A Debate Judged By Hume Between Kant, Winckelmann, Fry, and Kimel On Art and Beauty, Part 2

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Kant: Oh no you didn’t, Fry. Get ready to be schooled. I have the final word on aesthetics.

You began with a string of ad hominem attacks on Winckelmann, if memory serves. All that I’ll say on this score is that we don’t have to psychoanalyze Michelangelo to appreciate the beauty of the muscular forms of the Sistine Chapel. You shouldn’t attack Winckelmann’s theory so hastily just because you think that you’ve contextualized his reasons for holding it.

With that being said, for all of the arrogance of your speech, it seems like you didn’t actually listen to Winckelmann at all. He acknowledges that art inspires aesthetic ideas. The difference is, he insists that these aesthetic ideas are separate and distinct in nature from the work of art itself, to say nothing of our evaluation of it on a gut level. You mentioned Picasso, didn’t you? Well, there’s good reason to find many paintings by Picasso perfectly hideous. In fact, I dare say that the artist deliberately employs ugliness to inspire aesthetic ideas in his viewers. But this doesn’t change the fact that his paintings are ugly.  Your theory of formalism purports to provide a revolutionary new mechanism by which to evaluate modern art.  In the end, though, you’re just like Winckelmann. You analyze the piece closely and describe in exhaustive prose the way it makes you feel. The only difference is, you don’t dismiss works that are ugly on face, because even they can inspire rapturous prose if something about them excites your intellect. Perhaps the uglier the better–in your eyes, your worth as a critic increases the more you can persuasively convince others to be blind to what they seem to see.

But at some point, your theory devolves into absurdity. For consider this–over yonder is the piece of shit that you inadvertently stomped upon when we were on the way here. We can all agree that it’s hardly art. And yet, I can describe it as art according to your theory of formalism in perfectly serious terms. “The pungent odor is meant to represent the horrors of the modern condition. At the same time, the spontaneous way that the coarse, brown material is strewn and smudged left and right symbolizes the diffuse nature of post-modern man.” Clearly, something has gone wrong here. Your theory, purporting to dismiss beauty, instead renders all objects equally valid as art if they can be rhetorically interpreted according to some sort of aesthetic standard. Your philosophy led directly to a world in which museums came to exhibit trash and call it treasure, duping the gullible populace with hype and shock value.

Now, let me enlighten you about the true relationship between art and beauty, and explain why your theory is really an inferior corruption of my original argument. I contend that the greatest critic of art should necessarily be the most disinterested one–a lack of bias should be the universal standard that grounds taste. When we make a judgment of pure taste, taste alone is involved in the process. Rational notions–aesthetic ideas and all–must not come into the matter. After all, the only reasons that our past experience might influence our perception of beauty have nothing to do with our inherent faculties of sense perception. We react to beauty differently, of course, but we all recognize it universally. If I make a judgment of pure taste, all of the secondary ideas extrinsic to the object itself should be set aside. I want to approach the work from as disinterested a vantage point as possible.  By which I mean, if I am to be a pure and unbiased subject, I must set aside all the quirks which individuate me, and approach the object as an impartial viewer from a neutral vantage point. Any judgment of beauty according to this standard is necessarily universalizing–after all, if others approach an object from a truly impartial perspective, as I did, they must reach the same conclusions, because I reached them first, and I was similarly completely disinterested. And so I contend that it is the critic with the least bias who is closest to an understanding of the true and catholic beauty to which all great artists aspire.

Ultimately, what I find beautiful is beautiful for everyone, or else what you call “aesthetic ideas” have come into the picture, and we are no longer dealing with a judgment of pure taste at all. And ultimately, because we cannot help but react first and foremost to beauty or its absence when we view a work of art, the nature of beauty is fundamental to the nature of art itself. Indeed, all other considerations are secondary, and mired in critical bias.

Ultimately, Fry, there’s no salvaging your case. You begin by approaching a work of art from a disinterested perspective, as I did, and then consider it in terms of its geometry alone, on the hunt for “significant form.” And by “significant form,” you really mean “the beauty of the aesthetic ideas that this inspires in my imagination.” Consequently, no matter what you do, you are evaluating the piece according to the presence or absence of beauty. But instead of considering the beauty of the thing itself, you vainly deify the beauty of your own imagination as you react to the piece. Yet this soon devolves into absurdity, since according to this standard, anything can be interpreted according to aesthetic standards, and art loses meaning; its greatness exists only in the mind of the critic describing it. To make matters worse, your judgment is not one of pure taste at all, since it is completely contingent on your secondary impressions. And so, I rest my case.

At this, Kant was silent, and the three men turned to me in anticipation of my speech on the matter.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “what do I know? I’m only an anthropomorphic lawnmower!”

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Remember Cawnpore, A Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter III (A Prodigious Amount of Ganja and Charas Is Ingested)

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Christopher and I drove in silence along the outskirts of several massive estates. Most of them were owned by men whose ancestors had profited from an amnesty granted in 1801 to European officers who’d previously helped to drill and even command contingents of Marathas. These Hindoo warriors were once the vassals of the Moslem emperor of the Moguls, whose dynasty had ostensibly ruled India in one form or another since the fifteenth century. For all intents and purposes, however, the Marathas had formed their own independent fighting forces for centuries in Northern India, and the agents of the East India Company effectively employed them as pawns against the forces of the collapsing Mogul Empire. As they did so, the British gradually assembled an empire of their own from the wreckage of aboriginal princely states.

But all that was a long time ago. By 1857, the Maratha name inspired more ridicule than awe among the British. Their last king, Bajee Rao, had been humiliated against the Company in battle and ended his days reduced to living on a pension in a gaudy palace in Bithoor, just outside of Cawnpore. This monthly allowance was suspended upon his death. His adopted son and successor, the Nana Sahib, was a notorious local character who spent his days holding picnics on his estate and his evenings pleading for British solicitors’ advice on how the defunct pension might be transferred to himself. That is almost all that I knew of him at the time beyond tales of his obesity, poor complexion, and modest talent at snookers. I would never have guessed at the fellow’s future notoriety.

Christopher and I presently smoked a great mound of charas, ganja, and tobacco mixed together in the mouth of a chillum. Then we said nothing for about an hour. I told myself that the intoxicants made us reticent. Finally, Christopher had the courage to lean over and address me in his drawling American accent.

“Did you miss me?”

“Christ, don’t be an idiot.”

Silence.

“So, Maxim, what brings you back to the Highlands?”

“My love of the land.”

“What a romantic answer.”

“I was obviously being sarcastic. After all I’ve been through, I could care less about this place.”

“Are you honestly telling me that the District means nothing to you?”

“No. And it’s so scalding hot this time of year that you literally can’t step out of doors between eleven and six without risking sun poisoning. Europeans should never have settled here. We don’t belong.”

