John Cleese & Jonathan Miller Turn Profs Talking About Wittgenstein Into a Classic Comedy Routine (1977)

Everyone interested in philosophy must occasionally face the question of how, exactly, to define philosophy itself. You can always label as philosophy whatever philosophers do — but what, exactly, do philosophers do? Here the English comedians John Cleese of Monty Python and Jonathan Miller of Beyond the Fringe offer an interpretation of the life of modern philosophers in the form of a five-minute sketch set in “a senior common room somewhere in Oxford (or Cambridge).”

There, Cleese and Miller’s philosophers have a wide-ranging talk about Ludwig Wittgenstein, senses of the word “yes,” whether an “unfetched slab” can be said to exist, and the very role of the philosopher in this “heterogeneous, confusing, and confused jumble of political, social, and economic relations we call society.” They come to the tentative conclusion that, just as others drive buses or chop down trees, philosophers “play language games” — or perhaps “games at language” — “in order to find out what game it is that we are playing.”

As intentionally ridiculous as that explanation may sound, it wouldn’t come across as especially outlandish in many philosophy-department common rooms today. Cleese and Miller, no strangers to playing their own kinds of language games, get laughs not so much from mocking the nonsensical complexities of philosophy — and indeed, most of their lines make perfect sense on one level or another — as they do from so vividly expressing the distinctive manner of the “Oxbridge Philosopher” characters they portray. It has everything to do with manner, both verbal and physical, taken to as absurd an extreme as their lines of thinking.

Cleese and Miller’s version of the Oxbridge Philosopher sketch here comes from the 1977 Amnesty International benefit show and television special An Evening Without Sir Bernard Miles (also known as The Mermaid Frolics), but others exist. It goes at least as far back as Beyond the Fringe’s days pioneering their hugely influential brand of British satire on the stage in the 1960s; their earlier performance just above features Miller and fellow troupe member Alan Bennett. It can still make us laugh today, but we might well wonder whether anyone in the history of humanity has ever really sounded like this — in which case, we should watch footage of real-life Oxford philosophers back in those days and judge for ourselves.

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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 Entire History of Japan in 9 Quirky Minutes

If you peruse our collection of Free Online History Courses, you’ll find plenty of enriching history courses from top-notch universities, all presented in a fairly conventional style. And certainly nothing like the short history lesson you’ll find above. Created by American musician and video blogger Bill Wurtz, this “History of Japan” walks idiosyncratically through 40,000 years of history in 9 minutes, covering the rise of technology and religion, the influence of China on Japan’s language and brand of buddhism, the rise of the samurai, the country’s vexed relationship with the West, the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and more. Released in February, the video has already clocked more than 17 million views on YouTube–pretty good considering that Wurtz created the video as “a prototype to see if I could do a long video in the first place.” In a recent Q & A, Wurtz suggested that he may well try to revive another project he’s been working on–a History of the United States. Stay tuned for that.

You can read a script for the History of Japan video here.

Note: The Great Courses is now offering a 30-Day Free Trial, giving you access to a video library of great coursesIf you’re not familiar with them, The Great Courses travels across the US, recording great professors lecturing on topics that will appeal to any lifelong learner. If you’re interested in streaming their courses online–whenever you want and however much you want–get details on their a 30-Day Free Trial here.

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Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 18

Growing up, many of us assume that every adult can, by definition, give us life advice. When we grow up a little more, we realize that, like everything else, it isn’t quite that simple: though older people do, on the whole, seem eager and sometimes even desperate to dole out words of wisdom, whether those words apply in our own cases, or even make sense, falls to us to determine. And so we’d do better not to ask our elders to give us advice, but to give their younger selves advice: what, we might ask, do you wish you’d known before, say at the age of eighteen? Writer, comedian, and all-around man of the page and screen Stephen Fry answers in the clip above.

