Polymath Places

Airport Reads: Scientific American

So, you’re standing in an airport and, once again, you’ve committed the cardinal sin of bringing along the wrong book for your trip.  In my case, the wrong book was Paradise Lost, which, though a cultural keystone, is not exactly light reading.

So what does one do?  You head for the newsstand, of course (I like reading on paper – I spend a lot of time writing on a computer, so the paper experience represents a break) and look for one of the staples of my airport reading.

Scientific American April 2017

In this particular case, I picked up the April 2017 edition of Scientific American (when it arrived unread, I tossed it into the TBR pile, which is why I’m just now writing about it–publications take forever to cycle through my TBR pile).

Now, looking at the cover, it’s easy to wonder why I’d have picked that one up.  I’m not particularly interested in Alzheimer’s research (ask me again in thirty years and you may get a different view), and water and conspiracy theories aren’t my passion either (although I will admit to being intrigues by supermassive black holes).  The thing is, none of that made any difference.  I picked it up with little thought for the articles listed, because Scientific American is a publication I like to read.

I like it so much, in fact, that I used to subscribe a couple of decades back.

Why?  Because it straddles the gap between National Geographic and things like Science or the New England Journal of Medicine nearly perfectly.  It speaks to the more educated layman as opposed to the specialist or the person who is curious but, perhaps doesn’t have enough training to be able to follow a overly scientific language.

It lands in that sweet spot that, though inhabited by relatively few people, is inhabited primarily by people who read.  The demographic is probably very similar to readers of The New Yorker or Fine Books and Collections.  It’s a world of polymaths and, hopefully of Classically Educated readers.

And the fact that every single airport newsstand in the US has copies of this one is no coincidence: Airports probably concentrate a higher proportion of potential readers than any street corner location outside of certain university towns or business centers.  Polymaths are, by their very nature, the kind of people who fly from one place to the other.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story author.  His latest book is entitled The Malakiad, and combines his fascination for history, Greek Mythology, anachronism, humor and Monty Python.  You can check out the ebook here and the paper version here.

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Away from a theory of a village so insignificant it isn’t even there creating a roadblock

There’s a major controversy currently underway in academic circles.  A study that attempts to expose non-scientific practices among major academic journals, where buzzwords and politics allegedly outweigh solid research, has the social sciences world abuzz.  Our contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens gives her reflection on the ultimate importance and consequences of the study.

 

Scene from Catch 22

-That sounds like a lot of crap.
-It is a lot of crap, Sir.

In Catch-22, Yossarian receives a medal for releasing his bomb load over the ocean. Realizing that both the target and the mission have no military value, whether considered strategically, tactically, or psychologically, he toggles his bombs three minutes before reaching the target, determined to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths. Because his plane is leading the formation, every bombardier in the group toggles their bombs on his cue. Yossarian’s insubordination is now mutiny, for which the commanding general wishes to bring Yossarian before a court martial. However, he immediately recognizes that a court martial will precipitate no small amount of negative publicity, much of which will reflect badly on Yossarian’s commander; that is, on the general himself. Luckily for both the general and Yossarian, there were no German fighters protecting the sea, and no flak defending it. Consequently, the group was undisturbed and in perfect formation, meaning their bombs fell in a perfect pattern. For achieving this perfect bomb pattern, Yossarian and several other officers of the group receive medals, and the general’s public image is enhanced commensurately.

Yossarian’s refusal to strike the intended target wasn’t cowardice or treason, but an awareness not only that the mission was pointless, but that his commanders were as aware of this fact as he was.

After the war, Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, attended both USC and NYU, and received a Masters in English from Columbia. He was also a Fulbright Scholar who taught at Penn State and later wrote ad copy full time for a small but successful agency. He spent more time in academia than in uniform, and didn’t just know bullshit inside and out, but was sufficiently proficient in flinging it to make a living, although selling the movie rights to an internationally successful novel is what made him a millionaire.

The day before Catch-22 premiered in theaters, Canadian-American psychiatrist Eric Berne was delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of the Golden Gate Group Psychotherapy Society. He had titled his address “Away from a Theory of the Impact of Interpersonal Interaction on Non-Verbal Participation,” and admitted midway through that the title was a sham. In that speech, he speculated that the reason people went into psychiatry was “that they’re not required to do very much except to have staff conferences to explain why they can’t do very much.” Anyone who has read or seen Catch-22 recognizes instantly what Eric Berne meant: You can only see the Major when the Major isn’t in.

