Should we make general claims about art?

Short thought: I hear a lot of composers today claiming that they can’t say much about what’s happening in music today, not even in their own discipline. There are just too many things happening they tell me. There is no possible way to start making these kinds generalization. They are not accurate, truthful or desirable.

If the point of art is to say something, to respond to questions, to promote dialogue, to provoke thought (not necessarily all at once), how can it be meaningful to say something without knowing what kind of conversation people are having?


Michael Enright on Syrian Refugees

This spoken essay by Michael Enright was worth listening nine months ago when it first aired and is worth listening to again now that Canada has en mass finally woken up to the reality that we’re in the midst of a refugee crisis. If you missed it the first time around, here’s another chance. Be sure to listen to the end to catch his absolutely brilliant conclusion.

I mostly want you to listen to the essay (it will take only four minutes of your time). But there are two points of commentary I feel compelled to add.

  1. Essays such as this give lie to one of the current Conservative narratives: that Canada’s pathetic response to the refugee crisis is due to the media’s failure to raise awareness among Canadians and not at all the fault of the government. The media (particularly the underfunded public media) was there; the government was not. Seventeen months ago, when As It Happens was doing a week long feature on the Syrian refugee crisis, it was Chris Alexander’s office that did not even respond to a request for an interview. When he did appear on the program some weeks later he was not able to say how many Syrian refugees had made it to Canada, nor did he voice a willingness to expand Canada’s commitment beyond taking in 1300 refugees; he stuck to partisan talking points instead. It’s worth noting further that Alexander’s assertion that the media was required so that organizations would be willing to sponsor refugees rang hollow in the face of the fact that many such organizations, after raising large sums of cash and filing onerous paperwork to sponsor refugees, would sometimes wait years before receiving a response that would allow them to merely continue the arduous, bureaucratic process. Humanitarian organizations, including churches and mosques, were there; this government was not. Fund the department (this government hates giving adequate funding to government agencies); cut red-tape; introduce extra-ordinary measure; accept responsibility. The fact that Canada has done it before means that it can be done, and could have been done years ago.
  2. For any who have had no or only limited exposure to Michael Enright, consider this an encouragement to listen to much, much more. Truly one of Canada’s greatest national treasures.

And don’t forget to listen to his essay.

Merleau-Ponty on method

One of the interesting things about reading the working notes from The Invisible and the Invisible is that the reader gets to look inside the philosopher’s head; to see Merleau-Ponty trying to figure out his ideas, holding forth with himself, questioning his own approach, and testing out his own ideas. This is particularly the case with Merleau-Ponty for at least two reasons.

First, it seems that Merleau-Ponty thought on paper, working out his ideas with his pen. As Claude Lefort notes in his editorial introduction “The author was in the habit of jotting down ideas on paper, ordinarily without concerning himself with style nor even obliging himself to compose complete sentences. These notes, which sometimes contain but a few lines and sometimes extend over several pages, constitute drafts for developments that figure in the first part of the work or would have figured in its continuation.”

Second, Merleau-Ponty is a philosopher of work in progress, of the unfinished nature of work. When we close the question of being we lose being. It is rather, in our continued strivings for truthful expressions that we catch glimpses of truth. We often will complete works, and well we should, and we should also hope that they speak truthfully, that they are successful. But our work is never finished; at most it is passed down to those who follow. All this is to say that there is a certain sense in which Merleau-Ponty’s working notes showcase his work at its most truthful. The form of a finished book, with a concluding argument that wraps of the questions asked, cannot distort the fact that here is someone striving for truth and whose truthfulness is found to great degree in such authentic strivings.

This is perhaps no more the case than when Merleau-Ponty comes to questions of method: how will he present this book? There are numerous proposed outlines and various notes questioning where best to put different ideas. Here’s a gem that Merleau-Ponty jotted down in January 1959:

“Indicate from the start of the analysis of Nature that there is circularity: what we say here will be taken up again at the level of the logic (2nd volume). No matter. One does have to begin.”

