Later On

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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Example of a bad (micro)cultural meme: Scott-Rudinesque behavior

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Peter Marks has an interesting report in the Washington Post, and mentions in passing how a cultural meme is created and then reinforced generation by generation, because “this is how we do it.” The underlying problem is that it’s difficult to do A-B tests of memes, though some do arise.

At any rate, from his report (and read it with an eye out for memes):

. . . The story, in which several people described allegations that have circulated in the entertainment industry for years about Rudin’s bullying and rages, rocked the theater world. In one anecdote, he allegedly smashed a computer monitor on an assistant’s hand over an unsuccessful flight booking, sending the employee to the emergency room. He’s also accused of throwing objects at workers, including a stapler and a baked potato.

Rudin declined to elaborate on the statement, or on what exactly retreating from “active participation” entails. He has spoken to confidants about beginning a program of anger management or some manner of coaching. Whether his actions will in some way quell the calls for punitive action to be taken against him is unclear. Producers who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the allegations have spoken of some sanction by the Broadway League, whose members are Broadway producers and theater owners. But the league exists primarily as a trade organization and overseer of the Tony Awards with the American Theatre Wing. Every commercial Broadway production is, in essence, its own private enterprise.

“All change is theoretical,” said Olivo, in response to Rudin’s statement, “Action and time are needed before we can name it transformation. . . . Rudin is but one dragon to slay. There are more.”

Some members of the Broadway community say Rudin is just one of many abusive people — directors, choreographers, actors, business executives — whose behavior has been tolerated. His stepping back from “active participation” will probably not change the environment, they say.

“It’s a first step. Is it enough? No,” said one Broadway producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of negative consequences. “There are people at every point in the business that have been taught that this is how you get the results you need. So the behavior gets replicated.”

“We have been taught that we have to sacrifice for our art,” this producer said about why bad behavior remains prevalent. “But you can do great work without creating a toxic environment.”

Actors’ Equity, the national labor union, called for Rudin to release his staff from any nondisclosure agreements that they may have had to sign, saying it would be “an important first step in creating truly safe and harassment-free theatrical workplaces on Broadway and beyond.”

“Since news reports emerged about Scott Rudin, we have had many private conversations with our sibling unions and the Broadway League. We have heard from hundreds of members that these allegations are inexcusable, and everyone deserves a safe workplace whether they are a union member or not,” president Kate Shindle and executive director Mary McColl said in a joint statement.

An exit by Rudin has potentially immense consequences for an industry that is short on visionary leaders. The Internet Broadway Database lists 77 plays and musicals produced by Rudin since the early 1990s. They run the gamut from . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

17 April 2021 at 5:29 pm

“Less is more” is intrinsically difficult for the human psyche, which seems always to want to add

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Joe Dominguez, in his (invaluable) book Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence, pointed out that one route to financial independence was to accumulate enough money to satisfy all your wants and needs, but an easier route was to trim your wants and needs to fit with a smaller amount of money. In either case, financial independence is achieved, but one way is faster and easier. (The book describes the tactics he used.)

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 3:53 pm

A Dance to ‘Swing, Swing, Swing,’ by Benny Goodman Orchestra (from a riff by Chick Webb)

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 April 2021 at 8:12 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Jazz, Music, Video

The Rite of Spring, by Igor Stravinsky — An animated account of its debut

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 April 2021 at 7:57 pm

The case against Shakespeare in secondary schools

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In The Walrus Allan Stratton explains why Shakespeare should have a much smaller role in the secondary school curriculum:

WE’VE CANCELLED six Dr. Seuss titles. Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird appear to be on the block. But, if we’re on a bend to reform our approach to teaching the English language, there are bigger fish to fry. Shakespeare is the curriculum’s Moby Dick. We need a harpoon. More than any other experience, the yearly dissection of Shakespeare turns kids off literature.

I speak as a writer, teacher, and lifelong fan. My mom took me to see Twelfth Night when I was five. It was 1956, the last year that the Stratford Festival performed in a tent; Christopher Plummer played Sir Andrew Aguecheek. I went every year after that, my forehead tingling every time I heard the preshow trumpet fanfare. Before age twelve, I’d read and reread Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807) a million times. And summer jobs variously included festival usher, dresser, and spear carrier.

So, no, I’m not saying Shakespeare should be beached in his entirety. But, at the moment, as Cassius says in Julius Caesar, “He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus,” taking up a quarter to a third of each year’s high school English course. You’d think no other playwright existed—why, barely another author.

This has serious consequences for what ought to be the primary function of high school study: developing a love of reading that will last a lifetime. This is next to impossible when your major contact with literature is a guy from the 1500s who wrote with a quill in what might as well be a second language. And when your teachers aren’t theatre people who can bring the works from page to stage, for which they were intended and where they shine.

Shakespeare began to be studied in high schools in 1870. The language still required translation, but at least the Victorians were used to long sentences. They were also steeped in the Bible and the Greek and Roman literatures necessary to understand Shakespeare’s allusions. Even in my day, we’d been taught the ancients’ myths.

Today’s students aren’t so much studying Shakespeare as learning to do linguistic and cultural archaeology. Or autopsies. Shakespeare is used for purposes of literary “dissection” and “analysis.” That means spotting metaphors and similes, like those kindergarten puzzle games where you find the bananas hiding in the picture. It’s like pulling the wings off flies to see how they work. Or studying a joke to understand why it’s funny.

