Areopagus Volume LXVII
Welcome one and all to the sixty seventh volume of the Areopagus. Sylvia Plath would have been ninety one today, and so it is to her inimitable verse that we shall turn for our tradition of preludic poetry. This, from a poem called Blackberrying, is, I think, a rather gripping vision of the sea:
A moment to contemplate... and, all hushed, let the curtain rise, the lights go down, and the Areopagus begin:
I - Classical Music
24 Caprices for Solo Violin, no. 24
Niccolò Paganini (1817)
Performed by Itzhak Perlman
Musical Still Life by Sebastiano Lazzari (18th century)
If you were to ask, "who is the most important violinist in history?" then the answer you would most likely get is, "Niccolò Paganini." There shall never be a conclusive answer as to who was the greatest, but people seem to agree that nobody so conclusively shaped the way the violin is played like Paganini. He was born in Genoa in 1782 and, by the time of his death in 1840, had become the unmatched virtuoso of his age. Indeed, Paganini was so marvellous a violinist that people believed he had given his soul to the Devil in exchange for his ability. And do not think this scurrilous rumour was not taken seriously — after his death the church refused to allow him a Catholic burial! This situation was only resolved by a direct appeal to the Pope.
Between 1828 and 1831 Paganini travelled Europe — "going on tour", as modern lingo would have it — giving performances in every major European city and confirming his status as the musical superstar of the early 19th century. Alongside performing he also wrote music, and what you are listening to here is the twenty fourth and final of his 24 Caprices for Solo Violin — "caprice" here meaning a musical composition which is vigorous, free-spirited, and technically complex. Each of the twenty four were dedicated to a specific artist; this, the last, he dedicated to himself, and it has long been regarded as one of the most difficult challenges for any violinist. One wonders how Paginini must have played these caprices himself!
Alas, born as he was before the age of recording, the real Paginini must remain shrouded in mystery and it is to the many extraordinary violinists who have come in his wake that we must look. I shall mention, by way of conclusion, that the other composers who have written works based on those of Paginini include Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff. Oh, and today is his birthday — Tanti auguri di buon compleanno Niccolò!
II - Historical Figure
There is a quote I have shared before, here and elsewhere, which comes from the great Victorian artist-industrialist and writer William Morris:
He is right, of course, and among those dreams which we think of no more than daylight is paper. Now that we have entered the Digital Age I suppose we are not quite so surrounded by paper as once we were, but it continues to be ubiquitous. Look around you, on any given day, and notice just how much paper there is. Once you have done that you may well be inclined to ask: how on earth would we get by without it? Well, thanks to Cai Lun, we don't need to worry about that.
Cai Lun had a long and storied life at the very top of Chinese politics, but it all began in Hunan Province, where he was born in about 50 AD in humble circumstances. At the age of twenty five Cai Lun entered the Imperial Palace as a eunuch; it was eunuchs who acted as the bureaucracy and civil service of the Chinese court. He worked as a chamberlain for Emperor Ming and a messenger for Emperor Zhang, before being promoted to Chief Eunuch under Emperor He in 89 AD. But that's not all — the Emperor also appointed Cai Lun, who was evidently a man of intelligence and industry, as the Prefect of the Palace Workshop. His job, then, alongside offering political advice to the Emperor, was to oversee the design and fabrication of ceremonial weapons, musical instruments, and anything else needed by the Imperial Court.
Then, in 105 AD, something special happened. Up until that point people used wood, bamboo, silk, or a sort of bamboo proto-paper for writing, all of which were either expensive or laborious and in all cases ill-suited to mass-production. So Cai Lun, apparently inspired by watching wasps build a nest, tried to improve the methods by which paper was produced. He boiled bamboo, hemp, rags, fishing nets, and tree bark to make a pulp, which he then beat and mixed with water, before sieving and drying it to make paper more or less as we know it today. Cai Lun told the emperor about his breakthrough and was handsomely rewarded, eventually being made a marquess. But his life ended in tragedy: a series of rather complicated political developments saw the accession of an Emperor who had reason to seek Cai Lun's execution, but rather than facing the charges he committed suicide.
