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Pointed Speech

It’s enjoyable to watch a young, talented writer develop in real time. Marc Barnes—better known to many as Bad Catholic—has started a new blog, moving from his former virtual home at Patheos. He’s back at it with his usual provocations and profundity—and though still a year shy of drinking age, he’s rounding out and deepening like a promising whiskey.

Language makes reality present to us in a properly human manner, calling it out of the murky world of sense-experience (which we share with the animals) and into the light of the intellect (which distinguishes us from the animals). […]

Who has not had this experience, that a newfound word or phrase sheds new light and brings new aspects out of the thing, really improving our experience of it, revealing that our previous, now-inadequate word was really clouding the nature of the thing described?

[…]

We will have a linguistic arsenal. It is inevitable. We will have a vocabulary and a mode by which we capture and encapsulate the flow of our life-experiences and re-present them to ourselves as objects in the light of our intellect. It is the very nature of the human mind to experience reality in the light of linguistic meaning. The question, then, is not whether you will permit yourself to be dissolved into a language, but what you will permit that language to be.

The rest can be found here.

09:31 pm: philokales

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The Art of Play

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"Students in my history of architecture course are amused to discover that the final exam offers a choice of questions. Some are bone dry (“discuss the development of the monumental staircase from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, citing examples”) and others deliberately open-ended (“General Meade overslept at Gettysburg and the South has won the Civil War; you are commissioner for the new national capital and must tell us which architects you will choose and what instructions you will give them.”) In offering this whimsical range of options, I do nothing original; my own professors at Haverford College did much the same in their day.

But a peculiar thing has happened. When I began teaching twenty-five years ago, almost all students would answer the imaginative question but year in, year out, their numbers dwindled, until almost all now take the dry and dutiful one. Baffled, I tried varying the questions but still the pattern held: Given the choice, each successive cohort preferred to recite tangible facts rather than to arrange them in a speculative and potentially risky structure. In other respects, today’s students are stronger than their predecessors; they are conspicuously more socialized, more personally obliging, and considerably more self-disciplined. To teach them is a joy, but they will risk nothing, not even for one facetious question on a minor exam.”

—from "Children Who Never Play", Michael J. Lewis, First Things

via Drew Summitt

Image: Laughing Angel with Tourists — Western Portal, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, France (August, 2014)

12:09 pm: philokales1 note

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Anamnesis Presents: The Transcendence of Light

Anamnesis is pleased to announce our second event this Saturday, September 6th, entitled “The Transcendence of Light: Presenting What We Cannot See”. Coinciding with Nashville’s First Saturday Art Crawl, the event will be held in the basement of St. Mary’s Catholic Church downtown, and is free and open to the public. 

Beginning at 6 p.m. with refreshments and socializing, at 6:30 p.m. a talk will be given by Dr. John Glass (from UT Martin) on Allen Tate’s last formal poem ‘The Buried Lake’, a poem about spiritual conversion. As Dr. Glass writes,

Tate faces the Christian artist’s greatest challenge—the presentation of divinity. How Tate manages this, places his poem alongside two other works of art—Dante’s Paradiso, and Piero della Francesca’s 15th century fresco “The Resurrection,” which has repeatedly been called ‘the greatest picture in the world.’

In their presentation of transcendent light all three artists reveal with particular beauty both the limits of human expression and the capacity of the human imagination to grasp what we may know but cannot see.”

Immediately after this talk, at 7 p.m. a few works will be shown by local artists around this same theme. Alongside this event (also in St. Mary’s basement gallery) will be an exhibition of the iconographic work by this month’s featured artist, Nan Kennedy.

Please be sure to join us for a memorable evening of viewing, listening, and discussion.

–•–•–•–

Image: Sandro Botticelli

Illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy: Paradiso (Lesson on Transfiguration)

c. 1480-95

metal stylus, pen and ink on sheep’s parchment

03:47 pm: philokales

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David Briggs improvising a Fugue at Saint Sulpice

David Briggs improvising a fugue during communion at the church of Saint-Sulpice, Paris.

07:28 pm: philokales

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07:26 pm: philokales

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Visiting a late Baroque-style parish church might seem a strange way to begin a pilgrimage of French Gothic cathedrals, but due to a crossing of wires with my ride from the airport, I ended up back at the hotel (private rented rooms which are actually part of a local seminary) a good bit later than the three friends I was to meet up with, and so missed out on the late morning’s scheduled visit to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris. 

