Her epithet is deservedly illustrious, equal to her protean capacities for being multifarious: saint, mystic, and artist’s muse who was a curious kind of practical mystic with vision to match – that she would talk and hear God’s words from within and share them with the crowd in practice of charity, faith, and hope but never without heart. Protestant Elizabeth I of Great Britain might have envisioned the image of a Catholic nun of Spain a night before her Tilbury address that she had a woman’s body but had the bravery of a king. She is also the Doctor of the Church. She is Saint Teresa of Avila, the headstrong founder of the Carmelite Discalced and the woman of Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
My first encounter with this remarkable woman was not religious but academic; while researching women’s monasticism in the high medieval age during my college. Teresa saw many women who were too poor to pay dowry and didn’t want conjugal life found convents as shelters from social conventions without certain religious convictions. Consequently, convents became gossipy sonority houses populated with lackluster and jealous nuns backstabbing one another. The sad atmosphere of the convents used as a mere social institution propelled Teresa to establish the Carmelite Discalced – the Convent of Saint Joseph – with physical labor and disciplined monastic rules not without tenderness attended to individual nuns from all walks of life. She abolished land ownership and rent collections of and by nuns and instituted self-sufficiency of working without shoe but sandals, hence the name “Discalced.” The reformation within the Church was seismic but was a necessary medicinal receipt for the ailing monastic community.
What is most brilliant about Teresa was to create the idea of “The Interior Castle,” a philosophy that the creator of the Universe dwells inside the castle of our souls. That God is from within us, rather than the beyond betokens the idea of personal God with whom we can communicate and thus become a literal mirror image of him for what’s best in ourselves. In fact, this revolutionary philosophy is also linked to Giordano Bruno’s “The Memory Palace,” from which the knowledge needs to be unlocked to bestow upon us the power and joy of the knowledge from within. Further, it is related to the idea of the Nine Muses, whose inspirations are invoked from our minds, not from the Olympus or oracles. All of the mentioned above shares one origin in the cognitive technique employed in Christian meditation developed from the essential reading and contemplating the Bible. But Teresa’s Interior Castle is a beautiful poetic license to enrich power that is never esoterically prideful but blissfully joyful. Where Bruno’s Memory Palace and the Artist’s Nine Muses are not all-inclusive, Teresa’s Interior Castle is universal with tender charity and faith even if it is not necessarily Christian God.
Teresa of Avila was one brave and adventurous woman who was a prototype of feminist in the sense that she voiced out her mind to the patriarchal church authority in danger of being suspicious of heresy or witchcraft even in Catholic Spain, known for the Spanish Inquisition. But she was not a vociferous activist for abolishing the Church or would-be founder of an offshoot of the Church. Teresa was religious of the supreme kind. However, she never abandoned her femininity latticed with passion for helping a young priest in his spiritual crisis in war with physical temptation, tenderness for attending those in need of her consolation, and beauty that was both beautiful externally and internally. She shows us that a strong woman doesn’t need to shout out invective expletives or clamor for the reward for her damages in the name of womanhood when it is really for her sworn revenge. Aside from sectarian religious affiliations, Teresa of Avila deserves her reputation as a star in the Milky Way of the Great.
The delicacy of life that sprinkles flavors to our otherwise mundane routine of everyday life is not a prerogative of the rich. American Catholic saint Dorothy Day once gave a diamond ring donated by a wealthy woman to a poor demented old lady and riposted to a chiding onlooker thus: “Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?” In this light of democratizing luxuries, Chef Marie-Antoine Careme championed the world of haute cuisine available to all walks of life and shared his knowledge and experience of Haute culinary arts for the use and enjoyment of the public.
Born into a poverty-stricken peasant family in 1784, Crame was abandoned at ten by his father, who told him to make use of his cleverness for his future. Before long, Careme found an apprenticeship to a famous patisserie. That was the beginning of his long, epoch-making legacy of master patisserie. With an innate intelligence and passion for culinary art, he opened his patisserie within a couple of years. His ingenuity for culinary art and a happy chance led him to a top diplomat’s chef to cook diplomatic banquets, for which he became the most sought-after chef in Paris. The success catapulted him to opening a famous patisserie at 19 on the rue de la Paix, baking the wedding cake for Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria. If Napoleon conjures up an image of a scrumptiously layered piece of Napoleon, Careme is smiling in a constellation of artists in heaven. Careme’s popularity endowed him with a celebrity figure in post-revolution, industrial age Europe where the luminary la dolce vita aristocrats commandeered was beginning to shine on those on the low rungs of social ladders. Careme might have been an ambitious entrepreneur to mark his name all over Europe with the crowning glory of lucrative success, but no one else but he tried to share the taste with the crowd indiscriminating class distinctions in his time.
