Areopagus Volume XLVIII
Welcome one and all to the forty eighth volume of the Areopagus. May is withering fast and June blooms suddenly ahead. So we give our introduction to a mysterious and melancholy little poem called May, written by the great Christina Rossetti:
A splendid meditation on the passing of the month of May, on the passing of something we cannot quite place or name, but which we surely know is there. Hark — 'tis not yet past! There is time yet in May for another instalment of the Areopagus and another seven short lessons. We begin...
I - Classical Music
The Unanswered Question
Charles Ives (1908)
Performed by the New York Philharmonic
The Forest in Winter at Sunset by Théodore Rousseau (1864)
This piece inspired the name of a six-part lecture series delivered in 1973 by the American composer, conductor, and public intellectual Leonard Bernstein. The lectures vary between ninety minutes and three hours, and though experts have quarelled with Bernstein's methods and conclusions, they remain compelling. Bernstein wanted to explain music to people without any technical knowledge or experience of it, largely by comparing it to language, and this he does rather well. He is also one of the finest orators you'll come across.
But why The Unanswered Question? Charles Ives wrote this piece in 1908, and the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky once said he had predicted the future and that it might well have been written in the 1960s. Ives himself enjoyed little celebration or success during his lifetime - the first performance of this piece wasn't until 1946, for example. But sure enough, as time passed, people realised what a deeply original and even prophetic composer he was.
Ives wrote an explanation for The Unanswered Question. It has three parts: the strings, the trumpet, and the winds. The strings represent "The Silence of the Druids – who know, see and hear nothing". They are timeless and eternal; continuing unchanged and unaffected throughout the piece, providing it with an eery and rather ancient atmosphere. The trumpet, meanwhile, poses a question (which Ives called "the perennial question of human existence") in the form of a short, disonnant phrase, which grows louder as the piece progresses. The question is asked seven times. The winds, meanwhile, Ives called "Fighting Answerers". They attempt to answer the question with increasingly erratic, experimental sounds which seem rather like a descent into frustration and madness. The final question posed by the trumpet remains unanswered, and the closing seconds of the piece are pure silence; Ives called it "Undisturbed Solitude".
This might sound like gibberish, but if you listen to the piece carefully you will hear all these parts in motion. Ives called it a "cosmic drama" and, indeed, I think this is a compelling experiment in musical philosophy. So this was what gripped Bernstein. And though Ives framed his question as one of human existence, Bernstein took it to be a question of music itself. What should music be like? The 20th century saw Western classical music embrace atonality, polytonality, disonnance, and aleatory music; all this experimentation was presaged by Ives. But the beauty of music is that we need have no technical knowledge to understand what these words mean. You know atonality or dissonance when you hear them, and The Unanswered Question has them in abundance. Still, over a century later, Ives' question has not yet been answered. Perhaps it never shall.
II - Historical Figure
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Father of the Turks
I had intended to write about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk last Friday, since that was the 19th May and his "symbolic" birthday - symbolic because we don't know the exact date of his birth. This week, then, we return to him. In 1881 a boy called Mustafa was born in the city of Salonica (then part of the Ottoman Empire; now Thessaloniki in Greece) to a minor bureaucrat turned timber merchant. It was a mathematics teacher who gave him the name Kemal, apparently to distinguish him from another student with the same name and in recognition of the young boy's unusual maturity. At twelve he was sent to military school and in 1905, at the age of twenty four, he graduated from the military academy in Istanbul.
Mustafa Kemal fought against the Italians in Libya in 1911 and then served during the Balkan Wars, from 1912 to 1913. But it was during the First World War, and especially at the brutal Battle of Gallipolli, that he rose to prominence. The Ottomans had joined the Central Powers (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Bulgaria) against the Entente (Britain, France, Russia) and as the commander of the 19th Division of the Fifth Army he proved himself an inspired military leader who fought on until the battle was won and the Entente retreated from Gallipolli. In 1916 he fought against the Russians in the Caucasus and in 1917 was appointed commander of the Seventh Army in Palestine.
Alas, the Ottomans had chosen the wrong side. The "Sick Man of Europe", as the Ottoman Empire had been called by Tsar Nicholas of Russia in the 19th century, was finally at death's door. The Central Powers lost and had punitive peace treaties imposed on them; the Entente carved up Ottoman territory according to the Treaty of Lausanne and left the once-glorious Ottoman Empire a shadow of what it once had been.
Not on Mustafa Kemal's watch. He was a nationalist and a revolutionary - in his youth he had been arrested and imprisoned for several months because of his republican activism - and had a vision for the future of his people. Mustafa Kemal launched a revolution in 1919, triggering the Turkish War of Independence, and over the next four years successful fought off all-comers. In 1921 he established a provisional government, based in Ankara, and in 1923 the victorious Mustafa Kemal formally abolished the Ottoman Empire and in its place founded the secular Republic of Turkey, as whose President he would serve until in his death in 1938.
