Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Liberalism the wind, conservatism the ballast

In the six years I have been writing this blog I have assiduously avoided politics. Certainly I have greatly widened the scope of topics since Science Musings retired from the Globe, but politics has been a no-no. Lord knows there are enough places on the web to wax political.

Still, I'm sure readers have intuited my political stance, and, if pressed, I will confess to being a dyed-in-the-wool progressive.


I was raised in a conservative part of the South. My parents were not particularly political; at least they didn't talk much about it. My family was Roman Catholic, a religion not known for progressivism. My education was conservative. By most measures I should lean to the right.

It's true I live in Massachusetts, a traditional bastion of liberalism. But I came here from conservative Tennessee and Indiana precisely because of my admiration for a progressivism that went all the way back to Emerson and Thoreau.

Could I have been born a leftie?
Liberal streaks run deep, a new genetic study suggests. James Fowler, a social networks researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues looked at whether 2574 American teenagers harbored copies of a variant of a dopamine receptor gene, known as DRD4-R7, that has been associated with novelty seeking. The team found that teens with the variant were significantly more likely than others to describe themselves as liberal -- but only if they also had many friends. Loners were just as conservative as teens without the novelty-seeking variant. The team looked for DRD4-R7 because liberals "tend to be more progressive and more receptive to new ideas," Fowler explains. They were surprised to find that friends were a mediating factor, Fowler says. But without friends, "you might spend your time seeking new foods or new experiences" rather than other points of view. "This is a solid and intriguing paper that could spark lots of future work," says sociologist James Moody of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. But he cautions that it's also "clearly a first-step paper." Fowler agrees that more work is needed. Still, "it's easy to see there are political personalities," he says. And if genes can influence personalities, they might also influence politics. (Science, 5 November, 2010)
So, is DRD4-R7 lurking in my genome? Is my proudly-worn badge of liberalism really just a matter of neurotransmitters? Is it all about an inborn predilection for novelty?

It's pretty generally acknowledged that artists and scholars tend to be liberal, and they are primarily defined by novelty-seeking. That should be the researchers' next step: Do artists have a greater prevalence of the dopamine receptor gene variant than the general population?

We should take all of this stuff with a hefty grain of salt, but I don't doubt for a moment that much of what we consider to be personality has a genetic component. As sequencing becomes ever cheaper, and genomes are ever more widely sampled, expect more research like the study noted above. In the meantime, let's not talk politics here. You can address any political questions to my DRD4-R7.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The life of the boy

While I had my Fabre in hand, I read again his recollection of the pond of his childhood, from his book The Life of the Fly. Allow me to quote at length; it's worth it:
The pond, the delight of my early childhood, is still a sight whereof my old eyes never tire. What animation in that verdant world! On the warm mud of the edges, the Frog's little Tadpole basks and frisks in its black legions; down in the water, the orange- bellied Newt steers his way slowly with the broad rudder of his flat tail; among the reeds are stationed the flotillas of the Caddis-worms, half-protruding from their tubes, which are now a tiny bit of stick and again a turret of little shells.

In the deep places, the Water-beetle dives, carrying with him his reserves of breath: an air-bubble at the tip of the wing-cases and, under the chest, a film of gas that gleams like a silver breastplate; on the surface, the ballet those shimmering pearls, the Whirligigs, turns and twists about; hard by there skims the insubmersible troop of the Pond-skaters, who glide along with side-strokes similar to those which the cobbler makes when sewing.

Here are the Water-boatmen, who swim on their backs with two oars spread cross-wise, and the flat Water-scorpions; here, squalidly clad in mud, is the grub of the largest of our Dragon-flies, so curious because of its manner of progression: it fills its hinder-parts, a yawning funnel, with water, spirts it out again and advances just so far as the recoil of its hydraulic cannon.

The Molluscs abound, a peaceful tribe. At the bottom, the plump River-snails discreetly raise their lid, opening ever so little the shutters of their dwelling; on the level of the water, in the glades of the aquatic garden, the Pond-snails -- Physa, Limnaea and Planorbis -- take the air. Dark Leeches writhe upon their prey, a chunk of Earth-worm; thousands of tiny, reddish grubs, future Mosquitoes, go spinning around and twist and curve like so many graceful Dolphins.

Yes, a stagnant pool, though but a few feet wide, hatched by the sun, is an Immense world, an inexhaustible mine of observation to the studious man and a marvel to the child who, tired of his paper boat, diverts his eyes and thoughts a little with what Is happening in the water. Let me tell what I remember of my first pond, at a time when Ideas began to dawn in my seven-year-old brain.
Every child should have a pond. I had one, in the woods at the bottom of the hill behind our house in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Not a big pond. It must have been created artificially when the land was agricultural, but now, as the suburbs encroached, it had reverted to a kind of wildness that was adequate to excite the imagination of a seven-year-old boy and his chums. We made our wobbly rafts and set out on the short voyage from shore to shore. I won't pretend to have been awakened to nature to the extent that gave direction and purpose to Fabre's life, but the teeming mud and frog spawn and alga slime certainly entered my bloodstream. We collected crayfish and yellow-bellied newts and painted turtles, and always watched out for the deadly cottonmouth that never appeared. What animation in that verdant world!

Gone now, the pond. Filled in for house lots, the feeding stream channeled through buried conduits. No pond or ditch for the seven-year-olds who grow up there today. Those boys and girls are no doubt affixed to their Xboxes, living in a vicarious world of someone else's imagination.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


A repeat pic of Anne's from several years ago. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Here I am, run wild, and I shall be so till the end"

A few more words about J. Henri Fabre.

His works are voluminous, and my college library has a representative sample. As I take down those century-old translations today I see my name filling the old check-out cards in the back pockets. I apparently read a lot of Fabre as a young man. Not that I was particularly interested in insects. I was interested in learning how to see. And how to describe what I saw. Fabre was a master.

The best selected introduction to Fabre's work these days is Edwin Way Teale's The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, a selection of his writing, with a photo on the cover of the master's laboratory, preserved today as a museum as Fabre left it, like Darwin's study in England.

Fabre's life was rather more stressed than Darwin's, at least as far as finances were concerned. At age eighteen, in 1842, he began to earn his living as a schoolteacher, his meager salary often in arrears. In 1852 he became a professor at the Lycee of Avignon, where he labored for eighteen years at a salary that never increased in all that time, spending his few personal hours in the study of insects. In 1870 he was dismissed -- and denounced from the pulpit -- for admitting girls to his science class.

