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The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus Volume XLVI

Published 12 months ago • 18 min read

Areopagus Volume XLVI

Welcome one and all to the forty sixth volume of the Areopagus. We begin this week with a quote from Dr Johnson, who once said this about John Milton:

He was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock; but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones.

Last week, rather than a colossus, what I tried to write for you was a cherry-stone. The responses I received were encouraging and so once more, Gentle Reader, I present for you seven shorter lessons this Friday...


I - Classical Music

Les Sauvages

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Pilgrimage to Cythera by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1719) // Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin: Suite in G Major - No. 14 performed by Jean Rondeau // Les Indes Galantes IV: Les Sauvages - Danse des Sauvages and Forêts Paisibles performed by the Musicians of the Louvre

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was the outstanding composer of 18th century France. He also wrote two musical treatises (despite his notoriously bad spelling) and attained both fame and outrage in equal measure with his radically inventive music. I understand that when Rock n' Roll first burst onto the scene in the 1960s it was deeply controversial; this has nothing on the musical controversy that gripped France in the 1750s. Known as the Querelle des Bouffons (The Dispute of the Buffoons, in reference to Italian-style opera buffa) it caused an aesthetic, intellectual, and cultural war in French high society. On the one side were those who preferred Italian opera (including the Queen herself and intellectual heavyweights like Denis Diderot, once a fan of Rameau) and those who preferred French opera, led by the King and epitomised by the work of Jean-Philippe Rameau. For some idea of how heated it became (and how seriously they took it) here's what the famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1753:

I believe to have been made to see that there is neither measure nor melody in French music, because the language is not sensitive; that French singing is only continual barking, unbearable to all unprejudiced ears; that the harmony is brutal, without expression and feeling uniquely like schoolboys' padding; that French airs are not airs; that French recitals are not recitals. Hence I conclude that the French have no music and can have none; or that if ever they have, so much the worse for them.

A dispute that may seem frivolous to us. Yet we need only think of controversies from Rock n' Roll to the present day to understand the importance of music. To prefer French over Italian opera in 1752 wasn't only a matter of personal taste; it was a profoundly intellectual, even political, assertion. But, removed from that context, we can now enjoy Rameau's delightfully theatrical and infectious music on its own merits. He wrote three popular collections of compositions for the harpsichord. The first piece you hear comes from the third, published in 1727. He reused this rather catchy tune in his 1735 opera Les Indes Galantes; that's the second piece. Rameau was fifty when he wrote his first opera and yet it is for his operas that he has largely been remembered — never too late, then, to start something new.

II - Historical Figure

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger

The Other van Gogh

Johanna, or Jo, is the least famous of the van Goghs. Vincent might just be the world's best-known artist. Then there's Theo, his devoted brother, without whose undying financial, emotional, and creative support Vincent could never have done what he did. And, finally, we have Jo. She was born Johanna Gezina Bonger in 1862, the daughter of an insurance broker. A bright and naturally artistic child, Jo wrote this in her diary at the age of seventeen:

I would think it dreadful to have to say at the end of my life, ‘I’ve actually lived for nothing, I have achieved nothing great or noble.

Whatever her dreams may have been, she studied English and became a teacher at a girls' school in Utrecht, in the Netherlands. In 1884 she was introduced to Theo van Gogh by her brother; they were both art dealers. Theo was immediately taken, but it was five years later - having only met her twice - that he proposed. Jo said yes and they were married in early 1889. She left Amsterdam and went to live with Theo in Paris, where until the previous year he had been living with Vincent, who had since gone to Arles and entered the creative apotheosis of swirling colour for which he is now so famous. Theo was devoted to Vincent; Jo knew that by marrying the one she was in an intimate relationship with the other. In July 1889 Jo wrote this letter to her brother-in-law:

