Books Comics Culture

The Lucifer In Us All

There is something deep within the structure of our ape-bequeathed brains that ever strains against the necessity of buying safety in the coin of freedom.  That call to mad, independent flight is the source of some of our greatest stories, and the characters who draw our rapt attention, generation upon generation.  And of those champions for pure freedom, none rings so elementally true as Lucifer, the angel who challenged his creator.

 

Of course, he failed, but the nobility of that failure, the humanity of it, have made him impossible to forget.  And so, from Dante to Milton to Goethe, Lucifer stands at the center of the story, the horror of his realm and the degradation of his fall sparking our curiosity and respect in ways that the subsequent, party-line marshaling of Heaven’s glories have never quite balanced.   We read Inferno out of a desire to understand our true stars.  We read Paradiso largely out of obligation.

 

 

 

At its best, fiction centering on Lucifer brings us to foundational grips with the tension between the lip service we pay to our love of freedom and our more commonplace (but civilization-building) need for things to be in proper and expected order when we wake in the morning.

 

At its worst, it is titillation mongering, and I admit I’m largely okay with that too.

 

But we are here to discuss an instance of the former case.  This year, Vertigo Comics has begun its long-awaited re-release of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s Lucifer, which ran for seventy five issues from 2000 to 2006.  The first two books cover issues one through twenty-eight, with a third scheduled for release in March 2014.  I remember catching from issue fifty onwards when it first came out (which is saying something in light of my extreme Marvel partisanship at the time), but didn’t bother to hunt down the earlier trades until it was too late, so this was my first time laying eyes upon those first story arcs.

 

And they are exquisite.  Picking up where Neil Gaiman’s epochal Sandman left off, Lucifer has given up ruling Hell and runs a piano bar in Los Angeles from which he is turning over schemes to be free of Heaven and its determinacy at last.  That’s all you really need to know, and people coming to Lucifer without having read Sandman won’t be missing out on too much other than those “That guy we perceive dimly has some pretty spikey hair – I bet I know what that’s about” moments which are eventually made explicit anyway.

 

So, yes, you can come to Lucifer issue one, page one, with no continuity at your back and be well served.  Truth be told, Lucifer and Sandman are two very different beasts, the former an intense study of the character of rebellion and the philosophical thorniness of causality that is pure ambrosia to the likes of we humanist sorts while the latter allows itself to wander more broadly along the roads of its fancy, which is also exquisite but without the same rash, cocksure angularity that makes Lucifer so unique.  Lucifer Morningstar seeks one thing, and the comic is drawn along swiftly in the wake of that quest, and we as readers are hurtled briskly, breathlessly along, gasping to ourselves, “Can he?  Will he?  Should we be hopping off now, while it’s still safe?”

 

It’s precisely that vertigo-inducing sense of wishes fulfilled that perhaps oughtn’t be that I love so much about this comic.  Lucifer has the courage of his vision and the power to see it to its conclusion that we do not, as a day to day rule, share.  Nor should we.  Humanity would shake itself to pieces if our brains didn’t quell our Lucifer boldness in the oxytocin glow of community.  But thinking about where the boundary lies, between that need for permanence and the instinct to tear a hole in space and create our own kingdom in the void beyond, is the most important thing we can do, and Lucifer excels at ruminating on these issues.

 

 

I realize all of this focus on the book’s philosophy makes the comic sound perhaps like a ponderous slog through The Illustrated Heidegger.  But Carey is far too good a writer to let the philosophy ossify the story.  There are tales here of incredible scope and virtuosity – stories of demons turning to addiction in the absence of leadership, of the cards of fate inhabiting a cabaret performer, of a new Adam and Eve given the sole command to never bend their knee in worship of anything, of angels callously cutting a swath through innocence to maintain their hold on power, and of a dream walking girl having to fend off a creature armed with a thought-sucking straw.  It’s in every way marvelous, and Peter Gross’s art is perfectly matched to bring out the Baroque-modern harshness of Lucifer’s new plans for rebellion.

 

I suspect we’ll continue telling stories about Lucifer even after we have ceased being a religious species, because the point here is not religious.  It’s not about Christianity or the papacy or the rich absurdities of theology, though they all make their appearance.  It’s about the limits of existence, where they lie, and how close to them we dare tread.  And that will be of interest to humans so long as there are humans and, most likely, to whatever comes after us as well.

Art Culture

Humans are Great 4: The Agreeable Vice of Francois Boucher

There was a time, and perhaps after a century of Modernism Fatigue we are returning to it, when the business of serious art was, unabashedly, pleasure.  For a crisp but tenuous moment, delight ruled unencumbered by self-conscious moralizing or the strictures of reality.  If you could dream it, and it was charming, you painted it.  The era lasted all of about thirty years, born in the first flush of the Enlightenment’s love of sloppily amorous humanity, and was snuffed before its time by that same movement’s increasing need for classical and uplifting overtones in its artistic productions.  But, if you’re of a mind to sit dreamily drunk before a bit of art for a while, you’ll find a welcoming home there.

 

The high priest of the Pleasure in Painting was the Parisian artist François Boucher (1703-1770).  He came of age as an artist in that era when society, worn out by the somber realities of the end of Louis XIV’s reign, sought to recapture itself in the vigorous pursuit of life.  Part of that endless quest included the construction of ravishing private spaces bedecked with charming and graceful illustrations.  Boucher, their iconographer of choice, delivered a constant stream of pastoral simplicity, luscious nudes, and oh so very much drapery.

 

After spending his student years wrapped up in the obligatory production of obscure Biblical moments, Boucher broke into his own style by wedding mythological themes to a visual sense that combined Flemish and modern Italian influences with his own innate feel for dramatic elegance.  There is a lot of loveliness to contemplate from his first decade and a half, but this, his Birth of Venus (1740), is perhaps the most wonderfully over-the-top love song to the marriage of art and pleasure:

 

The Birth of Venus, 1740.

 

 

In the mid 1740s a pastoral fad broke out, and Boucher responded with a series of hyper-idealized but entirely fetching canvases that still have the power to make us stop dead in our twitchy, nervous tracks and melt a bit with a yearning for something slower:

Shepherd Piping to a Shepherdess, 1744.

Even those who hated him couldn’t help but admit that they kinda liked him.  In his famous attempt to wean the Parisian public from Boucher’s paintings and redirect its enthusiasm to more elevated artistic ground, Denis Diderot ended up basically advertising for him:  “What colors!  What variety!  What richness of objects and ideas!… There is no part of his compositions which, separated from the others, does not please you; the ensemble even seduces you.  That man has everything except truth…  Where has one actually seen shepherds dressed with such elegance and luxury? …. [but] one cannot leave the picture.  It fixes you.  One comes back to it.  It is such an agreeable vice!”

 

The Setting of the Sun, 1752.

 

For better or worse, ours is a time of agreeable vices.  We have all spent more on novelty tee-shirts depicting Daleks or Jayne Hats or Fluttershy Battling Medusa than on sober art-school originals because we think that amusement is the ideal wadding with which to stuff the gaps of life, even (or perhaps especially) as they yawn gradually into chasms.  I certainly have, and I don’t feel any particular shame on that account.  Agreeable vices are important, and deserve to be reckoned as such rather than cast off as unworthy of an artist’s labor.

