Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Up North, without a Cabin

My family had a cabin when I was growing up. Hilary’s family had a cabin in Wisconsin until relatively recently. I know what it’s like to “go to the cabin.”

It’s nice.

Then there are those with a trailer parked near a lake somewhere all summer. The view ain’t great, but it’s easy to leave town in a hurry and get the boat into the water before dark.

Others visit a favorite resort with the kids, year in and year out.

All well and good.

Every time we go up north, it’s something different.

Take last weekend. I had plotted out a vacation with two fixed points: the Rodeway Inn in Pine River and Schoolcraft State Park, twenty miles east of Grand Rapids.

Why? Because that motel was the only one on Highway 371 with an online reservation system and an  available room on Friday night; and the campsites at the park were similarly available at short notice.

 We strapped our bikes to the back of the car, intending to do a few new segments of the several trails that crisscross the north woods during our weekend getaway. And we also planned to stop in at the McRostie Gallery in Grand Rapids, where our niece Liza’s artwork was on exhibit. We’d agreed to pick up some pasties for friends at Pasties Plus while we were in Grand Rapids.  The rest would be ad lib (as the Romans used to say).

Surprise number one: we stopped in at Crow Wing State Park on our way north to stretch our legs and discovered they’d just completed a bike path extending from the park eight miles into Brainerd, where it connects with the Paul Bunyan Trail. The grand opening was set for Sunday.

Naturally we took it.

It’s a beautiful trail, weaving up and down modest hills high above the banks of the Mississippi, sometimes running through copses of oak trees with agricultural fields opening to the east, at other times meandering through stands of jack pine and aspen. The river itself comes into view intermittently, close at hand but far below to the west. There is almost no development until you reach the Highway 371 bridge over the Mississippi. We heard an occasional boom or rumble from Camp Ripley, the National Guard training center just across the river, but otherwise the chickadee, the flicker, and the red-eyed vireo were our only companions.

The trail passes under the highway bridge, and then crosses over it before continuing through the suburbs of Baxter and Brainerd, but you might as well turn back at that point unless you’ve got a very ambitious itinerary. 

Following a fine lunch at the Taco Bell drive-thru, still crowded at 2:30 p.m., we continued north along the Baxter Strip, which runs for miles along Highway 371. You can order every kind of hamburger and pizza known to man along the way, and buy recreational devices ranging from snowmobiles, ATVs, and jet-skis, to glamorous runabouts and ingenious docks and hoists, not to mention cars and trucks, “rustic” home furnishings, deer rifles, lakefront property—and live bait. 

Beyond Nisswa the countryside imposes itself once again, though most of the surrounding lakes—Gull Lake, Cross Lake, the Whitefish Chain, and many more—are largely out of sight down country roads. The towns you pass all have touches of character, whether it’s a fishing-bobber water tower, an attractive town square, or an oversized wooden carving of some hokey mythological figure.

The Paul Bunyan Bike Trail parallels the highway all the way to Walker. We were headed for a gravel parking lot north of Ten Mile Lake, where the trail leaves both the highway and the railroad bed behind, cutting a hilly course through the deep woods of the Shingobee River Valley toward the Heartland Trail coming in from the west.

It was a nice ride, during which we passed flowering fireweed and hemlock everywhere; a family of loons in a pond; large numbers of mosquitoes and triangular yellow deer flies; and perhaps the most impressive display of roving dragonflies I’d ever seen. Many of them were dark blue!

Along this trail we encountered our second big surprise—an isolated feller-buncher cutting down trees in the heart of the forest.

A conventional orange highway sign had given us some warning: CAUTION, LOGGING AHEAD. Coming around a bend we met up with a heavy-duty wooden pathway that had been laid across the asphalt bike trail like a xylophone made of railroad ties. 

We could see the feller-buncher off in the woods, a hundred yards away, grabbing large aspen trees with its mighty talons, then lifting and shaking them until they came crashing to earth, one after another. The process seemed more like the irrational thrashing of an angry child with a big toy than an extraordinary feat of technological prowess. A patch of woods maybe fifty yards across had been destroyed already, and the path taken by the machine to get there was no less severely beaten down.

