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.

A Husserlian meditation

This is a breath: in and out.

I experience it without noticing it. Then I decide to think about it. Given my cultural milieu, my first thoughts sound scientific: my lungs must be absorbing oxygen from the air. My nervous system responds positively to that sensation.

Then I realize that I am not sure whether these statements are well-founded or what their underlying concepts (such as causality and consciousness) mean. I resolve to focus on what I actually experience.

The phenomenon of my breath has certain features. It is a breath for me. I feel it and feel grateful for it. It belongs to the sequence of events that unfold in my inner time, occupying a short but not instantaneous period. It is located in my body, which occupies a specific place. It is an intentional act, yet it could have happened without my conscious attention. It has a purpose that I can know.

I can imagine a breath that lasts twice as long or sounds twice as loud, but a breath that is ceaseless is no longer a breath.

Soon that breath is gone. But another one comes; and even while I was experiencing the earlier breath, I implicitly knew that it was one in a series. Future breaths were phenomena that I could anticipate and even count on. Past breaths were phenomena that I could recollect if I chose to, or could imagine if I had forgotten them. All these breaths have a temporal rhythm that I can know in any one moment, meaning that they coexist in my present, albeit as different kinds of phenomena–memories, hopes, unnoticed experiences.

When I form a thought about my breathing, I know that I may return to that thought at will.

I can envision my body breathing one of the breaths of my own past. I can experience myself as then and there instead of now and here. This is very much like envisioning you and your experience, for you are there just as I am here.

My experience of you is mine; it belongs to the flow of my inner life. But my experience of you is not like my experience of myself, or my breath, or my past, or a number. It has peculiar features, such as the possibility of empathy. Once I know you, I know that you are real rather than imaginary and that we inhabit a shared world, because these are features of my own experience, which is an experience of you by and for me.

In truth, I may not know you, the reader of these words, but I can know what it’s like to breathe while one reads these words and imagines my experience.

My breath unfolds in the time of the world, which is jointly constituted by you and me and all other sentient beings. I cannot be a self that experiences this world without being in communion with others like me.

Each self is its own whole world. Everything that it experiences is its own experience. Yet every self is also a potential phenomenon for the other selves and needs the others to constitute and inhabit a world.

Each of my breaths reveals elaborate complexity when I examine it closely. One of the things I learn is that your breath is the same.

See also: a Hegelian meditation; Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); freedom of the will or freedom from the will? etc. I have benefitted from and recommend: Li, Jingjing. Same Road, Different Tracks a Comparative Study of Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology and Chinese Yogacara Philosophy. McGill University (Canada), 2019; and an article derived from that dissertation: Li, Jingjing. “Buddhist phenomenology and the problem of essence.” Comparative Philosophy 7.1 (2016): 7. Most of my own recent and direct knowledge of Husserl comes from his Cartesian Meditations (1929) as translated by Dorian Cairns.

the recurrent turn inward

Francis Bacon had a wonderfully pungent way of making points that have become commonplace in the era of scientific modernity. In the following passage, he denounces the previously dominant academic movement, Scholasticism, for speculating fruitlessly about empty questions instead of studying nature with empirical rigor and practical objectives:

Surely, like as many substances in nature which are solid do putrefy and corrupt into worms;—so it is the property of good and sound knowledge to putrefy and dissolve into a number of subtle, idle, unwholesome, and (as I may term them) vermiculate [like intestinal worms] questions, which have indeed a kind of quickness and life of spirit, but no soundness of matter or goodness of quality. This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the schoolmen [Scholastics], who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books.  For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit. (Advancement of Learning (1605) I (iv) 5)

Many since Bacon have shared his impatience with philosophy as an idle and bootless pursuit. A common insult is “navel-gazing,” but Bacon heightens that critique by imagining philosophers looking beneath their navels at the disgusting worms within. As an alternative, he advocates “the contemplation of nature” and “the observations of experience” (I.V(1)6), which will yield secure and profitable knowledge.

One rejoinder is that natural science cannot address such crucial questions as “What is justice?” and “What is a good life?” A second response is that natural science makes fundamental but often unexamined assumptions about metaphysics and epistemology. Bacon and his successors would consider such issues fruitless, but Kant argues in the original preface to his Critique of Pure Reason that “it is in reality vain to profess indifference in regard to such inquiries, the object of which cannot be indifferent to humanity. Besides, these pretended indifferentists, however much they may try to disguise themselves by the assumption of a popular style and by changes on the language of the schools, unavoidably fall into metaphysical declarations and propositions, which they profess to regard with so much contempt” (Meiklejohn trans.)

