Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sense and Romanticism

The two elder Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne, exemplify two different temperaments, two different manners of intercourse with life. Elinor’s reserve, for instance, contrasts neatly with Marianne’s demonstrative frankness. But they also represent two historical eras: the passing Classical age and the oncoming Romantic era. The Classical eighteenth century favored clarity, reason, the common rights of all humanity; the first half of the nineteenth century courted mystery, emotion, and individualism. The Classical garden is symmetrical, with neatly trimmed shrubbery; the Romantic garden grows wild according to  Nature’s own whimsy. When educated people of a Classical mindset looked to the past, they thought of Rome; when Romantics looked to the past, they dreamt of the Middle Ages. The Classicist’s favorite poet was Virgil, the Romanticist’s Shakespeare.

About halfway through the novel, Edward Ferrars appears at the Dashwood home, and Marianne questions him on the picturesque scenery he has just walked through. “I have no knowledge of the picturesque,” the Classically tempered Edward replies. The area, he says, “exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unifies beauty with utility.” A little later he explains more: “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing.” Did I mention the Romantic’s fascination with death and the macabre?

When I teach music appreciation, I always introduce the Romantic era with a portion from Emma Thompson’s wonderful adaptation of the Austen classic, a segment of exactly ten minutes, running from 41'07" to 51'07". In the clip Marianne walks in the rain, is dwarfed by Nature in the form of a giant tree and powerful storm clouds, chases a patch of blue sky, and is rescued after a fall by a dashing man on a white horse. How could she be any more Romantic? After Willoughby carries Marianne back to the house, where Mrs. Dashwood praises his honor and decorum, Marianne cites his spirit and feeling. The next day, Colonel Brandon comes to visit the hurt Marianne carrying a bouquet. Willoughby later arrives with some wildflowers, and Marianne notes that they didn’t come from a hothouse. Willoughby sees that Marianne has been reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and pulls out his own copy, which he keeps, no doubt, next to his heart. When he leaves from this second visit, Elinor questions Marianne’s enthusiastic conversation with a man she barely knows, and Marianne defends herself by saying that if she had shallower feelings, she would show them as seldom as Elinor. She apologizes immediately, but then confesses to her mother that she doesn’t understand her sister. The viewer, though, gains some important understanding of Elinor in the very next shot, where we see her in her bedroom silently holding a handkerchief with Edward’s monogram. She feels every bit as deeply as Marianne, but carries herself in the world with a more stoic face. I couldn’t possibly give a more efficient ten-minute introduction to the Romantic outlook.

I’m a great fan of exaggerated, simplistic history. Grand patterns hung on a scaffolding of round dates give me a sense of scope and general direction and provide a clean background against which to judge the details of the much messier truth. I know that Europeans didn’t wake up on January 1, 1800, and start to express their feelings more openly. The English didn’t all suddenly begin taking nature walks and reading poetry at the turn of the nineteenth century. But it’s awfully handy to know that the emphasis changed about then. The Elinors and the Mariannes of the world always live side-by-side. But oscillating cultural trends seem to give first one and then the other a more comfortable world to operate in.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lessons in Proper Conversation

Any book by Jane Austen is in itself a lesson in the art of conversation. But pointed explanations of the secret to good conversation always pique my interest, since I wish my skills were stronger, and Sense and Sensibility offered several recipes for well mannered interchange.

Two particularly valuable outlines come from Elinor, the first in her assessment of Col. Brandon and the second in her first impressions of Lucy. Regarding the colonel, she says:
He has seen a great deal of the world; has been abroad, has read, and has a thinking mind. I have found him capable of giving me much information on various subjects; and he has always answered my inquiries with readiness of good-breeding and good nature.
So first, have something to say. Have some experience to talk about. Some of this experience comes from travel, some from reading. As Dickens points out in Little Dorrit, many travelers combine the two activities by reading travel guides as they roam the earth so they can repeat ready-made opinions about popular sights. But Brandon is not such a person. Elinor praises the colonel for having a thinking mind; his opinions are the product of his own mental brewing. Finally, these opinions must be shared in a polite manner. I take Elinor to mean that Col. Brandon listened and responded attentively to what others said, that he didn’t become possessed by emotion when he encountered a difference of opinion or scold others for thinking differently, and that he didn’t push his views where they weren’t wanted. How much of that interpretation comes from my reading of the rest of the book, how much from our present-day culture of “toleration,” and how much from my own taste in personal interaction I can’t say for sure.

