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Areopagus Volume LXXVII

Published about 1 month ago • 19 min read

Areopagus Volume LXXVII

Welcome one and all to the seventy-seventh volume of the Areopagus... and we're back.

At the beginning of 2024 I said the Areopagus would have a month-long hiatus while I worked on something else, not wishing to divide my attention from giving you the best I can. That month turned into three. I hope, in time, you will think this intermission worthwhile. For now all I can say, this being the headline, is thank you. These last few weeks I have received wonderful messages wishing me well and asking when the Areopagus shall return. I have endeavoured to answer them all, but if I managed to miss yours I can only apologise and implore you to know that your words mean more than you realise.

Enough! A new page demands to be opened! The world is turning! The seven short lessons return!


I - Classical Music

Vallée d'Obermann, from Années de pèlerinage

Franz Liszt

Performed by Claudio Arrau
Landscape in the Jura Mountains near Romanel
by Félix Vallotton (1900)

The legendary Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt worked on Années de pèlerinage, meaning "Years of Pilgrimage", for decades. The first of its three parts was started in the 1830s and the final was not completed until the 1880s. It was also among the last thing he ever performed; in his old age, in private, for Claude Debussy. Each of its sections is dedicated to a particular place or literary theme, in this case a novel about a solitary scholar called Obermann who lives in the mountains of the Swiss Jura. If you listen carefully, perhaps with your eyes closed, I think you can hear a wild, mountainous landscape in this piece: the rockfaces, brooks, windswept peaks, and plunging valleys.

And, true to the spirit of Romanticism, Liszt paired this piece with a quote from Lord Byron:

Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me, – could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe – into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword.

If you want to understand just how much music changed in the 19th century then compare Vallée d'Obermann with, say, a piano piece by Mozart — from the delicate, self-contained clockwork of Vienna to Liszt's roiling, unpredictable avalanches of sound. This continental musical evolution was in many ways down to Liszt himself.

But I have shared part of the Années de pèlerinage with you before; Après une lecture du Dante. Why do I return? Because it reveals an important truth about all music, not only classical, which I did not fully address: that, sometimes, it takes time. We are accustomed by catchy tunes in popular music — a trend centuries old, no doubt, though exacerbated by radio and the internet — to like songs immediately. Thus, when we hear something that does not strike us as enjoyable at the first listen, we are inclined to discard it forever. What a tragedy! And I was guilty of just that with Liszt's Années de pèlerinage, especially its lengthier parts. But, these past few months, I have fallen in love with it — Liszt has been there precisely when I needed him. This reminded me of what the French poet Paul Valéry said in the 1920s about how music recording was changing the world, anticipating by nearly a century the impact of online streaming:

Formerly we could not enjoy music at our own time, according to our own mood. We were dependent for our enjoyment on an occasion, a place, a date, and a program. How many coincidences were needed! Today we are liberated from a servitude so contrary to pleasure and, by that same token, to the most sensitive appreciation of works of music. To be able to choose the moment of enjoyment, to savor the pleasure when not only our mind desires it, but our soul and whole being craves and as it were anticipates it, is to give the fullest scope to the composer’s intention...
I sincerely hope we are not moving toward such excesses in the magic of sound. Even now one can no longer eat or drink at a cafe without being disturbed by a concert. But it will be wonderfully pleasant to be able to transform at will an empty hour, an interminable evening, an endless Sunday, into an enchantment, an expression of tenderness, a flight of the spirit.

That is why I could not help but include Vallée d'Obermann in the first Areopagus of the year. We can talk about movements, "isms", techniques, and individual composers all day long — but the necessary first step with classical music is falling in love! Search, give time, reflect, and you may find the music you have always been looking for though never knew where to find.

II - Historical Figure

William Morris

Man of the People?

William Morris was a kaleidoscope of a man. He was born in 1839 and died in 1893 — a life which fits entirely within the reign of Queen Victoria. And that is appropriate, because Morris seemed to define a certain current of Victorian culture.

The first thing we should say is that he was known in his lifetime, above all, as a poet. Quite the shock to those who know him now for his patterns! He was even offered the position of Poet Laureate after the death of Tennyson. Morris turned it down, however, because he was ill-at-ease with being so close to the establishment. A decision which, you will learn as you read on, was entirely in keeping with his character.

But poetry is where we begin. Morris was part of the Medieval Revival that swept Victorian Britain and all Europe in the 19th century. His poetry, rather than being complex and sophisticated, was simple and archaic; he wanted to evoke the styles of the Middle Ages.