After admitting to the sham title, he explained that he’d decided upon that title because psychiatrists were always presenting papers titled “Toward a theory of…” one thing or another, but actually several things conflated for importance; not an importance of content but of context and resonance. It had to sound like something it wasn’t, really, without being too clear about what that was. He also explained that he decided on “Away from a theory” because he felt that it was only when you stepped back from any theory, and got a good look at it from a clear vantage point, that you could make any sense of it. He also noted that in the real world, no one goes “toward” something. When you get on an airliner, for instance, the pilot never says, “We’re going toward Chicago.”

Obviously, the hypothetical supposition that nonsense which sounds good and flatters someone in authority can be accepted and even applauded had been tested and proven even before Sokal successfully rose to the challenge in the late twentieth century. That three academics could give new life to a classic Calvin and Hobbes strip by cobbling together some trendy buzzwords isn’t exactly the stuff of firestorms.

Calvin and Hobbs Academia

It’s actually more of a tempest in the tea party. Yes, four facetious papers were actually published. Out of twenty. And three more had been accepted. But the four published papers were not acclaimed as brilliant by readers; rather, they were spotted as nonsense, even if there was no initial presumption of disingenuous intent or bad faith. And the brilliant scheme to expose something ended by exposing only the schemers, who prudently chose to confess to their duplicity somewhat ahead of schedule.

Empire State of Artistic Mind

New York City Skyline

So, our Editor-In-Chief has just returned from a trip to New York… it was pretty obvious that he was going to write stuff for the page.  His first delivery is a slightly elitist take not only on art museums, but specifically on which art museums.  A phrase about leopards and spots comes to mind.

When I got back from my recent New York vacation, a friend who’s never been to the Big Apple asked me: “Other than just walking around the city, what is there to do in New York?”

Talk about a loaded question.

In the first place, “just walking around the city” should be more than enough for essentially anyone.  This is a city that, if you avoid the tourist traps such as Times Square, or the Statue of Liberty cruise, is extremely rewarding.  Culture, be it art, literature, history or any other expression is there to be found, often even if you are a brain-dead tourist who tries to avoid it.  Any house on Museum Mile is likely to be an art gallery – even if it doesn’t really advertise the fact.  The Strand is an amazing experience, and if you happen to land in Times Square by mistake, the theater overflows onto the street.

But my first instinct when answering was: the art museums.  There’s MoMA and the Met, of course, but also countless others.  The Whitney, The Frick and the Neue Galirie spring to mind immediately… but there are still others.

But what if we had to pick just one?  And what if, hypothetically, you had to pick it according to Classically Educated’s Manifesto, so you could write an article about it?

Even more loaded than the last one!

But we’ll give it a shot.  And we’ll make it a top five list, just because people on the internet like top five lists.

Gustav Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

5. Despite the fact that Gustav Klimt is well represented – by the famous, stolen-and-recovered-and-sued-for-and-recovered-again portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer, and that the gallery is located almost perfectly, the Neue Galerie is still a bit limited in scope.  Cool, but very small, only good enough for fifth place on our list, just edging out the Morgan Library museum, and the unexpected collection at Kykuit and well ahead of the Brooklyn Museum.

Whitney Museum New Building

4.  The Whitney.  4th place might be a bit unfair to this icon of American art, as, had I waited until 2015, I could have spoken about the museum in its new building at the southern tip of High Line Park.  But as it wasn’t yet done at the time of writing, we’ll acknowledge the quirkiness of the special exhibits here (Kusama being a particular favorite) with 4th place.

Edgar Degas Ballerina at the Met

3. The Met.  Wow, I can hear the cultured from all over the world complaining already.  How can the Met be third?  Well, it is.  It’s an amazing museum, built on the scale and philosophy of the Louvre in Paris, with the added benefit of an impressive Impressionist collection, which the Louvre doesn’t really have. But… apart from not having that inexplicable Pyramid entry, the Met has a bit too much mass appeal to get any further than third on our list.  Which just goes to show how good the art museums in New York truly are.

Frick Collection Interior

2.  The Frick Collection.  While the collection itself is small, and not particularly impactful compared to the others on this list, the Frick deserves its place among our favorites for various reasons.  The first is that the house it is located in is perfect gilded-age elegance, uncompromising in the sense that money exists to be enjoyed, without guilt and to the fullest extent.  It is a beautiful place.  The art is good, too, with Whistler, Goya and Velázquez on the walls.  It can’t be first, but it is the one that makes us point and say: that is how it should be done.

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

1. MoMA.  OK, so once the Met was out, this one was always going to win, but still requires some explanation.  Classically Educated is supposed to be all about the classics, after all – and the collection here is late 19th century at its oldest point.  But the thing is, if you go off to look for a polymath with gently elitist tendencies, it’s more likely that you’ll find him hanging around in this museum than any of the others on the list.  So, something about this museum makes it a haven for our target audience.  What?  Well, for one thing, it’s eclectic – you need to be able to appreciate painting and photography and graphic design and industrial design to truly enjoy this one.  For another, you need to be grounded sufficiently in art theory to have an appreciation of the conversation that is constantly going on regarding the definition and limits of art.  These two characteristics make it our kind of art museum – but what truly seals its position is the fact that there it is: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, hanging on its own wall.  When you have the best impressionist painting, you have an insurmountable advantage.

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Aerobics for My Brain

Open Road Canada

Today’s entry continues our series of guest blogs, and is perhaps the one (so far), that best summarizes what this site is all about.  Our guest today, Ace Lightning is a woman of many, many talents (as the piece itself will hint), having been everything from a Wiccan priestess to a broadcast engineer – which is a scope that is impressive even by the standards of this blog!  It tells of a familiar feeling for world travelers, and one that never gets old.  Enjoy!

 

My second language, after English, is Spanish, with French a very poor third (some random phrases I picked up when I worked at UN Radio – they inexplicably placed me in a French-speaking studio – and culinary terms). I live in the New York metropolitan area, and it’s easy to reach southeastern Canada from here. I had been to the cities of Montréal and Québec, and enjoyed both greatly. In Québec, I had occasionally had to resort to my fractured French, but as soon as I mentioned that I was American, not Anglophone Canadian, everything was all right.

Welcome to Quebec

When my son was in his early teens, we decided to take a family vacation along the St. Lawrence River. Neither my husband nor our son speaks a word of French, although we all speak Spanish. I was hoping I’d be able to see the Northern Lights (an obsession of mine); my son wanted to see moose in the Parc Gaspésie; and my husband was interested in seeing what Canada was like outside of the major cities. We flew into Montréal, rented a car and drove to Québec, then drove out along the river, staying overnight in a different place each night. Our accommodations ranged from a rather nice hotel in Montréal, to a rustic motel in Rimouski that had a door which opened out directly onto the beach of the river. The further away from the major cities we got, the less English people spoke; I soon found myself having to do most of the communicating. I had to teach the menfolk a few phrases, such as “Je suis Américain“, “Je ne parle pas français“, and “Où sont les toilettes?” I also watched French TV in our hotel rooms – usually MéteoMedia, the Canadian weather channel. Soon I was able to order meals for three people, buy petrol, and ask for (and even occasionally understand) driving directions. Everywhere we stopped, one of us would ask, “Do you speak English?”, and someone would reply “A leetle beet!”… which turned out to be the extent of their English. It was often frustrating, but also fun. (My husband and son just found it frustrating, although my son was often amused as well.)

We stopped in Cap-Chat, because I was especially interested in Éole – a huge vertical-shaft wind-powered generating plant, built as a “proof of concept”. I was immensely fascinated and impressed by the simplicity of its engineering. The tours were only given in French, and I wished I was able to ask more questions, but I still learned a lot. (Note: Éole is no longer in operation, although the structure is still there; the site is now an education center concerning wind-powered and other alternative sources of electricity.)

eole cap chat

We went all the way out to Gaspé, stayed for two days, and drove back to Montréal. I insisted on stopping at Éole again – this time they found someone who could describe some of the machinery in English. We also visited the site of an old copper mine, which had been made into a historical center, although we didn’t have time to take the tour of the mine itself. We made our way back to Montréal and flew home to New Jersey.

A day or two after we got home, I was describing this adventure to a friend, who said, “That must have been awful! Weren’t you terrified, being in a completely unfamiliar place, and forced to try to communicate in a language you barely know?” I said that, on the contrary, it had been positively exhilarating – I described it as being “like aerobics for my brain”. My friend couldn’t grok that at all; my mere description of the experience gave him a panic attack. Then I described it to another friend, a White Russian who had been raised in Paris and spoke something like 103 languages. He grinned and said, “Oh, yes, that’s always so much fun! But there aren’t many places where I can’t make myself understood.”