The passage about Lucy complements what was said about Brandon:
Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage. Elinor saw, and pitied her for, the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable; but she saw, with less tenderness of feeling, the thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind, which her attentions, her assiduities, her flatteries at the Park betrayed; and she could have no lasting satisfaction in the company of a person who joined insincerity with ignorance.
Lucy is “agreeable”and “amusing,” traits that might correspond with Col. Brandon’s good nature. But the content of Lucy’s speech comes from “natural cleverness,” not from books or, apparently, from sensitive thinking about her travels. Worse than her ignorance, though, Lucy’s defensive hypocrisy prevents Elinor from experiencing full satisfaction in their conversations. Lucy says what she thinks other people want to hear when she has no actual knowledge. Ouch! When I put it that way, it sounds familiar. This is the very strategy that many students try to develop, the very “art” that some professors actually encourage in oral exams. I’ve learned to appreciate the words “I don’t know.” I even use them in class frequently. The phrase is hard for someone in the knowledge business to say, but I don’t believe students end up thinking less of me when I admit it.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Where Has Edward Gone?

Believe me, every heart has its secret sorrows, which the world knows not, and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.
                   — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hyperion
I read an opinion once (I don’t remember where) that Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has a great flaw in that one of the main characters, Edward Ferrars, stays out of the picture for so long. Having just finished reading Austen’s first novel for the second time, I must disagree. For one thing, Edward is “on stage” plenty enough for Elinor’s love to come across as believable. But more importantly, the story isn’t as much about Edward as it is about what people – especially Elinor – think about Edward, and for that purpose, he might as well be gone for chapters at a time.

Austen fills her novels with conflicts between appearance and reality. The idea finds its way into the title of Pride and Prejudice, but S&S has even more of it. Marianne, for instance, can’t imagine that Elinor feels any deep sorrow over Edward’s apparent indecision simply because she doesn’t show it. With that example of misreading the surface involving two characters present on virtually every page, the problem of reading a mostly absent character provides an interesting foil and doesn’t seem like a flaw to me.

And then of course there’s Willoughby, a love interest who appears often and whose mask differs grossly from the villainous character at his core. (I have very little sympathy for Willoughby even after his apology.) Maybe the critic whose identity I’ve forgotten wanted more of Edward simply because he was the love interest that turns out to be a good guy. But I’m not sure that means he’s the hero, the male lead of the story. I guess one could argue that he has to be since Elinor is the main female character. But is that even true? Elinor is certainly the sympathetic character. But Marianne is the one who has to repent, change, and triumph, and C. S. Lewis has pointed out (this one I remember: you can read his views on Jane Austen in Selected Literary Essays) that Austen heroines all repent.

If you’ve read Sense and Sensibility, you know there’s one more love interest who turns out to be a very good guy. But I’ve spouted enough spoilers and don’t want to give away the last page of the book.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Where Have All the Theorems Gone?

I enjoyed reading Euclid last month. In my eighth annual meeting with the Alexandrian mathematician, I reached the section on solid geometry and learned the word parallelepiped. But my post today has much less to do with book XI of the Elements than it does with stories of a handful of geometrical encounters from my life.

A few years ago, a friend asked if I could tutor his son in geometry. I’m your guy, I told him. I loved geometry in high school. I loved the beauty of the logic, the practicality of the conclusions. I loved the way it felt to comprehend the proof of a proposition that did not at all seem clear on first acquaintance. I loved the grand view of an edifice of knowledge built by meticulous method upon the foundation of just a few unprovable axioms. My high-school trigonometry teacher mistakenly handed me a geometry test one day. When I pointed his mistake out to him, he told me to go ahead and complete the exam, offering to give me the grade if I made a 100% on it. And so I did. Yeah. I would be happy to tutor my friend’s son.

So he showed up with his large textbook, the word GEOMETRY standing monumentally atop the front cover in large, white, bold, sans-serif characters. I smiled with anticipation, opening the book and flipping through its pages, ready to breathe in the vibrant airs arising from the comforting marked diagrams of arcs and line segments and pacifically indented tables of premises and justifications. Instead, I met a vacuum and gasped. I saw a picture of a smiling student with a calculator, but no triangles with alphabetically indexed points. I found plenty of subheadings and colored sidebars, but no proofs, no lists of theorems. The book taught (I use that word loosely) some algebra and some number theory, but no geometry. Admittedly, one section of the text offered formulae for the areas of various plane figures, but no logical demonstration why a triangle’s area should depend on base and height regardless of the angles involved. So the school offered a class called “Geometry,” and the school used a book called “Geometry,” and the school wrote the word “Geometry” on transcripts, but the school didn’t actually teach geometry.

We’ll jump fifteen years or so, all the way up to this just-ended spring semester. In a graduate course on the history of music theory, my students discovered that music scholars in the Middle Ages defined pitch by dividing the length of a string into various numbers of equal parts. We had earlier covered the medieval curriculum of Trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – and Quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. I asked my students which of these seven liberal arts the boys in the monastery schools used to divide the string evenly, thinking of it as an easy question with an obvious answer, designed not to quiz them but merely to provide a moment of interaction and to recapture their attention. But the room was silent. “Well, OK,” I improvised. “You remember doing this in geometry class, right?” They answered my second question with more silence, a couple of nods, and a lot of confused faces. After I told this story to some friends that evening, they reminded me of that high-school textbook, and I realized that many of my graduate students probably took a class called Geometry without ever learning how to divide a line into a number of even parts. Telling them that medieval boys learned “geometry” had conveyed no information. I could have substituted a random Sanskrit word and had the same effect.

Faced with my failure to communicate, I had two choices. I could rail against the times like Canute commanding the waves. Or I could teach some geometry. So for the last two days of class, I brought in a compass, a straight edge, and my copy of Euclid, and led them along an abbreviated path from book I, proposition 1 to book VI, proposition 9: To cut off a prescribed part from a given straight line. Did they learn any geometry? Did they learn about proof and self-evident axioms? Did they learn why music theory was considered a mathematical art in the eleventh century? I don’t know. I think they learned something about me.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Where Has All the Spaghetti Gone?

I don’t know what’s common knowledge to our culture anymore. Eighteen-year-olds come to college with less and less knowledge every year. But the story of Scheherazade keeping her head by telling cliffhanging stories for a thousand and one nights used to seem to me to be common knowledge. (Wow! That beginning ended up way more complex than I planned for it to be.) What I didn’t know until I actually started reading the book last week was why the shah wanted to marry a new wife each day and kill her the next morning. The framing story starts by telling of the shah’s brother, who finds his wife in the embraces of another man. He travels to visit the shah, who is amazed to see his brother’s once beautiful face so wan. But while at the palace, the brother secretly sees the queen committing adultery, and his beauty begins to return when he realizes that he isn’t the only cuckold in the world. He and the shah go on a journey to find a faithful woman, and, unsuccessful in their quest, the shah determines to punish as many women as possible with his bloody daily routine.

As the luck of The Plan would have it, I had already read a version of that story just a few weeks ago in canto 28 of Orlando Furioso. There’s a king and his brother, and the brother has a beautiful face until he catches his wife. The brother accidentally sees the queen with her lover, so he and the king search the world for a faithful woman. These similarities make it clear that some line of influence connects one story to the other. But the stories differ in several ways, too. Where the Asian monarch decides to kill women systematically, Ariosto’s brothers shrug their shoulders and return to their wives, reasoning that they can do no better.

Once the framing story is established, Scheherazade’s tales weave in and out, interrupting one another, and nesting in several layers, in a manner reminiscent of the larger structure of Orlando, The Faerie Queene, the Chinese classic Three Kingdoms, and Malory’s tale of Sir Tristram. What happened to this complex method of storytelling? Did western culture just lose its collective attention span sometime in the last four hundred years? Chesterton says – like the author of the epistles to the Hebrews, I’ll say that Chesterton says it “somewhere” – that while the Middle Ages viewed life as a dance, the modern age (conceived broadly as the period covering the last few centuries) sees life as a race. Circular motion has given way to straight motion. Maybe our culture just wants to get to the point. Eighteen-year-olds sure do.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


For Christmas two years ago, some friends of mine gave me a book called The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I read it over the last couple of weeks and felt pretty good about getting to it just seventeen months after my friends gave it to me. It isn’t just me, is it? Most people, I imagine, take a while to get around to reading a gift – maybe a long while, and maybe forever. But if you give a guy with a ten-year reading plan a book that he didn’t ask for and that isn’t on his list, you shouldn’t harbor any realistic hopes that he’ll ever tell you how much he enjoyed the thoughtful present. But the title on this one intrigued me, and my friends will get their well deserved second round of thanks very soon.