 

I cannot deny, however, that, as much smack as I talk, I do love the callous challenge of modernism, indeed anything that sets out to make you do some work for your squirt of dopamine, but I am truly thankful that there was that rolling ripple of a time when artists were willing to indulge their fancy at the cost of their bottom-line profundity, and to let visual poetic discourse run where it would without philosophical theory dictating a curfew.

Culture Science and Math

The Disappearing American Science Student

Don’t they teach recreational mathematics anymore?!” – Doctor Who

 

No, Doctor, they don’t.  At least not according to Harold Levy’s sobering article in the new (Dec 13) issue of Scientific American, which rolls out some truly dispiriting statistics about the state of science and math enthusiasm in the United States.  For example, we learn that, in 2001, 65 percent of all electrical engineering doctorates awarded in the United States were given to foreign students, and that in 2009 46 percent of all master’s degrees in computer science went to students on foreign visas.

 

And no, the phenomenon has nothing to do with Diversity Quotas, so you can put that speech away, and everything to do with our inability to produce inspired and inspiring first-tier college students out of our high school system.  As a calculus and physics teacher since 2003, parent since 2004, and private tutor since my high school days, I’ve been watching this trend, first-hand, from a few different angles.  The good news is that the educational community is by no means taking these trends lying down, and some very exciting things are in the works which stand to make us a much more scientifically literate nation.

 

One of the things that I, and many math-first people of my ilk, have done much wrong-headed grumbling about is the rise of the Conceptual Science curriculum.  It started with physics, is making its way into chemistry, and is basically an attempt to give people solid scientific instincts independent of advanced mathematical skills.  Originally, the idea was that these Conceptual classes would be a good place to stuff struggling students, so as to cut some of the dead weight from the normal and honors physics classes.

 

Which led to unfortunate things, because the teachers that were stuck with the Conceptual classes tended to be on the bottom of the seniority poll, and so you had rookies teaching castoffs which, in spite of what the movies say, ends rather more often in disaster than inspiration.  But then people started realizing the raw potential here.  To illustrate, consider the following two problems, the first a typical physics class question, and the second a typical Conceptual physics question:

 

  1.  Two forces act on a 4 kg rope in opposite directions, one of magnitude 300 Newtons, and the other of magnitude 500 N.  Calculate the Tension in the Rope and the acceleration of the system.

 

  1. Two guys engage in a game of tug-of-war.  If they both pull with 200 N of force, what’s the tension in the rope?  Now, what would the tension be if we replaced one of the guys with a tree?

 

The first invites the student to construct a free body diagram, derive the relevant Newtonian equations, and solve for some desired variables.  All very standard and expected.  The second asks you to think, really think, about just what is going on here.  DOES it matter if I replace a man pulling backwards with a stationary tree?  Shouldn’t it?  But maybe not… why?

 

I try to incorporate these moments whenever I can into my AP Physics class, to break the students out of their very meticulously learned algorithms, and make them think about the actual physicality of what’s going on, to develop sure scientific instincts about what matters and what doesn’t, to get them debating about the variables and how they come into play.  It’s that intuition that my parents’ generation had but that, swamped with the need to perform well on standardized tests, was systematically murdered by the educational system over the course of several decades.  It is recreational- you are playing and weighing and arguing and having a grand old time talking about a rope and a tree, which is precisely the sort of free intellectual play that sustains people in their interest to pursue the rigorous course of a scientific education.

 

So, that’s all great, and it’s getting injected more and more into all levels of the high school curriculum.  But it’s not quite enough.  It’s not enough to just think about science and math until the end of your assigned problem set.  We need kids who actively choose to spend their leisure investigating problems that they find interesting, delving more deeply into topics they find compelling.  And that is all about parental modeling – the kiddos need to see from their earliest days that, the work day done, their parents don’t just flop insensibly into the warm and easy embrace of television, booze, or incessant Facebook nattering.

 

They need to see parents with intellectual hobbies, really ANY intellectual hobbies – a dad who takes a half an hour each night to read through some poetry, not because it broadens his education, but because he actually enjoys it.  A mother who has a few Erlenmeyer flasks in the garage for an experiment now and again.  Something that shows the kids that the care of one’s mind can actually be a joy far surpassing mere satiation.  They take their lessons in the use of recreational time from us – in many ways it’s the most important thing we have to teach them, and the one easiest to neglect.

 

But.  If we do make a sort of civilizational commitment to being mindful of our leisure hours, and if we do continue to find ways to structure curriculum to spark surprise and argument instead of the comparative ease of an expected algorithm, we have a chance to raise a remarkable generation of thinkers.

Culture Language Music

Humans are Great 3: Falco’s Music Videos

There comes a moment for us all, our work being done, our chores accomplished and living nook tidied, when we have no choice but to pull up a chair opposite cold, dour Reality and evaluate the content of our lives.  It is the easiest thing in the world, in that moment, to either lock one’s self into an iron stoicism or simply despair at the futility of it all.  My respect has always gone, however, to those who see a third way out of the grim facts of existence, who fully recognize the insistent press of entropy and yet manage, through a pure genius for goofiness, to make life a little more radiant for the rest of us.  When I think about my favorite bits of humanity, unabashed goofs spring to mind far more often than po-faced anguish-mongers.  And the crown prince of the ridiculous is, without a doubt, 80s German pop music sensation, Falco.

If that name rings a bell at all, it is because you are over 30 and remember this, the video to Rock Me Amadeus, which features Falco in an elegant tuxedo rapping in German about Mozart while walking through a crowd of punk aristocrats and motorcycle gangs.   It connects, through two centuries of European history, the madcap genius of Mozart with the living silliness of the 1980s in a way that you can’t help but be enchanted by if you have an enchantable bone in your body (the video proper begins at 0:27):

Wonderful.  Really, though, the wackiness here is understated in the general canon of Falco videos.  Take my personal favorite, Wiener Blut, which features Falco, dressed alternately as Napoleon Bonaparte and a fish-tie wearing corrupt politician, mixing in with an incongruous selection of overweight German tourists, mafiosos, Flashdancing female police officers, and I’m not quite sure what all else:

Or The Sound of Musik, Falco’s ode to the development of music itself, which begins with Falco as Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria rising up from a silk-strewn floor and then explodes into a just joyful celebration of our love for sound.  Every moment of it is absolutely ridiculous and absolutely beautiful.  You can’t watch it and not think, “You know, humanity’s all right.”

Falco is entirely aware of our capacity for darkness, and some of the more over-done aspects of even his most effervescent videos key into those dark zones.  Lest we forget, his second big hit, Jeanny, is a song explicitly about child kidnapping, and the video is about as dark as you can get:

But it’s the existence of videos like that which makes Amadeus and Wiener Blut so much more delightful.  They sizzle with an awareness of our great capacity for self-harm and the determination to overcome all of that in a great orgiastic celebration of our common bond.  Be you a grotesque tourist, a biker, or a man with a gauge for a head, there is a place for you at Falco’s table of humanity.  If, as humanists, we could tap into this vein a bit more and into our valuable but rather mopey instincts for phrase parsing a bit less, it might do us, and those people proximal to us, a decided good.

