Thursday, April 28, 2005

Just say No!

I am reading one bad book after another and going crazy. I read about a book a day for work, on average. I read about a good book for work every week, on average.

That's a bad average.

It's not that you get dysfunctional or anything. I do maintain that you still know a good book when you see one. Your mental taste buds don't rot that easily. Nonetheless, it is far from fun. It's like being assigned homework, read this bad book, then read that bad book. The only difference is, nobody is telling me that the book is supposed to be good (as is the presumption with a teacher's assignment). Which means I can slam the book if I find it to be a stinker. I don't go out of my way to slam; I am a quiet, gentle soul, after all. But I do not suffer bad books gladly. Life is too short.

Tomorrow we are off to TOCs. This is always a relatively enjoyable weekend, at least insofar as the evenings are free for nice meals. I notice that my friends at STD are planning to film all the rounds for 24/7 coverage. I will probably have to sign a release allowing them to film in my bedroom. TOCs is, of course, what you make it. I think that getting there is a satisfying achievement, but it comes as no surprise to anyone that, aside from that, I really don't give a damn about it. Many of the skills learned in debate will last a lifetime, but few if any of those skills come from actually debating. Trust me on this. And since TOC values debating over anything else, it is valuing some of the less important aspects of the activity. On the other hand, I do value students' ability to meet and befriend a wide range of other students (and adults/coaches/judges), so there is that. And there's the nice meals.

Hard to believe I'm on the LD Advisory Committee. Sort of like letting the hen into the fox house. I will report on any issues that arise therefrom that I feel are not private. Then again, O'Cruz will probably be filming it...

Here's the thing. If, for some reason, you actually find yourself watching TOCs on your computer, you might want to evaluate the extent of that thing you're calling your life. Go see Hitchhiker! Go run around the block! Play God of War! Play Hold 'em! Read War and Peace! ANYTHING ELSE, PLEASE!!!


Wednesday, April 27, 2005

It felt like my retirement party

Or a eulogy. Everybody says nice things, and then you're never heard from again. Am I supposed to keep coaching? Or should I just disappear in a puff of praise and quit while I'm ahead.

When I realize that I've been doing this for about a decade, it really starts to seem like a long time. I've outlasted an incredible number of people, so many that my gray eminence is the grayest for miles around. Which raises the question, of course, of why I do it.

I dunno.

I started because I wanted to keep the team alive. I'm so caught up in it now I couldn't stop if I wanted to. So I guess I do it because of either inertia or momentum (having never studied physics, I'm not quite sure which one is applicable). You know what I really like? Brainstorming topics. Covering new intellectual territory. Finding out new stuff. Arguing (in the rhetorical sense). Showing off how smart I am. (Gee, Menick, you know more than a high school kid! I live in fear and trembling of the time when Claire can regularly beat me at Jack.) I like the activity in and of itself, because I truly believe that the ability to present yourself and your ideas well is a key to success in the modern world. I like getting out of the house; what else would I be doing if I didn't do this? I'd be sitting home reading way too many 19th century novels. How much Trollope can one person survive, after all? Or worse, I'd actually finish Kingdom Hearts, which would indeed be the red badge of inertia. If I didn't do this I couldn't harass O'Cruz. I wouldn't have anyone named NoShow or Wheatgerm or Ewok in my life. Or I never would have gotten to know [insert names of every debater ever, because I don't want to leave anyone out]. I would have never had met Jules.

I wouldn't have to run Bump ever ever again... Okay, getting out while the getting's good would have some positive benefits.

Obviously I'm a frustrated teacher. Or a teaching frustrater. Whatever.

Thanks for the praise, folks. It was nice.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Inspired by Noah

No, I'm not going to buy a camera and create a videoblog. His latest vblog has Noah and his family with duelling webcams during Passover, one on each side of the Atlantic, something like an electronic shabbos goy voyeur. I dunno. Sounds strange to me.

What I'm talking about is RSS feeding. That little button I just put over there in the right-hand column will allow you to put this site into your type home pages, and whenever there's a new installment, you'll find out about it. I already RSS all sorts of things like Salon and Wired. Now I can RSS me (except, as a general rule, if I put a new post up, I already know about it without having to be notified, so it's more for your benefit than for mine). I've gotten the Mite to do it too, so now I'll be getting TWHS hot off the microchip.

Speaking of which, why is it that no matter how much I categorically deny it, people like O'Cruz think I write Nostrum or its offspring? This pisses both me and the Mite off, much in the same way certain people moving out of Washington, DC, and into Tampa would lower the IQ of both locations. In the old days, Fred Robertson was the leading contender. Why don't they go bother him again? (Or was it Rob Frederickson.) Anyhow, the last time I said something positive about old Fred I got flamed as a regressive sycophant not worthy of shining Saussure's sabots, so maybe I should keep my mouth shut.

I'm always in a mood like this when I have to go up before the school board on charges...

Monday, April 25, 2005

"This is where we came in."

For no particular reason I remembered that phrase this morning. "This is where we came in." It is, in its way, an interesting comment on the instinct to narrative. When I was a kid I went to the movies with my parents. It was always double bills (this is back in the 50s), plus your full complement of selected shorts. The thing is, my parents never thought to consult a schedule to find out when a movie was starting. We simply arrived at the theater whenever we arrived, sat down, and started watching whatever film was already in progress. About three or four hours laters (remember, double bills), one of my parents would say, "This is where we came in," and we'd pick up our stuff and leave. This meant, of course, that we saw one film from start to finish, but that we saw another film first from the middle to the end, and then, a couple of hours later, from the beginning to the middle. I also remember the occasional questioning, "Was this where we came in?" when something seemed familiar but not too familiar. I think you had to get into the groove all over again before you realized that, yes, this was where you came in. Something like watching a rerun on television, where it takes you a while to recognize that, yes, you've seen this one before. Not to put too fine a point on it, but movie-going isn't the same, nowadays.

Another thing that isn't the same is radio. When I was a kid, and now we're talking earliest memories, my mother would listen to dramas on the radio. There were soap operas, variety shows, plus other things like "Gunsmoke," not much different from radio's Golden Age. It took a few years for newfangled television sets to replace the oldfangled radio receiver. I can't remember what it was, but once my parents even took me to a live radio broadcast. I do remember it was music; I'll ask my mother. Maybe she'll remember.

Radio quickly devolved into all news and music after TV came in during the 50s. You only listened when you had to, which was mostly when you were in the car. FM radio, which came along in the late 60s or so, was a great improvement ("no static at all" as Steely Dan says) because we were all freed from top-ten playlists. FM now is like AM in the 60s: ripe for improvement. Probably satellite radio will do the trick. If I can pay for music to satisfy my eclectic tastes, I'll probably do it.

There are few holdouts from the Golden Age of live radio. Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion is one of those holdouts: "The only live music and variety show aired nationwide today," says their press site. The show goes back to the early 70s, and, as they say, consists of various live musical performances and talk and comedy. Most every year Keillor pulls into Manhattan for a month or so, and we went and saw him Saturday night. The other time we saw him was probably when Kate was in high school; the experience was the same. It's fun and occasionally disorienting watching a radio show. Obviously the live aspect of the performance is enhanced by the live audience, but the goal of the show is the broadcast and not the auditorium. The house band warms you up for about ten minutes, then Keillor comes out and tells you who's on the show for two minutes, and then, bang, you're on the air. The show kicked off with Keillor doing what amounts to a challenge round with his sound effects man, telling a story with all sorts of weird actions that require weird sounds, while the effects guy bangs this and rubs that and, mostly, makes noises with his mouth. There was a duo, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain, a couple of Scots, one on (electric) accordion, one on violin, that played traditional Scottish stuff that so sounded like the old-timey Appalachian hillbiilly music that we know derived from the Scot tradition. Renee Fleming did a slumming soprano take on a couple of popular songs, but I prefer my divas to work in the main area of their divature. There were the usual bits, Lives of the Cowboys, Guy Noir (with Fleming as opera diva Renata Flambe), and Lake Wobegon. Throughout it all, people are coming and going, moving stools, handing out music, doing whatever is necessary to broadcast over the air. The audience is amazingly enthusiastic, and one of the homier groups you'll find in a NYC venue. More flannel per capita than Vermont and Maine put together. I think we all listen to the show regularly, maybe never exactly from start to finish but in pieces caught, well, while you're driving in the car, and the sense of it imprints on your brain. You don't see it actually geting in there because of the nature of the medium, but once it's there, it's a part of you. As a result, seeing the show is filling in this image gap, completing the narration, if you will. You can't help but love it.

If you're not listening to the show, you're probably not plugged into NPR. In NY, it's 93.9. Listen to Keillor Saturdays from 6-8. While you're at it, listen to Car Talk, All Things Considered, Jonathan Schwartz. Open the old brain a little. Can't hurt.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Looney tune, back in action

So I guess the Nostrumite has indeed dedicated himself to writing a new series. The Tennessee Williams High School link over there on the right is loaded, cocked and aimed straight at the foot. He just emailed me that he had put up a new installment. I have no comment on the quality of the present vintage versus the old. You'd think that, since he's getting married in a couple of weeks, he would be too busy with Odelie for that sort of nonsense, but I've never known the Mite to be too busy for nonsense. There's just too much of it in his blood to ignore.

Meanwhile, I wait with bait on my breath for Noah to get his movie link working. I love a good movie, and I'm even marginally fond of bad movies. I was once a member of MOMA, when I first lived in the city after college. I would pop over at lunch time and pick up a movie ticket for the evening showing of literally anything. Rare Japanese films. Silent musicals. Blaxploitation films. You name it, they screened it and I watched it. Movies were a passion back in the 70s. Now they're just an entertainment. Speaking of which, anyone who hasn't seen Duck Soup is now immediately suspended from the team. Hail, Freedonia!

The prospects for the weekend include seeing Prairie Home Companion tomorrow down at Town Hall. If you're listening to the show, that's me chuckling in the 14th row.

And then, next weekend, it's TOC Time! JWP just sent out a preliminary list for judge ratings and strikes. I realize I have judged exactly one flight on this topic. Plus I do tend to think, as I've said, that the implied opposite of progressive is regressive, that lay judges should be trained and not shunned as long as they understand four or five useful words in English, and that there's nothing wrong with debate that eliminating the National Circuit wouldn't cure. Even worse, I believe that, on this topic, the aff should argue in favor of separating church and state and that the neg should argue in favor of not separating church and state. Let me see. How many people will strike me this year? Okay, that leaves 22 out of 70. How many will rate me a C? That leaves 6. How many will rate me a B? That leaves 2 A's. Thank you, Scott and Matt (and I'm not so sure about Matt).

My biggest question is whether Gordon will strike me or C me. The smart money's on the strike.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Walt Dickens World

"Work is due to start on a £60m theme park in Kent based on the life and work of Charles Dickens. Dickens World is to be built on derelict dockland at Chatham, where the Victorian novelist lived as a boy. A multiplex cinema with bars and restaurants is to open in October 2006 and the theme park in April 2007. 'We look forward to Dickens World becoming one of Medway's leading visitor attractions,' said project director Jonathan Sadler.

