Mesocosm

"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

Archive for May 2012

Arvo Pärt and György Ligeti

leave a comment »

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is perhaps best known for the beautiful, spare minimalism of pieces like “Spiegel im Spiegel”. He also makes a strong case for incorporating influences from pre-Baroque early music, echoing techniques of the old polyphonic masters with a novel sense of style.

One of my favorite works of his is a short composition called “Solfeggio,” after the pitch collection “Do Re Mi.” It’s deceptively simple in concept: a choir slowly sings the eponymous diatonic scale, arranged in different octaves. The effect, in the words of the composer, is rather like light passing into water.

 
Yesterday my friend Erik Davis called out an interesting review he wrote of György Ligeti’s Requiem, and it got me thinking about that interesting composer. Browsing around the internet I stumbled by chance onto Ligeti’s magnificent “Lux Aeterna,” which strikes me as being of a kind with Pärt’s “Solfeggio.”

 
This marvelous performance is found on the album Lux Aeterna by Capella Amsterdam, which includes other works by Ligetti in a similarly-subdued palette, as well as choral works by Robert Heppener. Highly recommended.

Written by Mesocosm

May 31, 2012 at 10:38 am

Ophelia

leave a comment »

The Melancholy Spring, Wilhelm Lachnit
photo (C) Barnaby Thieme

by Georg Heym, translated by Mesocosm

I

A nest of young water rats in her hair,
And ringed hands like fins
In the flood, so she pushes through the shadows
of the great forests that come to rest in water.

The last sun that stumbled into shadow
Sinks deep into the sanctuary of her brain.
Why did she die? Why does she drive,
so alone, in the waters that fern and leaf confound?

The wind stands in the deep reeds. It drives
The bats off like a hand.
With dark pinions, wet from water,
They stand like smoke in the dark waterway

Like clouds of night. A longer, wiser eel
Slips over her breast. A glowworm shines
From her brow. And a willow weeps
foliage on her silent agony.

II.

Grain. Seeds. And noon’s red sweat.
The field yellow wind sleeps quietly.
She comes, a bird who wants to sleep.
The swan’s wing covers her white.

The blue lids shadow gently down.
And by the scythes naked melodies
She dreams of a crimson kiss
The eternal dream in her eternal grave.

Gone, gone. Where the river bank roars
The sound of cities. Where the white river
is forced through dams. The reverberation is heard
With distant echoes. Where sounds below

Echo full of streets. Bells and chimes.
Screams of machines. Struggle. Where westward threatens
dull sunset in blind panes.
In which a crane with giant arms,

With black brow, a mighty tyrant
A juggernaut, so the black slaves kneel.
Burden heavy bridges, which draw above
like chains on the river, and hard spell.

Invisible she swims in the escort flood.
But where she drives past, the swarms of people pursue
With great wings of a dark grief,
Which cast shadows over both banks.

Gone, gone. As the darkness inaugurates
The westerly high summer day late,
Where in the dark green of the meadows stands
The distant evening’s delicate exhaustion.

The river carries them far away, the submerged,
Through some mourning port of winter.
Down from time. On through eternity,
which the horizon smokes like fire.

 
Georg Heym was an early Expressionist poet who spent much of his short life in Berlin. In 1912, he drowned in icy waters at the age of 24, while attempting to save a friend who had fallen through the ice.

Written by Mesocosm

May 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Heidelberg

leave a comment »

by Hölderlin, translated by Mesocosm

Heidelberg Castle

Long have I loved you – wanted, for my own delight,
  To call you mother, and to offer you an artless song,
    You, the loveliest town that I have seen
        in the fatherland.

As the bird of the wild flying over the summit
  Swings past the river where it glistens above you,
    So the bridges, light and strong,
       From which wagons and people resound.

As if sent by the gods, a spell on the bridge
  once held me where I went over,
    and the beautiful distances shone
      to me here, in the mountains,

And the child-river moves off the plain,
  Bittersweet, like a heart overcome
    by its own beauty, downfall-loving,
      casting itself into the flood of time.