But Mustafa Kemal was not only an inspired military strategist and general. He was also a supremely competent statesman. For once the work of fighting for Turkish independence was done, soon followed the arduous task of statecraft and government. He was up to it. With peace secured, borders established, and a nascent nation in the offing, the new President embarked on a series of radical political, social, and economic reform. The old Ottoman alphabet was replaced by a new, Latinised Turkish alphabet; primary education was made mandatory; women received universal suffrage; several Islamic religious institutions were dissolved; the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum; traditional Ottoman dress, legal codes, and calendars were abolished in favour of Western ones; and he committed the country to a foreign policy of neutrality, favouring peace and trade. Turkey was we know it today was born, transformed from a crumbling empire into a secular, progressive, modern nation state.
This was not a bloodless process and not one without its catastrophes, nor one in which we can admire Mustafa Kemal without reservation. The so-called Population Exchange of 1923 is one example. Greek communities in Western Turkey, which had been there for thousands of year, were made to leave, and Turkish communities in Greece were likewise forcibly removed. These decisions, though ostensibly centred on cultural or ethnic identity, were entirely based on religion. Nearly two million people were suddenly turned into refugees and a humanitarian disaster ensued.
It was in 1934 that Mustafa Kemal was formally granted the name by which he is now universally known: Atatürk, meaning "Father of the Turks". There is a long history of awarding political leaders grand titles, often by sycophants and courtiers, but rarely has one been quite so apposite. I cannot here give a full account of the life of Atatürk, but with this brief overview in place I think, for those who did not already know him, it is clear what a giant of the 20th century he was. That famous old phrase cometh the hour, cometh the man was never so true as in the case of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
III - Painting
Saint Michael and the Devil
Bartolomé Rubeus, also known as Bartolomé Bermejo (1468)
I have only recently come across this painting and it has rather got its proverbial claws into me. Why? It was painted in 1468 by a Spanish artist, but art in 15th century Spain looked nothing like this. Stylistically it has much more in common with Early Netherlandish Art. There must be connection. Well, Bermejo travelled to Flanders, there learned the revolutionary techniques of its oil painters (the likes of Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Robert Campin) and returned with them to Spain, where he became an immensely successful and in-demand painter. Everybody wanted what only he knew how to do, producing marvellously realised, dramatic, and richly coloured religious paintings set against delightful landscape backdrops, all with a typically Netherlandish mixture of photorealistic detail and stylistic flourishes. Saint Michael and the Devil, in particular, seems to unite several different artistic traditions into one uniquely strange, uniquely captivating work of art.
Enough of the superlatives. Let's look at the painting. The first thing I want to point out is the flat, golden background. This was a classic feature of Gothic art, when two-dimensional figures and scenes were depicted not happening in any particular time or place. They were, rather, set against plain or patterned backdrops of gold-leaf. Bermejo follows this tradition by placing his three-dimensional version of Saint Michael defeating the Devil (a famous and familiar scene) against such a backdrop of subtly detailed gold. But the effect is not only one of visual delight. It also lends a sort of ethereal, dreamlike intensity to the scene. The rather awkward composition, squashed in by the borders, and the statuesque pose of Saint Michael, also recall the forms of Gothic art. These, too, only add to its delightful strangeness.
But then we do have a little landscape here. Notice the ground on which the three figures are gathered. A little rocky plain scattered with pebbles, grasses, weeds, and even a few flowers. Poppies have long represented death, hence their presence alongside the Devil.
The star of the show, I suppose, is Saint Michael himself — and, above all, his glittering gold-green armour. Just like those Early Netherlandish painters, Bermejo clearly delighted in texture: metals, silks, cloths, furs, jewels, leaves, scales, horns, embroidery... it goes on. All of which he was able to present, thanks to the precision afforded by oil painting, with a quasi-photorealistic detail. Saint Michael's armour is astonishing, adorned as it is in pearls and sparkling gems, not to mention the radiance of the gauntlets, greaves, cuises, sabatons, and faulds themselves, the fine chainmail and the magical cuirass.
And what about his robe? The realism achieved here by Bermejo is remarkable enough. Its splendour only adds to the effect, combining a rich red silk with carefully woven floral patterns and a gilded border studded with pearls and rubies, all fluttering in a sort of mystical wind.
We mustn't forget his wings, with their subtly gradiated, rainbow-like colours:
Another detail. Notice the reflection on Saint Michael's gleaming breastplace — the spires of some great city, perhaps Jerusalem or even Barcelona, where Bermejo was based when he painted it. This might draw us to think of the famous mirror in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding. A perspectival trick to delight viewers and show off the artist's technical skill. And, I think, it contributes to the celestial atmosphere of the piece as a whole.
