Category Archives: arts

Mondrian

I went to an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario this past weekend: “The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918.” It’s a period of art that I happen to find quite engaging. Many things were changing, and many artists were changing and growing even in that brief period (only as long as the concert career of The Beatles). You can go and play “spot the Picasso” – which painting that looks totally unlike the Picasso in the last room is the Picasso in this room? But even better is “spot the Mondrian.”

If you know the work of Piet Mondrian, you probably know his most famous works, painted mainly in the 1930s. An example is Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue. These paintings are white fields with rectilinear black lines dividing them into rectangles of various sizes, and rectangles of primary colours in some of the spaces between them. It seems pure abstraction, but in it Mondrian aimed to create a “direct expression of universal beauty”: not something unreal but in fact a new realism engaging the underlying universal, as opposed to the particular individual experience presented by “the aesthetic expression of oneself” – i.e., “of that which one thinks one experiences,” but which unavoidably “veils the pure representation of beauty.”

But before Mondrian arrived at this, he moved through phases starting with figurative representation in flat colours, through increased abstraction and via cubism to what might seem a gradual disintegration of form but to him was a stripping away of limiting particularities. You must watch this video, simply a chronological morphing of his paintings one into the next, or you really won’t see:

What has this to do with language? What has this to do with the word Mondrian?

Let us begin with the meandering of the name Mondrian over time. An ancestor of Pieter Cornelis (Piet) Mondrian was Christian Dirkzoon Monderyan. Mondrian himself was born Mondriaan. Consider the metamorphosis of the back half of that name, deryan to driaan to drian, where the tongue has simplified the wave pattern of articulation into a simpler single lap, and then – under French influence, likely – the artist has trimmed the spelling further, which also means a change of sound in the Dutch pronunciation.

Now think of those sounds, of the bits they are made of, how they could be composed further. The consonants are like lines, the vowels like coloured areas. Imagine the lines crossing, spreading, compressing, the colours shifting around: Mondrian, marinade, moderate reminder, ruminate, endure, endear, determine, maunder, meander in dunes of Midian midday until you summon damnation’s andirons or innumerable numinous noumens.

No. Those are all words, words of our modern language, words that have particular pictures and meanings. They are shapes that have been arrived at by the erosion of time and the deliberate simplifications and complications of scribes and lexicographers, but they are figures, and figures in the comparatively complex phonetic repertoire of English. Languages may have simpler vowel sets. Many have five; the simplest have three, and those three are close to the three in Mondrian, with only the rounded back one higher: u i a. The primary colours of vowels. Let us strip the consonants down to a basic set as well: m p n d l s k y w. Now use those to produce phonetic patterns. Sing them in an animated monody of modernity: music is abstracted speech tones, after all. Produce the most basic of phonotactic patterns, the canonic syllable, consonant-vowel. Here is your new universal language:

mu na di li ya nu ka la si mu la ku wi na da pi li sa ku ka ma su ta ya na ya lu si la pu li ka yu da ni ya la sa na pi ya lu ma ka ki ti su ni la ma ti na pi la da ka su la pi ka su mi wa na du pu la pi ta mu nu da li ya nu

Signifying? Ah, but where is the signification? Why? Signification is individual. Significance is individual. Meaning comes at the interface of the person and the form. These patterns, these sounds, will not tell you to close a door, to kiss a face, to bake a loaf of bread. But they may yet bring echoes of patterns of sounds that have meant something to you; they may give a feeling from the arrangements of highs and lows, of stops and nasals, of soft and hard and smooth and spiky. It will be a feeling you know from how you were made, but it will be a feeling you know by what you have come to be. Beauty is an individual experience, infinitely multifarious, an expression of change and variety, no sameness, each individual in each moment in each place creating a new universe from a singularity that as instantly becomes another. What is universal is individuality in its infinite increments of difference.

