An Animated Introduction to Voltaire: Enlightenment Philosopher of Pluralism & Tolerance

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz has the distinction of holding prominent places in both mathematics and philosophy. A contemporary of Isaac Newton, a rival, and Baruch Spinoza, an acquaintance, Leibniz will forever be associated with Enlightenment Rationalism. But thanks to French philosopher and writer Voltaire, he will also be associated with a strain of thought generally taken much less seriously: the philosophy of Optimism.

In the Theodicy, the only philosophical book he published in his lifetime, Leibniz attempts to reconcile divine providence, human freedom, and the nature of evil. He concludes, more or less, that the world is a perfect balance between the three. As “an absolutely perfect being,” God must have made the best possible world, he reasoned, and many conservative theologians then and now have agreed. But not Voltaire.

Drawing on a diverse body of genres—travel narrative, Bildungsroman, picaresque novel—the French writer's rollicking satirical novella Candide, or the Optimist presents us with a comically grotesque and hyperbolic world that is nonetheless much more like the violent, chaotic one we actually experience than like Leibniz’s idealization. The novel’s hero, a gullible naïf, traipses through Europe and the Americas with his mentor, Professor Pangloss, “the greatest philosopher of the Holy Roman Empire.” A broad caricature of Leibniz, Pangloss insists---as the two run into devastating earthquakes, war, torture, cannibalism, venereal disease, and yet more earthquakes---that they live in “the best of all possible worlds.”

The assertion comes to seem increasingly, outrageously absurd and willfully obtuse. In the end, the various characters come around to the idea that their grand metaphysical questions have no real purchase on human existence, and that they would do best to practice a kind of quietism, settling down to small farms to, as Candide says, “cultivate our garden.” The response does not enjoin us to passivity, but rather to the use of our abilities for purposeful work rather than contentious speculation or in the service of blind faith. From his start as a writer, Voltaire fiercely attacked “fanaticism, idolatry, superstition,” as Alain de Botton says in the School of Life introduction to Voltaire above, as the basis of people killing each other “to defend some bit of religious doctrine which they scarcely understand.”

Voltaire found the phenomenon of religious war “repellant,” and his age had seen its share of war. In the historical background of Candide’s composition were the Seven Years’ War, the global imperial conflict that claimed the lives of eight million, and the Thirty Years’ War: the 17th century religious conflict that spread violent death, famine, and disease all over the European continent. In addition to these appalling events, Voltaire and his contemporaries were left reeling from the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which historians estimate may have killed upwards of 100,000 people. This natural evil was wholly unrelated to any kind of human misbehavior---as Voltaire bitterly argued in his "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster"---and so made Optimistic philosophy and theology seem cruel and ridiculous.

The bawdy, bloody, and hilarious Candide has remained the most incisive literary representation of disillusionment in “best of all possible worlds” theodicy. It is by far Voltaire’s most popular work—a bestseller from the day that it appeared in 1759---and is still given to students to help them understand the philosophical Enlightenment, or what is often called, as de Botton says, “The Age of Voltaire.” With more clarity than even Jonathan Swift's satires, Voltaire helps us grasp and remember the major historical, religious, and philosophical conflicts of the time. A “master at popularizing difficult material,” Voltaire also used literary techniques to explain the ideas of contemporary thinkers like Locke and Newton.

The anecdote of the apple falling on Newton’s head, for example, “is due entirely to Voltaire,” who heard it from Newton’s niece and included it in his Letters Concerning the English Nation. This work, composed during his two-year stay in England, implicitly critiques the intolerance of French society—causing the book to be banned—and makes the case for some of the philosopher's most cherished values: pluralism, religious toleration, mutual respect, and free inquiry. We find these ideals all throughout the works of Enlightenment philosophers from all over the continent, but nowhere do we find them articulated with such forceful wit and vivid style as in the work of Voltaire.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Tuileries: The Coen Brothers’ Short Film About Steve Buscemi’s Very Bad Day in the Paris Metro

All around the world, each public transit system has its own rules. These come in both the official and unspoken varieties, the former basically consistent from place to place, and the latter usually reflecting the mores of the society each system serves. The acceptability of talking to one's fellow passengers, for instance, tends to vary, and in some countries even making eye contact counts as a no-no. You certainly won't try it in Paris after witnessing the consequences when Steve Buscemi breaks that rule in Tuileries, this short directed by the Coen brothers that first appeared in the anthology film Paris, je t'aime.