Books Culture

Jedi or Trekkie? The Humanist Perspective

 

 

 

The [Jedi] Order has long been about justifying its own existence, about acquiring and holding power… I know what I swore to do as a Jedi, and it didn’t have anything to do with turning a blind eye to social evils because the Sith were a bigger evil.  – Gotab (Bardan Jusik)

 

 

 

Your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the Dark Ages of superstition and ignorance and fear. No!

– Captain Jean Luc Picard

 

 

Ask any sensible 25 year old human which they prefer, Star Wars or Star Trek and, without missing a beat, they will reply Star Wars and proceed down the list of its clear advantages.  It’s more exciting.  There’s more action.  The bad guys are cooler.  It’s grittier.  It has women in leadership positions before 1990.  The aliens aren’t just people with face paint.  There’s magic.  Light sabers, dude, light sabers.

And so forth.

Ask any 35 year old, and the answer just as inevitably comes back Star Trek, and especially from the people who most vociferously insisted Star Wars a decade prior.  It’s about bigger social issues.  It’s philosophically more subtle.  The science is more interesting.  The team dynamic is more compelling than the series of lone wolves that Star Wars has to offer.

And so on.

The implication seems to be that Star Wars is the stuff of idealistic, solipsistic adolescence, and Star Trek that of pragmatic, socially-oriented adulthood, but that is to do a disservice to the philosophies of power and social change present especially in the Star Wars expanded universe, and the sense of individual struggle to be found in Star Trek’s most recent instantiation.

Starting with Star Wars, I won’t attempt to instill the original films with more philosophical weight than they had.  The movies were the defining experience of my childhood, and merchandise related to them continues to consume more of my personal income than I care to reveal.  They are thoroughly rad, but they aren’t particularly deep.  They do, however, contain themes of astounding pregnancy which have been worked by others into fascinating ruminations about how change happens in civilization.

The best place to go to find this broader scope is undoubtedly the novels, of which there are hundreds, but the high point for me is definitely the nine-novel Legacy of the Force series, and particularly book eight, Revelation, by veteran Star Wars novelist Karen Traviss.  The series centers upon the rise of Jacen Solo, son of Leia and Han, who possesses force abilities of untold power and flexibility, and seeks to use them in the service of a galaxy just rebuilding itself after disastrous invasion.  It is hardly worth the hauling out of a Spoiler Alert placard to say that the Dark Side soon has him in its clutches.  But what’s interesting is that the Dark Side isn’t some metaphysical notion of pure evil, but rather a philosophy about how you institute reform in a civilization.  Presented with the self-serving inertia of those in power and comfort, how do you make life better for those actively but voicelessly suffering?

In grappling with this issue, the Legacy books are really looking at the structural flaws of Buddhist versus Christian practice.  The Jedi, whose espousal of detachment allows flagrant injustice to continue in the galaxy so long as their precious monastery stays in power, are everything that’s wrong with a classical Buddhist approach to society, and Jacen soon grows frustrated with their mysticism-laced unwillingness to get their hands dirty to help people.  The Sith, full of absolute confidence in the righteousness of their own actions, gifted with the ability to take action in the name of galaxy-spanning goals regardless of consequence, are the Christians, drunk on their own supernatural power and convinced that anybody who opposes them opposes the universal order and therefore deserves death.

 

 

Jacen is tossed about on the horns of these polarities until the sheer need for resolute action in order to save the galaxy tosses him into the arms of the Dark Side.  During one of his moments of introspection, he basically rewrites the original trilogy, showing that the Rebellion, in acting as it did, was far more Sith than Jedi in affiliation:

“Who would make the tough choices if they were hidebound by conventional law?  Had anyone protested about Luke Skywalker bringing down Palpatine?  The Rebellion broke every law in the book, and killed many people, but citizens were ready to accept that because change was needed.  [Jacen] was only doing the same thing, and yet he was vilified for it.  He was wounded by the blindness around him.  Why could they not understand?  He wasn’t explaining it clearly enough, perhaps.”

Ultimately, the fallout from all of this propels the Star Wars universe into The Fate of the Jedi series, which finds the Jedi in disgrace and the galaxy questioning whether or not we’d be better off after all without these self-appointed paladins of disinterested virtue in charge.  These books make the original movies retroactively more profound, and are worth the reading by anybody wanting to expand their love of a galaxy far, far away into that stage of life that needs something more than the hiss of a light saber to capture its interest.

 

To Star Trek, then, and particularly to the most recent series, Star Trek: Enterprise.  Responding to criticism that The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager were essentially tales of space bureaucracy incapable of bringing in a younger audience, Enterprise went back to the very beginning of humanity’s interstellar program to catch us at a moment of cocky inexperience, before the Prime Directive, before the diplomatic concerns of negotiating borders with the Romulans.  The crew, led by Captain Jonathan Archer, manifestly does not know what it is doing half the time, and in the space that protocol usually fills, they are left to suss things out for themselves as best they can.

And in that sense, this series is much closer to Star Wars than to the previous offerings of Star Trek.  It is consistently about individual agency and power, and how that ought to be used to accomplish what you find to be the right task, precedent be damned.  Whereas an episode of Voyager (incidentally, my favorite of the Trek series, though I realize I’m basically alone in that) will feature the crew agonizing over the application of Federation protocol to a particular instance, in Enterprise the issue Archer is constantly facing is what his power as a starship captain morally allows him to do, and what it compels him to do, which is a very Jedi/Sith kind of dilemma.

The framework, however, is still very Star Trek, in that Kantian philosophy and enlightened skepticism come to the rescue more often than not.  The categorical imperative is the big machine that dictates how the episodes are going to turn out, while appeals to mystical explanations and vague religiosity, which cropped up from time to time in Voyager, are routinely squashed in favor of freedom of thought and the scientific method.  It is entirely an amalgam of the personal drama of Star Wars and the larger concerns of Star Trek, with the occasional manifestly gratuitous Decontamination Room Scene by way of fan service.

 

The title of this essay implied a solution, that the weight of judgment would settle finally on one pole or the other of this, the most important question of our times.  Certainly, looking at it casually, a humanist would be better rewarded investing their leisure hours in old Star Trek episodes than in repeat viewings of Star Wars, but that is to undervalue the richness of Lucas’s original conception, one which set the stage for big questions to be asked, even if he didn’t himself ask them.  There is no need to hang up your Mandalorian armor upon reaching the august age of 30.  Nor must you seek islands far from the Trek universe if you want to probe issues of individual psychology.  The answer to Trekkie or Jedi is, simply, BOTH, or if you have utterly no sense of imaginative play, then NEITHER, but to alight on one side or the other exclusively is to do yourself a profound disservice.

Now, Marvel or DC, on the other hand…. That one’s easy.

