Saturday, June 30, 2012

Rembrandt in Minneapolis

The Rembrandt show that opened last week at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is a wonder. Well, I guess Rembrandt himself was something of a wonder. But we’re used to see his paintings hanging in solitary majesty here and there in the Dutch Wing of large museums, where they often seize our attention, leaping out from the midst of blue-gray Van Ruesdael landscapes and sloppy portraits by Franz Hals. The brilliant and delicate handing of fabric, flesh, and shadow stand out.

The exhibit at the MIA gives us something different: a large selection of Rembrandts’ own work hanging in the midst of other, generally very fine and Rembrandtesque paintings done by his students and contemporaries.

We follow the course of his development, the transformations of his style, and also the arc of his personal life from budding but unknown talent, to wealthy and celebrated painter of the high and mighty haut-bourgeoisie of early seventeenth-century Amsterdam. In the middle rooms we become acquainted with the death of his wife, mounting domestic and financial difficulties, and a decline in both fortune and social standing, though not in artistic interest.

At one time there were close to a thousand “Rembrandts” hanging in museums, private homes, and speculators’ vaults around the world. Today that number has dropped to roughly three hundred, as experts cull from the list the paintings that are now felt to be the work of imitators. Rembrandt made lots of money teaching other talented painters to paint just like him, and the resultant canvases were his to keep, sign, and sell, if he deemed them worthy—that is to say, if he felt he could make money from them without compromising the Rembrandt “brand” too much.

Part of the fun at the MIA show is to second-guess the experts. A number of the paintings in the show are supreme masterpieces that you could stare at for twenty minutes without losing interest. The skin, the clothes, the lighting, the countenance—all of them perfect. In this group I would put several paintings from 1632: Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak, Private Collection, New York; Portrait of Joris de Caullery, San Francisco; Portrait of Marten Looten (LACMA); and An Old Man in Military Costume (Getty) I would also add Self-Portrait at 53, 1659, (National Gallery of Art, Washington). I’m sure I’m forgetting quite a few.

But there are also sveral paintings in the show attributed unequivocally to Rembrandt that lack the preternatural subtlety of his best stuff. And some of the paintings in the show now attributed to students are also very fine. Evidently Rembrandt was not only a great painter, but also a pretty good teacher.

During the last decade of his life Rembrandt appeared to lose interest in flesh tones. It’s easy to see that the brushstrokes become loser, the paint shinier, the blacks more crudely black. In fact, quite a few paintings in the fourth and final room of the exhibit might almost have been done by Velasquez, Manet, or Daumier.

The portrait of Rembrandt’s son Titus is probably the most genial in the show, though it’s a matter of dispute whether Rembrandt himself painted it. It’s a solid work, though it has little of the dignity and strength with which the Rembrandt brand is usually associated.

Which brings to mind the question of whether even the best of Rembrandt’s portraits convey genuine psychological insight, or a merely generic perfection and intensity. I left the galleries with the impression I’d been in the company of someone far larger than life—someone who remains more than a little incomprehensible. Definitely someone to take seriously.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a science writer for the New York Times, has done her level best, in Naming Nature, to make taxonomy interesting. The field has been shaken by several methodological “revolutions” in the last half-century, and as it turns out, these are fascinating in themselves. So much so, that readers may find themselves rehearsing the Shakespearean quip, “Methinks she doth protest too much.” Yes, taxonomy is interesting. On the other hand, Yoon’s attempts to popularize it and place it within a larger philosophical context suffer from a shaky grasp of the underpinnings of the “naming” process itself.

The habit of naming species goes back to the Stone Age, no doubt. Hunters knew which animals to pursue, gatherers knew which roots to unearth, shamans knew which herbs to boil. And they passed on this information from generation to generation by recourse to names. God presented Adam with the opportunity to name the creatures in the Garden of Eden, which suggests that the naming process has always been, to some degree, arbitrary, rather than divinely inspired.

Yet from the first, the distinctions established by Stone Age taxonomy were scientific, in so far as they were based on observable differences between types of things. But they were in no way systematic. It was not until the eighteenth century that the Swedish naturalist Karl Linnaeus developed the nomenclature still in wide use today, with two-part Latin names and a vast scheme of kingdoms, classes, orders, families, and species, in a cascading series of nested groups.

Yoon describes the development and significance of Linnaeus’s new system thoroughly; it’s the one we still use today. But like other systems before it, the family trees Linnaeus developed were often inaccurate, because species that look similar aren’t necessarily closely related.

