State of the Union

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: Ode to a World That Once Was

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

In his study of “how Europe went to war in 1914,” The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark challenges the conventional wisdom that Austria-Hungary was an empire in decline heading toward an inevitable downfall. He argues instead that during the last pre-World War I decade, the Habsburg Empire had gone “through a phase of economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity” as well as experimenting with “a slow and unmistakable progress towards a more accommodating policy on national rights.” He argues that could have created the conditions for a process of political reform and devolution of power, perhaps even to the evolution of a federalized system.

Clark recalls that many of the activists and the intellectuals who, carried by the euphoria of national independence, had celebrated the dismemberment of the Austria-Hungary after the Great War admitted in later years that they were wrong. He quotes Hungarian writer Mihály Babits who, as he reflected in 1939 on the collapse of the monarchy, wrote: “we now regret the loss and weep for the return for the what we once hated: We are now independent, but instead of feeling joy we can only tremble.”

While director Wes Anderson’s latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is not pre-occupied with such issues as the sources of imperial decay, the rise of nationalism and other political elements that brought about the collapse of Austro-Hungary, the movie does convey a certain nostalgic longing for that empire’s bygone era, meshed with a certain melancholic sentimentalism shared by those who missed it.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is actually not set in pre-WWI Habsburg at all, but in a resort town in the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka. It centers around the mythical concierge, M. Gustave H. (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) who works at the elegant Grand Budapest Hotel during the pre-WWII years. None of the characters in the movie mention the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked WWI, or the collapse of the Habsburg Empire; for that matter, there are no references to Adolph Hitler and the rise of Nazism.

But in its soft color shades, decorative architectural style, and charming pastry stores, the fictional Zubrowka looks as though it was carved out of Austria-Hungary’s finest days, while the sense of decadence and darkness and foreboding evil conveys the horrors of the approaching World War II. And Anderson himself made it clear in interviews with journalists that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is, indeed, a bittersweet tribute to the bygone era of pre-WWI Vienna.

The movie opens and closes with scenes of a hotel that has been transformed from a monument to the majestic into what looks like charmless and crumbling guesthouse, where the current owner, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), recalls through long flashbacks the days in which he worked as a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) under the legendary Gustave. An educated and well-mannered concierge, Gustave exudes Old World temperament and seems to be unable to adjust to the realities of a crumbling civilizational order, as dandy aristocrats and classy ladies leave the stage and the well-mannered gentleman who headed the local police force (Edward Norton) is replaced by a ruthless Nazi-like militia leader.

Gustave was “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” is the way Zero remembers his mentor. The two are embroiled in the theft of an artwork that becomes the central plot of the film involving a set of characters that you would meet in an Ernst Lubitsch film. Read More…

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Richard Powers and the Blown-Up Cultural Narrative

J Blough /
J Blough /

Andrew Leonard has a fascinating, if discursive, profile in Salon of the novelist Richard Powers. In it, Powers registers a note of discontent with the proliferation of both pop-musical content—the “insane torrent,” as he puts it in his latest novel Orfeo—and all the digital mechanisms that deliver it today.

“Suppose you were born in 1962 and you are coming into your own and music starts to become essential to you,” says Powers. “You are right on the tail end of that sort of folk rock thing, but you are aware historically of how these guys were revolting in a way against the previous generation. And because of the nature of the distribution mechanisms that you talk about, where it’s two radio stations and one record store, there’s a saturation effect for whatever is in vogue and there has to be a countervailing cultural move just to refresh our ears. And that’s the start of punk.

“So you can see these revolutions and counter-revolutions and you can see a historical motion to popular music and it’s thrilling and you want to know what happens next. The state that you just described of permanent wonderful eclectic ubiquitous interchangeable availability — there’s no sense of historical thrust.”

Leonard sums up the point thus: “Universal ubiquity has blown up the narrative.”

