Saturday, February 14, 2015

Suing Brahms and Schubert for lofty unrealistic Romanticism

Heart drawn from sand on the beach
Romanticism was introduced to my desperate mind at the worst possible time of life: adolescence. It came partly in the form of film, that visual medium that traces and captures vivid and unforgettable images as moving tableaus, but cinema was not quite as outrageous and ubiquitous compared to classical music. In fact, some of the first composers I stumbled upon: Johannes Brahms, and then Franz Schubert.

The music of Brahms is so drenched in melancholy and pain associated with unrequited love that even his Hungarian dances will make you weep. Most of it I believe came from his own impossible love for Clara Schumann, the wife of his fellow composer and friend Robert Schumann. For most of the time, Clara was “taken”; even after Schumann's madness and death when she was technically “available,” Brahms did not “take” this widow and make her his. Instead he remained a bachelor for life, lamented his own love and yearning in compositional form and twisted and confused the hearts of sensitive adolescents like me.

My own habit or tendency of idealizing the female species by elevating them so high up on the pedestal that they disappear beyond the clouds and achieve goddess-hood I blame not so much on poetry (though it did have a definite hand in it) but more on music. In fact, never before was music so romantically meshed and integrated with poetic words than in the case of Franz Schubert and his wonderful collection of Lieder (songs). Although there are a few quite “happy” songs, most of them make one want to jump off high buildings or bridges or both.

Such dramatic obsession, the quest for impossible romance, fueled most of my adolescence right into young adulthood. It blurred my vision to such a degree that I saw gold where there was not even an inkling of glitter. Idealism is always dangerous, but when it comes to love it reaches its utmost distorting and damaging effects, just ask poor Madame Bovary.

Sure, we can claim that Brahms and Schubert were the main inspiration for my turning to writing since all this nascent and unrealistic love could not possibly find release and expression except in and through poems and stories, and we can also say that my graduate thesis (on the aforementioned Madame) was inspired by their palpable influence. However, the psychological and emotional damage has been beyond repair, and as a result, I am asking for a class action suit against these two composers in particular (the full list would be in fact much more extensive).

I am suing them for ruining human relationships for me, especially in my younger years. Instead of “banging chicks,” which would have been the normal staple of teenagers, I was musing about the gaze of the mistress or of finding ways to get her beloved attention. A simple touch of the hand or a pat on my back felt like heaven to me while I always ended up not getting the girl due to my shyness or the sense of paralyzing fear.

Love is (and perhaps must be) out of reach. Once it is attained, it feels suffocated and imprisoned and slowly wrinkles and dies in its cage, metaphorically speaking. This might have been a subconscious impulse of mine to make sure that I never reached my goal. It may sound negative, but it seems that romantic and passionate love are fueled by the quest; once the target of one's affections is captured in the spotlight, it freezes and becomes immobile. Romeo never attained love; nor did Johannes Brahms or, to put it in more popular blockbuster terms, neither did Jack and Rose from Titanic.

In a way, I can say my youth had been wasted on those romantic notions. No worries, I am fine now, happily married with the blessing of a child. So this is all speculative and idle musings of a man who is about to enter his first series of serious midlife crises. It seems that in one's hair-thinning days one recalls most vividly the past where hair was not an issue. As Bob Dylan (a post-adolescence influence on me albeit also not too wholesome either regarding romantic notions) puts it, I was older then, but I am much younger now, that is in spirit, of course.

If I had a magic wand and could go back in time and erase Brahms and Schubert from my past and relive my adolescence again, would I do it? That is a difficult question to answer. Part of me definitely feels cheated. It is like living day by day under the spell of a romantic lie. It can be interpreted as both religious and mystical where Woman, the right and chosen one would come as a Savior and release me from a dull existence and turn it into never-ending bliss. But that person never comes year after year.

I used to watch the Wonder Years, and felt that part of my own maturing process was captured there. Kevin was in love with Winnie and throughout the years searched for her like one would for the Holy Grail. Except that in his later years (and I believe final season) he realized that it was all futile. Winnie was just another woman, a human being with flaws like all the rest of us since even females were not exempt from it.

