Archive for January 2010

Beauty, by Roger Scruton

January 27, 2010

This exquisite little volume on esthetics marries form to function. The unusual octavo size, the glossy pages, the photos of examples discussed in the text make it a pleasant experience.

Scruton avoids saying what beauty is. Instead, he treats the phenomenology of beauty–human, natural, everyday, artistic beauty. He also examines beauty’s negative–pornography and kitsch. Titian’s Venus of Urbino is erotic; Boucher’s Blonde Odalisque is nearly pornographic. Murillo’s Immaculada approaches kitsch; today’s garden gnomes are the real thing.

Regietheater production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Berliner Komische Oper demonstrates the “flight from beauty.” To Scruton, the production’s deliberate shocking images, entirely at variance with the work itself, come from a childish abhorrence of the beautiful. For the same reason that children delight in loud burps and potty humor, the opera director imposes ugliness on a beautiful work out of fear of its real power. Scruton calls it desecration.

Throughout, Scruton defends a tradition of beauty and rationalism. Yet his view does not exclude Beaudelaire and Schoenberg. He explains:

“The modernists feared that the aesthetic endeavour would detach itself from the full artistic intention, and become empty, repetitious, mechanical and cliché-ridden. It was self-evident to Eliot, Matisse and Schoenberg that this was happening all around them, and they set out to protect an endangered aesthetic ideal from the corruptions of popular culture. This ideal had connected the pursuit of beauty with the impulse to consecrate human life and endow it with a more than worldly significance. In short, the modernists set out to reunite the artistic impulse with its underlying spiritual aim. Modernism was not conceived as a transgression but as a recuperation: an arduous path bacd to a hard-won inheritance of meaning, in which beauty would again be honoured, as the present symbol of transcendent values. This is not what we see in the consciously ‘transgressive’ and ‘challenging’ art of today, which exemplifies a flight from beauty, rather than a desire to recover it.”

Scruton may or may not be particularly original in this short book, but he lays out his esthetic with confidence. A list of some the images in the book give an idea of what he considers examples of beauty: S. Maria della Salute, St. Paul’s, a Palladian window, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Whistler’s Nocturne in Grey and Blue, Michelangelo’s Laurentian library, the Titian and Boucher, a golden Buddha, a table setting.

The book generally does not invoke other esthetic theorists in the text, but provides a section on Further Reading at the end. A lighter touch would have made the book more delightful. I missed Wilde.


The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories, by J.L. Heilbron

January 9, 2010

Astronomers who wanted to lay down a marker to watch the movement of the sun through the year needed a large, open, but secure space to do it. Cathedrals and other large churches answered the need. The author never explains how this got started, but from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, meridian lines were carefully laid down in churches. This required painstaking placement of a hole high in the wall to let in the sunlight, as well as exact placement of the meridian line. The traditional orientation of churches along an east-west line, with a north-south transept, had something to do with the choice of churches to house this work, though the churches were not built with astronomy in mind, at least not with making observations. Building a church to face the rising sun as an aspiration in worship would not quite meet the astronomer’s need for precision. The meridian line might have to run up a pillar. Meridians were placed in Rome and Venice, Padua and Milan, Paris and Marseilles. They can be seen today if you pay a visit.

For church purposes, the meridian lines helped in measuring the year to define movable feasts; identifying dawn, noon, and midnight, to fix the times of divine office and of feasting and fasting; and specifiying the occurrence of twilight. Civic purposes included regulation of clocks. For astronomers, the meridian lines could be used to measure the lengths of the day and the year; to measure the declination and apparent diameter of thee sun, the motion of the North Star; the obliquity of the ecliptic; the latitude; and the right ascension of stars and planets.

All this began around the time that Galileo was tried. The book is useful to show the Church’s sponsorship of real practical astronomy. Until the nineteenth century, Italians set their watches by the sound of the church bell. The book ranges all over the place–from the change in the calendar, fixing the date of Easter, developments in telescopes, and the standardization of clocks and time zones. There is a great deal of math in the text that belongs in appendices. There are some color photos as well as old drawings and diagrams to illustrate the meridian lines.

Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company: Two Novellas by Steve Martin

January 1, 2010

Steve Martin has written screenplays (L.A. Story, Roxanne) and short stories. Under consideration in this review are two novellas.

A novella is the tween of fiction–neither a short story nor a novel, but having some qualities of each. It’s more complex than a short story and goes on longer to its conclusion. It’s shorter than a novel, as we’ve come to expect novels to be. Few writers can really pull off the novella, certainly in English. It is difficult to think of someone who really got it right. The Bertie and Jeeves novels by Wodehouse probably qualify; Joyce’s “The Dead,” the last entry in Dubliners, arguably is a novella-length short story. And so we are used to novel-length novels–anything shorter seems underdone. Maybe a novella is just a novel that the writer couldn’t quite flesh out.

Imagine Sister Carrie in Los Angeles c. 2000, at about 20 percent of the length of Dreiser, and you have Shopgirl. Mirabella works at the glove counter at Neiman Marcus, where she is discovered/preyed upon one day by the millionaire businessman (his business is never specified) Mr. Ray Porter. She wants someone to take her away from it all; he, twice her age, wants a delightful little thing to pass the time with. The plot recalls the film Pretty Woman, but with Richard Gere as he is now, and Julia Roberts as she was then–and without the Disney/Touchstone certainty of an eventual happy ending.

The novella dwells too much on intimate details, but it would have been even shorter without them, and thus a short story. Mirabella gets the most extensive character treatment; Ray Porter is a blank. Her parents have a few brief scenes and are stock figures–her father is a scarred Vietnam veteran, for goodness’ sake. This was one of the only real fits of laziness in Martin’s effort. Unlike Sister Carrie, it ends happily enough, as life comes back in a circle for Mirabella and she finds (rediscovers) the right man.

The Pleasure of My Company, on the other hand, is clearly a comic effort. It is told by Daniel Cambridge, who is either a genius or borderline mentally disabled. He sits in his apartment in Santa Monica all day, watching the world outside his window. He is obsessive-compulsive; he won’t step over a curb and so is limited in where he can walk by fortuitous driveways, which allow him to cross the street. Daniel finds himself getting involved with the social worker, Clarissa, who comes to see him, even though he had longingly desired the local realtor, Elizabeth, and the pharmacy clerk at Rite Aid. He does well in an essay contest in which he writes about being “the most average American”; on a lark, he writes two essays, and places in the contest under both his own name and the alias. Daniel’s grandmother in Texas supports him with regular checks. When she dies, Daniel and Clarissa go on a road trip to the homestead. His middle name is Pecan.

The narration recalls Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a memoir as told by someone with flat emotional responses. Only at the end do you find out that she was a clone. Daniel Cambridge’s true status never really is clarified. He mentions at the beginning that his application for Mensa was rejected and that his test clearly was scored wrong. You’re supposed to laugh at his presumption, since he is obviously so clueless, but at the end, he is told by Mensa that they had made a mistake after all. Martin cleverly lets Daniel’s actual performance remain a mystery.

The book is written without chapters, though there are odd little squiggles at various points to break up the text. It is impossible to tell whether any hierarchy is involved. There is extra space between the paragraphs, plainly in an effort to pad the book out to a respectable length.

Both these books are set in the shallow soil of Los Angeles, where no one is native and everyone is in need of a real connection. Both protagonists are from other, realer places: Vermont in Shopgirl; Texas in Company. Martin is probably being unfair to L.A., though others have had that reaction. He does not work hard enough, though, at showing the realness of life in the other states. They exist only to have a real place to go home to on a visit. Los Angeles is where the exciting living is done.