Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughn
La Mer “#3 – Dialogue Du Vent Et De La Mer”
André Previn: London Symphony Orchestra
Farming a Sandy Soil
Ocean Park #129
The painting and the music offer different impressions of the sea. The painting evokes the emotions associated with the color of the sea and its “wetness”. The music evokes its power. Pipeline also evokes for me memories of growing up in Southern California overlooking the ocean. I sometimes tell people that I was there when the skateboard was invented. Not entirely true because there were skateboarders in my neighborhood the day I moved in, but it was when we split up one of a pair of clip on skates and nailed it to a board. I was told that surfers invented the skateboard as a way of practicing their balance on the board when they could not get to the ocean. I do not know if this is true but it seemed to make sense. By the time I graduated high school about seven years later in 1968 customized wheels and boards were on the market and friends were designing their own very fast skate boards that began to resemble those that are so ubiquitous today.
I remember while growing up there would be waves of extraordinary size that would visit the local beaches. There would inevitably be in the morning paper a photograph of a surfer who appeared as a small dot on the face of the wave riding the wave into the shore. It is in part this aspect of the ocean’s power that Dick Dale, the king of the surf guitar, was evoking in his song. Debussy’s impressions of the sea capture a bit more of the oceans “range of emotions” perhaps but the selection used in the musical opening captures the sea’s more tempestuous nature. The sea is a force of nature whose power can overwhelm us and whose beauty can deeply move us.
For me stories have a similar kind of power. Often a story will grab me like the opening chords of Pipeline. They pull me into their depth and I remain lost there. But I also know that not everyone seems to be affected as I am by stories, or at least by the stories that move me. Many do not believe the stories of the past speak to people today. They speak to me, but that may only mean that I am an anomaly, the proverbial exception that proves the rule. But I wonder. Odysseus is a man trying desperately to get home, fighting against divine powers with a grudge. I think most of us know what it means to be lost, if only metaphorically. We are home safe in our rooms, but feel like Odysseus desperately trying to find his way home over an angry sea (he is involved in a grudge match with Poseidon, the god of the sea).
A Bigger Grand Canyon
Often in stories the first adversary is the natural environment, the setting of the story. In stories like The Last of the Mohicans that environment is in part the place, the wilderness in which the story takes place, but in others, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the environment is the culture in which the characters are raised. The paintings by David Hockney and Georgia O’Keefe capture the stark beauty of a desert landscape but the ram’s skull also suggests something of its dangers. In stories like McTeague and Death Comes for the Archbishop characters have to figure out how to survive in a hostile desert environment.
But often the hostile desert of story is found in the human heart, the heart incapable of compassion, the heart incapable of mercy or forgiveness. The Count of Monte Cristo has ample reason to seek revenge and to harbor an unforgiving heart. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights feels more than justified in pursuing his revenge. But the strongest argument against giving sanctuary to such feelings is found in the manner in which these characters have been molded and changed by their dedication to vengeance. This is a great value of literature; it enables the reader to learn from the experience of others. This is something that we often do not do well, choosing instead to learn through our own suffering, but literature can provide an avenue for avoiding such suffering, or at least engaging some of life’s snares with a little foreknowledge.
There is also something to be learned from a desert. My father owned some land in California’s Anza Borrego desert. We would often go camping there. The roads into my father’s parcel of land were not well maintained and in places were of dirt and sand. I think my father bought the land as a speculation. A new highway was going to be built and the parcel my father bought was on one of the proposed routes, but the state chose an alternative route. But he may not have been speculating. My father loved the desert and when he had to make a difficult decision he would often go into the desert and camp for a few days. The land was very remote and no one went there. During the day things were very quiet and the nights until moonrise were exceptionally dark. For one comfortable with solitude this was a place to plumb the depth of your thought. When the moon finally rose, the desert landscape would become nearly as bright as daylight and the sand would almost glow.
A book is a kind of wilderness in which I can lose myself as my father would lose himself in the moonrise over the desert. I am reading a book by Maria Tatar called Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood. In the book she talks about how children read differently from adults. She quotes Adam Gopnik. He points out that when an adult reads to a child the adult and the child are in different worlds. He says, “In children’s literature the grown-up wants a comforting image of childhood, or just a familiar name or story; the child want a boat, a way out, an example of the life beyond. The parent wants to get back, the child wants to get out.”
