The Nutcracker

I’m currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow, and just read this passage where the main character, Count Rostov, declaims the importance of Tchaicovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.

In the scene, Rostove accepts a challenge by a two travelers–a German and a Brit–to list at least three different Russian artistic/cultural achievements that have contributed significantly to western civilization. The Brit has been arguing with the German about the merits of Russian culture, but the German is skeptical, arguing that the best thing Russia has produced is vodka. Count Rostov, having overheard the conversation, can’t help himself and defends his country. Before doing so, the three characters agree to take a shot of vodka for each example the Count successfully defends.

“Number two?” asked the Brit, as Audrius refilled the glasses.

“Act one, scene one of The Nutcracker.”

“Tchaikovsky!” the German guffawed.

“You laugh, mein Herr. And yet, I would wager a thousand crowns that you can picture it yourself. On Christmas Eve, having celebrated with family and friends in a room dressed with garlands, Clara sleeps soundly on the floor with her magnificent new toy. But at the stroke of midnight, with the one-eyed Drosselmeyer perched on the grandfather clock like an owl, the Christmas tree begins to grow. . . .”

As the Count raised his hands slowly over the bar to suggest the growth of the tree, the Brit began to whistle the famous march from the opening act.

“Yes, exactly,” said the Count to the Brit. “It is commonly said that the English know how to celebrate Advent best. But with all due respect, to witness the essence of winter cheer one must venture farther north than London. One must venture above the fiftieth parallel to where the course of the sun is its most elliptical and the force of the wind its most unforgiving. Dark, cold, and snowbound, Russia has the sort of climate in which the spirit of Christmas burns brightest. And that is why Tchaikovsky seems to have capture the sound of it better than anyone else. I tell you that not only will every European child of the twentieth century know the melodies of The Nutcracker, they will imagine their Christmas just as it is depicted in the ballet; and on the Christmas Eves of their dotage, Tchaikovsky’s tree will grow from the floor of their memories until they are gazing up in wonder once again.”

The Brit gave a sentimental laugh and emptied his glass.

“The story was written by a Prussian,” said the German, as he begrudgingly lifted his drink.

“I grant you that,” conceded the Count. “And but for Tchaikovsky, it would have remained in Prussia.”

During the first few years of marriage, my wife and I would attend a production of The Nutcracker every Christmas. We haven’t been able to attend for the past several years for various reasons, and this passage suddenly made me very nostalgic. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll miss again this year.

I couldn’t find a recorded version of the Christmas tree scene, but this performance of the pas de deux right afterwards will do:

The passage from A Gentleman in Moscow and the nostalgia served as inspiration for my December poem today:

From floor to ceiling, see the Christmas tree
Expand and grow. The white glow of the light
Intensifies like starlight ’til we see
Reality become a dream tonight.

 

December Poem-a-day

I’ve set a challenge for myself to write a four line Advent and/or Christmas poem once a day for the month of December and then through the twelve days of Christmas. To hold myself more accountable for writing poems that make sense, I’m going to post some/most of them on this here website.

I just wrote a cycle of poems on Mary, Joseph, and a Donkey that I enjoyed:

Goodnight my lady who in love is wreathed
With gold light glowing from the Christmas tree.
Your eyes bespeak the airy “Yes” you breathed
When Gabriel announced to you God’s plea.

Be not afraid, oh chosen protector!
Betrothed, plight thy troth to God’s young queen.
High Providence is thy sure guarantor–
The strength of arm on which she’ll need to lean.


Oh high and holy race of burdened beasts,
Bearers of earth who come to bear our God.
Now raise your ears, oh honored ones, this feast’s
For you, who with our Lord two roads have trod.

And here is the poem from today:

Unclench your teeth, lower your tired eyes,
Thank God the cosmos does not hang on you–
He’s come to us, his mother sits and sighs
Upon the dirt. Attend! Keep him in view.

