Friday, December 30, 2011

Working For Peace In 2012

On Humanity

Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy,
and I wish we may be permitted to pursue it.

Thomas Jefferson

If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.
Moshe Dayan

Eleanor Roosevelt, seen here holding the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish, says: "It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it."
Source: Wikipedia

Last year, I wrote a simple post, A Message of Peace and Hope. Another year has passed, and my sentiments or views have not changed, notably on this important subject. Much has taken place in the last year, including the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.  Whether or not you agree with what has happened in the last year, it signals a new era in that region: change is certain. Whether it will bring democracy to some of the Arab nations is uncertain. Some remain optimistic.

The eyes of the world are watching, in particular, the naked brutality of Syria's government and Iran's decision and bold ambitions to continue its nuclear program, the latter with the stated purpose of destroying Israel. It's madness, of course, which we have witnessed before. How does one stop a madman or two intent on bringing about destruction, including on their own people?

Both nations have in common leaders who care little about their own citizens, not an uncommon characteristic for many of the world's leaders, yet in their case the brutality is naked and unchecked. As for Egypt, the hopes and aspirations for a working democracy for that ancient nation have yet to materialize; if democracy and all the markings of a democratic state is to happen, it will take time.

Europe has been busy with its own problems, labelled the Euro Crisis, the continent beset by an financial and economic crisis. It is saddled with too much debt and too little new and original answers. The middle class and the poor are expected to bear much of the consequences of poor financial and political management. Not surprising, people, notably the shrinking middle class are vociferously unhappy by the unfairness of it all. It's been a year of protest and demonstrations.

The various occupy movements, led by Occupy Wall Street in New York City, have sent a message to government leaders that our democracy is also in peril when a small elite group has too much say in government decisions. Let's hope for change in the West, as well, one that strengthens the lot of democracy, of humanity and of individual liberty.

Democracy is a fragile institution, strengthened by the participation of its citizens. In Russia, citizens are participating in greater numbers, led to a large part by social media networks. Russia and Russians have long suffered authoritarian rule, and as much as many citizens report that it what they want, an equal number say they thirst for more freedom and openness within an ordered and law-abiding society. What happens in Russia in the next few months is worth watching, and will play an important part in shaping the world. Presidential elections are scheduled for March 4. Some historians expect a second Russian Revolution, but a peaceful one brought about social-networking technology.

To repeat what I said last year, and it bears repeating, peace is the objective of all sane people. Peace can be built by taking small measures to connect with people, including one's enemies at the appropriate time. Such takes the right measure of courage and wisdom, the mark of great statesmen.

It will take overcoming fear, not an easy task in the best of times. It will take a will to build a lasting trust. It will take great hope and a strong belief in peace. In Winning the War on War, Joshua S. Goldstein, a political scientist, argues in accordance with Eleanor Roosevelt's dictum" "If you want peace, work for peace."

My hope is for everyone to have a peaceful and inspiring 2012.

Symbol of Peace: 
Artist Credit: Gerald Holtom, 1958
Source: Wikipedia



I am taking some time off from this blog to devote myself to a few other interests and to take a much needed rest. Happy New Year to all. I plan to return in February 2012 with new essays, articles and musical posts. If you have any ideas for articles, or would like to submit something, please drop me a line.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Leonard Cohen: Closing Time

Leonard Cohen performs "Closing Time," which he composed in 1992. The song is the fourth track on "The Future." You can view the official music video here, which will give you some clues to the song's intended meaning.


Leonard Cohen: Closing Time is the fourth track on The Future album, released in 1992.
Source: Wikipedia

Closing Time
By Leonard Cohen

Ah we're drinking and we're dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high
And my very sweet companion
she's the Angel of Compassion
she's rubbing half the world against her thigh
And every drinker every dancer
lifts a happy face to thank her
the fiddler fiddles something so sublime
all the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:
it's Closing Time.

Yeah the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:
it's  Closing Time.

Ah we're lonely, we're romantic
and the cider's laced with acid
and the Holy Spirit's crying, "Where's the beef?"
And the moon is swimming naked
and the summer night is fragrant
with a mighty expectation of relief
So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
to the tower where the blessed hours chime
and I swear it happened just like this:
a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
the Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
but Closing Time.

I swear it happened just like this:
a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
the Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
Closing Time.

I loved you for your beauty
but that doesn't make a fool of me:
you were in it for your beauty too
and I loved you for your body
there's a voice that sounds like God to me
declaring, declaring, declaring that your body's really you
And I loved you when our love was blessed
and I love you now there's nothing left
but sorrow and a sense of overtime
and I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess
it's Closing Time.

Yeah I missed you since the place got wrecked
By the winds of change and the weeds of sex
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess
it's Closing Time.

Yeah we're drinking and we're dancing
but there's nothing really happening
and the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night
And my very close companion
gets me fumbling gets me laughing
she's a hundred but she's wearing
something tight
and I lift my glass to the Awful Truth
which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth
except to say it isn't worth a dime
And the whole damn place goes crazy twice
and it's once for the devil and once for Christ
but the Boss don't like these dizzy heights
we're busted in the blinding lights,
busted in the blinding lights
of Closing Time.

The whole damn place goes crazy twice
and it's once for the devil and once for Christ
but the Boss don't like these dizzy heights
we're busted in the blinding lights,
busted in the blinding lights
of Closing Time.

Oh the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
It's Closing Time.
And it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops
It's Closing Time.
I swear it happened just like this:
a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
It's Closing Time.
The Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
But Closing Time.
I loved you when our love was blessed
I love you now there's nothing left
But Closing Time.
I miss you since the place got wrecked
By the winds of change and the weeds of sex.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Berlin Philharmonic: Humperdinck's 'Hansel and Gretel'

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performs Engelbert Humperdinck's opera, "Hansel and Gretel"—Witch's Ride (Hexenritt), under the baton of an eight-year-old. Here's why. During a family concert of the Berlin Philharmonic in December 2006, conductor Mark Elder asked the audience if any of the children present wanted to conduct the orchestra. An eight-year-old stepped forward. Music and children are a wonderful combination, since all children naturally love music.


