AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Friday, 20 October 2017


Charles Darwin
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
Darwin’s revolutionary, humane and highly readable introduction to his theory of evolution is arguably the most important book of the Victorian era
A review by 
(The Guardian, 27 March 2017)

When Charles Darwin first saw On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in book form, he is said to have remarked that he found it tough going. Actually, the book, composed in a hurry to forestall his rivals, after 20 years of research, and aimed at that mythical beast “the educated general reader”, is extraordinarily accessible, sometimes even moving, in its lucid simplicity. That’s all the more remarkable for a revolutionary work of scientific theory, arguably the most important book published in the English language during the 19th century.

From a 21st-century perspective, Darwin’s Origin has two roles in this list. First, it is a profoundly influential work of biology, argued in astonishing, and compelling detail. For example, one famous passage (too long to quote in full) describes the ecological benefits to “a large and extremely barren heath” derived from the planting of Scotch fir: “I went to several points of view, whence I could examine hundreds of acres of the unenclosed heath, and literally I could not see a single Scotch fir, except the old planted clumps. But on looking closely between the stems of the heath, I found a multitude of seedlings and little trees, which had been perpetually browsed down by the cattle. In one square yard … I counted 32 little trees; and one of them, judging from the rings of growth, had during 26 years tried to raise its head above the stems of the heath, and had failed. No wonder that, as soon as the land was enclosed, it became thickly clothed with vigorously growing young firs.” [pp 123-24]
Second, The Origin of Species was also a controversial and popular title that caught the imagination of the mid-Victorian public, transformed attitudes to Christianity and the human race, and would become a source book for generations of capitalists, communists and, ultimately, the Nazis. As the author of radical thought, grounded in profound observation, Darwin was described as “the most dangerous man in England”, whose account of natural selection challenged the “truth” of the Bible, the automatic authority of God in nature, and the privileged position of the human animal at the centre of creation.
Darwin’s plan had always been to write a much longer book about the vulnerability of the species. When his friend and colleague Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a paper setting out the theory of natural selection, an idea inspired by a reading of Thomas Malthus on population growth, Darwin was immediately provoked into getting a lifetime of work and speculation into print before any rival established a competitive version.
As it turned out, Darwin had no need to worry. Although John Murray, his publisher, was unsure about the market, and initially printed just 1,250 copies, this edition (now incredibly rare) sold out on the first day. The question of survival in Victorian society was highly topical, and Darwin’s account of natural selection caught the public mood. He himself was quite tentative about his new theory, and always stressed the length of time involved in the process of species adaptation: “Its action depends on there being places in the polity of nature, which can be better occupied by some of the inhabitants of the country undergoing modification of some kind … The action of natural selection will probably still oftener depend on some of the inhabitants becoming slowly modified; the mutual relations of many of the other habitants being thus disturbed.”
Darwin goes on: “Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring … I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.”
As many critics have noted, The Origin is a polemical book written in a mild, sometimes defensive, and uncontentious way by a passionate, lifelong naturalist with a deep reverence for nature. Darwin’s dithyrambic conclusion is celebrated: “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us … Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
This is a side of The Origin rooted in Darwin’s love of the English countryside. In Victorian society, there were many harsher aspects. For Marx and Engels, Darwinism was the biological equivalent of class war. For some Americans, such as Andrew Carnegie and Teddy Roosevelt, his ideas explained the dynamics of capitalism. To the imperial powers who were drifting towards war in the 1900s, war – some said – was a “biological necessity”. Many of Darwin’s apologists have given his ideas a bad name. But, at its humane and deeply reflective heart, this pioneering book is a secular hymn to the countryside, the place in which Darwin himself was always happiest.

A signature sentence

“What a struggle between the several kinds of trees must here have gone on during long centuries, each annually scattering its seeds by the thousand; what war between insect and insect – between insects, snails, and other animals with birds and beasts of prey – all striving to increase, and all feeding on each other or on the trees or their seeds and seedlings, or on the other plants which first clothed the ground and thus checked the growth of the trees!”
 Charles Darwin: some called him the most dangerous man in England. Photograph: English Heritage/PA

Thursday, 19 October 2017

“I am looking for God! I am looking for God!”

