Areopagus Volume XXXVI

published3 months ago
17 min read

Areopagus Volume XXXVI

Welcome one and all to the thirty sixth volume of the Areopagus. My grandmother's lifelong interest in poetry and music is part of what inspired me to start writing this newsletter. It was a year ago this week that she died, and so today's volume is dedicated to her.

One of the poems she quoted most often was by the little known Welsh poet W.H. Davies. Little known, that is, apart from Leisure. Here are its opening lines:

What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

Famous words, but famous for a reason. And now we shall do a little standing and staring of our own...

I - Classical Music

The Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly

Music by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (1904)

Performed by the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Mediterranean Port at Night by Joseph Vernet (1771)

Opera during the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be divided into three camps. You've got the lavish French grand opera, the serious German Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner, and Italian verismo (meaning realism). That being said, these Italian operas were only realistic inasmuch as, rather than the epic biblical and historical productions of France or the grandiose might of Germany, they told the stories of ordinary people. But these were no ordinary stories; Italian verismo was a form of heightened realism in which recognisable themes were elevated and melodramatised. That was its greatest strength - and, for some, its greatest weakness.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was the master of this style. His Romantic Realism was suffused with immediately relatable, shamelessly theatrical musical storytelling. Unrequited love, requited love, doomed love, death and betrayal and - above all, in its many guises - human feeling; this was Puccini's language. But Puccini knew that music couldn't always soar. For every crescendo of passion there had to be a moment of doubt; for every rising hope a lament; for every romantic swell a threnody.

If these words sound a little abstract you need only consider the Humming Chorus. Here is one of those contemplative moments, a brief and dreamlike repose admist a sea of naivety and anguish. Even if you don't know the context of this piece - the titular character stays awake all night as she awaits the return of her lover from overseas - it hardly matters. Who cannot, hearing these gentle and melancholy trills, feel suddenly freed from life's many anxieties? The music is enough.

While Wagner invites us to think and challenges his audience, Puccini allows us to feel; he reflects us. Few composers could so masterfully orchestrate and balance their operas. From start to finish we are carried along by a procession of perfectly pitched arias and tightly-woven drama. At no point does the audience need to ask themselves what is going on - even if they do not understand the words or the narrative - because the music tells us everything. Some people prefer music (and art generally) which makes the audience work, and so Italian verismo is sometimes dismissed because of its unflinching appeal to emotion. But I think there's something to be admired about what Puccini achieved. It can't have been easy to create music with such universal appeal and relatibility.

When he died in 1924 his final opera, Turandot, was unfinished. For many it is his masterpiece. Indeed, it probably contains what is (currently) the world's most famous piece of opera: Nessun Dorma. That, too, has stirred the hearts of millions despite most of them having no clue what the words mean or what the narrative role the aria plays. But that's Puccini for you. Opera has rarely been as potent as it was in his hands.

II - Historical Figure

Omar Khayyam

Golden Age Great

Wake! For the Sun, who scatter'd into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav'n, and strikes
The Sultan's Turret with a Shaft of Light.

Thus begins the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of the world's most famous and beloved poetry collections, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859. This was a little book my grandmother always had to hand. Its name comes from rubāʿiyāt, the Persian word for quatrains, which are verses composed of four lines.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) was born in Nishapur, the then-capital of the Seljuk Empire, which had recently taken the Middle East by storm and pushed the Byzantine Empire all the way back into Europe. It was against these Seljuks that the First Crusade would war over Antioch and Jerusalem. But Omar Khayyam was far away from all that. In Nishapur, a stopping point on the Silk Road and a city of considerable cultural importance, he spent his time thinking rather than fighting:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Fitzgerald saw in Omar Khayyam a comparison with the Roman philosopher and writer Lucretius. Khayyam's quatrains, so Fitzgerald thought, were filled with a form of secular wisdom; philosophical but never mystical, spiritual but never religious, and ever-aware of the fragility of human life.

Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say;
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
And this first Summer month that brings the Rose
Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.

The theme of transience haunts the Rubaiyat:

There was the Door to which I found no Key;
There was the Veil through which I might not see:
Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee
There was--and then no more of Thee and Me.

But so too the gentler pleasures of life:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

That being said, there has been plenty of debate about the extent to which we can take Khayyam's verse literally. Some prefer to understand his frequent allusions to wine as allegorical. Then again, Khayyam himself wrote of the pointlessness of too much discussion:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.

