Golden Calves or Van Goghs?

A couple years ago at the Art Basel Miami happening, an artist named Maurizio Cattelan made waves at an opening press conference, where he gave a speech, duct-taped a common banana to a wall, and then declared this to be a work of art named ‘Comedian’ btw worth $120,000. Incredibly, two editions of it were sold for that price. And then another artistic prankster ate one of the taped bananas. And then common finger-paintings done by children started flying out of the galleries for $75,000 each.

What is going on here? Has everybody lost their minds? Well there’s a lot to unpack. Too much, really, because so much is wrong with this nonsense! I can’t possibly go over in just one day all my objections to things uncovered here. But the first question to tackle, I suppose, is this: “What is art?”

The term ‘art‘ comes to us from the Latin, ‘ars‘. That old Latin word confers a lot. In my Lewis & Short Latin dictionary the entry for ars takes up almost half of a page! (And these pages are in annoyingly fine print that I can no longer read without reading glasses, and the pages are large). Pregnant with so many nuances, the word’s entry is too much a task to cover, but all of the nuances dance around one idea: significant skill at producing something. I can make a taco, but am I a taco artist? Do I truly know that elusive Art Of The Taco?? That’s a bit much to say! Significant. Skill.

An antagonist may say, “Okay, that’s well and good. But still, ‘significance’ contains subjective criteria.” True! Beauty is indeed always in the eye of the beholder. Many more things exist to consider. We can take the example of Mr. Cattelan’s neat little trick with the banana. What did this involve? First, a setting, then a production, and then a language through which others could participate. And towards what end? An influence. Suppose that Mr. Cattelan came into your living room, duct-taped a banana to your wall, and told you he’d just done you a $120,000 service? Wouldn’t you rather have Di Vinci swinging by with a Mona Lisa? You’d call the funny farm on Mr. Cattelan asking them to get down here because there is a madman on the loose. His little gag of ‘Comedian’ — for that is what this is — only works for him in a certain setting, having set everybody up with his prankishness for more deviltry, and then inviting them to get in on the joke. And to what end? What is Mr. Cattelan’s influence with all of this? Why, it’s to make everybody a fool along with him. His ilk impoverishes us all, and in particular true artists, for what if you were a latter-day Di Vinci who showed up to Art Basel Miami with a Mona Lisa, only to find out that pranksters started a run on bullshit and on grade-school refrigerator finger-paintings?

Mr. Cattelan’s endeavor, then, is an usurpation of artists, of art, of artistry itself. The antagonist may counter, “Oh, but can’t you admire the artistry of the gag?” I suppose, but by the same coin will you admire the artistry of a terrorist? What is that difference? What would you call a man who would deploy art against art itself, but an anti-artist? Indeed, a terrorist of sorts! Ultimately always the influence of any artwork is its raison d’etre, its reason for being. Properly, that end needs to be for the good, for truth, for improvement of the soul as its final influence. 

The wily antagonist would then naturally counter, “Oh, but then we only have art that ends in fairy tales and puppies and kittens, the constraint of goodness is too limiting!” But is this a too-narrow conception of the good, the beautiful and the true, for truth includes terror and fear. Grim realities are a part of truth, a part of life, a part of great art. Dr. Johnson reports that the ending of William Shakespeare’s King Lear shocked and upset his very soul to its core, it’s deeply upsetting. What is that play if not one of the very greatest ones that anybody has ever penned? Can we face these truths which tax us and grieve us to bear?

Or, shall we tape bananas upon the wall and call it a day? What kind of damned cop-out is that? 

The wily antagonist might say to us at this point, “But maybe you just don’t understand the artist. Maybe that language of his art, the one you mention, is simply one you cannot hear. But others can!” True, this always a possibility. How many great artists of every type died a pauper racked in misery, only to have their reputations soar to great heights after they had left us? Too many to count!

Vincent Van Gogh is one of these. Did you know that his first fame came not from his paintings, but from his letters? Yes, after his death his letters were published and they became a bestseller. That image of Van Gogh as a stammering madman eager to rip off his own ear in fits of delirium, a man “suffering for his sanity” as Don McLean tells us, is one mostly of legend, not reality. For Van Gogh’s letters reveal a nimble, cogent and skilled mind at work. Those letters are high quality literature all to themselves and are enough to make Vincent notable even without all his paintings.