Careme’s success story has a familiar rags-to-riches repertoire with a combination of chance and apposite time surrounding his rise to success interacting with his talents. But why not the taste of the fame when his triumph of will over strife inspires achievable hopes and approachable aspirations? Careme personifies overcoming the mantra of existentialism that experience precedes essence. The fact that his own indigent family abandoned Careme didn’t dispirit his connatural intelligence nor did it plunge him into a Slough of Despondency. Or that didn’t really matter to Careme with his eyes, nose, and hands tuned for the world of delicacy that used to be exclusive for the rich and whose heart made it accessible to all. Indeed, the man was not a saint, nor do I intend to canonize him. But at least his actions and legacy deserve appreciation and admiration adorned with flowers and bonbons.
The ancient Greek superhero Hercules always has a status of a modern-day Mount Hollywood celebrity with Paparazzi-conscious showmanship. He also reminds me of an advantaged individual who could get away with wrongdoings. Hercules was an impulsive egoist and an irascible aristocrat for what was worth the ancient Greek superhero, a paragon of masculine heroism with a view to celebrity. This uncommon biography about the superhero whose name still rings red herrings after millennium flows of time evolves around the legendary performance of the Twelve Labors, anchoring them to the historical events of a man with a colossal ego.
With a wealth of knowledge on ancient Greek history and extensive research on the subject, Matyszak puts in the capacity of Hercules’s counsel per se in the tribunal between humanity and divinity, who searches for truth based upon factual findings. Matyszak’s defense for his now divine client Hercules is erudite and comprehensive, with exhibits drawn from classical Greek and Roman historians and writers whose wits and reasons were anything but those of Hercules. In addition, the author’s trademark storytelling narrative makes the story of the ancient Greek killer all the more vivid and engaging that each chapter holds the attention of the reader in the phantasmagorical display of images as depicted in Grecian urns or vases.
Notwithstanding the attractiveness of the narrative and the narrator, there are reasons I disapprove of Hercules as a hero, an antithesis of the other half-god, half-man Jesus of Nazareth in millenniums later. The Labors resulted from his egotistical attempt to free himself from the guilt of killing his family in moments of passion. However, he was neither remorseful nor appropriately punished for killing his music teacher Linus whose head his recalcitrant prince pupil Hercules shattered with a lyre he was trying to teach him how to play the way it should. As a prince of Thebes, Hercules had no qualms of consciousness for killing his elderly music teacher whose social status was beneath him, and gods condoned it because he was a son of Zeus.
His peremptory sense of entitlement knows no boundary because of his arrogance and hubris. For example, during his Fourth labor of capturing Erymanthian Boar, Hercules killed almost the entire race of centaurs, driving them to near extinction. But Hercules himself was the cause of the killing spree because he intimidated Pholus, a wise, kindly centaur, to open a jar of undiluted wine, a gift from Dionysus to centaurs, who became intoxicated and attacked Hercules out of stupor. Yet, his killing of the drunken centaurs was not even a subject of guilt and was regarded as collateral damage because centaurs were known as lustful creatures. But didn’t Hercules also sleep around with women – and only the beautiful – wherever he went to, and sire children, one of whom became the founder of the Scythians?
To summarize, the story of Hercules boils down to a conclusion that Hercules was a representative figure of a human whose essence is both divine and mortal, always on a chariot race with two horses of desire and reason. Some revisionists claim Hercules was an ancient Greek psychopath who took pleasure in killing people, beasts, and demi-gods. To me, a psychopath loses either the shackle of the ego or the supervisor of the superego, running a mind chariot alone even it drives to a pit full of fire. Methinks, Hercules was a cossetted brat without disciplines that controlled his power of reason, which is apart from mental acuteness or ingenuity. Adler’s will to power embodies the figure of BC man-God hero without regard for compassion and charity. Hercules was anything but Samuel Johnson’s conception of a biographic figure who empathizes for the common characteristics of life in the principle of universal judgment and sentiments. I now know why Christianity has won favors from poor and ordinary people and become the subject of persecutions from emperors and kings because Jesus of Nazareth, begotten by God and born of Virgin Mary, is gentle yet strong, kind but firm, which seems simple but divine.
The role of intellectuals is to see the corrupt at the heart of society and stand furious with the mass and constantly monitor the conditions of ill-effects and actively work on the improvement of living conditions. For books can never teach the use of books. Otherwise, they are no more than armchair academics complacent with their impressive scholastic achievements and high social esteem as elites of society, proudly distanced themselves from the general. But Voltaire wasn’t, nor was he a demagogic writer grandstanding with the ire of the have-nots.
