Reading notes (2020, week 46) — On the collapse of complex societies, how we make moral decisions, and Aristotle and knowing one’s character
Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s edition: Is collapse ‘really is a matter of when’ or ‘more of a guy thing’?; the role of ‘universalization’ in moral decision-making; Aristotle on self-knowledge; principle is inconvenient; daydreaming and creativity; how to stop feeling crushed for time; how Mark Rothko’s love of Mozart made his paintings sing; a picture of change for a world in constant motion; and, finally, Mary Beard on how (presidential) power ends.
The collapse of complex societies
“For nearly as long as human beings have gathered in sufficient numbers to form cities and states — about 6,000 years, a flash in the 300,000-odd-year history of the species — we have been coming up with theories to explain the downfall of those polities. The Hebrew Scriptures recorded the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and divine rage has been a go-to explanation ever since. Plato, in The Republic, compared cities to animals and plants, subject to growth and senescence like any living thing. The metaphor would hold: In the early 20th century, the German historian Oswald Spengler proposed that all cultures have souls, vital essences that begin falling into decay the moment they adopt the trappings of civilization,” Ben Ehrenreich writes in How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?
One of the people who study civilizational collapse is the anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter, who made his reputation in 1988 with The Collapse of Complex Societies. Ever since it was published, it has been the seminal text in the study of societal collapse.
The argument at the heart of Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies rests on two proposals. “The first is that human societies develop complexity, i.e. specialized roles and the institutional structures that coordinate them, in order to solve problems. For an overwhelming majority of the time since the evolution of Homo sapiens, Tainter contends, we organized ourselves in small and relatively egalitarian kinship-based communities. All history since then has been ‘characterized by a seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization and sociopolitical control.’
Larger communities would have to be organized on the basis of more formal structures than kinship alone. A ‘chiefly apparatus’ — authority and a nascent bureaucratic hierarchy — emerged to allocate resources. States developed, and with them a ruling class that took up the tasks of governing: ‘the power to draft for war or work, levy and collect taxes and decree and enforce laws.’ Eventually, societies we would recognize as similar to our own would emerge, ‘large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all.’ Something more than the threat of violence would be necessary to hold them together, a delicate balance of symbolic and material benefits that Tainter calls ‘legitimacy,’ the maintenance of which would itself require ever more complex structures, which would become ever less flexible, and more vulnerable, the more they piled up.
His second proposal is based on an idea borrowed from the classical economists of the 18th century. Social complexity, he argues, is inevitably subject to diminishing marginal returns. It costs more and more, in other words, while producing smaller and smaller profits. ‘It’s a classic «Alice in Wonderland» situation,’ Tainter says. You’re ‘running faster and faster to stay in the same place.’ Take Rome, which, in Tainter’s telling, was able to win significant wealth by sacking its neighbors but was thereafter required to maintain an ever larger and more expensive military just to keep the imperial machine from stalling — until it couldn’t anymore,” Ehrenreich writes.
As the benefits of ever-increasing complexity, societies become vulnerable to collapse and stresses that otherwise would be manageable — natural disasters, popular uprisings, epidemics — become insuperable.
“The fall of Minoan civilization has been attributed to a volcanic eruption and the subsequent invasion of Mycenean Greeks. The decline of the Harappan civilization, which survived in the Indus Valley for nearly a millennium before its cities were abandoned in about 1700 B.C., coincided with climate change and perhaps earthquake and invasion too — and, recent research suggests, outbreaks of infectious disease. The ninth-century desertion of the cities of Southern Lowland Classic Maya civilization has been ascribed to war, peasant uprisings, deforestation and drought. […]
Only complexity, Tainter argues, provides an explanation that applies in every instance of collapse. We go about our lives, addressing problems as they arise. Complexity builds and builds, usually incrementally, without anyone noticing how brittle it has all become. Then some little push arrives, and the society begins to fracture. The result is a ‘rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.’ In human terms, that means central governments disintegrating and empires fracturing into ‘small, petty states,’ often in conflict with one another. Trade routes seize up, and cities are abandoned. Literacy falls off, technological knowledge is lost and populations decline sharply. ‘The world,’ Tainter writes, ‘perceptibly shrinks, and over the horizon lies the unknown.’”
