Another theory break

(Enough looking. Now think).

Listening religiously to the BBC3 series of complete Handel operas (what a worthy project to play them all, what a worthy project to hear them all!) I have had the opportunity to hear more than several interviews with conductors and performers regarding Handel's music, and this occasioned a most interesting discovery: more than several of these great men and women have praised the profound psychology of Handel's operas.


I quote: his deep understanding and realistic, convincing representations of human psyche in action.


This can only serve to prove one point: that music, good music anyway, makes us stupid.

First, Handel had nothing to do with the writing of his libretti, which means that he wasn't responsible for their psychology, realistic or otherwise; and, in any case, anyone in his right mind must surely agree that these libretti are all hilariously unrealistic. They are not just silly in the extreme, they are also all written to the hackneyed Metastasio pattern:

1) love quadrangle + 2) disguise + 3) vendetta + 4) happy end (i.e., the square squared).

The music which Handel wrote for these libretti is of course often magnificent (if sometimes repetitive, but, hey, anything which is good to hear once is surely good to hear seventy five times, no?), but this does not change the fact that the libretti are inane.

Personally, I love Handel operas -- most of them, anyway. Indeed, listening to Handel operas is one of my most preferred ways to waste time. But I am refusing to let myself be carried away: for all its wonder and beauty, the greatness of the music does nothing to improve the disarming silliness of the story. Indeed, it is precisely in this that Handel's greatness is revealed: great music can be composed to any text, a laundry list if need be.

So why do all these people think Handel's psychology is great?

For the same reason, I suppose, for which high school girls think their beautiful boyfriends are also incredibly smart; and scholars spend their lifetimes investigating the supposed deep meanings of Giorgione's Philosophers. Some mis-wiring in our brain makes it difficult for us to grasp that perfectly beautiful objects may be in every other way perfectly trivial.

And this is, of course, the greatest mystery of life: only a faulty wiring in the brain could make the universally made connection between: "oh, he is so good looking" and "I want to waste the rest of my life raising his offspring".

Beauty is a way to subvert the minds of others. The art of its appreciation lies in being able to admire it without letting one's brain to be subverted.

(I am not saying that beauty is worthless; for the pure pleasure it renders, it is hard to beat; all I am saying is -- try to be smart when indulging it).


He Da Man 100% for sure


Crossing the frozen river, undated, poem and calligraphy in running script by Emperor Kangxi; hanging scroll, ink on gold-flecked paper; imperial seals: Kangxi chen han (Kangxi imperial brush), Jigu youwen zhu zhang (seal of examining the ancient to improve culture); Yuanjian zhai (studio of profound descernment); collectors' seals: Baoji sanbian (volume 3 of the Precious Collection of the Stone Moat Pavillion); Shiqiu baoji suo cang (Collected in the Precious Collection of the Stone Moat Pavillion); Xuangtong zunqin zhi bao (Treasure of the esteemed parents of the Xuantong Emperor); Jiaoyubu dianyan zhi zhang (Inspection seal of the Department of Education). A Palace Museum holding, Beijing.

What an interesting person Kangxi was, Louis XIV alter-ego in the east. The Three Emperors puts it right when it says that there had never been anyone like him in all of China's history; that he had to work without a model. Culturally he was part Manchu (horseman, hunter, warrior) and part Chinese (scholar, administrator, poet, painter, collector). As if intentionally to exercise sprezzatura, he wrote only passable Chinese calligraphy and composed but half-decent Chinese poetry, carefully avoiding the usual woos literati stuff (cherry blossoms, snow petals, reflections of the moon); his poetry is full of virile, manly, martial spirit. And thus this one reads:

Deep clouds hang over ten thousand cavalry.
A thousand flags echo in the teeth of the gale.
By midnight the river has iced over,
The imperial armies cross without fear.
Not great poetry perhaps, but it makes abundantly clear that the emperor wrote pants. Horseman's pants.


What artists write about

Any reader of Claudio Monteverdi's Letters, if he opens them hoping to learn something about the great man's take on art and music, is bound to be disappointed: the Letters contain nothing but matters of jobs, appointments and vacancies, promotions, pay, arrears, pay increase requests (usually rejected), reimbursement of job-related expenses, etc.

In this, it turns out, Monteverdi's Letters are universal. This is the typical artist prose.

Take this folio, signed by Muzaffar-'Ali, 1b of manuscript R. 957, at the Topkapi library, addressed to his sponsor, the great Bahram Mirza, a famous patron of books and younger brother of Shah Tahmasp (the one who, having stopped drinking coffee in his old age lost his mind, says Orhan Pamuk, and dispersed his atelier):


The beautifully dressed youth is Muzaffar-'Ali himself. And this is what he holds in his hand:

The calligraphy reads:

Royal Highness

Your servant, Muzaffar-'Ali, would like to bring to Your Highness's attention that it is known to Your Highness that the wages of this humble one while working for Your Highness were six tuman and now they are three tuman, and this situation has deeply distressed this humble one.

It then trails off:

Whatever Your Highness command...


