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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Scoundrel Worship

This is the twenty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXV: Autobiography, Etc., J.S. Mill; Essays and Addresses, T. Carlyle

It is clear from a review of the titles in the Harvard Classics that Dr. Eliot was a firm believer of the importance of role models and the possibility of learning from experience. His “five-foot shelf” includes a seemingly disproportionate share of biographical works. In addition to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and biographies by Izaak Walton, the set includes autobiographical writings by Franklin, Woolman, Augustine, Mill, Dana, and Cellini.

If the purpose of studying biography is to learn from positive role models, most of these selections are totally understandable. Franklin’s Autobiography is full of folksy wisdom and Puritanical morality. Augustine’s Confessions describe the path to faith and virtue from a dissolute youth. Johns Donne and Woolman were humble and pious preachers whom one would do well to emulate. Excellent role models, they.

But Thomas Carlyle suggests in his essay on Sir Walter Scott (another biographical work) that the value of biography is more than just an appreciation for role models, but an instinctive attraction to people of distinction. “Such is hero-worship; so much lies in that our inborn sincere love of great men!” If we are to emulate the subjects of biographies, we are to emulate them for their greatness rather than any moral virtue they happen to have. And more likely, we are to find that we are incapable of emulating them and should worship them all the more for doing what we could not.

What’s more, Carlyle claims that the attraction to prominent figures is more important than finding truly great heroes to worship. For even in the hero-worship of merely “noted men” is the seed of the value of following the truly great. “Find great men, if you can; if you cannot, still quit not the search; in defect of great men, let there be noted men, in such number, to such degree of intensity as the public appetite can tolerate.”

Here, I think Carlyle misses the mark. His version of history is a string biographies of a few great men who, by power of personality and virtue (in the Machiavellian sense,) were able to drag society upward. In truth, we give far more credit to “great men” than they deserve. It is the toil of the multitude, and the choices of the many that have led to the tremendous material improvements in society. From the spontaneous order of the market to the physical production of the food and widgets that we need and desire, the actions and decisions of each individual has always better provided for the material needs of society than the dictates of any “great leader”. There is plenty to learn from biographies of notable people, but it is a mistake to assume that their lives alone have brought us here.

Beer of the week: Wells Banana Bread Beer – The name says it all. This not-quite-copper-colored ale is banana bread in a can. The aroma is of bananas and spice. Without being too sticky or sweet, this really does taste a lot like banana bread. It is very smooth with enough spicy hops in the finish to make sure that it tastes like beer as well. And delicious beer at that.

Reading of the week: Sir Walter Scott by Thomas Carlyle – Later in the essay, Carlyle writes, “there is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man: also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.”

Question for the week: How does biography compare to other forms of nonfiction? Is it even fair to call biography a subcategory of nonfiction?


Strong Language

This is the twenty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXIII: Two Years Before the Mast, Dana

In the preface to Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. warns: “I have been obliged occasionally to use strong and coarse expressions, and in some instances to give scenes which may be painful to nice feelings; but I have very carefully avoided doing so, whenever I have not felt them essential to giving the true character of a scene.”

Perhaps the most extended example “strong and course” language Dana employed was in relating a telling-off that the crew of his ship received from their captain:

“Away with you! go forward every one of you! I’ll haze you! I’ll work you up! You don’t have enough to do! If you a’n’t careful I’ll make a hell of the ship!…. You’ve mistaken your man! I’m F—— T——, all the way from ‘down east.’ I’ve been through the mill, ground, and bolted, and come out a regular-built down-east johnny-cake, good when it’s hot, but when it’s cold, sour and indigestible;—and you’ll find me so!”

If that is what passed for strong language in 1840, then I’ll be d—d!

Beer of the week: Independence Harbor Amber Ale – This is an ALDI house brand. It had been known as Revolution Harbor, but the name has changed for some reason. Either name seems to allude to Boston Harbor (and perhaps hint at the beer being similar to Samuel Adams). Boston, of course, is where Dana’s life as a sailor began. Independence Harbor is a handsome amber beer with a decent tan head. The aroma is of biscuit. The flavor is the same, with just a bit of honey sweetness at the finish. For the price, this is a very solid beer.

Reading of the week: Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Chapter VIII – I’ve really enjoyed this book. From his descriptions of life onboard a merchant ship in the middle of the 19th century, to his exploration of Californian culture in the days before the gold rush, Dana’s paints vivid scenes. This chapter includes discussion of sailors’ slang, duties onboard, and the ship’s arrival in California. If you enjoy this chapter, the rest of the book should be, in Dana’s language, “nuts to you.” (That’s a good thing.)