Engelbert Humperdinck composed Hansel and Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel) in Frankfurt, Germany, and completed the opera in 1892. The story is based on the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale of the same name, a much-loved children's classic and a morality tale of good overcoming evil (The synopsis can be found here.)

The opera premiered in Weimar on December 23, 1893, conducted by Richard Strauss. Its first performance in England was in London on December 26, 1894, and in the United States in New York City on October 8, 1895. There are countless recordings on radio, TV and film. The opera, shortly after its inception more than a century ago, has had a connection with the Christmas holidays.

Hänsel und Gretel: This is an illustration of the children's encounter with a witch, from the well-known fairy-tale of German origin that the Brothers Grimm recorded and published in 1812.
Artist Credit: Alexander Zick [1845-1907]
Source: Wikipedia

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ofra Haza: Yerushalayim Shel Zahav

Ofra Haza performs (Hebrew: ירושלים של זהב‎), Yerushalayim Shel Zahav ("Jerusalem of Gold"), which Naomi Shemer [1930-2004] composed in 1967.


Ofra Haza [1957-2000], the Israeli-born singer of international fame, has been described as a mezzo-soprano of near-perfect tonality, which is clear in this heartfelt performance of the song at Pa'amonei Hayovel ("Bells of the Jubilee"), Israel's 50th anniversary celebration in 1998.

Haza's story as a singer and what she represents to Israelis is poetically summed up here in The Jerusalem Post tribute to her in 2000: "Raised as the youngest of nine children to a traditional Yemenite family in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Haza's fairy-tale climb to fame and fortune has become the stuff of local legend."

Ofra Haza died of Aids-related pneumonia on February 23, 2000. She was 42. Her beautifully inspiring voice, ringing clearly like a bell, will be missed. She was a singer for all people.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Israel Philharmonic: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake —'Waltz'

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs from Act I (No. 2, Tempo di valse, Waltz) of P.I. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet, opus 20, in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2001, Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky worked on the composition in 1875-76, completing it in April 1876. Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the director of the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow, had commissioned the music, offering Tchaikovsky a modest fee of 800 rubles. It made its premiere, with the Bolshoi Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia, on March 4, 1877, originally billed as The Lake of the Swans. A synopsis of the four-act ballet can be found here.

Swan Lake, a perennial favourite, is essentially a story of love and redemption. But it was not initially well-received. In "The History of Swan Lake," for, Aaron Greene writes:
Like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake was unsuccessful after its first year of performance. Conductors, dancers and audiences alike thought Tchaikovsky's music was too complicated and hard to dance to. The production’s original choreography by German ballet master, Julius Reisinger, was uninspiring and unoriginal. Much is unknown about the original production of Swan Lake – no notes, techniques or instruction concerning the ballet was written down. Only little can be found in letters and memos. It wasn’t until after Tchaikovsky’s death that Swan Lake was revived. Much of the Swan Lake we know of today was a revision by the famous choreographers Petipa and Ivanov.
Tchaikovsky died on November 6, 1893, leaving many versions of the ballet. Within two years after his death, however, most ballet companies came to accept the version, both choreographically and musically of the 1895 revival of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. This was first performed for the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1895. For this revival, Riccardo Drigo, chief conductor and composer of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, also revised Tchaikovsky's score. This continues today, notably with the choreography, with various companies making  modifications to the production, often in keeping with modern sensibilities and regional tastes.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Puccini's Turandot: Final Scene

The final scene (scene 2; Act III) of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, a Franco Zeffirelli production, at the Met with James Levine conducting, part of the opera house's 2009-2010 season. The opera's setting is Peking, China, during ancient times. The synopsis can be found here.


Turandot is a three-act opera by Giacomo Puccini, with an Italian libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. It is based on Turandot (1762), a commedia dell'arte by Carlo Gozzi, which itself comes from a collection of Persian tales, The Book of One Thousand and One Days. "Turandot" is a Persian word, whose meaning is "the daughter of Turan," a region in Central Asia that was once part of the Persian Empire.

The story, set in ancient China, focuses on Prince Calàf who falls in love with the ice princess Turandot. To obtain permission to marry her, a suitor has to solve three riddles; any false answer results in death. Calàf passes the test, but Turandot still hesitates to marry him. He offers her a way out: he agrees to die should she be able guess his real name. That is only revealed at the end, in scene two of Act III, as Wikipedia says:
Turandot and Calàf approach the Emperor's throne. She declares that she knows the Prince's name: Diecimila anni al nostro Imperatore! – "It is ... love!" The crowd cheers and acclaims the two lovers (O sole! Vita! Eternità).
The opera remained unfinished at the time of Puccini's death in 1924; Franco Alfano had the unenviable task of completing it, which he did in 1926. The first performance was held at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, on April 25, 1926, Arturo Toscanini conducting. This performance included only Puccini's music and not Alfano's later additions. The next evening, Alfano's additions were performed.

The opera has many faithful fans worldwide; critics are not so easily impressed, considering the opera gaudy and essentially over-the-top. In a New York Times review, Anthony Tommassini writes of his criticism of American soprano Lise Lindstrom (temporarily replacing principal soprano Maria Guleghina) performing the title role:
Though Ms. Lindstrom may not have the biggest Turandot voice, she sang with chilling power and nailed the top notes. Her sound was impressively focused, with a vibrant vibrato on sustained tones and no wobble. The youthful shimmer of her singing was balanced by rich emotional maturity.

Yet there was often a hard edge to her sound, not quite strident but close. Whether this coloring is simply a characteristic of her voice or a sign of strain for a singer in her early 40s is the question. Her performance was strong. But I worry about her future.

Turandot: Original Poster from 1926.
Source: Wikipedia

Friday, December 23, 2011

Death By Boredom

Boredom is the keynote of poverty — of all its indignities, it is perhaps the hardest of all to live with — for where there is no money there is no change of any kind.
Moss Hart, Act One

Having Fun:
Source: TheWordsThoughtBlog

Boredom has always existed. It is a part of human nature to become accustomed to the way things are, and look for other things to amuse us. The ancients put on plays and had story-tellers, which exist today in modern forms as novels, films, plays, musical performances and games.

