Sunday, November 23, 2014
Note: For Nazli.
Nadia Al-Issa in Art Asia Pacific:
Housed within the 6.8-hectare Aga Khan Park—designed by Serbian-Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic—are two new additions to Toronto’s cultural scene. One is the Ismaili Centre Toronto, designed by renowned Indian modernist architect Charles Correa. The other is the Aga Khan Museum, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. Under development for almost a decade, the much-awaited cultural complex, situated in Toronto’s Don Mills neighborhood, opened to the public this September. The complex is an initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Founded by His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, AKDN is a group of non-denominational development organizations that work in sectors as diverse as the environment, education, health, rural development, culture and architecture in the Muslim world. The Ismailis are the second largest Shia Muslim community, with 15 million followers in 25 countries within Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia. The community’s history spans 12 centuries and at its height included the reign of the Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171), a formidable Islamic state that was seated in Cairo.
...Connecting the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum is the centerpiece of the Aga Khan Park: inspired by the gardens at Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain, Djurovic’s design is a contemporary take on the Islamic “Garden of Paradise.” The Aga Khan Park’s centerpiece harkens back to the Charbagh, a traditional Persian garden divided into four parts by walkways or water channels that intersect at a central fountain or pool. In Djurovic’s rendition, concrete paths separate four granite-lined reflecting pools and converge onto a massive central pool flanked by flowering serviceberry trees. Adjacent to the reflecting pools is a site-specific floor painting by contemporary Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi. Part of the museum’s inaugural show, “The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan,” the installation renders a landscape of violently splattered foliage and delicately executed flowers, which speaks to the complex process of domesticating nature and nature’s inherent unruliness.
Picture: IMRAN QURESHI, Rise and Fall, 2014
why is it
that you always
say the most significant
when you’re walking away
looking into your closet
for something to wear
you must know
that I cannot make out
what you’re saying
you hold it
like an old
that’s too tight
to wear anymore
why is it
that you always
tell me later
that you told me
and make me feel
as if I was there
next to your old
that you used to love
but no longer
by Bill Schneberger
Stephen Whitfield in Dissent (photo from Wikimedia Commons):
However closely or accurately New Leftists and others might have read One-Dimensional Man, as well as Marcuse’s subsequent works, he was once taken very seriously. He helped to define the zeitgeist in a way that needs to be understood, if not resurrected. But in the decades since the New Left crested and collapsed, has the stature of any intellectual fallen more dramatically than that of Herbert Marcuse?
To be sure, his reputation has not faded into utter oblivion. An International Herbert Marcuse Society still holds biennial conferences, and anthologies and monographs on his work continue to appear. But they are not central to academic discourse and tend to be reviewed only in specialized journals.
In 1987, the social critic Russell Jacoby traced a downward trajectory in the vitality and scope of the American intelligentsia, yet his The Last Intellectuals mentions Marcuse only briefly. Eight years later, One-Dimensional Man did not make the Times Literary Supplement list of the hundred most influential books published since the end of the Second World War. Nor did the TLS cite any of Marcuse’s other works—not even what he regarded as his “most important book,” Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud (1955), the volume that had presumably irritated Pope Paul VI.
Marcuse’s stature has shrunk even as scholarly interest in other exemplary figures of the Frankfurt School has intensified. Consider Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Each of them dealt directly, explicitly and frequently with cultural questions, and far less with political ones. Yet they have recently been the subjects of massive biographies, which make the case for their continuing salience in grasping the implications of modernity itself. Marcuse is associated with the crisis of Marxism, however, in a way that they are not. The “crisis” could be defined as Marxism’s historical entanglement with the tyrannies of Stalinism and Maoism, or its imminent demise given the capacity of capitalism to generate mass acceptance and even allegiance that doomed any hope of systematic change. Even though Marcuse’s dissertation topic had addressed the way that novelists portray artists (the Künstlerroman), his death roughly coincided with the emergence of cultural studies, which marked an abrupt shift in academic fashion.
Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner and Steve Weber in The Monkey Cage over at the Washington Post (photo Takaki Yajima/AFP):
In our original World Without the West essay (2007), we argued that emerging powers are preferentially engaging with each other — “routing around” the Western liberal order rather than joining it or trying actively to undermine it. This argument attracted two main criticisms. Consistent with realist theories of international politics, the first critique posits that what we’re witnessing today is simply the early stages of an eventual attempt to overthrow the liberal order. (We disagree, but we’ll save that one for another day.) On the other side of the spectrum, however, is the view articulated by Voeten that a combination of interests, inducements and constraints will lead countries like China to ultimately conform, more or less, to the way the United States and the West have done business for the last 70 years.
