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by Richard Nilsen

The world’s most famous novel addresses war and peace, but it begins, oddly, in a lady’s salon in St. Petersburg.
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Anna Pavlovna had sent out the invitations: “If you have nothing better to do, Count (or Prince) … I shall be very charmed to see you tonight between 7 and 10.”
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Then: “Anna Pavlovna’s drawing-room was gradually filling. The highest Petersburg society was assembled there.” Subjects of great pitch and moment were discussed among the men and women, including war and peace.
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In the novel, it is 1805 and near the end of two centuries of such salons, almost always run by women, and a gathering place for the best and brightest —  philosophers, writers, politicians and theologians.
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Their purpose was, as laid down by the Roman poet Horace, “aut delectare aut prodesse” — “to entertain and to educate.” All across Europe, such gatherings were where the latest ideas were hashed out, usually by the people with the means and power to bring them to practical fruition.
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It was in these salons, and their all-male counterpart, the coffeehouses, that the Enlightenment took shape.
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In recent years, Justine Kolata has attempted to resurrect the salon in contemporary London, in a group called The Public Sphere. She explains those of the

Justine Kolata

18th century: “They took place in the private homes of bourgeois women opened to a public, and occurred regularly, usually every week but sometimes every day, often over an extended meal for a group of approximately 20 to 40 people. Salons typically had a dedicated core membership, but were always open to new participants and contributors. Ideas and works in various subjects from science, philosophy, and politics to literature, art, and morality were vigorously debated in the salon.”

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Further, she says, “Some salons were focused on specific philosophical, cultural and political themes, while others remained generic. … Salons were far more than pleasant social gatherings; they were serious spaces for intellectual projects and advanced ambitious utopian ideals.”
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Sound familiar?
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Historian Susan Herbst writes: “Strong women remade the salons. They became central information nodes in the communication network that was 18th century Paris. Salons were soon news agencies, workshops for writers and centers for patronage. Many of the salonnières worked actively to make their gatherings simulate the classroom. Although discussion was the key mode of communication at the salon, lecturing followed by close questioning of the speaker was not uncommon… Women used the salons strategically to learn, to be entertained and to escape the boredom that characterized many of their lives.”
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It is said the central drives of human life are food, shelter and procreation, but there is another: the drive to learn. We too often think of education as something provided for children, continuing perhaps through college, but then having been fully formed, we go out into the world to make our way. But the fact is, we never stop learning, or more important, wanting to learn. That can be by study or by experience. It can be as simple as learning how to plant potatoes or as complex as parsing Sanskrit.
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The formal salon was originated in Europe among already educated classes, but the desire to learn is not so restricted. In the United States, a more democratic version grew. Middle-class people, wanting to better themselves, attended the lyceum or the chautauqua, where they paid to hear lecturers discuss subjects from history to travel to what we would now call “life hacks.”
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During this period, primarily the middle years of the 19th century,  these lyceums were established for the purpose of improving the social, intellectual, and moral fabric of society. They featured lectures, dramatic performances, class instructions, and debates, by noted lecturers, entertainers and readers. It was possible for someone to make a living traveling the lecture circuit, traveling from town to town or state to state to entertain, speak, or debate in a variety of locations, never staying in one place for too long. Their appearances were open to the public, which caused them to contribute significantly to the education of the adult American in years before and after the Civil War.
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Later in the century and into the early years of the 20th, the lyceum gave way to the chautauqua, which was traditionally held over several days under a tent, rather like a religious revival meeting. Speakers were often inspirational or reformist, touting such things as temperance, women’s rights, and moral uplift. Often, there was music: bands or spirituals. (It was in the chautauquas that white middle-class northerners were exposed to African-American music beyond the insulting parodies of the minstrel shows).
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The chautauqua began in 1874 on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in New York State. It was known as the “Mother Chautauqua,” because there were soon many “daughter chautauquas” springing up around the country.
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“Given the values, technology and geography of its time,” wrote educator Peter Feinman, “Chautauqua was perfectly designed as an instrument of hope and progress through education for the people of America.
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“The Chautauqua founders recognized that many middle-class Americans with no access to higher education, especially in rural areas, were thirsting for knowledge in an accessible format.
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“It brought people new things to talk about: For a brief moment a small town could become a cultural center linked to the larger world, much as radio, movies, television and the Internet would later do.”
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Theodore Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”
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They were an alternative entertainment to the vaudeville shows, a kind of middle-brow version of highbrow. Eventually, though, the vaudeville won out and the chautauquas faded. (They do still exist, in reduced form).
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Yet, the desire for adult education did not cease. An America striving for improvement, moral and intellectual, found other means, including the Carnegie libraries, and later, the Book of the Month Club (founded in 1926) and the Literary Guild (founded in 1927). There were the Harvard Five-Foot-Shelf and the rise of popular encyclopedias — Compton’s and Funk and Wagnall’s, among others.
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But even the salon concept persisted — and still persists. In the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Logan Roberts and Georgia Douglas Johnson brought together the stars of African-American culture and literature.
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And now, groups in England, such as Salon London, The Public Sphere and Pindrop Studios continue the tradition. And in the Arab world, salons in private homes offer women the chance for learning, and allowed for mixed-gender socializing. Within the confines of the salon, the free-flow of conversation and reciprocity is encouraged, and a sense of equality is fostered.
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Keith David Watenpaugh writes in his 2006 book, Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism and the Arab Middle Class of  the opulent evenings spent in a Syrian salon: “Wearing either all black or all white dresses ordered from Paris, Marrash hosted the mixed evening get-togethers in which literary topics as varied as the Mu’allaqat, a cycle of seven pre-Islamic poems or the work of Rabelais were discussed. Chess and card games were played, and complicated poetry competitions took place; wine and ’araq flowed freely; participants sang, danced, and listened to records played on a phonograph.”
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And Iranian author Azar Nafisi wrote about discussing Western authors in a salon group in her best-selling book, Reading Lolita in Tehran.
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The lust for learning is unquenchable. Hence the popularity of TED Talks, the rise of The Great Courses and streaming Great Courses Plus, and the flow of

Amanda Podany; Great Courses

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Horace had it right: entertain and educate. The two are not at odds. To an inquisitive mind, little is as entertaining as learning. We should not be shy about the power of being amused.lectures and panel discussions telecast on C-Span Book TV and now, C-Span History TV, which fill up the Congress-free weekend hours.
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I remember my college roommate who said the goal of life is to be amused. He meant nothing shallow by this: His idea of amusement was to enter the Peace Corps for two go-rounds, and spent seven years in Korea. He spent his time learning Korean, Japanese and Mandarin — to add to his collection of Spanish, German and Italian. He later got his graduate degrees in Spanish Linguistics and wound up teaching at Indiana University. Amusement was never sitting in front of a TV watching sitcoms and eating Doritos.
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Being amused, in this sense, is being engaged, being connected to the world, being interested. It leads to cosmopolitanism and a drastic reduction in bigotry, prejudice and ignorance.
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Finally, on a personal note, I always felt I learned a great deal preparing and talking to the members of the Spirit of the Senses. I miss that very much.  My hunger is not quenched.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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I am not smart enough to have a meaningful opinion about Artificial Intelligence. I’m not sure anyone is.
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Thought on the matter is all over the place: Savior of humankind; destroyer of the world; future slavemaster of downtrodden muggles; insurer of the easy life; purloiner of jobs; next stop on the evolutionary bus.
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It may give us gifts in health care, transportation and scientific research, but it also can fuel mass surveillance, false news, robocalls, and online phishing attacks.
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Supporters say that AI will help the military make battles more precise and accurate, reducing both civilian death and harm to soldiers; but for the same reason, it also could wind up making wars more frequent.
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Ethics is a primary concern, but as one corporate spokesman pointed out, “Ethics is in the eye of the beholder.”
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One of the problems is that the subject is so huge, and so multifarious, that even experts tend to specialize in this area or that, meaning that the whole is the elephant and the blind men. Another problem is that we seem to be at the threshold of the subject: If you were to predict in 1957 where the microchip would take us, I doubt you would have foreseen millions of teenagers with their faces lit celadon by the screens of their iPhones while they play Pokemon Go, or take photos of each other with bunny ears or cat whiskers.
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Or that the biggest outrage of etiquette at a symphony concert or opera would be the uninvited sound of a ringtone — always at the most inopportune moments.
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But the biggest problem is that we cannot decide what intelligence actually is. Whether it is artificial or natural hardly matters, if we cannot agree on what we mean by the word.
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Robot thinker artificial intelligence progress pop art retro style. Antique pose. science fiction and the robot character.

