Category Archives: fine arts

when you know, but cannot feel, beauty

In his “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge describes the sparkling stars and crescent moon above but bemoans his own state of mind:

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

The reason is what we would call depression:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
         A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
         Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
                In word, or sigh, or tear—

I consulted Coleridge’s “Dejection” thanks to Anahid Nersessian’s essay on Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (Nersessian 2021). Nersessian is great at wiping away that sense of Keats as a languorous aesthete, a maker of pretty lyrics. As she shows, the Nightingale ode reports suicidal thoughts. The narrator is “half in love with easeful Death” and seriously considering whether it is time to end it all: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.” The three hard opening words, as Nersessian notes, violate iambic pentameter and ignore the ostensible addressee of the ode. Keats doesn’t begin, “O, Nightingale …” but rather, “My heart aches.”

Nersessian’s essay is not a close reading, but it made me turn back to the text of the ode. I wondered: what exactly is the narrator’s mental condition? (Remember: Keats had medical training, and the first stanza seems almost clinical.) The presenting complaint is a heart that aches. More specifically, “a drowsy numbness pains / My sense.”

This is complicated. Being drowsy and numb suggests a lack of sensation, and that interpretation is reinforced by the analogy to a “dull opiate” that suppresses the narrator’s conscious thoughts, sending him toward Lethe. But the numbness “pains” his sense, as though he had drunk hemlock. I am not sure whether we should assume that hemlock causes a quiet, sleepy death or an agonizing one: Wikipedia suggests that it triggers respiratory distress. I think that the question of lacking consciousness versus suffering is central to the poem as a whole.

In any case, what is the etiology of this numbness/ache? The narrator denies that he is envious of the nightingale’s “happy lot.” (The word “thy” in that sentence is the first mention of the ode’s subject.) When people deny that they are jealous, sometimes they actually are. But the narrator follows with a subtler point. He does not envy the bird’s “happy lot,” where “happy” could mean “favoured by good fortune; lucky, fortunate; successful” (OED). The bird’s lot is to sing in the mid-May evening, and Keats denies being envious of that. Instead, the nightingale causes heartache by “being too happy in [its] happiness”–in other words, by enjoying its role. This is precisely what Keats’ narrator, being depressed, cannot do. The poem describes beauty, yet the narrator cannot feel what such precise and evocative words as these should convey:

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
         White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
                Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
                        And mid-May’s eldest child,
         The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
                The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Do we think that the nightingale is happy, in the subjective sense–happy in its happiness? Keats writes that the bird “sing[s] of summer in full-throated ease.” I suppose I doubt that it sings “of” summer. I assume it sings because the month is May, and its song is a component of what makes an English early summer lovely. I don’t believe that the bird is describing summer, as a poet could.

To modify an example from Robert B. Brandom (who discusses a parrot trained to say “red” in the presence of red objects), the nightingale reliably informs us that it is summer by singing, but the bird cannot express the premises and conclusions that relate to this information. The bird cannot say, “It is summer; therefore, it is not winter,” or “It is summer because spring is over,” or “Since it is summer, we should spend evenings outdoors.” To express points like that would be to talk of summer. Instead, the nightingale sings because it is summer, and as an aspect of summer.

Indeed, its happiness relates to its ignorance. Keats wishes to forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies ...

That last line may describe the recent and agonizing death of Keats’ brother from tuberculosis, and it eerily foretells Keats’ own death from the same cause two years later. These are serious matters, wrenching tragedies, and the bird’s enviable condition is to know nothing of them. Its mental state is like that of a human being who has forgotten memories and fears of suffering.

We might expect that the bird’s song would cause Keats to forget pain, at least briefly, as he becomes absorbed in the music; but that doesn’t work for this narrator, because he is depressed. “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain.” Instead, the narrator considers artificial solutions: “some dull opiate,” “a draught of vintage,” distracting reveries of “faery lands,” or–most effective of all, intentional death.

The darkness and anger of the poem should be taken seriously; it is not some pretty thing. Yet it is rapturously beautiful, the source of such nuggets as “tender is the night” and Ruth “amid the alien corn.” It is about not being able to feel beauty, yet it conveys beauty from that ailment.

In the fourth stanza, Keats commits to join the nightingale not by drowning his sorrows in drink but through the power of verse:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
         Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
         Though the dull brain perplexes and retards ...

