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Archive for January, 2010

An example from Valladolid - not from this exhibition

I finally got to visit “The Sacred Made Real” today — the exhibition of 17th century religious painting and sculpture from Spain at the National Gallery. There are some beautiful pieces. My favourites were a little statue of St Francis in ecstasy, looking as if he had just stepped out of Lilliput; a bust of the sorrowful Virgin, whose grief seemed to express the grief of the whole world; and a dramatic statue of St Mary Magdalene gazing at a crucifix that could have been made by the contemporary artist Ron Mueck.

Magdalena by Another VLL.

St Mary Magdalene - 17th century (Pedro de Mena)

Ron Mueck - Woman in Bed (10) by Kratzy.

Woman in Bed - 20th century (Ron Mueck)

Ron Mueck - Woman in Bed (17) by Kratzy.

Detail

The central ‘idea’ of the curators is that those who have written the history of Western art have had a blind spot for polychrome sculptures. These masterpieces of wood and paint simply don’t feature in the canon of Western art. They deserve to. Those who produced them were artists of genius — and they were recognised as such by their contemporaries. It’s only now that we in the Anglo-Saxon world are coming to appreciate the power and beauty of these sculptures.

If you are a Catholic, I suppose, this is less of a revelation. You are used to seeing coloured sculptures: in your local church, at Lourdes, in the public processions that take place in many parishes, and perhaps on your mantelpiece. They may not be the most aesthetically pleasing images – but they are attempts to embody the sacred, and to connect daily life with the transcendent.

It was strange walking through the front door when I got home this evening. There, in the lobby of the seminary, is a bust of ‘Blessed Thomas More’ that I hardly ever notice. It’s a painted sculpture, about 3/4 life-size; a little faded, but still very much alive. An example of how this tradition has not faded in Catholic culture.

It’s fascinating to connect the culture of these 17th century Spanish images with our own. The Holy Grail of modern cinema technology is to create a genuine 3D experience – witness the recent attempts of Up and Avatar. However successful this proves, it will always mean us travelling to the cinema and entering into the world of the film. The magic of these polychrome statues, when they are brought out of the museums and into the streets, is that they allow the embodied reality to spill over into our world.

Here is one more beautiful photo of a Ron Mueck statue:

Untitled (boy) by Ron Mueck by voss.

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map — nov 28 by theogeo.

Two fascinating stories about China appeared in the press today – both of them, by coincidence, touching on her relationship with the West and her openness to outsiders.

First, a 400 year-old Chinese map went on display yesterday at the Library of Congress in Washington. It’s the first Chinese map to combine both eastern and western cartography, and hence the first to show China in relation to the Americas. Who was it created by? An Italian Jesuit missionary called Matteo Ricci:

One of the first westerners to live in what is now Beijing in the early 1600s, Ricci was famed for introducing western science to China, where he created the map in 1602 at the request of Emperor Wanli.

Shown publicly for the first time in North America, the map provides an impressively detailed vision of the different regions of the world with pictures and annotations.

Africa is noted as having the world’s highest mountain and longest river, while Florida is identified as “the Land of Flowers”. A description of North America mentions “humped oxen” or bison and wild horses, and there is even a reference to the little-known region of “Ka-na-ta”.

Ricci, revered and buried in his adopted home, provided a brief description of the discovery of the Americas. “In olden days, nobody had ever known that there were such places as North and South America or Magellanica,” he wrote, using a label that early mapmakers gave to Australia and Antarctica. “But a hundred years ago, Europeans came sailing in their ships to parts of the sea coast, and so discovered them.”

Ricci went to China with an open mind and an open heart, deeply sensitive to Chinese culture and sensibilities. At the same time, he was unembarrassed to share his own culture with the Chinese – whether scientific, religious, or cartographical… and the Chinese were remarkably open to this.

The second story is about Google’s recent decision to take the gloves off and remove the censorship it previously imposed on its own Chinese search engine. The fear now is that the Chinese authorities will pull the plug:

Google, the world’s leading search engine, has thrown down the gauntlet to China by saying it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service.

The internet giant said the decision followed a cyber attack it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists.

