Friday, 29 October 2010

Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610

Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain who build it.
Except the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain
who keepeth it.
It is vain for you to rise before dawn:
rise later, ye who have eaten the bread of sorrows;
When he will give sleep to his chosen.
--From Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, VIII: Nisi Dominus [Psalm 127]

Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 is one of my favourite pieces of sacred and classical music. It is grand, visionary, almost impossibly beautiful in the construction of its harmonious parts. The Vespers (evening prayers), were later converted into the essential components of the Church of England service of Evensong: Psalms sung, hymns, the canticles of Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, each followed by the doxology (of a type presaged in Monteverdi's piece). The Idle Historian, attached to all things nostalgic is, of course, very fond of the ritual of Evensong. Even more so as it has become clear that it is a doomed tradition and that weekly living celebrations in parish churches that have continued unbroken for half a millennium -- on dreary, rainy Sunday afternoons and on pleasant, sunlit summer ones alike - will die out with the older generation. Evensong will, sadly, quite possibly be practised only at places such as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's [pictured] for the benefit of visiting tourists looking for a taste of Ye Olde England.

But this post is not about the decline of religion, but rather the influence of competing religious ideas on that most basic block of time that consumes the human day: work. The question of work, and our attitudes towards it, are historically based. The words listed above, from Nisi Dominus [Psalm 127], reflect the pre-Protestant Reformation view of how work and the Divine Will intersected. In this formulation, it was actually vain and intolerably arrogant to imagine that by long hours of toil one could somehow change one's lot or destiny. The Gospel of Luke tells the parable of the rich man who laboured to build new barns, storing his great wealth in preparation for years of ease -- "But God said unto him, [Thou] fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?" (Luke 12:20) In the Catholic formulation there was work to be done, yes -- but strictly as one was allotted given one's station in life, and no more than was necessary for the individual and community. To attempt to amass wealth was not only discouraged by usury laws and hierarchical constraints, but also by the belief that over-striving was sinful. The Protestant Reformation changed all this, and one does not need to be an historian to be familiar with the ideas in Max Weber's famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to be aware of how entrenched Puritan ideas (most particularly in North America) have combined with the prime value placed on characteristics such as industriousness, thrift, sobriety, and frugality.

Work and its obverse (idleness) would be, by its very title, the prima facie purpose of this blog. Not that the Idle Historian is really all that idle -- idleness is rather a jumping-off point for deeper explorations of the life of the mind, of the nature of modern existence and, yes, a certain amount of contrarianism (even "young fogey-ism"). Modern popular philosopher Alain de Botton, in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, explores the fact that modern work is often more sorrowful than pleasurable - and that we derive meaning in work, essentially, from community and feeling that our efforts contribute to the betterment of the whole in some way.

This question of what makes us happy in work, or the lack thereof, struck me particularly in a recent article in the publication Foreign Policy, "In Praise of Laziness." It deftly combines an exploration of current political flashpoints over work and the retirement age in France, with an historical inquiry into how our cultural antecedents influence the value we place on work and productivity. The author of the article, Robert Zaretsky, relates a unique historical account of a town named Montaillou and of the 14th-century conflict between Cathars in this tiny region of France, and central Roman Catholic authorities at Avignon. Among other areas of disagreement with the outside world, the villagers held certain ideas about property and work which were to be swept away with the advent of a more rigorously hierarchical society in turn imposing its own ideas of social order. Yet the ideas of the Cathars continued to hold sway; indeed, the author points out that "French literary tradition that treats laziness with the gravity and intelligence it deserves."

The values of this vanished world meant that extremes of neither wealth nor poverty were tolerated, and that there was very little crime. If it sounds vaguely, well, "socialistic," it was not a socialism of imposition, but rather of intrinsic values - a certain mentalité. They worked as they needed to in order to live, but no more: "...for the village's shepherds, in particular, wealth was not measured in terms of money, property, or possessions. Instead, a rich life was one filled with travel and daydreaming, conversations and meals with friends." As to the conflict with the centralized church: "There was nothing grand or operatic about this resistance; rather, it was the reflex of a society that did not think it was in need of repair. It was a world where social and class distinctions were largely irrelevant, where neither great wealth nor great poverty was tolerated, where a moral economy grounded in material life and common traditions had little in common with the new world's emphasis on abstract laws and transcendental values."

The article, in telling such a unique story of a "clash of civilizations," suggests that conflicting ideas about the nature of work run deeper than any right/left political, or Catholic/post-Reformation, divides. Clearly not everything was delightful under previous regimes, nor is work today simply reducible to soulless grinding in a giant cog. We certainly cannot live a modern urban life herding sheep and spending the day solely in conversation and sharing a repast with our neighbours. Nor would we necessarily want to - demands of contemporary work also make our lives more diverse and rewarding in many ways. Yet even in the highly industrialized 20th century, philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that individuals needed to work only four hours per day. Many hold to the belief that our ballooning hours of work are needless and fruitless -- contributing only towards ever more illusory ideal of "growth" and ever increasing amounts of environmentally destructive and unnecessary goods and services.

