April 5, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Whiplash is a film from 2014 both written and directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows the life of Andrew (played by Miles Teller), a young, brilliant and ambitious drummer, through the trials and errors of college life. Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) is a strict, difficult music instructor who asks for as much as his students can give and more. Not only is Fletcher’s rehearsal routine physically demanding, but he often plays mental games with the students as well. Through these two characters, Whiplash deconstructs what it takes to achieve greatness and how ambition is portrayed socially.

This movie is unsettling because it is entirely without a hero. Both student and teacher vie for the heroic roles at times, but both are fantastically flawed, of course. The viewer may connect with Andrew, who wants to be a great musician, but his actions do not warrant our affection. He pushes himself to extremes both physically and mentally and sacrifices everything in order to achieve greatness. The pursuit of art for arts sake often appears noble or heroic, but this film demonstrates the ugly underbelly of ambition. Furthermore, I am not entirely sure that Andrew’s sacrifice was a necessary step in his education.

Early in the movie, Andrew is interested in a girl. After mustering the courage to ask her out, they go on a number of dates which seem successful. In the end, however, he tells her that his career is more important than she is, which upsets her and she stops seeing him. Later in the film, he calls her again only to find out that he has missed his chance. Andrew’s relationship with his own family is even more disturbing. When Andrew returns home for a family meal and tries to explain how well he is doing in school, they do not understand him, and he, likewise, does not understand them.

The dinner scene offers excellent analysis. During the meal, an aunt asks Andrew about school and when he tries to answer he is interrupted by the entrance of one of his cousins. His uncle loudly greets the newcomer by shouting, “Ahhh, Tom Brady!” which completely cuts off Andrew. Andrew tries again to voice his accomplishments, but the others at the table are clearly not familiar with the “best music school in the country” and have no common language with which to ask any questions. To me, this represents the way that art defies classification. Without understanding the history of the field, art can seem arbitrary and luck-driven. Sports, however, offer easy discussion. They are less intimidating and more casual, as demonstrated in this scene. The cousin notes, “Well, in the music competition, isn’t it subjective?” Andrew simply replies, “No,” because, of course, an art form (and therefore an artist) is not arbitrarily great. Rather, they have studied, practiced, performed and contemplated the history of their field. Andrew’s uncle then inquires about a job and Andrew must explain that currently his musical pursuit is unpaid which reinforces the family’s opinion of Andrew’s music.

The family then turns to celebrating his cousin’s football awards. At the end of this exchange, Andrew is clearly frustrated, so, he voices the irony of celebrating a football career which will not go beyond Division III college. While belittling everyone else at the table, Andrew proclaims that he would rather die as great musician at the age of thirty four rather than live a life like anyone else at the table. Throughout the movie, Andrew’s father walks the fine line of supporting him, but also trying to keep him from falling off the edge into madness. In this scene too, he begins by supporting Andrew, but when Andrew tells his cousin that he will “never hear from the NFL,” Andrew’s father replies, “Have you heard from Lincoln Center?” Of course, he has not, which pulls the wind from his sails, and, mid-dinner, Andrew gets up and leaves the table.

J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher and is the opposite of the nurturing father. Fletcher utilizes incredibly harsh techniques in order to inspire greatness from his musicians. The relationship that develops between Fletcher and Andrew is complicated. In this scene, Fletcher has just given Andrew a great compliment, only to belittle him, throw a chair at him, and humiliate him in front of the rest of the band. Andrew’s fall from grace is quick and extremely painful.

I struggle with this movie on so many levels, which is a great testament to the authenticity of emotions that the film presents. I wonder, why does Andrew really leave the dinner table, shame or disgust? Does a great artist always and necessarily feel superior to those around them, and therefore lonely? Does this superiority inform their work in a positive or negative way? What level of ambition strengthens achievement, and what amount spirals into misery or madness? On a side note, I wonder if the lack of women in the film reflects actual ratios of men to women in music schools. While I thoroughly enjoyed the minimalism of Whiplash and its adherence to only a handful of characters, but I would have also liked to see more women in the band or as additional characters.

Whiplash is compellingly carried by Fletcher and Andrew. It raises tough, uncomfortable questions that society has yet to answer.

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Discussing de Tocqueville

November 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

For the October Quarterly Discussion, we read four chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As usual, I distributed some questions beforehand intended to help start the conversation. Each discussion lasts 1.5 hours in which I (mostly) lead. I enjoy the responsibility of organizing these discussions because I get to begin with the questions that I have about a specific text. Due to the fact that so much of de Tocqueville’s writings resonate with me, I really struggled to refrain from participating too. His writings also speak to current politics, and therefore, it was doubly hard to avoid participation. I have to thank the participants in Harrison Middleton University’s October Quarterly Discussion who did an admirable job of sticking to the subject.

We began with the formation of political parties in general. He writes, “But when the citizens entertain different opinions upon subjects which affect the whole country alike, such, for instance, as the principles upon which the government is to be conducted, then distinctions arise that may correctly be styled parties. Parties are a necessary evil in free governments; but they have not at all times the same character and the same propensities” (88-9). So, while he finds parties to be a necessary evil, he also does not find them equal in character. From there, we tried to understand de Tocqueville’s delineation between “great” and “small” parties. Despite the way that it sounds, these two types of parties have nothing to do with size. Rather, in de Tocqueville’s mind, the great parties are those that discuss issues and have, what he calls, a “more noble” pursuit. On the other hand, small parties form around an issue or two. The small parties, according to de Tocqueville, care more about a single issue or a private interest than about ideas or the good of society, whereas great parties are concerned with principles and their general application. In 1830, he writes, “America has had great parties, but has them no longer; and if her happiness is thereby considerably increased, her morality has suffered” (89B). According to de Tocqueville, the great parties arose out of necessity and strife, a time when America was suffering. These parties looked at broad issues that would impact all of America. The focus, therefore, was more holistic. However, once these changes were implemented and the need for social cohesion lessoned, special interests overtook the general cohesion of the great parties and replaced them. De Tocqueville describes the effects of the small parties as those which “agitate” society rather than revolutionize it.

Furthermore, de Tocqueville’s use of happiness and morality is of great interest. In this section, he seems to define happiness as a level of individual comfort and perhaps peace. It appears that his version of happiness in America is one which leads to a sort of immorality. He suggests that the more comfortable we are, the more self-involved we are and therefore, less moral. In other words, morality may demand an ethic that lessens our ease of living. In the future, I would like to further investigate de Tocqueville’s idea of happiness by moving outside of this single chapter. I am curious how happiness (in his terms) aligns with morality throughout the text. Furthermore, I wonder how different translators have dealt with this idea. Is happiness the most appropriate word choice for the original French? How have others translated this section? (The Great Books version was translated by George Lawrence.)

From there, we moved into the chapter on Freedom of the Press. De Tocqueville begins this chapter by stating that he has reservations about a free press. He writes, “I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures” (92A). First, he finds that a free press is invaluable to a democracy because information distribution would be limited by a single entity. On the other hand, freedom implies that nearly anyone can create news if they choose to do so. In the first case, news is singular and perhaps biased or incomplete. In the latter, news may lack data, information, facts and anything pertaining to reality. Furthermore, he writes, “[T]he hallmark of the American journalist is a direct and coarse attack, without any subtleties, on the passions of his readers; he disregards principles to seize on people, following them into their private lives and laying bare their weaknesses and their vices. That is a deplorable abuse of the powers of thought” (95A). He continues that, despite the abuse of thought, each individual newspaper carries little weight, which makes many small voices. This cacophony creates the “spirit” of the press. The multitude of voices also ironically removes the danger of a single voice reaching the level of despotism.

These chapters address very complex issues inherent in America’s being. They are worth more than 1.5 hours of discussion. Rather, de Tocqueville addresses so many contemporary issues that the entire volume is worth (re)reading. Additionally, discussing a work like this one is vital to understanding the depth of democracy’s issues. Democracy in America explains some of the foundations of our country in a way that is both poetic and holistic. My gratitude goes to those who spent time in discussion with me. I look forward to our next conversation!

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Joy or Happiness

June 22, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so.” - Blaise Pascal

Listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony recently got me thinking about the difference between joy and happiness. Why does Beethoven end the 9th with an “Ode to Joy?” Why not “Ode to Happiness?” So many authors have discussed the importance of the idea of happiness, but not necessarily joy. Assuming that Pascal (and many others) are correct in stating that happiness is man’s ultimate desire, it would be important to better understand the term. Mortimer Adler writes (in the Syntopicon): “Discussion begins rather than ends with the fact that happiness is what all men desire. Once they have asserted that fact, once they have made happiness the most fundamental of all ethical terms, writers like Aristotle or Locke, Aquinas or J.S. Mill, cannot escape the question whether all who seek happiness look for it or find it in the same things.”

The fact that happiness is difficult to define may also explain why joy is also difficult to define. For Beethoven’s piece, is the final joy only attained in the presence of God? Is joy a goal that must be reached in brotherhood, but not alone? Is it fleeting? The rising and falling movement of the music renders emotion, which for me, clearly expresses joy. I wonder, however, do all people react similarly? And, if I misinterpret the music’s emotion, does it make a difference?

I think of joy as a form of extreme bliss, though I am not sure if this is accurate or precise. Merriam-Webster lists joy as “a state of happiness or felicity,” but that does little to help me differentiate between happiness and joy. The same dictionary lists happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” Both definitions invoke the idea of a state of being, suggesting impermanence. Happiness includes the idea of contentment, though, which implies a level of permanence. Also, happiness is listed as one of the great ideas in the Syntopicon, while joy is not. In fact, the idea of happiness as a great idea is discussed in terms of permanence or a great achievement, rather than a momentary pleasure. And of course, the authors of the Declaration of Independence named the “pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable human right. From these usages, we can begin to craft an idea of happiness.

Classical philosophers are split between defining happiness as a temporal good or one that can only be attained in the afterlife. There seems to be agreement on the idea that happiness implies a state of contentment, but beyond that, the basis for happiness ranges from physical health to wealth to wisdom and to a virtuous life. Many of the things that they propose to measure happiness can only be measured at the end of life, which makes me wonder if temporary moments of happiness are incorrectly termed? Perhaps these shorter moments interspersed throughout life sometimes fall under the category of joy, but not quite happiness. Socrates develops an idea of happiness by explaining to Glaucon (in The Republic) that justice is “concerned not with the outward man, but the inward.” He moves then to state that happiness is a natural form inside every human. This essence cannot be separate from us, though it can be mistaken or missed altogether. Others, such as Kant, Milton, and Aquinas, explain that only imperfect happiness exists on earth, and perfect happiness will be attained in the afterlife. Regardless of philosopher, however, they agree on the value of the contemplation of happiness.

In writing the final movement of the 9th Symphony, Beethoven altered a poem by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller titled “An die Freude.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, freude can mean “joy, pleasure, delight, gladness or rejoicing,” but does not mention happiness directly. Instead, the German term expresses an ecstasy not present in Merriam-Webster’s English definition of joy (a state of happiness or felicity). I also like the way that “freudenvollere” (which means “more joyful”) compounds “joy” with the idea of being filled. In Beethoven’s piece, the music literally fills all space (ear, body, etc) with joy. It is a physical movement, which for me, is a most appropriate translation of “An die Freude.” Also important is the fact that Beethoven was near the end of his career when he wrote the piece. Nearly deaf at this time, I believe that a lifetime of experience developed the emotion of that piece.

I wonder if there is a difference in the entire conception between the two terms. Is joy meant to be transitory, ecstatic, fleeting and impossible to chase, whereas happiness is meant to attain a steady sense of fullness, as in a life well-lived? While I am sure we would all like to have some joy, typically we discuss happiness as an end in itself. Why? Possibly because of joy’s transitory nature. Possibly because joy, or an overfilling, seems too much to ask, whereas happiness appears attainable.

Regardless of the intent behind the 9th Symphony "Ode to Joy", I think Beethoven (and Schiller) nailed it. Music expresses emotion in a way that language alone cannot. To better understand what I mean here, listen to the wide variety of musical interpretations in German, English and Spanish (I offer a small sample below, but there are endless versions online). A comparison may highlight some key features of joy.

Ode to Joy Flash mob, Barcelona:

Miguel Rios sings Himno de la alegria:

Ritchie Blackmore, rock ‘n roll:

Flash mob, Nürnberg:

Baroque Symphony:

For more on happiness, consider joining our upcoming Quarterly Discussion on Augustine. Contact with questions or to register.

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