On Wonder

“Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”

Andre Previn

“All Through the Night

Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Aoife O’Donovan & Yo-Yo Ma

“Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan

 

  

On Wonder

 

Painting of buildings surrounded by trees

Photograph of a watercolour sketch

John Weeks done while teaching at Elam Art School around 1950

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Watercolour_sketch_by_John_Weeks,_circa_1950.jpg

 

We Want to Be Beguiled. That is, in one sense, what “wonder” is about. That which provokes a sense of wonder in us, beguiles us, that is, not to say that everything that beguiles is wonderful, but if we are not beguiled we are probably not in the presence of wonder. It might also be said that the more wonderful something it is, the longer it continues to beguile us, it may be that this is the difference between the wonderful and the fanciful. That which is merely fanciful beguiles us for the time it takes us to become accustomed to it, but the more accustomed we become with the truly wonderful the more it continues to beguile. Often wonder is provoked by simplicity, as is the case with the first two songs in the audio clip, they are children’s songs; they are lullabies. When Mozart composed his piano concerto, the melody we know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was already a popular song in the nursery. He composed his variations around this simple melody and it beguiles, perhaps not to the extent that the Jupiter Symphony beguiles us, but it is beguiling. The same is true of the lullaby “All Through the Night.” Though the melody itself is quite simple, it has a sophistication that keeps it from sounding out of place on the cello, the richness of the music is complemented by the richness of the cello’s sound.

 

John Weeks’ watercolor sketch is also a simple sketch, probably done quickly, that captivates the viewer with its simplicity, the simplicity of the lines and the simplicity of the colors and their placement. The drawing captures the outlines of a space and evokes enough of the reality of that space for the viewer to be able to fill in the missing details. Part of the wonder that is provoked by that which is successfully and simply done lies in the artist’s ability to evoke much with very little. There is something magic about it. The Bob Dylan song is a list, almost Whitman-esque of various images that provoke wonder, the sound of a tambourine, the sound of a singer, the night passing into the morning twilight. The music is also fairly simple, folk blues played on a guitar. And though not everyone finds Dylan’s voice sublime, I do, as do many others.

 

Painting of a skull resting on a book with ink and a quill

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628

Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1596/97–1660)

Oil on wood

9 1/2 x 14 1/8 in. (24.1 x 35.9 cm)

Rogers Fund, 1949 (49.107)

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.107

 

There was a debate that took place recently in The New Republic between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier (“Science Is Not Your Enemy”, “Crimes Against Humanities”, and “Science vs. the Humanities, Round Two”). Pinker thinks the Sciences and the Humanities should unite and work together; Wieseltier thinks they operate in different spheres and one side must give up too much of what makes it what it is for there to be unification. For both Pinker and Wieseltier wonder is an important element of their argument. Pinker sees in the Sciences and the new technologies that which is truly wonderful and awe inspiring. Wieseltier agrees that there is much in science that is wonderful and awe inspiring. But the wonder and the awe proceed from different sources. Wieseltier argues that what science tries to do when it applies its methods to the humanities is identify where the magic is found. But for those that approach the arts from within the humanities it is this “magic” that they find attractive and that it is not so much that the sciences in explaining the magic destroy the magic but that the scientist fails to understand the magic the humanist finds in the arts. It does not lie in the mixture of colors and textures, in the sounds and evocations of language, in the combination of notes in a piece of music. Of course that is where the magic lives, but the scientific explanation of how the magic works reveals a misunderstanding of the magic itself. I wonder, though, how an understanding of the science in Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill would explain its sublime qualities or ease the discomfort it provokes. D. H. Lawrence’s poem “The Third Thing” illustrates the problem the scientist encounters when examining the arts:

 

Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,

but there is also a third thing, that makes it water

and nobody knows what it is.

The atom locks up two energies

but it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.

 

The sciences are only capable of exploring the two parts of the atom, but they cannot explore that third thing that makes it an atom, at least not that which makes the atom “wonderful” to the humanist. 

 

The humanities and the sciences also have a different relationship with the past. Science moves forward, the only reason for it to look backwards is to remind itself where it’s been and what, through investigation and experimentation, has been left behind. There is no need for the scientist to study the pre-Copernican universe because the scientist knows that model of the universe has been disproved. That said, the medievalist C. S. Lewis wrote a book, The Discarded Image that explains the medieval world view and its understanding of the universe. Where the science is no longer relevant the magic of its conception still beguiles the imagination of some, it beguiled Lewis’ imagination. This is not to say he wanted to return to a medieval understanding of the universe, only to say there is an elegance to its construction that is appealing. It worked for Lewis as story, he never accepted it as science, but from the perspective of the humanities, the story is important and still has something to teach us, it possess a different kind of truth. To one critic, Matthew Ward, Lewis’ study of the medieval view of the universe provided the frame upon which he built his series of children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia. For the scientist there is not much point in this looking backwards. This is not to say that good scientists do not keep an open mind and do not continue to test theories, even after they seem to have been proven false. But there comes of a time when the body of accumulated evidence overwhelms a model or a theory and it is abandoned. That which is affirmed is carried forward but in being carried forward it remains part of the present, it does not live in the past. The Humanities have a different relationship to the past. 

 

Seascape at night time with moon behind clouds and a rocky arch

Etretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d’Aval

Claude Monet

http://www.wikipaintings.org/nl/claude-monet/etretat-the-needle-rock-and-porte-d-aval

 

Where science looks to the past to be certain something has not been tried before and found wanting, the humanities sees the past as part of the present. They maintain a dialog of sorts between the wisdom of the past and the wisdom of the present. Humanists believe both the past and the present have something to say to each other, that each can learn from each other and contribute something to the understanding of the other. The past, of course cannot be changed, but our understanding of the past is sometimes changed by what has been learned and understood subsequently. On the other hand, the wisdom of the present is enriched by the wisdom of the past and the wisdom of each contributes to the shape and direction the present and the future take. To close our eyes to either can have detrimental effects on the world we live in and pass along to those that come after us. Math and science make us better machines; the humanities make us better human beings. This is generalization of course, not everything the sciences give us are necessarily better, some insidious machines have been put into our hands that unfortunately work too well. By the same token, not everyone that has embraced the humanities has been made better by them. History is filled with movements and individuals that had a highly refined taste in art and literature who were miserable human beings that did truly evil things.

 

Photograph of the moon over the ocean surrounded by a halo of light

A Super Moon’s Halo

NASA’s Astronomy Picture Of The Day – Louis Argerich

http://socksonanoctopus.com/blog/2013/06/nasas-astronomy-picture-of-the-day-a-super-moons-halo/

 

Perhaps the real difference between the humanities and the sciences and the wonder each provokes lies in the different way they look at and experience the universe. The photographs above and below are wonderful in both the scientific and the humanistic sense. They inspire awe. I expect these pictures also provoke awe in the humanistic sense in both scientists and humanists. Both scientists and humanists probably also experience the awe provoked by the science as well. But the scientist wants to explore the awe provoked by the science while the humanist wants to explore the awe that is provoked by the artistry of the photograph and the subject of the photograph. I do not understand how atmosphere, light, gases, and chemical reactions produced the subjects of these photographs, though I wouldn’t mind knowing. But knowing how the subjects of the pictures were produced would not explain to me or clarify for me the sense of wonder the photographs produce. I do not want to understand the science as much as I want to understand what makes them beautiful and why the beauty found in the photographs affects me the way it does.

 

Photograph of the night sky with the a celestial body surrounded by stars

The Bubble Nebula

NASA Picture of the Day

http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap100902.html

 

This perhaps draws attention to an old debate, to an old problem, that of materialism vs. idealism. A materialist believes, generally, that there is nothing more to the universe than that which can be perceived through the senses. Things may be there that the senses cannot perceive at present, but once the tools are invented that will enable the senses to perceive their presence the senses will perceive them. Pluto, whether it is a planet or something other, was always present even if it could not always be seen. Once telescopes powerful enough to see it were produced, Pluto could be seen. An idealist believes there is more to the universe than can be perceived through the senses. The debate is, I suppose, about the third thing in Lawrence’s poem. Is it real or imaginary? That something is something more than the Higgs-Boson particle, it is something that cannot be taken in through the senses no matter how sophisticated the tools we invent become. 

 

Pinker, for example, views all religion as superstition because no religion can be proven through the scientific method. The “evidence” is not there. This makes religion, for Pinker the product of superstition and self-delusion. He is a materialist. Wieseltier argues that religious people, like idealists in general, construct a rational philosophy around their faith. The religious dynamic is as real to them as the scientific dynamic is to the scientist. This does not mean all humanistic thought is religious, but like religious thought, humanistic thought is concerned with more than can be materially proven. There probably is no such thing as a “pure” materialist or a “pure” idealist. Idealists still at times believe only what their senses tell them, still pursue material gain, often without regard to the ethical ramifications of those pursuits. Materialists are often “good” in the sense that they put the interests of others ahead of self-interest; do good things even when it is not in their self-interest to do good things. They are rarely like Wolf Larson, for example, in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf who takes what he wants because he is strong enough to take it. He believes in the “survival of the fittest” and believes because he is one of the fittest he is entitled to take what he wants. He is the consummate materialist.

 

The moon rising from behind a mountain over a wheat field

Landscape with wheat sheaves and rising moon

Vincent van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Landscape_with_wheat_sheaves_and_rising_moon.jpg

 

The painting captures the same moon (though a few years younger) as is seen in the photograph. An understanding of the science behind a moon rise and the atmospheric conditions surrounding it will not tell us anything about why this painting is beautiful. Nor would an understanding of the principles of light and texture and color explain why this painting is wonderful. Such an investigation might help us understand how it was constructed and why certain colors in combination with one another are pleasing to the eye, but this will not unlock its wonder. Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Sonnet to Science” addresses another aspect of the divide between science and the humanities:

 

SCIENCE! meet daughter of old Time thou art

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes!

Why prey’st thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture! whose wings are dull realities!

How should he love thee – or how deem thee wise

Who woulds’t not leave him, in his wandering,

To seek for treasure in the jewell’d skies

Albeit, he soar with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragg’d Diana from her car,

And driv’n the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star!

The gentle Naiad from her fountain-flood

The elfin from the green grass? and from me

The summer dream beneath the shrubbery?

 

Poe’s response to Pinker would be to point out that science seeks to explain away the magic, to demonstrate why the magic is not really magic. To the scientist this poem may seem an exercise in denial. Yes, science has shown that all that Poe points out is false, that it does not in fact exist, it is myth, folklore, and superstition. It does not matter that we want the magic to be real, it isn’t and that ends it. But, to this day elves and other magical creatures appear in stories. This does not make them real, but it does say something about the desires and aspirations of the human imagination. And perhaps, in a sense these myths are real, they give an imagined body to principles and quirks of human behavior that enable us to better understand ourselves. There may be no spirits in rivers or in trees, there may be no elves or dwarfs living in the secret places of the earth, but the attitudes elves and dwarfs personify are found all around us. When we enter the worlds in which such creatures live we have to suspend our disbelief, we willingly enter these worlds knowing what we will find there is not real, in the scientific sense, but also that they point to that “third thing” that science cannot explain. 

 

Statue of an Asian dragon

A carving of a dragon from Imperial City, Huế in Viet Nam

Anonymous

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roof_detail,_dragon.jpg

 

Steve Paulson in “Monsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science” presents another view of science and its beginnings. One aspect of the article pursues the human fascination with monsters and their ubiquity throughout history. The Photograph above is of a dragon and, being an Asian dragon, it is probably a friendly dragon, but one never knows. Many of our oldest stories involve monsters; Odysseus and the Cyclops, Beowulf and Grendel, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Many of Ovid’s retellings of Roman myths in The Metamorphoses involve monsters and battles with monsters. Many of Snorri Sturluson’s retelling of Norse myths also involve encounters with monsters. They are found everywhere. I think one of the reasons space travel is such a popular vehicle for storytelling is because in the unexplored reaches of space one can expect to find anything (and one can also expect that anything waiting to be found might also pay us a visit). The monsters encountered in The Thing and Alien mean to do us harm, whereas the monsters found in ET and The Day the Earth Stood Still are more concerned with our welfare, they are at the very least motivated more by kindness than malevolence. 

 

 Avatar The Trailer

James Cameron’

20th Century Fox

 

The film clip captures another aspect of wonder and of the monstrous. Are the creatures of Pandora monsters that need to be subdued, like some of the other wildlife found there? Or are the more “human” colonizers the monsters or at least the more monstrous. The film captures our fascination with what we do not understand. It also speaks to some of our better “angels” in that we find ourselves siding with the “monsters,” the “savages.” In this regard the film is a study in good vs. evil. But it is not just the story that enchants us; the special effects of the movie also provoke wonder. They present us with a grand spectacle. But is it the wonderful that beguiles us in this film or the fanciful. I remember seeing 2001 a Space Odyssey when it first came out. I was enchanted and beguiled by the special effects in that movie. But when I watch it today the effects are not as spellbinding. The art of special effects has far surpassed what was so revolutionary in Kubrick’s film. Much of what appeared wonderful in the film looks merely fanciful today. It is a landmark in film history and probably in the art of filmmaking. There are other aspects of the film that hold up very well as storytelling, but if the artistic life of the film depended on its special effects would it still attract an audience today? I wonder about Avatar if this might not also be the case. The time will come when the art of special effects will far surpass the effects found in this film. As Aristotle said, spectacle is an aspect of the theater, but it is not its most important aspect and not what gives the play (or the screenplay) its longevity. 

