Category Archive 'Modernism'
16 Nov 2011

The Severed Wasp

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Virginia Woolf

David Wemyss takes an anecdote from George Orwell as the title of a thoughtful essay on alienation (which he refers to as “insularity”) as seen in the writings Orwell, Woolf, and Kierkegaard, man’s alienation from his fellow man (particularly those of other classes and conditions) and the alienation of some modern intellectuals from values and self.

Virginia Woolf is treated harshly.

It was a salutary lesson for me that the pellucid beauty of “On Being Ill” led eight years later to “Three Guineas”, with its insistence that Britain in the thirties was a tyranny as bad as Nazi Germany, that all loyalties were false (except those emanating from the virgin forest of course), that all uniforms were evil, and that war was a male desire to dominate brought about by competitive education.

Indeed, not many people realise that Virginia Woolf in 1938 was pretty well recommending the post-1967 British comprehensive school – except that it would have been a university – one so given over to cultural destructiveness that her own books would have fallen out of the syllabus.

Theodore Dalrymple put it characteristically well in the City Journal a few years ago when he said that, had she survived to our own time, Woolf would have had the satisfaction of observing that her cast of mind – shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutal – had triumphed among the elites of the Western world. And if that seems a little harsh on someone who did I think have a considerable gift – Mrs Dalloway is surely a very good novel – just remember that she also wrote the most immitigably stupid book of the twentieth century.

Hat tip to Bird Dog.

28 Aug 2011

The Train of History

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Malcolm Muggeridge, 1903-1990

Malcolm Muggeridge recalls, in the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time: The Green Stick:

On one of my early birthdays I was given a toy printing-set with whose large rubber letters I was able to print off my first composition. It was a story of a train going along very fast and, to the satisfaction of the passengers, racing through the small stations along the track without stopping. Their satisfaction, however, turned to dismay, and then to panic fury, as it dawned on them that it was not going to stop at their stations either when it came to them. They raged and shouted and shook their fists, but all to no avail. The train went roaring on. At the time I had no notion what, if anything, the story signified. It just came into my mind, and the rubber letters dropped into place of themselves. Yet, as I came to see, and see now more clearly than ever, it is the story I have been writing ever since; the story
of our time. The imagination, at however rudimentary a level, reaches into the future. So its works have a prophetic quality. A Dostoevsky foresees just what a revolution will mean in Russia – in a sense, foresees the Soviet regime and Stalin; whereas a historian like Miliukov and his liberal-intellectual friends envisage the coming to pass of an amiable parliamentary democracy. Similarly, a Blake or a Herman Melville sees clearly through the imagination the dread consequences industrial¬ism and technology must have for mankind, whereas, as envisaged in the mind of a Herbert Spencer or an H. G. Wells, they can bring only expanding wealth and lasting well-being. It was not until much later that I came to identify the passengers in my train as Lord Beveridge, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Kingsley Martin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and any number of progressive prelates, mahatmas, millionaires, regius professors and other such eminent persons.

18 Dec 2010

Ecclesiastical Vandalism

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Daily Mail reports on the conflict arising from some unwelcome plans for modernization in a 12th century Essex church.

Worshippers at a 12th century village church have launched a bitter battle to oust their vicar.

Some members of the congregation at St Nicholas Church in Tillingham, Essex, are ‘at war’ with vicar Lorna Smith, claiming that her modernisation plans will be the ‘ruination’ of the historic church.

A petition has been started calling for the Reverend Lorna Smith to quit her post as vicar after she pushed ahead with proposals to rip the pews and replace them with informal plastic chairs, dig up the floor and install underground heating.

Anne Burden, 72, a parishioner, said: ‘I simply can’t believe people can come into our village and do this to our church.

‘There have been little nicks in the picture going on since she has been here, but undoubtedly its got worse since she proposed the removal of the pews.

‘Nobody took it seriously at first when they heard but now I think she wants wall to wall carpets and to turn the place into a social centre.

‘I feel so very sad when I think about it – we were a united congregation before and people from the village who are not churchgoers all got involved with the upkeep.

‘It was a beautiful church which was at the heart of the village now that has all changed.’

The building boasts a Norman Nave and 14th century bell tower and is regarded by English Heritage as a good example of a traditional country parish church.

Mrs Smith is thought to have joined the historic church about five years ago but has divided opinion among worshippers when she backed the Parochial Church Council’s plans to modernise the building.

The Friends of St Nicholas have already raised around £20,000 towards the modernisation plans – which include removing the Victorian pews in favour of more informal seating, installing underfloor heating, building a kitchen, toilet and gallery meeting room under the bell tower.

But the scheme has been met with horror by some villagers and led to a day-long Consistory Court hearing which ruled in favour of the changes to the church.

22 Feb 2010

Modernism, Not Workable Again

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I couldn’t find a decent photo of the interior courtyard of Morse, featuring the Morse Tower. They’ve planted some little trees, which get in the way now.