One of Van Gogh’s aims in these letters was to convince his beloved brother, Theo, that his art was not crap. I don’t know if Vincent ever really found success on that front, but the effort paid off when the public read it. The public now had a language to understand Van Gogh’s artwork and his struggles, and he got a second look. And now equipped to participate in Van Gogh’s art, humanity has raised the man to the empyrean airs of one of the greatest artists of all time.

Van Gogh tells us in those letters, “there is something good in all labor.” And it’s true! Even, I suppose, in taping a banana to a wall. But I am afraid we’d need a better artist than Mr. Cattelan to find that goodness here. Ralph Waldo Emmerson, perhaps! He saw a ploughman in the field and said that act, wordless, by itself, was a prayer. I bet you we could have asked Emmerson to write a poem about taping a banana to a wall and he’d have something! 

But not Mr. Cattelan. He has a golden calf. 

(Below are two instances of artworks that illustrate aspects of art that I’ve mentioned:

  • Significant Skill
  • Setting
  • Production
  • Language
  • Participation
  • Influence

I had hoped initially to go over all of these aspects in greater detail. But not now — perhaps in later posts!!!)

The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript is a 600 year old mystery ! It’s a book written in a strange, unkown language and filled with ornate, intricate illustrations. People have puzzled over what it could possibly be, over what secrets or mysteries it might reveal, over whether it’s an elaborate hoax, or what it is exactly. But most people agree on this, that the book is a beautiful work of art.

 

How can that be? How can a book that no one can read possibly speak to us, what language does it speak that we can understand?

 

But it yet speaks to us, even though the text cannot be understood! We see it immediately as a fine book, and we know “bookness”. This book is the product of great passion and careful work by someone over a long period of time. That strikes us at once. Its illustrations are labored over, containing skill and detail. For even that script which we cannot read, we can see the beautiful form of its calligraphy, we can see the unknown words on their march. These are the footprints of a foreign mind a journey somewhere, recording something.  

 

The Vietnam Memorial

When the design of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memoral was unveiled, enormous controversy erupted. The monument spoke a new language for military monuments. Where was the glory, the heroism, the sacrifice, the sacred duty? Where were all the trappings of triumphalism that mark such things as the Arc D’Triomphe or the Ara Pacis? Where is the art? Initially many Vietnam veterans took offense, describing the design as “a great gash of shame.”

The language spoken by the monument is not obvious, until you participate in the monument. It is indeed a great, black-marble gash in the earth. As you approach it you descend. Your descent into the earth is wreathed by names, thousands of names, over 58,000 names are written in the marble. Just names, they are crying out to you, each one belonging to a brother who lost everything he had in that conflict. You can know each name if you care to look at them all, but you cannot. That task is too overwhelming, for one thing, but also too painful for each new name brings another serving of loss and tragedy to place upon a growing pile.

Most Vietnam veterans have swung their opinion to the opposite of the initial opposition against the monument. It is not the worst war memorial, it is the best one. It is not a great gash of shame, it is a great gash of sacrifice, honor and tragedy, You can walk all around Washington, DC and see all of the many classically styled monuments and buildings, but none of them will touch you and move you like the Vietnam Memorial does.

It is a powerful work of art that seizes you unawares. It has justly inspired other monuments now. 

 

How Did I Miss This?

I didn’t watch the inauguration, I only read Joe’s speech. So that’s how I mercifully missed the poem of one Amanda Gorman, America’s first “Youth Poet Laureate.” Egad, it’s bad! It’s a free verse composition called “Over This Hill” – I think. The CNN article that provided the text forgot to provide the title! 

Free verse poems don’t have regular meter, so their first advantage that leaps to mind is that they must be easier to write. You don’t have to worry about meter nor rhyme!! But in practice free verse poems are exceedingly difficult to write well. You’ve got to have an ear for melody and pattern, even if they aren’t regularly imposed you’ve still got to employ poetic and rhetorical elements. 

Here’s a side-by-side of Gorman’s “Over This Hill” and Walt Whitman’s “This Compost”.

You can tell how badly in trouble Gorman is right off the bat. “When day comes we ask ourselves / where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” umm, from the sun? The day just came, the light finds us. Okay, perhaps that’s a trick and disjoint image to keep in mind strategically! But no. It’s just one in a long stream of disjoint things that follow, discordantly. Even though the title is about climbing a hill, a hill appears only in one line of the thing and randomly. She could have picked any other line. It could have been titled Wading a Sea, or seriously pick any other line. 

Bad Free Verse!

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promise to glade
The hill we climb
If only we dare
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated
In this truth
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future
history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

 

Good Free Verse!