And then we have the donor, Antoni Joan, who commissioned and paid for this painting. Solemn, rather than serene like Saint Michael, he is also warty and aged and altogether of this earth, in direct contrast with the monumental saint, then, not only by his inferior size but also by his apperance. Here the Heavenly meets the Worldly.
Then there's the Devil. And what a monstrous little ghoul he is! This is a vision worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, as darkly comical and therefore unnerving as it is genuinely terrifying. The Devil has several faces almost indistinguishable from one another. Indeed, half his body seems to made of gaping mouths and fangs, while serpents writhe in his belly and slip out from his guts. He is a composite of creatures: avian, reptilian, amphibious, and other beasts unrecognisable. That the Devil's torso is also rather metallic only makes him uncannier yet, a sort of half-robotic, bestial cyborg of bone, flesh, scale, and fangs. His eyes, too, are filled with something more than mere menace: a maddened, gleeful violence.
Its wealth of texture, richness of colour, and strangeness of invention make Saint Michael and the Devil an immediately arresting, peculiarly enchanting, endlessly delightful, and therefore wholly unforgettable work of art. Here the Gothic, the Spanish, and the Netherlandish artistic traditions have been successfully united.
IV - Architectural Masterpiece
The Door That Changed My Life
Normally we explore a particular building somewhere around the world, a whole city, or an architectural style or element. Well, this week I have chosen to focus on an entirely personal bit of architecture: a church familiar to me in youth. But not the whole building. There were many elements of the church I might have picked: the stained glass, the tomb of a knight, the time-worn tower, the star-muralled vaults, the organ, or its arcades and windows. Instead I have selected the simplest and humblest of all — and the one most important to me. Here you can see the tower of the church, and its base a small doorway. It is this doorway of which I write.
First, briefly, the facts. Though this church has Saxon origins, the tower was built in the 11th century by the Normans and has been expanded, remodelled, extended, demolished, and restored time and time again ever since. One rather funny description of the church runs thus:
But such are all Medieval churches! This door, specifically, was built in the late 11th century, perhaps in the 1080s. Its architectural style is known as Norman because it was after William the Conqueror's conquest in 1066 that the Normans introduced it to Britain. Elsewhere in Europe this style is called Romanesque, in reference to the use of rounded arches, which was a defining feature of Ancient Roman architecture. But don't be deceived by the reference to the Romans. This is not Classical or Neoclassical architecture in any sense; it is Medieval through and through. Beyond rounded arches (which this door has, as you can see) other typical features of Norman/Romanesque architecture include a sort of massiveness or robustness, a simplicity of form, and abstract ornamental stonework. You'll notice the arch of this doorway has some chevron mouldings running along its voussoirs. Far from the elaborate decoration of later centuries but pleasing in its simplicity nonetheless.
So, a short elegy on this door. I suppose what struck me first, and most lastingly, was its age. That this simple stone doorway was almost one thousand years old — and that parts of it, or at least some of the supporting masonry, was Saxon and therefore even older — seemed almost impossible. Here I found a surprising but direct link to the distant Middle Ages. For this was not a history book, not a set of facts or dates, but a real thing in the real world, open to the sky and the rain, placed there by some mason a millennium ago, a mason who carefully cut and aligned the stones of the arch, stacked and mortared its jambs, and perhaps delighted in carving its chevrons. The Middle Ages came to life. But then I wondered at all the things this door must have seen; all the people who had passed beneath or even briefly gazed at it, or run their hands over its masonry. So many lives, so many moments, all forever lost to the passage of time, suddenly apparent to me. Here, as ever, John Ruskin puts it better than I could ever hope to:
Second to its age was the ordinariness of this little door. It was attended by neither pomp nor fanfare and it was paid attention by nobody. Though museums are wonderful places, by sealing objects off in glass cases and explaining them with informational plaques they can render "history" too distant a thing, and even make it dead to us. Not here. This thousand year-old doorway was not behind a rope or pane of glass; it was simply... there. I could touch those ancient stones and examine their forms and faults up close. It was like any other normal object in our daily lives - a car, a phone, a chair, a plate - which we treat with no special veneration and do not have explained to us by plaques. This history was not dead. It was alive, and present, in the real world, beneath the skies, crumbling slowly away, but somehow more meaningful and powerful and instructive by that very fact than if it had been cordoned off and sanitised in a museum.
And, finally, its appearance. There was something enchanting about the moulded chevrons of the arch, however worn and weathered they were, a sort of simple but mystical beauty. Somebody had wanted to make this door not only function (and clearly they did a good job, given that it remains standing a thousand years on!) but also, perhaps, if not beautiful, then pleasing to the eye, or soothing to the mind, even if nobody noticed those chevrons consciously, but an unconsciously, ordinary, ornamented thing. And the texture, too, of the stone! Here was not plastic, or plywood, or aluminium, or alloy, or concrete, or any of the other materials with which the modern world is built, but inscrutable stone, solid and silent. And a particularly evocative material, too, for this type of limestone is known as ironstone, permeated as it is with ferrous oxide and therefore of a rich, rusty colour.
