Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Grand Contraption

I recently read The Grand Contraption: The World as Myth, Number and Chance by David Park, a delightful book for those who enjoy both history and science. Dr. Park explores how religion and science grew side by side in the history of western civilization, and were never seen as antagonistic to each other until early modern times. As the author explains: "The so-called war between science and religion is not really a war. Many scientists are sincerely religious and many people who follow a religion respect what scientists think. For them, what is known as a war is at worst a boundary dispute." (p.224)

From Publishers Weekly:
This elegant work is, first and foremost, a fine introduction to the history of cosmology in the West. Park (The Fire within the Eye) covers a staggering range of beliefs in this slim volume, examining the heroic battle myths of ancient Israel, Egypt and Mesopotamia; writings on the squabbling Greek gods; the astrology of the Babylonians and Akkadians; the cosmology of the Ionians and pre-Socratics; Plato's world myth and Aristotle's ""Prime Mover""; Ptolemy's spheres and the atoms of Epicurus; the Copernican revolution and Descartes's vortices; and modern chemistry, field theory and the big bang. While many earlier theories of the universe may strike modern readers as absurd, Park approaches each with empathy and intelligence, uncovering the profoundly human struggle to make sense of the world that lies at the heart of premodern science. In so doing, he renders these ideas less fantastical-almost reasonable-for his readers. And, perhaps more importantly, by the time he reaches the 20th century, the fantastical aspects of our own cosmology are more than apparent. In the end, Park's engrossing work suggests that the difference between modern and ancient cosmologies has little to do with progress in the technical foundations of science; even the most ancient cultures he discusses had advanced methods of calculation and a commitment to observation and experiment. (Read more.)
Dr. Park insists that the sphere of the scared should be respected and should not be seen as a contradiction to scientific discovery but rather as having a unique function in human society. It pulls together a great deal of information in a coherent fashion and is a book for believers and non-believers alike. Share

Detail from Wertmüller

Marie-Antoinette's gown. Via Vive la Reine. Share

The Cause of Archbishop Romero

From Aleteia:
In 1970, Father Oscar Romero was appointed auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Upon his consecration as a bishop, Romero adopted “To be of one mind with the Church” as his episcopal motto.

Today, 34 years after his assassination at the altar and 17 years after Pope St. John Paul II approved his cause for canonization, bestowing upon him the title “Servant of God,” the Church has decided that Romero was indeed “of one mind with the Church.”

During his plane ride home from South Korea on August 18, Pope Francis confirmed that he had lifted a prudential block on Romero’s cause, paving the way for his beatification in the near future.  

“There are no doctrinal problems and it is very important that it is done quickly,” said the Holy Father. “For me, he is a man of God.”

Pope Francis was actualy confirming news that had come out last year, though that may have not been noticed by most of the Catholic world. In April 2013, during a Mass honoring the 20th anniversary of the death of Bishop Antonio "Tonino" Bello, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Family and postulator of Romero’s cause, declared that, “Just today … the cause of the beatification of Monsignor Romero has been unblocked.” (Read more.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dinner Service

A dinner service used at Versailles. Vive la Reine quotes Madame Campan:
One of the customs most disagreeable to the Queen was that of dining every day in public. Maria Leczinska had always submitted to this wearisome practice; Marie Antoinette followed it as long as she was Dauphiness. The Dauphin dined with her, and each branch of the family had its public dinner daily. The ushers suffered all decently dressed people to enter; the sight was the delight of persons from the country. At the dinner-hour there were none to be met upon the stairs but honest folks, who, after having seen the Dauphiness take her soup, went to see the Princes eat their ‘bouilli’, and then ran themselves out of breath to behold Mesdames at their dessert. —The Memoirs of Madame Campan

Aiding Caregivers

From Aleteia:
A Center for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet reports that about 73% of caregivers in a survey said prayer helps them cope. A recent, helpful volume is A Year of Grace: 365 Reflections for Caregivers, by Laraine Bennett (Our Sunday Visitor). But besides prayer, these people need direct outside assistance. Here’s where the parishes come in.

The literature on this subject repeatedly makes the point that caregivers need regular time off—a couple of hours to go out for lunch, take in a movie, maybe just sit in the park. To make that possible, why couldn’t the local parish run a modest community service program recruiting volunteers to go into homes—either on an as-needed basis or regularly—in order to spell the regular caregivers in tending their disabled or aged charges?

Some parishes probably already do something along these lines. Others easily could. Many have retired parishioners in good health and with time on their hands who are looking for something worthwhile to do. With a little encouragement and coordination from the parish, this could be it. (Read more.)

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman

Portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel by Douglas Kirkland Circa 1960
I don't understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little - if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that's the day she has a date with destiny. And it's best to be as pretty as possible for destiny. ~ Coco Chanel
Karen Karbo's The Gospel According to Coco Chanel is a lighthearted, highly entertaining biography of the enigmatic French fashion designer, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. Mademoiselle Chanel's ideas about style superseded fashion itself to become the basis for modern good taste and that indefinable commodity known as class. It must be observed that throughout history some of the most influential taste-makers were not aristocratic ladies but rather women (and men) from the lowest rungs of society, such as Madame du Barry, Rose Bertin, and Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. While I do not care for the word "gospel" used in such a worldly context. the book is not irreverent but with a playful wisdom explains the impact of Mademoiselle Chanel's ideals upon the world she lived in. Those ideals have value for our world as well, where vulgarity now reigns. While glossing over or skipping some of the more unpleasant and controversial aspects of Chanel's life and career, such as her rumored drug use, her affair with a Nazi, and her possible German collaboration, the book focuses on her positive contributions, such as her introduction of simplicity and comfort in women's clothes. It also deals with the author's quest for an affordable Chanel jacket.