“But didn’t you tell me that you’d go camping with your father in the fields around the Ganges when you were a little boy?”

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“You used to describe those stories so poetically to me, your memories are proof that you’re lying to me now about your indifference to India. I remember camping trips with my own father on the cliffs around New Haven. I’ll love Connecticut until I die, just as I do the Highlands. And I know that you feel the same way about this place.”

“That’s what you think.”

“Well, I don’t care what you say. This is a fine country, fit for indigo and poppies. And there’s a kind of timelessness here.”

“Nothing is more impermanent than the land, Christopher. The river shifts. The ryots come and go. And honestly, this is an ugly place. Completely mundane. There’s no drama in the landscape – nothing but blood red plains. Trust me. I’ve seen mountains—real mountains. Nothing in India can compare.”

“I’ll have you know that the piddling hills of Scotland—”

“You’ve never even been to Scotland.”

“…that the piddling hills of Scotland are nothing compared to the Himalayas.”

“Which are far away from here, and which you have similarly never seen.”

“It doesn’t matter whether or not I’ve seen them, fool. They’re physically located in India, and proof that what you just said was wrong.”

“Excuse me?”

“Didn’t you just tell me that nothing in India can compare to the mountains you’ve seen in Scotland?”

“Yes, but when I used the word India, I meant this specific area of the country, and not the whole geographical region in general.”

“What were we talking about? I don’t remember.”

“I don’t remember either. It’s a good opportunity to change the subject. Heard any infectious parlor songs lately?”

“It’s not my funeral, but you have to admit that you have the taste in music of a coot.”

“I don’t give a hooter,” I said, mocking his dialect. “There’s great beauty to parlor music, and I’m not ashamed that I love it. For example, that song you greeted me with-”

“O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road!” he threatened.

“Shut up. But yes, that song, Loch Lomond…it has special meaning. I mean, there’s an entire history associated with its lyrics.”

“It’s high-falutin, is it?”

I yawned and stretched my arms.

“You could say that, yes. The song’s about two soldiers in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

“What the hell sort of name is Bonnie Prince Charlie?”

“A pretty bad one. Anyway, he had a claim to the throne of England. And these two soldiers in his army… they were captured by the English and locked in Carlisle Castle. One of them was going to be executed—going to take the low road…and the other one was going to be released and travel on the high road back to Scotland.”

“Or visa versa. The high road could also be a symbol for Heaven, couldn’t it?”

“No, Christopher. The high road isn’t symbolic of anything. It’s as mundane as Purgatory.”

“Is mundane your new favorite word? Tell me, who are you to have the final say on the interpretation of the lyrics?”

“Stop trying to pick arguments with me. The point is, the song is a monument to the love between best friends.”

“How can you compare it to anything by, say, Verdi?  It’s trash by comparison, sentimental trash fit for wakes and funerals. You English-”

“I’m Scotch.”

“Whatever you are, you have embarrassingly bad taste. Parlor-tunes are nauseating treacle as far as I’m concerned. Songs like What Is Home Without a Mother? are nothing but slime.”

“And what’s so wonderful about Verdi other than the fact that he’s Italian?”

“Are you joking? He’s passionate, he’s larger than life, he’s…damn it, he’s modern.”

I looked solemnly at Christopher for a moment and tried to break the silence by farting. My intestines obliged with such a ludicrously high pitched peep, however, that we both began to laugh uncontrollably. He repaid me with a loud,

“Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici che la belleza infiora!”

“Admit that you only praise Verdi because you’re an Italian yourself! Your grandparents were from Ischia, weren’t they?”

“Balls! Verdi is beautiful everywhere, to everyone. Besides, I’m not Italian. I was born in Connecticut, just like my mother was. And my grandparents were only Italian on my father’s side of the family, just as you’re only English on yours.”

“Scotch! And you’re wrong—my mother was only a Nagar Brahmin on Ayah Rupee’s side of the family. I’m…I’m but a quarter native.”

“God, what difference does it make? And incidentally, Maxim, today’s Italy-” he paused for a moment, licking his lips. Then, he began to speak again with increased conviction. “Today’s Italy is literally fighting for its independence, for its birthright. Verdi’s music is like the voice of the national spirit raised in song… and your Scottish ditty is all about dying for the sake of monarchy.”

“Wrong. As I said, the song is about the love between two soldiers who’ll never see each other again. As to whether or not it captures a national ethos…”

“What a big word!  Greek, is it?”

“The song is exquisitely beautiful, moron. Its politics are incidental.”

“Politics are never incidental when it comes to art. I’ll have you know that when Verdi composed Rigoletto, he and Francesco Maria Piave-”

“Who?”

“He was Verdi’s lyricist. They actually had to fight against the Austrian Board of Censors to have their opera published.”

Christopher grunted and nodded his head in a self-satisfied sort of way. I looked at him quizzically.

“Why are you talking about the Austrian Board of Censors?” I had literally forgotten.

“Verdi and his friend fought the Board of Censors to produce Rigoletto,” he repeated. “It took real grit to do that.”

“So what?”

“In other words, it wasn’t anonymous folk music that they created. It was something greater than that—something defiant and patriotic.”

“And?”

“And nothing. That’s it!”

“You can’t possibly be arguing that it’s really the context of a piece’s creation that makes it beautiful, and not the thing itself, can you? After all, an objective audience would be deaf and dumb to all of those kinds of issues.”

“No, idiot. You’re setting up a straw man. Even with no knowledge of a piece’s history at all, it can still be inherently impressive to the ear. Especially in the case of Verdi.”

“If you can call screaming sopranos impressive.”

“Don’t be ignorant. What I’m trying to explain to you is that politics is only part of what makes opera beautiful. But that part is vital. We’re living in a new age, Maxim. Empires are dying, and nations are being born.”

“This all sounds very subversive.”

“And you sound like a civil servant. I forgot how puritanical you get when you’re losing a debate.”

“I am not losing a debate. I’m not even arguing with you! We were just having a friendly talk about the merits of different types of music, weren’t we? And I believe you were making the ludicrous argument that politics have something… have anything to do with aesthetic judgments…”

“I’m sorry, but the conversation has advanced beyond that. Now, you have to admit that like it or not, I’m right about what the future will be like. Think about it, Maxim, the birth of whole new states… at the hands of everyone from the carbonari of Italy to the sepoys of India.”

“Utter nonsense.”

“Viva Italia, Viva India!”

I remember that a flock of parrots flew overhead when he said that.

“Spare me your platitudes,” I ventured over the sound of their flapping wings. “There’s no comparison between Italy and India. Even if the mutineers drove every European out of this place, it would quickly be Moslem versus Hindoo versus Sikh in this country. Since the days of Alexander and Porus, India has only existed in the Western imagination. Everybody knows that religion is stronger than anything else when it comes to peoples’ loyalties here, and certainly more influential than national politics of any sort.”