 

Computer generated image of glasses and a pair of dice

Glasses

Gilles Tran

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Glasses_800_edit.png

 

Then there is the image above. It is entirely computer generated. It provokes a sense of wonder when one considers what a series of “ones and zeros” can create. It suggests the beginning, perhaps, of the holodeck, that place in the science fiction world of Star Trek where we can live out and participate in the creations of our imaginations. It might also suggest that for the scientist to fully enjoy the fruits of science they need a bit of the humanist inside them in order to imagine what to do with all those wonderful machines. But again, is this fanciful or truly beguiling? Is the wonder created by our technology a short-lived wonder or does it have a longer life? Is there a story in the image that can keep it interesting after the novelty of how it was created has worn off? Sometimes science gives us the tools while the humanities provide the inspiration for their use, where humane uses are available. Of course one must be careful here to distinguish between the humanities and effective marketing.

 

Sam Kean (“Science, Right and Wrong”) picks up on another aspect of Paulson’s article, science and changing attitudes towards curiosity. Both articles point out that curiosity for a very long time was seen as a vice and not a virtue. Curiosity was a paving stone on the road to hell. This seems an odd and foreign attitude today; at least it does to me today. I cannot imagine a life lived without curiosity. There is an aspect of wonder that is aligned with curiosity. Wonder stimulates our senses and our senses want answers. It is curiosity that drives the scientist to understand science and its objects of study and curiosity that drives the humanist to comprehend the humanities’ significance to human life and experience. There are times when these two responses to wonder run parallel with each other, or can at least feed each other if each is given its own path to travel. 

 

When I look at the night sky I see something wonderfully sublime. It strikes an emotional cord inside me that has nothing to do with physics, astronomy, or the pull of gravity. It has to do with grandeur and magnificence and other things that are perhaps subjective at some level, but at another level I do not think so because so many before me have responded in the same way. For the sciences the focus is on its subjects measurability, on quantifying and defining it; for the humanities it is the subjects ineffability, that which defies measurement and quantification. Sometimes it seems the scientific response is the easier one, because it proceeds with answers to all questions or at least the belief that answers are forthcoming. For the humanist the questions are often provoked by what remains after the scientist has finished. 

 

Painting of a box with shell

Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell, and Chip-Wood Box, ca. 1630

Sébastien Stoskopff (Alsatian, 1597–1657)

Oil on canvas

18 1/2 x 23 3/8 in. (47 x 59.4 cm)

Wrightsman Fund, 2002 (2002.68)

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2002.68

 

It’s Just a Story

 “The Rocky Road to Dublin”

The Chieftains and The Rolling Stones

“Sweet Dream (Are Made of This)”

Eurhythmics

“All the Roadrunning”

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris

 

It’s Just a Story

 

Caricature of a clown

Caricature of Albert Brasseur in “Le Rire”

Sem

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sem_Brasseur_Le_Rire_1902.jpg

 

In an interview that first appeared in The New York Review of Books, “Everyman His Own Eckermann,” Edmund Wilson discussed his views on art, music, and literature. Though known mostly as a literary critic, he spent most of his time talking about art, a bit less time talking about music and hardly talked about literature at all. The interview is also interesting because Wilson was both the “interviewee” and the interviewer. In this respect it is something of a Plato-esque dialogue on art and, like Socrates, he rarely asks a question he does not already have an answer for, even when protesting his inability to provide an answer. And though he does not say much about literature, what he says about art and music comes back to what he appreciates in literature, the stories that are told. He enjoys opera because it tells a story, all other forms of music he only listens to on records, not in the theater or the concert hall. He does not care much for the work of Picasso, not because it isn’t well executed, but because it only succeeds at being clever. The drawing above is by one of Wilson’s favorite artists, a caricaturist who called himself Sem, the Hirschfeld of his day, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say Hirschfeld was the Sem of his day. 

 

Caricature of the singer Liza Minnelli

Liza Minnelli

Al Hirschfeld

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hirschfeld%27s_one-line_drawing_of_Liza_Minnelli.jpg

 

Both the Hirschfeld and Sem caricatures capture their subjects doing what they do best in a way that clearly and simply captures the essence of their subjects. Like Hirschfeld many, perhaps most, of Sem’s caricatures were of artists, mostly actors, writers, and musicians; artists associated with theater and the performing arts of one kind or another. Both artists relied on a simplicity of line and expression to capture their subjects. Looking at the Sem drawing suggests a kind of continuity in the arts, as Brasseur’s hat and coat and whip bring Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” to mind; they are not identical but there is a threadbare quality to the costume that is not unlike that of Chaplin’s tramp. And to get back to what Wilson admires about Sem (and what I admire about Hirschfeld) they are spare and simple drawings that tell stories. Like Shakespeare’s theater, the artists’ stage is a bare stage with no more in the way of setting and furniture than is absolutely necessary. As Poe suggests when writing about the short story, there is nothing extra, nothing that is not absolutely necessary for conveying their effect; the expression on each face and the contour of each body. The viewer’s imagination does the rest.

Some might not consider these artists as “great,” as “museum” quality, but their work involves the viewer and provokes an emotional response. Unlike Liza Minnelli, I do not know who Albert Brasseur is (I have discovered that, like Minnelli, he was active in the musical theater). But the caricature is evocative. It may be that the story I see in the picture is not the same story Sem’s original audience would have seen, they are unlikely to make my connection to Chaplin’s persona, and it is not likely that Brasseur was as intimately connected with this character as Chaplin was with the tramp. But this is often how art and story work; we see them in the light of our own time, our own personal history, and our own tastes and interests. Perhaps only I see Chaplin in this drawing. What others see may be colored by their experiences. There is also an ephemeral quality to the work of both artists, they are very topical, but Sem’s work, transient though it may be, has survived for a hundred years, perhaps because, though we may not know who his subjects were, there is a wittiness to their representation that piques our interest or makes us laugh or in some other way makes us care about them. But then, what is it in any story that causes it to live (and not all do) long after the circumstances of their creation have been forgotten. 

The songs at the beginning are about roads that are rocky or arduous; they are also about dreams, sweet or otherwise. These are also at the heart of many stories, there is often a dream or an aspiration; there is always a journey to be made that involves difficulty and conflict. It is often the nature of the dream and the conflict that hold our interest. Brasseur’s road looks like it has been a rocky one but he also appears to be a man with a dream and aspirations. These are also a part of what draws us to him. I like to imagine that Ms. Minnelli is singing Chaplain’s song “Smile”: “Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking. / When there are clouds in the sky / You’ll get by.” This, too, is an important aspect of those stories that survive.

 

Painting of a man playing the bagpipes

Bagpipe Player

Hendrick ter Brugghen

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.144298.html

 

The paintings above and below tell different stories. They are portraits, not caricatures, of men engaged in something serious, at least from their point of view. Being Scottish I take delight in the picture of the bagpipe and can imagine its sound. The musician playing the bagpipe evokes a story as well. I cannot tell if that is all shadow on his shoulder and not also a bit of dirt or a bruise. The bagpipe is a martial instrument and so it would not be surprising if the player has been involved in conflict. Even if the shoulder is not bruised the shirt does seem a bit disheveled. He seems to enjoy the music he is making, whatever the occasion for the music making.

The old man, on the other hand, appears to be more world weary, more troubled. I cannot know what it is that troubles him, perhaps it is only his advancing years, but the muscles and veins on the neck are tense and the eyes are troubled. He looks determined, though I do not think he looks hopeful. But I empathize with him and I want to help him, though I do not know how. Stories do not always offer answers and often it is not a quest for answers that draws us to stories, but a desire to discover what it means to be fully human and part of being fully human is learning how to comfort those we cannot help, at least not in the way they need to be helped. Job’s friends may not have been able to change Job’s circumstances, but they could have offered him solace and comfort instead of judgment and because they didn’t we judge them and wonder how genuine was their friendship. 

 

Portrait of an old man with a serious look

Head of an Old Man

Abraham Bloemaert

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.133023.html

 

Wilson, in talking about the artist Callot, mentions the Commedia dell’arte, an early form of Italian theater that is with us to this day, and has many of its antecedents in Plautus and the theater of Rome. Also, as in the painting below, the Commedia was often a kind of “street” theater that appealed to the masses, to the “simple folk” who were rarely as simple as some would have us believe. The Commedia had a cast of stock characters and we as the audience could always tell who was who based on their costumes, their masks, and their antics. There is a language of theater, a language of performance. Ben Jonson in his play Volpone, and many of his other plays, borrowed heavily from the Commedia. Moliere, in his comedies, used characters who had their origins in the Commedia as well. Tartuffe, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid are all characters lifted from this ancient theatrical tradition. The plays are still very funny because the character traits being mocked are all caricatures of personality types we recognize. We are not likely to know anyone who possess these traits to the degree the characters in these plays possess them, it is not likely that anyone has ever possessed these traits to this extreme. They are exaggerations that nonetheless capture something real about how we as humans are corrupted by these traits; how to some degree we all possess these traits and in laughing at the antics on stage we are laughing at ourselves. 

 

Painting of comic actors performing on a moveable stage before a rustic audience

Commedia dell’arte

Karel Dujardin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KDujardinsCommedia.jpg

 

Stories often help us to see ourselves as we are and to not take ourselves too seriously. Malvolio, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is modeled on the same character type as Tartuffe (though he lacks Tartuffe’s intelligence or resourcefulness, but on the other hand Tartuffe does not have Malvolio’s sincerity). We have all known people to whom we wanted to say, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” And if we are honest with ourselves there have been moments in our lives when those around us, probably wanted to say the same to us. Some look askance at others for being too judgmental and some at others who are unwilling to make judgments. It is human to be critical of those that do not adhere to our “code,” whatever our “code” is.

Marin Scorsese in an article for The New York Review of Books talks about the language of film, “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema.” He talks about the environment of film, at least of film viewed as it ought to be viewed. Films need to be seen in a dark room surrounded by strangers (many of whom you might avoid were you to encounter them on the street). For me the clicking sound of the projector is also an important part of the experience. Just as the Commedia had its stock characters, so also cinema has its stock characters. At its simplest we know the good guys because they wear white hats. But in film, the hard-nosed detective, no matter who plays him, is a type of character, the cowboy, whether played by John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, or Steve McQueen is a character type. Both the cowboy and the detective have an “unsavory” veneer about them that is contradicted by their actions, or at least times it is. Black and white as a film “genre” is also a significant part of my film experience. I am used to seeing movies in black and white, even movies that were originally made in color, like, for instance, Invaders from Mars. I saw this film, and many others, every night for a week when it played on a television program called Million Dollar Movie. This program played the same film every night for a week. But television when I was a child was all black and white and I was amazed when I discovered, fairly recently, Invaders from Mars was original shot in color. 

 

Photograph of the head of a fat man with a thin man standing behind him

Scene from The Maltese Falcon

John Huston/Warner Brothers

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GutmanCairoMaltFalc1941Trailer.jpg

 

But many films were originally shot in black and white because the lack of color helped create an atmosphere, especially in “film noir” movies like The Big Sleep or Laura. Tension and mystery were enhanced by the lack of color, as was the seediness of many of the characters and situations. These films may have been originally shot in black and white for budgetary reasons, but the directors of these films took a limitation and made it into a strength. I remember seeing Brideshead Revisited for the first time on a black and white television set. Because I didn’t know any better I thought the maker of the series was brilliant in choosing to shoot the film in Black and White because it helped capture for me the essence of the 1920’s; it had a newsreel quality to it that enhanced the “feeling” of the times in which the story was set. It was only later that I realized the filmmaker was not as brilliant as I had thought; the series was actually shot in color and I just did not have a color set on which to see it. But again, our experience colors our interpretations and understandings of the stories we experience. 

 

Spider-Man, The Lion King and life on the creative edge

Julie Taymor

TED Talk

 

In the video Julie Taymor talks about how she creates theater and films. Spectacle plays a large part in what she tries to do, but so does simplicity. She talks about how, when she was designing the Broadway musical (not the film) The Lion King she began much the same way Hirschfeld and Sem began, with simple lines, what she calls ideograms that capture the essence of character. Her productions, especially her last that did not go that well, are very complex, they attempt to do things not tried before, they take great risks. It can be debated as to whether or not the finished product was worth the risk, but she has done some remarkable things in film and on stage. She tells at the beginning of her talk of witnessing a religious ceremony. She was in darkness and those performing the ceremony were unaware of their “audience.” In fact as marvelous as the spectacle of their dance, costumes, and of the setting for their performance was they were not performing for anyone; their only audience was, as far as they knew, God. 

Taymor believes that there is a religious quality to theater and story telling. The origins of the theater are religious, the Athenian Greeks used theater to communicate their myths and reinforce in the minds of the people the importance of the gods and the gods care for the universe. When actors came on stage wearing a mask the audience knew immediately who the actors were portraying because they saw the same faces on statues everyday as they walked about town. Rabelais in “The Abbey of Theleme” section of Pantagruel has the walls of the abbey painted with pictures that told all the important stories; that taught all the important lessons. This is not an unusual feature in Renaissance utopias, paintings in public spaces that taught the young and the illiterate the values of the utopic culture. A popular book of the time, for those that could afford such things, were “books of hours” that people would use to meditate upon during “hours” of prayer (the medieval day was divided into “canonical hours,” compline, vespers, matins for example). On one page would be the text of a gospel or a psalm and on the facing page an illustration, an illumination, that told in pictures the story of the text. The arts, literature, painting, music, and theater all had their origins in a kind of education that passes along the cultural traditions in a way that is accessible to all and understood by all.

