Sunday, October 29, 2006

Salisbury Plain October 29th

A sunny Sunday afternoon, 14 degrees C, as we revisit the MoD training grounds on Salisbury Plain. It's absolutely windless, and amazing that even as the clocks went back today, we can still walk around without coats. Almost, in the case of Clare.

Clare as we start our walk

As the picture shows, we've recently had a fair amount of rain, and the tanks have chewed up the ground. At various points small growing copses are fenced off to allow new growth, with signs keeping trucks and tanks out.

Keep Out!

Below was the farthest point of our walk. On the way back we saw strings of parachutists emerging at around 5-6,000 feet and doing violent turns on the way down. In this manoevre, the parafoil tips vertically and the pilot is swung round horizontally, as if on a fast carousel. You come down very fast.

The farthest point of our walk

Contrasting views of J. S. Bach

Just finished reading Christoph Wolff's excellent "Johann Sebastian Bach".

Bach led a relatively uneventful life in personal terms, moving between various appointments in what is now Southern Germany. Wolff's thorough and detailed biography succeeds in sketching the social and political environment in which JSB and his family lived and worked, which helps put the music into some kind of historical order. The 'BWV' catalogue is thematically organised, not historical and gives no help in understand the development of Bach's thinking, nor the circumstances under which he performed and composed.

So, reading Wolff was really useful, and prompted me to get a couple more works I was missing: specifically BWV 548 (Prelude and Fugue in E minor for Organ) and BWV 1014-19 (6 clavier trios).

Wolff consistently talks Bach up, even when he is at his most obsessionally obnoxious. He seems to have been an overpowering figure, and relentless in disputes. Nevertheless, his personality remains opaque (ENTJ?).

I had formerly reviewed "Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment" by James R. Gaines here (scroll down the page). Having now read Wolff, I think Gaines goes to the other extreme, exaggerating the ups and downs of Bach's career. When some of the favourites for the post of Cantor at St. Thomas School and Director of Music in Leipzig, had dropped out, leaving Bach as one of the few remaining candidates, it isn't obvious that when one member of the selection committee said: "As the best are not available, I suppose we must take one of the second-rate men" (p. 164) that he meant Bach. Wolff has the quote referring to someone else, who was not in fact chosen.

And although Bach's beloved second wife, Anna Magdalena, died an almswoman ten years after him, it is unlikely that she had been abandoned to dire poverty. The Leipzig social network was in all probability still working according to Wolff (p. 456).

Wolff does confirm, however, that audiences of the time found Bach as challenging as people do today. He was writing for the Saxon elite in Leipzig, and made few concessions to the mass market.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Marcus Aurelius - Meditations

Book given to me by Adrian, so I can speed-read it before he looks it over at his own pace. It's a kind of first-century blog - a collection of aphorisms as fresh now as when Marcus Aurelius crafted them in AD 170-180. I think the observations couldn't be bettered: any progress we have made is perhaps in understanding more deeply why the human experience is like that.

Random thought: isn't "Robin Hood" (BBC-1) just 'Spooks' in tights? Insouciant attitudes, fast cuts, snappy dialogue, contemporary references, lots of action?

Article in the Daily Telegraph today condemns the current dumbed-down BBC against top programmes made decades ago ('The Ascent of Man', 'Civilization'). Actually, guys, most of the output was always pretty low-brow.

There are very few stupid people involved in TV. Producing TV for the C1, C2 masses (say, IQ 85 - 105 with low 'Openness to Experience') is like producing tabloid newspapers. Bright people simulating ordinariness. In common with the author of the Telegraph piece, I find this boring, synthetic and depressing, but the target audience doesn't seem to have a problem. And that fact is actually quite interesting.

I am reminded of how Soaps are like 'ordinary people's' lives - with enhanced community, all the tedious bits cut out, and the emotionally-charged episodes massively highlighted. The primates gather round in fascination and awe, to see these super-primates in action. It's to normal social life as cheesecake is to normal fruit /milk ( a comparison due to Stephen Pinker).

I am sure Marcus Aurelius would have had something profound to say about that.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Letter to Basingstoke Council

Last night we went to see 'Blue on Blue', a play at the Haymarket Theatre in Basingstoke. At the end of the performance, the actors explained that the Theatre was about to close due to the withdrawal of funding by the local Council. They pleaded with us to write to the Council's CEO to reverse the decision at the Cabinet meeting the end of this month. Our letter follows.

Mr. Gordon Holdcroft
Chief Executive
Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council
Civic Offices
London Road
Basingstoke RG21 4AH

Dear Mr. Holdcroft,

We are writing to ask you to reconsider your decision to cease funding the Basingstoke Theatre Trust. We believe the consequences of the Theatre closing for an extended period, and then coming under the arm’s length management of the Anvil Trust would be to diminish the arts in Basingstoke.