It might well be that one of the reasons that we are more bored as a society is that, paradoxically, there are so many choices of entertainment—more choices of things to amuse us. The more choices and the greater the amount of choices, the greater the possibility of boredom. Such shows that advertising works, creating a need in persons to view that show, that performance, buy that game, that amusement or distraction. There is today both high culture and low culture, both existing side by side. But accessing culture costs money, which becomes a barrier to some, if not many.

So, unless persons have access to entertainment and fun, which many don't, they face boredom. That is problematic for society, since bored persons, notably the young and at-risk teenagers, often look for destructive ways to amuse themselves. Such explains why intelligent policymakers don't build more prisons, but, instead, more playgrounds. The cost for the latter is substantially less than the cost for the former, and amply more beneficial.

There is a sound reason why amusement and fun has always been necessary. For one, boredom can be crippling, isolating and self-defeating. The high-mined can say that we ought to reform society and individuals to make persons less susceptible to boredom, but it's far easier and simpler to provide entertainment and amusements that are socially beneficial and fun—and at a very reasonable cost. The wealthy and the privileged have always looked for amusements.

It's all right to be amused, with justifiable reason: people look for sources to amuse them, chiefly as a way to take them away from their everyday routine, which for many persons is drudgery and toil. Let's face it: work for a great majority of persons is not fun or even tolerable. It's the opposite. Amusements help members of society stay sane. It's true that we can go too far in that direction, a point that Neil Postman, a well-known cultural critic, made in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I sense, however, that most people are self-regulating.

So, when children say they are bored, as my two young boys often say, they are telling me something important that I can't ignore.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Procol Harum: A Whiter Shade Of Pale (2006)

Procol Harum performs its most well-known song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” accompanied by the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir, at Denmark’s Ledreborg Castle on August 20, 2006. The blend of rock and classical music is nicely and beautifully done. The influences of J.S. Bach are noticeable in this piece. This is the original band member, Gary Brooker, singing; he might even sound better than way back in 1968 singing this wonderful song here. Many beautiful memories of what in my day were referred to as slow dances.

Procol Harum, a British pop group, made its international debut with this song in May 1967. It became number 1 by July 1967, and remains popular. Rolling Stone magazine, in its 2004 listing of the 500 greatest rock songs of all time, ranked the song number 57.

The band's name, which uses Latin nomenclature, raises many questions in the minds of the intellectually curious as to its meaning, Yet, the way it is written, Procul Harum cannot be translated into anything in formal Latin. The meaning, as understand by popular culture is "Beyond the Pale."

There is a website dedicated to the band bearing that tagline. Gary Brooker, singing, is the remaining original member of the band.

A Whiter Shade of Pale
by Gary Brooker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale

She said there is no reason
And the truth is plain to see.
But I wandered through my playing cards
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might have just as well've been closed

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale

The Byrds: Turn! Turn! Turn!

The Byrds sing this classic rock anthem "Turn! Turn! Turn!" Pete Seeger wrote it in 1959, based on the biblical book Ecclesiastes. The Byrds, an American folk rock group, recorded it in 1965, after which it became an international hit. There is time for everything; "A time for peace, I swear it's not too late."

You can listen to the song here in one of their first public performances on October 19, 1965.

Turn! Turn! Turn!
by Pete Seeger

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to build up,a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it's not too late

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

John Lennon: Stand By Me (II)

Written by: Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Recorded: 1974
Released: March 10, 1975
Album: Rock 'N Roll
Label: Apple Records

The song is obviously and unequivocally about human relationships, about love, loyalty and devotion to a person. But in my estimation, and I might be stretching it a bit, it can also stand for love or devotion to an idea or an ideal, in this case democracy and human liberty and the causes that lead to peace—all universal ideas. You can also listen to the original Ben E. King version here, and a more recent one here, from the 1987 Montreux Jazz Festival  here, which has a different sense, but is equally wonderful in its emotional interpretation of the human experience.

Stand By Me is a single from the album, Rock 'n Roll, 1975
Source: Wikipedia
Stand by Me
by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we see
No I won't be afraid
No I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

And darling, darling stand by me
Oh, now, now, stand by me
Stand by me, stand by me

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
And the mountain should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry
No I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

And darling, darling stand by me
Oh, stand by me
Stand by me, stand by me, stand by me

Whenever you're in trouble won't you stand by me
Oh, now, now, stand by me
Oh, stand by me, stand by me, stand by me

Darling, darling stand by me
Stand by me
Oh stand by me, stand by me, stand by me

This song was originally posted here on November 11, 2010. It is reposted today with additional commentary.

Itzhak Perlman: Vivaldi's Four Seasons—'Winter'

Itzhak Perlman plays from the first movement of Antonin Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, "L'inverno" (Winter), with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta conducting. It's the beginning of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Antonio Vivaldi composed the four violin concertos in 1723; it was first published in 1725 as part of 12 concertos known as Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest of Harmony and Invention") Each movement evokes a sense of the season, or at least how Vivaldi imagined it when he composed the work in his native Venice, Italy. Thus, winter evokes icy rain, slow careful walking and the comfort of warm winter fires.  The "Four Seasons" remains one of the most popular works, not only of Baroque music but of all musical forms and traditions.

Each concerto is associated with a sonnet, ascribed to Vivaldi, describing the scenes depicted in the music. For "Winter":

Allegro non molto
"Aggiacciato tremar trà neri algenti
Al Severo Spirar d' orrido Vento,
Correr battendo i piedi ogni momento;
E pel Soverchio gel batter i denti;"

"Passar al foco i di quieti e contenti
Mentre la pioggia fuor bagna ben cento"

"Caminar Sopra 'l giaccio, e à passo lento
Per timor di cader gersene intenti;
Gir forte Sdruzziolar, cader à terra
Di nuove ir Sopra 'l giaccio e correr forte
Sin ch' il giaccio si rompe, e si disserra;
Sentir uscir dalle ferrate porte
Sirocco Borea, e tutti i Venti in guerra
Quest' é 'l verno, mà tal, che gioja apporte."

