Thursday, August 28, 2014


Not long ago I watched the Robert Hughes documentary The Mona Lisa Curse. I can't convey the extent of my affinity for Hughes; I grew up in New York during the period discussed and in fact first saw the Mona Lisa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963, which is Hughes's point of departure. The main idea of the film is that money has destroyed the art world by transforming art into an investment for the wealthy, controlled by dealers who are out to make a profit. To me, Hughes is a model critic: he knows his subject well, is passionate about it, and has the courage of his convictions. I can't say that I always agree with him, but, unlike most critics, he has useful knowledge to impart. At the end he directly challenges an ignorant, wealthy art buyer, which is not something that you often see these days. It is telling that this was not shown in the U.S. when it was released. Like Hughes, I am appalled by the art world, and I have completely lost interest in modern art. As far as I know, Hughes, who died in 2012, has no successor.

What strikes me is the apparent absence of critics like Robert Hughes. Not only do they seem to have disappeared from the world of paintings, but they seem to be in thin supply across all of the arts. Criticism seems to have become a self-serving job for whoever manages to obtain one. As mentioned in an earlier post, Lorrie Moore's short story collection, Bark, which documents her continued stagnation and decline as a writer, nevertheless received many favorable reviews. The book was shortlisted for The Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, which, thankfully, it lost. I can't understand how anyone with good literary judgment could have recommended it. Where were the critics?

I don't follow architecture, but was gratified to see that Martin Filler, the architecture critic for the NYRB, recently got his comeuppance. He usually has little of value to say, and he tends to write biased articles. However, in this instance he was called out by the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who forced him to make a retraction. Filler works under an editor who feigns intellectual substance but is more precisely a graying impresario presiding over a decaying literary publication. Though I don't know enough about Zaha Hadid to say anything in her defense, I appreciate the steps she took to bring accountability to Filler.

In recent years I have had to develop convoluted, time-consuming methods to determine what art, fiction, music or film I might enjoy partaking in. I have found that reading a review - or several reviews - is no guarantee that I will have sufficient information to determine whether I would find a particular work worth reading, hearing or seeing. Thus, after a concentrated effort over a number of years, I now refrain from wasting my time on reviews, except to read them for entertainment.  My expectation is that if something of great artistic merit should materialize, I may only come across it by accident. What does this say about the value of critics?

Money has obviously corrupted the visual arts, but what about the others? It seems that it has done damage there too. If there is any good new fiction, I haven't seen it, though I must confess to liking Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory, which, not coincidentally, is a satire of the art world; Houellebecq may have been influenced by Hughes. The same goes for music, which, as far as I can tell, is going nowhere. Film is a more problematic area to sum up, because it seems to have become the central art form of our time. Thus, auteur directors such as Eric Rohmer, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski and Milos Forman have become de facto major artists, while mainstream directors such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron have enormous box office success and still gain the approval of most critics. Film critics are showing us their penchant for touting the blockbusters: that's where the money is. It is easy to understand why a critic might not be effusive about Eric Rohmer, yet in my opinion he is one of the best filmmakers ever, even with his limitations.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


One day when I was a kid, my father brought home a small telescope. At first I thought it was very interesting and tried looking through it. There was some enlargement and the stars were a little brighter, but that was all that I noticed. You could see rainbows in the stars, which I recently learned meant that it was incredibly cheap, with extreme chromatic aberration. We never discussed the telescope and I lost interest in it. Later I found out that my father had given it away.

In college I took two courses in astronomy. I thought it was quite interesting, and the college had its own observatory with a 9.53" refractor that had a high quality lens. Once we went out to the observatory and looked at the sun through it with a filter, and you could see the activity on the surface. I learned the basics of astronomy, but at that time it was taught in the math department, and the instructor, like nearly all of the math instructors I've ever had, had no teaching ability. Out of curiosity I just looked him up, and he died on August 16, 2014 in Champaign, Illinois, where he was living in retirement.

When we moved to Vermont in 2011, I assumed that I would be doing a lot of hiking. Although I have hiked a fair amount in the vicinity since arriving, it has not been as major a preoccupation as I had thought it might be, for a number of reasons. The best hiking is in the mountains and generally involves an ascent of at least one thousand feet, which means that it is somewhat time-consuming and strenuous. You also have to drive to a trailhead, which takes additional time. Anne is fairly involved with other hobbies such as knitting and gardening and is a world-class mosquito magnet, so her enthusiasm for hiking is considerably less than mine. Usually I just go for short walks on the dirt road by our house.

Noticing that there is relatively low light pollution here, especially for the East Coast, I decided to take up stargazing as a hobby. Last year I bought a 130mm (5.1") refractor of very high quality, with an electronic German equatorial mount that includes motors. This was somewhat extravagant for a novice, but I have never liked buying cheap stuff (which my parents often did). I wouldn't say that it has outlived its usefulness, and I will keep it, but the aperture of the telescope is simply too small to see many deep sky objects in much detail. At this stage, some refractor owners take up astrophotography, which, with long exposure times, permits you to take detailed photographs of distant objects while using a small-aperture telescope. Since I have no interest in photography and prefer real-time viewing, I purchased the 18" F/3.7 reflector pictured in the column to the right. The telescope design is Newtonian, and the mount is John Dobson's alt-azimuth design. It is also fitted with electronics and motors.

The viewing conditions since I first set up the new telescope have generally not been good, but on the few nights that they have been good, the results have been excellent. The light-gathering is so much greater than with my other telescope that it is easy to see more detail. I have ordered special nebula filters in order to see the Orion Nebula and other objects better. There are thousands or millions of things to look at, and the view changes with the seasons, so this hobby will not exhaust itself quickly. There is also plenty of astronomical news, and discoveries are pouring in.

One of the reasons why I like astronomy is that it can serve some of the purposes of religion without being a religion. Throughout my life, I have often found it useful to take a "this too shall pass" attitude toward my surroundings. If you have jobs, living conditions, relationships, etc., that you don't like, you can always find solace in the fact that whatever you dislike will end at some point. In this stage of my life I take it a step further. If you have complaints about human existence in general, you can think about times when humans didn't exist or the distant future when they won't exist.

In fact our daily lives are focused on a tiny scale within the larger universe. People live in the moment more than they realize, and they elevate the importance of contemporary life far beyond its true significance. Everything is forgotten if you wait long enough. At some point everyone who has ever lived will be forgotten, and most of them already have been - it's just that some take longer than others. Jesus may be remembered in a thousand years if he's lucky. I'd give George Washington five hundred years tops. My sense is that the great scientists - Newton and Einstein - will be remembered the longest, because they are part of the tradition that is most likely to be seen as having significance in the distant future. As for me, I may have a grandchild who will remember me in one hundred years. Given that there may already have been millions of civilizations across the universe that are now completely forgotten, I'm not worrying about it much.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


A subject that has intrigued me ever since I was in high school is the nature of colleges and universities. Perhaps because of my background, it was by no means obvious to me what college was all about. My parents had not attended, and at a deep psychological level they were operating on an ancient model predating civilization: my father was a warrior and my mother was a prize of war. In my mother's mind she was akin to Helen of Troy; she even formalized that idea by legally adding the middle name "Helene" late in her life. I was named after King Paul of Greece, a childhood acquaintance of my grandmother and a first cousin of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Thus, I was raised with an imaginary high social rank, whereas my friends, like most Americans, came from families that were advancing their social status through the conventional means of education, and their families had lingering memories of humble pasts. They were better adapted to the environment than I was.

Because I never cared much about money or linked college to having a career, I thought that it should be something like a Platonic academy where wise people discuss the world with little concern for practical matters. Of course, that was a naive point of view. Colleges and universities have always been practical concerns, starting first as training centers for the clergy and eventually becoming inextricably connected to the professions and government. Generally speaking, the older a university, the larger its endowment and the closer its ties to the corridors of power. From a socioeconomic standpoint, the success of a university is identical to the financial success of its graduates. Pure thought may occur there, but it is at best a secondary activity.

When I arrived at college in 1968, it gradually dawned on me that it was a complex sociological phenomenon that only tangentially related to learning. Yes, there were professors, students and academic subjects, but I always felt something was missing. The majority of the students at the college were upper-middle-class children of first-generation college graduates who had done well financially after World War II. Although it wasn't a well-known, nationally ranked college, it served the purpose of bestowing sufficient status on the parents while affording their children an acceptable route to adulthood. Many of the students, me included, weren't really sure why we were there. I simply enjoyed being far from home and living in an environment that was more intellectually stimulating than what I was used to.

It soon became apparent that, from a sociological standpoint, the college was a place to find spouses and carve a position in the social hierarchy that would benefit you in adulthood. This pattern became blurry over time, because it was the 1960's, and the students soon branched out from beer-guzzling frat parties to smoking pot and posing as hippies. Many of them ended up becoming the self-indulgent, narcissistic Baby Boomers so familiar these days. The most progressive among them transferred to less conservative colleges. Of those who stayed, I and many others married someone we met there.

What I've been thinking about lately is the actual quality of the academics and of academic quality in general. The faculty had good credentials, but it is hard to say that the classes were anything more than what a student might expect to encounter at a mildly demanding finishing school. I recently asked friends whether they had enjoyed any of their courses there, and they said no. I liked a few of mine, but that occurred randomly: Twentieth Century Russian Literature, Greek Mythology and Homeric Greek - nothing that led anywhere. Most of the classes were boring and poorly taught.

