Sunday, November 09, 2014
Leningrad: Siege and Symphony by Brian Moynahan (Atlantic Monthly Press)
A look at the role of music during the WW II siege of Leningrad, with a focus on Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. While it looks like interesting topics and subjects, I'm concerned the focus might be too narrow to hold my interest. Shostakovich's career follows a complex arc, so I'm intrigued at looking in detail as his talent translates watching his city destroyed into music.
Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing by Arthur M. Melzer (University of Chicago Press)
Melzer looks at different levels of writing, especially the importance of what isn't included. While that calls to mind Leo Strauss' work, I'm more interested in Mr. Melazer's expansion of the argument. "Esoteric writing," such as hiding things in plain sight by not mentioning them, provides a topic with plenty of debate. It appears Melzer expands the argument by claiming such writing wasn't esoteric when it was written...readers would have clearly understood what was meant. I'm curious to see where he goes with this approach.
Update (14 Nov 2014): An online appendix for Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing is available at The University of Chicago Press' site. Link found courtesy of a review in The Week.
Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America's Independence by Jack Kelly (Palsgrave Macmillan)
While American troops had professional leaders and soldiers when the war for independence from England started, many of the famous names from military lore were amateurs. Yet they were able to learn quickly and positively influence the American cause. The name of one of my sons is a play on the name of one of these 'giants," so of course I'll be interested in such a history. One review I read raises a question—if Washington had died during the war, which of the "giants" could have successfully carried out the war? It's not clear that Kelly's book addresses this question directly, but it appears the book covers enough ground to make such speculation fun.
Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer by Bettina Stangneth (Knopf)
Revisiting the claim of Eichmann's bureaucratic role in the extraordinary evil carried out during World War II, Stragneth examines Eichmann's history and conversations between the end of the war and his capture. As German documents continue to be declassified, expect more analysis on principle players and their lack of banality.
Thucydides and the Idea of History by Neville Morley came out earlier this year but I'm just finding out about it now. Geoffrey Hawthorn's Thucydides on Politics: Back to the Present came out about the same time and I'm more intrigued by it. See this review in the Times Literary Supplement for more on both books.
There there's the works of Roberto Calasso and all the references he mentioned in his lecture. Time to stop wishing and start reading...
Thursday, November 06, 2014
Until recently, humans lived with gods. Every society in history defined itself in relation to an invisible world. Only modern society is secular: it doesn’t believe in anything but itself. Why? And are we really less superstitious than our ancestors?
To cut to the chase, Calasso's answer is "No." I’ll point to his Wikipedia entry for a summary of his life and works, as well as taking time and space here in pulling a few quotes from his interview with the Paris Review (found here). The excerpts are long, but they will frame major sections of the lecture.
It’s strange, this desire to turn Adelphi—and yourself—into a political machine. In fact, you are far more interested in transcendence than in politics.
Not so much transcendence, but the perception of the powers in us and around us. People talk a lot about religion, but they might as well be talking about huge political parties. The most delicate point to grasp is that society itself has become the major superstition of our times. This is the pivot of the last section of L’ardore. What I mean is that the belief in society as the ultimate crucible of progress creates a vast amount of bigotry even in the so-called secular world. So in actual fact it’s difficult to find an intellectually rigorous atheist. Though I have met many secular bigots.
The notion of sacrifice lies behind almost everything in your work. The other striking theme is ebbrezza, which seems difficult to translate, as the word is polysemous in Italian.
All of my books have to do with possession. Ebbrezza, rapture, is a word connected with possession. In Greek the word is mania, madness. For Plato it was the main path to knowledge. For us it’s become the main path to the lunatic asylum. So you see that from Schreber up to La folie Baudelaire, the theme runs through my work. Even in my last book, L’ardore, of course. The Vedic people developed the most rivetingly complex theories and rituals about soma, the mysterious plant that provoked rapture.
Here is a photo of you and your late friend Brodsky. He wrote a wonderful essay on The Marriage where he talks about self-projection. He draws a parallel between mythology and television. The scales and parameters are different, but myth and TV are both ultimately about self-projection. The seat of both is one’s mind. The altar in both cases is a box. Sacrifice is the remote control.
That’s highly Brodskian. The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind. There were certain cultures that decided they had to offer it in some way. It is not clear to whom, why, and how, but that was the idea. There are other cultures, like ours, where all this is considered entirely useless and obsolete. In the secular world, sacrifice shouldn’t have any meaning at all. At the same time, you realize that it does, because the word has remained very much in use. In discussions of the economy, analysts speak all the time of sacrifices, without realizing what is inside the word. Even in psychological terms, sacrifice is a most usual word. It is considered illegal—for instance, if one celebrated a sacrificial ritual in the middle of London or New York, he would do something illegal, he would be put in jail. Sacrifice is connected to destruction—that is an important thing and the most mysterious one. Why, in order to offer something, you must destroy it. These are the themes of the last part of L’ardore.
