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More about those ancient regions of the brain where pleasure resides

dehesa

In January I spent a week driving through Upper Alentejo – a rich, agricultural province of Portugal, dominated by the dehesa landscape.  Dehesa (in Spanish), or Montado (in Portuguese), is a multifunctional agro-sylvo-pastoral system typical of southern Spain and Portugal.  It is a five thousand (or more) years-old system of land management which combines tree cultivation (olives, oak, and cork), herding (sheep, cows, and black pigs), and hunting (it leaves enough tall grass and mid-sized bushes for quail, hare, and the occasional wild pig — which last sometimes manages to enrich the herded black pig stock, too) to thrive all side by side, all on the same land.  In January, it is green with winter rains and bursting forth with wildly blooming fruit trees.  Cows, horses, black pigs, sheep and goats roam the landscape, mooing, lowing, bleating, and ringing their bells.  Hare skip between bushes, quail and pheasant shoot up startled from tall grass, hawks circle above and literally thousands of mating storks stalk in tall grass, performing their mating dance.

I cannot begin to describe the intense — no, the overpowering — at times I felt myself faint in the knees with contentment — sensation of pure, unadulterated, thick pleasure which looking at this land gave me.  I have never seen this landscape.  Except for childhood summer holidays, I have never seen farmland, and I have certainly never looked at it with any degree of farming interest.  But here I was responding to it like my genes had determined I would:  like all East Europeans, I carry seven thousand years — 210 generations, or more — of agriculture in my genetic make-up.  Looking at a piece of land and realizing unconsciously, unawares by the signs that every farmer reads unconsciously and unawares: this is rich, fat land, it is teeming with four-legged food which will breed, it has the right sun exposure and the right amount of rainfall and subcutaneous water it needs to yield abundant crop; I was… in heaven.

And, predisposed as I am, to seek immediate gratification… I have closed the Lisbon operation am moving there, to the dehesa, as soon as my feet will carry me —  next Monday.

Some possibly unwritten books I want to read

I’ve been reading a lot lately, and mostly it has been a disappointment — and how can it not be, generally.  I won’t mention the books (no point hurting you by showing you my wounds), but how I wish I could read well-written books by intelligent/not-ideologically-minded persons from time to time.

And how about — on these topics:

1.  The Haydn-Mozart quartets.  Something not musicological.  Something about Mozart as a person, Haydn as a person, their professional lives, their aspirations, their friendship, the new art form of the string quarter (Goethe: “Four intelligent people talking together”), and what it was like for Haydn and Mozart to develop this new art-form; how they struggled as men, lovers, husbands, professionals and yet, in another dimension altogether, how their life had another deeper, secret meaning, appreciated only by those in the know:  that of a composer who broke new ground, developed new ideas, presented and solved new problems; and how their takes on the string quartet reveal their personalities; and how Mozart’s Nos. 15-19 respond to Haydn’s op. 20 and how Haydn’s op. 33 in turn respond to Mozart’s.  I have been listening to them now these 3 years and forever find much surprising depth in them — intelligence, wit, polish, yes, but also so much intricate, innovative thinking; just take op. 20 no. 4 1st movement with the shocking arpeggio and all its false reprises, how very odd, how very special.

(Btw, if you are just beginning in the field, then the recordings to listen to are:  Haydn’s op. 20 – by the Lindsays; Mozart’s 15-19 — by Aban Berg; and Haydn’s op. 33 — by The Borodin).

2.  The Paris 1900 World Expo.  The largest, the most ruinous, and therefore the last of the world expos; ended in a spectacular bankruptcy; featured grand palaces by all major nations of the world built in a kind of Potemkin Village material; a human zoo; Japanese pavillion with geishas; a two-speed moving sidewalk which circum-ambulated the place; and the Balinese dance troupe which Rodin was unable to draw (like he was unable to draw/sculpt everything else) and — what that troupe’s success tells us about high brow art (that it’s does not rise from the folk art, it is not particular to a culture but — to a kind of brain — to some of us, the unlucky few who have drawn it as their birth lottery-ticket; and how for us it is universal, undivided by languages and borders).  And the first showcasing of Art Nouveau, too.

If you can suggest titles – could be in other languages, shout.  If no one can, perhaps someone could write these books, please?

Other lamps, other minds – some reflections on modern interior design

Lampa Arnolfinich

A recent visit to a dentist put me in a state of shock; not on account of the drilling, which was hardly a pin-prick, but on account of the waiting room. Entering it, I found myself in a hostile space, barren, barf-colored, lined with pseudo-carpet with intentionally woven holes and pseudo-wood painted a clearly artificial color, with square, extremely uncomfortable chairs with sinking seats and back supports which ended just in the place calculated to give no support yet jab the kidneys painfully. In the WC, I discovered a square toilet seat: thank God, I did not have to sit on it because I would not know how to without jabbing my knees. On the wall of the waiting room there was a (flat panel) TV which there was no way to turn off or down. In other words, the waiting room seemed designed on the McDonald’s principle — McDonald’s seats are famously uncomfortable so as not invite guests to linger — (secret motto: “shovel them in and shovel them out”). Except, I wondered, here it made no sense. The amount of time I spent in this waiting room did not depend on me in the least — but on how (in)efficiently the office booked me. To punish me for their delays and to try to drive me away while I waited seemed counterproductive (it would only lose them business).