The crux of our disagreement with this liberal internationalist perspective largely revolves around two questions. Will Chinese-led multilateral institutions “really fundamentally challenge the existing order or have profound implications for China’s ties to global multilateral institutions?” And even when they have similar functional objectives — on issues like regional stability, counterterrorism or poverty alleviation — will their approach be sufficiently different from liberal practice so as to diverge from prevailing norms and institutions? Voeten thinks the answer is no to both these questions.
We disagree because we think it’s overly optimistic to assume that Chinese interests and behavior will conform quite so neatly to the post-WWII system. And, to put a finer point on it, we believe both logic and evidence are now frequently pointing in the opposite direction.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Cam Simpson in Bloomberg Businessweek (Photograph by Reuters):
The group’s leaders portray themselves as akin to seventh century warriors thundering forth on horseback to expand their religious empire by sword. They call their car bombs “steeds” and their drivers the “death admirers, the knights of martyrdom.” But in many important ways they have much less in common with medieval warriors than they do with modern bureaucrats, and a successful attempt to defeat them may require understanding their logistics, their financing, and their management structure as much as their extreme theology.
It may sound bizarre for a group calling itself a caliphate, but the foundation of its management model, as identified by experts, is more akin to that of General Motors than it is to a religious dynasty from the Dark Ages. After decades, we may have arrived at the ultimate professionalization of terror.
During a routine January 2007 patrol in Anbar province, in a town along the Euphrates called Tuzliyah al Gharbiyah, a unit of U.S. Marines stumbled on a cache of nine documents in a roadside ditch. They included financial records, payrolls, supply purchase records, administrative records, and other details of fund flows into and out of a single local cell in Anbar of a group then calling itself the “Islamic State of Iraq.” Not long after, Iraqi militiamen working with the U.S. stormed a home in a town farther down the Euphrates. They found a computer hard drive holding ledgers with 1,200 files detailing the finances and operations of provincial-level managers overseeing the cell and others like it across Anbar province.
Taken together, the Anbar records allowed for a forensic reconstruction of the back-office operations of a terrorist insurgency from its local level up to its divisional headquarters. The data were handed over to the National Defense Research Institute of Rand Corp., a U.S. Department of Defense-funded think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif. Seven researchers set out to determine what the ledgers, receipts, memos, and other records meant. What they concluded in a 2010 report, written for then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, should be familiar to students of business management: The group was decentralized, organized, and run on what’s called the “multidivisional-hierarchy form” of management, or M-form for short.
James Booth’s new biography of Philip Larkin is not very exciting, perhaps because Booth has the sense to leave the exciting writing to Larkin. But it is very welcome. If you believe that Larkin (1922-85) wrote some of the best English-language poems of modern times, then it has been a trial to see his questionable track record as an everyday human being get in the way of his reputation as an artist.
The obfuscation happened in a hurry, only a few short years after Larkin’s death. His pair of distinguished literary executors, Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion, served him faithfully with a selection of his letters (edited by Thwaite) and a biography (written by Motion). Unfortunately for Larkin’s image — which had been fairly staid until then, the poet having lived a quiet and mostly provincial life as a university librarian — it became evident that he had indulged himself in racist and sexist language. It had not occurred to the executors that they might have prefaced their respective volumes with a health warning in capital letters pointing out what should have been obvious: that Larkin talked that way only in his private life; that he believed his letters to be part of his private life, too; and that in his public life he was courteous and charming to anyone he met, of whatever gender or racial background.
When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in October, a lot of readers (myself included) were taken by surprise. Until now, he has been relatively unknown in the U.S., although he is a bestseller in his native France and winner of the Prix Goncourt who has published steadily since his first novel, "La Place de l'Étoile," appeared in 1968, and co-wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle's 1974 movie "Lacombe Lucien."
Like that film, much of Modiano's fiction has roots in the paradoxes of the Vichy era, which remains, for him, a matter of both personal and collective history. Born in 1945, he grew up estranged from his father, a black marketeer, and has called himself "a product of the dunghill of the Occupation, that bizarre time when people who should have never met did meet and by chance produced a child."
