The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus Volume LIII

Published 11 months ago • 31 min read

Areopagus Volume LIII

Welcome one and all to the fifty third volume of the Areopagus, coming to you this week on the final day of June — a day falling slowly but surely, as these very words are written, into night. To Rupert Brooke we turn, then, once called the "handsomest young man in England", and a poet treated altogether unfairly by posterity, to set the tone for us:

Void now and tenebrous,
The grey sands curve before me. . . .
From the inland meadows,
Fragrant of June and clover, floats the dark, and fills
The hollow sea's dead face with little creeping shadows,
And the white silence brims the hollow of the hills.

These lines come from a poem called Day That I Have Loved, written in those strange and fateful years just before the First World War changed everything that was and everything to be thereafter. Is it not the law of all things, Change? Perhaps, perhaps not. Alack, let us yet make hay while the sun shines; another instalment of the Areopagus is yours. Avanti!

I - Classical Music

Two Performances of Francesca da Rimini

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1876)

Illustration of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta in the Lovers' Whirlwind by William Blake

This week's opening chapter isn't so much about a single piece as about classical music more generally. One of the first things you'll notice with classical music is that there are usually several different versions of any given piece. Just search for, say, Dvořák's Slavonic Dances (or any relatively well-known symphony, concerto, prelude, sonata etc.; Dvořák is just an example) on YouTube, Spotify, or anywhere else, and you'll find at least a dozen different recordings. Well... why? And does it make any difference which one you listen to?

We are accustomed to popular music, whereby a song is recorded in a studio by the singer or band in question and subsequently released in a singular, authoritative version. But in classical music there is no such thing as a "definitive" version. The music exists on the sheet, as it was written by the composer, and any recording we hear is merely an interpretation of that music. That being said, there are sometimes alternative versions in popular music: radio edits, extended cuts, live recordings, or instrumental takes. And then there are covers. Take Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, which must be one of the most covered songs in history. Indeed, it is far better known by the covers of John Cale in 1991 (used in the film Shrek) and of Jeff Buckley in 1994. Does the cover analogy work for classical music, then? Not quite. A "cover" suggests deference to or variation from an "original", but there is no original version of, say, Beethoven's 5th Symphony. All recordings are equal in classical music, then: there are neither originals nor covers.

Here's another question: what's the point of all these different recordings of classical music? In other words, we are asking whether the particular conductor, orchestra, or musicians make any difference to the music we hear. That is a question with a straightforward answer: yes. Think about it. No two humans play the same instrument in the same way. So when a small group of violinists play a piece of Viennese chamber music, say, it is a simple law of nature that the music will sound different every time, even when played by the same musicians, never mind different musicians using different instruments! And the same is true of every choir or orchestra, not to mention how the location of a particular recording (in a church, studio, opera house, or outside) affects acoustics, and that is before we even consider intentional differences in how a piece of music is played. One small but crucial example is whether or not, when playing older pieces of music, the ensemble uses modern or contemporary tuning for their instruments. And this is also where, perhaps, that mysterious but ubiquitous presence — the conductor — comes into play. The conductor is the unifying figure of an orchestral performance. They do not just set and keep the tempo; they embody the music and convey to the musicians how each of its notes ought to be played.

You can perform this experiment for yourself, of course, by choosing any piece of classical music and listening to different recordings of it. Sometimes the differences won't be immediately obvious, though on repeat listens you may notice the variations in tempo or texture, in the particular instruments that come through more strongly, and in the feel of the piece. At other times it can almost sound like an entirely different piece of music! Here, then, to display just how much of a difference there can exist between recordings — whether because of incidental or intentional changes, whether by the players or the conductor — I have included excerpts from two versions of Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, a symphonic poem based on the story of those adulterous lovers, Paolo Malatesta and the eponymous Francesca, as told in Dante's Divine Comedy. Both versions come from 1993. The first was performed by the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy; the second was performed by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. In both cases they are playing the same part of Francesca da Rimini.* And now, over to you... is there any difference?