We all need wood, of course. And most forest animals like clearings. So do I.

On our way back to the car we passed the operation again, by which time the machine had made its way much closer to the trail. It was easier to see the studded grippers on the arm, though I never did see a saw blade or the operator inside the cab. I was hoping to get a good photo of a towering aspen in freefall, halfway to the ground, but things happen too fast. And I was also uncomfortably aware of how hard it is to gauge exactly where a tree will land if it’s coming right at you.

I had done some research on the local restaurants but we ended up having a picnic supper at the city park in Bachus—another pleasant surprise—a few feet from the shores of Pine Mountain Lake. 

Fifty yards to the north of where we sat, fishing boats passed in and out occasionally through a narrow channel connecting the tiny municipal landing with the big lake. 

The lake itself was quiet. The sky was gray but not really threatening. Someone had piled a bunch of snail shells onto the picnic table. A young, shirtless man walked past us carrying a fishing rod on his way out in the reedy point beyond. Later he walked back to his car and had a long discussion with his girlfriend before they both came out to fish.

We wandered Bachus’s main street—not a soul in sight—observing the well-carved corn-man statue and reading the signs about the upcoming rodeo in Effie. Biggest in Minnesota. It’s been held annually for sixty-odd years. The sun had dropped below the clouds and everything carried a golden glow of childhood summer nights.

We got an additional flash of nostalgia back in Pine River, as we drove past the volleyball courts next to the Dairy Queen, both of which were full of people: an adult game and a kids game, or so it appeared. Turning east down Main Street, we came to the dam and the beautiful swimming beach on the reservoir just upstream, with its tall white pines and rustic CCC-era buildings.

Our motel was just south of town, but it didn’t have much atmosphere. In fact, the proprietress was the opposite of welcoming as she checked us in, as if she were doing us a favor after a long, hard, thankless day of changing sheets. She had a stud in her tongue, which made it a little hard to understand what she was saying.

The lone window in our room looked out on a shadowy hallway. (Well, I had asked for an upstairs room at the back.) The people next door talked all night, but the conversation was fairly subdued, and with the air-conditioning fan turned on, it sounded like a murmuring brook--sort of.

The breakfast was minimal. Hot coffee, but no tops for the cups! (Heaven forbid that anyone would take a cup of coffee back to the room!) Yogurt? No. Fruit? No. Hard boiled eggs? No. Pastries dripping with sugar, of the kind you buy in a six-pack from Hostess, if you’re twelve years old and really desperate. (I only ate two.) Two kinds of breakfast cereal—Fruit Loops and Cap’n Crunch—as if the motel patrons were all under five years old. Yet the parking lot was full of expensive vehicles, boats, and trailers loaded with ATVs.
Real orange juice? Dream on.

Yet the sky was cloudless and the air was cool. After greeting one fisherman in the parking lot, I looked up at the sky and said exuberantly: “I feel like I’m in Colorado!” There was no response.

The drive north through the shadowy woods and open fields along Highway 84 was simply spectacular. And the breakfast burrito we bought in Longevlle was far better than average.

We were on our way to Grand Rapids to bike the Mesabi Trail and see some art…

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Remembering Charlie Haden

I never met Charlie Haden. I never heard him play live, for that matter. Old and New Dreams, Haden’s Ornette Coleman-inspired quartet, came to the Children’s Theater in 1979. But I’m not much of a fan of that strand of Haden’s diverse oeuvre.

Remembering Haden (he died a few days ago following a long illness), would consist, then, of a trip down the discography, spotting an LP or a CD here and there that’s familiar to me. As a bassist, he was a bit of a “thumper.” But to my eyes, seeing his name on a performance was a seal of quality. He had very good musical taste.

Haden was a Iowa native, and he started his musical career early singing folk songs with the Haden family band on the radio. When singing was no longer an option due to a bout with polio, Haden started to fiddle around with his older brother’s double bass. By his early twenties, Haden was in Los Angeles playing with Paul Bley, Art Pepper, and Hampton Hawes.

