Areopagus Volume XLII

Areopagus Volume XLII

Welcome one and all to the forty second volume of the Areopagus. It was on this day, 392 years ago, that the great Metaphysical poet John Donne died at the age of fifty nine. It seems only appropriate to begin this week's instalment, then, with a few lines from his fertile mind:

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

That's the tenth of Donne's Holy Sonnets, composed in the midst of financial trouble, spiritual crisis, and life-threatening illness. Moving, rousing verse. And off we go...

I - Classical Music

Nuper Rosarum Flores

Guillaume Dufay

Performed by the Cantica Symphonia

Today's an important anniversary in musical history: both J.S. Bach and Joseph Haydn were born on this day, the 31st March, in 1685 and 1732 respectively. But we're going a little bit further back in time than that...

The date is the 25th March. The year is 1436. The city is Florence. Filippo Brunelleschi's dome, a marvel of engineering and architecture which defies explanation to this day, has just been completed. To consecrate this dome and to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation a service is held in the cathedral. Pope Eugene IV is there, along with the city council and all the leading Florentine lights of the day: Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Leon Battista Alberti, and so on. Thousands are in attendance. Imagine you're one of them. And then... the Pope's specially trained choir, the Schola Cantorum, sings Nuper Rosarum Flores. It must have been a remarkable moment. Brunelleschi's dome was lauded as the greatest architectural achievement in Europe for over a thousand years by his contemporaries. The artists were inspired, the humanists thrilled, the clergy uplifted, and the people amazed. A moment of universal joy and civic pride. The Florentine diplomat Giannozzo Manetti, who was in attendance, said this about it:

Such harmonies exalted even to heaven, that truly it was to the listener like angelic and divine melodies; the voices filled the listeners' ears with such a wonderful sweetness that they seemed to become stupefied, almost as men were fabled to become upon hearing the singing of the sirens. I could believe without impiety that even in Heaven, yearly on this most solemn day that marks the beginning of human salvation, the angels sing thus... I was so possessed by ecstasy that I seemed to enjoy the life of the Blessed here on earth.

Who composed the music for this service? Guillaume Dufay. This piece's title translates as 'The Rose Blossoms Recently', in reference to the full name of Florence Cathedral: Santa Maria del Fiore, or Saint Mary of the Flower. Dufay (also spelled as Du Fay) was something like the Elvis Presley of 15th century Europe. He was born in 1397 and, when he died in 1474, had travelled throughout the continent and worked for innumerable popes, kings, dukes, nobles, cathedrals, courts, and churches. Stylistically speaking Dufay represents both the link between and shift from Late Medieval to Renaissance music. He wrote music for the coronation of Eugene IV (indeed, popes used to be coronated), for the Treaty of Viterbo, and for Philip of Burgundy's famous Feast of the Pheasant, alongside many more masses, motets, and chansons. Some have even called him the first true composer in the modern sense of the word. Safe to say, then, that Dufay's influence and popularity were immense. We can see why he was chosen to write music for such a special occasion as the consecration of Brunelleschi's marvellous dome. And, if we close our eyes and let our imaginations run free, I think we can almost imagine that service nearly six hundred years ago. Such is the transportative power of music.

II - Historical Figure


The First European

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was born in Gouda, the Netherlands, in 1469. He was the illegitimate son of a priest and after a good (albeit strict) education at schools in Deventer and ’s-Hertogenbosch he joined an Augustinian monastic order in Steyn; by 1492 he had been ordained as a priest. But monastic life didn't suit Erasmus. He was a mild-tempered man by nature, not prone to extremes either of pleasure or self-restraint. He once advised a friend neither to stuff yourself with food nor starve yourself, neither to be lazy but nor to walk too quickly, and neither to oversleep nor deprive yourself of the rest we all need.

In the monastery the rules were too strict, the food wasn't sufficiently nourishing, and the hours they kept weren't conducive to study. But that's not the only reason he wanted to leave. What concerned Erasmus above all was that monasteries didn't seem to be serving their alleged purpose. Everybody there took on the outward appearance of a good Christian: they wore the right clothes, said the right things, and attended the right services. But inwardly and in all their other behaviour he found them lacking. This vein runs through all of Erasmus' writing. He thought a true Christian wasn't one who simply paid lip-service to the scriptures but one who genuinely lived in imitation of Jesus. The rest of it, all the draperies and rituals of religion, amounted to mere superstition when not properly understood:

You venerate the saints, and you take pleasure in touching their relics. But you disregard their greatest legacy, the example of a blameless life. No devotion is more pleasing to Mary than the imitation of Mary's humility. No devotion is more acceptable and proper to the saints than striving to imitate their virtues.