There’s something to this, I think. Granted, I’m pushing 40; I’m not as hip to trends as I was when I was a kid, and certainly not when I was covering them for a daily newspaper. But the point is, it’s undeniably the case that it was once fairly easy for a casual music fan to keep abreast of the latest thing. Right up until the early aughts and the passel of “The [monosyllabic plural-noun]” bands playing neo-garage rock: that’s the last time I can remember there being some kind of identifiable “movement” in rock music.

Now there is no one thing.

As a caveat, I will admit it’s somewhat rockist to think along these lines. Just because Pharrell Williams or Bruno Mars or Robin Thicke aren’t trad-rock frontmen, why can’t they be seen as the vanguard of an eclectic dance-pop revival?

Point taken.

And part of the fragmentation that Powers laments isn’t even technologically-driven; it’s generational and racial. Much of what we would’ve called rock music 30 years ago now falls under the rubric of country music. It’s Top 40 for white people. It’s blues-based rock tricked out with splashes of fiddle and pedal-steel. (Bruce Springsteen astutely noticed this recently: “country music is kind of where rock music has gone, really, at this point … It’s basically kind of pop-rock music … It’s where rock music continues to have a certain currency.”)

So, a good chunk of the energy in rock-ish songwriting is devoted to the Nashville machine, which critics don’t take terribly seriously and hence wouldn’t bother to suss out trends that fit on the continuum of Powers’s reaction/counter-reaction “historical thrust.”

All that said, I suspect Powers is right. We’ve probably seen the last of swing-turns-to-bop or prog-is-wiped-out-by-punk cultural shifts in popular music. Powers seems to quite openly admit that these shifts had been abetted by self-styled tastemakers, who have seen a drastic decline in influence over the last 15 years. He argues unabashedly that the culture desperately requires those media filters.

I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. Then again, I say that having come of age in a culture that had filters. I say I can do without them. But I was shaped by them. What about my kids’ generation: how will they know what’s good, what’s worth listening to, what (as a Clash fan would have put it) matters?

They’ll be free of a “narrative” imposed from above. Instead they will have the “insane torrent.”

Everything will be at their fingertips.

But perhaps they will miss greatness right under their noses.

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Folger’s “Richard III”: Something Rotten in the State of England

Richard III (Drew Cortese) / Teresa Wood
Richard III (Drew Cortese) / Teresa Wood

The Folger Theatre’s production of Richard III is the first production the institution has ever staged in the round. As the audience surrounds the stage, their eyes are all turned inward, to a center that cannot hold. But in this production, the complex character shattering under the strain of internal divisions isn’t the titular King; it’s the land he rules.

From his first entrance, Richard III (Drew Cortese) seems oddly unburdened for Shakespeare’s antihero. His limp is a loping skip, so exaggerated that I wondered if it was meant to be an affectation employed by Richard-the-character to discomfit his targets. However, that kind of artifice would be out of step with the unusual forthrightness of his spite in this production. Whether he’s seducing Anne, accusing the Queen, or ordering the execution of Hastings, he is quick and vicious, never charming or manipulative.

It seemed like the audience’s unique perspective was being carried over from his soliloquies and asides to the entire text of the play. We witnessed Richard’s naked contempt, even as he presumably presented a more flattering face to his targets.

But that hypothesis was disproved by Act III, Scene VII, when the audience was finally explicitly cast as Richard’s audience. As his accomplices, Buckingham and Catesby, whip up the Lord Mayor and the people of London to acclaim Richard as King, the Mayor stands in the aisle, and the audience represents the throng he leads.

There should be no asides in this scene, since any moment that Richard drops the mask and reveals his ugliness to the audience, he would also be revealing it to his subjects. However, this Richard continued to roll his eyes, sneer his lines, and exaggeratedly pretended to pray throughout the scene.

I began to wonder if I had been mistaken. Perhaps the audience had never seen a private side of Richard, and he really had been this snide and unsubtle to all the characters from the beginning. If this Richard can succeed—by pure brutality—there’s something rotten in the state of England.

