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Thoughts On And For A Structured Existence

Wasted Time: “I Had Not Thought Social Media Had Undone So Many”

“Augmented Times,
Under the bright skies of a summer day,
A crowd streamed through Heisler Park, so many,
I had not thought social media had undone so many.
Comments, brief and isolated, were blurted,
And each person locked their eyes upon a smartphone.”

(Adapted from “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot)

The enduring fascination and importance, for me, of T.S. Eliot’s modernist, compressed epic poem “The Waste Land” (1922) is that it is at first obscure and intimidating, but opens up and rewards readers with the power of poetic “allusion“. Eliot seeks “to express an age through expression of self“.

How have billions of people come to express themselves in our “New Media Age”?

By uploading and posting photos, selfies and videos from their smartphones to social media sites. Pictures (“worth a thousand words”) are the ultimate form of compression, with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest allowing members to create epic moments.

The people in Laguna Beach reminds one of Eliot’s crowd that “flowed over London Bridge”. The beauty of the ocean, rocky coastline and beaches obscured as they stared at the small screens of their iPhones. Turning a picturesque reality into a virtual one. Self-expression to a thousand friends.

“My Kingdom For A Nail”: How The Conquest Of The Veneti In Gaul Launched The Roman Empire

Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BC) completed the defeat of Gaul in 51 BC, extending Rome’s reach to the English Channel, creating the imperial foundation that launched the Roman Empire (27 BC – 395 AD).

Caesar wrote of battling the seafaring Celtic Veneti, whose fleet of superior, larger ships (with no oars) were made of heavy oak transoms fastened by long iron nails “the thickness of a thumb“. Only by slashing the halyards of the Veneti’s leather sails did he disable and defeat the enemy.

Hand-forged iron nails (10” and longer) revolutionized Roman shipbuilding (bigger warships and merchant fleets), fortified military camps (“Castra“), and siege engines. Military Engineering progressed steadily from each conquest, merging and perfecting innovations of other cultures on a scale that the world had never seen before. Size matters in world domination.

Rome’s insatiable need for iron ore demanded improved metallurgy,  conquest of distant territories, and the stable administration of mines in those lands, including Spain, Portugal, Austria, Britain, Egypt and Carthage (Tunisia).

Five Iron Nails from Roman Fortress of 83 AD  at Inchtuthil in Scotland excavated in 1960 photoA Roman Fortress in Britain (Scotland), dating to 83 AD, was excavated in 1952-65 and found to have 750,000 iron nails buried in a pit. Distant outposts used the same heavy hardware throughout the Empire.

“For the want of a nail”. Not this kingdom.


Shakespeare’s Inventive And Elusive Critique Of The Church During The 16th Century English Reformation

BBC Radio 3 recently presented the podcast “Shakespeare: Religion and Clerics“, featuring the Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London and Professor Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham.

Playwrights, during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-1625), were prohibited by Royal Proclamation from writing about religious matters on the stage. So history’s greatest English writer innovates.

King Lear   Take physic, pomp. Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them And show the heavens more just.

Bishop Chartres recites a passage where “King Lear”, no longer in his castle, calls on powerful men (“the Church”!) to embrace “compassion” and “fairness” in his Orson Welles-like voice:

People were commanded to take sides in the great divide between Protestants and Catholics, or risk death. Chartres discusses Shakespeare’s message, asking the audience to “go beyond those antagonisms” to “search for a truth that is elusive”, “and only is revealed if you look from various angles and perspectives”.

The presenter, Rana Mitter, and Professor Fernie discuss Shakespeare’s use of Falstaff to parody religious actions lacking conviction:

Falstaff  To die is to be a counterfit

To “Counterfeit” is “to stage resurrection on the Shakespearean stage”, “linked to the second life of an actor playing another part”, as in acting the part of a born-again Christian. Hypocrites never “feel what wretches feel”.

Public Education: Can Individual Excellence Reform Mediocracy?

   Nadia Lopez, Principal and Founder of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in 2010, a public middle school focusing on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) in “one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods” in Brooklyn, NY, is battling a true Shakespearean array of toil and trouble: The Public Education Mediocracy. Mediocracy Definition

In her newly released book “The Bridge To Brilliance”, she “faces challenging students, exhausted parents, overwhelmed teachers, and low test scores“. The true nemesis is a culture of low expectations and despair that defines many public schools in America.

She calls her students “scholars”, challenging teachers, parents, community and educational establishment to be engaged and accountable. She asks:

“How are you making the difference in the lives of children?”

Ms. Lopez is on the front line of education, motivating and inspiring students each day, leading  them on a path to college and lifetime success.

The NEA, the guardian of the status quo, provided a nice quote by the poet William Butler Yeats for its 2016 American Education Week:

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Ms. Lopez would agree, but would add a little Mahatma Gandhi:

The future depends on what you do today.

“Too Many Notes”: Juggling Comedy, Satire And Social Commentary

  Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes…”
“Amadeus” (1984), Academy Award for Best Picture

    Malcolm Gladwell’s recent (and excellent) “Paradox of Satire” podcast (from “Revisionist History” series) has launched a necessary debate as to the place “Satire” has within televised comedy programming.

…it requires interpretation…”  

Gladwell makes the case that popular comedy shows, such as “The Colbert Report”, and comedians such as Tina Fey, simply overwhelm audiences with humorous “skits”. The Roman satirical poet Juvenal (late 1st – early 2nd centuries AD) echoed this almost 2,000 years ago when he wrote:

Honesty is admired, and starves.”.

Laughter can starve the effectiveness of satire and social commentary in the human brain through a psychological condition called “Cognitive Load“. This mental juggling, or multitasking, can overburden the working memory of most people. Thus, conservatives and liberals alike default to “stereotypes”, seeing their biases reinforced even when negatively portrayed.

The traditional purpose of satire is social criticism of abusive conditions in society, with the hope of bringing about change. And that takes courage. But comedians need ratings and laughs to stay on the air. Satire gives comedy a nice cache, but will wither before the bright lights and cameras.

Hemingway And Montaigne: Do Actions Or Thought Maketh A Man?

   It can be very useful to contrast human character types, such as in Ivan Turgenev’s “Hamlet and Don Quixote” essay (1860). The lives of Ernest Hemingway and Michel de Montaigne highlight the dual nature of what it is to be a man.

To Hemingway, it is “…much better to die in all the happy period of undisillusioned youth, to go out in a blaze of light, than to have your body worn out and old and illusions shattered…”. His writing venerated the “…macho façade of boxing, bullfighting, big-game hunting and deep-sea fishing…”, primarily outdoor activities requiring courage and “grace under pressure“. One had to stare danger in the face to feel alive.

As for Montaigne: There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous…than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts. The greatest men make it their vocation, “those for whom to live is to think. He sought the contemplative life, inside his tower and surrounded by books, valuing contentment in “…a private sphere in which individuals can attempt to realize that happiness without having to contend with the interference of society..”.

Hemingway lived life on the outer edge, while Montaigne preferred the calm of the center.

Presumption And Humility

“To really learned men has happened what happens to ears of wheat: they rise high and lofty, heads erect and proud, as long as they are empty; but when they are full and swollen with grain in their ripeness, they begin to grow humble and lower their horns. Similarly, men who have tried everything and sounded everything, having found in that pile of knowledge and store of so many various things nothing solid and firm, and nothing but vanity, have renounced their presumption and recognized their natural condition.”

“The Complete Essays of Montaigne”
Book II, Part XII “Apology for Raimond de Sebonde
Translated by Donald M. Frame

   The early 21st Century may well be defined by future historians and critics as the “Age of Presumption”, characterized by googled facts, shallow thinking, time spent watching Reality TV, Sports and Superhero Movies, while posting selfies to Facebook. True knowledge organically evolves into wisdom only through deep thought, an embrace of experience and life-long learning, and self-conceived humility. Michel de Montaigne, the great French Essayist and Skeptic, famously posited “What do I know?”. But this humble mantra is most likely the road to “Know Thyself“, one of the oldest of Greek maxims.

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