To the fugitive, you gave wellsprings
  and cool shadows, and all the shores
    watched after him, and the scene
      Quivered from her image’s waves.

But hard in the valley hung the gigantic
  destiny-knowing castle, down to the ground
    Torn apart by the weather;
      Yet the eternal sun poured

Her rejuvenating light on the aging,
  Colossal image, and around the green,
    vital ivy, friendly forests
      rustled down over the castle.

Bushes were blooming down, to the edges where
  the serene valley leaned on the hills or held the bank
    Your friendly streets
      Rest below the fragrant gardens.
 
All images (c) Barnaby Thieme. Click any to enlarge.
 

Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg

Written by Mesocosm

May 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Epigram for Poetry

leave a comment »

by Heiner Müller, translated by Mesocosm

Pegasus served the brave and honest of the poets of old
Carried them wingedly away over the terrestrial dust.
Today, busy with making the earth more palatable,
we need poets who are earthly and mechanized.
But our poets – what do they do? Drag out the old,
reliable horse from the stable, where he fed on charity.
Before the fragile one, they span the fast-driving
                                                                    tractor,
The lame horse behind the fast vehicle.
And it does not bother them, if he stumbles and breaks a
                                                                    bone
Spending old moans for new songs.

For J. K.
Dogs value lamp posts as much as birches.
Not so, the poet — he holds to birches alone.

To be permitted, it is allowed, one must only be capable, wrote one who was able.
Could the gods do nothing, because they could not?

 
Comments

I looked at this poem in particular because I’ve been reading Heidegger’s rather profound interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymns recently. Hölderlin perhaps represents the pinnacle of the German nostalgia for classical Greek culture, which he depicted in his poems as a distant realm of the absolute spirit, a place where gods walked the earth.

Hölderlin contrasted Greece with the materialistic and systematic character of his own culture, and interpreted Greece’s power to inspire the German imagination as the pull of the dialectical contrary or antithesis. In a sense, he believed, the spiritual vitality of Greece belonged more to the people of Germany, who, in making the journey outside of their home to the place where spirit made unveiled, encountered that realm in a way that the Greeks could not.

It is interesting to compare that view of of classical Greece with another great German poet, Heiner Müller, who worked a century and a half later. If Hölderlin’s Germany was animated by questions implied by the dialectical idealism of his close friend Hegel, then Müller’s DDR was structured by its antithesis, Marx’s dialectical materialism.

In Müller’s poem we have a much more ambivalent and tragic view of Germany’s use of classical Greece. Instead of the acme of immortality, the lyricism classical culture embodies is intensely fragile, and its message is perhaps no longer audible over the roar of the engines.

Müller’s own work is very much involved with reconceptualizing Europe’s relationship to its own heritage – please see my post on his masterpiece The Hamlet Machine for more on that subject.

Written by Mesocosm

May 18, 2012 at 10:13 am

Intelligence Agency File Requests – Fractal Kitty Edition

leave a comment »

A couple of months ago I posted about the website GetMyFBIFile.com. They provide a handy form for generating requests to see whatever non-classified files various intelligence and policing agencies may have on you. I submitted requests to a number of agencies and have now gotten responses back. As promised, here are the results.

The most interesting thing that happened was that I sent six outgoing letters at once – five to different agencies, and my rent check. My rent check, for the first and only time in my rental history, arrived at the agency office more than a week late, without a postmark, and with a pen-drawn circle around the postage stamp.

Other than that, the responses are not terribly interesting – most agencies reported that they have no information on me, but if they did have information pertaining to an ongoing investigation, they would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such information. The NSA blew me off entirely, citing exemption from the disclosure rules I appealed to in my request.

I wasn’t just going to take their word for it, so I gave the various replies to my crack legal analyst for further evaluation. You may remember him from a previous post.

Fractal Kitty reviews my letter from NSA informing me that my FOIA request has been denied.