“Scholars of collapse tend to fall into two loose camps. The first, dominated by Tainter, looks for grand narratives and one-size-fits-all explanations. The second is more interested in the particulars of the societies they study. Anxiety about the pandemic, however, bridges the schisms that mark the field. Patricia McAnany, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has questioned the usefulness of the very concept of collapse — she was an editor of a 2010 volume titled Questioning Collapse — but admits to being ‘very, very worried’ about the lack, in the United States, of the ‘nimbleness’ that crises require of governments.”
McAnany points to the difference between the societies of the northern and southern Maya lowlands during the first millennium A.D. The southern region — what is now Guatemala, Belize and parts of southern Mexico — was more rigidly hierarchical, with ‘pronounced inequality’ and a system of hereditary kingship not as evident in the Yucatán Peninsula to the north. Around the time a devastating drought hit in the ninth century, the southern lowland cities were abandoned. Communities to the north were not.
The apparent collapse of the Southern Lowland Maya, McAnany cautions, is better understood as a dispersal. For the upper classes — who appear to have been the first to flee — it was probably experienced as a world ending, but most people simply ‘voted with their feet,’ migrating to more amenable locations in the north and along the coast. That is no longer so easy, McAnany says. ‘We’re too vested and tied to places.’ Without the possibility of dispersal, or of real structural change to more equitably distribute resources, ‘at some point the whole thing blows. It has to.’
“Peter Turchin, who teaches at the University of Connecticut, follows Tainter in positing a single, transhistorical mechanism leading to collapse, though he is far more willing than Tainter to voice specific — and occasionally alarmist — predictions. In Turchin’s case the key is the loss of ‘social resilience,’ a society’s ability to cooperate and act collectively for common goals. By that measure, Turchin judges that the United States was collapsing well before Covid-19 hit. For the last 40 years, he argues, the population has been growing poorer and more unhealthy as elites accumulate more and more wealth and institutional legitimacy founders. ‘The United States is basically eating itself from the inside out,’ he says.
Inequality and ‘popular immiseration’ have left the country extremely vulnerable to external shocks like the pandemic, and to internal triggers like the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. He does not hesitate to predict that we can expect to experience far more of the kind of unrest we’ve seen this summer, ‘not just this year but in the years ahead, because the underlying conditions are only getting worse.’
Turchin is not the only one who is worried. Eric H. Cline, who teaches at the George Washington University, argued in 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed that Late Bronze Age societies across Europe and western Asia crumbled under a concatenation of stresses, including natural disasters — earthquakes and drought — famine, political strife, mass migration and the closure of trade routes. On their own, none of those factors would have been capable of causing such widespread disintegration, but together they formed a ‘perfect storm’ capable of toppling multiple societies all at once. Today, Cline says, ‘we have almost all the same symptoms that were there in the Bronze Age, but we’ve got one more’: pandemic. Collapse ‘really is a matter of when,’ he told me, ‘and I’m concerned that this may be the time.’”
“The overall picture drawn by Tainter’s work is a tragic one. It is our very creativity, our extraordinary ability as a species to organize ourselves to solve problems collectively, that leads us into a trap from which there is no escaping. Complexity is ‘insidious,’ in Tainter’s words. ‘It grows by small steps, each of which seems reasonable at the time.’ And then the world starts to fall apart, and you wonder how you got there.”
But there is another way to look at this.
“Perhaps, as an idea, it was a product of its time, a Cold War hangover that has outlived its usefulness, or an academic ripple effect of climate-change anxiety, or a feedback loop produced by some combination of the two. Over the last 10 years, more and more scholars have, like McAnany, been questioning the entire notion of collapse. The critical voices have been more likely to come from women — the appeal of collapse’s sudden, violent drama was always, as Dartmouth College’s Deborah L. Nichols put it, ‘more of a guy thing’ — and from Indigenous scholars and those who pay attention to the narratives Indigenous people tell about their own societies. When those are left out, collapse, observes Sarah Parcak, who teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, can easily mean erasure, a convenient way of hiding the violence of conquest. This is not to suggest that once-populous cities have never been abandoned or that the kind of rapid social simplification that Tainter diagnosed has not regularly occurred; only that if you pay attention to people’s lived experience, and not just to the abstractions imposed by a highly fragmented archaeological record, a different kind of picture emerges,” Ehrenreich writes.