Sure, it’s good for students to learn those literary terms and others, like iambic pentameter. General knowledge is useful if you don’t want to look like a dummy; it also helps connect ideas from disparate sources. But the truth is, terms in a subject area matter only for the people in that field. I drive a car, but damned if I can remember the physics that make it run.

Besides, literature doesn’t exist for its symbols and imagery, nor are they the reason authors write. What’s important is character and story and the discussions around the meanings that grow out of them. In that respect, Shakespeare is singularly unfit for purpose. There’s too much baggage.

For purposes of analysis, it would be far better to teach one of his sonnets. For instance, “Sonnet 18”—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”—is perfect for demonstrating metaphor, symbol, iambic pentameter, and a major, if now rarely used, poetic structure. For those of you with gauzy memories, read those fourteen lines and imagine you’re a teenager today. Bright students will be excited, which is terrific. For those who are lost, it’s an hour, not a month, in the dentist’s chair.

That said, although I think Shakespeare’s plays should be curtailed, students shouldn’t totally miss out. Managing a work is something they can be proud of, and it gives them a taste of one of the finest writers in the language. But I’d save it for their senior year, when they have more under their belts. And I’d present it as performance rather than as text.

I’d start with a film version to get . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 April 2021 at 3:08 pm

Explore the Louvre’s Entire Collection of 480,000 Artworks in a New Digital Database

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Colossal notes:

The Louvre just launched a new online database compiling more than 480,000 artworks from its collections and those at the Musée National Eugène-Delacroix and The Tuileries Garden. Spanning Egyptian antiquities and medieval sculpture to Renaissance and modern decorative arts, the free digital catalog includes works on long-term loan and is complete with an interactive map to pursue each room of the French institution. Some pieces are grouped into albums, including one collating 2020’s acquisitions and another dedicated to the National Museums Recovery, a collection of works gathered after World War II that’s being held by the Louvre until they’re claimed by their rightful beneficiaries. Dive into the entire archive, which is updated daily, on the museum’s site.

Do click that Colossal link above — the page has several images from the Louvre collection.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 April 2021 at 10:57 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Technology

The Awe Before There Are Words

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MIT Press has an article excerpted from Shierry Weber Nicholsen’s book The Love of Nature and the End of the World, “a psychological exploration of how the love of nature can coexist in our psyches with apathy toward environmental destruction.” The article begins:

To move from speechlessness to speech requires a person — perhaps a wiser part of ourselves — who can hear and receive our experience. As we are heard, we become able to hear our experience ourselves. In the beginning, however, is speechlessness, unformed experience no doubt both beautiful and terrifying. Silence sometimes means that there are no words yet.

Awe touches us even more deeply than a felt love, yet it is deep in darkness. It is not simply unspoken; it is speechless. A friend tells me that she cannot describe her feeling for the natural world as love. It’s not love but awe, she says. She is simply struck speechless at the sight of a heron lifting its wing. Awe-struck, she is incapable of saying more.

In part, awe does not have words because it is utterly private, not “for show.” But it is more than private. It is an involuntary speechlessness. That we seldom find the sense of awe in our talk about the environment may be due in part to our diminished capacity for awe, but it is also due to the inherent speechlessness that awe brings us to. We cannot even put words to it ourselves. It is not surprising that we do not speak of it to others.

Awe is the sense of an encounter with some presence larger than ourselves, mysterious, frightening and wonderful, numinous, sacred. It is the sense of something that we are not capable of containing within our capacity for thought and speech. In awe, one’s self is felt only as something small and incapable, speechless, perhaps graced by the experience but unequal to it.

Awe makes us feel amazed, astounded, struck dumb. Joseph Campbell’s term aesthetic arrest, which denotes something similar, conveys this sense. We are stopped in our tracks. The words amazed and astounded both suggest a blow to one’s normal mental functioning, as when one is literally stunned or struck or loses one’s normal orientation (as in a maze). In his book “Dream Life,” Donald Meltzer, the influential psychoanalyst, tells the story of a little boy whose therapist, in a gesture out of the ordinary, wiped his face. The boy sat there “amazed.” How are we to understand this? Meltzer quotes from the Talmud, the Jewish book of law“Stand close to the dying, because when the soul sees the abyss it is amazed.” For the soul of the one dying, death seems an “unbearably new” experience. When a particular emotion has never been felt before, it will not immediately yield its meaning, says Meltzer, and the psyche responds with amazement.