Something startles me where I thought I was safest,

I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv’d,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will
   none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

 

This is fun!

These folks were experimenting with ways to instruct children using stop-motion animation. They took a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and enacted it in Legos! What fun!

In the story, the goddess Diana is bathing and Actaeon the hunter stumbles across her, catching Diana naked. In anger she turns him into a deer, and Actaeon’s own hounds, who cannot now recognize him, devour him. 

VIEW MORE

 

In Metamorphoses, Ovid gives an account of creation and then describes the Ages of Man. Ovid’s creation account is interesting partly because he attributes it to a single, unknown god. Ovid even refers to him as “whichever of the gods this was” (quisquis fuit ille deorum). This god roughly follows the pattern in Genesis, separating the waters from the land, fixing the days from nights, The god creates mankind – so to make a better world, perhaps, says Ovid. Maybe, or maybe not! He leaves the question open.

There’s no Garden of Eden, no Adam and Eve, with Ovid, instead there’s a Golden Age of Man. This was an idyllic scene which is reminiscent of Eden, however. In this age no law existed — it wasn’t necessary. Honor ruled the day. War was unknown, no conquests or even any seafaring. Men were content with what they had around them for abundance was everywhere. Strawberrys picked from mountainsides, honey dripping from boughs, springs were gushing forth milk. Springtime was eternal, men lived unsheltered and even unclothed (it’s said in other sources). This was the reign of Saturn, but he fell and Jove rose bringing with him the seasons and a new age for men, the Silver Age. This brought farming and building shelters and using oxen and other animals. The Bronze Age came next rapidly, and with it introduction of war — yet men were still held by Ovid to be free of wickedness despite this. Lastly the Iron Age came, and with it honor, truth and loyalty gave way to fraud, deceit, treachery, conquest, rape of the earth for gain. Also, like the Hebrews, Ovid’s age here has a legendary race of giants! — and then, like in the bible, thanks to the wickedness of man Jove sends a Great Flood.

Here’s where Law got in through the window, because apparently the need was pressing! It is a striking parallel to 1 Timothy 1:9 which says the law isn’t for the just, but for the wicked. 

Another thing to note is the regression of humanity. Man falls farther away from the divine, farther away from perfection, with every new age, and to wickedness and greater separation. The bible’s stories have that same dynamic. It’s backwards, isn’t, from the mythos that animates the modern man? That one assumes the perfectibility of man. Ovid has openly doubted that and wondered if men bless the world or blight it! And the modern progressive world view assumes an always upward trajectory, always towards that perfection of man. 

 

Well apparently, what you can do in these hard times of unemployment and shuttered economies, is to join the merchant marine! That way, when you get screwed over for the first and millionth time and everyone in between (until tomorrow!), the crimes against you are in your face. It lacks that unnamed subtlety which swirls invisible around the hapless urban fellows, sitting stunned in the thieving fog they grasp against. No, upon the sea we have real pirates, real kidnappers, real nefarious harbor masters keeping ships anchored in limbo forevermore. This seafaring job that nobody wants is back in high demand.

Although last year’s Beethoven ceremonies were put off only to be canceled anew this year, consider the tale of the good ship Mozart!  We have a tale of piracy, of kidnapping, of derring-do, of getting trapped in the high seas interminably over international politics, and of course of avoiding COVID. These are the perils of life upon the seas today!

There’s inspiration in here somewhere. Where is our Melville??

I had never heard of this man, William Cobbett, until I had the recommendation to read his book, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland. How droll a book title, no? But wow, what a book!!! More on that book at another time. Now is the time to puzzle and wonder at the man who wrote it, the incorrigible William Cobbett. 

It’s not often you come across a character as colorful as this. Quickly scan his bio to get a measure, you do not often see biographies this truly wild. In brief, as a young man he joined the Army, but wound up suing his superiors and then fleeing to France  when they retaliated, and straight into the looming French Revolution. So then he fled to America, to Philadelphia, and began a career as a pamphleteer. He was a prickly one, even earning the nickname Peter Porcupine! And so that career got him into fresh trouble, so he fled back to England. More pamphleteering here led to more troubles, so he fled once more to America, to Long Island. From here he would eventually sneak back to England, and somehow secreting the skeletal remains of none other than Thomas Paine! More publishing and politicking resumed, together with several failed attempts to run for Parliament. At last he became elected, but tragically his career in office was a failure and also it seems to have killed him. It was a mistake to quit the fair air of the countryside for that den of thieves!