It seems unclear that a financial case has been made. In all likelihood, the incremental savings would not be large. But the effects in community terms will be significant.

Basingstoke is in competition with a number of neighbouring towns which have a higher cultural profile: Salisbury and Winchester in particular. Basingstoke needs to provide its citizens with a facility which actively sponsors innovative writing and performance, and which nurtures talent. We believe that the Haymarket Theatre under its current management achieves this.

Art has always required public financial support, which recognises the positive community benefits from a thriving cultural landscape. We believe continuing to support the Basingstoke Theatre Trust would be squarely within this tradition and would ask that Cabinet reconsider its decision.

We would be grateful if you could copy this letter to all Councillors (including Cabinet members).

Yours faithfully,

Clare Youell and Nigel Seel

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Taoist take on death

"Chuang Tzu's wife died.

"When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. 'You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,' said Hui Tzu. 'It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing - this is going too far, isn't it?'

"Chuang Tzu said, 'You're wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there's been another change and she's dead. It's just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter.

"'Now she's going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don't understand anything about fate. So I stopped."

The above is from Chuang Tzu. I agree with it. The 'tub' sentiments are perhaps a little over-the-top, for emphasis. It recalls the famous (and similarly over-the-top) assertion of Lin Chi: "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha" (ref), which is meant to oppose both the cult of personality and any appeal to authority over reason.

Chuang Tzu is perhaps best known for the following text.

"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man."

But striking though this imagery is, its philosophical insight seems to me to be less than the initial reflection on the significance of death. Note that in its sense of the positioning of a finite life in the great space-time sweep of the universe, Chuang Tzu's position is not dissimilar to Einstein's view here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What is ‘Character’?

Remember the days when a person’s ‘character’ was important, and the English public schools were devoted to ‘character-building’? Those days of Empire are long past, and somehow the building of character seems less important, now that we have no perilous missions to undertake, at great personal risk.

Character seems to be different than personality. It has a stronger normative feel - ‘a person of good character’ - and we seem to think it can be trained (character-building) in a way that personality just seems innate.

In my metaphor of the mind, I rather sign up to the ‘triune brain' concept, founded on the evolutionary layering of the human brain on successive reptilian (hind brain), mammalian (limbic system) and human (neocortical) ‘platforms’.

Since all these systems retain a degree of integrity and run in parallel, they each compete for control of the body and consequent expression in overt behaviour. We are intuitively quite familiar with these concepts. We talk of ‘animal lusts’ when primitive satiative drives take over, and ‘panic’ when fear/avoidance impulses seize control. These are all hind-brain functions.

Limbic system dominance manifests itself in cloying sentimentality or over-emotionality. Psychologists talk of the ‘neurotic personality’.

Neocortical dominance surely expresses itself in the over-controlled and emotionless ‘Spock-like’ behaviour of the stereotypical detached intellectual.

My thesis would be that none of the above, one-sided developments of ‘character’ are taken to be ideal by the great systems of the world which meditate upon the perfectibility of man. Philosophical Taoism for example is in essence a series of allusive prescriptions for ‘the perfect man’ (prescriptions understood as genderless, of course). The great religions also have this focus as one of their centre points and objectives.

If there is to be a concept of the optimal or harmonious interworking between the elements of the triune brain to express the best or highest form of character, then there has to be a ‘specification’ of what that perfect model should be. Where would we expect to find that specification?

I think in the theory of optimal social organisation. All the complexities of the human brain and human behaviour emerge from the conflicting demands of the human body per se, and the demands of the social organisation without which no human can survive. In the 'environment of evolutionary adaptedness', that is the tribe, of course.

Looking at optimal social roles, it seems unlikely that there is exactly one superior character type. Perhaps we should start with the temperament model empirically documented by theorists such as Keirsey. Consider his taxonomy of Guardian, Artisan, Rational, Idealist and try to understand the balance of internal drives which would allow each temperament to operate in its own way, as an ideal-type.

So, taking the Rational temperament as an example, we would ideally prefer intellectuals (neocortically dominant) who had sufficient warmth (a limbic function) to create social bonds and influence people effectively, and who were still sufficiently in touch with their reptilian-level drives that they could use aggression and fear constructively, rather than either repressing those drives or succumbing to them in mindless capitulation (cf. the Jungian ‘shadow’). So there’s a possible recipe for an intellectual with a ‘good character’.

I guess you could do a similar exercise for the other temperaments. Should be a Ph. D. thesis in there for someone.