“Then why are the Musselmen and Hindoos cooperating with each other so eagerly in this present revolution?”

“It’s a mutiny, not a revolution.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Proper perspective. Besides, do you see many Sikhs joining against us? Trust me, so long as nothing but the commercial interests of the British Empire unite the people of this place, independence is inconceivable.”

“Incidentally, that ridiculous line about Alexander and Porus and the Western imagination…did you steal it from someone?”

“I did not. Attribute my eloquence to the charas.

“I never denied that you could be a proper wise-ass, on occasion.”

He breathed deeply before continuing to speak.

“You’ve been away for five years,” he finally said, “and have chosen a hell of a time to come back.”

“Well, there’s a reason I’m back,” I answered mysteriously. “I have important news… and I need money.”

He laughed in my face when I said that.

“I see that you’re still perfectly selfish, Maxim. Are you oblivious to what’s happening around you? If the mutiny spreads here, it’s Armageddon.”

“Well, when Armageddon looms, perhaps perfectly selfish people might be useful blokes to have around.”

“Alright, alright. At least you didn’t lie and say you were coming home to rescue us! Now, enough bullshit. Where were you all this time, and why are you dressed like some ragamuffin out of Oliver Twist?”

I remember that he didn’t lift his voice on the final syllable of the sentence, so that it took a moment for me to realize that he was even asking a question. When I did, I cleared my throat before saying,

“I was filibustering with Billy Walker in Nicaragua.”

“Some pumpkins,” he said dismissively, making no pretense of believing me. Then he repeated “A hell of a time to come back,” and focused his gaze on the horizon. “Do you remember when we were kids and would dream about sailing the Nereid all the way to Corea?”

“I think about it every night.”

“We were pretty naïve then.”

“Were we?”

We were silent for a long time again. Finally, to irritate him, I asked,

“Are you angry that I didn’t say goodbye to you before I left?”

“Not at all. After all, you left a note. To this day, I treasure it as a valued snot-rag.”

He contorted his mouth into a sort of half-smile, and the conversation ended at that. There were times when I felt like punching him in the face and shattering his porcelain features, offset by what can only be described as an elegantly receding hairline, hidden at the moment under a pith helmet. His was not that messy sort of baldness that starts on the top of the head and ravages the scalp in increasingly destructive concentric circles. No, it was Julius Caesar’s type—the sort that vain men try to conceal by maneuvering their dying bangs. I told myself to poke fun at Christopher for being a bald son of a bitch.

He’d reminded a disinherited and broken man of his passion for all he’d lost, and he brought up too, as if off-handedly, the topic of his polluted blood—the causa causarum of his every misfortune. It was all done subtly enough, but sure as hell, I believed then that he was trying to cause me excruciating pain, as I had once caused him. But then again, perhaps I was wrong. I still don’t know.

A Few Translations of Catullus

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Here are some of my translations of the Roman poet Catullus.

***

3

Venus, Cupids, beat your heads,

My girl’s little bird is dead!

It was her favorite pet and prize,

She loved it more than her own eyes.

A sweeter bird than any other,

It knew her like it knew its mother.

It learned to stay upon her knee,

And leapt about so happily.

For her alone it sang quite well,

But now it makes a trip to hell,

To that abode of no return.

Oh God of Death, horrid and stern!

You stole the little beast from me,

The sweetest pet in history,

It was so cute it was absurd,

Oh evil deed, poor little bird!

Now because you’re lying dead,

My girls eyes have both turned red.

***

5

Lesbia, let’s love and live,

And not a fuck for gossip give.

Suns can die and then revive,

But we poor beings who are alive,

When once expires our little light,

Must all sleep through one endless night.

Kiss me one thousand one hundred times,

Then do it again, force the total to climb.

Kiss me one thousand one hundred times more,

Then do it again, so the number will soar.

Then let’s just agree to mix up and lose count,

Lest we or the jealous should know the amount.

***

7

Lesbia asks a question that’s tough:

how many kisses of hers are enough?

How about the number of grains of sand,

In Libya, medicinal-herb bearing land,

Where Jupiter’s oracle sweats and spouts doom,

And old king Battus built his tomb,

Or the number of stars in the silence of night,

Those voyeurs who peak at affairs before light?

Something like that, I believe, would suffice,

For your lovesick Catullus, upon the advice

That it’s best for the sum total never to lag,

So that snoops cannot count them, or evil tongues wag.

***

8

Wretched Catullus, do not be a fool—

Love burgeons and wanes, an unvarying rule.

Bright suns once shone in the heavens for you

When you echoed your woman in all that she’d do,

No lover was ever so truly adored,

Ere wit fell to silence, before she grew bored,

When you and your lover devoured each hour,

Blazing suns, truly, supplied you their power.

Now she doesn’t want you—you must be a man,

Don’t live as a wretch, nor pursue where she ran.

With a firm mind, endure—this must be your plan.

Now Catullus is firm—goodbye to my soul.

I’ll inquire no more, indifference my goal.

Perhaps you will weep, no man’s prospect or wife,

Poor woman, poor wretch, what remains of your life?

Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?

Don’t ask, old Catullus. Endure the dead light.

***

93

Julius Caesar, I won’t kiss your ass,

And don’t give a damn if you have any class.

***

85

I hate and I love. How is this possible? I’m at a loss.

But I feel it happen, and am nailed to a cross.

***

59

Rufa of Bologna and Rufulus screw.

She’s the wife of Menenus, often whom you

catch snatching her dinners from pyres of the dead,

chasing up all fallen pieces of bread.

The unshaven cremator soon beats her head.

***

50

It was last night, Licinius, we shared some special time

extemporizing verses and then dueling point for rhyme.

Agreeing to unleash our wits, we scribbled out each line

repaying any interest with our jokes and drinks of wine.

And then last night, Licinius, I went home set alight

By hunger not for food but for your sarcasm and bite.

Starving for the kiss of sleep, my soul succumbed to fury.

I writhed under my bed sheets. I lay awake with worry.

I couldn’t wait for daylight and that blessed hour when

I’d see you face to face, and we could share good times again.

And sprawled out on my couch half dead, with all work set aside,

I wrote this poem for you in hopes you’d pity broken pride.

Now don’t deny me what I want, o apple of my eye,

or the cruel goddess Nemesis might curse you by and by.

She’s quite a bitchy enemy, and so you’d best beware—

Think twice before you shake your head in answer to this prayer.

***

51

Like a god or more, he glistens,

Since he sits there, stares, and listens

As you laugh, which spells for me

Paralysis and misery.

I saw you once. I had no choice.

My tongue was tied. I lost my voice.

I closed my eyes in lust and yearning.

Mute and dumb, my body burning.

Boredom, Catullus, for you is a pain,

Making you writhe and fidget in vain.

Such boredom has proven the ruin of things:

Glorious cities, and many great kings.

***

109 & 70

You promise, my life, that now and forever

This same joyous love will keep us together.

Sweet gods, I pray that her promise is true:

Grant that she’ll mean it in all that she’ll do,

That this bond be lifelong and held without end,

Not just with my lover, but my sacred friend.

She says that she’d take me before even Zeus

To be her betrothed, but her meaning is loose.

All a girl says to a lover who craves,

Write on the wind and commit to the waves.

 

Putting My Whole Life on Instagram for a Year

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I’ve decided to document a year of my life on Instagram. After joining the platform a couple of weeks ago, it struck me that it had a great capacity for narrative storytelling that was seemingly underutilized by the majority of its patrons. Untold numbers of amazing photographers posted images of great beauty to the site, but there was scarcely ever a clear chronological narrative to anyone’s portfolio. I considered the fact that this was a shame; if art is an imitation of life, then a photo-journal of a whole year’s worth of experiences would seem to be a project well worth undertaking. At the same time, it seemed like a cool and interesting challenge to learn a new art form and craft what would essentially amount to a comic-book version of my daily adventures, for what they’re worth. And when the year was up, I figured that I would have constructed an incomparable monument to a little slice of my personal history to which I could return forever.

To be honest, by most accounts, my life these days is pretty boring. It involves teaching a class at Fairfield, composing a novel, blogging, and preparing my dissertation; the imaginary and historical worlds that I type about are much more interesting than the banal comings and goings of my reality as a writer. I’ve learned that the most beautiful frames of my existence can be manifested as a stream of selfies, snapshots of cats, portraits of food, images of the changing seasons, and various pictures of the people and architecture of New Haven. I’m sure talented photographers with more exciting existences than mine would be truly enthralling to follow, but to flatter myself, even in the case of my humdrum life and in the thematic shadow of my incompetence and inexperience as a cameraman armed with nothing but his iPhone, you can’t help but be at least somewhat interested by someone when you see the world through their eyes for a while, and learn to understand what they consider to be beautiful.

In many ways, Instagram is a perfect platform for a project like this—strangers meet there every day to laud each other’s photos in glowing terms, and it’s possible to build a large and enthusiastic audience of followers from around the world relatively quickly. At the same time, though, most Instagram users are on the hunt for rapid beauty and the swift consumption of photographs rather than the musings of a verbose stranger whose life they can study in detail. My captions are too long, and because I’m trying to utilize several photos a day to explain an unfolding narrative, not all of my pictures are as beautiful as they might be. I have likely alienated some of my friends on the site by my oversharing—I understand that they want to see pictures of Fiji and sundry cute things, and are not too interested in my eating Fruit Loops and heading off to the library.

Still, I persist. Since joining Instagram, my vantage point on mundane reality has been transformed. I’ve come to appreciate that all around me at any given time, there is a great deal of beauty and interest if I’m only alert enough to be sensitive to it. A butterfly or squirrel passing by can be interpreted as a game of tag; a long wait at a coffee shop can be seen as an opportunity to take a close look at the bouquet on the counter. I’m inspired to visit art galleries and parks and friends in other cities so that I can have more diverse photos on my account; incidentally, this also brings greater interest to my daily life. I suddenly have a reason to go to Mystic Seaport, and plan a trip to Newport.

At the same time, Instagram creates pressure on me to do my work, because I feel like I’m performing for an audience. My experiment has transformed what proved to be a terrible month into something a little bit more beautiful. Most of my friends have graduated, and I’m less well known on the debate circuit than I used to be; these days, when I announce a new blog post on Facebook, I’ll be lucky to receive one or two likes. But on Instagram, a cute picture of Mousepud is sure to get dozens of reactions. I don’t have many followers, but those who have stuck by my page seem sincerely supportive and friendly. In many ways, I now have a Greek chorus following me around all day. It’s extraordinary.

On the train to work today, I kept looking out the window trying to find things to shoot. Just after we left Bridgeport, I saw a herd of elephants. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were five or six of them in what seemed to be a penned-in parking lot. We passed by so quickly, I didn’t have time to take a picture. Yet no one else seemed to see the elephants but me. Nobody was even looking. There was the difference.

***

(My account name on Instagram is spqrkimel.)

REMEMBER CAWNPORE, A MEMOIR OF THE OPIUM WAR–CHAPTER II (The Juncture of the High Road and the Low Road)

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I tramped through indigo and poppy fields for what felt like an eternity,drenched with perspiration.  I shuddered involuntarily as the skin on the back of my ears began to peel. I did my best to ignore the ubiquitous ryots, who, I told myself, may or may not have recognized me as John Maxwell’s eldest son, though my auburn hair was impossible to ignore. They were all glowering and, on occasion, even jeering at me. I was at least grateful not to have come across any sepoys. Mutiny was brewing, and the entire country was in the gravest danger. As it was, I was the only one stupid enough to be travelling alone by foot that day. My sole companions were swirling cyclones of eye-flies, the kind that one can invariably find feasting on the dried horse and bullock shit that lines the Grand Trunk Road.

I was startled by what must have been the shriek of a dying bird slaughtered by some predator. The sound made me feel all-overish. I told myself that I could never look ryots in the eye, even as a child. I had always been terrified of them. Granted, the children of the District were no longer kept awake at night by stories of thugees, thieves who robbed travelers on the open road and garroted them with knotted rags as sacrifices to their dread goddess, Bhagwan. No, for many years before the present mutiny, the only things to worry about around Fatehgurh were dacoits, highwaymen who were equally likely to strangle their victims but who seemed less terrifying, somehow, for their lack of religiosity. A Western mind would prefer to fall victim to a mugging than a pagan rite, I suppose. Yet call it what you will, human sacrifice will always become India.

My father had always been gracious with his tenants—patient and sympathetic. Try as I might, though, I had always been inept at playing the role of a gentleman planter. In retrospect, I suppose I was always too ruled by fear, terrorized by the possibility of a sideward glance or a pert remark reminding me exactly who I was and who I could never be.

It was around noon when I heard a hackery coming up behind me. I pretended to stop by the side of the road to remove pebbles from my sandals, but I was really listening longingly to what I instantly recognized as the voice of my best friend.

“By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond!” belted a seraphic voice in an American accent masquerading as Scottish. “Oh we twa ha’e pass’d sae mony blithesome days on the bonnie bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond!”

“Christopher Angelo,” I began in a casual voice, masking my emotion and feigning manly indifference to the manifold horrors threatening us. “It’s good to see you again.”

I immediately wished that I’d said something better—I could have compared his attempt at a Scottish accent to the tones of a drowning marmoset, for example. There’s always humor in over-specificity. But I couldn’t change what I’d said, colorless as it was.

“That was a pathetic greeting!” Christopher cried, as I knew he would. “His majesty has returned to the castle spewing clichés. It’s lucky you have me on hand again so you can copy my wit and pretend it’s your own.”

