Tel Aviv, The White City

Recently added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, the so-called ‘white city’ of Tel Aviv boasts an impressive collection of modern buildings in the International Style, designed by (mainly) Jewish architects who were influenced by Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus school.

This exhibition by CIVA/La Cambre in Brussels shows various aspects of the architecture and urban planning that went into the creation of Tel Aviv as a modern city.

It has also been the subject of an anti-Israeli cultural boycott, but I saw it innocently…

2 Contemporary Operas

‘Le Pulle: Opérette amorale’ by Emma Pulle (Théâtre du Ront Point, 11 April 2009)
‘House of the Sleeping Beauties’ by Kris Defoort and Guy Cassiers (De Munt/La Monnaie, 15 May 2009)

At first glance, these works have a lot in common. Both treat supposedly risqué subject matter, in one case male prostitution, in the other a brothel where old men can spend the night beside beautiful young women who have been put to sleep artificially.

Both operas incorporate dance and physical theatre alongside traditional theatrical and operatic conventions.

And both have an episodic structure exploiting memory to present intimate details from the lives of their protagonists. These are the characteristics that make them ‘contemporary’.

However, the texture of these operas could not be more different. ‘House of the Sleeping Beauties’ is gentle and cinematic (especially in its score), a meditation on old age and death. ‘Le Pulle’ is energetic and raw – even angry – and sets out to shock. In my opinion it fails to shock, but it succeeds in grabbing the attention of the audience. And the stories that it tells, while somewhat predictible, are touching and give one plenty of food for thought!

Matthew 15 and Practical Spirituality

Matthew 15:1-11 and Jesus’ Practical Spirituality

1Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2″Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8” ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men'”(Isaiah 29:13)
10Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ”

In this conversation from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus questions the priorities of the religious leaders, confronting them with a stark choice between religious language and pious practices on the one hand, and the demands of everyday life on the other.

Redefining the loaded terms ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, Jesus calls into question the ways in which the ‘Pharisees and teachers of the law’ understood and applied the law of Moses. Jesus shifts our attention from promises to real actions.

This passage has nothing to do with any attempt to elevate the spiritual above the physical; quite the reverse! Real physical support for one’s parents is preferred over high-sounding vows made to God. Jesus knows that religious language can serve as a cover for self-interest, or to gain status and prestige.

But Jesus is not making us choose between words and actions, either. What comes out of a person’s mouth has the power to make them ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’. Words are as much a part of our practical spirituality as actions are.

The spirituality that Jesus advocates is one that remains grounded, attentive to the real needs of the people around us. It is a question of heart, words, and action.

This means that it really matters what I think and say and do.

On the other hand, Jesus does not privilege personal hygiene; his disciples ‘don’t wash their hands before they eat’!

Evolution and Eugenics

Eugenics, ‘the science of using controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics in a population’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Is this ethical? And if so, what does a human ethic of eugenics look like?

This was the question under debate last week, that I have finally got around to blogging about…

Last Tuesday I attended a meeting of the local Teilhard de Chardin association that was devoted to this subject.

The association is a group of half a dozen people who meet to dicuss the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit palaeontologist and theologian probably best known for his book ‘The Phenomenon of Man’. (Incidentally, the French title of this book ‘Le phénomène humain’ is more inclusive than the English one, for a change.)

As a scientist, Teilhard de Chardin studied the evolution of homo sapiens. As a philosopher, he observed the evolution of human society. And as a theologian, he turned his phenomenological approach on Christianity as well. Teilhard attempted to organise his observations into a holistic theory that made sense of the data he collected from his scientific research and from his religious experience. The result is something poetic, mystical, and well worth reading. Among others, Teilhard impressed C. S. Lewis; the influence of ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ can be felt in a number of Lewis’s writings.

For Teilhard, evolution organises matter into patterns of increasing complexity; from the single-celled organism to more complex life forms; from reflex to intelligence to the capacity for self-reflection that is found in human beings (leaving open the question of whether it can also be found in other species).

Having observed that natural selection tends to produce organisms of increasing complexity, culminating in intelligent life with the capacity for reflection, Teilhard asks what the next stage of evolution will be.

Normally, we tend to answer this question with a vision of super-human strength, longevity, and intelligence (in other words, with physical or intellectual goals in mind). Eugenics then appears to be a means towards hastening such “improvements” – to give evolution a helping hand. This was the approach adopted by the Nazis.

It is emphatically not Teilhard de Chardin’s answer!

For Teilhard, the trajectory of complexity incorporates interiority – intelligence and self-reflection – and then goes on to include the social within its scope. Natural selection gives us bodies, minds, and society. Bodies reflect on their own existence and so do societies. This is culture. Because complexity gives meaning and order, Teilhard sees it as tending towards a final goal, which he calls the ‘Point Omega’. For him, this will be reached when human beings live together harmoniously in a world full of love, worshipping the universal Christ who reveals this apex of evolution in his perfect humanity. Thus, the next stages of evolution are the development of an increasingly self-aware and co-ordinated human society reaching beyond national boundaries and selfish units (thus emphatically not Nazi) towards a world-wide society of peace and love.

Naturally, Teilhard’s vision is hopelessly modernist and optimistic in its yearning for a paradise on earth. Yet his holistic approach to the mind/soul/body – seeing them as one thing – is spot-on. And he entertains the question of eugenics at a time when it was rejected out of hand by the Church.

So what do we think? Should selective breeding and genetic manipulation be allowed? Do they tend towards the development of a peaceful human society, alive to the beauty of the world and the love of God? The question is at least interesting…

Steve Reich Evening

Not normally one for contemporary music and contemporary dance (or for blogging it would seem, judging by my extended silences on, I have nevertheless been getting into both recently, especially thanks to Laurent and the Kaai Theater!

A few weeks ago, we saw a spectacular Steve Reich event at the Kaai Theater that made me want to write again.

Steve Reich (b. 1936) is a composer who specialises in minimalist and mathematical compositions. The pieces we heard were played on swinging microphones and ticking metronomes as well as piano, glockenspiel, and drums.

Each piece was accompanied by a dance, choreographed by the Belgian Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker (b. 1960).

Best of all was a piece in which two pianos played rival/overlapping/complementary parts, while two dancers spun slowly from side to side, holding one arm up at right angles to their bodies. Because of the way they were lit, each dancer cast two shadows against the back wall. In the middle, their shadows overlapped so that there appeared to be three dancers – the one in the middle being a composite of the two; ephemeral, haunting, and beautiful.

The programme notes included the Milan Kundera quotation: ‘Happiness is the longing for repetition’, on which perhaps more later…