 

Page from an illuminated manuscript with a picture of a medieval man being arrested

“Folio 31 verso from a Book of Hours (British Library, Royal 2 B XV), the Arrest of Christ”

Anonymous

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BLRoyal2BXVFol031vArrestChrist.jpg

 

Peter Thonemann in his article “Seeing Straight” talks about architecture and how the buildings we design and live in are often suggestive of how we view the world and how we think the universe works. Early civilizations often built circular buildings, while later on square buildings became the design of choice. Thonemann suggests this is because the world as we observe it is circular; tree trunks, the sun and moon, the motion of the sun and moon; but ninety degree angles, that is squares and rectangles, are more functional as living and working spaces. I am not sure how much we can tell about a people based on their buildings, but I think we can tell something. What we make, the environments in which we choose to live, the stories that we tell, and how we choose to tell them all say something about us and about how we see ourselves. Are our living and working spaces an extension of our worship or are they places designed to bring us comfort? Can they be both?

There was an article in the online journal First Things, “Faith in Fiction,” that discusses the disappearance of faith from modern fiction. I am not entirely sure this is the case, but much, maybe most, of modern fiction seems to avoid faith. But I do not think this is entirely the case, because I think we all live by faith. We select a worldview, or perhaps our conscience does, that guides the judgments we make. These worldviews are ultimately un-provable; they begin with an article of faith, God exists, God doesn’t exist, science has the answer for every question (if not at the present moment, it will in time), we are born with a conscience, what we call conscience is the result of our upbringing. None of these assertions can be proved empirically, but we all have to start somewhere so we pick one. The stories a culture tells itself reveal the articles of faith that culture has embraced, even if that faith is one of “faithlessness.” But our “gods” may be replaced with other “gods” as time goes by, just as the Jupiter once replaced Zeus.

 

St. Marks basilica in Venice at sunset

Venetian Fantasy with Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana on an Island

Edward Lear

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/collection-search-result.html?accession=2009.70.152&pageNumber=1

 

The painting is Venetian Fantasy. This suggests it captures a Venice that never existed, it is a fantasy, but it bears a close enough resemblance to the Venice we know, or at least that Edward Lear knew, to make the fantasy real. To those that do not share our faith it is a fantasy as others’ faith often appears as a fantasy to us. One thing story should help us with is determining what we are going to “bet our lives on,” because there are consequences attached to the beliefs we adopt; they dictate to us how our lives ought to be lived. Some think it is enough to live consistently with the choices we have made. Others think making the right choice is in itself critical, and those that think this way can often tell us what the right choice is. I believe in truth and that it is important to question everything with the belief that whatever is true can stand up to the scrutiny if it is true. 

Perhaps part of what characterizes the age is a fear of what we might find if we ask too many questions. There is a great temptation, not just in our age, but in every age, to seek comfort, to seek rest, to seek enjoyment and to evade the darkness, and often the easiest way to do this, at least in the short term, is to ignore unpleasant truths and difficult questions. To what degree is what we hunger for determined by the diet we are accustomed to and to what degree does what we hunger for challenge our conventions? I am not sure that stories can give us the answers we seek, but I do think stories encourage us to keep looking and to not be satisfied with easy solutions to difficult problems. The truth may often be simple, but it is never simplistic. 

 

Man sitting on the side of a mountain sketching

The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine

Sanford Robinson Gifford

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.138735.html

Wise Guys

The Silver Tongued Devil

Kris Kristofferson

Stranger in a Strange Land

Leon Russell

Save the Children

Marvin Gaye

 

Wise Guys

 

Portrait of a woman with a pen

“Detail of the portrait of a young woman (so-called Sappho) with writing pen and wax tablets.”

Roman Painting from Pompeii

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pompei_-_Sappho_-_MAN.jpg

 

The painting is of Sappho and suggests, or ought to suggest, that not all “wise guys” are guys. One reason we read literature, listen to music, study paintings is because they help to make us wise. It is not enough, of course, to just engage the arts superficially; like any relationship they require we spend “quality time.” But if we read well, listen carefully, study closely there is much pleasure to be gotten and much insight to be gotten, insight into ourselves, into the world around us, and into those that fill our world. If nothing else they help us to see the limitations of our own experience, while helping us understand the experiences of others, especially those whose experiences are so foreign to our own experience. 

The three songs suggest three varieties of wisdom. The first, The Silver Tongued Devil, revolves around a man who cannot be trusted, who also seems not to accept responsibility for his more irresponsible or self-serving behaviors. It is worth knowing, it is important to know, that there are those that will say anything to achieve their desires and we need to be on our guard against such people. Most of us have gone, or are going, through moments when our naiveté has blinded us to those that would exploit or manipulate us. The experience often makes us bitter, or cynical, or angry. Wisdom helps us to guard against being taken advantage of in this way and it also helps us to get through these experiences and regain our footing. It can also help assuage the pain. We learn from characters like Pip in Great Expectations who as a child is victimized by a vengeful woman or from J. Alfred Prufrock whose love song throws a bit of light on our own insecurities and feelings of alienation. 

The second song underscores how wisdom sometimes separates us from the world around us, we feel like “strangers in a strange land.” Part of growing wise is learning to be comfortable with who we are, with our place in the world, with our aspirations. Part of growing wise is learning how to accept ourselves while resisting the temptation to be what others expect us to be, to no longer feel the need to “prepare a face for the faces that we meet.” Ben Jonson’s play Volpone revolves around characters that do all they can to manipulate the emotions of a man they believe to be dying in hopes of using his death to enrich themselves. They are wearing the face Volpone expects them to wear in hopes of manipulating him. Volpone, of course, is manipulating them to enrich himself. His first words in the play are “Good morning to the day and next my gold.” Those that fawn over Volpone get what they deserve, and Volpone gets what he deserves as well, while the innocent are kept from harm. Greed and avarice prove the undoing of all the villains. The play is a very funny play and also very wise.

The third song, Save the Children suggests one of the responsibilities of one generation for the generation that follows. Those that are wise among us realize that we have a responsibility to the children entrusted to us and that if our way of life is to be preserved the youth of our age need to be equipped to take over the world and prepare it for the generation that follows them. My parent’s generation provided for me and many of my generation the education and the upbringing we needed to make our way successfully into the world. Not all parents succeeded and probably no parent ever succeeds completely, but the desire to raise us well and the fidelity to their responsibilities made up for the mistakes and misunderstandings. Love, even when it is imperfect, heals many wounds. Of course, not all parents were responsible and not all parents raised their children well, some never tried. But as a generation, it seems to me, and this may only be because it is the product of my experience, they did well. I was allowed to grow and to play and to pursue my aspirations. I was given the education I needed to pursue those aspirations and to find the kind of work that is fulfilling and meaningful to me. I was allowed to become foolish so that I might grow in wisdom, and much of that foolishness was pursued under the protection of their wings. 

 

Portrait of a bearded man writing at a desk full of papers

Leo Tolstoy at His Desk

Nikolai Ge

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tolstoy_Writing.jpg

 

There was an article recently about a program using classic Russian Literature, “Crime and punishment: Juvenile offenders study Russian literature,” to help juvenile criminals change so that they could reenter the world without falling into old habits. The characters in these stories and the issues raised resonated with the experiences of these convicts. Perhaps the books played some of the role of a parent for these men and women. They offered the examples, provided some of the alternatives, and suggested ways in which the past could be overcome that might be lessons others learned from parents. Whatever the role played by these stories, they put many on the road to wisdom and recovery. And, of course, as mentioned earlier, not all parents parent well. Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice was a foolish, though well meaning parent; Creon in Antigone was foolish and cruel. The traits that colored their foolishness, the good intentions of the one and the cruelty of the other, had profound consequences for their children. We are all to one degree or another foolish, and for some “meaning to do well” is all of which they are capable. 

 

Portrait of a woman seated; with a smirk perhaps

Portrait of Jane Austen

Cassandra Austen

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810)_hires.jpg

 

Charles Barzun in “A Letter to My Grandfather” captures the essence of how one generation affects another. Charles Barzun talks about the importance of the influence of his grandfather, Jacque Barzun, on his, Charles’, personal development. A large part of that influence was due to the grandfather’s listening to the grandson, taking the grandson seriously and stepping up the depth and level of his advice and praise to correspond to younger man’s personal growth and maturity. When encouragement was what was most needed, there was encouragement, when encouragement needed to be spiced with some criticism and concerns he added criticisms and concerns, but in a way that would not dishearten, but would encourage and motivate improvement. This is a large part of wisdom, knowing what to say at the proper moment and the way to say it. 

 

Painting of a man seated on a bed surrounded by a group of men

Death of Socrates

Jacques-Louis David

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates.jpg

 

For the Western World Socrates is probably one of the more important models of wisdom. For the Eastern World Confucius was. They both understood that wisdom was something that was sought and rarely, if ever, fully attained. For one to think wisdom had been attained was seen as folly and often provoked ridicule. I think it still does. Perhaps wisdom is a bit like a mirage in the desert, we can always see it out in front us, but we can never quite reach it. Of course, there is a significant difference; the mirage is an illusion, while true wisdom is not. As a people I think we often hold before us examples of wisdom we try to emulate. The Catholic Church has its saints (the Protestant Church does as well, but they are identified differently). There are the philosophers, the “doers of good,” the heroes of our causes or our creeds, whether they be secular or divine. We need examples to follow and to imitate. For Confucius it was the ancestors, though they may not have always been deserving of emulation; for Socrates it was his conscience and his idea of justice as he understood it. He did not trust “the ancestors;” he had problems with the example set by the poets and philosophers (though some of this skepticism may have been attributed to him by his student Plato). Perhaps, the ultimate irony of Greek philosophy was Aristotle placing his teacher, Plato, among the poets that Plato wished to banish. Plato’s idealism became the foundation of the Humanities and Aristotle’s materialism became the foundation of the Sciences and the scientific method. They offer two paths to wisdom we still follow, while recognizing, of course, their limitations.

 

Portrait of a man seated in a chair with a book

Confucius

Unkown

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Konfuzius-1770.jpg

 

Poems, stories, plays, and essays shaped the way I see the world. Literature gave me insight into the human heart, my heart primarily, but others’ as well. There were a number of essays recently on this subject, “Perhaps Culture Is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities” by Leon Wieseltier, “Ave atque vale” by Donald Kagan, “Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics” by Sam Sacks, and “Idealism and Blindness: Of flaking paint and blemishes” by Leon Wieseltier. What these articles all have in common is the importance that they place on literature and the Humanities in shaping our society and the people we become. Many of the books that comprise our literary tradition are dismissed by our contemporary culture as no longer being relevant. Many today believe the storytellers, poets, and philosophers were addressing issues that belonged to a different time and that they no longer speak to us. Each of these articles suggests this view is false. They do not dismiss contemporary art and literature, they recognize that the Humanities are not a dead thing and that because they are living, they are growing and each generation, including our own, will make its contribution. Each of the articles by Wieseltier makes important points. The first, “Perhaps Culture Is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities” resonates with me because I am not much younger than he, like Wieseltier I saw myself as a part of the “counterculture” when I was in college. Though for me, and most of my counterculture friends, literature, and that included the classic literature produced by those long dead, shaped our view of what culture should be. 

There are aspects of this counterculture that, looking back, seem naïve or insufficient. Other aspects I no longer believe, but much of what I have abandoned was motivated initially by a desire to correct what seemed broken in the culture. Many of those things still seem broken to me, I have not lost my liberal point of view, but I see the likes of St. Francis more than the “rabble rousers” of my youth as better models to follow; but then I have always been more attracted to the Dorothy Day side of the counterculture than the Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman side. After all, Jerry Rubin was in his thirties when he said we should “trust no one over thirty.” However it came to be this way, we have reached a place where those that would defend Culture and try to keep its influence alive have become the counterculture.

 

Japanese woodblock of a woman seated at a table writing

Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyama-dera

Suzukin Harunobu

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lady_Murasaki_writing.png

 

I also think Wieseltier’s discussion of idealism in “Idealism and Blindness: Of flaking paint and blemishes” is important. He tells of a man who was blind and could only imagine what the world looked like based on what he read and what he was told. This man was given an operation that gave to him his sight. When he saw what the world really looked like, it failed to live up to the world he had expected to see; its beauty paled when compared to the beauty he had imagined. The man ended up committing suicide because the world failed so dreadfully to live up to his expectations. Wieseltier suggests that this is the challenge that idealists face. The world as it is will never live up to the world the idealist imagines and strives to create. There has to be a dose of reality or hope will be lost. But that dose of reality need not kill our idealism; it should nourish our hope and inspire our effort. It nourishes hope because it keeps it grounded in what is, it inspires our effort because though we recognize the world is not as we would wish it, and may never be as we would wish it, we still have a goal towards which we can aspire and we can still work to make what is a bit better. 