The move follows a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year, which has seen sites and social networking services hosted overseas blocked – including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – and the closure of many sites at home. Chinese authorities ­criticised Google for supplying “vulgar” content in results.

Google acknowledged that the decision “may well mean” the closure of Google.cn and its offices in China.

That is an understatement, given that it had to agree to censor sensitive material – such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – to launch Google.cn.

“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

My great-grandfather (my father’s father’s father) was a Chinese cloth merchant who converted to Christianity when he was on his travels round southern China in the late 1800s. So when my grandfather eventually settled with his family in Sheffield in the 1930s he was already a Christian, and had a bridge between his own culture and the largely Anglican culture into which he arrived. I often wonder who converted my great-grandfather, what kind of Christian community he encountered on his travels, and what the historical roots of their own Christian life were.

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Lake Michigan? Nope a Pothole! by live w mcs.

A random post: I was listening to the Beatles Blue album in the car on Friday – the first time in years – and by chance my route to the M1 took me along Abbey Road, past the famous recording studios, and across the even more famous zebra crossing. I like seeing the crowds of tourists either side waiting to cross in synchronised groups of four, no-one quite sure if the rules of pedestrian crossings are active here or suspended in some kind of nostalgia-museum bubble. It’s a lovely blur of reality and hyper-reality; a magical time-capsule that can’t separate itself from the ordinariness of a London street.

As I drove across I was halfway through the track “A Day in the Life”, wondering about that line ‘four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire’. The memory would have passed, but I came across this report from the BBC  today saying that because of the cold weather there are now 1.5 million potholes in Britain waiting to be repaired. And last year alone local government filled in 970,000 holes.

Institution of Civil Engineers vice-president Geoff French said the thaw could bring little respite, with drivers having to cope with increasing numbers of potholes. The continuous cycle of freezing and thawing – particularly on roads where long-term maintenance had been neglected – could break up road surfaces, he said. “Water gets into cracks in the road surface, it then freezes and expands the crack. Then more water gets in, it freezes because of the weather cycle we’re in and it steadily gets worse.”

This mind-boggling statistic led me back to John Lennon. Here is Terence Hollingworth’s account of the derrivation of the lyrics:

It was John Lennon’s idea to write this song by combining ideas taken from the newspapers. He and Paul scanned the Daily Mail for Jan 17th. 1967 and their eye caught the following short article: “There are 4000 holes in the road in Blackburn Lancashire, one twenty-sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey. If Blackburn is typical then there are over two million holes in Britain’s roads and 300 000 in London.” There was no connection between this and another piece about the Albert Hall; it was just their imagination that made the link.

There are loads of other explanations and hypotheses about the Lancashire holes, as well as what it takes to fill the Albert Hall, on this same page. This is not meant to be a deep post (yesterday’s quotations from Umberto Eco will suffice for a few days), but you can find some references here to British culture, the meaning of holes, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead…

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I have a fetish for lists, and anyone following this blog will know that it runs the risk of turning into a compendium of other people’s lists: “Greatest films… best books… tallest buildings…” I regret not buying a book I stumbled upon when I was doing the Christmas shopping called something like The World’s Top Ten. It was a lavishly illustrated hardback, very like the Guinness Book of Records, filled with nothing but lists of the ten biggest, best, smallest, quickest, oldest… whatever. It could have kept me blogging for decades.

757/767 Mechanical Checklist - Takeoff by Fly For Fun.

Mechanical checklist for flying

Anyway. The point of this post is to defend my fascination with lists. Oliver Burkeman has an article about the importance of making checklists – whether in cooking or in heart surgery:

The Checklist Manifesto, by the journalist and medic Atul Gawande, takes as its starting point the astonishing things that happen when hospital doctors are required to tick off items on checklists as they carry out routine but critical procedures. In one trial, the rate of infections from intravenous drips fell from 11% of all patients to zero simply because staff were compelled to work through a checklist of no-brainer items, such as washing their hands. Many doctors grumbled: it was more paperwork, it wasted time and it insulted their professional judgment by implying that they needed reminding of stuff they’d learned in the first month of medical school. But it worked. A more recent study, which included UK hospitals, suggested that wider use of checklists might prevent a staggering 40% of deaths during treatment. Airline pilots, of course, already rely heavily on them, but Gawande suggests checklists might have impressive effects if adopted throughout business, governance and beyond.

