Symbols & Turning One’s Back

First, a digression or prologue: Here are some descriptions of modern art as proposed by their creators, gleaned off the interwebs:

The picture shows how unhappy people which, is dependent on consumption, and as he turns into a cripple.

The painting shows the influence of television on the number of things we purchase.

Pity draws this exercise to a premature close. The artists themselves seem to be charmingly innocent, just trying to do what they’ve been told to do, and I don’t want to just pick on people. Simply, one could never tell, prior to the explanation, what, if anything, the artwork was supposed to ‘show’. It would be cruel, perhaps, to mix and match descriptions to artwork and see if anyone other than the artist could tell the difference.

Key point: great art doesn’t require a program to appreciate it, only, at most, a common cultural background with the artists. You have failed as an artist if you need to tell people what your work ‘shows’.

Let us pick on more deserving targets. Returning to the well one more time, here are snippets from what might be called the program that explains the cathedral in Los Angeles, from its website, with some commentary.

Spanish architect, Professor José Rafael Moneo has designed a dynamic, contemporary Cathedral with virtually no right angles. This geometry contributes to the Cathedral’s feeling of mystery and its aura of majesty.

We are being told here that the proper feeling to have when viewing this:

LA Cathedral

…is “mystery and its aura of majesty.”

Well. For comparison, I choose from among any of the thousands of great Catholic cathedrals that have been loved for generations:

Image result for siena cathedral

Does the degree to which you feel the “mystery and its aura of majesty” looking at the Duomo in Siena just like the feeling you get looking at the L.A. Cathedral? In any way similar? (Spoiler – having stood in about the spots each of these pictures were taken: no, the feelz are not similar. While the pictures in each case greatly tone down the effects, they do accurately engender them.)

Let’s pop inside: LA Cathedral Interior

Siena

In the first picture, the lack of right angles is supposed to contribute to our feelings of mystery and majesty. In the second, I think maybe it’s the awe-inspiring beauty that gets that done.

 

The challenge in designing and building a new Cathedral Church was to make certain that it reflected the diversity of all people.

Really? Who says? A small ‘c’ catholic church building should rather emphasize unity, maybe?

Rather than duplicate traditional designs of the Middle Ages in Europe, the Cathedral is a new and vibrant expression of the 21st century Catholic peoples of Los Angeles.

None of whom were consulted nor approved of this design. Just saying.

“I wanted both a public space,” said Moneo, “and something else, what it is that people seek when they go to church.” To the architect, the logic of these two competing interests suggested, first of all, a series of “buffering, intermediating spaces” — plazas, staircases, colonnades, and an unorthodox entry.

Um, what? Setting aside the weird circumlocution beginning with ‘something else’ that clumsily avoids talking about God and salvation, there’s an ancient tradition of providing transition from the external to internal worlds. Note, for example, the lovely piazza in front of the Siena Duomo leading to steps and awesome huge doors. It’s perfectly clear as you assend the steps from the piazza and approach those doors that you are moving from the public to the sacred. With its steps, levels, plaza, long confusing ambulatory, the L.A. Cathedral merely awkwardly overdoes it.

The Cathedral is built with architectural concrete in a color reminiscent of the sun-baked adobe walls of the California Missions and is designed to last 500 years.

…which adobe was always whitewashed, often painted, and adorned to the fullest extent the people could manage. That ‘designed to last 500 years’ always seemed like a threat, but maybe that’s just me…

The Cathedral’s interior design captures the principle of a spiritual journey.

The painful and unsettling part? Chesterton talks about how Catholic art favors the gentle, suffering Jesus over the ‘Woe and Temple-cleansing’ Jesus because gentle Jesus is easier to approach in prayer. I guess we modern Catholics are tougher than that!

Unlike most Cathedrals, we are not entering through a rear door near the last pews. Rather, we enter the ambulatory which circles the interior of the Cathedral.

This gets to the entire point of this preamble: one would never suspect there was anything wrong or lacking in the approach and entrance to a traditional cathedral unless he were *told* there was something lacking. To recap: one enters a traditional cathedral typically by crossing a plaza to ascend steps, passing through massive doors and under a tympanum which usually depicts the Last Judgement, entering into an awe-inspiring nave, flanked by lines of columns leading to and focusing attention on the high altar. Many, many people over the centuries have commented on exactly how moving that experience can be.

But not in L.A.! Here, we need to be told that we’ve been missing something, and told we should love and prefer a meandering, pointless, artificially long entrance.

