
Rising, the crumbl'd Earth above them threw
In Hillocks; the swift Stag from under ground
Bore up his branching head: scarse from his mould [ 470 ]
Behemoth biggest born of Earth upheav'd
His vastness: 

But even earlier in Milton's epic, in the new found land of hell, for example, we've seen passages that were probably influenced by the astonishing originality of the poet of Job::
A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness. 10.22