The Rubaiyat became incredibly popular in the late 19th century, and countless new editions were printed, often with fabulous illustrations and frontispieces.

But it's strange that Omar Khayyam is most famous for being a poet. Among other things he was also a mathematician, geometrician, astronomer, musician and proto-physicist. In this way he is emblematic of the Islamic Golden Age, a period of cultural, scientific, economic, and political flourishing which lasted from the 8th to the 13th centuries. There were libraries and universities in Baghdad and Cairo and everywhere in between. The Christian world simply couldn't keep up, and military conquest says as much. It was because of the Seljuks that Byzantine Emperor Alexios called for aid from Western Europe, and even their short-lived Crusader Kingdoms were soon wiped off the map by Saladin and the Egyptians.

Omar Khayyam was identified by contemporary sources as a poet, but it seems that there arose a tradition of attributing to him quatrains written even centuries after his death. And so many of those verses contained in Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat were almost certainly not composed by Khayyam himself. Does that detract from their legitimacy? Perhaps not. He was evidently an extraordinary man, not only naturally gifted and scientifically minded but a deep and impactful thinker. If people were later inspired to write poetic verse according to Khayyam's style and beliefs than that is only to his credit.

Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.

III - Painting


Claude Monet (1914-1926)

The Impressionists started out as rebels. Their name comes from a Claude Monet painting called Impression, Sunrise, whose title one critic used to ridicule this group of young and unorthodox artists. They had broken away from the Parisian Academy and taken art outdoors. Away from the studio and surrounded by the bustle of city life or the shifting light of nature, the Impressionists paid less attention to what concerned the traditionalist Academic artists - draughtsmanship, form, perspective, and appropriate classical or historical themes - and more to colour and mood.

Several decades later the Impressionists were victorious, and by the turn of the century Claude Monet (1840-1926) was no longer a rebel but a critically and commercially successful artist. He had moved to Giverny, northern France, in 1883, and dedicated the last twenty years of his life to painting his gardens there. No wonder. Flowers by their nature are among the most colourful and changeful things of all; translucent leaves and petals, shifting in the wind or in the ripples of water, blossoming in spring, dried out in summer, withering and golding in autumn, bare in winter. With every passing hour and day they appear different. This was the bread and butter of Impressionism: that the "real world" rarely appears as a single, fixed frame, but is constantly morphing. Hence Monet's two hundred and fifty paintings of the water lilies - they were, for Monet, different every time.

But Monet was growing out of Impressionism; what had once been liberating became a limitation. And so he let go of it. I think this is part of what makes Monet's later works so infinitely delightful. They were endeavours of passion and nothing else - the product of an enduring fascination with and admiration for the beauty of the natural world. The water lilies, the haystacks, and the Agapanthus; these represent the artistic movement of one man.

Monet's Agapanthus is, in some ways, more realistic than any photograph or photorealistic painting of these flowers could ever be. My grandmother loved flowers and her garden was a miracle of blossoms and bushes and pots and arbours. In this painting I am reminded of what it felt like to walk through that garden.

IV - Architectural Masterpiece

Rangooniha Mosque

Abadan Island, Iran

In 1948 my grandmother went to Abadan Island. It lies just off the coast of Iran, in the northern crook of the Persian Gulf. And in Abadan there is a rather unusual mosque. How old do you suppose this building is? Somewhat surprisingly, the Rangooniha Mosque is barely more than a hundred years old. It was completed in 1921. Of all buildings it seems to be in places of worship that older architectural styles endure longest. That isn't universally true, of course, but there's nothing strange about a mosque, church, synagogue, or temple which looks (more or less, let's say) like it might have been built at any point in the last several hundred years. We can't say the same thing about houses, town halls, libraries, schools, or just about any other type of building. It's worth wondering why that is.

Rangooniha Mosque was built by workers from Myanmar who came to Abadan in the early 20th century to work on the new oil refineries there. As such, even though Iran has one of the richest architectural heritages of any country in the world, this mosque was designed according to the style known to those who built it. Hence its name - these workers largely came from Myanmar's capital, which was then called Rangoon. It is through buildings like this that we see how much architecture means to people; how much a building's appearance, no less than its function, means to people. Apparently these workers even brought over the brightly coloured paints themselves.