There was another article, “Big Data Meets the Bard,” that took a very different view of literature and of reading. The article examines a number of contemporary scholars that let computers do their reading for them. One of those interviewed, and working on a graduate degree in English, proudly stated (or so it seems to me) that he has not read a book in years and cannot even remember what the last book was that he read, though he believes it was science fiction. The computers crunch language looking for stylistic similarities between writers. Among other things they found that more writers were influenced, based on stylistic similarities, by Walter Scott than by Charles Dickens. This may be in fact true, but perhaps all this suggests is that Scott is more easily imitated than Charles Dickens. But who among us that reads literature for pleasure and enlightenment reads it for “stylistic similarities.” Those that read deeply read for the ideas, read for the development of characters and situations, they read for the beauty of the thing. Now certainly style plays a role, but is the role merely syntactic. I admit to being curious, about all this, to a certain fascination with how language is used by different writers; I am fascinated by the similarities and differences. But this is the “Trivia Pursuit” side of literature, it is little nuggets of information that are curious and interesting and might make for interesting anecdotes, but it misses the whole point of literature. From Homer to Cormac McCarthy no writer ever wrote to be read by a machine, that is not the audience they seek. It is interesting and fun to watch a machine beat a human at chess, but we admire the human a lot more than the machine and are far more impressed by what the human can do. If we are impressed by the machine it is because we marvel at what humans were able to do in building it. What machines cannot appreciate, let alone analyze, is the beautiful, is the working of the imagination, is the internal reflection that a work of art provokes. 

 

How Books Can Open Your Mind

Lisa Bu

TED Talk

 

The video addresses another aspect of reading that machines cannot appreciate, at least none that I have encountered anywhere except in science fiction stories. I especially enjoyed how Lisa Bu compared books in their original language with how they were translated into other languages and what she suggests we can learn about our own language from how words we do not think twice about are rendered into another language. We often take words for granted. We know a few connotations and a word’s most common associations. But most words have a history, have multiple meanings, and are often selected because those multiple meanings add multiple colors to the work (this is especially true of poetry, but not just poetry). Nor is this playfulness unique to language. Shostakovich put themes and musical quotations into his music that were intended to insult Stalin, but which Stalin lacked the sophistication and musical knowledge to recognize. It was a dangerous game to play, and Shostakovich had his difficulties with the powers that be. Perhaps, because the nature of his musical jokes were so dangerous, he never said much about them and they have been largely inferred by musicologists studying the music after the fact. Can a joke falling on deaf ears still garner a laugh?

 

Etching of people living in darkness

Plato’s Cave

Jan Pietersz Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem

Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.62542.html

 

The etching above is of Plato’s cave from The Republic. Those in the cave cannot really see or appreciate the beauty of the world outside or even the world inside the cave that is outside their range of vision or cannot be seen through the darkness. They live in a world of beauty and wisdom but cannot see it. There is a way out of the cave but they refuse to take it. The unknown is frightening. They see shadows that hint at what they are missing but they do not understand what the shadows portend. There is a short story by Lord Dunsany that reminds me of Plato’s cave. It is called “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” It describes a land that is perfect, everything one could want is provided. But people keep leaving to climb the mountain, Poltarnees, to see what is on the other side, to see the ocean. No one who leaves ever returns. I think of the “Inner Lands” as Plato’s cave. They provide security, they are known, they are safe, no one can come to harm. Life is easy and ease is, perhaps, an illusion, the comforts the Inner Lands provide are something like the shadows on the wall. This suggests that pursuit of “comfort” is an illusion that cannot ultimately satisfy; that to experience life fully and to live well we must be willing to put our comforts at risk. Perhaps the safe life, like the unexamined life, is not worth living, or at the very least, is settling for less.

The painting below is of flowers. Flowers do not really serve a purpose in a utilitarian sense. They are not a source of food (they can be I suppose, but their nutritional value is limited), they do not keep out the wind or the sun, they are not much good for anything other than to look at. They are beautiful. They add color to a drab world. Some of us buy flowers and put them on our tables. Others look at those who buy flowers as foolish, as the flowers cost money, sometimes a lot of money (many in Holland became bankrupt when the tulip market crashed). But they offer little in the way of a material return on the investment. They last a week or so and then must be thrown away and replaced. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with oil she was criticized because the oil was expensive and it could have been sold to buy food to feed the poor. But Jesus called it a beautiful thing. For those that appreciate it, beauty brings healing, it opens the heart and mind to forces in the universe that are greater than the material objects that surround us, greater than what the senses alone can perceive. Whether one is religious or not beauty helps us escape ourselves and points us to wisdom. The presence of beauty in the world suggests we were not placed here solely to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. If it does nothing else it reminds us that pleasure is a part of life and that part of our purpose here is to experience joy and delight. 

 

Painitng of a field of diffent color flowers

Flower Beds in Holland

Vincent van Gogh

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.61371.html

Impressions

Vincent

Don McLean

Country Life

Delaney and Bonnie

 

Impressions

 

Portrait of a man with a hat with hands clasped together

Portrait of Patience Escalier

Vincent van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_086.jpg

 

There were a number of articles recently on poets. This is perhaps not surprising considering that April is National Poetry Month. There were articles on well known poets, W. H, Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Keats (“National Poetry Month: W. H. Auden,” “Working Girl,” and “Poet of Loss”) The Auden article was really a weeklong celebration of the poet’s work. There were also articles on less well known poets, Edward Thomas and R. S. Thomas (“Chapter and Verse: The Unknown Prose of a Great Poet” and “RS Thomas: Serial Obsessive by M Wynn Thomas – review”). These poets, with the possible exception of Auden and Millay, were known largely for their poems on nature and on those that worked in the natural world. One of R. S. Thomas’ early poems focuses on a farmer (or perhaps a fictionalized accumulation of a number of local farmers) from the rural parish he served as an Anglican priest:

A Peasant

Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,

Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,

Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.

Docking mangels, chipping the green skin

From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin

Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth

To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind—

So are his days spent, his spittled mirth

Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks

Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.

And then at night see him fixed in his chair

Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.

There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.

His clothes, sour with years of sweat

And animal contact, shock the refined,

But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.

Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season

Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,

Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress

Not to be stormed, even in death’s confusion.

Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,

Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.

The poem celebrates the simplicity of the peasant’s life. It also celebrates those that work the land and live in communion with the land. The painting by Van Gogh captures a French peasant (a gardener and shepherd) who, according to Wikipedia, Van Gogh painted because the farmer’s features resembled those of his father. There is a similarity of feeling between the landscapes of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters like Van Gogh and the poems of poets whose lyrics revolve around the natural world, the woods and the wilds, like R. S. Thomas’. 

Just as the paintings capture the painters’ impressions of the land rather than a photographic representation of the land, so also do these poets capture the impressions the land makes upon them more than the actual appearance of the land. The song by Don McLean celebrates these features, this Romantic view of nature, in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. The song by Delaney and Bonnie captures also captures a romantic view of nature and life in the country, though perhaps this romanticized view is some distance from the reality as captured in the R. S. Thomas poem. 

 

Painting of a landscaape with river and trees and mountains and an archway

A wooded river landscape with a man and his dog by a waterfall, ruins beyond

George Barrett, Sr.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circle_of_George_Barrett_-_A_wooded_river_landscape_with_a_man_and_his_dog_by_a_waterfall,_ruins_beyond.jpg

 

The paintings above and below are Romantic era paintings (or just before) that, though they are more realistic than those of the Impressionists, capture the wilderness in ways that evoke the poets of that era. In the painting above the ruin is evocative of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” The ruin in the painting suggests Nature’s power and its ability to reclaim its own as that which man has built is slowly broken down into its natural elements. What is often overlooked in these poems and paintings are the more dangerous aspects of this power nature has over us and the world in which we live. Aside from what may lurk in these woods there is also the dangers of the terrain itself. And though the likelihood of getting lost in the woods has diminished over time, other dangers such as bogs and rough water are still a threat. Wordsworth in one section of The Prelude addresses this ambivalence between nature’s beauty and nature’s dangerous power:

I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon’s utmost boundary; for above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace;’ lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat 

Went heaving through the water like a swan; 

When, from behind that craggy steep till then 

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge, 

As if with voluntary power instinct 

Upreared its bead. I struck and struck again, 

And growing still in stature the grim shape 

Towered up between me and the stars, and still, 

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own 

And measured motion like a living thing, 

Strode after me.  

What at first, in its beauty, filled the young poet with awe (he is describing a childhood experience) suddenly fills him with fear. It is for Wordsworth a transformational experience. In reflecting on this event he begins to form an attitude towards nature that recognizes both its sublime beauty and its great power. 

Where the painting above hints at the power of nature that Wordsworth suggests, the painting below by Gainsborough captures the more benign aspects of nature, its pleasant beauty and the rustics going about their business. The gathering clouds may suggest the ability of nature to interrupt our plans for leisure and recreation, but it is in the distance and far removed and more of an inconvenience than a threat.

 

A painting of a road by a bluff with water and cattle

Landscape with the Village Cornard

Thomas Gainsborough

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Gainsborough_009.jpg

 

Unlike the Impressionists, the “impressions” in these paintings come through the choice of subject and not as much in the style in which that subject is painted. Gainsborough and Barrett are realistic painters, they are trying to capture a more “photographic” kind of image, but the subjects of these paintings communicate attitudes, “impressions” of the natural world. It may even be that the scenes themselves never existed as they are painted but that they were largely composed in the imagination of the painters. Where the Impressionists painted what they saw but did not paint what they saw as they saw it, these painters paint what they do not see, but paint it as it would look if they had seen it. 

 

Painting of a mill during the day time

The Old Mill

Vincent van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_(1853-1890)_-_The_Old_Mill_(1888).jpg

 

The paintings above and below are both of “old mills.” Both painters are Dutchmen separated by about two hundred years of history. Both paintings capture an attitude toward the natural world. The brush strokes in the Van Gogh painting seem to suggest that nature is in motion, that it is visibly alive. In the Rembrandt painting the dirt, the stones, and the trees are sedentary and firmly planted in place, but the clouds and the water also suggest a world in motion. Both paintings depict people going about their business. Van Gogh’s mill looks to be a different kind of mill from Rembrandt’s and it may be from a different country as well. Van Gogh’s mill may be like the one Edward Thomas writes of in his poem “The Mill Water:”

 

The Mill-Water

ONLY the sound remains

Of the old mill;

Gone is the wheel;

On the prone roof and walls the nettle reigns.

 

Water that toils no more

Dangles white locks

And, falling, mocks

The music of the mill-wheel’s busy roar.

 

Pretty to see, by day

Its sound is naught

Compared with thought

And talk and noise of labour and of play.

 

Night makes the difference.

In calm moonlight,

Gloom infinite,

The sound comes surging in upon the sense:

 

Solitude, company,–

When it is night,–

Grief or delight

By it must haunted or concluded be.

 

Often the silentness

Has but this one

Companion;

Wherever one creeps in the other is:

 

Sometimes a thought is drowned

By it, sometimes

Out of it climbs;

All thoughts begin or end upon this sound,

 

Only the idle foam

Of water falling

Changelessly calling,

Where once men had a work-place and a home.

The poem meditates on an old mill as a ruin, a building that no longer serves the purpose for which it was created and the natural world, Nature, mocks the building as the sound of the rushing water draws our attention to the silence of the old mill’s machinery. Nature lives on and is slowly dismantling that which man has created; Nature is still at work while man’s machinery is silent and, in the words of Coleridge, “the sole unbusy thing.” 

 

Painting of a mill on a bluff by water at night time

The Mill

Rembrandt van Rijn

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Mill-1645_1648-Rembrandt_van_Rijn.jpg

 

Edward Taylor began as a writer of prose, and was best known in his lifetime for his books and essays on the English landscape. After reading some of Taylor’s prose Robert Frost encouraged Taylor to write poetry (Taylor dedicated his first book of poems to Frost). Today Taylor is better known for his poetry than he is for his prose, but he said that much of his poetry was adapted from his prose depictions of the English landscape. I do not know if the “The Mill Water” began as a prose piece or not, but it is not difficult to imagine that it might have. Thomas, like other poets of his generation, was killed in the First World War. Unlike the other war poets, though, none of his poems are about the war; they focus on the natural world, most often, ironically, on the peace and serenity of the natural world.\

 

Open space with trees and deer at sunset

The Park at Petworth House

J. M. W. Turner

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_015.jpg

 

The painting by Turner is of the deer park attached to a country manor house, Petworth House. It captures the world of the deer park in its natural beauty at sunset (it might be sunrise, but to me it “feels” like I am looking west, though of course it could just as easily be east). Though the focus of the painting is on a man made landscape there is nothing in the painting to identify it as man made and it could easily be mistaken for a “picturesque” scene from nature. Ben Jonson in his poem “To Penshurst” on the other hand focuses on the relationship between the natural world and the world that man has created:

 

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,

Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row

Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;

Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,

Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,

And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.

Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,

Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.

Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;

Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,

Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,

Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;

That taller tree, which of a nut was set

At his great birth where all the Muses met.

There in the writhèd bark are cut the names

Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames;

And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke

The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s Oak.

Thy copse too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,

That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer

When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends.

The lower land, that to the river bends,

Thy sheep, thy bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;

The middle grounds thy mares and horses breed.

There is the “ancient pile” and the “walks for health, as well as sport.” But there is also the deer, sheep, and the river, though there is the suggestion that the natural world has been made to conform to the will of man. In Turner’s painting the opposite seems to be suggested, that the world of man has been made to conform to the will of Nature. Jonson is a part of the Renaissance world, in Turner, on the other hand, we see early hints of what would become the Impressionist style of painting and the influence of the Romantic poets.