The rise of Darwinian theory presented taxonomers with a new challenge: to develop a scheme that accurately reflected the chains of organic development through which various species evolved. In the course of the twentieth century, new techniques were developed to expose these relationships. Yoon describes how numerical taxonomy was developed in Lawrence, Kansas, by an obscure researcher named Robert Sokal, who, using bees as his subjects, coded a wide variety of characteristics on punch cards and then determined how closely the various types matched one another.

This is what taxonomists had always done. But in the past, it had been common practice the “weigh” characteristics that were deemed especially significant—a judgment that was based on nothing but intuition. Sokul stuck religiously to the data, and came up with a tree of relationships that different is several respects from the then-accepted pattern.

Then, in the late 1950s, chemists began to study proteins, amino acids, and other such stuff with a view to determining how closely various species were related. By working on a molecular level, these researchers were able to establish plausible relationships between species that could never have been compared before—humans, rabbits, kangaroos, turtles, snakes, and yeast. The fruits of these investigations often resulted in taxonomies very similar to those derived from more traditional methods, though they also produced a few whopping surprises.

The third “revolution” in taxonomy came about as the result of the publication, in 1950, of a book with the forbidding title Grundzüge einer Theorie der Phylogenetischen Systematik by a German fly specialist named Willi Hennig. In brief, his approach was to determine relationships between species by identifying similarities that were shared by them and no other groups.

Yoon spends a good deal of time explaining how this method works, and its’ time well spent. The more basic point is that Hennig, for the first time, “determined which characteristics mattered, which could be counted on to point a taxonomist in the right instead of the wrong direction.”

Hennig’s theories didn’t gain a significant following until twenty years later, but eventually, on the basis of the principles he espoused, the science of cladistics was born—a development that threw taxonomy into yet further controversy and disarray. Cladistics teaches us, for example, that mushrooms are animals and there is no such thing as a fish.

Yoon does a good job of bringing to life the often nerdy protagonists of this drama, and she loves to explore the arrogance, ridicule, and ego-bruising that peppers the tale, though such emotions almost inevitably accompany radical changes in any academic field, as accepted wisdom slowly gives way in the face of new evidence.

But Yoon also has a broader theme: that as taxonomy removed itself from the hands-on study of organisms toward statistic or molecular levels of inquiry, human societies also became gradually more removed from the natural world, so that nowadays very few people know much of anything about their natural surroundings.

Yoon anchors this theory by means of an obscure German concept, umwelt. The word itself is actually not so obscure. In German—so I’m told—it simply means “environment.” But Jakob von Uexküll made use of it to suggest that every animal species lives in a different world due to the fact that each species has a different capacity to sense things. Dogs are color blind but can detect an astonishing array of smells. Thus the world they inhabit “looks” very different from that of a human, who sees much but smells little, or a wood tick, who is sensitive only to body heat and the odor of butyric acid.

Yoon’s contention is that the human umwelt once encompassed a firm and detailed grasp of the natural world. In the course of time, she suggests, we have lost nearly all of our rapport with our natural surroundings. She refers nostalgically to the indigenous tribes of Mexico, who may know the names and uses of a hundred plants by the age of five.

All of this may well be true, though it’s a mistake to imagine the human umwelt must refer only of the natural world. The challenges humans face in their struggle for survival also include avoiding being run down in traffic, responding appropriately at job interviews, and knowing when to pull their retirement funds out out of the stock market.

And regardless of which elements figure prominently in the human umwelt, Yoon is stretching the reader’s credulity in suggesting that changes in the science of taxonomy have anything much to do with it. No doubt, the fact that urban folk no long have any real contact with plants or animals is a more significant factor. And yet this is precisely her thesis. This is precisely the link that holds these two elements of the book together.

Regarding the rise of numerical taxonomy, for example, she remarks, “There was nowhere left now for our unwelt to hide. Subjectivity and the sense and intuition of the order of life—all the gifts of the umwelt—were being viewed not only as problematic for the doing of science but just plain wrong.”

A few pages further she suggests there may be a connection between new taxonomic methods and a broader change in the way people relate to nature: “It wasn’t just scientists who were stepping away from luxuriating in the sights, smells, and sounds of the living world. The rest of us were, too.”