But Erasmus wasn't only concerned with Christianity. He was also a passionate classicist and an avid reader (and translator!) of just about every noteworthy Roman or Greek writer. Like many of his humanist contemporaries during the Renaissance what Erasmus sought was a way to unite the Classical and the Christian. He even wrote a satirical tract called Against the Barbarians in which he pilloried the monastic order for not letting him study the Classics.

And so Erasmus left the monastery in 1492 to work as a Latin secretary for the Bishop of Cambrai. Three years later he studied theology at the highly influential Collège de Montaigu at the University Paris. That, too, he found stultifying, and in 1499 he travelled to England. There he met a young Prince Henry (one day King Henry VIII) and other important English figures like John Colet and Thomas More. Erasmus was beginning to build the network of friends for which he would later be famous and with whom he so frequently corresponded.

Erasmus became a wandering scholar, ever in search of patronage and publishers. He travelled, worked, and made friends all over England, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy. Bologna, Venice, Rome, Freiburg, Basel, Louven, Brussels, London, Oxford, Cambridge, Paris... the list goes on. Erasmus has been called the first true European. That seems fair enough. For although a Dutchman he wrote of my England, my Germany, my France, and my Switzerland. In his own words:

I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger.

He personally knew and corresponded with figures as varied as Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII of England, Thomas More, Popes Julius II, Leo X, and Adrian VI, Martin Luther, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Albrecht Dürer, Martin Luther and just about every leading scholar, writer, artist, and theologian of the day. Not only these great names, however; Erasmus seems to have maintained contact with almost everybody he ever met. Here was one of history's greatest friends, always willing to advise, console, discuss, and help them however he could. That's one reason for his near-universal admiration. But why was he so famous? Erasmus was the ultimate scholar. He very often said that what little money he had would be used to buy books, and only when he had enough of them would he buy clothes.

I consider as lovers of books not those who keep their books hidden in their store-chests and never handle them, but those who, by nightly as well as daily use thumb them, batter them, wear them out, who fill out all the margins with annotations of many kinds, and who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of fault.

What did he write about? Well, current affairs concerned him no less than classical writers and scripture. He was always doing something, whether translating Plutarch, writing commentaries on the letters of Origen, learning Ancient Greek, penning satires (often anonymously), composing guides for students (how to read, write, and speak), compendiums of wise sayings (the Adages and Colloquies), etiquette manuals for children (they ought not to wipe their nose with their sleeve, for example), polemics on marriage, and discussions about the proper use of Latin. What runs through it all? A deep concern for and belief in education. For education, Erasmus believed, was the only serious way to make progress:

The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth.

His Education of a Christian Prince was published in 1516, just three years after Niccolo Macchiavelli's now more-famous The Prince, and though on the same topic it could hardly be more different. Erasmus says that a ruler must lead by example, earning respect and obedience through gratitude and admiration rather than Macchiavelli's preferred means of fear. He says that a ruler should avoid war at all costs, never seek to expand their territories, surround themselves with learned and wise advisors, watch out for flatterers, spend as little money as possible on their own expenses, and work without cease for the good of the people. All rather different from Macchiavelli's cunning prince.

Not that I would want anyone to be forcibly deprived of his goods, but some system should be operated to prevent the wealth of the many from being allocated to the few.

Among his most important achievements was a new (and controversial) translation of the New Testament; he consulted the original texts in Greek to correct what he thought were mistakes in St Jerome's definitive Latin translation from the 5th century BC. His Paraphrases of the Four Gospels were also extremely popular, especially in England, and his most successful satire the wildly ironic In Praise of Folly. We must remember that Erasmus was not only a serious scholar but a genuinely funny man. And nor was Erasmus a piddling philosopher or theologian. He thought the long tradition of Medieval Scholasticism - epitomised by adversarial argument and nit-picking over the precise philosophical nature of God - wasn't of much real world value. And this was, perhaps, the cause of his fame. What concerned him was how to improve the Europe he lived in. When Erasmus spoke, people listened.

