Friday, February 27, 2009

Darwin and the Metaphysicians

Whenever I read a article about Darwin’s theories of the development of life—and there are plenty of them being written on this, the 200th anniversary of his birth—it pains me to think of how timid the metaphysicians have become in recent decades on this subject, and how sheepishly they have abandoned this important field of inquiry to women and men with a very limited capacity for speculative thought. This is not meant to be a criticism of biologists, who know their techniques well and makes use of them with ever-increasing ingenuity to shed light on hitherto mysterious and incomprehensible natural processes. No, I am referring to those who try to put these scientific discoveries in some sort of meaningful perspective, but without the requisite background or insight to pull it off.

To take an example, the Economist recently ran a three-page article on Darwin, complete with one of the graphs for which the magazine is famous. It shows that among economically advanced nations, the United States ranks very near the bottom in the percentage of adults who “believe” in evolution (42%). (Only Turkey ranked lower, at 26%.) Most of the article provides an accurate and conventional description of what Darwin’s theories are, and why they seem to account for phenomena that other theories—including Biblical ones—don’t. At a certain point the essayist veers off into an examination of “behavioral economics,” as we might expect, be we are back on track before long.

At the top of page three, however, we begin to meet up with those tell-tale phrases that are so commonly found, yet so out of place, in discussions of evolution. Here is one key passage:

“People are comforted by the idea of a designed and harmonious natural world, with themselves at the top. It is hard to accept that such harmony has arisen as an accidental consequence of a brutal system with no principles beside the one that every individual is striving for reproductive success. It is depressing to think that life is purposeless and that evolution has no higher destination.”

A little further on, the reporter points out that although many people equate evolution with some sort of progress, most biologists disagree.

In this short span of phrase, we have come into contact with many of the notions that have nothing to do with the development of life, and can be dismissed on logical grounds without the slightest reference to Darwin, Lemarck, biology, or anything else.

Here they are in a nutshell.

1) Evolution does not imply progress. WRONG. Trying looking the word up in a dictionary. My Mirriam-Webster offers these definitions, of which I have highlighted the critical phrases.
1 : one of a set of prescribed movements
2 a : a process of change in a certain direction : UNFOLDING b : the action or an instance of forming and giving something off : EMISSION c (1) : a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state : GROWTH (2) : a process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance.

This is what the word "evolution" means. Unfolding, forming, continuous change from a lower to a higher state, growth, advance. And this is also what the paleontological record reports. Living creatures have become more complex with the passage of time. Which explains why scientists chose it to describe the most important life process we know about as "evolution."

The problem is that evolution cannot be fully explained by the notions such as adaption and natural selection. Scientists also recognize this, but rather than abandon their pet explanatory theories, for which they have not yet found a substitute, they lamely argue that “evolution doesn’t imply development.”

2) Evolution is accidental. WRONG. I won’t go into Aristotle’s analysis of chance here, which is far more sophisticated than anything you will find in a scientific (or metaphysical) journal today. The gist of it is that chance is simply nothing. With regard to evolution, what is seldom noticed is that evolution takes place as a result of the advantage taken by living organism of those accidents that come their way. The active agent is the organism, not the accident. The “passive” occurrence that triggers evolution is that “nothing” we call chance or accident. But the organism in question is invariably far more well-organized and purposeful than the accident that it finds a use for.
Between the accidental and the "designed" there is that third thing. Can you guess it?

3) Human beings are vain and mistaken to think that they are the best thing to hit the universe since sliced bread. WRONG. In fact, human beings are the most sophisticated organism that we have any knowledge of. This is a cause for celebration—though not for swagger or arrogance. If you were careening down a hill in an automobile, and were faced with the choice of crushing a pineapple or a human baby, what would YOU do? I mean, REALLY.

