Tuesday, July 7, 2009

New reads

Few things make me happier than antique furniture, especially wooden furniture. The aging of its finish, the silkiness of its texture, the unique details that mark its craftsmanship--all of these are very satisfying to me. Furniture as a process, a product, and a beloved possession fascinates me. In museum collections, furniture ranks a close second to textiles as objects that are valued for their intensely personal associations. Reflecting their owner's tastes, income, accessibility, and needs chairs and tables and beds and boxes and wardrobes hold some wonderful secrets.

But what about the raw materials? The wood that makes up these objects can be as precious is just as important as the finished project. Roger Deakin, a prominent environmentalist now deceased, wrote a book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, in celebration of what he called the "fifth element." I picked it up today, and am eager to read it. I hope it will give me not only appreciation for the raw material, but suggest some new ways to interpret wood in the museum setting.

I'll let you know how it goes!

And...just for fun: Who Owns Antiquity by James Cuno. With all the news of the Codex Sinaiticus this week, seems like a good time to brush up on some antiquities trade laws.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Brave New World

If the purpose of great literature is to teach, enlighten, and give birth to new ideas, Huxley certainly achieves it in his prophetic masterpiece Brave New World. The creation of such a morally and culturally abject society sends a very powerful message that must be adhered to now. That society seems to be a veritable utopia of peace and stability, but what is Huxley trying to make the readers see about their own life and times? Huxley presents several facets of existence that are valued and lauded and shows how they may defeat their own purposes. Science, art, and morality must be carefully controlled.

Science and technology--the apparent foundation for modern life--comes under intense scrutiny in Brave New World. Mustapha Mond, World Controller of Western Europe, sums up the role of science in a very succinct statement: "our science is just a cooking book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody's allowed to question." Huxley's very apt statement forces readers to see that science is the ultimate contradition. At the Inventions Office, officials are swamped with ideas, yet experiment has shown that science does not always work. The Alpha Double-Pluses in Cyprus engage in civil war, and the four-hour work day is Ireland produced dissatisfactio and a larger addiction to soma. Science is also repressed: an island colony is populated with those "free thinkers" who, because of scientific thinking, are exiled for the sake of the science of stability. At this point, Huxley urges the readers to see that while technology is important, it may become destructive and "undo its own good works."

Art, likewise, has been banned. High art,--meaning beauty, imagination, and creativity--has been repressed for the sake of stability. What produces stability? Lack of confusion, passion, and emotion are the cornerstones of stability. John's idea of beauty and utopianism are found in the words of Shakespeare. To him, plays like Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest reveal the heights and depths of conflicting passion and sorrow--the essence of humanity. In BNW, they have been banned because they are not understood. They do not make one "feel good"; they confuse the people. true to existentialist philosophies, these "goats and monkeys" can only understand something like Othello if they have a basis for comparison. Obviously in their sexophonic, feely-centered society, they do not. Keep art alive, cries Huxley because that keeps man in touch with his humanity and the beauty of possibility.

Morality, likewise must be kept alive because, along with art, it is the greatest link to man's humanity and his spiritual immortality. A society intended to carry out "Community, Identity, Stability" must have an engendered sense of truth, respect, and duty, as well as a sense of right and wrong and self-control. There is no gain, no "hope of eternal reward of punishment," and no point, really, to acting morally. When the Savage says, "But you don't do either. Neither suffer nor oppose," he has grasped the entire existentialist philosophy of Mustapha MOnd's world: if death is the ultimate end, and no afterlife being definite, why not "get while the getting's good"? Huxley champions morality when he, through the Savage, "claims the right to be unhappy...the right to grow old and ugly and impotent."

A true utopia would neither flaunt nor repress humanity. Therefore, Huxley left his readers on the eve of the Atomic Age with this thought: Are we willing to give up our passions, our joys, our sorrows, misfortunes, and defeats for simple stability? We cannot allow science to erase art and morality merely to make ourselves happy! Huxley drives home his point with "O, brave new world that has such people in it." To his readers, he warns, "Take a look around and open your eyes, before humanity ends up like 'the hardest granite.' Do not allow the scarlet blobs of sealing wax to surround and stifle our humanity, instead of allowing the waterdrops of humanity to erode us until death."

Thursday, January 1, 2009

To start with a poem

Finished Gilead on Tuesday morning, about 1:00. It was a deceptively smooth book, and I am worried that I will miss something by not letting it
"percolate" a little longer, as Mrs. L. was wont to say. More to come on it very soon. About halfway through Gilead, I found myself chasing a partial poem down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. It was one of my favorite poems, written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who I keep running into around corners. "My Heart, Being Hungry" defines the not-always-bitterness that accompanies physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual solitude and what is precious about loss when the solitude is broken.

My Heart, Being Hungry
My heart, being hungry, feeds on food
The fat of heart despise.
Beauty, where beauty never stood,
And sweet, where no sweet lies
I gather to my querulous need,
Having a growing heart to feed.

It may be, when my heart is dull,
Having attained its girth,
I shall not find so beautiful
The meagre shapes of earth,
Nor linger in the rain to mark
The smell of tansy through the dark.