Mondrian’s paintings, too, are Mondrian’s paintings. The style is individual, instantly recognizable: the aesthetic expression of Mondrian’s self, of who he was, when he was, the world of art and philosophy and politics that he came through, the person he was, even the a he excised from his name. The course of his paintings’ development is like the watercourse of language rolling over the pebble-bed of a billion tongues and itself being smoothed but enriched in the process. And then things happen, a waterfall, rapids, shallows or shoals or trees’ twigs, a sunburst on the surface: a glittering riffle. The man who began with dunes and trees before reaching for the purity of the basic forms at last burst forth with a vibrant explosion, Broadway Boogie-Woogie, lines but with blood or ants thrumming through them, and the incomplete yet deathless Victory Boogie-Woogie, for a war that he would not live to see the end of. Mondrian was mortal but his mind’s meanders are enduring, and in his separation from the body he has made his name.

scribble

What is a scribble? And indescribable scribal dribbling, perhaps: linear babbling. If calligraphy is architecture, a scribble is rubble. The word itself is made to be scribbled: all those loops, with a few lines and a dot; it could look like the cloud of dust surrounding Pigpen from Peanuts.

It comes from the Latin scribillare, diminutive form of scribere ‘write’ – inferior writing. A scribbler is a poetaster, a hack, a prosaic disaster.

But scribbles can also be part of art. Sure, sure, you might say they’re squiggles, or strokes of some other description, but I say things that look like scribbling can be called scribbles, and Oxford agrees with me. I thought of this word when I was looking at some drawings I did for an art class back in my first year of university. I liked putting writing and scribbling into my drawings, and my writing looked like scribbling anyway. So here: art by the 16-year-old me. You be the judge. What, in your semantic ambit of ‘scribble’, is a scribble and what is not?

party
scribble_woman
scribble_man

 

See more, and larger sizes, at flickr.com/photos/sesquiotic/

tragic, tragedy

I have a challenge for you: listen to your local TV news and see if you can get through it once – even just once – without hearing tragic, tragedy, or both.

I just heard it again myself: “It appears to have been a tragic accident.” If you know how newsreaders say these things, when I tell you it was a concluding statement you probably have the intonation contour in your head already: roughly A AD D D DC [pause] A CC BAA (“it aPPEARS TO HAVE BEEn [pause] a tragic accident”).

What is tragic? What is tragedy? Well, the words have a certain feel that’s worth a look. They have the paired tongue-tip affricates of, for instance, judge, but with that rolling-in /r/ you get in /gr/ and /kr/ words such as great, grief, crap, Christ, grip, and gross. It has a bit of a different feel with the /t/ or /d/ (which become like “j” and “ch” before the /r/) – think of the feel of traffic tragedy on the train tracks – perhaps lacking the sense of base or depth you get from the back of the tongue, but there’s that straining-forward constriction: say tragedy emphatically and see how your lips thrust forward like an African mask. So the word has a good feel and shape for the effect.

But is the effect appropriate? Are these words well used? Ah, there’s something of a debate about that. This is where the newer usage of these words really gets some people’s goats. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus weighed in on it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

—Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.

—Repeat, said Lynch.

Stephen repeated the definitions slowly.

—A girl got into a hansom a few days ago, he went on, in London. She was on her way to meet her mother whom she had not seen for many years. At the corner of a street the shaft of a lorry shivered the window of the hansom in the shape of a star. A long fine needle of the shivered glass pierced her heart. She died on the instant. The reporter called it a tragic death. It is not. It is remote from terror and pity according to the terms of my definitions.

More often the dissent is on the basis of the Aristotelian idea, in which a hero capable of great acts falls to disaster (catastrophe) in a sudden reversal (peripeteia) through a flaw of character (hamartia), an overreaching (hubris). The audience (and perhaps one or more characters) experiences emotional cleansing (catharsis) through this.

But Aristotle’s idea was just Aristotle’s analysis. He didn’t write any plays himself – he described them a century after the heyday of Athenian drama – and the plays of the classical Greek theatre did not universally follow the pattern he described.

So what was a tragedy, originally? A goat song, it seems, if the usual etymology of  τράγος tragos “goat” and ᾠδή oidé “song” is to be believed. But no one’s entirely sure exactly how that came to be the name of the serious drama of Greece. Perhaps it was related to the satyr play that originally formed the fourth piece after a trilogy of serious works.

