BEAUTY IS OBJECTIVE:

We Built Ugly Churches and Still Do Not Attract Young People: How Is This Possible?
(ITXU DÍAZ, February 16, 2024, American Spectator)

[B]eyond grace, if anything moves the affections of man, if anything can lead our feelings toward God, it is the aesthetics. There is an official liturgy, to avoid abuses and doctrinal errors, to guarantee respect for the Holy Sacrament, but also so that we learn to approach God, not only with the soul, but also with the senses. Beauty is paramount. St. John Paul II wrote about it in his 1999 Letter to Artists:

In perceiving that all he had created was good, God saw that it was beautiful as well. The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection. In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty.

If the aesthetic and the emotional were not important, they would not have been a priority target of the enemies of God in postmodern times.

A WORLD OF MYSTERY AND WONDER:

Russian Wonder and Certainty: Like the Bible, Russian literature came to be perceived “not as a series of separate books but as a single ongoing work composed over many generations.” It is a conversation with both the present and the past simultaneously. (Lee Trepanier, 6/29/23, Public Discourse)

According to Morson, out of this exchange between writers and the intelligentsia emerged three archetypes that reflected the dominant personalities in Russian civilization. The first was the “wanderer” who was a pilgrim of ideas, often trading one theory for another, in search of the truth. Some writers experienced life-changing spiritual conversions, such as Tolstoy, as told in his Confessions, or Solzhenitsyn, as told in the Gulag Archipelago; while others accepted ideas bereft of God as the source of human salvation, such as Belinsky or Kropotkin. While both writers and intelligentsia looked to ideas for truth, the intelligentsia mistook theory for reality and thus became dedicated to a fanatical idealism. By contrast, writers like Chekhov and Dostoevsky understood the limits of theory in accounting for reality, acknowledging that mystery and wonder were at the root of human existence, and they criticized the intelligentsia for their naïve beliefs.

The second archetype was the idealist—the opposite of the wanderer, because he or she remained steadfast in loyalty to a single ideal, such as Don Quixote in his dedication to Dulcinea. In fact, the character Don Quixote was an object of fascination among Russian writers, especially Turgenev, as told in his essay, “Hamlet and Don Quixote.” In Russian literature there were two types of Don Quixote idealists: the disappointed and the incorrigible. Vsevolod Garshin was representative of the first—disillusioned with reality, accepting the ugliness that it was; Gleb Uspensky was emblematic of the second—unable to reconcile the horrid truths about the peasantry with his idealization of them. Uspensky remained incorrigibly committed to his ideals in spite of reality, leading him to praise despotism and justify policies of cruelty out of an abstract love of humanity.

The third dominant personality was the revolutionist who loved war and violence for their own sake. Bakunin, Savinkov, Lenin, Stalin, and others represented this Russian archetype. They were motivated by a metaphysical hatred of a reality that could not be explained with certainty, and, with Russian liberal acquiescence, they came to power to murder millions of Russian citizens.

All three of these archetypal personalities reveal the limitations of theoretical thinking in accounting for reality. Russian writers showed how the intelligentsia’s infallible methods of science fell short, as in the cases of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Pierre in War and Peace, and Arkady in Fathers and Children. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn explained why human freedom and moral agency existed and why suffering brought one closer to God. Human beings cannot be simply classified as good or evil; doing so, as Solzhenitsyn wrote, was the key moral error of totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany: “The line between good and evil runs not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.”

DO AS WE DO, NOT AS WE SAY:

The Awfulness of Elite Hypocrisy on Marriage (Brad Wilcox, FEBRUARY 13, 2024, The Atlantic)

“Is it morally wrong to have a baby outside of marriage?”

“No” is the answer I received from about two-thirds of my sociology-of-family class at the University of Virginia last spring, when I put that question to them in an anonymous online poll. The class of approximately 200 students was diverse geographically, racially, and ethnically. But on questions like this one—asking whether society should promote or value one type of family structure over another—the students I teach at UVA generally say it shouldn’t.

