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One of the curses or blessings of contemporary life is that we get news instantaneously from all over the world, and a lot of days it’s truly depressing news. Whether or not you believe in angels singing over a stable in Bethlehem, whether or not you credit the tale of shepherds startled in their fields, and magi who traveled to Bethlehem bearing gifts, magi who got there by following a star — surely the news of that event would be better than what we’re getting these days. So enjoy this event, this balm for the soul. Use your imagination.
The painting is a detail from a much larger work, The Adoration of the Magi, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio,the Italian Renaissance painter. Along with two brothers and a brother-in-law, he managed a studio workshop that turned out a number of paintings, a sort of “school of Ghirlandaio.” His most famous student-apprentice was Michelangelo. Those angels, or ones resembling them, appear in some other of the works to come out of that workshop, not quite mass production, but not unique either, and, indeed, how much was done by Domenico and how much by someone else is unknowable. The music that the Angels are singing is largely unknowable and quite inaudible. Do use your imagination.
Some theories just feel right and true. They appeal to our common sense so strongly that we believe in them as soon as we hear them. And if the theory is about language, the language we speak and write, we feel pretty certain that we’re familiar enough with the way it works to assess whether some theory about it is true. Now, here’s a theory about language:
• Language channels the way we think and view the world.
That theory became popular among certain linguists in the 1930s and still circulate among many, perhaps most, educated people today.
One thing we know for certain, languages vary widely. One language may have only a single word for eating and drinking, still another makes uniquely fine discriminations between different shades of a color, yet another has no articles such as the or a.
Native American Hopi have no tense markers to indicate time and no words like later. And that led Benjamin Lee Whorf to propose that since the Hopi language has no way indicate past, present or future, they view time differently from English speakers and, further, the cyclical Hopi cosmology reflects this difference.
Whorf was not a professional linguist, but his ideas looked right to his mentor, the linguist Edward Sapir, and soon the theory — called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — spread among linguists, academics and the general public. However, no examination of people speaking one language or another has found evidence to support the theory. It’s generally conceded now that such linguistic differences as Whorf had in mind don’t actually channel thought or create a particular view of the world.
And now we have John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. McWhorter is a Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and the author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, an excellent book that is both scholarly and readable. He’s the author of many other books on language, as well as works on race and cultural issues, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, and the New Yorker, among other publications.
The Language Hoax is a short book. The pages are small, only about 5 by 7 inches, and there are about 168 pages, excluding the introduction, notes and index. Even so — as an admirer of John McWhorter’s work I hate to say this — it’s too long.
McWhorter demonstrates again and again the inability of the neo-Whorfians to come up with credible evidence to support their theory. His examples of wild differences over a spectrum of languages are interesting and often amusing. But after a while even the most indulgent reader will wonder why McWhorter bothered to write this book if, as he says repeatedly and credibly, there’s no support for the theory he’s attacking.
He has been careful to acknowledge and praise academic work that does show how the workings of language can have a tiny, marginal effect on thought, and he’s shown the difference between those studies and the general notion held by some people that such differences in language guide thought and shape culture. McWhorter writes in a readable and engaging style — he’s a good writer — but his passion for bashing this moribund theory is hard to understand. And there is certainly no hoax involved in whatever misunderstanding the lay public may have about languages.
Languages change and develop in the most amazing ways, and the variety of ways that languages differ is wonderful. McWhorter believes linguistic changes come about spontaneously. They just bubble up, he says. How those bubble are made and where they come from — well, that would make a very interesting book.
There’s a little story about a nun and a dog. A dead dog. Fortunately, everything turns out well in the end. The story is set to music and both the story and the music were composed by Marilyn Robertson. And Yes, that’s Marilyn playing the guitar and singing. It’s a simple whimsical tale and we think you’ll like it. Ms Robertson has a way with words and she manages some delightfully sly puns along the way.
The nuns in the image we’ve posted here are from way back in Medieval times, but our nun is quite contemporary — she rides trolley cars and deals with the hazards of life in the city. The only recording of “The Nun’s Story” is located at SoundCloud.com, which you may not be familiar with, so we’ve made it easy and all you have to do is click HERE. And after you’ve listened to Marilyn you can explore the other music on the site, too. Then return to Critical Pages.