It's also worth noting that the many decorative elements of the mosque, including its minutely detailed facade, were created entirely with stucco - a mixture of cement, sand, and water. That is to say, rather than with ceramics or with carved marble or limestone. It was against such "needless" ornamentation that several modern architects first took their stand, most notably of all the Austrian Adolf Loos. But even if the Rangooniha Mosque is covered with elaborate floral motifs which aren't structurally necessary, it's hard to imagine how it might look without them. This is a place of worship, after all, and perhaps decoration is part of the function of such places. Those who designed this mosque didn't have to include their stucco detailing, but we can see why they did.

Given its proximity to the oil refinery, which had only recently been built, the mosque was partially constructed with materials which would otherwise have been used for industrial infrastructure, including oil pipes and rebar. This, like its age, is something we probably wouldn't otherwise have guessed. Remarkable how many secrets a building can conceal. The Rangooniha Mosque was restored in 2001 and since 2010 it has served as the Museum of Historical Documents And Manuscripts.

V - Rhetoric

The Best Way to Read Poetry

My grandmother firmly believed that one should learn poems by heart. She had done so in her youth and could recall them without a moment's delay over eight decades after first committing them to memory. Not so long ago I came across something written by the notorious literary critic Harold Bloom which reminded me of this:

Wherever possible, memorize them. Silent intensive rereadings of a short poem that truly finds you should be followed by recitations to yourself until you discover that you are in possession of the poem. Committed to memory, the poem will possess you, and you will be able to read it more closely, which great poetry demands and rewards.

There is something to be said for this method, because poetry predates the written word. It was once entirely oral and passed from person to person or generation to generation by word of mouth alone; people had to learn it. Rhyme, repetition, alliteration, metre, and rhythm were all created as tools to aid this process of memorisation.

In the modern world we have everything - including poetry - available at a moment's notice. That's a blessing and a curse. For why learn poetry by heart when you can pull it up on your phone in seconds? Such convenience can deprive us of poetry's true power. For when the words are inside you and you can recite them without hesitation, those words will take on a new life and reveal to you the full depth of their meaning. It can, strangely, start to feel as if you wrote the poem yourself.

So I thoroughly recommend this method. Choose a poem. It need only be a short one. Learn it. Recite it to yourself. Possess it. The magic that follows is more than worth the efforts required to do all this, for it's a kind of artistic and intellectural engagement so rare (and, to give ourselves some slack, difficult) in the twenty first century.

VI - Writing

In Our Time

My grandmother was always excited about new technology. Typewriters, radios, televisions, telephones, calculators, computers, laptops, bluetooth, the internet, and social media. All, in their time, fascinated her. And she was insistent that one ought to learn about these new technologies - how to use them and what they could be used for.

This reminds me of something another literary critic - Arthur Quiller-Couch - wrote in his 1914 treatise On the Art of Writing. It's a marvellous work, and if you can get past his slightly archaic prose there are some real gems within. Here's one of them:

Burke* happened to be a genius, with a swoop and range of mind, as of language to interpret it, with a gift to enchant, a power to strike and astound, which together make him, to my thinking, the man in our literature most nearly comparable with Shakespeare. Others may be more to your taste; you may love others better: but no other two leave you so hopeless of discovering how it is done. Yet not for this reason only would I warn you against imitating either. For like all great artists they accepted their conditions and wrought for them, and those conditions have changed. When Jacques wished to recite to an Elizabethan audience that
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players—
or Hamlet to soliloquise
To be, or not to be: that is the question—
the one did not stretch himself under a property oak, nor did the other cast himself back in a chair and dangle his legs. They both advanced boldly from the stage, down a narrow platform provided for such recitations and for that purpose built boldly forward into the auditorium, struck an attitude, declaimed the purple passage, and returned, covered with applause, to continue the action of the play. This was the theatrical convention; this the audience expected and understood; for this Shakespeare wrote. Similarly, though the device must have been wearing thin even in 1795-6, Burke cast a familiar epistle into language proper to be addressed to Mr Speaker of the House of Commons. Shakespeare wrote, as Burke wrote, for his audience; and their glory is that they have outlasted the conditions they observed. Yet it was by observing them that they gained the world's ear. Let us, who are less than they, beware of scorning to belong to our own time.

*He is referring to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the Anglo-Irish politician, philosopher, and writer

These words are more important than ever. The internet has fundamentally changed the writing landscape and it is conceivable AI will do much the same - though, as so often, probably not how we think. In any case, Quiller-Couch's point was that we cannot escape the context in which we work and write. There's no use imitating Shakespeare, and that's not only (or even mainly) because of his genius, but because his plays were created in a world which no longer exists.

We can (and ought) still to learn from writers outside our own era, but Quiller-Couch reminds us that every great writer had a specific audience and a specific environment. That doesn't mean conditions can't change and nor does it mean we cannot work to alter the conditions in a way that might recapture something good or useful about what has come before. But they cannot be precisely recreated, for times change and nothing is ever the same. We must write for the world we find ourselves in. New technology, then, is to be welcomed rather than despised.

VII - The Seventh Plinth


Spring remains far away, but with February comes the bloom of a beautiful yellow flower, one about which a very famous poet once wrote a very famous poem. You'd be hard pressed to find a poetry anthology in the United Kingdom which doesn't feature William Wordsworth's Daffodils, first published in 1807. But it's a classic for a reason, and these delightful words seem like a fair companion to Monet's Agapanthus.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

I should add that William Wordsworth is an aptronym - that's when somebody's name is suited to their profession or characteristics. Usain Bolt is perhaps the most famous example.

Question of the Week

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

Is it possible to justify compliance with an immoral regime?

Timilehin O suggested a place for nuance and practicality:

I believe that it's not ideal to paint actions taken by immoral regimes with the same brush; every action must be examined on its own merits. Using this decision-making framework for example, one can determine whether the decision under consideration is really the right course of action for the greater good, or whether it is self-serving and benefits only the regime and the individual executing the action.
The world constantly needs people of integrity who, although may not necessarily outrightly oppose immoral regimes, can carefully straddle the middle ground like Pliny the Younger, helping preserve the interests of the people, as much as is possible.

While Haleemah T made a subtle delineation between justify and excuse:

Is there a fine line between right and wrong, or is it all just subjective? If you’re living under an immoral regime and comply with it, are you a coward or are you evil? Or are you human, trying to survive. That’s all any of us are doing really. Just trying to survive. Of course, perspective and individual stakes have to be brought in to it too. Not to mention individual mindset. What has led a person who agrees with the practices of an immoral regime and complies with it, to get here? What horrors have they seen or what twisted minds have they been exposed to, in order to believe in the path they’ve chosen. I ask this because I don't believe anyone is inherently immoral. It may not be possible to justify compliance with an immoral regime, because to me, ‘justify’ implies correctness. And there are no correct words to justify complicities. However, I do believe that it may be possible to excuse compliance with an immoral regime.

Many of you pointed out the uncertainty present in the question itself, such as David K:

In the first instance who defines morality? You would gain a "moral compass" from your family and wider society in the first instance and I suppose measure that against the morality of the regime.
How can you measure what level of morality is acceptable against your own morals? A given regime may have a level of financial corruption and at the same time be efficient in the running of their country so that all the citizens have a reasonable lifestyle. Conversely you could have a regime that was puritanical in its behaviour but absolutely useless in running the country for its people.

And Sandro S:

It rather depends on what compliance means. Assuming you mean not directly opposing the immoral rule, I’d say it can be justified if you are in a position where you are still able to improve people’s life’s or at least keep it from worsening which you would not be able to do if you opposed the regime and lost this position. This applies as long as one does not profit more from the regime than one gives against the regimes wishes.

Gaspard B explored the gulf between what is theoretically and practically possible:

On a self-judging basis, complying with an immoral regime means going against one's most fundamental values - so by definition it is impossible to justify compliance as that would mean going against one's self. On a societal basis, we often judge harshly people who have gone against their established morals and even more so when we share them as well.
But morals are loose and for better chances of survival, integration or simply to improve one's life conditions we can discard said morals and comply. Rare are the examples of people who can under extreme pressure keep said morals. Furthermore, judging these kinds of behaviours is tricky: it can only be done after the fact and the true extent of voluntary compliance is always hard to measure.
There is no justification per se for such actions, but it is possible to soften our judgement by acknowledging the tough (and sometimes coercitive) circumstances and to look towards a united future. Blame the action, not the individual, as in the face of tyranny many will do what they must to survive - including breaking one's or society's moral norms.

And, to end, here is Sean G's answer:

I used your recommended writing exercise to draft my response to this week’s question on compliance with immoral regimes. It’s a tricky one to handle skillfully in a 10 word statement.
“As long as my “moral” contribution is more meaningful than requisite compromises.”

For this week's question to test your critical thinking:

Can science be reconciled with religion?

And that's all

Another of my grandmother's favourite poems (committed to memory, of course) was Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Here are its famous final lines. A worthy end, I think, to this week's Areopagus.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

These words are sent to you all, as ever, in gratitude and fellowship.


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