General Culture

The Good Stuff – A Classically Educated List

Recycling Bins

Looking back over the past few months, it’s clear that Classically Educated has, perhaps, been slightly less than complimentary regarding the general state of modern affairs. While we still feel that humanity in general is moving in the wrong direction, away from individuality and more towards a groupthink distopia where ensuring that assorted rage-spewing morons and other sub-optimal intelligences feel like worthwhile members of society despite all evidence to the contrary is paramount, we also want to take the time to recognize that not everything is wrong in the world.

So, as a public service, we offer a list of things that are good about the world.

1) Left and right, except in the US, are no longer separated by religious differences. Many atheists now believe in a free-market economy as opposed to being Marxists – which makes sense since the kind of personality that will question the teachings of religion would probably also question a system that has failed every time it’s been tried. Likewise, many deeply religious people are now adopting socialist views. This is especially evident in Latin America, where sectors of the Catholic church have actually sided with the populists in the region (although this isn’t by any means pervasive).

We believe this is actually a good development, because, as definition of left and right get more flexible, people can pick and choose what they believe in all aspects of life instead of being forced to side with a view they disagree with just because that is the group they mostly belong to. Perhaps the US will catch up soon – we’ll believe it when we see an atheist Republican candidate, though.

mars_crosshairs-717225

2) Humanity is taking serious aim at Mars (the link is just one recent example of the many Mars missions in planning stages). We’ve spoken before about just how critical it is for mankind to regain its focus on expansion and exploration, and regain its thrust.

For decades, misguided hand-wringers have been saying that the resources used to explore space would be better invested on Earth. They were wrong – humanity’s history has shown that humans need to explore, to expand and to grow… or that they will wither and decay (see Empire, Roman). Fortunately both private companies and major governments have seen the light, with innumerable Mars missions in the works.

3) Most airplanes that take off neither crash nor disappear mysteriously. That’s not necessarily good for anyone in Bermuda making a living off of credulous kooks, but it’s good for the rest of us.

The Bermuda Triangle

4) People are taking global warming seriously. Now, as a rule, Classically Educated tends to think that the world is not going to hell in a handbasket. We look around to see a world with growing peace and prosperity (a well-researched corroboration can be bought here). Basically, if you were born today, you have less chances of dying violently or of any disease than you did at any previous time in human history. We believe that everything will be fine in the future.

However, we also understand scientific data, and we don’t see any reason for intelligent people to deny the clear evidence of climate change. For this reason, even if governments are trying to avoid the economic consequences of truly going green, many private citizens and especially major cities are taking the baton and running with it. Oslo actually has to import trash to run some of their power plants, which is extreme, but a sign of the times. Even less enlightened cities have begun to implement recycling initiatives.

5) There are elections in Venezuela this year. Who knows… maybe they can finally throw off the yoke of populism. If they do, South America will finally have thrown off all dictatorial governments, another continent to be 100% democratic.

6) Printed books seem to be making a comeback.

Now this one is a bit weird. We generally embrace technology as a great thing, and love how it changes lives and society for the better. But in this case, it seems that both studies and consumer preference are telling publishers that people a) connect better emotionally with paper books than ebooks and b) learn more from paper textbooks than ebooks. I’ll add my own two cents and say that I prefer to read books with photos rather than see them on a screen, especially large-format books – but that is just an opinion without studies behind it.

So the fact that print book sales have been better than precious years during the second half of 2014 is a great sign – plus, books are utterly beautiful.

7) It has been said by futurologists that the first human to live for a thousand years has already been born. I certainly hope so, but even if it’s not quite true, medical advances over the past few years have meant that it’s increasingly difficult to die of anything but cancer. Yes, it still happens, but less and less. And gene therapy should make it even better.

8) Despite access to nearly unlimited amounts of data online, on their phones, most people are still dumb as sand, which makes life so much more entertaining for the rest of us.

9) The year 1984 wasn’t remotely like the novel.

Anyway, this is an incomplete list, and we’d love to see your additions to this list below. We’ve missed or omitted many – but all optimism is welcome, and discussion is positively encouraged.

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Ignorance as a Point of View

Astrology Cartoon

I was talking to an acquaintance recently, and was amazed and more than a little dismayed when she said “Astrology is a science, just like math.”  When I expressed my utter disbelief that anyone with even a smattering of education could possibly utter such a statement in the 21st century, she dismissed me as closed-minded and, safe in the knowledge that a majority of society would back her on that point, spoke about other things.

Never has, in my opinion, the modern iteration of ignorance been so eloquently expressed.

