Aug 26

August 26: Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1748)

It was on this date, August 26, 1740, that French paper-maker and chemist Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, was born, one of 16 children of a prosperous paper manufacturer. With his younger brother Jacques-Étienne, the Montgolfier brothers conducted experiments with paper and fabric bags filled with smoke and hot air, which eventually led to their co-invention of the first hot-air balloon. On 5 June 1783, they inflated a large linen bag with hot air. Ascending to 3,000 feet (1,000 metres) in the marketplace at Annonay, near Lyons, the flight lasted 10 minutes and covered more than a mile. On September 19 of that same year, the Montgolfier brothers set aloft another balloon, with a sheep, a rooster, and a duck as passengers, which landed safely about 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) from the launch site. Then, about a month later, on 21 November 1783, in the first untethered, manned flight by hot air balloon, the Montgolfiers sent Pilatre de Rozier and François Laurent, marquis d’Arlandes, as passengers in a balloon that sailed over Paris for 5.5 miles (9 kilometres) for about 25 minutes. This balloon, too, landed safely.

In recognition of their achievement, Étienne received the ribbon of St. Michael, Joseph was awarded a pension of 1,000 livres and King Louis XVI elevated their father Pierre to the French nobility (thereafter bearing the surname “de Montgolfier”) Among many additional honors bestowed on Joseph Montgolfier were membership in the Legion of Honor and appointment to the Institute of France. Thereafter, the brothers published books on aeronautics and continued their scientific careers: Joseph invented a calorimeter and the hydraulic ram, and Étienne developed a process for manufacturing vellum. Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier died on 2 August 1799, at age 54, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland; Joseph-Michel Montgolfier died at Balaruc-les-Bains, France, age 69, on 26 June 1810.

However, Joseph-Michel supported the French Revolution, and was appointed Administrator of the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. The French astronomer Jérôme Lalande, a close friend, told Sylvain Maréchal, author of the Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Atheists, that Montgolfier was an Atheist—or, as Joseph Mazzini Wheeler put it in his Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations (1889), “A friend of Delambre and La Lande, he was on the testimony of this last an atheist.” Indeed, that venerable vetter of the virtuous, the Catholic Encyclopedia, conveniently mentions only Joseph-Michel’s pious brother!

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Aug 22

August 22: Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (1862)

Claude Debussy

It was on this date, August 22, 1862, that French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy was born Achille-Claude Debussy, the eldest of five children, in St. Germain-en-Laye. A prodigy, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10 and by 1902 his Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, 1892-94), inspired by the poem by French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé, and the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), based on the drama by Belgian poet, essayist and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, were recognized worldwide. Some critics of his time described Debussy as “one of the greatest musicians of his generation.” Conversely, though he was clearly talented, his contemporaries thought Debussy argumentative and experimental, as he frequently favored dissonances and intervals, innovations that were frowned upon by the rigid teaching of the Academy. As one writer recalled, “When asked by a grumpily puzzled professor what ‘rules’ he followed, Debussy is said to have retorted, mon plaisir—‘whatever I please.’” Or, as Debussy once explained, “I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.” He won the Prix de Rome in 1884 and was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1903.

Debussy often took his musical themes from such neo-pagans as Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Maurice Maeterlinck and Charles Baudelaire, but also was influenced by Richard Wagner—every one of them a Freethinker. In fact, the composer was wholly without religious belief. In a 1911 interview, Debussy made this comment about his music for Le martyre de St. Sébastien, based on the play by Gabriele d’Annunzio:

Do you really think that my music is devoid of religious antecedents? Do you wish to put an artist’s soul under restraint? Do you find it difficult to conceive that one who sees mystery in everything — in the song of the sea, in the curve of the horizon, in the wind and in the call of the birds — should have been attracted to a religious subject? I have no profession of faith to utter to you: but, whichever my creed may be, no great effort on my part was needed to raise me to the height of d’Annunzio’s mysticism. I can assure you that my music was written in exactly the spirit as if it had been commissioned for performance in church. … Have I succeeded in expressing all that I felt? It is for others to decide. Is the faith which my music expresses orthodox? I do not know; but I can say that it is my own, expressed in all sincerity.*

Debussy died in Paris on 25 March 1918 at age 55. He had a secular funeral in Paris, during the German bombardment of the city. His body was moved the next year from Père Lachaise Cemetery to its current location, the small Passy Cemetery sequestered behind the Trocadéro, fulfilling Debussy’s wish to rest “among the trees and the birds.”

It was Claude Debussy who said,

I do not practice religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion. I do not believe that a man is any nearer to God for being clad in priestly garments, nor that one place in a town is better adapted to meditation than another. When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvelous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul. Around me are the trees stretching up their branches to the skies, the perfumed flowers gladdening the meadow, the gentle grass-carpeted earth, … and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration. … To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! … that is what I call prayer.**

* As quoted in Dancing in the Vortex : The Story of Ida Rubinstein (2001) by Vicki Woolfe, p. 56.
** As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225.

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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Aug 16

August 16: James Cameron (1954)

It was on this date, August 16, 1954, that Canadian film director James Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario. Director of The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009), Cameron has been nominated for six Academy Awards overall and won three for Titanic: picture, director and film editing. Cameron’s Titanic and Avatar are the two highest-grossing films of all time.

Inspired to make films by watching the original 1977 Star Wars movie, Cameron claims that during a bout of food poisoning, while making a film on location in Jamaica, he had a nightmare about an invincible robot hitman sent from the future to kill him. This gave him the idea for The Terminator, the film that put Cameron on the Hollywood directorial A-list. Known for advancing film special effects as well as film technology itself, Cameron pushed the envelope again and again, first with The Abyss, then winning awards for sound, sound effects editing and visual effects for the Terminator sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, best visual effects for True Lies, best visual effects, best sound and best sound effects editing for Titanic, along with advances in underwater filming technology—and he pioneered stereoscopic digital 3-D in the film Avatar. Ironically, Cameron’s films frequently depict the uneasy relationship between humanity and technology.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame inducted Cameron in June 2012. In October 2013, a new species of frog Pristimantis jamescameroni, from Venezuela, was named after him in recognition of his efforts in environmental awareness, in addition to his public promotion of veganism, saying the best thing you can do to fight climate change is to “stop eating animals.” He has been married five times and is described by the British newspaper The Independent as “notorious on set for his uncompromising and dictatorial manner, as well as his flaming temper” and one actor who worked with him spoke for many when he described Cameron as “not real sensitive when it comes to actors.” However, Cameron’s directorial style has inspired directors Joss Whedon, Baz Luhrman and Peter Jackson.

A self-described “converted agnostic,” as a child, Cameron described the Lord’s Prayer as being a “tribal chant.” Not only is Cameron an unabashed atheist, but in the 2009 biography The Futurist by Rebecca Winters Keegan he says, “I’ve sworn off agnosticism, which I now call cowardly atheism.” Continuing, James Cameron says, “I’ve come to the position that in the complete absence of any supporting data whatsoever for the persistence of the individual in some spiritual form, it is necessary to operate under the provisional conclusion that there is no afterlife and then be ready to amend that if I find out otherwise.”

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