*If the video doesn't play then you can find both of these performances on YouTube

II - Historical Figure


The Voice of Freedom

You may recall that I have written before about Demosthenes in the Rhetoric section of this newsletter; he was regarded in his lifetime as a masterful speaker and for centuries thereafter as the greatest of all ancient orators, Greek or Roman. But now is the time, I think, to tell his story in full, so that we can put a face to his name, so to speak, and perhaps even place the notion of rhetoric in its proper context. Where shall we start? Cometh the hour, cometh the man. So the saying goes. We cannot quite say that about Demosthenes, however. He was an Ancient Greek from Athens who lived in the 4th century BC and dominated the politics of his city. And yet it was during his lifetime that the famous Athenian democracy finally came to an end. But this story begins a little further north...

When a young man called Philip became king of Macedonia in 359 BC it seemed unlikely that he would even be able to retain the throne, never mind achieve much as a ruler. The nation was under threat from all sides: the Illyrians in the west, the Thracians in the north, and the Greek city states in the south. He had little money, a disorganised military, and a thoroughly despondent, politically divided nation on his hands. But Philip was no ordinary king: he was an inspired general and strategist, a supremely perceptive political operator and diplomat, and a highly effective reformer. In other words, this was one of history’s greatest ever leaders.

Over the course of a twenty three year reign Philip turned the weak and largely irrelevant Kingdom of Macedon into the foremost power in the region. Through a mixture of military conquest and masterful geopolitics, including dubious peace treaties and underhand bargains, along with the wit and intelligence and vision to genuinely inspire his own people and draw many Greeks honestly to his cause, Philip expanded his kingdom from a small area around Pella, the Macedonian capital (just below MACEDON on this map) to most of Greece and surrounding parts of southeastern Europe. He united the majority of the Greek cities into a sort of alliance known as the League of Corinth, of which he was in charge, and turned Thrace into a client kingdom.

However, this map cannot convey how much wealthier and better run the kingdom had become, nor how Philip had reorganised his armies and created the famous, fearsome Macedonian Phalanx, which was almost undefeatable on the battlefield for over a century — that is, until the Roman Legions came along. Philip's son, Alexander the Great, has far oustripped his fame. But everything Alexander accomplished was built on the solid foundations established by his father. Indeed, when Philip was assassinated by a fame-seeking bodyguard in 336 BC he was actually preparing to undertake the very conquest of the Persian Empire which would later be accomplished by his son, and it was Philip's phalanxes that, notwithstanding Alexander's own strategic genius, helped him crush the Persians and conquer his way to India.

But why all this talk about Philip? Because he was the most important man of his age — and Demosthenes was his greatest opponent. Not on the battlefield, for Demosthenes wasn't much of a soldier. But in the geopolitical arena, and in the hearts and minds of the Greeks, there was no one who resisted more fiercely the rise of this Macedonian king nor defended so unrelentingly the independence of his people.

Demosthenes was born in 384 BC. And, so Plutarch tell us, he was the son of a cutler (i.e. somebody who produces and sells cutlery) and a woman descended from the Scythians (the nomads who lived in modern-day Ukraine and the countries between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea). He was dogged throughout his life by abuse, whether as a child or in the Assembly, for both of these facts. Demosthenes' father died when he was only young, and though he was left a sizeable inheritance it was embezzled and stolen by those appointed to act as guardians for the boy. Add to all this that he was a sickly child, faint of character and weak of voice, and one could hardly have predicted that he would rise to the very top. Demosthenes' story, then, is something of an underdog overcoming the odds.

On one occasion in his youth Demosthenes was taken to the Athenian Assembly and there witnessed a trial in which Callistratus, a general and leading politician of the day, took part. This Callistratus was a fine orator and he won the case, much to the admiration of the crowds; he was treated to applause, adulation, and all the trappings of popular acclaim and glory. This inspired the boy. He would not be a solider; it was with the power of words that he would change his life. Demosthenes thus trained himself to become a better speaker, and reportedly spent all his time in the study of great speeches and the methods of rhetoric, partly modelling himself on Pericles, the foremost Athenian politician of the 5th century BC. And so it was through force of will, not due to natural talent, that Demosthenes made a name for himself. His first challenge was to win back his inheritance. So Demosthenes took his guardians to court and successfully argued that they had failed in their duties by stealing his father's money. Though he received little of the inheritance he was rightfully due, Demosthenes had cut his oratorical teeth in the courts and taken his first steps toward public life.