"Paris is known as the City of Lights," Buscemi's apparent tourist reads in his guidebook as he sits awaiting a train in the station from which the film takes its name. "A city of culture... of fine dining and magnificent architecture. Paris is a city for lovers: lovers of art, lovers of history, lovers of food, lovers of... love."

Though he seems to be having a somewhat less than lovely time there, including getting pelted by a passing child's spitballs, he endures. Not five seconds after reading about the no-eye-contact custom on Paris' "reasonably clean" subway (a laugh line for any Parisian) does he look fatefully up, catching the eye of a girl across the tracks and sending her boyfriend into a jealous rage.

Foreigners have long felt as intimidated by Paris as they've admired it, a mixture of emotions the Coen Brothers play on without leaving the Tuileries platform, as does Alexander Payne in the altogether different experience of the American alone in the City of Lights he essays at the end of Paris, je t'aime. In the decade since the movie came out, we've seen a few other city-themed anthology films, including New YorkI Love YouRio, Eu Te Amo, and the unrelated Tokyo!, albeit none with a second contribution by the Coen brothers or a second appearance by Buscemi — whose character may have yet to recover from from his trip to Paris anyway.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Japanese Woodworking Masters Create Elegant & Elaborate Geometric Patterns with Wood

A friend recently told me he'd had his hair cut with a pair of $10,000 scissors, reputedly the highest-quality in the world. He hardly needed to add that his barber ordered them from Japan, the land where those truly dedicated to their craft spare no expense of money, time, or energy to take each small step closer to perfection. The rigorous traditions behind that extend far back into history, especially in the making of paperswords, and, as you can see in the video above, marquetry, patterned veneers which use wood — and only wood — to create elegant and elaborate geometric patterns to apply to the surfaces of all sorts of objects: artistic, functional, and anywhere in between.

In 2012 and 2013, Gucci Japan went around filming the world of masters of traditional arts and crafts all around the country and assembling them into the video series "Hand," some of which we featured here last year.

Its four-minute short on marquetry, as practiced by Noboru Honma of Hakone, has especially dazzled its viewers by revealing how almost unreal-looking aesthetic precision can result from one man's work with nothing more than saws, sanders, and woods of various natural colors. These woods, which include cherry, dogwood, ash, mulberry, and camphor, can make about 60 different canonical patterns combinable in an infinitude of ways.

You can learn more about traditional Japanese marquetry, or yosegi-zaiku, in the Technigeek video above. It pays a visit to another woodshop, not far from Honma's in the neighboring city of Odawara. (Both Odawara and Hakone are located in Kanagawa Prefecture, an area known for its woods.) Kiyotaki Tsuyuki, the craftsman in charge, works with a group of younger yosegi practitioners with the aim of pushing the form's boundaries and keeping it relevant to the times. "Yosegi is about beauty, the detail in the pattern, and the colors," he says. "It's about design, using it in your daily life, or enjoying it as art. If it's fun to look at and easy to use on any occasion, you're more likely to love it and enjoy being around it." Especially if you understand the work — and in some sense, centuries of work — that went into it.

via Twisted Sifter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


The Tarot Card Deck Designed by Salvador Dalí


The Tarot has long been a tool of charlatans. But it has also long been embraced by brilliant, unconventional thinkers, many of whom themselves have a touch of the charlatan about them (and who would just as likely admit it with a smile). William Butler Yeats was a fan, as is visionary Chilean filmmaker, artist, writer, and psychonaut Alejandro Jodorowsky, who has recorded his own Youtube series explaining his take on this classic mode of divination. With its archetypal symbolism, the Tarot’s appeal to artists should be obvious. Most of them, like Jodorowsky, find far more interesting uses for it than fortune-telling. “You must not talk about the future,” Jodorowsky tells us in his series, “the future is a con. The tarot is a language that talks about the present.”

What might another visionary artist, Salvador Dalí, think of Jodorowsky’s Tarot interpretations? We’ll never know, but I suspect he would find them enchanting. Not only do the two seem like kindred spirits, but Dalí devoted some part of his life to the Tarot, designing his own deck in the 70s.

Initially, the project arrived as a commission from producer Albert Broccoli for the James Bond film Live and Let Die. “Likely inspired by his wife Gala, who nurtured his interest in mysticism,” writes Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, “Dalí eagerly got to work, and continued the project of his own accord when the contractual deal fell through.”

