The Grand Re-Opening Of The Freer/Sackler Galleries; Or ‘Illuminasia’

The Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art, also know as the Freer/Sackler, is one of my favorite museums. Not only is it directly by the Smithsonian metro station, but it is less crowded than many other museums on the National Mall and has some of the best spots for quiet contemplation you are likely to find.

After almost two years closed for renovations, the galleries are finally open. The grand celebration was called Illuminasia. Lots of cool stuff for the kids and some lovely music and some frustratingly long lines for food (the bao was excellent, but not worth the thirty minute wait).

There’s a nice exhibit on cats in ancient Egypt and a genuinely inspiring exhibit called ‘Encountering the Buddha’ that I can’t wait to see again (it does well with a complicated subject, without ‘dumbing’ things down; it’s a great exhibit for an audience that is not a specialist in the subject, but is reasonably educated).

The first video is of a member of the Silk Road Ensemble performing in a room of Indian Buddhas. The second is of a group of Tuvan throat singers and musicians (Tuva is a Central Asian Republic; don’t feel bad, because I had to google it, too).


Verses From The Center

This was all the DC Public Library system had, in the way of Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist theologian (and founding figure of one of the largest rivers of Buddhist thought and also the origin of Thai Buddhist theology; Mahayana Buddhism – look it up).

The translator, Stephen Batchelor, openly acknowledges that this is not an academic work and I find it a shame that the library does not have a such a translation (this is not a criticism of the DCPL; it’s an awesome library system and I can’t honestly say that such a book should be a burning priority for them; it’s more of a personal disappointment).

I don’t know much about Mr. Batchelor, but if I were to guess, I would say that he does ‘pop’ Buddhism for well-to-do white people.

Knowing a smidgen about the subject, I was able to interpret how these verses relate to the so-called tetralemma (a kind of logic or form of logic or aspect of logic associated with Nagarjuna with four predicates: x is; x is not; x both is and is not; x neither is nor is not). You can also see Buddhist ideas of time and how they relate to the absence of a self.

You can see a lot of stuff. Kind of. Partly, I know, it’s because these works were not written for me, were not written in a style nor a language nor form intended to help me understand.

Partly, though, I can’t help but think that this was intended as a sort of self help book for people who wear Lululemon to yoga classes.

‘Leisure: The Basis of Culture’ By Josef Pieper

Pieper begins the book as almost a marxian (though also anti-communist and anti-totalitarian) tract and ends as an apologist for Christian philosophy (though not, necessarily, for Christianity the religion).

Part of this is that he writes as a German in the years immediately following World War II. Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor the devastation of war can be ignored. Leisure, he notes, seems a luxury in such times, when so much rebuilding is necessary. And, though he doesn’t explicitly say it (though I think it implied in the book), when so much recompense is necessary.

He rejects the idea of intellectual ‘work’ in favor of less loaded words. How is ‘work’ loaded? It is for him because he wants something that does not demand an outcome, as in the product of work. He wants something that reflects contemplation and wonder (and revelation? It naturally follows, though he eschews such gnostic language).

The obvious comparison is between ‘pure’ scientific research and ‘practical’ scientific research (which, as Pieper would no doubt be quick to point out, had he made the comparison, is founded upon the results of pure scientific research).

Ultimately, though, the title is really misleading. He is not advocating, in the end, for leisure, but for philosophizing as a vital part of life.

He most frequently cites Plato and Aquinas (which made me wish I knew more than broad strokes about his philosophy), but it is Heidegger who most clearly haunts him. He mentions him, but tries to avoid mentioning him (not unsurprising, considering the time when he was writing). Like Heidegger, he seeks a way of being in the world and this leisure, which is really philosophical contemplation and study, is his solution. But while Heidegger’s is nearly theological, Pieper’s is, in the final analysis, explicitly theological. Sort of. He doesn’t argue that Christianity is necessary for man, only existentially profitable, arguing, as it were, but not proselytizing.

‘Confucius: A Throneless King’ By Meher McArthur

This brief book is an interesting, but ultimately disappointing ‘biography’ of Confucius. I say ‘biography’ because, as the author admits, it is almost impossible to put together an accurate bio of the man, because so much of what is known is not able to be disentangled from myth. While he admits the problem, it’s not clear from the book itself how he went about it. How much can we trust the incidents described? I certainly don’t know. And the ending is downright confusing, because it’s a series of short narratives about the spread and influence of Confucianism outside of China (Vietnam, Korea, etc). Interesting, but felt like filler because… wasn’t this a bio of the man? And if you were going to do more, why not actually talk more about the philosophy cum religion called Confucianism? There’s a little, but honestly, if I hadn’t read Fung’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (also disappointing), I wouldn’t really have known what he was talking about when he says things like ‘Neo-Confucianism.’ Perhaps my main takeaway from this book is that it’s past time for me to read the Analects.