Did you know there was a Golden Age of Porn? OK, probably you never gave it a thought. A Golden Age is a time of prosperity, achievement and happiness, and for the porn industry that period extended from around the early 1970s to the mid 1980s. It certainly was a time of achievement and prosperity for porn movies — happiness for the actors, not so much.
One of the most beautiful visual records of that time is Barbara Nitke’s un-sentimental collection of evocative photographs gathered in her book, American Ecstasy. (Critical Pages posted about American Ecstasy some time ago.) Nitke worked as a set photographer in the porn industry just as the Golden Age was coming to an end. To be protected by the US Constitution, the porn movies had to claim a socially redeeming value — in other words, they had to pass as artistic expression, which meant they had to have characters and a plot, not just bodies doing it. That was the achievement and that’s what brought about porn prosperity and the Golden Age.
According to Green Cine’s Sex in the Movies Guide, “between 1972 and 1983, porn — not sexy Hollywood fare, not racy sexploitation, not European art films, but pure, unabashed porn — chalked up 16 percent of total box office returns in the US.” Eventually, AIDS, the video camera and the Web ended the showing of large scale porn movies in movie houses. The Golden Age was over.
But not forgotten. Photographs from Barbara Nitke’s American Ecstasy volume have been enlarged and beginning on April 4th they’ll be exhibited in Great Britain at One Eyed Jack’s gallery in Brighton. Social historians, admirers of E. J. Bellocq’s Storyville portraits and anyone interested in fine photography should take a look at these astonishing photographs.
Or maybe it’s simply Waffle Day in Sweden.
Here’s the story, take it as you will. In the liturgical calendar March 25 – exactly nine calendar months prior the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus – is the Feast of the Annunciation. The Annunciation, you recall, is the occasion when the angel Gabriel surprised Mary, telling her that she had been chosen to become the mother of the son of God, to be named Jesus. And Mary assented to God’s plan. That day, in Swedish, is called Vårfrudagen (Our Lady’s Day – the Lady being Mary, mother of God.) But Vårfrudagen sounds enough like Våffeldagen (waffle day) to easily conflate the two, hence the overlap of Waffle Day and Our Lady’s Day in Sweden.
(You can look up the story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke, and you can find the confusion over Våffeldagen and Vårfrudagen in Wikipedia under Waffle Day.)
In the United States, Waffle Day is celebrated on August 24, memorializing that day in August of 1869 when Cornelius Swartwout was awarded the first waffle-iron patent granted by the U.S. Patent Office. If we’re not otherwise occupied, we’ll write a post about waffles when August 24 rolls around.
We’re not going to post an image of a waffle.
But we do like this image of the Annunciation as envisioned by Sandro Botticelli. We like the ballet-like relationship between the angel and Mary, and the delicate space between their hands. We like the way the angel’s gossamer cloak, still billowing, is just settling down under the effect of earthly gravity. In this scene which links heaven and earth, we like the solidity of the red tile floor and the sense of spatial volume induced by those lines of perspective, and we like that distant scene in the deep background.
Maybe you’ve read “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the poem by William Butler Yeats that begins:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
William Butler Yeats may not be the grand exciting figure he was some decades ago, but his major poems still retains their beauty and mystery. “Innisfree” is one of his earlier, simpler verses. Marilyn Robertson is acquainted with”The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and has named her own poem “Innisfree.” Here it is:
When I can’t sleep, I often recite a poem I’ve memorized,
taking deep breaths between the lines, but not so much
that I ruin the meter. Last night it was Yeats.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…
But I soon realized it was a poor choice, because
the last ting I wanted to do was rise.
Then I began to wonder where Innisfree was, exactly,
and could you get there in a rowboat
with all the things you’d need for a long stay.
Gardening implements. String for the beans to climb.
The beehive, of course. A couple of warm sweaters—
who knows what the weather will be like?
I’m thinking it would be summer and, with any luck,
someone else will have built the cabin—
maybe Yeats himself—and left behind a basket
of wattles to use for kindling, plus a few poems
to read on the porch after supper as I watch
the linnets busily fluttering away the Irish light.