Born as Francois-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, when the discovery of the New World and religious turmoil swept Europe, Voltaire was destined to become a cavalier of new thoughts, the Enlightenment of Thoughts, which the Catholic Church regarded as a dangerous school of ideas to the mass. Yet, Voltaire wasn’t hell-bent on destroying the Catholic Church as a freemason but pilloried the corruption of the ecclesiastical members and the duplicities of their teachings and acts in practice. Religion is also a social institution made and governed by people and therefore subject to corruption and dysfunction. Before the French Revolution, the Catholic Church controlled people’s ways of thinking and exerted its authority over political and cultural spheres. That was why Voltaire’s lifelong resistance against the Catholic Church arose, not from blindly malicious intention to sabotage belief of the religion.
Voltaire was very human with his volatile temper but also with passionate munificence. He was fluent in English and his years of stay in England, the country he regarded as a model country of liberty of thoughts and religions. During his visit, he met John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, to whom Voltaire was said to be very rude for reasons clandestine. Methinks that for a person as at once passionate and sensitive as Voltaire, the anecdotal vignette sounds true, but who can blame him for his temper and let it eclipse his wholesale brilliance as an unbridled thinker and writer unafraid of speaking against the social injustice against the unprivileged? Rousseau, a fellow freethinker, abandoned his child at an orphanage and berated the illiterate. Isaac Newton, whom Voltaire respected for his scientific findings and logical mind, mistreated his servants with whacks and beatings. But, on the contrary, Voltaire paid off all the tax debts of his tenants on his properties. Also, he published ‘Candide,’ which is an allegorical book about the absurdities of the teachings of the Church and a man’s search for a God in this world, in 1759 at a meager price accessible to poor readers yearning for a taste of Enlightenment.
The absence of God’s presence in the deeds of the clergy and religious people and the presence of injustice in the name of elusive God were the questions Voltaire had in mind, and yet he wasn’t blasphemous about the God they believed. On the contrary, Voltaire’s belief was ecumenical in the principle of syncretism founded on a universal belief system according to Natural Law, a conscience. He was liberal in ideas but responsible in acts by accommodating his knowledge to practice for ordinary life. Samuel Johnson’s definition of an imperiously sullen scholar who loses his days in unsocial silence and lives in the crowd of life without a companion was the opposite of Voltaire. Indeed, Voltaire had no morals, yet he was a very moral person for sure.
I remember the first time I saw Renoir’s painting, “Girls at the Piano,” hung on a restaurant wall when I was a first-grader in elementary school. I loved the vibrant warmth of the colors and the softness of the girls’ expressions. Since then, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) has become one of my favorite painters. Given that preference, my reading of this book about the master was long overdue. Still, I am pleased to learn that Renoir was what I had imagined him to be – a creator of art whose eyes are set on the stars and foot grounded on earth.
Renoir was a master of the French Impressionism troika led by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, pioneering a new painting style as the epoch needed a new cultural ethos for the upcoming new century. Although the masters of French Impressionism were on the same musical note, their timbres were various. While Monet and Pissarro were idiosyncratic and liberal in techniques and subject figures of their artistic creations, Renoir was a conservative in keeping a tradition of Paul Rubens in his celebration of feminine beauty surrounded by the realism of nature and life.
A pursuer of the natural and ideal beauty existing in the physical world, not the spheres of the heavens, Renoir used the ideal to perfect the real, adapting traditional techniques to his visions of the worlds conjured in his mind’s eye. Renoir’s fascination with sensuous beauty in the expression of vivid but soft hues of vibrant colors and rounded, smooth figures of models in his paintings show his unintentional application of Aristotelian aesthetic theory: beauty inherent in itself and beauty by its use. Renoir’s paintings are replete with the beautiful colors, the warmth of the ambiance, pleasantness of the moment, and equilibrium of the backgrounds, all the mastery of using the ordinary with a profound sense to elevate it to art, giving art its true meaning. That might be a reason why German composer Richard Wagner, the creator of “Nibelungen’s Ring,” chose Renoir among other famous painters of the time to produce his portraiture. Or perhaps it was why Americans first found Renoir’s paintings so appealing that the goring sales in America brought Renoir fame and wealth.
After reading this elegant biography of Renoir, I liked him even more because he was an artist who had an artistic vein of genius and a practical sense of responsibility. He was a devoted father who even took care of his illegitimate daughter from his first girlfriend before marrying his model wife Aline Chariot, from whom he kept it a secret for life. Renoir might have had preconceptions about specific beliefs and people, but who would not have them secretly hidden in their mind’s closet? I believe that art serves its purpose when it gives the beholder a delightful sensation, not a dangerous illusion of distorted reality drawn from an artist’s disillusioned mind. Now I have a replica of Renoir’s “Two Girls at the Piano” from Amazon posted on my bedroom wall. It still has the first impression of the painting that has stayed in my heart with delightful nostalgia, enveloping me in the longing for the bidding the time’s return, which only Renoir could do the magic.