It was just around this time that the Tarot saw a massive resurgence in popularity. The occult interests of the 60s counterculture were mainstreamed in the 70s thanks to books like Stuart Kaplan’s Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling. But while Dalí had channeled the vivid psychedelia of the age in an earlier illustration project, 1969's Alice and Wonderland, his Tarot deck, writes Lisa Rainwater at Galo magazine, “actually shows reserve. Yes, reserve—as if his reverence for the tarot nearly humbles him.” His knack for “fanatical self-promotion” does get the better of him eventually: he chooses his own face to represent the Magician (above).

Overall, the deck combines the eclectic origins of occult practices with Dalí's own unmistakable sensibility. Dalí's Tarot is “a pastiche of old-world art, surrealism, kitsch, Christian iconography and Greek and Roman sculpture. Many of his recurring motifs such as the rose, the fly and the bull’s head are found throughout the deck.” First published in a limited edition in 1984—and reissued since in editions by TASCHEN and in book form by other publishers—the deck included an introductory booklet that reads, in Spanish, English, and French:

The Wizard (Arcanum I), Salvador Dalí, has transformed with his exceptional art and his marvelous talent the 78 golden plates of ‘The fabulous book of Thot’ into as many artistic marvels, each one of them duly signed by the hand of this unmatchable, internally famous painter … such an extraordinary artistic creation does not detract, in any way, from the Tarot’s close symbolism. On the contrary, it enhances with its captivating beauty, the Tarot’s esoteric and plastic meaning.

See a preview video of the full Dalí deck above, purchase a limited edition set here, or a much more affordable version here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch David Bowie & Marianne Faithfull Rehearse and Sing Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” (1973)

It was October 1973 and three months earlier David Bowie had stood before his fans at the Hammersmith Odeon and announced--to the surprise of his band--that he was effectively ending Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His alter-ego was done, and he had to break up the band.

But there would be one final swan song, a live special featuring Bowie, set in a futuristic cabaret, to be called The 1980 Floor Show (a pun on Orwell’s 1984, which the singer was trying to adapt into a concept album, and which would later morph into Diamond Dogs). The location would be the famous London nightclub the Marquee, but the show would be shot for American television and a late-night rock and pop variety show called The Midnight Special, airing on NBC Friday nights after Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show.

British fans who couldn’t make the filming were annoyed, and to this day, the full broadcast has not been shown in the UK, and is still not officially available.

Invitation only, the audience comprised members of the David Bowie fan club, the rock press, musicians, and other lucky people. This would turn out to be the very last time that Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder would play with Bowie as the Spiders. Joining the band was pianist Mike Garson, who had been a part of the Ziggy tour and the recently released Aladdin Sane, and whose sound is unmistakable here. Bowie also has three black back-up singers, a first sign of the sounds he would explore in Young Americans. And he invited The Troggs to play their hit, “Wild Thing.”

Unlike a concert run-through, the three days of filming featured each number rehearsed separately and filmed multiple times. For one thing, it allowed Bowie the chance to change costumes for each song, wearing some of the most outlandish outfits of his Ziggy era, designed by Freddie Burretti.

By 1973, Marianne Faithfull had gone from Mick Jagger’s girlfriend and pop chanteuse to a heroin addict, but Bowie’s invitation to join him helped her on her road to recovery. She sang “As Tears Go By” solo for the show wearing an angelic white dress and then “20th Century Blues” dressed in a red dress, wearing a towering purple feather hat and backed by male dancers.

For the finale, Bowie joined her onstage. (You can watch their ultimate performance here.) Dressed as decadent nun with a fully exposed back, Faithfull stood next to Bowie, dressed as “the Angel of Death” according to him, and had a go at the 1965 Sonny and Cher song “I Got You Babe.” The two really hadn’t rehearsed the song until that day. Faithfull’s voice was already heading towards the low, Nico-esque tones she’d develop later in the decade. The video contains two full rehearsals of the song, a non-”Wild Thing” number from the Troggs, and once again Bowie with “Space Oddity” and “I Can’t Explain.”

Also on the tape are introductions from one Amanda Lear, a velvet-voiced blonde who had a very intriguing career--Salvador Dali protege, Rolling Stone groupie, David Bowie lover, Italo-disco star, nude model, possible transsexual. So yes, a perfect host for what was at that time both a high-water mark for glam rock and a visit to the future.

As we approach the one year anniversary of David Bowie's death, which seemed to send the Grim Reaper on a killing spree, there's plenty of the Starman's career to discover and re-discover...and to be released.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Carrie Fisher’s Long Career as a Writer, Screenwriter, and Hollywood Fixer: “I’m a Writer” First and Foremost

By now the news of Carrie Fisher’s death has hit hard all over the world. It’s true that for an entire generation of people, her breakout role at 19 as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy has made her a sci-fi icon and a childhood crush—both roles she longed to escape. Tribute after tribute on social media and elsewhere reminded us almost immediately after Tuesday’s announcement that her life and work have had a much wider impact, even on people who have never even seen a Star Wars film.

Fisher’s unabashedly candid public conversations about her personal struggles with substance abuse and bipolar disorder made her a powerful advocate for others who felt ashamed to talk about these too-often-taboo subjects and often too ashamed to seek help. Much like George Michael, another celebrity mourned by millions this holiday season, Fisher refused to be shamed into silence or to capitulate to bullies and bigots. Instead she practically bloomed with earthy charm and wit as she co-opted tabloid character assassination and turned it into her own form of autobiographical art and therapeutic outreach.

Her return to the rebooted Star Wars franchise last year as the wise, aging General Leia Organa elevated the conversation about older women in Hollywood, after her response to some vicious comments about her looks made her haters look small, mean, and stunted. Fisher's talent for Oscar Wilde-worthy aphorisms that sliced right through layers of insufferable bullshit also led to one of her most successful career stints, as a writer, script doctor, and Hollywood fixer during a “long, very lucrative episode,” as she told Newsweek in a 2008 interview. (In true Carrie Fisher fashion, she brought these life experiences to an Emmy-nominated guest turn on an episode of 30 Rock as her funniest character, Rosemary Howard.)

It’s rumored that Fisher revised her lines in George Lucas’ notoriously wordy Star Wars scripts. (Although one image of Empire Strikes Back edits purported to be in her hand actually contains revisions by the film’s director Irvin Kershner.) But her formal screenwriting career began in 1990, when she adapted her bestselling 1987 autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, into the screenplay for a Meryl Streep-starring film. The project led to rewriting work on high-profile comedies throughout the next decade. In addition to a credit for one of those unwieldy Lucas scripts for The Phantom Menace in 1999, Fisher helped rework films like Hook, Sister Act, Made in America, So I Married an Axe Murderer, The Wedding Singer, and several more.

Always a fiercely outspoken critic of the way Hollywood treats women, Fisher fought to make female characters more three-dimensional. In a WebMD interview, she was asked, “What does it take to heal bad dialogue?” Her pithy answer: “Make the women smarter and the love scenes better.” As a peacemaker for troubled productions, however, she often advised women actors to use diplomacy---with her own spin on the concept. When Whoopi Goldberg feuded with Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, for example, Fisher advised, “Send Jeffrey a hatchet and say, ‘Please bury this on both our behalfs.’” Goldberg thought it over, and “the next day Katzenberg received his hatchet. Within a few days a token of Katzenberg’s respect arrived at her front door: two enormous brass balls.”

Stories like this one, and many more uproarious and often personally self-destructive episodes, formed the basis for Fisher’s autobiographical bestsellers, including her memoir Wishful Drinking, which also became a one-woman Broadway show, then an HBO special (see an excerpt at the top). She has always won over critics as an actress, and she made a wry kind of peace with her eternal fame as Princess Leia, imbuing the character with renewed gravitas and sensitivity in the year before her death. But she did not see herself principally as an actress. “I’m a writer,” she told WebMD. Asked whom she’d choose to share “confined quarters” with from history, she answered---with her winning combination of disarming sincerity and winking self-awareness---“Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was manic-depressive, too.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch a Young Carrie Fisher (RIP) Audition for Star Wars (1975)

Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia in Star Wars, has died. She was only 60 years old.

Last week, she suffered a massive heart attack on a flight from London to LA. News reports initially indicated that her condition was improving. But alas fate then moved things in another direction.

Above, you can watch a young Carrie Fisher--only 19 years old--audition for the part that made her famous. (On YouTube, see other audition footage featuring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Kurt Russell.) Last month, while promoting her brand new memoir The Princess Diarist, Fisher talked with NPR's Terry Gross about the challenge of making that first Star Wars film. "I think I sort of felt isolated. I didn't really have anyone. I didn't confide in men. [The cast and filmmakers were all men.] I didn't confide in anyone then." "I was so insecure." But she kept it well hidden. Only poise and confidence are on display here.

Note: You can download The Princess Diarist as a free audiobook from if you take part in their no-strings-attached free trial program. Get more details on that here.

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