Yet when I asked these same students—who are almost all unmarried—“Do you personally plan to finish your education, work full-time, marry, and then have children?,” 97 percent said yes.

And when I asked, “If you came home at Thanksgiving and told your parents you (or your girlfriend) were having a baby, would your parents freak out?,” 99 percent said yes.

In one sense, these answers are unsurprising. The great majority of my students, about 80 percent, report hailing from an intact family with married parents. (My class at UVA is not exceptional in this regard: 73 percent of students at elite colleges and universities nationally were born to married parents who have since stayed married, versus 51 percent of high-school seniors across the country.) At the same time, a majority of my students are liberal or progressive on many social issues—they are, at a minimum, nonjudgmental about lifestyles unlike their own.

But there’s a problem with this disjunction between my students’ public family ethic and their own private family orientation, a disjunction I see regularly in elite circles. Voluminous research shows that being born into a married, stable household confers enormous benefits on children, whether the parents are rich or poor. The question I put to my students about their life plans involves a variant of what social scientists call the “success sequence.” Research clearly shows that taking three steps—(1) getting at least a high-school degree, (2) working full-time in your 20s, and (3) marrying before you have children—dramatically increases your odds of reaching the middle class or higher and minimizes the chances of your children growing up in poverty.

Yet many elites today—professors, journalists, educators, and other culture shapers—publicly discount or deny the importance of marriage, the two-parent family, and the value of doing all that you can to “stay together for the sake of the children,” even as they privately value every one of these things. On family matters, they “talk left” but “walk right”—an unusual form of hypocrisy that, however well intended, contributes to American inequality, increases misery, and borders on the immoral.

Folklore is philosophy (Abigail Tulenkois, 2/26/24, Aeon)


The Hungarian folktale Pretty Maid Ibronka terrified and tantalised me as a child. In the story, the young Ibronka must tie herself to the devil with string in order to discover important truths. These days, as a PhD student in philosophy, I sometimes worry I’ve done the same. I still believe in philosophy’s capacity to seek truth, but I’m conscious that I’ve tethered myself to an academic heritage plagued by formidable demons.

The demons of academic philosophy come in familiar guises: exclusivity, hegemony and investment in the myth of individual genius. As the ethicist Jill Hernandez notes, philosophy has been slower to change than many of its sister disciplines in the humanities: ‘It may be a surprise to many … given that theology and, certainly, religious studies tend to be inclusive, but philosophy is mostly resistant toward including diverse voices.’ Simultaneously, philosophy has grown increasingly specialised due to the pressures of professionalisation. Academics zero in on narrower and narrower topics in order to establish unique niches and, in the process, what was once a discipline that sought answers to humanity’s most fundamental questions becomes a jargon-riddled puzzle for a narrow group of insiders.

This was inevitable once Physics became obscurantist. It was intolerable for specialists that people could understand their fields but they couldn’t understand others. So they just added phoney-baloney theories too.

WHAT MAGA MEANS BY GREAT:

The Story Behind Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (Liz Fields, 2/24/24, PBS: American Masters)


Abel Meeropol, a son of Russian Jewish immigrants, taught English at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx for 17 years before turning to music and motion pictures, writing under the pen name Lewis Allan. Meeropol was very disturbed by the persistence of systemic racism in America and was motivated to write the poem “Bitter Fruit” after seeing a photo depicting the lynching of two Black teens in Indiana in 1930. The poem was published in the journal The New York Teacher in 1937, and again later published in the Marxist journal, The New Masses, before Meeropol decided to turn the poem into lyrics and set it to music.