Erasmus was also a reformer who wrote in favour of the education of women, against corporal punishment, and argued that priests should be allowed to marry. When he came to Italy Erasmus was shocked to find Pope Julius II at the head of a triumphal military procession. Was this really the Vicar of Christ? Erasmus wrote a satire called Julius Excluded From Heaven in which the warrior-pope Julius tries (and fails) to convince Saint Peter to let him in. Throughout his life he was also a vocal critic of corruption in the Catholic Church, of ecclesiastical bribery, of the idea that giving money to a priest could get somebody out of Hell, and of all forms of impiety.

What was the result of Erasmus' work? The Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and all the other Reformers had been influenced by his ideas. But they didn't share his mild temperament. Many of them were aggressive and they were all agitators, willing to use force if necessary and ready to break away from the Catholic Church. Europe was soon cast into a continental conflict: there were inquisitions, executions, book burnings, wars, riots, and violence. None of this Erasmus wanted. And throughout it all he remained fiercely independent, refusing to wholly condemn or join either side. They both wanted him and both claimed him; when he refused, they accused him of treachery. He corresponded with them both, too: Erasmus's letters to Luther and to Pope Leo X have survived. But he would not submit. As Erasmus said:

I am a lover of liberty. I will not and I cannot serve a party.

That line characterises Erasmus rather well. Another one might be this:

It is no great miracle to burn a man; it is a great achievement to change his mind.

Erasmus always favoured the Via Media - the middle way. His satire could be vicious and his stance on the evils of war or corruption of the Catholic Church uncompromising. But Erasmus did, ultimately, believe in compromise. A view, no matter how strongly held in theory, came second to the practicalities of the real world. He opposed impiety in all its forms and disapproved of how the scriptures had been manipulated or ignored by the Church. But he could never sanction strife to solve those problems. And so Erasmus must go down as one of history's greatest pacifists. He refused to endorse the idea of a "just war", arguing that it had no precedent in the Bible and that

the most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.

His favourite quote from Antiquity was probably Dulce Bellum Inexpertis, taken from the Greek poet Pindar. It translates as:

War is sweet to those who do not know it.

But by the end of his life Erasmus had become something of a candle in the dark. Whereas once he had written about the dawn of a new golden age of education, humanism, virtue, and enlightenment, by the 1520s he was describing the 16th century as the worst since the Crucifixion of Christ. He died in 1536, the last of a generation of humanists whose vision of a brighter Europe had not come to pass.

It seems only fitting that a man of Erasmus' stature was portrayed by three of the greatest artists of the age: Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Quentin Matsys. Each seems to bring out a different side to him: Dürer the serious and impassioned scholar, Holbein the friendly and mild-mannered but ruthless satirist, and Matsys the deeply thoughtful man. Erasmus' legacy has lasted through to the present day: a university is named after him and the European Union's international student exchange programme too. But I think he has much more to offer than that. Few writers could be of greater value in the 21st century, I dare say, than Erasmus.

III - Painting

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

Grant Wood (1931)

Grant Wood is most famous for American Gothic, one of those rare works of art which, like the Mona Lisa or The Scream or The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, has become a much-parodied icon of popular culture. It makes sense, I suppose, because it was American Gothic that transformed an obscure artist from Iowa into a national superstar. He submitted it to an annual competition at the Art Institute of Chicago and won the Bronze Medal, along with $300 in cash. Thereafter it circulated in the newspapers and rapidly became the most talked-about and popular painting in America. Grant Wood's career and reputation were assured.

But I dare say his other paintings are better, or at least more interesting, if not only because we can look at them with fresh eyes. The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, made just one year after that mysterious portrait of rural America, is one such painting. It depicts the events of 18th April 1775, when Paul Revere rode through the night to alert the colonial militia about the approach of British forces. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about it and, ever since, Paul Revere's midnight ride has been a part of American mythology.