His brain is a problem: it perplexes and retards. “Poesy” looks, at least temporarily, like a way out. But why is it “viewless”? That word could mean invisible: we cannot observe how poetry moves the writer or the reader to a better place. Or it could mean unable to see. Certainly, this poet has trouble seeing. Due to the deep darkness where the nightingale sings, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet.” Poetry offers words that name objects, but it does not actually allow us to see them. I think the central idea in the fifth stanza (Keats knows which flowers are present from their scent but cannot see them) is a metaphor for literary description. A poem conveys information but not actual experience.

Then he addresses the bird: “Darkling, I listen.” Calling a nightingale “darkling” is a clear allusion to Book III of Paradise Lost, where Milton writes:

            ... as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal note. ....

The argument of this passage is that God is light; beautiful things reflect God’s love. Since Milton is blind, he cannot see these objects. He misses the “sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose …  the cheerful ways of men.” Yet a miracle occurs. God makes the “celestial Light, / Shine inward,” and by purging and dispersing all the ordinary sights of life, allows Milton to “see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight.” Milton is like the nightingale, whose song tells of grace even though the bird cannot see in the darkness.

No such consolation is available to the narrator of Keats’ ode, who offers no hint that nature has a benign author. Nature is what gives people tuberculosis. Keats’ narrator is not only depressed but angry about it.

I will offer an alternative perspective, even though I don’t think Keats would agree with it. We are all like the nightingale; our vocalizations and other behaviors are caused by natural processes. (“Dependent origination.”) We cannot escape suffering, which is intrinsic to sentience and afflicts the bird as well as us. (“The first noble truth.”) Mental pain arises naturally. For instance, Keats must think of his recently deceased brother, because he is physically designed to feel grief. Forgetting such things is impossible, and drowning them out would be unethical. (“The middle way.”) However, Keats is not a real entity, and his condition needn’t interest the poet as much as it does. As he writes elsewhere, the poet “has no self”; “not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature–how can it, when I have no nature?” (“No-self.”) His protean mind can, however, fill with thoughts such as appreciation, gratitude, and compassion. (Mindfulness, the “third noble truth.”) The beauty of the night is real, just like suffering, and he can focus on the former.

Those who make it across the river and come back to help others over do the most good (“karma”), and Keats’ lyrics provide an example. They enrich the inner lives of us who read them. Keats claims no satisfaction from doing this, because he is depressed and because he doesn’t hold a Buddhist-ish theory. But he achieves what he cannot recognize, and we can read him compassionately for that reason. After all, the last five words (“Do I wake or sleep?”) are no longer addressed to the nightingale, which has departed for the “next valley-glades.” They must pose a question for us, opening a dialogue with readers and perhaps seeking our compassion, which we can give. If our minds are filled with compassion, we have less space for pain.

Keats was an unbelievably good poet. What if we can’t write immortal verse–can we then return to help others cross to a better place? I would say: Keats is a stranger to us, dead two centuries, and worth reading because his words are so excellent. The rest of us just say mundane things, like, “Did you hear that bird?” But we can say such things in relationships–to people we know and like or love. When embedded in a friendship or love, a remark like “Did you hear that bird?” conveys pleasure and care. By that means, we can alleviate suffering even if we could never come up with a phrase as good as “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim.”

Sources: Robert B. Brandom, Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); Anahid Nersessian, Keats’ Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021). See also the sublime and other people; the politics of negative capability; “Keats against Dante: The Sonnet on Paolo and Francesca“; a poem should; empathy: good or bad?; and three endings for Christabel.

explaining the crisis in architecture

Tyler Cowen recently posed the “mystifying question: Why has our advanced, modern and wealthy world ceased building beautiful neighborhoods?” He notes that the “modern world has produced striking individual buildings, such as Guggenheim Bilbao or the Seattle Public Library, among many others.” But “modern residential neighborhoods are not very aesthetically appealing.” He adds, “This is not a purely subjective judgment (though it is my personal subjective judgment).” Instead, it is a fact that people “pay money to see … older neighborhoods, dating as far back as medieval times but pretty much never after 1940. Tysons Corner just isn’t as charming as Old Town Alexandria.”

As in the good old days of the blogosphere, his article has generated in-depth replies, e.g., from Scott Alexander and Scott Sumner. You can find some disagreement about Cowen’s premise, plus a range of explanations, especially economic ones.

I would offer a different type of explanation. For a millennium, European architecture unfolded as a series of styles: romanesque, gothic, renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, rococo. During transitional periods, more than one style could be found in a given place, but usually a single style prevailed.