Besides, the stepwise structure of checklists has the salutary effect of narrowing your focus to the next action. When it comes to large undertakings, dwelling on the big picture can be paralysing, and a distraction from the next step, which is the only one you can ever actually take. As they say, I’m told, at Alcoholics Anonymous, where they preach it as a survival strategy, all you have to remember is to “do the next right thing”. Then the next, and the next, and the next.

And just to go up an intellectual gear or two, Burkeman himself put me onto this wonderful interview with the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, who believes that list-making is at the root of all human culture:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

So I think I am now justified in posting a culturally significant list at least once a week…

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Dante and Sartre made guest appearances on Celebrity Big Brother at the beginning of the week. The layout and decor of the new Big Brother house are inspired, say the producers, by the writings of these luminaries:

Executive Producer Shirley Jones today revealed that the whole series has been inspired by Dante’s Inferno including the decor of the house itself.

She said: “The famous line from Dante’s Inferno is ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, which has inspired much of what we have done to the house, particularly the entrance which is dark and cavernous with flaming walls. When the celebrities arrive in the house on Sunday night they will definitely wonder what is in store for them, it looks incredibly different from previous years”.

In the living area the Dante’s Inferno theme continues with gilded panels, black walls and furniture in rich reds and dark wood. There are some luxurious touches too such as faux fur pelts draped over the sofas, cushions emblazoned with diamante skulls and ornate wall sconces illuminating macabre sculptures.

Jones continued “As well as Dante we have been hugely influenced by Sartre’s line ‘Hell is other people’, and the house reflects this. Whilst the flames and dark colours might look a bit hellish to some, sometimes your actual hell is the people you’re with so we have removed some of the doors to make everything more open plan, there are very few areas to go to if someone needs to grab five minutes of peace and quiet.”

Just to set the record straight: Sartre didn’t put forward the idea that ‘hell is others’ as a philosophical thesis – he put these words into the mouth of one of his characters in the play Huis Clos. In isolation, this line, which has haunted Sartre, gives the impression that he hated other people and believed that human beings would be happiest cut off from all company. This is nonsense. In the drama of the play, and in the context of his whole philosophy, Sartre is saying something quite different.

In his view, a recurring temptation we face as human beings in society is the desire to live solely in order to please others, to live up to the expectations that others impose on us – expectations that we willingly accept and internalise. So our whole life can become a charade, wearing a mask, doing a dance before the gaze of others. It’s an analysis of the psychology of fame. The more we succeed in living up to their expectations, the happier we seem to be – but it is a trap, and we end up losing our freedom, we become defined by the demands that other people have imposed on us. This is living in ‘bad faith’; there is a lack of authenticity, a lack of honesty. Another more traditional word to describe this human characteristic would be ‘vanity’. So Sartre is not quite as radical or novel as he might appear.

Berlin press pack by Downing Street.

A press pack in Berlin

Sartre doesn’t think that the answer is to escape from all human relationships and responsibilities, or to do what we please without any regard for the opinion of others. This is just pure selfishness – which Sartre never advocated. He thinks we should be more authentic; we should take responsibility for our actions and not pretend that we are completely defined by the external pressures that are put upon us; we should develop relationships, as it were, out of love and freedom and not because of a dysfunctional need to take on a certain appearance in the eyes of others.

I’m not defending his whole outlook here. But there is some truth in this suggestion that we can get trapped in the image of ourselves that we see reflected back to us from others.

The opposite of vanity, one could say, would be a kind of self-possession, an ease with others, a freedom to love without worrying about how that love was being perceived.

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The Power of Prayer by Loci Lenar.I gave a talk recently about vocation and life in the seminary, to a group of people mainly in their 60s and 70s. One of the questions that often comes up with people of this age is whether the present generation of seminarians is more conservative than in the past. My answer is to say that these categories (‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’; ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’) don’t apply any more.

If you are trying to define yourself against other members of your church or religion, then these kinds of categories, however crude, might be necessary. But the key moment of self-definition for young Catholics today is simply whether to continue calling themselves Catholic or not; whether to deepen their Christian faith, or to reject it.