Picking up a similar theme, Edmund Husserl wrote in 1929, “Daily practical living is naive. It is immersion in the already-given world, whether it be experiencing, or thinking, or valuing, or acting. … Nor is it otherwise in the positive sciences. They are naivetes of a higher level. They are the products of an ingenious theoretical technique; but the intentional performances from which everything ultimately originates remain unexplicated” (Cartesian Meditations, English trans. by Dorian Cairns).

Assuming we do want to ask philosophical questions, how can we avoid mere opinions and speculations? A recurrent suggestion is to turn back to the ones who form such opinions–ourselves–and to critically assess how we think and what we have a right to claim. Kant is the most famous proponent of this turn. He calls for a “critical inquiry into the faculty of reason,” which is “not so much occupied with objects as with the mode of our cognition of these objects.” However, my point in this post is that the same move has been made many times, and it is interesting to list and compare the approaches that have been attempted.

Instead of making direct claims about metaphysics, epistemology, or value, one could:

  1. Critically assess the experts who make or imply such claims and see whether they know what they are talking about. This is Socrates’ main business, as he describes it. He tests the poets, orators, politicians and others to see if they possess knowledge. For the most part, he is interested in the thoughts and methods of individuals who belong to social categories, such as poets, but a roughly similar approach is to critically investigate institutions that purport to generate knowledge, such as labs and clinics. This approach is common in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the sociology of knowledge today.
  2. Investigate and clarify the rules of logic, on the premise that useful thoughts should be logical and that only some claims about the world will pass that test. Aristotle inaugurated this approach in Europe, although it had precedents, and it has also been influential in Asia.
  3. Critically investigate “reason,” understood as a faculty. This is Kant’s explicit approach, but Descartes and many others have begun in a similar way.
  4. Critically investigate language, on the theory that all complex, declarative thoughts take linguistic form. The “linguistic turn” was one of the main developments of the 20th century.
  5. Very closely attend to how we experience things, including the self that does the experiencing. This is the phenomenological approach, which Husserl called a “radical new beginning of philosophy” (op cit.) but which had obvious antecedents, including–as Husserl acknowledged–the Pali Cannon Canon in Buddhism.
  6. Study thinking as a natural activity of the brain and nervous system of homo sapiens–although it is tricky to do that without making the kinds of epistemological assumptions that people like Kant and Husserl attribute to empirical science.

(Nothing in this post is original, but I found it interesting to make the above list.) See also: is all truth scientific truth?; the progress of science; why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; etc.

noise inside airport terminals

Just back from a trip to Spain, I am reminded that airports in the countries I have visited other than the United States are often rather quiet places. There is no ambient music or TVs with sound. Announcements are rare. During a six-hour layover in Barcelona, I noticed just two or three announcements on the PA. Often the ceilings are high, and one gets a general sense of hush, even though the airplanes themselves presumably contribute to some background noise.

In contrast, the PA system of a US airport is in almost constant use, with boarding and gate-change announcements, frequently repeated TSA warnings and rules, and “welcomes” from the local mayor. These announcements often overlay music. I think it has become somewhat less common to blast CNN’s audio broadcast on top of everything else, but that still happens in some airports.

A National Academies study found that the average daytime ambient noise inside a US airport terminal is 66 decibels (p. 36), which approaches a washing machine, and that is without any sound from the PA system. Notably, the purpose of this NAS study was not to reduce overall noise but to ensure that TSA safety announcements are intelligible, which requires a minimum of 72-78 decibels inside an airport (p. 92). According to the CDC, that level is almost equivalent to “gas-powered lawnmowers and leaf blowers” and can cause hearing damage “after 2 hours of exposure.”

I admit that I am sensitive to noise. I often foolishly try to do something in an airport that requires concentration, like reading a difficult text or writing. But these decibel levels have documented effects on physical health and cause stress.

To interrupt passengers so constantly also seems disrespectful, as if the thousands of people at Boston’s Logan Airport have so little else to think about that they would enjoy hearing Gov. Baker tell them about Massachusetts’ friendly people, and the TSA remind them to locate exits in case of emergencies–in between constant announcements of gates and departures and five or six recurrent songs.

I first posted about this pet peeve in 2007, so it’s not just that I am agoraphobic in the wake of COVID-19. However, I can find nothing else online about excessive noise inside airports. All the complaints are about the noise caused by low-flying aircraft. I find Americans’ apparent tolerance or resignation in the face of this audio assault a little bit depressing in itself.

See also: what it looks like to live.

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