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There are so many kinds of intelligence, ranging from mathematical genius to the spatial sense of certain athletes who can put a 9.4-inch ball through an 18-inch hoop from the three-point line — whoosh. Or the ability of certain people to empathize or read facial expressions, or to find directions instantly in a new city — without the help of GPS.
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For the masses, intelligence is about how much you know. If you can win at Jeopardy, you must be smart. Well, perhaps you need to have a quotient of intelligence to learn so much, but the information is not the intelligence. It is merely a byproduct. There’s a lot of people who know a lot who you scratch your head over because they just don’t seem all that bright. A good memory is one thing … but only one thing.
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Proponents of AI tell us that given time, there will be digital parallels to all these faces of intelligence. Computer prophet Lawrence Tesler first noted this in the 1970s, when he proposed his theorem: “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet.”
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Opponents cling on to the belief that there is something special about the human mind that can never be duplicated synthetically. (Neurobiologists seem to keep finding evidence contradicting that proud belief — perhaps the brain really is only a supercomputer; perhaps we recognize faces the same way a street camera in London does.)
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Judging by the past, the future will just be a continuous incremental nibbling away of what we think makes us human.
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Or perhaps, the future will sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll pea pack.” Will you have to give every phone call a Turing test? How many men already have erotic dreams about Siri or Alexa?
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If AI can fully mimic human intelligence, will it be able to forget what it knows? Forgetting is an important human quality; it makes forgiveness possible.
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So, what is intelligence? I was once asked that by a fresh-faced young woman after a panel discussion I was part of.
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I said at the time that for me, intelligence can best be found in forgetting. I called it “volitional ignorance,” or a willed erasure of everything you know. I still believe this: to learn anything new, you have to unlearn what you already thought you understood: What you know prevents learning.
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People create for themselves a model of reality, or more accurately, many models. These models derive from experience. When anything new makes itself felt, it is immediately tested against the model most appropriate.
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If no model is right, the new fact can be dealt with in one of two ways. Most commonly, it is squeezed into the model like a square peg hammered into a round hole. The new is shaved and jiggered until it conforms with what we already know. In the end, we have learned nothing; we may only have renamed what we already knew.
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William Blake made this a centerpiece of his poetry and his way of understanding the world. “Man by his reasoning power can only compare and judge of what he has already perceiv’d,” he wrote. “From of perception of only three senses or three elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth. … and would soon be at the ratio of all things and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.”
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But intelligence is what makes us throw out the old category rather than mangle the nonconforming fact.
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And those who are genuinely brilliant throw out the categories before even considering the new fact. This is what I mean by “volitional ignorance.” It forces us to reinvent the wheel every single time and is the only way to discover anything genuine about the problem of wheels.
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Something of the same is sometimes called “zen mind/beginner’s mind” and means that you accept the experience fresh and start for yourself rather than relying on the culturally accepted model.
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The young woman said at the time, “You mean, like coloring outside the lines,” and I agreed. But I soon realized, I was doing exactly what I said I shouldn’t. I was using a cliche to understand something beyond conventional tropes.
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For it is not like coloring outside the lines, not at all.
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When she said that, she was in fact squeezing my square peg into a round hole, translating what I was saying into something she already understood.
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We all do this constantly, and I am not criticizing her for it. I am frequently guilty of the same thing. In fact, we cannot do otherwise without becoming yammering idiots. A certain amount of structure is needed to function in our daily lives: We cannot question the egg at every breakfast.
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But still, intelligence is the ability to get past the quotidian. I call the ignorance “volitional” because it is something I make a choice about. Those who are forced to see everything fresh at every second of their lives are called schizophrenic; they cannot edit the information coming into their brains.
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Yet, we need to be able to allow ourselves to enter that state on cue if we are ever to learn anything new and genuine.
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Coloring outside the lines implies a disregard of the structure of the drawing we are coloring. Intelligence doesn’t mean the mere disregard of structure, but the discovery of yet another structure, as if, looking up at the night sky, we were able to ignore all the constellations and create new ones, entirely our own and what is more, that the ones we create are better and truer than the old ones, just as the Big Dipper is easier to see than the Great Bear.
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There are also several other aspects of intelligence that need mentioning, I think, although they are all related.
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First is that intelligence can apprehend the similarities of disparate things. It recognizes in what way the horse is the same as the fork. It makes us transcend the accepted categories of things and redefine the categories. Perhaps, instead of thinking of the categories “mammal” and “silverware,” we might discover that through human history, both horse and fork have been used as parts of the common category “tool.”
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Or perhaps: four legs; four tines.
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“A vast similitude interlocks all,” thought Walt Whitman standing on the beach at night and imagining the planets and comets spinning over his head.
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I remember a segment on Sesame Street where they played the game, “Three of these things are kind of the same,” where they show us four items and ask which doesn’t belong, and which three do belong.
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In this case, they had a red ball, a tomato, a green apple and a ruddy pear. Well, there are four different answers: The ball is not edible; the apple is not red; the pear is not round; and the tomato was not known in Europe before Columbus: Each is different in its own way.
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The ability to see multiple answers is another sign of intelligence. Intelligence embraces ambiguity.
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The digital world is built of zeros and ones — either/or — it is by design inimical to ambiguity. Certainly, ambiguity can be designed in, but it has to be jiggered to do so. If you ask “which of these is different?,” you confuse the program.
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And finally, intelligence understands things metaphorically, that is, it thinks in images and discovers in them reductions of complex thoughts in small, understandable packages that resonate emotionally.
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Einstein first discovered his theory of relativity not in a mathematical equation, but in a mental picture. It gave him the insight he needed to later forge the math proving his insight. But the picture came first.
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Prod DB © UFA / DRMETROPOLIS (METROPOLIS) de Fritz Lang 1926 ALLavec Brigitte Helmclassique, science fiction, anticipation, robot, androide, pentacled’après le roman de Thea Von Harbou

Speaking of one thing while meaning another is the heart of intelligence.

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This is not a game, merely substituting one thing for another as in a rebus, but rather it is the recognition that our vocabulary is limited by what we know already. When we confront something genuinely new, we cannot speak of it in language we already have, we must speak of what it is “like.”
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In each case, we are trying to convey something of the complexity and subtlety of what we feel, not allowing it to die the death of the normal, the bland, the banal. We are insisting that the particular emotion be understood and felt by the stranger to whom we are talking. We want exactness in our language and we can only reach it through inexactness. The more precise a word is, the less it describes. We need ambiguity to communicate: Metaphor is the means of doing it.
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All our highest and best thoughts are metaphorical. All the most banal come straight from the dictionary.
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So far, AI seems stuck in ever more complex rewirings of what is already input. Can it finagle those ones and zeros and come up withHamlet, or will monkeys do it first?
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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March 2019 salon calendar

Reservations required for all salons.

If you cannot honor reservation please call to cancel.

(chair) = please bring small folding chair that has padded tips on chair legs

salon calendar locations in printed monthly salon calendar

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2nd Saturday 7PM  The Salon (chair)

Castles of Spain

John Oeth will perform classical music for guitar from his new album ‘Castles of Spain’, featuring the works of Federico Moreno Torroba.

https://www.johnoethguitar.com/

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3rd Sunday 7PM  The Salon  (chair)

Conversation with Lawrence Krauss

A conversation with theoretical physicist and commentator Lawrence Krauss, PhD, author of ‘A Universe from Nothing’, ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told: So Far’, and founder of The Origins Project Foundation and The Origins Project Podcasts.

https://originsprojectfoundation.org/

https://www.lawrencemkrauss.com/

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7th Thursday 7PM  The Salon  (chair)