So, in order to learn about the people who share these modern times with us, let’s dissect the incident:

Astrology is a science

Well, one thing that astrology is NOT is a science.  To summarize centuries of development, science is a process by which hypothesis are tested via empirical data and then the theory is modified to fit the data.  As anyone objective can easily see, astrology works precisely opposite.  The results are given first (Scorpios kick babies, prefer to drink white wines and are only compatible with Gemini) and then the data is peered at through distorting lenses to make it seem like it fits.  It is much more akin to a religion than a science.  Wikipedia calls it a pseudoscience, because it attempts to clothe non-scientific methods within a scientific framework, but I think Wikipedia is being both generous and politically correct (can’t get funding if potential donors are offended).

Funny Fortune Cookie

So when discussing this, the defenders of astrology will say that testing is unnecessary because there are millennia of tradition behind it, and there’s no need to verify further. Er…  Yeah, that would also have worked when Columbus was yammering about the Earth not being flat.

So… why do people insist that it’s a science? Well, despite the growing trendiness of aggressive ignorance disguised as “a democratic right to different points of view”, there is still a feeling in society that science and logic are much more intellectually respectable than spiritualism.  So people lie to themselves (and attempt unsuccessfully to lie to intelligent observers) in order to feel respected as opposed to the alternative: feeling like ignorant cretins when faced with the raised eyebrow of a respected member of the peer group.  It’s better to dismiss logical arguments as “the limitations of people who think they’re educated” than to just admit that astrology is more of a fun, brain-dead way to spend time – like watching Dancing with the Stars – than anything approaching a science.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.14.07 AM

Just like math

The discussion of whether mathematics is or isn’t a science probably would have gone over her head, but this article on the topic is simply awesome, especially the bit about Cicadas, so I just had to link it here.

Ok, so that’s the breakdown of her phrase, but the more disturbing bit is her sense of security that society would back her up.  In this case, I tend to agree with her.  That is a bit worrying, and it led me to asking myself why society seems to prefer to support certain ignorant theories and marginalize people who try to debunk them as elitists*

I think the answer is twofold.  In the first place, I’d like to offer the hypothesis that there’s a large correlation between the kind of people who think that astrology is a science and the the kind of people who watch a LOT of TV.  As is pretty evident to even casual viewers, TV content is not designed to stimulate the intellect, but rather to pander to more basic needs: low entertainment, fear-mongering and (particularly relevant in this case) the reinforcement of beliefs.  Now, to meet these needs, even the documentary channels have needed to adapt, as we’ve discussed before.  And if it’s on the Discovery Channel, then it must be true, right**?

The second half of the answer has more to do with how society has evolved in the decades since the second world war.  After the war, society has become obsessed with safety in all forms, be it physical or psychological.  The many have, in their wisdom, decided that freedom is less important that safety (see: mandatory helmet laws, myriad).  Even feelings are to be preserved…  if someone hurts your feelings, they are in the wrong, and therefore “safe places” need to be created where they can’t do so.

As educated, intelligent people are a minority, their opinions are normally dismissed as elitist, which immediately equates them with such immoral bastards as the filthy rich*.  So, to protect themselves from feelings of inferiority, the mob has made astrology a socially accepted topic – and mocking astrology the province of evil, “limited” people who can’t see beyond what their senses tell me.  So, once again, we decide what is scientifically correct by democracy***.

Is it just me, or should an educated society work in precisely the opposite way?

*Please note that here at Classically Educated, we consider the word “elite” to be a compliment, definitely not an insult.  If you are reading this, and feel that being elite is bad, you probably landed on this site by mistake!  We also oppose the discrimination against rich people – in fact, we oppose discrimination against any minority… fortunately, dumb people are not a minority, so you’re good there.

**This footnote isn’t actually linked to anything in particular, but I just had to mention traditional remedies.  All I have to say about that is that most ancient societies had life spans of about thirty years.  I am certain you are intelligent enough to draw your own conclusions about traditional medicine from that fact, and I don’t have to give you any further subtle hints.

***Can we vote to repeal the law of gravity?  Hover cars sound way cool.

Et in Arcadia Ego

John Reinhard Weguelin: A Pastoral (1905)

Whenever anyone asks me if I’d live in a certain place, I generally pause for a second and try to understand the type of city on offer before responding.  Over the years, I have found that my honest answers tend to gravitate towards two extremes: places like New York and places like Ysbyty Ifan*.

Essentially, this seems to mean that I enjoy living in huge megacities or in tiny villages or rural towns with not much in between.  The megacities, require little explanation.  You’ll have decent museums, opera, retail and basically everything else civilized life requires (even bidets in many cases) at a world-class level.  Normally, these cities are the repository of national treasures or at least the best stuff in each country.  The art museums in New York or Paris are much better than the ones in Chicago or Lyon (and yes, I am aware of the Art Institute).  Likewise the rest of the cultural, gastronomic and retail experience – not to mention the fact that most companies you’d want to work for have offices in the bigger cities.  And the megacities are immensely cosmopolitan, while medium-sized towns only think they’re sophisticated.

So, medium-sized cities are out, then, but why this preference for the smaller places?  How come I’d happily spend my days staring at a stream in some village whose location in the English countryside only makes sense as a medieval watering hole for horses, or alongside lake Como, or in a French agricultural town?

The people who criticize me most, of course, are those that live in San Francisco, as they think everyone should like it as much as they do.  The fact that I don’t, and that I think it’s a bit too American and not global enough leads to anger, which turns to disbelieving rage when I then turn around and admit that I’d happily live in a village whose inhabitants might not even have heard of the concept of passports and other countries.

But life without amenities only works if you truly strip everything to the bare bones.  Medium sized cities have all of the frustrations of the large ones without the benefits.  I always thought that that was the reason behind the extreme nature of my preferences.

But upon further analysis, it becomes evident that humans have always been looking for that lost pastoral paradise, and it is a recurring theme in everything from religion to secular art.

The most obvious example, of course, is the Garden of Eden.  As a species, it’s pretty clear that humans have felt overwhelmed by the frantic pace of modern life and the loss of innocence ever since Mesopotamian times (the Eden myth has it roots in an earlier mesopotamian legend).  Though little recorded evidence has been left behind, it’s easy to imagine ancient Babylonians complaining about them newfangled sails: “If Marduk had intended Man to navigate without rowing, he wouldn’t have invented slaves, I tell you!”

Claude Lorraine: Pastoral Landscape

It never stopped.  In classical antiquity, the name of the pastoral Greek region of Arcadia was borrowed to represent a back-to-nature utopia, and it informed quite a bit of renaissance art.  William Shakespeare, of course, famously used a pastoral setting in his comedy As You Like It, which idealizes the throwing off of the chains of court life for a country setting – in fact, many of The Bard’s romantic scenes take place out in the boondocks somewhere.

After Shakespeare, the Pastoral movement in art and literature had its ups and downs in Western culture, but survived to the end of the 19th century – even unto that ultimate loss of European innocence, the Great War.

Cotswold Village

World War I effectively ended the tradition, but added even more of a sense of loss to modern elegies – it marked the end of nobility as a social structure, with all that that implied.  We’ve gone into this before when dealing with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but the search for simpler times in the twentieth century went far deeper than just a few Oxford laments or Finzi-Continis.  Hippies were essentially pastoralists trying to shoehorn their anxiety about modern complexity into 1960s cities (which explains their failure to gain much traction among “regular” people in the US who were involved in a clash of civilizations with a still-strong Soviet Union).

Postmodern pastoralism is, of course, dismissed by modern philosophers as a delusion for the privileged (or perhaps a privilege of the deluded).  It’s intimately tied to the image of German bankers taking their helicopter to their French chateau retreat – or English lords driving their Range Rovers away from Parliament and into the mile-long drive of their stately manor.

Unlike the philosophers, I find both of these options admirable**, but I would actually go one step further and remove the bank or Parliament altogether.  If you’re going to aim for a relaxed existence, why bother with the distractions (yes, I know it may be necessary to rob an armored car in order to gain the capital to allow this, but today, let’s forget both minutiae and morality).

Even more than the economics and decadence, I believe that postmodernism frowns upon this because having an appreciation for the Pastoral implies both the sophistication to understand what that ideal means and the willingness to throw off socialist ideals of urban life and egalitarianism.  Anyone who can both choose and afford to remove themselves from the urban tapestry of enlightened society is clearly a dangerous non-systemic element…

Most readers of this blog DO fall into that category anyway.  And while your budget may not stretch to that chateau, there’s nothing wrong with a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a nice stone house in Champagne when you tire of the hustle and bustle of Shanghai or Sao Paulo.

And if anyone looks at you askance, just tell them that a whole bunch of renaissance painters, plus Shakespeare agree with you.

*It’s in Wales, if you were wondering.

**If this offends you, you should really have read the Classically Educated Manifesto before reading the article…

The Ultimate Elegy?

Christ Church college Quad Oxford

Is there anything quite as poignant as a remembrance of more innocent times written in the midst of war – and a war with an uncertain outcome at the time of writing, at that?  Possibly, but it still hits very hard.

Evelyn Waugh is possibly best remembered for his more mordant work, of course, but Brideshead Revisited has to be one of the best books about a lost era that one can read, heightened perhaps by the simple truth that the protagonist, and his contemporaries knew that they were living the end of what had been a glorious age.  

It is a fact that everyone living in the inter-war years in England had to know that the times they were a changin’.  But though they had hopes, none knew whether what was coming would be better or worse… and the horrors of just how bad “worse” could be were extremely fresh in their minds.  When this insecurity was combined with the uncertainty of Waugh himself at the time of writing – in the midst of the second world war – even this slim, seemingly superficial volume can hit like a hammer.

