Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Met

The exhibition should be re-titled The Age of Acquisitions. Arranged according to how and when the Met acquired these paintings, the exhibition is less about the painters than about the Met and its curators and donors. Which is a huge disappointment to anyone who wants to learn more about the painters and the paintings.

The Rembrandt self-portraits excited me much less than before. This time round I was struck by how sensitive the Dutch were in painting portraits of old women. I also liked very much a wonderful still life by Willem Kalf (1619-1693), a painter I discovered for the first time here. It makes me think of the Dutch/Flemish tradition from which Matisse's still life paintings sprang.


Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan-li Bowl, 1659


The composition of Wheat Fields, by Ruisdael, is magnificent. The road, grandly rutted, reminds me of the river in Turner's Dieppe Harbour, in the Frick. Both have the same intensely mixed colors, though one is of land, and the other is of water.


Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29–1682) Wheat Fields, ca. 1670




J. M. W. Turner, The Harbor of Dieppe, 1826?

I visited the Frick again today. This time I was captivated by Goya's The Forge (c. 1815-1820), and Hogarth's Miss Mary Edwards (1742).



The painting divides into three triangles: red, green and brown. The red and green planes are enriched and softened by the fabrics, one a dress, the other a curtain, both lassoed by ropes or a chain. The brown plane is actually the curved wall of a round room, the curve wittily echoed by the globe, and by her right breast positioned at the center of the painting.

Goya's The Forge is a swirl of energy enacted by the three smithies at different heights. The masculature of the working class figures are given the treatment usually reserved for gods, heroes and aristocrats in Renaissance paintings.

TLS September 28 2007

from James Hall's review of Patricia Lee Rubin's Images and Identity in Fifteenth Century Florence:

In her section on vision...she refers to Lorenzo Ghiberti's discussion of optics in his autobiographical treatise, and then concludes that the primacy of sight was "unquestioned" in fifteenth century Florence. Yet one of Ghiberti's most striking remarks concerns the discovery of an antique statue of a hemaphrodite in a drain in Rome: "In this statue were the greatest refinements. The eye perceived nothing if the hand had not found it by touch". No doubt Giovanni Chelleini and his descendants would have thought the same about Donatello's roundel, and would have passed their fingers over it both to appreciate the marvellous variations in texture--and to touch God. Art was cherished and pored over, and not just glanced at on the way to the market, bank or port.


***

from Bharat Tandon's review of Philip Roth's Exit Ghost:

Exit Ghost's focus is more on the smaller physical and emotional scarrings that are part of the publicly brutalized landscape. And if much of the novel plays old against new, with the present recapitulating the past, Zuckerman's story highlights that terrible form of self-reference around which so much of Roth's recent work has circled: the fact that ageing lampoons us all, makes us grotesque bodily parodies of ourselves. Where Zuckerman of the early novels could be prodigal with his semen, now he just leaks urine, and the dignity of Roth's writing...lies in his not sparing Zuckerman the indignity.

*

...Roth's later fiction has often fought shy of the consolations of denouement, of resolving into major-key finales: American Pastoral ended with an angry rhetorical question ("What in earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?") and the final four words of The Plot Against America were "I was the prothesis". If Roth is going to grant us these comforts, he wants us to know how prosthetic they often are. "Gone for good" are Zuckerman's last words here, but they exist in the imaginary space of He and She; Roth lets them stand, but what also stands is the ghostly testament of E. I. Lonoff:

Then one morning he spoke. He had been unconscious all the day before. He said, "The end is so immense, it is its own poetry. It requires little rhetoric. Just state it plainly."

Saturday, September 29, 2007

London Bridge Triolet

London Bridge is falling down the stairs,
rocks and girders klumpety-klump-klump.
Where is the floor? Where is the siren? Where
London Bridge is. Falling down the stairs,
eighteen-wheelers, drivers, cabs and fares
pile on top of the bright twisted dump.
London Bridge is falling down. The stairs,
rocks, and girders klumpety-klump clump.

Helvetica, the documentary

Helvetica is everywhere. Born of post-war idealism, it represented for its creators, disseminators and users rationality, clarity, accessibility, transparency, and accountability. Above all, it was seen as modern; it was the still usable part of modernism. At the same time, the font was seen as neutral. It had no ideological designs on the words, but conveyed the content like clear plastic wrap. I was intrigued by this apparent contradiction between modernity and neutrality, or how one was seen by postwar designers as almost the equivalent of the other. Helvetica, from the Latin word for Switzerland, Helvetia, is a Swiss font.

In the eyes of its detractors, Helvetica is the font of bureaucracy and corporations. IRS uses it on its forms, as do American Airlines and Target for their names. In the 1970s, the rejection of Helvetica was a form of protest against the Vietnam War. The pendulum swings, and now some designers adopt Helvetica, but with some personal variations. Innovation, instead of revolution. The real interest of the documentary lies in the ways a font can become a site for ideological contest.

Milestones in the Study of Human Anatomy

information from "Bodies: The Exhibition" website:

162 BCE
Galen moved to Rome and became a physician at the imperial court. He was the attending physician at a gladiators' school.

1522-1523 CE
Jacopo Berengario da Carpi published the first detailed anatomical descriptions of the human body in a series of illustrations.

