The Casual Blog

Tag: Jeremy Lent

Looking for eagles, My Brilliant Friend, patterning, and a brilliant string quartet

Red shouldered hawk (I think)

On Saturday and Sunday mornings I went up to Shelley Lake to see if I could spot and photograph the eagles.  I had no luck on Saturday, though I enjoyed walking around the lake and seeing other birds. On Sunday I located the eagles’ nest and got a brief view of one of them, but it flew before I could raise the camera.  I waited around for a while hoping it would return, and some other nature lovers stopped to share eagle news. A photographer named Don said that his buddy got a shot of the eagles mating a couple of weeks ago, which could result in eaglets in a month or so.  I didn’t see the eagle again, but I did get a close view of (I think) a red-shouldered hawk.

This week  I finally finished the fourth and last book of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.  Ferrante has a kind of passionate naturalness, and something that seems fundamentally true.  At the start, I had my doubts that I could get involved with a long story of working class Naples, Italian literati, crime families, and complicated female friendships, but I did.  I loved some big chunks of it, though by the end I was ready to move on.

I also read again a good portion of The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent’s subtitle is A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, and it’s hard to improve on that description.  At a high level, the book covers the entirety of our history as a species, and compares and contrasts major cultures and their modes of thought.  For anyone interested in why how human consciousness works, it is very thought-provoking. It’s also highly readable.

Lent breaks down the hierarchy that we in the West think of as natural, with rational thought given a privileged position, and all other modes of thinking and sensing viewed as far inferior.  He draws a connection between many of our belief systems and the way we generally view nature as separate from us, with it having no importance other than sustaining humans. This orientation has caused us to wreak enormous havoc on the natural world, and indirectly on ourselves. But it is certainly possible to change that perspective, and to view our relationship with nature more as an organic whole, regarding our human lives as vitally connected with those of non-human lives.  I’m working on that.

I also came across a lively, much shorter discussion of some of the inherent flaws in ordinary human thinking on  Vox.com:  Brian Resnick’s interview with David Dunning, co-discoverer of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which concerns people’s tendency to overestimate their own intelligence and abilities.  Dunning explains the broad applicability of the theory — we all are prone to such errors — and has a few suggestions as to how to address the problem. Thinking in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties, should help, and consciously seeking to hear the views of others.  He’s in favor of cultivating intellectual humility.

There’s a lovely new biographical essay in the last New Yorker magazine by Robert Caro.  I’ve been a Caro fan from his first book, and have read each volume so far of his biography of Lyndon Johnson.  In his essay, he writes about becoming a journalist who loves to dig through files and provoke people to honesty.  As part of his Johnson research, he lived for three years in the Texas Hill Country where the future president grew up.  That’s commitment!  At age 83, Caro is still working hard on the last volume of the Johnson biography and planning a memoir.  Let’s wish him a very long life, with much for him and us to look forward to.

We heard some excellent live music in the last week.  The N.C. Opera did a wonderful production of Carmen. The performance we attended last Sunday looked to be sold out, and the crowd was enthusiastic.   On Saturday evening at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium we heard the Schumann string quartet. This young group of three Schumann brothers from Germany and violist Liisa Randalu from Estonia,  was superb — technically flawless, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally powerful. Their account of Schubert’s great Death and the Maiden quartet was epic — a battle to the death, as first violinist Erik Schumann called it. Before playing a Mozart encore, he also told the audience that it was a privilege to play for us in Baldwin, which he said was acoustically the best hall they’d ever played in.  Nice to hear!

Visiting the Lower East Side, Turandot, recent Chinese art, and The Patterning Instinct

Looking southwest from the Sixty on Allen Street

Friday before last I went to the Software Freedom Law Center conference, and afterwards Sally and I stayed on in New York to see friends and take in some art and music.  We stayed at the Sixty LES (Lower East Side) near Jocelyn and Kyle’s new apartment.  Back in the day, we viewed this neighborhood as a place to be avoided after dark, but now it’s what Soho and Chelsea used to be — a lively and relatively affordable area where young people live and new art can be made.  It hasn’t yet been completely gentrified — there’s graffiti and trash, and little Bohemian businesses.  I enjoyed walking around early in the morning and taking pictures, including the street scenes here.

We Are Moving

We went to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon and saw Puccini’s last opera, Turandot.  My only prior experience with Turandot was from recordings, and I had not particularly loved  the music.  The story,  involving a Chinese princess who murdered all her suitors, seemed far from alluring.

Nevertheless, I absolutely loved it.  Opera is a hydra-headed art with many elements, and here the music, sets, costumes, and acting made a compelling whole.  For this story, Puccini’s music worked brilliantly.  The Zeffirelli production looked fantastic, the orchestra sounded great, and the chorus was excellent.  Sopranos  Oksana Dyka and Maria Agresta sang beautifully, and the tenor, Aleksandrs Atonenk, absolutely killed in the famous Nessun Dorma aria.  

Also on Saturday, we spent some time at the Met Breuer looking at  the photographs of Raghubir Singh and at the Met looking at the old masters drawings exhibit, Leonardo to Matisse.  On Sunday, while Sally went with Jocelyn to see the NYC marathon, I went up to the Guggenheim to see Art in China after 1989.  In that year a decade of relative political freedom in China ended with the Tiananmen Square massacre.  Young Chinese artists went in various directions, with many leaving China, and in various landing spots looking to express their political and personal concerns. There were 71 artists and groups represented, and multiple media and approaches.  Not all of them spoke to me, but a few did, powerfully.  

Ai Weiwei breaking a Han dynasty urn

One of the best known artists in the show is Ai Weiwei, whom I’ve found inspiring as a dissident thinker and conceptual artist.  One of his works here was a room that brought to light thousands of  unnecessary deaths of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to a corrupt system and  shoddy construction of schools.  The work was as much journalism as art, but that was not by accident.  In the exhibition notes he is quoted as saying, “Fight for freedom.  Forget about art.”   I don’t think he means to be taken literally on the forgetting part, but he’s serious about the fight.   

Chen Zhen’s dragon

The big hanging sculpture  by Chen Zhen of a dragon made of bicycle tires and parts was delightful and thought-provoking, invoking China’s shift from bicycles to cars and other technology.  I also liked Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddha room which had little Buddha statues, parts of old computers and other detritus hanging underneath a suspended garden.   Liu Dan had a large work that evoked traditional landscape painting but with a severe twist.  Others used video with varying degrees of success.  I liked the one that had a dozen or so monitors showing people scratching.  

Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddhas

Most of these Chinese artists had been influenced both by their traditional culture and by Western culture, just as we in the West are absorbing Asian influences. I’ve been reading a new and intriguing book about how cultures are made and evolve:  The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent traces the development of several Eastern and Western foundational ideas, including Taoism and neo-Confucianism, which he argues have been successful and remain vital.  He also contends that certain core ideas of monotheism and science, including the mandate to dominate nature, are closely related to each other and are drivers in our global ecological crisis.  There’s a lot in the Patterning Instinct to process, which is why I’m now working my way through it for a second time.