Arcadia

It’s tempting to compare this with other writers of idylls, particularly Wodehouse, but while with Wodehouse the reader wants to be there, with Waugh, the reader mourns the loss.  Wodehouse, for this reason, is much nicer to go back to; he reconstructs the utopia in the reader’s present, making it seem alive.  Waugh, on the other hand, makes it plain that Arcadia is gone… and it hurts, because Waugh’s world seems much more real.

But at time, especially in the beginning, this is a book that transports the reader powerfully to another era, another place, and that is its lasting beauty.  The charm certainly isn’t in the story itself although the progression is interesting and absorbing, but is let down by an ending is that is unsatisfying and with ultimately uninteresting religious symbolism.

But the imagery…  It’s impossible to read this book and not be immediately overwhelmed by the sense of loss for the more gentle times in England, where every day was a sunny spring in the countryside around Oxford, and where pain, suffering and responsibility existed only in the dark writings of Dickens.

Of course, it is a time that never truly existed – at least not for everyone – but that won’t keep you from pining for it.

An Early Zombie Walk

I walked with a Zombie still

We all know film zombies.  They are the gentlemen and ladies who shuffle along in the direction of the nearest warm body (especially if it’s one of the main characters in the film) slowly decomposing, asking for brains, making others like themselves and generally being antisocial.  We should probably blame the seventies for this image.

But zombies are a little more complex than that.  They’ve even found a certain amount of street-cred among intellectuals due to the fact that they are said to embody the fears and anxieties of consumerism – the mindless pursuit of a given objective – and the atomic era.  This viewpoint has caused them to be accepted by certain areas of academia and there are even articles in serious newspapers and even academia dealing with the phenomenon.  Seen this way, as a symbol and a metaphor, they become socially acceptable.

I personally believe that the whole “metaphor” thing was planted by George Romero in an attempt to boost their popularity.  They’re friggin’ zombies for crissakes – if you over-think them, you’re doing it wrong.

I walked with a Zombie

Which brings us neatly to the next installment in our review series about the 1001 films to see before you die (hit the 1001 movies tag for the rest of them).  Today’s subject is the 1943 horror vehicle I Walked With a Zombie.

What makes this one interesting isn’t only that the lack of symbolism is appealing (in 1943 the atomic age hadn’t started, and the discussion of the angst of consumerism by postmodernists was still awaiting a time when psychedelic drugs were more widely available), but also that it uses the actual zombie mythology from Haiti.

We generally try to avoid spoilers when we do these reviews, but in this one, there’s not that much to spoil.  Generic character A discovers that Generic character B has a strange disease (a probable source for the virus-zombies of later years?  Discuss in comments), and the villagers, driven by their Voodoo belief believe that B is a zombie, and as such needs to be put out of her misery.  Tension ensues.

What makes it worth tracking down is not the story itself, but the fact that it tells the tale of a zombie as it would have been told before we all “knew” what zombies were.  It’s a story of witchcraft and curses and spiritism, all washed down with rum (and the first performance of a Calypso song in an American movie).  Also, like the movie Cat People by the same director, it leaves the audience with the question of whether anything supernatural is actually happening – or whether it’s all just an unfortunate misunderstanding.

As modern horror, it’s not all that compelling – or even frightening for that matter – but if you know what’s under the hood, it does become interesting!

And, if you ever get dragged into a Zombie Walk (seriously, you should get new friends or a new boy/girlfriend)… at least you’ll be the single person who knows what real zombies are about!

zombie walk

 

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Which Classics?

British Flag Flying

Today, we’re going to do something that we normally don’t, which is discuss current events, specifically, something going on in the UK, which has global implications (well, global except for the US), and which we believe also opens us to a wider discussion which can be 100% global.  I am referring to the recent decision to include more British-literature (as in literature created in Britain) on the GCSE examinations.  There has been a public outcry (details here) because, in essence, this will mean removing many 20th, century American books from the syllabus.

The global implications arise because the GCSE guidelines are the basis for most of the important international examinations for anyone who is studying English abroad (yes, there are American examinations, but in secondary education, at least, worldwide the British model still rules the roost).  Everything from IGCSEs on are based on this model.

So, do we agree with the critics?  Well yes and no*.

It seems pretty clear that the focus on British literature will leave out many, many worthy books, especially from the 20th century.  Without thinking too hard, The Great Gatsby comes immediately to mind as one of the best pieces of literature ever written in the English language – if I had to rank the 20th century, that one would be at the top of the list.  The Mosquito Coast was on there once, and it will probably get taken off.  Hemingway will also get ignored, which is just silly, and there are many, many more omissions which we are probably not thinking of, but are important.