But through all these travails, Cobbett never lost the sense of his original self. His upbringing was pleasant, as a country boy from Surrey, and his love of the land and of country people and of the goodness of rural society never quit him. He’s most famous today for his book Rural Rides, which recounts his many travels through the countryside. Another book he wrote, The Cottage Economy, also has a large following today from people looking to go “off the grid” and return to simpler, more honest and self-sufficient lifestyles. That was a major aim of Cobbett, and his book is manual for that in his day. But his book on the Reformation is the one I have and wow, it is a doozy!

Cobbett writes in wonderful style, with authority and aplomb. He was a grammarian, so he writes in a high Latinate style that you find more in the 17th and 18th Century English writers than you find in Cobbett’s own day. But Cobbett has a dramatic flair, pulpit-style, and very personal. He is a pleasure to read! And even though the Reformation book is not about country life, Cobbett’s great love and great estimation of it sparkles throughout the text. The pre-Reformation England that he describes is something he longs for, you come to long for it, too. A Golden Age when things were more just, more properly ordered, more attuned to human needs. Cobbett’s book is having a profound effect on me, because of his profound love. 

So in the course of a discussion the story of the Rich Young Man came up somehow. This is the famous story of Jesus from Matthew, Book 19:

The Rich Young Man.

Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said,“ For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” 

This story is often talked about for what it says about soteriology, which is the contemplation about just what are the means by which Christians expect to receive salvation. Here is where we get into the discordant chorus of debates about the Solas — Sola scriptura? Sola fide? Sola gratia? Solus Christus? Soli de Deo Gloria? Meaning, are you saved by scripture alone? or by faith alone? or by grace alone? or by Christ alone, or by the Glory of God alone? And then from the foaming words that swirl about the room, somebody meekly asks, “Well what about works?” and then, well you can imagine. All these things questions are good to contemplate, but please put them all aside.

Put them aside because there’s more to the story, and also because there is more to life than seeking personal salvation. Here the Rich Young Man follow the commandments, the set of rules that good men follow, but does that provide sustainment and succor? Is that enough? The Rich Young Man seems not to think so. He follows the rules but also must perceive something lacking because he asks “What do I still lack?” as he presses the question for the third time! He is impetuous, is he not? He got his answer twice already, but keeps on pressing. The final answer given him is to follow goodness. That is how to overcome his sense of lacking. Christ himself is goodness, as he asserted at the top of the story (“there is only One who is good”). Commitment to the pursuit of goodness is also required (“sell what you have and give to the poor”). 

His situation isn’t unlike Boethius in his cell — pursuit of goodness fulfills what is lacking. 

 

 

Well let’s have a look at Joe Biden’s inaugural speech from today, shall we? First, here’s the background material he used:

Joe’s a neoliberal and with neoliberals you must always keep in mind that they have their own lexicon of words which have totally different meanings than the meanings everybody else uses. It’s rhetorical sleight-of-hand they employ. Here are some of the major words and phrases twisted in the speech and how they are properly defined in the neoliberal sense:

  • democracy — really means ‘oligarchy of neoliberals’
  • unity — really means ‘obedience’
  • sacred, hallowed — really means ‘secular’
  • of the people — really means ‘of the neoliberals’
  • tolerance — really means ‘intolerance’

From here on out, Joe’s words are bolded and in quotes,  then followed by my commentary.

“Chief Justice Roberts, Vice President Harris. SpeakerPelosi, Leader Schumer, McConnell, Vice President Pence, my distinguished guests and my fellow Americans, this is America’s day.” Note it opens with a catalogue.

“This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope of renewal and resolve through a crucible for the ages. America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge. Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded.” Of course this is total nonsense and makes no sense. The man just stole an election, how is this “democracy’s day”? It cannot be, unless you understand the truth that when he says ‘democracy’ he means ‘oligarchy’. And when he mentions ‘will of the people’ he means ‘will of the neoliberals’. No other explanation is possible. 

“We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” Yes, how fragile is oligarchy! And what a feat it was to pull off the steal. The Heist of the Century!

“From now, on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago, violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible to carry out the peaceful transfer of power, as we have for more than two centuries.” Neoliberals are decidedly secular, and in fact in 2012 they infamously removed references to God in the Democrat Party platform. Joe’s quoting the Pledge of Allegiance here with “one nation, under God, indivisible” however a large faction of neoliberals chafe against this God-reference. In fact during the bizarre virtual 2020 Democrat National Convention which nominated Joe, the Pledge was said twice with pointedly leaving out the ‘under God’ phrase. Joe, the elder statesman, has the wisdom to know this is bad politics however. He will continue to invoke the holy and apply it to the secular even though the neoliberals have no use for the former. This is “having your cake and eating it too” — the mother’s milk of politics!