[English Translation]:

Allegro non molto
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow
in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one's icy feet,
teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

To rest contentedly beside the hearth,
while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously,
for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and,
rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home
despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter,
which nonetheless brings its own delights.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi [ 1678-1741]: He was nicknamed il Prete Rosso ("The Red Priest") because of his red hair, and had many talents" an Italian Baroque composer, priest, and virtuoso violinist. Vivaldi is credited with  composing 500 concertos.
Artist Credit: François Morellon la Cave; painted in 1725.
Source: Wikipedia

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jacob Epstein: UnInhibited Celebration of Humanity

Great Artists

The artist is the world's scapegoat.
Jacob Epstein

Jacob Epstein [1880-1959]: At age 43:"To think of abstraction as an end in itself is undoubtedly letting oneself be led into a cul-de-sac and can only lead to exhaustion and impotence."
Photo Credit: George Charles Beresford, 1924
Source: Wikipedia
One thing you can say about Jacob Epstein: his sculptures express a vision of humanity that go against the traditional view of art found in the early twentieth century, rubbing the Edwardians the wrong way. But that is what taboo breakers do, destroy the barriers to freedom, and lay bare the truth of humanity for all to see and appreciate. Taboo breakers find taboos an affront to the modern sensibility, to their sense of beauty and aesthetics, and they do all they can to right things, so to speak.

Epstein had his detractors, his adversaries, who were not pleased by his efforts to reveal. His rough-hewn figures, draped in primitive attire, were found shocking by many. The fact that he was Jewish and American working in Britain didn't make his acceptance as an artist any easier. Not only were the themes considered overtly explicit, which shocked British sensibilities, but the criticisms against him, the artist, were often couched in anti-Semitism, then fashionable in Europe. Such hostility, in some quarters, eventually increased to hatred and then to fascism, where the story's outcome is too well-known, clear and predictable.

In reality, what Epstein did in his art was challenge the taboos that surrounded sexuality. This needed to be done, and his efforts, along with others, helped usher in the sexual revolution of the Nineteen Sixties. Epstein was not alone in doing this, but he become the lighting rod for criticism. Since he was ahead of his time, he bore the brunt and was maligned unfairly.

As an important aside, it is important to note that  in totalitarian regimes, sexuality is repressed and all forms of human sexual expression are censored. For totalitarians know that human sexuality is intrinsically linked to individuality and the ideas and ideals of liberal democracy. When you later read the history about such regimes, you often find that members of the political ruling class lived lives that were contrary to the laws they imposed, their sexual desires coming out, albeit covertly, in perverse ways.

Day and Night (1928), carved from Portland Stone, for London Underground's Headquarters at 55 Broadway, London. "When they were unveiled, the graphic nudity of the sculptures was just too shocking for Londoners in the 1920s. Newspapers started a campaign to have the statues removed and one company director even offered to pay the cost. Frank Pick the managing director of London Underground at the time took overall responsibility and offered his resignation over the scandal. In the end, Epstein agreed to remove a couple of inches from the penis of the smaller figure on Day and ultimately the furor died down," Wikipedia writes.
Artist: Jacob Epstein, 1928.
Source: Wikipedia
A Healthy Democracy

One of the markers on the health of a democracy is in the level of freedom it experiences, and that includes sexual freedom and the expression of human sexuality. A society that deems the healthy artistic representation of the human body as needing cover is a society that will find its expression in other forms, often perverse and anti-human. History bears this out.

Despite the early criticism and notoriety that he received, Epstein achieved prominence and became known for his bronze sculptures:
Bronze portrait sculpture formed one of Epstein's staple products, and perhaps the best known. These sculptures were often executed with roughly textured surfaces, expressively manipulating small surface planes and facial details. Some fine examples are in the National Portrait Gallery.
Some of his notable busts include important figures in the arts and sciences, like Joseph Conrad (1924), Albert Einstein (1933) and George Bernard Shaw (1934), and  as well as political personages like Winston Churchill (1946) and Jawaharlal Nehru (1949) His major known works include The Rock Drill (1913), a criticism of modern technology; The Archangel Lucifer (1944); and St. Michael and the Devil (1958), both replete with Christian symbolism.

Early Years in America

Jacob Epstein was born to Max Epstein and Mary Epstein (nee Solomon) in New York City's Lower East Side on November 10, 1880. Jacob Epstein was the third of eight (surviving) children born to the couple, who came to the the United States in 1865. He was born into a fairly prosperous family of merchants who came from Augustow in Russian Poland.  His father ran a bakery and bagel business and used the earnings to buy property, chiefly tenement buildings.

In Demons and Angels: A Life of Jacob Epstein, June Rose writes about Jacob's early and formative years:
Max Epstein owned the tenement building at 102 Hester Street and let out rooms to immigrants who arrived at the nearby docks. He was the first person to install a bathroom in their street. and the kind-hearted Mary allowed the lodgers to take a weekly bath. much to the annoyance of her husband (1)
Like many of his generation, Jacob's parents were religious in their practices and views, although less so than the previous generation. Jacob was expected to say prayers daily, receive Hebrew lessons from the local rabbi, and attend weekly services at the synagogue, which he found stifling and boring. His desire was to "be an American,"  or at least find freedom from the strictures of religious life. At age six, he developed pleurisy, an inflammation of the pleural cavity surrounding the lungs, which would debilitate him for two years. Yet, it also allowed him to set himself apart from his family, and to dream and to develop his imagination, and of course draw. 