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel makes no pretense of being a complete biography, but rather explores Gabrielle's life in context of her views on success, on style, on surviving heartbreak, and on self-invention. Gabrielle was completely self-invented, telling any number of stories to disguise the reality of her deprived childhood. While she told most people she was an orphan reared by two maiden aunts, in reality she was brought up in a convent school for the poorest of poor children. From the nuns she learned not only sewing but the beauty of both simplicity and practicality. Her own peasant bluntness she turned into elegant use by coining pithy sayings that guided the rich and famous, such as "A woman who doesn't wear perfume has no future" and "Don't spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door." She started with little but made do with what she had, and her resourcefulness led to success.

I do not know if she would have gotten very far without the men in her life, though. Her first wealthy beau, Étienne Balsan, introduced her to high society as well as to the love of her life, Boy Capel. Boy financed her first shop; Chanel later paid him back in full. When he died she lost her greatest love, even though Boy was by no means ever faithful to her. In the 1920's she met the exiled Grand Duke Dmitri, the Tsar's cousin, who influenced her in the use of bead-work and embroidery in the style of Imperial Russia. None of her relationships ended in marriage, which Chanel later regarded as a her life's great sorrow. She had few close friends but many colorful acquaintances. Her generosity was legendary as was her temper. Her decades long struggle with Pierre Wertheimer for control of Chanel No. 5 was as intense as any love affair.

While the book is an amusing read, it is not without depth. There is much to learn from a life with as many ups and downs as Chanel's, about what to do as well as what not to do.  There is a great deal of lore about the wearing of pearls and the importance of maintaining an air of mystery yet Karbo also looks the dark side of Gabrielle's personality and marvels at her lack of happiness in the end.
Coco in 1920
Gabrielle Chanel photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1937

More photos from Vogue.

Architectural Digest recently reported on Coco Chanel's iconic style. To quote:
  • Rock crystal: Limpidly clear or dramatically veined, this luxurious stone showed up everywhere in Chanel’s private world, worked into table lamps to chandeliers to crystal balls, scattering her rooms with sequins of light.
  • Beige is beautiful: The neutral earth tone was the foundation color for Chanel’s interiors, though she spiked and deepened it with black, gold, brown, honey, and cinnabar, a color palette that recalled the fantastical and highly fashionable murals painted by her Spanish artist friend José María Sert. The fashion designer’s famous and much-copied rolled-arm sofa, a feature of the salon of her rue Cambon apartment, is upholstered in beige suede lightly outlined with brass nailheads and accented with blocky gold-leafed legs.
  • Gold, gold, and more gold: The walls of the salon at rue Cambon are stretched with dull gold fabric; gilding coats mirror and picture frames; glamorous gold boxes are displayed on a cocktail table; and a table has a golden base in the form of a sheaf of wheat.
  • Pairs of animals—lions, deer, camels, horses, birds, frogs, antelope—are in abundance at rue Cambon, on tabletops and atop bookshelves, and in many materials: ceramic, stone, and brass.
  • To ward off bad breath, Chanel often tucked a clove under her tongue after meals.
  • The designer’s preferred beverages were Sancerre wine, Stolichnaya vodka, and ice-cold Krug Champagne.
  • Hundreds of handsome leather-bound books fill rue Cambon’s surprisingly humble wood bookshelves, the volumes clad in shades that matched the decor and all glimmering with tooled gold accents.
  • Mirrors, mirrors everywhere: Chanel placed sheets of mirrored glass between the windows of the dining room and the salon and hung framed mirrors—including her beloved flower-bedecked Venetian examples—in niches and above mantels, expanding the spaces ad infinitum. In some spots, mirrors were even hung atop mirrors.
  • Chez Chanel, curtains were straight, perfectly tailored panels of fabric, with no furbelows, flounces, or folderol. Usually white or ivory and sometimes of taffeta.
  • At La Pausa, the seven-bedroom stucco villa she built in the South of France with architect Robert Streitz, Chanel furnished the airy, ivory-white rooms with sober, sexy ruggedness. Sixteenth-century French chairs were upholstered in leather; Spanish tables of the same period hugged walls; paintings from the School of Velázquez hung in the salon; and parched-wood doors, mantels, and panels added to the luxurious yet monastic air.
  • Table settings were strong and simple, honest textures being more important than color and ornament. A period photograph of Chanel presiding over a luncheon at La Pausa shows the naked wood Gothic dining table set with forthright tableware: dead-plain goblets, shapely but unornamented carafes, strong but streamlined silver flatware, and crisp place mats.
  • Chanel’s South of France menus were hearty and countrified. As a friend, Vogue fashion editor Bettina Ballard, once wrote, “The long dining room [at La Pausa] had a buffet at one end with hot Italian pasta, cold English roast beef, French dishes, a little bit of everything.” (Read more.)


Inside the Temple of Love

 From Art School Glasses. The Temple of Love was built in the gardens of Trianon in 1778 to commemorate the full consummation of the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The statue of Cupid carving a bow from the club of Hercules is symbolic of the success of the Austrian alliance, sealed by the nuptials of Louis and Antoinette. Via Vive la Reine. Share

Breakfast: Is It Necessary?

From The Atlantic:
In one study, 300 people ate or skipped breakfast and showed no subsequent difference in their weight gained or lost. Researcher Emily Dhurandhar said the findings suggest that breakfast "may be just another meal" and admitted to a history Breakfast-Police allegiance, conceding "I guess I won’t nag my husband to eat breakfast anymore."

Another small new study from the University of Bath found that people's cholesterol levels, resting metabolic rates, and overall blood-sugar levels were unchanged after six weeks of foregoing breakfast. Breakfast skippers ate less over the course of the day than did breakfast-eaters, though they also burned fewer calories. (Read more.)