Saturday, May 28, 2016

Love and Friendship

Novels and irony go together, in the sense that many of the literary techniques that work best with novels involve some kind of irony, namely, laying down a limit while also transcending it. This always creates some difficulty in adapting a novel to cinema, because cinema does not do irony very well. It's not that you can't have ironic cinema, but there are fewer ways to express it, because the irony of novels arises from suggesting; but in film, suggesting is easily lost in showing.

This problem is intensified when it comes to adapting an epistolary novel, because epistolary novels are even more suggestive in character than ordinary novels. In addition, an epistolary novel by its very structure is related to a dialogue, and dialogues do not easily translate into the spectacle required by cinema.

Thus an adaptation of Austen's epistolary Lady Susan, as Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship is, faces a very large number of problems at the outset. All in all, they are masterfully handled, though. One of the things Stillman certainly did right was to keep the pace fairly swift; the movie is only 91 minutes long. Stillman also makes excellent use of the snippet, that is, the brief scene letting us know something is happening without spending a lot of time dwelling on it, just allowing the snippets to interact by juxtaposition and contrast. Since much of the action of Lady Susan is either suggested or briefly described, this is almost certainly the best way to handle the problem.

Humor is more difficult. Austen's humor is very ironic and sometimes very dry and subtle, as well; there's no way to represent it adequately on the screen, which is why Austen adaptations always run the risk of being too serious. Stillman mostly cuts the Gordian knot with this problem; despite the fact that Stillman manages to be relatively faithful, a lot of the humor in the movie is Stillman's rather than Austen's, and it is inevitably less subtle, since we at times are simply told the punchline, which is then flagged by all the arts of cinema. (Cinema inevitably has more ways of directing our attention to something than any book could possibly have.) This is most obvious at the end of the movie. Austen can simply leave open a spectrum of possibilities; the movie has to show us something definite.

But the humor largely works as well. The Fourth/Fifth Commandment joke running throughout works surprisingly well, and does double duty as an example both of Lady Susan's manipulativeness and as a proof of her power to affect people. Sir James Martin's simpleness is almost absurdly exaggerated, but since everyone else mostly plays the humor straight, it's nice to have a contrast. A goof gets the laugh going, and that gives people a running start on chuckling at the witticisms. In essence, Austen's humor is being blended with British sketch comedy. And the result is, I think, the funniest Austen adaptation ever made.

The chief difficulty with adapting Lady Susan is that Lady Susan is actually quite malicious, and we can see it because we are getting her candid comments along with the reactions of other people. But this is easily lost, and inevitably much of it is lost here, because film, again, cannot so easily build a wall to hide something and then just give us clues about what's on the other side. We need Lady Susan's perspective here -- but we only get it on screen through pretty Kate Beckinsale sweetly saying things that we know would be shocking but which mostly come across as charming and funny -- as indeed they would have to, if Lady Susan actually said them.

But perhaps this works well in its own way; Lady Susan is a liar and manipulator, a villainess to the core, and yet in some fashion she shows up here as better -- certainly more competent and charming -- than many of the heroes and heroines Hollywood throws at us and somehow expects us to admire.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Tolstoy on Baumgarten's Trinity

So I saw Love and Friendship today, which was good; more on it at some point. But one of the minor scenes that Stillman adds is one of Frederica talking to the local curate. During the conversation, the curate mentions "the divine Baumgarten", which caught my ear. It's a curious twist in the conversation, which is about the commandment to honor one's parents. The curate summarizes Baumgarten's position as a trinity, and, he explains (more or less), "Beauty is the Perfect recognized through the senses; Truth is the Perfect perceived through reason; Goodness is the Perfect reached by moral will."

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten is in many ways the founder of modern aesthetics; it was he who first used the word 'aesthetica' to describe matters concerned with beauty (the word actually means 'matters concerned with the senses'). Baumgarten took aesthetics to be the art of thinking beautifully. The curate, however, is ahead of his time; he is actually closely paraphrasing Tolstoy writing some ninety years later in What is Art?. Tolstoy arguably doesn't get Baumgarten quite right; the idea that beauty is sensible apprehension of perfection is Wolffian, and Baumgarten, it can be argued, actually switches this up a bit, holding that beauty is the perfection of the apprehension itself (which may, of course, partly depend on perfection in the object). But Tolstoy also has an axe to grind; in great measure What is Art? is an attack on any high-flying metaphysics of beauty (he thinks that people talk a lot about beauty but give the terms they use no serious content). It is in this context that Tolstoy specifically talks about the "Trinity" of Baumgarten:

If a theory justifies the false position in which a certain part of a society is living, then, however unfounded or even obviously false the theory may be, it is accepted, and becomes an article of faith to that section of society....However unfounded such theories are, however contrary to all that is known and confessed by humanity, and however obviously immoral they may be, they are accepted with credulity, pass uncriticized, and are preached, perchance for centuries, until the conditions are destroyed which they served to justify, or until their absurdity has become too evident. To this class belongs this astonishing theory of the Baumgartenian Trinity, — Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, — according to which it appears that the very best that can be done by the art of nations after 1900 years of Christian teaching, is to choose as the ideal of their life the ideal that was held by a small, semi-savage, slave-holding people who lived 2000 years ago, who imitated the nude human body extremely well, and erected buildings pleasant to look at.

Tolstoy is not an admirer of the Classical and, unlike the curate, not an admirer of Baumgarten.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Rough Timeline of Northern Italy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

1494 First Italian War (1494-1498) begins as France under Charles VIII invades Italy at the urging of Ludovico Sforza of Milan

1495 Leonardo da Vinci's plans for the Gran Cavallo statue come to an end as the bronze instead is used to make Milanese weapons

1499 Second Italian War (1499-1504) begins as France under Louis XII seizes Milan

1503 Pope Julius II succeeds Pius III as Pope

1508 Pope Julius II forms the League of Cambrai (including the Papal States, France, Spain, and the Duchy of Ferrara) against the Republic of Venice, and the War of the League of Cambrai begins

1509 Battle of Agnadello: the Venetians receive a crushing defeat and only extricate themselves by intense diplomatic work

1510 Due to a quarrel with Louis XII, Pope Julius II changes sides in the War of the League of Cambrai and negotiates a deal with the Swiss cantons for military assistance

1511 Facing the prospect of defeat by France, Pope Julius II forms the Holy League

1512 Massimiliano Sforza becomes Duke of Milan; Fifth Lateran Council opens

1513 Due to a quarrel over division of loot, Venice switches sides in the War of the League of Cambrai and joins forces with France; Pope Julius II dies in February, leaving the Holy League without a clear leader, although it will later go on to win victories against France at Guinegate, Scotland at Flodden Field, and Venice at La Motta; Leo X becomes Pope; Macchiavelli publishes The Prince

1516 Leonardo da Vinci happens to meet Francis I of France after the Battle of Marignano and goes back with him to France, taking the Mona Lisa

1517 Fifth Lateran Council closes

1521 The Italian War of 1521 (1521-1526) begins, and Francesco Maria Sforza becomes Duke of Milan with the help of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor

1522 Adrian VI becomes Pope

1523 Clement VII becomes Pope

1525 Battle of Pavia: Charles V defeats the French and seizes control of northern Italy

1526 Pope Clement VII forms the League of Cognac (with England, Milan, Venice, Florence, and France) against the Holy Roman Empire, and the War of the League of Cognac begins

1527 Charles V sacks Rome

1529 The Treaty of Cambrai ends the War of the League of Cognac

1534 Paul III becomes Pope

1536 The death of Francesco Sforza without any clear inheritors sparks the Italian War of 1536 (1536-1538) between Spain (and the Holy Roman Empire) and France as each attempts to consolidate control over Milan

1537 An ecumenical council decreed by Pope Paul III to take place at Mantua has to be moved to Vicenza due to the Italian War; the Third Ottoman-Venetian War (1537-1540) begins

1538 St. Carlo Borromeo is born; the Truce of Nice, negotiated with difficulty by Pope Paul III, ends the Italian War

1539 Due to an inability to get sufficient participation, the ecumenical council at Vicenza is suspended indefinitely

1542 France and the Ottoman Empire begin the Italian War of 1542 (1542-1546) against the Holy Roman Empire in order to re-establish French influence over Milan

1545 Council of Trent opens at Trento

1547 The Council of Trent is transferred to Bologna; however, in fact, it is never opened there

1551 Henry II of France begins the Italian War of 1551 (1551-1559) against the Holy Roman Empire; Pope Julius III reopens the Council of Trent at Trento, but it will be suspended again the next year due to the political situation

1555 Paul IV becomes Pope

1558 Construction of the Lazzaretto of Milan begins

1559 Giovanni Angelo Medici, uncle of St. Carlo Borromeo, becomes Pope Pius IV; the Peace of Cateau Cambresis ends the Italian War

1561 St. Carlo Borromeo founds the Almo Collegio Borromeo in Pavia

1562 Pope Pius IV reopens the Council of Trent

1563 The Council of Trent closes

1564 St. Carlo Borromeo is appointed Archbishop of Milan by Pope Pius IV; Federico Borromeo, his cousin, is born

1566 Pope Pius IV dies; St. Pius V becomes Pope

1570 After years of raids and small conquests, the Ottoman Empire invades the Republic of Venice and the Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War (1570-1573) begins

1571 Pope St. Pius V organizes the Holy League, which defeats the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto

1575 Venice is struck by the plague

1576 Crop failures lead to famine in Milan; St. Carlo Borromeo goes into debt feeding thousands of starving Milanese

1577 Andrea Palladio begins building the church of Santissimo Redentore in Venice as a votive offering for deliverance from the plague

1584 St. Carlo Borromeo dies

1585 Sixtus V becomes Pope

1590 Urban VII becomes Pope and dies twelve days later; Gregory XIV becomes Pope

1591 Innocent IX becomes Pope and dies two months later

1592 Clement VIII becomes Pope

1595 Pope Clement VIII appoints Federico Borromeo Archbishop of Milan

1605 Leo XI becomes Pope and dies three weeks later; Paul V becomes Pope

1609 Federico Borromeo founds the Ambrosian Library in Milan

1610 Pope Paul V canonizes Carlo Borromeo; Galileo Galilei publishes the Sidereus Nuncius

1618 The Thirty Years' War begins

1621 Gregory XV becomes Pope

1623 Urban VIII becomes Pope

1627 A Milanese edict is passed that makes it illegal for priests to refuse to perform marriages where no legal impediment exists -- it is discovering this edict that will inspire the story of The Betrothed

1628 The events of The Betrothed begin; the War of the Mantuan Succession begins as rival claimants receive support from the opposing sides in the Thirty Years' War

1629 The Great Plague begins first in Mantua (due to foreign armies) but spreading to Milan by October; it is initially kept in check, but not eliminated, by careful procedures

1630 The Great Plague flares up in March, and spreads to Venice, where it will kill nearly a third of the population

1631 The Great Plague flares up yet again in Milan; the Venetians begin building the church of Santa Maria della Salute as a votive offering for deliverance from the plague; the Treaty of Cherasco ends the War of the Mantuan Succession; Federico Borromeo dies

1642 Galileo Galilei dies

1644 Innocent X becomes Pope

1645 The Fifth Ottoman-Venetian War (1645-1669) begins

1655 Alexander VII becomes Pope

1656 The Great Plague reaches Genoa and Naples

1667 Clement IX becomes Pope

1669 Clement X becomes Pope

1676 Bl. Innocent XI becomes Pope and begins an intensive reform of the Papal Curia

1684 Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire; Pope Bl. Innocent XI organizes the Holy League against the Ottoman Empire, thus beginning the Great Turkish War, also known as the Sixth Ottoman-Venetian War (1684-1699), which will free Hungary from Ottoman rule

1685 Milan erects a statue of Federico Borromeo by the Ambrosian Library

1687 Il Sancarlone, a giant statue commemorating St. Carlo Borromeo, is erected in Arona, Italy

1689 Alexander VIII becomes Pope

1691 Innocent XII becomes Pope

1699 The Great Turkish War ends


A General, after gaining a great victory, was encamping with his army for the night. He ordered sentinels to be stationed all round the camp as usual. One of the sentinels, as he went to his station, grumbled to himself, and said, "Why could not the General let us have a quiet night's rest for once, after beating the enemy? I'm sure there's nothing to be afraid of."

The man then went to his station, and stood for some time looking about him. It was a bright summer's night, with a harvest moon, but he could see nothing anywhere: so he said, "I am terribly tired. I shall sleep for just five minutes, out of the moonlight, under the shadow of this tree." So he lay down.

Presently he started up, dreaming that some one had pushed a lantern before his eyes, and he found that the moon was shining brightly down on him through a hole in the branches of the tree above him. The next minute an arrow whizzed past his ear, and the whole field before him seemed alive with soldiers in darkgreen coats, who sprang up from the ground where they had been silently creeping onward, and rushed towards him.

Fortunately the arrow had missed him; so he shouted aloud to give the alarm, and ran back to some other sentinels. The army was thus saved; and the soldier said, "I shall never forget, as long as I live, that when one is at war one must watch."

Edwin Abbott Abbott, Parables for Children.

Maronite Year XLIX

Thursday of the Body of Christ
1 Corinthians 10:14-21; John 6:47-53

May your Body and blood, O Lord, sanctify,
making holy both the body and the soul,
cleansing all our thoughts, purifying our hearts,
preparing us for new life in Your kingdom.

Before Your life-giving passion, You took bread,
blessed it, sanctified it, broke it, and gave it,
as You were blessed, sanctified, broken, given,
for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

You truly are the living bread from heaven
that those who believe may have eternal life,
Your flesh a manna that gives life forever,
for those who eat are made part of Your Body.

You blessed the cup of wine mixed with the water,
sanctified and gave it to your disciples,
as the blood shed and handed over for us,
for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

You are our pleasing oblation, offered up,
the forgiving sacrifice to the Father;
unless we eat of Your flesh and drink Your blood,
no life do we have, for life comes from Your grace.

Our humanity with Your divinity,
Your divinity with our humanity,
are united, for You assumed our nature;
thus through You we have salvation for our souls.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


The Express Moral Principles of which I have spoken, as the basis of Duties, are those which express, in an imperative form, the five Cardinal Virtues: namely, the Principle of Humanity, that Man is to be loved as Man : the Principle of Justice, that Each Man is to have his own: the Principle of Truth, that We must conform to the universal Understanding which the use of Language among men implies: the Principle of Purity, that the Lower Parts of our nature are to be governed by the Higher: and the Principle of Order, that We must obey positive Laws as the necessary conditions of Morality. I have, in a former Lecture, spoken of the degree and kind of the evidence of the first of these Express Principles; and the like remarks might be made upon the others. They commend themselves to our assent, in proportion as our moral nature is cultivated and educed: they become evident to us when we think and feel as really moral creatures. The perception of them may be obscured by the influence of the ferine part of our nature ;—by savage rudeness, passion, partiality: but in proportion as the ferine element is subdued, and the human element brought out in its proper force, these Principles are accepted. When man judges as man and for man, he is enabled to see their full meaning; and with their meaning, their truth.

William Whewell, Lectures on Systematic Morality, Lecture V.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Music on My Mind

The Nicole Ensing Band, "The Mystery".

It is, of course, an adaptation of a poem by Chesterton. The original:

The Mystery
by G. K. Chesterton

If sunset clouds could grow on trees
It would but match the May in flower;
And skies be underneath the seas
No topsyturvier than a shower.

If mountains rose on wings to wander
They were no wilder than a cloud;
Yet all my praise is mean as slander,
Mean as these mean words spoken aloud.

And never more than now I know
That man's first heaven is far behind;
Unless the blazing seraph's blow
Has left him in the garden blind.

Witness, O Sun that blinds our eyes,
Unthinkable and unthankable King,
That though all other wonder dies
I wonder at not wondering.

Tender & Liberal Spirit

If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence. Consideration & Esteem as surely follow command of Language, as Admiration waits on Beauty. And here I have opportunity enough for the exercise of my Talent, as the cheif of my time is spent in Conversation. Reginald is never easy unless we are by ourselves, & when the weather is tolerable, we pace the shrubbery for hours together. I like him on the whole very well; he is clever & has a good deal to say, but he is sometimes impertinent & troublesome. There is a sort of ridiculous delicacy about him which requires the fullest explanation of whatever he may have heard to my disadvantage, & is never satisfied till he thinks he has ascertained the beginning & end of everything.

This is one sort of Love, but I confess it does not particularly recommend itself to me. I infinitely prefer the tender & liberal spirit of Manwaring, which, impressed with the deepest conviction of my merit, is satisfied that whatever I do must be right; & look with a degree of contempt on the inquisitive & doubtful Fancies of that Heart which seems always debating on the reasonableness of its Emotions.

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, Letter 16. It's not surprising, of course, that Lady Susan prefers it to be assumed that whatever she does is right; nor that reasonable restraint of the passions is the chief impediment to being manipulated by someone who tells a good story. I have mentioned before that Lady Susan reminds me of Milton's Satan or Tolkien's Saruman, with their treatment of language as a means of power rather than a service of truth; this is one of the letters in which the parallels become very clear on this point.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Saadia Gaon on Christology

An interesting passage from Saadia Gaon's Book of Beliefs and Opinions:

Now these advocates of the doctrine of the trinity, may God have mercy on thee, are divided into four sects, three of which are the older while the fourth appeared only recently. The first of these is of the opinion that the body, as well as the spirit of their Messiah, is derived from the Creator, exalted be He. The second holds the view that his body was created, his spirit alone having emanated from the Creator. The third, again, believes that both his body and his spirit were created, but that he also possessed another spirit that was derived from the Creator. As for the fourth group, it assigns to him the position of the prophets only, interpreting the sonship of which they make mention when they speak of him just as we interpret the Biblical expression: Israel is My first-born son (Exod. 4:22), which is merely an expression of esteem and high regard, or, as others interpret the meaning of the phrase: "Abraham, the friend of God."
[Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Rosenblatt, tr. Yale University Press (New Haven: 1976) p. 109]

It's unclear whether and to what extent this is supposed to be a somewhat idealized classification -- the chronological remark in the first sentence suggests that it is intended to identify real groups, but the cleanness of the classification suggests that he might be partly just considering the logical possibilities. The second position seems to be Apollinarianism. I'm fairly sure that the third group is the Christology of the Church of the East -- it admits of both orthodox and Nestorian interpretation.

I don't know who would fall into the first and fourth groups, although the first position could be the kind of statement of Monophysitism that one might find in its critics. What is interesting about the fourth position is the comment that it is recent. Rosenblatt claims that Saadia means Muslims by the fourth group, which would account for the position. But Saadia clearly says he is talking about advocates of the doctrine of the Trinity (and reaffirms it at the end of the chapter), and it is impossible to imagine that Saadia, of all people, born in Egypt and writing in Baghdad in the tenth century, could possibly be ignorant of the Muslim rejection of the Trinity. Since Saadia is Jewish (albeit the greatest Jewish mind of the tenth century), one can allow for a bit of an outsider's perspective, so perhaps he is just approximating Christian positions he has only heard about. On the other hand, a look at the whole section in which Saadia criticizes Christian theology shows a clear familiarity with actual Christian arguments.

Saadia rejects the fourth position on the basis of arguments that Torah admits of no abrogation and that Christians have a false account of Messianic prophecy. (The latter is another reason to take him not to be discussing Muslims here.) Both of these arguments would apply to all the groups of Christians, of course. The first he argues against on the basis of the fact that a creature cannot be a portion or natural emanation of the Creator. With regard to the third, he argues that creatures cannot become God merely by association with the divine. And all of these arguments would apply against the second group.

One of the interesting things is the analogy he attributes later in the chapter to the third group (the fact that he is so much more precise about the third group is another reason to think that he explicitly has in mind the Church of the East): "They cite as an analogy the descent of the glory of God on Mount Sinai and its appearance in the Burning Bush and the Tent of Meeting." It's unlikely that the Assyrian Christians were actually arguing for the Incarnation on the basis of such an analogy (although Saadia does seem to take them to be doing so), but it's possible that it was brought up in arguments for clarification purposes, or may be the kind of imagery associated with the Incarnation in the liturgy and devotional life of Assyrian Christians in Saadia's day.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Radio Greats: The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway (X Minus One)

The 1950s in radio saw a slow, cautious exploration of the genre of science fiction. One thread of the genre that tended to work especially well with radio was comic science fiction. Science fiction, of course, has always been recognized as having some satirical potential, but this can be quite dry or acidic; what worked especially well on radio was the use of science fiction for genuinely humorous twists. X Minus One, the most important and impressive science fiction series ever to air on radio, had a number of classics of this kind -- "Skulking Permit" and "Bad Medicine" (both by Robert Sheckley, the latter satirizing psychoanalysis) are obvious examples. Another great example of comic science fiction at its best is "The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway", which aired in April of 1957.

As is always the case with X Minus One, it is based on a short story of the same name from Galaxy magazine; that story, by William Tenn, was published in 1955. William Tenn (the pen name of Philip Klass) is often considered the greatest writer of science fiction satire in the Golden Age of science fiction, a period in which a great deal of science fiction satire was done. He has a knack for skewering on more levels than one, and not just skewering but stimulating thought in new direction. "The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway", which satirizes the art world, is an excellent example of this, raising fascinating questions about creativity and evaluation of art.

You can listen to "The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway" at Old Time Radio Downloads or at The Theatre of the Mind on YouTube or at Relic Radio or at the Internet Archive (episode 95). You can read the radio script at Generic Radio Workshop.

If you prefer to read the original, you can read it here.

Maronite Year XLVIII

The Season of Pentecost is the longest season of the Maronite liturgical year; depending on the rest of the year, it can last up to eighteen weeks. As with the Latin liturgical year, the first Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday.

Sunday of the Most Holy Trinity
Romans 11:25-36; Matthew 28:16-20

Inscrutable Father, infinite Son,
ineffable Holy Spirit, Three and One,
begetting, begotten, proceeding,
glory and thanks and exaltation to You!
As word comes from mind, and voice comes from both,
three names are given where there is but one will,
known by faith undivided of the Church,
which is taught by angels in hymns of glory:
Holy, Holy, Holy is the one Lord.

Can any comprehend God as Trinity?
A truth it is no study can exhaust.
The Father before all time begot the Son;
the Word took flesh from holy Virgin's womb;
the Spirit was sent to strengthen and perfect.
Thus from Him, through Him, and for Him is all,
with perfection, purity, and sanctity.
This is the faith of the Church and her saints:
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord our God.

O God of Love and Peace, one only God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Three and One,
we take refuge and find comfort in You,
undivided and inapprehensible,
who shows mercy to the guilty and lost,
who purifies sinners and perfects the just,
who is known by the faith of the one Church,
which is taught by angels in hymns of glory:
Holy, Holy, Holy is the one Lord.