Fractal Kitty pores over the initial FBI response to my FOIA request, informing me that additional information is forthcoming.

Fractal Kitty reads the FBI’s denial they have files on me with arch skepticism, snorts, and makes a sarcastic observation.

Fractal Kitty has reviewed the DHS response to my FOIA request, and advises me to accept it at face value.

Fractal Kitty carefully evaluates my correspondence with the CIA. He says he thinks there are secret messages and warnings encoded in their boiler-plate response, and I’m not 100% sure that he’s joking.

Written by Mesocosm

May 17, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Politics

Tagged with , ,

Khan Academy

leave a comment »

The Khan Academy is a growing non-profit organization featuring a large collection of short instructional videos on a number of interesting topics. Their current emphasis is on science, math, and economics, but they do have some videos on topics in the humanities, and their Art History collection is particularly good. Here’s a sample video on the Babylonian Ishtar Gate on display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

I’ve been hearing about the Khan Academy from a couple of different vectors, in part because I see a growing interest in advanced or continuing education for adults outside of the academy. As I continue to contemplate a possible return to graduate school and weigh the downsides, I can certainly understand why. The Chronicle of Higher Education just published an article, for example, about a woman with a PhD in Medieval history who can’t make ends meet as an adjunct professor, and has turned to food stamps. Apparently, she’s not alone.

Written by Mesocosm

May 9, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Links

Tagged with ,

The Mythology of Star Wars

with 2 comments

Part of the greatness of the first Star Wars film lies in its sense of scope. Through a variety of storytelling devices, the film creates the constant sense that you’re seeing only one story in a galaxy of lives and adventures.

Like the Iliad, the movie dives into the story in medias res, in the middle of the action. The very first lines of the crawl text announce that the Rebels have just “won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire,” telling us in a single line who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and that the fight is already underway. It’s geniusy.

The shadow of the past looms over the action. When her ship is seized in the first scenes, Princess Leia offhandedly tells Darth Vader that the Imperial Senate will never stand for this assault, suggesting that the audience already knows about the governance of the galaxy. And, she tells us in sideways fashion, of course we already know the notorious Lord Vader – only he could be so bold.

Most of the history that we need to know is conveyed through indirect exposition of this kind. We learn along with Luke Skywalker about his father’s heroic career, and his tragic death at the hands of Lord Vader. The legendary sense of lineage informs Luke’s destiny, even as it implies the dangers that lie on the heroic path.

In The Empire Strikes Back, we learn the truth about Luke’s father, and that whole sense of past is upended. Luke has modeled his life on what he knows of his father. When he learns the truth, he also learns that greatest danger he faces is not physical death, but death of the soul – that he, like his father, will be swallowed by the machine.

This revelation carries all the more emotional power because over the last hour, we have watched him struggle with his training, tested by impatience and anger, failing one test after another in the swamps of Dagobah.

The original Star Wars trilogy – especially the first two truly great films – created a rich sense of world by holding back enough of the details to suggest that a lot more was happening just past the edge of the screen. What we don’t see invites the audience to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, and we actively participate in the storytelling.

I saw the first Star Wars when I was only five or six, but even at that age I formed a clear image in my mind of what Luke’s father was like, back when he was the best pilot in the galaxy, and how it went down with Darth Vader. Those impressions are as vivid for me now as my recollection of the films themselves. And, I daresay, considerably more impactful than the way that past was depicted in the prequel trilogy.

The tension that drives the story of the original Star Wars trilogy is that mixture of what we know and what we don’t know. Like a yin yang, the light is complemented by the dark, and the pervasive mystery enriches the story with the sense that hidden dimensions are at work. This tension comes to climax in the first film when Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice comes to Luke at a crucial moment, telling him to trust himself to the unknown, and turn off his targeting computer.

When I was a boy watching this film for the first time, my heart surged with ecstasy at that moment. I didn’t understand it, but somehow I knew old Ben was right – that was exactly what he should do. Then we get the big fireworks kerblooey, and the menacing death machine explodes, like the tight little circle of the ego erupting in a shower of light, and that terrifying threat evaporates.