Haden joined Ornette Coleman’s group in 1959, and appears on Coleman’s seminal The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959). It’s a bouncy production, as I recall, full of child-like tunes with microtones here and there but no real chord changes. I haven’t listened to it since the turntable went down decades ago. Likewise with Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (Atlantic, 1961), a larger ensemble that sounds like a haunting multi-car freeway pile-up.

But Haden was also deep into mainstream jazz, as is evidenced on one of my favorite albums of the era, pianist Denny Zeitlin’s Carnival (Columbia, 1964). I did love Archie Shepp’s  Mama Too Tight (Impulse!, 1967) during my high school years, though less for the free jazz screaming than for the rich brass sound on “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Basheer.”

When fusion arrived on the jazz scene, I left. My next encounter with a Haden recording was Gitane with French guitarist Christian Escoudé (All Life, 1978). Not bad, though only the first track really swings. Ten years later Haden reappears (in my collection) on a stimulating trio date, Etudes, with Geri Allen and Paul Motian (Soul Note, 1987); and a meditative but somehow classic quartet recording, Silence, with Chet Baker, Enrico Pieranunzi, and Billy Higgins (Soul Note, 1987).

One of Charlie’s misfires was a duet album,  Dialogues, with Carlos Paredes, a master of the Portuguese guitar (Antilles, 1990). That instrument resembles a mandolin and is typically played in the semi-halting mournful style of fado. You can hear it to good affect on Paredes’s solo album, Guitarra portuguesa (1967). The bass accompaniment on Dialogues doesn’t add much to the sound. Haden seems always to be a half-step behind.

At about the same time. Haden got into a fertile groove with his Quartet West ensemble, spinning sophisticated solos off lush arrangements of movie tunes from the forties and fifties. I still listen to Haunted Heart (Verve, 1991) and Always Say Goodbye (Verve, 1993) quite a bit. Then there’s a sprightly trio date, Wanton Spirit, with master pianist Kenny Barron and ageless drummer Roy Haynes (Gitane, 1994) followed two years later by a superb album, Night and the City, recorded live in a nightclub setting with Barron alone (Verve, 1996).

Other recordings of that year suggest how broad Haden’s musical interested still ranged: Falling Off the Roof (Atlantic) with rock drummer Ginger Baker, guitarist Bill Frisell, and banjo player Bella Fleck; Alone Together (Blue Note, 1996) with bebop elder Lee Konitz and the then-young Turk pianist Brad Meldhau; and Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories) with guitarist Pat Metheny (Verve).

When the Metheny album came out, I recall saying to myself, “Charlie Haden will make a duet album with anybody!” failing to consider how deeply indebted both he and Metheny were to Ornette Coleman. Reading the liner notes, I discovered their ties ran deeper still. The two, Midwesterners both, had known each other for decades, and Haden had been best man at Metheny’s wedding.

Haden’s American Dreams (Verve, 2002) with Michael Brecker on tenor, Brad Mehldau on piano, and Brian Blade on drums, is largely ruined by the string orchestra. Translinear Light (Impulse!, 2004) with Alice Coltrane and her son Ravi, is enlivened by the Wurlitzer organ and the Eastern sensibility of the melodic lines. And Jasmine, yet another duet album recorded in pianist Keith Jarrett’s home studio, (ECM, 2010) is a master class in thoughtful collaboration.(They're pictured together at the top of the page.)

Pondering this vastly incomplete personal cross-section of Haden’s long career here in front of the computer, I listened to a few iTunes excerpts from his Old and New Dreams phase, but in the end, I downloaded  Special Encounter (Cam Jazz, 2005) a straightforward trio date with Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi.

It’s not an earth-shattering date, but it’s a consistently musical one, as usual, with quite a bit of open space and a lyrical bass solo on the opening track, “My Old Flame.”


