Friday, January 27, 2012

A Photographic Entr'acte

The Imaginative Power of Forms in Light

I often wonder whether the suggestive forms that I see, photographed "straight" (point-and-shoot if you like, though framing and vantage point are not considerations that many point-and-shoot photographers are wont to think of before pressing the button) will convey what I hope for.  Digital cameras are very good now in capturing the really neutral gray of a paved street or a concrete sidewalk; they even get the greens of plants and the lavender of agapanthus.  Also, as many are discovering, the little miracle in the new iPhone is just that, miraculous.
Opposite my house, in the parkway (i.e., the grassy or flowery area between the sidewalk and the curb) there is one of the tallest pin oaks (or swamp oaks or red oaks, all current names) in the neighborhood, where the oldest houses are now nearing a hundred years.  No true oak tree, even if not the noble quercus robur, can get by in a parkway no more than a meter wide.  All over the older neighborhoods in southern US cities, the Department responsible for gutters and drains and the like has industriously cut the obtrusive roots back.  They look like parts of carcasses badly mangled.
Often, besides, they recall to the mind's eye mankind's own creations, in art.  Not always.  Today, after being soaked by two inches of constant rainfall, this one (above), which I called snarly and gnarly in the Picasa album,  immediately made me remember the Shang bail-handled bronze vessel in the shape of a tiger or a bear (depending on the interpretation) which is swallowing a man.  It also evoked all the most powerful Guardians of the great Chinese and Japanese shrines.  When the root is half dry, and the colors are differentiated, the suggestion is strongest.  That the 'head' seems to strain against the mossy stretched bark only makes it more like a living thing.  Of course, what it evokes for each viewer depends on his or her previous visual experience and how great its effect has been.  In my case, Prof. Otto Maenchen-Helfen's course, Art 1D, a survey of the art of India, China, and Japan, was the initiation.  In 1953, there were not so many picture books readily available, and, a Freshman, I had never seen Asian art, except for a few bamboo paintings reproduced in women's magazines—not even in Art News.*  I continued taking his courses, eventually even graduate seminars, though eventually I had to choose between Greece and China.  Professor Maenchen was a mysterious idol to his devoted students.  He came from Vienna.  He had spent time in a Tibetan monastery.  He invited his graduate students to meet in his home (in fact, near the end of his career, he had a weak heart).  He treated us with interest and respect.  What I never guessed until I ran across it several months ago in a Note in Mary Gabriel's biography of Karl and Jenny Marx was that he had been the co-author of one himself, years before he came to Berkeley.  Not only did he never discuss political ideologies with us, such a life episode could not compare with his knowing everything, it seemed, about the Huns, for example.  He seemed far above any politics!  I shall never forget him; he was the most wonderful person and scholar imaginable.  So I think myself most fortunate to see Asian images in other things.
In the warm and humid atmosphere a few days ago, when I walked around to the other side of the same tree, standing on the sidewalk and seeing a bit of the pavement beyond, without having any notion of its "standing for" anything other than spreading roots and a dry fallen twig, I had a visual feeling about it that reminded me of Japanese gardening and of album-leaf paintings.  Literally, it is just another plain photo, unaltered by any post-processing, with no additional cropping (since I had seen what I wanted, though if I had wanted a square image I'd have cropped, of course).  Aesthetically (the Greek verb, aisthanomai means to perceive through the senses), it is for me something quite different.
It was a good afternoon's taking pictures for me.  You can find them all, dated Jan 22, in the same album as the snarly, gnarly root.

*Actually, so long as the gallery was in existence, C. T. Loo had a full page advertisement in every issue of Art News.  Some of the best ones were for Shang and Zhou ritual bronzes.  I had had that periodical for several years (as I related above, a bill collector who had to give up on my mother took pity on the 12-year-old who had stayed home from school, and brought me a stack of Art News).  I kept them for years and pored over them.  Indeed, I had them until 1973.  So it is remarkable that only when I took a course in Asian art, and had a boxful of University Prints to go with it, did I pay serious attention to C. T. Loo (Sherman Lee's big Asian equivalent to Janson's History of Art was still a decade in the future).  C. T. Loo keeps recurring, most lately in Edmund de Waal's Hare with Amber Eyes.  Nothing given to an observant child is truly wasted.  If only one is fortunate to live long enough it all comes together to enrich the decades when hiking all over the world's great cities is too difficult (since true aesthetes seldom get rich).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cosmological Words

Nothing and Chaos, with or without Strings
Here is the NASA link to the photograph used to illustrate, in part, a galaxy cluster at the limit of visible space.  See Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, 2012, Ch. 2 (on a Kindle, search CMBR, ff. or gravitational lensing where, at "location 622-625" the NASA photo is reproduced to illustrate it).