“The worst thing you can ever do in life is set yourself goals,” Fry says. “Two things happen: one is you don’t meet your goals so you call yourself a failure. Secondly, you meet your goal and go, ‘Well, I’m here, now what? I’m not happy I’ve got this car, this job, I’m living in this address which I always thought was the place I wanted to be.’ Because you’re going for something outside yourself, and that’s no good.” The observation that you can’t derive lasting satisfaction from external circumstances may date back at least to the Stoics, who recommend focusing only on your own actions and reactions, but it bears repeating more often than ever in the external circumstance-rich 21st century.

But that doesn’t mean that you can simply turn inward: “Let’s forget what successful people have in common. If there’s a thing that unsuccessful people have in common, it’s that they talk about themselves all the time. ‘I need to do this, I need’ — their first two words are usually ‘I need.’ That’s why nobody likes them, and that’s why they’ll never get where they want to be.” But “if you use your eyes to look out, not to be looked into, then you connect, then you’re interesting, then people want to be around you. It’s about the warmth and the charm you can radiate that is real because of your positive interest in others.”

I myself have thought about these words of Fry’s often since first watching this interview with him half a decade ago. Clearly these pieces of advice to his eighteen-year-old self have wider applicability, and he has much more to offer besides: Spend a few extra moments and a few extra words connecting with others. Efface yourself. Deliberately pursue experiences different from the ones you “know you like.” Travel and read. Have heroes and mentors, and keep learning from them. Sharing the benefits of life is the benefit of life. Understand the dual pull of being a part of and apart from the “tribe.” Test things out instead of taking them on trust. Never read the comments. Kindness counts more than virtue, justice, truth, or anything else.

And, we might add, make sure to ask the right questions when seeking advice — but make even more sure to ask the right people.

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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 Life & Times of Donald J. Trump: A Feature Film Set to Pink Floyd’s The Wall

On Sunday night, Roger Waters made his feelings for Donald Trump plenty clear before a crowd of 80,000 at Desert Trip (aka Oldchella). A giant pig, emblazoned with the words “Divided We Fall,” hovered over the concertgoers. The words “Trump is a Pig” flashed on a screen a football field-wide. As did some pretty unflattering images (my pix) of the divisive candidate. You can watch the scene play out below.

When I got home from the show, somewhere around 2 am, the video above was waiting in my inbox. “Here’s Donald Trump’s The Wall, a brand new feature film covering the life and times of Donald J. Trump set to the album The Wall by Pink Floyd.” I took it as a sign from the political gods.

If you’re a regular OC reader, you know that mashup artists regularly turn to Pink Floyd for their soundtracks. Remember Dark Side of the Rainbow, where Pink Floyd scores The Wizard of Oz?  This time around, the 1979 concept album The Wall provides the musical accompaniment. It’s not a random pick, of course, seeing that Donald has promised to wall off America from the rest of the world.

To see a list of the songs that make up the soundtrack, click here.

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Hear Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies & Ballets in a Complete, 32-Hour, Chronological Playlist

Those who know the work of Igor Stravinsky will be familiar with the reception the Russian composer’s The Rite of Spring received during its first performance in Paris in 1913. The typical description for what happened is that the ballet caused a “riot,” though given our usual associations with that word, it hardly seems like the appropriate term. As The Telegraph’s Ivan Hewett notes, the responses, though bemused and irate, were genteel by most standards of civil unrest. But there was violence and the threat of violence.

According to a member of the orchestra, “many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was ignominiously pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theatre.” What could cause such a scandal? Hearing the piece, above, it’s perhaps not obvious why “people started to whisper and joke almost immediately.” Both Stravinsky and Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev sought to provoke the audience, but both were taken aback by the vehemence of the reactions. As audience members began to shout, “I left the hall in a rage,” Stravinsky later wrote. “I have never again been that angry.”

Of course, the music alone, without Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, only gives us half the story. Onstage, writes Hewitt, “there’s no sign that any of the creatures in the Rite of Spring has a soul, and there’s certainly no sense of a recognizable human culture. The dancers are like automata.” And yet, Stravinsky seems to have intended his music to alienate listeners as well: “there are simply no regions for soul-searching,” he said, “in The Rite of Spring.” It’s a comment that succinctly sums up the composer’s iconoclasm and defiance of sacred musical norms.

Stravinsky’s first ballet, 1910’s The Firebird, followed Debussy in recuperating the so-called “Devil’s Interval,” a tonal figure avoided for hundreds of years in religious music for its sinister sound. But The Firebird’s exotic beauty charmed audiences, as did his next ballet Petrushka.  And despite the Rite of Spring controversy, many of Stravinsky’s symphonies are quite traditional next to the avant-gardism of his peers. His tendencies of “regression and restauration,” writes classical site CMUSE, “an amalgam of the archaic and the modern,” caused Theodor Adorno to describe Stravinsky as schizophrenic in Philosophy of Modern Music.

Unlike his modernist rival Arnold Schoenberg, Stravinsky is “in the same category as T.S. Eliot, as both were well-versed in literary/musical tradition and well aware of the current avant-garde movements, but maintained quite a conservative approach to novelty.” Stravinsky’s conservative modernism had a profound effect on another form of 20th century music that looked both backward and forward: jazz. Artists like Charlie Parker paid tribute to him, and the composer very much appreciated it. “This cat,” said Parker, “he’s kind of cool, you know.”

In the chronological playlist above from Ulysses Classical, hear the early symphonies and sonatas that inspired Diaghilev to hire him as the Ballets Russes first composer, and many of the ballets that enraged the Parisian elite, delighted Charlie Parker, and repelled Adorno. And find out why, as CMUSE argues, Stravinsky may be “the greatest composer of the 20th century.”

The playlist runs 32 hours. If you need Spotify’s software, download it here.

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

Aleister Crowley Reads Occult Poetry in the Only Known Recordings of His Voice (1920)


Image by Jules Jacot Guillarmod, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, we brought you a rather strange story about the rivalry between poet William Butler Yeats and magician Aleister Crowley. Theirs was a feud over the practices of occult society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; but it was also—at least for Crowley—over poetry. Crowley envied Yeats’ literary skill; Yeats could not say the same about Crowley. But while he did not necessarily respect his enemy, Yeats feared him, as did nearly everyone else. As Yeats’ biographer wrote a few months after Crowley’s death in 1947, “in the old days men and women lived in terror of his evil eye.”

The press called Crowley “the wickedest man in the world,” a reputation he did more than enough to cultivate, identifying himself as the Anti-Christ and dubbing himself “The Beast 666.” (Crowley may have inspired the “rough beast” of Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”) Crowley did not achieve the literary recognition he desired, but he continued to write prolifically after Yeats and others ejected him from the Golden Dawn in 1900: poetry, fiction, criticism, and manuals of sex magic, ritual, and symbolism—some penned during famed mountaineering expeditions.

Throughout his life Crowley was variously a mountaineer, chess prodigy, scholar, painter, yogi, and founder of a religion he called Thelema. He was also a heroin addict and by many accounts an extremely abusive cult leader. However one comes down on Crowley’s legacy, his influence on the occult and the counterculture is undeniable. To delve into the history of either is to meet him, the mysterious, bizarre, bald figure whose theories inspired everyone from L. Ron Hubbard and Anton LaVey to Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne.

Without Crowley, it’s hard to imagine much of the dark weirdness of the sixties and its resulting flood of cults and esoteric art. For some occult historians, the Age of Aquarius really began sixty years earlier, in what Crowley called the “Aeon of Horus.” For many others, Crowley’s influence is inexplicable, his books incoherent, and his presence in polite conversation offensive. These are understandable attitudes. If you’re a Crowley enthusiast, however, or simply curious about this legendary occultist, you have here a rare opportunity to hear the man himself intone his poems and incantations.