Then he sang in even louder and more mock-dulcet tones,

“O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, and I’ll be in Scot-land afore ye’! But wae is my heart until we meet again…”

He leapt from the hackery and stood opposite me, grinning broadly. Then he stopped smiling and just stared at me for what felt like a long time. So I punched him in the ribs with enough force to knock the wind out of him.

“Maxim Maxwell,” gasped Christopher with expert sarcasm, “My love, my soul, my muse! Welcome home.”

He kneed me in the crotch, hard. I cursed. He laughed.

“Let’s smoke some frigging hemp,” he said.

The Untold History of the United States–A Review of a Question and Answer with Oliver Stone

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I met Oliver Stone tonight. He was at Yale to promote a documentary and book he created about twentieth century American history: “The Untold History of the United States.” He showed us an hour long episode from the documentary. It lambasted Truman, calling him one of the worst Presidents in American history. Stone particularly blasts Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan (pardon the unfortunate pun there). Stone suggests that the bombings were unnecessary to a peaceful resolution of the war. “The conflict was about to end anyway.” Had Truman only behaved more diplomatically and allowed the USSR to invade Japan, says Stone, there would never have been a Cold War. The nuclear arms race would never have begun. As proof of this idea, he cites Curtis LeMay’s declaration that the atomic bomb had “nothing” to do with ending the war. If “Bombs Away LeMay” said this, Stone reasons, it must be true. He blames Truman for almost singlehandedly derailing the course of twentieth century history, which would have been much better served had he never become President.

Now, I TF’ed a course at Yale last semester on the military history of the West since 1500, and I disagreed with a great deal of the documentary. I didn’t know where to begin when I raised my hand to ask a question of Stone and his colleague. I finally settled on a two part query: “What do you think of the idea of detonating the atomic bomb off the coast of Japan instead of over Hiroshima?” and “what about the idea that the existence of nuclear bombs and mutually assured destruction essentially prevented us from fighting World War Three?” Their answer to the first question was that an experimental use of the bomb might have been an inspired idea that would have helped to intimidate the Japanese into immediate surrender; their answer to the second question was that nuclear bombs made the USSR unnecessarily antagonistic toward the US. Instead, Truman and Stalin could have cooperated on creating a “common man’s century instead of an American century.” At one point, Stone and his colleague literally encouraged the students in the audience to form a revolutionary vanguard. I couldn’t believe my ears—the filmmakers were advocating no less than an alternate version of American history in which the USA became communist.

I would have loved to have said that the reason Curtis LeMay claimed the atomic bomb had nothing to do with ending the war was that he wanted his squads of bombers to get all the credit for that feat. He’d been working for years on fire-bombing Japanese cities, and hoped to claim the glory of the unconditional surrender for himself. And I don’t understand how Stone can simultaneously say that the dropping of the bomb had no effect on ending World War Two, but at the same time that merely detonating an explosive off the coast would have browbeaten the Japanese into surrender. Isn’t this an implicit admission of the fact that the bombs had psychological effects pivotal to ending the war? In fact, the Japanese fought onward until a second bomb was dropped. Do the filmmakers seriously believe that an invasion of the home islands wouldn’t have resulted in millions of lives lost? Or that the Stalinist USSR would have been the best protector of post-war Japan? The documentary said nothing about Stalinist atrocities—the Soviets were largely portrayed as innocent bystanders looking on in horror at Truman’s machinations. Do the filmmakers understand what Stalinist Russia was like? Do they really believe that there would not have been an arms race if the atomic bomb weren’t created in the mid 1940s?

Someone in the audience kept wheezing all night long so loudly that I thought he was going to die—people almost called an ambulance. The old man sitting next to me kept yelling out commentary during the movie like the old men who sit in the theater box on the Muppet Show; I thought it was hilarious. One high school girl asked the filmmaker if he recommended students become “spies” as a patriotic way to help America; Stone almost burst out laughing, and so did I. When it was all over, I talked with some lingerers in the audience, who whispered to me that they thought the film might have been oversimplifying the situation unfairly vis a vis Truman. I agreed. The documentary’s insistence that Truman might have ended the war earlier had he agreed to maintain the office of Japanese emperor rather than call for unconditional surrender was intriguing, though. And it can’t be denied that over the years, Truman consistently gave greater and greater estimates for how many lives the bombs saved, beginning by claiming that they preserved thousands of soldiers, but then raising the total over the years until the sum reached millions.

Eventually, I met Stone face to face at the front of the room. I wanted to ask for a selfie, but was too shy. Instead, I told him I loved Alexander. He told me I should see the 6 hour director’s cut. Then I lied and said it was a shame he never directed I, Claudius. He said, “that has already been directed.” I hugely respected that answer. We shook hands, and went our separate ways.

Memories of Eleven Rocket Attacks from This Summer in Israel

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At the end of June, I visited Israel for a month to attend a brother’s graduation and finish up a novel about daily life in Israel during the second intifada; the surprise ending is that a Palestinian hunger strike on the Temple Mount results in a two state solution in an alternate universe.  Over the course of my stay, after the murder of the three kidnapped children, the imprisonment of hundreds of members of Hamas, and the torture and murder of the Palestinian boy, rockets eventually began to rain down from Gaza. I went through eleven air raids and wrote down my experience after each one, neglecting to record the dates.

1. Kefar Sava: The wail was louder and higher than the siren of an ambulance or police car. My father, two brothers (one a pacifist, the other a regular fascist), stepmother, and sister all looked at each other dumbly for a moment. None of us felt inclined to enter the shelter. My militant brother insisted on going outside; he said that he wasn’t afraid of the Arabs, and would prove it. I considered to myself that America was a more politically correct country than my birthplace. Half an hour later, my father took my thirteen-year-old sister out running, and I joined them nonchalantly enough. The town was totally empty. We heard two thunderous sounds when we reached the abandoned racetrack, but did a good job pretending not to be thinking what we were all thinking. Eventually, we drove home and met my militant brother in the elevator. He explained that he felt no sympathy for anyone in Gaza, just as they felt no sympathy for him. My father and I told him that he didn’t
realize how foolish he sounded, and asked him if he thought he would speak the same way if he were born a Palestinian. The next day, a couple of my sister’s friends refused to leave their houses in fear for their lives. And my grandmother got into a fight with her jogging partner for inadvertently laughing at her when she said that she was too afraid to walk along the beach anymore.

2. Qiryat Ono: When I woke up at my grandmother’s house a couple of days later after having a dream about a rocket killing my father, I thought to myself “I’ll hear an air raid siren now,” and I literally did. Realizing that the odds of a direct hit were astronomically low, I stayed in bed, exhausted by the nightmare. I then heard an explosion violent enough to shake the whole apartment. I later learned that this was the sound of the Iron Dome destroying missiles in midair.  The official line was that Israelis were supposed to wait for this sound before leaving their shelters. It was hard for me to fall back asleep now, so I got up and ate breakfast. My grandmother made me freshly squeezed orange juice and fried up some bacon, a rarity in Israel.