The lonliness of the long distance pianist

They seem superhuman to us. And it isn't only on account of stage lights, ovations, astronomical fees, fawning groupies. Nor of the technique -- so obviously superhuman. The root of their near-divinity lies deeper: there is something about their interpretations -- Gould's Well Tempered Klavier, Archerich's Prokofiev's Toccata, Pogorelich's Scarlatii -- something unique, solitary, apart, something unmatched in its perfection, its widsom. Yes, wisdom: it is as if no one else had ever understood these works until they came along and showed the way.

But look closer: Gould was not merely an eccentric, he was a medications junkie; Ivo is fragile; Argerich went through at least one well publicized crisis. All are "intensely private", refuse to give interviews, are brief and superficial when they do.

The world's greatest pianists are not normal and this should be obvious: us chickens ("neurotypicals" kindly say neurologists) are not content to take on a profession which requires six or eight or ten hours of solitary finger practice a day, day in day out, for years. But they are. It is one of the defining features of autism: the ability to focus on and find contentment in ceaseless repetition of manual tasks. The clearest evidence comes at the end of the Richter documentary: ya syebya nye lyublyu are his last words in it: I do not like myself. One plays the piano -- a challenging, flow-inducing technical task -- so as to forget himself.

Which is why so commonly they suffer from stage-fright (so beautifully painted in Thirty Two Short Films): one does not like himself because one does not like people (and is alas one of them); but there are five thousand of them in the concert hall. Richter liked to play in a darkened concert hall: he could pretend to himself they weren't there.

Often they suffer an artistic crisis in early adulthood, right after their greatest triumphs: they win the Chopin competition, complete the first world tournee, make that celebrated debut recording, a huge bank account; best of all, they can hear themselves play and know they have arrived. Thus, they have scaled the peaks, attained perfection, won: what is there to do now? (Gould turned to making radio programs). And then there is the money: if they are in the West, they are immensely rich by the time they are twenty two. What motivation is there to keep going?

But evetually they do. Playing is the only way they know to forget onself -- and others.

Nor is this true about great pianists alone. Great lacquerers -- a medicine box the size of a large matchbox may well require three months of work -- 30 layers of immaculately laid lacquer paint are like that, too, taking great pleasure in the task which consumes their whole day without the need to talk to anyone.

Great weavers, too.

In a way, the root cause of their greatness is their greatest failure -- their failure to be normal, like the rest of us. Normal like Pat Sabatini, the overweight, always blissfully smiling chef of a small place in Little Italy, smacking his lips while he cooks things up for his customers, the people he loves, "his family". Tutto bene? How about that Pastore Tedesco, eh, "violent religion"? And have you tried the new bowling alley yet? Oh, but you must be starving, what can I make you today?

Whatever, Pat, whaterver you have; it's always very good, you know it.

For sheer happiness, Pat Sabatini is the real winner of the game.


Pick up thine glass and follow me

Today we have a sermon in glass.

(I know that -- like me - you just can't get enough Chinese snuff bottles).

Perhaps on account of its fragility, or perhaps because it is made from ordinary sand, glass has had a hard time trying to be recognized as a proper collectible art form -- as much east as west. Glass-makers east and west sought a solution for the problem in exhibitionist displays of dazzling technique: Venetians bent it in all sorts of ways; the Chinese solution has been to use glass to imitate other materials.

For example Jasper:

OK, now for a different color-glass technique. This is described as "peach swirl" and imitates - rather well - certain kinds of marble.

Finally, two examples of the most common use of glass in China: carved glass overlay. In this technique one makes an object in one color -- for instance opaque white (to imitate jade) -- then gathers fresh color glass on top; and when it sets, carves it. The result is cameo-like.

In the two bottles below, the glass-maker gathered more than once/one color. I rather like the decorative idea of the second one: carp (in red) hiding behind some plant-matter (in green).

(I once met an elephant calf in the forest which tried to hide the same way: like small kids sometimes do, he hid his head and assumed that doing so rendered the rest of the mountain of him invisible).

And if you still have not had enough snuff bottles, Bonham's has some really superb works here; but don't delay, who knows how long this site will be up.


An Ottoman Fairy Tale

I have found myself recently with a few hours on my hands while waiting for a plane at the Istanbul airport. Unlike most airports in the world, which all look alike and sell the same machine-made overpriced junk -- the Ataturk makes an effort to include traditional Turkish handicrafts and foods, which makes a layover interesting. As I wondered around, sampling foods and inspecting tiles and embroidery, I suddenly I remembered a story. As far as I know, this story is a work of fiction and all resemblance to real people, places, or events is entirely accidental. Well, then:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Sometime in the early spring of the year 17... the Sultan and his favorite wife were enjoying a bit of lokum in the Flower Room1:

when the grand vizier approached softly, respectfully bent in half, bearing in his hands a meticulously executed report2:

The gist of the report was this: in a remote corner of the world known as aṣ-Ṣūmāl a new kind of dish was discovered; the spies who had eaten it have reported experiencing in the wake of its consumption the feelings of light-headed delight, blissful contentedness and delicious sluggishness.