It was then that he also came in contact with the Settlement House Movement, an educational and social reform program whose purpose was to, Harvard University Library says, "help to assimilate and ease the transition of immigrants into the labor force by teaching them middle-class American values." Such had an huge influence on Epstein, as did the multiple nationalities that resided within walking distance of his house. In 1894, he joined The Art Students League of New York, where he was under the influence of academic sculptor George Grey Barnard. In World of our Fathers, Irving Howe writes:
Jacob Epstein's family, more prosperous, was also more sophisticated. While his parents "did not approve of all that I did, they saw that I had what might be called a special bent. My turning to sculpture was to them [nevertheless] mysterious." They did not actively discourage him, it was just that they "could not understand how I could make a living by Art." (574)
This is an understandable worry for any parent, notably immigrant ones whose safety comes in the form of a secure profession. It lives on today. Art did not fit under the idea of a secure profession, and it still remains in the realm of the insecure and not-understood vocations. Society at large enjoys art and art exhibitions, but they rarely understand the artist and what drives him to create.

It's also interesting to note that in general Judaism is less prudish about sexuality than, say, Christianity. Judaism does not consider sexual relations between individuals as unhealthy and exceptional. Quite the contrary. It's a fundamental expression of humanity. after all, one of the first edicts from God was "be fruitful and multiply." This is not to say that Orthodox Judaism would have approved of Epstein's visual art. They did not. Not then. Religious Jews took seriously the injunction against graven images, and visual representation fitted within this prohibition.
Jacob Epstein [1880-1959]: At age 53:  Around this time, Epstein met Albert Einstein in England in 1933, who become a subject for a bust. After the three sittings, Epstein said: "His glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound. This was a combination which delighted me. He resembled the aging Rembrandt."
Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964): Photo taken on May 28, 1934.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

Permanent Move to London

In 1902, Epstein moved to Paris, where he studied briefly at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts, where he also came in contact with Auguste Rodin. He settled permanently in England in 1905, residing in London, where he pioneered modern sculpture, often producing controversial pieces that challenged perceptions of sexuality in public artworks. It's also true that he was an iconoclast and liked working alone, using his own ideas to express what humanity represented in the grand scheme of things. To a great degree, his childhood followed him wherever he found himself.

Instead of incorporating Western ideas into his work, Epstein looked to the ancient, non-Western ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, China and Africa. Humans were central to his work; it was people that counted. His first significant work appeared in 1907, when he was commissioned to carve 18 figures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand, London. 

In "Genius whose art was put in a freak show," Julia Wiener writes in The Jewish Chronicle:
This first major commission ended disastrously. Several newspapers were outraged by the nudity of his sculptures, conducting a campaign against his designs. The Evening Standard warned that Epstein had erected “a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man, his fiancée, to see.” 
Epstein pressed on with the everyday normal things of life. In 1906, Jacob Epstein and Margaret Dunlop married, and in 1910 Epstein became a British citizen. They remained married until Margaret Epstein's death in 1947. Jacob Epstein was knighted in 1954, thus achieving the recognition that he had spent decades following his artistic passions to achieve. Yet, his work always carried with it a sense of foreignness. Epstein was the consummate outsider.

Like many with artistic passions, Epstein was not faithful to his wife and had many affairs, including with Kathleen Garman, 20 years his junior. They married in 1955; their three children were Theo (1924–1954), Kathleen "Kitty" (born 1926), and Esther (1929–1954), He had two children from previous relationships: Peggy Jean (1918); and Jackie (1934). His first wife, Margaret, was generally tolerant of these extramarital affairs and, surprisingly, helped raise two of his offspring.

He kept on working and producing till his final days. His last work was Rush of Green (1959), which sits at the edge of London's Hyde Park. Jacob
Epstein died of coronary thrombosis on August 19, 1959 in London. He was 78. He is buried in London's Putney Vale Cemetery.

Tonight marks the first night of the eight-day festival, Chanukah, which begins after sunset on the 25th of Kislev. To those celebrating the holiday, Happy Chanukah.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Grand Tour: A Life Of Privilege

Travel & Education

 The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of heading home.
Paul Theroux

Interior of the Pantheon: Rome's Pantheon was one of the essential stops of the Grand Tour for the 18th century privileged class.
Artist Credit: Giovanni Paolo Panini [1691-1765]

When you have read a lot of European literature, as I have done, you often come across the expression, "The Grand Tour," an educational rite of passage primarily associated with the British upper classes. The primary destination of the Grand Tour was Italy, home of the art and culture of ancient Rome, which represented the height of classicism to the 18th century mind.

Why it was so limited to the wealthy is clear, says the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. "Travel was arduous and costly throughout the period, possible only for a privileged class—the same that produced gentleman scientists, authors, antiquaries, and patrons of the arts."

It was a finishing school and more, says the BBC Radio 4 in a May 2002 broadcast, "The Grand Tour":
The idea was for wealthy young travellers to finish their education with an extensive trip to Europe to experience its natural beauties, its cultural treasures and, if they were lucky, its sexual permissiveness.
The standard route took in Paris and The Alps and some tourists, including Byron, made it as far as Greece. But the destination, par excellence, was Italy, with its Renaissance glories and classical splendours.
Such rites of passage into adulthood lasted from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, when horse-drawn carriages were still the norm. When rail transport become more advanced and thus more prominent, such excursions became less prominent; and, concurrently, when travel became less expensive, first with railway transport, then the automobile and to a lesser extent the airplane, ushering in a new class of people and travelers—the middle classes—such expeditions for the upper classes became unnecessary. To a large degree, technological advances in mass transit became a wonderful leveling force for the good and betterment of society.

The result is that persons today can travel on limited budgets to far-away locations, some with the intent to learn about other cultures, some with other desires. That is, if  you can and are willing to put up with all kinds of intrusive and time-consuming safety measures at airports. As well, many might not enjoy meeting many others along the crowded roads, in museum lines, notably at the Sistine Chapel, part of the Vatican Museum;  the Pantheon in Rome; and the Louvre in Paris.