Such tensions are very much at work in "Suspended Sentences," a book that gathers three novellas originally published between 1988 and 1993 and now available in English for the first time. "I thought I'd written them discontinuously, in successive bouts of forgetfulness," Modiano has said of these efforts, "but often the same faces, the same names, the same places, the same sentences recur from one to the other.
When the media erases the crimes of US imperialism, they make future atrocities more likely.
Emanuel Stoakes in Jacobin:
In the final weeks of summer, a minor news item shed light on a corner of the recent past largely forgotten by those north of the Rio Grande. “Beatification of Oscar Romero ‘unblocked’ by Pope Francis” read the headline, referring to the martyred Salvadoran bishop whose path to sainthood had previously been obstructed by a Vatican wary of the late prelate’s political influence.
Romero, as the piece explains, was “one of the heroes of the liberation theology movement in Latin America”; his criticism of atrocities committed by the US-backed Salvadoran armed forces precipitated hisassassination at mass in March 1980.
Shortly before his killing, Romero wrote to President Carter pleading him to end military aid to the ruling junta, predicting that such support would “surely increase injustice here and sharpen the repression that has been unleashed against the people’s organizations fighting to defend their most fundamental human rights.”
Carter declined to directly reply, while Romero’s murder would prevent him from seeing his bitter prophecy not only fulfilled, but exceeded: El Salvador soon descended into outright civil war, a conflict that lasted for another twelve years, displacing over a million people and claiming the lives of 75,000, most of them killed by the regime.
In 1977, in a review for Der Spiegel of a short-story collection by Alexander Kluge, the poet and translator Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote: “Among well-known German authors Kluge is the least well-known.” What was true then is even truer now, still more so outside his own country. Born in 1932, starting out as a lawyer working for celebrated Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno in the 1950s, then as an assistant to Metropolis director Fritz Lang, Kluge is a direct link to many of the giants of 20th-century German art and ideas.
He’s also a polymath who moves between literature, philosophy and the moving image with equal facility, and has made decisive contributions to each of those fields. He was a key figure behind the Oberhausen Manifesto in 1962 that, like the similarly revolutionary Nouvelle Vague in France, championed expressive freedoms on screen, and incubated the New German Cinema associated with Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders. He created the first German film school at Ulm, directed many important films – among them Yesterday Girl (1966), which won the Silver Lion at Venice, and developed a much-debated theory of montage cinema that, in the demands it placed on viewers, enacted his belief that “film is composed in the head of the spectator; it is not a work of art that exists on the screen by itself”.
Stoicism is making a comeback, writes Joe Gelonesi, who explores ‘Stoic Week’, a university exercise which challenges participants to apply the advice of the ancient Stoics to their daily lives. Now in its third year, it's an experiment with a growing international following.
Joe Gelonesi at the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:
Although the original Hellenic school left few fragments, the great Roman Stoics, via Cicero, did a good deal to grow and magnify the tradition. Much of the modern Stoic urge is based on the ideas of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and the slave-turned sage Epictetus.
The idea of staring down the world in a Stoic glare runs deep in our cultural veins, but its more theory than practice. To adopt an authentic Stoic life amidst the daunting surplus of pleasure and experience in the modern west seems curiously out of tempo. Yet an experiment with a handful of university students has been exported to a global audience seemingly hungry to learn the ways of the Stoic.
In The Economist:
Since around 1970 the world’s most Roman Catholic continent has become steadily less so. This trend, much remarked, shows no sign of slowing down, according to an exhaustive new study by the Pew Research Centre, a self-described “fact tank” based in Washington.* This found that only 69% of adult Latin Americans are now Catholics, down from 92% in 1970. Protestants now account for 19%, up from 4%. Over the same period the share of those with no religious affiliation has grown from 1% to 8%—though most of these people still believe in God.
Pew’s study finds sharp variations from country to country. In four Central American countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua—barely half of the population is still Catholic. Though 61% of Brazilian respondents say they are Catholic, 26% are now Protestant. In many other countries there are still firm Catholic majorities. Whatever their denomination, most Latin Americans remain deeply religious. Only Uruguay stands out as a bastion of secularism—a tradition dating back more than a century.