Had she come all the way for this,
To part at last without a kiss?
Yea, had she borne the dirt and rain
That her own eyes might see him slain
Beside the haystack in the floods?

He was also fascinated by Norse mythology and with the help of his friend, the Icelandic scholar Eiríkur Magnússon, translated various parts of the Eddas and Sagas — which tell of Odin, Thor, and Loki, along with heroes like Sigurd and heroines like Brynhild — into English.

“Ah! for unrest
All too long
Are men and women
Made alive!
Yet we twain together
Shall wear through the ages,
Sigurd and I.”

Morris also wrote prose fiction. Among his most famous works are News From Nowhere, a sort of experimental Utopian novel, and The Wood Beyond the World, which has since been regarded as one of the first modern fantasy novels. Morris wrote several of these, marrying fictional worlds — influenced by real mythology — with complex lore, fabulous creatures, and magic, mixing poetry and prose along the way. His chiefest influence was on J.R.R. Tolkien, who needs no introduction.

All that would be legacy enough, but it doesn't scratch the surface of Morris' work. There was also the Kelmscott Press, a publishing house he founded which sought to print books in the style of Medieval manuscripts, complete with illustrations and border patterns. These were short print-runs, scrupulously designed and printed by hand, among them the works of Morris himself, John Ruskin, and Geoffrey Chaucer. To support this sort of dying traditional craftsmanship, which simultaneously provided both meaningful work and beautiful things for ordinary people, was one of his priorities.

William Morris was also a passionate Socialist — and one of the most important early voices for major reform in Britain. He despised the rise of factories and modern cities, primarily because of how they had seemingly enslaved ordinary people, giving them miserable work and sapping human creativity, all the while destroying nature and creating what he considered ugly architecture and oppressive urban landscapes. He was even an early mover in the movement to build spacious suburbs rather than cramming working people into the unhygienic, close-quarters of the city centre. But we should not be surprised. For Morris art and society were one and them same; they rise and fall together. This quote gives you a sense of how vociferously he condemned Victorian Britain, of how much better he believed they could do:

...if civilisation is to go no further than this, it had better not have gone so far: if it does not aim at getting rid of this misery and giving some share in the happiness and dignity of life to ALL the people that it has created, and which it spends such unwearying energy in creating, it is simply an organised injustice, a mere instrument for oppression, so much the worse than that which has gone before it, as its pretensions are higher, its slavery subtler, its mastery harder to overthrow, because supported by such a dense mass of commonplace well-being and comfort.

And — for a slight change of tone — one of the funniest things Morris wrote was this:

I put some conscience into trying to learn the economical side of Socialism, and even tackled Marx, though I must confess that, whereas I thoroughly enjoyed the historical part of Capital, I suffered agonies of confusion of the brain over reading the pure economics of that great work.

A statement which simultaneously speaks for thousands who have tried failingly to read Marx and reveals Morris' humility. He was a clear thinker and a clear writer; we find little of that typical Victorian floridness in his writing. All is to the point. He even observed — perhaps more relevant now than ever — that while we think our machines serve us, we somehow end up being used by them:

[We have] long passed the stage at which machines are only used for doing work repulsive to an average man, or for doing what could be as well done by a machine as a man, and [we] instinctively expect a machine to be invented whenever any product of industry becomes sought after. [We are] the slave to machinery; the new machine must be invented, and when invented [we] must — I will not say use it, but be used by it, whether [we] like it or not.

Still, William Morris was a businessman himself; his eponymous company was one of the most popular in Victorian Britain. Morris & Co. produced textiles, carpets, rugs, upholstery, wallpapers, tapestries, furniture, stained glass windows, and more, all according to his Medieval-inspired design principles. Other leading artists like Edward Burne-Jones, William de Morgan, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti also made designs for Morris & Co., alongside a cavalcade of talented weavers, potters, and artisans. Morris' dream was to bring Art into the household — where he believed it belonged.

Enter Morris' legendary patterns, which remain as popular as ever, whether for wallpaper, tote bags, mugs, or tea coasters:

These patterns were not mere luck or pure talent. In The Beauty of Life, a lecture given in 1880, Morris explains in precise and clear detail his methods for designing them:

That every line in a pattern should have its due growth, and be traceable to its beginning... is undoubtedly essential to the finest pattern work; equally so is it that no stem should be so far from its parent stock as to look weak or wavering. Mutual support and unceasing progress distinguish real and natural order from its mockery.