Even the briefest perusal of the hypothesized recipe made it amply clear why this should be so:

Pilaff With Herbs and Gum Mastic


500 gr Basmati rice
150 gr butter
1/4 tsp salt
750 gr meat stock
1/4 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1/4 bunch dill, finely chopped
1/4 bunch fresh mint, finely chopped
4 green onions
1/4 bunch radicchio
1/2 tsp ground ginger
4 cardamom pods, crushed
2 drops of gum masti

Wash and drain the rice. Melt the butter in a skillet, add the rice and saute for 3-4 minutes. Add the finely chopped herbs and green onion and mix well for 4 minutes. Add the salt, ginger, gum mastic and cardamom. Then add the meat stock and mix again. Lower the heat and let steep over low heat for 5-6 minutes. Finally, stir with a spoon. Serve piping hot.

Although the power of the report had been intentionally muted by the scribes, who, to protect the innocent, excluded graphic representations of the appearance of the dish when it is served in a sweet-dough casing with pine-seeds:

yet, the Sultan's favorite wife unwittingly (and near-imperceptibly) moved her ample lips somewhat while listening to the report all the same3:

(And who could blame her? I can see your lips are moving, too).

"Excellent!" exclaimed the Sultan and clapped his hands in delight. "That resolves the issue!"

(The Sultan and the grand vizier had spent the whole winter fruitlessly trying to decide what target to choose for the traditional spring campaign: whether to invade Azerbaijan again, or to besiege Vienna, which has not been besieged now for a few years. Neither objective excited them: it was just more of the same tiresome, dull, dreadful same-old-same-old; Azerbaijan-Vienna, Vienna-Azerbaijan. And the food was dreadful).

But now, unexpectedly, a new, fresh, obvious target has suggested itself!

"Dispatch the Janissaries immediately!" exclaimed the Sultan.

(The name Yanissari literally means "though guys in slippers":)

The following morning the sounds of the Janissary orchestra could be heard wafting in from the outer courtyard as the troop assembled and departed for the campaign (press to play):

Later that summer aṣ-Ṣūmāl was added to the Grand Empire as its sixty seventh province (making for a kind of ornamental tail); and the dish entered the Ottoman dietary mainstream4 for centuries to come.


Footnotes and Disclaimers:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم : the Basmalla: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate". (What did you think it was?)

The flower room does exist in the Harem of the Topkapi. The flowers look to me a lot like something from Jahangir's book of flower designs; they may have come to Istanbul by way of a Mughal carpet, perhaps like the one in the Gulbenkian.

2 I'm lying, of course. This work is a Hilya, which is a genre of calligraphic work embodying the Prophet’s moral, behavioral, and spiritual qualities as well as aspects of his physical appearance. I allow myself this act of borderline disrespect in this instance because the work is also an Icazet, that is, a diploma awarded by the teacher to a student of calligraphy after examination of a piece of calligraphy written by the student in the presence of a his/her teacher or teachers. This example is signed by several teachers of the calligrapher Mehmet Ferit (18th century). (Special thanks to Journal of Ottoman Calligraphy).

3 Lying again! The dish is Safavid and represents a male prince. (Special thanks to the British museum).

4 More lies. Somalia was never part of the Ottoman empire and elaborate pilafs were part of Turkish diet long before the conquest of Istanbul.


(God, what a fun way to waste a perfectly good morning this has been!)


Emerson plays Shostakovich No. 8

One more "lazy" post. Not because I am more lazy this morning than I am usually, but because I want to publish this link so that I can use it myself. But since it is here, you may use it too. And why not.


A PR exercise

While daddy is working on something, entertain yourselves with this:

It's just a promo video, but it's good: it shows Ozawa and Xiao Yun working on the score together. It's quite revealing: Xiao Yun beats the beast while Ozawa -- er -- sings -- ? -- the orchestra. (What else would you call it?) Ta-ra-rara-ra-ta-tam turururu-ruuuuuuuuu.

The inner lining of the art, so to speak.



A clue to successful concert going


Yundi Li rocks.

No, that's not right.

Let me rephrase that.



It was by far the best Pictures I have ever heard. I was sitting at the edge of my seat, holding my breath and gripping the arm-rest for dear life.


Now, until winning the Chopin competition, aged 18, Xiao Yun had never studied in the West, or even outside of China; so much for the old saw, then -- the vaguely Eco-Steinerian hogwash so beloved of pianists in western music schools -- that Asian pianists are dull because they don't understand the music (have not read the Greeks, don't personally know Jesus, whatever). In truth, many Asian pianists are dull (we shall not name any names); but so are most pianists world over; and I have personally known a few Asian pianists who weren't dull at all. (And even slept with one: she played a real mean Piano, Percussion and Celesta).

Now Xiao Yun stands proof for all to see the hogwashness of hogwash.


By the usual vagaries of concert-going (whereby the front row seats get blocked out to sponsors who then do not bother to turn up), I spent the first half sitting in the third row -- the only seats available in the whole house at the time I made the booking. And it was naaas-tea: O Grande Auditorio proved to be, in fact, O Grande Ospedale -- bird flu or something (pooh-leaze, if you can't stop yourself from coughing, hacking and snorting stay at home and give your ticket to someone who can). Besides, it seems, the locals must keep cats (here, "a common parasite found in cats may be affecting human behavior on a mass scale", read it and have your cat put to sleep now): there was so much fidgeting, twitching, program dropping, notebook consulting, purse-innards inspecting, and just plain wheezing, I could not concentrate at all.

In the third row, damn it. What did the poor wretches in row 29 get out of the concert, I have no idea.