Two things distinguish Latin American Protestantism. First, it is mainly a result of conversion (see chart). Second, two-thirds of Latin American Protestants define themselves as Pentecostal. Much more often than Catholics, they report having direct experience of the Holy Spirit, such as through exorcism or speaking in tongues. Indeed, the words “evangelical” and “Protestant” are used interchangeably in the region. Pew finds that Latin American Protestants are conservative on social and sexual issues, such as gay marriage and abortion. As Catholics become more liberal on such questions, that points to looming American-style “culture wars”.
What is causing the shift to Protestantism? Academics have several hypotheses. Some hold that Pentecostalism resonates with Amerindian and Afro-Latin American belief in the spirit world. But Pew finds that many Catholics as well as Protestants in Latin America hold such beliefs.
A second theory stresses the appeal of Protestantism to urban migrants. David Stoll, an anthropologist at Middlebury College in Vermont, notes that such people have moved away from their extended families, attenuating their networks of support. Evangelical churches tend to operate on “family-like principles”, he says.
Read the rest here.
Mohsin Hamid in The Guardian:
I believe in a human right to migration, as fundamental as the right to freedom of expression, or freedom from discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, religion or sexuality. I have come by this belief by migrating myself. (I’m inclined to prefer the terms migrant and migration to immigrant and immigration: the latter two seem to privilege the country of arrival; every immigrant is also an emigrant, and migrant encompasses both.) I was born in Pakistan. And I live in Pakistan. But when I was three I moved with my parents to Silicon Valley in California. I returned to Pakistan when I was nine for a decade, then spent most of my 20s on America’s east coast and most of my 30s in London. I possess a British passport and once possessed an American green card. My life has come full circle, geographically speaking. Twice.
Most of my education has been in the American system. I suspect this has contributed to my discomfort with a great deal of what I see practised around me in Pakistan. I have friends who are non-Muslim; non-Muslims are legally persecuted here. I have friends who are gay; homosexuality is legally proscribed here. An African friend once told me after visiting that Pakistan was among the most blatantly racist places he had ever been. Pakistani laws discriminate against women. Pakistani courts fail to deliver any semblance of due process. Pakistani presidents are frequently unelected generals. My largely American-educated self is continually brimming with disappointment. Yet my largely American-educated self is profoundly disappointed by America, too. This is partly because the US’s bellicose excesses in foreign policy become more visible the closer you are to where American bombs are hitting the ground. But it is also because I studied American history with American teachers and American law with American professors.
Laila Lalami in The New York Times:
“Hiding in Plain Sight” begins with a threat. One evening in Mogadishu, Aar, a logistics officer for the United Nations, receives a letter in the mail. It consists of a single, misspelled word, but it’s terrifying all the same: deth! Aar wants to return to his home in Nairobi on the first flight out, but at the last minute, he decides to stop by the office to pick up photos of his children. As he steps out with the pictures in hand, Shabab militants strike the building. A terrorist attack is a difficult place to start a novel. The writer must compete with a flood of words and images, most of them clichés. But the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah is used to the challenges of turning fact into fiction. Over the last four decades, he has written about the homeland from which he was exiled, chronicling its contemporary history and struggles.
In his first novel, “From a Crooked Rib,” he wrote about a nomad girl who flees her family’s camp after they attempt to arrange a marriage for her with an older man. That book was followed by a trilogy, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, which explored the parallels between colonialism, patriarchy and dictatorship in Somalia, then still under Mohammed Siad Barre’s rule. Another trilogy, Blood in the Sun, examined the effect of internecine conflict, foreign aid and sexual violence on ordinary families. Though different in style from the Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun or the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, his work shares with them a preoccupation with capturing snapshots of a country in rapid transition. “Hiding in Plain Sight” may begin with a terrorist attack, similar to the one that shook the United Nations compound in Somalia last year, but this is not a novel about violence. It is, instead, a novel about grief and love.
Cutting in the cane fields
it was something we were used to:
after all, we were farmers.
We’d gather every morning
before setting out,
then cutting all day
in the jungle and marshes.
We’d come back exhausted,
well worthy of beer
and brochettes. Our wives
turned their backs in bed.
In those days was beef
and ribsteak in plenty.
