In Defense of Stigma, Against the “International Style,” and Kerouac’s Beatific Visions
Good morning. Let’s start things off with a few items from the ancient and medieval world. In Spectator, Daisy Dunn writes about Pliny the Elder sailing headlong towards Mount Vesuvius: “For several hours, the fleet held course across the Bay of Naples. Despite heading in the very direction whence others were now fleeing, Pliny the Elder was said to have been so fearless that ‘he described and noted down every movement, every shape of that evil thing, as it appeared before his eyes’. To any sailors who survived to tell the tale of their admiral’s fortitude, the chance of reaching land in safety must have seemed increasingly remote as they proceeded across the water. First ash rained down on them, then pumice, then ‘even black stones, burned and broken by fire’. This was no hail storm. The fall of grey-white pumice is thought to have lasted eighteen hours in total. By the time the ships had come within sight of the coast, the pumice had formed island-like masses on the sea, impeding them from advancing any further. When the helmsman advised turning back, Pliny the Elder adamantly refused. ‘Fortune favors the brave,’ he said.”
In the Times Literary Supplement, Peter Adamson writes about Avicenna, the most influential philosopher in the medieval Islamic world: “Nowadays, not many philosophers are prominent enough to get nicknames. In medieval times the practice was more popular. Every scholastic worth their salt had one: Bonaventure was the ‘seraphic doctor’, Aquinas the ‘angelic doctor’, Duns Scotus the ‘subtle doctor’, and so on. In the Islamic world, too, outstanding thinkers were honoured with such titles. Of these, none was more appropriate than al-shaykh al-raʾīs, which one might loosely translate as ‘the leading sage’. It was bestowed on Abū ʿAlī Ibn Sīnā (d.1037 AD), who was known to all those medieval scholastics by the Latinized name ‘Avicenna’. And not just known, but renowned. Avicenna is one of the few philosophers to have become a major influence on the development of a completely foreign philosophical culture. Once his works were translated into Latin he became second only to Aristotle as an inspiration for thirteenth-century medieval philosophy, and (thanks to his definitive medical summary the Canon, in Arabic Qānūn) second only to Galen as a source for medical knowledge in Europe. In the Islamic world, Avicenna’s influence was even greater. Here he effectively replaced Aristotle as the central authority for philosophy.”
In other news: Stefan Beck reviews Jonathan Buckley’s The Great Concert of the Night: “There is no disputing that Buckley’s prose is as exquisitely wrought as, say, Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera. Intricate sentences turn and engage each other like the myriad gears of some fabulous 17th-century automaton . . . but in the service of what? The story Buckley tells, scrubbed of its carapace-like accretion of oddities and quotations, is about people in love not with each other but with their self-image as sophisticates — and there is nothing in the book to suggest that this is deliberate or intended as satire. Not even a parallel plot about David’s friendship with a benignly deranged homeless man (whose discursions on “energy” are the book’s lone stab at comic relief) can make David seem like more than a stack of wall texts with a libido.”
Stephen Eide writes in defense of stigma: “Perhaps the most widely embraced priority among mental-health policymakers is that of reducing ‘stigma,’ or the mark of shame commonly associated with mental illness. Mental-health advocates blame stigma for a variety of challenges faced by mentally ill individuals, and argue that this prejudice is uniquely objectionable because, unlike discrimination against racial minorities, it is often overt. Yet while opposition to stigma is commonplace, it is worthwhile to assess its role and influence, and, even assuming it could be eradicated, consider what tradeoffs that might entail.”
Joshua Hren considers Kerouac’s beatific visions: “Jack Kerouac, who coined the phrase ‘Beat Generation,’ railed against those who interpreted it as meaning ‘beat down,’ ‘heedless,’ or ‘rootless.’ For him, it meant ‘beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness.’ Whereas the Lost Generation had ‘believed in nothing,’ Kerouac claimed he never heard more talk of first and last things than when among his Beat Generation peers. The Beat poets, he said, tried to cultivate ‘joy of heart’ in a ‘mad modern world of multiplicities and millions.’”
Tribune Publishing offers voluntary buyouts at The Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, and other papers.
On a personal note, I am happy to share that Cascade Books, the trade imprint of Wipf and Stock, has published a collection of my essays and reviews on poetry. Most of them were written for a general audience and first appeared in places like The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal. If you love poetry or want to love poetry but don’t know where to start, this is a volume for you. The beautiful cover painting is by Aaron Collier. Check out his other work here.
Essay of the Day:
The “International Style” of architecture is characterized by “plain featureless or transparent walls, flat roofs, horizontal strip windows, the elimination of frames and borders, pilotis (stilts that look incapable of supporting a building’s weight), overhanging cantilevers, and a preference for gray concrete, smooth white, or shiny metal expanses, with any colors restricted to primary hues.” The problem, as a new book documents, is that it is “ill adapted to the human senses” and makes us unhappy:
“Curl describes how the Bauhaus philosophy of architecture became a cult, ingrained in students through rituals, diets, assignments, and an exclusive sublanguage. The trio of Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies came to be seen as the holy trinity of architecture. The Bauhaus offered young people a complete and simplistic worldview with every detail filled in, and a sacred cause that provided emotional and spiritual fulfillment. A massive mental manipulation began when other architecture schools adopted the Bauhaus design exercises, which simply indoctrinated students to uncritically accept what they were taught. In postwar architecture courses taught in schools throughout the world, students are still compelled to copy stereotypes of industrial modernism and its offshoots. Traditional buildings are presented as products of an irrelevant bygone era, with the strict injunction that they cannot be used as models for building today.
“For decades, students wishing to learn design techniques that adapt to human biology have had to do it entirely on their own and covertly so. They have used out-of-print books on composition and patterns, searched the scientific literature, and found practitioners who transmit the oral history of more biologically adapted architecture. Mainstream architecture textbooks are useless for this purpose since they promote nonadaptive, image-centered design as the only style that architects may practice without risking becoming outcasts. Most of today’s traditional practitioners obtained their education in this way, outside the educational system.
“Architectural educators are in a state of denial. A 2018 survey of British architecture students by the Architects’ Journal posed the question: ‘If you are intending to go into practice, has your architectural education provided you with the knowledge you need?’ Thirty-five percent of the respondents said no, and 27% said they were unsure—sure signs that the system is headed toward irrelevance. Recent graduates have been conditioned, through the Bauhaus exercises, to think in abstract images, rather than work in the skills the profession requires. In the US, about 6,000 architecture graduates every year compete for 2,500 available jobs. Most are fit to do little other than produce image-centered designs. Despite claims that students are trained in scientific modernism, they are mostly ignorant of the scientific method.”
Poem: R. S. Gwynn, “Desk Clerk”
Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.