The Illiberal Arts, the Frailty of Humanity, and a History of Angels

The Illiberal Arts, the Frailty of Humanity, and a History of Angels

Daderot, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts, via Wikimedia Commons

No one had discovered a previously unknown Rembrandt for over 40 years until Jan Six XI discovered two: “The discovery that upended Jan Six’s life occurred one day in November 2016. Six is a 40-year-old Dutch art dealer based in Amsterdam, who attracted worldwide attention last year with the news that he had unearthed a previously unknown painting by Rembrandt, the most revered of Dutch masters — the first unknown Rembrandt to come to light in 42 years. The find didn’t come about from scouring remote churches or picking through the attics of European country houses, but rather, as Six described it to me last May, while he was going through his mail.”

A short history of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the life of its founder: “I should have heard of William Simmonds. I must have read his name in connection with Rodmarton Manor, which I described for Country Life in 1978, and other Arts and Crafts undertakings at the turn of the twentieth century. But I confess that before opening this exceptional book I had no idea who he was. How ignorant I now feel. Simmonds emerges as an enthralling figure, remarkable not just as a puppeteer but as a witness to his age, to whom extraordinary things somehow simply happened.”

The story of the Frenchwoman who ran one of the Allies largest WWII spy networks: “Over the course of the conflict, Fourcade, the only woman to head a major resistance network in France, commanded some 3,000 agents, who infiltrated every major port and sizable town in the country. They came from all segments of society—military officers, architects, shopkeepers, fishermen, housewives, doctors, artists, students, bus drivers, priests, members of the aristocracy, and France’s most celebrated child actor.”

Who are the most politically intolerant people in America? Mostly white, highly educated, city-dwellers, according to a recent study. The most intolerant county in America is Suffolk County, which includes Boston. The most tolerant city is Watertown in Upstate New York, whose residents voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.

“On Monday, 80 years after Pius XII’s election to the papacy, Pope Francis announced that the archives of the controversial wartime pontiff would be opened to scholars next March. The decision follows more than half a century of pressure. Pius XII—a hero of Catholic conservatives, who eagerly await his canonization as a saint, while denounced by his detractors for failing to condemn the Nazis’ genocidal campaign against Europe’s Jews—might well be the most controversial pope in Church history.” What do they contain?

Why do otherwise irreligious people believe in angels? “Today, though belief in God has waned, belief in angels is flying high. In a 2016 poll of 2,000 people, one in three Britons claimed to have a guardian angel and one in ten to have experienced an angel’s presence. Furthermore, though our established churches are reticent on the topic of angels, our bookshops have shelves devoted to them and the internet abounds with offers of angel therapy and retreats. Why?”

The illiberal arts: “For thousands of years, the liberal arts were not liberal, and that is why they are increasingly unwelcome in our time. An honest study of the past is unsettling in a liberal age, because a person who learns to venerate earlier cultural traditions, from Homer to the baroque, may come to venerate the values to which those traditions are devoted. And those values are a direct rebuke to the substance of liberalism.”

Essay of the Day:

Illness doesn’t make us human, but it does remind us of our frailty, and that’s a good thing, B. D. McClay argues in The Hedgehog Review:

“Books on lifestyle and health tap into our fear of our own frailty. Their theme is self-protection: how to shield yourself and those you love from the gunk of the world. And there is so much gunk in the world. ‘Your shoes have been places,’ warns Kasia Kines, before launching into a truly terrifying list of everything your shoes can possibly do to you: ‘Did you know that chemicals you bring indoors on your shoes may end up in your body? How about your children crawling on the floor on all fours and then putting their fingers in their mouths? Your companion animals? How about forced air that recirculates those toxins, so you breathe them in later? Did you know that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are part of the coal tar sealant used to seal pavements, parking lots, and driveways all over the US, cause cancer?’

Why do I even leave my house? is the first question this prompts, followed by My dog is probably carrying one hundred thousand wicked little chemicals, followed by I live in an apartment building and everybody in this place is just a crawling filthy toxin vector that’s going to kill me, followed by not to mention the mice. Stepping outside or riding public transportation or just checking out a library book with some suspicious stains on it only reminds you that other people are here, shedding their disgusting detritus every which way, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

“For the most part, we inhabit a gnostic universe that does not permit of a gnostic answer. The grand Valentinian framework is gone, leaving us only with a world that is clearly malicious and evil, threatening at every turn. No spiritual ascent remains. But to fight matter with matter, or even with positive thinking, is to try to beat the demiurge with the demiurge’s tools. This world is a mistake. Nothing can ever make it less of one.”

* * *

“Fragility is not a condition to which most of us aspire. It’s pleasant to help, or it can be; unpleasant, extremely, to need help. Declaring the world a mistake expresses a tragic aspect of reality, grasping for control an attempt at escape. But in abundance and devastation, what remains is our dependence on each other. So it is impossible for me not to think that our weakness isn’t, in the end, the best part of us: our capacity for desire, our ability to give and receive love, to heal and to harm. We can be afraid of each other or we can love each other. These are, in the end, our choices.” 

Read the rest.

Photo: Ginzan Onsen

Poem: Michael Spence, “The Last Shall Be First”

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