To borrow an expression from the American South, “This dog won’t hunt.” The human umwelt, such as it is, has never been based on a formal or scholarly taxonomic system, Linnaean or otherwise. Rather, it has always been based, in so far as it refers to the natural world, on what urban academics typically refer to as woodcraft and folklore. I would be surprised to find that even one in a hundred adults from Western Europe or America has heard of Karl Linnaeus, not to mention those academics—Hennig, Sokal, and the rest—who, in recent decades, have significantly modified his system. We can be pretty sure that the children of Tzeltal Mayan families who, even today, know the names of 200 plants, didn’t learn them from a book. Thus Yoon’s repeated, and eventually tiresome, lament for the withering of the human umwelt sits very uneasily within the often fascinating history of modern taxonomy.

At one point near the end of the book, Yoon writes, “With the triumph of science, what traces of the umwelt can still be seen today?” The answer must be: “Modern science is our umwelt.” And for the most part, it’s a good one. It’s a bit surprising to find how little respect this New York Times science writer has for it. Nor does such a scientific umwelt preclude the more intuitive understanding of our natural surroundings that Yoon seems to see slipping away. As different species have different umwelts, so may different individual humans. If you take a walk in the woods with Eliot Porter, Gary Snyder, and David Koch, you will be exposed to three rather different umvelts, I suspect.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

George Steiner's Poetry of Thought

Just one of those brilliant mornings that start out with a trip to the store for milk at 5:45. The staggeringly clear light transfuses the supermarket parking lot, reminding me of a similar early-morning scene years ago in Apache Junction, Arizona—without the cactus wrens.

Reading in the shade of the deck—George Steiner’s The Poetry of Thought. A new Steiner book is always cause for celebration…and dismay. But Steiner admits as much himself: “Thus Heraclitus both celebrates and wrestles with—all celebration is agonistic—the terrible power of language to deceive, to demean, to mock, to plunge deserved renown into the dark of oblivion.”

This is a typical example of Steiner-speak. Is all celebration really agonistic? (No) Does Heraclitus actually celebrate the power of language to deceive? (Where?) Steiner never misses an opportunity to cram every remark with subsidiary and often irrelevant or misleading allusions that often obscure rather than illuminate the points he’s trying to make. Meanwhile, he doesn’t present even a single remark attributed to Heraclitus himself to illustrate his point. How about this?

The Sun is the width of a man's foot.

Of Heraclitus he writes at another point: “He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction.” That's an insulting (and also an uncomprehending) thing to say about imagery. There is nothing abstract about poetry. That’s the point.

The very title of the book gives the game away. The Poetry of Thought? It should have occurred to the venerable polymath by now that poetry is a form of thought.

Yet we struggle forward, stimulated by the errors and more than occasionally intrigued by the references. And in his better moments, Steiner does seem to be trying to tease out the ways philosophers make use of metaphor in spite of themselves. This is an interesting subject and I’m sure a few insights will gurgle to the surface eventually through the many layers of Wittgensteinian child's-play.

I came across a remark recently in Roy Blount, Jr.'s Alphabet Juice that's ringing in my ears:

Except perhaps in mathematics, there is no such thing as entirely straight-forward, assumption-free reasoning. Language is always to some extent tendentious. This is what we have to work with. Think of words in terms of foodstuffs: whatever we cook up won’t be composed of pure nutrients: it will derive from odd life-forms that breathe underwater or grow in the ground. But we can use fresh, organic ingredients, we can wash contaminants off them, and we can avoid globbing them up with heavy batter and frying them in oils that clog our arteries. Actually, it’s a lot harder to do that with words than with trout or carrots, but it’s the goal for an honest writer to aspire to.

At 7, I was reading an article in the Star-Tribune online about a trout stream that’s being revitalized near the Mall of America, when Hilary suggested we take a morning walk through the neighborhood. Lots of brown beetles on the asphalt under the ash trees. June bugs I suppose. The sight of them reminded me of a passage in Witold Gombrowicz’s journals, but there’s no time to go into it here. Along the way we talked to a neighbor who had accidently killed off a large swath of grass with Round-Up and was trying to re-seed.

Back at the computer, I opened my design program and added a few new recipes to my ever-changing 24-page home cookbook (copies available on request)—Curried Chicken Quinoa, and Seaside Slaw from Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica.

By eight thirty I was tracking down some references to a book called Dynamics in Action; Intentional Behavior as a Complex System by Alicia Juarrero. I happened upon a 35-page abstract of the book in PDF format, which I downloaded but didn’t print out. (Ain’t computers great!)

Then it occurred to me suddenly that I ought to buy a copy of Gombrowicz’s journals, which have recently been re-translated.

Another pot of coffee. Now I’m thinking I ought to go down to Hopkins tonight to see the Transit of Venus. (What would Heraclitus have made of that?)