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Centennial Showboat - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Minnesota Centennial Showboat crew typically mines two thin but highly entertaining veins of art down on Harriet Island in St. Paul—the vintage popular song and the vintage melodrama. If you’d happened upon such stuff unexpectedly in Vicksburg or Davenport in the course of a family vacation, it would become material for a lifetime of fond reminiscences. But the Showboat has been putting on such entertainments for more than half a century—with a few well-deserved breaks for floods and fires—and we tend to take it for granted.

Their latest production, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, lacks existential ennui, is devoid of gender-bending twists, and explores no new ground theatrically. No one imagined that it would. Yet the place begins to exert its charm the moment you get out of the car and stroll down to the banks of the Mississippi in the evening light, with the Jonathan Paddleford steamboat bobbing in the foreground and the lights of St. Paul glittering from the far side of the river.

At what other venue can you spend the intermission sipping a beer as you watch giant logs float toward you down the river from Fountain Cave, Hidden Falls, Fort Snelling, and other places upstream, speculating on how big a “boom” they’ll make when then disappear beneath your feet and then crash into the Showboat’s metal hull?

But “the play’s the thing.” Right? Well, not exactly. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those parlor dramas, with lots of entrances and exits and a paper-thin plot. If you’re expecting something on the order of Benedict Cumberpatch as Sherlock Holmes, you’ll be disappointed. But the Showboat players do a very good job of carrying through with the tale, hamming things up only slightly, exhibiting a degree of finesse in their comic timing, and letting the audience do the rest with its cheering and hissing at all the right places. 

Within the  constraints of the idiom, Christian Boomgaarden succeeds in evoking an element of fiendish insanity in his portrayal of Mr. Hyde, and Nike Kadri might also be singled out for her comic turn as a maid being interrogated by the police.

Then there are the vocal interludes, which make up at least half of the production’s running time. The songs are from the mid-to-late nineteenth century, I would guess. The painted backdrops are impressive, the harmonies are rich, and the solo voices aren’t half bad. The tunes have nothing to do with one another, and absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Some are hilarious, others are infused with an almost childlike glee. I especially enjoyed "The Art Olio," a number set in old Persia during the course of which Bear Brummel attempts to rhapsodize while being caressed far too many of Katherine Fried's hands.

Other songs carry titles such as “The Naughty Little Clock,” “Eve Wasn’t Modest,” and “The Saga of the Two Little Sausages.” 

As I listened to the one that raises the question “who ate Napoleons with Josephine when Bonaparte was away?”, I was reminded of a scratchy 78-rpm record about a half-inch thick we used to listen to. It was the width of a dinner plate, but there was only one song on it: “Who Played Poker with Pocahontas When John Smith Went Away?” Someone ought to research the connections between the two songs. (I’m sure there’s a Ph.D. thesis in there somewhere.)

Among many other details let me mention just one or two: The costumes on display during “The Calendar Parade” number are a sight to behold; and the color of the potion Dr. Jekyll drinks from a glass beaker at a crucial moment in the drama is the perfect mad-scientist green, midway between chartreuse and pea soup. A variety of little comic touches--for example, the changing mirror in the upstairs laboratory--ensure that though the story line is often predictable, it is never dull. 

We emerged into the night, carrying the energy and enthusiasm of the production like a warm glow. We'd been exposed to a large vial of infectious fun....  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

World Cup Notes

Part of the appeal of the World Cup is that the entire world, more or less, gets involved in a single game, a single competition. None of those Olympic medal counts: Are two bronzes worth more than one silver?

Also, the game is deliciously simple, especially to those of us who don’t know a center back from a forward, have difficulty distinguishing a challenge from a tackle, and have no idea when either maneuver might be considered a foul.

A third merit of the event is that we Americans have no vested interest in it. Sure, it’s exciting to see our team advance. But we know they aren’t going to win the thing.

Meanwhile, the aesthetics of the game soak in intuitively, and we begin to appreciate the flow, the passing, the  disruptions, the counter-attacks. And of course, the scoring.

Germany’s semi-final game with Brazil was a scoring seminar. As it happened, all the scoring was done by the Germans.

Journalists immediately spilled a lot of ink (but not in a mean way) contrasting Brazil’s devotion to the game, and its host status, with the Brazilian team’s semi-final showing, which descended beneath “lackluster” to arrive at “dispirited” and “amateurish.” The team lost, the nation cried.