But then, for second half, I snuck (sp?) into one of those VIP-abandoned seats; and the experience was incredible; best second half for many years; heaven and hell. You do not just hear the music better -- the sound wave gushing out of the open box hits you right in the face; or see the artists better (the fingers, the beads of sweat, the color in the cheek, the painful concentration, sometimes fear, sometimes delight); you also do not hear or see the audience.

This is what business consultants like to call a win-win situation.


(By the way: the best way to listen to the grand piano is to lie under it while it is being whacked. In college, I had a pianist girlfriend and used to lie under her piano when she played. In time I developed a trick: I went to the music school and simply barged in on one of the practice rooms, asking whoever was in there to let me lie under his or her piano. They almost always did. (Wouldn't you?) The ability to do so is the only thing I miss about my college town. Many years later, my heart skipped a beat when I read a letter of Georges Sand talking about her lying for hours under Frédéric's piano).


Now, onto the (usual) points.

First, lesson one:
If you go to a live concert, get seats in the first row -- whatever they might cost: an arm and a leg, your grandma's hearing-aid, whatever; just do it; or else -- don't bother. Really. I mean it. Just don't.

Second, lesson two:
If you ever wonder why other people do not share your impressions of a concert, well, they must have sat in a different row from you.

The concert is thus a good model for understanding all opinions regarding culture: there are 29 rows in the Gulbenkian plateia (plus Allahu-Akbar only knows how many in the balcao); which means that no more than 1/29 of the audience had the first rate experience. (Less than that in fact: the guy sitting next to me must have been from the sponsors: he kept consulting his watch).
This fact makes it virtually certain that the opinion you are getting from random someone else about a concert -- or a piece of art -- is wholly and completely worthless.
(They are just too likely to fall into the 28/29ths cohort).
If you must consult, consult with those who have the time, money and commitment to do it right. Or not at all.

The truth is that art is not just an elite experience; it is an extreme-elite experience, as Nancy Mitford's Love in cold climate shows (in the novel, the aristocrats who own the art works are almost to a man too stoopid to know what they own). It's not that "only 10% know anything about it". Proper art appreciation is measured in parts per billion.

(Like -- three).


Anyway, here is Xiao Yun beating the bejeezus out of Prokof's Number 2. Prokof's Number 2 is some of the most barbarous -- no -- deranged -- stuff ever written for the piano (Bartok's Allegro Barbaro is tame substance by comparison) and on this account it has been rarely played or recorded; ("Er", said Prokof to himself halfway through a movement. "I don't like this tempo. Let's speed up", and sped up but after 12 bars: "Nah, that's too fast! Let's slow down", etc.); but delicate Xiao Yun (note the permed hair-do a la Frédéric -- who else? -- ) serves it up right. (Too bad about the orchestra; Xiao Yun also recorded this work with BerPhilius but no one had thought to pirate that on you tube, so you must buy it online to the get the optimum bang.

Alright, enough talk. Here is Xiao Yun. Knock yourself out:

PS. Alright, so I can't stop. Googling a bit I find that Xiao Yun played the same program in NYC in October, and that the NYT reviewer thought (here) as I did: that the Mazurkas were alright, the Polonaise fine (it was fine, I just don't love Polonaises, they're too close to home or something), and the Pictures fantastic ("a gripping, boldly conceived account"). Clearly, all great minds do think alike -- provided they have the same input (i.e., sit in the same front row seats, etc.)

(It's nice to read a reviewer one agrees with; especially since most I violently do not).

PPS. The reviewer is right in pointing out technical imperfections in the Pictures. I too have spotted three places where things didin't go exactly right (in one instance even outright wrong). But it is possible -- as paradoxical as that sounds -- to fail technically and yet deliver fantastic music all the same. There is a live Gilels recording -- the Busoni here -- to prove the point; error ridden and absolutely superb.

Greatness isn't possible without superb technique, but it isn't identical with it.


I'd rather

I wake in the middle of the night. The moon is looking in, a soft cool breeze blows over my face, a feint scent of lemons wafts into the room. I lie thinking about banks, housing, residence, airline tickets, travel plans.

But I want to lie there thinking about Chinese snuff bottles instead. Like this darling (above), in carved glass.

(See some other wonderful examples of this art genre at the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society's website).


Among the items on that website, there is something odd:

Snuff-bottle makers often worked in one medium to imitate another (e.g., carved porcelain to imitate ivory, etc.). So only one naturally asks -- what is this? It looks like... Dutch steamed rye bread?

The technique, we are told, is -- er? -- molded gourd.

What is molded gourd?, you might well ask. A modern-day practitioner of the art explains:

The small gourd fruit, after dropping its flower, is inserted through the mold opening. The gourd grows into the mold confines during the summer season. At frost time, the stem is cut leaving the mold with the gourd inside. The mold is then opened ad the gourd is set to dry.
Here are examples of his work. (It's really quite interesting).

How very, very weird.


Many snuff boxes were made in enameled copper -- they represent a kind of sub-genre. A copper enamel piece typically look like this:

(This page allows you to see this piece, once part of Qianlong's collection, now at National Palace Museum in Taipei, in all of its gloriously astounding detail).

At the very same NPM, there is a curious pair -- of European-made enameled copper snuff-bottles. Here is one of them:

They are of the usual shape typical of Chinese enameled copper pieces. Or rather close to it. But they differ in three ways: the colors are European; the roundel is a European miniature natura morta; and in the bottle cap there is... a miniature watch (clocks and watches being the only thing the Chinese were interested in buying from European merchants until the latter hit upon the idea of selling them opium).

Sadly, there appears to be no record of how, why, by whom or for whom the pair was made. Yet, there must be a rich story: the item was almost certainly commissioned as a gift from one person to another; the two certainly knew each other well and probably transacted business together; one -- the recipient -- collected snuff boxes; and was clearly a man of both means and exquisite taste; the other -- the giver -- had European contacts as well as considerable wherewithal. Since the order took two years to transmit to Europe, a year to make, and a year or two to return, the gifts was intended for, one assumes, an important, long term relationship. One also assumes the recipient could not have been too old: one does not plan five years in advance gifts to be given to septuagenarians.

(The Sherlock method works well in this instance, does it not?)

Anyway, this is the kind of stuff I would rather be thinking about.

Wouldn't you?


Histoire de l'empereur de la Chine

This is Emperor Sailing, one of a series of tapestries made at the royal manufactory at Beauvais, after a designs by Guy Vernansal, Jean-Baptise Belin de Fontenay and Jean-Baptise Monnoyer.

Writes Christie's who sold this particular work in 2004 (to Chicago Art Institute, as it happens):
[The series is thought to represent] the Chinese emperors Shun Chih (reigned 1644 - 1661) and Kang Hsi (reigned from 1661 - 1721) and their Empresses. Many of the images are based on Johan Nieuhof's Legatio batavica ad magnum Tartatiae chamum sungteium, modernum sinae imperatorem of 1665, which derived from the visit of a delegation of the Dutch East India Company to China from 1655 - 1657. For the botanical details Athanasius Kircher's China Monumentis qua Sacris qua Profanis of 1667 seems to have served as inspiration. As its title 'Roi de Chine' implied, the series was meant to illustrate the Chinese Royal Court, but many influences from other Far Eastern countries are discernable. The artists were keen to incorporate as many 'documented' exotic objects as possible in these tapestries.
Further discussion here.

Go here to zoom in on the remarkable detail.

Other tapestries from the series survive: here is one at the Getty (The Empress Sailing). The connection of these tapestries with Joachim Bouvet's book Histoire de l'empereur de la Chine, presentée au roy, 1699, printed by Meyndert Uytwerf, Paris, 1699 (and reprinted in Tientsin in 1940) is not clear; but Bouvet's connection with Louis XIV is clear: he was originally dispatched by His Most Christian Majesty with books and scientific instruments to the court of Kang-hsi as an envoy; he then served there as the emperor's tutor; and eventually became Kang-hsi's emissary to France.

One could say that one great difference between Louis XIV and the fellows like Steiner and Eco was that His Majesty, being a greater man, was interested in places outside of Europe. And how could he not be: on the opposite end of the globe there was someone like him, his double, perhaps his mirror image, a king of wisdom, virtue, art and gloire.

On precisely the other side of the world there existed his equal. There was one. How extra-ordinary.


Ottoman calligraphy on leaf

1) Take a leaf
2) Inscribe in gold ink or overlay with gold leaf
3) Soak in alkaline solution until connective tissue dissolves
4) Gild

The inscription is a formulaic prayer: "O Lord, grant me a good entry and a beautiful exit and support me with Thy might". The leaf is the especially difficult to handle (because fragile) chestnut.

Agha Khan collection.


On the importance of good promotion

Many have puzzled why French classical tragedy (Corneille and Racine) has not traveled abroad as well as the English Shakespeare has. Various fanciful explanations have been proposed for this problem1 – such as that French tragedy is cut off from archaic or vernacular roots (French poetry being “inward looking”), that it is too rhetorical (all talk and no action), too grandiloquent (pompous), too set in the political realities of the moment, and so forth.

These are classic historicist explanations (in the Karl Popper sense): they cannot be tested. Indeed, some can't even be understood. (From which it follows that the guys in literary studies do not read enough analytical philosophy).

But these theories have something else in common: they use the seed-and-soil model of culture – make a seed appropriate to the soil, then throw it and it will grow into a tree.

It's wrong. (And typical of an academic who has not sold a thing in the real world in his life).

The authors forget the parable of the seed -- the essential third element of agriculture -- agriculture itself: domesticated plants don’t grow unless someone tills, rakes and waters the ground. (The seed of wheat is not robust enough to break dry ground unaided). Similarly, culture does not succeed on its own: it requires cultivation. And it seems just possible that French drama has never had in England the sort of enthusiastic and influential promoters that Shakespeare has had in France.

The promotion, or its success, need not have much to do with the quality of the art itself.

Consider that perhaps the most enthusiastic and influential promoter of Shakespeare in France was Voltaire who was, he reported, just amazed by what he saw in London. But Voltaire hardly spoke any English, so it isn’t clear that he knew what he was talking about; and in any case in his Letters From England were chiefly written for the purpose of knocking things French. Voltaire needed things foreign to praise -- with which to club the French: for what he wanted to accomplish, he could as easily have written Letters From Peking. Indeed, practically every sentence he wrote about Shakespeare and his superiority over French drama is so abstract, vague and -- well, historicist -- that he might as well have written it about Kungqu.