Now began a long hard struggle to support his family with his pen, all the while pursuing his great life's work in isolation from the professional scientific establishment. One by one, his classic books on the lives of insects were issued to little attention.

Finally, in his mid-eighties, Fabre was discovered by the literary and scientific establishments, and showered by international acclaim, scientific awards, a generous government pension, and the laboratory instruments he had never been able to afford. Edwin Way Teale writes of the old man, as he neared his nineties, "His sense of wonder outlived his sense of sight; his interest and enthusiasm outlasted his strength."

May we all be so generously blessed with wonder and delight.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pitching one's mansion in the place of excrement

Stephan Pastis's comic Pearls Before Swine had a couple of strips recently about Donny the Dung Beetle. The gist of which was: If you think you have problems, Donny has it worse. (Click to enlarge.)

Which reminded me of an episode in J. Henri Fabre's book The Sacred Beetle and Others, published in English in 1918.

I've written about dung beetles before, and about Fabre. Fabre was the Homer of the insect world. He spent his life studying insects, and wrote about them in a series of books that are as delightful to read today as a century ago -- full of experiment and close observation, described with a flair worthy of a poet. And still in print.

For his studies on dung beetles he bribed neighborhood children with lollipops to bring him cow pats. And he watched, long and patiently, as the beetles excavated the precious ordure from the pat and molded it into balls, which they then pushed backwards away to a place of security where the ball would be buried as a well-provisioned pantry for the owner or his progeny.

And often, as he rolled his ball along, another beetle would sometimes ride along on top of the ball, waiting for an opportunity to purloin the nutritious sphere, thus avoiding the drudgery of making a ball of his own.

And now comes the experiment I have in mind, in which Fabre sought to test cooperation between a ball's lawful owner and the potential usurper.

Fabre fixed the ball to the ground with a long straight pin, the head of which was embedded in the dung.

The pusher fruitlessly pushes. He walks three times around the ball seeking an obstruction. Finding nothing, he tries pushing again. To no avail.

He looks on top. Nothing but the interloper.

"Now is the time, the very time, to claim assistance," writes Fabre, "which is all the easier as his mate is there, close at hand, squatting on the summit of the ball." At last, after much pushing and bumping, the thief-in-waiting comes down to help. After all, it's his problem too.

Together, they start exploring under the ball, and soon find the pin. No fools these, they dig themselves under the ball and start heaving. Up. Up. Pushing the dung-ball up the pin. Standing on their fore-legs, pushing with the rear legs. Up. Up. Until -- voila! -- the ball drops off the pin.

The rolling resumes.

But the thief-in-waiting, having deigned to help, climbs back aboard, waiting for the hard work to be completed before he makes his felonious move.

I've always loved the image of the infinitely curious Fabre down on his knees, watching this drama of his own contrivance. And one can't help but feel a pang of sympathy for Donny the Dung Beetle, having to put up with entomologists with pins as well as false mates and natural obstacles.

The next time you are inclined to whine about your travails, keep Donny in mind.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


A Thanksgiving Day "thank you" from me and Anne to the hundreds of people around the world who visit here every day, and especially to those of you who have introduced yourselves in Comments and made yourselves comfortable on the Porch. Your presence is a blessing. Click Anne's pic to enlarge.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I passed a kid on the campus yesterday with a tee shirt that said: "If it's too loud, you're too old."

Well, there you have it.

Yes, it's too loud. The television. The traffic. The neighbor's leaf blower. The music. The national discourse.

And I'm too old. Tending towards silence. OK, maybe Elvis singing Love Me Tender just loud enough to dance to in the kitchen. Maybe a Chopin nocturne late at night, pianissimo.

The range of audibility of the human ear can be represented as a graph of sound intensity versus frequency. The lower boundary of the range is the threshold of hearing: for example, at a frequency of 256 vibrations per second (middle-C on the musical scale), a sound must have a intensity level of about 20 decibels (the loudness of rustling leaves) to be heard at all. The upper limit of the range of audibility is the threshold of pain. At the frequency of middle-C the limit of pain has an intensity level of about 130 decibels, slightly less than the sound of a leaf blower at close range.

I like to think of the graph of human audibility as a blank canvas upon which the world paints with sound. For example, the shrill double-note of the blue jay (three-tiered in frequency, at 3000, 2000, and 1000 vibrations per second, repeated twice) and the cacophonous caw of the crow (between 1000 and 2000 vibrations per second) add dollops of color to the canvas in the mid-decibel range. The chickadee's call is more sharply defined in frequency (at about 2800 vibrations per second), but can range widely in loudness depending on the distance of the bird. The nuthatch fills in the low-decibel part of the graph with its tap-tap-tap and a loudness in a conifer forest just above the threshold of hearing. There are other natural sounds that can only be heard in the complete absence of noise: the papery shiver of beech leaves on their branches, the ethereal whir of mourning doves rising from the ground, the rattle of the seedpods of wild indigo when stirred by the wind.

A blank canvas, waiting for the delicate brushstrokes.

The seedpods of wild indigo stirred by the wind.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One simple wish

Let me share a poem, an early work of the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, called "Our Lady of Ardboe." I would post it here in its entirety, but that may not be legit. You can find it on the web, or, better, buy the whole shebang. Muldoon was in his mid-twenties when he wrote the poem, in 1977, making his way in a craft that would eventually take him to the very top of the game.

The poem has three parts. The first, in six lines, evokes a moment both secular and holy. A girl at the half-door of an Irish cottage looks out upon a field of thistles, gorse and cattle. "She stood there as in Bethlehem/ One night in nineteen fifty-three or four." Perhaps it is his mother the poet imagines, or perhaps his friend Seamus Heaney's wife who came from Ardboe; at the very least the date provides a rhyme. The cattle kneel, a characteristic behavior that seems to have had a prayerful significance in Irish Catholic lore, evoking the reverence that even dumb animals expressed in the stable on the first Christmas. Watching the cattle, the girl kneels too, an act of apparently spontaneous piety.

Both secular and holy. In the rural Catholic environment in which Muldoon grew up I would suppose that there was not much space between secular and holy. Everything, even kneeling cattle, possessed a sacramental significance, a transparency that let the divine shine through. The whole of the natural world was charged with the ancient drama of sin and salvation.