Here we can see Grant Wood's peculiar style and brilliant imagination on full show. For though he may have been born in rural Iowa and was happy to cultivate the popular image of a straightforward farmer-craftsman type, Wood was a studied and serious artist. He travelled to Europe frequently in the 1920s, while he was working as a public school art teacher in Cedar Rapids, and in his earliest days was one of those rather uninspiring Impressionist imitators. He'd even studied art for a year in Paris. But everything changed in 1928, when Wood travelled to Germany to learn about stained glass after being commissioned to create a large window for the Cedar Rapids Veteran's Memorial Hall. There he came across the Old Masters of the Northern Renaissance: Netherlandish painters like Rogier van der Wyden, Jan van Eyck, and Hans Memling, all active in the 15th century. Here was something wholly different. Their work was astonishingly lifelike, almost photorealistic in its attention to detail, but entirely stylised and therefore totally unrealistic in some sense. Their figures were rigid, solemn, and stiff, and their landscape backdrops were like something from a fairytale, with rolling valleys and little lakes in vivid colours or castles and towns like childrens' toys.

Some of Grant Wood's paintings from his Post-Impressionist phase in the early 1920s

It was in these Northern painters that Wood found the inspiration for what would become his definitive style. From the blurred lines and mottled colours of Impressionism he turned to sharp definition, a smooth finish, and absolute clarity. He tended to remove the solemn figures (one exception being American Gothic, where they take centre stage) and bring the landscapes into the limelight. The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere might well be a snapshot taken from the background of a Memling. It is somehow both artificial and dream-like, unusual but charming, natural but entirely unnatural. Wood made the style his own and infused it with a particularly American atmosphere, usually drawing on the landscapes of his beloved Iowa to do so. The result is remarkable. No wonder the set designers of the Wizard of Oz drew direct inspiration from the art of Grant Wood; he had imagined an American fairytale landscape for them.

Interesting about all this is how radically an artist (and this applies to any creative endeavour, of course) can change their style. Had Grant Wood never seen those Northern painters then he may have never have moved on from his Impressionist phase. This is a testament to the importance of what we consume and how much it affects what we produce. And I suppose that's true in life as much as art.

IV - Architectural Masterpiece

Dolmabahçe Palace

No Expenses Spared

For centuries the sultans of the Ottoman Empire had been raised in and ruled from Topkapı Palace, that mighty labyrinth soaked in mystery on Seraglio Point, the First Hill of Constantinople, a palimpsest of millennia built on the rubble of civilisations, jutting out boldly into the Bosphorous, cluttered with the minarets of the Blue Mosque and the vast domes of the Hagia Sophia, every street filled with the spoliated remains of long-forgotten basilicas, churches, and hippodromes.

That changed in 1843. It was time to modernise. What did Sultan Abdülmecid I do? He had a new royal palace built on the shores of the Bosphorous. It took thirteen years to complete and cost about a quarter of national revenue, which did little to alleviate the already-struggling finances of the Ottoman Empire. It was designed by members of the Armenian Balyan family, who served as court architects for five generations and later designed a number of other waterfront buildings for Abdülmecid and his successors, including the Ortaköy Mosque in the 1850s and the Dolmabahçe Clocktower in the 1890s.

The result is altogether eye-catching. It's certainly more visible than Topkapı, glittering by the ancient Bosphorous for all to see rather than secluded and safe behind the walls of Seraglio Point. It's also more ostentatious, showy rather than mighty, more luxurious than grand, and frivolous rather than imposing. It seems that no expensive was spared - quite literally, given its cost. Among its labyrinth of dazzling rooms is the famous Crystal Staircase, in which the balustrades were cut from Baccarat crystal, while the rest of the palace is decorated with mahogany, brass, Egyptian alabaster, Proconnesian marble, and porphyry. It was also a deeply modern palace. Topkapı was a little outdated, after all, and Abdülmecid wanted comfort. So central heating, gas lighting, flushing toilets, and elevators were duly installed.

Well, such was the fashion of the day. Indeed, if you didn't already know Dolmabahçe was in Istanbul then you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a French or Italian palace. Which is the point. Abdülmecid wanted a residence to rival those of his European peers, and their palaces were all built in what has been called the Eclectic Style. Eclectic here meaning that it drew with relatively little discretion on a range of historical styles, from the Renaissance to the Baroque, playing with them and throwing them together into a cornucopia of exuberant, sometimes clashing, always orante edifices. It seems that Dolmabahçe, or at least its interior, draws largely on 18th century Baroque and Rococo. Every surface (when you look closer you realise it really is every surface) was covered in ornamentation and elaboration, whether muralled or stuccoed or wallpapered or carpeted or parqueted or painted with gold-leaf.

And so Dolmabahçe certainly speaks to the fact that international architectural styles aren't anything new. We may say in the 21st century that skyscrapers look much in the same in Chicago, London, Shanghai, and Melbourne. But in the 19th century royal palaces were terribly similar in France, Argentina, Russia, and Turkey. And here we see Sultan Abdülmecid of the Ottoman Empire, the Caliph of Islam, building a sort of Neo-Baroque palace in imitation of the most Catholic of all architectural styles. Baroque, after all, emerged in the late 16th century in response to the Reformation; all that gilded ornamentation was in direct opposition to the bare interiors of the Protestant churches. That soon spread to secular and royal buildings around Europe and, eventually, to the fashion-conscious Abdülmecid.

But we can go one step further. For Baroque architecture has its roots in Classical architecture. Just look at those Corinthian columns adorning its halls. Where did Corinthian columns first appear? Not in Rome. The Romans, after all, got their architecture from the Greeks. And Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium, was an Ancient Greek city state. All of which is simply to say that classical architecture was almost certainly present in what is now Istanbul before it arrived in Rome or Western Europe. Perhaps Dolmabahçe isn't so out of place, then.

In some sense Dolmabahçe also speaks to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. What had once been the largest, richest, and most formidable power in the world - and an ever-present threat to all of Europe - was by the 19th century a shadow of its former self. Maybe architecture reflects this. The Ottomans very much had their own magnificent and rich architectural heritage, generally called the Classical Ottoman Style. We need only look at the marvellous mosques of Istanbul, Bursa, and Edirne to see this, or old Topkapı itself. But in Dolmabahçe Iznik Tiles were replaced by gold leaf. So we may see Abdülmecid's absurdly expensive project as an attempt to catch up, even if only symbolically and aesthetically, with the powers that were rapidly eclipsing his own. Alas, it was an attempt that failed. Within a lifetime of Dolmabahçe's completion the Ottoman Empire was no more. But such is architecture; it's the art of society. Stories on every street, politics and religion in every brick, history and fashion in every turret. Today Dolmabahçe Palace is a museum and art gallery with a rather magnificent collection of paintings on show. Like most wild architectural projects, this one has also been a gift to posterity.

V - Rhetoric


Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) is one of those curious historical figures whose once mighty influence and fame have long since been consigned to obscurity. Who was he? An Italian courtier, diplomant, and author. His popularity rests on a treatise called Il libro del cortegiano, or The Book of the Courtier. It comes in the form of a philosophical dialogue set in the Ducal Palace of Urbino, where a group of aristocrats and artists discuss the qualities of an ideal gentleman or lady. It was one of the most widely translated and influential books in 16th century Europe (competing, perhaps, with the works of Erasmus) as a guide to etiquette, manners, appearance, and behaviour.

Much of the discussion is dedicated to how one should speak. For, unlike its many subsequent imitators, the Book of the Courtier is rather less prescriptive and rather more nuanced, open-ended, and even allegorical than first appears. When talking about the graceful way in which an ideal courtier ought to converse, Castiglione says this:

I find one universal rule concerning [grace], which seems to me worth more in this matter than any other in all things human that are done or said: and that is to avoid affectation to the uttermost and as it were a very sharp and dangerous rock; and, to use possibly a new word, to practise in everything a certain sprezzatura that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought. From this I believe grace is in large measure derived, because everyone knows the difficulty of those things that are rare and well done, and therefore facility in them excites the highest admiration; while on the other hand, to strive and as the saying is to drag by the hair, is extremely ungraceful, and makes us esteem everything slightly, however great it be.

The best way to translate sprezzatura might be something like "studied carelessness". The idea is to make something difficult (or highly intentional) appear effortless. It has become a word rather broadly-applied and you'll find it used in reference to both art and fashion. The gracefulness of Raphael has been called sprezzatura no less than the way Alain Delon dressed in the 1960s. But its origins lie in rhetoric. Castiglione's idea of sprezzatura was drawn from a careful reading of Aristotle and Cicero. There's a certain tension here, not least because a guide for aristocrats seems rather more superficial than a study of human eloquence and wisdom. But Castiglione was evidently passionate about the classics and his Book of the Courtier, upon closer inspection, proves to be much more than a frivolous guidebook for navigating high society. It paints, in places, a rather dignified picture of humane interaction.

