Monday, December 17, 2007

Stream of Wikipedia-ness

Not being a connoisseur of classical music, I had thought “The Planets” was written by Mahler. Far from it. Mahler was quite the devoted Christian, while the actual composer, Gustav Holst, was heavily influenced by Hinduism and astrology. Imagine the wondrous works of art that would never have transpired without…….astrology.

In “The Planets”, Holst offers his impressions of seven planets, excluding earth and Pluto, which was undiscovered at the turn of the 20th century. While several composers were later commissioned to create a “Pluto” composition in the style of Holst, Pluto has now been decommissioned as a planet. The best known of the seven pieces is “Jupiter, though Holst’s favorite was “Saturn”. I found “Neptune” enjoyable. Supposedly, and unbelievably, it’s the first piece of music (ever?) to feature a “fade-out”.

“Uranus” is mentioned as an apparent homage to Dukas’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Dukas, it turns out, was a perfectionist, in the habit of destroying his own works. Barring a Frank Tipler-like resurrection of everything at the end of the universe, we'll never know what other works of greatness flitted in and out of existence in the space of his studio.

Dukas was a friend of Claude Debussy, another French romantic composer. It turns out that Debussy was one of the very first people in the history of the world to undergo a colostomy! Though modern colostomies are no longer a stinky affair, one wonders about poor Debussy, whose music was so ethereal. He lived another two years after the procedure.

Except in rare cases where the intestine can be attached to the anus (!), colostomies necessitate a pouch for collecting feces. Wikipedia offers a broad view of feces, including chemistry, biology, ecology, sexual kinks, hygiene, and more. One of the major stink-components, hydrogen sulfide, is chemically quite similar to water, but oh the difference another shell of electrons can make. Under “hygiene”, it is mentioned that Muslims wash their anus with water using the left hand, while Indians wash their anus with water using the left hand, which is then washed with soap and water. Shall we infer that Muslims don’t wash the left hand?!

What do “feces” have to do with “scissors”, “nanchakus”, and “dales”? They’re plural tantums! Or, more properly, pluralia tantum. These are words which only exist in the plural form! Apparently, the Swedish word “inalvor” (intestines) is also a plural tantum, despite the fact that English speakers refer to “the small intestine”.

The Swedish language can be traced back to Old Norse language. It has a heavy Germanic influence, which is one characteristic that distinguishes it from western Scandinavian languages such as Faroese, Icelandic, and Norwegian. Apparently, modern Swedish (“nusvenska”…New Swedish) has been largely shaped by some influential Swedes. Wikipedia lists “controversial writer” August Strindberg as one of these figures.

Why was Strindberg controversial? He dealt with anarchy, misogyny (in a favorable light, apparently), the hypocrisy of traditional sex roles, socialism, and more…all around 1870. I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing of Strindberg, who has been referenced in Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander”, Mel Brook’s “The Producers, and Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”.

Carl Eldh sculpted a large Strindberg which can now be seen in Tegnerlunden Park in Stockholm. I’m curious why he would be portrayed as nude, sandaled, heavily muscled, with splayed legs. Eldh’s most famous work, however, is the equally heroic “Branting Monument”, erected in Stockholm in 1952. Branting, a social democrat, is portrayed prominently with clenched fist, with other social democrat luminaries and anonymous workers in the background. The work was bombed in 1992, leaving a hole in Branting’s belly. It would be natural to suspect political motives, but it turns out that the culprits were mere teenagers, with a history of random vandalism.

Iconoclasm is a subset of vandalism. Specifically, it refers to the destruction of religious icons. The word “iconoclast” is now taken to mean a merely unconventional individual, though originally it meant a destroyer of icons. The opposite of an iconoclast would be an iconodule. The most prominent recent example of iconoclasm is, of course, the Taliban’s destruction of the two monumental Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan.

These Buddhas were described by the Chinese monk, scholar, and traveler XuanZang in A.D. 630. They were decorated with gold and jewels at the time. After a millennium of neglect, the Taliban accelerated the process. Even with engineers, shells, and dynamite, the destruction took a month. XuanZang described a third, larger, reclining Buddha in the area, and this remains something of a mystery.

XuanZang was a devotee of the Yogacara, or “mind-only” philosophy of Buddhism. Yogacara is sometimes seen as opposed by the Madhyamikan school, which (to keep things simple), denies the inherent existence of anything at all. I recall one prominent Rinpoche stating that his philosophy is that of Madhyamika, but his actual meditation practice is that of Yogacara. My interpretation is that it’s simply more difficult to sit on your ass and wrap your consciousness around a view which doesn’t even espouse nothingness. Despite his association with Yogacara, XuanZang wrote a text called “The Non-Difference Between Yogacara and Madhyamika”.

1 comment:

speakfreely said...

Wow. I never knew August Strindberg was a real person. My introduction was at: