356 Listening to lectures

Listening to lectures is one of the poorest methods known for acquiring knowledge. There are exceptions – Schwartz thinks he took away new insights from recent lectures on the Netherlands in the seventeenth century (Spinoza); Germany in the sixteenth (Luther); and literature in the twenty-first (Nicole Krauss).

Although I have promised myself time after time not to do things like this to myself, in the course of four days in late August I attended three events at which I listened to eleven lectures. On Saturday the 26th I went to the congress of an interdisciplinary group called De Zeventiende Eeuw (The Seventeenth Century), where historians of art, literature, culture and the rest have been gathering annually since 1985. This year the congress had the theme “Secret practices: confidences, espionage and closed-door doings in the seventeenth century.”

The introductory talk by Djoeke van Netten, an historian at the University of Amsterdam, was an eye-opener. She showed what seemed like dozens of recent monographs on secrecy and even more title pages of seventeenth-century books and pamphlets pronouncing themselves to be divulging secrets. I admired the design of her PowerPoint slides, learning from her presentation that you can make a slide of groups of slides.

The sections of the congress dealt with a wide but not exhaustive range of fields in which confidentiality, cover-ups and leaks were endemic:  “Sex, love and (forbidden) knowledge,” “Envoys, rumors and disputes,” “Workshop secrets,” “Handwriting and cryptography,” “Letterwriting by scholars and diplomats,” “Military intelligence.”

The lecture I liked the most – I thought it was thrilling – was by Marrigje Paijmans, who teaches Comparative Literature at Utrecht University and Art and Cultural Studies at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. She touched on one sweet spot after another: the political ideals of the young Spinoza; his endlessly fascinating teacher Franciscus van den Enden, an ex-Jesuit philosopher, art dealer and publisher on his way to being hung on the Place de la Bastille by Louis XIV at the age of 72 (Steven Spielberg – are you listening?); and a plan for a utopian new settlement to be founded on the Delaware River in New Netherland. The “truly popular” government was to consist of all inhabitants of the land, with no authority exceeding that of the people. Van den Enden found that kind of self-government in the social arrangements of the native American – “natural” peoples who he held up as a model for Europe as well as the New World. Marrigje argued that van den Enden’s critique of colonialism was based on Spinoza’s attacks on European sovereignty. The secrecy in van den Enden’s writing lay in his implicit but unstated references to the controversial Spinoza, in keeping with Spinoza’s own motto: “Caute!” Take care. A community like that proposed by van den Enden actually came into being in 1663, only to be overrun and demolished by the British after thirteen months.

There I sat, in an auditorium of the University of Amsterdam, contemplating the possibility that I could have been born in New Amsterdam in an egalitarian Spinozaland. Would I then have moved to the country where Spinoza was banned by the Jews and excoriated by the Christians? Would I have fathered a Dutch son named Baruch?

The general theme of the congress, secrecy, turned out to be as ungraspable as it should be. During the questions after her talk, Djoeke had to admit that there was no hard line to draw between the public and confidential functions of the “secretary” – in Dutch sometimes still, in Old Boys clubs, called geheimschrijver, writer of secrets. I was reminded of a saying that my late friend Alje Olthof liked to quote: “Every profession is a conspiracy against the layman.” In that light, the meaning of Early Modern secrecy should be sought not so much in the historical specifics studied by the speakers, but in the tendency of not only human but all life to make the most of whatever advantages come one’s way. Owning a secret or pretending to do so is one of the cheapest advantages out there.

On Sunday the 28th I attended no lectures at all, but on Monday at 9:30 in the morning Loekie and I drove to Utrecht for a “Summer school” talk in the Early Music festival that is a high point in the international music year. Among this year’s themes was the arrival of Lutheranism on the world stage five hundred years ago. The speaker was Andrew Pettegree, historian of the book at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, author of Brand Luther: 1517, printing and the making of the Reformation (Penguin USA, 2015). His lecture was entitled “Marten Luther: a Reformation in print,” extracted from the book. By any standards, its was a brilliant performance. Pettegree has a clear, pleasant voice and addresses the audience directly, only glancing at his notes from time to time (as in my photo). He articulates well and speaks in grammatically correct declarative sentences that could be followed easily by an audience of anglophone Dutchmen. The talk was built up with rhetorical expertise, carrying you along effortlessly and convincingly from point to point, with built-in suspense about what was yet to come. I think I can actually reproduce the main points, which I found stunning.