Science and Math

Humans Are Great 2: The Popcorn Function

Mathematics is the summit of everything I find wonderful about mankind.  It requires the most rigorous thinking of which we are capable married to an unflinching creativity, astounding sense of space and movement, and a poetic regard for the pregnancy of words.  Technically, I suppose that’s a marriage on the polygamous side, but I’m all for that too.  In any case, once you get past the decade-long tutorial, learning the names and rules for all the different tools, you get to start having fun trying to Break Math.  Seeing mathematicians hot on the hunt for something that will tear down a millennia-long assumption is really quite beautiful, and another example of humans just being great.

One of my favorite examples of Math Gone Mad is called (among other less whimsical names) the Popcorn Function.  It goes like this:

 

F(x) = { 1/q if x is a rational number of the form p/q.

0 if x is irrational. }

 

And here is a snapshot of a part of it.

 

The Popcorn Function!

 

It’s popularly called the popcorn function because all of the rational x’s pop up to one over their denominator, while all of the irrationals stay stuck on the x-axis.  Now, think back to your high school Pre-Calculus or Calculus class.  You might remember a working definition of continuity that says, “A graph is continuous if you don’t have to lift your pencil while drawing it.”  Just looking at this picture, it is hard to picture something LESS continuous-seeming.

AND YET, it turns out that this function is continuous at all irrational numbers but discontinuous at all rational numbers.

That seems a rather wildly improbable statement, and yet the proof of it is delightfully uncomplicated, and in fact is something you might want to whip out at your next cocktail party while the Catan board is getting set up.  It all relies on a more rigorous definition of continuity, known as the ε-δ definition.  Just written out, it looks horrid:

 

“A function f(x) is continuous at x=a if, for any ε > 0, there exists a δ > 0 such that if |x-a| < δ, then |f(x) – f(a) | < ε.”

 

When I introduce this to my calculus students, there is usually a fair amount of rending of clothing and gnashing of teeth, but the idea is actually very simple: “If two x values, let’s say a and b, are close to each other, then f(a) and f(b) should be close to each other too.”  It’s the pencil requirement written mathematically – to move right a little bit while drawing my curve I shouldn’t have to move up or down very far.

So, to prove that something is continuous, I have to show that, for any value of epsilon (ε), no matter how small, I can find a neighborhood of x values around x=a that all end up within ε of f(a).  Alternately, to prove that a function is NOT continuous at x=a I just need to produce a value of ε for which it is impossible to find such a neighborhood around x=a.

Now, I said that the Popcorn Function is continuous at every irrational number and discontinuous at every rational number.  Let’s start with the easy part, proving that the rationals are discontinuous.  To do it, I’m going to use a smashing attribute of the number line – that the irrationals and rationals are “dense.”  That means that, no matter how small a step I take from a rational number, I’m going to cross infinitely many irrationals, and no matter how small a step I take from an irrational number, I’m going to cross an infinite number of rational numbers along the way.  Any neighborhood, no matter how small, of any number will contain infinitely many other irrational and rational numbers.  There is just as much richness to contemplate from 0 to 1 as from negative infinity to positive infinity.

So, let’s say that my “a” value is rational, so f(a) = 1/a.  I’m going to choose 1/2a as my ε value.  Now, no matter what value of delta I choose, there are going to be infinitely many irrational x-values within that neighborhood of a, all with a function value of 0.  So, |f(x)-f(a)| for those irrational x’s will equal 1/a, which is more than our ε value.  So, not all points within any delta of a will end up within ε of f(a), so the function is not continuous at x=a if a is rational.  Neat!

But we have barely begun to climb Mt. Nifty.  Now, suppose a is irrational (so, f(a) = 0), and that I choose some random, rational value for ε (if the fact that I’m limiting ε to rational numbers disturbs you, good, but if you really want to use an irrational ε, I can always find a rational one both smaller than it but still positive, and use that ε for the proof).  Epsilon, being rational, has an integer denominator, let’s call it q.  So, all I need to do is find a delta neighborhood around “a” that definitely does not contain any x values with a denominator smaller than q.

And, it turns out, I can do that.  Think about it.  Let’s say my “a” is equal to 2 point something something something.  Now, between 2 and 3 there is only one reduced fraction with denominator equal to 2 (namely, 5/2), only 2 with denominator equal to 3 (7/3 and 8/3), only 2 with denominator equal to 4 (9/4, and 11/4), and so on.  The point being, that no matter how big q (the denominator of my original ε) is, there are only a finite number of rational values around a with a smaller denominator.  Since there are only finitely many, one of them will be CLOSEST to “a”.  If I choose my delta just smaller than that distance, I am absolutely guaranteed that no x value within that delta neighborhood will have a denominator smaller than q, and as such, f(x) will always be less than ε, and so, at x=a, the function is continuous!!

And one more ! for good measure.

So, in spite of the fact that there are infinitely many places where this function is hopping up off the number line, it is actually, technically, continuous at every single irrational number.  What’s even weirder is that, and here I’m going to turn to the calculus-remembering folk for a bit, this function is actually integrable too, since its set of discontinuities, the rational numbers, is countable!  *Electric Air Guitar Riff!*

Wrapped up in this one function is a large part of all my favorite stuff about math and about the humans who make it.  There are some spectacularly clean definitions that have been seized upon by some wonderfully playful minds to create an object that breaks every bond of common sense.  It’s the same process or rules-brokered explosive creativity you see in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, or the perspective tinkering of a Braque canvas, only rendered, at least for me, several orders of magnitude more exciting by virtue of being so ethereal, so elusively abstract.

It’s like I always say: If you love poetry, you’ll love math more.  Eventually.

 

FURTHER READING: If you liked that function, there are tons of other such to be had out there.  A great place to start is Bernard Gelbaum and John Olmsted’s Counterexamples in Analysis, which is a book of nothing but dastardly clever things that seem to defy common sense.  To get most of it, though, requires something of a background in Real Analysis, for which Charles Pugh’s Real Mathematical Analysis is a great starting point that just about anybody can dive into right away!

Books Culture

Nun, Other

 

With the smash success of the BBC’s television series Call the Midwife, it is nun season once again.   Every half century or so humankind takes a break from Getting To Work On Time and Wondering What the Neighbors Think to ponder for a bit just what it is nuns do.  While Midwife and its twentieth century brethren usually come down on the side of a more or less benevolent and whimsical conception of nun-dome, that has by no means been the case historically.  A look back at the nun literature of the last three centuries shows how, more often than not, the cloister has been seen as the breeding ground of villainy than heroism.

Skipping over the Middle Ages and its saliva-bestrewn fascination with the prostitute-turned-nun trope, the foundational work of modern Nun Fiction is, for most, Denis Diderot’s The Nun (La Religieuse), which only received its first real printing in 1796, twelve years after the author’s death.  It is a brisk novel that grew out of a practical joke that was inspired by a court case.  In 1758, Marguerite Delamarre, a nun at the Longchamp convent, sued to be allowed to leave her convent, lost, and was forced to remain there for the rest of her life.  This was not at all uncommon – the convent was where you sent daughters whose dowry you couldn’t afford to pay or, if you happened to be in Russia under the thumb of the Domostroi, where you sent wives when you got tired of them.

 

Diderot’s book, then, is a look at the piteous state of convent life, both for those with and without a religious vocation.  The main figure is an illegitimate daughter sent to the convent so she won’t try and claim any inheritance.  She seeks release from her compelled vows, only to find the full weight of the cloister brought to bear against her – psychological manipulation and pure physical violence are in turn heaped upon her shoulders.  Diderot unleashes his full scorn for the crimes against nature wrapped up in the three vows of the convent, and the moral destruction they necessarily breed:

 

“Faire voeu de pauvreté, c’est s’engager par serment à être paresseux et voleur; faire voeu de chasteté, c’est promettre à Dieu l’infraction constant de la plus sage et de la plus importante de ses lois; faire voeu d’obéissance, c’est renoncer à la prérogative inaliénable de l’homme, la liberté.  Si l’on observe ces voeux, on est criminal; si on ne les observe pas on est perjure.  La vie claustrale est d’un fanatique ou d’un hypocrite.”

(To take the vow of poverty is to promise to become a layabout and a thief; to take that of chastity is to promise to God a constant infraction of the wisest and most important of his laws; and to make the vow of obedience is to renounce the inalienable prerogative of man, Liberty.  If you observe these vows, you are a criminal, and if not, you are a perjurer.  The cloistered life always makes of you either a fanatic or a hypocrite.)

 

By forcing young women so resolutely against the best parts of their nature, the convent life grinds slowly away at their humanity and very concept of identity, leading at best to a numbed acceptance of your captors’ truths, and at worst to mad flights of self-destruction:

 

“Alors les unes courent se jeter aux genoux de leur superieure et vont y chercher de la consolation; d’autres se prosternent ou dans leur cellule ou au pied des autels et appellant le Ciel a leur secours; d’autres dechirent leurs vetements et s’arrachent leurs cheveux; d’autres cherchent un puits profound, des fenetres bien hautes, un lacet, et le trouvent quelquefois; d’autres apres s’etre tourmentees longtemps tombent dans une espece d’abrutissement et restent imbeciles; d’autres qui ont des organs faibles et delicats se consument de langueur; il y en a en qui l’organisation se derange, l’imagination se trouble et qui deviennent furieuses.  Les plus heureuses sont celles en qui les memes illusions consolantes renaissent, et les bercent presque jusqu’au tombeau; leur vie se passe dans les alternatives de l’erreur et du desespoir.”

 

(Some nuns throw themselves at the knees of their superior and attempt to find consolation there; others prostrate themselves in their cell or at the foot of their altars and call to Heaven for relief; some rend their clothes and tear their hair; others search out a deep well, a high window, or a rope, and sometimes find them; others, after long torment slip into a state of stupefication and remain that way; those of a weak and delicate constitution waste away in languor, while others still lose their minds to wild fancy and go stark mad.  The most fortunate are those for whom the consoling illusions of religion reassert themselves, and continue to do so unto death; their lives are thus spent in delusion and despair.)

 

With all its invective against the unnaturalness of religion, The Nun is very much a product of the high Enlightenment, touching on the universal dignity of man and how it is ill-served by monasticism.  Forty years would pass before the next big explosion of convent fiction, one equally critical of the life of religious seclusion, but which comes from a much darker place than the open and free humanity of Diderot’s forward-thinking mind.

The 1830s were a time of massive anti-Catholic sentiment here in the States, the heyday of the Know Nothing movement, and they saw the birth of a whole industry of anti-Papist fiction, with some of the most lurid examples being the Escaped Nun genre.  These were novels purporting to be true memoirs of nuns who escaped their convents and the life of gross sin therein.  Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent (1832) and The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836) both ignited massive popular indignation with their portrayals of priests forcing nuns into sexual slavery, and babies murdered to hush up scandal.  Reed died of tuberculosis shortly after her account was published, but Monk lived another thirteen years, enough time to see her book become the most-widely read in America, and then to die, abandoned and disgraced.

Americans responded how they generally do to these sorts of events.  They burned down a convent in 1834, started feeling a bit embarrassed about it, and got on with their lives.

And so the genre had seemingly played itself out until, in 1942, a German Jewish émigré by the name of Franz Werfel wrote a six hundred page fly-squisher of a novel, Das Lied von Bernadette, published in America as The Song of Bernadette.  It was as tremendously popular as it is thoroughly creepy.  Most of the book centers on Bernadette Soubirous, the poor daughter of an ex-miller, and the visions of a resplendent holy lady that she has at a local grotto.  Werfel, writing from the heart of the Second World War, fleeing the maw of the Nazi state, saw science and rationality as destructive forces threatening to tear civilization asunder, and so made of his book a sustained impassioned plea for a simple, fervent mysticism.

These were, by and large, the same concerns that motivated Heidegger earlier in his Question Concerning Technology, and would prod Horkheimer and Adorno a few years later to produce that pillar of modern anti-positivism, The Dialectic of Enlightenment.  And yes, caught up in the whirl of a world that seemed intent on self-destruction, it’s hard to blame them for grabbing onto whatever was at hand for support, whether the purity of religious experience sought by Werfel or the entirely imaginary pre-Use-Value society of Heidegger.  It was an awful time to be a European, or indeed a human, and so, if their vision stumbled here and there, if they mistook friends of humanity for its enemies and vice versa, it is understandable.

That said, Werfel’s book is pretty skeezy.  Bernadette’s vision lady is obsessed with penitence, and gets a sort of sadistic kick out of watching this poor, uncomprehending girl thrash about trying to please her:

 

“The lady was never uncertain of herself and knew her own value.  Therefore the appropriate posture in her presence was on one’s knees, if possible with a burning taper in one’s hand.  If ever one moved to and fro in the grotto, or, still worse, turned one’s back, an expression of nervous suffering would tarnish the radiance of her countenance.  If, on the other hand, one did a painful thing – Bernadette knew this well – such as sliding on one’s knees over the jagged rubble toward the rock, then was she transfigured with joy… if the jagged rubble made the knees bleed, then an act of penitence had been accomplished.”

 

Later, the Lady makes Bernadette eat grass and mud, and promises to reward her in the afterlife, but only after causing her much suffering in this existence.  Ultimately, that suffering will include governmental abuse, seclusion in a convent, and death by bone cancer.  Meanwhile, her family doesn’t know what to make of her and she, for her part, throws over their merely terrestrial love in favor of prolonged contemplation of her Lady and the Lady’s will.  It’s everything that is deeply wrong about religion, written about as if it were the cure for modernity’s ailments.

 

Bernadette is eventually packed off to a convent, and, every once in a while, shows a glimmering of something resembling an actual character.  In his attempt to portray her utter innocence, Werfel has drained her of anything tangible or interesting.  She’s a blank space – things happen to and around her, but that need to keep her absolutely pure also stops her from having anything like growth or insight, and so it’s up to everybody around her to have philosophical and life-changing moments in her stead, giving the whole novel a feeling of hollowness – a vast activity at the circumference masking a yawning stasis within.

The amazing thing is that Werfel, for all of his antiquarianism, doesn’t really care for convents either.  He thinks of his precious Bernadette as far too authentic and pure to be contained by something as merely human as a convent or a Church.  She is primal religiosity in its best, least reflective, sense.  Ironically, her unquestioning, visceral faith, which Werfel offers as the cure to the spread of Nazism, is precisely the sort of mindset that drove a nation into the arms of that very movement.   Read her talking about her Lady, and read an account of a Hitler Youth member talking about his Fuhrer, and you’ll find but little difference.

The 1960s, as was their wont, drove nunnery to two extremes, one of goofy amiability, and one of profound change.  For the former, look to the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” religious affability of The Sound of Music or, if you’re in the mood to really bathe in some uncomfortable Americana, Sally Field’s short-lived sitcom, The Flying Nun, about which the less said, the better.

Moving Along…..

 

On the serious side, Vatican 2 was raising questions about what convent life ought to be about.  The old order was dying out, and the question of Whither Now Nuns was being grappled with by superiors and novices alike.  Karen Armstrong, who left convent life just as these ripples of change were making themselves felt, summed the spirit of the times up in the introduction to her The Spiral Staircase.

 

“Many of the orders had got stuck in a traditional rut.  Customs that had made perfect sense in the nineteenth century, when my own community had been founded, now seemed arbitrary and unnatural.  Practices that had no intrinsic spiritual value but were cultural relics of the Victorian age had acquired sacred significance, and change was regarded as betrayal.  The council urged the religious orders to go back to the original spirit of their founders… Nuns and monks should also let the bracing spirit of change invade their cloisters; they should throw out the rubble that had accumulated over the years and craft a new lifestyle that was in tune with the times.”

 

One of the places this ambivalence with regard to the future of the cloister makes itself felt is in the alternately brilliant and thumbsy pages of Iris Murdoch’s 1980 novel, Nuns and Soldiers.  There are characters of breath-taking complexity to be had here, amongst which is Anne, a former nun who left her convent after a loss of faith.  Unfortunately, most of the book’s heart is spent not on her meditations on the meaning of personal religion, but on analyses, re-analyses, and re-re-analyses of a relationship between the two vapid central characters, Tim and Gertrude, about whom it is not possible to care less.

Still, when Anne is given time to act and think outside of the literary chasm that is Tim And Gertrude, her insights are deeply compelling.  She realizes that she joined the convent primarily out of a fundamental need to reclaim innocence.  Religiosity as extreme makeover.  Sensing the futility of her hectic academic and social life, she instinctively heads it off at the pass by forcing herself into the role of perpetual penitent.  But, of course, innocence doesn’t work like that.  You can pretend for a long while (and it’s hard to look out at the religious landscape, especially here in America at the moment, and NOT interpret it as a sustained act of collective pretending aimed at achieving a desired lifestyle – just the right accessory to pull one’s whole mortal outfit together) but the immense concentration and dedication required to sustain that illusion speaks against its creation.

Murdoch’s ex-nun, then, shows us the convent teetering on the edge of irrelevance, a place where young women go to maintain a desired self-deception for as long as their consciences will allow.  That sense of life momentarily de-railed is carried over into Call the Midwife, where the older generation of nuns (and here is a spoiler alert for those of you not done with season 2 yet) has to sit by and watch as a young member of the order struggles with her faith and, in the end, decides to reach out for life and romance at last.  It’s a tale of simple human nature, honestly told without a hint of rancor, and so a world away from its literary ancestors.

Nun fiction has come to ground, then.  No longer the ecstatic stuff of priestly fantasizing or the exasperated retelling of man’s worst instincts run amok, it has settled for the simple truth of ordinary people getting a bit confused, a bit more scared, and heading desperately into the arms of a whispy phantom for protection, closing their eyes desperately against the dissipation of their guardian until one day they awake, alone, armed only with the question, “What do I do with myself now?”

Which is where all good stories begin.

Culture Language Music

Humans Are Great 1: The Violet

One of the things we in the atheist/humanist community catch a fair amount of perhaps deserved ribbing for is the fact that our frustration is so constant a presence in our lives that it prevents us from stopping and enjoying the beauty of the humanity we abstractly champion.  We are in such a hurry to be devastatingly clever that we don’t let ourselves be struck dumb on occasion by the beauty of humanity’s fancy.  To remedy that, right here, every Monday, I’ll offer up a little bit of something lovely to ponder and enjoy before you head into the grotesque realities of the work week.  It’s Humans are Great, and today we start with what happens when one of the greatest poets of all time meets two of our greatest composers:

 

“Faust? Yeah, I wrote that.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a creature from a different world, descended upon Germany with the goal of remaking its literature, breathing light and excitement and verse into a dreary, religion-obsessed landscape.  After the scourges of Reformation and Counter-Reformation had done their best to render Central Europe a neurotic husk of a region, morbidly given to tallying and re-tallying its sins, a shift of focus to the lyric beauty of the smallest things was in order.  Goethe provided this in so many ways, but one of his most beloved works tells the simple story of a violet standing in a field, hoping to be plucked by a passing maiden, but finding itself trodden by the same (as always, I ask your indulgence with my entirely arrhythmic translation):

 

Das Veilchen (1774)

Ein Veilchen auf der Wiese stand,                                                   A violet stood in a meadow,
gebückt in sich und unbekannt;                                                       Slightly stooped and unseen;
es war ein herzigs Veilchen.                                                               It was a sweet violet.
Da kam ein’ junge Schäferin                                                              Then came a young shepherdess
mit leichtem Schritt und munterm Sinn                                         With light steps and a lively spirit
daher, daher,                                                                                         thence, thence,
die Wiese her und sang.                                                                      To the meadow, while singing.

Ach! denkt das Veilchen, wär’ ich nur                                            Ah! Thought the violet, if only I were
die schönste Blume der Natur,                                                        The most lovely flower in creation,
ach, nur ein kleines Weilchen,                                                         Ah, if only for a short while,
bis mich das Liebchen abgepflückt                                                 Until that maiden picked me
und an dem Busen matt gedrückt,                                          And fastened me loosely to her breast,
ach, nur, ach nur                                                                                 Ah, if only, if only
ein Viertelstündchen lang!                                                               A few moments long.

Ach, aber ach! Das Mädchen kam                                                   And yet!  The maiden came
und nicht in acht das Veilchen nahm,                                            And didn’t notice the small violet,
ertrat das arme Veilchen.                                                                  And trod upon the poor violet.
Es sank und starb, und freut’ sich noch:                                        He sank and died, and rejoiced:
und sterb’ ich denn, so sterb’ ich doch                                            And so I die, and so I die,
durch sie, durch sie,                                                                           through her, through her,
zu ihren Füßen doch!                                                                         Beneath her very feet!

There’s a Pixar short in there somewhere, but the point is that, after two and a half centuries of drab theological pondering, the Germans were waking to simple beauty and fragility again.  And so they began setting the poem to song.

 

One of the great pleasures in life is listening to the same poem treated by different musical geniuses, and Das Veilchen gives us plenty to choose from.  I’m going to pick two for your Monday morning, the first is Mozart’s setting of 1776, which includes the beautiful idea of recapitulating the line “Das arme Veilchen.  Es war ein herziges Veilchen.” – a summary of everything that poor little flower was and hoped to be, swallowed up in an unmarked moment of shimmering impermanence:

 

 

 

And the second is by Clara Schumann (1819-1896), one of the greatest pianists of her time, and a thumping good composer as well.  Her songs are something everybody ought to treat themselves to, particularly as there are so few of them (she refused to write any more after her husband, the great Robert Schumann, died in 1856) , and all are quite heart-rending.  This is one of her later ones, hailing from 1854.  The repetitions she uses are tellingly different, and don’t include the added final line:

 

 

 

And there you have it.  Two bits of beauty about a poor little flower that got stepped on round about three centuries ago.  I love little things like that – they are like big comfy blankets that keep us all warm under our shared human tradition.  And I look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks and months and years to come.

 

Recommended Recordings:

 

Kathleen Battle’s recording of the Mozart (on Kathleen Battle in Concert with James Levine at the piano) is entirely wonderful.  For Schumann, a copy of Dorothea Craxton’s rendition of the complete Schumann songs came into my hands just last week, and I’m going to guardedly say, fully recognizing that in the first flush of newness I tend to exaggerate, that it’s my favorite recording of them yet.

Culture Music

Did Classical Music Die When God Did?

Among the various and manifold jackasseries nailed to the page by James R. Gaines in his Bach biography Evening in the Palace of Reason is the supremely unfair but wildly popular statement that, once God left classical music, so did its ability to say anything sublime or meaningful.  To be fair, he said it while comparing the deeply religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the elegant and fluffily appealing court music of Johann Joachim Quantz, but that hasn’t stopped the thought from being applied to the classical music of our own times.

The music written by modern, atheist composers, the argument runs, has an emotional spectrum running from “anxious” to “very anxious,” and that’s about it.  Love, passion, and above all, sublimity, are entirely beyond these composers’ capacity to portray with their shriveled, sarcastic hearts guiding merciless, ironic pens.

There are, let’s be clear, composers for whom this is manifestly true.  I mean, I love Iannis Xenakis, but I’m not going to say for a moment that I’ve ever felt an emotion beyond a sort of Vulcan creepy-cool mathematical appreciation when listening to his music.  There are, however, atheist composers who have delivered unto us music of breathtaking scope and depth, and it’s time to recognize that fact, starting with the big three: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Béla Bartók (1881-1945), and Leoš Janáček (1854-1928).

“Holy shit, Rimsky-Korsakov was an atheist?!”

That was my reaction too when a copy of his memoirs first found its way onto my bookshelves bearing the categorical statement, “I took rather readily to the view that ‘there is no God and it’s all just invention.’  However, this thought troubled me little… my piety, weak even before then, had completely evaporated, and I felt no spiritual hunger.”  And yet, religious music and the expression of religious sentiment is everywhere in Rimsky-Korsakov’s music.  How did he find it in him to write this music, and write it so very well?

A clue comes in his discussion of the opera The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka).  “The melodies of ancient orthodox canticles, are they not of ancient pagan origin?  Are not many rites and dogmas of like origin?  The holidays of Easter, Trinity Sunday, etc., are not they adaptations of Christianity from the pagan sun cult?”  Rimsky-Korsakov could continue to write music on Christian themes precisely because he took a larger view of what that religion was – a variation on ancient practices that were rooted in prehistoric people’s awe of the world around them.  By returning to that source, he could capture the naturalistic essence of religious wonder without groveling before the trappings of Christian specificity.  It was religious writing more authentic than any particular religion could encompass, because at its center was not god, but humanity’s perception of continuity and change.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s love of fantasy and magic, of peasant melodies and pagan fairy tales, his intoxication with the sound of foreign lands and instruments, all combine in his operas and orchestral works to produce moments of ageless melancholy (take a listen to the death scene in The Snow Maiden or Lyubasha’s aria in act I of The Tsar’s Bride), sumptuous eroticism (take in that violin figure in Scheherezade and just try to not think about humping, I dare you), and, yes, old-fashioned haunting sublimity (his cantata Song of Oleg the Wise is crazy-good but largely unknown.)

 

Death Scene from The Snow Maiden

 

So, fine, Rimsky-Korsakov got away with some degree of multi-dimensionality because he was a primarily 19th century composer of particularly broad interests.  But Béla Bartók?  The man who wrote such aggressively uncuddly music as the fourth string quartet and the student-twisting Mikrokosmos?  It seems unlikely – the man had an awful life, full of disappointment and dislocation.  Unable to believe in a higher power, to find success in his home nation, or to resist the allure of women waaaaaay younger than him, he coasted dissatisfied through decades of illness-bestrewn life before emigrating to an indifferent America one step ahead of the Nazis.  It would have been the most forgivable thing ever if he just ground out Difficult compositions, one after the other, with a sort of “Screw all y’all” bitterness.  But he didn’t.  The amazing thing about Bartók is that, even in the depths of isolation and misery, he was able to produce music of all hues, and indeed his most varied music comes from the low ebb of his fortunes, the years 1937-1945.

Starting at the end, his third piano concerto was the last piece of music he completed before passing away in a New York City hospital bed.  The second movement of this piece is labelled Adagio Religioso, a reference to the musical idiom in which it was written, and is heart-rending throughout in a way that defies all popular conceptions about the rigorous inflexibility of Bartók’s music.  What I love most about it is the middle section, which is given over to Bartók’s representation of the songs of various birds he heard while travelling through North Carolina.  It’s an amazing moment- one of the most challenging composers of the Twentieth Century, lying on his death bed, putting this beautiful music to paper and interspersing throughout it some bits of bird song that caught his ear in days past.  That sense of vulnerable whimsy is so potent that my eyes welled up in tears the first time I heard it, and it impacts me forcefully still.

 

Piano Concerto No. 3, Movement 2

 

I sense you’re still cynical.  We’ve all watched Amadeus, we know that Writing Beautiful Things is just what composers do on their death beds.  It’s in the contract.  So, let’s go back a ways and see if we can catch Bartók being brazenly emotional any time other than when staring down the grim specter of death itself.  It turns out that, when you start seeking out examples, they pop up all over the place.  There is the madcap, almost drunken, abandon he allowed himself in the Finale of the Concerto for Orchestra, which is itself a spillover from the absurd fun he had in the third movement of his Divertimento.

Now there’s a work for you, one which starts off at a mad tear and ends in a totally soused pizzicato dance punctuated by bleary hiccups.  What makes both of these pieces of unchecked revelry all the more remarkable is that they were written in 1940 and 1939, respectively, during the first years of Bartók’s exile from his homeland.  A religious composer in those circumstances would easily have turned the Spiritual Escapism up to Eleven and offered the world yet another cantata on the subject of Jesus or Oedipus or some such thing.  Bartók chose to laugh, to have himself a lark and take us along for the ride.

Going back to before his departure to America, we have waiting for us his 6th String Quartet, the last piece he wrote in Europe.  You can choose pretty much any movement and be treated to a profound emotional experience, but the last movement is pure lyric tragedy, written just after the death of his mother, we hear in it Bartók pouring out every last ounce of his sadness and loss, and all the Ave Marias in the world can’t match the power of its raw, wounded agony.

 

String Quartet 6, Movement 4

 

If Bartók is the closely guarded theorist who only lets the full color of his fancy out to play on special occasions, Leoš Janáček is the perpetually angst-ridden teenager whose passions are his curse and our blessing (if you’ll pardon the use of the term).  Many consider him the greatest operatic composer of the Twentieth Century, and it’s hard not to at least put him in the top three.  He was a man intoxicated by love and sound.  Wherever he went, he would jot down the musicality of the everyday speech around him, its rhythm and flow, its characteristic pitches and melodic turns, compiling for himself a stockpile of thousands of utterances of everyday opera which then formed the basis for his tonal worlds, lending them a grounding in human expressivity rarely surpassed.

That alone was enough to make for some great music, but it might not have come to much had it not been for the fact that Janáček was a horn dog of the first order.  One of the great guilty pleasure reads you can avail yourself of are the letters he wrote during the last decades of his life to Kamila Stosslova, a married woman whose increasingly alarming rotundity only stoked the fires of Janáček’s passion further.  What is both wonderful and terrible about these letters is how achingly reminiscent of high school they are – the words of a smart man who wants a girl not really that into him but who thinks that by displays of Importance and Learning he’ll somehow impress her into loving him.

Or maybe that’s just what high school was like for me….

In any case, what becomes abundantly clear is how, in his late sixties, the fire of passionate love was still burning him from the inside out, pushing him to write masterpiece after masterpiece as a substitutive act for the great love he couldn’t have.  Some of his most magnificent works are stoked on the fires of this passion, representing its different shades and flavors as the relationship waxed and waned.  Katya Kabanovna is a more or less direct representation of his relations with Kamila, with Katya as the married woman seeking a passionate love to settle the deep longing she feels and which her business-traveling husband, Tichon (a substitute for her real husband, David, a generally decent bloke)  is unable to provide.

 

Excerpts from Katya Kabanovna

 

It’s Janáček’s most intimate fantasy given sonic flesh.  The exchanges between the character standing in for him (Boris) and Katya are filled with all of the unrealized desire of a man in the full grips of romantic delusion.  At the conclusion of acts II and III, Janáček lets loose the reins of his fancy as Katya and Boris fall inevitably towards each other, igniting a love so intense it can only end in tragedy.

One would think that enough of a tribute to an infatuation, but Janáček kept drawing on different aspects of Kamila’s characters for his other towering works of late life.  He grasped her playfulness and sense of ease in The Cunning Little Vixen and her capacity for cold indifference in Vec Makropulos, the story of a three hundred year old woman who has fallen into complete apathy as regards love and life.  There’s hardly a nook of the emotional spectrum that he wasn’t spurred to capture in sound by his overpowering love of the vaguely spherical Stosslova.

 

Is there modern music that rigidly denies itself any flavor of sentiment beyond anxiety-inducing orchestral noodling?  Of course there is, and there are things to be said for it (some of the best of which were laid out by Milton Babbitt in his now-notorious 1958 article Who Cares If You Listen? and which are really worth a visit), however to lay all of that emotive monodimensionality at the foot of the rise of godlessness in music is a bit much.  They don’t come much more godless than the three gentlemen we’ve just spent some time with, and all three of them felt equally comfortable in portraying intensely personal moments of loss as towering themes of human transcendence.  You don’t lose your capacity for awe and sublimity just because you don’t believe in superpowerful rules brokers.  It is a case of there being more in our philosophy than is contained in our notions of Heaven and Earth, if only we are willing to look, and listen.

Comics Culture

Here Be Nerds: A Modest Account of Skepticon 6

Daleks.  Picard v. Janeway.  Super Soakers.

For the twenty-five hours I was stationed at my booth, these were the deep issues I and my fellow Skepticon attendees wrestled with – no First Cause arguments, no earnest discussions about The Future of The Movement, just a steady stream of entirely lovely people and our shared geekery.

How different it would be, if the world saw atheism more often from the vantage point offered by this humble foldable chair – the group huddled excitedly over a game of Settlers of Catan in the corner, another planning their big Karaoke Night Out, and right here, at this table, two strangers bonding over a shared love of The Wild Thornberrys.

Because that’s what atheism is – getting ecstatically, unreasonably excited about the products of the human imagination, having the entire weft and warp of human fancy as your own private source of daily delight.  That world of unhindered exploration is so tangibly yours for the having once you let fall the notion of the sacred and its shadowy Iago, Shame.  The people I see have loosed the final fetter on their nerdishness, and it gives them this sort of radiance that it was my privilege to bask in for two days.

That’s not to say we stop explaining and expounding and, yes, arguing, if need be, because there are terrible things happening in the world that must be pointed out, regardless of the opprobrium inevitably attached to the pointer.  There is a hard-won heft to the notions of existence and purpose we have scratched from the often cold surface of reality, and we certainly do ourselves a disservice accounting it all as too austere or depressing for public consumption.  But, as in all things, the key is balance.

Certainly, the last thing we want is the atheist equivalent of those sheepish Mormon ads that, in attempting to suggest breadth and normalcy, come off portraying Mormons as, most likely, alien changelings.  But a few glimpses of joyous humanity, here and there, could not hurt, to which end I offer the following Skepticon sketches in miniature of the people I met and conversed with over the last few days:

 

Steven Olsen is a strong proponent of Cookies For Dinner.

 

If you give Nicole Crenshaw a chance, she WILL wear your Victorian cape, and WILL twirl in it.

 

Rachael Berman has a sixth sense for knowing when somebody around her is starving, and a seventh sense for conjuring ways to feed them from the ether.

 

Amanda Brown will craft a captioned jpeg of you while you’re not looking, just to make life that much more fun.

 

Lauren Lane’s family can, within about ten minutes of conversation, fix all of your life’s problems and will give you free beers while doing it.

 

K. Johnston is probably a ventriloquist, and more probably still is not aware of the fact.

 

Some small part of Ellen Lundgren is, even now, reenacting the Battle of Gettysburg.

 

When you’re feeling a bit down, Sara Mayhew will draw a charming picture for you that suddenly makes everything better.

 

JT Eberhard never forgets a kindness, and is lusciously unashamed to wear the goofiest hat in the room.

 

 

And so many more who stopped and chatted, about Dungeons and Dragons version 2.5 and open-shirted William Ryker, Agent Coulson and those plastic jars of Real Ghostbusters ectoplasm that came with a ghost inside, and whose names my Convention-addled brain forgot to write down or who never left one, each a standing example against the popular conception of an atheist as a curious sub-species of human eternally gripping a Bertrand Russell text tightly in cold, unfeeling fingers.  They are the future of humanism, and its great hope, and from where I sit, that future shimmers with promise and laughter.