Before long, fans will be decrying the fact that in recent years, Brazil has abandoned its characteristically loose and flowing approach, o jogo bonito, for a more European approach that has obviously not produced the desired result. Pundits have argued throughout the early stages of the tourney that Brazil’s team wasn’t that  good, but it would make its way to the championship by an elusive magic that never fails them on their sacred  turf. (Brazil hadn’t lost at home in a Cup competition since 1975.)

What I enjoyed about the game was the sophistication of the German scoring. Although the announcers made use of such terms a “ruthless” and “machine-like,” what I noticed about the German attack was how often the players made that final, extra, pass to a teammate in front of the box, eschewing personal glory for the sake of a better scoring chance.  On one cross, midway through the first half, one of the Germans feigned a shot but allowed the ball to whiz past to a teammate who drilled it home. (Or perhaps he just whiffed?)

When Chris Wondolowski blew his chance to score for the United States, late in the match against Belgium—a score that would probably have won the game and allowed the team to advance—Clint Dempsey was standing a few yards away, unmarked, facing a wide-open net. (To be fair, Belgium missed about twelve scoring chances in that game, too. And if Wondolowski  had bobbled the pass, the cries of “Why didn’t you shoot?” would have been unceasing.)

The German passing seminar was made possible by the porous and tentative  nature of the Brazilian defense, no doubt. But the Germans seemed to know exactly how to penetrate it, without rushing overmuch to get a shot off.

Yet the fact remains that in many circles German’s team commands admiration...but not affection. Fans get excited about Mediterranean types of small stature weaving their way through crowds of defenders (Messi, Iniesta) or midfield masterminds cooly directing the show (Pirlo, Zidane). The trouble with the Germans is that they all seem like the same person. When Miroslav Klose scored his 16th career World Cup goal, eclipsing the record previously held by Ronaldo, the celebrations were muted in Brazil, naturally enough. But is there anywhere outside Germany where soccer fans have embraced Klose in the same way they embraced Ronaldo, populary dubbed Il Phenomeno?

I really don’t know.

Then again, as you can probably tell, I don’t know much about soccer.

Yet I have been enjoying the German contribution to the current World Cup, starting with the American coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. Reading about Klinsmann’s relocation to California, I was reminded of an unread novel that was smoldering in the basement collection, Martin Walser’s Breakers. Walser’s novels (Runaway Horse, The Swan Villa, Letter to Lord Listz, etc.) are all the same, in so far as the narrator is a put-upon German male yearning for respectability but doubtful about what others may be thinking about him. 

Breakers is no exception, though it’s given an extra twist by the fact that the narrator is trying to ingratiate himself into a scholarly California crowd, after receiving a four-month appointment to teach German conversation at a small Oakland college.

Just this morning, it occurred to me that what I really ought to be reading is Peter Handke’s Goalie Anxiety at Penalty Kick. I see they have two copies at the downtown Minneapolis library, and neither is checked out!

I may head down to pick up a copy this morning. But let me assure you that as I read it, I'll be listening to Brazilian diva Marisa Monte on the stereo.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Conceptual Sympathy of Ernst Cassirer

 Novelist are sometimes lauded for their ability to make a wide range of characters—even the most despicable—understandable and even compelling, if not likable. Call it intuitive sympathy.

We less often meet up with the notion of “conceptual sympathy”—the ability to set the ideas of a given thinker in the clearest light, exposing the nugget of insight that remains valid without dwelling overmuch on the dross and confusion surrounding it. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer possessed this ability to an unusual degree.

Let me give you an example from his late work, An Essay on Man (1944). Summing up the position of the Stoics, he writes:

He who lives in harmony with his own self, his demon, lives in harmony with the universe; for both the universal order and the personal order are nothing but different expressions and manifestations of a common underlying principle. Man proved his inherent power of criticism, of judgment and discernment, by conceiving that in this correlation the Self, not the universe, has the leading part…” 

And a few sentences further on he concludes:

This spirit [of Greek philosophy] was a spirit of judgment, of critical discernment between Being and Non-Being, between truth and illusion, between good and evil. Life in itself is changing and fluctuating, but the true value of life is to be sought in an eternal order that admits of no change. It is not in the world of our sense, it is only in the power of our judgment that we can grasp this order. Judgment is the central power of man, the common source of truth and morality. For it is the only thing in which man depends entirely on himself; it is free, autonomous, self-sufficing. 

 Cassirer is summarizing the position of Marcus Aurelius here. It’s not clear whether he endorses it entirely, but he describes it eloquently. The association of judgment (rather than verification) with truth and being is sound.

 But there are some problems here, too. In particular, the divorce of judgment and sense seems unnecessary and even perverse. To what, after all, do we apply our judgment except our experience, which is derived largely from our senses?

By the same token, is it really true that judgment is “the only thing in which man depends entirely on himself”? Judgment might be considered autonomous is so far as it leaves behind all arbitrary norms and standards. But we apply our judgment to things we come upon, things that lie beyond us. When we’re moved by a work of art, for example, and judge it to be beautiful, the judgment may be ours alone, but the work of art remains a foreign object. That we can respond to such experience at all might be offered as an argument in favor of the Stoic position Cassirer has already described, whereby “the universal order and the personal order are nothing but different … manifestations of a common underlying principle.” But if this is true, then, far from being autonomous, judgment is based on that principle, and reaffirms our connections to things both within and beyond our selves—the murmuring harmonies and discords of life.

According to Cassirer, this is the sort of judgment Jesus executes, and within a paragraph or two of this sympathetic description of Stoicism, Cassirer introduces Christianity as the major historical challenge to the Stoic position. Did Christianity refute Stoicism? Not really, Cassirer tells us. He notes that the two systems have a great deal in common. He breezes past Jesus, however, whose maxims are perhaps too enigmatic and contradictory, in his eagerness to introduce us to the more conceptually fleshed out notions of St. Augustine.

And so it goes. In succeeding pages, Cassirer presents us with similarly cogent references to Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal, whom he clearly admires. As we meet and greet Bruno and Diderot, we may begin to feel that in the course of a few pages, under Cassirer’s gentle guidance, we’re finally getting a grip on the Western intellectual tradition.

Cassirer is impressed with Darwinian evolution, though he observes astutely that its impact on philosophical speculation was rooted less in the “facts” of evolution that in the theoretical interpretation of those facts—an interpretation that had a definite metaphysical character. He points out that Aristotle had an evolutionary theory, too. But in Aristotle’s view, evolution was driven by “final causes.” That is to say, less advanced species were developing toward the supreme species—man. For Darwin, on the other hand, evolution was being driven by accidental causes. It has no pre-determined end or final form.

“Modern thinkers,” Cassirer writes, “have…definitely succeeded in accounting for organic life as a mere product of chance.” 

But have they, really? In defense of this claim, Cassirer quotes a passage in which Darwin describes an impressive edifice being built using no material other than the random pieces of rubble he finds at the base of a cliff. Darwin concludes:

Now, the fragments of stone, though indispensible to the architect, bear to the edifice being built by him the same relation which the fluctuating variations of organic beings bear to the varied and admirable structures ultimately acquired by their modified descendants. 

The careful reader, pursuing the analogy to its logical conclusion,  might respond: “Then who is this architect you are referring to? Who is this architect of individual creatures, of Life?”

An architect who builds an edifice begins with a design, a sense of scale and proportion, an aesthetic, and a utilitarian purpose. He chooses his stones accordingly. If his choice of building material is limited to what lies near at hand (and is therefore “accidental”) that will influence the design of the finished product, but only to a degree. Such limitations having been granted, the completed edifice will reflect the architect’s intention.

This scenario doesn’t resemble the evolutionary path in the slightest. When an organism receives a freak mutation, there is no architect present, and neither intention nor choice are involved. Very few mutations are environmentally beneficial. Most peter out within a generation.

