Friday, November 27, 2015

How the Scots Invented The Modern World

"In love, a little exaggeration is OK," says the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, and the same thing goes for book titles.  Thus, Arthur Herman's book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, is a bit of a stretch, though the book does cover a lot of ground, from moral philosophy to economics, the Constitution of the United States to the growth of the  British Empire, from the Quixotic uprising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 to the birth of modern geology.  The Scots were deeply involved in all of these things, though Herman never goes so far as to claim exclusive Scotch inspiration for any of them. The result is a succession of fascinating historical essays, each one devoted to a slightly different topic.

A précis of the "case" for Scottish culture might include reference to Adam Smith, who pioneered our understanding of capitalism; David Hume, whose challenge to conventional notions of causality interest us less today than his political essays, which inspired James Madison to develop the system of checks and balances between branches and  also levels of government—a system that underlies the American Constitution; James Watt, who invented the steam engine that powered the Industrial Revolution; and  Sir Walter Scott, whose poems and novels "single-handedly changed the course of literature," giving it the place it still occupies in modern life.
However, anyone expecting a strictly "intellectual" history of Scottish thought—tracing how one idea or movement led to another—is going to be disappointed.  Herman introduces us to something much more interesting: how a given idea or movement changed the ways that people organized their lives and institutions. Thus he devotes less time to David Hume's skeptical notions of what we can and cannot know than he gives to fellow-Scot Thomas Reid's "common sense" philosophy, which provided the title for the most popular pamphlet of the American Revolution, and might also have been the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson's phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." 

According to Herman, Reid's philosophy shaped American theories of education for a century. He writes:

It helped produce a cultural type that some consider typically American, but which is just as much Scottish: an independent intellect combined with an assertive self-respect, and grounded by a strong sense of moral purpose.     

Herman is adept  at drawing connections between technical  innovations and larger social and historic movements, and he also clarifies how various Scotch initiatives build upon one another with the passage of generations. He devotes relatively little time, for example, to exploring the validity or significance of Francis Hutcheson's ethical theories—they were largely derivative of Shaftsbury's theories in any case. (Shaftesbury was English.)  Yet he refers again and again to the influence Ferguson had on students who later in life did great things.

Herman would have us believe that it all started with John Knox, the iconoclastic firebrand who brought Presbyterianism to Scotland and smashed a lot of artwork in the process. On the one hand, the harsh strictures of his faith prohibited  dancing, playing the pipes, gambling, card-playing or theater. On the other, it maintained that political power was ordained by God...but vested in the people. 

Writing a hundred years before the Englishman John Locke, the Presbyterian spokeman George Buchanan argued that the people "have the right to confer royal authority upon whomever they wish," and also the sacred duty to resist tyranny whenever it should arise.

The notion that the Calvinist view of life, while singularly dismal in theory, tended to promote self-reliance and individual initiative, is not a new one, of course. For example, the Italian scholar Guido de Ruggiero, wrote in 1925:

This transvaluation of values was most perceptible precisely in that branch of the reformation which most strongly emphasized the aspect of human servitude, namely, Calvinism. While the Lutheran reformation stopped half-way along the oath of negation, and coming early under the control of political interests ended by consecrating a half-servile political consciousness, Calvinism on the contrary pushed its negation to the point at which the extreme subjection of the individual turned into the opposite. The follower of Calvin believed in the most fatalistic predestination; but in so far as he was bound to offer proofs of his own election by divine grace he acted with energy and self-control. His very preoccupation with the ‘ beyond ’ became the means to discipline his whole earthly life. He denied all saving efficacy to works and relied upon faith alone; but from the firmness of his faith sprang new works, which, if not means and vehicles of grace, were its signs and witnesses. His God was a distant God; no Church could come near him; but the worshipper’s very isolation, far from depressing him, strengthened him and gave him a sense of high responsibility towards the Deity and towards himself.

The author goes on to describe the effect of such an orientation to the divine.

Thus Calvinism became an education of the will and the character. It worked for conscientiousness and rectitude. It gave a systematic direction to the development of the individual’s activities. As such, it was an immense expansive power in the modern world. While Lutheranism remained the national and State religion of numerous German princi­palities, Calvinism invaded the whole of Europe and im­parted its energy to the majority of the dissident sects, Baptists, Quakers, Independents, Puritans. Even the great Methodist movement of the eighteenth century was a deriva­tive of Calvinism.

It's interesting to note that Ruggiero makes no mention of Scotland, John Knox, or Presbyterianism in his long book, thus confirming Herman's assertion that Scottish history has been consistently undervalued and remains  unknown to many. Herman argues the same point that Ruggiero's does, but in a  more entertaining, down-to-earth style. His theoretical analysis is less thorough than Ruggiero's but he fleshes out the argument far more convincingly.

The point of this book [Herman writes] is that being Scottish is more than just a matter of nationality or place of origin or clan or even culture. It is also a state of mind, a way of viewing the world and our place in it. This Scottish mentality was a deliberate creation, although it was conceived by many minds and carried out by many hands. It is a self-consciously modern view, so deeply rooted in the assumptions and institutions that govern our lives today that we often miss its significance, not to mention its origin. From this point of view, a large part of the world turns out to be “Scottish” without realizing it. It is time to let them in on the secret.

And as we pursue one theme after another, from the enclosure movement to the role of Glasgow in the Colonial American tobacco trade, we begin to realize that the specific argument on which the narrative hangs is often pretty much incidental to what's being described or discussed. Yet Herman's command of many widely disparate fields of inquiry, and his talents as a story-teller, insure that we'll seldom be bored, as our attention swings from James Boswell to Andrew Carnegie, or from the Darien Company investment debacle in Panama to a ship captain by the name of Sir James Blane, who, in 1795, finally convinced the British Admiralty to make lime juice a standard issue of His Majesty's ships—thus, once again, changing the course of world history forever.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Friendly St. Lawrence

The St. Lawrence is one of North America's great rivers, but it's not easy to pin down. It grows gradually wider at its mouth and it's hard to say where the river finally ends and the Gulf of St. Lawrence begins. Upstream from the gulf, it passes the attractive French-speaking cities of Quebec and Montreal  and several impressive archipelagos of islands before arriving at Lake Ontario; the waterway continues to be navigable, in a manner of speaking, all the way to Duluth. It is with a degree of irrational pride that I can report that the "headwaters" of the St. Lawrence River watershed lies at Seven Beavers Lake, in a remote area of northern Minnesota southeast of Hibbing. The lake is accessible only by canoe or snowmobile.

No doubt more interesting than the boggy shoreline of Seven Beavers Lake is the civilized and picturesque section of the river that runs downstream from Montreal past Quebec and the Ile d'Orleans, the Saguaney Fjord, Tadoussac, and Trois Pistoles to the Gulf. It isn't muddy and confused like the Mississippi Delta, but expansive and sharply defined, due to the fact that it follows a rift between the Appalachian and Laurentian mountain ranges. Anacosti Island, lying beyond the horizon at the mouth of the gulf, is much larger than Prince Edward Island but only 240 people live on it. Most of them are lighthouse keepers.

From the wooden boardwalk in front of the Frontenac Hotel in Quebec City, the river looks truly expansive. Ferries are always visible moving commuters and tourists back and forth across the river from nearby Levis, and there is likely to be a cruise ship parked in the port down below.

As you wander the narrow streets of the upper city, the river is somehow always nearby, and down in the lower city it's often visible.

Hilary and I spent a full day of such wandering, but the next morning we left the city, heading upstream along the north bank of the St. Lawrence in search of her ancestors. Or at least, in search of the flavor of her ancestors.

I had my doubts about how much flavor had survived from the mid-seventeenth century, when Nicolas Sylvestre arrived as a soldier in Quebec City, served his term of duty, and received a strip of land facing on the St. Lawrence in nearby Neuville.  But once we'd threaded a few miles of suburbs on Highway 138, we found ourselves in a surprisingly pastoral setting, with old-fashioned stone buildings set back from the narrow two-lane highway here and there, and the broad expanse of the river, still more than a mile wide in many places, in plain view to the south intermittently through the trees.

The town of Neuville itself is a very loose conurbation. Though it has a gas station and a community center, its most prominent features are a marina along the river and a large stone church halfway up the hill. There wasn't much going on at the marina, and the church was locked. A Victorian-era house with a big front porch stood nearby, which I took to be a rectory of some sort, though as we approached it I saw a sign that said Bibliotech. Just as I was climbing the steps onto the porch to peer into one of the windows a woman emerged from the front door.

"Parle vous Anglais?" I said. (It's my best line.)

"Yes," the woman replied. "In fact, I'm teaching an English class inside right now. It's the first lesson. Would you two like to join us?"

