Gentle Elitism

Provincial Life and My Difference of Opinion with Virginia Woolf

Middlemarch First Edition

I find Virginia Woolf to be remarkably clear-headed.  Her A Room of One’s Own is one of the few pieces of purely feminist (or purely political, for that matter) writing that I’ve ever read which feels that it was written by someone who was intelligent and thoughtful first and foremost, as opposed to someone defined by their agenda.  It is not only readable, but actually brilliant.

Unfortunately, when it comes to George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, I find myself disagreeing with Woolf violently–which is bad because I’m pretty sure most people will come down on Woolf’s side in any argument, and also because she has been dead for ages, and I can’t actually discuss it with her.

Woolf, as some of you might know, probably gave the most famous review of Middlemarch when she expressed the opinion that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”  Writing from the vantage point of 1902, that is very dismissive of everyone from Austen to Thackarey (and let’s not forget the Bell brothers).

Such a ringing endorsement made Middlemarch a must-read.  So read it I did.  And it fell reasonably flat (which is what all the other critics were saying, but I went and believed Woolf!).

Yes, it is for grown-ups.  Of that, there is little doubt.  But it is not for every grown-up.  It is for those men and women whom earlier generations referred to as “Serious-minded”, which seems to mean earnest people obsessed with important issues and for whom smiling was something of a lost art.  Humor, of course, is for children and the unwashed masses.

A Room Of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf, First edition Cover

In that light, Middlemarch works very well.  It plods along logically and earnestly, eventually becoming a character study of many of the types of people you would have found in the English countryside in the late 19th century.  It’s not bad, but one can’t help feel that it would have benefited from having Jane Austen edit it.  Better still, Thackeray whose character studies as much more biting.  No, wait…  Best of all would have been Oscar Wilde.

What I’m trying to say here is that the book is too lineal and earnest for its own good.  Real grown-ups, no matter what Virginia Woolf said, are people who appreciate humor as well as obligation, people who understand that a good life life contains levity as well as grey porridge.

Perhaps the lucid Woolf of A Room of One’s Own wasn’t the real one.  Perhaps she really was as humorless and agenda driven as so many others before and after her have been when they dedicated their lives to a particular cause.

But I choose to believe not.

So the only thing left to do is to read To The Lighthouse, I guess.  That should settle the matter pretty definitively, and show once again how little provocation is required for me to pick up a random classic book.

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The Good and the Bad of Critiques

This time, our columnist Richard H. Fay brings us an opinion piece–one that, as writers and editors ourselves, is close to our hearts. You’re mileage may vary but one thing is certain: you will definitely learn something about the ins and outs of the process in the piece that follows.  If you like his pieces for us, we remind you that his blog is here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Walt Whitman Manuscript

While critiques and literary criticisms often contain useful advice for the aspiring author and poet, there is a dark side to this sector of the literary realm. What I hate most about the world of critiques and criticisms are critical insults cloaked in the guise of constructive feedback. Although critiques can help a budding writer’s skills blossom, and can even help more established writers catch unnoticed flaws, some writers claiming to dish out critiques (or comments resembling critiques) miss the entire concept that personal opinions, tastes, and interpretations of what is “good” and what is “bad” differ tremendously from person to person, from reader to reader, from “critter” to “critter”. They feel that their individual opinion is literary law, and that their personal interpretation of this law is written in stone. Clearly, this is not the case.

During my quest to become a published poet, I’ve encountered some comments and attitudes that obviously went well beyond mere criticism of my poetic works. In certain circles, I’ve been called a wannabe and a poetaster, remarks that were clearly less examples of constructive criticism and more examples of critical insults – “bad critiques”, if you will. However, in different circles, I’ve been called a master poet. Some people may strongly disagree with the way I write, finding fault in my preferred choice of voice and style. Others see great merit in the way I pen my works, and applaud my cadence, verbiage, and overall approach to poetry composition. Who is right, and who is wrong? Should I change the way I write poetry because some people feel it isn’t worthy, or should I keep doing what works for me, and what works for certain editors and certain publishers (and many of my readers)?

Should a writer listen to what others have to say? Of course, as any artist, a writer should learn to grow and develop their craft. And feedback from others, both positive and negative, is a vital part of this never-ending process of growth and development. I have certainly grown as a poet after listening to what some editors have said to me in personal rejection letters and revision requests. I have often followed their advice on how to add more depth, substance, and artistry to my work. However, I don’t feel a writer should dwell on critiques. A writer is not required to act on every negative critique or criticism received. At some point in a writer’s career, they have to rely just as much on their own judgment and instincts. They have to consider the value of each critique on a case-by-case basis. They have to realize when the critique being given is truly constructive, and when it is merely counter-productive. And sometimes, even a critique given with the best of intentions can fall far from the intended mark. It can be crazy out there, and quite toxic at times, and critique is one of those areas that can all too easily slip into the toxic versus the beneficial.

