Role Models

This is the thirty-first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXI: Autobiography, Cellini

There are some who argue that Pablo Picasso’s art should not be displayed, not because there is anything wrong with the art itself, but because Picasso was a misogynist. I do not know enough about his personal life to opine on whether the allegations are true (although at least one critic has questioned that account.) Even assuming all of the worst complaints about Picasso are true, could that justify burying his art? Or, to put it in less provocative terms: once the art is produced, can it be evaluated independently of analysis of the artist himself?

Benvenuto Cellini is a much older artist than Picasso and he was almost certainly a worse person. He was a philanderer (with both me and women.) And a prison escapee. And a murderer. And a generally pretty bad dude.

In his autobiography, Cellini recounts how he hired a model in part to revenge himself upon her husband. He writes: “I made her serve my pleasure, out of spite against her husband, jeering at them both the while. Furthermore, I kept her for hours together in position, greatly to her discomfort.” And when she grumbled about this mistreatment and bragged of her husband’s social position, Cellini lost his cool. “Yielding myself up to blind rage, I seized her by the hair, and dragged her up and down my room, beating and kicking her till I was tired. There was no one who could come to her assistance. When I had well pounded her she swore that she would never visit me again. Then for the first time I perceived that I had acted very wrongly; for I was losing a grand model, who brought me honour through my art. Moreover, when I saw her body all torn and bruised and swollen, I reflected that, even if I persuaded her to return, I should have to put her under medical treatment for at least a fortnight before I could make use of her.” Like I said, bad dude.

But like Picasso, Cellini produced some marvelous works of art. Consider his statue of Perseus and the Head of Medusa:

Copyright 2012, J.M.C.

This bronze masterpiece was commissioned to stand alongside Michelangelo’s statue of David, as well as statues by Donatello. Cellini was evidently up to such a daunting assignment.

When I first saw the statue in person, I recognized the subject and was struck by the mastery of the work. I did not know, at the time, anything about Cellini or even that he was the sculptor. Now that I know more about him, I find the statue somewhat more intriguing. But in the end, it clearly stands on its own merits. Perseus is a noteworthy piece of art because of its quality, without regard to the qualities (or vices) of its sculptor.

That’s not to say that context does not matter. Perseus is an excellent example of the importance of context. Medusa’s gaze turned men in to stone, so the Perseus myth was a truly inspired choice for a piazza filled with marble statues. It is as if Cellini’s statue remade all of the other statues in the piazza as part of itself.

The historical and interpersonal contexts of Cellini’s and Picasso’s works are important as well. The patronage of the Medicis, Cellini’s checkered (to put it delicately) personal past, and his relationship with Michelangelo shed additional light upon his work. Likewise, Picasso’s personal relationships and offenses may illuminate how and why he produced the art that he did. The quality of the art does not excuse the acts of the man, but neither do his acts condemn the art; they only serve to help us understand each other.

Beer of the week: Steel Reserve 211 High Gravity Lager – European beer labels often include the beer’s specific gravity. (See, e.g. Šenkovní 10) In broad strokes, higher specific gravity means more sugar (traditionally from malt, but in a beer like this probably from cheeper “adjunct” grains), and more sugar means more alcohol. This “high gravity lager” is purpose-built for more alcohol. It is clear and golden. The aroma is faint but unappealing. The flavor is abrasive, with notes of slightly off apple juice and alcohol. Not a good choice.

This beer is paired with Cellini’s Autobiography because Steel Reserve has a special place in my own autobiography. One evening, at a gas station in Florida, my friend M– and I bought a few of cans Steel Reserve. Our decision was informed primarily by the beer’s 8.1% alcohol content. Anyway, it was Lent, so…

Reading of the week: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Chapter LXXVIII – This chapter has none of the sex or violence or crime of much of the book. But it does describe how Cellini removed the statue of Perseus and the Head of Medusa from it’s mold, and seeing “in this the hand of God arranging and controlling all.” It is refreshing, in a way, to read about Cellini’s art rather than his vices.

Question for the week: Could Picasso (or any artist) have done anything so vile that one could not stand to look upon his art, no matter how beautiful it seemed before the artists sins were known?

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Crazy Cowboy Categories

This is the eleventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XI: Origin of Species, Darwin

Beer used to be an extremely local product, made with local ingredients and techniques. As a result, each region had its own styles, but few people had access to a wide range of different beers. As more beers have gotten wider distribution, people have attempted systematic categorization of beers. Here is my taxonomy for the beer of the week:

Kingdom – Beverage
Phylum – Fermented drinks
Class – Beer
Order – Lager
Family – American Adjunct Lager
Genus – Malt Liquor
Species – Crazy Cowboy American Lager

Although “malt liquor” is not on the can, there is good reason to think this is a proper identification. For one thing, I have only seen it sold in individual 1.5 pint cans, rather than in more traditionally sized units or in six-packs. Also, the price was $0.99 (before tax) for 24 oz. And although the alcohol content does not appear on the label, Untappd has it listed as 5.6% abv. Super cheap, relatively high-alcohol beer? This one could probably have been categorized before the can was even opened. Once it was poured, no doubt remained.