Consciousness

For a couple semesters in grad school, I was distracted reading philosophical and scientific theories on the nature of consciousness. I became interested in the subject by way of Owen Barfield whose theory about the “evolution of consciousness” I thought had interesting literary applications. But after the sudden passing of my advisor and a serious reassessment of what my academic goals, I changed directions.

Still, I waded into some of the deeper waters of consciousness studies in the work of philosophers/scientists such as David Chalmers, Daniel Dennet, and John Searle. Even before external circumstances prompted me to shift my area of study, I was already sensing that I needed to stop reading about consciousness studies for a while.

Part of the problem, as Michael Robbins points out in his recent review, is that popular/widely-accepted studies of consciousness presuppose a purely physicalist view of the world and of human experience. Everything can and must be reduced to the phenomenon of chemical reactions. Such a commitment has, to the credit of these theorists, produced some fascinating theories about the relationship between mind and body. From Robbins:

How, for one thing, do the mental and physical orders interact? A complete description of consciousness will be, on this view, a physical description of brain states: the absurdly complex interactions of neurons, axons, glia, synapses, “a trillion mindless robots dancing,” as arch-physicalist Dennett has it. For Dennett, the brain produces a “user illusion” that you’re in control, but in fact it’s running the show. You’re a robot, and the movie theater is empty.

Most of these theorists eschew any stringent separations between the operations of the mind and bodily experience. Nevertheless, the variety of theories about how consciousness exists, where it exists, and why it exists are mostly incompatible with one another. It turns out that “physical facts” can be co-opted for any number of theories. And if you’re committed to denying a transcendental reality, it’s hard to see how any of these theories of consciousness will gain traction. Robbins puts his finger on the problem at the end of his essay:

Thus, it seems to me, the proliferation of ever wilder positions. You are the apple. Consciousness is an illusion. And, hell, maybe you are the apple. Crazier things have turned out to be true. But if you simply rule in advance that the mind must be physical and assume that an understanding of consciousness must be a materialist understanding, because scientific materialism is obviously correct, you end up looking for your keys under the streetlamp because that’s where the light is.

 

Not All Things WiFi

Matthew Walther recently wrote a piece about the snowball-like momentum smart homes have gathered over the past year or so, and I found myself nodding along with nearly everything he had to say. Here are a few paragraphs:

How do you plan to spend your Thanksgiving? Talking with your uncle about how much money he is saving on his home insurance by installing four different cameras and a set of WiFi-enabled locks? Comparing spreadsheet data about your respective heart rates with your cousin? Letting your insurance company know how fast you took that last corner on the way back from the movie theater? Talking to a robot cube about paper towels? Using your iPhone to change the temperature on the slow cooker from your toilet seat?

I have a really hard time believing that people in real life actually use any of these so-called “smart” technologies. But it is even more difficult for me to figure out why.

For one thing, it’s not clear to me that many of these gadgets are actually any good at performing their core functions — heating water for tea, keeping your leftovers cold, washing your clothes. It is an iron law of engineering that the more resources are devoted to ancillary features, the fewer will be left over for what is essential. Last year my mother-in-law had to throw away her coffee maker, not because it was no longer capable of making coffee but because the LED screen with which it was necessary to interact in order to initiate the brewing process went out. I might not be able to activate my old diner-style Bunn machine from my smartphone while I am 4,000 miles away, but it will probably outlive me.

But I have other, more serious concerns. At a time when we are all supposed to be terribly concerned about online privacy, why are we expanding the definition of “online” at such a breathtaking pace? Is it really sensible to hand over control of everything from the operation of your vehicle to the lock on your front door to precise and detailed information about your bodily functions to whoever happens to have the right password? I am old enough to remember when sensible Democrats protested the fact that the Patriot Act could potentially require libraries to hand over records of what books a patron had checked out. What happens when someone is suspected of a crime and a secret court grants a warrant that allows the authorities to know exactly where the accused is at all times, between his smart watch and his smart car regardless of whether he has allowed the battery on the phone that is meant to control both of them to die? This is to say nothing of the very real possibility of the FBI or whomever simply walking into his house after the feckless data mining venture masquerading as a home security firm unlocks the front door for them remotely. (It would be amusing to see a 2019 episode of The Sopranos in which the feds waltz into Tony’s front door after hacking their way in via Anthony Jr.’s Playstation.)