3. Sde Warburg: I walked with my pacifist brother to his grandmother’s house out in the countryside beyond Kefar Sava. When we reached her farm, we all began to argue about the stalling peace process. She insisted that average Gazans were living in greater prosperity than my brother and I guessed, and that the international media’s insistence on Israel’s brutality but silence on the atrocities committed by Arabs against Arabs every day in the Middle East was veiled anti-Semitism. Just as she was explaining that Hamas’ extremism was the rule rather than the exception in Gaza, sirens sounded. She insisted that we rush to the shelter, and accidentally closed the door on Lucky the dog’s little head when we entered it. My brother and I wanted to leave as soon as we could, but we didn’t hear the Iron Dome’s effects this time, and stayed a full twenty minutes in the stuffy place out of deference to her orders. The room doubled as a closet, and I
spent most of the time observing the various polka dot patterns of her dresses.

4. Jerusalem: I insisted on visiting the Holy Sepulcher for a film project despite my family’s universal pleas that I not go. My pacifist brother backed out at the last minute, and I ended up travelling alone by bus. The Old City was full of Eastern European tourists, Orthodox Jews, and the Israeli police. Some Arab shopkeepers asked me if I was Israeli, and when I said yes, they literally turned their backs on me. I eventually began to feel nauseated and took a taxi ride back to the central bus station. The driver warned me not to puke in his car because it was Ramadan. He tried to drive me to a different location from the one I had requested, allegedly because “the central bus station might be bombed,” but really, I guessed, because he didn’t feel like driving all the way across town. Changing his tune about having exact change, he ended up cheating me on the price of the trip. When a siren sounded, some people left their cars and threw themselves belly-down on the street. On the bus, I leaned against the window and took a long needed nap. When I woke up, an old rabbi asked me what America would do if Mexico were shooting rockets at it from Tijuana. Rather than answering him, I pretended to fall back asleep.

5. Tel Aviv: I went to an ill relative’s apartment for dinner. She was a Holocaust survivor. Her bed was turned toward the television so she could see the news, a ubiquitous and depressing fixture these days in all Israeli households. I asked her if she thought that the world was a better place now than in the 1930s and 1940s. She said that it was no better, but at least now it was the Jews who were driving their enemies into the sea, and not the reverse. I couldn’t believe that she actually said that. When the sirens sounded, most of the party scrambled into the shelter. But my ill relative couldn‘t move. I volunteered to stay with her in the living room, categorically refusing to leave her alone there. My confidence affected the others, and many of them stayed behind as well.

6. Tel Aviv: After returning from a play, I visited my aunt’s house to find the family huddled around the television. Hamas announced that it was going to fire an “unprecedented new type of rocket” at Israel at 9:00. We whispered that this wouldn’t be one of their home-made contraptions, but a proper Iranian missile this time. As soon as 9:00 came, sirens began to blare. My father chose just this time to drive my stepmother and two of my siblings home on the open road rather than enter the shelter. I retreated with the rest of the family in and out of the safe room; pizza bagels were cooking and leaving them alone for too long could result in a fire. Eventually, there was a knock on the door, and my stepmother joined us in the shelter. She’d evidently told my father to turn back. He remained outside with my pacifist brother, though, trying to make out the progress of the rockets in the sky.

7. Qiryat Ono: Sirens sounded just as my grandmother and I were returning from the candy store. We listened for the telltale explosions of the Iron Dome, but failed to hear them. After a time, we shrugged and carried groceries into the elevator. We began to argue about bias in the Israeli press. I insisted that the state-run media’s constant attention to falling rockets but relative ignoring of the situation in Gaza was tantamount to propaganda. She explained that it was natural for the news to focus on “our side,” blamed Hamas for imbedding themselves into civilian infrastructure, and said that Israel was setting new standards for trying to spare civlian lives. We learned later that day that Israel had suffered its first casualty when a piece of a rocket crushed a man who’d been supplying troops with food.

8. Qiryat Ono: Air raid sirens woke me up in the morning. This time, the telltale BOOMS took place during the shrieks themselves rather than directly afterward. I was able to fall back asleep without too much trouble, though, and dreamed about taking a trip to India.

9. Kefar Sava: The sirens sounded just as my father and I returned home from a shopping trip, evidence that a short lived cease-fire had ended. We went out onto the balcony and looked to the southern sky. I saw the long streaks of the rockets just over the horizon, and two bright white clouds where the Iron Dome had evidently done its work. My father and I drank coffee together, even though I hate coffee. Then we spoke for a while about the pitiable situation in Gaza. This instigated my militant brother, and we all got into a screaming match. At the end of the debate, my pacifist brother said that these days, he found himself leaning more and more toward the center politically. Later that night, the ground invasion was underway.

10. Kefar Sava: About to leave for a goodbye party at my aunt’s house, I heard sirens begining to blare again. The family all procceded to the balcony and saw the trails of four rockets high above us. Down below, the excitable and the cautious walked dutifully toward shelters in their apartments, and the reckless and non-conforming went about their daily business as if nothing were happening. The Iron Dome destroyed all the rockets, but it took a few seconds for us to hear the thunderous impacts even after seeing the explosions themselves.

11. Tel Aviv: My aunt held a farewell dinner for me. Just as we were eating cake, an alarm sounded. All fifteen or so of us retreated into the small shelter. The sense of togetherness was nice, in a way. It’s rare that I spend time with my family, and I was about to leave again. My father joined us most reluctantly, and then got into a heated political argument with the rest of the family defending his right to do as he pleased. My grandmother took it badly, and drove home frowning. She explained that though none of us usually bothered to go into the shelters, refusing to do so in somebody else’s house was bad manners.

Talking to Air (A Rap of Jesus on the Cross)

Check out 2:192:25–it’s awesome. If it wasn’t for this little miracle caught on film, I probably would have deleted the video.

I wrote this rap in 2012 but only got around to shooting it this summer in Jerusalem. I shot it on my cousin’s Go Pro camera and filmed it in and around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the site of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. The lyrics are mine, but I found the music on youtube and downloaded it to Audacity; unfortunately, the link to the original soundtrack is now dead, and I don’t know whom to thank for the beat. I’ve been writing songs for a long time, but until now, how only shared them with a few close friends and relatives.

***

Lord, hear my prayer,
Prove that you’re there.
Lord, hear my prayer,
I’m talking to air.

It’s not such good news.
To be King of the Jews,
And revel with devils
Predestined to lose.
I once was the muse
Of an impious ruse,
A sinister rebel,
Or so I’m accused.
Pelted with pebbles
And curses and boos,
This is an end
No messiah would choose.