In my opinion, the difference between a “good critique” and a “bad critique” can often be a matter of the difference between critiquing the written work at hand and critiquing the writer of that work. It is the difference between stating that the story or poem under question is flawed, versus claiming the creator of that piece is a flawed writer or poet. Few human beings respond positively to personal insults, no matter how eloquently worded or full of literary jargon those insults may be. And even those critiques of a writer’s general skills that avoid blatant insults may still lose sight of the bigger picture, arriving at an improper judgment of someone’s overall ability based on the paltriest of evidence.

Ideally, an editor, slush reader, or “critter” shouldn’t really judge someone’s overall skills as a poet or writer based on only one or two pieces, especially if that writer or poet has already penned and sold several works which could be used to better judge that individual’s overall skills and abilities. Such commentary becomes a general criticism of the writer or poet, instead of a specific criticism of the story or poem under consideration. That sort of attitude strays too close to those that fling about the terms “wannabe” or “poetaster” for my own personal comfort. And, it could be argued, it certainly smacks of a personal dislike for an individual’s work, whatever the underlying reasons may truly be.

In terms of the nuts-and-bolts of critiques and criticisms, I grow especially irritated when opinions and tastes are presented as literary absolutes, which often happens with such things. Differing opinions of my work from different editors and readers leads me to believe that most criticisms are not literary absolutes. I suspect that the aspects being criticized are not unalterable laws that all poets and writers must follow, or else. Plus, in terms of critiques, comments, and rejections from editors, it may be sacrilege, but I don’t feel that editors walk on water. I believe that they can be wrong on occasion, that they can let their personal preferences shade their views, just like the rest of us. And some editors may plain dislike an individual’s style, while putting an editorial sheen on that dislike to make it look like literary criticism. Does this mean that the writer must change their style because of what one editor (or one group of editors) says, especially if that very same style works elsewhere? I honestly don’t think so. It brings one back to the idea of judging the value of each critique on a case-by-case basis.

Perhaps I simply found my literary voice, and confidence in that voice, early-on. Others still finding their literary voice, still searching for a style that fits, may approach critiques and criticisms differently. However, because I have developed a confidence in my voice and style, I don’t feel the need to make wholesale changes to my preferred voice and style based on individual critiques and criticisms. I may listen, but I don’t necessarily act on what I hear. I have no desire to make changes just to fit in at a certain market, just so I can add another notch to my tally of venues conquered. In some instances, I don’t think I could change enough to fit in anyway.

Many moons ago, I came to the realization that my style may not work for all markets. It happens. Writers and poets have to acknowledge that reality sooner or later. Some places just aren’t a good fit, no matter what one does to try to fit in. However, there are other markets, other publications, out there. And some of those may be a much better fit for one’s work anyway. It may take some trial-and-error, and the use of market listings like Duotrope’s Digest and Ralan’s Webstravanganza, to find the right venue, but it can be done.

As for those on the other side of critiques; if you are addressing potential problems with the text, then you are doing your job as an editor or “critter”. After all, a writer’s work should display a functional grasp of grammar and syntax. Writers should show that they have at least some understanding of what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes you need to be a bit harsh if a written work contains many glaring flaws. However, there is a difference between a harsh but honest criticism and an insult. You don’t have to insult the writer’s abilities in general when criticizing a particular example of that writer’s work. Insults may just stir negative emotions, rather than eliciting a positive change.

Critiques, whether positive or negative, are going to be reflective of the critic’s personal preferences and biases. While writers should never let hubris blind them to the opportunities to grow found within individual critiques and criticisms, such commentary should always be seen as one opinion among many. Other critics with different tastes may evaluate the same material differently. Those handing out literary critiques should keep the same thing in mind. Never let critical insults take the place of constructive criticism. Avoid the path to the toxic.

(Originally published in the Creator and the Catalyst, August 2009.)

Impressive Youth

One thing we see quite a bit of are posts on social media and articles on supposedly reputable news sources that express horror over the terrible literacy and writing habits of teens and young adults.  Some sources blame text messaging (LOL) while others wring their hands over the terrible decline in the educational system under either the left or the right, depending on each individual or media outlet’s political leanings.

Of course, here at Classically Educated, not only do we believe that every political party has an unfair bias against the cultural elites (which is irrelevant in this context, but we like to remind everyone of it every chance we get), but we also believe int he scientific process.