 

Painting of a bridge over a river

Wakefield Bridge and Chantry Chapel

Philip Reinagle

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wakefield_Bridge_and_Chantry_Chapel_by_Philip_Reinagle_1793.jpeg

 

The Romantic poets did not concern themselves, though, entirely with the wilderness. Wordsworth in one of his best known sonnets, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” captures the beauty of an urban landscape:

 

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The poem juxtaposes the beauty of the wilderness with the beauty of the city. It may just be me, but I think I detect a bit of “tongue in cheek” in the line “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air,” perhaps a nod to the polluted air of what is becoming the industrialized world. On this morning the smoke is not present, but the word “smokeless” suggests this might not be the air’s normal condition. That said, the poem does capture the beauty that can be found in that which humans create; there is the suggestion that we crave beauty and make our structures not just functional but pleasant to look at with a sublimity all their own. In Barrett’s painting above there can be seen in the ruin the outline of what was once a beautiful structure. In the battle between man and nature, nature may ultimately win, but that does not mean that man’s creations do not have a beauty of their own.

 

Painting of a busy water way with a bridge

Westminster Hall and Bridge

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wesminster_Hall_and_Bridge_edited.jpg

 

Suggested in all this is how we come to know and understand the natural world. There is not much (perhaps no) science in these paintings and poems, nothing to suggest how the natural world works and how it “manufactures” beauty. That which humans construct, the buildings, bridges, and other structures are designed and their construction overseen by architects who understand the laws of the natural world that their structures must contend with and, hopefully conquer, but also they have to have an “eye” for the beautiful, for the sublime. The paintings of the two bridges and the surrounding landscapes reveal not just a functional cityscape, but an attempt to create a cityscape that is pleasurable to look at. The buildings are not just boxes and the bridges do more than just span the water. 

The trees that have been planted around the buildings suggest a desire common to most of us to be surrounded not just by our own creations, but by the natural world as well. As human beings we have a desire to reconcile the natural world to our own world, the world we create to live in, that brings elements of the natural environment together with what we have built in a way that fosters community and cooperation. This is perhaps a bit idealized in that there are many within this community that are motivated solely by the products of trade, wealth and its generation, and the exploitation of labor perhaps to make the products of trade more personally profitable. But be that as it may, what we build, and what many of those “industrialists” build, are more than just functional. To be truly “happy,” truly at peace with the world, we desire the presence of the beautiful. This suggests that beauty and its presence in our lives may not always make us better people, but perhaps in contemplating beauty we are confronted with forces larger than ourselves and in ignoring these larger forces we become complicit in our moral deterioration. 

 

  The Philosophical Breakfast Club

Laura Snyder

TED Talk

 

The video begins by describing a meeting between two worlds, the world of the poet and the world of the scientist, it in fact tells us how the word “scientist” came to be invented. Where the world of the poet is more philosophical (or so Coleridge thought) and less concerned with the nuts and bolts of how nature works, the scientist is concerned with the running of the natural world. The video suggests that the poet, the philosopher, and the scientist all have the best interest of the human race at heart. It suggests they are all in their own way attracted to the natural world and to natural beauty. The members of the “Philosophical Breakfast Club” believed that science should make the world more understandable and that scientists should not profit from their own corner of the intellectual market place, but that their findings should be made public and available to all for free. Those, like harbor masters, that profited from their specialized knowledge were looked upon with disfavor. The public interest, not to mention public safety, was best served by making this information public and readily available. Then as well as now, there was much talk about who actually pays for this information that serves so well the public interest. The workman is worthy of his hire, and the work must be paid for by someone, and than, like now, the role of the public and private sectors in funding this work that serves the public good was an issue.

Of course poets, philosophers, and painters are not just concerned with the natural world, or only that part of the natural world occupied by rivers, woods, and animals. They also contemplate the human heart and much of the best poetry, art, and philosophy revolves around relationships. Shakespeare in his Sonnet XXIII writes about love, as is expected of a sonnet:

 

As an unperfect actor on the stage,

Who with his fear is put beside his part,

Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,

Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;

So I, for fear of trust, forget to say

The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,

And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,

O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.

O! let my looks be then the eloquence

And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,

Who plead for love, and look for recompense,

More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.

O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:

To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

One thing that initially struck me about this sonnet is that it begins with an observation from Shakespeare’s world, the world of the theater. He gives us a picture of a poorly prepared actor struggling with his lack of preparation and with “stage fright.” Anyone who has spent time in the theater is familiar with this sensation. Shakespeare than observes that strong emotions, like rage, when given free reign over us, weaken us. He then speaks of love and how his intense love has made him distrustful of his words and asks his eyes and the silence to speak for him. Poetry, whether it is focused on the natural world or the natural man, gives voice to our emotions, to our insights into the world and into ourselves. Its eloquence proceeds from passion, but as Wordsworth observed, passion that is under the poet’s control. Poetry, and the other arts, gives voice to our passions, but it only succeeds when we are not controlled by our passions. It is perhaps, the most intensely felt and, when done well, the most intensely disciplined acts of human expression.

 

Painting of  houses on a sandy hill top

     

Catterline

Anna King

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Catterline.jpg

Tradition

Penelope

Loreena McKennitt

 

Tradition

 

Prophetic looking man toucing the mankind imparting wisdom and knowledge

Portion of Wisdom, with Light and Sound, located above the entrance of 30 Rockefeller Center (GE Building), New York City

Lee Lawrie

Photograph by Jaime Ardiles-Arce

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RocCt-LeeLawrie-Wisdom.jpg

 

  

The song “Penelope” tells of an aspect of the story of Odysseus that Homer left out, it imagines what Penelope was thinking while waiting for Odysseus to return home. It is a song that has its roots in the “Classical Tradition.” There was a review recently, “Glories of Classicism,” of a new book titled The Classical Tradition. Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner wrote the article. Greenblatt also wrote an article, “Call of the Wild,” on the Shakespearean influences found in the children’s stories of Maurice Sendak. What these articles underscore is the impact of the Classical Tradition on not only modern culture, but the various threads throughout history that have been woven together to create modern culture. The review of The Classical Tradition identifies commonplace things, like the asterisk (“*”) that have their origins in some corner of the classical world. I remember reading a few years ago about the origin of the “&” symbol. It is made by running together the two letters “E” and “t,” which spell “Et.” And “et” is Latin for “and.” The symbol in fact is not a symbol at all, but the conjunction itself. What these suggest is that the classical tradition surrounds us in some of the most mundane aspects of our culture. 

The photograph above is of a relief panel over the entrance to the Rockefeller Center. The image is fashioned in an Art Deco style, the “Modern Art” of the day, but its subject evokes the Judea-Christian tradition with its quote from Isaiah, “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy time” and an image that suggests the prophet directly above. The figure, though, is also Zeus like and offers, perhaps a connection to classical Greek and Roman Mythology as well. In the lines and colors of the Art Deco movement is found the most ancient of classical and religious traditions. 

One example of the influence of the ancient and modern, the classical tradition and the contemporary view is found in the novel Frankenstein. At one point in the novel the creature finds a trunk that has fallen into the road. He opens it up and among other things he finds three books, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Each represents a different age in the development of human thought, the Classical period and the Classical Education, the Renaissance and 17th century reimagining of the classical tradition, and Romanticism and contemporary view of the world. It is worth noting that both Classical and Renaissance influences find their way into this last “age.” Percy Shelley wrote a narrative poem with the Prometheus, a character from Greek Mythology, as the central character, William Blake did illustrations for Paradise Lost and devoted one of his narrative poems to Milton and Milton’s influence. Keats wrote poems devoted to Greek statuary, pottery, and a Renaissance translation of Homer.

But each book also represents a different aspect of human development. Plutarch’s Lives is integral to the creature’s intellectual and moral development, he learns from this book both to importance of rational thought and of character; what it means to be noble and virtuous. From Goethe’s Werther is integral to his emotional development. From this book he learns what it means to experience emotion and the important role passion plays in a rich and full life and its importance to experience fully the beautiful and the sublime. From Milton and Paradise Lost he learns about himself; what it means to be a created creature and the obligation of the creator to what he or she has created. He learns from this book self-awareness and begins to understand himself as a unique human being. 

These three books represent these three stages in human development and underscore the importance of tradition, especially a literary and artistic tradition, to the full development of the individual. Whitman and Emerson in their poems and essays address the importance of the past and knowledge of the past to the creation of a rich and productive present, that to make a real mark on the present we need to know the influences that produced the present. Each generation as it recreates the world in which it lives builds off what came before.

 

  

The New Zollhof

Frank Gehry

Photograph by Filippo from Milano, Italy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:D%C3%BCsseldorf,_Medienhafen.jpg

 

The photographs above and below are of a very modern building and a fairly ancient one. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a product of the Italian Renaissance and the return to Classical motifs that were at the heart of the Renaissance. The building by Frank Gehry evokes the Leaning Tower with leaning towers of its own that suggest the architecture of an earlier age while at the same time with its curved lines and undulating surfaces suggesting the architecture of an animated cartoon city. The building is on the one hand modern, as was the tower in Pisa when it was built, while at the same time alluding to a long architectural tradition. This is often how it is with tradition, it is a part of who we are whether we acknowledge it or not. The song tells an ancient story with a modern sensibility. The relief sculpture reminds us that the ancient and the modern often live together in our imagination and often shape the directions our imaginations take. The buildings remind us that we want the spaces in which we live and work to be beautiful and that our ideas of beauty have ancient antecedents. 

 

Photograph of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Guglielmo (According to Giorgio Vasari)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leaning_tower_of_pisa_2.jpg

 

  

The Greenblatt and Koerner article reflects on the difficulty we have with tradition and with how it is labeled. The Classical Tradition represented in the book under review is the Greek and Roman classical tradition, but it acknowledges that other parts of the world also have their classical traditions, that are each unique and that form the cultural touchstones of the people that evolved out of those traditions. These traditions play a significant role in shaping the identity of the people that belong to those traditions. There are areas of overlap between traditions but there are also areas of significant difference. It is one of the struggles that we have that people who lived a few centuries ago did not have to struggle with so much. 

Once upon a time a person could grow up in the West without being confronted with the traditions of the East, though, of course, these other traditions could be sought out. I remember being surprised the first time I read Thoreau’s book Walden to discover so many references to the philosophies of India, China, and other parts of Asia. I thought the East was something we had discovered for the first time in the 1970’s because the culture of the day presented it as a new and novel thing. But with communications being what they are today it really is not possible, or at least it is not easy, to live oblivious to the traditions of other parts of the world and modern culture is in more and more ways becoming a world culture. As can be seen in the photograph below, the same Art Deco movement that employed Biblical and Classical Greek and Roman motifs in the image above also absorbed into itself, when it went to India, the cultural motifs of Asia as well. The two “guardians” at the front door of this building also suggest, to me, the guardians at the entrance to that part of Middle Earth that the Fellowship of the Ring visited in the recent film of that story. 

 

Phototgraph of an office building in India with two statues on either side of the doors of mythic women

“New India Assurance Building”

Master, Sarhe and Bhuta, with N.G. Parsare, 1936

Photograph by Colin Rose

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NewIndiaAssuranceBdg.jpg

 

It ought to be possible to enjoy and appreciate the cultural heritages of other parts of the world without abandoning or trivializing our own. Each generation retells the stories it inherits from its past in their own way, the traditions must be personalized if they are to survive. This does not mean we have to embrace those aspects of the tradition that seem out of step with the modern world, but it is difficult to find our footing at all if we abandon all tradition. There is a reason why stories resonate and live on after their time, and not all stories live. Most stories vanish with the generation that created them, but each generation produces stories that become a part of that string of narratives that finds its way back to Homer and Gilgamesh and the Torah, and all the others. Paul Harris asked in a recent article, “Why Is Superman Still So Popular?” He is a comic book character. The language with which his stories are told is not “elevated” by any stretch of the word. The artwork is not exemplary, though it is fun to look at. But the character himself is Herculean and for that reason he resonates, he is a hero of our age and his story does not need to be well written to resonate. We want heroes; we need heroes. That is why the medieval knight becomes the cowboy and why the cowboy becomes the superhero.

 

Marble frieze of men on horseback from the Classical Greek period

“Elgin Marble Friezes”

Unknown

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elgin_marbles_frieze.jpg

 

The photographs above and below are of two of the Elgin Marbles. These marbles have been at the center of a dispute for many, many years between the governments of England and of Greece. To who do these cultural artifacts belong. They are clearly Greek in origin and depict characters and events from Greek mythology, but that mythology and that culture have become a part of the English culture. Brutus, the Roman who allegedly founded Britain was a direct descendant of Aeneas who escaped Troy and eventually founded Rome. This in itself is probably not a strong enough claim for England to deprive Greece of a significant piece of its culture, but it is enough to create a desire to own and to keep the art. Keats wrote of these marbles:

  

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality

   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

   And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep

   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep

Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

  

These marbles may not be English but they certainly touched Keats. One of his best known poems is on another Greek artifact, an urn. There is something unquantifiable in the way a work of art, from whatever tradition, touches the human heart and the human spirit. This is why it endures and will probably always endure. There may be those that see in cultural traditions, both their own and those others, a threat to something they believe and they go about trying to dismantle or trivialize the culture. But a tradition that has lasted for thousands of years is not easily flung aside. 

