Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Pancakes from Space

In October of 2017, astronomers at the University of Hawaii spotted an object traveling through our solar system that was unlike anything anyone had seen before. They named it Oumuamua, which, in Hawaiian, means scout or messenger.

Studies of the object's speed (slow), trajectory (out of whack), and the gases surrounding it (the wrong kind) led them to the conclusion that it was neither a comet nor an asteroid. Variations in the light reflecting off of it as it spun through space led astronomers to conclude that it was at least ten times longer than it was wide. Speculative illustrations of this strange object have tended to represent it as a long thin cigar, but Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, has argued that it's more likely to be pancake-shaped and extremely thin.

He derives this theory from the fact that as it left our solar system it accelerated. Very strange. Loeb has speculated that the extra push Oumuamua was getting came from having sunlight at its back, as it were. In  order to generate sufficient umpff by that means, however, the object would need to be more than 20 meters in diameter and less than a millimeter thick. That is to say, it would have to be "man-made" rather than something hurled out into space by natural means.

Of course, if the object was "man-made," that would mean there are intelligent beings out there in other parts of the galaxy—a possibility so likely, according to Loeb, as to be a virtual certainty. There is no evidence, however, to support the supposition that the creatures who made the craft singled out our solar system for special attention. For an advanced civilization, the manufacture of such things might be commonplace, and as far as we know, there could be hundreds of thousands of them sailing through the near-darkness of deep space, hoping to be drawn into any gravitational field near at hand.

A very strange interview ran in the New Yorker recently in which the interviewer, one Isaac Chotiner, deflects Loebs efforts to underscore the empirical data upon which his conjecture is based while simultaneously trying to lure him into the most puerile forms of theological dispute. It's a bizarre display of bad journalism, and reading between the lines it's easy to see Loeb didn't much appreciate it.

The interview had been edited for length, and I suppose one of the things that was cut went like this.
In the article, Chotiner askes Loeb: My question is whether we tend to see things that we can’t know or understand through the prism of things we have heard about since we were kids. Aren’t we more likely to see something like an alien society as an explanation than something we maybe can’t even comprehend or put into words?

Perhaps this reply was cut. Loeb: "You obviously haven't listened to a word I said. I gave six empirical reasons to consider Oumuamua as the product of an advanced civilization, rather than a natural phenomenon. Ignoring these factors, you suggest that Oumuamua is entirely incomprehensible, and that my speculations are based on my childhood readings of science fiction magazines. You need to pay better attention, or get a new job."

What remains of Loeb's remarks makes perfect sense, by the way. He compares his simple conjecture to the mainstream idea of the multiverse—a theory that anything that can happen will happen an infinite number of times. He finds that theory unscientific, because there is no evidence. "It cannot be tested." The same is true, he argues, of string theory, which also continues to be held in high regard. 

"Whereas the next time we see an object like this one," he goes on, "we can contemplate taking a photograph. My motivation, in part, is to motivate the scientific community to collect more data on the next object rather than argue a priori that they know the answer."

While pursuing his own agenda, Chotiner lets the opportunity slip by to question this Harvard expert about the possible significance of such a visit. Loeb was recently quoted in a German magazine as saying, "If these beings are peaceful, we could learn a lot from them."

It occurs to me that one thing we might learn from these aliens is how to make a thinner pancake. I'm sure you've noticed that many of the pancakes served in restaurants are thick and doughy. They soak up the syrup like there's no tomorrow. (For them, I guess there isn't.) To make a thin, crisp pancake you need a runnier batter, of course. We used to call such pancakes "fritters."

Meanwhile, the idea that an object manufactured by a far-flung civilization drifted slowly around our sun and then back out into the void is sort of thrilling. While we wait for their return, we've got to think of a better word for them than "aliens."

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Song Slam at Ice House

A song slam is like a poetry slam with better voices and piano accompaniment. To this combination of features we ought to add the arching melody and carefully parsed rhythms that "art" songs often provide. But you're sitting in a bar. No one is dressed up. The composers and performers answer questions about their work before each number is performed, and hundreds of dollars in prize money are given out at the end to the contestants the audience liked best. That is to say, the friends they came to see.

Sound like fun? I thought so. I met a friend at the Ice House on Nicollet Avenue and Hilary arrived a little later from the opposite direction after an early dinner with a friend. The place was packed. It was almost too dark to read the program, which, in any case, was mostly devoted to ads for the Source Song organization and mini-bios of the performers. The bios didn't follow the order of the songs, anyway, and I found it easy to set it aside.

The important thing was the ballot inside, and I was determined to take notes on each song, or at least give each performance a numerical value, so as to be able to cast an educated vote at the end of the show. That didn't happen.

The performers were standing in the hallway leading off from the stage like bucking broncos at a rodeo, and everyone was having a good time. The master of ceremonies, Chris Koza, played the guitar and sang one of his own songs, and then the slam proper began.

I wish I could tell you more about the individual pieces but I had to turn in my ballot at the end of the show, and don't remember any names, though (checking the program later) the first singer, Rodolfo Nieto, had a vigorous baritone, and another of the early performers, David Walton, delivered his piece in a very sweet lyric tenor. I found Benjamin Emory Larson's song about Nicola Tesla a little heavy handed, and also Catherine Dalton's "You Have to Stand There," but found a lot to admire in Jake Endres's "The Fuge of Love," and not only because my friend Athena Kildegaard wrote the words to it.

A number of the compositions were chromatic and "conversational," a la Charles Ives, but several had formal stanzas and repeated melodies, a la Schubert and that crowd. The singers seemed relaxed and entirely uninhibited on stage. One woman wore a zany red hat with twelve fluffy prongs sticking out the top. In short, there was a touch of Dada to the proceedings. 

Throughout the set Hilary and I continued to pick at the ploughman's lunch we'd ordered, which looked a little like a portrait by Archimboldo. I was expecting a great big onion, some chutney, a pickle, and a crusty piece of bread, but the waitress brought us a thin slab of slate covered with mushrooms, sausages, smoked salmon, mango slices (all the Welsh farmers eat it), roasted cauliflower, several chunks of cheese, and some toast. There were also a few shredded globs of unidentified vegetable matter. Cucumber? Carrots? I have no idea.

The performance space at the Ice House is ideal for such events. You feel like you're at the Globe Theater or a bull fight. The audience was there to listen, but also to cheer. Everybody knew somebody; some people seemed to know everyone. And soaring over it all, the lyrical human voice, male or female, wrapping itself tenderly around a 16th century English ballad, a Portuguese love song by Camöes, or a poem by one of our great local talents.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Spoilers and Red Herrings: Four Recent Films

It pains me to report that several recent films highly praised by critics and audiences alike did not sit very well with me. I'm not sure much of a point is served by gunching, and I'm not trying to dissuade anyone from seeing these soon-to-be cultural landmarks. All I can say is that I didn't like them much ... and I'll tell you why.

It would be difficult to do this without revealing one or two of the plot twists involved, so readers who are planning to see them beware.  

First on the list is Roma, the most celebrated film of the year, to judge from the Metacritic scores. (Then again, Ratatouille, a cartoon about a rat that wanted to be a chef, scored a 99 a few years back.) It's a stunning black-and-white film about a middle-class family in Mexico City, though it would be useful to know going into the theater that the focus of director Alfonso Cuarón's attention is the maid, Cleo. This is because none of the family members have much character or definition, and Cleo herself is so quiet, dutiful, and subservient that she's not very interesting, either. Thus the lighting, mis en scene, and cinematography must take center stage. 

And it's true that individual scenes are so artfully designed and tonally balanced that any given frame could be printed, framed, and hung on a wall to good effect. This same quality limits the close-ups, which is too bad. We never get to know anyone well. It's just a bunch of bratty kids, a philandering husband (absent pretty much throughout), a neurotic wife, a maid, and a cook. The most lively and interesting character is the grandmother, who probably appears on screen for less than ten minutes.

Perhaps sensing this lack of emotional resonance, Cuarón's ends the film with the family taking a trip to the beach. And it got me wondering how many movies end this way. What came to mind first was Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows, where the protagonist escapes from reform school and goes to the beach, because he's never seen the sea before.

Then we have Wim Wenders' The American Friend, with a Volkswagen beetle racing to the beach to furious guitar strumming. And what about the big argument-at-the-beach scene from Big Night, which naturally calls to mind the even more famous ending to La Dolce Vita, where the jaded and decadent revelers end up on a beach at dawn watching a dead octopus wash up on shore. And for good measure, what about the dream sequence that serves as a climax of sorts to the recent Korean film At Night on the Beach Alone?

Nothing is more emotional, definitive, powerful, mysterious, and vague than the sea. And here I sit on the shore of Lake Superior, pen in hand, as the sky grows dark, listening  to the roar of the surf crashing against the beautiful slabs of rock--powerful, irregular, almost subliminal at times in its ceaseless rumblings. 

Events are the froth of things, but my true interest is the sea. - Paul Valéry

A second film I didn't much like, though it had potential, is First Reformed. Here a minister (Ethan Hawke) whose life was shattered when his son died in Iraq and his wife left him, is tending a colonial "museum" church under the patronage of the evangelical megachurch next door. Hawke drinks too much, and has only six parishioners, but the choir director of the megachurch has a crush on him (he should be grateful!) and one of his parishioners asks him to counsel her husband, an eco-radical who wants her to get an abortion rather than bring another innocent creature into this benighted world.

Meanwhile, Hawke has been entrusted with the responsibility of delivering the homily at the anniversary celebration for his church—an event that's being largely underwritten by one of the biggest polluters in the state. Complications ensue.

Director Paul Shrader, hitherto best known as the screenwriter for Taxi Driver, does a good job of keying up the existential angst, and Hawke holds the screen as the guilt-ridden minister, who in his idle hours is keeping a diary of his lonely days at the sparsely furnished rectory next to the church. In fact, the acting is uniformly first-rate. And scholarly articles have already been written placing the film within the context of George Bernanos's novel Diary of a Country Priest and the films of Dreyer and Resnais.

Trouble is, the ending simply doesn't work. It falls squarely within the "woman as savior" tradition which can be traced back to Goethe, Ibsen, and countless other artists. It may often be valid in life, and it often works in fiction, but it's too simplistic to serve as a resolution to the tortured emotional valences of the plot we've been following for ninety minutes.

Then we have Can You Ever Forgive Me? Here a biographer who has lost her audience—and her cash flow—takes to forging letters by famous writers to make ends meet. She also derives some bitter pleasure from the fact that her witty remarks are being accepted as one-liners by Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. Quite a bit of the film takes place in used bookshops, which is nice, and the characterizations of Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, who plays her partner in crime, are worthy of our applause. 

Trouble is, the characters they're portraying aren't likable people. We have no sympathy for them. Their irresponsible and anti-social behavior has none of the appeal of an "anti-hero" maintaining his integrity in a world gone mad (a la Jack Nicholson in his prime) and therefore, their foibles are only marginally interesting. It seems odd to me that anyone would consider this story worthy of the effort required to film it.  

And what about the Coen brothers' latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: six short films, all set in the West—bank robber, prospector, wagon master, guitar-strumming gunslinger, and so on. In True Grit, the Coens' showed they could spin a good story from beginning to end. But here they revert to their special brand of black humor, and that's too bad, because some of the narratives are pretty good as they unfold. I especially liked the wagon train segment and the one highlighting Tom Waits prospecting for gold in a gorgeous mountain valley, which is as beautiful as anything you'll see in Shane

My favorite film of the last six months is Crazy Rich Asians. A little too long, perhaps, but full of fun and froth. But in reviewing these various films, I'm reminded of the richness of imagery they carry and the novel corners of the world they expose, regardless of the shape of the plot. None was a total waste, and in the aggregate we'd have to describe them all as "above average" in one way or another.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Best of the Year 2018 (Not)

The time comes when the holiday gatherings are over and things are quiet around the house. It's raining, in fact, and you ought to go out and shovel away the slush before it turns to ice, transforming your driveway into a scale model of Antarctica. But first, there's time to read in the newspaper or in Pamela Espeland's ArtScape column about the fifteen "most memorable" cultural events of the years—maybe three of which you're likely to have attended. Then you take a backward glance yourself, and see ... nothing. It's not because you haven't done or seen anything, but because memory doesn't really work like that.

Actress Mia Farrow
I have set myself the task, therefore, of coming up with a few events of very modest proportions, rather than the traveling Broadway shows or the blockbusters at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts like the Underwater Egypt Show, during which that museum missed the opportunity (as far as I know) to develop an advertising slogan based on the phrase M.I.A. PHAROAH.

No, I said to myself, I'm going to limit myself to a few passing events that were flying "under the radar," as they say. And to give you an idea of what I mean, let me begin by passing over Nicola Benedetti's brilliant recital, during which she expounded at length and also played all three of Brahms's violin sonatas, to remind you of the performance of Brahms's late Clarinet Quintet that a few members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra performed last spring, along with some lesser pieces by Franz and Clara Schumann. There is no composition in the classical repertoire more deserving of the word "sublime," in my view, than this quintet—it's so depressing that I never think to listen to it, though I have it on CD—yet the performers negotiated the shifting tempos and dynamics flawlessly, so that the autumnal melancholy veritably oozed from the stage.

On a Sunday evening in early September, we went with some friends to Crooners Super Club in Fridley, (a municipality hitherto famous only as the hometown of my friend Steve Herrig), to hear jazz pianist Geoff Keezer bust it up with Gillian Margot, a vocalist I'd never heard of. Geoff (a native of Eau Claire) was ever-smiling and ebullient to a fault, and Gillian delivered the standards with true feeling. I was enthralled.

A minor highlight of March was the sight of several snowy owls at the Mpls/St. Paul airport. Half the fun was taking Cargo Road through a tunnel and emerging in the midst of the runways.

I devoted quite a bit of time during the winter to reading Dante's Divine Comedy.  It took a while, but having completed the journey, I almost feel like starting in again from the beginning. Thumbing through an old journal, I spotted an entry that might be relevant:
"I'm sitting by the back door. Glass of wine. Dante. One problem with reading Dante is that he doesn't really hold your attention. So you're trying to grasp or visualize some very celestial description of stars and light and eminences, but then you jump up to tend the fire, go to the bathroom, or check your emails, and you end up playing a few hands of bridge on the computer. Then you return to the book, and read the same passage all over again."
Speaking of celestial eminences, just the other day Hilary and I went out for our pre-dawn walk and took a detour up onto the hill behind Margaret Mary Church. Venus was very bright, as usual, but we were also hoping to see Jupiter and perhaps even Mercury, low and elusive though it invariably is, before the sunlight obliterated them. And we saw them all.  It's not often that they line up so conveniently. I tried to visual the orbits, Jupiter huge and far beyond our own, Venus and Mercury closer in to the sun and therefore following tighter orbits inside ours. It can be done, especially if you keep in mind that gigantic, brightly painted mechanical model of the Solar System that the roving science teacher (later my football coach) kept in the "cooler" alongside the gym in grade school.
Some memorable days slip our minds because they're made up of succession of minor events. I recall one sunny afternoon that I might describe as a Lake Street Ramble. Our first stop was Highpoint Print Studio, where we took in an exhibit of Inuit prints.

