Areopagus Volume LXVI
Welcome one and all to the sixty sixth volume of the Areopagus. Last week's missive on the nature of mythology both ancient and modern was rather a long one. It is only right, then, that this week's Areopagus be short and sweet.
This was the final haiku composed by Ryōkan, a Japanese travelling monk and calligrapher-poet who evidently knew that a handful of words can do more than a bucketful. Onwards, then, and like the falling autumn leaf we go!
I - Classical Music
Festival March from Aladdin
Carl Nielsen (1918)
Performed by the Göteborgs Symfoniker
Midsummer's Eve Bonfire on Skagen Beach by P.S. Krøyer (1906)
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is now regarded as Denmark's greatest composer. That was not quite so during his lifetime; until 1916 he was a violinist with the Royal Danish Orchestra and, after that, a teacher at the Royal Academy. As is so often the case, continental and global recognition only came after his lifetime. Nielsen's influences were many and his output was equally varied, ranging from relatively experimental work to more traditionally Romantic music. Here, with Aladdin, we seem to have the latter: grandeur, scale, soaring emotion, and immense drama. He wrote it in Skagen, Denmark's northermost town and a fashionable summer destination filled with artists, tourists, and high society, hence the painting I have paired with this piece.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Nielsen's Aladdin is that it was written as "incidental music" for a brand new production of Adam Oehlenschläger's 1805 play Aladdin, to be performed in 1919 at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. This production was ultimately unsuccessful and closed after fifteen performances; Nielsen's music, however, proved immensely popular. A modern comparison might be Vangelis' soundtrack for the 1992 film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. The movie was not a major hit commercially and is little spoken of today; the theme composed for it by Vangelis, meanwhile, remains popular all around the world.
And this comparison is more accurate than it might seem! Because "incidental music" is essentially an old-fashioned way of saying soundtrack. What Nielsen wrote was music to be performed as the drama of Oehlenschläger's play unfolded on stage in much the same way that a Hans Zimmer or John Williams track plays over characters talking, fighting, exploring, or anything else on the silver screen. This is just one more reason, if needed, why modern film-score composers ought to be regarded as no different from their Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic predecessors — "classical music", whatever those two words precisely mean, is still very much alive!
II - Historical Figure
The lives of some people are remembered for a single act; sometimes but one decision of the thousands we make during our lifetime is the one that matters. One such person is Dirk Willems, and I'd like to share with you the simple — but moving and morally complex — story that has preserved his name for posterity.
Dirk Willems was born in a Dutch town called Asperen in the 16th century, at a time when Europe was in the throes of religious and political strife caused by the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent reaction of the Catholic Church. We can say little with certainty about his life other than that, at some point, he went to the city of Rotterdam and was there rebaptised as an adult. And so Willems became an Anabaptist — he believed that baptism should be a conscious decision rather than one taken on behalf of children. This was in direct contravention to established doctrine in both the Catholic Church and most of the major, recently-founded Protestant Churches. As such, Anabaptists were persecuted by all sides for their beliefs, and Willems was no different; after holding rebaptisms in his own house he was arrested and tried. I shall let Thieleman J. van Braght, whose 1680 book Martyr's Mirror compiled the stories of Christian martyrs, tell you the rest:
The document which recorded Willems' trial has also survived:
Willems must have known that stopping to save his pursuer made his recapture likely (along with the inevitable torture and execution that would follow) and yet he did so anyway. Doing the right thing was more important, for Willems, than escaping with his life. He made a choice — and people still talk about him to this day, taking inspiration from that single, courageous decision. You can see why Willems' startling example of moral integrity has made him a figure of immense veneration for so long, both among Anabaptists and further afield.
III - Painting
Georgi Asparuhov Mural
What is art? That's the question we so often ask ourselves, and one we frequently hear at the outset of any discussion about the subject. But, I must confess, I generally find this a rather boring place to begin, if only because it has been over-asked. Much more interesting, for me, is an alternative question: where is art? I may expand on this delightful (and incredibly useful!) question another time. For now, suffice to say, art is found not merely in our galleries or places of worship or civic buildings — it is also on the streets!
I have been in Sofia of late and there I noticed something interesting: a mural of the legendary Bulgarian footballer Georgi Asparuhov (1943-1971). It stands opposite the stadium named after him (known colloquially as Gerena), home to the club PFK Levski Sofia, for whom Asparuhov played and scored hundreds of goals. Here is a closeup of the mural, albeit in less-than-perfect quality — I took these photographs with my phone!