I share all this with you not out of sentimentality (I hope) but rather because it summarises some of what I consider to be important truths about architecture. First of all that architecture is not about the great and famous buildings of the world but the ordinary; the buildings in which we live and work, by which we pass every day and whose shapes and forms direct our lives, whether we like it or not. And, secondly, that architecture has immense expressive power and is no less an art form than painting, music, poetry, literature, or sculpture. And that it is unique among these art forms because it lives more in the real world than any of them; it ages and wears, it is used and abused, it is worshipped and forgotten. And that architecture is a proverbial history book of just as much use, if not more, than literal history books. Architecture might just be the truest book of civilisation.
V - Rhetoric
Finding Your Voice
Among the great orators of the classical world there is one who stands above all the rest: Demosthenes. Though, now, I suppose the likes of Pericles and Cicero are more generally famous, it was Demosthenes who loomed like a giant over public speaking in the ancient world. He was the gold standard against which everybody afterwards was judged. It was during the 4th century BC, when Athens was threatened by the growing power of King Philip of Macedon to the north (father of Alexander the Great) that Demosthenes earned this reputation.
But how did Demosthenes become such a titan of oratory? Did he have one of those god-given voices, sweet and frightening and thunderous? Was he born with a naturally unmatchable eloquence and wit? Not at all. The young Demosthenes was prone to mumbling, spoke with a lisp, and had a weak, raspy voice. And he was mocked for this whenever he attempted to speak in public. What did the young Athenian do? He did not shrink from such criticism. As Plutarch tell us, he committed himself to becoming a better orator:
Demosthenes was also famous for giving speeches to the sea; by matching himself against the roaring he waves he learned to speak more loudly and with greater power. All this is a reminder, I suppose, that through the unglamorous labour of sheer hard work and force of will we can better ourselves. And, in terms of rhetoric specifically, it is a reminder that anybody, even if they do not seem like a natural orator, can through training become one. This was captured rather well by the great French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix in 1859 in Demosthenes Declaiming by the Sea. It is one of my favourite paintings.
VI - Writing
How To Read
To be able to write we must also be able to read. Quintilian said as much and he was not the only one. That reading is a way to learn and to improve ourselves is an ancient truth. But... how does one read? This question is not as simple as it may seem. First of all there is the practical matter of doing so. What with all the distractions of the modern world, finding the time to pick up a book is hard enough, never mind focussing on it without interruption by the ping and patter of notifications. Second, there is the matter of engaging with the book itself. What do we make of it? How do we analyse it? Do we take Hamlet as we find him or do we perceive the social facts of Elizabethan England in Shakespeare's drama? Do we perform a critique of the text, whether Freudian, Marxist, Christian, or otherwise?
The late American literary critic Harold Bloom, whatever his faults and idiosyncracies, was a champion of the individual in literature. His self-confessed credo in this regard came from Virginia Woolf, who in an essay called How One Should Read a Book wrote this:
These were the words that guided Bloom's life. And what powerful words they are! Here is an invocation not to read so that we may learn something, nor to read in service of an ideology, or of a specific way of looking at the world, or even of understanding one thing or another. Bloom called this aesthetic dignity. Here, as Woolf so eloquently expressed it, reading itself is the aim, and it is for ourselves alone. For good or bad, to be uplifted, disturbed, enriched, puzzled, enlightened, reading can be the endgame of the reading.
How to read in the modern world — finding the time and evading destraction — isn't easy. Perhaps it is a question of sheer will and removing temptation (turning off our phones, perhaps?) but here Bloom and Woolf give us a good way of reading once we manage to do so.
VII - The Seventh Plinth
Last week's question was:
Is there such a thing as objectively good art?
It's an age old, complicated, and important question. So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that you responded with such gusto. Your answers were too numerous and brilliant for pruning down to a select three or four. And so I have dedicated this week's itinerant seventh chapter to your answers, that I might give them the space they deserve.
The final word goes to Gregg S, who responded laconically:
Question of the Week
This week's question to test your critical thinking is:
Individuals. Ideas. Technology. Which of these has had the greatest influence on history?
Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.
And that's all
Enough words for now, enough art and enough books and enough thinking. They all have their place, delightful or useful or revealing or challening, but all lessons must end and we must go out, fearfully or fearlessly, unto ourselves. Such was my feeling upon completing this volume of the Areopagus. But Walt Whitman said it more lyrically and powerful than ever I could:
What themes lovest thou best? Only you know; ponder them well. Adieu!
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