Our betters will tell us what to think. If we don’t like it, well, that just demonstrates why they are our betters!

The ambulatory urges us forward, on a slight incline, heightening our sense of an upward journey, past various devotional chapels that open onto the walkway, not onto the Cathedral’s worship space, allowing a more meditative environment for devotional prayer.

The light and diversity of shapes draws people forward along the ambulatory and around the corner to the Baptistery and the enormous public worship space.

Hey! ‘Enormous’ used correctly in its original sense!  Also, note ‘worship space’. Not a church or even a nave, a ‘worship space’. OK, enough of this.

Artist statements we love

When I first began this blog, I wrote a number of items on symbols versus signs. The key distinction: symbols have meaning that does not need to be explained, or, at worst, once explained ‘clicks’ – the church uses red symbolically on the feasts of the Martyrs. Any questions?

Signs, on the other hand, will sometimes employ symbolism, but are more conventional in their meaning. Stop signs are traditionally red, but that they mean ‘stop’ is conventional. Red is a good color for this, but not necessary to get the point across. Blood, and therefore martyrdom, and red are connected in a way that stopping and red are not.

Signs can be made much more powerful by the artful use of symbols. In the old days, banks, which engage in the most abstract and ephemeral of businesses, made their buildings out of stone, as a sign of permanence. Good use of the natural symbolic content of stone – hard, enduring, not going anywhere – to communicate what they wanted to communicate – See? We’re not the fly-by-night operation you might reasonably suspect us of being! Solid as a rock, you might even say.

Gestures can also be symbolic, having meaning independent of social convention. Bowing and kneeling are gestures your dog understands. This doesn’t have to be the case – shaking your head for no and nodding for yes are, I hear, conventional. But I will contend that there is a large range of human gestures the meanings of which are not conventional, or at least have a core meaning conventions hang off of.

The whole preamble of this essay was intended to show how we, in the modern age, often try to gloss over with words of explanation the symbolic content or lack thereof of art, gestures, and actions in general. The L.A. Cathedral is known as the Taj Mahoney, because many people saw right through the pretend taking of input and invocation of diversity as attempting to veil what was essentially a $200M+ exercise in hubris. Both symbols and signs were involved in getting this project through – mitered cardinals in long processions, masses, blessings – but a key was blowing smoke, smoke illustrated in the snippets quoted above. What you see is not what you see – we will tell you what you see.

All this ramble was occasioned by an observation at mass yesterday. One universal symbol, a gesture that, again, your dog understands, is turning you back. Your dog knows that you are withholding approval or showing disapproval when you turn away from him. By dozens of gestures, we turn our backs on the Eucharist both literally and figuratively. As a symbol, this gesture has its meaning and emotional effect regardless of the words – the artistic program – used to explain why that’s not what it means. What you see is not what you see – we will tell you what you see.

This turning has been ritualized to the point where failure to comply makes one stand out, so very few people, even among those who understand what’s happening on some level, will buck the behaviors.

Before I go on, let me say that there are more or less reasonable reasons for many of these gestures. Taken separately, each might be OK in the sense that there is at least a sound theological or practical debate possible on the topic. Taken together, however, and it’s clear the goal is to change theology, or to express a theology already changed.

Let me count the ways:

  • Churches renovated so that it is all but impossible for some portion of the congregation not to stand with their backs to the tabernacle. Maybe it’s the choir, or maybe it’s some pews positioned so that the altar is surrounded. Either way, everybody gets the clear message that the tabernacle, and by necessary and inescapable logic, what is in the tabernacle, is not only not important, but is being actively shunned.
  • Versum Populum. This might be the number one case in point for where there are good historical and theological reasons. The Church has done this off and on over the centuries. But how it was implemented – I’ve heard stories about centuries old altars being jack-hammered because they were too close to the wall to allow the priest to face the people – shows inescapable contempt for history and craftsmanship (I’ve yet to see a new ‘table’ half as beautifully done as many old altars). And you’ve turned your back on the tabernacle, if it hasn’t been consigned to the outer darkness.

These are the most literal and obvious cases of turning your back. Other similar issues:

  • Bowing instead of genuflecting when passing in front of the tabernacle. Again, can be non-stupid reasons. Taken with everything else…
  • Communion received standing in the hand, instead of kneeling on the tongue. Sure, reasons, but since we’ve turned our backs on the Real Presence, traipsed back and forth across the sanctuary like a living room and otherwise worked to actively destroy any sense that this moment is sacred – well, is it sacred? What does sacred even mean?
  • General loss of the distinction of vulgar versus sacred space. Inside the church, a building made sacred by the Real Presence, should be fundamentally and patently difference from the space outside. Is it?

Anyway, I find myself more in favor of any gesture that marks the Mass and the physical church it is celebrated in as sacred. We are a people set apart. High time we started acting like it.

 

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Weekend Update: the Sierra Leaves Me In Stitches

My head is starting to clear enough to at least think about doing some reading and writing. Let’s see if I can get this blog back on track.

A. My dear brother-in-law and his family in San Francisco invited my mother-in-law, who has been living with us over the last 16 months, to spend the weekend. This freed the more ambulatory contingent of the household to do some Nature, in the form of swimming at Clark’s Hole near Auburn, California, near where the American River’s branches conflux (that should be a verb!) on their way out of the Sierra.

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Looking back at the Old Forrest Hill Road from the Lake Clementine Trail. About the last bit of water you can see at the top is the spot where the Middle Fork meets the North Fork of the American River. The South Fork confluxes (It’s a verb, I say!) a little further down in Folsom Lake, a huge reservoir.

About an hour 40 minutes east of Concord, CA, the city of Auburn lies in the Gold Country on the old Gold Rush road called, appropriately, Highway 49. A couple miles south of town, the road descends to near the bottom of the river canyon, where Old Forrest Hill Road splits off. A ranger station sits just west of the bridge pictured above; the Lake Clementine Trail starts on east side.

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Offspring heading down the Lake Clementine Trail (the lake is another reservoir). That bridge, 730′ above the canyon floor, has been seen in many movies when a dramatic car-falling-off-a-bridge scene is called for.

Up the trail, under the impressive bridge, about 3/4 mile in is Clark’s Hole, a deep, slow-moving piece of what is otherwise a white-water river. Who Clark was has been lost to history, but this swimming hole has been in use as such for well over 100 years.

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Looking down at Clark’s Hole from the trail. That little rock cliff overlooks water 25-30′ deep, and is ideal for jumping. A passel of teenagers showed up later, and, after the manner of their kind, spend a couple hours jumping off those rocks. My offspring took a few turns. My beloved and I gave it a pass.
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Down by the water. Clark’s Hole runs quite a ways up the river, but only here near the end are there both easy-ish access and places to sit along the shore.

A good time was had by all, despite the 100F+ temperatures. The water was refreshing, but, thankfully, not the fresh snow melt temperatures these rivers coming out of the Sierra tend to be. About 7 years ago, we camped on the Stanislaus River in July, farther in and higher up, to be sure – the guy at the campsite told us the snow had finally melted off on July 4. The water was COLD. Here at Clark’s Hole, the water has been melted off and held in Lake Clementine for a few months now, so it’s not bad at all.

All would have been near perfect, had I not slipped on some mossy rocks and fallen, ending up with a gashed hand (5 stitches between my ring and middle finger on my left hand) and some very sore ribs. But, hey, I’m alive. It only hurts when I laugh. Or cough. Or reach for something. Or get up. Or sit down…. All it cost in the end was a copay at the emergency room and a couple more hours under the tender ministrations of the medical establishment.

(aside: while I have done my best to avoid the medical establishment – people who do so tend to live a lot longer! It’s science! – I’ve had interactions. This is the first time I’ve ever had a medical professional tell me: ‘this is going to hurt quite a bit’ and ‘keep breathing or you’ll pass out.’ What occasioned these comforting words was having painkillers injected into my hand so that she could stitch me up. And – hell, yea. It’s almost like your hands are a collection of highly sensitive nerves designed to enable mankind’s incredible fine motor skills, such that jabbing a needle in there and pumping in stuff HURTS LIKE HELL. Almost exactly like that.)

B. Got a little farther on the brickwork out front.

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Looking north.
IMG_5153
Looking South.

I one sense, this is an exercise in seeing if I can make use of ugly bricks. The back wall farthest from the street is made of those ugly concrete bricks people mostly use as pavers. The front wall will be made of those extra tall construction bricks. It will be double wide, capped in standard clay bricks, and topped with a 3′ wrought iron fence. There will be a 1′ wide planter between the walls. As we scavenged free bricks off Craig’s List, I ended up with many concrete and construction bricks; by building this wall/planter and its twin to the south, hope to use them up in an aesthetically pleasing way.

In the meantime, the fencing arrived.

IMG_5155

All I have to do is finish the planters to get them off our front porch. Sheesh.