"The themed attraction will be based on the life, times and books of Dickens. It will reproduce Victorian architecture, with cobbled streets and specialist lighting providing the background to rides and other entertainment. Work is expected to begin in the next two months. Chatham Maritime site is the flagship of the South East England Development Agency (Seeda). 'Rochester and Chatham make a natural location for a project based on Charles Dickens,' said Mr Sadler. 'Dickens not only lived here, but it is where he originated many of his storylines.'"

Oh, boy.

Reading this, I wondered what else there might be to do in Medway, and uncovered the following: "Medway has four cemeteries which are run and maintained by Medway Council, who are committed to providing a first class service and improving the appearance and safety of its cemeteries." Finally, a city with safe, first class cemetaries. The dead can now rest a lot easier.

From a casual glance, the area does seem to already be rather a haven for simulacra, something of a British Mystic Seaport. Tacking on Dickens World could conceivably be akin to the Magic Kingdom tacking on Epcot. I could be wrong though. I've never been there.

The New York Times has already taken a stand on Dickens World; they were predictably against it. I would imagine most people in a position to comment would prefer to comment negatively rather than positively. First of all, there's the poststructuralist books bastardized into simulation/simulacrum approach. Then there's the fact that, let's face it, the world Dickens wrote about was one bleak universe; I mean, Hard Times isn't quite an appealing travel brochure. Then there's the I'm too intellectual for any theme park but especially a theme park that de-intellectualizes approach. And no matter what approach you take, it is an easy target. Dickens World? Come on, now.

Me? I'm neutral. I like theme parks, and I like Dickens. Who knows?

It's just a coincidence that I've been thinking about Dickens a lot lately, because I've been thinking about writing in general thanks to Caveman. Dickens is in my personal pantheon, a conservative choice that is hardly worth an alert to the media. I think I came into Dickens in a lucky way, untainted by the way the poor guy seems to be taught nowadays. I remember distinctly reading a little yellow paperback of Oliver Twist around fifth or sixth grade, not getting too much of a fix on it but really liking the idea of the Artful Dodger and company. This was shortly followed by a read of Copperfield, which was an entry into a complete and real world the likes of which I had never seen before. Copperfield is far from a perfect novel structurally, but its wealth of characters is phenomenal. Micawber, Heep, the lone lorn creetur, the Murdstones, the Peggottys, Barkis, Mr. Dick — the list goes on. Then on to Expectations, at which point Dickens has mastered both structure and character. I was hooked.

The good news is, I never, ever had to read Dickens. I was never cursed with a high school assignment for Tale of Two Cities, that most un-Dickens of Dickens stories. Nobody reading Tale would ever suspect the richness of Copperfield or Pickwick. That rigidly controlled little historical is okay, but no one reads Dickens for rigid control. And although I do faintly recall an assignment on Expectations, having already read it, and seen the movie, I didn't have to spoil the work by forcing it into a classroom. What does being brought up by hand actually mean, anyhow?

So I saved Dickens for after college, and did him from start to finish. All the books in chronological order, with the exception of Barnaby Rudge which I postponed till later (I guess having only a mild fondness for the one historical limited my expectations of the other). The early novels are rangy beasts indeed. Pickwick is barely a novel at all, but the character of Sam Weller has become archetypal of the savvy servant. There's fine moments in Nickleby and Chuzzlewit and Dombey, etc., but it really isn't till Copperfield that Dickens turns the corner from good to great. At the summit are Bleak House (worse title ever for a not bleak book) and Our Mutual Friend. But it is always Copperfield that I go back to, having read it 4 or 5 times, I guess. I love that journey.

Dickens is filled with humor. Take the names, for instance. Murdstone. Pecksniff. Jarndyce. Unlike Restoration drama names that pin their characters to the wall, these wispy seminal names hint at character in the corners of your brain. Uriah Heep? Jeesh. Plus there's just plain funny situations, and wonderful slices of life. And some incredible writing. That moment in Friend when the Veneerings (another perfect name) spy one another spying on themselves in the mirror... I would kill to be able to write one moment of that material.

I would suggest that you ignore any Dickens you have to read, and pretend it never happened. Then start Copperfield on a nice summer day and see what happens. Read Bleak House the following summer. And Our Mutual Friend the summer after that. Then go to the beginning and start with Pickwick and when you get to the point where Drood stops, you can stop too. Or, if you're like me, then you can go back and read Barnaby Rudge. If you don't like this stuff—at least the major works—I'm sorry. You're missing out on one of the joys of Western civilization. It's akin to not liking the cathedral at Chartres or the Roman Colosseum or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Citizen Kane or the Sistine Chapel.

I have already acquired a new copy of The Pickwick Papers. I am ready to start again any day now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A frightening vision of the future

As I'm gearing up to draft part 5 of Caveman, the final section on postmodernism, I begin to realize anew what a lot of hooey much writing about pomo really is (including mine). I've got one line throughout caveman detailing a narrative flow of art culminating in modernism, followed by a reaction to modernism known as postmodernism. I've also got another line detailing the state of "thought" in the world of absolute relativism (that's a joke, I think — as my friend McGrath always says, if you were smarter, I'd be funnier). The two lines are connected only insofar as a lot of the critical analysis of the first line derives from the the premises of the second line. I think I do a better job explaining the art side of things than the philosophical side of things. Anyhow, I looked up ten different websites for definitions of postmodernism yesterday, just a random google search. I am not being facetious when I report that the ten websites gave me about twenty definitions. It's not so much that people don't know what pomo is, as they're all addressing different aspects of it. Of course, half of the writers are themselves so steeped in pomo analysis that they are unintelligible; those are the ones who refer to Derrida's unintelligibility as genius. What a bunch of poopie heads, as they say in France. One idea that I read that did intrigue me is that the Modern is the apotheosis of the individual, followed by the Postmodern as the reassertion of the collective. Personally I see the Modern as the breakdown of the romantic individualist, but I like the argument anyhow. It certainly applies in some places. In any case, putting part 5 up will be truly making a commitment to various lines of thought, few of which I understand all that well. My problem is, I have no trouble speaking my mind, but I don't always know what's in it.

I guess I could get my mind off of this by, say, downloading videos of Noah. Apparently his smut peddler job lured him into buying a webcam. Because he is now out the fifty bucks or so, he says videomessaging is the wave of the future, and he'll be adding video blogs to his written blogs, apparently so his friends who are illiterate can still keep in touch with him. I remember back to the 1964 World's Fair, when AT&T was promising that videophones were the wave of the future. Noah may be right—more right than Ma Bell was—but that still doesn't mean I want to sit here watching videos of Noah. As a matter of fact, for me the idea that the future holds lots of videos of Noah may be the key reason I'm sort of hoping he's wrong.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Another country heard from

Well lordy, lordy, lordy. And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but an email from Chisinau, some Julian cheer! I print it in its entirety.


Yo, Menick. How are things in the wicked West?

I managed to get into the city today for about the first time in three months, which means access to a cybercafe. I've been working in a small village outside of Comrat, which I know sounds either like a Soviet lackey or another word for techweenie, but I call it home, except that I live about 20 miles away. Most of my time is spent either working on a large rural farm or teaching English, unfortunately more of the former than the latter. I now know much more about cauliflower than when I started, and I can till soil with the best of them. And also drink the local wine, which is unbelievably fine, which is a reason to thank the Creator, considering how often they serve mamaliga, a local dish that, well, makes grits look good. When I teach English people are very responsive, but I get the sense that they're mostly just rushing off to Transnistria to foment all kinds of Transnistrian mischief. It's strange being in a torn, divided country. You wouldn't know about that, would you?

I see that the Mite is up and running with a new soap opera, the dog. I can't believe he's doing it without me. I've read the first few episodes, which frankly strike me as second-rate compared to when I was in charge of the nouns and adverbs while he handled the verbs and adjectives. It was a good team, with checks and balances. Of course, I think we got robbed whenever we subcontracted out the prepositions and articles, but the end result was pretty satisfactory. This new stuff... Bleeech! Tennessee Williams High School. Where does he come up with this stuff?

I will be around for the wedding. The Mite's love life has always been something of a steady entertainment for those of us on the outside, and I can't imagine missing the first of his marriage ceremonies to take place in Las Vegas. To be honest with you, I'm surprised Odelie is putting up with it. It's not exactly Episcopalianally ministerial, if you get my drift. But I'm glad to see the Mite back with old High Falutin. I always thought they were a good pair, and when she graduated and went back home, he was sort of heartbroken. He hasn't exactly told me how they got back together. I guess I'll find out while we're playing the slots next month.

After our bout of Fear and Loathing, I'll be heading back for another 3 months in Moldova, and then my stint here is done. I'm not quite sure what I'll do after that, but I will be heading first to Cambridge and the old haunts to see what the usual suspects are up to, then I'll roll down to New York to visit with you and whatever other derelicts you can turn up. Say hello to everyone, and I'll see you in a couple of weeks.


Monday, April 18, 2005

A bad Miyasaki movie

Obviously, the title of this entry is an oxymoron. I watched Porco Rosso last night, which is the first one I've seen of the new releases. Wonderful entertainment. It takes place in the easy range of Miyasaki's imagination, where there's a central unreality (the aviator pig in a world of sailing pilots) overlaid on a relative reality of Fascist Italy. When I say easy range, I mean that it is not the magical world of Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. More like Kiki, with a dab of Cagliostro. In any case, highly recommended.

Spirited Away, on the other hand, is a desert island flick. It makes you actually wish for that mythical desert island.

In other breaking news, as they say over at Say Hi to Your New York Friends dot com, I'm also putting in a small recommendation for the new Bob Dole memoir, One Soldier's Story. I'm a sucker for this kind of story, and Dole's is a good one. And he's not a divisive character, so you don't care about his politics (which he never mentions aside from pointing out that he got into the business). I wouldn't rush out and buy it if I were you, but if it's sitting around, pick it up. You'll read it in one sitting and you'll get something out of it.

And yes, I won $45 Friday night. I couldn't get a bad hand. Pip could have won $45 with those cards. The idea of buy-ins for Sham Peons was roundly defeated in a tie vote, the cutthroat opinion being, get the bastids out early and let 'em eat dirt. Great friends I've got. We're hoping to Sham Peon again in the May game, although one or two voices inexplicably absent Friday night remain to be heard from.

Finally, thumbs up to Spotless Mind. I'm a sucker for Charlie Kaufman, what more can I say?

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Caveman Part 4 draft

Part 4
The Modern World

For us, the modern world will begin with the machine age, as in post-Industrial Revolution, the nebulous point at which business has moved from the home to the factory, and the world is just beginning to see the machines and inventions that will dominate the 20th Century. I know you would like to pin this down exactly at some point between 1811 (November 14th) and 1926 (May 8th), but history doesn’t have such nice neat chapters. If you’re worried that the modern overlaps the pre-modern, don’t. There is no bright line of modernity that we can cross from the old to the new. Our narrative instinct doesn’t like this kind of vagueness, but the dots aren’t always that easy to connect.

At this point, the big question is, with all that movement toward individuality that we saw in the arts and in politics, what is shaking in Thought that is going to make a difference?
We’re not going to go into every detail of it, just as we didn’t go into every detail of previous philosophies, but the big difference in the Modern world and what came before is the developing new approach to reality (and here there really is a bright line comparison between the old and the new). And to understand this, we have to think ontologically – we have to think about the nature of existence.
Let’s go back a bit. The Empiricists, like John Locke, thought that we could know reality through the experience of our senses, that we could understand the objective world by living in it, breathing it, seeing it, hearing it, smelling it, touching it. The rationalists thought that we could understand reality simply by using our minds to figure it out. They are obviously fundamentally in disagreement about approach to ontology, but they did agree that there was an objective universe that could be understood.
By the time we get to the Modern Age, the most prominent theorists believe that there is no way of knowing the objective world. They take empiricism or rationality or any brand of thought you like and point out that it all comes to you vis-a-vis you. That is, the only thing you can know is what it is that you, as an individual, know. Reality, to you, is your own subjective reality. As Kirkegaard put it, we have subjective existence modified by objective reality, but can only know the subjective.
This, in a word, is Relativism.
The objective world doesn’t matter anymore.
Taken to its logical extreme, the objective world may not even exist. And some postmodern thinkers do indeed posit that there is no objective reality. But Kirkegaard gives us a better construct. Our subjective reality is affected by the objective, but all we can truly know is the subjective. That is the core of Existentialism. From this, Sartre postulated that a man is defined by his actions, not his essence.
By the time we start analyzing the postmoderns, the construct of relativism is firmly fixed. You can read all the modern philosophy you want to get a better feel for it. As far as we’re concerned now, you need only understand the concept, and understand that the concept pretty much underlies all of modern Thought.

All right. Let’s focus in a little. Let’s talk about the 20th Century. The Modern Age of the 20th Century.
As far as the Modern Age is concerned, it is important to remember that it is different from previous ages in dramatic ways (and this difference is a very important aspect of modernism). Before the Modern Age, everyone lived in their grandparents’ world, which was their grandparents’ world. That is, if you were born in 1700, your life was virtually no different from your parents’ life, or their parents’ life, or their parents life, going back as far as you want. Technological advances were slow, and would have little effect on you. The biggest change in your century might be the development of a better plow. This means more rutabagas come rutabaga season, but not much else.
Starting with the Modern Age, your world is completely different from your grandparents’, or even your parents’. Look at my grandmother. She was born in the early 1880s. The airplane had not been invented. Nor had the radio. Or the car. Or Coca-Cola (1886). When she died, in the early 70s, she could have theoretically watched a movie on the Concorde while drinking a Diet Coke. My grandmother’s grandmother, however, lived through no such evolution of technologies (or beverages). Airplanes, radios, and cars (and television, among other inventions), changed the world in the Twentieth Century. In major ways. From, say, 1850 or so, there seems to be change after change, and they seem to come faster and faster. And this is still true. If you were born before 1990, you were born in a world where the letters WWW at best referred to Walla Walla, Washington. There was no Internet to log on to. If you were born before 1981, there was no PC. If, like me, you believe that the information transmission aspects of the Internet are a major revolution, than you probably have managed to have it occur entirely during your lifetime. (Considering that instant transmission of information requires a fast pipeline, and ubiquitous fast pipelines like cable modems are a product of the turn of the millennium, this particular revolution is still wearing diapers.)
So what are some of the particulars of the Modern Age? Well, if information and knowledge are important, then the fact that news now travels fast (compared to the past, although slow compared to us today), may be key. Look at the progression: word of mouth, Guttenberg, international sailing ships, telegraph and telephone, radio. Think about the difference in information processing with and without the Internet. Radio is a comparable historical difference.
By (loosely) the 20th Century, the Modern Age has become the age most (Western) people live in. And what are some of the important things that comprise that age?
· Mechanization. The world of manufacturing has become the world of assembly lines. No longer does a craftsman make a chair. A mindless human cog at point 27c on the assembly line screws in his assigned chair bolt.
· Mass murder in warfare. The American Civil War was only a local taste of the new meaning of war, where instead of a few professional troops maneuvering against one another, vast armies slugged it out for long periods at great human cost. World War I had a staggering effect on the European mind. Eight and a half million people died for little or no change in the geopolitical map (except, of course, the blaming of Germany and the ensuing World War II). A war that probably shouldn’t have happened stripped nations of an entire crop of young men. Imagine the effect today if we took every single person in college and killed them. It would be comparable.
· The end of colonialism. Or at least the end of the nations of the West as they had been previously conceived. The kings were dead, mostly. The adventures abroad were coming to an end. This is closely linked with the political aspects of WWI.
· The rise of the communism. The concept of the state is radically different under Marx than previously. Capitalism is the de facto fundamental underpinning of economics in the West from time immemorial. Communism is an attack on that fundament. And a successful one, transforming entire nations. Could there indeed be a world where the state was designed to support the worker?
· The birth of popular culture. The Modern Age begins to approach universal literacy. Everyone reads newspapers, anyone can read books. Radio allows music to reach a mass audience. Movies are a new art form, primarily for a mass audience. Suddenly there are such things as “bestsellers,” popular music (especially jazz, insofar as there’s an “intellectual” pop). This can be seen as tying into the mechanization, mentioned above. All those cogs in the factory are, at least, making a living, and popular culture is how they spend their money. (A Marxist might say it’s how they waste their money.
· Scientific breakthroughs. Albert Einstein should probably get the credit for the most mind-boggling science, since he claimed that matter equals energy. He is also responsible for quantum (which he vilified) which claims that, essentially, the universe is based on probabilities rather than certitudes, and which therefore leads to the ultimate relativistic universe (reality is dependent on how you measure it, or even more simply, reality depends on you). It’s one thing when philosophers say the world is relativistic. It’s another thing altogether when scientists prove it.
· On the practical level, technology gives us automobiles, which allow people total personal mobility, and flight, which eliminates borders of time and space in much the same way as did the Theory of Relativity.
· Urbanization. The cities are growing as economies shift; people are moving away from their personal center (the farm they never ventured more than a few miles from). And cities are, metaphorically, a lot crueler than small towns.

The upshot of all of this is that world has gotten “bigger” and people feel “smaller.” People are no longer the center of the universe, they’re cogs again, the way Plato painted them in class systems. Except now they’re cogs in an inhuman, perhaps even inhumane, machine. In essence, we see a movement from humanism to dehumanization.
And now the conceptualized Modern Age can be examined. In the age of humanism, we celebrated the individual. What do we do in the age of the Modern? How should things be done in this new world we have created? For us, in our history of Narrative, the story of stories if you will, how do the narrators – the artists – react? They’ve seen and lived in the Modern Age, and they also know and understand the past. What does the thinking artist do that is a “new” way?
What we will see is a redefinition of the creative process, or at the very least a new examination of those processes. And this redefinition defines, for us, modernism . In these redefinitions, Narratives are taken to their extremes, and then past them. In pre-modernist narrative, it was about the story, the content. In the modernist narrative, it’s about the telling of the story.

In a nutshell, it’s no longer about the narrative, it’s about the narration.

“Let me tell you what happened.”


Let’s take a look at painting in the pre-modern. Painting consists of a variety of basic concepts.
· There is composition, the way the painting is arranged. There are actually rules of composition, a compendium of right and wrong about the organization of elements in a design.
· There is perspective, which imparts realism to a painting, so it looks more lifelike.
· There color and brush technique, the basic skill sets that the artist must master to have painting look right.
· Paintings can be used for record-keeping, for instance, capturing the portrait of a famous (or not famous) person or event.
· Storytelling. A painting can be a story of mythological gods and goddesses, or religious figures, or any events real or imagined.
The thinking artist looks at these concepts and asks, what do they mean? They are the accepted principles, but are they correct? Are they necessary? And by the way, this raises the question, is the artist among the leading thinkers of the time? Since the great humanistic age, I would answer yes. If great thought is limited to great thinkers, it is sterile. Great thought must find its expression in great actions.
One key issue facing painters at this point is the invention of photography. Whereas once, if a moment was going to be recorded historically, it was drawn, now it can be photographed, with infinitely more realism. A photograph can provide a completely accurate portrait of a sitter in minutes. Photography almost immediately becomes the de facto medium of record-keeping, replacing painting in this area, and replacing a need for painting in this area. And in some cases, photographs can exist solely for the presentation of esthetic beauty.
If you’re sitting around seriously thinking about art, about making a statement, how do you do it in the Modern Age? You throw out the old, stop thinking about the subject of the painting, and start thinking about the process of painting
You replace the importance of the narrative with the importance of the narration.

What if perspective didn’t matter anymore?
Look at Picasso, where a subject’s eyes are on the same side of the face. Picasso isn’t saying that his subject is a flounder. He’s questioning perspective, and turning it on its ear (or on its eyes).
Cubism is an attempt to create three dimensions in a painting (which is all that perspective is about). In Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” the subject of a painting is not only three-dimensional, it is now moving, no longer caught in time. Duchamp kills two birds with one stone (the static quality of a painting and the two-dimensionality).

What about paint itself?
In the old, we used paints in different colors to capture reality. Now, with the Fauves (the “wild beasts”) color explodes on the canvas, and the painting is about color itself as much as its subject. Rather than mixing subtle realistic colors, wild colors are taken right from the tube.
In the old, you learned how to apply brushstrokes onto the canvas. In the new, you just splash the paint on the canvas like Jackson Pollack.

What about content?
In the old, the subject matter was clear. In the new, you have surrealism, the creation of a new alternate reality.
“My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question ‘What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.” - Rene Magritte

In the old, painting was about the subject matter, or about beauty, or both. A painting incorporated paint, brushstrokes, composition, perspective. Now, instead of painting a picture of gods or the neighbors or even the effects of light (the Impressionists), a painting is about painting. Or about paint, or about brushstrokes, or about composition or about perspective.
We have, obviously, invented abstract art. Where the painting is about the painting.


There are comparable experiments/develops in the other arts. Noticeably, music becomes atonal, which is analogous to painting becoming abstract. Just as to the thinking visual artist new techniques were needed to replace the old, to thinking composers new scales were needed to replace the old ones. The simple elegant math of steps and half steps is invaded by science, for instance, and we get12-tone scales. All the tools of the musician are open to discussion and replacement, as were all the tools of the painter.
One thing we didn’t comment on with abstract art was whether or not it was aesthetically pleasing, i.e., pretty. Nor will we comment on whether atonal music is listenable. We are not here to criticize, but to assume that music is what musicians make.
4'33" (Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds) was a piece written by John Cage, who originally studied under Arnold Schoenberg, the creator of the 12-tone method. 4'33" is entirely silent; it’s name denotes its length. How much more abstract can music get?