1543
Andreas Vesalius' On the Workings of the Human Body features elaborate and accurate drawing of the dissected human body. This tome marks the beginning of modern anatomy and emphasized the importance of dissection.

1632
The painting Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt, demonstrates the intimate connection between artists and anatomists.

1858
Henry Gray's Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical is first published.

1980
Work on the Visible Human Project began with the goal of creating complete, anatomically detailed, 3-D representations of the normal male and female bodies.

2003
The Human Genome Project is successful in identifying the approximately 20, 000 -25, 000 genes in human DNA, and in determining the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that comprise it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Haiku

Behind the wall is a lake,
paddles a grown lake
until the greying wall breaks.

Monday, September 24, 2007

TLS September 21 2007

from Oliver Dennis' Commentary piece "Smoke rings" on the first unapologetic poet of Australia, John Shaw Neilson:

He was born in 1872 to parents of Scottish ancestry at Penola, South Australia. Neilson's father, John Neilson, wrote poetry, and encouraged his son's interest in doing so. His wife, Margaret, was by all accounts warm and loving, but also rigidly Presbyterian and prone to nervousness....the family moved throughout north-west Victoria in search of a better life, but never managed to overcome their poverty as other early settlers had done. Neilson worked with his father clearing scrub, and often composed poems in his head.

*

the concluding lines of "The Walker on the Sand" (1934):

The spires so delicate are but the fears
Of the poor fishes back a million years;
These terraces that bring the eye delight
Are but the wishes of the birds at night.
They all have feared the Riddler, he who planned
The reptiles and the fishes hungry from the sea.
Slowly I walk, I walk uneasily
Along the sand.

*

"The Smoker Parrot"

He has the full moon on his breast,
The moonbeams are about his wing;
He has the colours of a king.
I see him floating unto rest
When all eyes wearily go west
And the warm winds are quieting.
The moonbeams are about his wing:
He has the full moon on his breast.

*

A savage old critic named Dyer,
Renowned for his gloom and his ire.
XXXWhen to Hell he went down
XXXLooked around with a frown
And began to belittle the fire.

*

from "The Eleventh Moon"

Night--and the silence honey-wet:
XXXThe moon came to the full:
It was the time for gentle thought
XXXAnd the gathering of wool.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

NY City Opera's Margaret Garner

I watched only my second opera yesterday afternoon. Margaret Garner is based on the real story of a runaway slave who killed her daughter to rescue her from slavery. The same story inspired Beloved, by Toni Morrison who wrote the libretto for the opera.

Unlike the novel, the opera focuses less on the moral complexity of that act of infanticide than on the far more black-and-white struggle of Edward Gaines, the plantation owner, whether to ask for Margaret's reprieve from execution for the crime of stealing and destroying his property, her children. As such, the opera has a feel-good atmosphere to it, despite the horrific acts of oppression, rape and murder. Edward Gaines asks for the reprieve, but Margaret pulls the platform lever to kill herself anyway, and is transformed into a spot-lit spirit wandering among both blacks and whites standing around the hanging. Anthony Tommasini of the NYT described the ending as "a major miscalculation," and I agree. It tries too hard to iconize, and thus simplify, an ambiguous figure into a tragic heroine.

The exposition at the beginning is too slow, and the presentation of the slave auction gives little that is new. But the drama and the libretto quicken to life after that slow start. I find the parting scene between Margaret and her husband, Robert, moving. The wedding scene, at which Margaret speaks of the language of love, despite her master's put-downs, is staged effectively. Her aria on love's liberation, during which Edward Gaines lurks behind the pillar, about to rape her, is a ravishing lyric.

The principal singers were powerful and convincing. I especially liked the soprano Lisa Daltirus who played Cilla, Robert's mother. Her singing was intense when required, humorous when appropriate, and, when Margaret killed herself, so painfully tragic that it seemed to come up from somewhere beneath the earth.

Haiku

Peace--leaning against a wall
watching the world pass
before the wall collapses

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thursday, September 20, 2007

TLS September 4, 2007

from Adam Bresnick's review of Clive James's Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the margin of my time:

Given the torrent of arguments and cataract of topics under consideration, James relies on style to provide the glue for his project, professing his "faith that the unity would come from the style". Now style, as Roland Barthes once argued, amounts to the distillation of the writer's body, the scripted trace of his likes and dislikes as they move from impression to expression. Style is the very index of the writer's sensibility in the old sense of the term.

*

For James, it is the Viennese writer Alfred Polgar, little known in the English-speaking world, but greatly esteemed in the Germanophone one, who is the model stylist, as Polgar manages to attend to his own text and the reality it would represent with equal acuity. James cites a few marvellous aphorisms that make one wish Polgar's works were readily available to the English reader: "The striking aphorism requires a stricken aphorist"; "It is the destiny of the emigrant that the foreign land does not become his homeland: his homeland becomes foreign".