Commentary on China

Stephen MacKinnon, PhD, a China scholar and researcher, and an emeritus professor of history, ASU,  will discuss current issues of China and the relationship with America.

https://isearch.asu.edu/profile/44100

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9th Saturday 7PM  The Salon (chair)

Art of Corinne Geersten

Artist Corinne Geersten will show and discuss her photo assemblage narratives of quirky psychological predicaments, from her growing library of over 45,000 photos, and discuss her creative process.

https://corinnegeertsen.com/

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12th Tuesday 7PM  The Salon  (chair)

Marco Polo’s Travels

Mark Cruse, PhD, a professor of Medieval and French history at ASU, will discuss the topic of his new book on the old French manuscripts of Marco Polo’s travels.

https://isearch.asu.edu/profile/845884

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14th Thursday 7PM  The Salon

Tour of SciHub Lab

Frank Wilczek is a theoretical physicist, at MIT, Stockholm University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and ASU. will join Nathan Newman, PhD, Lamonte H. Lawrence Professor in Solid State Science, ASU, to tour and discuss research and projects at their new SciHub Lab at Arizona State University.

https://www.frankawilczek.com/

https://sustainability.asu.edu/person/nathan-newman/

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16th Saturday 7PM  The Salon (chair)

Conversations on Cancer Treatments

Carolyn Compton, MD, PhD, an academic pathologist, at the School of Life Sciences and The Biodesign Institute, ASU and the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, and editor in chief of ‘Current Pathobiology Reports’, will discuss surgery and radiation in cancer treatments.

https://sols.asu.edu/carolyn-compton

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18th Monday 7PM  The Salon  (chair)

Inside Artificial Intelligence

Gerald Piosenka, a former senior manager at Motorola and General Dynamics, will discuss the basis of AI structure and how AI works.

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22nd Friday 7PM  The Salon  (chair)

Shikokou, The 88  Temple Way

Traude Wild, who resides in Vienna and Phoenix,  and who is author of the book ‘Shikokou, The 88 Temple Way’, will discuss her 800 mile pilgrimage visiting 88 Buddhist Temples in Japan.

http://simplyjustwalking.com/just-me/

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24th Sunday 7PM  The Salon  (chair)

All That Jazz

Tracy Fessenden, PhD, the Steve and Margaret Forster professor in School of Religious Studies, ASU, will discuss Black performers and Jewish songwriters, and the making of an American musical tradition.

https://isearch.asu.edu/profile/104776

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27th Wednesday 7PM  The Salon

Conversation with Joe Garagiola, Jr.

Joe Garagiola, Jr., special advisor to the President and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball, will discuss his insights and perspectives on baseball and the Major League.

https://www.mlb.com/dbacks

 

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by Traude Wild

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How much is our life centered on securing ourselves from ever-changing circumstances? We want to be safe and feel in control of our life situations. Quite often, if we are honest with ourselves, we want to control other people in order to guard our safety. We build walls, distance and isolate ourselves, so we may be protected from uncertainties and the things we fear. However, instead of being protected, we become prisoners in the walls we have built.

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In order to regain our vitality, youthfulness and joy for life, we must have a willingness to step into the unknown and be changed by life itself.

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When I walked the 88 Temple pilgrimage – an 800-mile hike around the fourth-largest island of Japan – my steps into the unknown began before I left home. I wanted to be well-prepared and intended to hike up Piestewa Peak in Phoenix at least once a day. But several weeks before my departure, I became so ill and weak that I ran out of breath after walking 30 feet uphill. My physical problems intensified my major doubts about walking alone in an exotic foreign country. Voices whispered to me in silent moments: “You are not prepared enough. You are too old. You will get lost. You will not be able to communicate without knowing Japanese.”

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At my lowest point – when fears, doubts and my body’s weakness nearly overtook my consciousness – I took a pen and scribbled a drawing with my non-dominant hand. I called it “simply just walking.” It expressed my determination to walk the pilgrimage, regardless of my fears and the potential disasters.

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When I boarded the plane to Tokyo, I carried all the insecurities and doubts with me. I had to accept who I was, facing my vulnerability and fears. In my mind, I was ready to accept every experience I would encounter, even death. This may sound strange and I did not want to die at all. However, in reflecting back on this attitude, I realize that the intention to accept every experience helped me to start the pilgrimage without fear. It was like stepping through the entrance gate of a Shingon Buddhist temple where often a wooden beam was placed on the bottom of the gate. The pilgrim had to be careful not to touch this beam while stepping over it. I had to be careful not to give in to my fears and insecurities.

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I started the pilgrimage at temple number one, Ryōzenji, in Tokushima Prefekture. Stepping through the entrance gate, a world utterly unknown to me unfolded in front of my eyes. The sound of bells mixed with the voices of chanting pilgrims. All were Japanese. They wore sedged hats and white pilgrim’s outfits and walked naturally through the temple area. They knew how and where to bow, to purify their hands and mouth, to ring the bell and gongs, to light candles and incense, to donate name slips and money and, especially, how to chant.

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My friend Shigeo and I in front of the main Hall in Ryōzenji.

I, on the other hand, was totally overwhelmed and confused. I constantly made mistakes – forgot to bow, rang the small gongs in a bumbling way and stood in the way of other pilgrims without realizing it. My feelings of awkwardness and being out of place intensified with every temple I visited. Should I give up my intention to walk the pilgrimage like a traditional pilgrim? Following the pilgrim’s etiquette did not have any religious purpose for me. I wanted to use it for training in mindfulness. I could escape my self-imposed requirements and simply not do it.

