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Areopagus Volume LXXIX

Published 21 days ago • 17 min read

Areopagus Volume LXXIX

Welcome one and all to the seventy ninth volume of the Areopagus. May soon approaches — let us make the most of these final April days while we can! But, I wonder, what is the spirit of April? TS Eliot took a rather dim view of things:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

While Geoffrey Chaucer, six centuries earlier, found in April the beginning of a year's joy:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour.

Perhaps April is both, a sort of month between months, a time neither wholly here nor quite there. Well, this is a query I leave unpursued. Another Areopagus, like spring rain, surely arrives...


I - Classical Music

Symphony No. 3, 2nd Movement

Henryk Górecki (1976)

Performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Ruins of Kenilworth by Gustave Doré (1876)

Henryk Górecki is not a composer who was supposed to be famous. I say this in emulation of his own words. This was a man who sought to push the boundaries of music and, like many of the greatest artists, was content with his own sense of achievement rather than being obsessed with winning the favour of the fickle public. So there are two parts to this story.

First, Symphony No. 3 itself, sometimes called Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It has three movements, each inspired by a different text. The first is a Medieval folk song lamenting the death of Christ from the point of view of Mary; the second is an inscription Górecki found on the walls of a former Gestapo prison, written by a young female prisoner and addressed to her mother; the third is a folk song from Silesia, a region of Poland. The words of these texts are those we hear in the symphony, in each case sung by a solo soprano in Polish. Notice how minimalistic it sounds. This became a hallmark of much late 20th century classical music — and still is, for composers as varied as Philip Glass and Max Richter. One can even sense this minimalist influence on film composers like Hans Zimmer, whereby stripped-down sounds and simplified melodies are given the limelight — as opposed to traditional, sweeping, complex orchestral pieces.

The second part of the story is how Symphony No. 3 was received. Nobody was more surprised than Górecki himself when in 1992, 16 years after he had written it, a label called Nonesuch Records released a new recording that topped the classical charts in Britain and America. It has since sold over one million copies and is sometimes hailed as the best-selling work of contemporary classical music. But Górecki did not then make a volte-face and embrace this colossal public success — he continued to follow his own creative inclinations and never tried to recapture the popularity of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by writing something similar. Impressive. What did Górecki himself say about this unheralded, once-in-a-lifetime chart-topper? In 1994 an interviewer asked him this:

Does it please you that more and more people now, all of a sudden it seems, are listening to your music?

And here is how Górecki responded:

I'm not so sure they're listening to me. Leave the "me" out of it. There is something about people on earth that people listen to music. It's not important if it's Górecki's music. What is important is that the music is necessary, that they need the music.

II - Historical Figure

Notes on Marcus Aurelius

Philosopher King?

This will not be my usual "Historical Figure" section — I shall not give you a brief biography of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, born 1,903 years ago yesterday.

Rather, the place to begin is by saying that, for centuries — specifically, since Niccolo Machiavelli's comments, further embedded by Edward Gibbon's landmark The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the 18th century — he has been regarded as one of the "Five Good Emperors". These were, chronologically: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Their collective reigns stretched from 96 to 192 AD and marked an extended period of peace and prosperity in the Roman Empire, at that point a single state stretching from the Rea Sea to the Atlantic.

And Marcus Aurelius has had a personal renaissance of late. He is famed now as the "Philosopher King" and has seemingly become the most popular of Rome's many emperors, largely thanks to his writings on Stoic philosophy. Whereas a few years ago one might have had some trouble finding a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, they now populate front-of-store bookshelves around the world. And rightly so! But there is more than meets the eye here. Those Meditations were the private journal of the emperor, never intended for publication, written on the road (and written in Greek, not Latin!) as he tried to reconcile his Stoic philosophy with the life he was leading. This explains, perhaps, their almost startlingly sincerity:

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.

But Marcus Aurelius' Stoicism was more than a set of practical maxims for living by. Rather, those wonderful fragments of advice represent the thin end of the stick — they are the logical conclusions of a vast network of beliefs regarding good and evil, the cosmology of the universe, and the nature of the soul. So when we find Marcus Aurelius saying, for example:

Never esteem anything as of advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect.

We must remember that this helpful adage was related to Aurelius' other beliefs, as when he said:

Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.

Far be it from me to be a finger-wagging scholar, proclaiming "actually!" from an ivory tower. I endorse engagement with history wherever it is to be found — good things usually follow. But we do ourselves a disservice by forgetting that Marcus Aurelius was a real person whose personal philosophy was part of a much broader, oftentimes complicated context. As Cicero said in On the Nature of the Gods, a treatise written in 45 BC which explores the views of Skepticism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism:

Hence we Stoics conclude... that the whole world at last would be consumed by a general conflagration, when, all moisture being exhausted, neither the earth could have any nourishment, nor the air return again, since water, of which it is formed, would then be all consumed; so that only fire would subsist; and from this fire, which is an animating power and a Deity, a new world would arise and be re-established in the same beauty.