What we do know is that Greek tragedies involved a small number of actors and a fair-sized all-singing, all-dancing chorus; that they focused on mythical subjects; that the actors wore masks; that the writing was poetic; and that they didn’t always end, um, tragically. Sometimes the ending was happy. Even when it was sad, the hero didn’t necessarily die – Oedipus, for instance, just blinded himself and went into exile.

Obviously the sense of the word has shifted somewhat in non-theatrical usage. In the world of the people who write and read the news you get, a tragedy is not something that happens over a period of time with a playing out of any sort of plot at all. It is not schematized with duration. If someone on TV or in the paper says that, for instance, some ongoing bit of mismanagement is a tragedy, you know you’re listening to commentary. When it’s news qua news, a tragedy is “an instance of a bad (usually deadly) thing happening”.

If, say, a good kid makes a number of stupid mistakes and has a terrible accident in which at least one person dies (whether or not it’s the kid who made the mistakes), it is the accident itself that is referred to as the tragedy. To refer to the whole story as a tragedy would be evaluative in a way that is reserved for commentary.

And it’s all in little hits. The news is full of not three-act or even one-act plays but rather something that is to a drama what a shooter is to a glass of wine, or what a one-bite snack is to a restaurant meal. Tragedy has lost its masks, its chorus, its traffic of the stage; there is no peripeteia, no hamartia, no hubris. Just the anti-orgasm of fatal catastrophe.

And tragic? Ah, tragic, now, that’s even better. It’s like unfortunately. It doesn’t add any more information about what happened. Rather, it adds information about the attitude and character of the person speaking it – the person wants you to know that they know that it is a bad thing, and they want you to feel that it is a bad thing too.

To say of an incident in which someone at a party in a park died “It appears to have been an accident” might seem somehow to dismiss or diminish it. There are accidents all the time, after all. No, no, this is not some simple traffic accident. We must make it clear we are at not ff but full-on g. In order to show that you appreciate how bad it was, and to give that emotional clench that newscasters tend to love, it is necessary to state the obvious just so that no one thinks “Isn’t it obvious to you?” – and so the viewers can feel the punch a little more.

And what’s the effect of that punch, by the way? The viewers probably don’t know or have any connection to the person. Consider: If a friend of yours dies and another friend tells you about it, do they say “It appears to have been a tragic accident”? Likely not. You’d think “Do you think I don’t know it was bad? Do you think I don’t know you know?” Among friends it would be just “It appears to have been an accident” – or “They think it was an accident.” No, the tragic is part of the aesthetic experience of the news.

Yes, indeedy. You may or may not hold to the theory of catharsis, or to the theory of rasadhvani, or to any other particular theory of aesthetic perception, but we know that our response to fiction – movies – has a metacognitive value. We are getting experience, in a way, because we are receiving stimuli highly resemblant to real-life stimuli, and so we have similar reactions. But the lack of immediate consequences for us allows us to experience these things in an at least slightly different way. We can swirl them in the glass, sniff them, roll them on the tongue.

And that’s what much of the news is for most viewers and readers. It has no direct effect on us. It may have happened in reality, but we are not experiencing actual consequences from a stranger’s death or house fire or whatnot, or from some star’s divorce. I know, no one is an island when all is said and Donne, but unless the “tragedy” involves something we have a direct connection to, it’s more like entertainment. We see it, we are shocked, we can process the shock aesthetically; we feel bad, and we feel good about ourselves for feeling bad.

And so you know, when you hear tragic – when you are listening to the goat-song bleatings of some drudge who has dredged up a bleeder to lead with – that you are being invited not just to know, not just to experience, but to know the knowing and experience the experiencing. To feel the terror and the pity, and come away ennobled in your humanity. And all in one act.

Licence to smear?

The CRTC is proposing changing the Broadcasting Act so that where it formerly said “shall not broadcast any false or misleading news” it will now say “shall not broadcast any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.” You may know that some people are up in arms about this.