We went inside and were greeted by eight or ten of the most cheerful faces I had ever seen. We told them that we were tourists from Minneapolis (basically just across the border from Winnipeg, donja know?) and Hilary explained that one of her distant ancestors had been given a grant of land in Neuville after serving with the Carignan-Salières Regiment back in the mid-seventeenth century.

He arrived on the second ship, not the first ship, Hilary mentioned.

"Oh, that was the Atalante," one of the women replied. (These folks evidently know their local history.)

As we chatted I became increasingly curious about who these bubbly people were, and I asked them finally if they'd each tell us briefly what they did for a living. I had imagined the community would be populated with farmers and merchants, but that was not the case: psychologist, parole officer, social worker, elementary school teacher, electrical engineer. One woman identified herself as a secretary, but her neighbor corrected her. "She's just being modest. She's the secretary of the Quebec Provincial Court."

We made our exit in a haze of good cheer, urging everyone to put Minnesota on their list of travel destinations—"It's just like here...but without the grand river, the gorgeous mountains, or the 300-year-old walled city"—and continued our way upstream.

To judge from all the exposed rocks and sand on the bank, the river is still tidal at this point. (Or perhaps the water level was just low due to the dry season.) We briefly explored a spit of land near Portnuef identified as a "site ornithologique" but saw few birds, and we spent some time wandering an antique church in the quaint village of Deschambault, where an art crawl was also underway devoted to aspects of flax and linen production.

But we didn't dally, because we were intent on reaching the village of Saint Barthélemy, which lies well back from the river on the far side of the city of Trois Rivière. That's the village from which Hilary's great-grandfather departed on a journey west to Crookston, with a winter stop in the lumber camps near Brule, Wisconsin. Isiah came from a large Catholic family, but he was the only one of his generation who emigrated, and Hilary's dad and uncle had always wondered why. After visiting the village, the reasonable answer would seem to be, "Why not?"

There isn't much in Saint Barthélemy, aside from a large church, a robust grocery store, a shady town square, and an antique store with old bicycles and oil drums spread across the front porch. The village sits in the midst of flat fields, and there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for it to be there, other than the fact that it lies on the Chemin du Roi—the "royal road" connecting Quebec City and Montreal that was built between 1731 and 1737. The Chemin du Roi is a sort of  Canadian Route 66, though it's only 170 miles long. There are signs here and there all along Highway 138 pointing travelers down narrow back roads that follow the original trace more closely than the highway does. It's become a tourist route, complete with visitors' center, historic signs, and a website.

We stopped in the grocery store hoping to buy some gas for our camp store, and I asked the woman at the cash register if she knew of anyone thereabouts named Sylvestre. She summoned the butcher from the back of the store; his mother was from Miami and he'd worked for three years in Brooklyn.

"I know of one Sylvestre. He owns a bar in St. Barnaby. But let me ask the women. They know everyone around here." A brief conversation ensued in French, after which the butcher said, "They tell me that long ago a man named Sylvestre once owned a store that stood right on this very spot."


At the antique store we got a different response. When I inquired about the name Sylvestre, the man replied, "Which one? They're all over the place!" Hilary showed him a list of family names, but they were all about a hundred years old, and none of them rang a bell.

The important thing was that a village which had previously been nothing more than a name in a data base had now become a place with streets, businesses, inhabitants, and a distinctive character.

It was late afternoon by the time we got on the freeway and headed north into the mountains. And hour later we arrived at the ranger station in La Mauricie National Park—just in time to secure a campsite and, more importantly, buy a bundle of firewood before the park closed for the day. We visited some lovely lakes and chatted at length with a man who'd been out all day in his hand-made canoe looking for moose.

"I have seen many many moose, but not today.  I look, I look, I look, I look. But I no see a moose."

I told him we have moose in Minnesota, too, and also lots of canoes.

"What kind of canoe?" he asked.

"Ours is aluminum," I said.

"Ah, yes. But the wood canoe is better. It makes ... the music ... of the water."

Monday, November 16, 2015

Delacroix (and others) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

There are many fine paintings to be seen at the new Delacroix exhibit at the MIA—and Eugene Delacroix actually painted a few of them. The artists included in the show range from relative unknowns such as Chassériau and Bonnington to post-Impressionist masters like Cezanne, Seurat, Matisse, and even Kandinsky. In short, there is much to examine, ponder, and enjoy in these five rooms, even if, like me, you find the paintings of Delacroix himself slightly garish and histrionic, and the estimations of his influence highly exaggerated.