In a thoroughly secular culture, where friends, colleagues, and even family members are formed by secular values, the decision to hold onto a Catholic identity is the crucial one. Having made that radical decision, these young Catholics, quite naturally, want to deepen their interest Catholic teaching, in Catholic worship, in Catholic morality, etc. This is why they seem ‘conservative’. But they’re not really — they are simply Catholic.

Here is my sociological take on all this: Most older Catholics, say in their 60s or 70s, grew up secure in their Christian identity, with a culture that for the most part supported and reaffirmed that identity. The challenge for them was to get out of the ghetto and into the world; to become immersed in a secular culture they hardly knew, in order to influence and enlighten it. The secularisation of religion was perhaps a necessary part of this movement outwards.

But if you grow up in a culture almost completely devoid of any Christian influences, as young people do today, then the challenge for you is to find a Christian identity and lifestyle that will guide and sustain you. This is not about retreating into the ghetto or turning the clock back. It is first of all a matter of preserving your Christian roots, and nourishing your own faith. And then it’s about building up the self-confidence that allows you to engage with the secular culture from which you come (and which you never actually left).

This is why, it seems to me, the priority for young Catholics today is to create a strong Catholic identity and Catholic culture for themselves — which then allows them to dialogue with their peers and engage with the wider culture. They might seem to be conservative, but they are simply trying to be Catholic.

Remember that in darker ages it was the monks who made the best missionaries; it was those who stepped ‘inside’ and showed so much concern for the liturgy and the tradition who were then the ones with the courage to step ‘outside’ and embrace the world.

[After drafting this post I came across an article by John Allen entitled ‘The next generation of Catholic leaders’. We seem to be thinking along similar lines…]

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Burj Dubai by Joi.

The Burj Dubai opened yesterday. It is staggeringly tall. Yes, the record for the world’s tallest building is broken every few years, as politicians and engineers try to inch their way ahead of their rivals. But this is not an incremental step, it is a quantum leap. This building is hundreds of metres higher than anything within shouting distance. At 828m it is about twice the height of the Empire State Building, and nearly three times higher than the Eiffel Tower.

Steve Rose captures some of the excitement and ambiguity about its construction:

We’re going to need a new word. The Burj Dubai doesn’t scrape the sky; it pierces it, like a slender silver needle, half a mile high. It’s only because Dubai never has any clouds that we can even see the tower’s top. And, judging by the images released so far, the view is more like looking out of a plane than a building. It has made reality a little less real.

The facts and figures about the tower are equally surreal – like the one about how it could be eight degrees cooler at the top than at the bottom, or the one about how you could watch the sunset at the bottom, then take a lift up to the top and watch it all over again. It’s a new order of tallness, even compared to its nearest rival, Taiwan’s Taipei 101, which it exceeds by more than 300 metres.

But, beyond height, is there anything to celebrate here? From our current perspective, the Burj Dubai symbolises catastrophic excess – of money, confidence, ambition, energy consumption. And the fact that it will most likely stand empty for years to come has been noted with great satisfaction here in the west. But isn’t this how we’ve responded to every tall structure of note, from Babel onwards? And even its many critics have to admit the tower is a rather stunning piece of architecture. Chiefly designed by Adrian Smith, formerly of skyscraper specialists SOM, and engineer Bill Baker, it is beautifully sleek and elegant, rising in a graceful series of silver tubes of different heights. It looks less like a single tower than a cluster of towers, an organic formation rather than a self-consciously iconic object. This is surely the best-looking tall building since New York’s Chrysler and the Empire State in the 1930s.

I remember building towers as a child, out of alphabet bricks, wooden blocks, lego pieces, cardboard boxes – anything at all. And digging holes in the sand on holidays to see how deep I could go: deeper than my own height, deep enough for it to get dangerous. Dad broke my heart by ordering me to cave them in when we left the beach, in case anyone fell in during the night.

Burj Dubai Aerial Shot 103 by Sgt Caboose.

There is something primeval about height and depth (and span…bridges again!). There is a purity about the sense of wonder one experiences within these encounters. I recognise all the social and economic and political ambiguities, but I am still awestruck by this building.

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