So what does sprezzatura look like? Let's consider what it isn't. Not so long ago I attended a friend's graduation and, though it was on all accounts a beautiful occasion, the graduation speech left something to be desired. Why? Well, the person who gave it, though I have no doubt they are capable of delivering a magnificent speech, sounded as if they were reading from a script. They were, of course, but reading from a script (or teleprompter) isn't the problem. Many (most, even) great speeches have been written in advance. It's all about delivery. That's what both Castiglione and Cicero believed - the way we give a speech is almost as important as what we say. When we simply read out the words before us it sounds artificial and planned; the whole thing becomes robotic and feels predictable, even if the speech itself is actually rather good.

And so sprezzatura is when somebody says something with the sort of freedom that makes it feel like the words are coming to them in that very moment. An impression of spontaneity. The audience is engaged because it feels immediate and has all the urgency and directness of a real conversation. Both we as the listeners and the speaker are going somewhere together. We feel like we are being spoken to rather than having something read out to us. I suppose a good modern-day example is YouTube, where almost all videos are scripted, some of them word for word. And yet the good video essays feel entirely like natural, off-the-cuff commentary. That is sprezzatura.

Of course, it's not the only way to give a great speech or deliver a spoken work. Cicero wrote that different styles of delivery were appropriate (and effective) at different times. But I dare say sprezzatura is an important skill. Castiglione's courtiers may have long since disappeared, but he still has something to teach us.

VI - Writing

Be Somebody Else

Writer's block is one of the oldest banes in the creative book. How do we overcome it? There are myriad ways, and here's one of them: pretend to be somebody else and write as if you were them.

This is different to writing under a pseudonym, where you can craft a persona and through that persona access a different part of yourself. This is about adopting another writer's style, voice, and (even) beliefs. Let's take a simple question: what is love? How might Ernest Hemingway respond to that? What about Gabriel Garcia Marquez? And Dante? You get the point. We can imagine Hemingway's curt response. Grounded. Not mincing his words. So too Marquez, who was ever irreverent without being buffoonish and always drawn to vivid but unsentimental, surprising but not silly imagery. Dante's answer, splicing together his beloved Beatrice and his devotion to God, finding in love religion and religion love, is also readily conceivable.

I think this is helpful for writer's block because, by writing as somebody else, we already know what to say and how to say it. We just need to write down the words. So you write them and then... well, you're writing. But there's more to it. By writing as somebody else we also discover how we write. You'll suddenly find yourself thinking: that's not how I'd write that sentence, express that thought, or approach this topic. Or: that's not the adjective I'd use, the sentence length I find natural, or the imagery I like. So when you go back to writing as yourself you'll have a firmer idea, even subconsciously, of your own voice.

And, I suppose, it's simply a formalisation of what happens anyway. We read too much of some writer and then start writing like them. By consciously writing like our favourite writers we become more aware of when we do it unintentionally. And, that way, we can also perhaps stop ourselves from simply imitating them.

So choose a question or theme, the premise for a story or a problem, choose your favourite writer (or your least favourite, for that matter!) and write it out like them. It will (I hope) do wonders for your writer's block. And even if you're not stuck, writing as somebody else may be helpful in any case. And, I should add, bloody good fun.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

World of Books

People often ask where I do my research. The answer is almost always: books. But where does one find the requisite books? As I've said before, the internet is an excellent resource. But you can't always find what you need online and, for me, a physical book is inevitably better. You can carry it with you anywhere, make annotations, and (if it doesn't sound too outrageous) form a sort of bond with it. When I've read something on the page rather than the screen I find it sticks in my mind much more clearly.

So, where to buy books? I like bookshops. Usually second-hand ones. But even then you can't always find what you need (if you're looking for something specific rather than browsing). So, where else? There are many wonderful second-hand bookshops online. The one I find myself using most frequently is World of Books. Just to be clear, I have no relationship with them - this is not a sponsorship. I simply share this site because it has been of great value to me and hope it may also be to you. They have a huge array of second-hand copies, ranging from beautiful old editions of classic texts to obscure books that have been out of print for decades. I must confess that I sometimes prefer older editions to more recent print-runs. Something about the character of the paper, the cover design, the typeface, and even the illustrations or introductions and translations (which are usually updated every few years with classic books). Anyway, that's just something which answers a few of the questions I receive and which I hope you may find useful.

Question of the Week

Last week's challenge was to write an ekphrasis - a written description or interpretation of a work of art. I haven't included the paintings described. After all, that's the beauty of ekphrasis. It calls on our imaginative faculties.

