Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Medieval Man

Burgundian miniature, ca 1460
"Medieval man thought that truth had been revealed to him, so that he was spared from its wild pursuit; the reckless energy that we give to seeking it was turned in those days to the creation of beauty; and amid poverty, epidemics, famines, and wars men found time and spirit to make beautiful a thousand varieties of objects, from initials to cathedrals... we thank a million forgotten men for redeeming the blood of history with the sacrament of art."
~WIll Durant, The Age of Faith

Monday, February 4, 2019

From a Window

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically

as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close

to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit

that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind

haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision

over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

How Bright the Abyss

"Lord, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world—directly, immediately—yet I want nothing more. Indeed, so great is my hunger for you—or is this evidence of your hunger for me?—that I seem to see you in the black flower mourners make beside a grave I do not know, in the embers’ innards like a shining hive, in the bare abundance of a winter tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow. Lord, Lord, how bright the abyss inside that “seem.”"

~Christian Wiman
"My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer"

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Castalian Spring at Delphi

“You say these Naiads are the offspring of a god.  That makes them some kind of spirits, right?  Just another loony Greek myth.”
            “A very old myth,” Dan said.  “Much older than the Greeks.  Springs have always had their resident divinities.”
            This was certainly understandable, I thought.  Cold, thirst-quenching, life-giving water sprouting like a miracle from the dry, rocky earth—what god-fearing goatherd wouldn’t see that as divine?
            Somewhere an owl softly hooted.
            With her arms propped at the water’s edge, Phoebe lowered her face toward the surface of the spring.  She took a short drink, noisily sucking the water.  Then she raised her dripping face and for a long moment stared unblinking at the pond.
            I stopped what I was doing.  Dan remained silent.  Had she seen something there, hidden in the spring, or was she caught by her own reflection?  We watched her and waited, and neither of us spoke.  There was something magical about her, kneeling by this primeval pool in the dark.  Her pale arms and face, ghostly in the starlight, reflected on the undulating mirror of the pond.  An aura of stillness surrounded her.  Along with the unceasing trickle of the spring, we could hear the sporadic flutter of wings echo off the rocky walls above us.  The place was suffused with an atmosphere of timelessness, with Phoebe the beating heart of it, as if she were some living token of its past.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

It's Alive!

Poster for 1931 movie of "Frankenstein"
with Boris Karloff as the monster
Paul Cantor explains how Mary Shelley's monster  tramples over the supposed line between high culture and pop culture: 
"I am not trying to lower our opinion of Frankenstein but to raise our opinion of popular culture. Or rather, I want to question the simplistic distinction between high culture and low. Just because a work grows out of or is in some way related to the commercial world does not mean that it is inferior in artistic quality. The great example of this truth is William Shakespeare. He was the most popular playwright in the commercial theater of his day, but of course he was at the same time the greatest dramatic artist.
Engraving by Lynd Ward
for a 1934 edition of "Frankenstein"
"[...] Culture is not neatly divided into different and unrelated media or separated into spheres of high and low, hermetically sealed off from one another. Rather, in a real culture (and not an academic abstract mapping of it), the high and the low inter-penetrate, giving life to each other, and the various media interact in complex patterns.
"Accordingly, one may find great art in the oddest of places, even in the ghoulish story of a misshapen creature turned loose upon the world. High art can grow out of elements of popular culture, and can in turn inspire popular culture to new forms of creativity. Culture is chaotic. It results in artistic order, but not always in an orderly fashion. And that makes culture fundamentally unpredictable."

Saturday, November 17, 2018


Every screenwriter, playwright or novelist will have at some point been advised to read Aristotle's Poetics, his famous treatise on dramatic theory. I read it several decades ago, and aside from the classic three-act structure, the main thing I remember is this simple formula I distilled from it:
Logic + Surprise = Wonder
It's the essence and the payoff of any great story (or any other magic trick, for that matter). As the last and the best of the ancient playwrights put it:

"Many things are wrought by Zeus in Olympus
And heaven works much beyond human imagining
The looked-for result will fail to materialize
While heaven finds ways to achieve the unexpected.
So has it happened in this our story."

Euripides wrote these lines for the conclusion of three of his tragedies, including his final, and most terrifying, The Bacchae.
Something to keep in mind next time you hear, "Have a wonderful day!"