I think it [sacrifice] is also central for you. Why is sacrifice so important?
Maybe it’s simply because sacrifice brings us into dealings with the unknown. In the act of sacrifice, you establish a relation with something that you recognize as enigmatic and powerful. Our collective psyche seems to have lost touch with it, although science is providing countless motives for being overwhelmed by the unknown. The unknown itself is in our own mind as well—our mind is in its largest part totally unknown to us. Therefore, it is not only a relation to the exterior world, it is a relation to ourselves. We establish a connection with the unknown through the act of giving something and, paradoxically, the act of destroying something. That is what is behind sacrifice. What you offer and what you destroy, it is that surplus which is life itself. …
After The Marriage, with Ka, you moved from Western myth to Indian thought. How did this come about?
To me, very early on, the Vedic texts seemed to go beyond whatever else one may read on certain points. If you want to have an inkling about two essential words like consciousness and mind, you must look into these texts. You never find anything as enlightening anywhere else. … Everything hinges on consciousness. They brought consciousness to the center way before our scientists thirty years ago hailed it as a great new scientific theme.
During the lecture Calasso delved into several topics (sources, trends, implications, and blindness resulting) centered on his argument that society has become its own, last superstition…replacing the role of the gods with a belief in 'society.' This could have been a depressing talk, but Calasso’s approach provided a light touch on weighty subjects. He didn’t let sacred societies off the hook, either, noting they have been most dangerous when they attempt to be organic. It was here that he quoted Jacob Burckhardt’s analysis on Spartan power:
"Power can have a great mission on earth; for perhaps it is only on power, on a world protected by power, that superior civilizations can develop. But the power of Sparta seems to have come into being almost entirely for itself and for its own self-assertion, and its constant pathos was the enslavement of subject peoples and the extension of its own dominion as an end unto itself."
So does the sacred society believe in something beside itself? Unasked, but not necessary given the rest of his talk, was the question if the non-sacred (or experimental, as Calasso termed it) society believes in something beside itself.
So what were some of the takeaways from the lecture that stick with me? Being an awful note-taker, I'll say there were more interesting topics than I can mention here, but I’ll take a stab at some of the more important and amusing points.
- I *have* to read Calasso’s books. Many topics he raised felt like he was only scratching the surface of subjects he has gone into greater depth elsewhere.
- Calasso has a great sense of humor. His responses to many of the questions showed a light touch, even when sharper retorts would have been excused.
- Calasso framed his belief in the power of literature and ancient roots in this manner: “What describes consciousness better? The Upanishads? Or science?”
- (I wish I had his quote on this topic, but a paraphrase will have to do.) There is a balance between information and memory. Increasing information means less memory.
- ”Nietzsche is the axis around what [how] we think.” Calasso took great pains to point out that meant multiple lines of thought.
- Calasso puts great faith in the roots of belief, asking (rhetorically) about the roots for functioning in a sacred-based society vs. the roots for functioning in an experimental society.
- The literary references were fun to track in his lecture. While not a comprehensive list, I provide it as an indication on how fun it was to follow the tracks of the discussions: Homer, Sophocles, Nietzsche, Robert Musil, Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Burckhardt, Franz Kafka, James George Frazer, and Émile Durkheim. Talk about a rollercoaster of thoughts…
Well, I look back on this and it’s not a great summary of what was discussed, but I hope it conveys the breadth and depth of Roberto Calasso’s lecture. You’ll be hearing more about him here as I work through his books.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Ballantine Books (paperback, 277 pages)
I ‘ve rewritten a post on this book several times because I couldn’t get it right. This post doesn’t get it right either, but I want to pass some notes on this book because it has been an important book for us and our homeschooling efforts this year. While you’ve always heard that your mindset helps determine your success, this book spells out in more detail what that can mean, especially in conjunction with the messages you send your children / students / players / etc. and how it impacts their mindset. What’s also helpful are some of the actionable items (gack…business-speak! forgive me) that are easy to implement.