My dear brother,
This time I’ll try to write to you in French, first I know that you like it more, and then with both of us expressing ourselves in the same language we’ll eventually understand each other better, I believe. Only I’m not at all accustomed to writing in French, and I fear I may make mistakes which will seem very ridiculous to you – but I’m going to do my best. I very much hope that in a while I’ll be able to express myself better – if now the foreigners I meet don’t speak English, the conversation isn’t at all animated, I can assure you.
I’m going to begin by telling you a great piece of news which has greatly occupied us lately – it is that this winter, around February probably, we’re hoping to have a baby, a pretty little boy – whom we’ll call Vincent if you’ll consent to be his godfather. I’m well aware that we ought not to count on it too much, and that it could also be a little girl, but Theo and I always imagine it as a boy. When we wrote to Amsterdam and Breda everyone replied ‘aren’t you pleased, what joy’, etc. etc. – and yet to tell the truth, when I found out I wasn’t at all pleased, on the contrary I was very unhappy, and Theo had a great deal of difficulty consoling me. It isn’t that I don’t like babies – my little brother who is now twelve, I had him in my arms when he was scarcely two hours old, I adored him and I think there’s nothing prettier in the world than a little child – but that’s a slightly selfish pleasure.
When I think that neither Theo nor I are in very good health, I’m very afraid that we may make a weak child, and for me the greatest treasure that parents can give their child is a good constitution. But the doctor reassured me greatly on that score, and then good food and good care can do a great deal – and it won’t lack for those. Do you remember the portrait of the Roulin baby you sent Theo? Everyone admires it greatly, and many times now people have asked ‘but why have you put this portrait in this out-of-the-way corner?’ It’s because – from my place at table I can just see the child’s big blue eyes, its pretty little hands and round cheeks, and I like to imagine that ours will be as strong, as healthy and as beautiful as that one – and because his uncle will consent to do his portrait one day!
Your sister
Jo

After which Vincent wrote:

I started right away to make a picture for him [Theo and Jo's child], to hang in their bedroom, branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.

But within a year Vincent was dead. Theo, crippled by grief, died just six months later. The tight-knit family was gone and Jo was left alone to raise her one year old son. What did Jo do? She left Paris, moved backed to the Netherlands, and set up a boarding house. But that's not all. The chance had come to fulfil her youthful dream of doing something noble. She inherited all of Vincent's (then valueless) paintings and took them with her. Although Vincent had sold only one painting in his lifetime and died a nobody, Jo was committed to continuing where her beloved husband had left off and sharing Vincent's artistic genius with the world.

Jo was a frighteningly competent organiser and, perhaps even more importantly, deeply perceptive. Having known Vincent and Theo first hand, Jo was convinced that the art she had inherited could not be fully understood without a knowledge of the troubled genius who had created it. So while she organised retrospective exhibitions of Vincent's work all on her own, gradually building his reputation and even starting to sell his work, perhaps her greatest contribution to his legacy was the publication of Theo and Vincent's letters in 1914.

She remarried in 1901 and when she died in 1925 the legacies of both Vincent and Theo were secured. Thanks to Jo's work he had gone from an obscure and near-forgotten Dutchman to one of the world's most renowned artists within two decades of his death. And this was not only because of his paintings but because of the story told through the letters he had written to Theo and Theo to him. She sold many of Vincent's paintings, usually with regret but consoled by the thought that more people around the world would learn about his work that way; the National Gallery's version Sunflowers was sold to them by Jo. And her son, Vincent Willem, was instrumental in founding the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1973.

There were people who already knew about Vincent van Gogh before Jo's work: the critic Albert Aurier was a supporter of his and he had been friends, after all, with the circle of Parisian artists who essentially created modern art and whose names are now hallowed. But not for Jo's tireless work and decades-long crusade he might well just be a relatively obscure Post-Impressionist. So while Vincent van Gogh may seem like the ultimate artist - an eternal outsider, a misunderstood rebel, a troubled genius - it was through the enduring love of those closest to him that his legacy has survived. Without Jo, devoted custodian of the dreams of her husband and brother-in-law, you or I wouldn't know anything about that brilliant Dutchman. She is as much a part of the story as them. John Donne's famous words never rang so true:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main

III - Painting

White Falcon

Giuseppe Castiglione (1765)

This painting might be a little confusing. It has many of the elements of traditional Chinese art, but it also has distinctly Western qualities. What's going on here?

