Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: Titian, technocracy, tomato soup, and more.

The editors

October 31, 2022

Old masters: “All I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account… At ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things… and when I am one hundred and ten, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive.” This quote by Katsushika Hokusai, the artist of the famous wave print, opens up Richard Lacayo’s Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph, a new book telling the stories of six artists in their old age. Hokusai is not one of the six, but the idea that maturity can be visionary perfuses the book. Lacayo’s brief biographies of Titian, Goya, Monet, Matisse, Edward Hopper, and Louise Nevelson not only identify the influential work of each in their old age—think Monet’s Water Lilies or Goya’s Black Paintings—but also the psychological, social, and political circumstances of each artist.

Philosophizing cats and technocrats: Rishi Sunak will fail. But so will the Labour Party and the entire liberal, technocratic order. These are some of the main takeaways from a recent interview with English political philosopher and popular author John Gray. In the wake of the resignation of the UK’s forty-four-day prime minister Liz Truss and the ascent of former Goldman Sachs investment banker Sunak, Gray, an emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, discusses the future of technocracy, geopolitics, and more. Gray is the author of numerous books on politics, economics, and philosophy, including Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, and most recently, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life.

“Are we falling back into paganism?” with Rémi Brague: As Christianity falls aside in much of the West, is it secularism or ancient polytheism taking its place? A professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and chair of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Rémi Brague, will come to the University of Chicago on Tuesday, November 1, to discuss the question of paganism’s future and implications. Having authored a host of books on classical and medieval culture, religion, literature, and law, Brague has written extensively on paganism’s intersection with Christianity. He commented in a 2017 article for First Things that the Pauline revolution allowed pagan culture to be “not digested, but included” in Christianity. The discussion will take place at 12 p.m. in Gavin House, and lunch will be provided.

Van Gogh and tomato soup: Dichotomies are powerful rhetorical tools, as they force us to scrutinize between options. However, dichotomies often put forth a zero-sum worldview that does not reflect reality. In recent weeks, protesters have vandalized works by Van Gogh, Monet, and Vermeer in protest of the current oil crisis’s effect on climate change and costs of living. In front of a soup-covered Van Gogh in London’s National Gallery, one protester posed such a dichotomy: “What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food? More than justice?” Do we actually need to make a choice between life and art? Is art not a vital part of a progressive vision of the future? And by casting away anything that does not contribute to material sustenance, do we not exacerbate the obsession with consumption and money for which progressives critique capitalism?