Yet that's the theme of the show: how artists of succeeding generations drew inspiration and insight from Delacroix's example. After an hour or two in the exhibit, I remained unconvinced. It's undoubtedly true that many of Delacroix's young successors expressed admiration for his work, and acknowledged the inspiration he'd given them. But looking at his paintings today, it's difficult to get excited about them or see where the merit lies.

It's like reading a bunch of tributes to American filmmakers Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray by French directors we continue to admire–Trauffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette. The fact that the tributes are sincere doesn't improve the quality of Pickup on South Street or Johnny Guitar.

The interpretive text accompanying the exhibit stresses that it was not just Delacroix's use of color, but also his theory of color, that fascinated the Impressionists. Yet I didn't see a single reference or quotation of specific aspects of those theories in the show.

I have read elsewhere that Delacroix would construct palettes of up to 23 colors, but I couldn't help noticing that he relies heavily on the same generic red and blue we see in many Baroque paintings. And there's a yellow-brown caste over most of his paintings that becomes obvious when we see them hanging next to works by Gauguin and Van Gogh.

Also conspicuously absent from the show are paintings by Dominique Ingres, Delacroix's rival and chief neoclassical competitor throughout much of his career. This is a curious omission, though it might have to do with the difficulty of securing the relevant paintings. Ingres, the most influential painter of the day, was a self-proclaimed master of "line," though nowadays he's justly celebrated for his psychological penetration. Delacroix, on the other hand, took pride in the freedom and looseness of his brushstrokes and his devil-may-care approach to anatomical accuracy. Both painters, though in different ways, excelled in those vast historical works that few viewers today take an interest in.

Strange as it may seem, some of the best of Delacroix's paintings included in the show are the murals he did for various public buildings in Paris. His ornate style fit in well between the gold encrustations on the ceiling of the Apollo Gallery at the Louvre, and the murals he did for the library of the National Assembly are even more appealing (see above). What we notice here, however, is a more serious approach to line, smoother surfaces, and a general lightening of the palette. 

You won't see these murals in the show, of course, but a 14-minute video devoted to them is showing continuously on a big screen in one of the galleries.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of paintings by other artists to occupy our attention. Among my favorites is Frédérick Bazille's "la Toilette" (above). The harmony of tones that Bazille establishes here goes well beyond anything you'll see in Delacroix's work. The painting seems to have escaped from Ingres's extreme exactitude while remaining proportionally accurate. The midnight blue on the striped fabric in the lower right is worth the price of admission in itself.

Fantin-Latour's "Tannhauser on the Venusberg"  seems to inhabit a space somewhere between the realms of Giorgione and Odilon Redon, while the same artist's group portrait "Homage to Delacroix" projects a straightforward dignity that made me want to rush home and take another look at the collection of Baudelaire's critical pieces, written during Delacroix's time, that have been gathered together under the title The Mirror of Art (Phaidon Press, 1955).

And speaking of Redon, this exhibit contains one of his crisp, subtle paintings of flower arrangements--complete with a stunning orange poppy--but also several sparkly, child-like renderings of bird wings and rowboats that are oozing with mystical import--profound or atrocious, depending on your taste.

In the end, by ignoring the narrative underpinnings of the exhibition and relishing the canvases one by one, we can be reminded again and again that the history of art and the history of art-style are very different things. One involves knitting together chains of influence, while the other is rooted in personal judgment regarding whether any specific work of art is beautiful, and if so, why? 

The former is preferred by curators and art historians, who usually prefer not to stick their necks out too far; the later approach serves lovers of art pure and simple, because while techniques and theories come and go, in the end every durable work of art draws its inspiration largely from within.

Or, as Baudelaire wrote in his critique of the Salon of 1846:
You cannot know in what measure Nature has mingled the taste for line and the taste for color in the mind, nor by what mysterious processes she manipulates that fusion whose result is a picture. Thus a broader point of view will be an orderly individualism--that is, to require of the artist the quality of naivete and the sincere expression of his temperament, aided by every means which his technique provides.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Celebrating Oaks - Acorn Bread

Late fall is a fine time to admire the oaks, gnarly and statuesque. But we can go a step further and make a few loaves of acorn bread.

Just to say the words, "acorn bread," conjures images of ..... what? The smell of burnt nuts wafting through the kitchen?