“As we look ahead in our uniquely American way: restless, bold, optimistic, and set our sights on the nation we can be and we must be.” Here’s another catalogue, a triplet of ‘restless, bold, optimistic’. It is weakly presented — what makes these things uniquely American? Furthermore, is ‘restless’ a good thing, why is it a chosen property here? That’s strange! But the entire assertion is so weak that he terminates it with a rhetorical flourish, as if to rescue it. that repetition of ‘be’ at the end is a device called epistrophe. It’s one of the forms of repetition from classical rhetoric, and Joe uses it to buttress and to mask. He’s running two ideas by you, fast and loose. The first is that we have ‘our uniquely American way’ (even though that thought get tellingly slighted) and the second is that our nation, as it exists right now, sucks. Yes! For why else would we have to set our sights on ‘a nation we can be and must be’? Must be? We aren’t good enough for Joe and the neoliberals. Not as we are!

“I thank my predecessors of both parties for their presence here today. I thank them from the bottom of my heart. And I know, I know the resilience of our Constitution and the strength, the strength of our nation. As does President Carter, who I spoke with last night, who cannot be with us today, but whom we salute for his lifetime of service.” This is mostly pablum but oh look at that! Do you see the rhetorical games? Look at this sentence “And I know, I know the resilience of our Constitution and the strength, the strength of our nation.” Look at how he repeats “I know, I know” and “the strength, the strength”, why it’s like an incantation, no? These are two usages of conduplicatio, another technique of repetition from classical rhetoric.  Again Joe is using it buttress and to mask. What’s he masking? The resiliance and strength of the Constitution. After all, he just blew all of that apart when he stole the election.

“I’ve just taken the sacred oath. Each of those patriots have taken. The oath, first sworn by George Washington. But the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us, on we the people who seek a more perfect union.” There is no sacred oath. Have a look at it! I posted a link to it at the beginning of this. The oath is very simple, very spartan, it’s quite shorn of any rhetorical flourishes or pretensions. It’s a secular oath, it’s a promise to uphold the secular agreement arrived at by states. The oath is a promise to keep those things bargained between men. Joe here attempts to load it up with more magical weight than it really has, by invoking ghosts. But also, can you see it? Can you see the rhetorical spells being cast yet again through repetition? “not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us, on we the people”. This is called anaphora, it’s yet another form of repetition from classical rhetoric. Joe uses these various repetitions to pull fast ones.

“This is a great nation. We are good people. And over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we’ve come so far. But we still have far to go. We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities, much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.” The key phrase here is “this winter of peril”, and this passage of the speech has gotten a lot of ink. Joe’s alluding to the COVID crisis here, it is generally said. Why is it linked to “significant possibilities”? Is it peril or possibilities?  Again tho he launches into a catalogue stream of repeated phrases. It’s epistrophe yet again, “much to … much to … much to … much to…” Joe’s masking his plans and buttressing their importance in a rhetorical swirl. 

“Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now. Once-in-a-century virus that silently stalks the country. It’s taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed. A cry for racial justice, some four hundred years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. The cry for survival comes from planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” Here’s Joes catalogue of challenges. COVID, economic loss, racial justice, climate change, and Americans. Note the repetition of “cry”! The ‘cry’ applies to racial justice and then twice over to climate change. These are the two challenges he emphasizes rhetorically, but they are also the two challenges which are, frankly, not solvable. If the neoliberals could solve these two problems (they can’t), they still wouldn’t. Each are too politically valuable! The mendacity and the affronts against decency in the last line there about political extremism and so forth are enough to fill volumes. Let me just observe how disgusting it is, particularly in the wake of nearly one full year of violence in the streets egged on by neoliberals such as Joe.

“To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity, unity.” Look how Joe ends this with a repeition of ‘unity’. This is another rhetorical flourish, it is called epizeuxis in classical rhetoric. And you can see what Joe means about how elusive unity is in a democracy, especially when you take into account that by ‘democracy’ Joe means ‘oligarchy’. But what is this talk around ‘to restore the soul’ of America? America does not have a soul. Countries do not have souls! You have a soul, I have a soul, there is no ‘you-and-me soul’! Joe has been talking about “restoring the soul of America” all along since the beginning of his campaign, though. Nobody knows what that means. Joe doesn’t even know what that means. It’s something he says because it sounds good, and he cannot elaborate on it, because “there is no there there” as Gertude Stein would say (and ah, would you look at that? In light on the rhetorical repetitions I’ve highlighted?). Joe built a campaign vapor and nobody knows what he’s talking about, even Joe. But he does hammer on about unity at the end. What does he mean by unity? We shall see!