Yet part of me still cherishes those romantic notions. There are moments when I watch movies or read books where I fully identify with someone I used to be in the past. Deep inside I yelp out yes to the suffering and heartsick character on the screen or the page. I can understand and pity them, the same way I pity the old version of myself. Or perhaps I feel envy.

Perhaps it is not happiness that we seek, but something else. After all, it is suffering that gives shape to lasting art, and Brahms and Schubert have suffered the pangs of love for us, for you and me. And their works will always stand the test of time, and I will drop my lawsuit and go back to listen to their heartfelt music after this post.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ode to the Comfort and Stability of Routine

A man with black top hat escaping the waters

Routine is often maligned and assigned with a number of negative epithets and labels, such as boring, repetitive, or it may be simply seen and designated as a waste of time and energy. Many people shun the admittedly duller aspects of routine and try to escape their quotidian life by going on vacation, by changing jobs and schedules, or by outright moving abroad for a couple of months or even years.

But I believe many overlook the intrinsic value of routine. In fact, to begin with most of us have various routine expectations for the day. We usually expect to get to work and see the front door or gate open and to meet and greet our coworkers or clients at our respective workplace.

When we arrive and there is no one there, that usually will make us feel anxious and may fill our heads with wild speculations, such as perhaps having missed the latest daylight saving time adjustment, or getting our holidays mixed up, or worse, finding out that the company, unbeknownst to us, has gone bankrupt overnight.

Routine can suddenly be broken in other negative ways. We may wake up with the flu unable to do much (except lying in bed and drinking hot tea) for the duration of the day. When we feel so terrible, we would much prefer to go to work and have routine return with a vengeance. Or we may get stuck, in an elevator, traffic, or public transport (have your pick).

Recently, I had a very unexpected turn against my own routine, one that bound my hands and feet and made it impossible for me to get anything done at work. As a teacher I have come to understand the value of my voice; as pretty much anything, we do not realize these things until we end up losing them.

So after my massive voice loss, I could not make myself heard. This came again as a surprise and shock and I am still trying to recover the voice I had (rest assured it is back for the most part at least). In the meantime, I see people speaking and laughing at full volume, which they take for granted of course, while I continue to feel envious of those who can speak loud and clear. I cannot wait for my routine to kick in again with my regular voice levels.

When the hands of routine are running the show, everything is as expected. People are where they are supposed to be and they are doing what they are supposed to be doing while the whole day is seen as a normal day. Sure, there will be occasional unexpected glitches, a locked door here or there to which we lack a key, a photocopier that jams or a computer that does not turn on or spouts unintelligible code. Those events break the routine, and more often than not, they increase our stress levels.

We can conclude that routine is the opposite of the unexpected, to have voice versus not having one or to wake up with a very hoarse voice. To me routine comes rather naturally; it is the normal state of things. My body, like the machine it is (no disrespect meant here) thrives on routine: I wake up at the same time in the morning (alas even on weekends!), have the same breakfast (I sometimes switch up my coffee brands), and I take the same bus in the morning, which means I more often than not run into familiar faces (bus driver, passengers, panhandlers, newspaper distributors, Jehovah's witnesses).

I do not talk to them (I used to but have lost interest in it especially in the mornings and it is not due to or related with my voice loss) but I welcome their presence and worry if I do not see them in their usual spot at the usual time (there is an elderly homeless person I have not seen for a while and this worries me). I like it that my work schedule has found its steady rhythm and that the curriculum is generally the same (occasional tweaks and adjustments aside).

When I arrive at my workplace (half an hour early), I know exactly what to do. I greet the secretary (when she is at her desk) and chat with my boss (when he is at my campus), make my photocopies for the day and head to the classroom.

The photocopier tends to jam in the mornings, but that has happened so often by now that I know the remedy and am very quick at fixing it (similar to a pit-stop I can generally handle the minor issues under thirty seconds!). My life, all in all, could follow a similar pace, at least in terms of routine, to Kant's who liked to follow a very tight schedule. But that's pretty much as far as the analogy goes.