In the second part of the poem, a sonnet, the poet gives the girl her due. "Who's to know what's knowable?" he asks. "Milk from the Virgin Mother's breast,/ A feather off the Holy Ghost?/ The fairy thorn? The holy well?" Catholicism, fairy faith: Who's to say? We all wish that there be more to life than "a job, a car, a house, a wife --/ The fixity of running water." The girl at the door makes her poetry out of what she has been given, those intimations of transcendence that reason calls superstition.

The third part of the poem, again a sestet, begins with a partial recital of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, something familiar to all of us of a certain age who grew up in the Catholic faith. "Mother of our Creator, Mother of our Saviour, Mother most amiable, etc." Here, I think, the poet is evoking both the young woman at the door and the Catholicism of his youth. Then, the final cryptic couplet:
And I walk waist-deep among the purple and golds
With one arm as long as the other.
The purple and gold are easy enough; we are back -- waist deep -- in the thistle and gorse. "One arm as long as the other"? What can the poet mean? I suspect he is walking away from the mumbled litany and bent knee of rural Catholic Ireland into his own university world of secular poetry in the language of Homer and Heaney, a new kind of litany in which kneeling cattle evoke not Bethlehem but the girl at the door who thinks of Bethlehem and who might, "as well as the next" -- one arm as long as the other -- "unravel/ The winding road to Christ's navel."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cosmic view

When writing about Philip and Phylis Morrison's Powers of Ten the other day I found I had made the following notation in the flyleaf, perhaps a dozen or more years ago:
32 volumes
1000 pages per vol
1200 words per page
5 letters/wd
=200 million letters
So, 200 million letters in the 32 volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Why was I making that estimate?

I can think of several possibilities. Perhaps…

1. I was making a comparison with the number of nucleotide pairs in the human DNA; that is, the number of steps -- ATTGCCCTAA, etc. -- on the double-helix. If the information on the human genome -- an arm's length of DNA in every human cell -- were written out in ordinary type, it would fill 15 sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nearly 500 thick volumes of information labeled YOU.

Think of that for a moment. Fifteen 32-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica in every invisibly-small cell of your body. And every time a cell reproduces, all of that information has to be transcribed correctly.

Did I say the other day that it took a semester to stretch the imagination to grasp the universe of the galaxies? It could take another semester to stretch the imagination to grasp the scale of the molecular machinery that makes our bodies work.

Or maybe…

2. I was trying to give an insight into the complexity of the human brain. There are something like 100 billion nerve cells in the brain. That's equivalent to the number of letters in 500 sets of the Britannica! Each many-fingered neuron connects to hundreds of other neurons, and each synaptic connection might be in one of many levels of excitation. I'll let you calculate the number of potential states of the human brain. We've left behind the realm of Britannica. Even talking of libraries would be insufficient.

I was marveling here recently about the amount of digital memory Google must command to store all of those 360-degree Street View images from all over the planet, all of it instantly retrievable by anyone with access to a computer and the internet. I imagined banks and banks of electronics in some cavernous building in California. Big deal! I'm sitting here right now in the college Commons and I can bring to mind street views of every place I've lived since I was three or four years old.

By the way…

3. The number of letters in 500 sets of the Britannica is about the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.


Sunday, November 21, 2010


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday offering.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Picnic in the park

Here's the photo that is the starting point of the Eames movie Powers of Ten and the Morrison book of the same title: A couple picnicking in the park opposite the Field Museum of Natural History and Soldier's Field on the Chicago lake shore. Click to enlarge.

When was the photo taken?

The movie is dated 1977. It was based on an earlier 1968 film called A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with Powers of Ten. Was the photo part of the earlier film, which I have never seen?

I recognize the book with the clock face by the man's hand; it is the volume called Time in the Time-Life Books Science Series, to which my new and growing family subscribed in the 1960s. This volume was published in 1966. The other book, The Voices of Time, I don't recognize, but easy to track down on Amazon. It's the book edited by J. T. Fraser and subtitled "A comprehensive survey of man's views of time as understood and described by the sciences and the humanities," also published in 1966. The date is consistent with the earlier film.

But wait. We also have copies of Science and Scientific American at the man's shoulder. The title header on Science is too modern for the 1960s. And the photograph on the cover is powerfully suggestive of the surface of Mars. The Viking 1 Lander reached the Martian surface on June 19, 1976. Viking 2 touched down on September 3 of the same year.

The picnic photo has north at the top, so from the shadows we are near mid-day. An estimate of the angle of the shadow (I used the fellow's head), together with Chicago's latitude (42 degrees), indicates the photo was taken late-August-ish. So, to the on-line archive of Science. We are looking at the issue for 22 August 1976, showing on the cover stereographic images of Mars' surface made with the two lander cameras. That issue of Science was packed with Viking science. I remember it well. It was a thrilling time.

Easy now to track down the issue of Scientific American: September 1976, a special issue on food and agriculture. The cover image is a Landstat 2 photo of the Imperial Valley on the border of California and Mexico, made from an altitude of 570 miles. The first Landstat satellite was launched in 1972. Landstat 2 was launched in January 1975 and operated until 1981. Ah, those were glory days of space science. And the glory days of Scientific American too, with Martin Gardner conducting his feature on Mathematical Games and the book reviews in the always engaging hands of Philip Morrison.

So our picnic is late August 1976. America has just celebrated its Bicentennial. Gerald Ford is President and edges out Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Jimmy Carter has been nominated by the Democrats. The Summer Olympics in Montreal are concluded. The Viking Landers are looking for life on Mars.

And I have just wasted an hour of a lovely afternoon. Thanks, Tom.

Goodbye to Brian Marsden, keeper of the skies.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Coming of age in the Milky Way

Tom emailed me this link to a nifty interactive scale of the universe.

This sent me to the back room upstairs to see if I could find the granddaddy of scales of the universe, Kees Boeke's delightful little book from 1957, Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps. I don't remember exactly when I obtained my copy, but it can't have been long after it first appeared in English. And, yes, here it is, coffee-stained, dog-eared, frazzled from use.

The book begins with a picture of a girl sitting in a deck chair in the courtyard of the alternative school established by Boeke in the Dutch village of Bilthoven. A succession of drawings zooms out by 26 orders of magnitude to a view that includes the most distant visible galaxies, then zooms in by 13 orders of magnitude to the nucleus of an atom. The book has an Introduction by the eminent physicist Arthur Compton.