This mural of Georgi Asparuhov reminded me of the faded saint-murals I saw in Verona. Whereas we think of Medieval art as being restricted to churches and palaces, the truth is that those cities of five or six hundred years ago had streets bursting with colour. Whether gathered beneath eaves, squeezed into spandrels, or proclaimed over doorways, there was nothing unusual about the haloed heads of saints and angels with their graven faces and flowing robes crowding round the arches and windows of a bustling street.
This colossal painting of Georgi Asparuhov is a direct continuation of this sort of art — this same impulse to decorate the places we live with images that uplift and inspire us, recording great deeds or venerating our heroes. After all, where do we find the world's oldest art? In the caves where our ancestors lived. Whether for entertainment or ritual or any other reason, these 40,000 year-old bison and boars and hyenas were daubed with red ochre in the homes of the people who made them. These, and the Medieval Veronese saints, and the Georgi Asparuhov mural, all represent that elemental human instinct to decorate our surroundings with art.
How many streets around the world — how many streets you walk or drive every day — would be improved by public art of this sort? I don't mean to say that every spare scrap of wall should be splashed with paint, of course. But, I think, there is something to say for murals like this one: an honest act of veneration for a local hero, painted with care and skill; a burst of colour on a busy street; something which draws us to look up; something which makes our day a little more interesting, a little more beautiful; and something which contributes to the character and identity of a place. And, if only to make all this even more evident, we end with a view of the same building before the mural of Georgi Asparuhov was made. Perhaps you can see how much of a difference it makes.
IV - Architecture
Infrastructure as Architecture
This is not a castle, an architectural folly, a palace, a library, or anything of the sort. It is a water tower in the German town of Lüneburg, built one hundred and sixteen years ago — and, more than this, it is a glimpse into a different way of thinking about infrastructure. The Lüneburg Water Tower was built in 1907 in the middle of the city’s old town, surrounded by Medieval streets and churches. Hence the council decided that it should fit in with its urban environment. And so it was designed by the local architects Richard Kampf and Franz Krüger — who otherwise worked on schools, churches, and civic buildings — in a Neo-Gothic style inspired by the 15th century Uenglinger Tower in the nearby town of Stendal.
The Uenglinger Tower also has that striking combination of a rectangular lower section and a cylindrical tower above. But the Lüneburg Water Tower’s cylindrical part is much elongated — because it contained a water tank with a capacity of 500 cubic metres! This was, first and foremost, a building with a specific infrastructural purpose. After seven decades of service the Lüneburg Water Tower was supposed to be demolished in the 1980s. But doing so would have been expensive; the council decided to maintain and renovate it instead. And so this peculiar old building has become an observation tower from which you can look over the picturesque city of Lüneburg — it now receives more than 100,000 visitors per year. Its lower rooms have also been converted into a space where exhibitions, music concerts, and even weddings can take place.
What might have been a purely functional piece of infrastructure has become a major part of the urban fabric of Lüneburg, contributing to the atmosphere of this Medieval city rather than detracting from it. Some would argue that the effort expended on building such a water tower — with blind arcades, crenellations, turrets, and decorative brickwork — is a waste. Why spend all that extra money when it could have been built more quickly and cheaply?
The authorities certainly could have tried to hide it away or save money on its design. But, instead, with the help of Kampf and Krüger, they saw the necessity for this new water tower as an opportunity to improve the aesthetic character of their city. And so the Lüneburg Water Tower is, at the very least, a reminder that good architecture and urban design aren’t only or even primarily about major projects — they are about the details of ordinary buildings and structures, whether bus stops or water towers or lamp posts.
Roads, power stations, bridges, water towers, broadcast towers, dams… these are all infrastructure, and the most important thing is that they function. Sometimes such things are aesthetically pleasing in their own right — the vast concrete curve of the Hoover Dam is probably the most famous example. But, more often than not, they are treated as things which do not need to be aesthetically pleasing. The Lüneburg Wasserturm says: perhaps they should be! For it reminds us that infrastructure can also be architecture — that the words “infrastructure” and “beauty” do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Lüneburg is not the only city to be graced with such an interesting water tower. All around the world there are countless more examples of these infrastructure—architecture fusions. Something about the nature of the water tower (perhaps its height, prominence, and importance?) has invited wonderful architectural experiments down the years:
V - Rhetoric
Tu Quoque... beware!