Beer of the week: Crazy Cowboy American Lager – This is a clear gold beer with some slightly sour aroma. The flavor confirms the style; it tastes of cheap grain and little else, with a slightly metallic aftertaste. Not great, but it does remind me of some crazy times.

Reading of the week: The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – This chapter tackles the question of where mere varieties end and distinct species begin. We take for granted a lot of the larger taxonomic distinctions, but as we get closer to the individual specimen, it becomes harder to draw firm lines.

Question for the week: Is there a principled distinction between a stout and a porter? And are different brewing technique or ingredient list more important in distinguishing styles?


New Year, New Adventure

The New Year represents opportunity for new adventure. Every single day consists of a series of decisions which may lead to daring exploits, wild escapades, or… comfortable nights at home. (Which may be every bit as fulfilling as any carousal.) Of course, there are also decisions which may lead to ruin. But no matter where one’s decisions lead, the key to enjoying the adventures of life as they come is not to not dwell on what could have been but for missteps, circumstance, or reluctance to take a leap.

In the second novel in George MacDonald Fraser’s series The Flashman Papers, Royal Flash, the aged narrator (and great veteran of outlandish adventure) reflects on as much: “I’ve seen too much of life to fret over if’s and but’s. There’s nothing you can do about them, and if you find yourself at the end of the day an octogenarian with money in the bank and drink in the house — well, you’d be a fool to wish that things had fallen out differently.”

Flashman’s point of view may seem unfair; not everybody will survive to an advanced age, let alone with his mind, health, and bank account intact. But the sentiment is appropriate for all people. Regardless of station, nobody can turn back time and make better decisions. Likewise, wishing that things had worked out differently is always foolish since wishing will not make it so. The best that one can do is enjoy the current conditions and learn from past mistakes. Adventure still lies ahead, one need only take a step…
Tatra Mocne

 

Beer of the week: Tatra Mocne – The label of this beer is adorned with the visage of an Indiana Jones-type character, so it seems appropriate for a meditation on adventure. On one of my adventures, I spent some time in Poland. While there, I enjoyed quite a few pints of local dark lager. On a recent trip to my neighborhood liquor store, I spotted two varieties beer from the Polish brand Tatra: “Original” and “Mocne”. Since the Mocne can is black and I am not literate in Polish, I grabbed it in the hopes that it was the dark lager that I remember so fondly. Unfortunately, the Polish word for dark is “czarne”; “mocne” means strong. Rather than a smooth dark lager, I purchased a high alcohol (7%) lager, basically a malt liquor. The aroma and flavor are quite standard for a cheap malt liquor. Disappointing, really. Not all adventures pan out.

Reading of the week: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope – The Prisoner of Zenda is one of the most successful adventure novels of all time. I am familiar with the story more through parody than from reading the book itself. This frantic and exciting excerpt gives a taste of what can result from a deliberate scheme for adventure, or from the mere circumstance of mistaken identity.

Question of the week: What adventure do you anticipate in 2016?


Intemperate Minds

Freedom is an oft recurring theme on this blog. Often the subject is freedom from economic restrictions or government imposition. But there are other forces out there that restrict one’s freedom. For some people alcohol is one of those forces. As the members of Alcoholics Anonymous put it, “we are powerless over alcohol [and]… our lives have become unmanageable.” The bondage of addiction hints at an important questions about liberty.

Edmund Burk wrote that “men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” To be governed by ones passions or addictions is to be a slave. As a consequence, there are those who argue that certain substances and actions should be banned in an otherwise free society. Liberty must be preserved by prohibition. Although paradoxical, the logic is this:

The decision to give up one’s freedom is inconsistent with being a member of a free society.
Therefore, one may not choose to be a slave.
Freedom to consume alcohol is the freedom to become an alcoholic.
But to be an alcoholic is to be a slave to alcohol.
Therefore, a free man may not consume alcohol.

Of course there are other arguments put forward by prohibitionists, but this rationale is the most interesting to me: freedom to drink (or use drugs, or buy sex, or smoke cigars) is false freedom since it leads to intemperance. And intemperance, as Burke said is slavery. So to prevent people from becoming slaves to their passions, they must be denied the freedom to drink (or use drugs, or buy sex, or smoke cigars).