“In another January, on New Year’s Day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the president said, and I quote, ‘if my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act. And my whole soul is in it.'” Now this is just bizarre. Joe’s gone down this rabbit hole about the soul of America, and now he’s invoking Abe Lincoln’s soul to save it. I posted above the story about this, here’s in a nutshell what happened. Abe went to sign the Emanicpation Proclamation and he hestitated. And then he concocted this story about how his entire soul was deeply invested in this, so this is why he hestitated — lest anybody think he hesitated!! Yes it is pretty funny actually. And here’s the vapor where Biden chose to stand. 

“My whole soul was in it today. On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward, reward work and rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice and we can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.”  This is the rhetorical summa of the speech. Notice the heavy use of all the ‘We can’ sentences in parallel. This is called isocolon, it’s another technique from classical rhetoric. More spell casting.

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.” Well what do you know Joe’s playing the fool! A stock rhetorical move, but it’s premised here on the shaky assumption that there is greater wisdom in fools. And what does the fool claim but that American history has been the constant struggle of Equality against Reality. He recruits Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence! But this has never been the case. Joe’s being revisionist!

“Through civil war, the Great Depression, world war, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice and setbacks, our better angels have always prevailed. In each of these moments, enough of us, enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward. And we can do that now. History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.” He’s continuing his revisionism, and now sliding in properties of that aforementioned ‘unity’. Apparently Unity is something we’re led to by History, Faith and Reason. Now put History aside because Joe’s a revisionist idiot on this as we’ve seen, and consider Faith and Reason. It is incredible to hear now that suddenly neoliberals are Thomists! How long have we as Christians been dealing with the myths surrounding Gallileo, Darwin, etc and battling this very notion that Faith and Reason are not opposed? How long have we been arguing the opposite? We have been the ones arguing for unity on this, the left has been defiant. He is clearly not talking about any kind of unity as generally understood – as we will continue to see. Look, he says here “We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors” even though here, in this very speech, he has characterized us as “the mob”, “white supremacists” and “domestic terrorists”. Why how neighborly! 

“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. And unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you we will not fail. We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we’ve acted together. And so today at this time in this place, let’s start afresh, all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” Ah, Good Neighbor Joe wants us to put aside the fact that he just disenfranchised America and stole the office, and let’s start afresh! For Unity!!! The terminus of History, Faith and Reason!!!

“My fellow Americans. We have to be different than this. America has to be better than this. And I believe America is so much better than this. Just look around. Here we stand in the shadow of the Capitol dome, as was mentioned earlier, completed amid the Civil War, when the union itself was literally hanging in the balance. Yet we endured, we prevailed.” Ah Neighbor Joe, the ‘fellow American’! He just whipped out his cattle prod with your name on it! You have to “be better than this!” This damned place sucks, “just look around”!  Ah good old neighborly Joe and all that Unity!

“Here we stand looking out in the great mall where Dr. King spoke of his dream. Here we stand, where 108 years ago, at another inaugural, thousands of protesters tried to block brave women marching for the right to vote. And today we marked the swearing in of the first woman in American history elected to national office: Vice President Kamala Harris. Don’t tell me things can’t change.” Change!!! And more History. 

“Here we stand across the Potomac from Arlington Cemetery, where heroes who gave the last full measure of devotion rest in eternal peace. And here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground.” Riotous mob with Buffalo helmets who stormed their own Senate, “the sacredest place” to offer prayer to God! Do they live by you? Are they, God forbid, your NEIGHBORS!

It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever.” Consider the repetitions.

“To all those who supported our campaign, I’m humbled by the faith you’ve placed in us. To all those who did not support us, let me say this. Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America. The right to dissent, peaceably, the guardrails of our republic is perhaps this nation’s greatest strength.” Oh yes. “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. I did hear that somewhere before in an age long forgotten.

“Yet hear me clearly: disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you, I will be a president for all Americans.7 All Americans. And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” Joe’s already demonized everybody he now says he’ll champion. 