Next we wandered a few blocks west to the Soo Vac Gallery, where an aesthetic "flip-side" was on display. The Inuit artists had obviously been influenced by modern printmaking techniques and ways of displaying an image. The art at Soo Vac, by one Sophia Heymans, claimed to represent a landscapes beyond or after humans, whatever that means. The best of these very large canvases succeeded in putting forth strange yet appealing patterns and color schemes. Yet the technique was intentionally crude, as if Heymans wanted to make it clear that she wasn't interesting in making anything look refined or "pretty."

Hilary and I used to live two blocks from here. Considering that it was forty-odd years ago, things haven't changed all that much. The Jungle Theater has moved down the street, Falafel King is gone, and there are far more apartment buildings and cafés now than there were then, but Bill's Imported Foods is still standing on the corner, and the same woman is still standing behind the cash register in front of the same faded poster of Santorini.  I suspect her grandsons rather than her sons now tend the olive and cheese counter, but lush, squarish icebergs of feta still glisten in the tubs of brine behind the glass: Greek, Bulgarian, French, and domestic.

Our final stop was to Moon Palace Books, several miles down Lake Street. The store had moved, but we hadn't been to the new location. It's a much bigger space, with a coffee shop and theater in the back, and the place was jumping. The average age was perhaps 29. The future of books is secure. 

And while we're on the subject of Lake Street, I ought to mention the Mid-Stream poetry reading we attended in a long shadowy room upstairs from the Blue Moon Coffee Shop at 39th and Lake one hot summer evening. The readers were Sharon Chmielarz, Michael Dennis Browne, and Danny Klecko—a group as stylistically diverse as, say, Penelope Fitzgerald, George Moore, and Raymond Chandler.

The readers were all engaging, in their different ways--Sharon wry, Michael musical, Danny gruff--but what I remember most clearly is the buzz on the street after the reading. Hot night air, cars passing, a slight breeze, perhaps, and words flying everywhere among writers who've known one another for a very long time, and their spouses, partners, friends, fans, and well-wishers.

Where are those hot summer nights? (as Francois Villon might have said, had he lived in Minnesota.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Bringing the Outside In

Balsam boughs strewn across the mantle, candles everywhere, ceramic animals lined up around a straw-filled manger, even a living tree in the den, for Christ's sake! These are all attempts, as greenery and light fade from the landscape, of bringing the outside in.

The mood hit me early this year, and I actually made a special effort on the culinary front. In was so cold on my final trip to the farmers' market downtown that the cauliflowers were turning color.

How often have I remarked, when Hilary and I are tromping past a clump of sumac trees at the edge of a field, "You can make tea out of that." Well, this fall we harvested a few clusters of seeds and stuck them in our pockets. Back home, I dried them for a few days, then removed the seeds, boiled them for a while, then strained the liquid. Voila! Tea.

My second effort was to roast the seeds from the Halloween pumpkin that had been sitting on the kitchen counter, uncarved, for quite a while. In an effort to jazz them up a bit, I unearthed a recipe that included Worstercheshire sauce and garlic salt. (Was I breaking the rules, here?)

The tea was mediocre—a poor imitation of Red Zinger, which isn't all that great to begin with. The pumpkin seeds were better. I tried to imagine that the roughage supplied by the woody, fibrous stuff, which was impossible to masticate fully,  would be good for my digestion.

I located a final "outside" recipe in the Sioux Chef cookbook recently published by the U of M Press. It was simplicity itself. Take some dry white beans, soak overnight, then boil along with a cedar branch.

While the pot was bubbling on the stove, the air in the kitchen smelled like a cedar-lined sauna—in a good way. But the beans themselves took on none of that flavoring. They simply tasted like beans, and I ended up whirring them in the food processor  along with raw garlic, salt, and quite a bit of olive oil. Tuscan bean dip meets the North Woods.

Such experiments are unlikely to make their way into the family cookbook that I rewrite every few years, but I still consider them worthwhile. Now, when we're walking past a copse of sumac trees, I won't be tempted to say, "You can make tea out of those." Rather, it will be, "Remember the tea we made?"

Yeah? So what?

I might mention one additional effort involving a butternut squash baked with just a tablespoon of maple syrup and a bit of crushed rosemary. The recipe doesn't come from the Sioux Chef cookbook, but it makes use of a few ingredients that figure prominently in Dakota cuisine. The chunks of squash, fully cooked but still firm, betraying just a hint of sweetness, are quite good as an appetizer or in a salad.