 

Pieces of marble statuary of men from the Classical Greek period

“Elgin Marbles East Pediment”

Unknown

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elgin_Marbles_east_pediment.jpg

 

There was a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Quest for Permanent Novelty,” that speaks of the human desire to create a work of art that creates a moment of awe that lasts forever; a work of art that can be experienced each time with the same enthusiasm and wonder with which it was experienced the first time. I was told in high school that no one today could experience Hamlet for the first time, that the story is too well known and too much a part of who we are that even our first reading or viewing of the play is a re-visitation. And I suppose there is truth to this. But the first reading of a story or the first exposure to any work of art is rarely the first “experience” of that work of art. The first time I heard the opera Don Giovanni I wanted to run out of the room (I couldn’t because I was in college in a music appreciation course). But there was a first time that I heard this opera and was touched and mesmerized by it and that, for me, is my first experience, the first time my eyes (and ears) were opened to the majesty of this music. That experience is probably a “one time” experience for that work, though subsequent experiences with this opera have also been deeply moving and well worth the time invested in listening to it. And it is not that these subsequent hearings of the opera do not bring new revelations; there is something new to be found with each hearing. But these hearings do not produce the same kind of alchemy that the first hearing produced. 

The article suggests that when we are enraptured by a work of art, time stands still, we are oblivious to its passage and it is this “stopping of time” that we crave and that we want the work to produce each time we encounter it. But of course it can’t. Time won’t stand still. Michael W. Clune, the author of the article, discusses Proust’s view of art:

But perhaps art can do something other than present an object for our experience. Perhaps it can transform the subject of our experience. “The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth,” he continues, “would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another.” Marcel thinks that we have the ability, when studying some works of art, to identify with, to empathize with, the creator’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions. Art can function as a special kind of communication; and what is communicated, he suggests, is the way the world appears to the artist.

And it is in “getting inside” the artist’s mind that time is truly transformed and the world is truly changed. Everything is made new not because everything is new but because we look at everything through “new eyes.” But the real value of art, according to the article, is in what it teaches about time and how we experience it. The article suggests the importance of “slowing the clock” a bit if we are to live fully. We experiment with stopping time, and our experiments always end in failure. But it is a failure that brings its own pleasure and comfort. It is good to stop the clock for a time, but not forever. 

Clune also looks at how the one place where “art” succeeds at stopping time is in Orwell’s Oceana in 1984 and it is a horrible thing. It is the dream of tyrants to control what the people think and to regulate their experiences with art and literature. Ursula Le Guin in an article on reading, “Staying Awake,” concludes:

So why don’t the corporations drop the literary publishing houses, or at least the literary departments of the publishers they bought, with amused contempt, as unprofitable? Why don’t they let them go back to muddling along making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties, while plowing most profits back into taking chances on new writers? Since kids coming up through the schools are seldom taught to read for pleasure and anyhow are distracted by electrons, the relative number of book-readers is unlikely to see any kind of useful increase and may well shrink further. What’s in this dismal scene for you, Mr. Corporate Executive? Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?

Is it because you think if you own publishing you can control what’s printed, what’s written, what’s read? Well, lotsa luck, sir. It’s a common delusion of tyrants. Writers and readers, even as they suffer from it, regard it with amused contempt.

There have always been, and probably always will be, people who will preserve the stories, keep the traditions alive. One cannot say that every great book that some tyrant has tried to suppress has survived in spite of the tyrant’s efforts, there are probably a great many great books that have been silenced, but no tyrant has, so far, succeeded in stifling “the classical tradition” in its entirety and it always comes back to haunt them and delight the rest of us, at least those of us that have a mind for such delights.

 

How Movies Teach Manhood

Colin Stokes

TED Talks

 

The video clip talks about the power of stories and the ability of a story to shape the people we become. The two stories Colin Stokes devotes the most time to are the films The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. Both of these stories revolve around the conflict between good and evil. They suggest it is not enough to confront evil, but that this confrontation has to happen in the right way. I do not know if The Wizard of Oz is indeed a better film than Star Wars or that its message is healthier, but I do think Stokes raises important points about the nature of conflict, of wisdom, and of leadership. The motifs in these are classic, they tell in different ways stories we have been telling throughout most of human history. The names change, the vehicles used to get around are different, but the basic issues are the same. The characters, events, and themes are archetypal. There are principles that must be defended; there are actions that are clearly wrong. We always have to make choices about where we stand in relation to the conflicts of our day. 

 

Statue of an angelic being embrcing a woman

Psyche revived by the kiss of Love

Antonio Canova

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Psyche_revived_Louvre_MR1777.jpg

 

The statue is of Cupid and Psyche, but it contains elements of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast” (though this is an angelic beast). There is a similar “Sleeping Beauty” story found in Wagner’s opera Siegfried,” where Siegfried awakens the sleeping Brunhilde. It is not likely that these stories ever had much contact with each other, that the original tellers of these tales were familiar with other earlier tales that told a similar story. It is probably that the similarities between stories arise out of something that lives within the human psyche that needs the nourishment these stories offer; that there is perhaps something sacramental about them (and stories in general), that they are visible signs of an invisible grace.

 

Abstract depiction of a minataur

“Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, Chicago, Illinois, US”

Pablo Picasso

Photograph by J. Crocker

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:2004-09-07_1800x2400_chicago_picasso.jpg

Still Life with Words

From Under Milkwood

Dylan Thomas

 

Still Life with Words

 

Painting of sars and city lights reflected on water

Starry Night over the Rhone

Vincent Van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Starry_Night_Over_the_Rhone.jpg

 

There was an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, “Poetry Makes You Weird,” suggesting that reading poetry affects us in strange ways; it causes us not only to see things in ways we had not considered before, but through these odd ways of looking reveals what is real or some hidden truth about the thing. Poetry opens our eyes to aspects of the world around us that are not easy to see or, perhaps, are just taken for granted and are not consciously seen or heard though they are right in front of us. There is a sense that this is true about all Literature and is part of what makes the study of Literature valuable. 

There were a series of articles recently in The Guardian about “darkness” in literature that illustrates this point. One of these articles, “Darkness in literature: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas,” looked at the opening lines to Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milk Wood. I have enjoyed this play from the first time I read it (not least because the name of the mythical Welsh town where the play takes place, Llareggub, is “buggerall” spelled backwards, an expression my father was wont to use on comic occasions). The opening lines describe the dark of night in the early hours of the morning.

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

These lines describe the “blackness” in four different ways, “bible-black,” “sloeblack,” “slow, black,” and “crowblack.” Each of the descriptions evokes a different quality of the darkness or gives it a different connotation. The first, “bible-black,” uses the cover color of most Bibles (this may not be as true today as it was in the 1950’s) to suggest to the reader that there is a holy or sacred quality to the darkness. Thomas’ short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” concludes, “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept” that give to the night this same sacred quality. The black leather covers of many family Bibles might also be contained in this image suggesting there is a leathery, dimpled texture to the look and feel of the night and that it has a rough, tactile quality; that the surface of the night is not a smooth surface. 

The second description, “sloeblack,” suggests the darkness of the sea at night has the quality of “sloe” the fruit of the blackthorn bush, a shinny, shimmering blackness, not unlike, perhaps, the color of the water in the painting below. This image also works in conjunction with the third description of darkness, “slow, black.” When spoken from the stage the two sound alike, “sloeblack” and “slow, black” would be almost indistinguishable if it were not for the comma separating “slow” and “black.” So while these descriptions used together suggest on the one hand very different things about the darkness of the sea, the homophonic quality of the sounds of the description lends emphasis to the slowness with which the tides move the water. Of course it is not the water’s blackness that is “slow” but the motion of the water itself, and the slowness of the motion probably contributes to the shimmering quality of the water that is suggested by the color of the fruit. 

 

Paintnig of a very dark night with the moon behind a cloud, over a river

Moonlit Night on the Dniepr

Arkhip Kuindzhi

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Archip_Iwanowitsch_Kuindshi_006.jpg

 

The final description, “crowblack,” adds a disturbing quality to the night and to the sea. The crow is probably among the blackest of black birds and so it evokes well the color of the sea in the night. But the crow is also a carrion bird and associated with dead things and evokes death, or more properly in context of the play, foreshadows the role death plays in the play. But there is another quality to the crow, though I do not know if Thomas was aware of this. In many New England folk paintings the crow is a common feature and its connotations in the paintings in which it appears often seem to be positive, though I am at a loss to explain why this is or what the crow represents in these paintings. There are also children’s rhymes in which the crow is good or bad depending on how many crows appear, one for example is bad news, but two mean mirth and five mean riches. 

The “crow” in “crowblack” might also suggest the crowing of the rooster that signifies the break of day, in which case the image might also foreshadow the coming of day. The Encyclopedia of Folk Art mentions the popularity of a crowing rooster as a tattoo among sailors. The Angel Gabriel according to legend heard the cock’s crow as the word of God and the tattoo of the crowing rooster was seen as a way of invoking God’s protection. 

The point of all this, though, is that words are suggestive and poets use words with many of their connotations in mind because they are so suggestive and can take the reader in so many directions at once. As the article referenced above suggests, reading poetry makes us weird because it causes us to see the world in ways that seem strange or even nonsensical to those that do not read poetry or whose eyes are closed to what the poetry suggests. But for those that grasp the insights the world becomes more magical, more mysterious, more wonderful.

 

Still life painting with a skull on books with watch and quill

Vanitas Still Life

Pieter Claesz

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Claesz_002.jpg

 

The images in the painting above suggest that this quirky way of looking at life and the way it is lived is not restricted to poetry, but is part of what makes great art great, part of what leads to think and reflect as a result of our encounters with the sublime and the beautiful. In this instance the painting evokes the poetry of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” Eurozine published recently a discussion, “Proust Is Important for Everyone,” between Mario Vargas Llosa and Giles Lipovetsky about “High Culture,” the art, literature, and music we learn about in school and pop art, or the “society of the spectacle.” On the one hand high culture is seen as part of what defines a culture and a people, it reveals to us a bit of who we are as members of a certain society or nation. On the other it has often been used by totalitarian regimes as a vehicle to further their attempts at world conquest and the worst kinds of oppression, especially of people who are not a part of the “high culture” in question. But Llosa and Lipovetsky also agree that Literature, books like those that Proust wrote, help define and promulgate democracy, that one reason dictators often begin by burning books is because they want to silence these books and limit their influence. They also agree that the “society of the spectacle” often packages these ideas in ways that are more accessible to the general population. 

So there is a place for enjoying the culture of the day while continuing to be enriched by the culture that has been handed down to us. But with that said, there is a more universal quality to “High Culture” a quality that causes it to outlive its own time and speak through time. That there is value to taking the time to learn how to appreciate and understand this culture because it has proven itself to be durable and that long after the culture of the day has been forgotten this other culture that has followed us through time will continue to wield its influence. Of course it is also difficult to say which aspects of popular culture will be woven into the “High Culture.” Dickens was a popular novelist before he was cultural icon.

 

Painting of a houses across the street from an open field

Cityscape I

Richard Diebenkorn

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cityscape_I_360.jpg

 

Paintings often open up the world in ways similar to poetry. This is often more true of impressionistic and expressionistic paintings in that they often suggest aspects to what is seen that realistic depictions do not, just as the odd and quirky images in poetry open the things they describe in unusual ways. The painting above is of a city; at least that is what the title suggests. But where on one side of the street we see the houses closely packed, as we would expect to see them in the city, on the other we see open fields and suggestions of cultivation and farming. The two sides of the street seem at odds with one another and perhaps they are. Or perhaps something along the lines of Wordsworth’s poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” is being suggested, where the beauty of a London morning is juxtaposed with an English countryside:

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The sleeping city is compared to a serene countryside. Just as in the poem, in the painting the two images are on the one hand a stark contrast, but on the other the image of each cause us to see the other differently. The city, usually associated with noise and hurry, is given the tranquility of a quiet pasture, field, or wood. Of course, in the painting something more sinister may be suggested. The shadows cast by the houses fall upon the open field foreshadowing, perhaps, the coming urban sprawl. Wordsworth’s poem describes the city in the morning, but the shadows in the painting, seeming to spread eastward, would suggest the light is coming from a westward, setting sun, evoking the evening, the ending, perhaps, of an era.

 

Painintg of a ship sailing down a waterway as the sun rises

Chichester Canal

J. M. W. Turner

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chichester_Canal_(1828).jpg

 

Paintings that are more realistic in their representations often offer equally revealing insights. In the painting above we see also town and country juxtaposed, though the town is in the distance far from the quiet of the canal. Though, the large ship in the background also evokes the presence of the city, as ships carry cargo from one major world port city to another and the small boat in the foreground is a more pastoral vessel. The painting may suggest that the product of the work done in the quiet countryside finds its way into the hold of the larger more “urban” vessel and that town and country not only touch each other but depend on each other as well. The purpose of a canal was to provide, before trucks, planes, and railroads, a means for transporting goods from one town to the next. There is also a “ghostly” quality to the ship that is shrouded a bit by mist that may suggest the city “haunts” the countryside. Of course it may not be the purpose of the painting to suggest anything, but only to capture a snapshot of a moment, everything else being just the products of the viewers imagination and far from the painters original intent. 

There was an article in Aeon, “The Great Swindle,” that suggests contemporary artists and their art, as well as the critic that give these artists their audience, have betrayed the arts. Roger Scruton, the author of the article, believes these artists and critics are not frauds, but have deceived themselves as effectively as they are deceiving others. He suggests the critics use language in convoluted ways, using many words to say very little; that the language is unnecessarily opaque and that it depends on this opaqueness to give itself the appearance of intellect and depth. As long as this art and criticism is confined to academic circles, the article contends, it does not do much harm as the real work of culture takes place where it is produced in literature, art, and music. The problem for Scruton is that libraries and museum that should know better are being taken in as well; that these academic critics deceive themselves first and then go on to deceive others. He does not see malice in any of this, just poor judgment and bad art, or kitsch. The artists and critics he identifies make “fakeness” the content of their art, that they are not “kitsch” so much as representations of the “kitschiness” of modern culture. It is difficult to know how far this argument can be taken. I agree with Scruton in that I think much in modern art and literature is shallow and “kitschy.” 