Of mice and men

Where we disagree is on the books that are causing the outrage: Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  The central criticism from this front seems to be that the Literature portion of the GCSE is there to teach kids morality, humanism and how to be a better person.  That if we leave off books that improve us socially, we are doomed to… well, The Guardian isn’t particularly clear on that point, but we are doomed to something!

This is an admirable feeling, as far as it goes, but misguided.  You see, we feel that social studies is a perfectly good place for that kind of thing, and that Literature GCSEs should be about literature, not pushing agendas.  Both Mice and Mockingbird are strongly political books, which is fine, and both strongly humanist and leftist, which is also fine, especially in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a seriously moving book that everyone should read.

musty tomes

But, as literature, they are not the best of the best.  Yes the Steinbeck is more easily defensible in that regard that the Lee, but there are other, much better books and authors that could have been pointed at to justify the anger without being too obvious about the underlying agendas.  If you read the article to the end, there’s even a mention of the Diary of Anne Frank – a must for everyone, but as literature?  Nope.

Anyhow, the discussion is worth having, but there needs to be a little more focus on literary merit, and a little less on the politics behind the decision (and there are a LOT of politics in this, on both sides).  Should other cultures and voices be represented?  Yes, but only when the writing merits it – you have social studies to teach us how a modern human should think, whether you are defending Ayn Rand or Steinbeck!

All thoughts appreciated, especially well-argued disagreement (there are some grays here, convince us!)!

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*Being called “Classically Educated” should have given you a hint that we weren’t exactly going to fall over ourselves agreeing with The Guardian

The Only Conspiracy Theory Book You Need to Read

Foucalt's Pendulum

I was once told by someone extremely wise that the best thing about Umberto Eco’s masterpiece The Name of the Rose, is that it didn’t disappear up its own arsehole like so many of his other books.  He’s Irish, so the extra “r” and “e” are his, but he is also a critically acclaimed writer, so it’s necessary to keep his opinion in mind.

Since I actually thought that TNOTR is brilliant on many levels apart from the anatomical, so I proceeded to purchase Foucault’s Pendulum, and place it in my TBR file, where it gathered dust for some time before I finally cracked it open.  And then I couldn’t put it down.

Does it disappear into dark cavities?  Well, yes, I have to admit that it does, a bit.

Is it worth it?  Yes.  You see, the intricate texture of the book, the way it weaves together everything Eco could find on different pseudo-Christian secret societies in history is hugely fascinating, although once Eco starts doing his completist thing, it’s easy to understand why the sheer volume of info can turn people off to the book.  But not me – and, I suspect, not anyone who loves learning about history’s strange little nooks and crannies.

It is, essentially a conspiracy theory book, a kind of Da Vinci Code for deeper thinkers and skeptics (disclaimer: I enjoyed the Dan Brown book, so please feel free to dismiss anything I may say from here on out!), except it seems to take into consideration ALL of the theories that state that there is “more than meets the eye” with regards to where the world’s ultimate power – or at least that in the western world – lies.  It shows you what kind of theories could be born if the regular theorists were also extremely good at research, as opposed to the more feeble-minded exponents that make up the majority of the group.

I have always thought that conspiracy theorists were a bit deluded at best.  At worst, they seem to be the kind of people who can’t bear to face that, when they fail, it is their own fault, and not that of some shadowy power.  If they are powerless, it is because power, riches and glory generally go hand-in-hand with both talent, perseverance and hard work.

Eco seems to share these feelings, but he has a genuine affection for humanity’s weaknesses that comes through in his text, and it is this which makes the deeply-flawed characters in his book come to life.  Yes, everyone in here is a caricature, more an idea than an actual human, but they are ideas that represent the perfect initial conditions for the ultimate in conspiracy theories.  And while the characters are parts of humans, they are extremely human.  We see many of our own hopes, fears and desires painted on the canvas of his good guys and bad guys.

Eco's Cosmic Joke

This book is clearly a Cosmic joke on Eco’s part.  He is certainly poking gentle fun at the kind of people who will twist history and science with a foregone pseudo-scientific conclusion in mind, but one feels that he isn’t necessarily laughing cruelly at them, but more ribbing them affectionately for their own human foibles, but in a way that only a scholarly genius could possibly pull off.

We should also stop to mention that the whole thing is one long series of cultural and literary allusions.  Anyone even slightly widely-read will enjoy the satisfaction of spotting the little nuggets tossed in, almost carelessly, to give the book texture.  The most amazing thing is that the pockets of knowledge break up what is, in essence, a huge speculative history lesson.

And, of course, any book that tosses in an offhand reference to Finnegan’s Wake, while assuming the reader has read and understood it gets major kudos in my book – for sardonic irony if nothing else.

This one is a delight to read.