Well, in the 16th century a group of Jesuit missionaries left Europe for China, and over the next two hundred years nearly a thousand more made the passage. Their primary goal may have been to spread Christianity, but this great journey became more than a process of conversion. These Jesuit brothers learned the language, adopted Chinese names, and joined the imperial administration. They shared European knowledge and received, in turn, Chinese knowledge. It was one of history's great cultural exchange programmes. Converted Chinese Christians also travelled to Europe, such as Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung, who met both King Louis XIV of France and King James II of England.

And, regarding their primary mission, the Jesuits tried to adapt Christianity to the philosophical and religious traditions of China, whether Confucianism for the scholars or Buddhism and Taoism for the common people. This method caused controversy back in Europe, especially when it transpired that the Jesuits had no problem with Confucian-Christians continuing to worship their ancestors.

One of these missionaries was the Milanese-born painter Giuseppe Castiglione, who changed his name to Láng Shìníng when he travelled to China in 1715. Over the course of five decades he worked as a painter in the court of three different emperors, blending Western European and Chinese artistic traditions in his paintings and, as an architect, designing European-style palaces for them. Like many of the Jesuits who travelled to China, Castiglione never left. He died in Beijing in 1766 at the age of 77, leaving to posterity some of the most interesting art ever created, not only on its own stylistic merits but because of the curious chapter of history it represents.

IV - Architecture

The Language of the World

To know what things are called is helpful. This is true in every walk of life, from baking to football, and it's also true of architecture. To learn German we must learn its vocabulary; these are the bricks from which our ability to speak that language is built. Knowing architectural terminology isn't so dissimilar. Much more is required than vocabulary, of course, so we shouldn't think of this merely factual knowledge as understanding itself; these words are a tool, a pathway to real understanding. And yet they are, in their own way, deeply important. To be able to point to something and know what it is called - to be able to observe something - brings the world to life and allows us to engage with it more deeply. This experience - truly seeing - is where all understanding begins. So here, for your use, is a spot of architectural vocabulary, if only to whet your appetite.

***

Cupola: small structure which usually lets light in, often dome-shaped but not always, on top of a larger roof or dome.

Finial: any decorative element at the very top of a structure, such as a dome, tower, or roof.

Pediment: the triangular or semi-circular element above a door or window, originating in classical architecture.

The elements of an arch:

Soffit: the flat underside of any overhanging structure, most often the edge of a roof.

Corbels: small structures to help support the weight of an overhanging element, structurally useful but often decorated.

Cornice: the horizontal decorative part at the top of a building, internal or external.

Dentils: those tiny, teeth-like details beneath the cornice.

Colonnade: any row of columns supporting an entablature whether as part of another building or standalone.

Entablature: the part that rests on top of the column, made up of the architrave, frieze, and cornice.

Portico: a porch leading to the entrace of a building in the form of a colonnade, often with a pediment too.

Mullions: the vertical dividing elements in windows

Tracery: the decorative, carved stonework in the upper parts of the window.

Clerestory: the upper level of windows in a church or cathedral.

Pinnacles: decorative, conical elements on top of buttresses or spires.

Flying buttress: a buttress separated from the wall it supports by an arch.

V - Rhetoric

Ellipsis

Ellipsis is a beautiful rhetorical device. There are two sides to it, one broad and the other narrow. Speaking generally, ellipsis is the narrative device whereby something is removed which the audience can nonetheless understand because of the context, such as preceeding and succeeding events. Whenever you jump forwards (or backwards) in time in a story you're telling, that's ellipsis. Something like:

Before the party I had enough money to pay off that month's mortgage. On Monday I couldn't even buy a coffee.

We understand it's been a wild (or scandalous) weekend. The most famous example of this sort of ellipsis is probably the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick's legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey, where we see all of human evolution in the blink of an eye.