The notion of an experience that does not immediately yield its meaning is the key to the speechlessness of awe in the face of the natural world. While awe stops us in our tracks, this is not the end of our experiencing but rather a beginning. Somehow . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 4:29 pm

The Far Side: A masterclass in storytelling

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2021 at 5:04 pm

The Jewelry Archaeologist

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Just by accident a segment of cultural knowledge was preserved. Alison Main writes in Craftsmanship Quarterly:

  1. The Search, Stage One
  2. The Evolution of Gold
  3. Catch Me If You Can
  4. “I Pay Cash For Hubs”
  5. “One More Vulture”
  6. The “Mad Dog Marxist”
  7. The Fruits of Loyalty
  8. The Question of Originality
  9. Tomorrow’s Vintage Jewelry

On a summer vacation in 1995, in Providence, Rhode Island, Hugo Kohl noticed an intriguing item on a local tourist map. A pictorial inset, blown up to highlight a piece of the city’s historic center, said “Providence Jewelry District.” Kohl happened to have been working in the jewelry business at the time, as a goldsmith back in Harrisonburg, Virginia. With his wife and daughter out shopping on the town, Kohl hopped in his car. Once he reached the Jewelry District, he discovered … nothing: just some dilapidated old factories and run-down warehouses. Something, he thought, is not adding up.

This was a decade before Google maps, so Kohl’s most immediate mode of assistance was a nearby telephone booth. Flipping through the Providence Yellow Pages, Kohl unearthed a few jewelry businesses still in existence and made some calls. One was a company that dealt with factory-scale jewelry manufacturing equipment, and he persuaded the owner to let him visit. After a quick tour, the factory owner left Kohl on his own to “snoop around.”

Kohl soon happened upon a team of warehouse workers with a forklift, who were heaving broken boxes of steel parts into a dump truck. While one load was going into the truck-bed, a small, rusted, antique metal cabinet fell apart, and a bunch of dirty metal trinkets spilled out. Some fell on the ground right at Kohl’s feet. As the workers were scooping up the spill and throwing the pieces into the dump truck, Kohl picked up a few, then stood there in awe. “Each one of these pieces was like a little mini Michelangelo,” Kohl recalls. “They were beautiful carvings. I knew nothing of what I had, but I did intimately know the jewelry connected to this art.”

For Kohl, this was an out-of-body moment—a combination of shock, surprise, amazement, and confusion. Why would anyone throw away such masterful tiny sculptures? “To factory owners, it was just stuff,” he says. “It was nothing. It was trash. The only value it held for them was what it could sell for scrap.”

As the truck drove away from the warehouse, Kohl panicked. “I ran, hopped in my car, and I followed the dump truck onto the highway. It was summer. My windows were down. I was speeding down Interstate 95. Cars were zooming all around me, and I pulled up alongside the truck, blasting my horn, trying to catch the driver’s attention. I waved him down, pointing to the back of his truck. He thought I was telling him something was wrong with his truck, that there was an emergency, so he pulled over.”

Kohl soon happened upon a team of warehouse workers with a forklift, who were heaving broken boxes of steel parts into a dump truck. While one load was going into the truck-bed, a small, rusted, antique metal cabinet fell apart, and a bunch of dirty metal trinkets spilled out. Some fell on the ground right at Kohl’s feet. As the workers were scooping up the spill and throwing the pieces into the dump truck, Kohl picked up a few, then stood there in awe. “Each one of these pieces was like a little mini Michelangelo,” Kohl recalls. “They were beautiful carvings. I knew nothing of what I had, but I did intimately know the jewelry connected to this art.”

For Kohl, this was an out-of-body moment—a combination of shock, surprise, amazement, and confusion. Why would anyone throw away such masterful tiny sculptures? “To factory owners, it was just stuff,” he says. “It was nothing. It was trash. The only value it held for them was what it could sell for scrap.”

As the truck drove away from the warehouse, Kohl panicked. “I ran, hopped in my car, and I followed the dump truck onto the highway. It was summer. My windows were down. I was speeding down Interstate 95. Cars were zooming all around me, and I pulled up alongside the truck, blasting my horn, trying to catch the driver’s attention. I waved him down, pointing to the back of his truck. He thought I was telling him something was wrong with his truck, that there was an emergency, so he pulled over.”

As soon as they both got out of their vehicles, Kohl made him an offer. “You’ve got some stuff on the back of your truck that I’d like to buy,” he said. Fortunately (or unfortunately for his wife) Kohl had a large portion of his family’s vacation fund in his pocket—about $1,500 in cash. In his eyes, however, this was a chance for a priceless deal, far more valuable than a handful of gourmet dinners. Kohl laid ten $100 bills on the hood of his car, methodically placing one bill on top of the other. He wanted the driver to see the money, to take it all in. Then Kohl grabbed the stack of cash, ripped the bills in half, placed one half in the driver’s hand, held the other half in his hand, and said, “If you let me get something from the back of your truck, I’ll give you the other half.”

Incredulous but curious, the driver agreed. For the next couple of hours, in the New England humid summer heat, Kohl hauled stuff off the dump truck in search of his hoped-for treasures. Once he gathered these little nuggets, he gave the driver the second half of the money, threw the loot in his truck, finished up his vacation (his wife was bemused, yet supportive of this whimsy), and went home to Harrisonburg to unearth his stash. “All this stuff was rusted,” Kohl said. “It was nasty, disgusting, gross. I cleaned it off, looked at these tiny pieces of steel, unsure what I just bought. I had no answers, but I knew I had something very special.” Eventually, Kohl figured it out. “What I stumbled into,” he now says, “was the very end of this industry coming undone. If I’d been a year later, none of this would be here. I ended up there at the exact right moment to intervene.”