C. We’re reading aloud Lord of the World and Lord of the Rings. Probably should start Lord of the Flies to keep the theme going? JK. While Tolkien is a sure crowd pleaser, I’m happy to report that the kids, age 20 & 14, are digging Lord of the World as well. It’s a very early – 1907 – dystopian apocalyptic novel told almost entirely via the internal lives of the main characters, at least over the first third to half. That you can get and hold young people’s attention with such a thing is remarkable, but Benson is a very good writer telling an remarkable story.

Almost finished that r/K is politics book. Will have stuff to say about it. It’s – something else.

Then, as energy and attention allow, back to the massive to be read stack.

D. Spent much of the first month of my involuntary unemployment dealing with health issues. Boring stuff, nothing life-threatening except in the way that mere health is life threatening if you let it go on long enough. Say, an additional 20-30 years, in my case. If I’m lucky.

My main complaint is tiredness, weakness and muddleheadedness. Adjusting the blood pressure meds did seem to deal with the sleepy part, however I’m still weak and have a very hard time focusing for very long. Been spending inordinate amounts of time on Twitter (I follow a bunch of SciFi writers, Catholics, Catholic SciFi writers, friends of Catholic SciFi writers, and so on) – 240 characters is about the limit of my focus. Match made in Hell.

But according to medical Science! my heart is good, a relief since at my age, my father had already had a massive heart attack resulting in quadruple bypass surgery and early retirement. So thank goodness. (Of course, he then lived to 88. I should be so lucky.)

Anyway, if my head clears up and I’m not feeling so weak all the time, should be able to return to reading and blogging. Let us hope.

Mission Church/Checking In

Been busy and a bit under the weather. Checking back in.

Today, the Concord Queen of All Saints Feast and Faith group took a field trip to Mission Dolores in San Francisco for Mass, a tour of the old adobe mission chapel and lunch. There were 13 of us. It was fun and educational, and it’s always a blessing to be able to say a few prayers in a church you are visiting.

Mision San Francisco de Assis was the sixth mission founded by St. Junipero Serra. In October 9, 1776, the official documents arrived establishing the mission, but Mass had already been celebrated at the site on June 29, so, in a sense, the mission is 5 days older than America. From a very early date, the Mission was called Mission Dolores after an adjacent creek named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. I imagine St. Francis would be amused by this, and wholeheartedly approve.

Originally, the mission comprised a fairly vast area, with 10,000 head of cattle, 10,000 sheep, many horses, etc., as well as workshops, farms and gardens. In a very real sense, it was San Francisco. Several thousand native Americans lived and worked there. Following Mexican independence, in 1834 the missions were ‘secularized’ meaning, in effect, that all their lands except that upon which stood the church buildings and cemeteries were seized by the Mexican government and given to private citizens. This impoverished the mission and lead to a decades long decline. By 1842, only a few Indians lived at the mission, and what remained of the building fell into serious disrepair.

Mission Dolores in the early 1850's in San Francisco.
By the 1850s, it looked like this. 

Then statehood and the Gold Rush brought a flood of people to the Bay, including many Irish and other Catholics. A new parish church in a Gothic Revival style was built adjacent to the old mission chapel to handle the crowds. The old adobe was clad in clapboard, for both aesthetic (it was looking pretty ratty, as the above picture illustrates) and protective reasons.

The 1906 earthquake destroyed the large brick church but left the adobe intact and largely undamaged. In the following dozen years, a new Mission revival style church was built to replace the destroyed brick church and the old mission was carefully restored. Today, the majority of parish activities take place in the new (only 100 years old!) Basilica, while the old chapel is used for one mass a week and is otherwise mostly a tourist attraction. But they do a very respectful job.

A cemetery used to occupy acres around the old church, with about 11,000 people buried there from the 1790s up into the late 1800s. As the streets were put through and land became more dear, the cemetery shrank and the remains moved until, today, only a tiny plot on the south side of the old mission chapel remains. A quick look at the tombstones that remain reveals many names that now grace San Francisco streets and landmarks.

Also adding to the holiness of the place: two saints (at least) have prayed there: St. Junipero Serra celebrated mass while it was under construction, and Pope St. John Paul the Great stopped by to pray when he visited San Francisco.

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The reredos and sanctuary. Note the ceiling, painted in a pattern used by the Ohlone in their basket weaving. 
IMG_5125
Top center: St. Michael guards the place. As well he should. 

Finally, we went to lunch at the Kitchen Story just up the street on 16th. Highly recommended.