  • Printing from movable type was a struggling business for its first seventy years, as publishers produced black-and-white imitations of glorious manuscript codexes, mainly in Latin, that were unattractive to rich collectors and too expensive and recondite for a mass market. The most profitable item of printing was the indulgence, which the church ordered in the hundreds of thousands.
  • All the major centers of printing were located on a north-south axis from the Low Countries through the Rhine to Italy. Luther’s Wittenberg lay on the far eastern edge, a provincial backwater with a minuscule and undistinguished production.
  • This all changed when Luther’s writings began to be published. At first they appeared in major centers like Erfurt and Leipzig, where print runs of broadsheets in the vernacular were achieved that dwarfed anything yet seen. Although Luther pulled the carpet from under the sale of indulgences, his own tractates, often written in the easily digestible form of bite-sized bullet points, furnished printers with an even more lucrative specialty, a commercial development that lubricated the Reformation.
  • Luther was sponsored and supported by Frederick the Wise, who also was the patron of Lucas Cranach. When Cranach began making woodblocks for the title pages of Luther’s books for Wittenberg publishers, the Wittenberg look became the hot new graphic model, copied and counterfeited throughout Europe. The number of imprints rose to the high thousands, from simple broadsheets to theological tractates.
  • And so the Lutheran “Reformation in print” was not only a religious movement aided by the culture and business of print; it was also a revolutionary development in print itself, creating for the first time a viable mass market for the book, a product that otherwise might have died on the vine, like most technological innovations.

The lecture was followed by questions from the audience that also impressed me by their intelligence and pertinence.

On Tuesday evening Loekie and I attended an author’s evening of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam, with the American novelist Nicole Krauss. We went as fans of her great New York novel The history of love. It doesn’t matter that the John Adams session did not increase our admiration for Krauss, which could hardly be greater. It was nice to learn that she studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London and wrote a master’s thesis on Rembrandt’s Anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp, although I was puzzled, and my vanity stung, when she didn’t seem to recognize my name when I introduced myself after the lecture.

I found it unsettling that Krauss entertains misconceptions about herself that are plainly visible to others. When the translator of her new novel, Forest dark, asked about her debt to Philip Roth, she said that the two of them were friends and had talked about her book, but that her novel had no relation to any of his. This is simply not true. Forest dark plays with the possibility that Franz Kafka did not die in 1924 but emigrated to Palestine. The idea came to her out of the blue, she said, when she was on a research trip to the Dead Sea. Can she really not have realized how close this was to Philip Roth’s device in The ghost writer (1979), of letting Anne Frank survive the Holocaust and move to America? A more non-committal answer to the question would have been better. I was also left scratching my head when she defended the use of fantasy in her books – which to my mind requires no defense – by saying that we understand less about life and the universe than we think. That makes it sound as if she were claiming that her literary imaginings are just as true as what we take for everyday reality. These points got past the excellent moderator, the Dutch poet-writer-journalist Ellen Deckwitz, who was bubbly, ad rem and disarming and who speaks perfect English.

There any number of invitations to interesting-sounding lectures, symposia and congresses in my Inbox. For example. Must build up my resistance.

© 2017 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 2 September 2017

The highpoint of the summer was our two-week family trip to New York, Boston and Alton, New Hampshire, for the wedding of our niece Anneke to Max Kennedy. The two form an ensemble called Big Fuzzy, so it was no surprise that they and some of their friends performed at the wedding, on the hillside meadow of a big nineteenth-century barn in Alton. Among the 150 guests were our two Amsterdam children and two grandchildren, as well as two grandchildren of my sister’s, from Venice, California, and my amazing 95-year-old aunt Peri, who lives in Palm Springs. We all agreed it was more than worth the journey.

Needless to say, Loekie and I took in some museums on the way up and back. At the Frick, we visited the cameo exhibition Divine encounter: Rembrandt’s Abraham and the angels, with the responsible curator Joanna Sheer Seidenstein, who is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

St. Veronica, Flemish tapestry probably made in Brussels of wool, silk, gilded silver on metal-wrapped threads
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of George Blumenthal, 1941
Worth 52 cows

Follower of Quentin Matsys, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, oil on panel, ca. 1525
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931
Worth 5 cows

We spent two days at the inexhaustible Met, where we were delighted to come across a terrific display called Relative values: the cost of art in the Northern Renaissance. It had just opened and will run to 23 June 2019. The vast differences in valuation of art between our time and the period when the works were created are pinpointed and elucidated, with the assignment of a number of heads of cattle for the original worth of each display. Paintings, which now top the market, are at the far low end of the scale. The 62 objects are all illustrated on the museum website, with nice entries if you keep clicking, but without the fascinating and enlightening texts and cattle counts, my photos of some of which have disappeared unaccountably into the thin air of the Information Age.

On the way to the wedding, we stopped for our first-time visit to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire. There I was pleasantly surprised to find on loan a painting by Pieter Saenredam of the town hall of Haarlem to which in 1989 Marten Jan Bok and I devoted a mini-exhibition in the Frans Hals Museum to mark the publication of our book on the artist. The Currier is a lovely little museum with an adventurous program that invites you to dive deeper into the treated themes. If I lived in New Hampshire I would never miss an exhibition there, while I miss most of the exhibitions in the Netherlands. Is there a lesson in that?

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3 thoughts on “356 Listening to lectures”

  1. Dear Gary,

    Knocked back by your opening line “Listening to a lecture is one of the poorest methods known for acquiring knowledge.. not to do things like this” – and “Must build up my resistance…” well maybe it was tongue in cheek, since it really sounds like you enjoyed (most) of the ones you describe –

    and yes your standard university STEM lecture droning on to 700 students may be an ineffective teaching method, but let’s not just trash all lectures – in fact the symposia in our area of mutual interest art history, can and are now, with modern technology the spring board marvelous opportunities for all of us

    There are now EXCELLENT lectures from “academic” symposia now distributed on Youtube or Vimeo

    The Frick has done brilliantly with these


    so have Yale
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZyr4cLgS5E (whole symposium on Dutch Golden Age painting)
    and one series from the Morgan


    And the Met in NY does well

    The Prado seems to have some excellent ones from their 2015 Rubens exhibition
    many in Spanish , but not all
    (- surely audio “google translate” is just around the corner ?)

    I can only regret that other major museums have not elected to eventually make their extraordinary lectures and symposia available – the V&A’s amazing 2 day symposium (Creating Sculpture: The Drawings and Models of Renaissance Sculptors ) not done. Nothing from National Gallery London ?

    But there is the delightful idiosyncratic series by the late Prof. James Cahill on Chinese paintings,


    – It’s a paradigm shift !! With the new technology we nonprofessionals, who can’t take two full days off, or travel to London, or Amsterdam – RKD ! – can watch, one lecture at a time, interrupt when we like, from home or where ever. It’s just a treasure house. Of course in a symposium not all lectures are great – then one can simply click it off – the speaker won’t take offense, no needn’t tip toe out! Please encourage, don’t disparage the 21st century lecture as a format. In the perfect world we could call up those lectures YOU did enjoy, not simply regret the missed experience. And try some of these lectures in this new modality, if you have not already.

    Very best regards, Hart

    1. Many thanks, Hart, for this terrific column of your own! My authority for calling lectures a poor way of acquiring knowledge is based not only on personal experience but also on research on scholarly conferences, where it turns out that at the close of a conference attendees are unable to name most of the speakers and subjects they listened to. The online lectures you recommend allow you to pause and think, play back when you wake up from a snooze (like the ones that took irresistible hold over me this afternoon at a perfectly interesting lecture in Leiden – apologies to the speaker) and thereby cure a lot of the ills of real-time lectures. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the lectures under your links. Gary

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