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Summer is icumen in…rather late this year

Earth & Ecliptic by Andreas Cellarius

The astronomical diagram above was designed by Andreas Cellarius, the Dutch-German cartographer best known for his elaborately decorated maps of the heavens, the Harmonia Macrocosmica, which display the divine harmony of the macrocosm.  The engraving reproduced above shows the earth tilted in regard to the plane of the ecliptic — and that’s important, because if the earth were not tilted we wouldn’t have seasons.

The earth travels around the sun in a nice flat path, but the earth is tilted in regard to the plane of that path, so that at different times of the year the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun (summer), and at other times it’s tilted away (winter.) And twice a year the angle is such that the northern and southern parts get an equal amount of sunshine — the equinox, when night and day are essentially equal in length.  We’ve now gone through the vernal (spring) equinox.

John Milton, the heavy-weight Puritan poet of the 17th century,  says that when God created the Garden of Eden, the earth’s axis was not tilted, and the weather remained wonderfully temperate. But after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, everything got slanted awry and we wound up with our freezing winters and hot, hot summers. Milton’s Paradise Lost is too long to quote here, so instead we’ve chosen a very, very short lyric.

“Sumer Is Icumen In” is a poem in Middle English, actually the lyrics to a round, or rota, from about the middle of the 13th century. The little verses celebrate the arrival of spring.  The first stanza, below here,  mentions the loud song of the cukoo bird, the growing seeds, the blossoming meadows, the new growth of trees in the woods.

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
Groweth sed
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode nu;
Sing, cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calue cu;
Bulluc sterteth,
Bucke uerteth,

When we originally posted this we also posted Ezra Pound’s parody, “Winter is icumen in,” but we found it too depressing.It must have been posted by our evil twin brother. We’ll stick with spring.

Happy Birthday, CPE Bach

Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach

Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach

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.

The Heart of the Valentine

Valentines and hearts are romantically linked. For long-ago Valentine heartcenturies the human heart was thought to be the place where emotion resided. After all, our heart will beat faster and harder when we feel a great emotions (think terror or erotic excitement) even though we may be bodily at rest. What more proof do you need that emotion dwells in the heart?

So when we send a valentine, a message declaring love, the little note often carries the image of a heart, a human heart. Well, not exactly an image, but a symbol, a red thing that stands for a heart. That design, nowadays called a  heart-shape, was around for a long time and was thought of as a leaf or a dart. It was taken over and used to represent a heart only later.

And in the photo below, there it is on the cheek of the young woman kissing the young man. Indeed, the young woman is wearing sunglasses, and the beach-like sprawl in the background suggest that this is not February 14th, that it’s not Valentine’s Day and that the heart is the sign of human affection any day of the year.Valentine's kiss

The first image we have of a man giving a woman his heart occurs in a Medieval manuscript and the heart is shaped like a pine cone, because classical authority, namely the  philosopher-doctor Galen, said it was shaped like a pine cone. Gallen was a brilliant man and his influence lasted from the 3rd century through the 16th, but he did his disections on monkeys, not humans. Furthermore, there are many shapes to pine cones, and we don’t know what Galen had in mind when he said the heart was shaped that way. But we’re getting lost in a digression here.

Let’s take a look at that Medieval depiction of a lover giving his “heart” to his beloved. The scene comes from  Li romanz de la poire — let’s call it The Romance of the Pear and please don’t  get fussy over the etymology and meaning of romanz in medieval French. Here’s the scene.
Medieval man giving his heart to his lady
You’re right, she doesn’t look happily impressed. In fact, she looks likes she’s going to swat the poor man. Yet she does have a certain passion. In fact, the story is called The Romance of the Pear because the Lady peels a pear with her teeth and shares it with her lover. There’s a certain intimacy in that. No? Well, the story was pretty hot in the 13th century.

All of this is quite far from our freezing Valentine’s Day of  2014. Today we have ice and snow from Georgia to Maine. So we’ll insert our favorite image from our previous Valentine’s Day posts.A couple of lovers in a snowstorm

As we said before on an earlier Valentine’s Day, we admire the young gentleman helping the young lady across the street in a snowstorm, and we admire the young lady who wears a short dress and those high-heel shoes in a blizzard.  If you’d like to see the posts on a couple of  earlier Valentine’s Days, just type Valentine’s Day into our little search box on the upper right, over the right-hand column.



Taking Down The Christmas Tree

Christmas tree trashedTaking down the Christmas tree is one of the saddest domestic chores. For a week or longer this evergreen has been standing in the room with us, filling the air with the scent of balsam or other pines, glittering with lights and sparkling ornaments. And those ornaments are so important, so beautiful, no matter that they’re inexpensive baubles or, say, ordinary pine cones tinted with gold-like paint, or paper and glitter glued together by one of the children a dozen years ago. Each ornament has it’s family history — the history of which grandparents had it on their tree a generation ago, or who brought it as a gift, or made it just this year.

