In about four months we're going to hear a few news blips about the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat at Waterloo, which went down on June 18, 1815. It's a good guess that the tone of these news blips will be apathetic and comical, that few attempts will be made at serious understanding or insight.
The lack of public interest in Napoleon represents a great fall in reputation for the French leader who was for his entire adult life the most famous and important person in the world. His reputation was once so gigantic that he remained the most famous and important person in the world long after his death in 1821. His cult of personality outlived him, and "Napoleonic" wars and revolutions would roil Europe and the Americas for at least another 100 years.
Opinions about Napoleon during this long era of emerging nationalism and revolution verged towards extremes: his memory was worshipped in rock-star fashion by progressives and Romantics, and he was vilified as a near-Satanic destroyer of civilization by conservatives and traditionalists. Napoleon was most beloved among aspiring citizens of emerging nations who yearned for liberation from ancient regimes. He was most despised in the countries that were his military enemies, particularly England and Russia. Perhaps it's because his name provoked such an unbearable level of divisiveness that he was eventually passed into history not as an important figure at all, but as a buffoon, a cartoon, a subject of delusion, the punchline to a forgettable joke.
As Mike Leigh's majestic new movie Mr. Turner begins, the famous British artist J. M. W. Turner's father buys pigments for his son in a dusty London shop. The vast psychedelic arrays of glass jars filled with powders of viridian, chrome, cobalt, barium and ultramarine seem as magical as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the Cheese Shop in Monty Python. The pure pleasure of this visual moment is a happy indication that Mike Leigh intends to luxuriate in the beauty of 19th Century England as joyously as he did in Topsy-Turvy, his previous biographical epic, and for Mike Leigh fans this is very good news.
It's a telling fact that as I settled in to watch a movie starring the great actor Timothy Spall as the influential British painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist I was mostly thinking about was Mike Leigh. He is one of my favorite living film directors, but he mostly turns out sensitive modest-budget films about regular people in contemporary settings (I wrote about one of these, Happy Go Lucky, last year). He is known for a low-key natural style, but when he delves into grand history (as he did in Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy) he spares no expense on sets, costumes and period detail. I can think of no other historical film director who achieves such a convincing sensation of realism. When Mr. Turner strolls the riverfront at Margate, we can practically feel the refreshing spray on our cheeks.
It’s easy to get angry when listening to Sam Harris, a stubborn young philosopher who recently made headlines for joining Bill Maher to condemn the entire religion of Islam on TV (Ben Affleck took the smarter side in this debate). Sam Harris is a pop-culture philosopher with a message of urgent, fervent atheism -- though he has so little respect for religion that he doesn’t even prefer to define himself by this negative belief (there is no word, he points out, for people who don’t believe in Greek myths or in astrology, so we shouldn’t need a word for those who don’t believe in Christianity, Islam or Hinduism either).
I find Sam Harris writings and statements about religion dull and unperceptive. Part of the problem is that he's an overconfident philosopher, heavily armed with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California at Los Angeles. He's so sure of his atheism (he does not want to call it atheism, but I still may do so) that he fails to realize his rote paragraphs have failed to win us over.
Over and over, he lays out a scientific or semantic principle and concludes that he has proven some point. He believes that abstract concepts can be clearly defined and that arguments can be won by declaring logical truths, which is to say that he lives in a world before Nietzsche, before Wittgenstein, before Derrida. This gives him a confidence in his conclusions that is awkward for a more existential philosopher to behold.
However, Sam Harris should not be written off as a hack. He is an energetic philosopher who has managed to establish himself as a voice for other fervent atheists, many of whom congregate at his admirably useful website Project Reason. He has a long career ahead of him, and he has even shown significant signs of improvement -- when he stays off the topic of Islam and away from television talk shows.
You may have heard about Wittgenstein's poker, or Wittgenstein's nephew or Wittgenstein's mistress or Wittgenstein's ladder. For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Wittgenstein's stuff.
Well, it's fitting that Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up in a lot of postmodern novels and pop-culture texts, because he really is that good, and his works really are that relevant today. This enigmatic Jewish-Austrian-Catholic 20th Century philosopher and schoolteacher's fame has grown after his death to the extent that he is now widely regarded as the most important thinker of our age.
I recently listed Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of three essential philosophers who can add surprising clarity and vital new perspective to frustrating debates about ethics, political ideology and the practical problems of our planet. What’s most essential about Wittgenstein is not the conclusions he has drawn about ethics and politics. It's the dynamic and truthful way of thinking that his method represents.
Ludwig Wittgenstein is unique among the great Western philosophers. He is the only major thinker to have become famous as a philosopher twice: first for laying out a belief system and then for returning to destroy his earlier work. Indeed, the remarkable fact that he spent the second (and greater) half of his career refuting everything he achieved in the first half is itself an example of the sublime conductivity of his thought process. It takes a hell of an open mind to do that. And a whole lot of courage.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
-- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
"The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it."
-- Igor Stravinsky
I'm sure it's a hipster affectation of mine: I try to listen to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring every year when the Spring Equinox comes around. It's a hipster affectation because I don't really know much about classical music, and I can't deny that what thrills me most about this music is not the work itself but the knowledge that it caused a riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when it was first performed. A riot in an theatre -- that's my idea of a rite of Spring.
The music sounds primal today, though it's hard to imagine how it could have caused a riot. In fact, it was not the music as much as the ballet, daringly choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that caused the sensation. Le Sacre du Printemps was a Russian debut in France, and as such a symbolic meeting between two nations that would one year later go to war together against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.
While I've heard the music often, I've never seen the work performed, and I've only just become aware of a Joffrey Ballet video that presents Stravinsky's music and Nijinsky's ballet in context -- Pictures of Pagan Russia is the subtitle -- so that we can get a better idea of what the whole sensation was about. Here's the first of three parts; you can click through from this one to the next two.
It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.
My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.
On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.
Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.
We need more movies about philosophers. I can only think of very few examples to mention, but David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, a 2011 film about the rivalry between early psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, shows that the format can work. This is an intelligent and straightforward narrative work, based on Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure which was itself based on the book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr.
A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley as a severely disturbed young psychoanalytic patient named Sabina Spielrein who would eventually defeat her demons and become Jung's illicit lover, Jung and Freud's intellectual partner, and an innovative psychologist in her own right.
A couple of really great finds for you today ...
My temperature was no better than lukewarm as I pondered the cover of a book called The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground, a Library of America anthology edited by Glenn O'Brien. The Library of America isn't known for edginess, and books with the word "hip" in their subtitles don't have the greatest track record with me.
Then I looked at the table of contents and immediately realized I had misjudged this book. Wow! We kick off with an excerpt from Mezz Mezzrow's classic jazz memoir Really The Blues, a hell of a good place to start, and instant evidence of an anthologist who knows his stuff. Then we blast away to Henry Miller, Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon, a sweet rumination on Shakespeare's Hamlet by Delmore Schwartz, followed by "You're Too Hip, Baby" by Terry Southern ... and then just as I start to wonder where the cool women are, a real surprise: the lyrics to the 1952 song "Twisted" by Annie Ross of the now too-little-remembered folk/hipster trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, a comic tune later resurrected by Joni Mitchell that begins with this line: