Monday, May 29, 2023

Brave New World... Foolhardy Future?

While societies in the Western world seem to be tearing themselves apart over identities, labels, rights and wrongs of all kinds in a great endeavour to be more inclusive and fair to all, something even more important and frighteningly insidious is taking place and I wonder if we will actually open our eyes and react to this in time, before it is too late. From January this year, Chat GPT suddenly seemed to burst onto the scene - in academic circles at least - and became a name to be reckoned with. Heralded as a game-changer in accessing and assimulating data, and therefore opening up opportunities on many levels in virtually every domain, this latest AI baby has been welcomed with open arms. But not by the Luddite in me... A feeling of redundancy is already bearing down along with a growing sense of dismay. Although this incredible tool could or should give rise to marvellous outcomes in learning, communication and creation, I feel that this smart chatbot may ultimately cost us dearly and will ruin us players as it rewrites the rules of the game; any game for that matter. Diderot's encyclopedia fed the Enlightenment and fostered social advancement in 18th century France but that has not been paralleled in the digital world so far and I am not convinced this will ever be the case. As AI becomes increasingly powerful and effective, we humans appear to be dumbing down and growing utterly dependant on some screen or another for basic cognitive tasks. Our brains are no longer stretched and challenged, thus risking decline just as the underexerted muscular system in the human body without sufficient physical effort. Screen life linked to social media takes up so much time in the average individual's daily life that there is far less to devote to other activities and fewer means and little will to do so in any case. A glut of artificial stimulation - largely thanks to videos - seems to have led to complacency and boredom rather than fully inciting our curiosity in the world around us and the people that inhabit it in tangible form. Excessive social sharing is making us ever more image-conscious and self-centred yet ignorant of who we really are and even less aware of who the others are. How can we be so jaded when so much is offered to us through this vast, magical Pandora's box; internet? Endless, mindless chat has taken the place of meaningful conversation, and concrete discussion and full-blown debate have been thrown out for fear of saying something inappropriate. But now we do not even necessarily need to reflect on any particular subject in any great depth because Chat GPT will readily do it for us, so it seems. Who needs to learn or think something over in any academic sense? Why bother? And who can teach students who have understood this state of affairs? Yet for me, ingrained Luddite, the latest, most potentially devasting AI creation to enter the arena has a physical form and its own name; Ameca. This short, modest name belies the vast capacity of this fully interactive humanoid robot, which is without rival in the field of robotics technology. Chat GPT3 has enabled Ameca to reproduce human facial expressions, move its body and engage freely and intelligently on any given topic; the stuff of Sci-fi dreams. However, are we mere humans really ready for this when even the engineers do not know the full implications of this new venture into an unfathomable brave new world? Ameca did not appear by stealth; we were probably too busy entertaining ourselves on TikTok or whatever to even notice its arrival and yet it will change our lives and human existence itself. What fools we are, for indeed one day soon we will not be fussing and squabbling about 'content' and arguing about social labels but asking ourselves serious questions about the integrity of the human species and how to define a human being. PS Excuse the lack of paragraphs....

La Guirlande de Julie...