THE SEARCH, STAGE ONE

To put the puzzle together, Kohl embarked on an epic quest for information. He bought a digital camera, piles of blank CD-ROMs (the photo transfer technology of the day), and took photo after photo of his decaying booty. After burning them on the CDs and composing query letters, he spent months mailing it all to jewelry experts and academics. He called Sotheby’s, Christie’s, the Smithsonian. “I put hundreds of these CDs out there in the world,” Kohl recalls. They’re still out there. I sent them to every university that had a metals and jewelry department.” In his letters, Kohl asked, “What is this? How was it used?” The response: Zilch. No answers. No leads.

Exasperated, Kohl called the only lead he had—Tony Santoro, the man whose Providence factory led Kohl to his loot. “They’re hubs,” Santoro said. “They’re worthless.”

Hubs, Kohl soon learned, are actual size, three-dimensional renderings of how a finished piece of vintage jewelry would take shape. Given how important these little blocks of steel once were, Kohl would not accept Santoro’s answer. To placate Kohl, Santoro gave him a few names, but no one wanted to talk. Finally, on a subsequent trip to Providence, during a visit to Gold Machinery, the office manager said, “You could probably talk to Peter.” When Kohl asked for Peter’s phone number, the manager said, “I can’t. Peter will kill me if I give you his number.” By this point, the jewelry trail had been cold for far too long for Kohl to put up with another dead end. While the manager was out of the room, Kohl flipped through a giant rolodex on his desk, found a card for some guy named Peter, and with a magic marker, wrote his phone number on the palm of his hand.

“Peter,” it turned out, was Peter DiCristofaro, President of the Providence Jewelry Museum in Rhode Island. Kohl’s first phone conversation with DiCristofaro went exactly like this: “Hi. My name’s Hugo, I’ve got some hubs.” Click. Nothing but dial tone from DiCristofaro.

If he couldn’t get DiCristofaro’s attention on the phone, Kohl decided to present himself in person. So he took another trip to Providence, to visit the museum. “At the time, it was at a beautiful atrium in the middle of downtown Providence. There was an exhibition. And people were lined up, out the door, down the street, around the block. These were wealthy people, a little bit older, and they were paying to interact with history and with Peter.” The exhibit, staged to be kinetic, featured  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 March 2021 at 3:36 pm

Stunning balloon animals — repeat: balloon animals!

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 March 2021 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life

Create Escape: Banksy with Bob Ross

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 March 2021 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Art, Video

Like Sheep: On Translating a Literary Plague in a Time of Pandemic

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This is probably a good time to read the literature of pandemics — surprisingly vast (or not so surprisingly, given that pandemics have plagued humanity (literally) from time immemorial (thus one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rides the pale horse of plague)). A.E. Stallings writes in the Hudson Review:

Plagues, real and imaginary, spread like viruses through literature. The Iliad starts with one. It’s right there in line 10, a disease sent by far-shooting Apollo, god of music and medicine, plague and archery, because Agamemnon has snatched the girl Chryseis from her father, Chryses, one of Apollo’s own priests. The god shoots his arrows of contagion, striking first at the mules and dogs (it is interesting that the poet seems to be aware of zoonosis, pathogens that jump from animals to people), and then at men, so that the funeral pyres are crowded and burn without ceasing. The first deaths of the poems are not from war, but disease. Agamemnon, compelled to give the girl back to her father, takes Achilles’ “spear-bride” Briseis instead, setting in motion all of the tragic events to follow.

It is a plague too, this time in the city of Thebes, that sets Oedipus on the path to knowledge that will reveal the enigmatic and devastating truth of his birth and his marriage. When Oedipus asks the priest of Zeus what is wrong with his people, he answers (Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, lines 25–30, translation by Sir Richard Jebb):

A blight has fallen on the fruitful blossoms of the land, the herds among the pastures, the barren pangs of women. And the flaming god, the malign plague, has swooped upon us, and ravages the town: he lays waste to the house of Cadmus, but enriches Hades with groans and tears. . . .

Notice it is the crops and the herds that are first affected. The priest concludes dryly with the sentiment, as Jebb has it, “Neither walled town nor ship is anything, if it is empty and no men dwell within.”

Mythological plagues are often indications that something is very wrong, an invitation to look more closely at assumptions and injustice, a judgment. It is worth remembering that Sophocles’ famous play debuted in 429 BC. The plague of Athens had broken out the previous year, and 429 saw a second wave. The references to a plague, in combination with a criticism of state leadership, would have been eerily topical and resonant for the audience in a time of war and pandemic, for all that the play is set in a legendary past and another city.

Thucydides’ prose account of the Athenian plague in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars describes not legend, but events Thucydides had experienced firsthand: the first outbreak of plague in 430 BC, when nearly one in three residents of Athens perished. (A mass grave of plague victims was excavated by archaeologists in 1994 in the Kerameikos, the potters’ quarter, of the city.) Thucydides is a survivor and describes the symptoms both as an eyewitness and a former sufferer. Even Pericles, the leader of Athens, will succumb to the disease. According to Thucydides, the contagion arose in northern Africa and entered Athens by the bustling port of Piraeus. The symptoms begin with fever and red eyes, a swollen and bloody tongue, but go on to include a cough, and an assortment of other effects: the genitals can be affected, and sometimes a sufferers lose their extremities, their eyesight or even their memory. In describing the horror of mass civilian deaths, Thucydides uses the phrase “dying like sheep.”