Ellipsis as a narrative device is very useful, whether in film-making, writing (fiction or non-fiction), or speaking. It gives the reader a chance to figure things out for themselves, which not only invites engagement but also leaves room for their imagination to do the work. Some things are better left unsaid, especially when we cannot find the words to faithfully describe or explain them. Better to imply, with ellipsis, what you mean, and allow it to remain pure in the mind of your audience - and personal to them. Ellipsis lets people use their imagination and tell the story for themselves; all of human evolution, in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Practically speaking it also saves time and space. Why waste ten minutes of screen time or a thousand words when two correctly juxtaposed images can do the work for us?

Ellipsis also has a narrower linguistic and rhetorical meaning: the removal of words which are rendered unnecessary by context. For example:

  • He was a brilliant singer and she was a brilliant songwriter.
  • We made more money than we expected we would make.

Some examples of ellipsis go unnoticed; we speak elliptically all the time. For example:

  • When I go to town next weekend you can come too.
  • Get it done by tomorrow if it is possible.

At other times, however, it is much more stylised:

  • Homer spoke of gods and men, but Shakespeare wrote of men alone; Homer wrote of men destroyed by jealous gods, but Shakespeare wrote of men destroyed by their flaws.

Amazing how many words you can omit from a sentence, trimming away the repetitions and those annoying little words like to and of to create a hard-boiled, weighty line in which every word packs a punch. But the power of linguistic ellipsis is not only to shorten our sentences and purge superfluity. It's also a way of varying up the flow (or prosody, to borrow a poetic term) of our writing and to control its pace. Too much ellipsis becomes tiring - sometimes the words not strictly necessary are useful. But, employed purposively, ellipsis allows you drop in a few hard-hitting lines among a crowd of softer sentences.

VI - Writing

Decorum

Decorum was the idea in Classical rhetoric that certain styles of communication were appropriate for different occasions. This was true then and is perhaps even more true now, when there are so many different places and mediums for writing. A wonderful example of decorum in action is the great 17th century poet John Milton, mentioned at the start of this volume. He is most famous for Paradise Lost, perhaps the closest thing England has to a national epic (alongside Edmund Spenser's less-famous Faerie Queen). But Paradise Lost was not the only thing he wrote and, crucially, its dense prosody does not represent the only way Milton wrote. He was also a polemicist, essayist, and a far more straightforward poet when he wanted to be.

Here is an excerpt from Paradise Lost:

Thus Satan, talking to his nearest mate,
With head uplift above the wave, and eyes
That sparkling blazed; his other parts besides
Prone on the flood, extended long and large,
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian or Earth-born, that warred on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ ocean-stream.
Him, haply slumbering on the Norway foam,
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,
Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,
With fixed anchor in his scaly rind,
Moors by his side under the lee, while night
Invests the sea, and wished morn delays.
So stretched out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay,
Chained on the burning lake; nor ever thence
Had risen, or heaved his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy, shewn
On Man by him seduced, but on himself

A forest of words, artfully and elaborately sewn together. Stylised, striking, and powerful poetry. And apprioriate for the subject matter; it elevates the poem's epic theme. But now read an excerpt from its sequel, Paradise Regained, published fourteen years later in 1671:

What if with like aversion I reject
Riches and realms! Yet not for that a crown,
Golden in shew, is but a wreath of thorns,
Brings dangers, troubles, cares, and sleepless nights,
To him who wears the regal diadem,
When on his shoulders each man’s burden lies;
For therein stands the office of a king,
His honour, virtue, merit, and chief praise,
That for the public all this weight he bears.
Yet he who reigns within himself, and rules
Passions, desires, and fears, is more a king—
Which every wise and virtuous man attains;
And who attains not, ill aspires to rule
Cities of men, or headstrong multitudes,
Subject himself to anarchy within,
Or lawless passions in him, which he serves.