But what I especially love is the sight of the low afternoon sun blasting in across the chunks of vegetable flesh. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Blaise Pascal: a Metaphysical Bent

I hope you've noticed how spectacular Venus has been in the morning sky just before sunrise for the last few weeks. As levels of sunlight decline and darkness closes in, we cling to such ephemeral delights.

In the evening, we listen for the owls,  and make ourselves comfortable in front of the fire with an appropriately reflective book. Though it's the time of the year when the critics' Top Ten lists appear, I like to give a book a few years on the bookstore shelf to mature—and come down in price. I've been hunkering down with Blaise Pascal, who died in 1662.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother moved into a small, second-floor apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska. I'd never been in an apartment building before, the first time we visited her. It was hot.

She had a copy of Pascal's Pensées on her little bookshelf, along with Dag Hammarskjöld's Markings and a bunch of books I'd never heard of. I have her copy of Pascal today, and I got a second copy—a paperback edition—from a friend in Madison who was downsizing his library. 

Pascal is widely known to people like me, who aren’t that familiar with his work, for only a few choice phrases, the most famous of which, as near as I can recall, is this: “The heart has its reasons that reason will never know.” Alongside this plum stands a second saying, less catchy and therefore harder for me to remember, in which Pascal describes the abject terror that grips his soul when he contemplates the emptiness of the universe. Pascal is also renowned for inventing the first pocket calculator, devising a primitive barometer to study how elevation affects air pressure, and formalizing the branch of mathematics that deals with probability. 

He entered my field of view in a serious way in the sixth grade, when I built a “probability machine” for a science fair. It was designed to illustrate how random activity could result in recognizable patterns over time. The device was simplicity itself. I drew a large triangle made up of smaller triangles on a piece of plywood, then drove finishing nails at the points of each triangle. In theory, the marbles I dropped one after another onto the top triangle would cascade down past the matrix of nails, bouncing to the left and right with equal frequency at each point in their descent. The result would be stacks of marbles at the bottom of the matrix of varying height, which, viewed together, would resemble a bell curve. 

It didn’t work out that way.

For the “machine” to work, it would have been necessary to place each of the nails—and there were fifty or sixty of them—with precision, perfectly centered and absolutely upright. One bent nail near the top would send a disproportionate number of marbles to the right or left. A few levels down, a second skewed nail would further muck up the pattern.

I wasn’t “handy” enough to produce the desired effect; the pattern that took shape at the bottom of the  triangle of nails looked more like a snail than a bell.

There were other lessons I might have learned from the experiment: a) the game is always rigged; b) math and life never match up. By stretching the field of reference far beyond the limits of the experiment, I might have arrived at the conclusion that, to borrow a line from Immanuel Kant, “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” But such conclusions would have been out of place at a science fair; no one pointed them out to me at the time, and at age eleven, there is little chance I would have figured them out for myself.

Pascal explores similar themes at length in his Pensées. In one section he tries to explain the difference between the mathematical and the intuitive mind. In the mathematical field, he suggests, the principles are obvious but “remote from ordinary usage”; in the intuitive field—that is to say, the world we live in—the principles are so “intricate and numerous that it is almost impossible not to miss some.” And this can easily lead to error.

Now the omission of one principle can lead to error, and so one needs very clear sight to see all the principles as well as an accurate mind to avoid drawing false conclusions from known principles.

It would be hard to mistake the naiveté underlying the notion that we could fully grasp every principle underlying the world we live in. In fact, intuition, by definition, doesn’t reason from principles at all. It relies on feelings, hunches, gut reactions, and savoir faire. What Pascal is examining here isn’t so much a difference in thinking patterns as a difference in subject matter. Mathematics is a game invented by humans to help them describe and predict the behavior of the simplest things in life—the random descent of marbles, for example. Intuition is the mental faculty with which we apprehend life in all its richness and complexity.

Thumbing through the various sections around which Pascal organized his thoughts—boredom, vanity, prophesies, and Christian morality—it struck me that he and Spinoza have a lot in common. But Spinoza’s lines of reasoning are meticulously organized and seemingly water-tight, while Pascal’s are scattered, haphazard, mutually contradictory, and often half-baked. Therefore, they make for much more interesting reading. 

Though Pascal’s probability theory can still be found in textbooks of mathematics, his theory of “the wager” holds greater interest for most of us. In this section of the book, number 418, he reasons that although there is no way to prove God’s existence, it would be wise for us to act as if he exists, because if we end up winning that bet, we’ve gained a lot, whereas  if it turns out there is no god, and we lose the wager, we’ll be no worse off than if we hadn’t wagered at all.  

This strikes me as a facile and self-serving line of reasoning. In the first place, if nothing is being put in jeopardy, then nothing is really being wagered. In any case, a half-hearted devotion based on the likelihood of personal gain doesn’t seem like much of a foundation for religious faith. As often happens in such cases, the error lies not in the line of reasoning but in the axiomatic assertions upon which that reasoning is based. Here Pascal’s problems originate in an overly mathematical conception of God. After riffing on the concept if infinity for a paragraph or two, he states that God is infinite in extension. Therefore, we “bear no relation to him” and he lies “infinitely beyond our comprehension.”