Thucydides’ plague has a moral dimension: some people are afraid to do the right thing by caring for the sick (it is the health workers, in fact, who are hardest hit); worship of the gods falls by the wayside as prayer proves ineffectual, and people immerse themselves in pleasures, vices and crimes, excesses of the moment, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, and confident they will not be brought to justice. The proper disposal of the dead—religious observations as well as cremation—one of the most sacred aspects of ancient life, is abandoned. People toss a corpse on top of funeral pyres already in progress or set fire to a pyre painstakingly arranged by others to cremate their own dead. The plague becomes a symptom for a societal breakdown, a society with a weakened immune system that is slipping into decline and will lose the war as well as its hegemony and status.

Lucretius, the 1st century BC Roman poet who would be such an important model for Virgil in turn takes up Thucydides’ plague. In his didactic epic, De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things,” a poem about life, the universe, and everything, that lays out tenets of the atomic theory and Epicurean philosophy, Lucretius ends the poem—at least as the version of the poem has come down to us, supposedly edited by Cicero—on a Latin versification of Thucydides’ prose eyewitness account of the Athenian plague. Some of it is almost straight translation. Consider (translation mine):

At no time did the greedy disease let up. It caught and spread
From one man to another, as though they were so many head
Of fleecy sheep and cattle. . . .

Yet here as elsewhere Lucretius elaborates, inventing more lurid detail about the disease itself—not only are the genitals affected, for instance, but desperate victims even castrate themselves—and also expanding on the suffering of animals, such as noble dogs. In a 7,000-plus-line poem whose purpose is purportedly to free its readers from the fear of death, there is something counterintuitive about ending on this terrifying plague, on death coming alike to sinner and saint, weak and strong. The poem ends on the scene of people coming to bloodshed over funeral pyres, where others might try to throw random corpses:

Squalid Poverty and Sudden Disaster would conspire
To drive men on to desperate deeds—so they’d place on a pyre
Constructed by another their own loved ones, and set fire
To with wails and loud lament. And often they would shed
Much blood in their struggle rather than desert their dead.

That is the poem’s unsettling conclusion. Because of the nature of Latin syntax, the whole poem ends, or perhaps is abandoned, on the verb “desererentur.”

***

Virgil’s Georgics is his poetic masterpiece (John Dryden famously called it “the best Poem of the best Poet”), composed between his debut Eclogues and his grand epic project, the Aeneid; Virgil would die before the last was finished, and supposedly ordered it to be burned. The Georgics hits a sweet spot in both effervescent accomplishment and achieved ambition, the poet at the apogee of his powers. In four “books,” it purports to be advice to the Italian farmer, with a chapter on ploughing and crops, a chapter on vines and orchards, a chapter on animal husbandry, and a chapter on apiculture; but these topics seem to be pretexts for a discursive poem of natural history, learned allusion, the beauties of Italy, philosophical explorations of man’s essential condition, and exploration of the nature of civilization. Somehow the section about tending bees culminates in an exquisite retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The plague section comes at the very end of Book Three, the one on animal husbandry. After elucidating how to deal with common ailments of sheep, the poem goes on to recount a plague from some previous era that wiped out cattle, sheep, and even wild animals. This is  . . .

Continue reading.

I found the essay quite interesting, and I hope you do as well.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2021 at 7:31 pm

Tom Stoppard’s Charmed and Haunted Life

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In the New Yorker Anthony Lane reviews a new biography of Tom Stoppard by Hermione Lee. His review begins:

In 2007, the playwright Tom Stoppard went to Moscow. He was there to watch over a production of his trilogy—“Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Salvage,” collectively known as “The Coast of Utopia.” The trilogy had opened in London in 2002, and transferred to Lincoln Center in 2006. Now, in a sense, it was coming home. The majority of the characters, though exiled, are from Russia (the most notable exception being a German guy named Karl Marx), and, for the first time, they would be talking in Russian, in a translation of Stoppard’s text. Ever courteous, he wanted to be present, during rehearsals, to offer notes of encouragement and advice. These were delivered through an interpreter, since Stoppard speaks no Russian. One day, at lunch, slices of an anonymous meat were produced, and Stoppard asked what it was. “That is,” somebody said, seeking the correct English word, “language.”

The meat, of course, was tongue, and the anecdote—one of hundreds that Hermione Lee passes on to us in her new biography, “Tom Stoppard: A Life” (Knopf)—is perfect to a fault. If any writer was going to be on the receiving end of so deliciously forgivable a mistake, it had to be Stoppard. Likewise, at a performance of his 1974 play, “Travesties,” how was he to know that the handsome fellow he was chatting with was not, as he believed, his French translator but was, in fact, Rudolf Nureyev? Is it somehow in Stoppard’s nature that Stoppardian events befall him, or is it only in his telling that they come to acquire that distinctive lustre? He emerges from Lee’s book as a magnetic figure to whom others cluster and swarm, and around whom happy accidents, chance encounters, new loves, and worldly goods are heaped like iron filings. According to one friend, he’s “good at being adored.” Stoppard’s fellow-playwright Simon Gray gave this assessment:

\It is actually one of Tom’s achievements that one envies him nothing, except possibly his looks, his talents, his money and his luck. To be so enviable without being envied is pretty enviable, when you think about it.