4) Evolution is blind. WRONG. It is a mistake to suggest that actions that have no clear end or purpose are “blind.” What they are, rather—presuming they are not random—is “seeking.” I can see perfectly well in every direction, near and far. The fact that I don’t know where I’m going doesn’t make me blind. The sociologt Georges Simmel hit the nail on the head when he remarked: "Life is that which seeks to go beyond life."

5) Nature has no principles beyond the struggle to reproduce. WRONG. Humans are a part of nature and they have conceived the idea of “principles.” Whatever those principles happen to be are ipso facto a part of nature. (And for that matter, why must we accept the idea that reproduction is always a brutal struggle?)

We could go on and on, isolating the grammatical and logical errors of the passage I’ve highlighted above. Yet in the end, I am confident that many readers will say, “All the same, it’s true. Natural Selection. The Survival of the fittest,” in just the same way that their grandparents used to say, “All the same, it’s true; I read it in the Bible.”

Why is this? I suspect it’s because we human beings—many of us—have a conscience. We carry glimmerings and sparks of divinity within us (which include, but are not limited to the urge for reproductive success), but seldom focus on them steadfastly or realize them fully. Therefore, we tend to think badly of ourselves. We berate ourselves and bring ourselves down. The reductive, illogical, and empirically unsound notions of natural selection and blind accident serve the same emotional function for us that the theory of Original Sin did for our grandparents, though they are ethically less sophisticated.
In any case, the thin veneer of scientism can do nothing to shore up their essential illogical nature.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why the Oscars Matter—to Me

The Academy of Motion Pictures has been giving awards to itself for a long time now, and for almost as long, they’ve been letting the rest of the world in to watch. A more recent, but by now well-established tradition, is the pre-Oscar magazine article about what’s wrong with the Oscars, why they don’t mean anything, and why the Academy always gets things wrong.

I read one such report recently in which it was observed that the combined earnings of the five nominees for best film—“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Frost / Nixon,” “Milk,” “The Reader,” and “Slumdog Millionaire”—are about half of what the most recent Batman film, “The Dark Knight,” has raked in. So? The reporter went on to put the case in historical perspective by observing that between 1981 to 1985, the Academy Award for Best Film went to “Chariots of Fire”, “Gandhi”, “Terms of Endearment”, “Amadeus” and “Out of Africa”, while during that same period “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”, “Return of the Jedi” and “Ghostbusters” were largely neglected. I suppose the implication is that the Academy missed the boat, time and gain. Yet it seems to me that this roll-call of winners is precisely as it should be, in so far as the films in the first group are all far better than average, while those in the second are all matinee fluff.

Perhaps the only really meaningful remark in the entire article is this one: “What viewers will see on Sunday night is an industry talking to itself.”

That’s exactly the point. Oscar night is the only time when we see the movie industry talking to itself, rather than talking to us—which means trying to move us, scare us, or sell us something. And that’s interesting. The jokes are sometimes good, though the music seldom is. Yes, there will always be a speech or two in a earnest and boring tone by some film executive we've never heard of. And then there are the lifetime achievement awards, which can sometimes be embarrassing. On the other hand, there are the glamorous faces, the movie clips, and the roll call of those who have died. There’s the Red Carpet show, where we might catch a glimpse of Robert Downey, Jr. streaking across the sky in the distance. And if we’ve nothing better to do while the broccoli and red pepper appetizers are cooking, we might even watch the Barbara Walters interviews.

I have seen relatively few of the nominated films this year. “Slumdog” was very good, I thought. "The Reader"? I read the book. “The Wrestler” was a perfect example of everything that’s worst about America—violent, crass, dumb, and sentimental. Few among my favorite films were nominated for anything. But do I care?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wonders of the Morning

It snowed during the night. That’s the first wonder—unless you want to begin a little earlier and mention the little owl Hilary spotted in the tree outside the window last night. A screech owl, I guess, though it’s difficult to tell from a silhouette. This sighting raises the question of whether you would rather hear an owl or see one. In general, we conclude, its more pleasant to hear one. But it’s nice to see one every once in a while, because, well, seeing is believing.

