Weekend 610.0 (It’s like glass, when we break)

“Man faces the darkening shadows of his life. His passage to the grave.” — Philip K. Dick

(1) A couple of quotes from The Fighting Temeraire by Sam Willis:

Moreover, through his careful inclusion of the rising moon to the left of the painting, an important level of continuity is provided that follows on from the setting of the sun so that together they frame the ships. The change which he depicts, Turner suggests, is inevitable; as inevitable as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon. The Temeraire is part of that natural cycle. Significantly, she is not going to be destroyed, but dismantled; her timbers are to be sold on, to be re-used in ships, houses, even furniture: we are witnessing just one stage in the Temeraire‘s circle of life.

The painting, therefore, can be viewed as an image of acceptance rather than resistance. There is no terror in the painting, just a calmness and serenity. If, indeed, there is any conflict in the image at all, then it is perhaps that the little tug is literally dragging the deadweight of institutionalized tradition into a new era; this is change being forced upon an unwilling victim. And yet the Victorian society to which Turner belonged was very much a mixture of acceptance and resistance, with some embracing the new technology while others defied it, and our ability to see both aspects of that reaction to change is a mark of Turner’s merit as an artist. The passage of time, the ‘death’ of an era, is here presented, but is not seen as distressing. When Gabriel Fauré wrote his ‘Requiem‘ in 1888, widely accepted as one of the most serene ever composed, he responded to criticism that it did not express the ‘terror of death’ by explaining that he viewed death as ‘a joyful deliverance, an aspiration towards a happiness beyond the grave, rather than as a painful experience.’ His work was consequently dubbed by one critic as ‘death’s lullaby’, a phrase that is certainly applicable to Turner’s Fighting Temeraire and an observation which takes on even more significance if one considers Turner’s age when he painted it. He was sixty-three and although he was still to produce some of his finest work, he was no longer the rising star of his generation. On the contrary, like the Temeraire, he was cruising serenely towards retirement and his own death. His father, to whom he was particularly close, had recently died, and a friend commented that he was never the same afterwards. To compound matters still further, a number of his close friends had also recently died and we know that he had begun to question how he would be remembered at his death. After he was a pallbearer at the elaborate state funeral of a friend he lamented: ‘who will do the like for me, or when, God only knows’. Nor was he the only respected member of the wider artistic fraternity contemplating death or decline in these years. Wordsworth’s inspirational Essay on Epitaphs had been published in 1810, and by 1830 Tennyson was struggling with the words of his unfinished poem In Memoriam.

Turner’s care for it are a powerful lesson in the value of history and the esteem which it should be granted. It is certainly one of the reasons for its continued popularity today. To declare that one appreciates The Fighting Temeraire is a statement that transcends our views of art and artists and makes a more profound comment about our approach to life. Consequently, that The Fighting Temeraire won the competition for the nation’s favourite painting in 2005 is deeply reassuring. It demonstrates that the desire to remember burns in Britain like the sunset in the painting itself. The painting is a memorial, and deserves the respect offered to all memorials. It is a reminder of a sense of duty; a reminder of sacrifice past. In that respect, therefore, we have no choice but to prefer the painting to others with less significant themes. To ignore The Fighting Temeraire is to be ungrateful – even ungracious – to the memories of those who have lived and died for us today. Ironically therefore, by acknowledging the importance of the painting we acknowledge that there are far more important things in the world than art.

The Temeraire thus survives in art and literature, but her physical remains are few indeed.

For relics of the Temeraire that are immediately accessible to the public, one must visit the tiny church of St Mary’s in Rotherhithe, which has numerous maritime connections. Christopher Jones, the captain of the Mayflower, whose passengers founded the Plymouth Colony in New England in 1620, is buried here, along with Prince Lee Boo, son of a cannibal chief brought back from the Palau Islands by British sailors in 1783. Unable to survive the British winter, he died shortly afterwards. In the lady chapel is an altar, made from Temeraire oak, along with the altar rails and two extraordinary timber thrones. Countless other smaller artefacts have been lost to history, not least the wooden leg of one Trafalgar veteran who reportedly begged Mr Beatson for timber from the Temeraire to replace his ‘larboard leg’, a request that Beatson granted. More recognizable would be the brass plaque affixed to the deck of the Temeraire that commemorated Nelson’s famous signal at Trafalgar: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’ Beatson refused to sell it, but it has never been found.

(2) Quotes from The Man in The High Castle by Philip K Dick:

“Life is short, he thought. Art, or something not life, is long, stretching out endless, like concrete worm. Flat, white, unsmoothed by any passage over or across it. Here I stand. But no longer. Taking the small box, he put the Edfrank jewelry piece away in his coat pocket.”

“‘They [the vast number of uneducated] can obtain from mold-produced identical objects a joy which would be denied to us. We must suppose that we have the only one of a kind, or at least something rare, possessed by a very few. And, of course, something truly authentic. Not a model or replica.’ He continued to gaze past Childan, at empty space, ‘Not something cast by tens of thousands.'”

“My training was correct: I must not shrink from the clear white light, for if I do, I will once more re-enter the cycle of birth and death, never knowing freedom, never obtaining release.”

“‘The hands of the artificer,’ Paul said, ‘had wu, and allowed that wu to flow into this piece. Possibly he himself knows only that this piece satisfies. It is complete, Robert. By contemplating it, we gain more wu ourselves. We experience the tranquility associated not with art but with holy things. I recall a shrine in Hiroshima wherein a shinbone of some medieval saint could be examined. However, this is an artifact and that was a relic. This is alive in the now, whereas that merely remained. By this meditation, conducted by myself at great length since you were last here, I have come to identify the value which this has in opposition to historicity. I am deeply moved, as you may see.'”

“‘To have no historicity, and also no artistic, esthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value — that is a marvel. Just precisely because this is a miserable, small, worthless-looking blob; that, Robert, contributes to its possessing wu. For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, ‘stones rejected by the builder’ One experiences awareness of wu in such trash as an old stick, or a rusty beer can by the side of the road. However, in those cases, the wu is within the viewer. It is a religious experience. Here, an artificer has put wu into the object, rather than merely witnessed the wu inherent in it’ He glanced up. ‘Am I making myself clear?'”

(3) AI, Poetry, and Prayer (Imaginative Conservative)

Which brings me back to artificial intelligence. An enthusiastic friend tells me that AI can write a poem and write a prayer. No it doesn’t. Artificial intelligence mimics a poem and a prayer. Artificial intelligence apes poetry and prayer. No matter how impressive the imitation, it remains artificial intelligence. When we were building our new church, the question arose as to whether we should have a pipe organ or purchase a less expensive, but very good, electronic instrument. The salesman for the electronic instrument explained how they had recorded real pipe organ sounds and the computer and audio system reproduced them to replicate a real pipe organ. The salesman of the pipe organ company said to me, “Yes, all very impressive and definitely less expensive, but let me ask: Would you buy your fiancee a zirconium ring?” The same reasoning disallows recorded music, silk flowers, and cheap reproductions of sacred art in our church. There’s enough fakery, fraud, and foolishness in religion, so when it comes to poetry and prayer let’s have real, not artificial, intelligence.

(4) Signet Ring from the British Museum

(5) Extended quotes from The Man in The High Castle by Philip K Dick

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