And, amid some impressively specific technical advice, Morris also includes broader principles:

No pattern should be without some sort of meaning. True it is that that meaning may have come down to us traditionally, and not be our own invention, yet we must at heart understand it, or we can neither receive it, nor hand it down to our successors. It is no longer tradition if it is servilely copied, without change, the token of life.

It was also in this little treatise that we find his most famous words:

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

A commendable idea, and only the least of Morris' wise words! If you are looking for tips on interior design, Morris is the man to consult. In Making the Best of It he explains his rules for interior design as a whole, from furniture to windows, and even for arranging gardens. In all cases he endeavoured to make these rules universal — they were intended for average households. Morris also designed a house of his own, where he lived for a time, with the help of an architect called Philip Webb. It is known the Red House and, of course, drew on motifs of Neo-Gothic design:

The many things Morris did — poetry, prose, translation, political campaigning, printing books, designing patterns, giving public lectures — cannot easily be divided. They were part of one great whole, all different facets of the same jewel. Morris was not so erudite a scholar as Ruskin, not so influential a thinker as Marx, not so bombastic a writer as Carlyle, not so talented a poet as Tennyson... and yet what he has done, indisputably, is in some sense greater than all those greats combined. By his patterns alone — to say nothing of his poetry, politics, and other design work — he beautified the world at large and gave wonderful things to ordinary people, and is still giving them to us. In a world of big talkers and big ideas, Morris endeavoured to bring his ideas into the real world. Whether he succeeded or not is a question I shall leave you to answer. Suffice to say, however, William Morris tried to make the world more beautiful — one struggles to think of a greater legacy than that.

III - Painting

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo

Marie Spartali Stillman (1889)

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) was a remarkable woman with a fascinating life. Much of that I must leave untold, however. For now let us only say that she was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a controversial group of 19th century British artists who wanted to restore art to its Medieval days of colour and detail. For too long, they believed, it had been shackled by Renaissance rules of perspective, composition, and form, as taught in the Academies, so that by the 19th century art had become conventionalised, uninspiring, half-dead, and boring. Against all that they rebelled.

Marie Spartali was the daughter of a Greek businessman who moved to Britain and mixed in cultured circles. He invited artists and poets to his house in Clapham and it was in these environs that young Marie first met the Pre-Raphaelites and other British artists who were, though flourishing, not quite part of the establishment. First she acted as a model for them along with her Greek cousins Maria Zambaco and Aglaia Corono; these three were regarded as among the most beautiful ladies in the British Isles.

This got her interested in art and, without any formal training, she picked up a brush for the first time. Under the tutelage of Ford Maddox Brown (to whom she had been introduced by James Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti) she quickly became a formidable artist. Stillman developed a distinctive style of her own which somehow evokes the appearance of a tapestry. You get the impression of threads woven together rather than, say, the smooth finishes of Renaissance-inspired art or the visible brushstrokes of Impressionism. Stillman's paintings have an undeniable texture, and this stylistic flourish only adds to the Medievalism of her work. Note, also, how much attention Stillman has paid to clothing and to flowers — the robes and dresses are fabulously rendered and each flower is a specific, recognisable type. These are two broader hallmarks of Pre-Raphaelite art. It is also fair to say she depicted women somewhat differently to the other, male members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Less of that angelic longing; more of a quiet, sometimes even stern, contemplation. This was something Rossetti himself acknowledged.

And The Garden of Messer Ansaldo is a testament to how art rewards attention. One could glance at this for a few seconds and think nothing of it. But, with a few minutes' contemplation, a marvellous tale unfolds. It was inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, a compilation of one hundred short stories written in the middle of the 14th century. A suitably Medieval inspiration, then. What do we see? A charming garden. But that is not all. Notice the background. Look through the arches of the garden wall. It is snowing. Winter. But how are these spring flowers blooming in the frost? To answer that you must read Boccaccio's tale — I shall not spoil its magic for you!

IV - Architecture

Swaminarayan Akshardham

How old do you suppose this temple is? A trick question, of course! One sees this sort of thing and imagines it must be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Strange to realise, then, that the Swaminarayan Akshardham in Delhi is younger than Facebook. It was opened in 2005 after five years of construction, though its genesis — the idea for such a temple — goes all the way back to 1968. It was built by a Hindu denomination called Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), funded by private donations, and constructed by a mixture of volunteers, labourers, and artisans.

The temple's design comes from ancient Hindu texts regarding art and architecture — the Shilpa and Vastu Shastras — and its structure is entirely stone, with no iron or steel. The temple has a complex layout, as stipulated by those ancient texts, revolving around nine sections called mandapas, each with their own dome, name, and design scheme:

The temple is filled, inside and out, with an array of at least 20,000 individually sculpted statues and decorations, and the whole structure rests on a plinth called the Gajendra Peeth, itself decorated with large sculptures of elephants and traditional stories about them:

Remarkable though it is, I cannot say the Swaminarayan Akshardham is unique. It is only one of dozens of traditionally designed temples all around the world — made with marble and limestone, without steel, and designed according to ancient texts, decorated by artisans — that have been built by BAPS in the last three decades. The most significant such project outside India is the Swaminarayan Akshardham in Robbinsville, New Jersey, the largest Hindu temple in the USA. Construction started in 2010 and was completed in 2023. Like its equivalent in Delhi this was built with the help of volunteers from all walks of life. Another is Shri Swaminarayan in Toronto, Canada, completed in 2007, for which marble was shipped to India, sculpted and carved there by artisans, then brought back to Toronto and reassembled — the same process used for all BAPS temples.

There's also Shri Swaminarayan in London, built in the 1990s, or Shri Swaminarayan in California. This one had a troubled planning process because of local building codes that did not allow it to be constructed according to traditional methods and designs. After a campaign, however, the regulations were changed and another marvellous temple emerged.

The list goes on. This is a quite remarkable global project — and one that might change opinions about what is possible with architecture. After all, these are traditional buildings made with help from modern methods and machines; old and new working in unison. When people ask why we no longer build "traditional architecture" the answer is rarely about aesthetics — few people say traditional architecture is ugly. Rather, the response is that we simply cannot afford to, or that it is impractical, or that we don't have the necessary expertise. These BAPS temples fly in the face of all those explanations — explanations I have often give myself! — and there are other examples of this. I have written before about the 18th century Frauenkirche in Dresden, destroyed during the Second World War and left in ruins for decades but recently rebuilt. There are also the Old Towns of Warsaw of Frankfurt and Warsaw, along with buildings like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, demolished under Stalin, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, burned down in the 1950s, and the Gothic Cloth Hall of Ypres, destroyed in the First World War. All have been rebuilt. As for new projects there are — along with those BAPS temples — places like the Cathedral of Saint Sava in Belgrade or the People's Salvation Cathedral in Bucharest, in both cases Orthodox churches built using a mix of traditional design and modern methods and materials.

The point here is not that every building should be traditionally designed, nor that modern architecture is bad. Rather, the point is that we can clearly have both, even though many people say otherwise. And the strangest thing of all is that despite obfuscations about cost and practicality, the only necessary condition for creating all these traditionally designed buildings was the simple desire to do so.

You get the architecture you want. That is what Yogiji Maharaj said in the 1960s when he proposed these temples. He believed traditional architecture was important for faith, culture, and community; a belief shared by his successor, Pramukh Swami Maharaj. They desired traditional architecture — and they built it. So Swaminarayan Akshardham is a marvellous temple in its own right — but it is also one that sends, seemingly on purpose, a powerful message.

V - Rhetoric

Powerful Coffee

Have you ever noticed that we always say "strong" in reference to the intensity of our drink? Somebody asks, "how do you like your coffee?" and you respond, "strong." But were you to ask me how I like my tea, and I answered, "powerful", you would think it a very strange thing to say. Why? Strong and powerful mean more or less the same thing, and powerful is often used to describe how food tastes.

This phenomenon is called collocation when a particular way of saying something becomes standardised for no necessary linguistic, etymological, or cultural reason. Think of how economies always "boom", products are always "launched", and problems are always "posed". There are dozens of other words we could use in place of these, but they are the ones we revert to. Curious! But, note, there is a spectrum here. At the far end we have idioms. This is where a set of words has gone beyond mere habitual association and become a phrase of its own. Think of "fast food". This is the name for an industry now. Were I to say "quick food" that would be incorrect, rather than the more subtle strangeness of "powerful coffee".

