Friday, 30 September 2011

Death and Venice

Why I went to Venice...

On the 12 May 1797 Napoleon ended the thousand-odd history of the island city of Venice as an independent City-State. This used to rather irritate me. Venice, I thought, could have carried on into the present time as one of those charming European anomalies like Monaco or Andorra. It could have survived the unification of Italy and stayed as the finance centre of the world - but, in that case, it would all now be skyscrapers, concrete and €7.99 for a cup of coffee. As it is it is nicely derelict with the shades of doges, wobbly bridges ... though it has maintained a bankers view on coffee pricing.
What Venice would look like now without Napoleon - this is the island-city of Malé in the Maldives
Birmingham and Venice

There is no reason to go to Venice.

The only possible reason you might want to go there is to look at it, and you already know what it looks like. But there seems to be something in humans which makes us want to enter into the physical experience, even when we don't stand to gain anything extra, new, or even good from it. The experience alone seems to be enough. I do not understand this, which may be why we've just come back from Venice, where I did discover some new things.
'Decorative decay' is a thing Venice is famous for, but I was astonished at how very derelict the city actually is. Just a few footsteps away from the tourist areas between the Rialto Bridge and St Mark's you'll find street after street of empty, boarded or bricked-up houses, workshops and palaces. Even those that have a room or two in use mostly seem to have abandoned the lower floors to the waters. I suppose this ought to be no surprise; this is a city which, at its height in the 1500's housed a quarter of a million people, but now has only about 60,000, and still falling. No wonder either, because, there's isn't actually much for them to do any more. Venetian merchant ships stopped dominating the seas when the Portuguese found out how to sail round Africa.

Venice got made because its island location kept it safe from the shenanigans of dark-age Europe, and it got rich above the dreams of any city before or since after working-out that Chinese, Arabs, Indonesians and Africans were willing to swap the worthless stuff they found growing on trees for worthless Very Shiny Things. The stuff on trees was spices, worth as week's wage a pinch in Europe, and the Shiny Things were geegaws of Venetian glass. The spice trade works differently now, but making the Shiny Things is about the only industry Venice has left. Venetian Glassware has raised the concept of 'tawdry' to heights which truly have to be seen to be believed, culminating in that greatest expression of the glass-makers art (and I'm not making this up) – miniatures of Homer Simpson on a Gondola.

Anyway, Venice is now dead, but it makes the most astonishingly beautiful corpse. My top tourist tips? There is pretty much no point whatever looking at guidebooks. The book will say that such-and-such church has a must-see Tintoretto, or whatever. Fact is every single church in the city, and there are 117 of them, has a must-see Tintoretto, or something similar, or better. The really interesting bits start where the tourists stop – the Jewish Ghetto, the streets behind the backs. Oh, and you don't have to pay the earth for the necessary ride in a gondola powered by a man in a stripey shirt - for just 50 cents you can get one of the public traghetto ferries across the Grand canal.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

How to Become a Famous Philosopher

OK, so you want to be a famous philosopher? It doesn't seem to be too difficult, as long as you take care to start off in the right way...

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born into what was probably the richest family in all Austria, his sister died in babyhood and the only one of his four brothers who didn't commit suicide was maimed in the war. Bertrand Russell was actually an Earl, born into one of the richest aristocratic families in Wales, his mother died when he was three, followed by his sister, and, two years later his father also died, from bronchitis following a long period of depression. 

Confucius's father died when he was three. Gottfried Leibniz's father died when he was six.  Ralph Waldo Emerson's father died from stomach cancer less than two weeks before Emerson's eighth birthday and three of his siblings - Phebe, John Clarke, and Mary Caroline - died in childhood. Both of Erasmus' parents died of the plague when Erasmus was only 17. Augustine of Hippo was a libertine from an aristocratic family whose mother was an alcoholic. René Descartes was rich enough never to have to work, his mother died when he was one. Auguste Comte, after a spell in an asylum, attempted suicide by jumping off the Pont des Arts. Immanuel Kant was from a family of stern Scottish descent, five of his brothers and sisters died in childhood. David Hume's father, a leading lawyer, died when he was only two years old, leaving him to be raised by his mother, the daughter of a Lord President of the Court of Session. Soren Kierkegaard was born in 1813 to a vastly wealthy family in Copenhagen - his mother, and all but one of his six siblings, died young. Gottfried Leibniz was son of a philosophy professor who died when Gottfried was only six. Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome, his father died when he was three.

Hegel's mother, Maria, died of a "bilious fever" when Hegel was eleven. Hegel and his father also caught the disease but narrowly survived.  Hegel's brother, Georg Ludwig  was killed in Napoleon's Russian campaign of 1812. Thomas Hobbes was born dangerously prematurely - his father was a priest who abandoned his three children to the care of an older brother, Francis, when he was forced to flee to London after being involved in a fight with another clergyman outside his own church.  John Stuart Mill grew to suffer horrid depression over an upbringing which had forced classical literature, logic, political economy, history and mathematics down him before he was fourteen.

Friedrich Nietsche's father died when he five, and his younger brother died a year later. On September 27, 1759, Thomas Paine married Mary Lambert, his business collapsed soon after, then Mary became pregnant, they moved to Margate, she went into early labor, in which she and their child died. Blaise Pascal's mother died when he was only seven. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's mother, Suzanne Bernard Rousseau, the daughter of a Calvinist preacher, died of puerperal fever nine days after his birth. When Jean-Paul Sartre was 15 months old, his father died of a fever.

Oh, and if being a Famous Philosopher isn't good enough for you - Jesus clearly had a serious relationship problem with his parents, and he wasn't alone. Abraham's father died following his son's demand that they quit the city of Ur. Mohammed's mother died when he was six, while The Buddha's mother, according to legend, died giving birth to him.

You get the idea?

Friday, 9 September 2011