 

Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 2

Image result for Richard FeynmanWe are discussing textbooks, starting here with some preliminaries and what textbooks are.  The remaining two questions are:

2. Who gets to say what’s in textbooks

3. Why do we need them

Who gets to say what’s in textbooks? First, let’s consider a fairly recent and I think representative example. Richard Feynman was once on a textbook committee here in California. (Aside: the link above came up when googled for the Feynman essay. The commentary at that site is also worth perusing.) While his experiences date back 50 years, the situation has only become worse. So, who says what in them?

You see, the state had a law that all of the schoolbooks used by all of the kids in all of the public schools have to be chosen by the State Board of Education, so they have a committee to look over the books and to give them advice on which books to take.

Feynman getting a say in what’s in science and math books? Famous, brilliant, Nobel-winning teacher? Sounds about right. Buuuut:

Immediately I began getting letters and telephone calls from schoolbook publishers. They said things like, “We’re very glad to hear you’re on the committee because we really wanted a scientific guy . . .” and “It’s wonderful to have a scientist on the committee, because our books are scientifically oriented . . .” But they also said things like, “We’d like to explain to you what our book is about . . .” and “We’ll be very glad to help you in any way we can to judge our books . . .” That seemed to me kind of crazy.

A nice lady who’d been on the committee before told him how it worked:

They would get a relatively large number of copies of each book and would give them to various teachers and administrators in their district. Then they would get reports back on what these people thought about the books.

But this is Feynman we’re talking about! So:

Since I didn’t know a lot of teachers or administrators, and since I felt that I could, by reading the books myself, make up my mind as to how they looked to me, I chose to read all the books myself. . . .

If you know anything about government committees, you may be able to guess what happens. Feynman is the ONLY person on the committee who read any of the books. In one case, there was a book being rated even though it was blank:

We came to a certain book, part of a set of three supplementary books published by the same company, and they asked me what I thought about it.

I said, “The book depository didn’t send me that book, but the other two were nice.”

Someone tried repeating the question: “What do you think about that book?”

“I said they didn’t send me that one, so I don’t have any judgment on it.”

The man from the book depository was there, and he said, “Excuse me; I can explain that. I didn’t send it to you because that book hadn’t been completed yet. There’s a rule that you have to have every entry in by a certain time, and the publisher was a few days late with it. So it was sent to us with just the covers, and it’s blank in between. The company sent a note excusing themselves and hoping they could have their set of three books considered, even though the third one would be late.”

It turned out that the blank book had a rating by some of the other members! They couldn’t believe it was blank, because [the book] had a rating. In fact, the rating for the missing book was a little bit higher than for the two others. The fact that there was nothing in the book had nothing to do with the rating.

Read the whole thing, if you have the stomach for it. Feynman noted many egregious errors and obvious failings in the books that did have stuff in them, so much so that one is lead to wonder if the blank book would not have been an improvement (hint: yes). The rest of the essay is about the corruption of the selection process, where the publishers wine and dine the committee members to get their support, but given the nature and quality of the books, that qualifies as a secondary scandal.

So, to answer the question: who gets to decide what goes in textbooks? it’s ‘educators’ with the ‘help’ of politicians. In the above essay, the recommendations of the committee are largely overturned by the politicians allocating the state budget. The committee was instructed not to look at cost, so they couldn’t recommend a set of books within any budget, or have a hierarchy of which books to cut first if the money wasn’t there. Didn’t matter anyway, as the Education Department simply did what they wanted once a budget was determined. Feynman, a legendary teacher himself, is there just for cover – it’s not like he get to decide, or even have much of a say, despite his expertise.

Two things should be obvious from this story: first, educators, a class of people that did not exist until about 200 years ago (people were teachers, back then) decide what goes into the books. State education departments are and have always been staffed by educators and political hacks.

But the second thing is more perhaps more shocking: it doesn’t matter what goes into the textbooks, so long as it fails to teach! It is not like there are not many people out there who can teach algebra, say, and who could write a good, usable textbook on the subject.  I ran across one such book many years ago, and it was night and day. After taking the usual high school algebra courses, I could sort of do the math, but my understanding was limited. Then, in my mid-20s, in a few pages of a book I stumbled across in a library  written by a guy who understood and loved his subject, it was a mini Eureka! moment. Algebra wasn’t a series of tricks and rules, but rather a complete logical system. The fragments made no sense; the whole was beautiful.

So, I know they’re out there. Textbooks written by people who understand and love their subjects are never used in the public schools, at least K-12. This is no accident. It’s not just the experts whose opinions are ignored. What parents might wish were in them is worse than irrelevant – it is to be actively shunned.