But when Demosthenes turned from these private cases to speaking in public, before his fellow citizens, his initial performances were met with ridicule and laughter. This was partly because he mumbled and spoke with a lisp, and partly because he had focussed so much on the formal aspects of oratory — organising arguments, providing proofs, following the proper structure — that he had paid no attention to the actual delivery of them. But whereas most people would have backed down, humiliated and disheartened, Demosthenes simply worked harder to straighten out these weaknesses:

He built a subterranean study, which, in fact, was preserved in our time,​ and into this he would descend every day without exception in order to form his action and cultivate his voice, and he would often remain there even for two or three months together, shaving one side of his head in order that shame might keep him from going abroad even though he greatly wished to do so.

There was nothing, he reasoned, which enough hard work could not overcome:

The indistinctness and lisping​ in his speech he used to correct and drive away by taking pebbles in his mouth and then reciting speeches. His voice he used to exercise by discoursing while running or going up steep places, and by reciting speeches or verses at a single breath.

And so Demosthenes added delivery to his rhetorical arsenal, and slowly but surely became one of the most formidable speakers in Athens. All he needed now was a cause. And, in the form of Philip II of Macedon, he found it. Nobody realised sooner than Demosthenes the threat Philip posed both to Athens and to the entirety of Greece. He made it his life's work to keep his countrymen alive to what he perceived as their impending doom, and to urge them, if he could, to fight back. Again, from Plutarch:

Once taken as a noble basis for his political activity the defence of the Greeks against Philip, and was contending worthily here, he quickly won a reputation and was lifted into a conspicuous place by the boldness of his speeches, so that he was admired in Greece, and treated with deference by the Great King; Philip, too, made more account of him than of any other popular leader at Athens, and it was admitted even by those who hated him that they had to contend with a man of mark.

After Philip attacked the city of Olynthus in 349 BC Demosthenes delivered three speeches, known as the Olynthiacs, urging his fellow citizens to action:

I bid you grasp these facts, men of Athens, and weigh well all the important considerations. Make up your minds; rouse your spirits; put your heart into the war, now or never. Pay your contributions cheerfully; serve in person; leave nothing to chance. You have no longer the shadow of an excuse for shirking your duty.

Philip was at war with Athens (and other Greek cities) from 358 BC through to 346 BC, at which point a peace treaty was signed, known as the "Peace of Philocrates". However, it was suspiciously favourable to Philip and so the men behind it, including Philocrates himself and another called Aeschines, were put on trial in Athens. Philocrates was sentenced to death but Aeschines, at whose trial Demosthenes spoke for the prosecution, was narrowly acquitted. Aeschines was a worthy speaker himself, and the speeches given at the two trials in which he and Demosthenes took part (there was another, in 330 BC, in which their roles were reversed) have both survived; they make for brilliantly entertaining and highly informative reading.

War came again in 341 BC. It was provoked by Philip, who had been acting aggressively despite the supposed peace treaty, but was formally started by the Athenians, who had been persuaded by Demosthenes not to appease the Macedonian king any longer:

So it is, men of Athens, with us. While we are still safe, with our great city, our vast resources, our noble name, what are we to do? Perhaps some one sitting here has long been wishing to ask this question. Aye, and I will answer it, and will move my motion; and you shall carry it, if you wish. We ourselves, in the first place, must conduct the resistance and make preparation for it — with ships, that is, and money, and soldiers. For though all but ourselves give way and become slaves, we at least must contend for freedom. And when we have made all these preparations ourselves, and let them be seen, then let us call upon the other states for aid, and send envoys to carry our message in all directions — to the Peloponnese, to Rhodes, to Chios, to the king; for it is not unimportant for his interests either that Philip should be prevented from subjugating the world; that so, if you persuade them, you may have partners to share the danger and the expense, in case of need; and if you do not, you may at least delay the march of events.

This excerpt comes from the third of Demosthenes' four Philippics, a series of speeches delivered between 351 and 341 BC in vehement criticism of Philip (hence their name). Well, they worked. But it was not only Athens who rose up to fight against Philip; many of the other Greek cities took part. And this was Demosthenes' doing: by the skill of his diplomacy, the strength of his character, the ferocity of his conviction, and the force of his oratory, Demosthenes had taken charge of policy not only in his native city but, seemingly, across all of Greece.