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When I reached my lowest point, when my voice cracked while chanting the sutra and the feeling of being out of place made me want to disappear into the ground, a miracle happened. Another Japanese pilgrim suddenly appeared beside me, and we chanted the Heart Sutra together in a steady, strong voice. The Japanese words suddenly sounded grounding and assuring. They lost their strangeness. From that moment on, I continued with the rituals, and I loved it till the end of my pilgrimage. By simply just walking forward despite my strong feelings of awkwardness, my perception changed.

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Walking a pilgrimage is following a path to a destination. However, for me, the destination is never the goal. The goal is to be wherever I am right now. This was especially true in Shikoku. The 88 Temple Pilgrimage is a circle with no beginning or end. Although there is a physically marked path, it only becomes a path by walking it. The poet David Whyte states, “By walking, you make the path.” Each step is a step into the unknown. How do you deal with the uncertainties? You have to trust in life, be connected to silence and listen.

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During my pilgrimage, I often walked through remote areas with nobody around. Although I always looked for the little red signs, sometimes I could not find any marker and thought I had lost my way. Getting lost was one of my biggest fears.

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One time, on my way to a mountain temple, I had walked for hours through a dense cedar forest without meeting anybody. Nearly at the top of the mountain, I had to climb an iron ladder over an almost vertical rock. Not far away from this climb, I came to a crossroad with signs pointing in three directions – back where I was coming from, left and right. The signs had only Japanese words on them, which I could not read.

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I was sure I had lost my way. What should I do? My heart pounded stronger, and I felt light panic creeping up. I decided to stop, wait and go into silence. Suddenly, I heard a sweeping sound in the distance. I followed it uphill, and to my surprise, in the middle of the forest, there was a man sweeping the path! He assured me I was on the right way. My fears vanished in a second and were replaced by deep gratitude.

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But I faced my biggest time of uncertainty when I approached the entrance gate of Zuiōji. This temple belongs to one of the most traditional Sōtō Zen training centers in Japan. I got a permit to stay there for eight days. When I walked up to the gate in pouring rain, with heavy mist hanging over the treetops, the outer world seemed to reflect my inner one – not seeing farther than my immediate experience.

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I had read stories about foreigners staying in Japanese temples that made me shudder – they felt totally abandoned, crushed and lost. Maybe I was making a big mistake to come here. In my dripping wet red raincoat, I entered the kitchen, the only place I could find anybody. Two cooks were working there. One of them immediately spotted me, welcomed me with a big smile, and greeted me using my Buddhist name: “You must be Garyo-san! Welcome to Zuiōji!”

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Although I was the only foreigner and only woman, I was able to practice with the monks the traditional way of Zen. The stay in Zuiōji became the highlight of my pilgrimage.

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Saying good by to the over 90 year old

abbot of Zuiōji, Tsugen Narasaki Rōshi

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The walk into the unknown did not end with my Japanese pilgrimage. Back at home, I unexpectedly felt depressed and disoriented. Familiarity threatened to take away the freshness I had experienced in Japan. Over and over, I had to train and discipline my mind to stay alert in my familiar world, to be open and stay in resonance with life around me.

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While writing my book, the unknown became more of a fine aroma or a hardly felt breeze. However, this radically changed when publishing the book. Insurmountable obstacles seem to prevent me from putting the book into the world. Suddenly, I was confronted with a situation I feared most – I had to walk the last steps of publication on my own. Computer technology is an overwhelming world to me, like a dangerous jungle with many unexpected traps. I felt abandoned and helpless. However, I had to dare to take these steps, despite my insecurity and fear. With a friend beside me, I walked through the jungle of electronic book design and unfamiliar technical language. And at the end, a miracle happened – the book was accepted and published.

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A pilgrimage is not different from the journey of life. Whether we’re on an unfamiliar trail or simply waking up to a new day, we have to step out of our narrow space and into one of the most challenging and scary situations in life – the world of the unknown. To let this happen, we have to let go of the identity we hold onto and the stories we tell about ourselves and give ourselves away to the direct experience of life. This requires openness, vulnerability and a willingness to become intimate with silence. It is not easy to do.

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Rilke, one of my favorite poets, describes it in the following way:

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God speaks to each of us before we are, before he’s formed us –

then, in a cloudy speech, but only then, he speaks these words to each,

and silently walks with us from the dark: Driven by your senses,

dare to the edge of longing. Grow, like a fire’s shadow casting glare,

behind assembled things, so you can spread their shapes on me as clothes.

Don’t leave me bare. Let it all happen to you: beauty and dread.

Simply go – no feeling is too much –

and only this way can we stay in touch. Near here is the land that they call life.

You’ll know when you arrive by how real it is.

                         Translated by Leonard Cottrell

You can find more information about my pilgrimage in

SHIKOKU, THE 88 TEMPLE WAY: POETICS OF A JAPANESE PILGRIMAGE

available for Kindle or in paperback from Amazon.com or on my blog: simplyjustwalking.com

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Traude Wild, a long time member of Spirit of the Senses, who resides in both Vienna and Phoenix, has been a lecturer of art history and practicioner of Zen Buddhism. Her passion is walking, especially walking pilgrimages. Two of her books describe her walks in Ethiopia and Nepal. Her current book is  ‘Shikoku, The 88 Temple Way: Poetics of a Japanese Pilgrimage’.