If you read this on March 8, you’ll be reading it on the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach. Or we could say it’s the 300th birthday of CPE Bach — yes, CPE is what musicologists call him for short. CPE, born in Wiemar, was the second oldest son of JS, and one of the four surviving children of seven.
The Bach family was loaded with musicians. Johann Sebastian’s father, his uncles, his elder brother, his children — it would be a geneticist’s dream to study the DNA of that family. Most important, there was no jealous squelching or abuse of talent among the Bachs. Quite the contrary, they appear to have educated and helped each other in many way. Carl Philipp is the transitional figure between J.S. Bach and Mozart, and CPE broke new ground, composing a more emotional and more fluid music than his father. Here, also, it’s significant that the father didn’t stand in the way of the son — quite the contrary, he gave moral support to his son in that venture.
Most listeners probably cannot tell the difference between music written by JS Bach and CPE Bach. That includes us at Critical Pages. However, we’re reasonably familiar with certain pieces by JS and certain other piece by CPE. We know those when we hear them.
Here’s a brief stunning piece by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach. You’ll hear what we mean.
A month ago we posted a piece about houses and mansions, because houses are so much bigger than they used to be and mansions are so very much bigger than even your average big house. Being rich is all about square footage when we talk about housing. And here we have a poem by Marilyn Robertson about mansions and what happens when they lose all sense of propriety, go wild and break the law.
When Mansions Go Bad
Bad news for big houses this morning:
COUNTY PURSUES TOUGHER RULES ON MANSIONS.
When mansions go bad, you’ve got to get tough.
They’ll start parking any which way on your street.
When you come home, they’ll be sprawling on
your front steps, smoking on your lawn.
A mansion can swallow a meadow in a single afternoon.
It can block a view, turn a clearing into a gym,
a lane into a bowling alley.
They’ve already hijacked a couple of houses over on Elm.
Just sat their big butts down and took over,
spreading conservatories, wine cellars, ballrooms
clear out to the neighbor’s fence.
Now mansions must keep to a modest 5,000 square feet.
But what mansion is going to stand for that?
They’re going to rebel.
They’re going to put their thousands of extra feet down wherever they damn please.
The art critic Blake Gopnik said that when it comes to a painting by Andy Warhol, the bigger the price of the work, the better it is as art. Gopnik is writing a book about Warhol and certainly knows what he’s talking about. Warhol began his artistic life as a commercial artist and in a sense he never ceased being exactly that. Whether it was a popular brand of canned soup or popular movie actress — you get the references, right? — it was something pop that was also big money.
Gopnik was talking about the 8-foot by 13-foot Warhol painting “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster).” He went on to say, “If this thing goes for a hundred million bucks, it’s a kind of the apotheosis of what Warhol was all about — maybe everything that Warhol was all about.” Gopnik pointed out that Warhol had taken a scene of horrific tragedy — a demolished car with a dead body in it wrapped around a tree — and turned it into a glitzy commodity. And, said his biographer, “That’s what Warhol did with his own life, right? He turns himself into the ultimate commodity.”
Blake Gopnik’s assessment of the painting and the price it might fetch and what it all meant was on the Marketplace Morning Report, broadcast by National Public Radio in the morning. Later the same day, the painting went on auction at Sotheby’s York Avenue salesroom and sold for $104.5 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a Warhol. That beats the hundred million bucks that Gopnik was talking about. That makes this painting a very, very, very good work of art.
At Critical Pages we have an ongoing campaign to encourage reading, support independent bookstores and save writers from starvation. And we think the best way for you to do all three Good Works is to visit your independent bookstore and buy a book. Or splurge and buy half a dozen. Or a dozen and a half. And keep in mind our upbeat motto: Book Lovers Never Have To Go To Bed Alone.
That photo up there is charming, but what we meant was that if you were a reader you could always take a book to bed. So you’d never need to be alone. You’d have the company of all the characters in the book. That’s what we hoped you’d understand. The photo below is an excellent example of what we mean.
That’s better. Book Lovers Never Have To Go To Bed Alone. Book lovers can take a book to bed.