Hoping to catch up on a bit of sleep after the all-night flight, I lay down for a nap, but was after an hour or so awakened by the knocks and voices of my wire-crossed friends on the other side of the door. After catching up for a few minutes in a jet- and nap-lagged haze, I changed into my street clothes, after which Byron, Bryce and I headed out for a walk and a coffee at a cafe just across from the church which gave the neighborhood its name: Saint-Sulpice.

This 17th-18th century church is one of the largest in Paris, second only to Notre-Dame. It is named after the 7th century St Sulpicitus the Pious, historian of St Martin of Tours.

Entering the church one almost feels as though one has stepped into a black and white photograph. The color-drained marble is pleasingly abstract, and with the exception of some warm wood tones (such as the organ) and the more Baroque and expressionistic elements (particularly the frescoed dome of the Lady Chapel), the overall feeling is that of strong, cool, neoclassicism. The clerestory windows punch barrel vaults into the barrel vaulting of the ceiling, spilling out pools of light. No pointed windows or groin vaulting here, thank you very much. The pilasters (flat, partial columns which are set into walls) are ancient Greek and Roman details, brought back to us by Michelangelo and the mannerists of the Italian Renaissance.

A brass meridian line runs down part of the floor of the church, terminating at a large white obelisk. It does not, as sometimes been thought, coincide with the meridian of the Paris observatory, but is a gnomon installed in the 18th century by the church’s parish priest, as a way of marking absolute astrological time so that bells may be rung at proper moments in the day. The sun ray strikes a particular point on the floor at 12 noon on the winter solstice, and another point at the equinoxes. Perhaps it was this whiff of Science and Reason which led to the church being commandeered as a place of worship for the “Supreme Being”, while Christianity was under suppression during the French Revolution.

The main organ of the church was reconstructed and improved in the 18th century by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and is thought to be his master work. The church has enjoyed a long line of renowned organists, including (from 1934 to 1971) the composer Marcel Dupré. The German-French philosopher, theologian, organist, and physician Albert Schweitzer called the organ the most beautiful-sounding in the world.

I was only to learn of this rich musical heritage later. In our brief visit, the predominant sound was the low hum of visitors making their way slowly through the interior. A group of the faithful was gathered in chairs under the frescoed dome of the Lady Chapel, in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. 

As we spilled onto the street in this world without end, a beggar was sitting in the entryway as the last low light bounced up off cool marble steps. We headed back to the seminary quarters for mass in the building’s private chapel—one of the benefits of counting a Catholic priest among one’s traveling companions.

After mass we walked back through the neighborhood in search of dinner. We settled on a tiny restaurant, half of which was taken up by a few tables of black women—a group visiting from Africa?, we wondered, until their accents began to drift our way. Waiting for our dinner while starting in on the wine, our Father Jaspers was approached by one of the women in the group. With a lowered voice and a weary smile she looked at him and said, “Will you pray for me? I’m leading all these women here from Alabama this week, and I’m just not sure that I’ve got the strength.” 

After dinner we headed back to our quarters in need of a good night’s rest. The next morning would find us making our way to the church where the Gothic style was born: the Abbey (now Cathedral) of Saint-Denis.

09:30 pm: philokales1 note

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Translation Guides

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One of the travesties of travel is that we tend to learn more about a place after we have visited, than before. How much better to arrive with depth of knowledge and ready framework, ready to be brought to life by our awaited encounter with the building, place, or city!

But perhaps there is something natural in this phenomenon. We tend to learn more about a person after our initial meeting, than before. It is the initial encounter which provides the framework to be filled in later, rather than the other way around.

Architecture, perhaps more than any other art form, loses something from being encountered in ways other than in person. While there is of course no substitute for spending time in front of a large-scale oil canvas, still its book-bound reproduction is, formally speaking, barely even a translation: both original and copy exist in the comfortable kinship of two dimensions. 

Sculpture suffers a bit more than painting from a two-dimensional reproduction, but one can only view sculpture from a single angle at a time—and the camera views it in this same way. Sculpture also tends to be on a smaller scale than architecture, and can be more easily caught by a camera without the distortions of parallax as the camera struggles to fit a great building into its tiny lens, or to find its view within the confines of a tiny room.

