Category Archives: fine arts

Velazquez, The Spinners Museo Nacional del Prado

Velazquez, The Spinners

One story

Minerva, goddess of weavers,
Had heard too much of Arachne.
She had heard
That the weaving of Arachne
Equalled her own, or surpassed it.

Arachne was just a poor girl, but her artistry had brought her fame.

The nymphs came down from the vines on Tmolus
As butterflies to a garden, to flock stunned
Around what flowered out of the warp and the weft
Under her fingers.

They did not merely admire Arachne’s creations but also loved to watch her working. The process moved them as much as the outcome.

A grace like Minerva’s, unearthly,
Moved her hands whether she bundled the fleeces
Or teased out the wool, like cirrus,
Or spun the yarn, or finally
Conjured her images into their places ...

Surely Minerva (a.k.a. Athena) had taught or inspired her. Arachne scoffed at this idea, claiming that she deserved sole credit for her own art. She openly challenged Minerva to a weaving competition. Minerva duly arrived, disguised as an old mortal woman, and lectured Arachne about giving proper credit to the gods. This speech threw Arachne into a rage.

As she spat at her: “Your brain totters
Like your decrepit body.
You have lived too long.
If you possess daughters or granddaughters
Waste your babble on them.
I am not such a fool
To be frightened by an owl-face and a few screeches.
I make up my own mind,
And I think as I always did.
If the goddess dare practise what she preaches
Why doesn’t she take up my challenge?
Why doesn’t she come for a contest?”

Hearing these words, Minerva abandoned her costume and seemed to grow twice as tall. Everyone was terrified except Arachne, who set about weaving. The competitors worked intently, each hardly aware of the other. Minerva wove an illustration of her own authority, depicting herself as the founder of the city of Athens and the just punisher of various mortals. Arachne vividly and sympathetically depicted a series of women raped by male gods–examples of domination rather than authority.

Arachne’s tapestry was perfect. Minerva could find no fault in it, which enraged her. The goddess tore it to shreds and began beating Arachne with her spindle. Unable to stand the pain, Arachne tried to hang herself. “Pity touched Minerva” and she chose to spare Arachne from her rightful fate. Minerva transformed the girl into a spider, working this magic of transformation skillfully, one stage at a time. From then on, Arachne spun and wove perpetually and (I assume) compulsively, “her touches / Deft and swift and light as when they were human.”

Another story

In 1560-62, Titian painted The Rape of Europa, which now hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. Like the first scene in the tapestry that Arachne wove to defeat Minerva,

It showed Europa crying from out at sea
stride the bull that had deceived her.
The high god Jupiter, in his bull form,
Carrying her off—
And glistening with effort.
You could see her feet recoiling
From the swipe of the waves through which he heaved.

Titian added plump winged babies and an Adriatic coast in the background. By the 17th century, this work was in the royal collection in Madrid, where Peter Paul Rubens copied it while Diego Velazquez watched him.

Perhaps Velazquez thought: I am better than Titian and I don’t have to copy his works like Rubens does. My genius is my own. Perhaps that thought struck him with irony or even self-mockery, because he knew what he owed to his predecessors.

Velazquez owned translations of Ovid’s text in which the stories of Arachne and Europa were told. Perhaps he sympathized with Arachne, the artist who had sympathetically portrayed Europa. Or perhaps he recognized her arrogance in himself.

The painting

Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) by Velazquez (1655-1660, Museo Nacional del Prado) shows five women in contemporary clothes, plus a cat. They are weaving, spinning, collecting textile fragments, or watching others at these activities. As A.S. Byatt (1999) notes, the painting depicts light playing on many kinds of fabric, including fine filaments that behave like spiderwebs.

Behind these women, and two steps above them, is what first appears to be a single scene populated by noblewomen or mythological figures, including two flying putti and one woman in a resplendent helmet. Closer inspection distinguishes the background, which is a portion of Titian’s Rape of Europa (mainly the sky, with Europa herself hardly visible to the right), from a stage-like area that supports five women in fancy clothes who are boldly illuminated by sunlight from the left.

