General Culture

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

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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.

sur1

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.

argentine_tango

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).

 

milonga san telmo

(*) 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

tango-obelisco-buenos-aires

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.

 susana_carlos

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.

Carlos-Maradona-Obelisco-FERNANDO-ORDEN_CLAIMA20130729_0033_14

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.