After that, Meeropol began to perform the song at several protest rallies and venues around the city along with his wife and African American singer Laura Duncan. The song first came to Holiday’s attention when she was working at New York’s first integrated nightclub, Café Society in Greenwich Village. Holiday was hesitant at first to sing it because she didn’t want to politicize her performances, and was (rightfully) concerned about being targeted at her performances. But the positive audience responses and frequent requests for “Strange Fruit” soon prompted Holiday to close out every performance with the song. Ahead of time, the waiters would stop serving so there was a deathly silence in the room, then a spotlight would shine on Holiday’s face and she would begin to sing

THE ANGLOSPERIC DIFFERENCE:

Ursula Le Guin and the Persistence of Tragedy: We ought to read The Dispossessed to appreciate complexity—and the imperfection of our theories in the face of life’s messy reality. (brian a. smith, 3/13/20, Law & Liberty)

The Dispossessed provides us no resolutions. For most of the story, Shevek is a man trying to find his way home, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. That along with the way Le Guin refuses to let the reader see either of her settings with rose-colored glasses suggests one of the novel’s great values today. Reading the book can help readers clarify what their deepest aspirations and longings will really cost.

Those on the Left should ask how much they’re willing to give up in pursuit of equality. Modern socialists often try to harmonize their opposing desires: they think we can have the tremendous wealth of a modern economy alongside deep equality; they want radical, autonomous choice and also the opportunity to enjoy familial and communal solidarity; they want political and religious conformity without a diminution of cultural and artistic ingenuity; and they desire ongoing technological innovation without the dramatic inequality that entrepreneurs and inventors so naturally generate.

Far from being a platform for family to succeed, socialist intervention may well require the ongoing shredding of those bonds for the simple reason that families undermine the broader solidarity real socialism requires.

Socialists—especially Christian ones—now praise immigration as a great moral imperative. What does it suggest that all of the world’s most successful solidarity-driven socialist experiments are small-scale monocultures? Isn’t it telling that Le Guin’s relatively successful socialist scheme on Anarres is a hermetically-sealed unit speaking a common language and sharing a single, tightly-unified culture?

Traditionally-minded conservatives naturally look to old modes and orders for inspiration. This certainly doesn’t mean that they’re averse to creating new ones, but taking Le Guin seriously might force them to ponder some little-considered questions. What does reestablishing moral order really mean, particularly in the context of a national economy? There’s the obvious (banning porn) but what about the not-so-obvious elements of this, like the moral status of the goods and services we buy and sell?

If the new conservative goal is limited to a worker-friendly industrial policy, that’s one thing, but conservatives ought to keep an eye on where the aspiration to live with the right sort of virtuous economy can lead. The barely-concealed aristocratic longings enjoyed among some traditionalists risk making them into the caricatures of conservatism that Corey Robin imagines who simply long to “keep the lower orders down.” It is good to be clear about what we really mean when we ask for a new economy. Just as a growth oriented economy leads us down disruptive paths, we shouldn’t forget that a stable, virtuous pattern for economic activity might necessitate a return to older patters of life.

Insulating us from Utopian thought is one of Western Messianism’s greatest gifts.

Dieterich Buxtehude, Music, & the Experience of Life (Michael De Sapio, February 5th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

“Classical music” is itself a fairly recent concept, going back no further than the early Romantic period, and the formation of a distinct canon of works associated with the term was the work of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Classical music” would have been an entirely foreign concept to, say, Johann Sebastian Bach. For him, music was now, and he had to supply a constant demand of it for the functions of everyday life. The idea of creating art for posterity was characteristic of Romanticism. In Bach’s era the idea was for an artist to do a good job, to be a faithful servant, in the here and now.

And in Bach’s day, music was something to be done, not thought about. Music lovers did not spend hours debating how violinist X and violinist Y played executed a trill differently. They were too busy actually making music.

And music was everywhere. In church, in the village square, in elegant salons of the noblemen. Music for courtly dancing; music for theatrical performances: opera, plays, ballets. Real music, performed by live human beings. Music was experiential to a degree we can scarcely imagine today, when recordings have “frozen” the art form, making it something more like painting or architecture. (And yet recording has its own virtues, allowing us to preserve ideals of performance for reference, enjoyment, and study, to diffuse music widely and allow it to “last longer”—to some extent overcoming its limited and ephemeral nature. This too is a great good.)