The placing of that “possibly” is unimprovable. Many folk, less deserving than Stoppard, and with scarcely a whit of his charm, are greeted with godsends. What marks him out is the unusual thoroughness with which he has probed the mechanism of fate, as if it were his moral duty—shaded, perhaps, with a touch of guilt—to understand why he, of all people, should have got the breaks.

What matters, for instance, is not just that Stoppard belonged to a bunch of English-speaking writers who were dispatched, in the summer of 1964, to live and (if possible) to fructify in West Berlin, on a scholarship from the Ford Foundation; not just that he used his time there to toil on something called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the Court of King Lear”; not just that a new and Lear-less version was staged, by the Oxford Theatre Group, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966; not just that an enraptured review of the production was read by Kenneth Tynan, one of Stoppard’s heroes, who was then a presiding demigod at the National Theatre; not just that, with the blessing and the exhaustive counsel of Tynan and Laurence Olivier, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” opened at the National Theatre in 1967; and not just that its author, three months shy of his thirtieth birthday, was immediately mantled with a fame that would never slide from his shoulders; but that the play itself begins with the toss of a coin, as if all too aware that, after so prolonged a birth, it was lucky to be alive. “Heads,” Rosencrantz announces, again and again. “Heads. Heads. Heads.” Thereby hangs a tale.

To say that Tom Stoppard was born in Zlín, in Moravia, is true, but it’s not the whole story. For Stoppard, stories are never whole. At his birth, on July 3, 1937, he was named Tomáš Sträussler—the second son of two Jewish Czechs, Eugen Sträussler and Marta Becková. Zlín is still Zlín, though from 1948 to 1990 it wasn’t; instead, it was graced with the name of Gottwaldov, in honor of Klement Gottwald, the drunken and syphilitic Communist who ruled the country from 1948 to 1953, purging undesirables in a bid to keep favor with Moscow. Then, there is Moravia, which began the twentieth century as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ended it as a region of the Czech Republic. As Lee says, “All the names have changed.”

Zlín was a company town, centered on the Bata shoe factory, and Eugen was a company doctor. In April, 1939, after the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, the Sträusslers and other Jews departed in haste. For the Sträusslers and their neighbors the Gellerts, there was reportedly a choice of destination: Singapore or Kenya? Heads or tails? Tomáš and his family went to Singapore—“probably via Hungary and Yugoslavia and thence to Genoa,” Lee writes. As the Japanese advanced on Singapore, in early 1942, Marta and her two sons made their escape, on a crowded ship. At Colombo, in what is now Sri Lanka, they were transferred to another vessel, which Marta thought was heading to Australia. But, no, it sailed to India. In the churnings of wartime (and not only then, the adult Stoppard might say), entire lives can change course in the wake of a simple misunderstanding. I would welcome a map in Lee’s book, to complement the family tree that she provides, yet maybe the lines of travel would be too faint. At a deep distance, one imagines, memories dim.

The Sträussler boys never saw their father again. Decades later, Stoppard learned that Eugen had probably been on a ship that was sunk near Sumatra. Marta—the definition of a strong and protective mother, her resilience rivalled only by her anxiety—disembarked, with her sons, in what was then Bombay. According to Lee, “In the next four years, the family would move across India six or seven times.” Anyone whose early years were nomadic, for whatever reason, will know that the spectre of peregrination never fades; if anything, it returns to haunt one’s middle age, as thrilling and as destabilizing as ever. Thus, Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” (1995) was set in both the nineteen-thirties and the present day. Time is a looking glass, through which we come and go.

Readers may be puzzled to discover that, for Stoppard, his spell in India offered “a lost domain of uninterrupted happiness.” The high point of that domain was Darjeeling, with a view of the Himalayas. The city was busily multinational, and he was struck by the glamour, as he recalls it, of passing American soldiers; does a flicker of that impression survive in “Empire of the Sun” (1987), which he adapted from the novel by J. G. Ballard for Steven Spielberg, and in which the youthful hero, meeting Americans in a prison camp, is seized with similar awe? Stoppard’s mother, meanwhile, was making plans for the security of her sons. Without telling them, “she got on the train from Darjeeling and travelled all day (a six-hundred-kilometre journey) to marry Major Stoppard in St. Andrew’s Church, Calcutta, on 25 November 1945.”

In its plain way, that is the most extraordinary sentence in Lee’s book, calmly illustrating the lengths to which people will go to put an end to chaos. The war was over; Major Stoppard was a British officer, to whom Marta had been introduced at the Mount Everest Hotel, when he was on leave in Darjeeling; he could supply her with peace. And so, on the last leg of their odyssey, the Sträusslers turned into the Stoppards, took ship to England, and set in motion the process by which Tomáš would become the very English Tom, with a lavish command of his adopted tongue.

No surprise, then, that to watch Stoppard’s work—or merely to inspect his titles, like “New-Found-Land” (1976) and “Rough Crossing” (1984), which is partly set on the tilting deck of a boat, not to mention “The Coast of Utopia”—is to be schooled in restlessness, and in the yearning to reach safe haven. “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), for which Stoppard, in league with Marc Norman, wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay, concluded with Gwyneth Paltrow, as the survivor of a shipwreck, striding up a beach into the New World. Even our ultimate journey gets the treatment; think of the sepulchral joke in “The Invention of Love,” Stoppard’s 1997 play about the poet and classical scholar A. E. Housman, which starts with our hero preparing to be rowed across the river Styx. He is delighted to be en voyage. “I’m dead, then,” he says. “Good.”

If childhood, as Graham Greene remarked to John le Carré (one peripatetic soul confiding in another), is the credit balance of the writer, then Stoppard was rich by the time he made landfall in England, as an eight-year-old. He was sent with his older brother, Peter, to boarding school and swiftly inculcated into the classic traditions of his new country: cricket, fly-fishing, and a diplomatic camouflage of what is most keenly felt. Chez Stoppard, “the past was not much spoken of,” Lee tells us. “Keeping things quiet was their habit: this family did not much communicate its emotions or share confidences.” For a writer, such secrecy need not be a hardship. Experiences of value can be safely stored, accruing interest, and awaiting retrieval in maturity.

Stoppard’s teen-age years, in Lee’s recounting,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 February 2021 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

A cogent rebuttal to a comment by Joni Mitchell

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Joni Mitchell made a comment in 2004 that has recently become popular — or, as people now say, gone viral:

I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look at a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to co-operate is what is necessary to be an artist – not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corporation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music, that’s why I spend my time now painting

Steve Lawson has 14 questions about that quotation. From his post:

1) Who was this ‘someone from the music business’ and which bit of the music business were they in? Why is this one unnamed person’s pretty gruesomely commercial focus being held up as a template for understanding the motivations and behaviour of everyone in ‘the music business’?

2) What the hell is ‘the music business’. I’m in the music business, clearly this person’s thoughts don’t reflect on me… were they in publishing? Sync? A&R? Running a label? A sub-label? The ‘music business’ is gargantuan – finding a person with really terrible opinions within its bounds has never been hard.

3) For every renegade artist through the history of music, I’ll show you a thousand successful and often brilliant artists how had a certain look and were willing to co-operate. Frank Zappa was a total one off. Find me the label that launched 500 Frank Zappas and we can have a talk about Zappaism as a business model.

4) I adore Joni’s music – Hejira is my favourite record of all time, and she’s easily in the top 10 or so most significant musicians of the last 100 years, but when she was signed, she was a beautiful young acoustic guitar playing singer-songwriter in the golden age of acoustic singer/songwriters. She didn’t need to co-operate, she was exactly what they were looking for. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was what she could do after a decade as a global icon, not the demo that got her signed in the first place.

5) Why are co-operation and artistic vision contradictory? . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 February 2021 at 2:28 pm

Posted in Art, Business, Daily life, Music

Young Pavarotti

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 February 2021 at 6:04 pm

Posted in Art, Memes, Music, Video

How to create compelling characters

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Psyche has a reasonably long and quite interesting article on creating fictional characters. The author:

Kira-Anne Pelican, is a writer, educator and script consultant, specialising in helping writers develop more compelling films and TV series through insights from evidence-based psychology. She is the author of The Science of Writing Characters: Using Psychology to Create Compelling Fictional Characters(2020). She lives in London.

I would guess that her article draws heavily on her book. The article begins:

Need to know

It’s first thing in the morning, I’ve plenty to do but I can’t stop thinking about Nicole Kidman’s character from the American TV series I watched last night, The Undoing. It’s a psychological thriller, and Kidman was mesmerising. When written well, characters seize our attention and compel us to engage. They stay in our minds long after we’ve closed the pages of our novel, binge-watched the entire box set, or exited the auditorium. We mull over their relationships, wonder if they did the right thing, and ponder how they might behave in different scenarios. But why is it that some characters are more compelling than others?

Perhaps you’re a writer struggling to create your own captivating characters. Or maybe you’re an avid consumer of novels, films and TV dramas and you’re intrigued that made-up people can cast such a spell on you. Either way, I believe that scientific psychology can offer a fresh, illuminating perspective and I’m going to show you how.

Many books that discuss the craft of writing fiction suggest that the best approach towards creating engaging characters is by ensuring that they are believable, complex and flawed. Suggestions typically include drawing on personal observation, giving the main character conflicting conscious and unconscious goals, and developing an interesting character backstory. One of the most influential books of this genre is Aspects of the Novel (1927) by the English author E M Forster. In it, he argued that the most engaging characters move us emotionally because they feel real, and continue to surprise us as we turn the pages of the text. Describing these complex characters as ‘round’, Forster included as prime examples Madame Bovary, the romantic heroine from Gustave Flaubert’s novel of the same name, as well as characters written by Jane Austen.

By contrast, Forster proposed that ‘flat’ characters have just two or three pronounced character traits, can be summarised by a single sentence, and are incapable of moving us in any way other than through humour. When confined to secondary roles, these flat characters support the main story without distracting the reader. However, to Forster, the most compelling characters capture the full complexity of being human. They also transform and surprise us in believable ways.