Architecture remains fascinating in the Modern Age. Buildings become as modernist as abstract paintings or atonal music, and because the size of buildings make them impossible to disregard, their meaning turn modernism into public statements (and will, in the postmodern, be one of the great emblematic art forms).
Architecture as always been about the point or purpose of a building and the use of materials, a structural marriage of form and function. In the past, we have had the problem of holding up heavy masonry ceilings and walls. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution we get the next great phase of architecture, incorporating the use of cast iron and steel. Higher, broader and lighter buildings become possible. It is simply no longer as difficult to hold up a structure. Steel can hold up virtually anything because it’s so strong.
The steel girder presents an interesting problem to the architect. What do you do after 2000 years of domes, columns and flying buttresses? In those 2000 years there has been an encrustation of tradition, where big civic buildings incorporate of necessity “classical” forms and designs, and as a result, the civic idea is inextricably related in the mind to that classicism. A cathedral of the 15th Century looks like it does for both narrative and structural purposes. But what should a cathedral look like in the 20th Century, when even if the narrative purpose of expressing the infinite and the spiritual remains the same, we don’t have the same problem of holding up the walls?
There are a number of answers to these and similar questions. The first big answer is the creation of the skyscraper, which can be seen as the apotheosis of the Modern Age. There is plenty of modern architecture, and modernist architecture, that is not tall. But if this is a time of migration to the cities, the idea of buildings reaching into the sky is emblematic of grasp of the city itself. While to some extent a taller building can fit more people in it, so there is a point to its height aside from statement, ultimately there is a diminishing return as your need to provide elevator shafts outweighs your gain in office space. The elevator, the invention of which enables the skyscraper in a practical sense, also limits it. Nonetheless, New York engages itself in a continuing race to construct the tallest possible building, starting with the Woolworth Building and continuing up through the World Trade Center. If reaching for the sky is emblematic of a city’s grasp, being the tallest building is a statement of a city’s grasp on a global level.
The first Manhattan skyscrapers are, to our eyes, simply taller buildings, and the first wave culminates in the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Both constructed during the Depression, in virtually adjoining neighborhoods, they waged a literal race to see which would be the taller. In the end, the Empire State took the prize. Which was why King Kong had to climb it. Why would the world’s biggest monster climb, say, the fifth highest building?
The designs of these buildings is comparable. They are modernist in the art deco sense, full of streamlining to make them look, literally, “modern.” Streamlining is a concept of movement. You streamline an object, like a car or an airplane, to reduce its resistance to motion through a stream of air. Since skyscrapers do not, in fact, move, their streamlining is a statement of concept rather than a structural necessity. The 20s and 30s saw a lot of unnecessary streamlining: chairs, teapots, cocktail shakers. The classic martini glass may be the most modernist piece of glassware ever invented.
It is the glass box that apotheosizes modernism in architecture. This style of building follows the elegant art deco structures of the 30s. After the Depression and WWII, the Seagram Building, the UN building, and finally the World Trade Center, mark the simplest form imaginable for their function. Glass boxes, as tall as you want them (as long as you leave room for elevators). The WTC makes the clearest, simplest statement possible. Here is the tallest building in the world (until the Sears tower replaced it), a monument to international capitalism, in an elegant modern style devoid of (meaning-filled, contextual) decoration.
That’s why they wanted to knock it down.

As we’ll eventually see, it is often hard to differentiate between the modern and the postmodern in architecture. But it is not hard to understand what architects are trying to do. Take, for example, the Guggenheim museum in NYC.
The question is, what is the best way to look at an art exhibit? Presumably an art exhibit has a beginning, a middle and an end, a narrative imposed by the exhibit’s curator. Our innate narrative sense brings the curator to set an exhibit up as a narrative, and the visitor to observe it as a narrative. You want to make order out of it, so that the visitors will understand the content of the exhibit. Now you could post a lot of arrows in the building, originating with a Start Here and culminating in a This Way to the Egress (next to a gift shop). But that’s the old way. Or, you could design your building with a beginning and a middle and the end.
That’s exactly what Frank Lloyd Wright did with the Guggenheim Museum. It is a spiral, so it does indeed have a beginning and a middle and an end. Modern construction techniques allow it to be an inverted cone. And it’s an absolutely perfect place to mount and visit and art exhibit.
The perfect meeting of form and function.
And a building no longer needs to be a box.


If we’re going to talk about narrative versus narration, books have to be the easiest way to do it. Which is why we’ve saved them for last.
A novel is by definition a narrative. So the idea of a non-narrative novel, of a non-narrative narrative, is an oxymoron.
A classic.

A book is made up of a variety of elements, just as a painting is made up of a variety of elements. Plot, characterization, use of language, Aristotelian dramatic thrust – all these are necessary to make a narrative work. The modernist looks at these elements, and redefines them, or eliminates them, or turns them on their head, just as did the abstract painter. We’ll look at a few key examples.

James Joyce is a good start. He didn’t write much, but he was about as avant garde as they get. In the beginning of his career he wrote the short stories of The Dubliners, featuring those famous (to high school English students) epiphanies, where the characters become themselves in that internal moment of realization. Have you ever noticed that nothing much seems to happen in The Dubliners? If you’re not paying attention, or you don’t know what to look for, how do you know the story is over? Well, you turn the page and there’s a new story.
Compare this to an O. Henry story, where there’s clear action and an obvious movement of a resolution. There’s a big difference. In all the arts, there’s a big difference between the modernist and the non-modernist, the practitioner and the visionary, this school and that school. Don’t get the idea from anything I’m writing that everybody was doing the same thing. Far from it. While Picasso was painting people with eyes on the same side of their head, Normal Rockwell was painting heartwarming and realistic pictures of children playing hooky. Both had probably the same amount of fame and recognition and money in the bank.
It’s a big world out there.
Getting back to Joyce, he worked through a steady line of abstraction over the years. He toys with stream of consciousness in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and presents it full blown in Ulysses. The latter is a fascinating experiment, a novel that takes place entirely in one day, based on the structure of Homer’s Odyssey, filled with the stream of conscious language of the modernist. By the time Joyce got to Finnegans Wake, which is the literary representation of a dream, he had given up on every piece of what we would consider normal narration. The book has no dramatic arc: it’s written in a circle connecting the first and last pages. Joyce invented his own new allusive language. There is no story, no “characterization.”
I have never read anyone who claims to have read this book in its entirety. And it’s not just because of the dream structure. Compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It too is a dream, but in a classical novelistic structure. Finnegan is the way it is because that’s the way Joyce wrote it.
A book you really can’t read.
Like music you can’t hear?

William Burroughs clipped together disparate pieces of text. This is reminiscent of the Surrealist game “the exquisite corpse,” where multiple writers wrote phrases at random to form a story. The poet e.e.cummings stripped out all capital letters from his poetry, and used his own odd method of punctuation.

The end result of this sort of experimentation is narration without meaningful narrative (and often unreadable texts). All of this is bunched into the concept of avant garde, and these writers, as well as the abstract painters and atonal composers, very much identified themselves as avant gardists. My reading recommendation is The Avant Garde Finds Andy Hardy by Robert B Ray. It’s a book of film criticism that discusses some of the main threads of modernist and postmodernist critique, and a good introduction to the area overall.

Is there a cause and effect in all of this? Well, artists are creative thinkers in whatever world/time/place they exist. Their work (at least traditionally) is meant to last, so their work gives us an idea of those worlds/times/places. What the modernists are telling to us from where they are is that they are somehow detached from the reality of their world enough to be able to comment on it, and that they are incorporating the new ideas of this world into their work to make that commentary.
Henry Miller said that a true artist must understand science. The artists we’re talking about, whatever the art form, incorporate the science of their times into their work. Eventually, today perhaps, the two of occasionally indistinguishable.
As you can see, there is certainly no straight line here. There are all sorts of things happening, and many of them, and the theories explaining them, are contradictory. And as you move from the modern into the postmodern it gets even worse. There is a clear delineation between gothic and Romanesque styles of architecture, but if you look up modernist and postmodernist architecture, for instance, they will both claim certain buildings (e.g. the home of Frank Gehry). So have no fear in venturing into these modernist/postmodernist waters. If you’re studying a particular person, that’s fine—find out what that person is saying. But overviews, including this one, are awfully reflective of some one person’s subjective analysis, as compared to some objective truth.
Let me tell you what happened.
I will connect the random dots of my perceived reality.
But sometimes it’s better if you connect the dots yourself.

One last note. Don’t take any of this as being a total picture. Plenty of artists – good artists – were not modernists. Plenty of good artists disregarded modernism/astraction or responded to it differently. No value judgment is implied that an artist who was not a modernist was not a thinking artist. The existence of the modern forces any artist to decide what to do about the modern in his or her own work. Acceptance or rejection of the modern is a personal choice, and for us to claim that one is better than the other is to believe that our ideas on something as ephemeral as what is good art, are somehow correct. We will never make that hubristic error of judgment.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Shuffle up and deal

Tonight is poker night at the chez. This is what I do when the team is at the States Finals.

Our normal poker game, which is older than anyone on my debate team, is an easy-going affair with more jibberjabber than card playing. Twenty-five / fifty cent blinds, pot limit. Quite extreme. A bad night can cost you seven, eight dollars easy. Since most of the people are jibberjabbering rather than watching the cards, a good night, when you yourself have nothing to jibberjabber about, can net you ten dollars easy. Then you get to spend all Saturday deciding where to spend it.

Last month, however, we launched a game of no limit hold 'em with a $25 buy-in. We called it the Tournament of Sham Peons (actually, I came up with that name; I wonder where I got it from). For once, there was no jibberjabber. Not one but two people went out during the first round of blinds (we doubled them every half hour), in the same hand! When the night was over (way earlier than usual), I had come in third place, which entitled me to getting my twenty-five bucks back. Worse things could have happened.

Tonight we'll be back to the open game, probably jibberjabbering a lot about ways to improve the Sham Peons. One thing we'll probably introduce is unlimited buy-ins for the first 4 blind levels (so that you don't come all the way to the chez to go out after the first deal). It's amazing how money changes everything. In our normal game the money is so insignificant that mostly we just shoot the jibberjabber. But when you can win seventy-five or a hundred bucks, it's a different story. Real emotion comes out. It's fun, but it's a different kind of fun. The fun of hanging out with your friends is replaced by the fun of playing serious poker. At some point, the two may conflict. Given a choice, I would prefer the former. Most people, I think, would, or at least should.

Which reminds me why I banned poker from the team (which seemed rather daring of me at the time, until I later learned that just about every adult coach had done the same, often by order of their administration). The last thing you should want is a friendship to go south over money, and serious poker can make that happen. It just isn't worth it.

On the other hand, one does like to play poker, and one does like the idea of no-limit. I wonder. Maybe I should organize a team tournament where no money changes hands, but we put a couple of seriously good crappy prizes on the line. But then, what if I won? I mean, I've already got all the crappy prizes.

I'll have to think about that.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

De trop

Reading over that thread about progressive debate (and I continue to be amused at the use of the word progressive, a value judgment that is far from proven), I am reminded of the days when the LD-L ruled the world. We had a wildly busy listserver where arguments like this one were conducted, a few posters taking it extremely seriously, the rest of us enjoying the discussion for a little while then deleting new entries without reading them. Enough is enough, after all, and God, those mailboxes would fill up fast. I am also reminded why I never bothered to post much, because you start getting vilified for either responding or not responding enough, and if your interest is marginal, you're sort of in the line of fire without caring all that much about the war.

Still, I like the idea of a place to air opinions and have discussions, good or bad. Once again we see the potential value of a site like BYOB, which chooses to mix the good, the bad and the ugly willy-nilly, with no apparent self-knowledge about the difference. Thank God that they're all wound up for the coming weekend, with reporters poised at state tournaments throughout the country to post the schematics of novice round 3. Good luck, Herman, wherever you are.

I read The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr yesterday. I have mixed feelings about it. It's a Sherlock Holmes story narrated by Dr. Watson. I guess I enjoyed it, but I found it almost identical to a Doyle novel (as compared to being identical to a Carr novel). I'm not the greatest Carr fan in the world; I found The Alienist to be stylistically convincing but ultimately an average policier. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed subsequent books less. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Oh, yeah. You may have heard that the Nostrumite is getting married again. News travels fast in the forensic unverse. I talked to him on the phone last night (he was in a state of permanent depression with time on his hands this particular evening, thanks to no more West Wings for the year, combined with a great fear of actually starting to believe in the coming Apocalpyse). It is all true, although he's asked that I don't give away too many of the details, for fear that BYOB paparazzi might show up in force and ruin the intimate nature of the event. He has, however, allowed me to comment that he is indeed starting on a new series, this time in a blog format. I've posted the link over there on the right. He has no idea how much time he'll give to it, but he says he's enjoying workng out some new characters based on his work at his new job. When real debate (or BYOB) gets me down, I can now go see what's shaking with the debaters at TWHS.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Critical theory and the end of life as we know it

I do occasionally get drawn into discussions on the Stuff and Nonsense website. Not so drawn into them that I feel compelled to actually participate, but drawn in enough to read them, expecially when my name keeps coming up.

All this blather about old and new, progressive and regressive (don't these language mavens understand the binary subtext of the word progressive?), coaches and mavericks, does at times show an incredible level of ignorance about the state of education in America (and bodes well for our chances at CFL Nats), but there is a good core point here that I will acknowledge. To wit, research/reading/evidence on a resolution should be resolution-specific.

There seems to be some myth that in Days of Yore, LD was nothing but semi-literate troglodytes mumbling the words social contract under their breath until the judges collapsed from the sheer weight of it. Well, there was a run of vague philosophical topics like abusive government versus no government that definitely played in rationalism's backyard, but a good debater never "ran" Locke or Rousseau. You can't run a philosopher, insofar as you can't encapsulate a philosopher's ideas in the couple of minutes you have when you present a constructive. The best you can do is pull out a single idea that the judge will accept based on your presentation on it, and then build your argument from that. You start with a premise, an axiom, whatever, and build from there. To start from a premise that governments are formed for a variety of reasons, and one of these reasons is to protect its member people, will not cause a judge to throw a brick at you for being a crackpot. So much for the SC; from that point, you're on your own.

As I've said before, topics have changed. And people need to change their reading/research to keep up with them. And while I seldom hesitate to vilify critical theory in the broad sense, I do find good material in the underpinnings of modern thought. So this old bourbon-drinking whiner (or whatever the reference was to us poor old coaches passed over by the whirlwind tide of bright young things) has indeed begun digging into, and coaching on, modern critical thought. Language DOES have power, which is why I insist that it be used well. Power IS a fluid construct. Which is what Caveman is all about.

One of the things I like about doing this activity is that it keeps me learning new things. With Caveman, a lot of what I'm doing is merely synthesizing what I already know (although I've been astounded by how much I've gotten wrong when I research my references—I am a wealth of mis- and dis-information). The problem is taking critical theory, which is mostly an effete academic mishmash of bad writing attempting to indict others for their evil writing, and finding the good stuff that can be presented with educational benefit to a high school audience. The attraction of pomo stuff is not unlike the attraction of good old Ayn Rand: there's some ineffable pull of crackpotsia that draws in a certain usually young mind. I don't want to imply that the old are smarter than the young, but they are different. Even when I was a spring chicken I knew that some things (like the novels of Henry James) were better left to my dotage (which was a couple of years ago, if reading Henry James's novels are any indication). But I digress. As usual.

My point is, yes, we should look at more topic specific stuff. Read the people writing about democracy if you're discussing democracy, read the people wiriting about religion if it's separation, etc., etc., etc. (It has, ladies and gentlemen, ever been thus, but the Days of Yore just can't measure up to these enlightened times, I guess. )

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Here's the deal. Compare it to your own.

I like information. Obviously. I also like entertainment. And I have about a half an hour drive each way to work every day. Driving is blank time, wasted in its way. I can't say I've enjoyed driving per se since I was about eighteen. Back then we had a 1959 Impala convertible. I would drive home from my girlfriend's house late on a summer's night, the top down, Jean Shepherd monologizing on the AM radio. There wasn't anything but AM radio back then, and the alternative to Jean Shepherd would be top ten stuff. Teenagers built hard callouses on their fingers from their ability to click the radio buttons across their five preset stations the very second a good song ended, in a search for the next good song. No station ever played two songs in a row, nor did any station ever play two good songs in sequence even disregarding the endless commercials. It was a hard life for a music fan, which we all were. But something like Jean Shepherd... He would ramble on, with that hypnotic style of his, riffing on whatever amused him about modern life or his childhood or the army, and you just went along for the ride. With the top down, on a summer's night.

Now, when I drive, sometimes only music will do. I carry about 20 CDs covering the gamut. At the moment, and let's not compare this to the analysis of George W's iPod, I've got, among others, Assassins, Mel Torme, Queen, the Police, Rigoletto, Gottschalk, Hot Club of Cowtown and the Beach Boys. This choice allows me to satisfy whatever craving I may have at the moment, although I will admit that certain moments have certain predictable cravings. Driving home from work is rock, driving to work is random, driving in bad weather is classical, driving with family is American songbook. The radio, as a general rule, is unsatisfying musically, much as it was in that '59 Impala, for comparable reasons. FM allows you to skip the ads (sometimes), but there's still no guarantee you'll like what you hear.

Then there's talk. Jean Shepherd is dead. I tend to gravitate to NPR news on the ride home (and following, in the kitchen, while I'm preparing dinner), so the bare mention of the name Sylvia Poggioli simply turns me to jelly. I don't like news much in the morning, considering that I've just finished reading the papers, but there's not much else. I can listen to Stern about one day in five, if he's interviewing someone interesting and isn't talking about sex (which I just find annoying -- Stern talking about sex, that is, not sex itself). It's a real crapshoot if Stern will be interesting on a given day, and I have low expectations.

So, at that point, you can listen to audiobooks, and I like doing that (unabridged, of course -- forget my job, for a minute). I've heard some great ones. I prefer books I wouldn't ordinarily read, but that's a small universe, given that I get paid to read for a living, and those books cover the spectrum of popular fiction and nonfiction. But there's always some. For instance, there was Bergdorf Blondes, which I found hilarious as a sort of chicklit take on Bertie Wooster, at least insofar as the classic "unreliable narrator" is concerned. And there's older stuff like, of course, Bertie Wooster. But the problem is, an audiobook is a bloody commitment. These things go one for disk after disc after disque. At a half hour snort at a time, it can take weeks to finish anything. And if you REALLY like something? Well, I had to run out and get I, Claudius about halfway through the second installment and read it for myself, because the audiobook just wasn't fast enough (can I recommend the Claudius books highly enough?).

Which is why I think that my recent infatuation with podcasting may turn out to be a longterm marriage. In no time I found Leonard Lopate's interviews, a daily dose of Jean Shepherd (!), Newsweek, and, of course, the ubiquitous Adam Craig. I now fill up my iPod with more daily-ride material than I can listen to on my daily rides. This is a very good thing. To be honest, I don't see podcasting as some sort of revolution to come. I do not see a world where everyone is suddenly a program producer. It's bad enough that everyone thinks they can write (I find most blogs unintelligible). But podcasts will fill a niche, I think, as real producers (like NPR) make material available on a time-shift basis. Why not? Radio does suffer from the lack of time-shifting, from the sense that it is ephemeral. TV was comparably ephemeral until time-shifting came along, but there's never been a serious attempt to apply comparable (easily available) technology to radio. Probably something to do with, as McLuhan would say, the difference between hot and cold media. Which is where podcasts come in, for those of us who like the spoken word but don't want to listen to all ten discs (really -- ten discs!) of a Jim Morrison biography. I am good, however, for ten minutes of a Mr. Mojo Risin' segment.

It will be interesting to see where podcasting is in, say, three years, vis-a-vis satellite radio.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The other side of the coin

The dovetailing of debate and golf is almost perfect. Debate ends in March, for the most part, and golf starts in April, for the most part. Of course, these yabbos managed to qualify for CFL and TOCs, which take a big bite out of the old Menick links life, plus I'll be vacating in May, which means that I'm going to lose a lot of course time. That's going to be rough.

It was beautiful out there Saturday. We were in our shirtsleeves, the sun on our backs, the mud on our shoes. I have a regular foursome that spends the half hour before tee time arguing about who's giving whom how many strokes, followed by abstract conversations that have earned us the honarary title of golf philosophers (from a one-time drifter who played with us and who thought, I guess, that a reference to the mounds of Venus on the ninth hole at Mohansic was the ultimate platonic allusion). At the end of the game the money changes hands: twenty-five cents a hole! We're not just whistling Dixie here, fella. There's no pikers in my foursome.

On Sunday, much energy went into Caveman Part 4, which I still need to illustrate. I'll post it shortly, then on to the final part, on pomo. I also started reading this very attractive architecture survey (to find out if I've gotten anything correct) while at the same time reading "Variations on a Theme Park : The New American City and the End of Public Space," which included that essay on gentrification. It's curious that Disney, as a corporation, has a mixed reputation as the bane of architecture (e.g. the Magic Kingdom) and the soul of architecture (e.g. the Gehry concert hall). But that's not really what the book is about specifically. Let's just say, if you can't bandy about simulacra references from Baudrillard with aplomb, you'll be up a creek with it. Pomo forever, eh?

Friday, April 08, 2005

The other kind of insomnia

There are two kinds of insomnia. The first is where you go to bed and simply can't fall asleep. Vladimir Nabokov suffered from this variety, as did many of his characters. The thought of going to bed became filled with dread, he wrote, because you knew you wouldn't be able to fall asleep. There's a certain poetry to this version of the affliction, where you're so afraid of not falling asleep that you don't even try. There's also a simple cure: take the appropriate pill, and you're out like the proverbial therapist in August.

The second kind of insomnia is where you wake up in the middle of the night. This is my brand. Sometimes this happens when you're stressed out, and your mind is burning with some particular aggro that you were unable to work out during the day. While this is not pleasant, at least it is explainable. What's worse is when you are hit by this wakefulness and burning brainload for no particular reason. You're under no stress whatsoever, and you endlessly toss and turn while the agents of your brain are digging holes in the area designated as Karl Marx, trying to uncover connections to relativism.

That's how I spent about an hour and a half last night. At about 3:00 I got up and read about gentrification in Loisaida (the Lower East Side) in this architecture anthology I'm in the middle of. Pip liked that idea, and kept butting me in the chin with his head. I fell asleep in about five minutes. So did Pip.

Which, of course, left the issue of Marx unresolved.

The thing is, if you're going to list the most influential people of the 19th Century, I guess the Chuckster is roughly number one. I mean, as far as the category of Thought goes, all these bozos like Nietzsche and Kirkegaard and Freud had their effect, in Freud's case a fairly big one on a popular scale, although he did go way into the 20th Century and I will cover him when the time comes, the bloody fraud, but no one managed to change the geopolitical map of the world like Karly. But no matter how I try, I can only draw the most egregious connections between communism and, say, existentialism (aside from remarking that most of your average existentialists on the street are probably a bunch of pinkos). I do like the subject of communism, though, and the dialectic of communism versus capitalism. It just doesn't fit here. But it bears scrutiny. Every vintage of debate year has a conservative or so planning to cast their first real-live voting privilege in the direction of the biggest Republican they can find, but the great majority are lefties as only young people can be. And obviously the connection of the liberal to the communist is intrinsic, but I wonder how much thought they actually give to it.

A few years ago the NFL Finals topic was a straightforward communism pro or con. I would have so loved that one to prep on.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Is this another anagram of Sith?

I'm sorry, but I've got wordplay on the brain. Among other things. I got sidetracked into a whole riff on Magritte (obviously), and then just roamed around the wilds of surrealism for a while. I read some reference to a map in a Lewis Carroll story where the scale was one mile = one mile, and people decided to use the country itself as a map, which they claimed worked almost as well. And if there was ever a blank wall that one hit head on, it was good old Cy Twombly.

Cy Twombly. What a name. Very Dickensian.

They're touting Bellow as an anti-modernist. I hate to admit I've never really read the guy past a few odd attempts in my literary youth. It's time to take another look. Any anti-modernist can't be all bad.

And Claire thinks I've completely lost it. When people who are dating phantoms think you've gone over the top, you've got to wonder.

Anyhow, in the middle of all this, who should I hear from but my good friend from Juvenile Delinquents Frequently. I'll let him speak for himself...

Dear Mr. Menick:

HQ has assigned me to Security Detail for the month of April. Their feeling is that trainees ought to participate in as many workings of the corporation as possible to get a feel for the overall operation. It has been an eye-opening experience.

I am writing to you to inquire why you have not visited our website for the last 11 days. Our state-of-the-art tracking software allows us complete knowledge of who comes to our website when. (For your information, we have 43 unique visitors, making approximately 3,425,302 page views a day. Each. Of those 43 visitors, 4 are staffers, 22 are national circuit superstars, 7 are non-national rube wannabes, 2 are coaches -- one of them is you and the other one isn't -- and the remainder are click-throughs from Noah G's dating service.)

By not visiting our site regularly, you have missed a number of new entries. As you know, we make no attempt to weigh the merits of our postings. Knowing your opinion of cultural studies, you probably feel that it is a mistake not to differentiate between the latest theoretical analyses of debate structure with the Glenbrooks recipe for Boolooloop, but JDF believes that all information is equal and it's the beholder's problem to make heads or tails of it. We are very modern in this belief. How do you feel about modernism, old-timer? (Ha ha. Or, as we like to say at JDF, [Laughs sardonically].)

I thought you might appreciate this rundown of what you've missed:

1. The winner and runner-up of the Kyrgyz Republic district tournament, which was held at knifepoint at Bishkek East Side High School. All elimination-round contestants were rewarded with a promise of a trophy when the revolution dies down, while the top two contenders were allowed to buy a vowel.

2. The recognition of Manchester-Over-the-Hill's coach's lifetime's devotion to forensics. You may not be aware that Mr. Overhill began debating the moment he emerged from the womb, and is still up for a good argument if you mention lawn bowling, ear trumpets or albino bagels.

3. A list of high school seniors going to college. We have added this to our Ripley's Believe it or Not section. The idea of high school seniors going on to college -- wow! What a concept.

4. Flying lessons.

5. Arf Ounder's birthday announcement. Thank you, God.

6. The latest scoop on how to tie your shoes. Future installments of JDF's Forensic Tool Time will address recovering from wedgies, washing the Mountain Dew out of your only shirt using nothing but a small tube of hotel shampoo, and 542 new uses for high school ziti.

7. A new installment of Eacher Beets's series on debate theory.

8. An open casting call for the motion picture production of "Declamation 2: The Revenge of MLK." Previous working title of the film was, "I wouldn't have had a dream if I had known how many freshman were going to repeat it week after week after week after week..." An even earlier working title, "He's Black and He's Mad" is being saved for "Declamation 3: The Michael Jackson Story."

9. A list of former JDF Concentration Camp inmates who escaped into the Tournament of Sham Peons. Look for this under the title "We're only in it for the money."

I hope that this list will instill in you a desire to revisit our site in the near future. We miss you, Mr. Menick. We hope you've missed us.

Your "secure" friend,
Herman Melville, Cub Reporter

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The rules

Last night the speech side, not to be confused with the dark side, met to codify some rules. McLean and I were in attendance representing the debate side, not to be confused with the Heaviside, to provide forensic unity. Aside from establishing some basic tenets of membership unique to speechifiers, such as, you have to attend a meeting every few years or you're off the team, some of the rules applied to everyone. It makes sense that I post them here.

1. The dress code was unified. At CFL events, boys will wear clerical collars and girls will wear wimples. At non-Catholic events, both boys and girls will wear Burger King uniforms.

2. No gambling allowed, with the exception of crap games, but only if the coaches take a 5% rake.

3. No bribing of judges, except for Joe Vaughan, who is approved at the following rates only: Public Forum $2; LD, DUO, HI, DI and Extemp $10; OI and OO $20; Declamation $250.

4. Breaking of laws on college tournament trips is prohibited. This includes bank robbery, terrorism, extortion, impersonating an officer and double-parking. It is unclear whether breaking of laws at non-college tournaments is acceptable.

5. If a law is broken on a college tournament trip, the offending student will be drawn and quartered.

6. Every student is required to house 200 students for Bump.

7. Parents who judge not shall themselves be judged. Or shall have the first stones cast at them. Or something like that.

8. Students are required to at least hint to their coaches about what they intend to perform/run. This will eliminate the designation of Forensician Mysterioso from the team.

9. All students with nicknames are immediately required to attain new nicknames. For example, Ewok will now be known as Chewy, NoShow will now be known as GuessYouDidntThinkIdShowUp, Hush will referred to as Shaddup, etc.

10. There is no number 10, but 10 rules sounds better than 9 rules, which is why there's a rule number 10. (Interestingly enough, this last rule is the only one on this list that is repeated exactly as it was described last night. If that doesn't sum up Hen Hud, I don't know what does.)

Cy Twombly

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Roll over, Beethoven

Let's stick with Luddy for a while. Although I'm adding this art as an afterthought. Am I the only person in the world unaware of M&Ms Dark Side?

There is this traditional image of Beethoven as a Titan at war with the Gods. Or as a Prometheus stealing divinity from the gods to enlighten humanity. You decide on your own favorite metaphor from any number of preexisting choices, or create a new one of your own. It doesn't matter. The point is that life for Lud is seen as a bit of a struggle, and his work is a piece of the divine given to humans, and that kind of special delivery doesn't come easily. It would seem as if the gods were especially cruel and precise in their punishment of Beethoven: what worse can you do to a composer than make him deaf? He can still compose music, but he can't hear it. Talk about rife with symbolism. The story goes that at the debut performance of the 9th Symphony, the fans went wild, cheering and hootin' and hollerin'. And poor Lud, conducting the work even after the orchestra was finished, deaf as the proverbial post, had no idea this was going on until someone turned him around to see the reponse his work had gotten from the crowd. (When Lucy tells this story to Shroeder, it always brings a tear to a Peanuts fan's eyes.)

So Beethoven is this great Romantic hero, at least in the terms we've laid down defining Romanticism. The individual touching the infinite to share with other individuals, everyone ennobled in the process, that sort of thing. But I think we need to talk a little about context. (Yeah, I'm seeing this entry as something to work into Caveman; you'll see why in a minute.)

Lud's dates are 1770-1827. (For comparison's sake, Bach is 1685-1750, Mozart is 1756-1791. There is a direct stylistic line from the orderly compositions of Bach through the -- strictly defined -- classical music of Mozart to the emotional late compositions of Beethoven.) This was a time when music was supported, as we've said, by patronage and commission. Bach was a kappelmeister, writing music for the church. Mozart got money from the rich and wrote music to accompany their dinners, as well as other, serious pieces. Beethoven did not compose for the nobility; he composed for himself. He still nonetheless required financial support, and got it. He just didn't respond with a lot of nice but forgetable music, as Mozart did (which is not to denigrate Mozart, who obviously wrote a lot of transcendent music, but Wolfie also wrote a lot of pap -- pretty pap, but pap nonetheless). Beethoven's works are primarily for serious concert performance.

Imagine the times. The 9th was first performed in Vienna on May 7, 1824. Lud may have been working on it off and on for ten years, seriously so the previous two. The audience comprises those people who, in 1824 Vienna, would go to a concert and hear the symphony. They will probably never hear it again. Most people in Vienna in 1824 will never hear it at all. (Not even Lud ever heard it!)

Music is ephemeral. Originally, i.e. historically, music is pure performance. You make up a song and play it. Maybe you remember it. Maybe someone else remembers it. Some people are very good at memorizing music quickly, especially simple music, so a piece can live on in time and geography beyond its creator, but it's still ephemeral. At some historical point we learn to "write" music; we create a language of notation so that we no longer need to rely on memory. As a result of this new ability of narration, we can improve the narrative content: music can get more complicated.

But music is still ephemeral. It takes a lot of resources. Or at least a piece like Lud's 9th takes a lot of resources. Ten years of his time, a big symphony orchestra, money, a big chorus, an audience of sophisticates capable of affording and appreciating such a venture. Music like this was a once in a lifetime event for the beholders, and maybe even for the musicians. Perhaps the greatest works of art being created at the time are limited in distribution to an exceptionally tiny few at exceptionally infrequent intervals.

In this context, you write music for that one listening. You write music that the audience will hear once that will last them for a lifetime. You can draw your own conclusions about the meaning of that music, the meaning of music per se, in this context. Your conclusions will be specific and they will be straightforward. You will be attempting to understand Beethoven. Which is a good thing. I encourage it.

So let's fast forward to my living room, in which there is a 5-disc CD player. In slot #1, Beethoven's 9th. In slot #2, the Beatles' Revolver. In slot #3, Ella and Louis (that's Fitzgerald and Armstrong, you schlub). In slot #4, Caetano Velosa's Noites Do Norte. In slot #5, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. The context of Lud's 9th has changed dramatically (although the text itself remains the same). What does Beethoven's music mean when it is just one more piece of music? When instead of listening to it once in a lifetime I listen to it while I'm reading the Sunday Times or washing the dinner dishes? And heaven forbid, what happens if I hit the Shuffle button?

Welcome to Cultural Studies. There are lots of branches and approaches to cultural studies, but we approach CS from a position that, in this case, there is a variety of music that comprises a certain part of our culture. There are a variety of ways we listen to that music; I could go to a concert of the 9th, or I can listen on my iPod -- big difference. CS, at its worst, equates the 9th with Celine Dion, claiming that both are simply musical texts (you'll notice the I did not have a Celine disc on my machine, nor will I ever). CS at its best tries to figure out the meaning of a culture where Celine and Lud both vie for your listening pleasure.

You don't get CS without Structuralism, or some new way to evaluate contexts.

The semiotician will, on the other hand, read the inner Menick from the 5 disks in my virtual CD player. Why did I include these 5? What did I exclude? What does the choice say? The semiotician will try to understand the subtext of the choices.

The avant garde pomo might provide an alternate reading of the text, showing how my exclusions are more meaningful than my inclusions. My exclusion of, say, 50 Cent (or his half brother, Two Bits) probably shows an inability to cope with modern race issues while seeking solace in the separatist past by choosing the notoriously Uncle Tommish Louis Armstrong (not my belief, remember -- I love Louis).

I am, actually, a fan of CS. I like the broad approach to cultural artifacts. I don't think we should ennoble pop to levels above its grasp, but pop, by the very virtue of its popularity, says something to us about people, and even if I perhaps end up using CS as a door-opener for contextual study, I still enjoy it.

[I think of this kind of entry as Caveman Supplemental, a la Captain's Log Supplemental. What the hell IS a supplemental captain's log, anyhow? I can't wait to see the Borg Encounter in Vegas next month. Eat your heart out, Cruz!]

Monday, April 04, 2005

What is art?

I couldn't sleep last night. For two hours of tossing and turning my brain buzzed with this problem of what art is. Having spent all day spinning the latest piece of Caveman into prose from my lecture notes, I realized I had barely touched the subject. Art means too many things, I think, to attempt nailing it down definitively in Caveman, which has a different thrust, but this blog is extracurricular, so why not?

Art connects human beings at conscious and subconscious levels. Art stimulates the mind and the emotions. When the artist connects to the viewer of the art, there ensues an ennobling of the human spirit from which both gain. Art tells me something about myself of which I was previously unaware, or demonstrates a sublimity of which I was previously unaware, or a connection of which I was previously unaware. Art makes me more aware. Art betters me as a person. Art allows the artist to touch the communal soul of humanity, and to expland that soul.

Yadda yadda yadda.

None of these are definitions, they are descriptives. They're all fairly inchoate, in a blather meets dither sort of fashion. Like everyone who gets stuck explaining things nowadays does, I will fall back on Potter Stewart's approach to obscenity and simply point out that I'll know art when I see it.

I do think that the descriptives above connect to the Aristotelian explanation of the value of art, and I do believe that many of the greatest artistic achievements of humanity, measured by these criteria, were created in the 19th Century. When an artist touches the infinite, our discovery of that touch allows us to share in the touching. We are awed. We stop dead in our tracks. We can't speak. We won't speak. We can even be brought to tears.

I don't think the ancients do that. They do not take our breath away. The Sistine Chapel does it, and maybe Michelangelo is the first great Individualist. Or maybe he's one of the first to struggle with touching the infinite in ways that still affect us in 2005.

I was thinking primarily of music when I was tossing around last night. Especially Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. In keeping with my descriptives, the 9th definitely does the job, and few would dispute it. I guess if you could articulate what happens inside you when this piece of music ends, you would be able to define art to me.

I do have a couple of book moments too. The 19th Century was a great time for writers and writing. The novel became The Novel, with folks like Dickens attempting to sum up the world around them and perhaps even change it. Dickens was a great reporter as well as a great stylist. He certainly set himself the mission of documenting societal ills. Aside from Esther's discovery of her stone cold dead mother in Bleak House, however, few moments stand out as frisson-making for me in CD, and even the BH moment is one of purely good narration rather than touching the infinite. Dickens, btw, is one of my favorite writers, whom I've plowed through in some cases a couple of times, in other cases more than a couple of times. Dickens as he is taught ("Let's start the kiddies / With Tale of Two Cities") is probably the best way imaginable to ruin any nascent interest a kid may have in the greatest story-teller of the 19th Century. Tale is the least Dickens of all Dickens's books. Jeesh.

One moment I think that does touch the infinite in 19th Century literature is the moment Huck decides he will go to hell rather than ratting out Jim. That will take your breath away and ennoble your soul as much as it ennobled Huck's. And Twain's. Another moment is when Ahab calls out that secret boat crew of his to swear their allegiance to killing the whale. Your eyes pop reading this scene that approaches the very edge of human existence. That both of these are American moments may be entwined with the native individualism of America, which was always at the leading edge of living the life of the Individual. We were pioneers braving the unknown from the getgo. Nietzsche or Sartre may have cogitated about the individual qua individual, but Clemens created himself wholecloth from a journeyman's ramble through a premythical American West, while Melville really was Ishmael, signing himself up as a whaler. I can't imagine Sartre on a whaling ship. Or roughing it. Hell is other people? For Sartre, hell is not enough Galouises and Pernod when he's bloviating at the local bistro.

It's always the French, isn't it?

Anyhow, keep in mind that the second half of the name of this blog is Ramblings, which is what this post is. I admit that I can't define art, and I refuse to paste some definition out of Webster's. I agree to a point that art is what artists say it is, but mostly I'll stick with Potty and say that art is what I say it is.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Caveman Part 3 (Draft)

Part 3
Individual Narratives

You should take a trip to Italy. If you’re really clever, you should take a trip to Italy around the year 1565, but you can go in the present, too.
Once you get past the food, take a look at the art. You can’t miss it, because it’s everywhere. It contains the sum total of the Christian Faith. It contains the main beliefs, and it contains the legends. When Mary is assumed into heaven, for instance – assumption is when God calls up your earthly remains; Enoch and Elijah were also assumed – she dangles a cord behind her, while the apostle Thomas is seen in the distance running down a hill, not wanting to miss the event of Mary’s dormition (the sleep unto death). Try to find any of that in the Bible! But you’ll find it regularly in of the paintings of the Assumption. Art takes on not only a unique language, that is, a Narration, such as skill in painting, but a vocabulary, i.e., dots of meaning, symbols that are meaningful only if, well, you know what they mean.
Walk around Italy and stare at 800 Marion Assumptions, and 700 times you’ll see a cord and poor Tommy running down a hill in the distance, and you won’t have a clue to what it means. If you did take the trip in 1565, however, you would know about the cord and about Thomas without having to read the explanations in the guide books.
That’s just one example of the arcana inherent in this art. It is of its time, and often it is hard for us to read the complete Narrative without a little help. That may be why an appreciation of Fine Arts is so rare: It isn’t easy. I don’t want to suggest that all good things are hard, but not all easy things are good, and sometimes you have to work a little to appreciate something.
Sort of like reading all of the backstory of Caveman to get to the good stuff about postmodernism. If, indeed, postmodernism is good stuff.
Bear with me.

You’ll see some great things on this Italy trip. You’ll see the Creation, if you visit the Sistine Chapel. You’ll see the horns on Moses’ head more often than not; that’s how you can tell it’s Moses (and you can look it up for yourself why Moses is displayed as having horns; I don’t want to have to explain everything in one essay). You’ll see a lot of Annunciations, and if you’re like me, you’ll become a great fan of angel wings. Are they a rainbow? Feathers? Light? Lots of different approaches, depending on the artist.
In your travels you will see every Bible story you can imagine, as well as some that you’ve never heard of; apocrypha, like the tales of the Assumption, gets its paintings too. You’ll also see paintings of rich people, which will remind you that all this art is brought to you courtesy of the Medicis and their brethren. You can’t devote your life to art without money behind you, and artists get money as either patronage or commissions, either from nobles or churches.
All the art is, in other words, still about plutocrats and God and heroes.

While you’re still in Italy, visit the churches. Splendid, eh? That’s where the public money went, of course. If it’s 1565, listen to the music. You’ll be sort of bored, because they really haven’t invented music yet. Or more to the point, they haven’t invented complex instrumentation and harmonies and rhythms. Lots of single line melodies with a steady beat line underneath it. It’s really mostly folk music, although before long public money will start supporting musicians too, with either patronage or commissions, and we’ll start getting something you can sink your teeth into.

It’s a wonderful world, isn’t it? This return to the classical state of mind that is the Renaissance led to invigorated art, invigorated science (think of all of Leonardo’s drawings), invigorated culture. It is a state of order, with clear social hierarchies, with rigorous class systems, everything in its place, every person in their place. Not much has changed, in a way, since Plato, insofar as individual life is concerned. The kings and queens and clerics rule, the people follow, and in the end, we will go to heaven.

That is the Age of Faith.

Goodbye, Age of Faith.

The Age of Reason

The Age of Reason differs from the Age of Faith, as we have said, with the shift from dependence on faith to dependence on rationality. You could begin throwing around words like ontology and epistemology now, the study of existence and the study of knowledge, respectively. But we won’t. Read the original texts yourself if you want to start manipulating big words. Caveman is, deliberately, a Small Word analysis of things. It’s a synthesis, a connection of the dots the way one narrator sees them.

Let me tell you a story.

I do not know what marks the turning point between Faith and Reason, and there probably is no one fulcrum. Cultural movements don’t necessarily hinge on just one occurrence. There are certainly some big things one can point to, however. The revival of interest in the classical age included a revival of interest in the classical writers, who were primarily secular, using reason to figure out existence. The Humanism movement during the Renaissance studied the role of Man absent the realm of the spiritual. The invention of movable type means that books became more readily available, which meant more people became literate and wrote more books, a progressive cycle of intellectual development. Exposure to other cultures through active international trade and exploration caused the mind to wonder about things. And Faith, or at least the Catholic Church, certainly took a body blow when Martin Luther nailed those 95 theses to the church door.

Regardless of pinpointed causes, the end of classicism and the beginning of the Enlightenment marks the use of logic to figure out the universe. We will use our brains, rather than following our spiritual texts. There is something inherent to this that may not be immediately clear, but if someone tells me what to do, I am a cog in a wheel not of my own creation. But if I use my own brain to figure out what to do, I am suddenly, inherently, an individual. I can’t think with someone else’s brain! I can follow someone else’s predetermined plan for my life, but at the moment I attempt to determine my own plan, I have crossed a chasm separating humanity as a whole versus humanity as individuals.
This is true even of religiong. One aspect of the Protestant Reformation is the claim that the Church is filtering dogma in a bad way, and that the Individual ought to read the Bible and figure things out on an individual basis. Even at the primary level of religion, we are beginning to get a large dose of individuality.

Going into the Age of Reason, the Individual is a fairly meaningless construct. The Age of Reason will spend its energy in the construction of the Individual. And by the time we reach the Modern Age, the Individual will be king. And god. And hero.
And all the art that is about kings and gods and heroes will be about the Individual.

The Age of the Individual is dawning.


We’re going to cover the period from the Late Renaissance to roughly the turn of the 20th Century in a very short take. Lots happens in this 400 year period, but we’re going to select some key dots to connect, because our story is focusing on Individualism. If we spend too much time here, we’ll never get to Modernism. (This may or may not be a good thing.)

We’ve already mentioned the Protestant Reformation, which certainly shook the position of the single monolithic Church as the arbiter of Faith, if not necessarily the position of Faith in the culture overall. Faith was still important. What Reformation thinkers did was give thought to the role of the individual in the interpretations of scripture. Faith in the scripture itself was not in question.

But new philosophy was also happening at the same time, philosophy that approached existence rationally, through the use of human reason. Again, as we’ve said, the moment you apply reason to solving the problems of the universe, you are by definition applying a tool of Individuality. We only have our own reason to go by.
The chief tool of the rational philosopher, aside from his brain, is logic. If logic is not the enemy of Faith, it is certainly its opposite.

The philosophy of the 17th and 18th Centuries, while often accepting the existence of God, stands aside from God’s existence. Descartes and the Scholastics believed that all of existence could be figured out through reason alone (Metaphysics). John Locke and his gang disagreed, saying that the world is revealed to us through our senses (Empiricism).
I guess you can pick for yourself which makes more sense. Neither side exactly managed to pin down existence so well that we didn’t have to ever think about it again. In terms of the birth of Individualism, correctness doesn’t matter. Using pure mind or using our experience of the world, we are doing it on our own.
Still, this sort of thing, metaphysics versus empiricism, is what gives philosophy a bad name. I mean, really, guys. This is just mental gymnastics on the part of the philosopher. And for us, reading their work, it’s the mental gymnastics of watching some other mental gymnast. In the end, it’s all just gymnastics. Nothing has actually happened, except the burning of some mental muscles.

Subsidiary to ontological discussions of metaphysics and empiricism (now there’s a phrase I can’t believe I wrote), is the study of the individual per se. If the Individual is the source of reason and experience, some thought should be given to the Individual’s place in the scheme of life as it is lived. An ethicist like John Stuart Mill concluded in his work that Individual Liberty is the highest value in a society, the ethically most important thing, the most right/moral thing.
According to Mill, the Individual has Rights. That’s a new idea, although I don’t know if Mill actually invented it. Probably Plato wouldn’t have agreed with it.
Along these Individualistic lines, Manny Kant, that jaunty German man about town, concluded that the goal of the Individual’s existence is happiness. This is not the happiness (if any) that results from watching a Rob Schneider film, but the Right to an existence pleasing to the Individual on an individual basis. You know, the pursuit of happiness, in your own way. (The present Dalai Lama says exactly the same thing.)
J.S. and Manny did, of course, have a different feel about ethics. In the Age of Faith, God told you what to do, one way or the other, and there were no questions asked. But J.S. and Manny tried to figure out for themselves what made doing a certain thing right or wrong. J.S. embraced (but did not invent) Utilitarianism, which measures a calculus of pleasure and pain resulting from actions. (Utilitarianism gets a bad name in debate from people who know nothing about it aside from the catchy “The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number,” an oversimplification.) Manny came up with a Deontological approach, measuring the act itself. The difference is simple: do we weigh the results of an action, or do we evaluate the action itself? Taking either line exclusively will take you to an ethical dead end, but studying each line will make you think more clearly about the difference between right and wrong.

Right and wrong? In the Age of Faith, God told us what was right and wrong. In the Age of Reason, we’ve got to figure it out for ourselves.

Possibly the most important thought to come down the pike from these rationalists is the concept of Government deriving its power from the governed (Locke), and not God. This idea directly changed the world. Historically, despots of every stripe liked to say that, when all was said and done, they were ruling not because they were the meanest bastards in the valley, but because God had blessed them or their lineage. The idea that government is a product of the people governed rather than something imposed upon the people by the might of the most powerful, is an idea that ended the world of monarchs and began the world of the self-ruled.
You can’t have self-rule without a self.


We will now enter the Age of Romanticism. That does not mean an age of romantic love, but an age celebrating the individual, emotion, nature, revolution! In the prevalent Thought of the time, the Individual has moved to a place of prominence. Again we look at the arts, because the arts reflect the times. At some points, artists even lead the times.

This period too has a flowering of Narration. The Narratives get really good, because the Narrators learn better the skills of Narration. They have access to more and better narration tools, and perhaps they are also inspired by the inherent Individuality of the times. They don’t have to stick to kings and gods and heroes anymore!

Let’s start with music. In the Middle Ages we had Gregorian chants, one line of melody droning up and down the scale. When we were roaming around Italy in 1565, we had some minstrel playing some simplistic stringed instrument and singing along in one simple line of melody. Organs had been around for hundreds of years, but by the time you get to Bach, you have a nice range of other keyboard instruments like harpsichords. With Bach we think of one of the first great bursts of musical Individualism, as Johnny worked his way through every theoretical construct imaginable. He explored music as music: he would write a series of works in every key, say, or a series exploring two voices or three voices in different progressive combinations. At this point, music is still a little rigid rhythmically, but we have developed complex harmonies and instrumental voices. What is missing from the Baroque of Bach is that Romanticism that would develop after his death in 1750. By the time we get to the great 19th Century masters, beginning with Beethoven, the age of Romanticism, the allowance of the Individual to express Individuality, is at its peak.
The listener’s reaction to music differs, too. The reaction to an emotionally moving piece like Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony is radically different from the intellectual reaction to a piece like a Brandenburg Conerto. They are both musical, but one appeals to our brain, and another to our heart (if you’ll allow me a Romantic way of expressing things).
The music of the Romantics tells us much about the composers. Bach’s music doesn’t tell us much about Bach at all (except that he was good at his job).
Oh, yeah. Bach worked for a church, and a lot of his stuff is, I guess, about kings and gods and heroes.
The Romantics’ work is about whatever they wanted it to be about.

The Narrative of Literature may be the easiest to parse in the terms we’ve set regarding Narrative because, well, literature is narratives.
We don’t have to go into much detail at all here. We now enter the age of the creation of the normal hero. The Individual. The authors express themselves individually, and they write about individuals.
“I celebrate myself,” says Walt Whitman.
Compare Achilles, star of the Iliad, to Huck Finn or Elizabeth Bennett. The demigod versus the American kid and the young middle class Englishwoman. The concept of hero has changed dramatically (in all literal senses of those words). The hero is no longer a king or a god; the hero is no longer special in terms of being separate from humanity. The hero now represents humanity. The hero is humanity. The hero is one single Individual, and our times have decided that one single individual is worthy of being a hero.
Name one kid in classical literature. You can’t.
Modern literature is filled with kids.
And working schlubs. And housewives. And people just like us.
Literature has gotten good, too. It’s fun to read. The skill set of the Narrator has brought to writing an immediacy never seen before. You are there, in your mind. It is happening to you.
Talk about catharsis! Talk about vicarious!
Yeah, the stories do have beginnings and middles and endings, with climaxes and anticlimaxes. Writers haven’t fallen that far from the Aristotelian tree. Yet.

Then there’s Fine Art. Just like literature has gotten good, so too has painting. Remember how sculpture got good when sculptors discovered anatomy? The same thing has happened to painting. What painters discovered was light.
In our Romantic Age, the subjects or art have changed, but a little more slowly than in literature. Where once upon a time every painting seemed to be a Madonna and Child, we’ve now got genre painting (scenes of everyday life), landscapes, portraits of normal people, lots of pretty stuff for the sake of pretty stuff. But for some reason, we haven’t completely shed the old yet. We still have plenty of Madonnas and Greek myths and the like. Kings and gods and heroes. There is a conservatism and traditionalism in the arts of painting and sculpture that lasted well into the 19th century, with all sorts of kings and gods and heroes still deemed the proper subject of art. This may be a continuing reflection of the operation of patronage and commission. Jane Austen became a good writer never leaving her room, and at little expense, whereas your average painter required a great amount of schooling in the craft of painting, and somebody had to pay for that one way or the other. And the people who buy paintings are the rich, whereas the people who buy books are merely the literate.
Nevertheless, while the content may be more classical, the art itself developed into the sublime. As early as Rembrandt, who died in 1669, painting has made incredible strides even from the time of Michelangelo, who died about a hundred years earlier. The realism, the understanding of light, the use of the paint, the use of brushes, all has changed.
It is with the Impressionists in the later half of the 19th Century that Romantic Individualism finally explodes in painting. The celebration of the individual artist to do what he pleases, to connect on an emotional level with his viewers, this is what Impressionism does. The need to paint the “correct” subjects, the willful ignorance of which caused the Impressionists to be scorned by the art establishment of the time, came to an end. Correctness was completely overthrown by the Impressionists, whose popularity endures through today. And the use of the tools, the use of color, the understanding of light (which is the definition of what the eye sees), the Narration, reaches what some consider its pinnacle.

We are now in an age that has been marked by revolution, in America and in Europe, revolutions resulting from the empowerment of the individual, rightly or wrongly, and the overthrow of the installed power structures. These revolutions have created the new western world of today’s modern nations.
What does all this mean in terms of Narrative, which is our theme?
Narrative has gone from the big to the small.
Narrative is accessible to everyone.
Narrative is about everyone.
We are now in the world of the Individual. Most of the greatest works of art being created in all areas are individualistic. Narrative is, you might say, at its peak, as it is informed by individualistic movements
The greatest stories of all time, in literature, art and music, are 19th century-ish.

All of which is prologue to this essay. I’ve said it before. I don’t think you can understand the Modern, until you understand how we got to it.
And we’ve finally gotten to it.