One might argue that the word slavery is being thrown about a little too freely here. It may be a mistake to conflate slavery to addiction with chattel slavery. However, there are certainly those who believe that slavery to alcohol is as bad as actual slavery. As Frederick Douglass wrote “we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.” Both an escaped slave and a teetotaler, Douglass looks at the issue from an interesting perspective.

Although I have never been an addict or a slave, I do not think that slavery to alcohol is really comparable to chattel slavery. Further, I do not buy the argument that the only way to ensure freedom is to prohibit things that might lead to dissipation. In fact, I think that it is quite the opposite.

But this is not a new debate. After all, the first prohibition was on eating apples. So why did God put the tree in the garden if he knew that to eat from it was to die? Because, as the serpent pointed out, if there is no choice then there is no liberty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beer of the week: King Cobra Premium Malt Liquor – The serpent convinced Eve to eat of the fruit, so it can probably convince somebody to drink malt liquor. Malt liquor, as it turns out, is the sort of thing that alcoholics (and poor ones at that) would drink. As noted before, the designation of “malt liquor” in the United States basically just means “cheap, high alcohol beer”. A six pack of King Cobra is about 15¢ more that a sixer of Big Flats Light, but at 6% alcohol, this is the obvious choice for the drunk on a budget. That is until it is poured (although I think that it is more standard to consume King Cobra straight fro the can or 40 oz. bottle). This beer is very pale and very carbonated. Though the head fades very quickly, it is snow white and made of big bubbles, like a soda pop. It smells of cheap grain. The flavor is not as aggressively bad as expected. It has hints of apple juice and the strong carbonation leaves a pleasant fizzy tingle on the tongue. 

Reading of the week: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass – Just last week I wrote about how unreliable autobiographies can be. But I never said that they are not worth reading. In this passage, Douglass describes how slaves are given excessive amounts of alcohol to convince them that they are better off as slaves than they would be if they had to make their own choices. “Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty.”

Question of the week: Does the above rationale for prohibition make sense despite its paradoxical nature? Are there other, more valid reasons to support prohibition?


Of Memory and Destiny

Education, formal education, usually stops in one’s early twenties. There are those who achieve advanced degrees and, if they are fortunate, remain involved in formal education for the rest of their lives. The life of the student is somewhat glorified in my mind. My love of learning is so deep that I can scarcely imagine a better life than that of a professional learner of things. Recently, however, I have made attempts to see the value of a life beyond books. As Alexei Fyodorovich said in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, “People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.”

Memory preserves us. A memory of goodness and warmth can protect us from straying from the right path. Above all, the reason that memory is a good education is the reason that all education is good: it prepares us for whatever the future might hold.

Dostoevsky isn’t advocating a life of nostalgia, but a life guided by deeply embedded principles. The man with good and cherished memories doesn’t pine for what he has lost, but he sees in his memory all of the good things of which he is capable. Karamazov tells us that the man with but a single cherished memory “will reflect and say, ‘Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!'” And that memory will remind him that he can still be so good and so brave and so honest.

Look back at your greatest moments and reflect on all the greatness that may yet lie before you. All you must do is remember how good you can be. “Don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!”

mickeys

Beer of the Week: Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor – As it turns out, Mickey’s Malt Liquor is what you should drink if you don’t want to remember. The distinction between beer and malt liquor is primarily a legal technical one. In many administrative districts, once a beer exceeds a certain alcohol content it must be marketed as “malt liquor”. There are a few beers, such as Carlsberg Elephant, that are “premium” beers labeled as malt liquor. However, the bulk of beers known as malt liquor are simply cheap, high alcohol beer. Mickey’s falls into this category. The distinctive “hand grenade” bottle really should be enough to warn the consumer that this is a bad choice to ingest. Mickey’s is actually just unremarkable, but most malt liquors aren’t brewed to be remarkable. It is not good, but if the goal is to get hammered while drinking out of bottles that look like explosive ordnance .. well, there you have it.
Upon drinking the second bottle (I always drink two of each beer I review,) I am beginning to suspect that I actually have an acquired taste aversion to this beer. Maybe I drank too much one night that I don’t totally recall and it made me sick. For whatever reason, the first sip of the second glass instantly made me feel a bit queasy. In fact, now that I think about it, the last time I had this beer, I also ate an inordinate number of steamed shrimps. My body rejected the combination of Mickey’s and shrimps. Some things are best forgotten.

Reading for the Week: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky – This excerpt from the end of the novel is pretty much what I want somebody to read at my funeral. I have seldom been so emotionally moved by a piece of writing. Maybe I should read it sober, just to be sure.

Question for the week: What memory do you have that edifies and preserves you?