Tuesday, April 30, 2013

(Very Nearly) Red in Tooth and Claw

There was beauty visible on the hill, and ugliness and strangeness and majesty, and life and colour and darkness, and terror. The valley was beautiful, the trees and the flowers were beautiful, the towering slopes in the distance were beautiful, the city that lay on their foothills was majestic, the factory below it was ugly, the sky was both light and dark, the birds and the insects made aesthetically neutral noises, and the barking of the dogs was terrifying.

Anywhere in the world, any place and any time, is like that, a mix, a mess of stimuli, of responses, of emotions, of sensations, of colours and shapes impossible to resolve beyond a certain level of detail, leaving a confused sense of peace or discomfort or depression, of uplift depending on the dominant tones. If there is a discernible beauty you may count yourself lucky, otherwise you try going somewhere else.

The barking of the dogs was terrifying because it was getting closer and there was still no sign of them. In a few seconds they would appear from over a ridge or behind a tree or a rock and only then would we know what their intentions were and which direction to run in and how long we had to do it. They appeared. There were two of them.

They were long and rangy, light-haired and damp-toothed. Their eyes were not evil, just business-like. They had a job to do, keeping the country free of creatures that smelt as though they didn’t belong. But their business involved fear, and possibly blood.

We kept walking. It would probably have been worse to run. We kept calm and a casual rhythm. They smell fear, it is said, so we tried to control our pheromones, tuning them to essence of confident mastery. The kind of thing you learn in primary school.

We wondered idly- we had nothing else to do, after all- whether they would remain a couple of feet behind us barking until we were far enough from their territory for them to relax a little, or would speed our departure in the primitive fashion of their kind. It was a question of some importance for a few seconds. When you’re 6’2”, you wish the dog behind you wasn’t exactly 3’1”.

I wish we’d been bitten. It would have made a better story. It would have had an ending. But the truth is that after 50 yards or so the dogs fell back, and their barking faded to the distant warning it had been when we first heard them. It was at that moment that a group of roe deer crossed the path twenty feet ahead of us, moving smoothly and silently as though projected on the forest background. The beauty had returned.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Gentlemen are Speaking Well of the Gorgonzola

I have heard recently a number of people, who do things related to cultural psychology, literary studies and the artier bits of 'neuroscience', discuss the idea that we like reading or hearing stories because they help us to develop theory of mind. The lecturer in Spanish theatre said that this applied specifically to literary novels, and in a way defined them and set them apart from popular novels, because they expose the empathy between the characters and help us to share it. Thus we grow in an important social skill.

There are clearly other motives for telling and listening to stories.  Whether this is an important one will be determined only by a lot of work in neurobiology, serious anthropology and psycho-linguistics, and we won't have an answer quickly, but the idea has some promise. I cannot comment except to say that I await the results of research with interest.

I was explaining abstract art in 1ºA ESO this morning (12-year-olds). That class can be lively, and they were today at first. I spoke for nearly ten minutes about the distinction between representational and abstract painting, compared it with the use to which elements are more traditionally put in music, and illustrated it with just a couple of slides. Most of this was in English. In some classes I have done it all in English. There was not a sound. Wrapt, they were. It happens that way sometimes. In fact, I know how to exploit it, I've been doing this a long time. Sometimes I tell stories to 6-year-olds, in English, who respond in the same way.

It is clear that they do not understand the whole story. What I was telling them today was not even really a story, and I am by no means an expert in the history and psychology of art. They responded, however, as though a great drama was being played out before them, one so absorbing that they could only hold their collective breath and wait for the ending. And it was true. That drama was me.

More than the words of the story, the drama was my tone, the music of my voice, my body language, the atmosphere that they themselves were unconsciously involved in creating. It is a curious thing to be part of. There is much more to story-telling than stories.

Friday, April 26, 2013

On Nudity

Update: In the comments, Vincent points out that this post is badly in nearly of illustration. Although I am told that it is possible to find pictures of naked women on the Internet, I have added some here to give artistic coherence to the post (Never Knowingly Artistically Incoherent, me).

A Quick Sketch

I have spent a couple of afternoons trying to find a nude to draw. I first looked at Greek statues and eventually decided that there was no actual nude that was what I was looking for. Then today I tried modern photos in diffetent styles. Again I found nothing that wanted me to draw it, but I was struck by the variety of results of applying imagination to the representation of the human form. Not for the first time, I fell to thinking about it all.

The Original
Flesh in Stone, by the Genius of Bernini
There is great beauty in the human body. And great possibility. Despite the great beauty and plasticity of many animals, there is much in the human body that is, or can be, superior to them. One reason is simply the lack of hair, which allows the details of flesh texture and muscle tone and form to be clearly seen even at rest. The ability to be conscious of one's own body, to control its movements in detail, to conceive them with knowledge of how observers will react to them and to present them in a specific context independent of the movements themselves. There is also the important point that the lack of hair allows the play of light and shadow to exist, to be refined and exploited. The animality of the human body is more clearly visible than in other animals.

Naked Flamenco
Then there is the fact that we know and understand the human body, its functions, sensations and responses, far better than those of other animals. And then there is sex. We don't think of want cheetahs sexually.

But sex is not necessarily an important part of this perceived beauty, or even any part of it. I can see beauty in the male as well as the female form. On the other hand, it does appear that the female form is intrinsically more beautiful than the male. Women who appreciate beauty seem to agree with men on this. A beautiful woman is a beautiful thing. A man's beauty cannot so easily be appreciated by other men. Nevertheless, the beauty of the human body is not limited to the female.

Roman, not Greek, but one of the best
Nor is it limited to the young and well-formed. In many kinds of dance the performers tend to be youngish and slimmish, but then many forms of dance are too demanding for the old and fat. Some forms do allow for this. Flamenco rhythms are often danced to by old women. When it is well done, with skill and duende, not only the dancing but the women themselves become beautiful.