There’s no joy of recognition when taking these ornaments from the tree. That delight happened two weeks ago when, after an absence of a year, we carefully lifted this delicate trinket from it’s wrapping and — oh, yes! — we remember that one, the Santa with the paint chipping off, the glass sphere with Mother and Child inside, or those tiny gold balls we got forty years ago for our first Christmas. And if you turn off all the lamps in the room and leave only the strings of tiny tree lights — how magically beautiful it is!

Now we’re simply returning the faded old ornaments to their little egg-crate boxes, if we can find the right boxes that fit, and stacking them one upon the other in a corner of the attic, or in a closet behind the bag of swim suits and beach clothes.  Then, after struggling to unfasten the tree from the stand, and after spilling water on the floor, we finally grapple with the brittle tree amid a shower of dried pine needles, drag it out the door and toss it on the snowbank down by the road. And there it will lie until the town truck comes to take it away, bits of glittering tinsel still fluttering here and there.

How To Judge Art Work

Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)

Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)

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.

Stamp Out Starving Writers! Buy Their Books

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.
Couple reading in bed
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.

Bed sheet printed page

That’s better. Book Lovers Never Have To Go To Bed Alone. Book lovers can take a book to bed.

Free! Almost, But Not Quite

Grumpy grammarian!

Grumpy grammarian!

We linguistic grumps at Critical Pages received an email from Amazon the other day. It was about Amazon Prime and FREE unlimited two-day shipping.  They said, “We thought you’d like to know that for just $79 a year, you can take advantage of unlimited FREE Two-Day Shipping with Amazon Prime.”  Now, we don’t want to be seen as old-fashioned, out-of-touch, mossback  reactionaries, but we’re pretty sure that if the two-day shipping is really FREE we shouldn’t have to pay $79 for it.  No, sir! We weren’t born yesterday.


“Problem” (n.) May Be Dropped from Dictionary

Webster's Dictionary of the English Language

Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language

Problem — the word that Google defines as “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome”  is fading from the dictionary.  Ours is a living language. Words come and go. Google says that problem is synonymous with difficulty, trouble, worry and complication Of course, difficulties, troubles, worries and complications sometimes do occur. But when that happens it’s bad for business and, furthermore,  it undermines belief in the military and in academia and makes government the butt of jokes.

To avoid these kinds of disasters, business and the armed forces, as well as the government agencies and virtually all academic institutions, have quietly done away with the word problem and all its synonyms. In it’s place they now use challenge or issue.  Upper echelon government and military personnel feel much better when facing challenges than when dealing with  problems or complications, and university administrators believe they can handle issues with discretion, whereas worries tend to become public and become very difficult to manage.

Now a populist movement among workers is growing to get rid of deficiency. No one feels good about being deficient, and employees feel especially bad about being stigmatized as deficient in skill or knowledge essential for the job they’re being paid to do.  Middle managers and foremen have suggested that the felicitous phrase opportunity for growth be substituted for the old fashioned and discriminatory word. You wouldn’t be deficient in your ability to prioritize your workload,  instead that would become an area where you had an opportunity for growth.  Everyone likes opportunities. Ours is a living language. It’s great!



Horizontal line 460pxIs the best art always beautiful, or does ugliness itself have a place in it? It art best when it’s purely for the sake of art itself, or is morality a component of great art?  Here’s an excerpt from an essay by the critic Timothy Cahill, a man  deeply interested in these questions:

I don’t swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of “Is It Art?” was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but it was self-evident that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision.  Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.

                                      —The excerpt is from Timothy Cahill’s blog, Art & DocumentHorizontal line 460px

Philosopher’s Dilema

Mind And Cosmost book cover imageThe philosopher Thomas Nagel has come out with an admirably  short and engaging book, Mind And Cosmos, with the subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Readers unfamiliar with Nagel might assume that his book is an attack on contemporary Darwinism by a person of faith arguing that biological evolution reveals the work of an intelligent designer — God himself. But the author, University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University, removes any such misunderstanding at the start by declaring himself an atheist.

In Nagel’s view, Neo-Darwinism — biological evolution as we understand it today – is fundamentally incomplete, because it doesn’t explain how life originated and, says Nagel, it  won’t ever have the ability to explain the emergence of human consciousness. Nagel believes that a better way of thinking about nature, and specifically about biological evolution, would be to search out nature’s purpose and goal. For while insisting that he is not theistic – quite the contrary – he nonetheless believes that evolution is teleological. That is to say, it has a purpose and it intends to reach a specific goal.

Nagel’s book was recently reviewed — rebutted may be the better word — across three of those very large pages that make up the New York Review of Books. The reviewer, H. Allen Orr, is University Professor and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester, an evolutionary geneticist. These two, the biologist and the philosopher, are well matched in intelligence, prizes and distinguished positions in the republic of the intellect. But you needn’t be either a biologist or a philosopher to read Mind And Cosmos. Although Nagel writes at the highest level of abstraction and rarely yields to the concrete example, he write with pristine clarity and is quite understandable. (more…)

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.