Like Las Meninas (painted at about the same time and now shown in a neighboring room), this is an enigmatic picture that may have been contrived to support several literal interpretations. One possibility is that the scene on the stage is the story of Arachne, with Athena in the helmet and Arachne standing before her own tapestry, which looks just like Titian’s Rape of Europa. Paintings were sometimes reproduced as tapestries by artisans who had less prestige and were seen as less creative than the original painters. In this case, Velazquez would have pretended to copy an imaginary woven copy of a real painting that he had watched Rubens actually copy in oil. (Today, that copy is displayed in the same room as The Spinners.)

The women in the foreground could just be ordinary workers, shown for contrast. Or they, too, could be figures from the Arachne story. Minerva could be the older lady on the left, shown before she sheds her costume. The steps might separate two episodes from the same story.

The working spinners are arranged in a way that resembles the goddesses and nymphs in Titian’s Diana and Callisto, another painting that Velazquez had watched Rubens copy in Spain (Alpers 2005). One possibility is that Velazquez’ depiction of the spinners is sexually suggestive (Bird 2007), alluding to Titian’s naked nymphs. Or perhaps the main suggestion is that one character is a goddess in disguise.

Evidently, this is a painting about art, coming after the apex of straightforward narrative painting represented by Titian. It is about whether artists are original or derivative–an explicit question in Ovid’s presentation of the Arachne myth. It is about sympathy or empathy for women confronted by unlimited power: male gods who commit rape and a goddess who tortures her victims. It may also be a demonstration of Velazquez’ superiority–as a male court painter–over female artisans. It is about the ability to represent the current physical world, imaginary pasts, and previous representations. It is about the relationship between written stories that unfold in time and three-dimensional space as captured on a flat plane. It is about comparison, assessment, and competition. It is about Velazquez–in a way that would be hard to imagine happening a century earlier.

Selections from Ovid as loosely (but brilliantly) translated by Ted Hughes. Secondary sources: Svetlana Alpers, The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others *New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) Wendy Bird, “The Bobbin & The Distaff: Erotic Imagery and the Meaning of Velazquez’s ‘Las Hilanderas’,” Apollo, vol. 166, no. 548, Nov. 2007, pp. 58; A.S. Byatt, “Arachne,” The Threepenny Review, no. 78 (1999): 20–23. See also: Las Meninas and mirrors, was Velazquez left-handed?, Goya’s Familia del infante Don Luis; an accelerating cascade of pearls (on Galileo and Tintoretto); etc.

Odin on the tree

Until lately, I had not read the Poetic Edda, but it feels familiar. It was a major source for Tolkien, Wagner, and other inventors of our northern-European medieval fantasy world. Subtract the gods from the Edda, and you have most of Tolkien’s domain of elves, dwarves, goblins, magicians, thieves, and warriors.

It includes weird and compelling poetry. For instance, the document labeled “Sayings of the High One” presents miscellaneous-seeming advice, some of it rather amoral, like the suggestion to rise early if you want to “take another’s life or property.” (Sleeping late can hurt your chances.) It is not clear who is speaking on these pages.

Suddenly, we read:

I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,  
myself to myself,  
on that tree of which no man knows  
from where its roots run.  

With no bread did they refresh me nor a drink from a horn,  
downwards I peered;  
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,  
then I fell back from there. 

Carolyne Larrington, The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics) (p. 32, stanzas 138-9). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

I love that Odin does not introduce himself until we learn that the spear that has pierced the poem’s narrator is dedicated to Odin: “myself to myself.” And then there’s the mystifying magic by which runes flow up into him while he screams. Is he in extreme pain? Where does he land when he’s done?

The notes suggest that Odin is hanging on Yggdrasill, the vast ash tree that upholds our world. Self-sacrificially hanging from a tree sounds like Calvary, but Odin’s purposes are different. After this passage, most of the poem is devoted to listing the runes that he now knows, which have handy properties like removing fetters or putting out fires.

I certainly can’t read Old Norse, but one gets a rough sense of the alliterative language and wordplay by trying to pronounce the original text. (The letter that looks a little like a “d” is eth, and it sounds like “th.”) “Veit ek, at ek hekk” (“I know that I hung”) is a good example of wordplay.