The compulsory, graded public school system was never envisioned as a means to educate. Fichte, Mann and their spawn hardly cared if the students learned traditional subjects. The system they dreamed up, realized and imposed with the police power of the state was intended from the beginning to form an obedient and docile population.  Textbooks that teach real knowledge do not help toward this end, and might hinder it. Better to not run that risk.

2nd of July Update

A. Made a little progress on the 3rd year and running Never-ending Front Yard Brickwork Project of Doom:

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Got the forms removed, added a couple feet of brick walk. I needed to see how it looked before deciding exactly where to position the column that will hold up the fence. Thinking the column should be about 4-6″ in front of the wall, to add a little articulation. Yes, I’m that geeky and obsessive.  
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This gives some idea where we’re going with this. Column on the end where the rebar is sticking up, 8″ (2 bricks wide) wall along the front nearest the street, 12″ planter in the middle, 4″ wide wall in the back. 3′ tall iron fence runs down the middle of the 8″ wide 16″ tall wall, flanked at either end by a brick column. Then, after the gap for the water meter, an identical set up on the other side. Fearful symmetry. 
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Oh look! A row of bricks for the 4″ wall! The Caboose and I threw them down just now. 

It will be extremely cute, with a little orchard behind it and climby plants in the planters, maybe some rosemary hanging down. Hope I live long enough to enjoy it…

B. Speaking of which, still ill. Still think it’s at least partly the blood pressure drugs, but to be honest I’ve gained a frightful amount of weight over the last 25 years, to the point where I need to own that that’s most likely the root of the problems. So, I’ve cut calories by about 1/3. All I need to do is keep that up for a couple years,,,,

It would be good to get some regular exercise, but that’s tricky when I can’t count on feeling up to it at any regular time. Getting long walks in when I can. So I’m logging blood pressure readings several times a day, keeping track of when I take the meds and how I’m feeling. Then when my doctor gets back after the 4th, we need to talk.

No reading, very little writing – mostly just this blog. Concentration is intermittent. More apologies to my beta readers – I am grateful and will get back to you soon, I hope.

C. Finally, got laid off from my job of 21+ years. While not the prime cause, I don’t think, being unable to focus or even stay awake at work helped things. So now I have about 5 months to find another job before I have to start in on my retirement savings. Wish me luck. Say a prayer if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m in much better shape than most people who go through this sort of thing, thank God, and I’m frankly glad to get out of what has long been a deteriorating work situation. But it’s no fun.

Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 1

It has been the great tragedy of our time that people were taught to read and not taught to reason.

– Chesterton, of course

A fascinating comment on an old post that’s been getting some attention lately (by the lowly standards of this blog, anyway) got me to thinking about textbooks.

Three questions:

  1. What are textbooks
  2. Who gets to say what’s in them
  3. Why do we need them

After some preliminaries, we’ll treat each of these questions in turn over two or three posts.

Background musings: When reading a book, one is almost always forced, alas, to rely on some intermediary person’s understanding of the materials. Most works I read and want to read are compilations from other sources (almost all history) or are translated into English, or both. Works of fiction and the occasional first hand account written in a language you read are exceptions – in novels and front line stories, the writer is free, more or less, to tell it as he sees it, and you get to interact, as it were, directly with the writer.

Translations are perhaps the obvious challenge. I read a lot of books written in other languages, and am often acutely aware of being at the mercy of the translator’s understanding and biases. The couple years I spent studying German in high school left no trace; the 2 years of Greek and one of French in college (1) had the benefit of making me aware of how difficult the translator’s job is even with the best of intentions. Read any two translations of Dante, let alone Homer, and you will in places wonder if the translators are working from the same sources. I today read very, very little French and less Greek. And effectively no German. Sigh.

The intermediary in this case is the translator, who has a whole passel of challenges and temptations to deal with, not least of which is to simplify and gloss over stuff he may or may not understand. Some of the more intense discussions at St. John’s were occasioned by why Hippocrates G. Apostle (a well known and fabulously-named translator of Aristotle) had translated the same Greek word into more than one English word according to context, whether his assumptions about context were correct, and whether it was ever OK to read into a text in that manner. Many different translations were dragged out for comparison. “Sheer fantasy” was a comment made by one of the more linguistically skilled professors.

St. John’s College is weird. It also should be pointed out that reading anything like a literal translation of Aristotle is nearly as difficult to understand as it is for somebody with two years of Greek to try to read him in Greek. So, we were all sympathetic to Apostle, but I think we, in the end, didn’t much approve.