Along with Forster, many other writerly guides offer similar advice about the importance of creating complexity in characters – but what is ‘complexity’ in this context, and how do we go about creating characters who are at once surprising but psychologically credible? As a psychology graduate-turned-writer, these questions intrigued me during my doctoral research. Early in my writing career, I received notes on one of my screenplays from a respected script consultant. They were full of excellent observations and useful suggestions, except on the area of character. I was in full agreement that my character needed more complexity and was missing something, but these comments alone were too vague to be useful. What I needed was to better understand what complexity means in a character, and with that to recognise what specifically was missing from my character and how to go about fixing it.

Although some literary critics have resisted the idea that fictional characters are anything more than textual constructions (ie, a writer’s device or tool), an alternative approach – and one that I find far more useful for practitioners – is to treat them as akin to real people. Since most writers intend for their fictional characters to be proxies of their human counterparts, it arguably makes sense to examine and understand their characters through many of the same scientific models used by psychologists to understand real people. More specifically, the field of personality psychology is likely to be especially illuminating because writers characterise their fictional personae by describing their thoughts, feelings, motivations and behaviours – the exact same set of factors that psychologists see as making up personality.

The most widely supported scientific model of personality is the ‘Big Five’. The approach originated with the US psychologists Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal, and was further developed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae and others. These pioneers built on the idea that the attributes of personality that we consider to be most important must be encoded in everyday language. They used factor analysis on personality survey data to reveal five broad semantic groupings among the words that we use to describe each other, and these have become the Big Five traits or personality dimensions: extraversion-introversion, agreeableness-disagreeableness, neuroticism-emotional stability, conscientiousness-unconscientiousness, and openness to experience-closed to experience. The idea is that these dimensions are independent of each other, so the degree to which a person rates on one dimension has no bearing on how they rate on any other dimension.

By applying this framework to our understanding of what roundedness means in relation to fictional characters, we gain an immensely useful approach for fictional character analysis and problem solving. This five-factor model allows writers to examine whether they’ve characterised their fictional personae across all five dimensions of personality, and whether they’ve achieved this consistently enough through their text to create the sense of another being. In addition, the Big Five model illuminates the way that people typically transform throughout their lives ­– writers can use this knowledge to create more believable character transformations in fiction, and consumers of fiction might find it intriguing to reflect on the evolution of their favourite characters in the context of what’s known about real-life personality change.

The Big Five model also gives us insights into why some characters are more compelling than others. In reality, the range of scores across all personality dimensions are normally distributed in a population (similar to height or weight), and so the majority of people that we meet are moderately extraverted, moderately agreeable, moderately conscientious, moderately neurotic and moderately open to experience. They’re likely to make less of an impression because they’re rather average. By contrast, people are more likely to stand out from the crowd if they score towards the extremes of at least one or two of the dimensions. Such characters are compelling because they’re unlike the majority of people we meet every day. Whether real or imagined, we’re more likely to remember these individuals, precisely because they’re different.

What to do

Audit your character on the Big Five dimensions

When meeting someone for the first time, often the first personality dimension to make an impression on us is extraversion. Extraverts are outward-facing and gain energy from their social interactions. Full of life, they seize the limelight and compel us to watch. They’re generally warm, gregarious, active, assertive and upbeat characters who are drawn to excitement. Fictional examples are plentiful – from Becky Sharp, the cynical social climber from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1847-48), through the inventor-cum-superhero Tony Stark from the Marvel Cinematic Universe film franchise (2008-). At the other end of this spectrum, introverts are more serious in nature, and gain energy from spending quiet time alone or in the company of close friends or family. While extraverts use big, assertive actions and extensive dialogue to grab our attention, introverts can be equally compelling precisely because they reveal so little. Written well, they’ll leave the reader wanting to discover more about them. Take, for example, Mr Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet’s aloof romantic interest from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), or Little/Chiron/Black, the highly sympathetic son of a crack addict from the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight (2016).

A second dimension that we pick up rapidly in others is agreeableness. People who are agreeable are typically kind, trusting, cooperative, straightforward, humble and tenderminded – qualities that we generally like in others. We repeatedly see these traits in sympathetic characters such as Samwell Tarly, steward on the Night Watch in George R R Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-), and the female lead in Woody Allen’s romantic comedy Annie Hall (1977). By contrast, disagreeable people are typically more selfish, opinionated, suspicious, competitive, arrogant and sometimes devious. Unsurprisingly, antagonists will usually score highly on disagreeableness. However, some subtraits associated with disagreeableness are also useful in creating strong protagonists. Think about the leading character Mildred Hayes from the BAFTA Award-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). Blunt, single-minded and without any concern for who she’s going to offend on her way, Hayes wins over our sympathies when we learn that she’s fighting for justice for her daughter who was raped and murdered. Strength of character often comes from the determination to fight for what’s right and a refusal to compromise.

A third dimension, neuroticism, relates to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including (at the end) a selection of useful llinks.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 February 2021 at 11:28 am

More Korean pottery-making: Still much handwork, but more use of machines and larger production volume

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 February 2021 at 11:52 am

Posted in Art, Business, Daily life, Video

Vera Ellen was a great dancer

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 February 2021 at 5:15 pm

Posted in Art, Movies & TV, Video

The making of a kimchi pot

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 February 2021 at 11:12 am

Hayao Miyazaki | The Mind of a Master

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2021 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Art, Movies & TV, Video

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