Choral Works At The National Cathedral

First of all, I was glad to see that nets were gone at the Washington National Cathedral. For a long time, post-earthquake (which was in 2011 or 2012, I think), there nets strung up inside the Cathedral to protect visitors and worshipers from falling bits of cathedral. While appreciated, from a safety perspective, it took away a bit from the sense of awe, grandeur, and general aesthetics.

The last time I saw a concert here, it was period pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries, composed or performed for the French court (and played using period pieces). The music was beautiful, but the acoustics just swallowed the orchestra’s sound (maybe it was the nets).

This time, the sound just soared wonderfully. It was the cathedral’s resident chorus, plus New York Polyphony (an all male vocal quartet), a guest soprano soloist, strings (roughly the size of chamber music orchestra, which is to say, larger than a quarter, but smaller than a full orchestra), and the cathedral’s own organ.

The selections were actually dominated (marginally) by either pieces by contemporary composers or else by pieces arranged by contemporary composers. With a few, arguable, exceptions, they were religious works – often liturgical. I say arguably, because one of the works set some stanzas by Whitman to music and, especially in America, Whitman could be considered to be almost religious.

That said, there wasn’t as much variety among the pieces as I might have liked. At a certain point, one Ave Maria starts to sound like another. That being the case, I could make the argument that they might have been better off taking a longer piece by someone like Tallis and playing that as the entirety of either the pre- or post-intermission half.

On A Recent Sunday

On a recent Sunday, I visited the Holocaust Museum with some friends. It was only my second visit and just as sad and moving as the first time; it’s hard not to feel tears welling up at various junctures.

The Holocaust, as a historical event, is sui generis. It is not there to be our metaphor. It is too singular.

But good God, it is simply impossible to visit that museum and see the history and artifacts leading up to the Holocaust being possible and not think about the terrible act, the bigoted act, the ignorant act, the base act, the racist act undertaken by our president.

And he is our president. He is my president. Whatever good I may do in my life, I will also always be, in some part, complicit in whatever evil my country does, especially when it takes place during my lifetime.

In another tragedy, an acquaintance of my mine is a student, studying here on a student visa. The terms of her visa require her to leave the United States every so often (every six months is a common condition of many visas), but she is from one of Trump’s designated countries. She doesn’t know whether to hurry away now and return by judicial stays can be overturned or to wait and hope that things get better. I don’t know either and all my advice to her tastes likes ashes because I am complicit.


Francis Fukuyama & ‘Children Of Men’

As part of series called Future Tense, I dragged my better half to see the movie Children of Men, followed by a brief lecture/Q&A featuring Francis Fukuyama (who actually introduced himself as ‘Frank’ Fukuyama; nothing intrinsically weird about that, but it did strike me, because I only know him as a sort of public intellectual and semi-repentant neo-conservative.

I loved the movie when it first came out, though I spent almost the entire movie on the verge of tears. This time, I was able to appreciate Clive Owen’s wry humor (and also accept that he would not have been a good James Bond; while Daniel Craig added a wonderful element of questioning Bond’s existence, a Clive Owen Bond would have been entirely too despairing).

Let me first admit that I have never read anymore longer than a magazine essay by Fukuyama. Yes, I am the guy in DC who does not own The End of History, in case you were wondering who that person was. Mostly because I know him as a neo-conservative/neo-liberal (hint: they’re the same thing), even though I also know he has backed off those tendencies over the last decade.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in hearing what he had to say.

He was surprisingly religious and, as a moderator in a Q&A, he took care of the perennial issue of ‘let me ask a question that is actually a long statement intended to show how smart I am but which really shows that I once read an article from a two year old copy of The Economist while waiting to get a crown replaced.’ What he did was to give a brief lecture and then ask a question, so at least the people were supposed to speak and ramble.

While he asked several questions, they were ultimately about what the world might look like if there were no future. While I resisted the temptation to raise my hand and ask to be heard, I will admit that I had a rough idea of a comment in mind. I thought of de Sade’s Philosophy of the Bedroom. Specifically, I thought of that weird interlude when one of the characters suggests they pause their orgy and read an essay. You can google this. My point is that he talks about the death of God, which is the death of the king during the French Revolution. By executing the king, revolutionaries have killed the idea of order and limits coming from a higher power and they should accept that they have made it so that nothing is forbidden anymore. My insight from that is that the death of God can be something besides just a loss of faith (or an enormous, otherwise omnipotent being feeling dead from the sky), but also be something like, say, the loss of fertility. And then, in the words of Uncle Billy Burroughs, everything is permitted, nothing is forbidden.

Fukuyama also told me something I didn’t know: the title comes from the King James Bible’s translation of Psalm 90

Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men

It’s a prayer by Moses, by the way. And Fukuyama put in a nice plug for the King James version, telling folks how much they’re missing when they read those silly ‘modern’ language versions.