The second wonder is the paper carrier, who placed the newspaper directly under the front door this morning from a distance of twenty feet without getting out of his car. (How does he do that?)
Then the first gulp of coffee, hot and rich in the throat, as I stare out the living-room window through the dark, admiring the fresh snow on the boughs of the big white spruce as it catches the yellow streetlight glare.

Wandering to the back door, I spot a cardinal swooping in low from the woods behind the house, then hopping branch by branch up to the feeder, making short sharp “pips” as he goes.

At this point there’s only one thing to be done. I get dressed and leave the house, load my skis into the car, and head down to Wirth Park (Hilary has to work today, Alas!) The sun is just rising, and as I head south, I catch a glimpse of the underbrush along the railroad track that runs parallel to Bassett Creek, down below the parkway. The tips of the grasses are dusted with snow and the sun is shining through them like an advertisement for creation.

The parking lot has not been plowed, but I park my car in the single slot left snowless by the grooming machine that is already out making the trails more accessible. Inspired by a sudden burst of energy, for the first time this winter I take the spur that climbs steeply up to the top of the mound behind the first hole on the par 3. It’s a great view from up there, the trees are in shadow, the snow looks blue, and the orange bark of the Scots pines is achingly beautiful in the early light.

Well, you know the rest. The glistening snow, the silence; the yellow branches on the giant willow trees down by the creek. The perfect conditions, marred only by the fact that the ground under this newly-fallen carpet is frozen and the poles don’t sink in all the way. The sheer pleasure of moving across the countryside.

The sky has become blue, now that the sun is up.I follow a few new twists of the trail on the top of the hill near the snowboarding towrope. A single ski-skater approaches me from behind but he veers off down a different trail.

I think about spritz cookies as I stare down at the thin even grooves lefts in the snow by the grooming machines. I think about order and disorder, nature and not-nature.

It’s a nice way to start the day.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

“The Class”

We’ve all seem films like Stand and Deliver in which a talented teacher takes charge of a classroom full of juvenile delinquents and turns them into Rhodes Scholars, or at the very least, convinces them that learning can be fun and also useful. This transformation comes about as a result of the teacher’s sincerity, grit, and sheer moxie, and watching it take place can be both rousing and inspiring. It gives us the impression that teaching is a noble profession (which it is) and that deep down inside even the most sociopathic teenager there lies a thoughtful, considerate being who has simply never gotten the right kind of stimulation (which might also be true in many cases).

The new French drama The Class is not that kind of film. Rather, it’s the story of one year in the life of a high school French teacher in a rough multi-cultural section of Paris. A few of his students are troublesome, though most are not. Yet it’s the cut-ups (as we used to call them) who get most of the attention, both in the classroom and the film. We also spend some time with the teacher in the break-room with his colleagues, at disciplinary committee meetings, and at parent-teacher conferences. The focus occasionally shifts to the kids during their free time on the courtyard playground between classes, but there are no back-stories about home life and no subplots about drugs or teen romance. In a nutshell, the question the film poses is this: “How do you teach the past subjunctive to kids who will probably never use it again ‘til the day they die?” As the story develops the question becomes, “How do you discipline kids who are fowling the classroom atmosphere without condemning them to a life of illiteracy and poverty?”

Those may not sound like interesting premises for a film, but let me assure you, very little time is taken up with grammar per se. What makes the film so interesting is the fact that the repartee between teacher and students sounds like it’s actually taking place. It’s always teetering on the edge of disrespect, while very rarely tumbling over the edge. The kids are often annoying and rude, but their teacher has a knack for discerning the kernel of good sense in what they’ve just thrown his way and feeding it back to them in a different, and perhaps more edifying, form.

We must credit the director, Laurent Cantet, therefore, for keeping the focus squarely on the student-teacher dialectic. But the greater credit goes to Fran├žois Begaudeau, who wrote the autobiographical novel on which the film is based and also plays the main character. But wait a minute! The dialogue would have little force were it not for the energy and creativity displayed by the bored and irascible students. Kudos to them as well! (The idea that the film might have been following a script seems difficult to believe.)