If these things were true, there would be no point in talking about him, or imagining that our ultimate fate—saved or damned—might be determined by how avidly we embrace his existence. It would make more sense to drop the subject entirely than to speculate on how we might most cunningly orient our thoughts with respect to such an alien and incomprehensible entity. We would not even be justified in referring to the God Pascal describes as a being, considering that, like infinity, he is limitless in extension. That is to say, he encompasses everything.

Religion has never been, and cannot be, rooted in such stuff. It might be worthwhile for us to bend our feeble brains around such abstractions from time to time, in an effort to get beyond our day-to-day fears and expectations and refocus our attention on matters of “ultimate concern.” But to be fruitful, such efforts require some sort of affinity with the issue at hand. A loving god is worth pondering. A remote, abstract, and infinite god is not.

Pascal knows these things. In fact, the sections immediately preceding and following the famous discussion of the wager bring up two alternative approaches to the issue. Section 419 reports:

Custom is our nature. Anyone who grows accustomed to faith believes it, and can no longer help fearing hell, and believes nothing else.
And 417, immediately before the “wager” section, says:

Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; wc only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or of ourselves.

Thus without Scripture, whose only object is Christ, we know nothing, and can see nothing but obscurity and confusion in the nature of God and in nature itself.         

In these two passages, Pascal touches on elements of faith that are nowhere to be found in the wager section we’ve been analyzing. The remark about custom highlights, perhaps without intending to, the fact that religious faith is, to a large extent, a community enterprise. Entering into belief introduces the believer to a social world of shared duty, fellowship, ritual, and comfort. Pascal associates belief with fear, however, and focuses on how it might enhance an individual’s personal fate. Yet custom, which is always shared, undergirds a universe of camaraderie and support that many people value highly.

The second passage underscores the foolishness of contending that God is infinite, alien, and unknowable. Christianity is rooted in the notion that Christ is God. And Christ, through scripture, is knowable. Beyond that, the presence of the Holy Spirit, though tricky to discern, offers an even more powerful and immediate point of access to the divine.

Sandwiched between these two brief but pertinent remarks, the tortured ratiocinations of the famous wager fragment seem facile and unconvincing.

Augustine believed that it would be impossible for the individual to know or understand anything without divine illumination. And I’ve got to admit that it’s difficult to describe the cognitive path by which a being or a principle that once seemed incomprehensible gradually, or suddenly, starts to make sense. When “illumination” occurs, it exposes an order and a harmony that shares something of the divine. Have we suddenly seen a snatch of God’s garment as he leaves the room?

I suggested a few minutes ago that Pascal’s Pensées are more scattered, but also more accessible and fun to read than Spinoza’s Ethics. On the other hand, Spinoza’s more rigorous inquiry leads him to an important discovery that Pascal never made, namely, that God is the indwelling, rather than the transient creator of all things (proposition 18). Spinoza’s reasoning is that if God were merely a transient creator, then the things he created would be distinct from and “outside of” him, and his extension would not be infinite. Against Pascal’s remote and alien God, Spinoza gives us a being whose energy works through all things, like a blossoming flower. Also, it would follow, through us.

Extensive though his analysis is, I don’t think Spinoza fully explored all the ramifications of this theory. Briefly put, the very notion of creativity requires open space, accident, contingency. Creativity, which in its most quotidian form is simply living, always comes in response to an inchoate urge, a challenge, a crisis, or a sense of lack. To say that God creates everything, through us, may be true enough, sub specie aeternitatis, but that’s not how it looks or feels. If something needs doing, we’re the ones who will have to do it. Creative living involves putting ourselves out there, taking a risk, not knowing if our efforts will meet the need or measure up to the ideal that fueled them. 

Though I can’t claim to understand Spinoza’s “system” adequately, it strikes me that he reduces most emotions to cognitive errors, and suggests that loving God as he manifests himself in events, regardless of feelings or outcomes, is our best path. It’s a quietistic vision, only slightly engaged in the rough and tumble of life. 

Pascal offers a different description of our view from “in the field,” slightly better in some respects because it isn’t so gobsmacked. 

I see the terrifying spaces of the universe that enclose me, and I find myself attached to a corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am more in this place than in another, nor why this little time that is given me to live is assigned me at this point more than another out of all the eternity that has preceded me and out of all that will follow me.

The mathematician in him sees finitude, contingency, and chaos. He sees hatred in men’s hearts and vanity in their endeavors. In one section he argues that people would never travel to exotic places were it not for the pleasure they derive from telling other people about it later.

Both men are grappling to reconcile the finitude and contingency of life with the celestial grandeur of divinity, but having been seduced by mathematical concepts, they have difficulty seeing how such a reconciliation could take place without stripping life of its charm and flavor. Pascal lacks Spinoza’s emphasis on love. Spinoza lacks Pascal’s familiarity with life in all its distinctive, idiosyncratic, and deeply imperfect aspects.

I thought about the connection Pascal alleges between travel and vanity for a while and decided it wasn’t sound. To visit and get the measure of a place is enriching, regardless of whom you tell the story to later. It deepens your perspective and expands your appreciation for things in their near-cosmic variety. I can still remember the first open-air market that Hilary and I visited. It was in 1978, in Sarlat, a town in the Dordogne Valley of southwest France. Live chickens squawking in cages. Women in floral print dresses walking off with them, clutching them around the neck. The sight of the windows in Étienne de La Boétie’s house. The cave art at Font-de-Gaume, and the ten-year-old kids who were going in after us with their crayons to draw the beasts. Years later, another open-air market in the French Alps, with rounds of cheese lined up like very thick poker chips and chickens broiling on wood-fired spits. (Thoughts of John Berger. Is that him, sampling the weak white wine of the region in the next stall?) The royal palace at Knossos; the tinkle of goat-bells on the hillsides near Delphi; the sight of Africa looming across the strait from Tarifa. Old men sitting around a bonfire on the road to Stonehenge. Hallowed memories that haven’t come up in conversation for decades.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Duluth Overnight

After hosting a large family gathering on Thanksgiving, we thought it might be a good idea to take a brief vacation, and what better place to visit than Duluth? I had downloaded an article from the Midwest Weekends website about hike opportunities in the hills above the city, after which you could return to your car via local transport. We were also equipped with a list of top restaurants and a few pages of the official Duluth events calendar that I'd edited down to size.

We were on the road by 7:45 Sunday morning. The freeway was deserted and the countryside was mute and hauntingly beautiful. The low sunlight spread across the fields and swamps; every branch stood out,  sharply etched in brilliant, muted colors, as if a calm perfection had settled across the landscape, dormant perhaps but not yet frozen: a soft blue sky with scattered puffy clouds, clumps of gray aspens, orange-tipped willows and darker red-osier dogwoods catching the sunlight in the ditches, and vast islands of red oak trees, as crisp and rusty brown as a newly poured bowl of Wheaties.

We took the 21st Street exit off the freeway in downtown Duluth, drove up the hill past UMD, and by 10:45 we were pulling on our balaclavas in the parking lot at Hartley Nature Center. We eventually found the thin strand of the Superior Hiking Trail amid the broader, flatter, and more prominent ski trails and headed up into the woods. The trail was hilly, rocky, snow-packed, and icy in some places, but it felt good to be moving through the woods, and once we reached to top of the ridge we could see the sunny glare of Lake Superior in the distance through the trees.

The plan had been to cross Arrowhead Road, continue along the trail though Bagley Nature Area, and pick up a bus back to the nature center on campus, but it had been slow going through the woods, buses only run once an hour, and we chose to return to the car on foot through the woods on Old Hartley Road instead. It was lunchtime.

We were intrigued by a little place on the list I'd created called Martha's Daughter, a café tucked into a narrow storefront on Superior Street with a very old "Coney Island" sign above it. It was warm inside. That was a good thing. On the other hand, the café was brightly lit and deserted, the music was bad, and the seating stretched bench-style along the wall across from a lunch-counter with stools—not my favorite arrangement. We were greeted by a bulky young man wearing a crocheted stocking cap, tilted to the side. We examined the menu briefly (Chicken and Waffle $17) and decided to move on.

Superior Street was like a wind tunnel, and by the time we got to Pizza Luće our standards had dropped considerably. But the place looked suburban and there was a 20-minute wait, so we ambled back toward the car with the idea in mind of revisiting O.M.C., a ten-minute drive away in Lincoln Park.

Then I noticed the Zeitgeist Cafe. It has always seems dark and deserted to me in passing, though it's often touted as a centerpiece of the downtown Duluth revival. We crossed the street to take a closer look and found there were people sitting at the bar!

Inside it was warm and lively. A folksinger was at work near the front window. Looking to find a place a little farther away from the music, I notice that a long flight of stairs leading up to a mezzanine above the bar.

"Are there tables upstairs?" I asked the greeter as she handed me a menu.

"Do you have trouble with stairs?" she said, giving me a look of friendly concern.

"I'm not that old," I said, as good-naturedly as I could. "After all, we've been out hiking for the last two hours."   

"In that case, let me show you to a table." And up we went to a table overlooking the front window and the entryway far below.

Hipsters and families with young kids were scattered at tables here and there. Strange and diverse works of art hung on the walls. From a distance the music sounded pleasant.

"That's an early Beatles song," Hilary said.

"I don't think he's got the melody quite right," I said. "What is that? 'Here, There, and Everywhere'?"

The food was top-notch. Hilary's salmon hash was tasty, and my omelet, with a creamy river of white wine sauce dribbling out from  a pale yellow envelope stuffed with prosciutto and spinach, was suffused with a distinctly fresh aroma of garlic. The potato latkes alongside the eggs—our waitress called them "rosti potatoes"—were light and mild.