I tell the above story merely to illustrate how challenging translation can be, and how one must always exercise some degree of caution when reading translated works. In some cases, the translator’s introduction and footnotes can be very helpful in explaining his approach and sometimes biases, and in helping explain tricky words and passages. But sometimes not.

The other main intermediary is the compilers/re-tellers. When reading history especially, the reader is unpacking a Russian doll – there are the original sources which may or may not be brought to the fore, and all the other historians who have looked at the same materials whose influence may or may not be acknowledged. Exactly what you’re getting, particularly in popular histories where the writer is unlikely to let facts get in the way of the story, is difficult if not impossible for the lay person to grasp.

History is a challenging task, where the broad strokes may not be too controversial, but everything else is up for grabs. The trick is trying to capture both the telling details – and upon what criteria is this detail or that deemed telling? – while at the same time providing some context and overarching analysis without simply steamrolling those details.

Not easy – and that’s assuming you’re honest. Some are not, or at least their criteria for selecting and recounting details are biased to the point of lying. Gibbons and Wells spring to mind, the first applying the principle that anything the Catholic Church was involved in was by that fact alone evil, and the second deciding in advance that, according to Marxist principles, everything is marching forward in a completely non-religious way under the guidance of the totally not-God History toward a totally not a paradise myth Worker’s Paradise. In either case, any detail or even higher level events that failed to confirm their narrative, as the kids call it these days, was ignored or mangled until it did. (2)

Again, introductions and notes are often helpful or at least telling. When I read A History of Private Life a few years ago (well, most of it anyway) I had to deal with both translation – it was written in French – and marked biases among the various scholars who contributed. Some were openly Marxist, which means inclined to lie and ignore stuff the moment it becomes inconvenient to their pathology, while others had an Germanic, nearly obsessive fascination with details (I liked those guys – go figure). And some had no obvious agendas. Good series. It helped me at least to have a little heads up as provided by the introduction and notes.

That said, one’s main tool or defense in understanding and getting something positive from reading is having read and tried to understand lots of different kinds of books, particulary old books that introduce one to truly different cultures. (3) That’s what the exercise of a University education used to largely consist of – the reading and struggling with the ideas in books widely recognized as important. In no particular order, you learn or should learn:

  • Many old stories are beautiful. Our ancestors really knew a good story when they heard one, and how to tell it;
  • There are very, very few really new ideas;
  • Most of the really important ideas are thousands of years old, and never go away;
  • The smartest people today are not smarter than the smartest people of the past;
  • Using big words and plenty of them, and having good things to say are not the same thing.

There is a more complicated thing one might learn, about how an educated person sees the world. This is much harder to put into words. The effect is that one becomes aware of perspective, about how the world will look a certain way to someone who has had certain experiences and accepted certain premises. Crucially, one sees the interaction between beliefs, character and action. In many ways, great novels make this more clear than other types of books, although it’s a critical part of Homer and even of Aristotle. I suppose this is what is meant by being broadminded.

What are textbooks?

Simply put, and with notable exceptions, textbooks are meant to prevent learning any of the lessons a student might learn from good books.

Exceptions include attempts to condense and to some extent predigest the fundamentals of highly technical topics. Grammars, and some math and science texts fall into this class.  Textbooks of this type are sometimes highly original and creative in themselves. Euclid, for example, is sometimes considered a textbook on Greek mathematics, but the gradus ad Parnassum structure of the Elements, leading the student logically from simpler to more complex concepts and proofs, was at least perfected by Euclid, and is his greatest lesson.

Most modern textbooks are not exceptions. Consider the fundamental difference between modern textbooks versus the earliest textbooks use in America, say, McGuffey’s Readers. The Readers were literally textbooks, collections of texts written by what the compilers thought were great writers, typically expressing thoughts characteristic of the highest aspirations of the people whose children were to read them.  The readers are hard, at least much harder than the texts we expect children of similar age today to read.

Modern textbooks are not, as a rule, collections of challenging texts. Instead, the materials in them are fresh wrought. These materials tend to be very simple. This is one aspect of Pestalozzi’s methods (such as they are) that Fichte loved: all learning is to be broken down into atoms, and no student is permitted to move on to atom B until the teacher has determined that he has mastered atom A.

A child with the slightest interest in learning to read will get past the ‘See Spot run” level in at most a couple weeks. This step – giving kids simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words – seems to have, historically, been skipped. In America, large numbers of children learned to read from the King James Bible, which no one will ever accuse of being a collection of simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words.