This situation had three major advantages. First, everyone from stonemasons to famous architects acquired complementary training and experience. If a certain kind of ornament was part of the style, architects knew how to sketch it; masons knew how to carve it. Second, architects could work from templates and models: they didn’t face a blank sheet of paper. They weren’t expected to be creative geniuses. Third, each style had a powerful justification. It was loaded with cultural significance. Just for example, renaissance architecture was a deliberate movement to restore the ethos of late-Roman Christianity, seen as the best era in history. It is inspiring to use an architectural repertoire if you are convinced that it is the best possible one.

Beginning in the late 1700s, Europeans learned much more about–and became more appreciative of–the history of culture and the many styles that has unfolded over time. Simultaneously, they became more conscious and somewhat more respectful of styles from the Middle East and Asia. They began to see cultures as plural and styles as aesthetic choices. “All artistic styles [are] bound in place and time,” wrote Nietzsche.

That recognition ended the procession of period styles. In the 1800s, almost all architecture by Europeans and European settlers on other continents was revivalist. Buildings were self-consciously gothic, or renaissance, or “Moorish” or “Mogul.” I have learned to appreciate this work, especially when it merges new technologies and social needs with revived styles. A 20-story cast-iron gothic building is an impressive innovation. Nevertheless, few 19th-century buildings meet Cowen’s test of drawing tourists for their architecture, as older buildings do. Certainly, people travel to see the neo-gothic Big Ben or the neo-classical US Capitol Building, but not specifically for their architecture.

Modernists decried revivalism as fake and bourgeois. They proposed an alternative: functionalism or minimalism. Modernists argued that architecture could transcend style permanently by expressing a building’s true function. Gropius wrote:

We have had enough and to spare of the arbitrary reproduction of historical styles … The modern building should derive its architectural significance solely from the vigour and consequence of its own organic proportions. It must be true to itself … A breach has been made with the past. … The morphology of dead styles has been destroyed; we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling.

Modernism produced many masterpieces and even whole impressive neighborhoods of ordinary buildings, as in Miami or Tel Aviv. But soon it was obvious that modernism, too, was a style. In theory, you can do all sorts of things with basic elements like flat walls and windows. In practice, a modernist building looked a certain way. Postmodernism then emerged as a critique of modernism’s pretense to have escaped style. A perfect example is Philip Johnson AT&S Building, a minimalist box with a “Chippendale” baroque roof tacked on the top.

The resulting crisis explains why everyday architecture is not as good as it was until ca. 1800. We still see new works of architectural genius–often buildings that work like original sculptures and that take full advantage of technology. In the absence of a prevailing style, a great artist can invent something personal and original. But that solution cannot work for whole neighborhoods.

We also have plenty of revivalism, with imitations of mid-century modernism now joining neo-Palladian and even neo-Gothic homes. I think it is a fair generalization that most of this is worse than the revivalism of the 19th century, partly for economic reasons (like the Baumol effect), and partly because we instinctively share the modernists’ resistance to imitating past styles. New styles also pop up periodically, like the one I tried to describe here and that others have amusingly named “Simcityism,” “McUrbanism,” “blandmarks,” “LoMo”, or “Spongebuild Squareparts.” Vernaculars like this one don’t last or spread widely, because they quickly look dated.

Quotations from Levine, Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities (pp. 138-9). See also: architecture of the 2010s;  love what you see: Kogonada’s Columbus (2017); a way forward for high culture; what is cultural appropriation?; Notre-Dame is eminently restorable; Basilica of Notre-Dame, Montreal; etc.

The Dictionary of the Khazars, pro and con

Milorad Pavic‘s Dictionary of the Khazars (1982) was prominent at the end of the last century, translated into scores of languages and much discussed. I didn’t read it then but got to it this past summer. Its subtitle is A Lexicon Novel, and it consists of alphabetical entries that are heavily cross-referenced. To Pavic’s delight, the order of the entries is different in each translation. He says that he doesn’t want you to read it from the first to the last page (as I did) but to follow links at your own will. The book was published just when hypertext was developing, and it surely owed some of its influence to being on that cutting edge. In a current Kindle edition, you can click words to move around–but we are used to doing that now.

The topic is the story (originally from Judah Halevy) that the Khazars, a real medieval people, converted to Judaism after holding a debate among a Christian, a Moslem, and a Jew. The Dictionary consists of Christian, Moslem, and Jewish sections. The book we’re reading is supposed to have had a long and tortuous history (one edition was poisonous), and the entries concern characters and events from the original conversion period, from the 1600s, and from the 1900s. That produces a 3-by-3 grid of religions and eras into which all the specific entries fit. The whole thing is intricately symmetrical, so that there is guaranteed to be a Moslem 20th-century analogue for a Jewish 17th- century character, and so on.