“Many centuries ago. Saint Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote to the people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. Defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and yes, the truth.” Pedophiles are a multitude defined by their love of raping children. I think the good Saint Augustine had a lot more to say that Joe isn’t letting on. That work quoted by Joe, City of God, was occasioned by the Sack of Rome that shocked the world and shook confidence in all things temporal and worldly. Yes, the ultimate thing is truth, the saint said, even as the ultimate thing in Joe’s now SECOND or THIRD catalogue of American virtues is also truth. What could be Joe’s truth? Let’s see! 

“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.” Sounds good, don’t it? Who are the liars and what are the lies, Neighbor Joe, Son of Unity? 

“Look, I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand, like my dad, they lay in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering, can I keep my health care? Can I pay my mortgage? Thinking about their families, about what comes next. I promise you, I get it.” Holy Cow. Joe has unexpectedly and suddenly arrived at a concrete and real problem relating to Americans. Yes, how can we pay our mortgages? It is quite thing when large portions of the economy are shut down by fiat from the various governments, destroying any income many receive from the value of their labor. And meanwhile, a predatory rentier class exists whose pound of flesh cannot be denied, can it? No, never! Staring at the ceiling, your NEIGHBORS are, wondering how can they pay their mortgage? Here is an opportunity for Joe! Here Joe has for the first time in all of this spell-casting and rhetorical invocations, identified a concrete problem. What’s he going to do?

“But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like look like you or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here’s the thing about life. There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, when you need a hand. There are other days when we’re called to lend a hand. That’s how it has to be. That’s what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future. And we can still disagree.” Wow it’s a total bust. Despite the opening exhortation that “the answer is not to turn inward”, Joe’s answer is that you should nevertheless do exactly that! Joe’s answer is that you have nobody else to blame but yourself and how dare you? You cannot blame the other, how monstrous! You require a dose of tolerance and humility, boy! Stand in those shoes of your banker (and pretend for a second that you don’t have a discount window to the Fed), and so forth! When you call up Citibank to say, “Citibank, lend me a hand!” be sure to remind them what Neighbor Joe, Son of Unity, has told you today. 

“My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we’re going to need each other. We need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter. We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus. We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as One Nation. One Nation!” More dark winter for Joe. It’s becoming a literary theme for Neighbor Joe, Son of Unity! Note the ‘One Nation’ repetition and desperate invocation. 

“And I promise you this, as the Bible says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” We will get through this together. Together.” Together, together. I hope by this point that I’ve heightened your awareness of the spells they cast, and how to identify them. Repetition is key thing! It’s the major device of rhetoric, spells and also prayers. So look it’s not always bad! But, train your ears! Something is afoot with it. Joe’s quoting a pslam here, you can go read it. It is a pslam from a man who just emerged from Sheol, make of it what you will.

“Look, folks, all my colleagues I served with in the House of the Senate up there, we all understand the world is watching, watching all of us today. So here’s my message to those beyond our borders. America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” Here Joe introduces foreign policy for the first time in the speech. The striking thing is that he does it plainly, with no obvious rhetorical games. This is probably the first thing that he’s said in this speech that he actually believes in, and doesn’t require spells.

“We’ll be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security. Look, you all know, we’ve been through so much in this nation. And my first act as president, I’d like to ask you to join me in a moment of silent prayer to remember all those who we lost this past year to the pandemic. Those four hundred thousand fellow Americans, moms, dads, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, friends, neighbors and co-workers. We will honor them by becoming the people and the nation we know we can and should be. So I ask you, let’s say a silent prayer for those who’ve lost their lives, those left behind and for our country.

A moment of silence occurs, followed by an Amen.

“Folks, this is a time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up? All of us? It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And this is certain, I promise you, we will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.” This is Joe at his most honest point in the speech. There is no guile here. 

“Will we rise to the occasion, is the question. Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world to our children? I believe we must. I’m sure you do as well. I believe we will. And when we do, we’ll write the next great chapter in the history of the United States of America. The American story. A story that might sound something like a song that means a lot to me. It’s called American Anthem. There’s one verse that stands out, at least for me, and it goes like this:” Well that was shortlived. Notice how he picks up with the parallel “I believe” statements, then a strategic rhetorical repetition of the word “story”… cranking it back up to what? Well golly, yet another national anthem!  Most Americans were shocked this year to discover that we had two anthems. Welcome to three!

“The work and prayers of a century have brought us to this day.What shall be our legacy? What will our children say? Let me know in my heart when my days are through. America, America, I gave my best to you.” Those are the lyrics. 