Collocations are different in foreign languages, of course, which is much the fun and difficulty of learning them. A recent example I have noticed is "oddly specific". For no other reason than chance and habit, oddly is the word we now use to describe things that are more specific than one might expect. It could have been anything (perhaps peculiarly or strangely) but it is oddly we have collectively settled on by a mass, anonymous vote of tongues. You will realise, if you prick up your ears, that collocations are all around us. Habits, like rules, accustom us to regularity. Thus the simplest way to get noticed is simply to break them. Collocation offers a rather subtle way of doing so. How to say something striking? Swap out those words we have learned to fall back on.

VI - Writing

What is worth your words?

Where to begin? The hardest question for any writer. William Wordsworth gives us an answer. His life's work was a poem he never finished called The Recluse. Only two sections were completed, The Prelude and The Excursion. These he wrote, rewrote, and edited over the course of decades, never to finish. Alas, such is life! What is the subject of this great poem? At the beginning of The Prelude Wordsworth mentions all the things he might or could have written about, from tales of Greek legend to mythical speculation about the origins of the Norse god Odin:

How vanquished Mithridates northward passed,
And, hidden in the cloud of years, became
Odin, the Father of a race by whom
Perished the Roman Empire.

Or perhaps a historical figure:

How Wallace fought for Scotland; left the name
Of Wallace to be found, like a wild flower,
All over his dear Country...

But he could not settle on a subject. And, in this state of aporia, Wordsworth gives perfect definition to that peculiar inbetween-ness felt by all writers who are unsure what to write about:

...either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself,
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In listlessness from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling toward the grave.

Frighteningly familiar! How to solve this conundrum? In the end Wordsworth settles on what he knows best, which in Wordsworth's case was Nature and his relationship with it. As if from nowhere it bursts forth in the opening to The Prelude as he reflects on how his mind and spirit were shaped by his upbringing in England's Lake District:

...yet have I stood,
Even while mine eye hath moved o'er many a league
Of shining water, gathering as it seemed
Through every hair-breadth in that field of light
New pleasure like a bee among the flowers.

Now, with his theme established — his life and his lifelong reverence for Nature — Wordsworth finds himself ready to continue:

One end at least hath been attained; my mind
Hath been revived, and if this genial mood
Desert me not, forthwith shall be brought down
Through later years the story of my life.
The road lies plain before me;—'tis a theme
Single and of determined bounds; and hence
I choose it rather at this time, than work
Of ampler or more varied argument,
Where I might be discomfited and lost.

Had Wordsworth written an epic poem about Odin no doubt it would have been good — but not as good, we may say, as The Prelude, which is an unheralded masterwork. What is the lesson here? "Write what you know", as the overgiven advice goes. But, like all cliches, it is essentially true. Perhaps by saying it in a different way — by using the example of Wordsworth — it will stick with you, make more sense, and be of use when you next find yourself lost for words.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Bless you!

Handkerchief is an interesting word. It is, etymologically (or philologically?) a fabulous compound. And it is, regardless of any history, rather a funny word to spell, look at, and say. The way we drop the "d", perhaps. It is also a dying word. How often have you heard of it late? Rarely, I suspect. Why? Because we no longer use handkerchiefs. Whereas once upon a time everybody carried a handkerchief, useful for wiping various things and blowing one's nose, we now use disposable tissues instead — which were invented barely more than a century ago. And it is only thanks to methods of industrial mass production and globalisation that tissues can be produced on such a colossal scale and sold so cheaply. They are more hygienic, but the simple truth is that we would still be using handkerchiefs if we could not afford to do otherwise.

The history of the world — of human civilisation — is revealed by mundane details of daily life. There are grand narratives and great players, but I think we learn more by the slow, minute, and invisible changes that sweep society. Next time you blow your nose on a disposable tissue, think how this unremarkable act represents the conquest, for good or bad, of humankind over the resources of the earth, along with the vast and complex industrial, commercial, consumerist society we have created upon it.

Question of the Week

For this week's question to test your critical thinking — along with your creative thinking — and inspired by musing on the time that has passed since we last met, I ask:

If you could travel forward in time to any point in the future, what would it be?

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


And that's all

I have missed the Areopagus. And, therefore, I don't think it would be either incorrect or oversentimental to say that I have missed you, my readers. For what would a newsletter be without people to read it — to comment, respond, and critique? I think Dr Johnson said something about this once, but I cannot place my hand on the quote. Alas, my words shall have to suffice! What do I choose? Only one: gratitude.

As for the project I have been working on these past months... you shall hear all about it very soon. Until then, I think, we have bigger geese to cook. The Areopagus returns next Friday — adieu!

Yours,

The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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