“Richard III” is part of a tetralogy of history plays by Shakespeare that span the Wars of the Roses. The play opens in peacetime, as Richard informs us, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” but, in this production, the kingdom is not at rest.

When King Edward IV tries to mend relationships between rival factions in his court, all the nobles in this production openly scorn the attempt. A courtier kisses the hand of the queen and then pointedly wipes his lips clean once the king has passed on. The queen herself uses the bows of the nobles to humiliate them.

In the Folger’s staging, Richard isn’t set apart from the court by his vices, only by using his anger to orchestrate his own advancement, rather than waste it on fleeting insults, like the rest of the nobility. More than in most productions, there was no innocent foil to contrast Richard with. Read More…

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A Preview of the Oscar’s Best Picture Nominees

It’s that time of year again: the glitz, the glamor, the gowns. Who will go home with a coveted statue, and who will go home empty-handed? This year’s Oscar-nominated films were particularly heartfelt and inspiring (or about as close as Hollywood can manage), and TAC’s culture critic Noah Millman has seen most of them. He can tell you which ones are worth watching—or rewatching:

 American Hustle
Loosely based on the Abscam scandal, David O. Russell takes a crack at screwball dramedy, with mixed results. Millman writes: “Russell wants it both ways – he wants you to enjoy the Scorcesean roller-coaster even as at every turn he’s showing you that his real pleasure tilt-a-whirl. And it turns out you can’t quite have it both ways.”

12 Years a Slave
The film’s undiluted portrait of slavery that had audiences sobbing in the theater is nominated for Best Picture—and the two leads, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, are nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. Lupita Nyongo is also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Millman criticized director Steve McQueen for failing to end the film on a positive note: “McQueen doesn’t give us that uplifting twist… McQueen could have shown us a determined Northrup engaged in t[he] pursuit [of his captors], vowing never to rest, and ended his movie on an ‘up’ note. He chose not to.”

The genre-bending romantic drama of a man who falls in love with his operating system is a thought-provoking tale of humans’ dependency on their machines. Millman describes the film as  “…a particularly clever Pygmalion story, one that is more attuned to what a modern man might actually want in a fantasy companion, as opposed to a mere sexual fantasy.”

Millman compares Alexander Payne’s newest film to his 2002 work “About Schmidt”, a rambling, dour film about an unhappy old man: “Payne’s new movie, ‘Nebraska,’ has a lot in common with ‘About Schmidt.’ Both are set primarily in Nebraska; both deal with elderly men who feel they have missed life somehow (and associate that missing out with having married June Squibb), and who go on a quixotic road trip in a roundabout way of trying to resolve their existential dilemmas.”

Critics have raved about the gorgeous cinematography and complained about the nail-biting twists and turns this film makes. Millman offers praise for the visual component of the film.Enormous effort has been put into getting the physics right, and that effort pays off magnificently. The film is stunningly beautiful – more than that, it is sublime (to use the Burkean distinction).”

 Captain Phillips
Based on a true story of a commercial ship hijacked by Somali pirates, Millman praises director Paul Greengrass’s ability to depart from the classic thriller structure to weave a more complex narrative: “The structure he’s chosen, which takes real risks in terms of pacing, allows him to draw that straight line between Captain Phillips’s resourcefulness and the might of the U.S. Navy, while also showing what, and who, lies on the other side of that line.”

Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street
Rod Dreher doesn’t comprehensively review these two films, but sheds very important light on the religious and moral undertones of both films, bringing their messages into stark relief. Noah Millman in his Oscar post calls Philomena  ”a sweet little film, well-written and well-structured.” He gives faint praise to “The Wolf of Wall Street” but claims too much time is given to the protagonist, who, in Millman’s estimation, ”just isn’t a very interesting person.”

The Dallas Buyers Club
While TAC did not review this film, the New Yorker’s review is more than apt, and appropriately highlights Matthew McConaughey’s transformation from romantic comedy beach bum to a serious dramatic actor.