Carolyne Larrington explains some of the poetic forms used in the Edda, but I am not sure which form is employed in these two stanzas. In general, Old Norse prosody involves regular pauses (caesuras) and stresses. The stressed syllables often alliterate. Here, I think that lines divided by a caesura alternate with shorter lines that do not.

I am reading English free verse on a glowing iPad screen. It is Larrington’s recent translation of Old Norse verses that were handwritten on vellum in 13th century Iceland–not by the original authors, but by people, presumably Christians, who recorded oral verse saved from their ancestors’ culture. It doesn’t feel as if any poet is intentionally communicating with me or us; it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on transcripts of some alien conversation. However, I am moved by the way that arresting and mystifying images suddenly emerge amid seemingly random sequences of verses.

See also: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf; Laxdaela Saga: political freedom and psychological insight; and race, sex, and God in The Lord of the Rings

the sublime is social–with notes on Wordsworth’s Lines Above Tintern Abbey

In secular (and probably upscale) reaches of our society, two suggestions are common for restoring mental health and equanimity: we should experience nature and reconnect to our bodies through meditation or exercise.

Of course, prayer is also an option, and activities such as walking in the woods and yoga have roots and analogues in religious traditions. Here, however, I focus on practices that are open to non-believers.

Such experiences are supposed to be authentic, personal, and at least somewhat distinct from the everyday world of conscious thoughts, words, social roles, organizations, and transactions. Although you can have these experiences alongside other people, an important aspect is inward and often literally silent. Something like the pure or raw self is thought to emerge.

This post is a modest contribution to the argument–which others have also made–that it is a mistake to understand such experiences individualistically. Other people are always integrally involved, and it is wise to be maximally conscious of them.

Although practices like hiking and meditation can be routine or even trivial, they bear at least a distant relationship to notions of the sublime. That word has been defined in diverse and incompatible ways–producing an interesting debate–but a common feature seems to be an aesthetic experience that lastingly improves the self and that would be difficult, if not impossible, to convey in ordinary words. Either a sublime experience exceeds human language or else it requires particularly excellent words (such as verse by Homer or Wordsworth) to convey. The natural or religious sublime is sometimes presented as beyond speech, while the literary or rhetorical sublime defines superior speech.

The premise that a sublime experience cannot be shared using ordinary language contains the germ of the conclusion that we do not need other people to experience it. That conclusion is especially problematic in a consumerist culture with relatively loose social ties and high levels of inequality–a society that generates headlines like this one from Wired in 2013, “In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career: Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace—it’s about getting ahead.”

Most thoughtful analysts are aware that words, conscious thoughts, and other people do not go away when one experiences the sublime. For one thing, we are always morally indebted to other people. We can’t go for a walk in the woods unless someone has preserved that forest and built those trails. In the Americas, the land was previously conquered from indigenous people. The shoes on our feet and the food in our stomach were made by other human beings. In many cases, the aesthetic experience was skillfully shaped by people: landscapers and foresters, yoga instructors, or whoever else is relevant. It is wise to thank those who made the sublime possible, yet empty expressions of thanks can be worse than nothing.

In addition, we acquire our tastes, our aesthetic values, and our ability to process experience from other people. As I wrote in a previous post, “I do not simply see the snow; I see it with things already in my mind, like Christmas decorations, paper snowflakes on second-grade bulletin boards, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow,’ Han-shan’s Cold Mountain lyrics, Robert Frost’s ‘lovely, dark and deep’ woods, Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of wintry Japan, Rosemary Clooney with Bing Crosby. In short, I have been taught to appreciate a winter wonderland, a marshmallow world, and a whipped cream day.” None of us understands all the ways that our experiences have been shaped by our predecessors, but we all absorb the development of our societies as we develop from infants into adults. There is no raw self.

In fact, many have sought to combine explicit records of past human experiences with direct experiences of nature and one’s body. Thoreau says of his time alone at Walden Pond, “My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world.” And David Morris reminds us, “Whether meditating by the sea, contemplating the night sky, or crossing the Alps, eighteenth-century enthusiasts for nature rarely forgot their reading: the classics were Addison’s guidebook to Italy, while Joseph Warton’s vision of unspoiled nature comes straight from Lucretius and Shaftesbury” (Morris 1972, p. 7).

