Ars Brevis

Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Contemplating the end of days, which may come a billion years from now or perhaps sometime next week, I'm incredulous.  It's not that I can't believe life on earth will cease, but that all our proudest accomplishments will disappear.  Our great works of art, some of which I've written about here, Shakespeare and the King James Bible, the Updike novel I'm going to finish later today, the sound of Mozart, Marilyn's white dress, Judy's ruby slippers, in fact all of our icons will be gone.  I don't expect our architecture to last to the end.  Allowing ruins to stand on precious real estate, like the Forum in Rome, is an anomalous indulgence.  But the memory of our designs and the evolution of our thinking will not abide.  Even if we were to launch Earth's essential data and photo files into space, their context would be gone.  Comprehensible or not, our ideas  would lack all vitality and be gibberish to minds that had never watched a sunset.

Photo of the Upper Geyser Basin region in Yellowstone National Park.  Scientists believe the earth will come to look like this as the aging sun grows hotter and the earth's carbon dioxide is depleted, ironic as both those conditions may sound.  Click on the picture for a closer look or on the link for a brief article.:

Saturday, December 31, 2011

About Time and Travel

On this last day of 2011, I am preparing to leave my mountain top for an extended trip abroad, followed, I hope, by further travels in the spring.  The confluence of the New Year and my journeys seems like a natural moment to begin a hiatus from this blog.  Not that writing it is a hardship or terribly time consuming, but I want to clear the way for whatever commands my attention while I'm on the road.

Sometimes I think I'm overly fond of the format of Ars Brevis. A reader sent me a book of his poetry this week in the hope that I'd review it here, but I've never posted book reviews  before and don't know how I'd make one fit.  Perhaps when I return, I'll have some new ideas about form and content.

More people read this blog than I realized.  Google provided me with some figures and I was surprised, especially since very few visitors leave comments.  I suppose if I'm to resume this effort later in the year, I should do something to promote readership and stimulate discussion.

My first trip is to work as a volunteer teacher in Costa Rica.  I was there once before about twenty years ago and am anxious to see how it's changed.  I hope when I return that I'll have some tales to share.  If you'll send me your email, I'll let you know when I get back.  My address is:  And if you haven't already, please friend me on Facebook.

In the meantime, let me wish you a very happy and healthy 2012.

Portrait of a Young Man by Antonello da Messina; circa 1470.  This Sicilian artist's work shows the influence of both Italian painting in its simplicity and Flemish painting in its attention to detail. This portrait, like the Mona Lisa, makes me wonder what put such a wry smile upon this face over five hundred years ago.  It is the wonder of art that from the vantage of our century we can share a moment of mirth with our predecessors of auld lang syne.  Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Santa in Wartime

Our popular image of Santa Claus has evolved over the years primarily through the work of Clement Moore's (possibly plagiarized)1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, the nineteenth century drawings by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly, and the twentieth century paintings by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola. The one shown here is the first of Nast's Santas and it was drawn at the request of Abraham Lincoln as a bit of psychological warfare.

 Santa is shown handing out gifts to Union Soldiers and children at a time in the war when the south was blockaded and suffering severe deprivation. There was no question of Confederate children receiving presents that year. Notice the soldier on the left finding a pair of socks in his package--a precious gift indeed for an infantryman. Santa's raiment displays stars and stripes to show where his loyalty lies. He is holding a puppet which is thought to be the effigy of Jefferson Davis with a noose around his neck.

Is it me, or has the Christmas spirit diminished in our time?  I can easily list all the distractions we face: the economy, the war, disasters, and  our especially vituperative political scene.  But something else is missing, and it's not just that there's no hot toy this season or that the Christmas release movies haven't caught on.  As a Jew, it's probably not appropriate for me to criticize, but I feel it nonetheless:  an absence of hope and purpose, a feeling that all we're doing is hanging onto what we've got and defending it against those who are envious.  

 2011 has been a difficult and dispiriting year.  My personal vow is to be of greater service in 2012 and this may impinge upon my ability to maintain this blog's weekly schedule.  Meanwhile, I wish everyone who drops by the happiest of holidays and a new year of restored, if not fulfilled, hope.

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1863.  Nast also created Uncle Sam.  Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


One can't speak of a tradition of gadflies because gadflies defy tradition.  Nevertheless, there's a lineage that begins with Socrates (The unexamined life is not worth living.), and continues through Dr. Samuel Johnson (Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. ),  Jonathan Swift (When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.), Mark Twain (If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you.  This is the principle difference between a dog and a man.), George Orwell (In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.),  H.L.Mencken (There is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong.), and many others.  Now let's add to that list the late Christopher Hitchens whose passing we mourn this week. 

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the 'transcendent' and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

I confess, I haven't read nearly enough of him, but I find his essays irresistible even when they irritate the hell out of me.  Hitchens identified himself as a soixante-huitard, referring to the tumultuous year of 1968 that launched his political voyage, beginning on the left, veering rightward after 9/11, but always sui generis. 