Evolutionary development only becomes explicable when we include, along with all the accidental causes, the intentionality of the individual creature, who seizes and makes use of an accidental advantage, imbuing it with value, as it were, and passing it on to its descendants. Both the accident and the urge to thrive are necessary for development. Accident alone produces nothing but chaos.

Cassirer notes that during the course of the nineteenth century, philosophers enamored of Darwinianism found it imperative to explain the diversity of human cultures by recourse to simple mechanisms: “Nietzsche proclaims the will to power, Freud signalizes the sexual instinct, Marx enthrones the economic instinct.” 

By this point in time, in Cassirer’s view, “our modern theory of man lost its intellectual center.” (P. 21) Man has made his way from metaphysics to theology to mathematics to biology. Now a “complete anarchy of thought” holds sway, a dreadful “antagonism of thought” in which every thinker relies on “his own conception and evaluation of human life.”

Things sound pretty bad, and more than a few scholars have written weighty books about the “crisis” of late nineteenth-century thought. And yet, doesn’t it also sound strangely familiar? Ten pages earlier, Cassirer had been praising a Stoic world view based on personal judgment, “The only thing in which man depends entirely on himself.” Now he’s describing a very similar situation, in which every thinker relies on “his own conception and evaluation of human life.” But now he's describing it as a world of “complete anarchy.” What happened?

My point is not to challenge Cassirer’s judgment, though I think he’s missed the mark, here, perhaps under the influence of the chaotic and colossally destructive historical situation under which he was writing. What I’m impressed with is Cassirer’s knack for calmly highlighting the essential virtue and drama of any given period, the critical thrust of any thinker’s work. 
In an earlier work, The Platonic Renaissance in England (1932), Cassirer makes an attempt to expose the historical significance of now-obscure English writers such as Whichcote, Henry More, and Cudworth. He paints a warts-and-all portrait of thinkers who wrote badly and at great length, but who nevertheless sustained important streams of thought  that were in danger of being submerged in the shallower but broader flow of British empiricism.

Especially interesting, at least to my mind, is the thirty-page digression he makes to explain how much more difficult to the Augustinian world view was the challenge presented by Plato, than that which Aristotle had offered at an earlier date.

He suggests that Aristotleanism, as it appears in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, does little to bridge the gap between knowledge and faith, reason and revelation, nature and grace. It was Aquinas's towering intellect that held things together.During the Renaissance the school of Padua, through “laborious philological and systematic analysis,” succeeded in showing how incompatible Aristotelian and Christian positions are.

During the Reformation the entire superstructure of scholasticism was set aside in an effort to return to the Christianity of Augustine and Paul. Cassirer writes: “It seemed finally as if Augustinian doctrine had triumphed over its great philosophical rival—indeed, as if it had emerged more formidable still from its controversy with scholastic Aristotelianism.”

But once Renaissance thinkers gained greater access to Plato’s work through translations, Augustinianism was essentially doomed. Plato’s theory of Eros as a bridge between the real and the ideal, and his association of Eros with “the Good,” (bolstered at a later date by Plotinus’s notion of the beautiful) had no use for Augustine’s higher power.

The Idea of the good is thus set forth not only as the end and aim of knowledge … but also as the strongest bond comprehending all being, earth and heaven, the sensible and the intelligible world. To question the Idea of the good, or to limit it by an ostensibly higher norm, would mean for Plato the dissolution of being itself and the sacrifice of all human as well as all divine order for chaos. Plato’s theology is thus based on self-reliance and on the self-sufficiency of the moral life. In so far as this self-sufficiency has its foundation in the will, there can be no absolute depravity of the will for Plato. The power of Eros constantly works against the doctrine of original evil and triumphs over it.

Bravo! After a lengthy discussion of Ficino and the Florentine Academy, Cassirer moves on to the influence asserted by Neoplatonic doctrines on the poetry of the English Renaissance. He has taken the time to set the stage for the appearance of the Cambridge Platonists, and in so doing, he offers us a brief and illuminating mini-history of Western thought.

It’s almost enough to make you hunt up that old paperback copy of The Fairie Queene!