Krauss, whatever other physicists may be saying right now, is incomparably the best teacher among them, barring perhaps only Richard Feynman.  He isn't merely being cute when he says that everything, and you and I, are literally made of stardust: our basic constituent elements were born in the cores of the first stars.  Before that there was only plasma.  That is OK in physics, I guess, but it's misleading if you think Greek (for the word is Greek).  Plasma is any substance that one can model things in, so think of the God of Genesis 2, or of Prometheus modeling Pandora.  Generally, though, he is wondrously good with words.  He knows that 'data' are plural, and he is as concrete as it is possible to be.  He knows that his readers are not stupid but also that it is hopeless to try to explain Dirac's equation (for example) to them.  He can be humorous, but without being low, when the context permits: "Infinity is not a pleasant quantity, however, at least as far as a physicist is concerned", a neat rebuke to the metaphysical tribe.  Before I say any more I'll have to read the book a second time, but I do not hesitate to recommend it heartily (or you can take Richard Dawkins' "Afterword", if you want his authority).  It is a wonderful book to read, only I have read it so fast that I need to read it again.  As my heading indicates, he does not like string theory.
What I can address, though, is the antiquity of his mentality.  Epicurus and Lucretius, even the pre-Socratics,  are downright modern by comparison with Hesiod.
Hesiod, who in the Theogony is not, I suppose, later than Homer (once the obligatory window dressing to the Muses is done—it is not his own), begins, II. 116, ff., "First of all Chaos came into being, next broad-bosomed earth... Out of Chaos came Darkness and black Night, and out of Night came Light and Day..."  It is not the order we'd put things in, but Hesiod's cosmus comes before any deities or heroes are named.  As I was taught, this is earlier than Genesis 1.  And Chaos should not be translated as "void" or "space" or "yawning gap" (ginnungagap is the Norse word).  The big lexicon, LSJ, itself refuses to further define Chaos, "the first state of the universe" (citing Hesiod, as above).  Chaos, undifferentiation, is prior to cosmus, order.  Now, that is tantamount (and in the 8th century BCE!), to Nothing (with the upper-case initial supplied by Krauss to make it clear).  It is as good as Odysseus making the befuddled Polyphemus think that he is Oudeis (Nobody).  Chaos does seem to be the Undifferentiated, so No-Thing.
Greek thought, even so early that abstract words have not yet evolved to meet the task, is from our earliest records cosmology and physics, not metaphysics.  Lawrence Krauss is up to his eyeballs in it, and, like the Greeks, he is highly verbal (not that he cites Hesiod!).
Working through Epicurus philologically will take me a bit more time, but I haven't forgotten it.
Though by now most of my thoughts or opinions are as mixed as my all-American genealogy, it is mete and right to say that my idea of Chaos came straight from one of my favorite professors, Joseph Fontenrose, at UC Berkeley.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Belfast on Antiques Roadshow

Harlan and Wolff, Titannic, Canberra, and Belfast
6 Jan 12  Buster's bath.  Only tangentially relevant.
One of our treats on Public Broadcasting is hours of the original Antiques Roadshow.  Occasionally, these are more than usually interesting.  Not that surprising remarks don't occur on the American one.  Once a representative of a big firm, such as Christie's, said of a wonderful little picture of a cat in that complicated pose, which Leonardo da Vinci himself drew (and I think it's in one of the notebooks at Windsor) that unfortunately most people would be offended by the cat's being shown washing more than its face, and so the picture would realize much less at auction.  But what is more admirable than an elderly cat that, rain or shine, keeps its white underside as white as an albino rabbit?  And the posture is one of the miracles of nature.  So when I came home Friday afternoon, and saw Buster at work, I grabbed the little camera; he was so industrious, and the sun was so low at 5 pm, that 1/25 second couldn't quite stop his action, since the wonderful little camera correctly read its object as needing 4.8 for depth of field: Buster, my favorite model, was posing for Leonardo, no less.
Earlier this week, though, we had an hour of the UK Antiques Roadshow from Belfast, at the monument in the building site of the Titannic and her sisters.  To read even the Wikipedia article on the Titannic, you'd think that the iceberg, the loss of life, the passenger list, the lifeboats and all were the whole story.  This is to ignore the most important human and socio-economic side of this equivalent of an Empire State Building or, for that matter, a World Trade Center, though icebergs cannot be blamed of plotting.  As one after another showed memorabilia and recited recollections of their assorted relationships to Harland and Wolff, I realized that I had understood nothing much at all about the city of Belfast (and probably about Northern Ireland in general).  Here were the most modest and proud and devoted people you could ever dream of meeting and their sweet and unaffected children.  For almost my whole life I've known nothing, seen nothing of Belfast but the "troubles", which, of course, were all too real and tragic.  But here were men, women, and children quite unaffected in front of the camera and enjoying the occasion, too.  Their pride in shipbuilding was unforgettable, not least that of the gentleman whose pride was in Harlan and Wolff's last great ship, the Canberra, 1961 and not scrapped till 1997.  Shipbuilding is for Belfast what automobiles are to Detroit, steel to Pittsburg, filmmaking to Hollywood, but I have never seen a finer identification of a community and great industry than that evinced by the builders of the Titanic and their descendants.  They had given their all to shipbuilding.
And Buster, now somewhat arthritic, is unaffectedly doing what a clean animal ought to do.
I must go and see what the eleventh Britannica, 1910, for which I have three update volumes, has to say.