I know that some hate routine because it bores them. Those people often may end up choosing jobs that defy routine, such as medical staff in the ER department, police officers or fire fighters. For those jobs, the unexpected is their call for action, whereas routine is equated with idleness. But even they expect their equipment to work, be it medical equipment at the hospital or the fire hose or gun to quell sudden bursts of emergencies.

So it is not routine itself, but our perception and reaction to it that is negative. Routine has many good and often not perceived qualities. The occasional challenge is welcome and fruitful, but if it becomes a constant then that can be rather stressful. Routine can be the comfort and stability that we crave sometimes. For example, we usually go to our favorite restaurant and order our favorite dishes because we do not want to be disappointed by taking risks.

In its more extreme form, those who travel abroad may avoid the local food and find solace in known and trusted, albeit unhealthy, fast food chains. It is not so much because of ignorance but simply because in a strange and unfamiliar place, it feels soothing and comforting to spot a known logo.

In fact, most of our lives comes down to routine tasks. We pay bills, check our emails, post on facebook, do our shopping and the laundry. The list of chores and daily actions and habits is endless. And after decades and decades of it, one day, it is our time to retire.

Many look forward to that day, but when it comes they become desperate. What is one supposed to do, especially if one has lived a long life of steady routine, of working to earn a living. How can one suddenly turn a switch and start enjoying a carefree and idle life?

And what would happen after a while, when the new lifestyle becomes just another case of a different type of routine? Best to treat routine as a friend (whom we occasionally and respectfully avoid so they do not become bothersome) or as a life-long companion and not as our sworn enemy or nemesis.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Aristotle vs Galileo: Review of Galileo's Dialogue by Maurice Finocchiaro

Cover of Maurice Finocchiaro book on Galileo and Aristotle
For two thousand years, Aristotle's worldview held sway for Western civilization. Aristotle believed that the Earth was geostatic (unmoving) and geocentric (the focal and central point of the universe). As to whether the earth was flat or round, this was something that was actually beyond debate in those times.

In fact, only the uneducated and primitive people believed the earth to be flat. This issue about the shape of the earth had already been settled by philosophers and scientists, and they did not think the earth to be flat. It may come as a surprise that certain people would insist otherwise despite evidence to the contrary, but we do not need to look too far today, i.e. intelligent design to find similar strains of foolishness floating around.

The whole Copernican controversy was more about the earth's location, whether it had a geocentric or heliocentric position, and its behavior, whether it was static or moving. As mentioned, the Aristotelian worldview of the earth as motionless and geocentric stood firm for two thousand years until the heliocentric Copernican revolution toppled it over.

According to the Aristotelian worldview and philosophy, there are fundamental pairs of physical opposites of hot and cold, humid and dry in the universe. These pairs are then combined to create the four elements, where earth consists of cold and dry; water is a mixture of cold and humid; air a combination of hot and humid, while fire was thought to be made of hot and dry.

Depending on its materials, each element would have a specific given and natural direction. For example, earth and water would generally move straight downwards, while air and fire would move straight upwards. This underscores the reasoning behind and concept of natural motion. Bodies tend to move toward their natural and proper resting place. And, in fact, motion is the opposite of rest since once bodies have found their place, they will not budge unless moved by others, that is an external agent.

So we can see Aristotle believed that earth and water have weight (gravity) and are hence “heavy bodies.” The natural state of bodies is that they remain at rest. Hence in such a worldview a rotating earth did not make much sense.

Moreover, it is important to note that bodies on earth do no emit light much unlike the stars that are in the heavenly spheres. Even fire does not emit its own light but only does so when it is escaping from the lower regions to find its own proper place upwards, that is in the heavenly spheres.

While the heavy bodies tend to be at rest on our planet, air and water have levity and are light bodies; these light bodies are helped to travel via the fifth (and most mysterious) element called aether, which was supposed to be luminous, this being one of its most significant properties or characteristics.

Now nothing moves on its own as all bodies prefer to reach the natural end state of motion, which is its opposite, namely rest. They would remain so because that is their internal state. Once they have found this state, they can be moved only externally, that is by an external agent, which can be a person, for example, picking up a pebble from the beach and throwing it, or the wind that is blowing the leaves about.

