intellectual history

30 men go in, one man come out, or debating the New(ish) European Identism

The European Union project is spawning its own ideology and intellectuals — as ever — are embracing the ideology-making with gusto.  Partly in order to be relevant — the hunger for political power, the feeling of being marginalized and insignificant has been the mainstay of the class for ever; but partly because it’s all intellectuals can do:  produce ideology with which to bedazzle lesser minds (and each other; and themselves).  I am worried about it:  nothing good has ever come out of this sort of ideology-making.  For now, it seems innocent enough, but so did socialism at first — before guys named Adolf and Vladimir explained it to us a little better.

This new European ideology is, in short, this:  Europe has been a separate well defined entity since its very conception.

Just what it is that makes it Europe/European isn’t clear — people mutter something about Greeks, Bach, and Catholicism.  These are mostly incomprehensible claims. For instance, to say that “Bach is a point of reference for all European music” (I heard precisely this sentence last night) means either that

i) all music made and listened to in Europe is somehow descended from Bach, or informed by Bach, which is an impossible claim; or,

ii) ominously, that every music made in Europe which is not informed by Bach is somehow not European, foreign (and we know where these claims end); or

iii) it means that every musician in Europe has heard the name “Bach”, which is so little of a claim, that one’s hard-pressed to understand why it should be made at all.

More ominously, the claim to European identity is thought to emerge out of contrast with the other (“busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”, says Hank IV to Hank V-to-be).  And, a momentous point, the Other used here is not the United States, about which most European intellectuals at least know something, but about Asia and Africa about which they generally… know nothing.

This is not only terrible on account of its falsity and glaring ignorance; or its possible political dangers down the road (Euroepan Muslims look out); but also on account of the very culture which it claims to defend.  For the discussion then turns to art and culture seeking to identify what is European about Shakespeare, or Bach, while what is needed is identifying what is good about them.  What we need is not more European art, what we need, dear friends, is more good art. Could someone please stand up for that?  There is no need to stand up for the European Union — plenty of people do that already.


So, your correspondent is going to go into this think tank, unarmed, and alone.  A classic western situation:  on the one hand he, on the other 29 participants.  Then, we lock the door.

The Western ending would read:  30 men go in, one man come out.

Not cut out from the Western cloth, I am afraid.  Won’t they club me to death?

Opera as intellectual history

The Song of the Soul: Understanding Poppea is a delight.  Its topics are guaranteed to please — seventeenth century Venice, Monteverdi, opera; it’s writing is learned yet — breezy; though it be blessedly short (120 pages), yet it feels satisfyingly deep.

It is also the kind of history reading that seems best:  a kind of deep core-sampling.  Since no human mind can comprehend all of history, the best way to approach it may just be statistical: to take a series of random deep core-samplings. By the time you have sampled (in depth) Heian Era Japan, for instance, (The World of the Shining Prince) + Qing Dynasty China + Europe of the time of the bubonic plague (The Distant Mirror) + 17th century Italy, you begin to develop a sense of the overall shape of human affairs:  what is local and accidental and what is universal and lasting.

The book also happens to be good (i.e. non-fantastical) intellectual history. Its cogent argument is that the fall of the republics in Italy shifted classicists’ interest from Livy (Republican) to Tacitus (Imperial); and the corresponding rise of tyrants fueled an interest in Seneca’s stoicism – especially in something referred to as costanza – indifference, essentially – a precious mental skill at the time of rapidly declining individual liberties.

The book is also a delightful object:  small, light, well hand-fitting, it can be read comfortably in any position; it has a beautiful cover and meticulous print on quality paper. It reminds us that books are not merely words but can also be art objects. Pinguinification of the classics has had the converse effect. My newest Sei Shonagon is a Pinguin – unevenly pasted together with smelly glue, lousily small-printed on cheap, yellowing, brittle newsprint, it’s already beginning to fall apart. (One could say that I have read three Sei Shonagon’s to death). By now, at least two generations of scholars have been raised on such nothing-matters-but-the-text editions; is it any wonder they think that story telling and language games is all there is to literature?

Yes, we still have beautifully published art catalogs and coffee table books, but they are not read – they are too large and too heavy for reading. Poor classics, on the other hand, are invariably published in user unfriendly formats. Is it any wonder people aren’t reading them?


If I had an ounce of intellectual ambition, it may never be better deployed than to produce a similar book – a sequel, shall we say – on another Monteverdi opera – Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria.  I would want to include in it an essay on the 1977 Harnoncourt/Ponelle production of it. Ponelle’s famous statement about it – “Die schoenste zusammenarbeit meines lebens” – does mean “the finest collaboration of my entire life”, like the English liner notes say, but it also means – “the most beautiful”.

And it is beautiful.

And historically convincing – it certainly looks very baroque.

And comprehensible – most productions of the opera since have not been.

And – not least – a great lot of fun.  (There is a lot of humor in the opera and the H/P team have successfully carried it off).


Of course, one reason why it is comprehensible is that it is also — complete.  Most modern productions heavily abridge Act Three – in which three parties have to be reconciled to Odysseus’ “victory” — or, should we say, his murder of the suitors: Ireus, the glutton (now deprived of free fare), gods (who have been tricked), and Penelope (who refuses to fall into Odysseus’ arms, perhaps precisely because she has no real choice about it).

In part, moderns abridge the opera because it is long – today we are all working class people, by and large, and suffer chronic shortage of time; as well as — possibly — a virus-induced ADD.  (A brain-shorting virus is spread by domesticated cats).

But mostly directors abridge it because, habituated to the currently popular way of thinking about success, failure and virtue; and expectations of what constitutes a good plot; they either do not get the point of Act Three, or, perhaps more likely, think their audience will not. Who cares about the loser Ireus?  Why must gods be propitiated?  Why does not Poppea fall instantly into the arms of Odysseus?  And why are these points allowed to interfere with the happy end?

The reason why is that Ulisse was intended to be as much philosophical as Poppea was.  The hero winning the battle and getting the girl was not all there was to it.  Abridging Act Three ignores this fact and dumbs the opera down.  Evidence suggests that it probably cannot be done.  (Certainly not seemlessly).

The fairly common perception that Ulisse needs to be dumbed down — and the audience’s frequent incomprehension where it wasn’t, implies a kind of transformation in the common way of thinking — a weighty intellectual history in itself.  Discovering it might tell us more about ourselves than Ian Fenelon’s book does.