In the end The Class is not a rousing or inspiring film. Some of the students learn and grow; others don’t. No one would call it entertaining, I think. In fact, many of the scenes are grueling to watch. But we leave the theater with the feeling that we’ve spent some time with that thing called “truth.” And that’s a good feeling. It’s kind of like art.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fort comme la Morte

One cold winter evening not long ago we paid a visit to the chapel of the St. Paul Seminary to hear a performance by the Society for the Doctrinal Affectation of Baroque Music. This may sound like a P.D.Q. Bach knock-off, but the musicians themselves were deeply serious about their material, which consisted of minor chamber works by Schubert, Beethoven, and Hummel, adapted for performance by fortepiano and a tiny 1830s guitar (both instruments were modern reproductions).

The chapel itself, though Romanesque in style, is also a modern reproduction—and very new in its cut; and while it may be said that the decorative carvings on the capitals fall well short of the masterful renderings at, say, Autun, Vezelay, or Santo Domingo de Silos, the room itself exudes a simplicity and peace that was well-suited to the evening’s event.

We sat in second row, not more than fifteen feet from the performers, Christopher Kachian (guitar) and David Jenkins (fortepiano); and this was just as well, considering the modest volume to be got from such instruments. The pews were hard and the sound was soft, but the balance was good and the musicians were adept, and both were wearing the kind of colorful swirly tie that I wish I could find a few more of at Value Village.

The fortepiano is the eight-track-tape of the keyboard world—a bridge between the harpsichord and the modern piano. It lacked both the bristly hauteur of the former and the rich powerful sound of the latter, and soon fell into eclipse. In recent years many new fortepianos have been built, and you can now easily obtain recordings. In fact, as I type these words I’m listening to a performance of Mozart’s Piano Trio in E, K. 542, being played on period instruments. The sound is thin and brittle—but it’s certainly different, and there are times when it fits the mood of the moment perfectly.

The chapel was more than half-full that night, and the musicians played with a sort of relaxed cheer that helped the music to sing out. The Schubert piece was the most interesting of the three. Beethoven’s offering was a theme-and-variation composition that grew monotonous, and the Hummel work reminded us why that man’s name has never become a household word.

Many in the crowd were young—guitar or keyboard students at nearby St. Thomas University, to judge from the conversations I overheard during the intermission. Others had the look of seasoned eccentrics. I would be proud to be included in the later category, but all the same, it was fun to find myself briefly in the midst of that youthful ambiance, to be reminded of our years on campus, when we voraciously absorbed as much experience, musical and otherwise, as we could.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Opera by Satellite

Advances in communication technology never cease, and it seems there is something for everyone to enjoy. Much ink has been spilt about the fact that billions of people now have the opportunity to sit at home watching scratchy two-minute videos of their Facebook friends playing the guitar in the bathroom. Of greater interest to me, however, is the fact that anyone with twenty dollars to spare can now sit in the comfort of a modern theater and watch a live broadcast of the Metropolitan opera on a screen that’s thirty feet high and seventy feet across.

I’ve been going to operas since my college years, when the Met was still coming to town to perform at Northrup Auditorium and parking its fourteen semi-trailers full of sets and costumes out back. I have attended the Minnesota Opera from time to time since the days when Vern Sutton and Janice Hardy were singing The Abduction from the Seraglio at O’Shaughnessy Hall; and I’ve enjoyed more than a few Ex Machina productions of baroque operas in intimate venues. I’ve seen a few operas at the Met in New York, a Don Giovanni at the New York City Opera, an Otello in Germany, and a production of La Clemenza de Tito from the nose-bleed section of Covent Garden n London.