The whole text is very dream-like. It’s too magical to be magic-realism: people are constantly changing form and doing amazing things for mysterious reasons. Dreams are also an explicit topic, since the Khazars’ priests were “dream hunters.” They interpreted people’s dreams and could follow a thread from one dreamer to another when the first person dreamed of the second one. According to their religion, all our dreams collectively formed the body of the original man, or Adam. As you might expect, it turns out there are still dream-hunters among us today.

The Abrahamic faiths derive scriptures from their founding eras. But they also tell many subsequent stories: tales of saints and sages and miracles. These stories are dream-like, by which I don’t necessarily mean they are false. (That is up to you to decide). They are like dreams in that they are surprising stories with strong symbolic meanings and recurrent motifs. And the three religions’ stories pervasively interconnect. The same people often figure in the dream-like tales of Jews, Christians, and Moslems, albeit sometimes bearing different names, or changing their roles from heroes to villains, or appearing in new contexts. In that sense, an interlinked series of dream-like stories is a great way to represent the world co-created by the Abrahamic faiths.

This fictional world seems cosmopolitan (since the religions are equal and related), free (you can choose your own path), ironic and subversive, and avant-garde. You may or may not enjoy it, but it seems fit for enjoyment.

On the other hand … The Khazars themselves turn out to be a self-hating people, consistently favoring the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem foreigners in their midst until they subject themselves to conversion and then actually vanish. Just for example:

As is known, when a people vanishes, the first to disappear are the upper classes, and with them literature; all that remains are books of law, which the people know by heart. The same can be said of the Khazars. In their capital, sermons in the Khazar language are expensive, whereas in Hebrew, Arabic, or Greek they are cheap or free of charge. Curiously, once they are outside their state the Khazars are reluctant to reveal their Khazar origin, preferring to avoid one another and conceal the fact that they speak and understand the Khazar language, hiding it from their own compatriots even more than from foreigners. In the country itself, people not proficient in the Khazar language, which is the official language, are more highly regarded in the civil and administrative services. Consequently, even people who are fluent in the Khazar language will often deliberately speak it incorrectly, with a foreign accent, from which they derive a manifest advantage. Even with translators – for instance, from Khazar into Hebrew, or Greek into Khazar – the people selected are those who make mistakes in the Khazar language or pretend to do so.

This is plausibly how a nationalistic professor of Serbian literature might feel about his own ethnic group inside Tito’s Yugoslavia. Thus a book that was read around the world as a postmodern ironist’s game was apparently read in Serbia as a nationalist tract.

It might be harmless for a writer to adopt aggrieved nationalism, especially in a work of fiction that is pervasively playful. Maybe it was just a stance. However, it seems that Pavic continued to espouse similar ideas even while Serbian armies were massacring other former Yugoslavs. In 1992, he said “I am a Khazar too because the fate of my family was very similar and in the end we went back to our original religion” (quoted in Wachtel, p. 638). It appears that he was completely serious about the Khazar/Serb analogy and genuinely aggrieved as a Serb. At least, he did not distance himself from the nationalistic implications of his work.

I’m not sure what I think about the ethics of having read this novel for fun. Of course, authors do not control their own texts, least of all texts like this one. So maybe the author’s political intentions are not all that important. I certainly did not become a Serbian nationalist as a result of reading the Dictionary of the Khazars, so maybe no harm done. And I deeply appreciate Pound and Eliot, notwithstanding their views. On the other hand, would I read a playful, possibly gimmicky novel that reflected one of the world’s other forms of bigotry? Caveat emptor, I suppose.

See Andrew Wachtel, “Postmodernism as Nightmare: Milorad Pavic’s Literary Demolition of Yugoslavia,” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 41, no. 4, 1997, pp. 627–644; and David Damrosch, “Death in Translation,” in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 380-398; and cf. Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls

Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky

In the Guardian, Steve Rose called Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky (1966) “the best arthouse film of all time.” When I had a day alone recently, I watched its three hours. Here are some notes that don’t duplicate anything I can find in English on the Internet. They do contain plot spoilers.

The setting is Russia in the first decade of the 1400s. The people are beset by Tatars, oppressive rulers, and plagues. The landscape often looks like an environmental catastrophe. Tarkovsky uses many long takes, panoramic shots, and set-pieces in which the actors are positioned like figures on a stage or in a painting.