Lions of the Serengeti: Close-up on a pair of male lions basking in the sun on a rocky outcrop in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, April 2008.
Photo Credit:Williiam Warby, London, England: April 2008.
Source: Wikipedia
Although one can complain, it's over-all a good thing that travel has been democratized. You can learn about other cultures by waiting in line with someone who is also from a foreign country. I have had many wonderful conversations with strangers while waiting in line, or on planes and trains. It turns a tiring experience into an energizing one. Viewing and engaging with a culture and its artifacts and people first-hand and up close is always the preferred way, and there are modern Grand Tour packages to all kinds of destinations, including China, India and the African Serengeti.

If, however, budgets are severely limited, making travel a luxury once again, as is now the case for many of us, there is always the virtual world. It is getting better and better, which allows one to view distant art and culture up close and personal, albeit once removed. With a huge database of sites, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can learn about other cultures and locales, visit the famous museums and view the art—all from the safety and comfort of one's residence.

It's the Grand Tour for the less privileged.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Neil Diamond: Beautiful Noise

Neil Diamond performs "Beautiful Noise" at New York City's Madison Square Garden in 2008. You can also listen to a much younger Neil Diamond here, performing from 30 years earlier, in 1976, wearing a yellow jump suit and bell bottoms.


Beautiful Noise:  The album was released on July 4, 1976, the  day that Americans celebrate Independence Day; it also marked the bicentennial of the nation's birth and Declaration of Independence. 'Beautiful Noise" is the sound of democracy.
Source: Wikipedia

Beautiful Noise
by Neil Diamond

What a beautiful noise
Comin' up from the street
Got a beautiful sound
It's got a beautiful beat

It's a beautiful noise
Goin' on everywhere
Like the clickety-clack
Of a train on a track
It's got a rhytm to spare

It's a beautiful noise
And it's a sound that I love
And it fits me as well
As a hand in a glove
Yes it does, yes it does

What a beautiful noise
Comin' up from the park
It's the song of this kids
And it plays until dark

It's the song of the cars
On their furious flights
But there's even romance
In the way that they dance
To the beat of the lights

It's a beautiful noise
And it's a sound that I love
And it's makes me feel good
Like a hand in a glove
Yes it does, yes it does
What a beautiful noise

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Three Cantors: A Yiddish Medley

The Three Cantors—Meir Finkelstein, Alberto Mizrahi and David Propis— perform a Yiddish medley of popular songs.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Is Human Goodness In Peril?

Education & Society

I am republishing this post, with some minor emendations, which was originally published as "Cultivating Humanity." The reasons are as follows: 1) much has happened politically worldwide since I originally posted this; 2) its relevance seems more urgent today; and 3) the question raised in the title has significant merit and needs more discussion. I am by nature neither a pessimist nor a cynic, Even so, I am a worrier; and I am worried about many important world events, notably, how the high and mighty have responded to us mere mortals—with a decided shrug of the shoulders and a lack of charity.


Moses ben-Maimon, also called Maimonides or Rambam was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. (This is a 19th century portrait.). As he said: “We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of charity than any other positive commandment because charity is the sign of a righteous man.”
Source: Wikipedia
In 1997, Martha Nussbaum, the well-known American philosopher and professor at University of Chicago, wrote Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, a spirited defence of liberal education (see excellent review by Nicholas C. Burbules of Harvard Educational Review.)  Among other things, Nussbaum advocates for the importance of a liberal education, the centrality of philosophy and cosmopolitanism. 

Like many others before her, Prof. Nussbaum raises good points on the importance of liberal education, the need for Socratic reason and the importance of reading the literature of other cultures to develop as empathetic citizens of the world. Of course, she is talking about the examined life, of self-criticism, of self-development and empathy of the Other—people unlike ourselves. Nussabaum also warns about the dangers of education leading to vocationalism, where students enter higher education chiefly as a means to get a job.

 That explains such university slogans as "Education for the 21st century," and "Real Education for the Real World." The screaming symbolism in such slogans is telling: only practical education leads to a better life. That is what the high priests of commerce want students to believe, if only to serve industry's desires: an educated workforce focused solely on obeying orders and getting the job done.

Or, in other words, higher education becomes a job-training institute. While getting a job is important, and no one is arguing against work and getting well paid for it, the job-training approach that many universities are emphasizing is problematic. (For an interesting take on utilitarian education, John Allemang's thought-provoking article in The Globe & Mail, Can the liberal arts cure jihadists?)

Socrates [circa 470–399 BCE]: “For, dear Crito, you may be sure that such wrong words are not only undesirable in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil,” as cited in Phaedo 115e (also called On The Soul) by Plato.
Photo Description: Portrait of Socrates bust in The Louvre Museum, Paris, France. “Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos.”
Source: Wikipedia CommonsEric Gaba 

In many cases, this equates to a high-paid job in a high-paying field, which today would be high finance, high-tech, law and medicine. It seems that the common denominator of the high-paying vocational jobs is that students graduate with little understanding or, more important, fine appreciation of art, history, philosophy and the culture in which they reside. Even so, while I applaud the merits of  education in general, and liberal arts education in particular, education alone is insufficient to instill humans with humanity. It takes something more. It is important to understand that humans crave attention, respect and a sense that they are worthy and valuable members of society.

Humans are not human resources. Humans are not means of production, used and then discarded when the expiry date is near. Each individual human is born into the world as a unique individual, with the capability to contribute something worthy and beautiful to society. Truly, it doesn't take a philosopher to tell us that, although philosophers can warn us and advise us of societal trends and dangers. Even so, we can know many things of both the human heart and mind, if we observe our world and others carefully. And, more important, learn to do the right thing. Generally speaking, we will do right, if we view that all humans have value and are worthy of respect and dignity.

Yet, today's emphasis on money and wealth acquisition has made us profoundly less human. The late historian Tony Judt thought so. “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” he wrote in Ill Fares the Land. “For 30 years, we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest: Indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.”

Yet, a collective purpose based on the dignity of humans tends to lead to good and honourable actions. Here's a worthy example. During the Second World war, a tiny village in southern France banded together to save 5,000 Jews from Nazi death camps, in what has been called a Conspiracy of Goodness. When asked why they risked their lives, the common response was, "it was the human thing to do." Such describes the height of human goodness.