Modern Stoicism — Neostoicism? — seems to have pruned away this sort of speculation concerning the destruction and rebirth of the universe. I do not say this is a problem; my point is simply that there is more to Marcus Aurelius than practical advice. Perhaps we can discard the cosmic side to Stoicism, should we so choose, but I daresay it is worth knowing what we are discarding before we do so — and worth wondering whether it can actually be separated.

III - Painting

Lemminkäinen's Mother

Akseli Gallen-Kalela (1897)

Akseli Gallen-Kalela (1865-1924) is probably the most famous Finnish artist. And that makes sense — he was, in so many ways, the right artist at the right time. In purely artistic terms Gallen-Kalela was a prodigiously talented painter who straddled the bridge between Traditionalism and Modernity, between the Age of the Academies and the Age of Post-Impressionism. And, socially, he was active during the Finnish national awakening. This was a period during the 19th century which saw the revival of Finnish language and culture, culminating in the declaration of independence in 1917 and the establishment of a nation state free from Russian rule.

What we see here is a scene from the Kalevala. This is usually referred to as Finland's national epic — comparable in cultural importance to the Iliad for the Greeks, the Aeneid for the Romans, Beowulf in England, and the Divine Comedy in Italy. But, unlike those other poems, the Kalevala was not composed by a single poet. Rather, it is a collection of folk-tales and poetry, some dating back centuries, which was finally compiled into a single text in the 1830 and 1840s.

In this painting we see Lemminkäinen, one of the heroes of the Kalevala, after he has drowned in the Underworld. His mother has fished him from the river, stitched the disparate parts of his body back together, and awaits a bee she has sent to the god Ukko to ask for the magical ointment needed to resurrect him. Perhaps most striking about this painting is the expression on the face of Lemminkäinen's mother. We can sense her repressed grief and her resolve, the mixture of despair and hope — an expression somehow teetering on the edge, changing every time we look at it.

Stylistically speaking, it should be no surprise to learn that Gallen-Kalela went to study in Paris in 1884, when the Impressionists were in town and just two years before Vincent van Gogh would arrive. You can see this latent modernism in Gallen-Kalela's methods. Notice how he gives the people and objects in this painting a thick black outline. This is "unrealistic" in some sense, and it certainly contradicted the teachings of the European art academies of the time. But it adds a sense of gravitas, creating a sort of heightened reality — as we find in Medieval art — which somehow feels weightier than scrupulously "lifelike" art ever could. Thus the style feeds the meaning; a mythological moment is given a mythological atmosphere.

IV - Architecture

Samarqand

Jewel of Timur

Timur, otherwise known as Tamerlane, was one of history's fiercest conquerors. He was a descendant of Genghis Khan who rose from relative obscurity to a position of supreme power by his own extraordinary abilities. When he burst onto the scene in the 14th century Timur swept across Central Asia and established a vast empire without losing a single battle. Little wonder they called him "Scourge of the Gods"! But what, you ask, was his greatest legacy? Strange to say, despite the blood he shed and borders he smashed, it might just be one of the world's most beautiful cities. Because Samarqand, in modern-day Uzbekistan, has an unusual concentration of exquisite, centuries-old architecture.

There is the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, originally built in the 15th century, once among the largest mosques in the world, defined by its domes covered in glittering, blue ceramics:

And then there is Shah-i Zindeh, a tomb complex made up several dozen structures built between the 12th and 19th centuries. Notice, again, the prevalence of domes and the way they have been decorated with glazed tiles:

And at its centre there is the Registan, a public square lined by three large madrasahs, or Islamic schools — a testament to how Samarqand flourished as a centre of theology, art, and scholarship during the Timurid Renaissance:

Nor can we forget the Ulugh Beg Observatory, constructed in the early 15th century, comprising a vast array of astronomical equipment made from stone. And, of course, there is the Gur-e-Amir, Timur's mausoleum, its dome covered in those delightful geometric patterns typical of Islamic design. And note the unusual, almost "ribbed" structure of the dome — an idiosyncrasy of Timurid architecture.

As you may have guessed, the splendid architecture of Samarqand was no accident. Timur, though famed for his ruthlessness, was careful to avoid killing artisans, artists, and architects. These he spared from the cities he conquered and sent them in their droves to his capital, where he set them to work building what he hoped would become the greatest city on earth. In this way the story of Timur and the beautiful architecture of Samarqand reveals — if we needed reminding! — that history, that every thread of this our human civilisation, is always more complicated than it seems. The line between good and evil, dark and light, seems to run through all things. Judgment is thus a difficult process. What we can say, at least, is that Timur established a habit (if I may call it that!) and several successive generations of the Timurid Dynasty followed the example he had set by continuing to lavish Samarqand with some of the finest architecture in Central Asia. Like so much of the world's great art and architecture, it was the product of a virtuous cycle.

And there is more to the story of Samarqand. In the early years of the 20th century a pioneering colour photographer called Sergey Prokhudin-Gorsky was funded by the Tsar to travel the length of the Russian Empire, photographing its many peoples and lands, for the purposes of cultural preservation and education. Samarqand was one the places he visited. But the buildings captured by Prokhudin-Gorsky were in a state of disrepair at the time — they had essentially been left untouched, for centuries, when he took their photographs. Compare his pictures of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque with a more recent image to see the difference:

The architecture of Samarqand has since been restored! Another reminder, then, that architecture is not a fixed and eternal thing, like some abstract concept. Rather, it is physical, and like every other object in our universe it is prone to deterioration and even disappearance — unless we look after our buildings they will not survive.

V - Rhetoric

Buddha's Imponderables

Eristic is an ancient rhetorical term which refers to the way certain people argue for the sake of argument. Best case scenario they care more about winning than actually being right. Worst case scenario they simply want to keep arguing, ad infinitum. Neither are good, but both remain as common now as they were two thousand years ago... if not more so.

It is partly because of the prevalence of eristic that I find myself drawn to what the Buddha said about "unanswerable questions", sometimes called "imponderables". These were a set of questions concerning the nature of existence which he refused to answer. Why? Partly because he thought finding answers to them was impossible, and therefore a waste of time. And, more fundamentally, he argued that they simply do not make sense. Thus they are worse than mere distraction because they actively harm us — which, for the Buddha, meant over-intellectualising and failing to focus on experience, thus straying from the path to enlightenment.

My point here is not about the merits of Buddhism per se — rather, I think Buddha's notion of certain questions being a waste of time (or worse) seems peculiarly relevant in the age of the internet, a place filled with endless arguments and bottomless rabbit-holes. Shall we engage in these fruitless online debates or not? I am minded of what is written in the Book of Proverbs:

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.

Plato once said rhetoric is the art of working upon men's souls by means of language. A convincing point of view. For what is human civilisation if not an uncountable, unending series of conversations between human beings? This being the case, how we speak and what we choose to speak about — or not speak about — are among the most significant decisions we can make in life. This observation lies at the heart of the Buddha's unanswerable questions; ancient wisdom of supreme relevance in a world dominated by eristic.

VI - Writing

What would Walter do?

We talked about Byron plenty last week; he demands to be heard again. Because one of the things writers struggle with most — not only writers but all humans — is what other people think. We instinctively crave praise and find criticism difficult to manage. Worrying about how other people view us, and stressing over how they will react to our work, can cripple both our creativity and wellbeing.

So consider what Lord Byron wrote to his publisher, John Murray, in 1821:

Send me no more reviews of any kind. — I will read no more of evil or good in that line. — Walter Scott has not read a review of himself for thirteen years.

Byron had learned that reading reviews of his work was good neither for him nor his work. Thus he mentions Walter Scott, who was at that point one of the two or three most popular poets in Britain, who apparently refused to read any whatsoever. What's the lesson? You are your audience — and nobody else. If we write to please other people we will almost certainly fail and, even if we do succeed, shall find ourselves drowning in the anxiety that necessarily comes with satisfying the capricious winds of taste. This is peculiarly relevant in the age of social media, when thousands of strangers can freely bombard us with their opinions about what we have or have not said. It is tempting to read this unsolicited feedback — but writers stand to benefit from ignoring what "people on the internet" say, and instead asking themselves, "am I happy with what I have written?" That is what Byron realised, perhaps too late. But, judging by his work and his life, he was a better writer and a happier man afterwards.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Time for Wonder

Many words have been attributed to Professor Albert Einstein that he never said. I do think we have a tendency to over-lionise him — he was a wise man and would have agreed with this himself. After all, Einstein said in 1932 that "there is not the slightest indication nuclear power will ever be obtainable." Even geniuses can get the future horribly wrong!

But one of the things he said, something I believe worth sharing, was this, in conversation with William Hermanns:

Don't think about why you question, simply don't stop questioning. Don't worry about what you can't answer, and don't try to explain what you can't know. Curiosity is its own reason. Aren't you in awe when you contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure behind reality? And this is the miracle of the human mind—to use its constructions, concepts, and formulas as tools to explain what man sees, feels and touches. Try to comprehend a little more each day. Have holy curiosity.

In a world that places demands on our attention like never before we surely stand to benefit from these words. The internet does an excellent job of satisfying basic curiosities, but I wonder if it has inhibited our ability to truly wonder at things. One struggles to contemplate the sunrise, say, for more than a few seconds. Whether actively — by the omnipresent ping — or by habit, we are drawn back to our smart phones like moths to a flame. That "holy curiosity" Einstein mentioned can only be found through an isolated, even somewhat idle, state of reflection. But isolated idleness is actively suppressed by the internet, a place where content has been carefully manufactured to hold our attention for as long as possible and keep us returning to it even against our will.

So, next time you are tempted by force of habit to open your phone, ask yourself what Albert Einstein would do. Would he watch another batch of mindless reels, or would he endeavour to spend some time — even just half an hour — in the pure, idle, holy solitude of thought?

Question of the Week

Last week's question to test your critical thinking, inspired by Lord Byron's comments on the subject, was:

Should the Parthenon Marbles be returned to Greece?

These were some of your answers:

Steve R

Well, were I to become Prime Minister, before I even sat down at number 10, I would call the Greek Ambassador and say “Meet me in half an hour at the British Museum, and bring cardboard boxes and a screwdriver”.

Voula

To begin with, the idea that they could be owned and sold is preposterous, even more so considering that they were "sold" by Ottoman occupiers who had no claim on the land and its history.
The marbles don't belong to anyone but the monument itself. They should be returned, as should all artifacts that were stolen all over the world, to their respective places of origin, restoring the monuments and the history of human civilizations.This history belongs to all of us.

Simon R

Yes, yes, yes!
This day and age there are so many ways of recording the Marbles: photography, scanning, copying … that the vast majority of people who walk past them in the British Museum, or never get to see the bits that are stored in the basement would never know the difference!
The basement is another story. I was lucky enough to be taken down there to see the Nebamun Wall painting fragments just before they were displayed in their new gallery. I was part of a British Museum/Open University joint project that created a short online course to put them into context (https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/art-and-life-ancient-egypt/content).

At one of our meetings one of the BM reps asked if we had seen the fragments, when we all said “no” we were all marched through the Museum, through a nondescript set of doors into an Aladdin Cave full of treasures from all over the world, most, apparently, that would never be seen in the Museum.

Marcos F

In my opinion, the Parthenon Marbles should not be returned to Greece.
When in the beginning of the 19th century the marbles were taken to England by Lord Elgin this was at that time the right thing to do. As we know, the Ottoman Empire, who ruled Greece then, had no concern over celebrating or protecting the Parthenon, and used it as a gunpowder and ammunition store.
So when in 1806 the marbles were taken, Elgin was actually guardind the cultural heritage, and History was made.
If one should think of 'amending History' now that Greece is no longer ruled by Ottomans, it would be really hard to draw the line. Should the great museums return all the archaelogical findings to their places even when they are best preserved at the hands of these institutions? Do the archaeological findings belong to the places and countries where they were found, to the researchers who found them, to the institutions that financed the research, or to the ones who fought to guard them? I believe that it is best, in any case, to keep them where they will be best preserved.

Jonathan R

The British claim to the Parthenon marbles is weak and outdated.
Modern-day Greeks, much like modern-day Romans, are immensely proud of their heritage and ancestry. They could more accurately and proudly display the collection than the British, especially considering the way the pieces are currently on display.
In the British museum the Parthenon marbles sit in bare walls with dim lightning lacking context. In the New Acropolis Museum, the pieces would be viewed under natural lighting as they were for 2200 years and in the correct context in terms of positioning and viewing angles. The Acropolis and Parthenon would be a short 10 minute walk away helping to contextualize the collection, and it would be conserved using state-of-the-art facilities.
There is no doubt in my mind that the collection should rightfully be returned, however, to quote Machiavelli “Politics have no relation to morals.”

Ionna H

Μάλιστα ,διότι ανήκουν στους Έλληνες .

Tom W

In response to your question, I’d argue that it’s of no importance for the Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Friezes to be moved to Greece, and perfectly legitimate for them to stay where they are. Notwithstanding the romantic pieties of a depraved artist who liked nothing so much as a crumbling ruin he could pose dramatically in front of, and the nationalist mythmaking that stands in direct descent from him, the acquisition of the marbles was totally above board, basically unopposed at the time, and in fact in the interest of their conservation - one wonders how exactly Byron, who could write a decent poem but not do much else, intended British hands should guard them if not by protecting them from neglect and erosion. That’s not to say they shouldn’t go to Greece; I understand there’s a perfectly lovely museum now in Athens standing ready to receive them, and there’s all sorts of interesting possibilities for exchanges and so on that have been mooted. If a deal gets worked out that’s a win-win, so much the better. But the idea that their return is a moral issue, that their presence in the British Museum is something that needs apologising for, is for the birds.

And for this week's question, something a little different — to test your descriptive faculties, perhaps!

What is your favourite month, and why?

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's Areopagus.


And that's all

How tempting to write a long and ponderous epilogue. No doubt that may be a good idea; sometimes, however, what we leave unsaid is the greatest thing we can say. This being my hope... I bid you farewell. Until Friday next!

Yours,

The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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