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Understanding Fuddy-Duddy Beatle Haters

The occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show has inspired some obligatory guffawing at those old squares who greeted the band with derision. One putdown that fairly stands out for its utter revulsion was from none other than William F. Buckley, who wrote in the Boston Globe in September 1964:

The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”

Without appearing willfully contrarian, I get where these critics were coming from, if only in a roundabout sort of way. I’m an enthusiast of early rock and all its British exponents, from both London and Liverpool; I appreciate and admire the Beatles just fine; etc. Yet at the end of the day I’m a Stones guy—and I can’t help but bristle when Beatlemaniacs diminish the Stones for their comparative lack of technical sophistication or proficiency. There is no end to my puzzlement at those who swear by the Beatles because of their proto-progressivity. Because here’s the thing: rock-and-roll really was retrogressive. Yes, even the Beatles.

Oh, I can just hear you out there. Look at George’s sweet jazz-guitar technique!

To which I can only respond, give me a freakin’ break.

George—a lovely player; in my opinion, the finest of the three Beatles guitarists—could never have hung with the likes of Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Les Paul, or Wes Montgomery, all of whose mastery of the guitar (in the 1950s!) far exceeded that of any rock-and-roller of the 1960s. This is to say nothing of Django or Charlie Christian.

For all the magic that the Beatles, with not a little help from the classically trained George Martin, created in the studio; for all their genius at crafting songs, there is not a chord or trope or motif of theirs that Cole Porter and George Gershwin would not have recognized. As Elijah Wald has noted, the Beatles did not so much push musical boundaries forward as they consolidated the earlier advances of other 20th century greats, from Louis Armstrong all the way to Tin Pan Alley. (I’m reminded of a bit of trivia I learned from Terry Teachout: the Beatles had mistakenly thought they were the first ones to end a tune on a 6th chord. Martin informed them that Glenn Miller already had.)

Again, don’t misunderstand: I’m a Beatles fan. I appreciate the unparalleled pop-cultural phenomenon that they were. But if I squint just a little, I find it easy to put myself in the shoes of someone who’d lived through hot jazz and hard bop, and who found the Beatles to be amateurish lightweights. In my own shoes, I would defend the Beatles without denying this fact. The amateurishness of rock music was a feature, not a bug. And it still is. If your passion for the Beatles stems from this outsize opinion of their technical competence, I regret to inform you, you’re doing it wrong.

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Dyscommunication: “Tribes” at DC’s Studio Theatre


If you couldn’t understand what your family was saying, would you understand them better or worse?

Nina Raines’s ”Tribes” opens with four Britons hurling abuse at each other around the kitchen table. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s mostly just crass and painful: Mom, Dad, brother and sister describing one another’s passions, hopes, beliefs, and sex lives in the most contemptuous terms possible. The fifth member of the family is deaf and yeah, you do feel that perhaps he’s the lucky one.

As the play moves forward, the younger characters get shades and nuance. (The parents, and especially the cartoonishly self-centered father, remain pretty much the same.) Daniel (Richard Gallagher), the hearing son, shows flashes of haunted vulnerability which reveal a gulf of misery under cover of vituperation. The entire family has raised Billy (James Caverly, who starts off with a beatific smile which is clearly at least partly a mask or role) to read lips rather than to sign. They’ve developed an ideological resistance to anything which smacks of Deaf culture.

They genuinely believe they’re protecting Billy, but they’re also terrified of losing their beloved son and brother to a culture which can promise him a kind of belonging they can’t offer. When that masky smile finally slips and Billy says that they view him as the family mascot, the audience can tell that it’s not true: If anything, he’s the family conscience, the only one they allow to be good, the only one they’ll openly love. Of course, he’s also the only one they never need to listen to.

When the play begins, the family is all trapped together. The hearing children, Daniel and Ruth, have retreated to the family home after a series of romantic and professional defeats in the outside world. (“I feel like a bonsai tree!” Ruth yells, in a line which got big, empathetic laughs.) Billy never left, has never had a job or a girlfriend. One of the major themes of the play is the fact that belonging is rarely chosen; you don’t get to pick the elements which make up your identity, the ties which bind. You can try to leave—and seriously, Daniel at least should do everything in his power to get out of his parents’ house, because they’re actively damaging his psyche; this isn’t a play about the comforts of home—but you will eventually have to return, if only to give an account of yourself.

