Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1996 Issue

In Short - Humanities & The Arts

By Dale Keiger
Sales are brisk for this grateful guitarist

Peabody alumnus Sanjay Mishra's second recording of guitar compositions is selling much better than the first. Which is not to suggest the first is musically unworthy. But the second, titled Blue Incantation, has a notable guest star--the late founder of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia.

Mishra, a 1985 Peabody grad, has watched sales of Blue Incantation soar as word of Garcia's participation spreads through the Deadhead community. The recently deceased guitarist played on three cuts.

Blue Incantation is a deft blending of European and Indian musical traditions, with guitars, flute, Indian percussion, and voice. Mishra grew up in India, where he played in a rock 'n' roll band that performed several Grateful Dead songs. He came to the United States in 1977 to study guitar, ending up at Peabody as a student of Manuel Barrueco's.

He recorded some of his compositions in 1993 and put out a compact disc titled The Crossing. The British magazine Classical Guitar called it "an album of brilliance and originality," but the American music press largely ignored it and few people bought it.

In 1994, Mishra was still playing his music in the Washington, D.C., area, and working for Greenpeace as director of U.S. public relations. "Then one day Mr. Garcia walked into the office," he says.

The Dead's concert tour had arrived in Washington, and Garcia's wife, Deborah Koons Garcia, was doing environmental research and needed assistance from Greenpeace. Mishra chatted with Garcia and gave him a copy of The Crossing. He recalls, "I thought, 'Wow, I just met Jerry Garcia.' Then I put it out of my mind."

Two days later, when he called Deborah Garcia back with some information, her husband took the phone: "He said, 'Oh man, I want to talk to you. You're a great guitarist. What can I do for you? Do you have any projects?'" Mishra mentioned that he was planning a new recording. "Good," Garcia said. "I'll play on it."

So in late 1994, Mishra found himself at the Dead's Club Front recording studios in California, playing guitar with Jerry Garcia. The two musicians worked on three tracks and kept in touch as Mishra assembled the recording in early '95. "In June I gave him a final version of the CD," Mishra recalls. "He said, 'When are you going to record again? I want to be on it.' I said, 'Jerry, I'm indebted to you for this.' He said, 'No you're not. It'll pay the rent.'" Mishra was about to fax a new recording schedule to Garcia last July when he heard that the guitarist had died.

Blue Incantation has received all the critical attention that The Crossing did not. Billboard called it "uncommonly beautiful." Stereo Review praised it as "one of the year's best," and Spin, perhaps underestimating the number of Deadheads who bought, named it one of the "10 best albums you didn't hear in '95."

The disc is on Mishra's own label, RainDog Records. He says he has heard from a number of major record companies that want to buy the rights to the recording, but for now he's content to distribute it himself and retain full artistic control. "Jerry told me never to sign anything that lasts longer than six months," he says.
--Dale Keiger

Rescuing the Novel

Aesthetics, as a formal branch of philosophy that deals with issues of beauty and taste, originated in 18th-century England. Orthodox discourse on its development usually centers on Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury, and on the concepts of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Ronald Paulson argues in a new book that the orthodoxy ignores an important and fascinating aspect of aesthetics' development: William Hogarth's exploration of a third concept--the Novel.

Paulson should know. The William D. and Robin Mayer Professor of English and art history is author of a monumental three-volume biography of the 18th-century English painter and engraver. In his latest book, The Beautiful, Novel and Strange: Aesthetics and Heterodoxy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), Paulson attempts to fill what he refers to as a "lacuna" in the study of aesthetics. In his view, most scholarship about the development of aesthetics since the late 18th century has ignored the most interesting British artists, men like Hogarth, Johan Zoffany, George Stubbs, and Thomas Gainsborough.

Aesthetics developed as a heterodoxy to orthodox religion in England. Cooper, whom historians refer to as Shaftesbury, believed that anyone who adhered to conventional religious practice, which he dismissed as "priestcraft," could not simultaneously be virtuous. He argued that though priestcraft kept the masses in order, it relied on a system of rewards and punishments--be good and go to heaven, be bad and go to hell--that inherently compromised one's virtue. A truly virtuous person, in the earl's view, would be disinterested--virtuous for the sheer sake of virtue, not because there was something to be gained (or lost) in the afterlife.

As a substitute (for the elite, not for the masses), Shaftesbury proposed in 1711 what Paulson calls an "antitheology"--the contemplation and appreciation of beauty, specifically the Beautiful, a Platonic ideal of artistic form. "Aesthetics is entirely a replacement for religion," says Paulson. "The artist becomes a kind of surrogate God, and the closest we can get to God is the artist who produces a simulacrum." Shaftesbury established what came to be regarded as the standard aesthetic tradition.

Forty-six years later, Edmund Burke, the political essayist and statesman, championed another aesthetic ideal, the Sublime. Where Shaftesbury's Beautiful concerned the external qualities of a concrete artistic object, the Sublime referred to the internal sense of awe one feels when in the grips of an overwhelming experience. If the Beautiful was a babbling brook that one could encompass with the mind and speak of as pretty, the Sublime was a raging torrent that could not be encompassed or controlled.