For many, such is the exception rather than the rule.


Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on the continuing economic crisis. Many of us are going through very difficult economic and personal times. The poor, the working poor, the shrinking middle class, the struggling family need not be stigmatized. Every person can help make a change and a difference in society by acting with human kindness and goodness. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ida Haendel: Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem ‘Nigun’

Ida Haendel performs Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem (Nigun), the second piece from the “Three Pictures of Chassidic Life” at the Great Synagogue (Plzeň Velká Synagoga ) at Pilsen, Czech Republic, on September 17, 2009. The pianist is Misha Dacic. 

Ernest Bloch [1880-1959], the Swiss-born composer, married Marguerite Schneider, a young German music student, in 1904. They had three children: Ivan in 1905, Suzanne in 1907, and Lucienne in 1909. When the English dancer Maude Allan hired him to lead the orchestra for her American tour, Bloch left for the United States from Liverpool, England, arriving in New York City after an eight-day boat ride on July 30, 1916.

On June 7, 1917, Bloch returned briefly to Europe for a vacation in Switzerland and his beloved mountains. He then emigrated with his wife, son and two daughters to New York City on October 19, 1917. He became an American citizen in 1924. Bloch completed his Baal Shem Suite, "Three Pictures of Chassidic Life," while he was director at the Cleveland Institute of Music (1920-1925), in  Cleveland, Ohio, 1923. As Michael Jameson writes:
[T]he triptych Baal Shem belongs to a distinctive and unmistakable genus of pieces, in which Bloch's personal voice was now powerfully established as being "Jewish" in utterance above all else. But as the critic Erik Levi suggests, it is important to remember that "Bloch's Jewishness derived from an inner impulse, not through a conscious absorption of Hebraic folk elements." To this we could also add Bloch's own assertion: "it is neither my purpose nor desire to attempt a reconstruction of Jewish music, nor to base my work on more or less authentic melodies...I am not an archaeologist; for me the most important thing is to write good and sincere music."
The suite is composed of Vidui (contrition), Nigun (prayer), and Simchas Torah (rejoicing). The Nigun, as played here, is full of emotion and gives rise to all the hopes, dreams, sorrows, and happiness of the Jewish people. Ida Haendel, who turns 83 today, plays the piece beautifully; you can enjoy the performance here.

Ernest Bloch [1880-1959]: Standing with three children.
Photo Credit: Bain News Service; taken between 1910 and 1930.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Murray Perahia: Felix Mendelssohn's 'Scottish Sonata'

Murray Perahia performs Felix Mendelssohn's Fantasy in Fsharp ("Scottish Sonata"), opus 28, which Mendelssohn completed in January 1833.

As one music critic astutely notes:
The F sharp minor Fantasia is generally considered one of the best examples of Mendelssohn's virtuoso works for the piano. It has all the marks of the composer's later "Scottish" works, including chords with open fifths, open harmonies, pedaling that creates a fuzzy effect, and powerful, dissonant crescendos.

Mendelssohn builds the Fantasia on simple, elegant themes that can be taken easily through various harmonies and transformed. In three movements, each at a faster tempo than the previous one, the Fantasia resembles Beethoven's Sonata quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2 ("Moonlight" Sonata) in its overall format and minor key. The material of the Fantasia, however, is nothing like Beethoven's.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy [1809-1847]: An oil painting done shortly before his death at age thirty-eight. Mendelssohn once said: "Though everything else may appear shallow and repulsive, even the smallest task in music is so absorbing, and carries us so far away from town, country, earth, and all worldly things, that it is truly a blessed gift of God."
Painter: Eduard Magnus [1799-1872]. Done in 1846.
Source: Wikipedia

David Oistrakh: Sibelius Violin Concerto

David Oistrakh performs from the third movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, opus 47, with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting, in February 1966. Jean Sibelius [1865-1957], the Finnish composer, completed the piece in 1904.


This was the only concerto that Jean Sibelius wrote. Originally dedicated to Willy Burmeister, it had an early history of failure. The violinist to whom the work was dedicated never performed it, which might have contributed to its initial poor public reception, notes one Sibelius reviewer:
Sibelius had arranged for the former leader of the Helsinki Orchestra and then renowned virtuoso Willy Burmeister to premiere the concerto in March 1904. Burmeister followed the progress of the work attentively, showing much interest and confidence in its musical value. But Sibelius, broke as usual, was forced to hold the premiere concert one month before the aforementioned date, just to get some cash to tide over.  But perhaps, as a big name, Burmeister would probably have attracted more attention and therefore more ticket sales. But he was unavailable to travel to Finland. So  the soloist chosen was Viktor Novácek, professor of violin at the Helsinki Musical Academy. 
To put it mildly, the premiere was a disaster, and Sibelius revised the work. Burmeister was once again unavailable. The new version premiered with Karel Halíř as violinist with the Berlin Court Orchestra in Berlin, Germany, Richard Strauss conducting, in October 13, 1905. Burmeister was greatly offended, and swore never to play the concerto. He never did. Sibelius red-dedicated the work to Ferenc von Vecsey, a Hungarian violinist who was 12.  He championed the work, first performing it when he was 13.

A notable recording is by Jascha Heifetz with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Walter Hendl conducting, in 1935. You can also hear Heifetz here from the third movement with the New York Philharmonic, Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting, in a 1951 performance. As much as I enjoy Heifetz, I prefer David Oistrakh's expressive interpretation, in keeping with the Romantic tradition.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Frank Sinatra: The Way You Look Tonight

Frank Sinatra sings "The Way You Look Tonight." Sinatra recorded this standard in 1964; it was originally performed by Fred Astaire in the 1936 film Swing Time, starring the dance duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1936. The song was composed by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields.  Jerome Kern [1885-1945] is considered the father of American musical theatre. This is one of the many songs that he composed that forms part of the Jerome Kern songbook.


The Way You Look Tonight
by Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields

Some day, when I'm awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.

Yes you're lovely, with your smile so warm
And your cheeks so soft,
There is nothing for me but to love you,
And the way you look tonight.

