- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Da Vinci’s regrets

“On his deathbed, they say, Leonardo da Vinci regretted that he had left so much unfinished. Leonardo had so many ideas; he was so ahead of his time. His notebooks were crammed with inventions: new kinds of clocks, a double-hulled ship, flying machines, military tanks, an odometer, the parachute, and a machine gun, to name just a few. If you wanted a new high-tech weapon, a gigantic bronze statue, or a method for moving a river, Leonardo could devise something that just might work.

“But Leonardo rarely completed any of the great projects that he sketched in his notebooks. His groundbreaking research in human anatomy resulted in no publications - at least not in his lifetime. Not only did Leonardo fail to realize his potential as an engineer and a scientist, but he also spent his career hounded by creditors to whom he owed paintings and sculptures for which he had accepted payment but - for some reason - could not deliver, even when his deadline was extended by years.

“His surviving paintings amount to no more than 20, and five or six, including the ‘Mona Lisa,’ were still in his possession when he died. Apparently, he was still tinkering with them.

“Nowadays, Leonardo might have been hired by a top research university, but it seems likely that he would have been denied tenure. He had lots of notes, but relatively little to put in his portfolio.”

- W.A. Pannapacker, writing on “How to Procrastinate Like Leonardo da Vinci,” in the Feb. 20 issue of the Chronicle Review

Moral sentiments

“Many social conditions have been identified as part of the change, but behind most of them, I suggest, is a massive change in our moral sentiments: notably, a rise in the currency of [politicized] compassion.

“This is a sentiment so much part of the air we breathe that it does not even have a name of its own. I began to be fully aware of it only in 2002, the year in which Teresa May, then chairman of the Conservative Party, electrified politics by suggesting at the party conference that many people regarded the Conservatives as ‘the Nasty Party.’

“This sentiment is not, of course, the niceness and decency that we rightly admire when individuals respond helpfully to others. It is a [politicized] virtue, which means that it is focused not on real individuals, but on some current image of a whole category of people.

“Correspondingly, it invokes hostility towards those believed to have caused the pain and misery of others. Public discussion thus turns into melodrama. A very powerful version of this doctrinal compassion maps the distinction of oppressor and oppressed on to almost any social or international situation, and this mapping automatically directs our sympathies. Further, our sympathy for the oppressed is a demonstration to ourselves of our own benevolence.”

- Kenneth Minogue, writing on “To Hell With Niceness,” in the March issue of Standpoint Online

Shining Oscar

“Undoubtedly, the biggest triumph for Oscarness this year was Sean Penn’s Best Actor win for his portrayal of Harvey Milk. It’s part political statement, part Hollywood politics, and part bias toward the self-important and showy. I thought Milk was a fine film, especially the first hour, and Penn was striking in the lead role, but he never feels when he can Emote, never talks when he can Speechify, never acts when he can Act.

“That, along with his politics - ostentatiously lefty, but safer (and better looking) than Michael Moore - makes him perfect for Oscar night, especially when the other option is picking a has-been freakshow in a brilliant but little-seen, and frankly sort of odd, comeback role. It’s not just that Mickey Rourke deserved an Oscar tonight, though he did. It’s that the Oscars have already forsaken any opportunity to be about pure artistic merit, and because the gilded self-congratulation of Oscarness, along with the Oscar-gaming it encourages, is producing diminishing returns both at the Nielsens and at the box-office, they badly need another angle.”

- Peter Suderman, writing on “The Triumph of Oscarness” on Feb. 23 at the American Scene

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