I remember a story I once heard about Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, in which he cried because he had seen an artist capable of making a chaste Venus. The story was probably apocryphal, carefully crafted to illustrate a point, as so many of the stories he told were, but it means, at the very least, that he thought it could be done, and that it was important.

Looking at pictures of attractive naked women purely- as it were- as beautiful objects, or the subjects of beautiful images, rather than as objects of male enquiry, is very interesting and instructive. The curiosities of anatomy, the signs of life lived and suffered, the differences that exist between what you may think of, at first glance, as similar examples of the Standard Pretty Girl, the ways in which the human body can be twisted, distorted, lit up, perceived, conceived, expressed and impressed. Their is apparently unlimited potential for teh creative mind to find new and beautiful ways to show it to us. I like this fact.

It is possible that that drawing will never be made. These reflections will have to stand in its place.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Language is Communication, and Communication Will Never Die

Man as a species loves to communicate. Without more or less constant communication we would literally not be human. Language is primarily, overwhelmingly, used to create and maintain social relationships, day by day, minute by minute. It is what we do. Most, the enormous majority, of what we say to each other communicates no information that would be useful or recognisable to anyone outside the conversation. It exists to oil the cogs of the social machinery, which rust very quickly indeed without it.

It is not possible to say that language evolved through selective pressure on well-maintained social relations, but it was almost certainly important from the beginning.

Mr Facebook, Mr Twitter, Mr Google and others, including Mr Bell, not to mention the whole of Hollywood, have made a lot of money by betting that we would swallow anything that gave us something to talk about, however insignificant in itself, and any new means of talking.

Regular Facebook users can have hundreds of 'friends', many of whom they have never met, and with whom they do not share a common culture, country or native language. This blog and a million blogs and websites, are written for anyone who might want to read them.

The new possibilities for communicating with people of whose very existence we would not have been aware even 20 years ago is creating new problems with language... Which the great majority of us solve effortlessly. Because that is what humans are good at. To overcome barriers to communication, to successfully employ a strategic competence, as the theorists say, is as natural to us as beathing, and it is why apparent changes in the way a particular language is used are not going to stop us from talking to each other.

And in many cases it is in our economic interest to communicate well, or we have some other reason not directly related to the love of communication per se. We want to get on with someone, get to know them, impress at a job interview, keep a client, teach a class or give a speech well, calm someone down, win an argument, get permission to do something… All of this can be usefully done by using the skill we have in social communication. Yes, some are better than others, practice and experience make you better, but in general, we, as a species, are very good at this, and at learning to do it when we encounter a new situation.

Lovers of elegance, of balance, of that beauty of form and structure in language so hard to define but so easy for the discerning to recognise, lovers of specific forms of linguistic, prosodic, phonetic or cultural purity in language, lovers of a familiar idiolect, known from childhood and crafted by experience and study, will, no doubt, continue to be dissappointed by the great mass of humanity. But while we love to communicate, we live to communicate, language will only change; it will neither die nor decay.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


Sigüenza is a city in the north of Guadalajara, on the banks of the Henares.  A strange city.

Guadalajara itself is a strange kind of place. The eponymous provincial capital is the sort of place that no one has ever been to, or comes from, and the province is now a part of the Autonomous Community of Castilla-La Mancha, despite having no historical connection to it. When Spain was carved up into Autonomous Communities with their own parliaments and the rest of it, in the late 70’s, the motivation was to recognise the historical identity of Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque Country. The rest of Spain wasn’t so easy to partition. Andalucia was fairly clear, and so was Valencia, I suppose, but there were lots of areas that didn’t have any obvious boundaries, or that appear to fit anywhere in particular.
León was put into Old Castille, Murcia and Cantabria were given their own identity, and no one had any idea what to do with the Alcarria. It would have been ridiculous to make it a community in its own right, Old Castille was quite big enough, and Madrid’s dignity required that it not be lumped in with another area, even though they are more closely linked historically speaking. On the other hand, the Alcarria is defined to a certain extent by not being Madrid. So the least absurd solution turned out to be to put it with Castilla-La Mancha. That, in any case, is what was done.

So I found myself last week in a city of only 3,000 inhabitants with a monumental Gothic Cathedral of a size and grandeur that comes quite a surprise, with a dozen or so side chapels and an impressive structure in the centre bounded by a rectangle of carved stone to the ceiling and panelled with sculpted wood, contained the barred high altar and the facing choir stalls, in the high mediaeval tradition. And this, despite being central to the history of Castille, is politically part of the same Community that I live in, 300 miles to the south.
The city/village of Sigënza has a castle on the top of the hill, a walled mass of mediaeval streets jus

t below it, and a complex of rundown Baroque streets nearer the river. It has five churches of varying age and architectural interest, two convents, one of which makes and sells excellent chocolate, and a modern area which is still growing. It also has a railway station because, in the late 19thC, it seemed that it was still a place that mattered.
Everything worth seeing there can be seen in a day, and our intention was to spend another couple of days walking in the hills and through the surrounding villages. There are several villages within a few miles, and I do mean villages, where only a few dozen people live, with castles and one with a mediaeval wall 20 feet high, for no apparent reason, as there’s really nothing to protect.

And a river valley with a burbling stream, with spring colours, overhanging rocks and eagles and vultures circling overhead. We were chased by dogs at one point, and if they ever get together with the birds there could be trouble.

A pleasant few days. It rained a bit, in fact it hailed twice, once just after we lost the dogs, but as I say to Mrs Hickory at such times, ‘Rain is a state of mind.’ She doesn’t always look convinced. Anyhow, photos.