But I also know that when I was younger and was first exposed to the contemporary art of my youth it struck me as ugly or offensive, certainly as inartistic. As I have grown and looked at some of this art from my youth I have discovered more to it than I originally thought; Schoenberg and Klee no longer appear as inelegant and artless as I once thought. Some of what appears to us as shallow or lacking art is just the result of our not having trained ourselves to read and listen and observe according to the demands of the work. Scruton addresses this in his article saying there is a difference between the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and the likes of John Cage. This may be true, but I still wonder if the problem isn’t to some degree with me as well; that I need to learn new ways of hearing, reading, and seeing if I am to appreciate that which I do not appreciate at present. Still, Rebecca West in an article written many years ago for The New Republic, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” talks about the importance of making critical judgments about the cultural work a nation’s artists produce. That part of keeping a culture alive is the maintaining of a cultural standard.

 

Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans

Lemon Anderson

TED Talk

 

The video clip captures the way in which a young poet matured into a young poet. Whatever one thinks of his poetry (I found it moving and disturbing as good poetry often is), what Lemon Anderson has to say about language and the poet’s ability to make words sing is at the heart of poetry and is its lifeblood. He also captures that aspect of poetry that comes alive in performance. Not all poets are as successful at bringing their poems to life as others, but there is a quality to good poetry that depends upon hearing the words spoken and how the spoken words sound together. M. A. Abrams in a recent book, Fourth Dimension of a Poem, addresses this quality in poetry. He names a number of poets he has heard read their work, from T. S. Eliot to Dylan Thomas, who all read very differently but who all brought to life aspects of their poems that are lost when they are read quietly off the page. Eliot is much more subdued in the reading of his poetry than is Thomas. But even though Eliot’s reading does not have the passionate intensity of Thomas’, hearing the words spoken brings them to life and the life of the words infect the reading and gives it life as well. 

Poetry touches me at an emotional level before I begin to understand what it means intellectually. This to me captures the importance of teaching poetry, and all literature works this way to a certain degree. Literature is inherently reflective, it turns us inward, it makes us consider things, at least it does if we read well. Paul Krugman in an article for The Guardian, “Paul Krugman: Asimov’s Foundation novels grounded my economics,” writes about how he was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy to study economics. Granted, Asimov is not “High Culture” but it is imaginative literature and it stirred more than the escapist desires that often provoke the consumption of much of popular culture. Neal Stephenson has also written about how the science fiction of the 1930’s to 1950’s inspired many of those that went on to design the rockets and technology that put a man on the moon. Reading literature, even the simplest kinds of stories, teaches the imagination to see what does not yet exist and helps to shape the future.

We use the same skill to read the newspaper that we use to read a poem by Emily Dickinson. We use the same skill to read an instruction manual or a memo at work that we use to read Proust. There is a sense that this is as it should be, because Proust is an instruction manual for life, Proust is a memo to our imagination calling it to wake up and get to work. Dickinson is a newspaper for the soul and spirit; she wakes up what is often dormant inside of us, or affirms it if it is awake. But we only have to learn to read words to read a memo or a manual or a newspaper, we have to learn to read our hearts and spirits and imaginations to read Proust or Dickinson (in addition to growing our vocabularies a bit). 

Reading the newspaper and its cousins makes us knowledgeable, teaches us facts we need to know, so it is important to read such things. But there is more to life than this; there are much more important things in life than this. Knowledge is only as important or as valuable as the work our imaginations give it to do. Both file clerks and poets share a knowledge of the alphabet, but what separates one from the other is what their imaginations can do with what they know.

 

Man sitting in a boat on the banks of a river contemplating nature

Zhou Maoshu Appreciating Lotuses

Kano Masanobu

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zhou_Maoshu_Appreciating_Lotuses.jpg

Making Sense

From “After the Gold Rush”

Neil Young

 

Making Sense

 

Photograph of the silent film actor Buster Keaton reading a book

“Buster Keaton reading”

Unknown

http://books0977.tumblr.com/image/35735549706

 

Helen Vendler reflected recently, “Writers and Artists at Harvard,” on what a university, Harvard specifically but the shoe fits many other institutions as well, should consider when considering which students to admit to the college. The most desired students tend to be those with the best transcripts and the greatest potential to become the next leaders of the free world. By these criteria the next generation of top lawyers, doctors, economists and the like are the most sought after because these are most likely to become the leaders of tomorrow. But what lasting impact will the leaders of tomorrow have on the world they come to lead; how many of the leaders of tomorrow will become the yardstick by which the world they leave to their heirs will be measured. She considers the Harvard graduates of the past century that still have an impact on the world today. Most of them are poets, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and e. e. Cummings. The article also points out that these poets that went on to have such an impact on our culture, were not shoe-ins for admittance and only got in due to special circumstances and that were they to apply today may not have been admitted at all. She also points out that they made their living doing the kinds of things Harvard often prepares their graduates to do, help run the wheels of commerce.

 

Prof. Vendler goes on to ask if anyone would remember the siege of Troy if Homer had not written about it or if anyone would remember Guernica if Picasso hadn’t painted it? She suggests the further away we get from current events the less likely those events will be remembered and those that are remembered might be remembered more because of the use writers, painters, and musicians of the day made of them than for the events themselves. There was also a recent article on Alexander Von Humboldt, “Humboldt in the New World,” a German scientist, who collaborated with a Frenchman, and traveled on a Spanish passport. He wanted to be among the greatest scientists of his day, and his ability with language (and with languages) helped him to largely succeed. He made some important discoveries, but it was his ability to write about these discoveries that got him attention. There is an irony that many of his ideas have been superseded by the science of our day, but, like Freud, because of the power of his language there is still an interest in reading him. In Humboldt’s case the stories that surround the getting of the science are adventure stories in their own right even if there were no science involved. 

 

The song, “After the Gold Rush” reflects on what stays with us as we look back. One review of the record when it was first released suggested that the title alludes to Young’s departure from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (or such is my memory of Robert Hilburn’s review in the Los Angeles Times) implying that now Young had “gotten the gold” he could do more of what he preferred doing. Personally I have some doubts about this, because Young seems to value the work he did with the group, but if true the story underscores Vendler’s thesis that there are more important things than chasing gold and many of those more important things will be remembered long after the gold has been squandered. 

 

The photograph of Buster Keaton suggests a number of things to me. First, that artists in one media appreciate the work of artists in other media (though, of course, Keaton could be reading anything and even though the book is a thick one and in hard covers, it isn’t necessarily a quality publication). But art also provokes reflection and it is clear that Keaton is thinking about something, though again that something may not be found in the book. The photograph also reminds me of how often paintings and photographs capture people in the act of reading. I do not know the statistics on this, only that in the anecdotal evidence of my experience this is a very common theme. Reading a book sends a certain message to others about how we see ourselves, and being photographed in that experience enables that message to speak, potentially, to a larger audience. There was a recent article by Joseph Epstein, “You Are What You Read,” that suggests what we read speaks volumes about who we are as people. The essay is a review of a book on Proust that sees Proust’s large book as being largely about people who read and want to be seen reading. We are told that reading is falling out of fashion and that the book as an art form is in decline. Perhaps this is true and the paintings of the future will focus on other things. But when in the future the history of our day is written, who will most likely need a footnote to explain themselves, the bond trader and market managers that make us prosperous or the artists that at least attempt to make us wise. Socrates does not need a footnote, but those that condemned him do, as they are almost universally forgotten, their names at any rate are forgotten even if because of Socrates their actions are remembered.

 

Photograph of a boy reading a book amongst rubble during the London blitz

“Boy Sits amid the Ruins of a London Bookshop”

AP Photo

http://books0977.tumblr.com/image/25265245067

 

The photographs above and below are of London during World War II and the German blitz of the city. They suggest the importance that books hold on the human imagination. A boy is reading a book in the ruble. Why in the ruble? Perhaps if he were to take it home he would be seen as a looter and there may be consequences for looting. But the book seems to be important to the boy and where he reads that book does not look very comfortable. Though the bombing of London during the war terrorized the people, that terror did not totally subdue curiosity or the life of the imagination. The photograph below is of men scanning the shelves of a bombed out library. Again the books have captured their attention and it is not likely, though certainly possible, that these men are only interested in reading for information, in just finding stuff out. Graham Greene in his novel The Human Factor mentions that during the war many in England returned to the books of Anthony Trollope because they wanted to escape into an earlier age when things were simpler and more peaceful, or at least appeared to be simpler and more peaceful. I imagine Greene had the Barsetshire type books more in mind than the Palliser ones, but perhaps not.

 

Photograph of two men looking at books in the rubble of a library bombed during the London blitz

“Library in London just after the Blitz”

Found in: Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. It has the photo on the cover and also inside. It is apparently the Holland House library in 1941.

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?p=35388454

and

http://thestack.wordpress.com/

 

Books, paintings, music, film and the other arts have the ability to renew and invigorate the spirit, even if they cannot change our circumstances. Nations are often more concerned with preserving their cultural heritage than in preserving the nation’s wealth. Great sums of money have been spent on libraries and schools, and museums that might have been put to other uses or saved for a rainy day. But it is often this cultural heritage that people are most proud of and contributes most significantly to their national identity. The English people, for the most part, revere Jonathan Swift more than any of the leaders he mocked and ridiculed. It puzzles me that those that oversee the nation’s schools work so hard to remove the arts from its curriculum to give more space to the sifting of information, much of which will change dramatically in the lifetimes of those that are being set to work studying this information. 

 

There are those that suggest it is more important to study the narrative structure of a story, to find out how the story was built, to glean the stylistic information that it offers, than it is to understand what the story has to say about the human condition. This is not to say there is no value to this kind of study. There are those that study the geology of historical sites, “Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg Through Robert E. Lee’s Eyes,” to better understand the history that took place on those sites, to better understand the “story” of history. So also the study of structure and style reveals something of the geology of a story and tells us something about how the story that is told is effectively told. But just as it is the history that provokes the geological study of the battlefield at Gettysburg, it is the quality and durability of the story that is told that provokes the study of its architecture and the study of the architecture should not take the place of the study of the story itself and the qualities of the story that have caused it to endure. Dante’s Divine Comedy can be read to gather information about medieval religious practices in Italy and attitudes towards famous families, but why would people value it so highly for so long if it were little more than a local newspaper along the lines of the National Enquirer. By the same token it is not the geology of the “seven storey mountain” that gives life to Dante’s story but the story that provokes interest in the mountain.

 

Painting of a man sitting in a chair reading a book with books stacked around him

Portrait of Dr. Hugo Koller

Egon Schiele

http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/egon-schiele/portrait-of-dr-hugo-koller-1918

 

The United States has given to the world some marvelous technologies. However, the wisdom with which these technologies are used will be the product of other contributions, not just from America. The arts cultivate reflection and it is often reflection that is wanting in the uses to which we put our technologies. One of the first films made in America (another of the nations great contributions to the world) was Thomas Alva Edison’s retelling of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. The film has many problems, not all of which are technological, but it is fitting that this early use of a new technology tells a story about the dangers of embracing too rashly new technologies. Victor Frankenstein would have been happier had he contemplated the consequences of his actions before he acted, instead of regretting them afterwards. The arts often invite us to consider what truly makes us happy, and not just ourselves happy, but those around us as well. What I do has consequences not only for me, but for others who come into contact with me and not just with me but with my influence; with those people whose behavior has in some form been shaped by my behavior. In this respect Victor Frankenstein’s influence, in the form of the creature, is the most harmful. It might also be worth considering who would have the easier time getting into a modern university, Victor Frankenstein or Mary Shelley? It is interesting that Victor’s problem was not that he did not read, but that he read the wrong books. I enjoy the painting of Dr. Hugo Koller surrounded by his books and I hope that, unlike Dr. Frankenstein, these books are the right books.

 

  4 Lessons in Creativity

Julie Burstein

TED Talks

 

The film clip is about creativity and teaching and nurturing creativity. I am skeptical of this type study because it often focuses on the wrong things. It is easier to teach a student how to understand what it is in a painting, a book, or a piece of music that makes that work great than it is to teach students how to do great work. But this is study that focuses on the past, on what has been done and does not necessarily help us to understand how we might become more creative. As Ezra Pound said, we need “to make it new” and not remake the old. The video touches on this when Julie Burstein talks about the sculptor Richard Serra. Stravinsky challenged his age with Rites of Spring. We are not as challenged by this music because we have learned how to listen to it, and it is important that we listen. But knowing how to hear this music does not guarantee we can go on to create a music that speaks as forcefully to our own age. I marvel that Stravinsky’s first audience rioted, as did the first audiences for the playwrights, John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey. I do not mean to suggest that riots are a good thing, but I do think it is important that the “raw nerve” of the age be exposed somewhat and because nerves are what they are, this exposure should cause a bit of tension. 

