St. Benedict and the Diamond Ring Effect

From the invaluable Astronomy Picture of the Day, an unlikely combination:


Let a professional astronomer explain it:

The above painting was completed in 1735 by Cosmas Damian Asam, a painter and architect famous in early eighteenth century Germany. Clearly drawn is not only a total solar eclipse, but the solar corona and the diamond ring effect visible when sunlight flows only between mountains on the Moon. The person depicted viewing these eclipse phenomena is St. Benedict. Roberta J. M. Olson and Jay Pasachoff have hypothesized that Asam himself may have seen first hand one or all of the total solar eclipses of May 1706, 1724, and 1733. Many facts about our astronomical universe that are taken for granted today have been known — or accurately recorded — only during the last millennium. Asam’s painting currently hangs in Weltenburg Abbey in Bavaria, Germany.

Quote of the Day: Bulfinch on the Norse Myths

Thomas Bulfinch on "Norse Literature," from the revised and expanded edition of The Age of Fable:

The introduction of Christianity into the North brought with it the influence of the classical races, and this eventually supplanted the native genius, so that the alien mythology of the literature of Greece and Rome have formed an increasing part of the mental equipment of the northern peoples in proportion as the native literature and tradition have been neglected.

Undoubtedly Northern mythology has exercised a deep influence on our customs, laws and language, and there has been, therefore, a great unconscious imspiration flowing from these into English literature.  The most distinctive traits of this mythology are a peculiar grim humour, to be found in the religion of no other race, and a dark thread of tragedy which runs througout the whole woof, and these characteristics, touching both extremes, are writ large over English literature.

Mathematician’s Favorite Number

I heard a interview with Günter Ziegler, professor at the TU Berlin and President of the German Mathematics Association, this morning on the radio.  The interviewer, the silky-named Liane von Billerbeck, asked him what his favorite number was.  Even if you can’t read the interview, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that it was…42.

Schopenhauer on Goodness

I recently read a quotation by Schopenhauer (in English) roughly to the effect that the truly good can be recognized by the fact that they don’t go about drawing attention to their own goodness.  But for the life of me, I can’t remember where I read this.  Can anyone help me out here?  I’d very much appreciate it.

Quotes of the Day

From Think Progress, two sentiments you won’t be hearing from European politicians anytime soon (I doubt Sarkozy’s slogan "work more to earn more (F)" refers to working more jobs):

Representative Michelle Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, January 16, 2008: "I am so proud to be from the state of Minnesota. We’re the workingest state in the country, and the reason why we are, we have more people that are working longer hours, we have people that are working two jobs."

President Bush, speaking to a divorced mother of three in February of 2005: “You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”

UPDATE: After I thought about it a bit, something else about Bush’s quote irritated me: the American tic of identifying something as "uniquely American" or exclaiming "only in America!" after some rags-to-riches story.  This is classic Frankfurtian bullshit: generally, Americans who say these things haven’t the faintest idea whether the stuff they’re describing really does happen only in the U.S., (usually because they have only the dimmest idea of what goes on in other countries).

To take Bush’s example, I’m sure there are lots of countries in which people who are trying to support a family might work as many as three jobs.  India and China come to mind.  While I was in the U.S., I lost track of the number of times I heard Barack Obama’s life (white American mother, black Kenyan father) described as an "only-in-America" story. As a friend exclaimed the 14th time we heard some TV announcer say this, "that statement is almost certainly demonstrably false."  Nor, for that matter, was Bill Clinton’s life story of growing up in poverty with a single mother and becoming leader of his country particularly exceptional; look at Brazil and Germany.  Get ready to hear any number of spurious "only in America!"s if Hillary Clinton is elected.

The only thing that might is "uniquely American" in all of the above, I’d say, is the idea that having to work three jobs is "’fantastic."

Buruma on Fassbinder

Ian Buruma assesses Fassbinder’s eccentric-but-convincing film of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz:

When Fassbinder made his fifteen-hour-long film of Berlin Alexanderplatz for television in 1980, Döblin’s city was mostly gone, destroyed by Allied bombs, Soviet artillery, and East German wrecking balls. And what little was left, in the east, was hidden behind the Berlin Wall, and thus out of bounds for Fassbinder and his crew. A documentary approach was clearly impossible. And even if it had been possible to reconstruct the Alexanderplatz, Fassbinder felt that you could tell how it really would look out on the streets better from the kinds of refuges people created for themselves, what kinds of bars they went to, how they lived in their apartments, and so on. So he recreated the city as a kind of theater set, confined to a few interiors–Biberkopf’s room, his local bar, Reinhold’s apartment, an underground railway station, and a few streets — built in a Munich movie studio.

German Word of the Week: Schadenfreude

While in the U.S., I had a few conversations with friends about Schadenfreude, the German — and English — word that describes a feeling of satisfaction in seeing an enemy (or, sometimes, even a friend) beset with adversity.  Schadenfreude is literally "damages-pleasure" or "harm-joy."  Pronounce it SHAH-den-FROY-duh. 

I have several questions for the moral philosophers who read this blog (you know who you are):

(1)  Is Schadenfreude a sin?

(2)  If so, is it more sinful to feel pleasure in the downfall of enemies, or of friends?

(3)  Can Schadenfreude be healthy?

(4)  Is Schadenfreude really just a form of envy?