Question for the week: It is often said that profanity shows a lack of imagination, but can’t the stringing together of profanities be an art of its own?


Donne and Done

This is the fifteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XV: Pilgrim’s Progress, Donne & Herbert, Bunyan, Walton

In his youth, the poet John Donne had a motto: “How much shall I be changed, before I am changed!” Of course, he was right. As the ancient saying goes, change is the only constant, and humans prove no exception to that rule. Even how we react to change changes over time.

“Variable, and therfore miserable condition of Man;” Donne writes in his Meditation I. He goes on to lament that despite our rigorous efforts to maintain our health, “a Sicknes unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiositie; nay, undeserved, if we consider only disorder, summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroyes us in an instant.”

Yet, when Donne faced his terminal illness, he embraced the final change. Rather than the careful study of health by means of deliberation “upon [his] meats, and drink, and ayre, and exercises,” as described in Meditation I, Donne more or less abandoned such attempts to remain healthy and alive. He followed through on about half of the regimen prescribed by his doctor, but only did that much for the doctor’s sake. He swore that he would take no more medicine, even “upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life.”

But it is not very surprising to see a change from fearing death to embracing it. Especially in a man who experienced at various times deep depressions and religious ecstasies. One who went from being a penniless love poet to being a prominent Anglican preacher. How much he changed before he changed!

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Beer of the week: Staropramen Premium- Some things do not seem to change. The Staropramen brand has been registered for over a hundred years, and brewing in what is now the Czech Republic has been going on for ten times that long. This is a classic Czech pilsner. It is clear and golden. The aroma is a bit of bread with a bit of those traditional hops. Like the smell, the taste is very well balanced between the malt and hops. This is, simply, an exemplar of the style.

Reading for the week: The Life of Dr. Donne by Izaak Walton – Izaak Walton is best known for The Compleat Angler, a meditation on the art of fishing. He also wrote some biography, primarily of fellow anglers, including his friend John Donne. This excerpt describes Donne’s preparation for his final change.

Question for the week: Like everything else, tastes change. How has your taste for beer changed since your first brew?


Who’s The Best?

This is the twelfth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XII: Plutarch’s Lives

For this blog, I have reviewed beers from around the globe. I’ve reviewed brews from the traditional European powerhouses of Germany, Czech Republic, and Belgium. I’ve had my share of beers from the far-eastern nations of South Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan. From the western hemisphere, I’ve reviewed beers from Chile, Brazil, and Peru in the south and from the Great White North.

And when somebody asks me what I think the best beer nation is, I answer without hesitation: the US of A. Some other nations have more illustrious brewing histories. Others consume more beer per capita. But nobody produces a greater variety of quality beers than the US.

Once, I attended an “international food festival” in Seoul, Korea. A local friend of mine, on seeing the wide range of options said, “Of course there’s no American tent.” Har, har, har. American’s don’t have any national cuisine, and if they did, it’d be bad. “No,” I replied, “but in America, we don’t need to have an international food festival to have diverse options. In the States, you can get all of these cuisines all year round.”

The same is true of our beer. Even without considering the handful of distinctly American styles, it is worth noting that brewers across the country are constantly working on their versions of Belgian Doubles, Russian Imperials, and India Pale Ales. And with a country with such a wide range of climates and geographies, it is not surprising at all that some American grains and hops should be every bit as good as those grown anywhere else in the world.

Sure, the most popular American beers by volume are bland swill from huge international conglomerates. But some of the beer brewed by the big guys is actually rather good. And the sheer quantity of quality options available from smaller brewers is staggering. There are bad American beers and there are excellent American beers. The same is true of almost every nation. Ultimately, what matters far more than a beer’s origin is its quality.

Beer of the week: Presidente Pilsener – This beer is a product of Cervecería Nacional Dominicana in the Dominican Republic; country 41 by my count. It pours gold with white, sticky foam. It has a standard adjunct aroma. The flavor is mostly of cheap grain, with plenty of carbonation. Presidente is refreshing, but not exceptional. It is a basic macro lager.

Reading of the week: The Life of Demosthenes by Plutarch – Plutarch tells us that he was from a small town and saw that as no obstacle to happiness or greatness. At least no obstacle to greatness of character. While it is difficult for those from obscure origins to attain substantial wealth or honor, virtue may well thrive in such places.

Question for the week: What nations would you rank as the 5 best beer nations?