I think this is also true of the books I teach and of the students to whom I teach the books. I want to on one level get back to the first experience I had with the book, to the pleasure and excitement the first reading afforded. I want to reawaken the perceptions I had and the understanding I had of what the author was trying to say. Now, of course, the reading I am trying to reawake may not have been my first reading of the book but the first reading of the book in which my mind was engaged and my intellect and my imagination took flight. I am looking to re-sample the literary meal the first reading offered up to me with all its emotional and intellectual intensity.
My students are trying to preserve the way they are used to reading stories; they are looking for a boat or a spaceship, a train, or a jalopy; anything that will get them into the open air. They are a bit like Mr. Toad after his first encounter with the motorcar. If the book does not provide this “magic carpet” (and provide it rather quickly in the reading process) they want to go on to something else. I am trying to teach students to begin reading as adults while they are trying to continue to read as children. I feel a bit torn when I enter this process because on one level I think I am taking away, in a sense, their belief in Santa Claus and the other myths of childhood, myths that I often want to reclaim when I go back to a book I read as a child or a more recent publication that affects children today the way the books I read as a child affected me. I understand this desire.
But I also understand the need to mature as readers and as people. This is something that books have done for me. Books that touch me deeply often bring with them an epiphany and instead of losing myself in a book I find myself. I think this is a kind of reading we all need to grow into, a kind of reading that teaches us, nourishes us, gives us a map of sorts to follow into the dusky night that is the future.
There was an article in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times about reading and writing. It was written by Rich Cohen and is called “Will Facebook Kill Literature’s ‘Leave the Past Behind’ Themes?” The main thesis of the article is that social networks like Facebook keep the past to close to us. We cannot get enough distance from our friends and the events of our youth to be able to shape them into stories. If we were to attempt what Hemingway attempted in writing about Michigan as he remembered it, or as Anderson wrote about Winesburg, Ohio we would get a message on Facebook pointing out everything we got wrong. The article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I think there is some truth to the writer’s need for time alone with his characters and his settings so that he can shape them into the world he wishes to create, give them their own and separate reality.
I think it was E. B. White who said that not only must art not imitate life; it had better be a hell of a lot more interesting (or words to this effect). Part of the power of fiction is that it is imagined, that it is not biography or autobiography though it may contain elements of both. Fiction enables us to imagine the world as we would like it to be, or in the details we choose to emphasize clarify for the reader the world as it is. As someone has said, we experience life as a series of random events but we look back on life after it has been lived to find the purpose and the design.
Fantasia – “Night on Bald Mountain”
Walt Disney Studios
I enjoy this film in part because it is the first, and one of the few, films I saw that did not have a clear narrative structure. It is more a series of images than it is a story. The stories that are there, like the “Night on Bald Mountain” evoke a narrative structure; suggest a narrative that our imaginations can then create. There are devils and spirits and bones dancing about, there is hellfire and brimstone but why all this dancing and fire is happening is not made explicitly clear. It is a film that needs to be approached in much the same way we approach a poem, especially a poem by William Blake or Emily Dickinson that does not overtly state its purpose; that calls into question, perhaps, the need for a purpose in everything we do.
The film does what I want a story to do, it lights my imagination and lets me provide my own details. The writer of the story puts the words on the page, but my imagination puts the film into the can, so to speak. This is something else the adult reader does. The child follows the character through the looking glass or through the wardrobe or through whatever the magic door happens to be and than follows along. The child is looking for the vehicle that will take them away and the child imagines what the child must imagine in order for the story to live. But the adult paints, I think, a fuller canvas.
The adult sees the boat but also some of the invisible creatures that are swimming out of sight below the surface. The adult sees some of the pitfalls that are hidden from the child. The story may reveal these pitfalls in the course of the story or it may not, but the adult with the adult experience she or he brings to the reading sees them. I was a big fan of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show as a child. I saw the surface of the narrative and had a good time. But my parents had a good time as well and it was clear to me that they were seeing things that I was not. When I went back to some of these programs as an adult I saw some of the things my parents saw. That there were things happening that the children missed but that delighted the adult.
I think this is part of what I want to do as a teacher and a reader of stories. There is the immediate world of a story that does not require interpretation or analysis; its only demand upon us is that we enjoy it. But there is a less immediate world to the story; one that requires the reader to become a watchmaker of sorts; to disassemble the story and then to reassemble it so that the psychology of the characters can be understood, so that complexities that make the world tick can be seen, so that we can both tell the time and understand the times. It is this taking apart and putting back together that prepares us for the world in which we live; that teaches us to look beneath the surface of human events so that we can influence in our small way the course these events take. This is what I want my students to see and to embrace. But this is often farming in a sandy soil; it is working with a landscape that does not wish to nourish the seeds that have been planted. But the land must produce a harvest if those that live on it are to survive.