 

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What the Reading of Blake’s Poetry Awoke in Me

tyger copy

María Evangelina Vázquez, today’s guest blogger, is amazingly well-suited to the topic of poetry and literature.  Not only did she study journalism, but her experience also includes stints at publishers and at leedor.com, a culture site – Spanish-speaking readers can read her articles here.  I think you’ll enjoy the following post as much as I did!

 

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

-William Blake: “The Tyger”

 

Songs of innocence and of experience, by William Blake was a book that touched me deeply when I discovered it back in high school, when I was sixteen, at the same time I first read the short stories by Cortázar and Borges. My English literature teacher, Janet Lenton, taught me Blake for the first time, and for that, among many other teachings, I will always be thankful. The fact that the book explored the two contrary states of the human soul with such craft and clarity was, to me, hugely captivating. Blake, this visionary and mystical poet, retrieved the strongest universal symbols in his poetry such as “the lamb”, representing innocence or God’s love; and “the tyger”, representing experience or God’s wrath.

Portrait of William Blake

The fascination I felt for the simplicity with which Blake depicted both animals with opposite meaning, but both made by God’s hand impelled me to continue reading his works in the following years. At the same time, the musicality of his poems and the precise composition of his rimes made an impact on me. I further studied this author when I was in my early twenties and I also took a course in romantic poets, his contemporaries; but Blake is the one to whom I always return. I think it’s because, through his work, he taught me  what the power of imagination is really capable of. He was the founder of his own mythology and the universes he created through language and images are still alive. His creations show that all the arts can be found together: literature (the texts he wrote), visual arts (the images he painted and engraved) and music (the rhythm and rime in his poetry).

The idea of the artist as a creator of a parallel world or reality where we can escape from everyday life has been an obsession for me ever since. Reading is the vehicle through which one can enter this world created by a writer or artist. Reading helps us readers become artists, as well, as we follow the path marked by the authors we love or admire.

Prometheus and the Fire

I truly believe in the power of inspiration and I think of Blake as an inspired author. When I think of him I think about the image of Prometheus, stealing fire from the Gods to share it with us humans. Maybe there is a divine flame inhabiting those inspiring poems we read. Some texts are able to enlighten us and some of them aren’t. There is a kind of magic which remains latent in words until we read them. We readers can bring words to life while reading, as if we were casting a spell.

Good books have a soul inside them. These souls are looking for a body to incarnate: a good and sharp reader that knows how to understand and interpret the texts will provide it to them. Texts are like a sleeping beauty waiting to be awoken by a kiss, and this kiss is the act of reading: the reader can be the prince chosen to awake the princess who is asleep in the written word. This is what I imagine that happens when I read Blake and other authors that move me.

Today, Blake’s “The Tyger” and “The Lamb” inhabit my mind; they have the same sounds of a childhood lullaby and I often turn to them when I am in distress. They have a soothing quality. Blake’s works have a strong insight on human nature and on the opposite forces that dwell in us. The power of his words can be compared to the warmth of the maternal presence, a protective being that watches over us and teaches us how to know the world, ourselves and the divine forces at the same time.

Tango for Export

Astor Piazzolla, Flores, ciudadencolor

Tango Week continues here on Classically Educated and, as they say, it takes two…  Today’s guest post has been written by two people who learned the dance far from its traditional home, and who can give us the perfect complement to Alex’s Tuesday post: the view from outside of Argentina.

Our first guest poster prefers to be known only by his WordPress sobriquet: iwasforcedtoregister.  Our second, Alejandro, was born in San Juan, in the northwest of Argentina. He did his undergraduate studies in Civil Engineering in the Universidad Nacional de San Juan, and his graduate studies in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. Even though he is currently working as a postdoctorate scientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), in Switzerland, he is already looking for Professor positions within Europe.

Alejandro gives complimentary tango lessons at the EPFL to everyone willing to explore this part of his heritage. He also participated in the organization of the 2013 Tangofolies de Lausanne festival as artistic director. Currently, Alejandro is also looking into exploring a new facet of the tango world. He made his debut as a singer during the 6th Bergen tango marathon, in Norway, and he does not waste opportunity to sing whenever he goes to a tango event.

One of the best things I got from tango was the friendships. At the top of the list is Alejandro Aragón, from whom I am now separated by an ocean, but with whom I constantly connect to discuss different events in our lives, although we inevitably end up talking about tango.

We both had a similar introduction to tango. We are both Argentines who were brought up in Baby-Boomer households where the predominant artists were The Beatles and The Rolling Stones instead of D’Arienzo or Troilo. We both left Argentina in our late 20s to get our Master’s degrees (different states in the US) without really paying any attention to the genre, until one night, thousands of miles and years apart, each one of us were listening to  a song we probably heard several times before when something suddenly clicked. Maybe it was just regular nostalgia, but this music, that once felt ancient and dated, resonated with all the frustrations and loneliness of our immigrant experience like nothing else ever did before or since. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were hooked.