We bore the knives ourselves:
We feasted like the elegant kings
to whom were given
such bloody instructions
they jumped to the life to come.
by Steve Ely
from The Poetry Review, 104:1, Spring, 2014
Friday, November 21, 2014
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore in Edge:
I'm Sarah-Jayne Blakemore from University College London. Today I'm going to be talking about the adolescent brain, which is the focus of my lab's research. I'm going to talk about the history of this young area of science, and I'll also tell you about some of the current questions for the future in this area. I did my PhD on schizophrenia, and I also did a post-doc on schizophrenia. I became interested in the fact that schizophrenia is a devastating psychiatric disease that has its onset right at the end of adolescence. Normally people develop schizophrenia, on average, between about 18 and 25 years. This is interesting because it's a developmental disorder, but it develops much later than most developmental disorders. I became interested in whether that might be something to do with brain development during the teenage years going wrong in people who go on to develop schizophrenia.
This was about 12 years ago. Back then, I delved into the literature and, to my surprise, there was little known about how the human teenage brain develops. There were a handful of studies back in the year 2002, a small handful, but they were intriguing because even though there were only a few of them, they all pointed to significant and protracted development of the brain right throughout adolescence and into the 20s. This was an interesting finding because, prior to those papers, most neuroscientists would have assumed, and the dogma at the time I was an undergraduate and a graduate, was that the human brain stops developing some time in childhood and doesn't change much after mid to late-childhood. What these papers suggested was that the dogma was completely wrong. In fact, the human brain continues to develop significantly across almost the whole cortex throughout the teenage years, and even into the 20s.
Jeff Yang in Quartz:
That’s one way of looking at Koenig’s enterprise—as pure cultural tourism, exploitative of the people and communities involved for the sake of streaming-audio melodrama. And it’s not an inaccurate one, either: There’s something deeply uncomfortable about how the show treats these people — the Korean American deceased, the Pakistani American convicted killer, the black friend whose testimony led to that conviction, and all of their friends and loved ones—as mere characters, “colorful” in both senses of the word, for the sake of engaging and enthralling millions of listeners each week. Families have been destroyed by this case. A young man has spent over a decade in prison. And there is, still and forever, a dead young woman, who no doubt would have liked to be remembered for more than just her death (and her Sweet Valley High-esque diary).
But as Kang himself writes, there’s a more charitable way to view the podcast—“one in which Koenig has been intentionally presented as a quixotic narrator with Dana, her occasional sidekick on the show, playing the role of Sancho Panza,” he notes, admitting that “There’s ample evidence that this is what’s the show is striving for.”
This, to me, is the core of the show’s appeal, and the reason why I, like millions of other listeners, have become obsessively fascinated with it. Yes, there’s something a little freaky and white-savior-complex-y about “Serial.” But throughout the series, Koenig has very consciously forefronted her ethno-cultural ignorance, the things that compromise her as a reporter and an actor in this drama, in ways that I think very few white journalists choose to do.
Read the full article here.
From the website of the Oxford Dictionaries:
So, what does vape mean? It originated as an abbreviation of vapour or vaporize. The OxfordDictionaries.com definition was added in August 2014: the verb means ‘to inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device’, while both the device and the action can also be known as a vape. The associated noun vaping is also listed.
As e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) have become much more common, so vape has grown significantly in popularity. You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vapethan you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.
Usage of vape peaked in April 2014 – as the graph below indicates – around the time that the UK’s first ‘vape café’ (The Vape Lab in Shoreditch, London) opened its doors, and protests were held in response to New York City banning indoor vaping. In the same month, the issue of vaping was debated by The Washington Post, the BBC, and the British newspaper The Telegraph, amongst others.
Carl Zimmer in The Loom:
Feathers are like eyes or or hands. They’re so complex, so impressive in their adaptations, so good at getting a job done, that it can be hard at first to believe they evolved. Feathers today are only found on birds, which use them to do things like fly, control their body temperature, and show off for potential mates. The closest living relatives of birds–alligators and crocodiles–are not exactly known for their plumage. At least among living things, the glory of feathers is an all-or-nothing affair.
But the more we get to know feathers, the more we can appreciate how they evolved. The general rule is that complex things–be they feathers, hands, or eyes–take a very long time to evolve. As I wrote in National Geographic in 2011, the fossil record has gone a very long way in helping us to understand how feathers took on the form we see today. Birds evolved from dinosaur ancestors, and those ancestors already had feathers. Feathers started out as simple filaments, turning to fuzz, and then diversifying into a lot of different forms–including the ones that eventually let birds take to the air.
Now a new study in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution offers an even deeper look into the history of feathers.
