In Praise of Stoicism, a History of Science Fiction, and the Future of Classical Architecture

Ever wonder what it’s like to work as a copy editor? If so, you’re in luck. Karen Ostergren explains: “There’s a moment in the recent film The Post when the reporters finish writing their first story about the Pentagon Papers and hand the draft to a copy editor; he immediately deletes the first sentence. I laughed out loud at this perfect misrepresentation of my job. Writers think I’m out to destroy their prose. Laypeople think I’m a human version of spellcheck. Neither is right.”

In praise of Stoicism: “Stoics, Farnsworth stresses, refuse to ‘worry about things beyond their control or to otherwise get worked up about them.’ This means that runaway imaginations constantly need to be kept in check. Rather than giving in to panic, strengthen your inner resolve with Hamlet’s words: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Besides, why should we bother to fuss about successes or setbacks when our brief hour upon life’s stage is so quickly over? After the tepid clapping stops, the world speedily forgets us. ‘All things fade,’ wrote Marcus Aurelius, ‘and become mere tales, and are buried soon thereafter in complete oblivion.’ Consequently the Stoic is ‘more concerned with the quality of life than its duration.’ Even the fear of death, declared Seneca, can be conquered by making it ‘our aim to have already lived long enough.’”

What does science fiction tell us about human nature? Well, that depends. If you read H.G. Wells, we are little gods, able to create a perfect world through technology. If you read Thomas Disch, we’re cannibals.

A Japanese modernist in Paris: “Foujita was a highly successful painter associated with the bohemian circle of Montparnasse, later called ‘The School of Paris.’ Throughout the 1920s in Paris, Foujita cut an arresting figure: a Japanese modernist as willing to trade on his own foreignness as he was to blend into his Parisian surroundings. ‘There are not a lot of artists,’ author of the 1925 monograph on Foujita Michel-G. Vaucaire wrote, ‘who have reached a remarkable situation: of passing for a French painter in the eyes of the Japanese and for a Japanese in those of Westerners.’”

What was the point of elevator music? It wasn’t to assuage people’s fears.

Some publishing news: Matt Murray has been named editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal. National Review launches NRPLUS, which is a digital subscription plus access to events and community-specific content. And the poetry editors at Boston Review (yes, there is more than one) have resigned following the magazine’s decision to keep Junot Díaz as fiction editor.

Essay of the Day:

Does the classical approach to architecture have a future? Yes, says Clive Aslet, because it creates buildings on a human scale. Modernism is international. Classical architecture is local:

“Cities are one of the big issues facing the planet. Hundreds of new cities are expected to be created across Africa and Asia in the course of the next century. Researchers believe that, if current population trends continue, Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, could develop into a vast, sprawling metropolis of over eighty-five million people. Niger has the highest birth rate in Africa; Niamey, its capital, is expected to explode in size, from less than one million people to forty-six million by 2100. Unfortunately, the urban expansion that has already taken place across the developing world has been ramshackle. Much of it has taken the form of shanty towns, where groups of shacks are crowded together with little sanitation or governance. This is brewing an obvious problem. The example of the West is, alas, little more encouraging. Much new development takes the form of suburban sprawl, which is wasteful of precious land, and has little character of its own. Young people are frustrated because they cannot break out of parental nests; the elderly feel isolated. And yet the pressure to build more housing—for reasons of immigration, increased life expectancy, and the creation of more households due to divorce—will increase, not abate. The need for master-planning has never been greater.

“Master-planning is not the exclusive preserve of the classical movement. But following the public disgust at the failure of the tower blocks of the mid-twentieth century (in Britain, Grenfell Tower, a tower in North Kensington which burned in 2017 in a catastrophe apparently caused by the attachment of cladding intended to remedy some original defects of the specification, has become a cause célèbre), the Corbusian vision is dead. So modernism has borrowed the language of classicism: there is now hardly a wafer to put between Foster + Partners and Prince Charles. Both advocate sustainable neighborhoods, which have strong senses of local identity, and where people can walk, bicycle, or use public transport; communal streets, where neighbors meet each other going in and out of local shops, are good, selfish motorcars bad. But the visual results will be different. Modernism is not naturally local—it’s international. Nor is it human in scale—it favors the big, the spectacular, the mass-produced. But classicism has for centuries been making the towns and cities that—in Britain at least—house prices suggest people most want to live in. Its principles are universal, being based on the human form. But the classical language has dialects that differ from place to place. It is comfortable with traditional building technologies; this makes it particularly suited to less prosperous parts of the globe. Here is demand, on an epic scale, and here, too, the solution.”

Read the rest.

Images: Lava evaporates lake

Poem: Rachel Hadas, “Smoke”

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