Boeke was an interesting fellow -- a pacifist, a Quaker missionary, and an innovative educational reformer. Cosmic View had its origin as a classroom project. He writes in the Foreward:
We tend to forget how vast are the ranges of existing reality which our eyes cannot directly see, and our attitudes may become narrow and provincial. We need to develop a wider outlook, to see ourselves in our relative position in the great and mysterious universe in which we have been born and live…It is therefore important in our education to find the means of developing a wider and more connected view of our world and a truly cosmic view of the universe and our place in it.
Boeke took his students on a cosmic adventure, engaging them as much as possible in working out the details. His book has inspired numerous imitations, most notably Charles and Ray Eames' film Powers of Ten (1977, watchable on YouTube) and Philip and Phylis Morrison's book elaboration of the film, Powers of Ten: About the Relative Sizes of Things in the Universe (1982). For years I used the Morrison book as a supplementary text for my general studies course The Universe. It is the best one-volume introduction to science I know of. I'd tell my students: Don't think of this book as a text to resell at the end of the semester; think of it as a first element of a family library for your children and grandchildren.

My course The Universe pretty much recapitulated the outward half of Boeke's journey. We began with the first step of a walk with a surveyor of the Pharaoh from Alexandria to Syene, down the valley of the Nile, then in just about 26 lectures traveled outward to the Big Bang, discovering how distances were measured every step of the way, with exercises that let the students play with real data. When we got to the Hubble Deep Field Photograph at the end of the course, I like to think they had stretched their imaginations to the point where they knew what they were looking at.

Thanks, Kees Boeke. You never knew me, but I was one of your students.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Anne has been bugging me to pay more attention to my bugs.

Hey, wait. I know they are there. I've written about them.

By some estimates, there is a kilogram's worth of bacteria in my gut. A kilogram! Commensal, they are called -- eating at the same table. That's a lot of bugs.

Like everyone else, I was born pristine. Just me, myself and I. But no sooner did I poke my nose into the world than bacteria, fungi and viruses started colonizing my nooks and crannies, like the colonization of a new island arisen from the sea. It's called the human microbiome. Wave after wave of pioneers entered my body by every access.

Everyone has a gut full of bugs and Anne is convinced they are doing more than sharing a table. Maybe they are even -- gasp! --affecting my thoughts.

Can she be right?

By now you may have heard about experiments with fruit flies by researchers at Tel Aviv University. By diet and a judicious use of antibiotics, they showed that gut bacteria had an effect on the sexual preference of their hosts. Flies with bacteria of a predominant strain somehow made their host prefer mates with the same strain of gut residents. Smell is the presumed mechanism by which a fly advertises a particular microbiome.

So, dear sister, what should I conclude? Is the secret to a happy marriage sharing the same bugs? Did I detect in my spouse a certain cooling of affection several years ago when I went on a month-long course of antibiotics to rid my body of Lyme disease -- and heaven knows what else? Are my own gut bacteria frustrated in their forlorn attempt to manipulate my sexual preference by my lack of a sense of smell? Is that attractive woman who batted her eyes at me the yesterday attracted to my bacteria? Gee, and I thought it was my dashing good looks.

It is now possible to transplant an entire digestive track into someone whose system has been ruined by disease. It used to be that the physicians first flushed the new track clean of microorganisms before transplanting, then relied on recolonization. Now it is apparently standard practice to leave in place the microbiome that came from the donor. A transplanted gut and transplanted bugs. Someone else's bugs.

And when the patient comes home from hospital to his waiting mate...
The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


There can hardly be anything better established and more widely accepted by scientists than that humans evolved from "less advanced" life forms over millions of years. Yet almost half of Americans believe that humans in their present form were created especially by God sometime in the last 10,000 years. A 2006 summary of polls in 34 developed countries showed only one -- Turkey -- with a lower rate of acceptance of human evolution.

A new poll on creationism by Angus Reid Public Opinion compares Americans to Canadians and Britons. The results are striking. Only 16 percent of Britons believe in a recent special creation of humans compared to 47 percent of Americans. Three times fewer! Twenty-four percent of Canadians are special creationists, half that of Americans.

How is one to understand these astonishing statistics? Is there something in the drinking water that makes Americans more susceptible to religious myth? Are we smarter? Dumber? Better educated? Less well educated? Or is it that Americans have generally been raised to believe in their specialness, their superiority among the nations of the Earth, their particular favor in the eyes of God? Does it all go back to the Shining City on the Hill, the new Eden established by righteous European Christians who were led by God to a New Promised Land and sustained there by his divine providence?

Take a look at Adam and Eve at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Yes, exactly. Americans. Right off the cover of People Magazine. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. Not only did God create humans "in their present form" sometime during the past 10,000 years; he created them in OUR form -- white, Christian, middle-class, heterosexual, with a swimming pool in the backyard. Not only are we unrelated to chimpanzees; we are also elevated above all those folks of alien ethnicity and false religion who we want to keep beyond our borders.

Adam and Eve in the water-lily pool are the first chapter of the narrative of divinely-ordained American exceptionalism that we learned in school.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Into great silence

Why would sane men want to live on a bleak, storm-swept ocean rock, in tiny hovels without a hint of creature comfort? Christian eremetic monasticism began in Egypt in the 3rd and 4th centuries. It was soon transported to Italy and Gaul by Athanasius, Cassian, and others. Patrick and Columba brought it to Ireland, then Scotland in the 5th century. The Skellig Michael community was probably established in the 7th century. By then Irish monks had carried the monastic ideal back to central Europe, in full flower.

A life as spare as that on the Skellig was certainly not typical. Only the holiest or craziest of monks would seek such isolation. By and large, medieval monastic establishments were places of great physical beauty, and, for their times, oases of security and comfort.

Which reminds me of the Plan of St. Gall.

This is a 9th-century drawing of an idealized monastic establishment preserved in the library of the former monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland. I became acquainted with it in the early 1980s when our college library acquired the magnificent three-volume study of the plan by Walter Horn and Ernest Born, published by the University of California Press in 1979. I have just trundled down to the other end of the stacks to see if it is still here, and indeed it is. Oops, there goes the afternoon.