I was at a Sukkoth party—the Jewish celebration of the harvest, and more generally, a celebration of impermanence. I was standing on an enclosed deck, with ears of corn and oddly shaped lemons hanging here and there, and the subject of acorns naturally came up.

"I think I'm going to make some acorn bread," I said. My friend said, "Why?"

I told him that years ago, when I was in high school and Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, was what we would now call a "cutural icon," I'd made some.

"What were you smoking?" he replied.

In those days, foraging had nothing to do with gourmet restaurants. It had to do with survival, or at any rate with establishing a few fundamental connections with the earth.

Acorns are edible. Why not eat some?

My experiment decades ago was a partial failure, which I attributed to the mediocrity of the cast iron, hand-cranked coffee grinder I'd used to make the acorn  meal. It simply didn't grind things very well. Yet the odd taste of the bread had its own character, and I recently became curious—don't ask me why—to see if a better loaf could be produced with an electric coffee-grinder.

Finding decent acorns proved to be more difficult than I'd imagined. But on a biking trip with friends to Little Falls, Hilary came upon a wonderful cache of fresh, clean nuts. We gathered together four or five cups of them in a few minutes. Then the real work began.

To make acorn bread you first need to shell the acorns, of course. This takes quite a bit of time.

Then you boil them for two hours, changing the water every ten minutes but without losing the boil. This is to remove the tannins.

At this point you bake the nuts for a while to dry them out again.

Then you grind them into meal. We used a food processor, which worked quite well.

Finally, you mix the meal with regular flour and bake some bread. (We also made some muffins.)

Hot from the oven and slathered with butter, the bread tasted a lot like the loaf I made forty years ago. Perhaps the best word to describe it would be "interesting."

A different taste. Not bad. Really. Not that bad at all.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Irrational Exuberance of "Oklahoma!"

There was quite a bit to choose from among special screenings last weekend: Benjamin Cumberbatch in Hamlet with Britain's National Theater, Wagner's Tannhauser in HD from the Metropolitan Opera ... or a newly restored 70 mm version of the 1955 film Oklahoma!.

As it turned out, both showings of Hamlet were already sold out. And with a running time of 4 hours and 20 minutes, the Wagner seemed a little much for a bright Saturday afternoon.

On the other hand, I had never seen Oklahoma!, though I lived in that state when the movie came out. At the time of its original release, my parents convinced me that I wouldn't like the movie. In any case, they weren't going to take me,  and I certainly wasn't going to go by myself: I was three years old.

Since then my tastes have matured—I think. I've grown fond of Hollywood musicals like Cover Girl and Singin' in the Rain as well as Broadway-based productions like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and 1776. For me, the essential ingredient in a successful musical (as in life) is irrational exuberance.

Oklahoma! has got plenty of that. The tunes aren't of the caliber to become jazz standards. In fact, several of them are border-line sappy, including the title tune," Oh, What a Beautiful Morning'," and "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." But they're plenty good within the context of the plot, and the sparky dancing on numbers like "Kansas City" (watch it here)  and "The Farmer and the Cowhand" made a first-time viewer like me giddy with enthusiasm.

Then there's the surreal and macabre number "Poor Jud is Dead," which is simply too weird to describe; the courting duet "All er Nuttin'," with its multivalent sexual innuendo;  the nightmare sequence, which is truly grotesque; and the film's best number, which I've been whistling for a week— "People Will Say We're in Love."

Gordon McCrae and a very young Shirley Jones are perfectly cast as the winsome couple, Rod Steiger brings a properly sinister edge to the role of the slovenly farm-hand who sleeps in the smokehouse, Richard Widmark is a suitably stern and protective father, and Eddie Albert hams it up as the libidinous traveling salesman.  The result is a two-and-a-half hour delight that didn't really need an intermission.

I guess I'm just reiterating here what everyone who's interested in musicals already knows. What I didn't know is that some critics consider Oklahoma! to be "the single most influential work in the American musical theater." Why? Because it was the first musical to integrate song, character, plot and dance in an American vernacular idiom.

Other critics, reacting to this remark, have pointed to plenty of antecedents, including Show Boat. Well, whatever.

The film was listed in the paper as playing at Willow Creek, but the theater website made no mention of it. Wondering if the limited run might have sold out, I called the theater.

"I think you'll get in," the man in the box-office said. "We currently have 234 seats available." 

The theater seats 240.