Paper eventually spread from China to the rest of the world and, though the process has been improved and refined many times since, Cai Lun's invention was a paradigm shift which dramatically reduced the cost of making books or manuscripts and coequally increased the scale of their production. The subsequent impact on literacy, education, politics, culture, and human civilisation as a whole is hard to quantify. Indeed, the history of human progress tracks almost directly onto innovations related to communication. The invention of writing coincides with the birth of cities, laws, and civilisation. The printing press led to the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Just think how the internet – the latest and greatest communication innovation – has already turned the world upside down. Language, and how we use it, is our oldest and most important skill.
The invention of paper by Cai Lun, then, should rightly take its place among these other landmark inventions as one of those Promethean moments when, because of technological innovation, humankind took an immense leap forward. One can understand why Cai Lun was deified and worshipped for centuries after his life as the god of papermaking.
III - Painting
Spring & Summer
This one fact about Mary Moser ought to tell you a great deal: along with Angelica Kauffman she was one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768, and after her death in 1819 there was not another female member until 1936! You can see Kauffman and Moser in this 1795 group portrait of the Royal Academicians, just to the left of the President Benjamin West in his chair:
Mary Moser was the daughter of Georg Moser, a Swiss enameller and goldsmith who had migrated to England and quickly become part of the artistic and social establishment, even working for King George III. No doubt this helped Moser's career, but more important than his connections was Georg's decision to encourage and foster his daughter's interest in art. By the age of twenty four she had become a prize-winning artist and the most highly regarded flower painter of her time in Britain, at which point she was invited to be a founding member of the Royal Academy. The zenith of Moser's career, perhaps, came when Queen Charlotte (a keen botanist herself!) commissioned Moser to decorate a suite at the royal residence of Frogmore House in Windsor. Contemporary reviews of her art include such remarks as:
Now, there were a great many things women weren't allowed (or supposed) to paint. It isn't without reason that the first ever group-portrait of the Royal Academy, painted by Johan Zoffany, includes Moser and Kauffman as portraits on the wall. Why? Because the other members are in the presence a nude male model, and women were not allowed to see such things. This all but barred female artists from genres such as history painting — though that did not stop Moser and Kauffman from trying, inevitably drawing on their imagination rather than live models.
Flowers, meanwhile, were regarded as an appropriate subject for women. But we must realise that flower painting was not a lowly genre; in the 18th and 19th centuries it was wildly popular and, in some sense, very important. Such floral art was an aesthetic pillar in that age of British high society (think: the novels of Jane Austen) and its fashions, whether dresses or wallpapers or curtains or illustrated books. The sort of flower paintings now popular are the expressive, colourful canvasses of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, but flower painting in Moser's time was more concerned with realism, not least because of its close association with the burgeoning art of botany. That does not mean they are without serious artistic expression, of course, but even regardless of what they mean, Moser's flowers are beautiful in their own right. What was it John Ruskin said?
IV - Architecture
Global Vipassana Pagoda
What you are looking at here is the largest unsupported stone dome in the world — it has a diameter of more than eighty metres! The spire, meanwhile, is one hundred metres tall. But, though it may look like an ancient temple of sorts, the Global Vipassana Pagoda was built recently: its the foundation stone was laid near Mumbai in 1997 and it was completed eleven years later, in 2008. It is a Buddhist vipassanā meditation hall which can host 8,000 meditators.
The visionary who led this extraordinary project was S. N. Goenka, a teacher of vipassanā meditation. He stipulated two requirements for the pagoda, both of which engineers and planners initially said were impossible to meet. First, that it should be made entirely of stone. Second, that it should have no supporting columns. But... why? Would it not have been quicker, cheaper, and easier to build the dome from reinforced concrete? Perhaps. But consider this explanation from the official website of the pagoda:
And they found a way. More than two million tons of basalt and sandstone were quarried in Rajasthan, over six hundred miles away, and brought to Mumbai. These interlocking blocks of stone were then assembled and sealed together with lime mortar into a self-supporting stone dome of a scale never seen before. Quite the achievement. The Global Vipassana Pagoda has, alongside its central meditation hall, dozens of other private meditation chambers, an art gallery, and two subsidiary pagodas. Its design is based on the much older Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. This was done as a sign of gratitude to the people of Myanmar for preserving vipassanā after it had faded away in India and reintroducing it in the 18th century.