Am Friedhof

Es war schön am Friedhof zu sein. Der Himmel war rein blau und es gab nur ein paar weiße Wolken, die mich anschauten. Die kräftigen Bäume haben mich auch angeschaut. Ich dachte daran: wie viele Leute haben sie angeschaut? Wie viele Leute haben sie kennengelernt? Ein Baum war neben einem eigentümlichen Grab. Ein Mann und seine Ehefrau waren da beerdigt. Der Mann war im Jahr 1960 gestorben, die Frau im Jahr 1965. Vielleicht war die Frau ganz allein nach dem Tod ihres Mannes. Vielleicht hat sie jede Woche das Grab besucht und der Baum war der einzige Begleiter des Grabbesuches. Der Baum war dadurch Trost für jene Frau. Sie war beruhigt von dem Gedanken, dass der Baum immer bei ihr ist. Wenn der Baum stirbt, wird er mit dem Ehepaar kompostiert werden.

Merleau-Ponty on “finished” works of art and other matters

My (recently footnoted) series on idolatry owes much to Merleau-Ponty. This is particularly the case in regards to my distinction between ‘finished’ and ‘completed’ works of art. For any interested readers and for further elucidation I’ve provided some of the relevant passages from Merleau-Ponty here. Continue reading Merleau-Ponty on “finished” works of art and other matters

Dylan the icon: a concluding footnote to the idolatry of genius

You never turned around to see the frowns

On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you

You never understood that it ain’t no good

You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you

You used to be so amused

At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse

When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal

A few years ago at the Winnipeg Folk Festival I was struck when three of my favourite performers on three separate occasions remarked that the only reason they were on the road making music was because of Dylan and the impact he had made on them. To me this announced the clear influence Dylan continues to command in much of the music making world. Even more striking, however, was the fact that those three performers were quite different from each other (different nationalities, genders, and of course musical genres and styles) and none sounded particularly Dylanesque. This impressed me: in an almost singular way it seemed that Dylan inspired musicians and at the same time inspired them to become distinct artists themselves rather than imitators. Continue reading Dylan the icon: a concluding footnote to the idolatry of genius

The straight and narrow

I wish that many of the conversations I have had ended up as my blog posts. But when I try to translate these conversations they tend to fall flat. As Merleau-Ponty observes good conversation creates a shared space between the participants, such that things spoken that make profound sense in that space may only make ordinary sense if not well translated to another space. Still, sometimes statements or realizations will transcend the space of shared conversation and carry similar weightiness in different situations. Such is the case, I claim, for the conclusion to a recent conversation provided my my fellow blogger Joel Peters:

“The easiest way to stay on the straight and narrow is to never ask what the straight or narrow is.”

An observation particularly to be heeded, perhaps, during an election campaign (which we are in the midst of in Canada) when easily offered straight and narrow ideologies are rampant.

Stufen – Hermann Hesse

A beautiful work.

As every blossom fades
and all youth sinks into old age,
so every life’s design, each flower of wisdom,
attains its prime and cannot last forever.
The heart must submit itself courageously
to life’s call without a hint of grief,
A magic dwells in each beginning,
protecting us, telling us how to live.

High purposed we shall traverse realm on realm,
cleaving to none as to a home,
the world of spirit wishes not to fetter us
but raise us higher, step by step.
Scarce in some safe accustomed sphere of life
have we establish a house, then we grow lax;
only he who is ready to journey forth
can throw old habits off.

Maybe death’s hour too will send us out new-born
towards undreamed-lands,
maybe life’s call to us will never find an end
Courage my heart, take leave and fare thee well.

Becoming a Mennonite and then a workshop at the Mennonite World Conference

This evening I returned home from a week gathering in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the Mennonite World Conference. Unlike many attendees of the conference, Anabaptism (the “mother” of “Mennonites) was not something that I inherited from my parents and then stepped into as I became an adult. Rather, it feels like I have been slowly immersed into the Mennonite faith. A number of different experiences, communities and individuals have brought me further into the world of Mennonites: studying Christian theology at a Mennonite institution has indelibly left its mark on me, researching the NGO work of Mennonite organizations (like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Economic Development Agency (MEDA)) from those within the organizations and those the organisations partner with, worshiping with a Mennonite congregation, and seeing women and men in their eighties and nineties actively pursuing activist-peace movements. It was this latter point that kind of “sealed the deal” for me in terms of making a commitment to a Mennonite way of life. Continue reading Becoming a Mennonite and then a workshop at the Mennonite World Conference