I was a Philosophy major and now hold a low opinion both of that department and of the field in general. The department offered good introductory courses but seems to have been unprepared for and uninterested in advanced classes. I was corresponding with one of my former professors until recently but finally gave up. He would make an excellent caricature of a misguided intellectual, along the lines of Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch. Educated at Princeton and Yale, he has always struck me as a quintessential egghead: he picks apart sentences to extremes that few people could comprehend, yet his ideas are all derivative, and he has published little or nothing. Finally I realized that it would be impossible to engage him in the kind of discussion that occurs on this blog. I think he is stuck in a narrow kind of analytic philosophy that bears no relationship to actual life. His working ideas for day-to-day living were all absorbed uncritically through osmosis by living in an academic environment for his entire adult life. Like Casaubon, he thinks he has found a key to deep meaning, but from the exterior he is simply delusional and out of touch. After corresponding with him for several years, I decided that he had nothing interesting or useful to say.

The same goes for many academics, in my opinion. Entering an academic position often has little to do with mastery of a subject or teaching ability. I get the impression that most tenured faculty are just good students who got PhDs and then by default became college professors because that was the only job for which they were qualified. Being a good student often means little more than liking to read and having good work habits, a good memory and above average intelligence. These traits alone are not a guarantee of in-depth understanding or teaching ability. What is often missing is creativity, and by nature creative people are not attracted to teaching, with the possible exception of those extroverts who enjoy having a captive audience. The most productive academics typically abhor teaching and avoid it whenever they can.

Where does this leave the undergraduate student? In the current economic environment, they would be well advised to learn a trade and study liberal arts in their spare time. Otherwise they will need a graduate degree to ensure employment, exposing themselves to the array of boutique degrees of questionable value now marketed by universities to keep up their cash flows. Caveat emptor.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thomas Malthus

Having for years heard the word "Malthusian" used to describe a gloomy future for mankind, I decided to look into the ideas of Thomas Malthus. He is best known for An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, With Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, which was first published in 1798. The crux of his argument is that, while population grows geometrically, food supplies grow arithmetically, resulting inevitably in overpopulation and famine. War and disease may temporarily decrease the population, but lower reproductive rates are recommended. To that end, Malthus proposed the exercise of chastity.

At the time of its writing, Malthus's outlook was credible, because modern agriculture had not yet come into existence, oil was not used in internal combustion engines, and famines occurred regularly. He wrote the essay to counter the then-popular optimism about human nature that marked the beginning of Romanticism, which was inspired in part by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom his father admired. Malthus falls well within the tradition of British empiricism, though by vocation he was a clergyman. In his travels he noticed poor and suffering people in rural areas, a far cry from the bucolic idylls of Rousseau. Moreover, he had a mathematical bent and attempted to compile actual data. Thus, although he lacked significant data and did not adopt a proper scientific method, he represented the then-current standards in the proto-fields of demography and economics.

The Essay was controversial from the start, and was soon attacked by the Lake Poets, who at that time were writing rhapsodic poems about Tintern Abbey and similar places, extolling the virtues of man in harmony with nature. Some saw in Malthus wealthy elitism seeking to suppress the lower classes by reducing their numbers. Eventually economics came to be known as "the dismal science," based on Thomas Carlyle's assessment of Malthus. Nevertheless, Malthus appealed to scientific thinkers, and Charles Darwin was inspired by him. Malthus later came under attack when his ideas were unfairly tied to eugenics and social Darwinism. Hitler is said to have read Malthus and found in him a justification for the elimination of Jews. In the present day, Malthus has become popular among environmentalists, who have extended Malthus's cautions from population growth to anthropogenic climate change.

It is a little difficult so see why Malthus has received so much attention over the last two centuries. Although his ideas aren't particularly startling today, they represent an opposite pole to the optimism about human potential that has been going strong ever since the Enlightenment. Malthus comes across as an empirical party pooper even though his work has been superseded by modern science and may just as well be ignored. In a way he has been absorbed by the culture wars between conservatives who believe that all problems can best be solved by free markets and scientifically literate liberals who are concerned about the consequences of our protracted neglect of the environment. While he is hardly recognizable as a scientist in the modern sense, Malthus stands for science and reason over faith and dogma.

Some critics of Malthus say that he clearly was wrong in that agricultural output has in fact kept up with population growth. This is a facile argument, because when you factor in all of the negative impacts that Homo sapiens has had on the environment over the last two hundred years, the net result - the possibility of human extinction - parallels the possibility of death by starvation. In sum, Malthus looks like a run-of-the-mill empiricist who has become a straw man for capitalist ideologues and religious fundamentalists to attack.

Within the realm of the history of ideas, Malthus deserves credit for portraying us as a natural phenomenon that needs some controls simply to ensure its continuation. In this sense I am Malthusian. Although I often favor the works of artists and writers - Confessions, by Rousseau, for example - over the works of scientists, as a practical matter ignoring science is likely to be a big mistake for those who live long enough to see their delusions come unraveled.