***

from Peter Hylton's review of Marie McGinn's Elucidating the "Tractatus": Wittgenstein's early philosophy of logic and language:

She argues that we should not attribute to Wiitgenstein "a form of realism that attempts to ground the logical structure of our language in the independently constituted structure of reality". As against that idea, McGinn argues that what is fundamental to Wittgenstein's thought is the idea of representing the world, of making claims about it which are determinately true or false. His aim, on her account, is "to make perspicuous...the essence of all representation of states of affairs". (The "metaphysical" or dogmatic element which she finds in his thought lies in the view that there is such an essence.) She interprets his apparent ontological claims as a reflection of what he takes to be the requirements of any system of representation. Any language that can make definite claims about the world must contain simple signs of a certain sort; on her account the assertion that there are simple objects is merely the reflection, on the non-linguistic level, of this requirement.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Poetry Thesis Workshop with Marie Ponsot

92nd Street Y just contacted me today to tell me Marie Ponsot has accepted me for her year-long Poetry Thesis Workshop, based on my 6-page manuscript submission. The workshop meets once a week, on Wednesday evenings, in two semesters of eight weeks each. I am really looking forward to working with her and the other workshop participants on my Book of the Body sequence. I have to immerse myself in that sequence again soon. Get into the Body, so to speak.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mr. Otto Fong Comes Out (2)

I received a reply from the Headmaster of Raffles Institution to my letter of support for Mr. Otto Fong, a letter which also asked the school to allow the teacher to re-post his open letter on his blog. The background to this, and my first letter, may be read here.

I will not quote the reply from Bob Koh, the Headmaster, who signed off as Bob, since it is private correspondence, but I will give the gist of it in order to contextualize my follow-up letter. Mr. Koh's reply was very brief. It thanked me for sharing my views, and reassured me that the school would continue to focus on educating its students. It made no reference to my request for the school to allow Mr. Fong to re-post his letter.

I sent a follow-up letter to Mr. Koh today. The school's press statement cited by my letter was published in this New Paper article.


Dear Bob,

thank you for taking the time to write back. I understand your busy schedule may allow only a brief reply for the moment. But, at a time better for you, I would appreciate hearing your response to my request for the school to allow Mr. Otto Fong to re-post his open letter on his blog. If the school should decide to stick to its decision, I would appreciate knowing its reasons.

In the meantime, I am very disturbed by a school statement, made by an unnamed spokesperson, e-mailed to the New Paper. The statements said, the school is 'mindful of the views of (the school's) stakeholders, especially parents who would not be comfortable with placing their children under the charge of a teacher who advocates homosexuality.' I am disturbed because, in the statement, the school seems to be unduly swayed by those (unquantified number of) parents who may have expressed homophobic sentiments to the school, but seems not to have taken into account the views of other stakeholders (such as old boys), gay and straight, who want the school to take a stand against discrimination and censorship. Could you please clarify how the school ascertains whether these parents' discomfort with a gay teacher is rational and fair?

To be open with you, I wish you to know that I have posted my letters to you on my own blog because Mr. Otto Fong's situation is a matter of public interest and importance. I have not quoted your reply since it is private correpondence, but I have given the gist of it in order to contextualize my reply.

Auspicium Melioris Aevi.



Yours sincerely,

Koh Jee Leong
RI, Class of 1986; RJC, Class of 1988

Friday, September 14, 2007

Richard Sorabji's "Self"

from the chapter "The Self: is there such a thing?"

One reason why the notion of the self comes in is that humans and animals could not cope with the world at all unless they saw things in terms of I. The notion 'I' belongs to te same group of notions as 'now', 'here', 'yonder', 'this', 'that', 'today', 'past', 'present', 'future', 'ago', 'hence'....What I would emphasize is that these words and the corresponding ideas have an irreplaceable importance, because they have a unique ability to guide action and emotion. If Adam Smith knows, 'An arrow gets to be fired through the window of Adam Smith's study on May 1 2004', he will have no idea whether precautions are called for, except insofar as he can also judge, 'I am Adam Smith', and 'Today is May 1 2004'. Otherwise Adam Smith might be anybody, and 2004 thousands of years into the past or future. These words therefore have a special action- and emotion-guiding force...

*

By a 'person' I mean someone who has psychological states and does things, by a 'thinker' someone who has thoughts. This having and doing can be summed up by saying that a person owns psychological states and actions. He or she also owns a body and bodily characteristics. A person is not just a stream of experiences and actions, but the owner of experiences and actions...

The meaning that I have ascribed to the word 'I', though vital, is a thin meaning, paraphrasable, for example, as 'the subject of this awareness', or 'this person'. But since 'I' does not refer to an entity separate from the embodied being that is rapidly acquiring a unique history, the reference of 'I' is a thick one. Moreover, the speaker's meaning on any given occasion may be much thicker than the strict meaning of the word itself. He or she may intend to draw attention to more or less of his or her personal history and circumstances and of his or her character as an embodied human being. As we pass beyond infancy, we tend to develop an autobiographical picture or pictures of ourselves. A thicker picture is employed in making decisions and in reacting emotionally. For decisions and emotional reactions may depend on one's being aware of oneself as a person with a certain standing, past history, culture, and aspirations. We thus build up a particular persona or identity, and this identity is often considered part of the self.