If 1968 was the year of his spiritual birth, how sadly fitting that he should leave us at the end of 2011 which saw a renascence of protest.  After decades of acquiescing,  American youth took to the streets, perhaps in emulation of this year's much larger and more violent upheaval in the Middle East.   In one of his last published essays, Hitchens had this to say about the Arab Spring and the current debate over America's destiny:

It's a strange fact, but in the present political season it is the American Right that seems to harbor the most skepticism about American power. I find this odd: Yet again the US has managed to get itself largely on the right side of a massive historical shift -- the Arab Spring, which it had not "read" very well the first time round. And yet, most of the remarks made by seekers of the Republican nomination have been sour or grudging.

...The ancients taught us to fear hubris, and the Bible teaches the sin of pride. I am always amazed that American conservatives are not more suspicious of self-proclaimed historical uniqueness. But proclaim it they do, as if trying to reassure themselves against the blasts of what looks like a very bad season.

Christopher Hitchens, illustration by Edward Sorel. The artist, a prolific caricaturist, has been honored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation,  Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Weekends Before Christmas

As a teacher, I rarely got to go to elaborate office parties. Ours tended to be homely on-campus affairs catered by a low bid Mexican restaurant whose tamales and enchiladas were crunchy at the bottom but ominously cool in the middle. There was, of course, no alcohol served, which made the principal's long iteration of thanks to those who helped deck the cafeteria all the more insufferable. My friend, the music director, was always shamed into performing gratis, and each year it burned him when his students had to sing over loud conversations. Once they changed the celebrations from a luncheon to a pre-school breakfast, I stopped going.

Nothing like the lavish party by a company that I attended before the tech bubble burst. It was held at a yacht club, and a large cabin cruiser took us in groups of thirty for rides around Marina Del Rey. The food was sumptuous and the liquor flowed. The fun of the evening, for me, was to watch geeky engineers get tipsy and apply their considerable intellects to making merry. Unfortunately, within a year, nearly all of them had lost their jobs.

Christmas parties haven't always enjoyed a good reputation. We recall their raucity when we sing about winter wassailing:

Wassail, wassail, all over the town.

The cup, it is white and the ale, it is brown.

The cup, it is made of the good ashen tree

And so is the malt of the finest barley.

There was often brawling and mischief, and by Christmas morning, the jails were filled. It was not commercialism that first profaned the season's sanctity.

What to make of this antic 18th Century painting? Thirteen women, the same number as attended the Last Supper, are seen in various states of inebriation. Two are fighting, several are toasting and guzzling, and one appears to have descended into lascivious reverie. The woman with the crucifix around her neck vomits on the one who has passed out on the floor. The two in the center have a more serious mien, perhaps engaging in earnest character assassination while they continue to dip into the bowl. Like Christmas wassails, there is something ironic in the revelers' depravity. After all, they're well dressed, the setting is luxurious, with a male servant peeking in at the door, and whatever the holiday or occasion it might be, we doubt they intended for it to get this way.

A Midnight Modern Conversation, an anonymous 18th Century oil painting in the style of William Hogarth. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bon Voyage

As the detritus ofthe 99% occupations is swept into dumpsters, the movement appears to be sinking. No leadership or agenda emerged during the protests. Quite the contrary, the occupiers seemed to lose sightof their broader goals, and let the symbolism of seizing public parks become their actual and only consensual objective.

We also learned this week that the Tea Party's popularity has ebbed and that the sixty Congressmen who identify with it may have a hard time getting reelected. The public has as dim a view of the Republican party as they do of the Democrats in the wake of a shamefully stalemated and ineffectual first session of the 112th Congress.

Meanwhile, the wayward course of the Republican Presidential race continues to reveal that the Grand Old Party is adrift. Herman Cain's support in Florida plunged from thirty four per cent to just ten in less than a month. His pitch about being an outsider and a non-politician was catchy, but now the limelight is on Newt Gingrich, the consummate Beltway insider and backroom fixer. Newt's ascendancy has energized the campaign of Ron Paul who despises Gingrich and is eagerly attacking him.

This all has the feel of the end of a cruise, when newly bonded passengers and shipboard lovers make earnest pledges to stay in touch but then don't even bother to send each other copies of their snapshots. We're just along for the ride and when the ship stops, we disembark as fast as we can.

The fact is that no candidate or movement today is realistically addressing America's challenges, all of which are international in scope. That's why the campaigns and movements that break in and out of the news have an air of unreality to them. Passionate fools lay the blame for whatever they don't like at the feet of easy targets: rich people, liberals, Muslims, illegal aliens, gays, abortionists, pot growers, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, etc. Politicians try to shield the populace from all unpleasantness: taxation, war, and the changes demanded of us over time.

The minority in the middle stands ready to support a leader who will eschew blame and chart a course of responsibility and sacrifice. We've been waiting a long time for such a favorable tide.

Poster of the Oranje by Jean Walther, 1939. This beautiful Dutch ship did not need to be repainted when it was pressed into service as a floating hospital during World War II. After the war, it was renamed the Angelina Lauro and saw long service as a cruise ship until a galley fire destroyed it. Her sister ship, the Achille Lauro, was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1985. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

No posting this week

I'm part of the throng that's jamming the freeways on this holiday weekend. Please come back next week.