Last year, when I was looking into the lives of the queens of France following a visit to Le Jardin du Luxembourg, I learnt of La Guirlande de Julie. Intrigued, I ordered a copy of the book, presented by Irène Frain (the following photos come from this work). The initial 17th century French manuscript is an example of la littérature galante, offering a unique illustrated collection of short lyric poems (madrigals), conceived by a determined suitor as the most perfect gift to win the heart of his intended ; Julie d’Angennes (1606–1671).
Zephyr, god and personification of the West wind in Greek mythology holds a floral crown – la guirlande - whilst blowing a shower of 29 flowers which are described in the 61 madrigals of the final work in order to highlight the unparalleled qualities of the Julie in question. Heralded as a galant creation of great ingenuity, after endless years of fruitless and frustrating pursuit, this poetic bouquet of flowers was in fact the last resort for its devisor, Charles de Saint-Maure, le marquis de Montausier (1610–1690). The ‘divine’ and ‘incomparable’ demoiselle, daughter of the marquis and marquise de Rambouillet, had proven to be somewhat recalcitrant in romantic matters, preferring to remain resolutely independant, free ; unmarried. And so it was that La Guirlande was conceived as the final trump card…
While La Guirlande de Julie is noted for its originality, the main protagonists behind its creation - the marquis de Montausier and Julie-Lucine d’Angennes - were themselves very much creatures of their specific milieux and of their time. Both suitor and his intended were of aristocratic birth. The marquis was of Huguenot faith and was somewhat in the shadow of his elder brother, Hector, who was renowned on the battlefield during the Thirty Years' War and had a certain facility in society. Montausier himself apparently lacked the skills, charm and charisma of his sibling and was described as rather guff, determined and having the character of a ‘bunch of stinging nettles’. Perhaps not the most winning of attributes after all, although no one could question his determination !
Having crossed Julie d’Angennes path just once, he was smitten and doggedly went on to pursue her hand in marriage until she finally acquiesced; 14 years in total! In the intervening period, Montausier had tried to prove his worth in war exploits, through galant letters and by converting to the Catholic faith to remove this potential obstacle. So was it really the beautiful manuscript that finally incited Julie to give in to his demand ? Had La Guirlande really operated its magic, making the woman who wanted ‘no master’ succomb to his long-protracted attentions , to grant him his wish ? Julie, meanwhile, was the eldest of 7 offspring in the Rambouillet family and while said to have been no remarkable beauty, she possessed incredible charm, poise and elegance – all fully demonstrated in dance and in refined social intercourse. Montausier was certainly her most earnest and obstinate suitor, yet he was not alone.
'Princesse' Julie moved in the most sophisticated circles of la vie mondaine that enabled her to attract numerous admirers with impressive titles and birthrights – the King of Sweden being the most notable of these. Indeed, sophistication, wit and appreciation of literature were in Julie’s blood for she had been raised in the most influential household in Paris. Her aristocratic mother, née Catherine de Vivonne, had retired from court life in 1608 and began to receive intellectuals of the artistic and literary world in her Parisian home, with her chambre bleue setting the example to others to set up their own salons in France and beyond.
The Rambouillet salon was the first of its kind, and all the more unique since a significant number of its refined guests were women, des femmes savantes, who all shone out through their breeding, wit and intellect. One such guest was the poetess Madame de Scudéry who later founded her own literary salon wherein préciosité was perfected (and later satirized by Molière in Les Précieuses Ridicules of 1659 with his bas-bleus caricatures). Indeed, in the salons of the nobler, more refined strata of 17th century French society, préciosité thrived and spread out further afield. Social expression and relationships were altered accordingly ; forms of language, emotional responses and behaviour grew elegantly affected – maniéré - measured and precious. The grande salonnière Catherine – or Arthénice as she was referred to as an allusion to a nymph – would receive her précieuses and précieux from her bed, not unlike Louis XIV himself with his courtiers… Julie aided her mother and was thus well-versed in the elegant language and manners of salon life, and naturally her vision of love and courtship was largely coloured by the précieux standards that were explored and expounded in the parlour games, literature and word play in the Rambouillet salon.
A devoted, courtly love was expected, with the galant acting in the appropriate manner in order to gain his lady’s favour through beautiful words, elegant gestures and noble acts that were neither hurried nor too spontaneous. In some respects this galant veneration must surely have resembled an updated version of la fine amor of Medieval literature, with fairy-tale-like quests and tasks set. To guide hapless, aspiring lovers along the challenging path to love, the Carte du Pays du Tendre was drawn up by Catherine de Vivonne herself and Madeleine de Scudéry, in order to make clear the different stages to respect in matters of galant courtship. This whole affair seemed to be a rather complicated game, not unlike Snakes and Ladders, with one clumsy or hasty move resulting in a cold dip in the Lake of Indifference or extended stay on the turbulent Sea of Danger.
Devising his floral oeuvre, Montausier was playing his last card in this courtship game and naturally pulled out all the stops. He commissioned the greatest flower painter – Nicolas Robert – to carry out the illustrations, the best calligrapher (Nicolas Jarry) to produce the manuscripts and above all asked the most renowned writers to create the madrigals, whilst writing a number of these himself. We do not know how Julie reacted on waking to find the manuscript by her bedside table, but she did take another two years to accept his offer of marriage so it can probably be assumed she was not entirely bowled over by the offering.
Just like her suitor, Julie was clearly stubborn and headstrong – her personal motto was Immota; Unchanging. She had even been acclaimed as a ‘living goddess’ for her feat of great bravery during the plague years when taking care of the Rambouillet household. Finally, at this late stage in this fruitless courtship Catherine herself apparently intervened to sway her daughter’s mind. In 1645, aged 38, Julie became the wife of Montausier.
And so the couple went on to have several children and to live happily ever after in marital bliss. Or did they? Contrary to what may have initially been expected, Julie proved to be a devoted wife and mother who later became governess to the King’s children and the first lady-of-honour to Queen Marie-Thérèse. As it turned out, patience and devotion were indeed required of her since the impassioned Montausier appears to have indulged in some form of dalliance with Julie’s maid – Pelloquin – shortly into the marriage. He not only sired two extra-marital children with her but also allegedly went on to earn himself the reputation of being a flighty husband. A dark horse indeed!
Nevertheless, he remained a devoted albeit unfaithful husband, if rumour is to be believed. Montausier died some 19 years after his wife’s demise in 1671 whilst of course the legend behind his masterpiece, La Guirlande de Julie lives on. Already in the 17th century, playwright Molière had drawn inspiration from aspects of Montausier and Julie d’Angennes for the characters of Alceste and Célimène in his work Le Misanthrope so it could surely be an interesting basis for a pithy historical film today…

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Recovered Clematis...

These magnificent clematis were ones that were being sold off during the first COVID lockdown as they were dying off in the local supermarket... I thought that they would never recover, but they did and have flowered beautifully ever since.