Thomas W wrote about Rothko:

Red and orange and
Maybe there is purple too
It hurts my closed eyes.

And here is Jill M's ekphrasis:

We owned at one time an 18th century painting attributed as Circle of Gaetano Lapis. It is a scene from Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered where Cupid restrains the ruthless sorceress Armida from killing the Crusader Rinaldo. It is very much in the style of a European Old Master, with figures in the foreground draped in flowing red, blue, and golden-brown fabrics, and a misty landscape in the background. There is the hint of turbulence with storm clouds, but the sun shines on the figures as if reflecting the power of love. The painting depicts the moment Armida is about to murder the sleeping Rinaldo. A traditional Cupid with his bow confronts her from her left as her right holds a knife. Armida is painted in motion, nearly unbalanced by Cupid. It is as if Cupid, as the hero, has arrived at the moment the bomb clock clicks down to one second and saves the rest of the world as it sleeps. Many artists have depicted this scene, among others from the epic Italian poem, and despite the problematic issue of the Crusades, I always enjoyed daily viewing of this image, so appealing with its allegorical nature and dynamism. After all, love often unbalances us even as it saves us.

Bryan J wrote about Vincent Gogh's Café Terrace at Night:

They just hung there, the chill of the evening causing me to bundle inside my jacket, while they hung there. My evening espresso exciting me while those bright lights gave the impression of a hope that would not embrace me. Beautiful fairy lights, bright and warm to the eye, but cold to the touch. Cold as they hinted at a universe of possibility I could never know or possess but lighting a path regardless.

Keith K chose Vermeer's View of Delft:

People talking on a river bank. A shimmering river with town reflections. Boats on the opposite bank & a secret looking bridge. Beyond the town of Delft with its church spires and red roofs framed by a blue sky with dark and white clouds. In the background the sun shines on a few houses and one church steeple, perhaps it's late afternoon. A truly magical scene.

Kaloyan D wrote about The Harvester by Vladimir Dimitrov, simply known as The Master in Bulgaria:

In a river of gentle red-and-golden streaks with an accent warm night blue, a scene from the depths of a forgotten countryside reveals itself in the midst of action. Planted on a field of golden wheat, a masculine figure has mustered his determination to gather this year’s harvest.
With the impressive strength of the brave harvester ant, that carries towering loads back to its nest, the man has hoisted a bundle of hay above his head. In his gold and blue, he brings forth the poise and responsibility of a busty cockerel, and the hay itself, despite its crushing weight, sits like a bouquet of feathers on his broad shoulders.
His worn-out face is buried in the shadow of the bundle. We do not know where his gaze is fixed, but the bearing of his body tells us all we need to know: weighted, yet unburdened; charged, yet unmoved. Strong and disciplined in his struggle through the motionless torrents of the field below, his mind has sunk deep into his mission. His feet too are buried in the golden carpet, with the demanding plentitude of this year’s crop inundating his entire being. One can barely make out a half-open mouth allowing the sweet nourishment of breath to move his body forward.
There is nothing but the man, the harvest, and the landscape. From field, to hill, to sky, confident strokes of sunset colours flow together with gentle playfulness, each a distinct aspect of the whole. In their palette and their action, man, land, and the harvest that binds them are almost indistinguishable. It is only in their form that you can make out the role each one plays in this lively scene — man to struggle, harvest to be struggled with, and the land supporting their peaceful consummation.

And, to end, here's what David E wrote about the Rothko Chapel in Houston:

Enter - discovery/ confusion/ surprise/ drama/ aura/ calm/ beauty/ peace.................

This week's question to test your critical thinking is:

To what extend does a person's beliefs (political, religious, philosophical, or otherwise) affect their behaviour?

And that's all

Alas, the birds of the early morning have started to sing and the dawn chorus is upon me. It seems I've been writing all night... but what a pleasure it is to write for you all! And what was it Lord Byron said?

I say, the sun is a most glorious sight,
I’ve seen him rise full oft, indeed of late
I have sat up on purpose all the night,
Which hastens, as physicians say, one’s fate;
And so all ye, who would be in the right
In health and purse, begin your day to date
From daybreak, and when coffin’d at fourscore,
Engrave upon the plate, you rose at four.

Fare thee well & all that.


The Cultural Tutor


The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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