Similarly, those who seek causes for the success of even mediocre American film in its qualities may also be mistaken: they simply do not realize the power of the distribution machinery or the mammoth size of the promotional budget with which American films go out into the world. Typically, a film's promotional budget is greater than its production budget, and usually is increased if the initial sales are promising.

Human beings being essentially mimicking machines, in order to make its mark, a work of art needs good promotion far more than it needs quality of design -- as the latterly success of ugly fixtures and uncomfortable furniture clearly shows.

(I'd say the analytical value of Steiner's Death of Tragedy has been about zero, so far).


1It is a pseudo problem anyway: English tragedy has not traveled; Shakespeare has.


A piece of Chinese embroidery

The Gulbenkian is an extraordinary collection: it is all, without exception, incredibly beautiful. M. Calouste was not merely very rich, and immensely knowledgeable about what he collected (and he collected an extraordinary range of stuff -- his range was certainly broader than George Steiner's), but he also had impeccable taste: he did not buy a single second-rate item.

This piece of embroidery is one of the most extraordinary items in the Gulbenkian. As far as I know it may be unique -- there may literally not be another item like this in the world. (Although the Kantha embroidery is similar in style and can on occasion come close in technical attainment).

This perhaps explains the difficulty the museum has with attribution; it used to be marked as "Canton, China (?), early 19th century", reflecting perhaps its similarity to the yueh techniques (not mentioned in the English wikipedia entry on Chinese embroidery); and the Chineseness of the phoenixes; but I notice it has now been re-attributed to "Japanese, 19th century", presumably on its mindboggling obsession with technical virtuosity, the extraordinary color scheme -- gorgeous without being gaudy, and perhaps also on the geometrical arrangement, balanced rather than symmetrical.

I will try to find out what occasioned this re-attribution, but personally doubt it. While the Chinese have had a history of making embroidered wall-hangings, a tradition of free-standing embroidery, and a history of Imperial embroidering workshops, the Japanese had none of these. Further, no piece of Japanese embroidery which I have ever seen I looks remotely similar in technique, using, as it does very thin thread to produce smooth, flat images easily mistaken for print.

But I am prepared to be surprised.

The cloth is about 6 feet x 4 feet; uses several different embroidering techniques in several different thicknesses of silk; and seems by and large missed by most visitors.

Here are some close-ups of the work. Note that it is embroidered all over, the background having been embroidered in a subtle, barely perceptible pattern of spirals.

PS. The high cultural status of embroidery in China is reflected by the fact that the great Ming Dynasty scholar-painters Wen Zhengming, Dong Qichang and Shen Zhou had all been famous in their lifetimes as great embroiderers.


Crap luxury

So I went to see a luxury apartment for sale today. The place was 65 sq m and the asking price was 350K. (Yes, that would be 5.4K a meter, you are not misreading this).

The visit depressed me for the rest of the afternoon.

It depressed me because what was on offer would cost 70K down plus 1100 a month in interest; and was about 4K per meter more (yes, 3.5 x more) than some of the used, non-luxury apartments just next door; yet there was nothing luxury about it at all. The flooring was man-made fiber carpet; and the cabinetry was flimsy, hollow-sounding faux wood -- there was neither teak nor marble anywhere in sight. And while the place was packed with useless gizmos -- central vacuum, central heating, electric operated shutters, built-in centrally operated sound system, frames for LCD displays everywhere; yet, the rooms were small, the ceilings low (and made even lower by hung ceiling installed to receive the must-have recessed lights that are all the rage), the terrace was too small to eat on, and the noise from the traffic outside made double pane windows necessary, which in turn necessitated climatization.

Climatization! In this city!

To make things worse, everything was in the square style: glass table tops and stainless steel furniture and harsh-lights -- whoever lives there will no doubt eat of square white (or black) plates using inconvenient but very sharp utensils. It was all cold, angular, sharp-edged and calculated for discomfort - knobs with which to stabs one's fingers, etc. The concept appears to be one of Emergency Room.

Yet, the building was nearly all sold out: I was looking at the last two units available. People are buying this stuff; and paying real, hard-earned money for it. And clearly believe that central vacuum is luxury. And then move in and start feeling funny; and can't figure out why: they seem to have everything yet something seems lacking in their lives.



What remains

At the Medeiros-Almedia this morning I happened to glance down and notice a Tekke Turkman. It looked more or less like this:

Tekke were Turkmen nomads, famous for their horses. Their carpets all feature the pattern of flattened roughly octagonal ellipsoids arranged in four parallel rows running the length of the piece. Sometimes they alternate with 8-pointed stars.

A recent issue of Hali magazine started out by asking where the abstract patterns seen in Persian carpets might come from and argued rather well that these ellipsoids, known in Turkish as g
öl, may derive from the bronze talismans of BMAC.

B-what? you might well ask.

BMAC, it turns out, stands for the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, which was an advanced, settled, agricultural, possibly literary bronze-age civilization on the Oxus. It thrived between 2200 and 1700 B.C. but was subsequently lost. It was unearthed by a Russian archeologist, Victor Sarianidi,
in the 70's and 80's and represents a discovery similar in scale, antiquity and mystery to the Mohenjo-Daro find on the Indus. The news of this new discovery did not begin to filter into the West until the fall of the Soviet Empire.

BMAC talismans were widely produced and it has been suggested that they may have been worn as magical protection. The author of the Hali article thinks the
göl may be representations of these amulets.

If so, they represent a cultural survival from BMAC. Other remnants of the BMAC may include the Vedic soma cult, several aspects of Zoroastrianism, including the architectonic arrangement of the Zoroastrian temples of fire, and small figurines including the figure of "Scarface" -- snake-scaled man with a vicious gush across his right cheek -- like this one, in the Louvre:

"Scarfaces", says the Louvre, are

anthropomorphic dragon-snakes belonging to the mythology of central Asia, where they incarnated the hostile forces of the underworld. Their power was controlled not by killing them but by reducing them to silence by a slash across the right cheek. Thus dominated, they could become benevolent.
No source given for this interesting report. (Here is the Louvre's write up for you to make up your mind).

To me, the most interesting aspect of Scarface is that only four complete specimen of him survive while there are hundreds of thousands of Tekke Turkmen carpets. What survives seems so unpredictable. (What will remain behind when we are gone? Golden arches?)

And another thing: how much one can see by simply looking down; most people, when they do look down -- if they look down -- see only a worn-out carpet; but if you look carefully, it turns out that there lies at your feet a great civilization dead three thousand years!


Some notes on The Notes


Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes on the Redefinition of Culture isn't much better, alas: Steiner's argument that the world changed with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars because now everyone became involved in the great events of history (because war became total, there was general mobilization, troops marched outside Hegel's window while he wrote Phenomenology, etc.), "whereas in times previous war swept over human beings with tidal mystery" would surprise anyone who has lived through the total horror of the Thirty Years War (between 1618 and 1648 Germany lost half its population); or the French civil wars of the 16th century; or the English civil war; or the contemporary Khmelnitsky uprising.

Besides -- excuse me -- what is "tidal mystery"?


Is there perhaps something lacking in the education of fellows like Geo. Steiner? Do they not get enough maths and logic? Would a course in chemistry perhaps teach them to write sentences that mean something? Should their teachers not have insisted that a sentence's best business is demonstrable truth?

Several in-depth courses on individual historical periods might have been useful, too, to teach these guys how difficult it is to make generalizations about an age (what is an "age", anyway?); and to deconstruct the fanciful "grand-sweep of history" view which one acquires by limiting his reading to introductory textbooks. (Too little education can be more dangerous than none).


I am not sure that Steiner is right in suggesting that ennui was more common in the nineteenth century than it was, say, in the eighteenth or seventeeth; statistics do not exist; but he is right in observing that many nineteenth century writers expressed it. Perhaps boredom was merely generized, which is to say "made into an acceptable genre", that is, it was discovered that it's OK to write about it (i.e., if you do, someone will actually read it). (The way Roth has generized incontinence).

Having said that, personally, I would not be surprised to learn that the nineteenth century were in fact more bored than the eighteenth: unlike Steiner, I have never thought the nineteenth century my Paradise Lost; its culture, for the most part, tires and bores me. Why should it not have bored its own people?

I mean, come on, Donizetti?

(Hurray for the eighteenth century).


But perhaps the nineteenth century did represent a kind of departure from the past: an informatics departure, if you pardon the jargon. The rise of the newspaper, the telegraph, and cheap mass-printed book meant, I am guessing, that cultural figures at least were now spending a far greater amount of their time chasing mundane news -- from the political (Man bites dog in Bakhchisarai!) to the cultural (a new book of poetry by minor heath poets); leading to a low quality information overload. The truth is that the flood of low quality information must be interrupted (the newspaper subscription canceled, the tube turned off, the blog comments (for the most part) ignored, the minor heath poets not read); or else our own brains become stuffed up with their mediocrity, acquire their tastelessness, and -- inevitably -- begin to bore their owners.


Eye Candy

What a story! This sculpture appeared in a small provincial French auction last year estimated at £800. It has since reappeared on the market with a... £3.8 million price tag, re-attributed as it has been to -- Giambologna. Read about it here.

Now, Giambologna was Flemish (he was really Jean de Boulogne), but studied sculpture in Rome. It figures: just look at these girls!

Clearly, Giambologna and I have at least one thing in common: a certain -- loving -- interest in heft.


George Steiner's Greek Fantasies

All men are aware of tragedy in life. But tragedy as a form of drama is not universal. Oriental art knows violence, grief, and the stroke of natural or contrived disaster; the Japanese theater is full of ferocity and ceremonial death. But that representation of personal suffering and heroism which we call tragic drama is distinctive of the western tradition. It has become so much a part of our sense of the possibilities of human conduct, the Oresteia, Hamlet and Phedre are so ingrained in our habits of spirit, that we forget what a strange and complex idea to reenact private anguish on public stage. The idea and the vision of the man which it implies are Greek.
What to do with a book which begins like this? Throw it out without advancing beyond page three? After all, how right can can be the rest of a book which starts out this wrong?