Not just three volumes, but three gorgeous over-sized doorstop volumes printed in red and black on high quality stock, with hundreds of exquisite drawings, detailing the Plan of St. Gall itself, but also providing a historian's best guess as to every architectural and technological feature of a typical 9th-century European monastic establishment. Don't go rushing to Amazon to buy a copy; it appears to be out of print, and a used copy will set you back hundreds of dollars.

The abbey church, of course, with sacristy, vestry, scriptorium, library, and various lodgings for master, porter, and visitors. Monks' dormitory and privy, laundry and bathhouse, refectory, kitchen, larder and wine cellar. Physician's quarters, infirmary, and house for bloodletting. Goose house, hen house, and stables for horses, sheep, goats, cows, swine. Granary, vegetable garden, medicinal herb garden. Mill, kiln, and workshops for coopers, wheelwrights, and brewers. And at the very heart of the complex, the cloister, a place of reflection, private prayer and repose.

A completely self-sufficient community, an eco-friendly way-stop on the road to heaven.

And beyond the walls -- brigands, wolves, grinding poverty, hunger.

Who wouldn't be attracted to such a life?

Hmmm? Where two or more humans are gathered together there's sure to be squabbling. Put two or more sex-starved men together and I would suppose you have a surefire recipe for crankiness and aggression.

Still, the beauty of the architecture, the liturgy, the chant. The opportunity for scholarship. The certainty of faith. Release from the niggling "mundanities" of life in the hardscrabble world. I will admit to being attracted to the monastic ideal in my youth, when I still believed. I am still attracted.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Living in the sacred

A friend just gave me an essay by Laurence Freeman from the English Catholic journal The Tablet describing a trip to Skellig Michael. He knows of my own affection for that extraordinary place -- a small, precipitous island nine miles off the western tip of County Kerry in Ireland. My visit there -- a day alone on the island, years ago -- is the basis for a chapter in my Honey From Stone, and is a prominent setting for my novel In the Falcon's Claw: A Novel of the Year 1000.

We look out on the Skellig from our cottage in Ireland. It rises from the sea like a jagged tooth, 700 feet high. Access to the island is only possible on a reasonably calm day. There is a lighthouse, now automated. The real attraction is the well-preserved early medieval monastery -- a handful of terraces and corbelled "beehive" dwellings that cling to the cliff like a seabird's nest, that housed maybe a dozen monks. It is a mystical, magical place that never fails to impress the brave pilgrim who makes the sea voyage and scales the 500 hair-raising steps cut into the steep face of the rock.

What would possess men to live in such a place? asks Freeman, as does almost every visitor to the Skellig. His answer: "Either they were crazy sociophobes, or they had found something and came to this lonely place to be with it more fully. Most likely they had already fallen in love with the one love you never fall out of."

My novel asks this question too, and tries to enter enough into the mindset of 10th-century Irish Christians to provide a reasonable answer. Yes, there was probably some craziness involved, at least by our definition of sanity, and also love -- love of the unfathomable mystery that abides in wind and water, stone and stars, sunlight on the sea and the itch of flesh.

"We filter out the blinding light of the sacred with mundanities," writes Freeman, in a memorable sentence. I'll vouch for this: There are no "mundanities" on the Skellig. Even taking a breath is fraught. And that, perhaps more than anything, may be why they were there.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Former studio

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The house of intellect

I was surprised to read the other day that Jacques Barzun is still alive, at age 102, with a birthday coming up soon.

For those of us who embarked upon the academic life in the 1950s-60s, Barzun was a presiding inspiration. His books Teacher in America and The House of Intellect were eagerly devoured guides to our new life, and Science: The Glorious Entertainment rattled the sureties of those of us who had chosen science for a career.

Intellectually, Barzun was all over the place, a polymath, a gadfly, with an opinion about everything, some of which made sense to me, others of which seemed merely petulant. The main thing I learned from his books is that science and the arts are mutually diminished by isolation. Every human activity is best understood when considered in the richest possible context. The house of intellect has many rooms but one foundation, and one roof covers them all.

Unfortunately, this was not a recipe for success as a physicist, which required -- at least for the average intellect -- going narrow and deep. Which pretty much explains why I had no sooner garnered my Ph.D. in physics than I began to drift to the broad and shallow end of the pool. I was interested in connections, and connections inevitably draw one to writing. I think it was Susan Sontag who said the great thing about being a writer is that nothing is irrelevant.

The thousand essays I published in the Boston Globe (the original "Science Musings") were all about dragging science kicking and screaming into the house of intellect, and introducing the reluctant newcomer to the sometimes unwelcoming inmates. That is to say, the essays were all about taking what was happening in science and weaving it into culture at large.

What science learns about the world enhances our understanding of who we are, where we came from, and why we are here, and the scientific way of knowing holds in check our inclination to mistake wishful thinking for reality. In the house of intellect science is the gal or guy who takes out the garbage, fixes the leaky sink, and mows the lawn.

But who wants to be a drudge, chasing the squirrels out of the eaves, never having fun? The arts provide the beer and pizza, bang out jolly tunes on the upright piano, make sure there's always something interesting to read in the basket next to the loo, and stand ready to fall in love with whoever needs a snuggle. The arts remind us of why we do science and art -- why we choose to live in the house of intellect.

That's what Barzun has spent his life doing, in dozens of books and hundreds of essays: Reminding us of the value of the examined life. He spent the latter part of his 80s on his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, a sprawling, idiosyncratic rumble through history that has something to please and annoy almost everyone. For all of the grim realities of the present, I believe we are better off than he gives us credit for, but I have nothing but admiration for a guy who can command such resources at so advanced an age.

Happy 103th Birthday, Jacques, and may you have many happy returns.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hopkins, redux

When my mother died five years ago at age 92 it fell on me to say a few words at her funeral. I chose to read a poem that I knew to be one of her favorites, from the anthology of Victorian poetry that she had used as a student at the University of Chattanooga, the Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, dedicated "to Christ our Lord."
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
I knew the congregation might not grasp the significance of the poem -- I'm not sure I fully understand it myself -- but the beauty of the words would be a kind of hymn for someone who loved words all her life.

It was brief, and it captured something of the essence of her life.

Her head was always in the clouds, soaring with the falcon, riding the gusts and swells up there above the mundane circumstances of her life. Her books were her wings. Even into her final weeks she could recite poems she had committed to memory as a student. But it was sheer plod that gave the shine to her life, the buckling down, the heart in hiding. And, oh, yes, she kept it hidden; she was not one to readily demonstrate emotion.