In short, the book has been transformational for us in our homeschooling, largely in part because of the timing of my reading it. We’re starting our third year of homeschooling and the difficulty of the first year or two of transition seems to have run its course. Dweck doesn’t pose the question directly in her discussion on different coaching / leading styles, but I will—would you rather be a coach / teacher like John Wooden or Bobby Knight? Those of you who know college basketball realize the question goes well beyond the number of NCAA championships and addresses the type of coach / leader / teacher you want to be…a chair-throwing perfectionist or a developer of talent and skills?
For me the challenge was how to take advantage of my boys’ natural love of learning and apply it in our homeschooling. The resistance to certain subjects, especially from one son, could be palpable at times. So what does Dweck mean by mindset and how it impacts us?
For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. (page 6)
On one hand there is the fixed mindset, incorporating the belief that qualities like intelligence are carved in stone and cannot be changed. The person tries to prove to everyone (including himself) that he isn’t deficient in basic characteristics. He tries to prove himself as smart or talented in an attempt to validate himself. Failure is a setback. Given this framework, effort can be a bad thing…it means you’re not naturally smart or talented.
Then there is a growth mindset: a belief that basic qualities or characteristics, including intelligence, can be developed and cultivated through effort. This person relishes challenges, wanting to stretch and develop. Failure provides a chance to learn. They believe effort is what makes them smart or talented.
Here are a few quotes that provided a nice framework for the ideas and what they mean:
- ”Actually, people with the fixed mindset expect ability to show up on its own, before any learning takes place. After all, if you have it you have it, and if you don’t you don’t.” (24)
- ”Even in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.” (33)
- ”John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.” (37)
- (After discussing stories like the tortoise and the hare and the little engine that could) “The problem was that these stories made it into an either—or. Either you have ability or you expend effort. And this is part of the fixed mindset. Effort is for those that don’t have the ability. People with the fixed mindset tell us, ‘If you have to work at something, you must not be good at it.’” (40)
Hopefully this gives you an overview of her approach and writing. There is power in our mindset—how we approach our challenges or goals will make a difference in whether or not we succeed. I want to focus more on Chapter 7: “Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where Do Mindsets Come From?” As Dweck points out, we don’t intentionally try to undermine our kids but the messages, however well meant, can subvert what we want them to achieve.
Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance. How can that be? Don’t children love to be praised?
Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for a moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. (175)
This doesn’t mean that successes can’t be praised. What it means is that the kind of praise should be monitored. Praise toward effort, study, and choices is good, while praise toward intelligence and talent can be subversive. There are other times praise sends a mixed message, especially when focusing on speed and perfection. How should failure be handled? In an era where self-esteem is to be valued above actual accomplishment, truth and honest constructive (helpful) criticism can be quite the shock to some people. Children learn not just from their results but also from the messages they receive about those results. As Dweck puts it, her book should help parents foster the kid’s learning through stoking the child’s interests and growths.
A central focus about intelligence in the book been is that the brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Use it or lose it. Again, nothing new here, but neurological studies over the past decade or so has shown how this is so. The second focus, and just as important as the first, is that your mindset is malleable. Small changes in communication with students / children / team can make a huge difference in how they respond. The one caveat is that you have to be honest—simply trying isn’t enough. Making an honest effort instead of just going through the motions is what should be rewarded or praised, although how analysis is framed proves to be important, too.
So what did we change? For starters I’m trying some new curricula, which has been a lot more fun for them. I think the most important part was a multi-day conversation at the start of the school year on what was expected of them as students and what they should expect from me as a teacher. We agreed on the methods I would use to challenge them to learn and they would agree to do their best…and we would help each other succeed in these goals. Our agreement covers three areas in more detail: what type of place the classroom will be, what they should expect from me as a teacher, and what I expect from them as students. We even came up with a hokey saying we put at the top of each day’s “learning list:” Today I will learn something new; today I will get better at what I do; today I will give my best effort.” To say that there has been an improvement in their mindset to the school day would be an understatement. Very highly recommended.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
I know this is last minute but if you have ever been interested in reading (or re-reading) Herodotus' The Histories, consider signing up for the Reading Odyssey's reading group beginning on September 17, 2014, and running through March 2015. I have participated in several of their reading groups and have found them extremely helpful and fun.
The Reading Odyssey's page
The sign-up page
My posts on Herodotus
Some online resources on Herodotus
I plan on re-reading The Landmark Series edition alongside the recent Tom Holland and Pamela Mensch translations. I guess there goes my (theoretical) spare time. But I can't think of a better way to spend it. Join us!
Monday, September 15, 2014
Onegin’s Tatiana Was Only Thirteen? points out the references to Tatiana's maid's age in reference to her own. Also telling is Pushkin's choice of words:
Pushkin uses the word otrokovitsa. This hard-to-pronounce Russian word is usually translated as maiden but in Pushkin’s time otrok (male) and otrokovitsa (female) referred to children from 7 to 15 years old.