Based on this varied, if spotty, exposure to the medium, it seems to me that the new Met simulcasts are better than the real thing in almost every way. The use of multiple cameras allows for close-ups and sophisticated mis-en-scene that no one in the live audience benefits from. The sound is roaringly loud, which is seldom the case at a real opera unless you’ve taken out a second mortgage on your home and purchased the very best seats. Between the acts we’re treated to famous singers interviewing the members of the cast, the men and women who direct and conduct the shows, and the honchos of the stage crew, who describe how a Scottish moor gets changed into a lavish ballroom in twenty minutes. I now consider myself almost a personal friend of Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko, James Levine, and Marco Armiliato. And they all seem to be such wonderful, gracious, high-energy people!

But the chief draw, of course, is the operas themselves, which the Met can stage better than any other opera company in the world, I guess. Since the program got going three years ago, Hilary and I (along with her parents Gene and Dorothy) have seen Il Trittico, Macbeth, I Puritani, Doctor Atomic, La Rondine, Orfeo et Eurydice, Lucia de Lammermoor, and La Damnation de Faust. Of these, the last named was the least interesting. It was written as a concert opera, and the added staging seemed more like a distraction that an enhancement. Doctor Atomic was memorable, but more for the subject matter than the music, perhaps. Orfeo was beautifully sung and also interesting from the historical point of view, being just about the only opera from that early era (1742) that’s performed today. (They jazzed up the production with some rather modern dance numbers.) And I found Macbeth to be less soaring and tuneful than Verdi can be.

Yet all of these productions were well worth seeing. And with the other four--Il Tritico, I Puritani, La Rondine, and Lucia de Lammermoor—we slip into that sublime zone of soaring music, over-the-top emotion, heart-rending disappointment and gruesome tragedy that makes opera such an all-encompassing experience.

Following the recent broadcast of Lucia, we stepped out into the parking lot of the Regal Theater 16-screen multiplex in Brooklyn Center in a daze. It’s mid-afternoon on a gray winter Minnesota day. But we’re thinking about passion, violence, soaring melodies and the remarkable women and men who bring them to life. Ridiculous duels, absurd miscommunications. It will warm our thoughts for the rest of the afternoon. And beyond.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Those of us who grew up with the great Woody Allen comedies of the 1970s—Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death and Annie Hall—can only grimace in embarrassment at the depths to which he has fallen. No doubt it’s hard for a comedian to stay funny as he mellows and loses his edge. But Woody can still be mildly funny—as he displayed as the elderly magician in the light-weight comedy Scoop. But for a long time now Woody has wanted to be a genuine film-maker in the European mold, failing to see that aside from his wayward jokes in the Groucho Marx/S. J. Perelman mode, his true genius lay in imaginative schtick. (The giant chicken in Sleeper, for example.) Unfortunately Woody lacks the imagination to develop genuine characters or dramatic situations. Everyone in a Woody Allen movie talks like Woody Allen, which means, they discuss “relationships” like a co-ed sophomore.

The best scene in Vicky Christina Barcelona lasts one second. It shows the austere church in Oviedo, Spain, that is architecturally significant for being post-Roman but pre-Romanesque. The rest of the film is deeply unconvincing as drama. And what makes matters worse, there are no jokes!

Monday, February 2, 2009

February Light

A recent survey by the Pew foundation revealed the Minneapolis, which ranks near the top of the list as far as education, health, culture, and aquatic resources are concerned, lies somewhere very close to the bottom when it comes to cities that people actually want to move to. Denver led the survey’s list of popular cities to relocate in, followed by San Diego and Seattle, with other southern and western cities close behind. Among major cities, Minneapolis was surpassed only by Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit in its lack of appeal.

When I read such things, other questions immediately spring to mind—questions the researchers didn’t think to ask (leading me to wonder if I missed my true calling.) In particular, I would like to know how many of the people who want to live in Denver or Seattle have spent much time there. I think it would also be worth finding out what percentage of the people who live in such high-ranking cities as San Antonio, Tampa, and Phoenix, actually want to stay there. Perhaps they, too, are longing to live somewhere elsewhere.