Lord, hear my prayer,
Prove that you’re there.
Lord, hear my prayer,
I’m talking to air.

Dragged to the court, my defense wasn’t wordy.
And now I am strangled and beaten and dirty,
Nailed alive on a cross that’s unsturdy,
And dying a virgin at barely age thirty.

I feel like I’m dreaming.
I’m shaking; I’m screaming.
I’m not very proud
To be sobbing so loud
And throbbing in anguish
In front of the crowd.
But at least there’s the fact
that this hillside is packed
To see my last act
As I squirm and react.
But the rabble is crude,
And their babble is lewd.
And to top it all off
I’m ashamed to be nude.

I feel myself dying.
My mother is crying.
I swear it’s all right,
But she knows that I’m lying.
Praying won’t help,
But she can’t help but trying.

Lord, hear my prayer,
Prove that you’re there.
Lord, hear my prayer,
I’m talking to air.

I say all the Psalms.
I can’t feel my palms.
I can’t move my fingers.
A burning pain lingers.
My quaking lungs quiver,
and shaking feet shiver.
In one gruesome dither
I puke up my liver.
Oh God, to return to the green Jordan River!

The man to my right
Wants to start up a fight.
In a voice hoarse but lyrical
Being satirical,
Says, do a miracle.
It’s not so empirical.

When will this pass?
How long will it last?

The man to my left,
Who was sentenced for theft,
In a voice that’s mysterious,
Not deleterious.
Likely delirious,
Says I’m imperious,
He can’t be serious.
I don’t believe
All they say I achieved.
So there is no reprieve.

Lord, hear my prayer,
Prove that you’re there.
Lord, hear my prayer,
I’m talking to air.

I stare at the sun in an act of defiance.
Its unbearable glare makes me wince in compliance.

Oh God, hear my cry!
Oh when will I die!

I thrash my head against the cross,
but consciousness still isn’t lost.
Sweat is flowing, flesh is torn,
Gore pours from the crown of thorns.
At least it doesn’t bother me
To never know who fathered me,
Now he won’t feel any pain
Or have to see me croak in vain.

Now the pungent stench is shameful.
Every breath is drawn and painful.
Heartbeat plunging ever lower,
Broken coughs are getting slower.

Then although my faith resists,
I start to doubt that God exists.

“Eli lama sabachthani?”

I close my eyes, and then I see
That now the devil’s run amok.
And I’ve run out of all my luck.
And with the dying breath I suck.
Before I die, I whisper…

Using Math to Explore the Fall of the Roman Empire

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I am firmly committed to the idea that there is great value in exploring change over time in Roman history using mathematical models. Since antiquity itself, scholars have debated broad questions concerning the forces responsible for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  But in the status quo, fundamental elements of the debate seem relegated to the realm of the pseudo-scientific, since it seems impossible to either confirm or deny broad claims such as “barbarian pressure along the frontier was more responsible for the ultimate decline of Roman civilization than the long-term effects of civil war.” In fact, historians making precisely opposite claims can point to compelling data from archaeological and literary records to bolster their hypotheses. Preferring one explanation over another sometimes becomes a matter of personal taste or academic politics rather than an empirical exercise, which is only exacerbated by the fact that so much information from the ancient world itself is lacking. The fact that medievalists and classicists often interpret and answer major questions about antiquity and the early Middle Ages so differently is the clearest indication of this trend. Indeed, in the tradition of certain historians like Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, some have even gone so far as to question whether the very disintegration of the Roman Empire should be interpreted as a fundamentally regressive phenomenon at all, with historians of the Early Middle Ages increasingly challenging simplistic models of decline and fall.

How can all of these narratives be reconciled, let alone evaluated against each other in an objective context?

Originally, I hoped to engage in a novel approach to these questions, making use of tools traditionally employed in fields outside of the Classics. Imagine we were looking at a map of the Roman Empire, divided into many quadrants.

These are the elements that would be tracked:

1) the locations of iron deposits and other natural resources that can be pinned down with a fair degree of accuracy, including the locations of major mines (these are, of course, static)

2) the locations of where the Roman emperor was declared, and where he was physically during each month of his reign, which can be tracked with great accuracy over several centuries

3) The locations of recorded battles

4) the locations of the Roman legions themselves; their movement can be crudely mapped out over the course of five centuries

5) the location of the city of Rome itself, major roads, and other geographical features (Mediterranean sea and the Rhine-Danube frontier)

I tentatively hypothesize that times of plague, rebellion, and civil war should show statistically significant changes in the relationships between the static and dynamic data sets as such periods would lend themselves to efforts to seize control of local mineral deposits and resource-distribution-centers.  By contrast, in times of relative internal stability, the Rhine-Danube frontier is more likely to attract dynamic movement in response to external pressure along the borders. Permanent changes in spatial relationships can suggest watershed moments in Roman history.

The upshot of all this is that using the right mathematical tools, the relationship between these variables can be systematically evaluated, and we can investigate what various causal forces (internal or external) seem to have been responsible for violence at different points in time. For example, considering a specific span of time, do major battles and troop movements statistically clump along the Rhine-Danube frontier, or do things like the locations of local resources and the physical location of men proclaimed the Roman emperor play weightier role as a source of attraction? The former would suggest the long term influence of external pressures during this era, and the latter internal dynamics. At the same time, do relationships among major variables change after major events in Roman history such as the advent of the Antonine Plague, the establishment of a new capital, or the rise of Christianity? What is statistically likelier to attract battles at any given point in time—cities, mineral deposits, or geographical features along the border? The answer to this question reveals something fundamental about the texture of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Once all of this work was done for the Roman Empire itself, it would be fascinating to employ similar methods to explore Mediterranean history in the period of the Republic, when I predict that the major causal networks determining troop movements would be quite different, perhaps oriented more around features of the Mediterranean coastline and the locations of major mineral deposits as opposed to the case of the Empire, when unity was achieved and the focus turned to defense rather than offense. If the data were compared to information from Han China, I hypothesize that the “particles” representing armies and battles would move synchronously across the continent at certain times in response to pan-Eurasian forces such as plague, the spread of technologies, and the movement of barbarian tribes. This would provide strong support for the idea of macrohistorical forces at work in determining causal outcomes in history.

Nevertheless, after a great deal of soul searching and wavering, I have decided to focus my dissertation on orgiastic display, violence, and politics. There were several reasons for this.

