Friday, November 26, 2010

Jefferson taken out of context

Yesterday I was watching the Ken Burns documentary on Thomas Jefferson. Later in the presentation there was a bit on Jefferson's postwar politics, including his support for other revolutions. The French Revolution made many Americans nervous, but he seemed to love it. Then I heard a very familiar quote in a context so unexpected that it left me gobsmacked.
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots...

I've seen this quote many times, and always for one purpose: to evoke praise for U.S. soldiers fighting in foreign wars. I didn't know who said it, or why. I nearly jumped out of my chair when I found out that it referred to Shays' Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson wrote those words to support a domestic tax riot! If there's a better example of a radical populist notion being used exclusively by conservative hawks, I'm not aware of it.

Page 241 of Thomas Jefferson: an intimate history by Fawn McKay Brodie (which, hopefully, you can see below) gives the entire quote along with some details on Jefferson's reaction to the French Revolution. It's quite an eye-opener.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Milkmaid at the Met

When I visited the Rijksmuseum in 2006, Vermeer's "The Milkmaid" entranced me: I kept walking in close to see the intriguing pointillist bits, backing up again, standing close again, and backing up once more to admire the way those points resolved themselves into a unique and vivid texture. Then I wandered off with my mind pleasantly blown, only to come back a few minutes later for another iteration. I never expected to see it again without visiting Amsterdam.

When I got the e-mail from the Met about a month ago I was so excited that I was almost jumping out of my chair. I was going to get to see her again - in New York! Then I realized that Grace's parents, who would be visiting on Columbus Day weekend, would probably love to see it with me. I was right. We went to see the exhibit today, and my head is fit to bursting. As always, I don't presume to know that my assertions about what I see reflect reality. The following are just my strong reactions.

In 2006 I spent a long time pondering "The Milkmaid" but gave very little thought to its symbolism, context or implications. Marveling at the technique was more than enough for me. I was taken with Vermeer's little dots that, once I stepped away, composed a texture that nearly leaped off the canvas. That construction of texture reminded me of nothing so much as a field of ragged robin. Every once in a while during the summer I'll be riding around and I'll glance out my window and say "that's ragged robin". Each flower is too far away for me to see, and its color and overall appearance at that distance is indistinguishable from many other flowers. Yet my eye can distinguish the overall texture created by the aggregation of blooms of that particular configuration.

After taking a look at the Wikipedia entry for "The Milkmaid" and its image page, make sure you click on the full-sized version and pan around. Look at the bread especially, and then zoom back out. You'll see what I mean about the pointillist technique.

Today, just seconds after getting another look at "The Milkmaid", I was brimming over with gratitude and joy at the privilege of standing in front of that canvas again. The contrast between the subtle gradations of curve and shading on her dress, and the way the rough texture of the bread pops out of the canvas, is endlessly captivating. As it turned out, I'd barely begun to appreciate this piece. But before my big revelation, I had one or two others to get to.

I had seen "Woman With a Water Jug" back in January of last year at the "Age of Rembrandt" exhibit at the Met. Again, at the time I thought of little but the technique. But today I saw something new: she is a conduit.

Take a look at the Wikipedia page, its image page and the full-sized image. Look at how she grasps the window with one hand, and the pitcher with the other. Look at the way the light flows through her, pools in the bowl, and spills over into the Turkish rug. The chivalric imagery is almost staggering: the atmosphere is guazy and ethereal, and with her head covering she is untouchable. In this vision, Dutchmen could brave every ocean and return with the world's riches, but only the Dutchwoman could imbue them with meaning. Her society needed her there.

The next thing that caught my interest was the map in "Woman With a Lute". Check out the Wikipedia page, the image page, and the full-sized image. Note that the map on the wall in "Woman With a Water Jug" was a relatively innocuous map of Zeeland. The map behind the smiling woman with her lute, however, is one of Europe, and it's swarming with ships. Vermeer finished this painting four years before the Dutch raid on the Medway, during a time when English paranoia over Dutch activity was something like American anti-Soviet paranoia of the 1950s. Pepys conveyed this vividly in his conclusion to his diary entry from August 27, 1664.
All the newes this day is, that the Dutch are, with twenty-two sayle of ships of warr, crewsing up and down about Ostend; at which we are alarmed. My Lord Sandwich is come back into the Downes with only eight sayle, which is or may be a prey to the Dutch, if they knew our weakness and inability to set out any more speedily.
I think the woman is composing a love song to a man out there on one of those ships - ships of which anyone in Vermeer's town of Delft would have been acutely aware.