Germany’s Doughnut-Hole TV Landscape

Two commentators in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung here try to explain why so much German TV kind of sucks. Adrian Kreye here (G) maintains that "America is unbeatable" when it comes to television, because American TV mirrors the "experience-world" (Erlebniswelt) of higher-class social groups at a high level of quality.  I’ve heard this from many Germans as well — even those who see American mainstream movies as superficial trash may love series such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, or Gray’s Anatomy.  These high-end series offer clever writing, original ideas, sharply-drawn characters — exactly the sort of thing you rarely see on German TV.  Not that all of these series play well in Germany — precisely because they are so finely-tuned to the experience of American social groups, Kreye notes, the best series often flop in Germany, while generic police thrillers like "CSI" do well.  Thus, Kreye’s not saying that the solution is to import American shows; rather it’s to create the conditions in Germany that will lead to better television.  Kreye suggests that the American practice of offering important players (actors, writers, directors) a percentage of revenue cultivates talent much better than the German system, which is more oriented toward lump-sum payments and buyouts.

Christopher Keil then piles on.  He points to what I call the "doughnut-hole" structure of European popular culture.  Let me here define the Hammel Doughnut-Hole Theory of the European Cultural Landscape (HDHTECL): At the high end, we find subsidized "serious" entertainment such as symphonies, operas, museums, and contemporary jazz and dance.  Often uncompromising, usually of high quality.  At the low end, "entertainment" for the masses: tabloid confessional talk-shows, "folk music" festivals positively eerie in their frozen-in-amber 1960s campiness, soft-porn video clips and movies, ludicrously exploitative call-in contests, etc.  In the middle, there’s some good stuff, but not much, and with little cross-cultural appeal.

We may contrast this with the Anglo-Saxon world.  The middle-brow consumer in Britain and the U.S. is well-served — not least becase she’s likely to have lots of disposable income.  She can watch the above-named TV series or quirky but non-confrontational movies like Little Miss Sunshine or Sideways. For music, she can see a taffetta-and-morning-coat opera production which would be seen as ludicrously stuffy by European standards, and even a newly-composed opera by someone like John Adams or Philip Glass.  This opera will be comfortingly tonal and possibly even "uplifting."  For the less abmitious, there’s a choice of hundreds of indie-rockers, some of whom are damned creative.  Most of this stuff is classic middle-brow entertainment, defined as having some cultural cachet and not insulting the viewer’s intelligence; while avoiding formal innovation and direct challenges to middle-class values.  (The debate over whether all this middlebrow entertainment is Good for Us — about which I have Complex Views — will have to wait for another post).

So much for my theory, which Keil seems to share.  The problem with German TV, Keil suggests (G), is that educated Germans are "more and more radically turning away" from television as a whole, because they see the whole thing as increasingly dominated by dreck for the masses.  Sensing that educated viewers are ignoring TV, even the large publicly-funded television stations are reorienting their fare towards the lower orders, perpetuating this vicious circle.  Of course, strong anti-TV sentiment from people like this has always existed in German society, but has increased since 1984, when private television channels (which are allowed to aim much farther below the belt than public ones) were first permitted.

It’s an interesting argument, but unfortunately, one part of it  — that is, that educated Germans are increasingly viewing no television whatsoever — needs to be backed up with empirical evidence, which Keil doesn’t provide.  German journalists tend to move in pretty stuffy, insular little circles, and sometimes talk about things people in their social circles are doing as if they were national trends.  So, does anyone know whether he’s right?

Fromm’s Early Diagnosis of Affluenza

Did somebody just mention Erich Fromm?  From a review of a book about the mental health costs of competitive societies:

Drawing extensively on the work of American psychologist Tim Kasser, [The Selfish Capitalist: The Origins of Affluenza by Oliver James] argues that our recent increased wealth has come at the cost of the emotional well-being of a large proportion of the population; rates of distress among women in the UK almost doubled between 1982 and 2000. This is true of New Zealand and Australia as well as the UK and the US, in striking contrast with more egalitarian and collectivist countries such as Denmark or Germany. He tracks how "selfish capitalism" generates insecurity and inflates comparisons; how a winner-takes-all competitiveness merely creates losers and a pandemic of low self esteem, with its compensatory pathologies around celebrity and status.

Remarkably, Erich Fromm, the Marxist psychoanalyst and Buddhist writer, foresaw much of this half a century ago and James quotes his prescient analysis of the "passive, empty, anxious, isolated person for whom life has no meaning" and who compensates through "compulsive consumption". There are interesting issues to draw out of Fromm’s work about how our mass consumer societies, ironically, cripple personal agency despite their avowals of individual choice….

Norbert Elias on Community

"[I]t is no doubt still unbearable for many people to imagine that the burden of deciding which goals humanity should pursue, which plans and actions have or have not meaning for human beings, falls on themselves.  They constantly seek someone to take this burden from them, someone who prescribes rules by which they should live and sets goals that make their lives worth living.  What they expect is a pre-ordained meaning coming from outside; what is possible is a meaning created for themselves and ultimately by human beings together, which gives their life its direction."

[from an October 1983 speech: ‘Ageing and Dying: Some Sociological Problems’]. 

Intermittent blogging continues while I socialize among my glittering circle of intelligent, good-looking friends.