Alas, the Greeks were defeated at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC and thereafter Philip's supremacy was assured. Another uprising came in 335 BC, after Philip had died, when Alexander was dealing with rebellions in Thrace. The Thebans led the way this time, though Demosthenes had prepared Athens to join them. But Alexander, despite rumours of his death, came storming down from the north and totally destroyed the city of Thebes before Athens could come to their aid. Again, in 331 BC, when Alexander was campaigning in Persia, the Spartans launched a rebellion. This bid for freedom was crushed by Antipater, the governor of Macedon, and it seemed as though any hope of Greek independence, despite Demosthenes' best efforts, was gone.

Was Demosthenes' career a failure, then? Philip did, in the end, make himself de facto ruler of all Greece, including Athens, and all Demosthenes' protestations seemingly led to little more than political instability in Greece and the deaths of his fellow citizens in war. Two points. The first is that things could easily have been very different. Had so many Greek politicians not succumbed to Philip's extensive network of bribery, and therefore betrayed their cities, or had the incredibly tight Battle of Chaeronea not gone his way in 338 BC, to give but two examples of many crucial geopolitical and military fulcrums, he might never have made himself master of the Greeks. And had the Greeks shown a more united front generally, rather than fighting amongst themselves in the 350s, or in the 330s and 320s failing to fully unify against the Macedonians, Greek independence might have been achieved.

Alas, Philip (and then Alexander) was victorious in the end. And so it is through his speeches that Demosthenes has lived on, not only because of their rhetorical qualities but because they typify the human urge for liberty, and for resistance to foreign powers, such that Demosthenes has become an enduring icon of freedom. From the second Philippic:

All kinds of inventions designed for the protection and security of cities—palisades, walls, trenches, and every kind of defence. All these are made with hands, and involve expense as well. But there is one safeguard which all sensible men possess by nature—a safeguard which is a valuable protection to all, but above all to a democracy against a tyrant. And what is this? It is distrust. Guard this possession and cleave to it; preserve this, and you need never fear disaster. What is it that you desire? Is it freedom? And do you not see that the very titles that Philip bears are utterly alien to freedom? For a king, a tyrant, is always the foe of freedom and the enemy of law. Will you not be on your guard, lest in striving to be rid of war, you find yourselves slaves?

Though, dwelling on the specifics of Demosthenes' oratory for a moment, I want to recall an observation made by Pseudo-Longinus in On the Sublime, a fabulous work of literary criticism written in the 1st century AD:

Hence the style of the orator, who is the greater master of our emotions, is often, as it were, red-hot and ablaze with passion, whereas Plato, whose strength lay in a sort of weighty and sober magnificence, though never frigid, does not rival the thunders of Demosthenes. And, if a Greek may be allowed to express an opinion on the subject of Latin literature, I think the same difference may be discerned in the grandeur of Cicero as compared with that of his Grecian rival. The sublimity of Demosthenes is generally sudden and abrupt: that of Cicero is equally diffused. Demosthenes is vehement, rapid, vigorous, terrible; he burns and sweeps away all before him; and hence we may liken him to a whirlwind or a thunderbolt: Cicero is like a widespread conflagration, which rolls over and feeds on all around it, whose fire is extensive and burns long, breaking out successively in different places, and finding its fuel now here, now there. Such points, however, I resign to your more competent judgment.
To resume, then, the high-strung sublimity of Demosthenes is appropriate to all cases where it is desired to exaggerate, or to rouse some vehement emotion, and generally when we want to carry away our audience with us.
Yes, it would be easier to meet the lightning-stroke with steady eye than to gaze unmoved when his impassioned eloquence is sending out flash after flash.

Demosthenes suffered the same fate as almost every great Athenian. Like Themistocles, Aristides, Cimon, Nicias, Alcibiades, Thucydides, and Socrates, all of whom were exiled, prosecuted, or executed, Demosthenes was driven from the city he had served for so long and so well, after a charge of bribery in 324 BC.