I suspect that most Minneapolitans would be pleased to learn that only 16% of Americans would consider moving here. And we all know why—it’s too cold! With few exceptions, only natives and long-time resident have the wherewithall to reap the full fruits of the Minnesota experience.

Let me give you an example. Each year at about this time, I am startled once again by the beauty of February light. The sun has been rising from its nadir just above the horizon, and it’s getting brighter, but it still flows deeply into the house from its still-relatively low position. The snow has been on the ground for a while, and even though we haven’t had much of a thaw yet this year, the sun’s radiant heat has been enough to melt the surface sufficiently to create tiny crystals that reflect the light like a carpet of diamond-dust. The cold air doesn’t hold much moisture, but when the temperature rises to twenty degrees or so, it begins give off a moist, balmy fragrance. Add to all of this the visual onslaught of a brilliant blue sky and the roaring sound of the gusty wind in the spruce branches, and you’ve got an experience that people in Los Angeles or Tucson can only dream about.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Happy Hour at Solera

The other day Hilary and I fulfilled a long-held (if somewhat modest) dream when we made an appearance at Solera’s 5 to 6 PM Happy Hour. We sat in the lobby-cum-lounge on two stools that looked like oversized bongo drums, at a window table overlooking Ninth Street and the skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis. Though it was cold and dark outside, the lighting inside was warm and it was fun watching people pass on the street. A group of ten young office-workers (eight women, two men) were having a lively evening at the one long table in the middle of the room, but we had the lounge to ourselves for half an hour, and during that time I consumed a very good martini that was served with three olives and two slices of lime on the side, while Hilary nursed her Happy Hour glass of sangria. (The drink specials are not outstanding.)

But we had come to sample the tapas, and by the time we’d left an hour later we’d tasted them all. We ordered four for a start, and the waitress brought them as they were ready. The first to arrive was a small plate of five shrimp and Tetilla croquetas. Tetilla cheese (queixo de Tetilla in Galician) is a specialty of the province of Galicia. The milk comes from the "rubia gallega" cow breed, and the name tetilla (Spanish for small breast) refers to the cone-like shape of the cheese itself. The croquets looked like little rugby balls, and they were both exquisite and sizzling hot. ($2)

While we were nibbling on these morsels two plates of grilled asparagus arrived—eight or ten thin firm stalks on each plate, sitting in a mound of red romesco sauce, a product of Tarragona that’s typically made from almonds and/or hazelnuts, roasted garlic, olive oil and those small, dried red peppers called nyores, along with roasted tomatoes, red wine vinegar and onion. The asparagus was tasty and the sauce, though mild, was made more interesting by the crunchy nuts floating within it. ($2)

Next we split a Chorizo Bocadillo with Galician remoulade—in other words, a little hamburger with spiced mayonnaise, the size and shape of a tennis ball. Slightly smaller than a White Castle slider and considerably more interesting. ($2) As an accompaniment we also sampled a small plate containing sections of Piquillo peppers stuffed with herbed goat’s milk cheese—the sharpest and most acidic of the offerings. ($2)

The least interesting (and also most expensive) tapa was the poached shrimp with hot pepper/citrus vinaigrette. The six little creatures, stacked two by two on a plate, were bland and the hot peppers were nowhere to be seen or tasted. ($6) Before setting of across the river to a showing of Last Chance Harvey, we put in a second order of the croquetas and sampled a plate of grilled bread topped with serrano ham and manchego cheese. ($2)

Couples and groups had been filing through the lobby/lounge and on into the restaurant at a steady clip as we ate—perhaps to enjoy a platter of paella before attending the Bob the Builder show at the State Theater just down the street. As we returned to the car through the cold January night, I was thinking that an ample plate of patatas bravas might have provided an element of hearty bulk to counterbalance the sophisticated but delicate morsels we’d been nibbling on.