Whether to combine introspective experience with literature is a personal choice; it is surely not the only path. But I do believe that the current tendency to see the sublime as purely personal is self-centered, in a consumerist way, and we must bring other people in.

With that in mind, let’s consider one of the most famous depictions of a restorative experience in nature, Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. The narrator says that his memories of this spot on the Wye River have given him a “gift / Of aspect more sublime,” a “blessed mood” …

In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

This seems like a perfect example of what people nowadays might call self-care through nature.

The story told in the poem is a little complicated. We learn, but not in chronological order, that Wordsworth first came to the Wye River Valley “in the hour / Of thoughtless youth,” when he could still enjoy nature spontaneously, almost as a part of it, “bound[ing] o’er the mountains … wherever nature led” with “animal movements.” In those days, he did not need concepts or words (“a remoter charm, / By thought supplied”) to filter his experience.

Memories of those “boyish days” sustained the narrator while he was busy in the human world of “joyless daylight; when the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world” hung over him. Now he has returned to the same spot and finds that he cannot again feel the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” of the place, but he is compensated by a new insight. Now in nature he hears “the still sad music of humanity” and realizes that “the mind of man, a motion and a spirit … rolls through all things.”

At the outset, he is eager to portray what he sees as nature, not as culture. For instance, he mentions “hedge-rows” (which are planted and maintained by human beings) and then corrects himself: “hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild,” as if they were nature’s free creations. But by the midst of the poem, he acknowledges that mind and nature are “deeply interfused.”

And then a third person appears in the poem (counting the narrator as one and the reader as two). This is a “you” who is “with me here upon the banks.” This “dearest Friend” emerges as his sister, Dorothy. The poet’s objective becomes to record her experience of the natural scene so that she can better recall it as her life proceeds, and so that she can vividly remember sharing this experience of nature with her brother. His poem will be a mnemonic (see Rexroth 2021) to give her “healing thoughts” amid the “dreary intercourse of daily life.”

Thus Wordsworth’s sublime is not private or individualistic in a simple sense. But perhaps it is not admirably social, either. In an influential 1986 article, Marjorie Levinson noted that Wordsworth not only chose not to describe Tintern Abbey in this poem (even briefly), but he also omitted many obvious features of the Wye River at that time: “prominent signs of commercial activity” such as “coal mines, transport barges noisily plying the river [and] miners’ hovels.” Tintern was a mining village, and the woods were full of “vagrants” who “lived by charcoal-burning” or begging from tourists (Levinson, pp. 29-30). The abbey was a literal ruin–albeit picturesque to some–because it had been suppressed in the Reformation and sold to landlords who had dispossessed the agricultural population, creating whatever unpopulated vistas one could see in 1798.

Levinson argues that Wordsworth knew all this well, and that “the primary poetic action” of the whole poem “is the suppression of the social.” It “achieves its fiercely private vision by directing a continuous energy toward the nonrepresentation of objects and points of view expressive of a public–we would say, ideological–dimension” (pp. 37-8). The poem is a sign of Wordsworth’s retreat from political engagement in the late 1790s.

Levinson’s 1986 article has provoked some responses in defense of Wordsworth; I have not tried to assess the controversy. For me, these are the key points: Wordsworth exemplifies a currently popular way of addressing discontent or even anguish–enjoying nature–and he is conscious that “humanity,” human language, and human relationships are part of that experience. Yet he is notably apolitical. An analysis of why nature looks as it does–who has profited and suffered from it–is missing from the poem. And this seems to foreshadow many contemporary versions of the sublime.

Sources: Marjorie Levinson, “Insight and Oversight: Reading ‘Tintern Abbey,’” in Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems (1986), pp. 14-57; David B. Morris, The Religious Sublime Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition in 18th Century England (University Press of Kentucky 1972); and Grace Rexroth, “Wordsworth’s Poetic Memoria Technica: What ‘Tintern Abbey’ Remembers,” Studies in Romanticism 60.2 (2021): 153-174. See also the sublime and other people; unhappiness and injustice are different problems; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; Foucault’s spiritual exercises; and when you know, but cannot feel, beauty

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.