However, Demosthenes returned to Athens less than a year later and, unsurprisingly, received a hero's welcome. It seems he had been exiled unfairly and that the people were happy to see their champion return. Then, in 323 BC, Alexander the Great died, and here Demosthenes and the other anti-Macedonian politicians realised the chance for Athenian liberty had come at last. So the Athenians rose up in coalition with several other Greek cities and enjoyed some early success against their overlords. But Antipater, a vastly experienced general and statesman who had served under both Philip and Alexander and was then in charge of Macedonia, put down this revolt. He then demanded that Athens hand over the anti-Macedonian politicians behind the Lamian War (as it is known), and they had no choice but to do so. Demosthenes escaped to an island called Kalaureia, where he was soon discovered by the agents of Antipater. Before he could be executed, however, Demosthenes killed himself by drinking poison. Thus ended the life of one of the greatest of Ancient Greeks, in circumstances no less dramatic or politically charged than those which had defined every step of his career.

How to summarise Demosthenes? Beyond his status as an icon of liberty (and several associated political lessons we might draw) the moral of his story, I suppose, is an age-old testament to the value of sheer hard work and self-improvement. With enough discipline, effort, and determination there is nothing we cannot achieve, no heights we cannot reach; or so Demosthenes' life tells us. And then there is Demosthenes the orator, the greatest speaker of the ancient world. Here I defer to Adlai Stevenson II, an ambassador to the UN under President Kennedy:

Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, "How well he spoke," but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, "Let us march!"

III - Painting

Autoportrait in a Green Bugatti

Tamara de Lempicka

All art is, to some extent, defined by its historical and sociocultural context. But, sometimes, a work of art seems to be more than merely from a particular historical era; it captures and conveys that era for us entirely. The Rococo paintings of Jean-Honoré Fragonard seem to encapsulate the feeling of 18th French High Society more so than, say, the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner draw us to imagine Georgian Britain.

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767) and The Evening of the Deluge by J.M.W. Turner (1843)

Which brings us to the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka. I can think of few artists who manage to transport us so completely and overwhelmingly into the era during which their art was created. Here is another of her paintings, a portrait of the cabaret singer Marjorie Ferry. When do you think this was painted? Or, rather, what era does this painting make you think of?

It is, of course, the inter-war years: the Roaring Twenties, Art Deco, jazz, silent film, the Great Depression, the Weimar Republic, the avant-garde, New York, Bauhaus, Agatha Christie, glitz, glamour, high society, Prohibition, and The Great Gatsby... I could go on. She was born Tamara Rosalia Gurwik-Górska in Warsaw in 1898, of Russian-Jewish descent and a member of the European social elite. Tamara was sent to a Swiss boarding school in 1911, and it was in the winter of that year, touring the French Riviera and Italy with her grandmother, that she fell in love with art. In 1912 her parents divorced and Tamara went to live with her Aunt Stephanie in St Petersburg, where she took like a duck to water in the glamour of Imperial Russian society. There she met the Polish lawyer Tadeusz Lempicki (at a ball, of course) and they married in 1915. But then came the Russian Revolution of 1917. Tadeusz was, apparently, arrested, and it was only through Tamara's guile (make of that what you will) that he was set free. So they fled Russia and arrived in Paris, via Copenhagen and London, to join the rest of the family, where they survived by selling off their collection of jewelry.

It was here that she started taking art more seriously and sought to make a career of it, studying under well-known painters like Maurice Denis, and quickly established a reputation. For de Lempicka had found her own, immediately recognisable style, which somehow united both the avant-garde and the traditional, the Cubist and the Neoclassical, and was totally in tune with the spirit of the age. As she later said:

I decorated Paris no less than the Eiffel Tower.

The 1920s were spent between Paris, Monte Carlo, Milan, and many more glamorous locales, along with some brief but highly successful trips to New York, enjoying affairs with both men and women, and painting everybody from European royalty to celebrity actors and industrial scions. De Lempicka the artist and de Lempicka the socialite were one and the same; her image fed into her art, and vice versa. We can scarcely imagine the circles she mixed in: there's probably not a famous name from those famous years she did not come across. In 1928 Tamara and Tadeusz divorced; just one year later she became the mistress of the Austro-Hungarian Baron Raoul Kuffner. They married in 1934 and she was thereafter known to the press and public as the "Baroness with a Brush". These, the early 30s, represented the height of her fame and success. Her Parisian studio was essentially a tourist attraction and the waiting list to be painted by her was several months long. How did she describe her own work?