So if the heavenly spheres are rotating around the center of universe, they must be started by some mover, in fact, the sublimely mysterious unmoved mover. This motion is referred to as primum mobile, meaning simply the first body in motion. It is these constantly moving spheres that carry planets and stars with them in continuous circular motion.

Where the earth's natural state is bodies at rest, the important characteristic of the heavens is motion. (In fact, in the heavenly sphere, there are both fixed and wandering stars. Only seven of these stars were considered to be wandering and hence they were called planets, which means, yes, wandering star.)

Not bad, Aristotle, but in comes Copernicus to shake things up a little and to put things upside down. Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model and that the earth was not static but moving. In fact, the ideas of Copernicus were not new but had already been proposed by ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras and others; what Copernicus did was merely reinterpret the available information.

One of the strong points of Copernican theory was that his explanation was simpler, more elegant and more systematic because instead of having the heavenly spheres with thousands of stars moving about, there is only one body moving, namely the earth.

This heliocentric theory was approached like any body in motion, that is, with resistance and opposition. This resistance occurred due to biblical objections. The Protestants who had a more literal approach and interpretation of the Scripture tended to object the most and strongest.

When it came to the Catholics, they referred, when in doubt, to the Church Fathers for guidance and illumination. And it turned out that pretty much all of these noteworthy fathers put Aristotle on a pedestal and believed that the geostatic system was the correct one to be espoused, while anything that was otherwise ought to be officially declared as heretical. That also became the Church's official position until rather recently when the Church in 1992 accepted that Galileo was right after all, more than 350 years later!

So after Copernicus the grounds were set for Galileo to enter the scene. Galileo following his father's footsteps used the experimental approach for his findings and discoveries. In fact, one of his greatest and most revolutionary deeds of the times was to point the telescope upwards to watch the skies. His new and improved lenses made leaps and bounds in astronomy and added precision since his observations ended up being much more reliable than naked-eye observations.

But alas, Galileo was not given free reign in his discoveries. He was considered a heretic by the Inquisition who deemed his proposed theories on the earth's motion as false and as a dangerous threat to Catholicism as a whole. Galileo had lost his general support in the Vatican and was threatened with torture on the basis of “vehement suspicion of heresy.” However, he managed to escape a lengthy prison sentence and it all lead to house arrest instead.

Why was the Church so obsessed with the earth's position and motion and so opposed to the new science? One of the reasons apart from scriptural authority was that the world was seen as a perfect embodiment created by God, or rather His unique masterpiece. This led to a view of teleological anthropocentrism, which means that the whole universe exists merely for the sake and benefit of humankind.

This is also related to Aristotle's view regarding heavenly bodies, which are closer to God and are perfect in themselves because they do not change and hence are eternal like its Creator. On the other hand, the earth is far from perfect. We find that the earth changes and that life and things down here are corrupt and dirty; they die and decompose and thus have transitory existence.

It is through pure mathematics that we can reveal God's works since mathematics as opposed to the sciences gives us the same objective certainty that God has. There is no - or much less resistance to - doubt, whereas in other fields we must be aware of our senses, which can, according to Plato, deceive us in various ways.

Yet it is important to note that Galileo is not using one method but rather relies on logic (apart from physics naturally) in his arguments, logic not in the sense of a theory of reasoning but which also includes theories of knowledge, as method as well as science. He combines his observations of moving ships and gunshots (all of which went beyond my own head and my limited reasoning capacities) with detailed logical analysis.

As a result, his Dialogue becomes a synthesis of astronomy, physics, and epistemology. It is, in fact, a fascinating work and it is presented in detail and with clearly presented arguments and reasons in The Routledge Guidebook to Galileo's Dialogue written and expounded expertly by Maurice A. Finocchiaro, albeit the book is at times too complicated and complex for this scientifically and logically untrained mind of mine. 

My only caveat is that those who would like to read this guidebook to better understand Galileo's work and theory be better equipped with some physics and mounds of logic, and thus they will reap even more benefits than I was able to unearth for myself.