I gravitated back to "The Milkmaid"; I had a lot more admiring to do. As I made several more cycles from the back of the crowd to the front, I thought more and more about the blue jug. The material beneath the cobalt blue glaze didn't look white, which made me suspect that it was a very poor, locally produced imitation of true China. As I'd just learned by reading Vermeer's Hat, by 1657 anyone who was anyone in Delft would have had imported blue and white China. Then I noticed a display case I'd walked by a number of times without noticing. It turned out to be the key that opened up the painting for me.

There behind the glass were contemporary examples of the objects in the painting. They could very well have been fired in the same kilns, and perhaps in the same batches, as the ones Vermeer painted. Seeing the grey stoneware jug with its thick glaze of imported cobalt forming a literal veneer of culture, I knew I was right: every object in the painting is of the cheapest possible variety. Suddenly a fact that had eluded me snapped into place: "The Milkmaid" portrays a household that is among the poorest of the poor.

I returned to the painting and saw its subject in a new light; now the roughness and ruddiness of her face made more sense. She has a lot of strength, this woman - too much strength to be defeated by her circumstances. She's not worn out. But I was able to see more clearly that she is careworn. Then, as my eye went back over the picture with this new information, it settled on a detail that had been nagging at me, and it all fell into place.

Look at the blotch on the section of bare wall to the right of her head. It's not just a blotch. It's a nail hole.

They had to sell their map.

Did the family of the house fall on hard times because of an unwise business venture? Was the husband an aspiring merchant whose ships were lost to Cromwell's aggressive attempts to control the Channel trade? It's fun to speculate, but all I can say for a fact is that there was something hanging there, and now it's gone.

Think of the maps on the walls in the other Vermeer paintings. They represented the power of the Dutch trading empire and evoked images of the places from which the Dutch middle class got its upward mobility. Light comes in through the window, and shows us a map which itself is a window to the outside world. The woman may be permanently installed in her domestic function, but she is an integral part of that world-wide network of trade, and well should her dreams fly along the rhumb lines of the map on her wall. But the milkmaid... her map is gone.

Like the woman with the water jug, the milkmaid takes radiant energy and redirects it, imbuing mundane objects with significance and life. Unlike that other woman, though, there is nothing ethereal about the milkmaid. She is achingly real, and only the real surrounds her. The map that once gave her a window to the greater world is gone. Look at that wall, with its solitary nail and the inconspicuous nail holes that you only notice after Vermeer has drawn your eye to the big one. Now step back and look at the painting again. Isn't that the saddest wall you've ever seen?

After seeing the real examples of the objects in the painting, and then noticing the nail hole, I'm seeing "The Milkmaid" with new eyes. As in "Woman With a Water Jug", the chivalric meaning assigned to the domestic female is weighty enough to make my knees hurt. And at the same time Vermeer is taking the viewer on an artistic slumming tour. He's brought a romanticized vision of the lower class to life and beyond: the viewer gets to be a condescending voyeur in the milkmaid's quaint and hyper-saturated reality. The occupants of the house may have had to sell their map, and they may suffer the indignity of serving from the poorest implements, but they have everything they need: nourishment, as from the bread and milk on the table; comfort, as from the foot-warmer on the floor; homely culture, as portrayed on the ceramic tile on the baseboard; love, as personified by the Cupid on one of those tiles; and sex, which our sturdy subject seems to promise. The painting invited the viewer to gaze with benevolence upon this prototypical noble savage.

And standing behind it all is a blank wall that shrieks with its silence. In other Vermeer paintings, maps speak volumes: they testify to the Dutch skill in making the maps; they tell stories about the people teeming onto wharves on the other side of the world to load their carefully-packed products into Dutch ships; and they speak romantically of the female subject's vital place in that web. The wall behind the milkmaid, not just empty but emptied, transforms the scene into a tragedy of Shakespearean grandeur. The greater world into which she once was tied has been taken away. She still fills her world with nobility, but that world now stops at the nail holes on the wall.
After I posted this entry I mentioned it to my friend "J" in Amsterdam. Our conversation is worth recounting here.
Nice thinking Hugh.

And indeed the milkmaid is not upper or even middle class, like the idle, lute playing woman is. But you should note that both the lute player and the woman with the water jug are in the parlour, the family's living & receiving room. The milkmaid however is in a kitchen in the basement (look at the light falling down through the window!), with a tiled floor. The rather pricey Delft blue tiles along the foot of the wall are there to protect it when the floor is (daily!) scrubbed with water, naval style.

Maps hung in parlours, hallways, offices and such, not in kitchens. They were popular wall decorations, cheaper then paintings, but more expensive then most prints aka etchings.

Maybe the milkmaid is in her own kitchen, but probably in that of a middle class family. Even rich Dutchmen would not provide expensive tools for use in their kitchens, which explains the basic quality of the jugs and such. A poor family's kitchen would be darker, damper, lower and without even such tools and without the decorated tiles along the wall's bottom.

So the general assumption is that she is a servant, preparing breakfast: the milk will be cooked to make porridge I guess.

However looking at her dress and head gear the girl with the water jug IMHO also is a servant. The water pitcher is silver and stands in a large silver bowl. After their dinner which still was eaten with a knife but without a fork, guests at the table would wash their greasy hands under water poured by a servant using just such jugs and bowls, the bowl for catching the water. So the silver water jug undoubtedly is in a wealthy household, the milkmaid me be the only servant in a lower middle class family like shopkeeper or of some ship's officer.

Thanks for the detailed response.

Even while I was having my thoughts about "The Milkmaid", that flaw in my logic nagged at me: that she was a servant in a back room, and therefore might be expected to use the cheapest of cookware. Ah well. Ideas are like money, yes? Easy come, easy go.

And yet I can't help but think that I shouldn't throw out my whole thesis. I should not expect to see a map behind the milkmaid. But now that I have noticed those nail holes, they seem conspicuous. It seems clear that Vermeer wanted to draw the viewer's attention to them. To put it another way: now that I've seen them, I can't unsee them. From a purely compositional standpoint, they seem like a hidden focus of the painting.

Where there is a map on a wall in a Vermeer, that map is significant. Is not the conspicuous absence of the map in "The Milkmaid" also significant? Perhaps Vermeer is simply pointing out that the milkmaid is disconnected from the broader world?

The main thing that makes me wonder about this is that the nail holes seem to form a rectangle. There was something hanging there at one point, although of course it could have been anything.

You are right re the 'hidden focus'. There is nothing accidental in Vermeer's compositions and specialists have mathematically analysed his dimensions and perspectives: everything always is in place.
However the nail may have been used to hang her apron.

Another thing is that it was typical for many painters in our Golden Age to depict common people as such: a milkmaid, a peasant, a market woman, a butcher or baker. Before this was done nowhere, the commoners were at best seen in the background, a crowd watching something more important like a crucifixion or a nobleman doing something and such. In The Netherlands art for a first became 'democratic', also because the market for art did no longer consist of princes, nobles and the church but of urban citizens, wealthy and just doing well: a kind of proto-middle class came up and bought paintings. It has been estimated that between 1600-1700 some 5 or 6 million paintings were made in this country and about 1,000,000 of those survive, one at my wall!
I'm anxious to hear more thoughts on the subject.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hijacking Ecclesiastes

This is a continuation of my investigation of Carissimi's "Vanitas vanitatum II". You may want to read the previous two entries first.

Here's the translation of the verses near the end of the piece that seemed incongruous.
Scepters, crowns, power,
pomp, triumphs, victories,
honors, ornament, glories,
toys, delights,
ostentation, riches;
all is vanity and shadow.

Where are the famous rulers
that gave laws to the world?
Where the leaders of the people,
the founders of cities?
They are dust and ashes.

Where are the seven wise men,
and the followers of science,
where the arguing rhetoricians,
where are the expert artificers?
They are dust and ashes.

Where are the strong giants,
the preeminent ones,
where are the victorious warriors
who defeated the barbarians?
They are dust and ashes.

Where are the generations of heroes,
where the vast masses of cities,
where is Athens, where Carthage,
and the face of ancient Thebes?
Only their names remain.

Where are the glories of dictators,
where the victories of magistrates,
where the triumphant laurels,
where the immortal dignity
of Roman honors?
Only their names remain.

Scratching my head about why a text written sometime around the height of the Roman Empire would include rhetoric about the futility of long-vanished Roman honors, I went to Wikipedia for more information about Ecclesiastes. According to the article, historians tend to date Ecclesiastes from about 250 BC, give or take a century. It's also a book of the Hebrew Bible, which might have explained the disdain for Roman honors. However, it didn't explain the sense of looking back on a long-dead empire, like the narrator of "Ozymandias".

I decided it was high time I up and read the bloody thing, so I followed the link to the text of Ecclesiastes. Coincidentally, at about this time Karl e-mailed everyone in Continuo Collective his translation of the Vanitas Vanitatum II text from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Both sources told me the same thing: Ecclesiastes doesn't mention Roman honors!

As I read Ecclesiastes I became more and more fascinated at the differences between it and Vanitas Vanitatum II. Beyond Carissimi's inclusion of a theme that wasn't in the biblical text, there's a conspicuous difference in tone. Ecclesiastes is a highly personal, deeply introspective piece; it's the story of a man who's spent his life's vigor striving for earthly reward, only to find that, for all the good it did him, he might never have lifted a finger. Carissimi's additions, on the other hand, are bombastic screeds against a mode of behavior embodied by iconic men of power. Reading Vanitas Vanitatum II alongside its source material makes it look like the work of some eccentric botanist: a flowering cactus grafed onto an apple tree.

Once I noticed Carissimi's jarring shift in both content and tone I got much more curious about his intent. Clearly he was taking the engine of Ecclesiastes and using it to power an anti-classicism machine. It seemed reasonable to think that his employer was sick of hearing about ancient Rome, which made me think of the "Virtual Tourist" exhibit that I wrote about on March 9th and 12th.

The "Virtual Tourist" exhibit illustrated a European fascination with classical Rome during the late sixteenth century. Carissimi wrote his music sometime during the third quarter of the seventeenth century, a period I know little about except for the diary of Samuel Pepys. If, after reading about Carissimi's life and the music of the period, I find that there was another popular resurgence of classicism during Carissimi's lifetime, then I'll have some evidence to back up my hypothesis about his motivations.

Stay tuned.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Vanity gives way to fun and curiosity

Bear with me here. I'm setting the scene for my investigation into the context of Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II".

At the beginning of the third rehearsal Pat spoke about the text of the vanitas pieces. It seemed to him that Carissimi had used the absolute worst aspects of Ecclesiastes to scare money out of people and into the collection plates. He was very curious to know the circumstances surrounding the writing of the music but, since Carissimi's details are lost to history, he wasn't sure if we could ever find the information. Of course I jumped on the opportunity to do some digging and, with the help of JSTOR, found this article from the April, 1981 issue of Music and Letters. It indicates that not only can't we reliably date Carissimi's music, but we don't even know whether he or one of his students wrote the vanitas pieces!

Speaking of not knowing things... boy, was I in for it. On the weekend before the fourth rehearsal I found out I had to sing a solo in Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II". I was apprehensive and excited at my first vocal solo in... gosh, I hate it when I do the math and my brain spits out "a decade". Anyway. During the next few days I used every spare moment to practice, using keyboards to help me find the notes. I heard the intervals and progressions; I thought I had the part down. Then I got up there on Tuesday night and most egregiously befouled the proverbial bed. I couldn't hear my part at all - I was feeling around for my notes like a ninth grade choral student sight-reading a part. I felt utterly humiliated, and I knew I had only myself to blame: I'd walked in there looking forward to impressing everyone on my very first attempt at a solo. Pride goeth before a fall, and I knew that my fall was obscenely apropos of the music we were singing: "Vanity! All is vanity!"

During the next week I despaired and sweated. I didn't want to go back to a keyboard because that's part of what messed me up in the first place: the early music we're singing is a half tone off from the modern tones, so I'd practiced the wrong notes. I had no opportunity to run through it with Grace so I resolved myself to muddling through as best I could during the next practice, hopefully figuring out my part a little better by listening to the instruments. Then I thought back to my choral experiences back in the early nineties and realized I'd been coming at Continuo Collective all wrong. When I think back to the Oneida Area Civic Chorale I don't think of how I wowed anyone with my solo from "Oklahoma". I think of how tingly it made me feel to come to know Mendelssohn's "Elijah" intimately, from the inside - of hearing my voice interact with all the other voices in order to build a piece of music. Feeling myself as a cog meshing with other cogs, and hearing us forming something bigger than ourselves, was one of the most sublime experiences I've ever had. Once I remembered this, everything changed. I walked into Continuo Collective last Tuesday night wanting not to wow anyone, but to understand the music and hopefully improve my contribution to it.

I had a few minutes before practice to go through my parts with three of the continuo players. That, along with my changed attitude, made all the difference. I began hearing what my part was doing in relation to the music, and my performance improved. More importantly to the historical discussion, though, I discovered of a pair of mistakes I'd been making at the end of my solo where I demand to know "Where the immortal dignity of Roman honors?" In addition to my tendency to go up a step instead of staying put on the last note, Grant pointed out that I wasn't holding some of the notes long enough. I had been singing the end of the line as though it ended like similar lines earlier in the piece: with an ascending, triumphant exclamation point. But instead my solo called for me to extend the second syllable of the word "honorium" and then descend one step for the last two syllables. This changed the character of the solo entirely for me. Before I'd seen it as a scornfully triumphant excoriation of Roman-style honors. Now it felt wistful as though the singer, acknowledging the perceived glory of ancient Rome, should hold out his hand longingly to an apparition fading into the mist. Wow! That's really neat!


Hold on.

It's all well and good to think of someone from the seventeenth century longing for ancient Rome, but the text of this music is from Ecclesiastes. When Ecclesiastes was written, no one was longing for ancient Rome because Rome was just hitting its stride! So what was going on here?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Grace and I are singing in Continuo Collective this semester. Grace has spent a number of seasons in the group but it's my first time. Thankfully some of the singing I did years ago was in Latin, otherwise I'd feel utterly overwhelmed. As it is, between the Italian enunciation and the complex chords I feel like I've thrown myself into the deep end of the pool. I'm glad I joined, though, and particularly excited to be a part of the Vanitas Project.

During our first rehearsal we looked at some good examples of vanitas paintings. One of them was Holbein's "Ambassadors", which I wrote about in a February entry. I was excited that we were working on something I actually knew a bit about; between my visit to Paris and Amsterdam, my readings on sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch history, and my visit to the "Age of Rembrandt" exhibit at the Met, I felt like I had a decent handle on the concept.

Tony made the point that, though vanitas art denounces worldly pursuits, the people who commissioned that art were most likely quite attached to those pursuits. I couldn't agree more; for me, Dutch still life painting is all about the paradox - not to say hypocrisy. Remember, those artists were hired by rich, powerful Dutch merchants to depict a panoply of shapes, transparencies and textures; this showcased not only the artists' talent but also the sundry goods that the patron imported from the far reaches of the world. The Dutch had become the preeminent merchants on the planet, and speaking of the planet... why, they just so happened to have a freshly printed set of atlases by Blaeu. Expensive, but worth it! They were bloody satisfied with themselves, and it showed in those paintings that gave great lip service to the renunciation of worldly pursuits.

If I'm overstating the hypocrisy angle it's because I'm reading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror and when I think of the hypocrisy of chivalry - a psychological construct that allowed for the ruination of the very people that it purported to protect - it reminds me of the suspiciously pornographic contradictions at the core of vanitas painting. This all goes to explain why, as I worked on my solo in Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II", I got to thinking - and researching - more and more about his purpose in composing it.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Postmodern Prometheus

In the recent movie Iron Man Jeff Bridges' character, industrialist Obadiah Stane, has to deal with an epiphany. He's particularly unhappy because it's a big shiny epiphany that fills the room, and it's not his. Before long Stane will also get big and shiny, and demolish the room. But we don't know that yet.

Tony Stark has just returned from Afghanistan like a walking Joseph Campbell lecture. He's watched American soldiers killed by his own weapons. With Stark Industries shrapnel in his chest, he's almost died by his own design. Under the noses of his captors he's built more machines: a miraculous power source, a device to stabilize the shrapnel, and finally a suit of powered combat armor that he uses to break free. Stark has watched his creativity refracted, seen all the colors: death, salvation and everything in between. He's been burned, and doesn't want to bring humanity any more fire. At his word, Stark Enterprises has stopped producing weapons.

Tony's old pal Obadiah is not pleased - and Jeff Bridges does a superlative job here playing a slimy smooth operator. He pretends to have Tony's best interests in mind while trying to bring him back around to his old devil-may-care weaponsmith self. Throughout this performance Stane masks his distress almost perfectly, only losing his cool once. In the midst of his words sliding off Stark's newfound moral exterior, Stane exclaims "We're ironmongers, Tony!"

This caught my attention. I'd always assumed that "Iron Monger", Stane's name for his version of the Iron Man armor, was a made-up word. In the eighties, when Stane appeared in the comic book, it seemed natural to me that a comic book writer would take the Shakespearian word "fishmonger" and tweak it to create a corrupt-sounding version of "Iron Man". But here in the movie Stane was using the word before he even knew about Stark's armor. It seemed to imply that "ironmonger" was not a new construction, so I looked it up. Sure enough, it's been a common enough word for at least six centuries. The word appears eight times in the diary of Samuel Pepys.

October 23, 1660
...She also took me to her
lodging at an Ironmonger's in King Street, which was but very poor...

November 25, 1662
...Up and to the office all the morning, and at noon with the rest, by Mr. Holy, the ironmonger's invitation, to the Dolphin, to a venison pasty, very good, and rare at this time of the year...

November 28, 1662
...Up and to Ironmongers' Hall by ten o'clock to the funeral of Sir Richard Stayner. Here we were, all the officers of the Navy, and my Lord Sandwich, who did discourse with us about the fishery...

September 7, 1663
...The play being done, I stole from him and hied home, buying several things at the ironmonger's--dogs, tongs, and shovels--for my wife's closett and the rest of my house, and so home, and thence to my office awhile, and so home to supper and to bed.

October 27, 1664
Up and to the office, where all the morning busy. At noon, Sir G. Carteret, Sir J. Minnes, Sir W. Batten, Sir W. Pen, and myself, were treated at the Dolphin by Mr. Foly, the ironmonger, where a good plain dinner...

May 21, 1667
...Mr. Harper at Deptford did himself tell her that my Lord hath had of Foly, the ironmonger, L50 worth in locks and keys for his house...

July 20, 1668
...and so home, and took occasion to buy a rest for my espinette at the ironmonger's by Holborn Conduit...

February 6, 1669
...Thence home, and just at Holborn Conduit the bolt broke, that holds the fore-wheels to the perch, and so the horses went away with them, and left the coachman and us; but being near our coachmaker's, and we staying in a little ironmonger's shop, we were presently supplied with another, and so home, and there to my letters at the office, and so to supper and to bed.
When I think of Pepys's ironmongers I get an impression of skilled craftsman; their cleverness doesn't earn them any particular standing in society, but neither does it bear any moral attachments. I thought this was very interesting, because the word perfectly embodies Stane's side of the moral gulf between him and Stark. If Pepys had beaten his wife with the espinette rest, would the ironmonger at Holborn Conduit be responsible? The notion is laughable. Stane feels the same way about his weapons: he just makes tools that his clients find useful - he's not responsible for what people do with them after they leave the warehouse. Stark used to feel similarly, but not any more.

Thoughts of moral accountability reminded me of Plato's Republic, which I've been listening to lately. In it the character of Glaucon recounts the legend of Gyges, who discovered a ring that gave him the power to become invisible. Glaucon claims that no man could resist the temptation to abuse such a power, and goes on to assert that all attempts to live a just life are merely part of a selfish social contract - if people could get away with injustice with no fear of punishment, they would. The more I thought of this, the more it seemed like an inversion of Tony Stark's epiphany. Gyges stumbles upon an opportunity for power without accountability, and he lacks the strength to resist. Contrast that with Stark's transfiguration, which gives him both the impetus for his creative act and the strength not to abuse his creation.

I was thinking about moral accountability for one's creations, so I suppose it was inevitable that I'd come around to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This line of thought got more interesting when I thought of the full title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. There's been a lot written over the centuries about how Shelley's book was the first science fiction story, and about its core theme of the moral ambiguity of technology - which is ultimately beyond the control of the creator. In that sense, Iron Man could not be a more direct descendent of Shelly's novel. Stark is a Prometheus forever straining toward two opposing asymptotes: improving the human condition through technology, and maintaining control over technology.

This fascinating article about Luddite influence in Frankenstein puts Shelley's novel in a historical context. With its emphasis on the concept that Luddites were not against technology, but rather against implementing it in ways that made life worse for people, it also brings me back around to Tony Stark. Another man might have seen the ends for which his weapons were used and sworn off technology. Not Stark. He reacts to his epiphany not only with a surge of fresh creativity, but by imposing moral boundaries on his creations. He is a consummate control freak. That's where his alcoholism comes from, and it's what makes him a hero for an age in which we keep discovering how little we can control. Like Frankenstein, Stark keeps creating. Like Frankenstein, he eventually comes to be defined by his endless chase after his unbound creations.

Along with thoughts of Shelley, my musings brought me back to an association I had when I first listened to The Republic. Anyone who's read Tolkien will understand the reaction I had to hearing about the ring of Gyges. I had been drifting a bit, listening to the narrative as I walked. But when Glaucon started talking about a gold ring whose power to make the wearer invisible would tempt even the most virtuous man, little exclamation points appeared over my head as I thought of the One Ring.

I always feel embarrassed when I discover that an idea I heard from a modern author is actually thousands of years old. I respond to that embarrassment by examining how the idea flowed from the distant source to the twentieth century spigot. I wondered if Tolkien got his idea from Plato, and then a more interesting question came to mind: Do the differences between Plato's story and Tolkien's reflect an evolution of human morality?

At first I thought of how the ring of Gyges was utterly irresistible, and of how The Lord of the Rings gets a lot of its dramatic tension from the One Ring being not quite irresistible. A very few mortals could be a Ring-bearer, and I thought this crucial difference represented a conceptual shift over the millennia. Perhaps people, at least in their imaginings of themselves, had gotten better.

Now listen up, because this is a perfect example of how a short attention span like mine can get you into trouble. I have not yet finished The Republic. I had to take a break around chapter six because I'd had it up to here with the narrator's plummy tones that so perfectly reflected my growing certainty that Plato was a self-satisfied wankspout. Because I had not yet come to Socrates' conclusions about justice, it was easy for me to forget that the story of the ring of Gyges was Glaucon's story, not Socrates'. Once I remembered this, I searched the text and found the following in chapter X.
Let a man do what is just, whether he have the ring of Gyges or not, and even if in addition to the ring of Gyges he put on the helmet of Hades.
Plato - through Socrates' dialogue - refutes Glaucon's notions, making a case for personal accountability and individual morality. And again, I hear millenia-old echoes in Frodo Baggins and Tony Stark, two variations on an old theme. In one story the object of power is a ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron, and Frodo is the only one who can destroy it. In the other story, the object of power changes mercurially: first it's a missile, later a suit of armor. That's because the real prize is knowledge, and no one can destroy that. Stark is like a snake that constantly eats its own tail while shedding its own skin. He forges one weapon, it burns him, and the pain propels him on his hero's journey. He comes back changed, with a new weapon, trusting only in himself to use it. But others find a way to steal his new fire, and he must chase it. His Mount Doom is a phoenix. His hero's journey never ends.

Part of me wishes I had something pithy to say about all these connections. I recognize, though, that I'll need a few more years of reading under my belt before I can extract any pith without injuring myself. In the meantime, I'm just going to enjoy hearing the echoes and feeling the pleasant surprise as I recognize themes that have been handed off for so long from mouth to mind. I'll leave you with a quote from Henry V that would have echoed loudly in Tony Stark's mind.
Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained: and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think that, making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach others how they should prepare.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Warrior Queen's New Clothes are GORGEOUS!

At forty-seven seconds the date 1585 appeared on the screen. Then I saw that Spain is the most powerful empire in the world. OK so far. Next the movie informed me that Philip of Spain, a devout Catholic, has plunged Europe into a holy war. "Well that's a bit one-sided, isn't it?" I said to myself. I started dredging my memory to see if that sweeping statement was even remotely fair to Philip - of whom admittedly I'm no fan - but my time had run out. At one minute and nineteen seconds the third sentence hit.
Only England stands against him.
Wow. Now that's impressive! It took the movie only three sentences spanning thirty two seconds to climb to a height of inaccuracy from which it could proclaim the nonexistence of the Protestant Netherlands. Not to mention the... the... aw, heck, what was the name of that other group of people who stood against Philip II? It's easy to overlook, because it was such a tiny thing - barely a political entity at all, really. It's on the tip of my... oh yeah! THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE!!!

Somewhat crestfallen to have been cast into a universe in which the Dutch Republic and the Ottoman Empire did not exist, I took solace in the costumes - like a child who, despondent after hearing that there's no Santa Clause, finds consolation in knowing he'll still get presents. Honestly, though, my crest never fell that far. The historical fictionalizing was so brazen, so dazzling, that I bypassed annoyance and outrage, moving - like ice sublimating directly to water vapor - to a quiet, almost reverent place. I felt a faint need to applaud this vivid description of the emperor's new clothes.

Beautiful scenery and sumptuous costumes filled the screen. At times the camera showed Elizabeth's intrigues from the unusual point of view of the vaults. I was enjoying myself well enough. Then, like a raspberry seed expertly thrust between my teeth, one of the characters made a passing reference to Parma's men gathering "on the coast of France". Ah. So it wasn't just the Dutch Republic that didn't exist, but the whole of the Netherlands!

Strangely enough, Lord Howard also seems not to exist in this universe - maybe he was in the Netherlands when it ceased to exist - and Drake gets only the briefest of mentions. Sir Walter Raleigh seems to hold the entire fleet together with his rugged, bold, yet sensitive manliness and his unflinching gaze. Then the vastly outnumbered English ships meet the Armada almost yardarm-to-yardarm, and the English start losing ships very quickly. Never mind that in reality the English hardly ever got within seven hundred yards of the Armada. I think the most painful thing here is that the depiction of the ship design is, as far as I can see, very accurate: the Spanish ships have the traditional high castles, whereas the English ships are race-built. I say it's painful because they bothered to get the designs right but, without the corresponding story elements, it's a wasted effort. The design of those ships is what made it possible for the English to literally run circles around the Armada, and the reason why the battle didn't play out yardarm to yardarm!

I have to admit here that I can't suggest an alternative to the battle scenes. Sure, I would enjoy seeing a historically accurate story where we cut back and forth between the Spanish soldiers cursing at the cowardly English dogs for not closing and grappling, and the English soldiers cursing at how unexpectedly ineffectual their newfangled gunnery was proving against the Spanish hulls. But I have no illusions that the peculiar impasse at which the fleets found themselves in the Channel would make an exciting movie.

I was rather pleased that, despite the nonexistence of the Netherlands, at least the movie portrayed the Armada's main problem: the winds that threatened to drive it onto the shoals and precipitated the decision to anchor. Unfortunately it then goes right back to inaccuracy, with the Armada burning in view of Dover. Here's where I think the reality could've made an exciting movie: the cutting of the cables during the fireship attack; the white-knuckle helpless sweep along the coast of the Netherlands; the last-minute change in wind direction that allowed them to escape into the North Sea; the sinking of the first ships and the execution of a captain who allowed his ship to separate from the rest of the Armada; the horrible deaths of so many mariners in the sea and on the land all along the west coast of Scotland and Ireland; and the final, pathetic limping of the surviving ships back to the Bay of Biscay. We did at least get one tragic, beautiful, haunting image from that part of the journey, spliced into the fireship scene: the horse jumping off the ship and swimming in the ocean. This was almost certainly a reference to the records from an Armada ship that, passing to the west of Ireland, sailed through a cluster of hapless, swimming animals from another ship that had foundered.