“Although this recording has previously been available as a ‘Bootleg,’” say the CD liner notes from which this audio comes, “this is its first official release and to the label’s knowledge, contains the only known recording of Crowley.” Recorded circa 1920 on a wax cylinder, the audio has been digitally enhanced, although “surface noise may be evident.” Indeed, it is difficult to make out what Crowley is saying much of the time, but that’s not only to do with the recording quality, but with his cryptic language. The first five tracks comprise “The Call of the First Aethyr” and “The Call of the Second Aethyr.” Other titles include “La Gitana,” “The Pentagram,” “The Poet,” “Hymn to the American People,” and “Excerpts from the Gnostic Mass.” (Find a complete tracklist at Allmusic.)

It’s unclear under what circumstances Crowley made these recordings or why, but like many of his books, they combine occult liturgy, mythology, and his own literary utterances. Love him, hate him, or remain indifferent, there’s no getting around it: Aleister Crowley had a tremendous influence on the 20th century and beyond, even if only a very few people have made serious attempts to understand what he was up to with all that sex magic, blood sacrifice, and wickedly bawdy verse.

Aleister Crowley The Great Beast Speaks 1920 – 1936 is available on Spotify. If you need to download Spotify’s software, get it here. It will be added to our list, 700 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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

Watch a 27-Year-Old Glenn Gould Play Bach & Put His Musical Genius on Display (1959)

Glenn Gould died young, in 1982 at the age of 50, but the Canadian classical pianist made great contributions to the world of music in his short life. He did it in part by starting young — so young, in fact, that he first felt the vibrations of music played for him while still in the womb by his mother. She’d decided even then to raise a successful musician, and her plan surely worked better than she could ever have expected. Young Glenn had perfect pitch, learned to read notes before he learned to read words, entered Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music at age ten, and grew into the very archetypal image of a musical genius: eccentric and often difficult, but possessed of almost otherworldly skill and distinctiveness.

Those qualities came out nowhere more clearly than in Gould’s relationship with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whom he described as “beyond a doubt the greatest architect of sound who ever lived.” Even listeners only casually acquainted with Gould’s work will know his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the first of which, recorded in 1955, shot him to stardom and became one of the best-selling classical albums of all time.

Four years after that, the National Film Board of Canada documentary Off the Record, just above, captured his playing on film in the clips at the top of the post. “When Gould is not on tour or recording,” he spends most of his time at his retreat, a cottage on the Shore of Lake Simcoe 90 miles north of Toronto. Here he works on the piano he favors above all others for practicing: a 70-year-old Chickering with a resonant, harpsichord quality recalling the instruments of the time of Bach.”

There, in that cottage in the small community of Uptergrove, we see the 27-year-old Gould play Bach’s Partita No. 2, vocalizing along with the distinctive mix of forcefulness and delicacy issuing from the instrument that he never chose, but mastered to a degree few had before or have since. “His ambition,” the narrator says, “is to make enough money by the time he is 35 to retire from the concert stage and devote himself to composing.” In fact Gould put live performance behind him just five years later in order to pursue with more focus his own kind of pianistic perfection, which he continued to do for the rest of his life.

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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 Helen Keller & Teacher Annie Sullivan Demonstrate How Helen Learned to Speak (1930)

Knowing the transformative effect an inspired teacher can have on an “unreachable” student, one can only hope that geography and luck will conspire to bring the two together at an early point in the child’s development.

Helen Keller, author, activist, and poster girl for surmounting near-impossible odds, certainly lucked out in the teacher department. Rendered deaf and blind by a fever contracted at 19 months, Keller earned a reputation as a holy terror in a family ill-equipped to understand what her wild rages might signify.

Her well-connected parents consulted various experts, including soon-to-be-friend, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, a trail that ultimately led to the Perkins School for the Blind and the 20-year-old Annie Sullivan.

Within a few short months of her arrival at the Keller family home, Sullivan led the nearly-seven-year-old Keller to her famous breakthrough at the water pump.

In a more conventional arrangement, the student would eventually leave her teacher for further educational pursuits, but Keller depended on Sullivan to translate other teachers’ lectures and classroom interactions. Sullivan accompanied her to Perkins School for the Blind, the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, and finally Radcliffe College, where Keller earned her BA.