The conclusion that she *could* have been only thirteen seems to be consistent with my memory of Eugene's on-again/off-again conscience and not wanting to betray her innocence. It is possible for a "superfluous man" to do the right thing, even with (or because of) Pushkin's irony.
My concern with this supposition, though, comes from the consistency with Russian societal norms of the time. Would girls of thirteen been allowed to dance with men (as she does on her name-day party)? But then for a work that examines art vs. real life, how much stock should you put in what was common at the time? Like I said, I'll need to revisit this soon. I'm interested to hear from others on Onegin's rejection.
Saturday, August 30, 2014
One curriculum that is definitely clicking this year is the Language Arts subject from Moving Beyond the Page. I'm using the Ages 10-12 package for the fifth grader and the Ages 8-10 package for the third grader and they seem to be a perfect fit. Based on an n of 1 for each package I can say I'm enjoying them as much as the boys.
The older boy finished reading The Wanderer by Sharon Creech, a story about 13-year-old Sophie, her cousins, and her uncles sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. Told through journal entries of Sophie and her cousin Cody, we saw the challenges they faced and their development from the experiences. One thing I liked in both workbooks was the book-long recording of a particular topic. For The Wanderer the focus was on Sophie's and Cody's character development during their journey. There were also a lot of other fun lessons focusing on storytelling, grammar, and writing. Then there were the subtle mysteries just below the surface, resolving nicely at the end of the story. I'd say this was appropriate for the fifth-grade level.
The variety of the lessons in the accompanying workbooks was the high point for us. Since I'm not using the other subjects I can't comment on how well the other curricula offered tie in with this subject, but it's apparent from the way they approach Language Arts (and the books selected) that there is a perfect opportunity to tie other subjects in with these books. A caveat: because I felt Language Arts was the area I didn't cover best with the boys last year I really wanted to focus on it this school year. While the Language Arts package appears to cover areas of the topic well (including grammar, spelling, etc.), I'm going to supplement the curriculum with another one. It has nothing to do with any perceived shortfall on MBtP but reflects the additional emphasis I'm placing on this subject this year. The cost of the packages can be pricey, but it's nice that there are several options based on whether you can provide the books yourself as well as choosing e-copies vs. physical workbooks. Also to keep in mind is that the pricing is for the full year. We've been very happy campers so far, admittedly early on, and plan to update and post on the books as we go along…especially since I'm looking forward to all the books we'll be reading together!
Monday, August 25, 2014
While we're in the middle of so many -ennials, such as the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I, I did want to pass on this article from Simithsonian.com about American artists sent to Europe by the War Department (as it was called then) to sketch a historical record of what was happening. While the artists were sent late in the war (coinciding with America's late entry), it "marked the first time that the U.S. government commissioned artists to capture a war effort." [A serious aside to the Smithsonian and other sites…don't make it so difficult to copy a short quote if you'd like an article to be shared.]
Other countries were already doing this, realizing this was a history-changing event. According to the article, the American sketches were much more documentary, though, compared to other artists' expressionistic works.
The American History Museum digitized the collection and a paperback version of Art from the Trenches: America’s Uniformed Artists in World War I by historian Alfred Cornebise will be released next month.
Date of work: September 26, 1918
Monday, August 04, 2014
In my post on Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal I mentioned that Jiří Menzel had directed a movie based on those stories set in the Kresko settlement of Bohemia. I finally watched a copy of the movie with English subtitles and I found it almost as much of a joy as the stories on which they were based. This is the third Menzel movie I've watched based on Hrabal's stories and I'm convinced they were a match made in celluloid heaven. Menzel captures the playfulness, ambiguity, and the subversiveness of Hrabal's writing.
Menzel includes many of the quirky people and situations populating Rambling on, capturing their traits and peculiarities making them memorable. For example, watching the farmer take his goats for a ride in his car provides the same smile, inside and out, as the reading provided. Menzel downplays the subversion in Hrabal's stories, probably a factor of filming in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s. Hrabal's chief of police dispenses arbitrary justice favoring his friends (and himself) while meddling in everyday affairs. While Menzel's characters distrust the police chief, he provides a calming effect on the populace, especially at a rowdy dinner party.
Even though the movie provides many laughs and smiles, a sadness permeates the bucolic setting. Like the stories, alcohol provides a social lubricant as well as an escape. Just what people are trying to escape isn't quite clear, amplifying Hrabal's ambiguous messages, although you wouldn't be far off the mark if you simply answered "their lives." While some things give these characters joy, many things drive their desire to escape, including family, work, government, opportunity, and materialism.