Far simpler. Still poetic, but stripped back, much more direct, and easier to follow. Milton was channelling a difference voice, one in keeping with the more didactic message and simpler story of Paradise Regained. Now read an excerpt from the Areopagitica, an essay he wrote in 1644 attacking pre-publication censorship and defending the idea of free speech more broadly:

Besides another inconvenience, if learned men be the first receivers out of books and disprovers both of vice and error, how shall the licensers themselves be confided in, unless we can confer upon them, or they assume to themselves above all others in the land, the grace of infallibility and uncorruptedness? And again, if it be true that a wise man, like a good refiner, can gather gold out of the drossiest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best book, yea or without book; there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool, that which being restrained will be no hindrance to his folly. For if there should be so much exactness always used to keep that from him which is unfit for his reading, we should in the judgment of Aristotle not only, but of Solomon and of our Saviour, not vouchsafe him good precepts, and by consequence not willingly admit him to good books; as being certain that a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet, than a fool will do of sacred Scripture.

A wholly different voice altogether; the clearest of the lot, if not still a little garrulous by modern standards. But this makes sense. Here he is trying to convince and persuade. Priorities have shifted, and with them style.

Perhaps this is a moot point. Of course one writes a poem and an essay differently. Perhaps it isn't so moot. We all have different voices within us and they must sometimes be consciously called upon. What kind of writing does the task at hand require? This is an important question and one asked less frequently than it ought. Because, when we don't ask it, we find ourselves writing speeches like emails - and that won't be a good speech. We easily switch to autopilots. And so, like Milton, we must choose our voice carefully.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Too Many Books!

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by how many books there are, and by how many books you want to read? If you do - rest assured, you're not alone. I simply wish to share with you this (painfully) relatable excerpt from the writings of the 17th century scholar John Aubrey:

In London, I got lost among the piles of books for sale in St Paul’s churchyard; most of them are sold in sheets, but some are already bound. I pick up one after another without any idea where to begin: the books that are bound all look alike. How to tell which will be worth buying with my spare money? I come away empty handed, overwhelmed, as though the books have become trees again and I am wandering blind in a forest.

Sometimes in reading history we find not solutions but consolation; a reminder that no problem under the sun is new. And, I think, there's some peace in that.

Question of the Week

Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:

Is there such a thing as the greater good?

Istvan B:

Without something to look forward to for guidance and without the belief that a "greater good" awaits us and drives our actions, it is hard to find motivation to get out of the bed. At the same time, it is a questionable matter when we are thinking about all those generals and high-ranking officials in our past, who have ruthlessly sent millions of young people to their death for "the greater good", let it be a few hundred yards of enemy territory, or national pride, or whatever other reason. Of course, they didn't send their own sons to die, or marched to battle themselves. Nonetheless, you can't offer someone else's life, work, or time instead of yours for the "greater good", because it is not common, it is only your benefit.
So, I believe the "greater good" can only be interpreted in situations when someone offers a piece of oneself, as a sacrifice, to obtain a better future, or the belief of one. When a politician is asking ordinary people to give up doing something, to not travel by air for the sake of environment, while they keep doing so in business class, than one knows instantly, it is not for the "greater good", but for one's advantage only.

Deborah G:

I suppose if you think of a specific group (such as all Canadians, all elementary school children, all smokers, etc.) you have a chance of figuring out what would be for their greater good. But you could also be wrong, because what’s sauce for the goose is not always sauce for the gander.
What about the greater good for all humanity? If you think about creating conditions for health, self expression, enjoyment, opportunity, comfort, and love— then you have something to aim for. How to get there is something else. All around the world we see people who want to impose their brand of “good” on others, such as the Taliban, Christian evangelicals, warring generals in Sudan, religious conservatives in Israel, to name a few. I could not thrive under any of their “greater good” conditions. Until we have an agreement on what is the greater good for the planet, animals, and humans, getting to the greater might be simply by acting out of a place of kindness, compassion and love.

Suzanne W:

The first thing that popped into my head was a quote from Spock in the original Star Trek: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

And for this week, a slightly different kind of question:

What is your favourite word, and why?

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


And that's all

So ends another volume of the Areopagus; so ends another month, as blustery April nigh blossoms unto May. What was it Juliet said?

Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

Till it be Friday next, take care & toodle pip!

Yours,

The Cultural Tutor

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