It’s only recently occurred to me that the increasing digitization of our lives has taken a sharp turn: we’re no longer simply adding new gadgets into daily routines–hooray for indoor plumbing! These new gadgets feed on our personal information to function appropriately and efficiently. It’s teeth is the omnipotent and omniscient algorithm, chewing and digesting our preferences, credit card numbers, and home addresses until it can perfectly predict our future decisions.

The first time I noticed the sheer volume of personal information consumed by internet-based platforms & devices occurred while I had an Instagram account. I began to notice that many of the personalized advertisements were prompted not by the links I clicked or the profiles I visited, but by the amount of time I spent looking at particular pictures. If I paused for a few seconds while scrolling through some of the pictures, I could count on an advertisement related to the picture surfacing in my feed in the near future. It was at that point I realized I was inadvertently feeding a beast.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no illusions that it’s too late to think I can completely remove myself from internet algorithms. The damage is done. I also don’t hate the internet. Yes, the Luddite is strong with me, but I also enjoy the resources easily obtained through internet browsing. Hence this blog and my newfound appreciation for RSS feeds and email newsletters. There’s so much more to the internet than any social media platform can provide. I prefer to cultivate my own presence on my own turf, to employ my own capacities for creativity,  and to enjoy the serendipity of discovering a new blog, article, or author which would’ve been lost in a mindlessly hyper-curated algorithm.

8th Grade Proverbs

I had my students write a Mimesis assignment imitating Proverbs 1:1-19. They had to write a series of proverbs to a 5th grade student who was preparing to enter middle school. Since these 8th graders are currently at the top of the food chain, I thought they might have some helpful/interesting advice to pass along. Here are some highlights:

“The fear of the principle is the beginning of smartness; dumboes be like, ‘Naw, Principle.'”

“My son, if stinkies wanna squad up, say no.”

“It’s stinkies who say, ‘Let’s attack the lunch lady and make her drop her noodles.'”

“If dumbo trouble makers say to you, ‘let us jump the principle and break his kneecaps,’ simply say, ‘Nah fam’ and walk away.”

“Do not forget your teacher’s sayings because they are the threshold for your feet and the sunscreen for your arms.”

Tech and Boredom

This is a great piece. As I like to tell my students, “Boredom is a lost virtue.” And it’s been lost thanks, in part, to the way technology has consciously adapted to protect everyone from boredom.

What is clear from our vantage point today is that the people who were pushing photography, telephones, radios, movies and other consumer goods did so by exploiting shifting mores around vanity, loneliness and boredom. But they also exacerbated them, reinforcing the belief that people should present their best faces to the world and the conviction that they should always be in contact, and never be bored or unstimulated.

In turn, these ideas have become central to our daily lives. We harbor fewer reservations about vanity than our ancestors. We turn to our phones because we have become accustomed to celebrating ourselves and to seek out the affirmation of others. We are also obsessed with our phones because so many of us regard loneliness and boredom as pathologies with potentially negative consequences for our health. As a result, these emotions are now considered feelings to be cured rather than endured. Anxious about being alone and worried about being bored, we use our phones to seek out constant companionship and unending entertainment.

To put down our phones, or at least to use them more wisely, we should be attendant to this history and how Silicon Valley exploits its legacy. We take up social media’s invitation to post selfies and indulge our vanities because we’re conditioned by history to do so. Conversely, because we worry more about loneliness and boredom than our ancestors did, we’re more apt to turn to our phones since they promise to relieve these afflictions.