Finally, returning to the theme of religion, Christ emphatically enjoined his followers to be "in the world but not of the world." This means that one must necessarily engage with work, social and community issues, politics, and other areas of daily life with the world as we encounter them. But at the same time, the values one brings to these tasks should be outside the prevailing blights of greed, avarice, and selfishness. It is an injunction that most anyone -- religious or otherwise -- seeking to effect change or bring counter-cultural ideas to bear, will naturally follow to some extent. To find our truest and best selves we step outside the dictates of the world, if not its actual activities. In this way, maybe the lazier habits of a previous world have something to teach us.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Oblomov the Lazy Aristocrat: Courage, Desire, Hope, and the Art of Life

He was painfully aware that entombed within himself there was this precious radiant essence, moribund perhaps by now, like a gold deposit lying buried deep in the rock that should long ago have been minted into coin and put into circulation. This treasure was, however, buried deep under a great heap of sludge and silt. It was as if someone had stolen the gifts that life hand handed to him on a plate and locked them away in his inmost recesses. Something was preventing him from throwing himself wholeheartedly and uninhibitedly into life's race and from letting the wind fill his sails. It was as if the dead hand of some unknown enemy had been laid on him at the starting line and hurled him far outside the course of his normal human destiny.

...I'm like a shabby, threadbare coat, worn out not because of exposure to the elements or hard work but because for twelve years a light has been burning inside me, unable to find an outlet and doing nothing but illuminating the walls of its own prison and, finding no opening to the outside world, has just been snuffed out for lack of oxygen.
--Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov


These quotations are some of the most poignant found in the 19th-century Russian novel Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov, ostensibly a satirical and comedic work on the banal and shambolic. It is essentially a novel about a slothful young gentleman living in St. Petersburg who fails to arise from bed for the first 150 pages of the novel. Servants, "friends," and his own thoughts on his troubles and the state of his existence come and go, with seemingly little impact on Oblomov. Goncharov intended this novel as a parody of the idle landed elites, and as such his wit and satire certainly finds its mark. Yet I believe, as reflected by the quotations above, that this novel simultaneously contains some deep and profound universal themes beneath the comical dross. These ideas speak to the generalized fears and desires within us all.

In short (I know you aren't going to read it, so I may reveal the "plot," such as it is): he does rise from his bed eventually, meets a lovely girl (Olga), and is temporarily revitalized and excited by the possibilities of life, love, and the transformation of his rural estate. Yet everything goes wrong; he fails to adequately apply himself, he ruins the relationship with his sweetheart who breaks off with him and marries his dynamic best friend Stoltz (who remains his best friend and furthermore sorts out his estate income problems for him). He takes to his bed once again, never returns to his estate, marries his St. Petersburg landlady (because it is comfortable and easy and quite possibly so that he won't have to endure the hassle of moving), accomplishes virtually nothing (though he does have a son), dies young, and is largely forgotten. In other words, "Oblomov" is not coming to a cineplex near you as an inspirational and heart-warming film.
Yet for all his shambolic characteristics, Oblomov, the aristocratic loafer, nevertheless shares some qualities of the "everyman." He expresses the frustrations, hesitancy and uncertainty of life, the fear of being hurt or, worse, hurting others. He is a likable, even lovable, character. He does not accomplish anything great, but neither does he do any harm. The profundity of the novel rests on the fulcrum between idleness and action, the hope that our protagonist will finally seize the courage necessary for him to fully embrace life, followed by the realization that he somehow cannot. He knows that he should return to his estate and face his circumstances like a man, but Olga's exhortations are not enough for him. His "light" will not find its true outlet to the world. This quest would require courage, as it does for us all. We may not all, like Oblomov, remain almost literally in a state of inertia or an ability to act. But in some way we can all identify with the feeling that tremendous barriers stand between us and our destiny.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Friday, 1 October 2010

Sword of Honour: The Film

I recently wrote about how I found the final novel of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour to be somewhat unsatisfying. Viewing the movie from 2001, which attempts to be faithful to the scope and tone of the books, I conclude that it does an adequate if not inspired job. And I further realized that the books, for all their comic relish, moments of profundity, and ruminations on war, humanity, and life's meaning, are meant to be absorbed slowly. The moments of deep profundity, such as Guy Crouchback's homage at the tomb of the English crusader and his conversations with his father about the Divine Will, simply don't translate well in the course of the film.

It is, perhaps, the best job that could be done within such time constraints. The tension inherent in Waugh's tale makes for a very complex basis for the story, and the story's emotions are not as transparent as the medium of film generally demands. On a more mundane film critic basis, there are some specific elements of the film version that simply do not work. One major problem is the casting. Daniel Craig simply lacks the aristocratic mien to play an aristocratic Catholic scion like Guy. Craig's brawny capability, so fine as James Bond, translates poorly to Waugh's protagonist. The actress playing Virginia is simply wrong - more modern "Desperate Housewives" than WWII femme fatale. There are some outstanding character actors, mainly those playing Guy's comrades. The precious, though tragic and doomed, officer Apthorpe. The possibly insane Brigadier Ritchie-Hook. And, of course, the brilliant comic actor Robert Daws (who played the insufferable windbag Hildebrand 'Tuppy' Glossop in Jeeves and Wooster) as the cowardly and duplicitous Major Hound.

For a Waugh devotee, or anyone who has read the novels, there are moments of great pleasure, occasional echoes of the genius of Waugh, sides of good acting, grandeur, or poignancy. Unfortunately, for those unfamiliar with the books it might well present as a long, boring, meaningless catalogue of trivial acts and spoiled characters - which is a tragedy, for Waugh's achievement with the Sword of Honour is anything but.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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