After Auschwitz, no theology:
From the chimneys of the Vatican, white smoke rises —
a sign the cardinals have chosen themselves a Pope.
From the crematoria of Auschwitz, black smoke rises —
a sign the conclave of Gods hasn't yet chosen
the Chosen People.
After Auschwitz, no theology:
the inmates of extermination bear on their forearms
the telephone numbers of God,
numbers that do not answer
and now are disconnected, one by one.

After Auschwitz, a new theology:
the Jews who died in the Shoah
have now come to be like their God,
who has no likeness of a body and has no body.
They have no likeness of a body and they have no body.

(Yehuda Amichai, After Auschwitz
translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)
Samuel Bak: Creation of Wartime
by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

The German philosopher Nietzsche poses a radical answer to the contemporary question: Is God dead? Nietzsche writes:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!”

As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. ‘Have you lost him, then?’ said one. ‘Did he lose his way like a child?’ said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Where has God gone?” he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers.”

In the 1960s, the “death of God” sparked considerable debate within Christian and Jewish theological circles. Its primary exponents were Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton, and Paul Van Buren. Despite the differences, these three agreed that a transcendent God is no longer a part of the contemporary human experience. Jewish thinkers approach the “death of God” theology with a variety of different responses.

Indeed, some Jewish thinkers led by Richard Rubenstein, contend that the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima are proof enough that the traditional view of God as a Redeemer was not longer valid or religiously meaningful to the Post-Holocaust era, or as the common secular might say, “God has gone on vacation.” Richard Rubenstein claims that Auschwitz demonstrates human life has no essential value due to the lack of a transcendental purpose or process controlling the human condition. Ultimate meaning and purpose must derive from human beings and not from God. In effect, community has to take the place of God. Granted, religious precepts and rituals could still be maintained, but only as sociological and psychological props. Jews, as a result of the Holocaust, continue as a community but without the God of Judaism. Rubenstein’s view represents a broad segment of the secular Jewish intelligentsia. On the other hand, some Jewish scholars would argue differently, believing that the “death of God” theology points to a loss or absence of the Divine in our contemporary age. Jacob Neusner notes:
“I do not understand the question what the “God is dead” theologians are saying. It seems to me they may be saying two things. First, the experience of the sacred, or God, is no longer widely available; second, that experience is no longer available in classical ways. Both of these statements describe Jewish existence, and have for some time, though we prefer to phrase them differently. I think it is clear that God is hiding His face from the world. . . .We are no longer able to approach the gates of heaven, surely not open them with the keys that used to work. God is “dead” for many Jews. In the Jewish community, even the flame of the Yahrzeit candle long ago flickered out. In the synagogue, however, Jewry still keeps up the graveyard. I do not despair. We Jews have passed this way before.”[1]
Neusner’s evocative image of the “graveyard” is suggestive of numbness, death and detachment. This metaphor would certainly describe the spiritual life of many modern Jews. Neusner’s insightful words are revealing and may have antecedents in several rabbinic teachings that suggest that God has taken a leave of absence from the world. Some sages of the Talmud argued that the Divine Presence (a.k.a. the “Shekhinah”) has retreated to Heaven. In the words of the Midrash, “When the Temple was burned, the Holy One (blessed be He) cried and said: I no longer have a seat upon earth. I shall remove my Shekhinah from there and ascend to my first habitation.”[2]