This is George Steiner speaking, the book is what made his enormous reputation (The Death of Tragedy) and the paragraph is unalloyed, 24-carat, pure-water nonsense. What do they do in Bali every day for a month during the Denpassar festival but enact private drama on public stage? Or in all the small towns up and down the Kerala coast in December where weekly all-night performances of Kathakali are given in temple courtyards? And if Sonezaki Shinju is not private suffering on public stage, then, obviously, neither is Hamlet nor Phedre.

Whence comes this urge of western scholars to define the West, us, Europe (whatever) by making a fantastic grand-sweeping and utterly false generalization about The Other? (And what is The Other anyway?) How comes it that grand scholars should think it's OK to spew this sort of garbage? And how comes it that no one stands up and screams in objection?

Seeking the opinions of others


If you believe in evolution, you must also believe that significant genetic variety within the human species. (Evolution proceeds by individual mutation followed by breeding competition: every species subject to evolution is full of competing mutations).


And if you accept that changes in brain structure lead to changes in intellectual capacity (e.g. dogs and humans differ in intellectual capacity because their brains differ); and that the human brain has evolved and is subject to further evolution; then it follows that there must exist a plurality of different human brain mutations with different intellectual capacities: in short, different kinds of minds. (And since most of these mutations will have been around for a while and have had time to breed, we should expect that some individual mutations exist within very large numbers of brains; ergo, while the eye sees such doubtful categories as Poles and Portuguese, blacks and whites, men and women, we could perhaps with some justice speak of different brain populations; which probably do not overlap with any of the former categories).


This has two important and seemingly contradictory consequences regarding how we should treat the opinions of others.


In cases of objective knowledge – is buying GM stock a good move? -- we are well advised to consult the opinion of others because their brains may see something – some important clues or some subtle causal relations between clues and facts – which ours do not. In such cases, it is most useful to consult those with brains as different from ours as possible because we are hoping to look at a particular problem from a different vantage point in the hope of discovering something previously invisible. We are trying to borrow their cognitive system to look at the outside world.


In cases of subjective knowledge consulting with others is not entirely useless, because we do not have perfect introspective vision (i.e. we do not always know how we feel or why); in such instances learning about the feelings of others who find themselves in our circumstances can shed important light on our own problems. (This includes matters of taste: observing how others furnish their living rooms, for example, can be a rich source of good ideas).

But in such instances, we need to consult with those whose brains are as similar to ours as we can find because the question how a totally different brain might work in our particular circumstances, while amusing, is, practically speaking, useless.

So far, OK?


Running into the Prince of Poland

I first bumped into him through the services of Andrew Manze. Manze's recording of The Concert for the Prince of Poland is elegantly, in places touchingly, played, though it is, like most Manze, a bit anemic. The Concert was Vivaldi's last published work. He sold it in order to finance his move to Vienna (where, alas, he soon died).

The CD's liner-notes described the public fetes put on by Venice to welcome the Prince of Poland -- regattas, andatas, fireworks and receptions. The Concert was written for these celebrations. But who was the prince? (The crown was elective, there was no such thing as a Prince of Poland).

The answer to that question came unexpectedly several years later, from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the author of the delightful Letters. It's a bit of a tragic story: in her middle age, with her marriage on the rocks, she allowed herself an affair and fell in love with a young Italian rogue (Algarotti -- that fellow keeps turning up everywhere, too). Probably tiring of her (nothing is as embarassing to a young lover than an older woman in love: love, being silly, is for girls), he'd hit on a great ruse: "You go to Florence, amore, and wait for me there" he said and left for... Dresden. Lady Mary went, pined and waited. Finally, she had to admit to herself what she had long suspected; she packed and went to Venice. And that turned out lucky: she happened to be there during the Prince's visit; she describes it in some detail. Better yet -- she met the Prince and befriended him. Some romantic gondola rides took place and touching private conversations were had: they were both star-struck: the prince was lame and had to be carried about by his footmen; his mother pressed him to quit the succession and enter holy orders.

And he was from Dresden.

That allowed me to identify him: he was Frederick Christian Wettin. His father, Augustus III, was simultaneously Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. The title Prince of Poland was not a title but an apellation. It certainly worked on the Venetians: like all Replebeians, they were easily impressed by titles.

That was 1740.

In the same 1740 Giuseppe Galli Bibiena published his Architetture e Prospettive dedicate alla maesta di Carlo Sesto Imperador de' Romani, a book of engravings among which are some of his stage designs (the four generations of Bibienas dominated European theater and stage design for about a hundred years). I stumbled upon it yesterday and among the engravings I disovered a series entitled "Scene de la Festa Teatrale in occasione delle Sponsali del Principe Reale di Polonia e Elettorale di Sassonia". (They are all hilariously over the top).

Freddie! I exclaimed as if meeting an old friend. Alas, no: Freddie did not marry till 1747. The Principe Reale in question here must have been his Dad, Augustus III, who married an Imperial Princess in 1719.

Tobacco leaf

Chinese, Qianlong period.

Never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. But here I have found them in two places already: Arte Antiga and Medeira e Almeida. Apparently, the pattern was developed specifically for the Portuguese (Brazilian?) market. (There are even lame knock-offs made today).

The Met of course has it (and keeps it in storage): see some here. Decent-looking reproductions of the Met pieces can be had here.