There are some terrific little moments (the play’s humor eventually does become actually funny), often involving how much impromptu “sign” this resolutely anti-sign-language family uses. There are tough, basically unanswerable questions about how language shapes us and separates us from others: As Billy’s new girlfriend goes deaf, she wonders if she’s losing the ability to understand nuances and ambiguities which can’t be expressed in sign. Read More…

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Defending the Case Against Woody Allen

What happens when an artist finds himself above reproach? Woody Allen, it would seem, finds himself in this rather fortunate position, even as new allegations about his conduct toward stepdaughter Dylan Farrow emerge. In a New York Times piece published Saturday, she described the sexual abuse Allen inflicted on her as a seven-year-old girl. She says the abuse has haunted her throughout her life: “Each time I saw my abuser’s face—on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television—I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.”

If any politician or pundit faced these accusations, one would hope they would lose their position, or at least be subjected to careful scrutiny and investigation. Yet in Allen’s case, many are willing to shrug off the immensity of the crime because of his great artistic talent. Rod Dreher wrote in a blogpost a few days ago, “I completely agree that Allen is a pig—if there were no Dylan Farrow accusations at all, his unrepented-of conduct with Soon-Yi Previn was enough to establish his swinishness—but that does not detract from his accomplishments as a filmmaker.”

Perhaps these allegations do not diminish Allen’s accomplishments. But even so, one must carefully consider the ethics of this position. Maureen Orth gathered substantive accusations in 1992 that supported claims of inappropriate behavior by Allen toward Dylan Farrow when she was little. Allen has denied all accusations, and continues to live without culpability. Does one continue to watch his movies, to view and enjoy his art? Andrew Sullivan thinks so, though he seems to believe Farrow is telling the truth:

Perhaps with less essential talents, the sins may more adequately define the artist. But that, in many ways, only makes the injustice worse. Those with the greatest gifts can get away with the greatest crimes.

We can and should rail against this, while surely also be realistically resigned to it. It struck me, for example, rather apposite that as the blogosphere is debating whether to boycott Woody Allen’s films in the future because of this horrifying story, exponentially more people are tuning into the Super Bowl to watch a game we now know will render many of its players mentally incapacitated in their middle ages and beyond. We know that this spectacle is based on the premise of brain damage for many of its participants, but we watch anyway.

This argument appears flawed and alarming to me for a couple simple reasons. First, the Super Bowl comparison does not hold, because tackle football’s dangers and horrors are all known to the athletes involved, and they engage in the sport voluntarily. If Peyton Manning’s concern over his future health and wellbeing ever trumped his desire to play football and make money, he could resign in a heartbeat. He plays football on his own prerogative, and he bears the consequences of his own actions. How do the choices of a 37-year-old man with power, fame, and athletic prowess compare to the involuntary and frightened oppression of a seven-year-old girl? Read More…

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How Place Fosters Art

In a lovely piece at the Poetry Foundation, “Prioritizing Place,” Sandra Beasley ponders the rootedness (or roaming) of various poets. Does it help poets’ art to remain in one place? She writes:

Region need not monopolize your motifs. To paraphrase Molly Peacock when she talks about received forms, regionalism is not a box to cram your poems into; regionalism provides the bones that let the skeleton dance. Some geographic affiliations are involuntary, tied to childhood or marriage years. The poet may learn to love the unbeautiful, working through distaste toward deeper understanding of a community.

Yet at the same time, Beasley’s piece looks at region as the clay, and poet as the model. She quotes Richard Hugo, a poet of the Pacific Northwest, who once told a pupil, “Everybody’s a regional poet to some extent, but the region from which you write is merely the lens. The real region is you.”