The book tells a history of science from around 1750 to just about 1820, mostly in England. Holmes calls this the period of Romantic science, a phrase I hadn’t heard before. The concept sounded familiar to me, though, from what I know about music history. The salient feature of Romantic science, according to Holmes, is the image of the genius working alone and experiencing inexplicable Eureka moments, like Mozart or Beethoven in the history more familiar to me. (The story of Newton’s apple found traction around this time.) The key figures in the book are Joseph Banks, who sailed to Tahiti with Captain Cook, catalogued flora and fauna, and practically invented the field of anthropology; William and Caroline Herschel, who spent many nights under the stars peering through hand-made telescopes and discovering comets, nebulae, and the planet Uranus; the Montgolfier brothers and other balloonists; and Humphrey Davy, a chemist who discovered carbon monoxide and its noxious effects the hard way.

The most interesting figure to me was William Herschel. I haven’t published scores of scientific papers or changed the way people think about the universe forever, but I do feel a kinship of mind with Herschel. For one thing, he was a musician and composer; I’m listening to his oboe concerto in E-flat as I write these words. But I feel a connection to Herschel in astronomy as well. At a period when the general scientific culture was embracing the need for objective observation, Herschel pointed out that observation isn’t straightforward and must be trained. He often told people that he had to learn to see the sky, and I’ve experienced that very thing in looking through a telescope. Over and over, details in a nebula’s shape or on a planet’s surface that were totally invisible to me the first time I observed an object have become easy to see with repeated viewings. I also share Herschel’s love of hopping from star to star to find a desired target rather than using numbers on a dial or – even worse – a computerized motor. Herschel even said that memorizing the shapes in the sky was like reading a musical score for him.

The Age of Wonder was wonderful indeed from beginning to end. Thanks, Mark and Jennifer, for the present from two years ago! Now, it’s back to the Plan and the 1001 Nights.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Subtle Distinctions

In his passages on Charity and its accompanying virtues and effects, Aquinas draws many subtle distinctions. But unlike a discussion on the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin (a question Aquinas never took up), the subtle distinctions regarding Charity are quite helpful. Take for instance the location of Charity. Christian love (Aquinas uses Latin caritas in referring to the spiritual love spoken of in the Greek New Testament as agape, and my traditional – and free – translation renders the Latin with the capitalized cognate “Charity”) resides in the will, otherwise known as the intellectual appetite. It is a desire, but a desire for something known, not something seen or sensed with the body. And so Charity is not a feeling. So you don’t feel love for God this morning? No worries. Desire for God isn’t in the gut.

Aquinas goes on to explain that love is a complex thing. Charity is a movement in the will, based on what we know, directed toward an object, resulting in acts of love. Without this groundwork, a guy can get hopelessly lost wondering whether, for instance, he should love his wife or his father more. What do you mean by “more,” Aquinas asks. With regard to the object, the parent as the source of life is more venerable and deserves a more respectful love. With regard to intensity and frequency of action, though, I ought love my wife more because she’s closer and because opportunities for acts of service come up more often.

Another poser: Should I love my enemy more than I love my upstanding friend? My enemy needs love more, and loving my enemy proves my love for God, since love for an enemy is one of the more counterintuitive commands of Christ. But how can God actually want me to love my enemy more than I love my friend? Again, the subtle distinctions come into play. The good friend is a worthier object, so I love him more in the sense that there is more in him to love. With regard to acts of love, as well, my friend comes out on top. I have no obligation, according to Aquinas, to abandon my friend and commit a random act of kindness toward my enemy. What kind of friendship would I have left then? My love for my enemy means that I would be ready to make sacrifices to help him in an emergency, and in this way love for my enemy is loftier or worthier because sacrificing for the sake of an enemy is harder than sacrificing for the sake of a friend.

To take another example, can I love God completely and thoroughly? He commands me to love Him with my whole heart. But that only covers my limited capability for desiring God. I can never love all of Him, since my knowledge can never comprehend Him, and I can never love Him as much as He deserves. But I can love Him as much as I am capable of: a tautology until I realize it means it is also possible for me to love Him less than I am capable of. So here, my duty is to improve my knowledge and my wisdom so that I can love God through his works in all that I do. In the end I know it’s not enough in one sense, but only in that I’m not designed to be capable of loving Him more than humanly possible.

Finally, is it better to love something or to know something? That depends on the something, Aquinas says. In his terms, the intellect is excellent according to its operation, the will according to its object. An object below me in the order of creation is actually greater in my knowledge than it is in itself. Or in other words, the knowledge of a stone is of more worth in the grand scheme of things than the stone. But will, i.e. desire, doesn’t upgrade the stone the way intellectual apprehension does. So knowing the stone is better than loving the stone. God on the other hand, is above is. So our knowledge of Him is only as valuable as human knowledge can be. The will, however, is excellent according to its object, and in loving God, we love Something greater than ourselves. So loving God is greater than knowing Him.