There was no wonder in it. No magic. No supernatural grace. Something lovelier, more natural, more dangerous. Sheer plod. Sheer plod. That lets the blade turn the furrow, heaping up the moist, wet, fertile soil, shining, shining.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours

I have often written here before about the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. How could I not be drawn into his orbit? A very Catholic poet. Catholic in temperament, in his sacramental attachment to nature, in his intuition of "inscape." It was this that no doubt drew him to the Church.

His God showed himself everywhere, flashing out of a leaf or hill or starscape "like shining from shook foil." But his was a silent God, who revealed himself teasingly in shimmers of radiance, then retreated into a cold aloofness. Oh, how Hopkins wanted assurance, to put his hand into the wound, to be relieved of his aching existential loneliness.

He needed a lover, God or man.
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
Who has ever written a more heartrending evocation of the night terrors that come to everyone who seeks the unseekable, who loves the elusive, who longs for the unapproachable lover's touch?

I will leave it to others more knowledgeable than me to decide if Hopkins was clinically bipolar. I think he was just a lonely introspective genius with an abiding sense of the mystery of things, who was prevented by his own scrupulosities (and British law) from acting on his homoerotic impulses. He gambled that God would provide a solace for his loneliness, only to discover that the Creator of the Universe makes an unresponsive bedfellow.

Like John Donne before him, Hopkins plowed the ground between the sacred and the profane. He was not as successful as Donne at keeping those two balls in the air at the same time. Donne, at least, had no reluctance to act on his erotic inclinations.

The tragedy of Hopkins is that his deepest intuitions were that the sacred and profane are one, but he was never able to reconcile them in his own mind, no doubt because of the fierce strain of philosophical dualism in Catholic Christianity -- natural/supernatural, matter/spirit, body/soul -- a bipolar theology that tore his soul apart.

Hopkins was a religious naturalist caught in a transcendent deity's terrifying grip. "God's most deep decree/ Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Beauty bare -- Part 2

"Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare," wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. Well, maybe so, maybe not. Surely beauty is not confined to mathematics. But, yes, upon completing Book One of Elements I had the sensation of having been released "from dusty bondage into luminous air." And that was long ago when I was a young man.

Not everyone looking at Elements will see the beauty. It is a kind of deductive beauty that only reveals itself to the initiated. But there is another proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, sometimes (perhaps erroneously) attributed to Pythagoras himself, several centuries before Euclid, that has about it such a spare simplicity that even the mathematically unpracticed can feel she is in the presence of something fine and beautiful.

Here it is, in two big panels I made many long years ago -- nearly 40 years ago, I suppose -- and that for a while were hanging in my living room, then in my office at the college. When I was about to toss them out they were rescued by a friend, and so I am able to photograph them now.

I will leave it to the reader to grasp the proof (four identical right triangles and the square on the hypotenuse equals the same four triangles and the squares on the other two sides).

It is unlikely that Pythagoras and his students were the first to see the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem, but they certainly knew they were looking at something that connected mysteriously and profoundly to the order of the cosmos. They made a religion of what Keats would later proclaim: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Beauty bare -- Part 1

If there is a sacred scripture of science it is surely Euclid's Elements. The book (actually 13 "books") has been continuously "in print" since it was written in about 300 B.C., in Alexandria, Egypt. For over two thousand years it was the standard text from which students of mathematics and the exact sciences learned the ropes. Even today it is the basis for every high-school geometry text.

I can't say that I have read all 13 books. At one time I did work my way step-by-step through Book One, using Thomas Heath's profusely annotated edition. It was an exhilarating experience, and a masterful illustration of what rigorous thinking is all about.

Euclid begins with definitions of a point, a line, and so on.

Then he offers 5 Common Notions and 5 Postulates, all of which he assumes the reader will accept as self-evidently true.

For example:

Common Notion 1: Things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.

Postulate 1: One may draw a straight line from any point to any other point.

Postulate 3: One may describe a circle with any center and any radius.

Basic stuff, really. Who's to quibble?

Now the fun begins, as Euclid deduces Propositions from his first principles.

For example, his first Proposition is to construct an equilateral triangle on a given straight line, for which he evokes Common Notion 1 and Postulates 1 and 3.

And on he goes, building a magnificent compilation of Propositions on what has gone before. Proposition 9: To bisect a given triangle. Proposition 37: Triangles on the same base and in the same parallels have equal areas. And so on.

As I worked my way through the book, I kept track of the logic. Here is a diagram I drew at the time showing the pathway to Proposition 47, the Pythagorean Theorem (the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides). Click to enlarge.

The Pythagorean Theorem is by no means self-evidently true, but its truth is hidden in the self-evidently true Common Notions and Postulates, to be revealed by logical thinking.

If the Elements is the sacred scriptures of science, it is not because of its particular contents of propositions, but as a model for a way of thinking -- a way of thinking that has guided us into the universe of the DNA and the galaxies, and out of the gabble and hiss of parochial prejudice. In effect, Euclid is saying: "Here is a way, a truth, and a light."

Tomorrow: Another avenue to the Pythagorean Theorem and some thoughts on truth and beauty.

My daughter Mo and daughter-in-law Patty were recently in Alexandria, walking the streets walked by Euclid, and were honored with a personal tour through the new Alexandrian Library, once the greatest library in the world. You can see some of her photos here.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Goodbye to night

I think it was about 1966-67 that the college acquired its first telescope. We built a modest waist-high shed with a roll-top roof in a dark field, as far away from campus buildings as we could get. The scope was a six-inch Celestron reflector. I spent many lovely nights in that cold dark field with students, scanning the sky for faint nebulae.

When a wing was added to the old science building in the 1970s, the college sprang for a craftily engineered connecting link with two real observatory domes on the roof. The larger dome contained a computer controlled 14-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain. We also had a nearby darkroom, and my colleague Mike did some nice astrophotography with students.

But the college was growing by leaps and bounds, and ambient light increasingly became a problem. We tried to work around it with filters and so on, but year by year those elusive Messier objects faded into a sky that could no longer be called night. The time when a student would gasp an "Ooooh!" on seeing the Ring Nebula had passed. Even naked-eye star talks on the roof deck were hopeless.