Contrast this with the attitude of poet Wendell Berry, whose work seems to suggest that place is the shaper, and we are its clay. His works all center in an around a singly community which, in its tangled and sundry doings, created a rhythm of human relationship. Driving roots into community, living amongst others with constancy, is something different than living within region as mere lens.

Berry’s poetic living requires love: love for land, and for people. Without this love, it is very easy to escape into other territory—whether it be physical roaming, or an inner withdrawal. There is nothing to suggest in Beasley’s piece that place has a sort of authoritative cadence or order by which its inhabitants live. She writes of towns that have “been made great largely by its fixed stars, their immediate gaze and winking light.”

This is where Phillip Jensen’s excellent insights at Cardus come in. This farmer writes of the “liturgy” inherent in creation, the rhythm and song embedded within the very fabric of the universe. By farming and building a relationship with the land, he writes, he has found himself more fully “in tune” with this song: “This liturgy of creation has been sung since the beginning but is today in need of formal recognition and articulation because our lives have become so distant from its song.”

The poet should always be looking for the rhythm, the cadence undergirding common life. This, Jensen suggests, is something that can be found—not exclusively, but with greater depth—in and about creation. His suggestions in the article (to explore wilderness, work the land, wonder in creation, and worship through liturgy) should, in this sense, be useful to any writer or poet.

One thinks of King David, the famous “warrior poet” whose poetry often revolved around creation and its awe-inspiring beauty—“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” he wrote in Psalm 8:2-4.

The city, notes Jensen, has beauties and rhythms of its own. However, he adds a worthy note of caution to the urban dweller: “…The separation that city life, when unbalanced, can engender between our lives and creation, coupled with an insidious utilitarianism, means that we rarely hear the song and when we do we think the song is about us.”

This seems to be the pitfall of Beasley’s piece: she has heard the song, or at least a few notes of it, but seems to think this song is stemming from listeners—when in fact, they are merely channeling its presence.

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Beauty: Siren or Savior?

Félix Ziem - The Call of the Sirens / Wikimedia Commons
Félix Ziem - The Call of the Sirens / Wikimedia Commons

Was Dostoyevsky right when he said, “Beauty will save the world”? One of my favorite pieces on the subject came from Jeffrey Bilbro at Front Porch Republic this fall. Bilbro referenced Solzhenitsyn’s opinion on the subject, as stated in a Nobel Lecture:

…Perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?

There is a problem—partly addressed by Bilbro, and holistically addressed by Robert Royal in a post at The Catholic Thing last Monday, that must be noted: namely, beauty often serves more as an illusory temptress than as a guide to the divine. How do we distinguish between illuminating beauty and a false, hollow sort? Royal explains with a passage from Dante’s Purgatorio, when Dante dreams of a beautiful woman:

She ‘gan to sing so, that with difficulty
Could I have turned my thoughts away from her.

“I am,” she sang, “I am the Siren sweet
Who mariners amid the main unman,
So full am I of pleasantness to hear.

I drew Ulysses from his wandering way
Unto my song, and he who dwells with me
Seldom departs so wholly I content him.”

Her mouth was not yet closed again, before
Appeared a Lady saintly and alert
Close at my side to put her to confusion.

“Virgilius, O Virgilius! who is this?”
Sternly she said; and he was drawing near
With eyes still fixed upon that modest one.

She seized the other and in front laid open,
Rending her garments, and her belly showed me;
This waked me with the stench that issued from it.

It’s a poignant passage, and leads us to Royal’s vital question: “When is what appears beautiful a reflection of the divine—and when is it a Siren’s song?”

This reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel’s protagonist is a handsome young man who makes “beauty” his goal and end in life—and ultimately destroys his life through this search. The novel is full of rich pictorial imagery, but Wilde’s descriptions of nature and people seem purposefully transient. The beauty depicted is of a temporal sort, never referencing a higher, deeper, or truer meaning. Beauty is more “pleasing” than “good.” One notable exception would be the young, tragic Sibyl Vane, whose goodness and beauty are inextricably linked (and in the end, constitute her downfall). Gray could not tell the difference between a pleasurable beauty and “good” beauty. How can we differentiate between the two?