“Let’s add. Let us add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our great nation. If we do this, then when our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say of us: They gave their best, they did their duty, they healed a broken land.” ‘Let’s add’ invocation. I hope you see. 

“My fellow Americans, I close the day where I began, with a sacred oath before God and all of you. I give you my word, I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution. I’ll defend our democracy. I’ll defend America and I will give all, all of you. Keep everything I do in your service, thinking not of power, but of possibilities, not of personal interest, but the public good. And together we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness. A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness. May this be the story that guides us. The story that inspires us and the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history. We met the moment. Democracy and hope, truth and justice did not die on our watch, but thrived. That America secured liberty at home and stood once again as a beacon to the world. That is what we owe our forbearers, one another and generations to follow.” Your eyes should be trained now. Do you see the doublets “I will” leading up to the triplets of “I’ll defend” leading to the chorus of ‘of’s? We have “of power” then “of possibilities” then “not of personal interest” then “of hope, not fear” then, at last: “Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness.” This is the climax. The spell is cast.

“So, with purpose and resolve, we turn to those tasks of our time. Sustained by faith, driven by conviction, devoted to one another and the country we love with all our hearts. May God bless America and may God protect our troops. Thank you, America.” Closes with God blessing America but protecting the troops? What why not protect America too and bless the troops too? what? What kind of disjoint unity can’t actually be Unity?

 

 

Now! At the top of the world! Then now, imprisoned, condemned. What can be learned? Should one even bother to learn now or why not give in to despair? These were the questions of one Anicius Manius Severinus Boethius. Or just “Boethius” as he is known.

He is the Last of the Mohicans in his way. He’s the last of the Ancient Romans, his Latin writings are the last ones we see from the Roman Age. The Roman emperors were already “a thing of the past” when Boethius came along. He became a Roman noble celebrated for his learning, in the service to the famous Ostrogoth King, Theodoric the Great. Boethius de facto ran the place! But from this height he fell out of favor and found himself imprisoned awaiting death.  From here, Boethius uncorked his great literary work, The Consolation of Philosophy. It would become one of the most important texts for the next thousand years. St. John’s Revelations appears at end of the Bible, The Consolation of Philosophy appears at the end of Roman Literature. These two works are each a terminus, and they are both the two greatest and most influential examples in world history of “prison literature”.

Donald Trump along with his 75,000,000 or so supporters track with Boethius. As does the fate of anybody who might call himself today “a Heritage American.” Why? Because of the fall! From such a height to such a depth, from favor and power to isolation and even persecution (don’t dare deny the persecution, neoliberal!). We can learn from the fate and sublime writing of Boethius! 

Prison literature here we come, baby!!! Much ink has been spilt already from St. John’s side and discussions of his text, and much, much more is sure to follow! So let’s talk about Boethius!

The basic concept is simple. Boethius in his cell reaches for his quill and calls upon the poetic muses, those of the arts and of the sensual. But then a woman appears and she is Philosophy, who banishes the passionate muses and nourishes Boethius. Philosophy calls Boethius back to the pursuit of goodness, back to the cause of virtue. 

Forget revenge! Forget your anger! Forget your sorrow! The passions don’t matter and they pass.

Forget riches! Forget power! The worldly things don’t matter.

Pursue goodness and virtue!!! The point of it is, you’ve got to do work on yourself. Empowered with this faith, you set to work on reason. Re-evaluate yourself, re-focus yourself on the good.

Even in a prison cell, even with nothing left to you, you can do this. 

And you must! St. John’s commenters will exhort you to pray. And that is good and well met! But do more. 

Heed Boethius. 

Work on thyself!

Arthur Miller’s famous play, The Crucible, melts together two of the Left’s favorite hobby horses: the Salem Witch Trial and McCarthyism. Rebellion against a harsh, theocratic order by a group of heroic freethinkers is the narrative context of the play. Rebels are heroes, they are in the hot seat or in the crucible, facing the ideological rigidity the enemy.

Everybody can tell you now that these days an inversion is going down. The liberalism of old is melting together with tyranny, changing into today’s rigid neoliberalism. Today the neoliberals are becoming the tyrants placing everyone else in the crucible. Many who languish feverishly in the cauldron perceive the gathering heat and speak of resistance, here and there, in flavors of warfare. One said 3G warfare, the next 4G, and now 5G warfare! Warfare now appears like cell phones!!

All eyes are trained on Donald Trump. He has less than a day to act, from within his own crucible.  Will he submit or fight? The new order is coming, will it be alloyed with the neoliberals or those doomed in the pot as the cannibal stew?