 

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by Richard Nilsen
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In 1966, I invented the Gaia principle. Me. That the earth is a single living organism. But more on that later.
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First, of course, I’m not the only one to figure this out. At about the same time, chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis gave the idea its name, after the primeval Greek goddess of the Earth and the primordial mother of all life. But I beat them out and claim my primacy.  But again, later.
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It turns out, it is not unusual for ideas to pop up simultaneously and independently. Science and technology are littered with such examples. For instance, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz worked out the calculus at the same time, although Newton called the process fluxions — which I think is a much catchier name. They did not get on, and Newton always felt that Leibniz must have cadged the process from his notes. (Leibniz didn’t).
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Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace came up with the concept of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution at the same time. In this case, the two worked it out between them amicably.
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These are the most famous examples of ideas welling up separately, but there are many more.
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Joseph Priestly and Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered oxygen both in the 1770s. Both Nettie Stevens and Edmund Wilson submitted papers that formed the modern view of genetic gender determination 10 days apart. Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald independently proved neutrinos have mass. Lothar Meyer and Dmitri Mendeleev each created the periodic table of elements — a year apart. The British Frank Whittle and the German Hans von Ohain each came up with the first jet engine, during World War II, on opposite sides of the conflict.
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I could go on: Within six months of each other, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce each invented the microchip in the late 1950s. Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1749 and Czech theologian Prokop Divis came up with the same idea in 1754, independently. In 1953, both Daniel Fox of General Electric and Hermann Schnell of the German company Bayer invented polycarbonate plastic. American Don Wetzel and British John Shepherd both invented the automated teller machine (ATM) in the late ’60s. In 1902, Leon Teisserence de Bort from France and German Richard Assmann discovered the stratosphere just three days apart.
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At least five people came up with a mechanism for television in the 1920s.
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Clearly, something was in the air, besides oxygen.
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The same thing happens in movies. They are called “twin films,” and Wikipedia lists 173 pairs of them: movies that share the same plot made at the same time by different studios.
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Among the most notable: Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998; Tombstone and Wyatt Earp 1993 and ’94; Dangerous Liaisons andValmont in 1988 and ’89; Volcano and Dante’s Peak in 1997. Sometimes the pairing is quite specific: drag queens on a road trip across a continent to discover themselves — The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994 and To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar a year later.
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Just last year, there was Sink or Swim and Swimming With Men, both films about a man in midlife crisis joining an all-male synchronized swim team. And Skate Kitchen and Mid90s, both about skate boarders, both with non-actor skateboarders and young heroes dealing with difficult mothers.
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It seems the zeitgeist is pregnant with something and then it all coalesces with the birth pangs around the world.
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Of more import are those significant upwellings of political synchronicity. Probably the most famous is the year 1848, when revolutionary movements exploded in some 50 countries worldwide, from Ukraine to Brazil. It seemed to come from nowhere and suddenly, it was everywhere. Unfortunately for history, almost all of the revolutions failed.
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A lesser confluence of revolution had occurred in 1830, in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. In France, it brought the “citizen king,” Louis Philippe, that 1848 attempted to unseat.
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In our own time, 1968 was the focus of international disruption, protest and violence, not only with anti-war protests and civil rights unrest in the U.S., with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but major strikes in France, crises all through Western Europe, the beginning of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, guerrilla war in Brazil, the Prague Spring and the Red Square Demonstration in Moscow protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. There were uprisings in Poland and Yugoslavia, student revolt in Pakistan, and the climax of the Cultural Revolution in China. The whole globe seemed to be in paroxysm: Gaia was having a heart attack.
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 An aftershock hit in the years on both sides of 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the complete collapse of the Soviet Empire. There was a sense that it all seemed to happen at once.
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And today, all across the planet, there is a simultaneous rise of populist authoritarianism. We could soon look back and see this moment as another one of those global seizures.
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So, it can seem at times that the Earth is a single thing, that suffers global events, seemingly unconnected, yet simultaneous. A shadow, like an eclipse, sweeps across its lands.
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Now, back to me and Gaia. It was 1966 and I was a freshman in college taking an intro to biology class with Richard Carleton Ward, a teacher of peculiar manners and prejudices. I could write a whole chapter on him, the way he spoke out of the side of his mouth in a gravelly grunt, the way he bought conspiracy theories, his suburban house blocked from view in a bourgeois neighborhood by a jungle of bamboo, vines and weeds.  He wrote an article for the underground newspaper I was publishing in which he complained ferociously about students’ inability to spell the word, “spaghetti.”
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In his class, were assigned to write a research paper on a living organism, animal or plant, complete with footnotes and citations, and following the Kate Turabian style manual. Points would be taken off for failing to properly spell, capitalize, indent, space margins, and italicize.
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I am basically a very lazy person, and all this sounded like work. Doing research meant digging through the library for books, scouring theReaders Guide to Periodical Literature for articles, and — worst of all — cataloging the findings and writing the bibliography and footnotes.
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So, I decided I would be “creative” instead. Please remember, this was 1966, and “creativity” was a buzzword more in evidence than “clickbait” is now.
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To avoid all the tedious detail that research would entail, I hit upon the idea that I could invent a new organism — the Earth. Our textbook listed a series of five or six essential qualities that define life, and I applied them to the planet. I could easily make the argument that the planet respires, that it metabolizes — that all the inhabitants of the world could be seen as the same as the individual cells that make up our body: The macro rhymes the micro.
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I hit the height of cleverness discussing reproduction. I wrote that at my age, I hadn’t yet reproduced (“as far as I know,” I threw in to be coy), but that didn’t mean I couldn’t, and just because the Earth had not yet reproduced didn’t mean it couldn’t. And I proceeded to hypothesize how the planet could bud like a hydra, planting new “cells” on another great, round, rocky skeleton or coral stone elsewhere in the solar system. Mars, for instance. And thus, the planet could duplicate itself.