Both Bilbro and Royal believe our society has a picture of beauty that’s either reductive or deceptive. Bilbro writes, “Currently, our cultural aesthetic is, in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, sickly and pale: we too often confuse the pretty, the mere appearance, for true beauty, hence our acceptance of lush green lawns that cause water pollution … We have to be able to see the whole to perceive beauty (again, note the connection between beauty and health).  Analysis of the beautiful, if it does not begin with a vision of the whole and keep this vision constantly in mind, quickly devolves into an abstract rummaging through dead parts.” This idea of reduced beauty gives us the sense that something has been lost in our searching—that whatever beauty constitutes, it is something richer and deeper than most modern definitions. Read More…

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The 5 Best Food Blogs to Follow in 2014

Marie C Fields / Shutterstock
Marie C Fields / Shutterstock

Julia Child offers this advice in her book My Life in France: “Learn how to cook—try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” Many people create resolutions at the beginning of the new year—often of a fitness or diet-related nature. But cooking is more than merely a means to a slimmer persona. At its finest, cooking is art, and—as Child put it—it’s fun.

One of modern technology’s greatest benefits lies in its educational capability. For the aspiring cook, these learning possibilities are nearly endless. While one can easily learn tricks of the trade from admirable sources like Bon AppétitCooks Illustratedand other cooking magazines, we also have a new source of inspiration in food bloggers: a group of people whose chronicles and recipes are more personal than magazine articles, and offer us a variety we can’t get elsewhere.

After following a plethora of interesting food bloggers over the course of 2013, I have created a list of my ten favorites. Hopefully these writers and recipes will inspire some this year: to cook (or bake) something new, to host a dinner party, perhaps even to try an ingredient long banished from your shelf. Most of all, I hope they inspire you to enjoy your kitchen throughout the year.

#1. Food52 Blog

In all honesty, Food52 is more than just a food blog. The website, replete with cooking resources and recipes, is more of a meeting place for amateur and professional cooks alike. Their blog features a variety of guest bloggers and writers, and their columns add spice and wisdom to excellent recipes. It’s an invaluable resource, and the blog is updated daily (often multiple times). Some favorite recipes tried recently: cardamom snickerdoodlesmaple chipotle sweet potatoes, and their pumpkin cinnamon rolls.

#2. Smitten Kitchen

Deb Perlman is a cook with very diverse and useful recipes. Whether looking for a classic gingerbread recipe or chili inspiration, she often has what I need. Her writing style is also fun and humorous. I love her fig, olive oil, and sea salt challah (perfect for Easter dinner) and her dry-rub oven chicken.

#3. Local Milk

Beth Kirby is a locavore, photographer, and storyteller (as well as an excellent cook). Her recipes take Tennessee cooking—with all its lard and okra—and gives it a modern twist. Some of my favorite recipes include her hand pies (muscadine rose and blueberry, basil, and goat cheese) and sweet potato gnocchi.

#4. David Lebovitz

Lebovitz’s blog is an essential resource for the inquisitive cook. He has written six cooking books, and blogs from Paris, often sharing insights into its restaurants, cooking, and atmosphere. This whole wheat croissant recipe is on my to-make list for the month—and you have to try his shakshuka.

#5. Love and Lemons

For those who desire a more health-focused blog, this is a great resource. Bloggers Jack and Jeanine share mouthwatering, “veggie-centric” foods (though neither of them avoid meats entirely). Their recipes are fresh and colorful, and make healthy eating inspiring. Their salads are wonderful.

There are countless other worthy blogs I could mention. Those with a passion for baking must visit Joy the Baker‘s blog. But at some point, we must stop looking at the pictures and recipes, stop saying, “I wish I could make something like that,” and pull out the flour and spices. Many of these food bloggers are not professional cooks. Many are mothers, writers, and food-lovers who simply decided to try something new. This is, perhaps, the reason they can inspire us most.

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