Not all rhetoric is good rhetoric. For though I tend to focus on the rhetorical devices that can improve and vivify our writing and speaking, it would be straightforwardly incorrect to pretend that rhetoric does not also have its dark arts.
There are many such examples, but among those we hear most often is the ad hominem — that is where we criticise a person rather than what they are saying. This arouses anger and indignation among the audience, thus distracting us from any flaw in the accuser's argument and focussing our attention squarely on the accused. It's a trick as old as time, and mightily effective.
There is a specific form of ad hominem called "tu quoque", Latin for "you too". This is where we respond to a criticism by pointing out that the criticiser is (or seems to be) guilty of the very same thing. Let me give you a hypothetical example using two of Shakespeare's most famous characters:
You can see the problem here. Whether or not Hamlet has committed murder has no bearing on whether Brutus was wrong to do so. But, by pointing out what appears to be Hamlet's hypocricy, Brutus has suddenly shifted our attention away from him and onto his opponent. There is no logical reasoning in what Brutus has said. He could have attempted to justify his actions — and perhaps even convinced us that he was right! Alas, it is much easier to simply deflect our attention and not actually address the question posed by Hamlet.
And so using a tu quoque, much like ad hominem, is effective — but that does not make it right, nor even, as Socrates pointed out in his clash with the Sophists of Ancient Athens, bring us any closer to the truth. Does the existence of such oratorical dark arts make the study of rhetoric problematic? Perhaps not. Studying rhetoric is important not only because it can make us better communicators — it also allows us to think more clearly about we read and hear, so that we can spot rhetorical manipulations whenever we hear them. To be aware of tu quoque is also to be wary of it — and to be ready for it. Perhaps Hamlet might have continued, in the strange scenario outlined above:
And so on and so forth, though obviously far more eloquent and subtle had Shakespeare really written such a conversation! The point in all of this, other than telling you about tu quoque, is to suggest that rhetoric is not only a sword; it is also a shield.
VI - Writing
On Thinking for Oneself
Arthur Schopenhauer is not the sort of person I usually write about in the Areopagus. He was a philosopher, after all, and I maintain that philosophers must be treated with caution! But, recently, somebody suggested that I read a few of his shorter essays. One of them, simply titled On Thinking For Oneself, caught my attention. I have included it in the Writing section of this newsletter because thinking and writing are in many ways synonymous: the better we think, the better we write, and vice versa.
So, how does one think for oneself? The thrust of Schopenhauer's advice is that we shouldn't rely too much on reading:
That is not to say we shouldn't read, of course. Schopenhauer's point is that we mustn't confuse reading (which can be very useful) with thinking:
Schopenhauer uses a rather neat analogy for the difference between reading and thinking:
And he goes on to argue that we must begin with our own opinions rather than those of other people:
It isn't easy to find our own opinions, of course, but Schopenhauer argues that effort in doing so is entirely worthwhile:
I shall leave it there for now. Schopenhauer, though he has been accused of many things, is rarely accused of not being an original thinker. In an age when the internet makes it all too easy to pass our time consuming the words (and, therefore, the thoughts and opinions) of others, he offers a timely reminder to step back and put in the work ourselves. As always, I recommend reading the essay in full. It is only brief and easily found online — albeit with the caution to apply Schopenhauer's advice to his very own words!
In conclusion, however, I must add a counterpoint from the marvellous Michel de Montaigne. I have written about him in the Areopagus before, and even quoted these very words. But they are worth quoting again in this context, I dare say:
VII - The Seventh Plinth
Did I choose to ask you about free will?
Two weeks ago I asked you this:
Does free will exist?
I like to include as much of your writing as possible, my Gentle Readers, and so the Seventh Plinth is yours once again, for you responded (as ever!) with insight, discretion, and nuance:
Question of the Week
This week, instead of an age-old philosophical problem, I am setting you a challenge inspired by the mural of Georgi Asparuhov in Sofia:
Send in a photograph of some public art near you, or of any that you have come across before. Feel free to add your opinion — if you like it, why? and if not, why not?
Email me and I'll share them in next week's newsletter!
And that's all
Short and sweet was the mission statement — my farewell must be brief, then. The concluding words of this week's Areopagus I shall simply give to the great Albanian poet Migjeni, born on this day one hundred and twelve years ago:
Goodbye for now, Gentle Readers, & I shall see you anon!
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