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Our Tango experience differed from most Argentines because it started outside Argentina in, of all places, the US. It’s not the fact that not everyone understands the lyrics, but it does start with the fact a few come into it with the lens of years of watching or practicing ballroom tango, which is as close to Argentine tango as figure skating is to ballet. If that were not enough, with the distortion of distance, some people here resort to YouTube videos in order to imitate that spectacular step sequence they saw in a tango show in Buenos Aires (which was choreographed for foreign audiences). Moreover, some of the great traveling Argentine teachers who come here are encouraged to spend their rime teaching as many steps as possible. Steps, steps, steps, steps; as if tango was nothing more than a coordinated dance routine, where acrobatics is the equivalent of technique. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification since there are also some genuine “tangueros” here, but you get the point. What is exactly the same in every milonga around the world is the oxymoron of a relaxed atmosphere while drinking with friends, coupled with a scrupulous scrutiny of other’s technique, love life, and whatnots.

So, what is Real Tango*? What beginners and outsiders have in common is that the former will give you a meticulous definition, and the latter a confused one, but both will be ultimately wrong. Advanced dancers will usually say one word: ”Uf… “ and switch to a different topic (within tango, of course).

What everyone feels in tango is that bliss, that adrenaline filled dance that ends with a strong connection with the other person, and although you probably won’t remember what steps you performed, you will remember that dance; and believe you me, that feeling has such a high intensity that it will shake you to your core and you will mistake it with love, passion, and anything and everything that feels worthy and powerful. It will create a hole that cannot be filled with anything else and you will look to repeat that feeling, which as technique improves, it becomes more scarce but more intense too, and you will spare no money for classes, no distance will be too far to find a decent partner, and sleep will become an overrated commodity. In other words, you will become a tango junkie. It happened to Alejandro, and now that tango occupies a major part of his life he is becoming a recognizable character in some European tango cities. It happened to me, although this addictive circle full of happiness and bad habits was broken by the most wonderful person on earth, a tango-heathen who is now my wife, who was the only person capable of filling that hole I had in me, which now I realize was only uncovered, but not created, by tango. And if you were wondering, this effect also happens to these few miscarried US tango dancers as well, although every time it happens it sends them marching double time towards their mecca of unlimited cool tango moves.

Yet, they are mistaken. That’s the conclusion both Alejandro and I reached, after spending our obliged time learning “steps to impress”, as we both later understood that tango is not about the show.

For me, tango became an emotional outlet, a psychologist to whom I withhold no secret and hid no vulnerability, where without words I offered every 3 minute partner a simple proposal: “I will give myself entirely to this moment with no regards to where the song will take me physically or emotionally, come with me.”  I can remember every time someone accepted wholeheartedly. Steps never mattered, because it was never about trying to amaze people on the sidelines who will never be able to guess what happened in that dance. It’s not about anything you are trying to express or communicate, as your partner will probably never guess what’s going on inside your head (unless you are trying to be creepy) and if there’s anything you are trying to say, it will probably interfere with the dance. The “tango high” is all about that physical and emotional un-choreographed synch which is built on both absolute trust and absolute abandon.

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Still, I wanted validation, and what I got from my friend was an article he wrote that was published in a tango magazine that was almost, but not exactly, entirely unlike my definition. The following is his article:

“What is tango? I was asked during a radio interview in Switzerland. And I stayed there… without being able to say anything. Because saying that tango is a just a feeling or passion would be the most unfair thing I could have said. In the end I don’t even remember what I said. But then I wondered why I couldn’t say anything, and I concluded that not answering was much better than saying something empty. I concluded that I couldn’t say anything because I just can’t summarize in a sentence or two what tango means to me. And now, alone, I ask myself the same question…

Tango is the shelter I find from a system that imprisons almost everyone, where to engage you have to follow exactly what you have been taught since your childhood. It is the escape from the stress produced by that system, where my mind can finally disconnect and think only about feeling and producing passions.

Tango is the legacy of the masters, who left us so much by just following their vocation. It’s that internal struggle between D’Arienzo and Di Sarli, which shows two sides of me, very different but equally vehement. It’s that violin solo put by Pugliese from time to time that gives me goosebumps.

Tango is her, the woman to whom I taught the dance. To whom one day I couldn’t teach anymore and with whom I started to grow. The woman who marked me for life, and who will be always remembered every time I hear Poema. The woman who one day, after splitting because of differences, said to me: thanks for giving me tango.

Tango is them, the boys, who share what I feel but who don’t know how to express it other than with a lápiz or a parada. The wizards who draw, and those who try but still enjoy. Those who constantly come with stories that are woven between tanda and cortina. Those who laugh while dancing, and those who suffer when listening the lyrics, and those who seduce and are driven by feelings.