“If you close your eyes and open them again, the periodic disintegrations that punctuate our history — all those crumbling ruins — begin to fade, and something else comes into focus: wiliness, stubbornness and, perhaps the strongest and most essential human trait, adaptability. Perhaps our ability to band together, to respond creatively to new and difficult circumstances is not some tragic secret snare, as Tainter has it, a story that always ends in sclerotic complexity and collapse. Perhaps it is what we do best. When one way doesn’t work, we try another. When one system fails, we build another. We struggle to do things differently, and we push on. As always, we have no other choice.”
How we make moral decisions
“Imagine that one day you’re riding the train and decide to hop the turnstile to avoid paying the fare. It probably won’t have a big impact on the financial well-being of your local transportation system. But now ask yourself, ‘What if everyone did that?’ The outcome is much different — the system would likely go bankrupt and no one would be able to ride the train anymore,” writes Anne Trafton in How we make moral decisions.
We call this type of reasoning universalization. As a concept, it “a concept has been included in philosophical theories since at least the 1700s. [It] is one of several strategies that philosophers believe people use to make moral judgments, along with outcome-based reasoning and rule-based reasoning. However, there have been few psychological studies of universalization, and many questions remain regarding how often this strategy is used, and under what circumstances,” Trafton writes.
“To explore those questions, [researchers form MIT and Harvard University] aksed participants in their study to evaluate the morality of actions taken in situations where harm could occur if too many people perform the action. In one hypothetical scenario, John, a fisherman, is trying to decide whether to start using a new, more efficient fishing hook that will allow him to catch more fish. However, if every fisherman in his village decided to use the new hook, there would soon be no fish left in the lake.
The researchers found that many subjects did use universalization to evaluate John’s actions, and that their judgments depended on a variety of factors, including the number of people who were interested in using the new hook and the number of people using it that would trigger a harmful outcome.”
“In the real world, there are many instances where universalization could be a good strategy for making decisions, but it’s not necessary because rules are already in place governing those situations.
However, universalization can still be useful in situations that arise suddenly, before any government regulations or guidelines have been put in place. For example, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, before many local governments began requiring masks in public places, people contemplating wearing masks might have asked themselves what would happen if everyone decided not to wear one.
The researchers now hope to explore the reasons why people sometimes don’t seem to use universalization in cases where it could be applicable, such as combating climate change. One possible explanation is that people don’t have enough information about the potential harm that can result from certain actions, Levine says.”
Aristotle and knowing one’s character
What follows is an unabridged paragraph (references have been omitted for readability) from Aristotle on Self-Knowledge by Paula Gottlieb, published in Self-Knowledge in Ancient Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Gottlieb, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the auhor of, amongst others, The Virtue of Aristotle’s Ethics, argues that Aristotelian virtue of character involves knowledge of one’s own abilities and qualities, forms of self-knowledge that are implicit in Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean and in his account of practical reasoning. Support for this is found in the description of truthful people in Ēthika Nikomacheia, Book IV.7 (EN IV 7), who, in contrast to boasters, give true, unexaggerated reports of their own qualities.
In this part, Gottlieb zooms in on the doctrine of the mean and knowing one’s character.