Today's selection -- from The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), commonly known as Lord Byron was one of the greatest British poets, an aristocratic and flamboyant celebrity known for huge debts and numerous love affairs with both sexes. Romance was absent though when it came to his marriage. He needed money and married a wealthy aristocrat named Annabella Milbank. The marriage crumbled when Lady Byron discovered her husband's infidelity: "Lord Byron ... noticed a reserved young woman who was, he recalled, 'more simply dressed.' Annabella Milbanke, nineteen, was from a wealthy and multi-titled family. The night before the party, she had read [his poem] Childe Harold and had mixed feelings. 'He is rather too much of a mannerist,' she wrote. 'He excels most in the delineation of deep feeling.' Upon seeing him across the room at the party, her feelings were conflicted, dangerously so. 'I did not seek an introduction to him, for all the women were absurdly courting him, and trying to deserve the lash of his Satire,' she wrote her mother. 'I am not desirous of a place in his lays. I made no offering at the shrine of Childe Harold, though I shall not refuse the acquaintance if it comes my way.'
"That acquaintance, as it turned out, did come her way. After he was introduced to her formally, Byron decided that she might make a suitable wife. It was, for him, a rare display of reason over romanticism. Rather than arousing his passions, she seemed to be the sort of woman who might tame those passions and protect him from his excesses -- as well as help payoff his burdensome debts. He proposed to her halfheartedly by letter. She sensibly declined. He wandered off to far less appropriate liaisons, including one with his half sister, Augusta Leigh. But after a year, Annabella rekindled the courtship. Byron, falling more deeply in debt while grasping for a way to curb his enthusiasms, saw the rationale if not the romance in the possible relationship. 'Nothing but marriage and a speedy one can save me,' he admitted to Annabella's aunt. 'If your niece is obtainable, I should prefer her; if not, the very first woman who does not look as if she would spit in my face.' There were times when Lord Byron was not a romantic. He and Annabella were married in January 1815."Byron initiated the marriage in his Byronic fashion. 'Had Lady Byron on the sofa before dinner,' he wrote about his wedding day. Their relationship was still active when they visited his half sister two months later, because around then Annabella got pregnant.
Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
El Greco is confusing. He is one of the few universally acknowledged great artists of history who does not fit into any of the established art movements or categories. Given his time period (late 16th – early 17th centuries), his art should fit into the early Baroque. But it does not. One characteristic of all the artists we now call Baroque is a fidelity to the physical presence of bodies. Think of Caravaggio’s light-splashed naturalism, the glow on the cheeks of the young boy-models that he dressed up in all manner of costumes. Or think of Rubens’ fleshy obsession with the might and heft of the human form, the huge canvases like giant meat towers made of bodies laboring at some common task.
El Greco, by contrast, painted unnatural bodies. They aren’t the sorts of bodies that exist in this, our world. El Greco’s bodies are longer and stretchier than those we encounter in daily life. He portrayed the human form as you might see it in a vision or a mystical trance. He looked at painting, it would seem, in the same way that his contemporary — the great mystic Saint Theresa of Ávila — looked at prayer. They were both seeking spiritual ecstasy.
Except, there is no evidence that El Greco had any interest in spiritual visions or mystical ecstasies. Instead, he read boring tracts of Counter-Reformation theology and studied Renaissance art theory (we still have his library). El Greco was no Baroque painter, but he was no mystic either.
What to do with an artist who slips through every explanation?
It was a priest who first convinced me to read Dubliners. On the face of it, this might seem strange. Joyce had a lifelong hatred of clergymen, and claimed the sight of one made him physically ill; in “The Sisters,” the opening story of Dubliners, he chose a senescent priest as the first, and arguably most disturbing, of the many images of decay and paralysis that pervade the book. But in the Dublin of my teens, the priests were running the show; it was even possible for priests to be celebrities, and it was the most famous of these who took my class on retreat at the end of Transition Year, in June 1991.
Joyce writes about a religious retreat in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which an unnamed preacher terrifies the boys with a lengthy description of the torments of hell. Ours wasn’t like that. There were beanbags and unlimited biscuits; the celebrity cleric, who had become famous in the sixties as the Singing Priest and latterly hosted a hugely popular radio show, spoke to us like we were his friends. Even though the retreat consisted for the most part of the usual list of prohibitions—don’t do drugs, don’t have sex—his gravelly voice and inner-city accent gave him a convincing authenticity.