We see Bach as the beginning of the Common Practice Period. This is the period that constitutes the mainstream “classical music” repertoire, and it includes the great Germanic line of composers from Bach and Handel through Bach’s sons, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (the Viennese Classicists), and on through Schubert and the German Romantics.

Anything before Bach is typically classed as “early music” and is a somewhat specialized field of interest. This is unfortunate, because there are many musical riches before Bach. Music is a continuing tradition, with each generation building upon the last. Bach’s genius and accomplishments were enormous, but they did not come out of a vacuum. He had an important early inspiration and mentor. His name was Dieterich Buxtehude.

What follows is a brief sketch of this pivotal yet all-too-little-known composer and musician. I wish to highlight in particular how he (like other artists of his day) made music a part of life. In this sense Buxtehude is an illustration of how music used to be enjoyed in a world very different from our own.

FUNCTIONALITY IS THE REAL pROGRESS:

Seeing Thomas Hart Benton’s Panorama of American Life from Another Angle: The series of murals collectively known as “America Today” depict vignettes of a growing, changing nation in vibrant color. (J. McMahon • 01/15/24, NY Observer)


I asked my old friend and teacher from the Art Students League, Costa Vavagiakis, master of painting technique himself, to comment on Breton, whom he greatly admires. “Thomas Hart Benton was an intensely erudite progressive who saw the beauty in the need and function of all things… He comes from the lineage of Michelangelo, Cambiaso, Tintoretto and El Greco.”

Each of Breton’s ten panels has a theme. In City Activities With Subway, burlesque dancers on stage balance boxers in the ring along the top while strap hangers commute in anonymity, ignoring one another, while across the canvas lovers make out on a park bench. Down the center, the mass of humanity works and prays and trogs through life, all depicted in the same muscular, flowing style.

Across the room, the Deep South panel shows a world a thousand miles away from big city life. where black men fill bags with cotton and transport the white fluff to a waiting river boat with horse and carriage while white men use machines to do the same job on the opposing side. From both sides the cotton is loaded onto an old paddle steamer boat of the kind that was already part of the past when Benton painted the panel, having witnessed and sketched just such a scene on the Missouri River when he was traveling. Capturing in one panel past, present and future.

Throughout the work, which celebrates the dynamism of the Jazz Age, there are reminiscences of times past, and also of hard times to come. We see biplanes in the sky and giant steam shovels gouging out mountains but we also see ranch hands corralling stock and dead tired laborers bent over pickaxes. Money flows freely as couples dance in elegant nightclubs and sit in cinemas, but the spewing ticker tape machine boxes the looming economic crisis to come.

In a piece about “America Today” for Smithsonian magazine, Paul Theroux wrote: “None of it was fanciful or exaggerated; it is a true portrait of the Jazz Age, which was also the era of intense industrialization in the United States when cotton was king and oil was beginning to gush; of clearing land for the planting of wheat and cotton, the making of steel and mining of coal, when New York skyscrapers were rising and the city was bursting with life.”

CODE TALKERS:

CRACKING THE CODE OF LINEAR B (Theodore Nash, 1/18/24, Antigone)


It is one thing to excavate material, but quite another to publish it. Though Evans did produce the monumental Palace of Minos (6 vols, 1921–35), this was more a synthesis of Minoan culture as he had come to understand it than a proper archaeological publication. When Evans died in 1941 (believing, if we can credit Maurice Bowra’s report, that Knossos had just been bombed by the Germans), the vast bulk of the tablets remained unpublished. So responsibility for this material passed to Sir John Myres, the recently retired Wykeham Professor of Ancient History at Oxford. Myres had worked with Evans on Crete as far back as the 1890s, but in his retirement lacked the vigour required for this difficult task.