Which means that we decided to put the theory to rigorous scientific examination* to find out if all the fuss was justified.

The first thing we did was to try to track down some modern writing from young adult, maybe someone younger than 22 or 23 years of age.  Fortunately, one of our editors works with a woman who fits the bill and also enjoys doing some creative writing.  So we asked her for a story.

After reading it, we were pretty depressed.  It needed a little polish, but, other than that, the story was not only competently written and well thought out, but it the ending was brilliant.  In fact some of our editors and contributors, who are also writers wept openly and are considering giving up their word processors because if the forthcoming generations are going to write that way, we’re all pretty much doomed anyway.

More importantly, the writing was grammatically correct with not a LOL or WTF to be seen.  It was even set in a culturally interesting milieu.

Of course, we still weren’t convinced,  A twenty-one-year-old might not have been affected by the full brunt of the texting-centric social culture, and therefore might have outgrown it.  What we really needed was something written by teens and pre-teens to figure it all out.

Impresiones 2011

Fortunately, we had something to hand, a small volume of prose and verse published by a school called Belgrano Day School in Buenos Aires.  This is an institution very much in the spirit of those we listed among our World’s Most Awesome Schools.

The book in question is entitled Impresiones: A Bilingual Anthology (2011) and is perfect for our purposes because it has prose and verse in both English and Spanish.  It should give us a pretty good idea of whether the people immersed in the texting culture were having any literacy issues (we chose the 2011 edition because the authors are now adults, which means we’re not exposing teens to any particular scrutiny, but they were teens when this was written).

Well… while none of our editors decided they had to give up literature forever after reading this, the writing, on a sentence and grammar level, is all very good.  Even in those stories written in English (remember that these are students whose first language is Spanish) were well-written, and seemed to be thought out in English (one of the easy ways to tell when a story was written by a Spanish speaker is that the sentences, while grammatically correct, use a word order that is more typical of Spanish than English–dead giveaway that the writer was translating as he wrote, not thinking the story through in English).

It might be argued that these examples are no use because they’ve been curated.  The anthology was probably the best writing of the year at that particular school, and the woman’s story was an outlier: written by someone who is set on becoming a writer.

Infinite Monkeys With Typewriters

That’s true, of course, but it doesn’t really matter.  You see, it’s always been like that.  Even twenty or fifty years ago, most people wrote like a drunk chimpanzee.  The joke above describes the literary efforts of any given 99% of the population in whichever era you choose to name.  But the fact that the good ones are still good puts any idea that texting obsessively is killing the language.

Which makes sense if you think about it.  There’s a good analogy for this which we don’t remember the source for (if it was you, drop us a comment and well give due credit): Text messaging is like playing catch.  It’s not a rigorous exercise in perfection, but it can’t do the person doing it any harm; after all, it’s still writing, and not everything is ROFL.

So everyone can stop panicking and go back to your political arguments.  We, by the way, are trying to clone Tiberius.  Now THAT was a leader (you can yell at us in the comments, that’s what they’re for).

 

*All right, we didn’t do a rigorous scientific examination.  We looked at a couple of isolated anecdotic cases.  So sue us.

The Curse of the Polymath

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Most of the time, the Classically Educated Manifesto is a document which we are all proud of.  But, on occasion, we stop and look around the world and realize that modern human society is not really designed to cater to polymaths.

Generalists as a species have been out of favor even in places where they should thrive, such as multinational corporations, for twenty years or so.  But this is just a deepening of a trend that has been around for a century or more.

The case of companies can be quickly studied.  The reason generalists are useful for corporations is that, from a certain size onwards, companies need managers.  A manager’s job is twofold: to get results for their particular area of responsibility through the work of others, and to coordinate activity with other managers with a view toward optimizing shareholder value.

So, for instance, the company’s best programmer really can’t be promoted to management unless a) he has a grasp of human resources management, and b) an understanding of what the rest of the company is doing, from finance to marketing to production.  This is why people with MBAs tended to get those promotions.

Over the last few years, however, many companies have been ignoring this hard-learned truth and simply promoting the best-performing functional experts, people who really, really  know how their department works, causing much laughter among experienced managers who then get to watch the train wreck while munching popcorn.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon, starting with a sense that MBAs are elitist, and elitism goes against the inclusive culture of many new companies, especially in the tech arena, and continuing with the fact that a lot of HR people have gotten extremely conservative and only hire / promote technical experts within their fields in order to cover their own asses – they seem to have forgotten the immutable truth that a good manager can manage anything, even complex technical departments.  And it ends with the fact that companies aren’t getting any smarter.