I was the first woman to make clear paintings, and that was the origin of my success... Among a hundred canvases, mine were always recognizable. The galleries tended to show my pictures in the best rooms, because they attracted people. My work was clear and finished. I looked around me and could only see the total destruction of painting. The banality in which art had sunk gave me a feeling of disgust. I was searching for a craft that no longer existed; I worked quickly with a delicate brush. I was in search of technique, craft, simplicity and good taste. My goal: never copy. Create a new style, with luminous and brilliant colors, rediscover the elegance of my models.

Like so many other members of her itinerant generation, de Lempicka fled Europe at the outset of the Second World War. Her destination was America, where she quickly established herself in Los Angeles as the favourite painter of Hollywood stars. But times were changing and her glamorous Art Deco style was no longer in vogue. By the 1950s her paintings looked decidely old-fashioned in comparison with the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock and his ilk. Baron Kuffner died in 1963, after which de Lempicka went travelling round the world and then, in 1978, moved to Mexico. There she died two years later; her ashes were scattered over Mount Popocatepetl.

The reason I give you the facts of Tamara de Lempicka's life (worthy of novelisation or film adaptation, I dare say!) is because, I think, they are inseparable from her art. In these radiant portraits we find a full articulation of Art Deco and all its associated connotations: glamorous, decadent, experimental, quasi-mechanical, futuristic... along with the fashion, the jewelry, and the architecture of the era. But don't just take my word for it; de Lempicka said much the same thing herself!

Forgive me for having included several works of art, whereas I usually prefer to focus on one, but in this case I thought it might be fruitful to explore art not through its style but according to the life of the artist and the era in which she lived. Tamara de Lempicka, more than most, seems to demand this sort of consideration.

IV - Architecture

Bourtange, the Netherlands

Fortress? Village? Museum?

This unusual little village in the Netherlands' northernmost province of Groningen is called Bourtange. The first question you will no doubt have is: why does it look like that? Bourtange is built in and around a star fort. This was a type of military fortification which first appeared in Italy in the 15th century as a response to the rise of cannons in warfare. They were, in essence, replacements for the old Medieval castles with their huge towers and ramparts, which had proven vulnerable to cannonfire and were quickly made redundant. The star fort was designed with low, angled walls (to deflect cannon balls) and built from brick (rather than stone, which shattered upon impact with cannon balls). Its unsual overall plan ensured that enemies would always be in the line of fire, even when right up against the walls.

It was, strangely enough, none other than Michelangelo who played a major role in the early development of the star fort, when he was employed to design defences for the city of Florence. They soon spread all around Europe and, despite being a necessary reaction to the changing technologies and realities of war, even started to shape some ideas about city and urban planning. Alas, the star fort itself became redundant in the 19th century with the invention of explosive ammunition. Many of these obsolete fortifications were abandoned, demolished, and left to rot. Others, however, lived on. That is what happened with Bourtange, which had been built in the 1590s by William of Orange during the Eighty Years' War and further developed over the following two centuries. It was decommissioned in 1851 and quickly evolved into a flourishing agricultural town. The moats were filled in and the walls crumbled, but the striking layout of this fortress-turned-town remained.

And yet the story of Bourtange is actually more complicated — and informative — than that. See, by the mid-20th century the village had entered a state of serious decline; it was on the verge of dying. So, thanks to an inspired decision by the local council, the fort was carefully restored to its 18th century condition with the help of surviving plans, drawings, and maps. The purpose here was twofold: firstly, to reinvigorate the village and turn it into a place people both could and wanted to live in; secondly, to create a new tourist attraction and revive some of the region's cultural heritage. By the early 1990s this project was more or less complete. The crumbling fortress and dying village had been turned into both an open-air museum with the broadly authentic appearance of an 18th century star fort and a thriving community of 450 residents, living both within and just beyond the fortifications.

What makes Bourtange most interesting, then, beyond its striking outward appearance, is how it reuses old and redundant architecture. In an alternative universe this fortress may have been left to crumble and thereafter been demolished, or it may have been preserved and turned into an otherwise uninhabited museum or historic site of some sort. There have been many successful urban and rural regeneration projects throughout history. And though this may be a relatively minor one, I dare say it is an interesting case study, and a model which might be emulated elsewhere — and not only in star forts; the justification and methods apply equally to any other such historic-but-disused-and-redundant architectural site. There is no single way to deal with the leftover buildings and infrastructure of the past, but rather than letting it crumble, demolishing it, or merely preserving it, bringing it back to life, as has happened in Bourtange, is a commendable approach. Let architecture live!