That Evans had published so few of the tablets in his lifetime undoubtedly delayed the possibility of decipherment. When investigating an unknown script, the greater the quantity of evidence available, the greater the possibility that recurring patterns may become visible, and from these the underlying structures deduced. Alice Kober, a professor at Brooklyn College, embraced this challenge in spite of the limited material, managing to make observations that guided the way to a successful decipherment.

From 1943 to 1950, Kober published a series of articles in which she demonstrated that Linear B was used to spell an inflected language – that is, a language (like Latin and Greek) which changes the endings of words to express their grammatical function. Kober would eventually collaborate with Myres to get the Knossos tablets published, but died in 1950, aged only 43, too early to see flowers blossom in the garden that she had so painstakingly tended.


More significant even than the publication of the Knossos tablets was the beginning of excavation atop the Englianos ridge in Western Messenia in 1939. Here Carl Blegen, returning to Greece after his great excavations at Troy, would uncover the Palace of Nestor at the Homeric “sandy Pylos”. On the first day of excavation he uncovered the palace’s archive room, and in that year alone found some 600 tablets. He entrusted study and publication of these to one of his graduate students, Emmett Bennett, who, after the interruption of war, was able to complete from photographs a study of the Linear B signs in the Pylos tablets. This in 1947: in 1951 he added a full transcription of the same tablets, which would provide a major stimulus to Ventris.

Especially in recent years, which have seen a new celebration of Kober’s work, it is probably Bennett’s achievement which is the most overlooked in popular accounts. But it was he who established which variations were possible within individual signs (as I vs I) and which truly separated two signs (as G vs C). Without this, of course, no attempt at decipherment could stand on steady feet.

It was against this background that a young English architect took an interest in the problem. When Michael Ventris was still a pupil at Stowe School he saw a display of Greek and Minoan art at Burlington House; and by the sort of accident that changes the path of one’s life, was given an impromptu tour by Sir Arthur Evans, who happened also to be visiting. After viewing some tablets, Ventris had to confirm something that he had heard: “Did you say the tablets haven’t been deciphered, Sir?”

THE DON IS THE ONLY SANE ONE:

Chasing Lions: Don Quixote in Pursuit of the Beautiful (Jacob Terneus, January 15th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

Chivalry and tales of it, therefore, dispose man to virtue, drawing him into closer union with the people and things which he loves, the things which “delight and amaze” him. To the extent that a chivalric knight becomes more like a beautiful thing and begins to understand it for what it really is, he cannot help treating it well and virtuously, as a part of himself which is good and noble. […]

Focused on truly good things, he is not easily distracted by trivial matters, even if the world considers them important. In a manner reminiscent of the instructions given to those other travelers—“He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts”[6]—Don Quixote laughably neglects to bring money on his first foray, trusting that chivalry and good-will would be sufficient (DQ, 37). Again, despite suffering numerous bludgeoning, he never seems to give them too much weight, accepting them as necessary nuisances on his journey of chivalry. Even his squire Sancho eventually learns from him to take a phlegmatic attitude to such beatings and inconveniences. We see this attitude explicitly when Don Quixote hears the crimes of the prisoners he encounters; he considers it “excessively harsh to make slaves of those whom God and nature made free,” and tells their guards to let them go and “let each answer for his sins in the other world” (DQ, 183). Their crimes are, to him, secondary to their worth as human beings, so he disregards the sins and frees the men. So also, when lying on his deathbed, he realizes that chivalry itself, is not the most beautiful thing he can achieve, so he pushes it aside for an even greater end, to be “Alonso Quixano the Good.” He does not cease to desire beauty, but simply concentrates on dying a holy death.[7] Here, too, he is not distracted by lesser things, but strives always after the most beautiful object he can see in the moment.

Instructively, the first novel is the first where the text escaped the control of the author, a critique of chivalry becoming a celebration and the Don the hero, the rest fools.