The question has often been asked by people all around the world, "why don't we build like we used to?" What the Global Vipassana Pagoda seems to suggest is that we can — but the first and most important step, as with anything, is the will to do so. And so I leave with you a reminder of what is perhaps the most remarkable (and instructive!) fact about the Global Vipassana Pagoda: that S. N. Goenka wanted it to be the international home of vipassanā for 1,000 years. When our timescale is millennia rather than decades, what we create inevitably changes.
V - Rhetoric
Politicians Then & Now
I was re-reading the speeches of Demosthenes (mentioned several times before in these proverbial pages, you may recall!) recently, and came across something which I couldn't help but share with you. I don't suppose this is a specifically rhetorical lesson per se, but no doubt we shall learn something about rhetoric in general. This is an excerpt from a speech known as the Third Olynthiac, delivered in 349 BC. The simplified context is that King Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) had become increasingly powerful and was preparing to attack an important city called Olynthus, which had called to Athens for aid.
But it isn't the specific situation that interests us here; it is Demosthenes' general remarks about the state of politics in contemporary Athens. I have refrained from chopping it down too much simply in order to give you a fuller sense of the liveliness and realness of his speech. The urgency, clamour, and drama of Demosthenes speaking before his fellow citizens was no less than that of politicians speaking now. Just as current affairs are vitally important to us, thus were they also to people throughout history. And, with that being said, over to Demosthenes:
Corrupt politicians who make themselves rich at the expense of the citizens. Short-term solutions and no long-term planning. An honest speaker getting into trouble for pointing this out. Looking back fondly on the politicians of old and admiring their integrity. Modern politicians who have failed to follow in their predecessors' footsteps. I suspect this sounds rather familiar to you, and I don't suppose there is much more I need say than that. Whether to be disheartened or relieved to know that the problems of today are, more often than not, the problems of all time, I shall leave to you. For now I merely recommend, as I have before, reading the speeches of Demosthenes. Not only because he was regarded as the greatest orator of Antiquity, but because they bring history to life.
VI - Writing
The Writer's Choice
The late, great Chinua Achebe once said this during an interview with The Paris Review:
Writing advice doesn't get much simpler or better than that — and Achebe himself is proof. As a young man he was critical of the portrayal of Africa in western literature, particularly in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But he did not merely criticise; Achebe dropped out of his medicine degree to study literature and history instead — and started writing. The result was a novel, published in 1958 when Achebe was still in his twenties, called Things Fall Apart. It has since come to be regarded as one of the greatest works of the 20th century and, of course, it was the beginning of a long and laurelled life during which Achebe reshaped the literary world. He did not like someone else's story, so he wrote his own. That is something from which all writers can, and certainly should, take both heart and inspiration.
VII - The Seventh Plinth
The Purpose of Decoration
I have already quoted William Morris once in this missive; now I shall do so again. Here is a line from a lecture he gave in 1877 on the nature of the decorative arts and their role in society. What he meant by "decorative arts" are what we would call everything from coffee cups and curtains to chairs and lampshades and doorhandles. Why did William Morris care so much about the decorative arts? The point of them, he surmised, was this:
This simple observation totally changed the way I think about the decorative arts; for I had, perhaps like most people, only ever thought about something like furniture from the point of view of the person using it. But, Morris believed, beautiful things are of benefit to both creator and consumer. Thus, Morris goes on to say, we have all the more reason to create beautiful things, because society as a whole, both at the breakfast table and in the factory, in the office and at the workshop, would be improved thereby. This is an argument worth more than a little solicitude, I dare say, and perhaps even more important now than when Morris first made it.
Question of the Week
Last week's question was:
What is one book you think everybody should read?
Your answers were so voluminous and detailed that I really must dedicate a future volume of the Areopagus to them. This week, then, there is no question.
And that's all
Mary Moser's paintings call to mind a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
Inasmuch as I may, then, there is only one thing I wish to advise in bidding you farewell. When you are out and about this week, going from one place to another, make sure to stop for a moment if you come across a flower, however grand or meagre. There is much we can learn from them, and much delight we can take in their unconditional offerings of colour and form, of life in the unlikeliest of places and of a thing which seems to exist only to enhance the beauty of the world. Rarely can one's day not be improved by a few moments spent in contemplation of flowers.
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