Next time, I want to try something really difficult, like trying to find my way around in Finland or China.

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

election-crowd-wellington-new-zealand-1931-photographed-by-william-hall-raine

As most people concerned about the cultural decline of Western civilization continue to moan in despair* , I would like to take a moment to abandon my own complaining and look at one group, at least, that seems to be bucking the trend.  But before I get to the point, I need to digress again which, I suspect, is why many of you are reading this in the first place.

It used to be, there were places where you could meet the right people, even if you were far from home.

When railroads and a general lack of Europeans from different nations slaughtering each other on sight made travel a lot more pleasant, certain places came to be generally accepted as the ones one went to to meet acquaintances.  Perhaps for the Anglophones among us, the archetypal example is the Pump Room at Bath (below).  Anyone familiar with English novels of manners from the pre-Victorian period will have run into this (even casual readers are likely to have encountered it in Austen).

Pump Room Bath

Essentially, it got everyone who was anyone together in one place, without having to go to the trouble and expense of getting invited to the Royal Gala or whatever.

There are other places (notably certain hotels where one would meet for lunch), which took the anglophone through the Victorians and into the 20th century, but by then, the world had once again become a much smaller place, and culturally relevant people – even insular Englishmen – were no longer meeting exclusively in their own cities, or with people from their own countries.

By now, they were meeting in Paris.  More precisely, they were meeting in the Paris Cafés.  1871 is usually pointed to as the beginning of the Belle Époque.  From then until the first world war, Paris was the place to be seen at, and to meet your acquaintances, French, Dutch, Austrian or British.  There is a myth, an image flying around that this era was overrun with impecunious artists.  It is relatively true, but only tells a small part of the story.

Small, but what a story.  It must have been amazing to witness the birth of a new and major current in art every few weeks, driven not by the established masters but by a previously unknown artist from the countryside, or from Spain or somewhere equally unexpected.  The heady times among the currents and countercurrents in the avant-garde were balanced by almost equally exciting events in what was then considered high culture, from the World’s Fair, to Stravinksy.  Even the now reviled Paris Salon gave us iconic images.  Not all the great works were famously rejected, you know.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette

But WWI brought it to a screeching halt.  Europe was not really in the mood for it all, and any mingling of nationalities would be best done on neutral ground, so the circus moved to Broadway.

Broadway in the twenties

Eventually, the in-crowds moved to Hollywood,  and then spent some time in Monte Carlo (always at least peripherally on this list), but it also lost some of its melting-pot feel.  The problem is that, as the world became smaller and smaller, the enclaves started catering to the super rich… and no one else.  I’m certain you’ll run into the right people if you snag paddock passes for the Monaco GP, but there aren’t many of them, and you might have to sell a yacht to afford them.  Any Dubai pool party classifies in the same category, too.

The day you sell a yacht is supposed to be the second best day of ownership after the day you buy it, but what about those who either prefer to keep their yachts or simply aren’t in that financial class?  What about the slightly less well-to-do global citizen, who wants to be surrounded by like-minded people, but has accidentally travelled thousands of miles from their usual base of operations?

The answer to that, after decades of traveling in a variety of budget levels is surprisingly heartwarming, and I first got an inkling of it when I bought a pass that saved me money on a variety of New York attractions.  The way it was set up was the clue: each ticket let you enter one of two attractions.  One of the options was something typically touristy, while the other option was generally a museum.  Strangely, the typical things you see on TV were usually mirrored by things that I really wanted to do.

I probably missed out on a lot of people very different from myself by choosing the museums.  But I did enjoy them.  And most of the people I generally have things in common with have spent a disproportionate amount of their time in major cities at the Met, MoMA, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado or the National gallery, and considerably less at the photogenic large buildings / famous actor’s former homes / scenic countryside than others who visited the same places.  Art museums seem to be the one place where you’re likely to run into the polymath and global citizen today.  Even the ones who prefer hiking and hitchhiking aren’t going to miss the city’s big museum(s).  The fact that the great cultural artifacts of humanity also attract much smaller crowds than Graceland is only a secondary consideration to the kind of people this blog is aimed at.

Most of them can tell me which wall this…

757px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

is hanging on.

Which, when you stop to think about it, is kind of nice.

*and yes, I know, we urgently need a nice knock-down, drag-out fight about the relative merits of high culture as opposed to popular culture on this blog – the very nature of this space cries out for that particular battle.