Tango is my homeland, which I miss so much, but to which I can’t return because it has betrayed us so many times. The city I try to come back from time to time to reduce the nostalgia. The land by which I try to be worthy emissary, wasting no opportunity to hold the blue and white high.

But above all this, for me tango is that insatiable quest for harmony. A search that sometimes forces me to travel because I can’t find what I’m looking for where I live. Harmony that seems to come across in that tanda for which I’ll smile in the coming weeks. It is the search for that woman, who still does not come into sight, the woman I’ve searched for my entire life and who seems to hide between giro and adorno in a remote milonga somewhere in the world I haven’t visited yet. That woman with the sublime embrace that I haven’t felt just yet, but which I would recognize immediately, for I would have finally found the harmony that I pursue”

So even though we started our tango journey in the path of “exported tango”, I know we are both starting to understand it as if we would have studied in Buenos Aires. Because when you find yourself immersed so deep you neither know nor care which way is up, you don’t need to follow someone else’s definition of tango, you’ve made it your own. (Unless, of course, you still think it’s about steps).

 

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(*) Real Tango©, as observed and approved exlusively by the legitimate, quasi-independent and virtually irreconcilable, pontific milongas of San Telmo, Almagro, Uquiza, et al; and, under no exception, prohibited from copying, reproducing, modifying, distributing, displaying, performing, or be merely stated or implied, without written consent, outside the boundaries of formerly mentioned sacred entities. Amen.

Tango: The Forgotten Argentine Passion

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Our guest post today is written by Alex Vidal, an Argentine tango enthusiast who, despite the short time he has been involved in the tango scene, has already begun to make a huge impact, having his own shows – both singing AND dancing.  Here, he gives us an insider’s view of what tango means to some, what it should mean to many, and most especially, the place it should have in Argentine, and probably world, culture.  I’m sure he’ll be delighted to respond where you can see him sing or dance, if you leave a comment!

When trying to figure out where to begin talking about this, I endlessly perused many articles describing the origins of tango, it’s peculiarities, musical form, dance history, how it become a huge success during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s in Argentina thanks to the advent of radio and such, and finally decided  not to summarize the history of tango in a nutshell but rather tell you about it from a different perspective.

Tango is a passionate form of art: it expresses emotion, sorrow, and evokes deep feelings. When sung, the music, the beautiful poetry in the lyrics, and the singer’s expression can have a huge impact on the listener, either because of the sheer beauty of the piece by itself or the reminiscence of evoked past experiences.

Dancing a tango is also a unique experience: there is no dance in the world that can connect two people the way tango does. It is an extremely sensual dance, an implicit wooing that demands both giving in to your dance partner and, at the same time, showing your worth to him or her as a dancer.

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A great video of Carlos Gavito, one of many Tango dance legends, can be seen here.

 

Having enjoyed its golden age a bit over sixty years ago, tango nowadays struggles to stay alive. There is very little air time for tango on radios or television, and the politicians only devote themselves to Tango when it serves the proper tourism-related purpose. This is the main reason behind non-thriving Tango artists and lack of interest from the Argentinean population itself. The art still survives though, mainly in the form of milongas, a type of social gathering where Tango-lovers assist to dance to the music of treasured recordings, listen to good music, have a good meal or just hang out with friends. The milongas, once the most popular social event in Buenos Aires, date from the time when Tango was the undisputed king and many tango bands (usually called “orquesta tipica”) played live music to the delight of everyone present. The recordings played nowadays in a typical milonga are almost entirely those left by those popular Tango orchestras of yore. However, every once in a while, a live tango orchestra performs in a milonga, stirring up memories from the ‘good old days’.

Contemporary Tango artists mainly survive thanks to the tango-for-export concept: carefully produced and choreographed tango shows that tour all over the world, usually performing with live orchestras and professional dancers and singers. Consecrated Tango dance masters also tour, teaching seminars and exhibiting their talents in world milongas. For a very long time this has been the best way to earn a living as a Tango artist. And, for all we know, it will continue to be so until Argentinean authorities decide to assign Tango the place it deserves in the country’s cultural agenda.

But Tango is not all about the music. It is a proven fact that tango is beneficial for your health: It increases testosterone levels, concentration, coordination and stability. It has also proven to be very effective as a complementary treatment for patients with mild or severe dysfunctions of the nervous system.

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It all comes down to your own taste, but let me assure you that once tango enters your life you become addicted to it. It took me almost thirty-four years to truly discover what Tango can give you, so it’s never too late to start. I’ve been dancing tango for almost four years now, and also been singing for a year, so I can say I’ve truly become a Tango junkie.

Tango was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009 so it might strike you as odd that Argentina is still paying so little attention to its own child. Tango is admired and respected worldwide. Maybe it’s time the folks at home did the same.