To distract myself from the colors and surfaces, I picked up a glossy magazine. It happened to be Elle Decor – French edition – an the designs which I saw in it — all of them of a kind with the one in the midst of which I was sitting — opened my eyes. The designer of my waiting room did not consciously aim for discomfort, he just wanted to be with-it/modern/fashionable/trendy and in order to achieve this goal he followed the general principles of modern/with-it/trendy design, which are: 1) shock and surprise with unusual shapes and colors 2) pay no attention to comfort or ease of use or practicality of application 3) use the cheapest materials and cheapest manufacturing methods (inject it or stamp it is best) as long as they are “modern” 4) reject any natural materials 5) use as many sharp edges as possible (get it?  “edges” make you “edgy”). My discomfort was merely the price paid for the designer achieving his with-it-ness, it was a kind of… collateral damage. Prices of the items featured in the magazine illustrated the other price paid for the designer’s with-it-ness: money. An aluminum, black and white, zigzaggy lamp by designer X, the magazine informed me, cost EUR1,190.  I looked up and saw something equally cheap and ill-proportioned on the ceiling of my waiting room and was no more in doubt:  serious money was spent here in order to make me feel uncomfortable.

Only the day before I had bought two old bronze lamps for EUR400. One was late 19th century French, the other early 20th century Dutch. Both were shaped with a miraculously calming sense of proportion, a deeply satisfying fitness to their purpose (e.g. lighting), and executed to perfection by master craftsmen who’d spent years mastering their manual skills. Thus, in paying for my lamps I paid in part for good materials (bronze) and good workmanship (craft).  But what do buyers of Lamp X pay for? Not good materials, certainly, as plastic comes in only one grade; nor for good craftsmanship (it’s machine bent). Ergo, it would appear that they paid instead for… well, the designer’s lifestyle – to finance his fast cars and numerous girlfriends. Lamp X, like every single item in my dentist’s waiting room, has that economic structure: uselessness, cheapness of material and process + a high mark-up for the marketer.  Economically, these things made a lot less sense from the point of view of the buyer than my lamps – but a lot more sense from the point of view of the seller!  (The seller is in fact bilking the buyers).

Of course, in buying my lamps I also acquired something else:  pleasure.  For years to come, every time I wake up in the morning and look up I will experience the calming pleasure of looking at a beautifully proportioned object.  Does the modern buyer buying an edgy product – Lamp X, square toilet, uncomfortable, unstable chair – get pleasure out of it?

This is the crucial point of this post. 

I suppose there are three schools of thinking about it:

1) Yes, they like it.  It makes them feel comfortable to sit in odd positions, be jabbed in the kidneys, be jerked by ambient TV noise, and look at odd-shaped lamps made out of bent aluminum and plastic. 

2)  They don’t care either way.  They don’t notice the ugliness and discomfort.  They can work 16-hour days, sleep standing on the subway, and work undisturbed by the throbbing rhythm of techno.  They install in their bedrooms and living rooms whatever comes to hand, whatever is in the shop.

3)  Yes, they experience pleasure, but it is qualitatively different from mine: it is not the pleasure of interacting with a well-made, well-proportioned, purpose-fit object; but a pleasure of a different sort:  the pleasure of owning something edgy and with-it, perhaps?  Meaning, perhaps, of owning something famous and popular, owning something, in other words, because others know it?  It is a kind of pleasure by substitution, a vicarious pleasure:  enjoying oneself through the eyes of others?  (Yes, it is a Gucci bag, you did notice, did you not?)

Whether you accept the former or the latter theory,  you are in fact adopting the other mind theory which you have seen here before – that the modern consumer is a genetically different animal from me (us?), evolved over millenia in the nether reaches of the social structure where radically different life meant radically different selection pressures, and only recently come to the fore as a result of the economic revolution of the last 100 years or so. Not enough time for evolution to take place:  they bring with them to the affluent decision-making process genetic inclinations unsuited to the task.

Americans can paint (when they put their mind to it)

Thyssen - Street in Nassau

At first, the Old Masters collection of Thyssen-Boremisza in Madrid disappoints.  It can hardly do otherwise:  the expectations set up by the famous pieces they hold — a Claude, two Bronzinos, a Velvet Breughel, a Carpaccio — are so very high.  But the collection suffers from the “late-arrival” syndrome:  by the time collection-gathering swung into full tilt, the best pieces had already been permanently taken off the market: as a result, with the exception of the handful famous pieces everyone already knows about, T-B is full of minor masters, and very minor works by the great masters, and even minorer ones only attributed to them — usually not very convincingly.  (It’s supposed to have an important post 1900-collection, but how on earth would I know anything about that?)

The museum does contain a wonderful surprise, however: a large collection of late 19th century American academic landscapes — which are very good indeed.  If it weren’t for the topics, you’d swear these were 17th century Dutch.  This is perhaps the greatest pleasure one can experience in a museum:  to discover something completely new and unheard of.

Thank you, Miss T.

PS. If, like me, you are new to this world, here are a few names for you:  William Bradford , John Frederick Kensett , Frederic Edwin Church , Albert Bierstadt , William Trost Richards.

Thyssen - Trout catchers

thyssen - morgenstern

Thyssen - tropical landscape

Thyssen - Blue Ridge

Thyssen - Nicaragua

Thyssen - Labrador

Seaside with lighhouse