With each word your tenderness grows,
Tearing my fear apart
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose,
It touches my foolish heart.

Lovely, never, ever change.
Keep that breathless charm.
Won't you please arrange it ?
Cause I love you, just the way you look tonight.

Mm, mm, mm, mm,
Just the way you look to-night.

Swing Time: A copy of the original 1936 poster. In the film, the song was sung by John "Lucky" Garnett (Fred Astaire) to Penelope "Penny" Carroll (Ginger Rogers), while she was in  the bathroom washing her hair.
Source: Wikipedia:

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Public Intellectual: Democracy's Voice Of Reason

Thought & Politics

The intellectual is different from the ordinary man, but only in certain sections of his personality, and even then not all the time.
George Orwell
Steven Pinker:  The Montreal-born Harvard University professor and researcher's latest book, " The Better Angels of Our Nature” shows among other things that violence has decreased among humans in the last thousand years.  Democracy, the scientific method and medical & social advancements have all contributed to this decline. “Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control," he said in a New York Times article. Pinker, who earned a PhD in experimental psychology at Harvard University, is currently the Johnstone Family Professor at Harvard University's department of psychology.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Goldstein, 2011
Source: Wikipedia

In a recent New York Times article, the writer calls Steven Pinker a "public intellectual," whose inclusion I  heartily endorse for not only his bringing academic ideas of human nature to a wider audience, but also raising important questions about society and civilization. The public intellectual as an unofficial office holder of high ideals and high ideas is a term that was quite popular in the 1990s, but is not well used today, perhaps a reflection of society's current penchant for anti-intellectualism.

Its meaning relates to the life of the mind, of thinking and raising questions that typically go beyond what a university academic or researcher does in his profession. It can involve original thinking, but the chief idea is to raise questions that are broad and deal with society at large.

Of course, it goes without saying, that a public intellectual can only exist in a democratic society that is open to questioning, inquiry and criticism. By dint of such a definition, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes do not support the raising and nurturing of public intellectuals. (People like lists and to rank persons, thus one can be found here of  "The Top 100 Public Intellectuals." It is like many lists of this type debatable as to inclusion and rank.)

One of the simplest, yet elegant, definitions is by Alan Lightman, a writer and physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who in an article entitled, "The Role of a Public Intellectual," writes:
Let me now define what I mean by the public intellectual today" Such a person is often a trained in a particular discipline, such as linguistics, biology, history, economics, literary criticism, and who is on the faculty of a college or university. When such a person decides to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues, he or she becomes a "public intellectual."
Yet, it's more than presenting academic ideas in an accessible language. It's about thinking and promoting ideas that would better society. If such is the case, then we might have fewer public intellectuals than such lists say. In Public Intellectuals: a study in decline (2003), Richard Posner, a legal theorist, judge, and lecturer at University of Chicago Law School, writes:
I believe that it is fair to say that the position, the contribution, most precisely the social significance of the public intellectual is deteriorating in the United States and that the principal reasons are the growth and character of the modern university. (6)
Simply put, the narrow specialization of the modern university argues against the formation and nurturing of public intellectuals. Perhaps Posner might be on to something, and his central idea worth considering, weighing, debating. In Canada notable public intellectuals of the past were Marshall McLuhan [1911-1980], Northrop Frye [1912-1991] and George Grant [1918-1988].

Sadly, such thinkers and their fine works are little known by most Canadians. Today's list would include John Ralston Saul, Naomi Klein and Michael Ignatieff, who was the leader of the Liberal Party until the last election. He failed to connect with the voters, which says much about the difficulty of intellectuals in politics, an arena that speaks more about likeability than ideas. Ignatieff has returned to academia, to University of Toronto's Massey College, where he and his ideas might be more appreciated.

Yet, the most public of roles is the political head of a nation, where the need for ideas to shape and direct a nation are greatest. In Canada and the United States, many if not most political leaders are lawyers, which is not the place one would usually expect great and original ideas—at least not today. It's generally agreed that intellectuals don't make good leaders of nations, but does that translate to the anti-intellectualism one sees in many election campaigns? This raises the point of what makes a good leader for high public office, a question addressed by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, last week in an op-ed piece ("Intellectuals and Politics") in The New York Times:
Good politicians need not be intellectuals, but they should have intellectual lives.  Concretely, they should have an ability and interest in reading the sorts of articles that appear in, for example, Scientific American, The New York Review of Books, and the science, culture and op-ed sections of major national newspapers — as well as the books discussed in such articles.
It's interesting to note that only one president of the United States has held a doctorate degree: Woodrow Wilson, who earned a doctorate in history and political science at Johns Hopkins University in 1886, and became the 28th president, serving two terms between 1913 and 1921. It's similar in Canada, where William Lyon Mackenzie King was the only prime minister to earn a doctorate degree, having earned one from Harvard University in political economy in 1909. He became the tenth prime minister of Canada and was in office for 22 years from the 1920s to the 1940s, the longest serving prime minister in Canadian history.

Over here, Pierre Elliott Trudeau [1919-2000], the 15th prime minister of Canada, who dominated politics between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, was likely the closest Canada has come to having a public intellectual in high office. Trudeau, a colorful and outspoken figure whose motto was "reason before passion" coined the well-quoted policy that "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," a fundamental cornerstone of privacy. Such was a controversial stance to take in the 1960s, but it helped make Canada a more open, democratic and tolerant society.

Michael Ignatieff: A public intellectual in Canada, Ignatieff  currently teaches law and political science at University of Toronto's Massey College. Formerly, he was leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and leader of the Official Opposition from 2008 until 2011, when he and his party were soundly defeated in a federal election, showing how difficult it is for an intellectual to become a nation's leader.  Ignatieff, who holds a PhD in history from Harvard University, has spent considerable time outside Canada, where he has held academic posts, including director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His uncle is George Grant [1918-1988], the noted political philosopher and public intellectual.
Photo Credit: Georges Alexandar, 2011
Source: Wikipedia