*

...what I have been emphasizing in this chapter is two things, the individual embodied owner and the owner's need to see himself or herself as me and me again. Given the familiarity of the first and the need for the second, the onus (of disproof that there is such a thing as self) should be on the person who attempta to deny that they correspond to reality.


from the chapter "The varieties of self and philosophical development of the idea"

Seneca Letters 24, 19-21

I remember you once treated the commonplace that we do not run into death suddenly, but proceed by degrees: we die every day....Just as it is not the last little drop that drains the water-clock, but what has flowed out before, so that last hour at which we cease to be does not on its own produce death; on its own it completes death. That is when we come up against it, but we have come for a long time.

*

...Hierocles...imagines the mind (dianoia) as being the center point of a set of concentric circles. He thus equates the mind with the self (each of us, hekastos hêmôn), which is entirely surrounded by circles. What draws the circles, to express the degrees of attachment it feels, is also a self (a given self, autos tis) and this is described not so much as identical with the mind as possessing it (heautou). Perhaps it is the composite of mind and body. The first circle outside the mind includes one's body, to which a sense of attachment is directed, and circles further out represent other people....

...The circles further out represent one's family, friends, fellow citizens, and foreigners. The context is ethical: one should learn to pull the circles inwards, so that one feels as much attachment to family as to one's own body, as much to friends as to family, and so on.


JL: There is a link here to what Appiah in Cosmopolitanism says about our obligations to strangers: our moral intuition suggests that it is right to care more for family than for friends, more for friends than for strangers. This idea is represented here by Hierocles as concentric circles, with family in an inner circle, friends on an outer circle etc. While Appiah may agree with the ethical move of learning to pull the circles inwards, I don't think he will agree that the goal is to feel as much attachment to friends as to family, and so on.

Hierocles, Elements of Ethics in Stobaeus, ed. Wachsmuth/ Hense, vol. 4, Florilegium, ed. Hense p. 671, lines 7-16:

Each one of us (hekastos hêmôn) is, as it were, entirely surrounded by many circles, some smaller, others larger, the latter enclosing the former on the basis of their different and unqeual relations (skheseis) to each other. The first and closest circle is the one which a given self (auto tis) has drawn as though around a center, namely his own mind (dianoia). In this circle is included (periekhetai) the body and anything taken (perieilêmmena) for the sake of the body. For it is practically the smallest circle and almost touches the center itself.


JL: The metaphor gives rise to a fine insight, or is it the other way round? The body circle "almost touches the center itself."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

TLS, September 7, 2007

from Bettina Bildauer's review of Nikalus Largier's In Praise of the Whip: A cultural history of arousal:

Eighth-century hermits might have been the first to practise self-whipping, although the evidence is unreliable. Voluntary self-flagellation first became common in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the monastic orders, where whipping had previously been used only as a punishment. The eleventh-century Benedictine writer St Peter Damian played a crucial role in popularizing this practice. It was incorporated into rituals of penitence and confession, of praying or singing the Psalter, but also into private devotion....In 1260/61, flagellation became a mass movement. The city of Perugia, perceiving itself in crisis, officially suspended work for a month in order to allow the citizens to repent and whip themselves. A procession went to Bologna, and flagellant processions soon started up throughout Europe, as people everywhere took out a month or longer to repent in this extreme manner. This movement quickly subsided, but flared up once more in 1349/50, partly as a result of the spirit of remorse induced by the Black Death. It then provoked theological criticism, but self-flagellation survived as a private practice, in some secret cults and in theatrical performance. Jesuits and other Catholic theologians reaccredited it in the sixteenth century, this time in the spirit of acknowledging that there are things that cannot be said in words, and that images and performances, like those of flagellation, offer legitimate access fo the divine (bold emphasis mine).

***

from Patricia Fara's review of Heather Ewing's The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, revolution, and the birth of the Smithsonian:

For disciples of James Brown, Enlightenment Edinburgh's proponent of electricity and nervous excitability, "human bodies are like lighted tapers in a constant state of Combustion". How appropriate then that James Smithson (1765-1829), a temperamental Brunonian who shared his master's enthusiasm for blood-letting, pyrging and chemical stimulation, should not only burn himself out, but also be doubly destroyed by fire after he died. Having spent much of his time subjecting his frail constitution to energetic travel and self-medication, Smithson spun out his last years frequenting Parisian gaming tables, driven by his appetite for risk, and ignoring the sensible money-reckoning calculations of his distinguished mathematical friends. After disinheriting London's Royal Society in a fit of pique, Smithson bequeathed what remained of his massive fortune to the United States....Following twenty years of ungrateful prevarication over a sum representing around 1.5 per cent of the entire Federal budget, Congress eventually agreed to found an Institution named after him. Only ten years after it opened, a shoddily installed stove ignited the building, and Smithson's unpublished manuscripts and personal letters shot up in flames, surrounded by useless fire buckets whose water had frozen into ice. A century later, in 1973, Smithson's incendiary gremlin was busy again. During a bungled exhumation designed to glean information from his skeleton, the blowtorches being used to unsolder his coffin ignited its silk lining. Fortunately, this fire was quenched by energetic workers racing back from a nearby tap with water in their mouths.

*

(At the newly established Royal Institution, which aimed to provide scientific education for all), the chemical lectures proved so popular among wealthy carriage-owners that a novel solution was invented for unclogging the traffic jams outside - London's first one-way street.


***

from Thomas Marks' review of Helena Michie's Victorian Honeymoons: Journeys to the conjugal:

from Frankenstein to Tess, novels that try to represent the wedding-night disclosure of secrets or concealed knowledge veer into an uncomfortable, violent mood that Michie defines as "honeymoon gothic"....When sticky situations arise in fictional honeymoons they often prefigure sour marriages (as in the case of Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon), whereas in reality many strong partnerships were bolstered by the shared experience of those initial difficulties.


JL: Uncharitable imagination but I can't help wondering how Thomas Marks knows this piece of reality.

***

from J.C.'s NB:

Reviewing The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (Third Edition), J.C. highlights the series of boxes devoted to Catchphrases, Misquotations etc. In one box devoted to Last Words, Erskine Childers: "Come closer, boys. It will be easier for you" (to the firing squad).

Childers was Robert Erskine Childers, an Irish nationalist executed by the authorities during the Civil War. Wikipedia has his last words as "Take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way," which may be more authentic, but certainly less sexy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Kwame Anthony Appiah's "Cosmopolitanism"

I admire Appiah's respect for reason and his understanding of its limits in grappling with the question of what we owe to strangers. If the book gives more arguments against other philosophical positions (such as Postivism, or the concept of cultural patrimony, or the ethical theories of Peter Singer and Peter Unger) than arguments in support of its own, it is partly because such clearing of the ground is necessary before we can see better the complexities of the question. The title of the crucial chapter, "The Primacy of Practice," shows where Appiah's philosophical thinking and sympathies lie.

From the Introduction:

So there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences. Because there are so many human possibilities worth exploring, we neither expect nor desire that every person or every society should converge on a single mode of life. Whatever our obligations are to others (or theirs to us) they often have the right to go their own way. As we'll see, there will be times when these two ideals--universal concern and respect for legitimate difference--clash. There's a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.

*

In geological terms, it has been a blink of an eye since human beings first left Africa, and there are few spots where we have not found habitation. The urge to migrate is no less "natural" than the urge to settle. At the same time, most of us who have learned the languages and customs of other places haven't done so out of mere curiosity. A few were looking for food for thought; most were looking for food. Thoroughgoing ignorance about the ways of others is largely a privilege of the powerful. The well-traveled polyglot is as likely to be among the worst off as among the best off--as likely to be found in a shantytown as at the Sorbonne. So cosmopolitanism shouldn't be seen as some exalted attainment: it bgeins with the simple idea that in the human community, as in national communities, we need to develop habits of coexistence...


From the chapter "The Escape from Positivism":

The deepest problem with Positivism, however, is not in its conclusions. It is in its starting point. I began, as I think one must if one is to make the Positivist story believable, with a single person, acting on her own beliefs and desires. Starting from there, one has to give an account of values that begins with what it is for me--this single person--to regard something as valuable. But to understand how values work, you must see them not as guiding us as individuals on our own but as guiding people who are trying to share their lives.

The philosopher Hilary Putnam famously argued that, as he once put it, "Meanings ain't in the head."...

We go astray, similarly, when we think of a moral vocabulary as the possession of a solitary individual. If meanings ain't in the head, neither are morals. The concept of kindness, or cruelty, enshrines a kind of social consensus. An individual who decides that kindness is bad and cruelty good is acting like Lewis Carroll's Humpty-Dumpty, for whom a word "means just what I choose it to mean--neither more, nor less." The language of values is, after all, language. And the key insight of modern philosophical reflection on language is that language is, first and foremost, a public thing, something we share. Like all vocabulary, evaluative language is primarily a tool we use to talk to one another, not an instrument for talking to ourselves.

From the chapter "Facts on the Ground":

In the early twentieth century, the French physicist Pierre Duhem noticed an interesting fact about the way scientists behave. When they do experiments or collect data to support their theories, other scientists, often those attached to different theories, deny that the evidence shows any such thing. The objections can be of many different kinds. They might say, for example, that the experiment really hasn't been done properly. (Your test tubes were contaminated.) They might say that the so-called data are simply incorrect. (We did the same experiment, and that's not what happened.) Or they could point out that their own theory explained the data just as well (The theory that life on Earth arrived in the form of basic organisms on a meteorite explains the fossil data just as well as the theory that life evolved by the creation of its basic elements as a result of electrochemical processes in the primeval oceans.) Starting with this observation, he went on to propose a general claim that philosophers know as the Duhem thesis. However much data you have, Duhem said, there will be many theories that explain it equally well. Theories, to use the jargon, are underdetermined by the evidence.

*

Underdetermination is worrying enough. But a later student of scientific thinking, the philosopher N. R. Hanson, noticed something equally troubling for the Positivist view about scientific thinking....What Hanson noticed was that the data never came free of theoretical commitments. When Galileo said that he saw through the telescope that the moon had mountains, he was assuming--as some of his opponents at the time pointed out--that telescopes work just as well in space as on Earth. That happens to be right. But how did he know? No one, at that point, had ever taken a telescope up into space to check. He just theorized that it was so. And, in fact, it turns out to be enormously difficult--Hanson thought it was literally impossible--to present data in language that isn't infused with theoretical ideas.


From the chapter "The Primacy of Practice":

...our political coexistence, as subjects or citizens, depends on being able to agree about practices while disagreeing about their justification. For many long years, in medieval Spain under the Moors and later in the Ottoman Near East, Jews and Christians of various denominations lived under Muslim rule. This modus vivendi was possible only because the various communities did not have to agree on a set of universal values. In seventeenth-century Holland,...the Sephardic Jewish community began to be increasingly well integrated into Dutch society, and there was a great deal of intellectual as well as social exchange between Christian and Jewish communities. Christian toleration of Jews did not depend on express agreement on fundamental values.

*

...let's recognize this simple fact: a large part of what we do we do because it just what we do. You get yp in the morning at eight-thirty. Why that time? You have coffee and cereal. Why not porridge? You send kids to school. Why not teach them at home? You have to work. Why that job, though? Reasoning--by which I mean the public act of exchanging stated justifications--comes in not when we are going on in the usual way, but when we are thinking about change. And when it comes to change, what moves peple is often not an argument from a principle, not a long discussion about values, but just a gradually acquired new way of seeing things.

*

Or consider another example: in much of Europe and North America, in places where a generation ago homosexuals were social outcasts and homosexual acts were illegal, lesbian and gay couples are increasingly being recognized by their families, by society, and by the law. This is true despite the continued opposition of major religious groups and a significant and persistent undercurrent of social disapproval. Both sides make arguments, some good, most bad, if you apply a philosophical standard of reasoning. But if you ask the social scientists what has produced this change, they will rightly not start with a story about reasons. They will give you a historical account that concludes with a sort of perspectival shift. The increasing presence of "openly gay" people in social life and in the media has changed our habits. Over the last thirty or so years, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans started thinking about the public category of gay people. Even those who continue to think of the sex with disgust now find it harder to deny these peple their respect and concern...

Now I don't deny that all the time, at every stage, peple were talking, giving each other reasons to do things: accept their children, stop treating homosexuality as a medical disorder, disagree with their churches, come out. Still, the short version of the story is basically this: people got used to lesbians and gay people. I am urging that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement, but because it will help us get used to one another.

*

I am a philosopher. I believe in reason. But I have learned in a life of university teaching and research that even the cleverest people are not easily shifted by reason alone--and that can be true even in the most cerebral of realms. One of the great savants of the postwar era, John von Neumann, liked to say, mischievously, that "in mathematics you don't understand things, you just get used to them." In the larger world, outside the academy, people don't always even care whether they seem reasonable. Conversation, as I've said, is hardly guaranteed to lead to agreement about what to think and feel. Yet we go wrong is we think the point of conversation is to persuade, and imagine it proceeding a a debate, in which points are scored for the Proposition and the Opposition. Often enough, as Faust said, in the beginning is the deed: practices and not principles are what enable us to live together in peace. Conversations across boundaries of identity--whether national, religious, or something else--begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you read a novel or watch a movie or attend to a work of art that speaks from someplace other than your own. So I'm using the word "conversation" not only for literal talk but also as a metaphor for engagement with the experience and the ideas of others. And I stress the role of the imagination here because the encounters, properly conducted, are valuable in themselves. Conversation doesn't have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it's enough that it helps people get used to one another.

Mr. Otto Fong Comes Out in an Open Letter

Mr. Otto Fong, a Science Teacher from Raffles Institution, my alma mater, came out as gay in his blog. The school has since gotten him to delete that blog-post, an action supported by Singapore's Ministry of Education. In a statement released on September 10, the Ministry said that it “does not condone any open espousal of homosexual values by teachers in any form, in or out of the classroom” as "teachers are in a unique position of authority and are often seen as role models by their students."

You can read Mr. Fong's letter on Fridae as well as Online Citizen. The letter strikes me as courageous and thoughtful, and its posting on the blog a well-considered decision. It comes hot on the heels of Lee Kuan Yew's recent comment (International Herald Tribune, August 24, 2007) that striking down anti-gay laws is "a matter of time."

I wrote an email to Bob Koh, the Headmaster of the school, in order to support Mr. Fong, and to ask that the school allow the reposting of the open letter on his blog. Here's the text:

Dear Sir,

I am an old boy of the school. I read on Fridae and Online Citizen about the coming out as gay of your teacher, Mr. Otto Fong.

I applaud Mr. Fong's courage and honesty in declaring his sexual orientation. I wish I had a teacher like him when I was struggling with my own sexual identity during my years in Raffles Institution. Mr. Fong could not have made me gay; no one could. I was aware of my own attraction to men before joining RI. But, perhaps, through his example and his concern for students, so evident in his open letter, I could have been spared the conflicted isolation of a gay teen growing up in a homophobic church and society, and the wasted years as a young adult.

Some parents may point to this as precisely what they do not want teachers to do to their children. These parents are misguided. If they desire their children to lead happy and fulfilled lives, the worst thing they can do is to force their children to hide in the closet. As Mr. Fong puts it so eloquently in his letter, "Being in the closet, pretending to be straight, trimming our true selves, to suit the whims and expectations of others, is just like being a human bonsai tree." No educator who tries to live up to his calling would deliberately cramp his charges' growth, so why would truly loving parents who try to understand?

From the many glowing testimonies of Mr. Fong's ex-students, it is clear that Mr. Fong is a dedicated and skilful teacher. His open letter says more: he has immense personal integrity. I read, with great disappointment, that the school asked him to delete the blog-post of his letter. What will Rafflesians learn from this? Some, I fear, will go away thinking that it does not pay to speak one's mind, to stand up for one's belief, especially if Mr. Fong should suffer any ill consequences from this act. More Rafflesians, I hope, will learn to value freedom of speech, and to fight for it. For censorship is the closet of intellectual and moral development. I ask that the school allow Mr. Fong to reinstate the blog-post of his letter. That may go some way in repairing the school's reputation for providing world-class education.


Yours sincerely,

Koh Jee Leong
RI, Class of 1986; RJC, Class of 1988

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Queens Museum of Art

Visited the Museum for the first time on Saturday. It is located behind the Unisphere, a metal globe surrounded by fountains, in Corona Park, Flushing Meadows. Of the works on display in the exhibition, Generation 1.5, I was most excited by the ballpoint pen drawings of the Korean artist, Il Lee. According to this NYT article, Mr. Lee has been making ballpoint pen drawings for 25 years; he began shortly after moving to the United States in the mid-1970s from his native Korea, where he was born in 1952. He went first to Los Angeles then to New York.



Of the above painting, “BL-060” (2005), the NYT article says: "[it] is pure graphic intensity. A large, horizontal, heavily inked abstraction, it suggests a mountain range, the ocean, a wide-open landscape and even a rain cloud — nature captured in abstract terms. From some angles you’d swear you could step right into the picture."

The drawing I like best is the one below. I don't know its title. Its beautiful abstraction reminds of Chinese landscape paintings.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Montauk

Together we watched the wild desolate seascape
in the movie about the spotless mind. Montauk,
we know today, is neither wild nor desolate:
not the lake-harbor in the shape of a human head,
where motorboats march in a column to marinas,
and fancy restaurants serve seafood kept fresh by the sea—
orange-red lobster in the raw, oven roasted fluke,
sweet mahi mahi, lemony mussels, wild salmon;
not the Village, where souvenir vendors sell Montauk
tank tops and, knowing summer’s term, Montauk sweatshirts,
where in the barrack-style beach motels bivouac
surf soldiers darkened by the experience of sun,
where the Atlantic, ancient, absolvent, adjacent
to the one main drag, drowns the Sturm und Drang
of adulterous couples, estranged couples, gay couples,
and Indian families finding another sacred fount;
not wild, not desolate, not so at the lighthouse,
the first savior of ships erected in these States,
with its museum of maritime wrecks, coastal maps—
sounding the measurements of safe passage to sea
and back, or journey beside land’s jagged boundary—
and of trust, the watchtower’s trinitarian team,
Lighthouse Keeper, First Assistant, Second Assistant,
the twice-a-day spiraling stairway to the top
to light the blinking lamp behind its Fresnel lens
one hour before sunset, and to turn the eye off
one hour after sunrise, reverse but regular as
the sun; no, not even here at this high headland
overlooking Block Island Sound and the Ocean,
Ocean and Sound, heard here, at once Other and One,
where names man gives to nature cease to matter much
to the sailboat striding the waves, to the moon, to stars,
and on the rocky ledge round the lighthouse’s root
we both know, my love, who is no longer my love,
we’re standing at the very end of Long Island
but, no, neither wild nor desolate is the edge.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

TLS August 24 & 31 2007

from David Arnold's review of Martha C. Nussbaum's The Clash Within: Democracy, religious violence and India's future:

In a work that moves at times erratically between history, gender studies and psychoanalysis, she asks why the Hindu Right seems so obsessed with the idea of purity - whether the Hindu faith or of Hindu women - and is so vehemently hostile to a Muslim minority that is relatively small, poor and powerless. She sees the Right as having an underlying need to counter the deep divisions within the highly heterogeneous Hindu community by asserting its own militancy and in seeking out Muslims as its irreconcilable opposite.

*

In a further search for explanations, Nussbaum turns to India's founding fathers, adding to the inevitable Gandhi and Nehru a third figure, the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore...Her preference is for Tagore, a man of wide symapthies rather than narrow nationalism, whose experiments in education encouraged individual development and creativity rather than the soulless education currently practised in Indian schools and colleges, which she blames for creating the intellectual sterility in which fascism thrives.

*

For her the Hindu Right, with its intolerant ideology, is an international and not merely Indian issue. She views with deep alarm the way in which fundamentalists have verbally attacked and physically threatened scholars in the US who have taken a critical view of Indian history or who have treated Hindu mythology with what they consider less than due respect. The Hindu Right thus poses, to Nussbaum's mind, a threat to academic freedom and democracy in America. The "clash" of her title is thus located, not as Samuel P. Huntingdon claimed, between the rival civilizations of Islam and the West but within societies around the globe that are uneasily poised between democracy...and the forces of neo-fascist intolerance. (bold emphasis mine.)

This clash is also taking place within Singapore, between the homophobic Christian fundamentalists, and gay activists and allies fighting against anti-gay laws. The issue is not merely the narrow one of gay rights; it is the broader one of social and political acceptance of individual rights and freedoms. In invoking the specter of the spread of AIDS in the event these unjust laws are struck down, these Christian fundamentalists are acting as fear-mongers, instead of the emissaries of love. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).