The other feature of modern textbooks that must be noted: the answers are in the back or in the teacher’s edition. The answers are known, even in subjects such as ‘literature’ or history, where the meaning of any text or event is certainly not reducible to a single statement if it has any meaning at all. Even in math, people with any instinctual understanding of math recognize that while there may be one or one set of correct answers, there are usually many ways to get there. Yet the textbook will mark you wrong if you do not take the route described in the textbook. Even being correct isn’t good enough. Thus another defining feature of modern textbooks: by putting the acceptable answers in the teacher’s hands, textbooks place the teacher between the student and the materials, such that the materials to be learned are not allowed to speak to the student except as approved by the teacher

In general, excepting those textbooks that serve the purpose of collecting and organizing complex basics such as grammar and math, modern textbooks are collections of newly created materials, generally fragmented and simplified to some imagined lowest common denominator. They contain the often increasingly arbitrary acceptable answers to a set of predefined acceptable questions. These questions and answers are under the control of the teacher alone.

Next, we’ll discuss who gets to say what’s in them.

  1. Contrary to all expectation, including mine, I did pass the junior year French reading exam at St. John’s, so there was a brief period where I was a *certified* reader of French. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of St. Joseph of Cupertino? A man considered by his peers to be hopelessly stupid? Where, the story goes, in order to advance toward ordination, he needed to give a brief exposition on some scripture passage, and the examiner asked him about the Nativity narrative – the one point in Scripture upon which any of his religious brothers had ever heard him expound with any coherence. He passed, and ended being ordained a priest. Well, the St John’s College French test happened to be on a passage from de Tocqueville with which I just happened to be very familiar. (de Tocqueville also happens to be very easy French). As soon as I started trying to read it, I was all ‘oh, that passage!’ Luck? Divine Providence? You decide!
  2. Confession: it is unlikely I will live long enough to read Gibbons or Wells all the way through. I’m judging them here based on the snippets I have read and their reputations among people whose views on the matter I respect – e.g., Chesterton.
  3. I’ve long said that trying to understand the ancient Greeks and Hebrews is a greater and more fruitful cultural reach than trying to understand any current culture. The Greeks and Hebrews as deep beyond deep, and as alien in many ways as Martians. And yet, they are us!

Home Improvement: Build That (Little Garden)Wall

Health is variable, but I did get it together enough Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday morning into the early afternoon to get started on a long-delayed project. Yesterday evening, with the trenches dug and the little forms and rebar laid in, the Caboose and I *finally* got the concrete poured for the first half of the long planned (over three years now!) little brick wall wall and walk along the street in the front of our house.

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Taken from the street. On the far left is the end of the brick walk and planters from 2 summers ago, now with attractive citrus tree!  In the center is the shade cloth for the poor suffering avocado trees. To right in the back are some of the many, many bricks I’ll need to finish this entire project (why yes, I am insane. Why do you ask?). Out of frame right is the water meter access that is the cause of not just pouring one 35′ footing  all the way across the frontage and being done with it. 

 

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The Caboose, 14 and very helpful, adds water. 
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Here I do a little preliminary smoothing. This shot reveals the plan a bit better: 8″ wide by 16″ tall wall in front, 12″ planter in the middle, 4″ by 16′ wall in back. My son stands on what will be a 24″ wide continuation of the brick walk.  Note the in-ground water meter (that gray rectangle) and yet more bricks in the background. 

The plan: after work from now until September, in the cool of the evening and with help of whatever kids are around and want to help, a wall gets built and a path gets paved. Also, an identical section of forms and rebar gets laid in on the other side of the water meter. Not sure what I’ll do about the meter – something like a 6′ diameter semicircle around it to give the meter reader (do those guys still exist?) plenty of room. Maybe I’ll mix it up and use stone? I got stone, too.

On top of the 16″ wall, I’ll put a 3′ wrought iron fence, like this:

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6 panels ordered from A Rustic Garden in rural Illinois.  Lovely stuff.  Imagine 2  12′ length between 1′ square brick columns at either end atop a 16″ brick wall….

The net effect: about 25′ of 3′ high fence atop a 16″ high brick wall, interrupted in the middle by whatever I do about the meter. At either end on either side, I’ll put in little 4′ towers to tie the ends of the fence into.

Then throw a little rosemary, climbing things and flowers in the planters. The cute meter will be pegged. But the brick work itself is seriously manly, I trust we all can agree.