"I read in the menu just now that this place is a non-profit," Hilary said to the waitress.

"Yes, it's a group effort to give back to the community, and not only as an art space. What comes to mind right now is the program we have to provide transport to elderly people who can't get out to buy groceries."

The only troubling aspect of the dining experience was the number of times our waitress had to go up and down the stairs to bring us coffee, jam, ketchup, and to refill the water glasses. During one of her visits, I said, "There's something in this jam besides strawberries, I can't quite pinpoint it...."

"I'll go ask the chef," she said, and was off before I could dissuade her. She reappeared a few minutes later.


"Ah, yes. Sorry to put you to all that trouble, up and down all those stairs."

"That's my job," she said cheerfully. "And besides, I used to be a ballerina."

*   *   *

On our way out we wandered around the lobby of the theater that adjoins the cafe. Someone had installed a Day of the Dead exhibit on a few banquet tables, with plastic skeletons, orange and red posters, and other unidentifiable things. I was enjoying the bright colors, but wasn't looking very closely.

The lobby of the Zeitgeist Theater
At our next stop, the nearby Nordic Center, we had an opportunity to examine a collection of objects cut from an entirely different piece of cultural cloth: gingerbread houses.

The center occupies a modest storefront that used to be a print shop. A brick ramp runs up through the back of the long thin space, who could say why. It was dark in the room, though in the light coming in from the street I could dimly make out a group of women sitting around a table, chatting freely as they worked on some sort of craft project. Gingerbread houses of all kinds had been set out on white sheets along both walls, at a level low enough to be seen easily by eight-year-olds.

I especially liked the roofs, some of which were studded with spice drops. A few of them had rows of Dots running from eave to eave. I was reminded of a similar house my mom made when I was a kid, following instructions she'd gotten from Ladies Home Journal, no doubt. She constructed the roof out of Necco wafers, overlapping them like multicolored shingles. It's seemed a tragedy that, due to the adhesives involved, no one--not even me--would ever get to eat those wafers. 

The Nordic Center struck me as a poverty-stricken but good-natured place, run by volunteers yet dedicated to its mission, and perhaps even punching a little above its weight. We chatted with the two women who seemed to be in charge about how they'd gotten the little houses, who'd put them together, and whether they keep them from year to year. (No.)

One of the women had been to the Swedish Institute in Minneapolis recently and come home with two smocks by celebrated Swedish clothes designer Gudrun Sjödén. She was offering to sell one of them at half price because it didn't fit her very well. Hilary tried it on; it didn't fit her, either.

Then the woman said, gesturing toward the craft table,"Alison here had a show at the Swedish Institute recently." Really? Alison went into the back room and returned with her card. Turns out she's a professor at UMD, and has recently written a book about Norwegian author Cora Sandel. I looked at a few of her paintings on line. Very nice.

After a brief stop at the nearby Karpellus Museum—always free, always deserted—to take a look at some letters exchanged between Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle, we decided to head up the shore to enjoy the lake, the rocks, and the now-bright afternoon sun.

The offshore wind and the low light gave the lake a rugged five o'clock shadow, though it was only three. Near the end of Stony Point we stopped to take a picture of an old fishing shed. At one point along the way,  perhaps imagining what might have been going through Hilary's mind, I said, "Too bad the candy store in Knife River is closed for the season."

"Well, there's also a nice candy store in the Seitz Building on Canal Park," Hilary replied. True enough.

Back in town, we bought a few pieces of candy at Hepzibah's Sweet Shoppe, and then wandered into the kitchen supply shop next door, where Hilary took a liking to a locally printed Christmas card. Looking at the address on the back, I said, "This company is on South Lake Avenue. They might even be in this building."

Thirty seconds later, one flight up, we found the Kenspeckle Letterpress— "Curious Engravings / Eccentric Broadsheets." It would be hard to imagine, I think, a more attractive setting for such an operation or a more colorful and whimsical selection of woodblock prints, posters, note cards, and other printed objects for sale. A man in slightly outmoded dress (owner Rick Allen?) showed me the presses and told me a bit about them, but they were on the verge of closing up shop and we spent most of our time hurriedly thumbing through the cards and printed posters.

I came upon one small poster devoted to the word coddiwomple. "This looks very familiar," I said to the woman behind the counter.

"You probably saw it on the Grammarly website," she replied with just a hint of annoyance in her voice. "It got forty thousand hits. We didn't get anything."


Hilary picked out two nice sets of cards, marked down to half price. I think we were catching the tail end of an extended Black Friday event. Merry Christmas!

By the time we'd checked into our hotel out on nearby Park Point, the sun was setting. It was approaching 5 p.m. The next event on our free-and-easy agenda, a "beer and hymns" singalong at Sir Benedict's Tavern, was scheduled to start in five minutes. But it was cozy there in the room, looking out through the last splash of evening light past the Coast Guard cutter moored nearby and on across the inner harbor to the distant grain elevators in Superior. 

We decided to hole up, order a pizza, do a little reading, and sort out a plan for the coming day.