  1. As I said above, I think that exploring change over time in Roman history using mathematical models would be incredibly interesting. However, because the nature of my work in this field is experimental, I am worried that the success of my dissertation would be largely contingent on whether or not my mathematical hypotheses in fact bore fruit. I can’t guarantee anything of the sort, however, until I actually examine the data. It may be that mineral deposits attract battles, for example, or it may not be. It might be the case that Han and Roman data line up nicely, but again, there is nothing to guarantee this.
  2. Writing the quantitative dissertation might have alienated me in the eyes of others in the field and on the job market. The topic seems iconoclastic, to say the least, and I think that there would exist great skepticism about my new methodology. At first glance, my idea seems simultaneously too traditional and too futuristic. Because it seems to touch upon universalizing schematizations about the nature of historical change and is focused on military history and troop movement, it seems like a throwback; at the same time, because it deals with mathematical regressions and computer modelling, it seems too out there.
  3. I would prefer to leave the option open to me of co-authoring a tight, focused article using quantitative methods with colleagues who are already familiar with the available software so that we could learn and work together on the project; by contrast, I think that the dissertation should necessarily involve strictly independent research. At this point, guaranteeing that I could master the mapping software quickly enough to write a great dissertation seemed too risky a prospect.
  4. The dissertation should be immersed in and enriched by existing discourse on the subject, making a specific informed contribution to an ongoing conversation. However, there is in fact very little existing discourse on the mathematical relationships between the locations of battles, emperors, and geographic features/natural resources and the significance of these changing correlations over time. If I did something like make the dissertation a broader study of “decline and change” in Roman history and relegated the quantitative methods to an appendix, it would be a shame—the quantitative methods require a great deal of work, and probably deserve to shine in their own paper.

Ultimately, staking the entire dissertation on something so novel seemed riskier to me than utilizing my quantitative methods in a separate project.

A Debate Judged by Hume Between Kant, Winckelmann, Fry, and Kimel on Art and Beauty, Part 1

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Some years ago, I dreamed that I was an anthropomorphic lawnmower chugging through rolling hills. I happened to meet Kant and Winckelmann, who were having a picnic and discussing the question, “What is the relationship between art and beauty?”

Kimel: Gentleman, when I heard that Kant and Winckelmann were going to be debating aesthetics and that I was invited here as the honorary judge, I rolled here as quickly as I could, even though I’m a busy appliance and have a lot of weeds to mow. So by all means, have at it, but try to hurry if you can.

Kant: But we didn’t invite you here as the judge. That’s Hume’s job. He’ll be here any moment. Winckelmann is my debate partner tonight. He’ll be the first speaker, and I’ll be the third. Pick a teammate of your own, and let’s begin as quickly as possible, before you wake up. My only request is that you record this dream, if you remember it.

Kimel: Alright, then. I choose Roger Fry, father of modern art criticism. He’ll be the second speaker, and I’ll be the fourth. But what’s the topic?

Kant: Whether all great art aspires to beauty, and if there is a universal standard of taste.

Hume and Fry presently materialized out of thin air. We took our places on opposite sides of the picnic table, and then we began the round. Winckelmann was the first to speak.

Winckelmann: The issue we’re considering is the relationship between art and beauty. Well, I’m confident that there can be no real debate on this question. All great artists aspire to create beauty, and they can accordingly be judged according to universalizing and objective standards concerned with how well they achieve this end. I would go so far as to say that any society which fails to recognize that art is fundamentally in the service of beauty possesses no sense of the superiority of balance, harmony, and proportion over their degenerate opposites immoderation, dissonance, and excess.

Now, during golden ages, technical standards of artistry are high, and authors produce finely tailored works of art marked by the features of balance, harmony, and proportion, which are, as I’ve already mentioned, the very hallmarks of beauty. At other time periods, though, these technical standards fall into precipitous decline. When hideous art is produced, on at least some level, viewers will invariably find themselves repulsed, though they might deceive themselves into calling an abomination a masterpiece, or lie about their true impressions to impress other people.

But when they make such a judgment, they aren’t evaluating the art itself; far from it! Instead, they’re weighing their own ideas associated with the piece—what the artist might have been saying, why he might have been saying it, and how he might have been saying it. These concepts, however, only exist in the imaginations of the viewers. In other words, they are extrinsic to the object itself, which can only be judged for good or ill on its own merits according to the sole criterion of beauty. And by beauty, again, I mean that which inspires strong positive sentiment of its own accord thanks to its proportions in themselves rather than any appeal to rationality; beauty acts as a sort of unmoved mover. Don’t blindly disagree with me just because your own society might produce inferior art—subconsciously, you must realize the horrible ugliness of your era, a world in which the inventor of the photograph dealt a death blow to all standards of technical craftsmanship, and utilitarian concerns rendered every urban cityscape a labyrinth of bombastic rhombuses. You call giant utilitarian boxes “architecture” and gory spectacles of violence “theater.” But history will have its say in the end, and expose the aesthetic standards of your era as degenerate.

Fry: Fuck Winckelmann, that took a long time. Your conclusions are totally misguided. Maybe because you were always subconsciously on the hunt for male beauty, you found in art criticism an outlet that empowered you to wax lyrically about it, discovering the one niche in your society where your desires could be discussed with poetic rapture yet moral impunity—the realm of nude Greek and Roman statuary. God knows that you wrote long and florid descriptions of ancient sculptures, describing them with a kind of scientific accuracy. So they call you the father of art history. But your theory that all artists are blindly groping at beauty, and that some geniuses have better eyesight than others, is preposterous.

In your time, the vast majority of Greek and Roman statues were undated. Trying to impose a chronological framework on the chaotic surviving evidence, you developed the theory that the art you found most beautiful was associated with the periods of the greatest human freedom. And so, the statues which you thought the best (usually exhibiting toned physiques and the balance and proportion associated with athletic male forms) were all said to come from the 5th century BC, the period of ancient democracy at its height. But the problem is, your theory was totally wrong. You arranged the statues completely arbitrarily. The true chronological sequence is often totally different from what you expected. You deified your own subconscious ideas about beauty to the point of claiming them as the foundations for an objective standard, but actually failed to create a universal paradigm useful to critics in all times and places.

Now, let me enlighten you about the true relationship between art and beauty, and teach you not to tussle with real philosophers. Beauty is not something objective–it exists in the eye of the beholder, as every schoolboy knows. What you think beautiful is not necessarily universally appealing to everyone.  There is no consensus when it comes to beauty, only a chorus of impressions. What is universal is the free interplay of ideas that comes about in the imagination when an observer experiences art. Why is a painting by Picasso a masterpiece? Because it has significant form. The arrangement of shapes inspires the mind to reflect on aesthetic ideas, though the piece itself might be disharmonious and turbulent. Beauty has nothing to do with the matter. Before the invention of the photograph, painters were praised for technical proficiency. But now we’re free to embrace art that is not necessarily harmonious or balanced or true to life, including non-western art, to which Greco-Roman naturalism is foreign. The aesthetic ideas the thing inspires are infinitely more important than the object’s beauty. And so I rest my case. My theory of formalism has completely supplanted all of your ideas, and is the final word on the interpretation of art.

At this point, Kant stepped forward…