Similar to Hrabal's style, Menzel allows the quirkiness and banality of the residents to supply both beauty and humor. It's a dark humor, though, but one that celebrates the uniqueness of each character, breaking your heart while making you laugh. The central story for the movie is "The Feast," where competing hunting clubs argue over the right to feast on a wild boar shot in a local schoolroom. When you watch Menzel's version you'll agree with Hrabal's repeated admonition in the story that "you've never seen, nor could you have seen, the things I saw, we saw, the things that came to pass that time when a boar, a wild boar, got shot by us folk from Velenka inside the school at Přerov." Menzel combines "The Feast" with another story that marks a bittersweet turn to the drunken fight/feast.
I don't know where the movie was filmed but I seem to recall reading somewhere that the opening montage of local scenery was shot in and around Kresko (don't quote me on that, though), where Hrabal had a cottage he used when he wanted a break from Prague. Hrabal has a cameo in the movie, sitting on the porch of a pub with another patron, a pint of beer in front of him. I raised a glass to him while I was watching it and to the movie in general. Despite not displaying the full complexity of Hrabal's stories, Menzel does a wonderful job of adapting them to the screen. Very highly recommended.
Friday, August 01, 2014
I'll start with a wonderful site I've found regarding drawings by Benito Pérez Galdós. Dr. Michael A. Schnepf at the University of Alabama has a page on The Galdós Drawings. Dr. Schnepf
"has been studying the original manuscripts of Benito Pérez Galdós since 1987." According to The Galdós Drawings page, Galdós said that "Before literarily creating the characters of my works," he tells Carretero, "I draw them in pencil to have them before me as I speak of them." In some cases, the fascinating manuscripts housed in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid and the 'Galeradas' housed in the Casa-Museo Pérez Galdós in the Canary Islands have gone virtually unnoticed for more than a hundred years . Galdós scholars can now see many of these drawings for the first time on this web site.
While the drawings are great, the part I enjoyed the most was the section on the Galeradas, or proofs. They show a combination of corrections, doodles, and many side notes. A wonderful site for anyone interested in Galdós! As Dr. Schnepf put it in his kind reply to some of my questions, "The more people we have talking about Galdis, the better." Indeed!
Thursday, July 24, 2014
A Cordial of Sweet Cherries
After the elements are assembled—the work of 10 minutes—time alone creates this pretty cordial. It requires several months in the jar before it’s ready to enjoy; put everything together in midsummer, and well before the winter holidays the fragrant spirits will be ready to sip.
When the cordial has been drained off and bottled, more sugar and brandy can be added ot the fruit, now awesomely wrinkled, for a second go-round, as described in the recipe.
2 pounds firm-ripe medium-size cherries, dark or light
2 to 4 cups sugar, depending on sweetness desired
1 quart good-quality brandy
- 1. Rinse and drain the cherries and roll them on a towel to remove as much moisture as possible. Remove the stems.
- 2. Divide the cherries between two sterilized, dry quart jars (or use a half-gallon glass storage jar with a gasket and a clamped lid, if you prefer),
- 3. Divide the sugar between the two jars, using 2 cups if you are unsure how sweet you want the cordial to be (more can be added later). Add the brandy, which should cover the cherries and sugar generously. Cover the jars airtight and set them in a cool, preferably dark spot where you will remember to check them regularly.
- 4. Shake the jars every few days or at least once a week; the sugar will gradually dissolve as the cherry juices join the brandy in the syrup. When all the sugar has dissolved, taste the syrup and decide whether you want to add more sugar; if you do, this is the moment. If sugar is added, continue to shake the jars occasionally until it has all dissolved.
- 5. Leave the cherries in the brandy for a minimum of 3 months; 5 or 6 months is not too long.
- 6. Strain the cordial from the cherries and funnel it into clean, dry bottles. Cap or cork them (use new corks only) and store them out of light.
- 7. If you want to recycle the cherries, add to them half as much sugar and brandy as you used the first time and proceed as before. You may want to leave the cherries in this batch until time to pour the cordial in order to extract all possible flavor.
I like the results when I pit the cherries. Plus I use around 3 cups of sugar per batch, but be sure to adjust to your tastes. The picture below shows half-gallon jars (with a clamp closure). I've tried recycling the cherries, but I prefer letting them sit longer for their initial, and only use. Put it in the back of the pantry for five or six months and forget about it until it's ready to be strained at the end of the year!