The unusual boundaries of their teacher-student bond meant Keller lived with Sullivan and her husband in their Forest Hills home, a move that hastened the marriage’s unofficial but permanent end, according to Sullivan’s biographer, Kim Nielsen. It likely thwarted Keller’s single attempt at romance, with her temporary secretary, writer Peter Fagan, too.

For better and worse, their lives were forever entwined, each made more extraordinary by the presence of the other.

Their appearance in the 1930 Vitaphone newsreel, above, highlights the mandatory physical closeness they shared, as they demonstrate the process by which Keller learned to speak. Having learned to communicate via letters Sullivan finger spelled into her palm, Keller placed her fingers against Sullivan’s lips, throat and nose, to feeling the vibrations made when these familiar letters were spoken aloud.

Sullivan died six years after the newsreel was filmed, at which point, Polly Thomson, originally engaged as the ladies’ housekeeper, took over, serving as Keller’s interpreter and traveling companion for the next twenty years.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Performs Stunning Covers of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” & More

To the very end of his life, no less an authority on good musical vibes than George Harrison praised and played the ukulele, interpreting many classic tunes on the instrument, penning an enthusiastic endorsement, and supposedly buying ukes in bulk to give away at his home in Hawaii. As Harrison recognized, there is something special about the role of the ukulele in western pop, and that has been true since Hawaiian music exploded onto the mainland in the early 20th century.

So there’s no reason why the ukulele shouldn’t be a serious interpreter of modern hits from Nirvana, Talking Heads, The Who, David Bowie, etc. And also no reason those interpretations shouldn’t be played on stages like the Royal Albert Hall by men and women in formal wear, befitting the seriousness with which they take the cheerful-sounding instrument. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is so serious, in fact, that they filed and won a lawsuit last year against an alleged copycat group in Germany, claiming their “reputation as performers” and “international and celebrity fan base” were at stake.

Indeed, the UOGB isn’t shy about self-promotion, describing themselves as “a national institution.” But despite their thoroughgoing professionalism, their act is still in good fun. (They also, with humor, note they “are often blamed for the current Ukulele revival which is sweeping the globe.”) And the orchestra’s reputation is more than well-earned. Their site features quotes from luminaries like Bowie and Brian Eno, and endorsements from NME and the Financial Times, who aptly describe them as “both hilarious and heartfelt.” Their winning stage banter gives way to stunning renditions of popular songs that all of the members—including at times a double bass player who goes by the name “David Bowie”—sing in harmony. (They perform their take on “Pinball Wizard,” below, entirely acapella.)

In performances of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” at the top,” “Psycho Killer,” further down, and, just below, “Life on Mars” the orchestra not only demonstrates how much great musical comedy depends upon great musicianship, they also show the incredible range of the diminutive Polynesian instrument. That’s especially the case in their act of Bowie “plagiarism,” in which six uke players pick out delicate, classical guitar-like arpeggios in the verses, then strum reggae-like percussive attacks under the complex vocal harmonies in the chorus.

The seventh member on stage plays an acoustic bass guitar—the only concession to an additional rhythm instrument, but even in these four anthemic rock songs, you won’t bemoan the lack of drums. As The New York Times remarks, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain “extracts more than seems humanly possible from so small and so modest an instrument.” See them play a version of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly theme at our previous post, and see many more videos and live performances at the orchestra’s YouTube channel.

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

Watch Online Every Presidential Debate Since 1960–and Revisit America’s Saner Political Days

On Wednesday night, Las Vegas will mercifully host the final presidential debate. And it promises to be another rated-R affair. You’d except nothing less from the candidate who’s going to “make America great again.”

If you want a spectacle your kids can actually watch, then shut your TVs and travel back into America’s past. Created by PBS and Microsoft, the web site lets you watch every televised presidential debate since 1960. They’re generally substantive, all rated PG, and certainly a little nostalgia-inducing.

Above you can watch Kennedy and Nixon go at it in the first televised debate (1960). Head over to for more.

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