While this is all very interesting, it doesn’t seem to cover the root problem, which is that as the world becomes more complex, obsession is beginning to trump… well, everything else.

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

So, you have people who live, breathe and dream computers, all day, every day.  Or any number of individuals who take their company work home with them and think about it to the exclusion of all else.

Even those people aim at balance tend to have one all-consuming hobby, whether it be rock climbing or model trains.  They then get together with people who have the same hobby.

So a person who works as an engineer at an airplane factory, and reads renaissance literature during his lunch break, practices amateur theater two nights a week and plays softball with friends over the weekend before his painting class and then gets together with friends from none of these activities is about as common as hen’s teeth.

It wasn’t always like this.  As recently as the Victorian and Edwardian ages, amateurs were making important contributions to both the arts and sciences (and probably even moreso to that ultimate mixture of the two: the soft “sciences”).

Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and a social critic who is best remembered for his children’s books (although a close reading of Alice will show that “children’s” is a bit of a misnomer).  He was an example of the gentleman polymath of his time.

And perhaps therein lies the problem.  The twentieth century was a century of democracy, and elitist concepts such as that of the gentleman with the leisure time to be an expert in various fields fell into disfavor – and distrust.  Even today, deep knowledge on too many subjects can get one branded as elitist extremely quickly. (If someone brands you as elitist, please let us know immediately, and we’ll offer you a place on our writing staff – unpaid, but proud to join a whole raft of elitists).

The loss of polymath pride since the turn of the 20th is a tragedy, perhaps, but even those Victorians and Edwardians were but a pale shadow of the true colossi of polymathy: the men of the renaissance.  Why, even today, the term “renaissance man” is used to refer to anyone who masters various disciplines.

Choosing one giant from among them would be an arduous task were it not for the unsurpassed genius of Leonardo, of course, but he was simply the giant among giants.  From Michelangelo to Galileo, they reveled in a society that celebrated breadth of genius far more than depth of expertise in a single subject.  They were even allowed to build huge buildings… although they were actually painters and astronomers (clearly, there were fewer lawyers back then, or the lawyers were also polymaths who got it).

That is what we have lost.  Today, the admiration that was once reserved for giants of the intellect is reserved for actors who often can’t count to ten and for surgeons who likely wouldn’t understand references to Humbert H. Humbert.  Guitar players for whom impressionism is a side effect of cocaine.  Geniuses in their fields, all, but limited in scope.

And it won’t change.  The 21st century will see a deepening of democracy globally, and one of the central tenets of democracy  is that equality is a right.  Most peoples of the world have chosen to interpret that as “no one is better than anyone else”, and if achievements show the contrary, then the person flaunting those achievements must be brought down a peg.

So polymathy, especially in “elitist” intellectual pursuits, will only get less popular as time passes and the world panders to the easily-bruised egos of the masses.  Polymaths will increasingly become dinosaur-like rebels flying in the face of social convention, the crazy old uncle no one ever talks about.

But that’s fine.  It’s more fun to offend than to conform.

Anything that requires  an exertion of sheer bloody-mindedness must, necessarily, be a good thing.

So onward the polymaths.

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.

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…

Toilet Paper: An American Love Story

Well, we DID say it would be eclectic…  you can’t accuse us of not having warned you!–Ed.*

Upon visiting the US, a foreign visitor is immediately struck by how all things that can make life more comfortable or pleasant are immediately available, from glazed donuts to those pillows you need so that your head doesn’t flop around when trying to sleep on airplane seats.

It is quite clear that Americans enjoy being comfortable – decadently so, if possible.

The visitor will note this and nod in approval.  It is a good thing to have one’s creature comforts looked after.  In fact, it would be good to take it back to his own country.  He takes notes.  He understands why America is an important world power, and why immigrants, both legal and of the humid dorsal variety flock to it’s shores.  He understands all this while purchasing an electric griddle.

Sadly, as soon as he decides to go to the bathroom – possibly from eating all those glazed donuts – he realizes that it’s all a facade, and takes the first available flight back to civilization.

“Why?” one asks.

It’s quite simple.  The one basic creature comfort that isn’t readily available in the US is the bidet…  and as most readers of this blog will be aware, civilized life simply isn’t possible when that particular implement is lacking.

But why is is so rare on those shores?

Well, one theory is that, since it was invented by the French (originally used by French royalty in fact), it was rejected by the British, which, as we recall were influential in America in the early 1700s.  This would mark one of the few instances in which the British Empire was unable to adopt and improve upon a foreign custom, and seems a bit of a flimsy excuse.  After all, a culture that adopted tea as the national drink despite its not growing within a thousand miles of its shores seems not to be the best candidate for not-invented-here syndrome.

So, perhaps it’s a technical thing.  Perhaps scraping with toilet paper is better than washing?

Er… read the above line again.  If you are unable to spot the problem, then you are quite blessed: from now on, you can save a fortune on water by never showering again in your life; all you have to do is to give yourself a good rub with toilet paper once a day, and you’re good to go.  Clearly, that isn’t it either.

So what could cause a culture that has warmly embraced everything from Ikea furniture to the idea that fish is better raw to shy away from something that could make everyone’s life better?

One guesses that it has to be sex.

Even today, upon viewing the Wikipedia entry for bidet, one is immediately struck by the article’s statement that the bidet’s primary function is to cleanse genitalia.

Hmm.  Now why would houses with perfectly good showers need an extra apparatus to cleanse genitalia?  I think we may have spotted a myth here. The truth is, bidets are mainly used for the same thing that the toilet roll beside a toilet is used for in the US: to sanitize after going to the bathroom.  The only difference is that water is better for the purpose, as well as being much more pleasant.

The wikipedia article, however, is just the continuation of a long-held myth: that the bidet exists exclusively for couples to clean up before / after sex, and is therefore somehow kinky or perverted.  It’s gotten so bad that people just don’t question it any more.

So, essentially, the most important industrialized country is doomed to scrapes and discomfort for no reason other than prudishness dating back to the 17th century.

Interesting world we live in, isn’t it?

*And we could have illustrated this article…  and now we wonder how far one has to go before WordPress just tosses us out?

Not Sparkly, Never Sparkly

o-cemetery-at-night-facebook

Baron H is back as a guest blogger today (if you missed his earlier installments, you can read them here and here).  As always, he has a particularly… long view of mortal affairs which is refreshing.  And yes, we do believe he is still the internet’s only undead blogger.

Salutations Classically Educated Readers!

I could blame Stephanie Meyer for the recent misunderstandings I’ve been seeing regarding the undead.  After all, you can only see so many movies which portray the undead as effortlessly glamorous before you start believing the PR.  And I’m told she’s sold a number of books as well.

But I’ve been here longer than any mortal, so I don’t actually blame Meyer. Stoker, and then early Hollywood were truly more instrumental in giving us this image.  I guess it’s too late to try to get the unwashed to understand this (contrary to popular belief, people have not been getting dumber in the past few years.  Almost every mortal on the planet has been an imbecile since I can remember, and that’s more than a few centuries), but I can at least make an appeal to the intelligent readers out there.  Both of you should probably be able to catch the gist.

Vampires are not glamorous by nature.  We are just, to take a horrid neologism and apply it, regular guys.  In order not to let the side down, it is imperative that we understand and follow the rules of etiquette.  We might not have any of the olfactory disadvantages of zombies, or the aural handicaps of banshees, but we do need to work – imagine if we let ourselves go.  We’d all look like Nosferatu!

Still, this aside was not the main thrust of this particular post (although I remind you that etiquette is always the most important thing – be you mortal or Aikanaka).  I wanted to talk about documentary channels.  

It used to be that the people who watched The History Channel, or Nat Geo, were a bit snobbish.  Intellectuals who were too good to share the same mind-numbing programming that everyone else seemed to enjoy.

Now it seems that the executives at these places have either realized that that market was too small or have succumbed to the temptation of going after the brain-dead hordes.  So you get reality TV, Celebrity Biographies and, worst of all, a whole slew of programs with names like Ancient Aliens and Paranormal Encounters.

This last one is worrying.

Now, as a member of the undead community, I am all for a bit of information and greater understanding.  But, when you put every kook and whacko who can shake off the effects of the drugs long enough to do an interview on the screen and let him ramble, you are creating a dangerous precedent, which gets even worse when you treat it as credible evidence.

This isn’t documentary filmmaking.  This is shameless pandering to the lowest common denominator disguised as documentary.  Documentaries shouldn’t be stealing their ratings from the audience for Big Brother.  And I certainly can’t condone the way these fictionistas portray ghosts!

But the true reason I gnash my teeth whenever these subhuman programs come up is that I am one of those who were among the original target.  I will gladly watch a documentary about napoleon for six hours, but give me an episode of Ancestral Aliens, and…  well, let’s just be thankful that vampires can’t throw up (Bet you didn’t know that – Ed.).

But one of the keys to good etiquette is that one must not fight emerging trends, but find a way to incorporate them.  So I’m thinking of starting a program to portray undead as they really are.  I can sell it to one of these channels.

And I can eat any executive who declines.

With no sparkliness whatsoever.

Salutations,

Baron H

 

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.