Between these two extremes, Paulson says, there arose in the early 1750s a third ideal: the Novel. Its champion was the poet and essayist Joseph Addison, whose tripartite aesthetics, embracing all three ideals, ran counter to Shaftesbury's monolithic formulation. Addison published a periodical, The Spectator, in which he printed, among other things, a series of essays on "the pleasures of the imagination."

Shaftesbury's system pretty much allowed only for the Beautiful--all else was ugly or deformed. By contrast, Paulson says, Addison wanted to "open space for the stigmatized or marginalized areas of enjoyment." His appreciation of the Novel assigned value to "surprise," "the pursuit of knowledge," "curiosity," and "variety." He wanted to go out into the world and be open to what he found on the street. He created a character in his magazine, Mr. Spectator, who wandered about and reported on the new and strange things he encountered.

From Addison's ideas grew a counter-tradition--counter to Shaftesbury's ideas--with Hogarth as its principal exponent. If Shaftesbury's ideal was a classical Greek sculpture that would inspire an idealized veneration, says Paulson, Hogarth's counter-traditional view was: Why contemplate a statue when you can contemplate a real live woman? While the painters of the Royal Academy promoted an elevated, heroicized style of history painting as the ideal for art, Hogarth rendered the earthy life of 18th-century London, with its whores, peddlers, and common folk. Some of his engravings, like the series A Harlot's Progress, were scandalously blasphemous, subverting the Holy Trinity and, in Paulson's view, savagely satirizing England's priestly establishment.

Hogarth and Addison, with their robust notions of what constituted aesthetic ideals, exerted significant influence over writers such as Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, Paulson says. These and others pursued the ideal of the Novel in their writings, and in so doing created the literary form that became known as... the novel.

In his book, Paulson asserts that this whole counter-discourse of Addison, Hogarth et al has been largely ignored because in the late 1700s the ideal of the Sublime won out. Much of the point of his book, Paulson says, is to rescue this counter-discourse.

For though the Sublime emerged as the orthodox ideal of its time, Paulson says, "in another sense, the novel [and by implication the Novel] won out. By the end of the century, that's the master's genre."

Biblical take(s) on environmentalism

The Bible opens with God's command that men and women "...fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth." (Genesis 1:28) Some people will tell you that this is where things started to go wrong for the environment, that this biblical grant of dominion led to the extinction of species, the pollution of the ecosystem, and the plundering of natural resources. Kyle McCarter says it's not that simple.

McCarter, professor and chairman of Near Eastern Studies, says, "Environmental issues are things that people get emotional about, with a sort of righteous anger. Often fingers are pointed at the biblical story. What I would say is, the fingers ought to be pointed at the subsequent interpretations. What the Bible says is not always identical to what later traditions did with it. It may not be too great an oversimplification to say that both sides in the modern debate about the environment have roots in the Bible and its early interpretation."

He notes that there are two creation stories in Genesis. The first is quoted above and recounts the creation of the earth, the creatures that live upon it, and humankind. The second, comprising the second chapter of Genesis, describes the creation of Adam. Scholars believe that the first--the predominant one--reflects the interests of the Jewish priesthood of the 6th century B.C.E., when it was written. Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and the Jews were in exile. The priests' main concern was not man's relationship to the earth, but how to conduct their religion under trying circumstances; what "dominion" meant regarding the ecosystem was not much on their minds. Says McCarter, "The first chapter of Genesis is written as a prologue that explains their view of the world. It reflects the structure of the religion they were responsible for officiating over."

The idea of "dominion" as the right to use nature emerged in later interpretations by people with much different concerns, McCarter says. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that humanity should rule nature--not to change it, but to use it for humanity's needs. This dominion, Aquinas added, requires hard labor because of Adam's sin. As time passed and other interpretations were offered, McCarter says, Aquinas's idea evolved into a divinely granted right to authority over all the earth.

Though the second creation story comes later in Genesis, McCarter says it was actually written before the first one, probably during the monarchy of Judah (roughly 900-600 B.C.E.). In this story, God creates man ('adam) from the soil ('adamah). Adam's purpose is to preserve the garden: "The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it" (Genesis 2:15). In contrast to the "dominion" story of the first chapter, says McCarter, this second story reflects the thinking of an agricultural society working its own land, and is more concerned with the interdependence of man and nature.

"The garden is there and man was put there to tend it," he says. "This idea was later elaborated into the notion of stewardship."

Environmentalists often embrace Native American traditions of interdependence with the earth as a better approach to conservation and stewardship, and McCarter acknowledges that in some respects, these traditions are more environmentally friendly. But he notes that dominion also appears in Native American mythology.

For example, there are Cheyenne stories in which the buffalo challenge humans to a race to prove their superiority. In the stories, the humans and their animal allies (the dog, hawk, and eagle) win the race, and thus gain the right to use the buffalo and their allies (the elk, antelope, and deer) for food, shelter, and clothing. That is, they gain dominion over the part of nature that Cheyenne culture needed to survive. "It's an entitlement to hunt and kill the buffalo," McCarter observes, then adds, "But they were careful not to overhunt the land."

McCarter, who holds the William Foxwell Albright professorship, discussed these topics in a multidisciplinary undergraduate course, "Logic of Environmentalism."

Send EMail to Johns Hopkins Magazine

Send EMail to Dale Keiger

Return to table of contents.