In my book Skeptics and True Believers, I wrote about the 1996 apparition of Comet Hyakutake:
Best of all was the evening of April 3, when we forsook the observatory for a broad dark field where we watched the Moon rise in full eclipse, a spooky pink pearl. The comet was in the northwest, showing a degree or two of tail. Venus had joined the Pleiades, a blazing beacon. Meteors streaked the firmament. I was with a group of young people, students at the college. I was impressed by their reverence, wonder, worship even -- and especially by their intense desire to know. I described the physics of cometary motion and produced a three-dimensional model of the orbit I had previously constructed. We talked about the chemistry of comets and the chemistry of life. Knowledge, wonder, and celebration played off one another in perfect harmony. I thought: How sad that such experiences are not part of our formal religious traditions. It was at that moment, in that field, watching that comet, that I decided to write this book.
All that seems rather quaint now, as the campus sits in a pool of artificial light.

For a while we envied the radio astronomers, who weren't bothered by artificial light, or even daylight. Not anymore, the envy that is. An article in the October 22 issue of Science accounts the woes of radio astronomers coping with an explosion of radio frequency interference from cell phones, mobile wireless devices, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, satellite radio channels like XM and Sirius, GPS systems, airplanes, satellites, and so on. We live in a bath of radiation that makes the planet increasingly blind to the cosmos.

It's hard to find a college student these days who has a memory of having seen the Milky Way. That seems terribly sad, I suppose. But then they have access to a spectacular array of cosmic imagery from telescopes in space -- the Hubble, for instance -- that observe the sky in every part of the electromagnetic spectrum, from long-wavelength radio to gamma-ray. Stuff that sets the imagination alight and vastly broadens the intellectual horizon.

Does the new imagery compensate for the visceral, toe-curling thrill of standing with friends in a cold dark field watching a streaming comet welcome a moon rising in full eclipse?

Sunday, November 07, 2010


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday musing.

And a commercial. It's not too soon to order the perfect holiday gift, the exquisite matched set of The Soul of the Night and Honey From Stone, illustrated by Michael McCurdy and Bob O'Cathail respectively.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

In the eye of the beholder?

Professor Geerat (Gary) Vermeij is an eminent evolutionary biologist and paleontologist at the University of California, Davis. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton and received his Ph.D. from Yale. He has received a coveted MacArthur "genius" award and other prestigious fellowships, He has served as editor of his field's foremost journals, Paleobiology and Evolution, authored several important scientific books as well as hundreds of research papers, and done field research on beaches and shorelines around the world. It is probably fair to say he knows as much about mollusks, living and extinct, as anyone.

I have just read his autobiography, Privileged Hands (1997). It is as good a portrait of the scientific life as I have read. If one wanted to know how scientific curiosity can drive -- and fulfill -- a life, I can think of no better recommended reading. A good scientist and a good man.

And here's the kicker: Vermeij is blind. Totally. He was born -- in the Netherlands -- with an unusual form of childhood glaucoma and lived with pain and impaired vision from the day of his birth. At the age of three his eyes were surgically removed.

For those of us who are sighted, it is almost impossible to imagine being blind. In her book A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman grounds vision in the dynamics of predator and prey. She writes: "Though most of us don't hunt, our eyes are still the great monopolists of our senses. To taste or touch your enemy or your food, you have to be unnervingly close to it. To smell or hear it, you can risk being farther off. But vision can rush through the fields and up the mountains, travel across time, country, and parsecs of outer space, and collect bushel baskets of information as it goes."

In his blindness, it was perhaps inevitable that Geerat Vermeij would focus on something like mollusks. His fingers do the seeing. Insects are too small (and too fragile?) for finger pads and nails to discern scientifically important features. Mammals are too large (and mobile) to submit to tactile scrutiny. But shelled creatures reveal every detail of shape and surface to Vermeij's "privileged" touch, even details that sometimes escape a sighted investigator.

What, I wonder, of beauty? I would have liked to have heard more from Vermeij about how beauty manifests itself to the sightless. I suppose this is because I sometimes wonder how (and if) my own perception of beauty is diminished by my lifelong lack of a sense of smell. I look, for example, at John William Waterhouse's painting My Sweet Rose and revel in the lush visual beauty of Pre-Raphaelite art, and wonder to what extent another person's esthetic response to the painting is enhanced by the remembered scent of a rose. Clearly, smells can be pleasant or unpleasant, but are they "beautiful"? A "beautiful" touch? A "beautiful" taste? Is beauty primarily visual and auditory?

I wonder what empirical research has been done on the sense syngery of our perception of beauty, something more experiment-based than, say, John Berger's work on vision and art, perhaps involving brain scans?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Given sugar, given salt

I want to go back once more to the poet Jane Hirshfield, to a poem called "Great Powers Once Raged Through Your Body," from her collection Given Sugar, Given Salt."

What remains? she asks.
A few words, your own or others'.
A freshened affection for silence and rest;
but also for lightning and wind,
familiar to you now as your own coat or shoes.
Ah, yes. Is the poet talking about herself? She is too young -- mid-fifties, at the peak of her powers -- to be asking for silence and rest, an affection more appropriate to my age cohort.

Raging powers, indeed. All a fading memory now. The world is simplified. Many things are reduced to few. Things that were once taken for granted now seem precious.
Chair, table, dishcloth, bowl --
each thing under your hand or your eyes
you regard now as ally, as friend.
Raging tamed to ritual. Each thing finds its rhythm, and keeps to it. The chair has its own time. The dishcloth its place. The great stir that was a font of creativity is quietened, the fires banked.
And yet this hard-won composure
feels already a little simple, a little meek --
like a painting
of yellow houses or fields, before
the narrow slashes of red have been riveted in.
That last image seems terribly familiar. I have no idea what painting, if any, the poet has in mind, but I think of Edward Hopper's Corn Hill: Truro, Cape Cod (1930), those yellow fields and the yellow houses in the high distance, silent, aloof. The weatherbeaten simplicity of it. The slant of light, the pooled dark. Morning? Evening? It's the same, really. And now I wait, for the slash of red.

(Click pic to enlarge. BTW, Corn Hill (the place) had a cameo role to play in American history.)

Thursday, November 04, 2010


Check out this APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) of the region of the sky around the constellation Orion (click to enlarge). The bright red star Betelgeuse, hot blue Rigel, Bellatrix, Saiph, and the three stars of the Hunter's belt are familiar to even a casual stargazer. These bright stars and glowing clouds of (mostly) hydrogen gas are relatively close, just 1500 or so light-years away, in our own arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Most of what we see in this photograph is invisible to the unaided eye, and for most of human history we had no idea such wonders existed. Other than the bright stars, the only thing the eye can detect is a glowing smudge in the Hunter's sword, the Great Orion Nebula, M42. The Englishman William Derham, who wrote on cosmology in the early 18th century, believed the glow was an opening in the celestial sphere through which we observe the radiance of God.

A peek-hole in the all-enclosing Celestial Sphere, through which we view the Elysian Fields.

Ah, the Elysian Fields, place of blessedness, eternal happiness, where ripe fruit always hangs low on the trees, balmy weather kissed by zephyrs, lovely youths (including you and me) flitting in diaphanous garb to the piping of flutes. Where boys pile new plums and pears/ On disregarded plates. The maidens taste/ And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

The oldest dream of humankind, so old that we are not even sure of the origin of the word Elysian. To be sure, we Catholic youths were not explicitly offered the hanging fruit and piping flutes, but the Beatific Vision was supposed to make up for those more corporeal pleasures, a Divine Visage so beautiful that we would spend an eternity gazing upon it without getting bored.

I'll take the fruit and flutes.

In the meantime, you want a Beatific Vision, try this APOD.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Poste instante

My daughter was recently in Cappadocia. She was there once before when we were in Turkey for the total solar eclipse of 2006. This time she had the chance to see the extraordinary -- and as far as I know unique -- geology from above, from the basket of a hot air balloon.

Many of these soft volcanic rock towers have been hollowed out for a variety of purposes, including exquisitely decorated churches from early in the Christian era. Mo stayed in a hotel that had been cut from the rock.

This is part of a month-long adventure that takes her and my daughter-in-law from Italy to Cappadocia to Istanbul to Alexandria to Giza and up the Nile. And as the two gals have their fun, we get to follow via Mo's photographs posted on the web.

And it's this that I want to comment on here. She is travelling with her iPad. Even an eight-room hotel carved out of the rock in Cappadocia has Wi-Fi. A far cry from the days we travelled abroad using Poste Restante to -- if we were lucky -- get a letter from home. No restante these days. It's poste instante, and it's free.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Art and democracy -- Part 2

Was Tocqueville's initial diagnosis correct? Is art in a democracy doomed to kitsch? The Card Trick has a democratic sweetness about it, and Brown's paintings of street urchins were popular with the masses, but by the general consensus of critics they never rose to high art. Are the critics snobs, cultural aristocrats? Or, to succeed, do artists necessarily have to remove themselves from the hoi polloi, not necessarily into a Sargent-Chase upper-class drawing room, but at least into a bohemian aloofness?

In spite of his doubts, Tocqueville held out hope for the arts in America: "Among a democratic people poetry will not be fed with legends or the memorials of old traditions…All these resources fail him; but Man remains, and the poet needs no more…[Man himself], with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness, will become the chief, if not the sole, theme of poetry among these [democratic] nations."

Art in a democracy, and especially in America, I would suggest, derives its unique energy from a negotiation between high academic art and street kitsch, finding a home somewhere between William Merritt Chase and John George Brown -- that is to say, somewhere between Chase's matchless aristocratic taste and Brown's redeeming eye for "rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness" -- a political negotiation that gave us such quintessentially American artists as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Art and democracy -- a reprise (november 2010)

We've seen this painting here before, William Merritt Chase's Ringtoss (1896). Well, no, we haven't. But it is certainly evocative of Charles Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit that I commented on earlier this year. The resemblance may not be accidental; Chase may have been influenced by the Sargent painting, which was made about four years earlier. (Click to enlarge.)

Right now I want to contrast the Chase painting with John George Brown's The Card Trick, from about the same era. The two paintings were part of an exhibition last year at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, called American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915.

They could not be further apart in style and subject.

There can be no question about which painting I like best. Ringtoss works in a number of ways. The composition is riveting. The contrast of the crisp peg and quoits in the foreground with the more impressionistic young ladies sends the eye spiraling through the air along with the quoits. The coloring is exquisite. The black toe touching the chalk line on the hardwood floor draws the viewer inexorably into the scene.

The Card Trick is pure kitsch, although impressive in its photorealism.

In Ringtoss we see the rather aristocratic daughters of the aristocratic painter, trying to entertain themselves in their splendid isolation. In The Card Trick we have four street urchins -- bootblacks -- engaging in streetwise smarts.

Drawing room elitism versus curbside democracy. Nineteenth-century European class-consciousness versus the American melting pot.

In an essay on culture in poetry, former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky draws our attention to some observations of Alexis de Tocqueville earlier in the 19th century. "Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests -- in one word, so anti-poetic -- as the life of man in the United States," wrote the aristocratic Frenchman in Democracy in America. The arts in Europe drew upon a rich classical tradition, legends of gods and heroes, larger-than-life themes that lifted men up and out of the ordinary. What, Tocqueville wondered, would inspire poetry "when skepticism had depopulated heaven, and the progress of equality had reduced each individual to smaller and better-known proportions"?

Was Tocqueville's initial diagnosis correct? Is art in a democracy doomed to kitsch? The Card Trick has a democratic sweetness about it, and Brown's paintings of street urchins were popular with the masses, but by the general consensus of critics they never rose to high art. Are the critics snobs, cultural aristocrats? Or, to succeed, do artists necessarily have to remove themselves from the hoi polloi, not necessarily into a Sargent-Chase upper-class drawing room, but at least into a bohemian aloofness?

In spite of his doubts, Tocqueville held out hope for the arts in America: "Among a democratic people poetry will not be fed with legends or the memorials of old traditions…All these resources fail him; but Man remains, and the poet needs no more…[Man himself], with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness, will become the chief, if not the sole, theme of poetry among these [democratic] nations."

Art in a democracy, and especially in America, I would suggest, derives its unique energy from a negotiation between high academic art and street kitsch, finding a home somewhere between William Merritt Chase and John George Brown -- that is to say, somewhere between Chase's matchless aristocratic taste and Brown's redeeming eye for "rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness" -- a political negotiation that gave us such quintessentially American artists as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth.