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Posts Tagged ‘history’

21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Voltaire on How to Write Well and Stay True to Your Creative Vision

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“Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose.”

Centuries before Ezra Pound’s rules for how to write poetry and Edward Hirsch’s treatise on how to read it, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), who invented social networking, set down some invaluable advice on how to write verse in a letter to his then-protégé — a gallant young man-about-town named Claude Adrien Helvétius. Two decades later, Helvétius would come to write the book De l’esprit; or, Essays on the Mind, the stark materialism of which would greatly put off Voltaire. But in his youth, he aspired to make a living as a poet. Having just published a book of poems on happiness and love, titled Epistles, which received rather unfavorable critical reception, Helvétius reached out to Voltaire for feedback and assurance, which his mentor readily supplied.

The letter, found in the 1919 volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence (public library | IndieBound), is a masterwork of advice not only on how to write verse, or how to write well in general, but also, as Ursula K. Le Guin admonished three centuries later, on the perils of writing for commercial gain and to please an audience rather than out of true creative vision.

Cirey, February 25, 1739
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My dear friend — the friend of Truth and the Muses — your “Epistle” is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the book-sellers and restrict themselves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves.

What are they but miserable birds, with their wings close clipped, who, longing to soar, are for ever falling back to earth, breaking their legs! You have a fearless genius, and your work sparkles with imagination. I much prefer your generous faults to the mediocre prettinesses with which we are cloyed. If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.

Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many — if there is the least defect in the construction — if a conjunction is forgotten — if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your “Epistle” — lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago.

Do not be afraid, then, to bring your talents to a Parnassus; they will undoubtedly redound to your credit because you never neglect your duties; for them: they are themselves very pleasant duties. Surely, those your position demand of you must be very uncongenial to such a nature as yours. They are as much routine as looking after a house, or the housebook of one’s steward. Why should you be deprived of liberty of thought because you happen to be a farmer-general? Atticus was a farmer-general, the old Romans were farmers-general, and they thought — as Romans. Go ahead, Atticus.

But Helvétius was ultimately unwilling, or perhaps unable, to take his mentor’s advice and soon abandoned poetry for prose and profit. Twenty years later, On the Mind was burned by the public hangman, alongside Voltaire’s poem “On Natural Law.” Although Voltaire privately loathed and publicly denounced Helvétius’s book, he — a vocal opponent of censorship and proponent of the freedom of speech — immediately leapt to its defense. In doing so, he lived up to the famous paraphrasing of his philosophy that his official biographer and the editor of his letters, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, would later memorably write — a sentiment so evocative of Voltaire’s spirit that it is often misattributed to the philosopher himself:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Complement with the story of how Voltaire fell in love with a remarkable female mathematician and his spirited case for the rewards of reading.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Difference Between the Beautiful and the Sublime, Animated

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A 100-second anatomy of astonishment.

Britain’s Open University has previously given us some illuminating animated explainers of the history of the English language, the world’s major religions, philosophy’s greatest thought experiments, and the major creative movements in design. They have now partnered with BBC broadcaster and In Our Time host Melvyn Bragg on a series adapting Bragg’s BBC4 podcast A History of Ideas into short animations that synthesize some of humanity’s most influential ideas.

Among them is 18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s exploration of the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, scrutinized in his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (public library | IndieBound).

In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Burke describes the effect of the sublime in its highest degree — a psychic state we might, today, call awe:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 1 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

This, no doubt, is what Ptolemy meant when he beheld the heavens and what Carl Sagan felt two millennia later in encountering the cosmos.

Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on what beauty really means, Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, and the evolutionary science of “beauty overload.”

HT Open Culture

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12 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Mirror and the Meme: A 600-Year History of the Selfie

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How glass, tin, and mercury converged on a Venetian island in the 15th century to fundamentally change the way we look at ourselves.

In 1977, long before the social web as we know it existed, Susan Sontag foresaw a new dawn of “aesthetic consumerism” sparked by photography’s social aspect. Today, nowhere is this phenomenon more glaring than in the ubiquitous selfie. But how did we end up with this peculiar Möbius strip of self-image, turning our gaze inward and outward at the same time?

In How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us the mind-stretching story of how Galileo invented timeSteven Johnson peels back history’s curtains to reveal the unsuspected causal chains of innovation behind “that iconic, early-twenty-first-century act: snapping a selfie on your phone.” We might be apt to celebrate innovations like the evolution of photography and the rise of the social web as the impetus for the selfie revolution — but these, Johnson points out with his penchant for the unexpected sociocultural twist, can’t hold a candle to the true breakthrough that makes it all possible: glass. He explains:

Glass supports this entire network: we take pictures through glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.