“According to Aristotle, each virtue of character, for example, generosity, mildness, or courage, comes between two vices. For example, the virtue of generosity comes between the vice of stinginess and the vice of wastefulness, the virtue of mildness comes between the vice of inirascibility and the vice of irascibility and the virtue of bravery comes between the vice of cowardice and the vice of rashness. Virtues and vices come in triads (EN II 6 1107a2–3; EN II 8, especially 1108b11–13). This is one aspect of the doctrine of the mean. Aristotle also says that the mean is relative to us. He explains this aspect of his doctrine of the mean by means of an analogy with Milo, six-time champion wrestler at the Olympic Games. The amount of food appropriate for such a hefty guy, who according to Aquinas could eat a whole joint of beef at one sitting, is not the same as the amount of food appropriate for a beginner. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to nutrition will not do. The appropriate amount is relative to each person (EN II 6 1106a26–1106b7). In the case of virtue of character as opposed to physical strength, the agent has to experience the appropriate feelings and act appropriately as opposed to merely eating the correct amount. Feelings and actions have to be suited to the circumstances at hand. They also have to be suited to whatever abilities of the agent are relevant in the circumstances, just as the food that is appropriate for Milo and for the beginner depends on their different abilities when they are in training.”
The doctrine of the mean and knowing one’s character
Magnanimity (megalopsuchia, literally ‘great souledness’) is opposed to the two vices of pusillanimity and vanity (EN IV 3). It is the virtue concerned with great honour (EN IV 3 1125a35–6). The magnanimous person thinks he is worthy of great things when he is so worthy and he accepts appropriate honours. The pusillanimous person thinks that he is worthy of less than he is and so does not aim at appropriate honours. The vain person thinks that he is worthy of more than he is and so puts himself forward for honours that he does not deserve. Aristotle describes the magnanimous person at length, distinguishing him from imitators who look down on others without cause and, one might add, have given the Aristotelian magnanimous person a bad name.
The last part of Aristotle’s discussion of magnanimity is the most interesting. There Aristotle says that the pusillanimous person would seem not to know himself (agnoiein d’heauton EN IV 3 1125a22) and vain people do not know themselves either (heautous agnoountes EN IV 3 1125a28). In the case of the pusillanimous person, this is why he deprives himself of the goods of which he is worthy and shrinks from fine actions and practices as well as from external goods. This makes him seem hesitant rather than foolish. According to Aristotle, vain people are stupid and do not know themselves. They make this obvious by going for honours that they are not worthy of, and then are shown up. The pusillanimous person underestimates his own worth and the vain person overestimates his. They may each be sincere, but they lack self-knowledge.
Aristotle concludes, ‘Pusillanimity is more opposed than vanity to magnanimity; for it arises more often and is worse’ (EN IV 3 1125a 32–4). Perhaps that is because society loses more from the pusillanimous person’s abstention from public life than it is harmed by the engagement of the vain person. Or perhaps the idea is that the vain person will learn from being shown up, whereas the pusillanimous person will not change. On this view, the pusillanimous person would be further away from self-knowledge than the vain person.
If we take seriously Aristotle’s view that it is impossible to have one virtue of character fully without having all the others (EN VI 13 1144b30–1145a2),14 it seems, then, that in order to be fully good, one should know both one’s non-ethical abilities and one’s virtuous qualities. If the account of magnanimity and associated vices can be generalized, for each set of virtue and vices there are three recognizable underlying psychological profiles involving self-knowledge. Just as the virtues are unified, in Aristotle’s view, so there is also unity among some of the vices. The coward, the pusillanimous person, the inirascible person, and the person who is indifferent to honour all underestimate their worth and abilities. The rash person, the vain person, the irascible person, the person who loves honour too much, and the buffoon all overestimate their worth and abilities. The coward’s inappropriate fear and lack of confidence in his abilities lead him to run from battle. The rash person, who is over-confident, overestimates his abilities to succeed in battle. The person who is inirascible, and does not get angry when he ought when insulted, again has too low opinion of his abilities and worth. The buffoon is full of himself and thinks his ability to make appropriate jokes is much greater than it is. To give a further example, the intemperate person thinks that he needs more than he does, and the insensible person thinks that he needs less.
The match is not perfect. Flattery (the excess vice relating to the virtue of friendliness) would seem to line up with the deficiencies, if the flatterer happens to be insecure, and, as I pointed out earlier, the boaster, who has the excess vice relating to the virtue of truthfulness, may not be wrong about his abilities, but simply lying, although there is a question about whether a successful boaster needs to deceive himself too.
However, if the general picture is correct, it provides a principled reason why Aristotle thinks that each virtue is flanked by two vices and why he presents the virtues and vices in this way. He proposes a triadic view because such a view captures three salient psychological mentalities, mentalities based on having or lacking the relevant self-knowledge of one’s character.
There is no hint here that self-knowledge could be gained solely by introspection, as on some modern views. As we have seen, the vain person can gain self-knowledge by interacting with others and being shown up. The pusillanimous person withdraws from interacting with others and so is worse off with respect to self-knowledge. Generalizing again, it is reasonable to suppose that by interacting with others self-knowledge is gained and retained. […]
A problem remains. If self-knowledge is necessary for being a good person, who is the pusillanimous person? How can he be good without knowing it? A speculative solution is that he is someone who has natural virtues, one basis for becoming virtuous, but has not yet acquired thoughtfulness (phronēsis) to be fully good. He lacks the virtues of character in their complete form, and underestimates his potential. In not putting himself forward, he is preventing himself from gaining the relevant experience for becoming fully virtuous. (Aristotle says that the pusillanimous person does not seem to be vicious, but just in error [EN IV 3 1125a18–19].) If that is so, one might reasonably think that self-knowledge, understood as knowing one’s abilities and character, should be relegated to thoughtfulness and not to virtue of character, because thoughtfulness is required to be fully virtuous. An alternative view would be that such a suggestion is misplaced because in the good person virtue of character and thoughtfulness are inextricably connected.
And also this…
In Principle is inconventient, Seth Godin writes:
“A principle is an approach you stick with even if you know it might lead to a short-term outcome you don’t prefer. Especially then.
It’s this gap between the short-term and the long-term that makes a principle valuable. If your guiding principle is to do whatever benefits you right now, you don’t have principles of much value.
But it’s the valuable principles that pay off, because they enable forward motion, particularly when it feels like there are few alternatives. We embrace a culture based on principles because it’s that structure and momentum that enables connection and progress to happen in the first place.”
“While most daydreams were not correlated with creativity, two types were consistently associated with creativity in our student sample,” Claire Zedelius writes in Daydreaming Might Make You More Creative — But It Depends on What You Daydream About.
“In the lab, we found that participants who reported a greater tendency for meaningful or fantastical daydreams wrote more vivid and creative short stories. Outside of the lab, using experience sampling, we found similar results. Participants who often found their daydreams meaningful reported greater inspiration at the end of the day, and those who frequently reported fantastical daydreams reported more creative behavior.
These associations between daydreaming and creativity were explained by differences between individuals. In other words, those who frequently tend to engage in more meaningful or fantastical daydreams relative to others were more inspired and more creative. Having an uptick in those types of mind wandering on one day compared to other days conferred no additional benefit. That means these types of daydreams don’t necessarily directly spark creative inspiration, but people who routinely engage in these types of daydreams tend to be more inspired and creative. This raises a question my colleagues and I are hoping to explore further: Can we increase the number of meaningful or fantastical daydreams for people who don’t typically experience them, and would this increase their creativity? We are also hoping to explore these questions in a larger and more diverse population to see if they generalize beyond our student sample.
Daydreaming may not be the quick creativity hack we wish for, but our research suggests that we should reevaluate how we think about daydreaming, and in particular, what we daydream about. Now that a global pandemic has made our lives more restricted and repetitive, mentally simulating fantastical alternative worlds can be an interesting temporary escape from reality and might be a way to find new inspiration. Instead of chastising yourself the next time you notice your mind has wandered off task, consider daydreaming a little more instead — and adding in something fantastical. It might be the break that leads to your best idea yet.”
“Sparingly these days do I find myself thinking I’ve got some time to kill. Time has a way of making itself scarce. I’m like some Pleistocene hunter-gatherer, always scavenging for more. For that matter, isn’t ‘killing time’ a rather misleading phrase? As Christopher Hitchens once observed, time ‘is killing us,’” Brian Gallagher writes in How to Stop Feeling Crushed for Time.
“Well, I hope you find it bracing to hear, as I did, that we don’t have to be passive in this war. Ashley Whillans, a behavioral scientist, says we can fight back. Her new book, Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life, shows us how. It involves dispensing with the bromide that time is money. Time is more valuable than that. ‘A major barrier to living this truth — that time is the most valuable resource, something that is finite and uncertain — is this pursuit of money, and the societal focus on having more money and productivity as a means by which to measure the value of our lives,’ Whillans says.”
[BG] In your book, you write, “Nothing less than our health and our happiness depends on reversing the nearly innate notion that time is money. It’s not. Money is time.” What do you mean by that?
“We’re indoctrinated with this idea that money and productivity are the path to greater happiness and success. My data speaks to the fact that this is not necessarily the best way by which to measure the satisfaction, productivity, and meaningfulness of your life. If anything, focusing on money is a path to unhappiness as opposed to satisfaction. My colleagues and I find consistent evidence that people who feel time-affluent, and in control of their schedules, report greater happiness, less stress, better health. They’re less likely to get divorced. They’re more likely to choose jobs that are satisfying. Time is not money, but happiness.”
[BG] Why do you think “time is money” is such a seductive thought?
“A lot of students in my class have a number, right? They say, “I’ll start focusing on other areas of my life when I make this much money a year.” But the problem is that when you start getting paid, and seeing money as a promotion mechanism, an incentive, this increases the saliency of the performance. This leads you to want to get paid even more money, and so you become hyper-focused on the incentive and your reference points start to change. This is why I argue that, sure, it’s possible — you might have more time in the future. But maybe that future never comes. Maybe something happens before you get to reap the five years of glorious retirement that we’re all banking on. Maybe you’re never able to get out of this cycle of getting rewarded for high-quality performance, with more money making you want more money, continuing this cycle, which research is pretty strongly suggesting happens to many people who are under these kinds of performance awards, going after money for prestige and external factors.”
In an extract in The Art Newspaper (2016), entitled My father and music: how Mark Rothko’s love of Mozart made his paintings sing, Christopher Rothko explains how the master of abstraction absorbed the stylistic principles and emotional contradictions of the 18th-century genius.
“Music was central to my father’s world — to his own aesthetic sensibilities, certainly, but also to the structure and expressive modes he found as a painter. I think it’s fair to say he was a painter who aspired to be a musician. Had he received the training and been blessed with the acumen, I have little doubt that music would have been my father’s expressive medium.
I draw this conviction, in part, from my own personal interactions with him. When people ask me what my father shared with me, what I received from him, I answer, without hesitation, a love of music. While I can hardly ever remember us discussing painting, from my earliest days he filled my world with music. This was typically in the form of record after record on the stereo — chamber music or opera, typically Mozart, Mozart, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert or Mozart.
If we accept that music was very close to Rothko’s heart, this still leaves us with several questions. How is his love of music reflected in his works of art? More specifically, does his gravitation towards certain types of music reveal parallel preoccupations and communicative strains in his painting? Finally, by understanding how music functions in our perceptual and emotional worlds, can we identify more precisely how Rothko paintings interact with those realms?”
“Rothko’s colours are remarkably like Mozart’s melodies, put forth without decoration, at liberty to resonate within the sonata structure of the rectangular forms. The transparency that is the hallmark of Mozart’s compositional language permeates Rothko’s as well, the artist thinning his oils and temperas to allow the ‘inner voices’ of his paintings to radiate through. Surface simplicity admits vistas into layers that would otherwise remain concealed. That simplicity is therefore deceptive, cloaking even as it reveals something deeper, something more complex.
This realm of the seen and not-seen serves as a metaphor for another place of contact between Rothko and Mozart: the world of emotional contradiction. When asked about his feeling of kinship with Mozart, my father replied that he understood Mozart because the composer was always ‘smiling through tears.’ This image, like a rainbow that shines while the rain is falling, captures precisely the knotty emotional world where Rothko paintings dwell. Joy is sweetened by the memory of the pain endured to reach it. Pain is intensified by the lingering taste of the cherished things that have been lost. Rothko’s work — and, he argues, Mozart’s as well — is fired by this admixture of feelings. No matter the simplicity of their means, they know no such simplicity of feeling. Feelings are always complex, tinged with the many components that combine to form them; those connected to the situation at hand and those that should have no relation to it, yet seem to demand admittance all the same.”
In Reading notes (2020, week 40), I wrote about Seeing Our Own Reflection in the Birth of the Self-Portrait in which Jason Farago explores how what now seems self-evident — that pictures can represent who you ‘really’ are — began in 1500 with Albrecht Dürer.
Earlier in August, Farago ‘stepped into’ Ejiri in Suruga Province, a woodblock print by the Japanese artist and Ukiyo-e painter, Katsushika Hokusai, and the 10th image in his renowned cycle Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.
Farago loves it most for how it captures an instant, with an exactitude that feels almost photographic. “Here. Now. A country road, two trees, daytime: hold onto your hats. And for something else: the story it tells about how images circulate in a cosmopolitan world,” he writes in A Picture of Change for a World in Constant Motion.
“Let’s start with the road. A serpentine passage cuts through an ordinary little marsh, on a highway that connects Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). No graceful landscape, this. We’re somewhere commonplace, undistinguished.
Most of the marsh grasses are billowing gently. But the gusting wind has bent the trees, and it’s blowing the young leaves right off their branches.
More than in the landscape, you see the wind’s strength in the travelers’ bodies. [A] figure has stepped off the road, and is gripping his hat with both hands. His body is crumpled. The gusting wind has bent him, literally, out of shape.
“During Hokusai’s lifetime, Japanese were barred from leaving the country, on pain of death. But the country was not totally closed. Some foreign goods could come in, via Nagasaki — such as the rich Prussian blue ink used [in The Great Wave off Kanagawa]. And some foreign techniques, too,” Farago writes. But “[even] in a ‘closed’ Japan, Hokusai was weaving together a lavish array of cosmopolitan influences.”
It wasn’t until after his death, though, that Japan opened up. In 1867, Japan participated for the first time in the Exposition Universelle, which took place in Paris. One of the things on display was Ukiyo-e. “The French went wild,” Farago writes. “A critic at the fair singled out Hokusai as ‘the freest and most sincere of the Japanese masters.’ What these young moderns loved were the prints: their flat spaces, their simplified lines, their quotidian subject matter. Hokusai’s example would soon influence the work of Paris’s modern artists.”
But “[these] Parisians understood the prints they were looking at only in part. They made foolish, patronizing generalizations.”
“Mary Cassatt, for instance. She learned from Hokusai and other Japanese printmakers to create spaces of blocky color, with hard transitions from tone to tone.”
“Or her friend Edgar Degas, whose flat and asymmetrical spaces channel the Japanese model into the opera house and the ballet studio.”
“Or, later, Édouard Vuillard, who drew on Japanese examples for this flat, asymmetrical scene of bourgeois families in a public garden.”
In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh wrote: “Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?”
“Like most fantasies, ‘Japonisme’ said more about the fantasizer than the fantasized,” Farago writes. “These Parisians, defeated in war and rocketing through industrialization, saw themselves in landscapes that were both ageless and adrift. And Hokusai, who’d already metabolized Western technique into his images of Japan, was the perfect vessel for their dreaming.”
“He awoke about midnight and finding that the guard of soldiers had left, he sprang from his bed and sent for all his friends. Since no reply came back from anyone, he went himself to their rooms with a few followers. But finding that all the doors were closed and that no one replied to him, he returned to his own chamber, from which now the very caretakers had fled, taking with them even the bed-clothing and the box of poison. Then he at once called for the gladiator Spiculus or any other adept at whose hand he might find death, and when no one appeared, he cried ‘Have I then neither friend nor foe?’ and ran out as if to throw himself into the Tiber.” — Suetonius, Life of Nero ‡
‡ Book Six: XLVII Preparations for Flight, from De vita Caesarum, commonly known as The Twelve Caesars, which contains the biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire, starting with Augustus and ending with Domitian.