On a final note I should mention that several other star forts do actually survive as towns and villages. And, if you look closely, you'll notice that a star fort serves as the base for the Statue of Liberty!

V - Rhetoric

Oratory in Action

Given that I dwelt for so long this week over Demosthenes I suppose enough has already been written about rhetoric in this week's Areopagus. That being said, then, all I wish to do is offer you some recommended reading, as it is called, on rhetoric. And rather than a study of the subject (in which case I might point you to Aristotle, Cicero, or, most likely, Quintilian) why not read the thing itself?

So here is a link to the speeches of Demosthenes. You can read his famous Philippics and Olynthiacs, his prosecution of and defence against Aeschines in The Treaty and The Crown, and all the rest. Each oration comes with a brief but useful introduction to set the stage and explain the context. Read them — and see what you think. Imagine yourself as an Athenian, crowded round in the Assembly and listening to the very words you are reading, and ask: would I vote to condemn Aeschines? am I convinced that we should go to war with Macedon? is Philip really all that bad? If nothing else, it will bring Ancient Greece to life for you, far more so than any history book ever could.

Translation naturally delimits too close a study of certain rhetorical devices, but as to the overall flow of Demosthenes' speeches, the layout of his arguments, his appeals to emotion or reason, his use of anecdotes or recollections of history, his varying attempts to frighten or to inspire, his forcefulness and his thunder, we are well-equipped to make a judgment. Does he deserve the title of Antiquity's greatest orator? See what you make of him, perhaps even see what you can learn and bring to bear on your own writing or speaking. Whether you find him compelling or not, I can assure you that the orations of Demosthenes justify careful study and attention; you will be richly rewarded for doing so. Indeed, they may even help to bring out some rhetorical lightning you did not yet know you possessed...

VI - Writing

Benjamin's Thirteen Theses

I have stated before, I think, that all "writing advice" must be treated with immense caution, if not outright scepticism. By which I only mean to say that there is no single way to write, and that what one writer says, no matter how good we think they are, need not necessarily be of any value to us. For why should we want to write like somebody else? Still, certain advice demands our attention; for it can, in truth, when understood properly, be helpful, even if not always in the way we expect. Reacting against advice is no less valuable than following it.

So, this week, we turn for advice to Walter Benjamin. Whether we agree with his ideas or not, Benjamin was indubitably one of the great philosopher-critics of the 20th century. He was born in Germany in 1892 and, fully aware that as a Jew he was no longer welcome under Nazi rule, moved to Paris in the 1930s. In 1940, in flight from the advancing Wehrmacht, Benjamin killed himself; it was only in the years after his death that Benjamin attained the fame, influence, and respect with which he is now attended.

And here are his thirteen rules for writing, which first appeared in a curious little book called One Way Street, published in 1928. Apply or disregard Benjamin's advice at will; at the very least I hope you find it interesting.

  1. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
  2. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
  3. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
  4. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
  5. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
  6. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
  7. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
  8. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
  9. Nulla dies sine linea [‘No day without a line’] — but there may well be weeks.
  10. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
  11. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
  12. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.
  13. The work is the death mask of its conception.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

A Voyage to the Moon

You will remember that in last week's essay I defended cinema as the definitive form of modern art. Well, few films have been so important, revolutionary, instrumental, and influential as A Voyage to the Moon. It was made in France in 1902 — over one hundred and twenty years ago — and upon release became an international phenomenon. Though we say this about many new films, we can say with certainty that nobody had ever seen anything quite like this before. Just think: this was before the internet, television, radio, nuclear power, the World Wars, the actual moon landings, or flight itself, while radio and cars were both very recent inventions...

As the title suggests, this thirteen minute film depicts a rather fantastical journey to the moon, largely inspired by the novels of Jules Verne, and does so with highly inventive special effects and rather lavish overall production. It was directed by Georges Méliès, who has long now been recognised as one of the most important figures in the history of cinema, not only because he did things that were new, nor only because he directed this, the first ever science-fiction film, but because he (and those with whom he worked) helped to shape the language of cinema itself. Notice, after a few minutes, a classic dissolve cut, where one image slowly fades into the next. This is a typical way to transition between scenes. But, in 1902, it had never been done before. And that's only one example of the influence of Méliès and co. You may also recognise the landing scene; it has become one of the most famous images in cinematic history.

So, enough words for now! Here is a feast of delight for your eyes and imagination. Forget the world of 2023, the woes and the wearisome wonderings. Let us go back in time, to 1902, and experience a brief but barnstorming journey to the moon...

(If the video doesn't work you can find this film for free on YouTube and elsewhere)

Question of the Week

Two weeks ago I asked you this question:

What will the future be like?

Here were some of your answers...

Laura W

For as long as we are human, the future will be much like the past. The questions that concern us now are not different to what has plagued humanity since its inception. You only need to look back to the ancient Greeks, for instance Aristotle's Ethics and Politics, to understand that our level of technological advancement does not resolve these issues.
How to govern our species? What is right or wrong? What is the nature of our being?
The creation of extra-natural toys e.g. AI does not not change this. We are still extra-intelligent apes that are adept at technology. Yet, our ability to invent does not resolve these types of problems.
We are human beings. As long as we remain so, we will continue to be so.

Jeremy B

I’ve long thought as you about the human temptation and simultaneous inability to predict the future. That has led me to formulate my own rule, which is to assume that whatever I think will happen almost certainly will not. I find this rather comforting as it tends to pull the rug from under my fears.

Renee J

Every aspect of life will be driven by the latest innovations in technology: the home; school; workplace; community; travel etc. It is the community that concerns me most. Society is overwhelmed with loneliness and mental illness. This over reliance on technology will only worsen the situation of lack of human connection.

B Shepherd

Well one thing I can say about the future with a high degree of certainty is that tomorrow will be very much like today!

David R

Like the past, I would say, in at least one respect. From new sources of evidence, and modern forensic science, we know now, for the first time, that throughout human history naturally induced climate change is what disrupted advanced societies. (See, for example, The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan). Unlike those earlier societies, however, we already know what by now unstoppable climate changes are already underway, what some of the consequences will be for humankind, and how awesomely long those consequences will last.
There is inevitably going to be mass migration towards the Earth's polar regions (because most everywhere else will become uninhabitable). The few, the elite, will survive and will continue their civilised and privileged existences, running the Planet (making full use of AI) from their new residences in bits of Canada, little bits of the UK, the bottom end of New Zealand but, mainly, that enormous land mass we call Siberia. No wonder V. Putin is i) blase about climate change and ii) bent on establishing Russia as the World's central power.
Another way in which the future will certainly be like the past is that human resourcefulness and drive, simply to survive, will over-ride every other consideration: Erst kommt das Fressen dann kommt die Moral

Sakshi P

I still want the future with flying cars. Just kidding, or am I? I think the future will be the same as now, with AI and Robots and probably something more. But we will learn to tackle it just like we did in the past. I believe society as a whole takes the form of a seesaw game. Something bad takes place and to balance it out something good happens. This is what has been happening since the good ol' days and that is what will (probably) be happening in the future too.

Léopold S

The great French poet Paul Valery wrote:
"Future is like the rest, it is not what it used to be. What I mean is that we can't think of it with any confidence in our inductions. We lost all our traditional means of thinking of it and predicting it.This is our pathetic state"
Pessimistic but more than a grain of truth

This week, to draw on your aesthetic rather than intellectual reasoning, I ask:

What is your favourite painting, and why?

Email me your answers and I will share them in next week's newsletter.

And that's all

There is none other to whom I can award the postlude of this week's Areopagus, as this final June day sinks into night, with the first July dawn in hot pursuit, than to Rupert Brooke, and the closing lines of the poem with which we set out:

Close in the nest is folded every weary wing,
Hushed all the joyful voices; and we, who held you dear,
Eastward we turn and homeward, alone, remembering . . .
Day that I loved, day that I loved, the Night is here!

The night is here, then, and I hope, like Brooke, you have loved the day just gone. So often we set our sights on some far off day, a day we hope shall come to pass, a day when we will have just what we need and exactly what we want. Sometimes, perhaps, we look too hard, and the day we ought to love is the one happening now, for the only day in which we can ever truly live must always be... today. Alas, as old Rupert said, the Night is here, and such thoughts may be adjourned 'til morning.


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

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