We already know that glass is a remarkable material that planted the seed for the innovation gap between East and West, but the role of glass in the journey of our self-image extends beyond the technology and into how we think about the human countenance itself. Even though the self-portrait is a fixture of Renaissance art and early modernism, Johnson points out that it practically didn’t exist as an artistic convention until the beginning of the 15th century. “People painted landscapes and royalty and religious scenes and a thousand other subjects,” he notes. “But they didn’t paint themselves.”

And then something happened — glassmakers on the Venetian island of Murano figured out how to combine glass with a new technological breakthrough in metallurgy, which allowed them to coat the back of a piece of glass with a medley of tin and mercury, producing a highly reflective surface. The result was the mirror, which forever changed how we see ourselves. Johnson writes:

For the first time, mirrors became part of the fabric of everyday life. This was a revelation on the most intimate of levels: before mirrors came along, the average person went through life without ever seeing a truly accurate representation of his or her face, just fragmentary, distorted glances in pools of water or polished metals.

Mirrors appeared so magical that they were quickly integrated into somewhat bizarre sacred rituals: During holy pilgrimages, it became common practice for well-off pilgrims to take a mirror with them. When visiting sacred relics, they would position themselves so that they could catch sight of the bones in the mirror’s reflection. Back home, they would then show off these mirrors to friends and relatives, boasting that they had brought back physical evidence of the relic by capturing the reflection of the sacred scene. Before turning to the printing press, Gutenberg had the start-up idea of manufacturing and selling small mirrors for departing pilgrims.

But the most momentous impact of the mirror, Johnson argues, was a secular one — in revolutionizing the art of seeing, it invariably revolutionized art itself:

Filippo Brunelleschi employed a mirror to invent linear perspective in painting, by drawing a reflection of the Florence Baptistry instead of his direct perception of it. The art of the late Renaissance is heavily populated by mirrors lurking inside paintings, most famously in Diego Velázquez’s inverted masterpiece, Las Meninas, which shows the artist (and the extended royal family) in the middle of painting King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain. The entire image is captured from the point of view of two royal subjects sitting for their portrait; it is, in a very literal sense, a painting about the act of painting. The king and queen are visible only in one small fragment of the canvas, just to the right of Velázquez himself: two small, blurry images reflected back in a mirror. As a tool, the mirror became an invaluable asset to painters who could now capture the world around them in a far more realistic fashion, including the detailed features of their own faces.

'Las Meninas' by Diego Velázquez, 1656

Even Da Vinci extolled the creative value of the mirror in his notebooks:

When you wish to see whether the general effect of your picture corresponds with that of the object represented after nature, take a mirror and set it so that it reflects the actual thing, and then compare the reflection with your picture, and consider carefully whether the subject of the two images is in conformity with both, studying especially the mirror. The mirror ought to be taken as a guide.

Johnson considers the role of this breakthrough as a sensemaking device in an era when we were using glass to orient ourselves to the cosmos and, thanks to the mirror, to orient ourselves to ourselves:

At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered.

[…]

The mirror played a direct role in allowing artists to paint themselves and invent perspective as a formal device; and shortly thereafter a fundamental shift occurred in the consciousness of Europeans that oriented them around the self in a new way, a shift that would ripple across the world (and that is still rippling).

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace

This rippling, Johnson points out, was a perfect example of the hummingbird effect at work as various sociocultural forces converged to unleash its full potential for transformation:

The self-centered world played well with the early forms of modern capitalism that were thriving in places like Venice and Holland (home to those masters of painterly introspection, Dürer and Rembrandt). Likely, these various forces complemented each other: glass mirrors were among the first high-tech furnishings for the home, and once we began gazing into those mirrors, we began to see ourselves differently, in ways that encouraged the market systems that would then happily sell us more mirrors…

The mirror doesn’t “force” the Renaissance to happen; it “allows” it to happen.

[…]

Without a technology that enabled humans to see a clear reflection of reality, including their own faces, the particular constellation of ideas in art and philosophy and politics that we call the Renaissance would have had a much more difficult time coming into being.

Peering into the history of the mirror and the future of its modern progeny — which includes, notably, the selfie — Johnson leaves the trajectory of its sociocultural impact open-ended:

The mirror helped invent the modern self, in some real but unquantifiable way. That much we should agree on. Whether that was a good thing in the end is a separate question, one that may never be settled conclusively.

How We Got to Now is an illuminating read in its totality. Complement it with 100 ideas that changed art.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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