Morse College (along with Ezra Stiles) is one of two new residential colleges at Yale built circa 1961 featuring back-then very fashionable designs by Eero Saarinen, who whipped up a curious melange, alluding to medieval hill towns in Tuscany via a late 1950s marriage of George Nakashima to a comfy Disneyesque-version of Brutalist modern concrete architecture.

Students wound up receiving a basically ugly, somewhat industrial-looking modernist college with the sort of interior that might have been designed by communist hobbits… if communist hobbits had a lot of money. Their consolations were single rooms, and lots of expensive built in wood. The grain of the corridor doors in Morse was very striking, and I can tell you that back in the early 1970s at least half of the hirsute crowd of stoners in the Morse TV room could normally be found sitting facing away from the set engrossed in the grain patterns of the door. You could get wrecked just walking through that TV room.

One drawback of life in Morse was the fact that Saarinen had an aversion to right angles (too uncreative, I suppose), which produced peculiar room shapes. Two rooms in Morse College were notorious for having eleven walls, none of which was long enough to put the standard issue Yale bed against, while still allowing the resident to open the door.

Over the last decade, Yale has been “remodeling” (read: gutting and completely rebuilding) its residential colleges, completely revising floor plans and installing new PC green mechanicals, doubtless with an eye to packing in more students into less generous spaces.

At the present time, Morse is receiving its remodeling, which the Yale Daily News reports, once again, demonstrates just how feckless and irresponsible architects and the institutional administrators in the prosperous and happy 1960 era of Brutalism really were.

Though the college is built in the Modernist style, its aged facilities were anything but modern, [Evan] Yassky [of the Philadelphia-based architecture firm KieranTimberlake] said. Many of Morse’s internal systems, from electrical to fire safety, needed to be upgraded or replaced. An unexpected challenge was the difficulty of upgrading heating mechanisms inside the college because of the irregular angles of the buildings, Yassky said.

When the college was completed nearly 50 years ago, it was heated by means of hot water pipes cast into the concrete of the college’s floors. But some time in the 1980s, the pipes failed, and because they could not be pried out of the concrete, the University put together a slapdash set of above-ground heaters throughout Morse, said Chris Meyer of Turner Construction Company, the general superintendent of the current renovation. These were neither dependable nor particularly effective, he added.

Determined to get it right this time around, the University asked the architects at KieranTimberlake for a thorough overhaul of the heaters. But Morse’s irregular interior corners have turned the otherwise simple task of installing radiators around the rooms’ perimeters into a costly puzzle.

“It’s a challenge that I didn’t quite appreciate when we first started the project,” Yassky said. “It’s not like, instead of 90 degree angles, Saarinen used 70 or 80 degree angles. Every angle was different.”

Fitting each crooked corner with custom pipes would cost millions, Yassky said, so the firm modified the majority of the rooms to include more square corners for the heating. These new perpendicular walls are particularly noticeable inside the college’s new common rooms, where some walls have been opened or removed to create the suite-style residential spaces typical of Yale’s other colleges.

“It’s been a fascinating experience and intellectually stimulating to engage with Saarinen’s design,” Yassky said.

The most prestigious architects of that era could not be bothered to care about how someone a few decades down the road would have to effectuate a repair. Budgets were extravagant, the sky was the limit for materials and designs costs. “Let them tear it down and rebuild, when they need to fix a leaky pipe!” thought the great architect. The administrators never deigned to critique the genius’s design with an eye to how exactly someone was going to change the light bulb placed 50′ in the air or how anyone could repair heating pipes buried in concrete.

Modernist architecture was to buildings a lot like what liberal policy was to society: grandiose, gestural, dismissive of the past, narcissistically self-promotional, staggeringly costly, and totally impractical.

14 Feb 2010

Mark Helprin’s “Jacob Bayer and the Telephone”

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Mark Helprin

I was just reading Mark Helprin’s recent The Pacific and Other Stories, and came upon the marvellous Jacob Bayer and the Telephone (published originally in Forbes ASAP in October of 2000), a profoundly conservative critique of Modernism presented as a fable set in the turn of the last century Jewish Pale of Settlement in White Russia.

“It will bring peace and assure prosperity. In an era of instant communication, no longer will countries go to war. It cannot but revolutionize all our affairs for the better, as we have begun to witness. The citizens of Koidanyev are not philosophers or theologians. They have not chosen to go on the road, like you, to chase dreams. They simply want to live their lives in peace, and, because of the telephone, they look forward to this century, which will be the greatest century of mankind. We in Koidanyev do not wish to be left out. Is that a sin?”

“Yes,” said Jacob Bayer, “it is a sin. Ceaseless, feverish, desperate activity for fear of not having what someone else has, is a sin. Pride in one’s creations is a sin. The conviction that one has mastered the elements of the universe, or soon will, is a sin. Why? They are sins because they are a turning away from what is true. Your span here is less than the brief flash of a spark, and if, after multiplying all you do by that infinitesimal fraction, you still do not understand the requirement of humility, your wishes and deeds will be monstrous, your affections corrupt, your love false.”