Others feel that it’s not unreasonable to allow broacasters some slack. It’s not illegal for me to lie to a friend, and we all make mistakes, so why have the government interfere so much? Why not let the news media get the same slack we’d like to get? Continue reading

in excelsis

A carol sing is not always a good idea among word fanatics. Although they provide many wonderful archaic usages to savour, things can get a bit contentious at times. And so I’m frankly not sure what I was doing in late November singing quartets with Daryl, Margot, and Jess.

Actually, I do know. We were rehearsing. Of course you have to rehearse before Advent in order to be ready to sing when people want you to sing. And we were doing “Angels We Have Heard on High” – or was it “Ding Dong Merrily on High”? – when we came up against that perennial choir catch: excelsis.

There were four of us. On the first pass, there were four different pronunciations.

“People,” Margot said, lowering her music, “don’t you know Latin? Never mind how it’s been bastardized over the past couple of millennia. C is pronounced [k]. ‘Eks-kel-cease.'”

“We’re not singing classical Latin,” I said. “We’re singing ecclesiastical Latin. Grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation changed some in the centuries between the one and the other. Note how we’re not pronouncing the English words in fifteenth-century style.”

“That’s right,” Daryl said. “The c before i and e became an alveopalatal fricative. So it’s ‘ex-chell-cease.'”

Jess and I both winced. (So did Margot, but she does it so often you hardly need to say so.) “That’s not quite right, either,” Jess said. “While c became ‘ch’ before the front vowels, sc became ‘sh.’ No need for a transition through ‘s-ch’ either. You can also see this transformation in, for instance, Norwegian and Swedish: ski is actually said with a fricative, similar to our ‘she.’ And in ecclesiastical Latin, xc before i or e is ‘ksh.’ So it’s ‘ek-shell-cease.’ Just sing it all like Italian.”

“Or you can go with the English tradition,” I added. “I admit I’m not the world’s hugest fan at all times of what happened to Latin when it got run through the Great Vowel Shift and all that along with English – ‘nil nice eye bone ‘em’ for nil nisi bonum and all that – but when you look at these songs, they’re really English songs with the Latin borrowed in. So you can sing ‘ek-sell-cease’ just as the guys who wrote the words most likely had in mind.”

“Sounds like ‘In Excel spreadsheets’!” Margot snorted. “Or ‘in eggshell sheets.’ Daryl’s version sounds like a cash register or a pachinko machine.”

Jess smirked slightly. “And you find your anachronistic stop-laden classical version somehow more euphonious?”

Excel is related, etymologically,” I pointed out. “Latin ex-cellere, ‘rise above others,’ with the cel related to celsus, ‘lofty.'” Margot was undoubtedly gratified that I said the Latin the classical way. “Excelsus is ‘high,’ so the English just repeats the Latin anyway: ‘on high,’ ‘in the highest.’ Actually, the word used could as easily have been altissimis – Saint Jerome preferred that version.”

“And then we wouldn’t be having this argument,” Daryl said.

“We shouldn’t anyway,” Jess said. “How can anyone hear in excelsis without thinking of Christmas? And how can anyone be –”

Margot jumped in: “– anything but stressed out by the pre-Christmas season? Yeah.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m going to throw my vote in with Jess, so that gives us a plurality, which is enough to win. It’s the shell, icky or otherwise. Let’s try it again.”

We ran through the song again, with Margot giving the grimace we all expected from her at the appropriate point, but going with the decision. As we were singing, Elisa wandered by and stopped to listen.

“How’d we sound?” Jess asked her when we were done.

“Excellent!” Elisa declared. “On key, gives me chills… don’t cease!”

so why fund the arts, then?

Margaret Atwood has a brilliant piece on arts funding in today’s Globe. A real jaw-dropper, in fact. Now if only the facts she mentions could be mentioned by the news media and in campaign ads.

I forwarded this piece around, and got a couple of responses that questioned the validity of her position. So I added some thoughts of my own: Continue reading