Emil Fackenheim, one of the leading post-Holocaust theologians of the 20th century, observes:
"Each denomination of Judaism seemed to want to keep God out of its modern religious lives. It allowed no room for a God dwelling beyond the world, yet entering into it to seek out man. He was an irrational incursion into a rational universe. At the same time, in its more congenial moods, modern thought gave substitute offerings to a deist “First Cause” or Cosmic Process outside man and unrelated to him, or an idealistic God-idea within him. Faced with this basic challenge, and these substitute offerings, orthodox and liberal Jewish theology both compromised. Orthodoxy held fast to the Jewish God, but confined His essential activity to a conveniently remote Biblical and Talmudic past, acting as though the sacred documents of the past could be exempted from modern criticism. Liberalism, for its part, wishing a present God, compromised the Jewish God Himself, now using the terms of Deism, then those of idealism, and in its still surviving forms the terms of a cosmic evolutionism."[3]
Another thinker, Eugene Borowitz also admits it is difficult to believe in a God after the Holocaust. He notes, “Any God who could permit the Holocaust, who could remain silent during it, who could hide His face while it dragged on, was not worth believing in. There might well be a limit to how much we could understand Him, but Auschwitz demanded an unreasonable suspension of understanding. In the face of such great evil, God, the good and the powerful, was too inexplicable, so men said, ‘God is dead…’” [4]

The conundrum is an old one that was formulated by the ancient Greek cynic named Epicurus, who wrote:

“If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to, then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing, then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing, then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing, then why call Him God?”

The Catholic theologian Hans Kung gives the old Epicurean criticism a more modern reformulation:
Was God at Auschwitz? If God is God: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good and loving, present everywhere, then of course God must have been at Auschwitz! But how could God have been at Auschwitz without preventing Auschwitz? How could God have looked on when the gas streamed out and the cremation ovens were burning?
Are the “death of God” philosophers and theologians correct? Maybe to some extent. However, one could argue that the Holocaust laid bare some of our childish conceptions of God that we unfortunately never outgrew–the concept of a Deity who is “All-Powerful,” “Almighty,” does not exist. Such a deity is more the projection of human beings’ greatest wishes–just as Freud correctly diagnosed in his Future of an Illusion.

One could argue that God’s power always functions in tandem with human freedom; redemption in the Bible always requires human participation. Without human actors, there is no God of redemption. With respect to the Exodus, God requires that there be a Moses and Aaron; with respect to every redemptive story in the Tanakh, there are human beings who act as God’s agent of redemption. Why is this so? The answer is simple enough: Human beings reveal God’s Presence in times of sorrow, catastrophe, and loss. The question as Heschel correctly raised decades ago, is not, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” but, “Where was man?” Redemption never occurs in a spiritual vacuum.

[1] Milton Himmelfarb (ed.), The Condition of Jewish Belief: A Symposium Compiled by the Editors of Commentary Magazine (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aaronson Inc., 1988), 156-157.
[2] Lamentations Rabbah 24.
[3] Emil Fackenheim, Quest For Past and Future–Essays in Jewish Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 5.
[4] Eugene Borowitz, The Masks Jews Wear: The Self-deceptions of American Jewry.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


Kenneth Clark
The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art by Kenneth Clark (1956)
Kenneth Clark’s survey of the nude from the Greeks to Picasso foreshadows the critic’s towering claims for humanity in his later seminal work, Civilisation
A review by 