One aspect of the story that fuels the imagination is the Jedi and the Force that they serve. We learn very little about the Jedi in the first trilogy, except that they are the guardians of justice and goodness. They utilize the Force, a mystical energy field that is somehow related to life itself, and they fight against the forces of destruction and domination in the universe.

The Jedi mythology Lucas suggests is conveyed through a handful of lines reflecting influences ranging from the Tao Te Ching to the Bhagavad Gita to Arthurian legend. Lucas was famously influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it’s worth noting that Campbell was not interested in theology, but mythology – that is, the stories that reflect and activate the spirit.

We learn nothing but fragments of the Force as a philosophy. It comes to life because it operates in a story that we recognize, the struggle of idealistic young underdogs against what Hunter Thompson called “the forces of Old and Evil.” It’s a story we can get excited about.

We know that the struggle between the Rebel forces and the Empire, for example, is a struggle between two visions of the world. We can either honor life and its mysteries, or we can try to control life with technology.

The battle of Star Wars is a choice between these visions. Although it’s set in the realm of the stars, it’s a battle of the soul, and it is ultimately decided in the field of the soul. The great victory of Return of the Jedi is not a military victory, but Luke’s decision not to fight, and what that decision means to his father, who had given up on himself long ago.

The Force, like the history of the galaxy, is given in fragments, and we’re invited to fill in the blanks with our own beliefs and commitments. It should therefore come as no surprise that some people have taken up the invitation, and attempted to formulate an active spiritual tradition based on the Star Wars mythology.

In the 2001 census, 0.8% of respondents of England and Wales reported their religious affiliation to be Jedi – more than Sikhism, Judaism, or Buddhism. While many of these reports were doubtlessly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, there are clearly some people who take “Jediism” very seriously.

Take, for example, the Church of Jediism, co-founded by Daniel Morgan Jones, a Welsh Star Wars fan born in 1986, after Return of the Jedi left the theaters. He has helped put together what appears to be a serious attempt to formulate a spiritual discipline based on the Star Wars model.

Browsing through Jones’s website, one comes upon the training manual for Jedi. For the most part, it comes across like a hybrid between personal spiritual musings and fan fiction. Its stylistic debt to role playing game manuals is reflected in suggestions like “For a person to operate coherently, an equal balance of the three should be 20% Good Energy (MC), 20% Bad Energy, and 60% Neutral Energy.”

I admit to a certain cynicism that keeps me at arm’s-length from the manual. My opinion is that the Star Wars films, powerful as they are, lack a coherent vision of the Jedi and their ways.

Beyond the general insights that the world is interconnected and alive, Lucas struggled to formulate a coherent vision for his Jedi. His failure to do so became distressingly evident in the prequel trilogy. In addition to its severe deficits on the story level, the morality tale depicting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker becomes increasingly incoherent and bizarre. Anakin’s terrible transgression was that he fell in love? His desire to save his wife drove him to murder very young children at the drop of a hat? The Force is caused by microscopic organisms?

The incoherence of Lucas’s vision suggests that the Force works best as a vaguely-defined device in a well-told story. There is not enough there to support a philosophy of any depth on its own. And what could Jedi training mean, assuming that we discount the possibility of telekinesis, levitation, or light saber training?

To answer that question I read further in Jones’s manual, and I was pleased to discover that the initial stages of Jedi training, at least, have a disarming good-heartedness. Whatever may or may not be found in the Force and its mythology, who can argue with practices such as these?

Day 1 – Make it your goal to learn something new today.
Day 3 – Today try a New food.
Day 4 – Make it your goal to shake some ones hand today.
Day 14 – Make it your goal not to have any conflict today think of something that makes you smile and keep out of any conflict or argument.
Day 16 – Do something that makes you laugh and do it more than once.
Day 21 – Make it your goal to help some one today.

Written by Mesocosm

May 4, 2012 at 10:54 am