The history of music recorded “in kind” (in sound, rather than notation) is less than a century old, but giant leaps have been made even during this short time. Even a medium-fi system can bring us at least somewhat close to the experience of the concert hall or club, if we dim the lights and use a bit of imagination. In recorded music playback, the loss of the “third dimension” of space is more subtle than the loss of the third dimension in architecture.

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Though we can learn much from pouring over monographs of architecture—translations in words, pictures, plans and sections—it is easier to do so after we have made our initial encounter with the building itself, after we have felt the compression and release of its entrances and expansions, felt our eyes adjust to its changes in light, felt the set-apartness of its warmth or coolness at mid-day, even noticed (perhaps only subconsciously) the shifting sound of our footsteps as we pass through its angles and surfaces. One only “enters into” a painting, sculpture, or work of music metaphysically. One enters into a work of architecture literally.

Thoreau wrote that he went into the woods in order “to see what it had to teach”, in order to cut away that which was not life, from that which really was. So why did I, when friends invited me on their trek to Paris for a week of day trips to the surrounding French Gothic cathedrals, decide to join? Among reasons such as friendship, the edification which comes from being around three gentlemen who hold years of serious study between them, and my interest in following out the long line of Catholic culture, I wanted to join the trip as part of my aesthetic education. I went to walk those hallowed, columned halls in order “to see what they had to teach”—to better separate the true from the false.

Beauty is the handmaid of Goodness and Truth, and if we listen closely to this third transcendental she will always lead us back to the other two. I went to France in order to be educated by the school of beauty. I went in order to listen to the voice embedded in those stacks of stone, in order to hear the silent praise of the rocks crying out—and in the hope that my voice might better do the same.

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—•—•— Philokales —•—•—

Photos: France, August 2014

Top: Organ, column pier, north transept, Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais

Middle: North aisle vaulting, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen

Bottom: Jamb statues, south portals, Notre-Dame de Chartres

11:14 am: philokales3 notes

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Details: Paris, August 2014

11:01 am: philokales

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Paris, August 2014

French Gothic Cathedral Pilgrimage

Day 1: travel, arriving

09:30 pm: philokales

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Reductions in the Repertoire (Part 1 of 2)

Today I took my bike for a trip to the bank. An event unexceptional enough, except that on most days I would have taken my car. But today was unseasonably mild, and after a longer bike ride yesterday, perhaps I was forming a habit. Nashville in August is usually sweltering, so the last few temperate days have felt like a gift. And a gift should not be neglected.

The bank errand was accomplished all too quickly for the day’s enjoyment, and I wanted to stay on the bike a bit longer, if only for the pleasures of fresh air and exercise, as well as to see if anything interesting was going on in the neighborhood. One of the pleasures of living in a local boom is the frequent surprise of new renovation and landscaping. So on a whim I turned the bike toward an area just wide of my immediate neighborhood, into a part of Inglewood which I’d never explored. I was soon coasting down a hill past lovely houses, perhaps a decade older than my neighborhood of 50s ranches. I was enjoying the rolling hills, the attractive houses, the well-kept landscaping, and the rush of the air through my clothes as I glided under the shade of mature, covering trees.

I found myself on streets I’d never been, running into a connecting corridor I didn’t know existed, and I began to feel as though I were in another part of town—even another town altogether. There was the fresh and light feeling of being a tourist. I saw a Craftsman-style infill house going up from scratch, and older homes being expanded or maintained. For a moment I stopped to speak with a weeding woman, to ask the name of the large oak-leafed shrub in her yard.

We naturally think that advances in technology will deliver advances in our scope and experience. The automobile can take us to places we would not otherwise reach, or take us more frequently to places we would reach less often. In a word, the automobile increases our scope and experience. Or so it would seem.

And yet, having lived in my neighborhood for over seven years, I’d never really noticed that rambling and charming section until I came across it by bike this morning. Because I was using a less advanced piece of technology, I had an experience which was both richer in sensation and (ironically) larger in scope than if I’d used the more advanced, farther-reaching technology of the car.

This very small example illustrates a one of the paradoxes of the contemporary condition: advances in technology promise experiences which are larger and more far-reaching, but these same advances may have the unintended consequence of keeping us from a more intimate knowledge of things which are small and near.

I’ll continue with this theme in Part 2 of this series (which will place into context the cryptic title).

–•–•–•–

06:43 pm: philokales3 notes

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