TPrivate Eye, he was, immortally, “Lord Clark of Civilisation”, an accolade that probably made this patrician art historian better known to the British public than any other contemporary critic in any genre, a household name to stand alongside Fry, Gombrich and Pevsner. The epitome of the Great and the Good, equally at home with princes, patrons, and prime ministers, Clark was also a scholar with a showman’s instincts, who kept a beady eye on his audience. He relished provocative observations, and began this controversial study by opposing the naked (“huddled and defenceless”) with the nude (“balanced, prosperous and confident … the body re-formed”). Appropriately, this pioneering history of the depiction of the human body, which began with the 1953 Mellon Lectures, was largely written in the home of Bernard Berenson, the art historical master to whom it is dedicated.
In the context of its time, the mid-1950s, Clark’s account of the nude in the history of art, from the Greeks and the Romans to Picasso and the postimpressionists, is a wide-ranging, secular celebration of an important classical tradition. In ancient times, the nude had been used to express fundamental human needs, for instance, the need for harmony and order (Apollo) versus the need to sublimate sexual desire (Venus). Writing in postwar Europe, Clark’s ambition was to restore the human body in the public mind as an object of myth and wonder, not (as it had become in the 30s) the tool of fascist brutalism.
Clark, the most refined and sophisticated of critics, was also surreptitiously advancing a very British kind of popular paganism through his acknowledgment of the power of Eros. In hindsight, The Nude can be identified as a turning point for the incipient sexual revolution of the 60s.
Probably no one would be more surprised at this suggestion than Clark. His own indifference to what would later be identified by his many critics as “the politics of vision” makes him an unlikely radical. In his writing, the former academic historian aims to celebrate and admire the sensuality of the naked human form, expressing himself elegantly and without over-complication. As it happens, he is only partly successful.
Venus of Giorgione
In The Nude, the transition from the male nudes of Michelangelo, via the great Venuses of Giorgione and Titian, to the female nudes of Rubens and Ingres, sponsors an irruption of excitement into Clark’s narrative. He starts using a kind of language no art historian had explored before:
“The Venus of Giorgione is sleeping, without a thought of her nakedness. Compared with Titian’s Venus of Urbino [see bottom of page], she is like a bud, wrapped in its sheath, each petal folded so firmly as to give us the feeling of inflexible purpose. With Titian, the bud has opened… replaced by renaissance satisfaction in the here and now.”
François Boucher’s portrait of Louise O’Murphy: ‘Freshness of desire has seldom been more delicately expressed.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Having broken the taboo, Clark’s prose becomes decorously, but never deliriously, liberated. Describing François Boucher’s portrait of Miss O’Murphy he writes:
“Freshness of desire has seldom been more delicately expressed than by [her] round young limbs, as they sprawl with undisguised satisfaction on the silken cushions of her sofa. By art Boucher has enabled us to enjoy her with as little shame as she is enjoying herself. One false note and we should be embarrassingly back in the world of sin.”
Throughout the composition of this remarkable monograph, Clark was not merely battling his own inhibitions, he was having to find new ways to sustain his narrative line. As he admits in his preface to The Nude: “I soon discovered, that the subject is extremely difficult to handle. There is difficulty of form; a chronological survey would be long and repetitive, but almost every other pattern is unworkable. And there is a difficulty of scope; no responsible art historian would have attempted to cover both antique and post-medieval art.”
Rubens: Nymphs
Clark’s solution was to devote three long chapters at the heart of The Nude to the themes of energy, pathos and ecstasy, corresponding to classical (athletes and heroes), Christian (crucifixions and pietas) and finally some bacchanalian and gothic nudes. Throughout his narrative, Clark is fully alive to the ironies of his analysis, especially as he probes the depiction of the medieval nude:
“During the long banishment of the body there arose one symbol of pathos more poignant and more compelling than all the others: Our Lord on the Cross. Nothing in our subject shows more decisively the ideal character of the antique nude than that, in spite of the Christian horror of nakedness, it was the undraped figure of Christ which was finally accepted as canonical in representations of the Crucifixion.”
Strangely, for a critic whose work was contemporary with Picasso and Matisse, and especially Henry Moore, Clark has much less of interest to say about the nude in the 20th century. After the chaos and barbarism of the two world wars through which he had lived, the art historian was at pains to renew the classical contract between order, coherence and the human imagination. He concludes his narrative with the suggestion that “The Greeks perfected the nude in order that man might feel like a god, and in a sense this is still its function, for although we no longer suppose that God is like a beautiful man, we still feel close to divinity in those flashes of self-identification when, through our own bodies, we seem to be aware of a universal order.”
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: The Source
An instinctive quest for our civilisation and its towering humanistic values was never far from the core of Clark’s writing. The success of The Nude in the 1950s and 60s, before the sensational success of Civilisation, and before the critics, led by John Berger, turned on him, possibly indicates the deep and unconscious imperatives behind the Anglo-American passion for culture.

A signature sentence:

“In antique sarcophagi the nereids who balance on the tails of tritons must have been studied from nature for they are in exactly the pose adopted by their modern daughters in Italy who occupy an equally precarious seat on the pillions of motor scooters.”
Titian: La Venere d'Urbino