***

from Seamus Perry's review of Angela Leighton's On Form: Poetry, aestheticism, and the legacy of a word:

Everything about On Form is judged and poised, with many things read beautifully and truly. Leighton returns to "form" and to the "aesthetic" in a way which neither succumbs simply to their charms nor dismisses them as a dodgy bit of ideology; and, in this, she effectively makes common cause with a number of distinguished recent studies, including Susan Wolfson's Formal Charges and Michael O'Neill's Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem.

Books to add to the reading list.

Montauk Aug 31 to Sep 3

We first saw the wild desolate seascape of Montauk together, in the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" starring Jim Carrey. From that point we decided we would find a time to visit this fishing town at the eastern end of Long Island.

The Montauk we found was neither wild nor desolate: not at the harbor at the neck of the enormous lake, where water crafts--sailboats and motor-boats--were docked at marinas like so many cars in parking lots, and where expensive restaurants boasted of fresh local seafood--cold mussels, steamed lobster in the raw, oven roasted striped bass, pan seared fluke fillet--and of stunning views of the harbor and the lake; not in the Village, where beach shops selling Montauk tanktops, shorts, jackets and sweaters competed with each other, having vanquished the local department stores, where pancake restaurants offered cheap breakfasts to young surfers and loafers, alongside fancier establishments cooking up early bird dinners and late night live music entertainment, where beach motels, built like dormitories of a seaside college, housed the same recently graduated transients, and where the Atlantic Ocean was conveniently located three blocks from the main drag, the waters an ablution for fornicating couples, married couples, gay couples, and Indian families who splashed themselves as if they were washing in the Ganges; not even at the lighthouse, the first ever constructed in the States, with its museum of wrecked ships, of coastal maps sounding the fathoms of safety, and of lives organized in a crew of three--Lighthouse Keeper, First Assistant, Second Assistant-- for duty, the daily climbs spiralling up to the huge lamp stuck on top of the tower like an eye, seeing through its Fresno lens, in order to light the eye one hour before sunset, and to turn it down one hour after sunrise; no, not even at the headland where the Block Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean merged into each other, where man-given names ceased to matter, and on the rocky ledge round the foot of the lighthouse we knew, Love, we had reached the end of land, but it was neither wild nor desolate.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

POETRY September 2007

On the Long Island Rail Road train to Montauk, I read Kay Ryan's review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen. The review was absorbing, so I did not pay much attention to the towns and villages flashing by.

In the notebooks Frost displays a kind of mind that thinks in PowerPoint, generating stays against confusion almost before there was any confusion. He repeats to himself what he insisted on publicly: "Nothing more composing than composition," and in fact the phrase is the first line of Frost's final notebook. More tenderly he says, "To me any little form is velvet." Generally, however, the form is more Sharpie than velvet. His notebook thinking runs to arrows, vectors, circles, bulls'eyes, ascending trajectories, descending trajectories. "There is a...life trajectory from less to more," he says in one place, and makes a little chart of the subcategories of this general truth: "From little or no family to more family," and the same with money, fame, understanding, assurance, personality, and physique. Unremarkable apercus like this become interesting exactly because they are so unremarkable; Frost really likes the senation of drawing a gird over life. And it makes sense: if you're going to be losing your way--which is half the definition of being a poet--isn't it good to have some cardinal points to come back to?


I find this fascinating stuff. The mind of a business executive applying and losing itself to poetry, and then finding itself by formulating a table of risk asssessment. The PowerPoint comparison is somewhat snide, but it reminds me of my tendency to think in bullet-pointed lists in writing letters and memos. When I was Vice Principal of a secondary school in Singapore, one of my chief pleasures was putting together a teachers' manual. I enjoyed listing, categorizing, and ordering the points of information, the sets of guidelines, and the clusters of topics into some kind of ideal and logical form. I had always thought of this tendency as antithetical to writing poetry, while Frost's Notebooks suggest otherwise, or, at least, a way to exploit it.

*

Kay Ryan:

A poem by its nature operates beyond rational control, which is a great service to a mind as controlling as Frost's. A poem means you're in too deep. In "Spring Pools," for all its balanced, reflected imagery of pools and flowers and all its tidy buttoned-up rhyming, Frost has got himself just where he craves to be--in an elemental battled where he's not the boss. The best form can do is serve as a barricade, giving the illusion of containment to the forces he's unleashed.


I like the matter-of-fact way Ryan puts it: a poem means you're in too deep. Form is a momentary stay against confusion. That is one of the truest insights about poetry. Here's the poem by Frost.


Spring Pools

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods---
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

*

At the Harborside Resort Motel, Merle checked us in and explained where to find dinner. The room was clean and simply furnished, much bigger than the one I had at Grove Hotel on Fire Island. After putting down our things, we walked along Lake Montauk towards the harbor. None of the restaurants particularly caught our fancy. They were pricey too. We walked back to the motel, and went to the Clam and Chowder Restaurant and Bar in the West Lake Marina. The outdoor bar was lively but not too noisy to talk. We had a soft-shelled crab sandwich and an oven-roasted swordfish. The crab was delicious but the fish was overcooked.