Recent links of note:
“When atheists stole the moral high ground”
Nick Spencer, Spectator USA
For all its claims to rational purity and enlightenment, atheism in the West is more accurately traced to religious skeptics and pragmatists who felt threatened by the monolithic intellectual consensus of the day, writes Nick Spencer in his review of Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt by Alec Ryrie. Felt is the operative word here: the “trusty sword of reason” that they used to hack away at mystics and obscurantists was, sadly, wielded by a very human and therefore irrational appendage. The faithful, of course, tended to view such dissidents simply as barbaric and retrograde villains. But the religious wars that Christians unleashed in the seventeenth century, among other things, had the unfortunate effect of annihilating their credibility as beacons of morality. Alas, society must find those moral beacons somewhere: enter Enlightenment thinkers such as Spinoza and Voltaire, who happily refurbished the dilapidated edifice of religion with rationalist ornamentation. So much for cultivating one’s own garden.
“Why Architectural Elites Love Ugly Buildings”
Graham Cunningham, The American Conservative
That the Swiss modernist Charles-Édouard Jeanneret dubbed himself “the crow-like one”—“Le Corbusier”—suggests a rather generous estimation of his own architectural vision; that a man who described buildings as literal machines of habitation would be chummily referred to as “Corb” by architectural students in the ’80s, two decades after his death, suggests something fairly similar about the egalitarian pretensions of architectural modernism. Graham Cunningham, who has dilated on similar issues in our pages, provides ample evidence for the dangers of conflating lofty aims at an aesthetic revolution with basic human needs. His best argument, though, is a more speculative one. “I am fond of the print on my wall of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater,” Cunningham writes, “and can imagine it being someone’s dream home. For the great majority, however, their dream of domestic bliss is located in some-or-other variant of an archetypal pitched roofed dwelling house.” For a refreshing study of the homely pleasures of vernacular architecture, look for Peter Pennoyer’s piece on New York brownstones in our December art issue.
“‘Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin’ Review: Going to Nature in His Own Fashion”
Edward Rothstein, The Wall Street Journal
Considerable as his influence may be, I have the impression that many discover the Victorian critic (and draftsman, and social reformer, etc.) John Ruskin by accident. I personally first encountered his work via Proust, who thought highly enough of the man to spend years translating The Bible of Amiens despite knowing virtually no English. And yet in the preface to his translation the French author identifies and expounds, at length, upon a rather pernicious brand of romanticism lodged within Ruskin’s aesthetic vision. Such a reception is not at all unusual for Ruskin, whom we might call a mixed bag par excellence. Where other such firebrands inspire cautious admiration, Ruskin tends to elicit a truly self-sabotaging brand of wonder and awe, whereby one finds oneself scrambling for reasons to write him off. Thus we have the verdict, handed down by the Yale Center for British Art, that his “hierarchical ideas about race, gender, and class” should give any self-respecting progressive pause—ignoring, perhaps, that Ruskin’s diatribe on the depredations of wealth in Unto This Last would make even Bernie Sanders blush. Snide potshots aside, their current exhibition on Ruskin provides an excellent opportunity to confront the captivating and perplexing legacy of the oft-overlooked figure, according to the critic Edward Rothstein. For more on Ruskin, read Paul Dean in the November issue.
Marital woes in London
by Paul du Quenoy
On a new production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera House.
by James F. Penrose
On Le Freischütz at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris.