Friday, October 16, 2009

October Hodgepodge

There's quite a few unrelated strains of thought coursing through me at the moment. Allow me to share:

England, My England

I've been having issues with this country lately. The first year went quite smoothly: we marveled at the healthcare system, the postal system, the transport system. Here is a nation, we thought, that has things figured out. But lately, it seems to be slowly unraveling.

Maybe it's a simple answer: the little quirks that at first I found charming have worn their charm thin over time. After all, this is the nation in which a few environmentalists were able to climb onto the — need I say it? strictly forbidden — roof of the Houses of Parliament with a very tall ladder. If you think I'm kidding, read this; can you imagine some yahoos making it to the top of the Capitol in Washington? It just wouldn't happen.

Or perhaps it is that there is tangible change afoot: the postal service is on strike, nearly every week a different rail operator union goes on strike (this week most services out of Paddington are not running or delayed), and now British Airways (who we are flying home with in December) is threatening a strike.

[Let me make something clear: these unions do not have a historical understanding of why unions were formed in the first place. Workers did not organize so that no one would ever lose their job; they were created for bargaining power to ensure their rights were upheld. Every one of these recent strikes is based not on reason or justice or even greed, only a lack of historical understanding.]

I think the main sea change, however, is that recently I have become more aware of a vein in British thought and society that is bitterly aware of their nation's decline since the Second World War. They see far more acutely than I how far downhill their rail system has slidden since privatization; they lament how their wealth built up the fledgling states of the European Union, an institution that now dwarfs them in financial and political power. Nowhere was this course of thought more blatantly exposed to me than in a film I recently saw, England, My England. Ostensibly about the life of Henry Purcell, the script seemed more bent on mourning post-imperial Britain than documenting the great composer.

I'm not saying, of course, that America — or any country — has it completely figured out. And without a doubt there is much to love and admire in the UK. Still, I feel that my sketched view of it in these past few weeks has perhaps been colored in a bit more accurately.

My Big Project

I'm working on my first actual 'big' piece of music, a piano concerto. It's based on Steven Millhauser's short story, Cathay. I'm trying to finish the first movement within the next two weeks for a competition, but it's not going smoothly. Usually I love writing music, but I have to be careful that my stress at the moment doesn't quash the overall inspiration.


For a reason unknown to myself or anyone else, I decided to read Rudolf Carnap's Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. It's not what I thought it would be, and I didn't finish it.

However, in the opening chapters, it introduces a concept advocated by Hans Driesch called entelechy (a term he adopted from Aristotle). I'll spare you the technical bits (in fact, in the book it is faulted for lack of technical bits), but in essence, Driesch said that one won't ever understand a biological organism if one examines it as a machine only. There's an unidentifiable other present, a force not currently measurable but that nonetheless separates life from death. He's not talking about God; Driesch likens it to science's early understanding (and misunderstanding) of magnetism and electrical fields.

My money's on this, actually. Though already it's an old (and I think mostly discarded) theory, I think he's right and that a few years down the road (who knows how many?) he'll be regarded as having guessed correctly — albeit with some discrepancies, of course. The history of science is full of people who, without the information or equipment we have today, guessed mostly correctly about the presence of something they did not yet understand. If anyone has any info about how this has (or hasn't) developed, I'd be both interested and grateful.

The Glass Bead Game

I finished it at last. Life-changing. Absolutely devastating. By a mile it's my favorite book of all time. Like his more famous and accessible Siddhartha, the end of the book turns toward the idea of renewal, the cycle of youth and age, and how man can achieve some semblance of immortality through passing down their ideas, discoveries, and advancements.

"With a strange, sorrowful tug at his heart he sensed the recurrence and reversal of the great experience of his youth, and at the same time had that austere feeling, at once constricting and stirring, that afternoon had set in, that youth was gone and noonday passed, that the blossom had become a fruit."

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