“What does this have to do with the telephone?” the simpleton asked again, painfully.

“The telephone,” said Jacob Bayer, “is a perfectly splendid little instrument, but by your unmetered, graceless enthusiasm you have made it a monument to vacuousness and neglect. Recall the passage: I, Kohelet, was King over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven….I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

Now came to Jacob Bayer, without his asking, the gift he had of seeing terrible things. He bowed his head, tears came to his eyes, and he said, in despair, “Koidanyev will be destroyed. The tall trees will be cut, the houses will burn, even the stones will be buried. And the souls that have chased the wind will be scattered by the wind.”

In the long silence that ensued, Jacob Bayer’s vision slowly glided away from the silent onlookers, like a thunderstorm that has cracked and boomed overhead and then flees on cool winds, its flashes and concussions fading gently.

“Nonsense!” cried Haskell Samoa, awakening the crowd and quickly turning them against the man they might have followed a moment before. “The Napoleonic Wars have been over for a century. The nightmare you describe has left the world forever, banished by the light of reason. Man can control his destiny, and this light will grow stronger. What could happen? I do not doubt that before us lie the most glorious years in history, and, in contrast to their coming wonders, you are a specter of the darkness and a reminder of the dreadful past. The commission has decided that you must leave and never return. You may stay the night, but in the morning you must go.”

“It won’t be the first time,” said Jacob Bayer.

“Are all the towns and all the people in the towns wrong? Can that be? Is it only you who knows the truth?”

“Rabbi,” said Jacob Bayer, “the truth sits over Koidanyev like the hot sun. It has nothing to do with me.”

08 Jan 2009

Kimball on the Tyranny of Relativism

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Roger Kimball in the January New Criterion:

It is often said that an anthropologist is someone who respects the distinctive values of every culture but his own. We in the West are all anthropologists now. It is curious, though, that proponents of relativism and multiculturalism should use ethnocentrism as a stick with which to beat the West. After all, both the idea and the critique of ethnocentrism are quintessentially Western. There has never in history been a society more open to other cultures than our own; nor has any tradition been more committed to self-criticism than the Western tradition: the figure of Socrates endlessly inviting self-scrutiny and rational explanation is a definitive image of the Western spirit. Moreover, “Western” science is not exclusively Western: it is science plain and simple. It was, to be sure, invented and developed in the West, but it is as true for the inhabitants of the Nile Valley as it is for the denizens of New York. That is why, outside the precincts of the humanities departments of Western universities, there is a mad dash to acquire Western science and technology. The deepest foolishness of multiculturalism shows itself in the puerile attacks it mounts on the cogency of scientific rationality, epitomized poignantly by the Afrocentrist who flips on his word processor to write books decrying the parochial nature of Western science and extolling the virtues of the “African way.”…

Why does relativism, which begins with a beckoning promise of liberation from “oppressive” moral constraints, so often end in the embrace of immoral constraints that are politically obnoxious? Part of the answer lies in the hypertrophy or perversion of relativism’s conceptual enablers—terms like “pluralism,” “diversity,” “tolerance,” and the like. They all name classic liberal virtues, but it turns out that their beneficence depends on their place in a constellation of fixed values. Absent that hierarchy, they rapidly degenerate into epithets in the armory of political suasion. They retain the aura of positive values, but in reality they are what Gairdner calls “value-dispersing terms that serve as an official warning to accept all behaviours of others without judgment and, most important, to keep all moral opinions private.” In this sense, the rise of relativism encourages an ideology of non-judgmentalism only as a prelude to ever more strident discriminations. “Where conditions permit,” Gairdner writes, the strong step in:

    either to impose a new regime or, as in the Western democracies, where overt totalitarianism is still unthinkable, to further permeate ordinary life with the state’s quietly overbearing, regulating role. Relativism is the natural public philosophy of such regimes because it repudiates all natural moral or social binding power, replacing these with legal decrees and sanction of the state.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

03 Jan 2008

France and Modernism

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Lee Siegel reviewing Peter Gay’s Modernism — The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond.

if the French provided the most extreme assaults on Western rationality — Rimbaud’s “disorientation of the senses,” André Breton’s celebration of primal instincts stored in the unconscious, André Gide’s enthusiasm for the “motiveless” crime, Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” Maurice Blanchot’s declaration of the death of the author — the reason was simple. … In France, civilization is invincible and eternal. Its immutable stability makes opposition to it all the more cheerfully ferocious. You can hurl the most incredible rhetorical and intellectual violence against French custom and convention and still have time for some conversation in the cafe, un peu de vin, a delicious dinner and, of course, l’amour. And in the morning, you extricate yourself from such sophisticated coddling — the result of centuries of art and artifice — and rush back to the theoretical barricades.

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