Rublev is a monk and icon-painter. Despite being the moral focus of the film, he is on screen not much more than three other monks. Maybe it was just me, but I found it challenging to keep track of individuals from one scene to another. That task is easier in a written text, because narrators typically use names and may inform us when we have already encountered a given character. Tarkovsky seems content to present life in the confusing way that it actually unfolds.

In the opening scene, a man makes a solo hot-air balloon ride, rising next to an unfinished Orthodox cathedral and then across a river dotted by small boats. Some people help him while others try to bring him down. Although the balloon is anachronistic, it looks suitably medieval. It closely resembles the great bell that is cast in the final scenes of the film–for the same cathedral–and raised from its subterranean mold across the river to the belfry. The balloon and the bell have similar sizes, shapes, and trajectories. The balloon-ride appears to be a stunt that fails, whereas the bell is a spiritual and aesthetic success accomplished by the people, working together.

The second third major scene opens with a man being tortured in the public square as someone cries out that he might be innocent. The artist-monk Kirill walks past this execution and into the cool interior of a church, where he meets another icon-painter, Theophanes the Greek. They discuss the project that will involve Rublev and become his masterpiece. Back outside, we see the dead man’s bloody body.

In several key scenes, the Russian folk are shown in authentic rituals or celebrations–enjoying a jester mocking the Boyar nobility, enacting the Passion of Christ, or engaging in a midnight pagan orgy. (Compare Natascha’s dance in War and Peace.) In several scenes, they are cruelly crushed by Russian nobles, Tatars, or a conspiracy of both.

Observing these events, Rublev develops a populist and antinomian Orthodox theology. He feels he cannot complete his commission to paint the cathedral because it would require an image of the Last Judgment to terrify the people. Inside the bare cathedral, an apprentice reads 1 Corinthians 11 while the mute girl Durochka, a “holy fool” with long blond hair, watches in fascination:

“If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man …

Rublev gets an idea: “They are celebrating. It’s a holiday! They are not sinners. Nor is she [Durochka], even if she doesn’t wear a cover.” He will paint joyous scenes for the people.

The interior of the church immediately after Rublev has announced his plan, showing the Holy Fool and the monk Daniil, who had commanded the reading of Corinthians.

Muteness is a motif. The jester has his tongue cut out. Durochka cannot speak. Andrei takes a vow of silence and refuses to paint after he kills a man to save Durochka. The new bell almost fails to ring–and if it never works, the Grand Duke will have its caster flogged to death.

Andrei has several foils, starting with the man in the balloon ride. Another is Kirill, who betrays the jester to the authorities and later quits holy orders, decrying monkish hypocrisy but seeking worldly gain for himself.

An important foil is Boriska, the young son of a bell-caster who died–with the whole family–of the plague. Boriska claims to know his father’s professional secret. With passionate intensity and perfectionism, he leads a crew to make a great bell, using the melted plate of the Grand Duke. He has lied about the secret, but he turns to God for help. Whether the bell will work is genuinely suspenseful. Foppish Italian visitors observe the young artist with pity: “il povoro regazzo” is bound to die a Russian’s death, tortured by a tyrant, because the bell won’t work. Their foreigners’ chatter is interrupted by the bell sounding sonorously. Boriska confesses his lie to Andrei, who says, “Let’s work together, you casting bells and me painting icons.” He then paints the cathedral’s interior in resplendent colors that we see in the epilogue, after three hours of monochrome.

Jeanine Michna-Bales, Photographs of the Underground Railroad

The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC is showing a series of photographs that Jeanine Michna-Bales has taken on key points along the Underground Railroad. She captures these images at night, as if to illustrate what enslaved people would have experienced as they made their way north. This is the project website.

Online reproductions do no justice to her original photos, which are amazingly luminous chromogenic prints; they grab your attention from across the room.

The forests, rivers, starry skies, and swamps are beautiful–a challenging sensation, since the overall topic of the series is human evil and resistance. Even while people persecute other people, the moon still glows through lush canopies of leaves. Although the natural settings are enjoyable to see in a museum, they would have been frightening at the time–try to imagine crossing a Mississippi swamp by night, even if there weren’t bloodhounds and shotguns behind you.

Most of the signs of human habitation are points of refuge along the way; they look inviting. Michna-Bales accentuates lights left in windows to welcome fugitives. Yet arriving at each “station” must have been a moment of terror, because who knew whether it had been compromised?

The view across the Ohio River into a deeply dark Indiana symbolizes the uncertain future–if one can get that far. (I illustrate this post with a different view, across the Tennessee River in Alabama.)