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And so, I proved, at least to the satisfaction of my crackpot teacher, that the planet we lived upon could be taken as a single giant hyper-organism. He gave me a B-plus and I managed to avoid all the serious work and pass the course. I therefore invented, out of abject laziness and sideways thinking, the Gaia Principle. Credit where credit is due. I will be happy to share the Nobel with Margulis and Lovelock.
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Years later, my wife, Carole, had a different way of looking at it, which makes even more sense. She was bothered by a politician making a speech and talking about how we live on the planet and need to take care of it — a worthy idea, for sure — but her take was that we don’t live “on” the Earth, but rather, we are the Earth, along with, and no different from the birds and bees and rocks and trees.
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And that is now my mantra: We don’t live on the planet; we are the planet.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Sometimes you are in the mood for Chopin, sometimes you want the energy of Beethoven, yet again, you occasionally feel the need for the sonic jalapeño bite of Stravinsky. Music appeals to our moods. Many moods, many musics. But one composer seems to be just right for any mood: Johann Sebastian Bach. It doesn’t matter: depressed, joyous, expectant, busy, stressed — Bach helps cope with all these feelings. He is truly universal.
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So, it is surprising that he is so roundly misunderstood. One hears that his music is “mathematical,” as if it were worked out not from inspiration, but by algebraic formulae. Sometimes, it is expressed as if this very supposed regularity is what makes his music so satisfying.
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Yet, like so much conventional wisdom, it is wrong. The image of Bach as a staid old periwigged frown, writing his fugues and canons by strict adherence to rationality is almost the opposite of the truth. Bach is really nuts. I mean, really out there. But you have to listen rather than pay attention to the cliches.
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He makes the case, almost as a joke, in his Prelude and Fugue in C-minor from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The prelude begins like a machine, chunking out a repeated pattern of notes outlining a progression of chords. Even in the score, it looks mechanical:
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But don’t be fooled. Three-quarters of the way through the piece, he breaks out into exuberant goofiness, flying this way and that, bringing the prelude to a seeming conclusion, then changing gears once again and careening off in a new direction before doing it one more time, bringing this craziness to a cascading conclusion with a naked Picardy Third (ending in major rather than minor).
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This unpredictability and irrationality is the norm, not the exception. Bach is, after all, a Baroque composer and all things Baroque are wild and crazy. It is what the Baroque is all about.
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Think of a Baroque painter, such as Peter Paul Rubens. Take his painting of Abraham meeting Melchizedek, which hangs in the National Gallery in Washington. It seems to be a painting of a tapestry held up by putti. The tapestry shows the prophet and priest in a scene from Genesis 14: Melchizedek offers bread and wine. But there appear to be two servants carting jugs of wine up from the cellar — are they “real” or are they part of the tapestry? The painting is richly ambiguous. And typically Baroque. Real toads in imaginary gardens.
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The Baroque loves energy, swirling action, and emotion over clarity.
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Take John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Its sentences long and stanzas indeterminate outlining in meter to us the import of its myth and truth can uncertain us in transcendent confusion its meaning simple.
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Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos:
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That’s six lines before we get to the verb, and the thing goes on for another seven lines before we even get the first period. Now, that’sBaroque.
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The list of weirdnesses and excesses in Bach’s music is long — too long to feature here. But let’s take just one of them, in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D-major. It features solo flute, violin and keyboard, with the keyboard as primus inter pares. Seven minutes into the 10-minute first movement everyone else shuts up while the keyboard continues maniacally for the next three minutes, piling arpeggios on arpeggios, scales on scales, and bopping us over the head with new keys totally unanticipated — a pedal A, which should resolve to the tonic D instead wanders off into the key of B, via an excursion through the dominant-of-a-dominant F-sharp. He scrapes a dissonant B-flat against an A in the bass. I could go on, but unless you are a musician, you might be bored by the technical talk. Leave it said that this extended cadenza has no precursor in music history, no simple explanation for its existence even here, and must at first performance have befuddled both its audience and the rest of the musicians in the orchestra, sitting there, twiddling their thumbs while the keyboardist works up a good sweat.
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A more restrained composer would have kept the music from derailing, kept it within bounds. But Bach isn’t so restrained. He is off to the races.
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Looking at a Bach score is an eye-opener as well as an ear-opener. We think of his music as gloriously harmonious, yet you look at the ink-dots on the music staves and see them colliding constantly like neutrons in a reactor, heating up the music: Bach is the single most dissonant composer before Arnold Schoenberg. Of course, all that grinding and grating is smoothed out by the resolution of those dissonances, making the whole appear safe. They are anything but.
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Bach harmonized some 400 Lutheran chorales, many redone several times, each freshly rethought and re-harmonized. They can be impressively complex, with appoggiaturas, passing tones and suspensions in all four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) constantly adding dissonance. If you were to play only the off beats, you could mistake the music for atonal — yet it is always caught, sometimes at the last moment, and saved for consonance.
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The term “Baroque” comes from the Portuguese “barroco,” which is what they called a misshapen pearl. It was applied to the art of the 17th and early 18th century by critics who did not mean it as a compliment. They looked back at the art of those centuries and saw a lack of form and proportion. The Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) wrote influential books describing the differences between the classic art of the Renaissance and the darker, sweeping art he called Baroque.
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Friedrich Nietzsche styled these two impulses in art as “Apollonian” and “Dionysian.” They are also called Classic and Romantic. All of art history is a pendulum swinging back and forth between the two. Bach’s idiosyncrasies were all tidied up and tucked in by the time Haydn and Mozart wrote. The sanity and proportion of these two was smashed by the Romanticism of Liszt and Wagner, whose excesses were pummeled again by Debussy and Stravinsky. Do we value order and mind, or do we seek emotion and energy?
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As William Blake wrote: “The cistern contains; the fountain overflows.”
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The sober Apollonian Modernism of the 20th century is now replaced by the Dionysiac Postmodern of the 21st. Back and forth.
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So, when we listen to Bach’s music, we should be alert to its headstrong waywardness. Who but Bach would crazy enough to write fugues for a solo violin? Trail out the conclusion of his famous Toccata and Fugue in D-minor well past the end of the fugue, in contrails of afterthought? Write an hour-and-half of 12 fugues on a single tune, turned upside-down, inside-out, backwards, slowed, sped — but all on that single tune, originally of only 12 notes in a span of only a minor sixth? Open his St. Matthew Passion with two orchestras and three choruses playing different music at the same time?
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So, never say to me that Bach’s music is mathematical. Or dry. Or rational. The man was nuts. Beautifully nuts.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

 

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by Richard Nilsen

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I’m just not in a lectual,” she said, in a rich eastern North Carolina drawl.
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Yet, as a militant atheist, she has many a theological question, which may contradict her self-assessment as not being intellectual.
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“I don’t read literature,” she says, “I just read books, you know, fiction.”
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She reads constantly and widely, including books about religion.
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She is smart as a whip. I’ve known her since taking classes with her in college 50 years ago. She may not count herself as an intellectual, but I think she underestimates herself.
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More to the point, it should be noted that being intelligent is not the same thing as being intellectual. There are many ways of being smart, and not all of them incline toward the academic.
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Further, there is many a Ph.D. of impenetrable obtuseness. You get a doctorate not only through brilliance, but sometimes just by dogged shoveling — that’s why they call it “piled higher and deeper.” And, in reverse, I could name scholars who have made significant contributions to their field who began as school dropouts. (This is not to denigrate most graduate degrees. Most who hold them weigh in on the high end of the quotient of intelligence. Just that there are exceptions.)
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The fact is, being an intellectual is a turn of mind, not simply a quality of intelligence. We tend to think of an intellectual as someone who knows a lot, especially in terms of science, math, history, literature, law, or philosophy, but facts don’t make an intellectual; questions do.
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We all have questions, but intellectuals have questions about the questions. If I were to create a definition of “intellectual,” that would be it: questions about the questions.
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I will fess up to being an intellectual, but I will also admit that I’m not especially intelligent. I’m smart enough, I guess, but when I hear a Steven Pinker or a Ta-Nehisi Coates, I shrivel in humility. Those guys are smart. I’m just above average.
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Yet, most of my little gray cells are focused on questions about the questions. Those that pique my curiosity are about language, about perception, about the relevance of history — things that are often taken for granted, but are far more complicated, far muddier than the general run of people — even smart people — are likely to credit. Many of my blog entries have been about these questions, or questions about these questions.
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People far more acute than me have tackled them also. I don’t claim to have found any answers — or answers about answers — but that has never been able to quell my eyebrow furrowing. What is the relation of language to experience? Why do so many people believe that thinking requires words? And why do we think what we see is a direct cerebral process? Can we trust eyewitness accounts? Why do we?
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I see the same process in my betters. I’m at the bottom of a mountain, on the summit of which stands Albert Einstein, but what led to his breakthroughs are exactly the same kind of questions about the questions that I have. Or that you can have.
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 The fact that I read Milton or Livy and my friend reads best-sellers is of no import. We are both reading what we enjoy, which is more to the point. She is by most measures smarter than I am. She is alive, awake and interesting. I am a drudge by comparison. Yet, I could not change if I wanted to — the turn of mind I have been condemned to is almost genetic. I did not choose it; it captured me.
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One should never be intimidated by intellectuals. One should rather pity them. My wife used to call me “the man who couldn’t have fun.” By that she meant that I don’t enjoy parties; I listen to classical music and am bored by most pop music; I have no talent for being silly, which she always enjoyed, playing phone games with her daughter, taking on new personae — Meemaw and Peepaw.
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I always argued back that I have lots of fun. Really. I have fun reading Paradise Lost or listening Wozzeck or watching C-Span’s Book TV. Really. Really I do. I can’t help it.
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The intellectual can get so balled up in a knotty problem that the world falls away — like when you are caught up in a really good book and when you stop reading you are surprised to find yourself in a chair with your feet up on the ottoman wondering where did Ivanhoe run off to.
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And, so balled up, that you forget to pay the gas bill, forget to meet your daughter at the taqueria, fail to notice the gas gauge on empty. So balled up, a curl of smoke escapes your ears as your forehead furrows and you consider whether the fibonacci series really does describe the swirl of a whelk shell. (It doesn’t. Really. Google my name and “Fibonacci fib,” a blog I posted in 2013.)
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I wish I were smarter and the questions I question were more tractable, but even if the normal world looks at me like I’m an antisocial weirdo, I never ever wish I were not intellectual. It’s too much fun.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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