Vanity of Vanity

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The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 2:1-2)

Thus begins Ecclesiastes, the most unusual book in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Unlike the rest of the Bible, this book claims that the nature of the world is neither revealed to us nor accessible to reason. The universe and its Creator pay us no particular regard. Man is not special. Heretical though these thoughts might be, Ecclesiastes contains some of the world’s most widely quoted verses of scripture. The words of the Preacher resonate through the seasons of our lives. This post comments on several selections from the book.

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The Mysteries

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For over a millennium the Mysteries were celebrated at Eleusis, about 18 km northwest of Athens. The main buildings in the temple precinct were built in the 5th Century BCE, but earlier buildings were present in the 6th Century, and evidence of cult-activity at the site goes back to the Mycenaean period before 1100 BCE (Mylonas, 1961, Chapter II). The Mysteries continued through the Hellenistic and Roman ages until their demise in the 4th Century CE when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

What happened during the Mysteries is unknown. Those who were initiated into the Mysteries were instructed not to reveal their secrets. All we know is that they provided their initiates with a vision of the divine and a way to cope with death.

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Last Night in Sweden

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At a Florida rally on February 18, 2017, Donald Trump spoke about threats of terror:

We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris. We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country and there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe. (NY Times)

Trump’s words suggested that something terrible had happened the night before in Sweden. Something like the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris. Something caused by undocumented refugees. But there had been no terrorist activity in Sweden the night before (Independent). The only recent Swedish terror attack had been over a month ago: Neo-Nazi members of the Nordic Resistance Movement attacked an immigrant asylum in Gothenburg and injured one person.

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Aspects of Etruria

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The Etruscans thrived from about 900 to 100 BCE. Although archaeology has revealed much about their life, even more remains unknown. After the Etruscans were assimilated by the Romans, their written history was lost. Although the Emperor Claudius wrote a 20-volume history of the Etruscans, not a page of this has survived.

Popular ideas that the Etruscans originated in Greece, Turkey or Phoenicia have given way to the idea that they were indigenous to the area where they lived – Etruria. This is the land north of the Tiber River, south of the Po River and west of the Apennine Mountains, comprising the present day Italian regions of Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria.

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Stonehenge

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Over five thousand years ago the Neolithic people of Britain began to erect a monumental stone structure known as “Stonehenge” on the Salisbury Plain. The name likely means “hanging” or “suspended” stones. The structure underwent several changes over the years of its construction, reaching its final form around 2000 BCE.

The stones are of two kinds. The largest are the sarsens, which have their origin in the hills about 40 km north of Stonehenge. The word “sarsen,” first used at the time of the Crusades, comes from “Saracen” and essentially means “pagan.”

The smaller bluestones come from the Preseli Mountains in Southwest Wales 240 km away. Most archaeologists currently believe that these were transported across the Bristol Channel and then overland to Stonehenge. The bluestones may have been used in several ways during the different periods of construction. In the final form of the monument they are arranged within the outer circle of sarsens and within the inner horseshoe of larger sarsens.

The monument has long been a symbol of ancient Britain. Over the years, however, our understanding of it has changed radically. This posting considers how Stonehenge has interacted with the British imagination. Because of its striking appearance, images are given as much space as words.

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In the Name of God

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In recent years we have seen an escalation in violence inspired directly or indirectly by religion. Perhaps humanity is just by nature violent and religion is just an excuse. The terrible regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao show clearly how evil and violence can exist in the absence of God. Furthermore, most instances of religious violence are perversions of the religion’s true goals. As much as religion may lead to violence, so may violence call upon religion for justification. Nevertheless, the recent examples of religiously driven violence are very disheartening.

Religion can embody many of the ideals of humanity. Sometimes, it is as if we take all that we consider good and make this into God. If we so do, we must be careful not to let this process lead to evil rather than to good. We must limit the way in which we use our God. Even if we do not believe in God, we must still be careful about how we put our ideals into practice.

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Baskets of Glass

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Dale Chihuly, the American sculptor in glass, has long been interested in the native arts of the Pacific Northwest. Early in his career he became fascinated by their basketry (Lobb & Wolfe, 1990; Porter, 1990). Native Americans were adept at making basketware in all shapes and sizes for cooking, carrying, storing, clothing, drinking, protecting and preserving. Each basket has a form that derives from its function, and an ornamentation that transcends its ordinary usage. In his book on Indian Basketry, James (1901, pp 121-2) quotes from William Holmes:

[W]hile their shape still accords with their functional office, they exhibit attributes of form generally recognized as pleasing to the mind, which are expressed by the terms grace, elegance, symmetry, and the like. Such attributes are not separable from functional attributes, but originate and exist conjointly with them.

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The Saddest Story

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“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” So begins Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. The narrator, John Dowell, and his wife Florence were rich Americans, living in Europe. They spent their summers at the spa town of Bad Nauheim, Germany, where Florence underwent therapy for her heart condition. In 1904, the Dowells had met an English couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, at the spa. In the following summers, the two couples continued to meet there:

We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy – or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them (p. 11).

The narrator immediately triggers our interest. He also alerts us that he may not completely understand the story he is about to tell us. Why is it the saddest story he has ever heard? Who told it to him? We shall quickly find out that he was one of the main characters in the story. He directly experienced most of its events, but was apparently quite unaware of their causes. His understanding was pieced together later from what others told him, and may not be correct. We may have to figure out what happened for ourselves.

This posting considers the story and its context. It describes the complex relationship between two couples in Europe in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War I. It shows a way of life that was falling apart, and a world wherein one was no longer governed by any general morality, but simply sought what one desired.

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Divine Geometry

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The Counter-Reformation, initiated by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in response to the Protestant Reformation, promoted art as a way for believers to become emotionally involved in the Church. While Protestants were whitewashing church walls and destroying sculptures, Catholics produced the masterpieces of Baroque Art. For the Protestant, nothing should come between man and God; for the Catholic, the majesty of art could bring man to the mystery of God.

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Hammershøi

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The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has recently acquired a 1905 painting by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), the first by this artist in a Canadian public collection: Interior with Four Etchings:

hammershoi 4 etchings BThe etchings are arranged on the wall above an elegant side-table, upon which stand three pieces of Royal Copenhagen porcelain. The details of the etchings cannot be seen, but the upper two appear to be portraits. Light comes in from the window on the left, giving a subtle violet tinge to the grey walls and emphasizing their white trim. To the left of the table stands Hammershøi’s wife Ida. She faces away from us, and we cannot see what she is doing. Perhaps she has just placed the plate on the table and has turned to look out of the window; perhaps she has taken something to the window to look at. The sunlight on her neck is vaguely erotic. Everything is balanced: the shadows share the space with the light; the blue-white porcelain complements the red-brown frames; the human figure suggests movement in a room that is otherwise completely still.

To celebrate this acquisition, the gallery is exhibiting this picture alongside 25 other Hammershøi paintings, all except one coming from the National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst). The exhibition runs from April 16 to June 26, 2016. This is one of the most impressive exhibitions I have seen in recent years. I apologize that my enthusiasm has led to another long post. However, it contains more to see than to read.

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