 

Painting of a green mountain and a green valley overlooking a river

“The Moselle near Schengen at the Drailännereck”

Nico Klopp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Klopp_Moselle_near_Schengen.jpg

 

For me the most sublime image in the video was a photograph of toy cars and trucks caked in dirt on the floor of a room in the World Trade Center after 9/11. It is sublime because of the story it tells. When I saw the picture I choked up and wept a bit. I could not see the toys without being reminded of the children that played with them and what happened to those children as they played. The story of the photograph is a story of good and evil, it could find a place in the Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm. The photograph is the product of a false sense of security and a lack of imagination. Literature and the arts foster hope, encouragement, and tenacity in those that study them seriously, they give us what facts cannot. But they also make us aware of the world in which we live, that there are those in the world that want to do us harm and that we need to be watchful. The greatest failing of the father of Hansel and Gretel was not his indifference towards his children, but his failure to warn them about the witch that lived in the woods. Like the painting above, the world often looks beautiful and inviting. But as in the painting below, there is often a shadow over the world that we do not see, especially on a sunny day.

 

A city skyline silhouetted by the setting sun

Silhouette of Klosterneuburg

Egon Schiele

http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/egon-schiele/silhouette-of-klosterneuburg 

It’s a Fact

Over the Rainbow

Keith Jarrett

 

It’s a Fact

 

Painting of populace and thriving classical city

The Course of Empire Consummation

Thomas Cole

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Course_of_Empire_Consummation_Thomas_Cole_1835_1836.jpeg

 

There are those that seem to think the principal purpose of the written word is to convey information. Ours is a digital age and what a digitized world can accumulate quickly are facts and information, data of all kinds, colors, and shapes. Of course there are others who see other purposes for the written word. A recent article in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” considers the wisdom of looking at literature and the humanities as data. What is lost when we value things solely on the basis of the information they provide? What is lost when we look at a book, a film, or a painting, or listen to music as though they were data banks to be mined? The article focuses on the Google project of digitizing (or attempting to digitize) all the world’s libraries, all the books currently in print and argues that what is most important in these books cannot be digitized. Of course the words can be captured and the books put into their digital bindings on a digital shelf, but the true content of these books lives in the human heart and the human imagination and cannot be so easily preserved by machines.

Neil MacGregor in his new book Shakespeare’s Restless World looks at objects that in one way or another capture what is important in Shakespeare’s plays and how he and his world; how we, and our world, how different times and places have responded to these plays. MacGregor and Eric Hobsbawm wrote articles recently, “Shakespeare, a poet who is still making our history” and “Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor – review,” that addressed issues the book raises. Both articles and the book make reference to the Robben Island Bible. Robben Island was the South African prison where the leaders of the African National Congress and the Anti Apartheid movement were confined. One prisoner, Sonny Venkatrathnam, when he was told he was only allowed one book smuggled in the Complete Works of Shakespeare disguised as a Hindu Bible. As Venkatrathnam’s release date approached he asked his fellow prisoners to sign his book and select meaningful passages, which they all did. The larger point is that literature sustains and nurtures the spirit. If all these prisoners, or any prisoner, especially those jailed for political reasons, had access to were facts, data, and information there would be little consolation to be found. To a prisoner of conscience the facts are often oppressive; they often erode hope and weaken the spirit. Books, paintings, music, and the arts in general remind us that there are forces more powerful than the forces of this world. And these books and paintings and all do not need to be with us in a concrete form. The songs and stories and images live inside those that know them and they can be drawn upon whenever the need arises. As the words of the song suggest, there is a place somewhere over the rainbow where the spirit and the imagination can run free and the power of empire cannot pursue.

 

Man sleeping with walking stick with lute and water bottle nearby and a lionlooking over him

The Sleeping Gypsy

Henri Rousseau

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Henri_Rousseau_-_La_zingara_addormentata.jpg

 

The paintings above and below suggest the imagination’s work in the world. The sleeper appears to be in a dangerous situation, or perhaps not. The situation depends on the role of the lion. Is the lion keeping watch over the sleeper or is the lion a threat to the sleeper. The lion’s behavior in the painting suggests more one of watchfulness than attack. The objects in the painting are also suggestive. The clothing the woman wears is multi-colored and she has only a walking stick, a mandolin, and a jug, probably of water, but it could be something else. The colors and the musical instrument suggest the woman lives in the imagination. The walking stick and the jug suggests she lives in the real world at the same time, she has provided for both the soul and the body. 

The painting below suggests there are those in heavenly places who dance in time to the music that orchestrates our steps. The musician playing for the earthy dancers has angel’s wings and suggests interaction between the heavens and the earth, that each is involved with the life of the other. There was an article recently, Head and Heart, about politics and morals. The article is actually a review of a couple books exploring the values of liberals and conservatives and suggests that Emerson’s observation, “Of the two great parties, which, at this hour, almost share the nation between them, I should say, that, one has the best cause, and the other contains the best men” still resonates. One of the books argues for the importance of religion in society, not because it is true, but because of its usefulness in maintaining a civil society. Are the angels, the heavenly dancers, the lion watching over us as we sleep, just stories and figments of the imagination we tell ourselves to quieten our fears? Or are they the source of the stories that we tell? Whether the source of comfort, solace, and encouragement is real or imagined, the stories we tell, songs we sing, pictures we paint all have the power to do these things and probably no amount of data analysis will ever be able to tell us why or where, with absolute certainty, this power comes from.

 

Painting of people dancing with angels dancing in the clouds above them

A Dance to the Music of Time

Nicolas Poussin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_dance_to_the_music_of_time_c._1640.jpg

As a teacher of literature I constantly struggle with value of literature and the place it holds in the curriculum. I know the power of story and language in my own life, I have seen this power at work in the lives of others, but I have also seen the immense indifference with which my students often respond to it. I know that when I was in high school boredom was the response the stories of the traditional canon most often provoked in students. Many of those students grew out of that indifference, but not all. I think that we are all free to reject the life of the literary and artistic imagination, just as we are free to ignore calculus and microbiology. But one of the purposes of school and of education is to expose ourselves to the different avenues our minds and imaginations might wish to pursue and we will never know that these avenues are open to us if no one ever points them out and helps us on our way. 

One thing that reading and the study of literature develops is a reflective mind, a mind that considers the directions it pursues before it too actively pursues those directions. It is very easy to be caught up in the excitement of the moment and the newness of things without thinking too deeply of the consequences. It is not possible to know all the potential dangers and which of those dangers are ones that should be struggled against and which should be avoided. Risk is incurred whenever we get out of bed in the morning and risk in and of itself is never a reason not to do something. Often those things that come with troubling possible consequences also come with attractive benefits. Nobel invented dynamite to make it easier to build roads and bridges and such. Nothing wrong with that, but there were other, less savory jobs the invention was given to do. Still, there is value to considering the destination before we begin the journey.

 

From A Handful of Dust

Acorn Media

 

The video clip is from the film version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust. In the book and the movie an English aristocrat, Tony Last, goes on an expedition to explore South America. He gets hopelessly lost and is rescued, after a fashion, by an older gentlemen living in the jungle. The old man cannot read but he loves stories. He asks Tony to read to him and of course Tony, being a true English gentleman, obliges. The old man arranges things such that those that come looking for Tony believe him to be dead and they go home calling off their search. Such is the power of stories. The old man cannot get enough of them and as a result Tony cannot go home. Part of the magic of the stories is having them read out loud and not every voice, no matter how skilled the reader to whom the voice belongs, is an effective reading voice. Donald Hall in a recent article, Thank-you, Thank-you,” points out that not every poet read their poem well. For every Dylan Thomas with a magical voice there was a T. S. Eliot with a voice that was much less inspiring. The theatrics of Vachel Lindsey made him a popular reader of his verse, but not much of his verse has survived now that he is no longer here to read it to us.   

 

Painting of a man standing reading to three people seated, one of whom is the emperor

 Virgil reading to Augustus

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ingres_Tu_Marcellus_eris.jpg

 

Virgil in the painting above is reading his poetry to the Emperor Augustus. Unlike Tony last, Virgil was not a captive reader of his stories. But again they are powerful stories and those in high places took pleasure in hearing them read. Virgil’s best known story, The Aeneid was an endorsement of sorts of the Roman Empire and tells the story of its beginnings. But whatever propagandistic task the story was given to do, the story still captures readers. The world its characters inhabit is very different from ours, and discovering this world is part of the fascination. There is also the desire to find a home. Odysseus had a home to go to, he just had problems getting there, but Aeneas has no home, his home has been taken from him. He has a ship and he is able to get most of his family away with him, but they have no place to go. Perhaps part of the attraction is that everyone of one of us at some point leaves a home to make a home for ourselves. We may not have to go to another part of the world, but we do have to “make an escape” and at times burn a few bridges in the process. Stories are often food for the journey.

 

Painting of a castle courtyard

Courtyard of the Former Castle in Innsbruck without Clouds

Albrecht Durer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Innsbruck_castle_courtyard.jpg

 

Whatever it is in stories that attract us (and even non-readers need stories, they just get them in different packages) they color our lives. Different stories feed us at different times and what we remember of the stories from earlier in our lives may not be found in the stories, but are instead stories that have been provoked by the stories we have read. The castles we explore in the stories we read as children are different from the castles in the stories we read when we are older. The castles of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella are not the castles of Gormenghast or Udolpho, though they all have elements that both delight and terrify. What changes, perhaps, is the nature of that which delights and terrifies as we grow older. Each provides food for a journey, though they provide different food for different journeys and perhaps it is because the nature of our journeys change that we need to garnish the mind with provisions suited to the journey of the day.

Is the mind without an adequately formed imagination in peril? Can the heart and the mind and the imagination be overly developed; do we reach a point where the stories we tell ourselves begin to do more harm than good? I do not think so, but I wonder what others do, what they carry in place of the stories that nourish me. I think it is important to question the stories, the beliefs, the assumptions that we have made, that part of aging well is remaining skeptical and curious. The best stories revolve around characters that are capable of change, who can not just adapt to changing circumstances but know when the circumstances require change and when they require perseverance and standing firmly on a conviction that mustn’t change. 

An article in the New Statesman, Tragedy’s Decline and Fall,” contrasts the stories that Sophocles and other tragedians have told with those stories that are told today in gossip magazines, reality programs, and action films and questions the place each fills in their respective societies. Robert McCrum in an article on Macbeth, “What Macbeth tells us about the digital world,” examines the Porter’s speech, one of the few comic moments in an otherwise grim play. McCrum points out that many of the jokes in this comic monologue are topical references worthy of the tabloids of the day, but in Shakespeare’s handling of the material and in the context of the larger issues present in the play the humor rises above the topical and continues to resonate today. Of course that is what the written word must always do if it is to outlive the generation for which the words were written. In Macbeth there is a meeting of the tabloid and the tragic.

In one sense they both help their audiences come to grips with the tensions and conflicts of the day, but one is deeper and far less shallow than other. Where tragedy provokes empathy and catharsis, the reality show and its cultural brethren cater to a delight many of us have in watching the suffering of others. Much of life is lived in the tension between conflicting values where each contain a truth, like when does the value of mercy override the value of justice; when does the value of generosity override the value of self-sufficiency; when is it important to adhere to the one at the expense of the other? Answering these questions depends more on wisdom than on knowledge, and where facts and data can provide us knowledge, stories are often where we turn for wisdom, a rarer quality and one much more difficult to master.

 

Painting of a tree growing in a meadow

Landscape, 1918

Félix Vallotton

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Valloton-Paysage.jpg

If You’re Not Offended, You’re Not Paying Attention

From Four Nights Drunk

Steeleye Span

 

If You’re Not Offended, You’re Not Paying Attention

 

A print of a fight breaking out in the balcony of a theater with one man choking another man

Une discussion littéraire à la deuxième Galerie (A Literary Discussion in the Second Gallery)

Honoré Daumier

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1864_0227_discussion_280.jpg

 

The illustration above is of a “literary debate.” Most of us try to discuss literature and books in a more subdued manner but there are those that are much more fervent in stating their opinions. When John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World first opened it provoked riots, as did Sean O’Casey’s first plays. It is clear from the illustration and from these theater openings that some people take the arts much more seriously than others. There were a couple of articles recently, one on parody, “In Defense of Parody,” and one on its cousin sarcasm, “Who Killed Sarcasm.” The caption to the illustration is laced with sarcasm in one of its most ancient forms (it was very popular with Anglo-Saxon and Viking poets) litotes or understatement. Though not all sarcasm is parody by any means, much that is parody has a sarcastic edge to it. One of the better known parodies is of the poem “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them” by Robert Southey:

You are old, Father William the young man cried,

The few locks which are left you are grey;

You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth would fly fast,

And abused not my health and my vigour at first,

That I never might need them at last.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

And pleasures with youth pass away;

And yet you lament not the days that are gone,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth could not last;

I thought of the future, whatever I did,

That I never might grieve for the past.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

And life must be hastening away;

You are cheerful, and love to converse upon death,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

I am cheerful, young man, Father William replied,

Let the cause thy attention engage;

In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!

And He hath not forgotten my age.

To most modern readers the poem seems a bit pretentious and “preachy.” Lewis Carroll obviously thought so when he wrote the following poem, “You Are Old Father William,” that first appeared in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“You are old, father William,” the young man said,

“And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head —

Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” father William replied to his son,

“I feared it would injure the brain;

But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,

Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,

And have grown most uncommonly fat;

Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door —

Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,

“I kept all my limbs very supple

By the use of this ointment — one shilling the box —

Allow me to sell you a couple.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak

For anything tougher than suet;

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak —

Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,

Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth; one would hardly suppose

That your eye was as steady as ever;

Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose —

What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”

Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!

Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?

Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

Most who read the parody today are probably unaware of the poem that it parodies and see it as a satiric take on parental advice in general. It is probably true that most people prefer a joke to a lecture and that of the two the joke is the more likely to be remembered. This is certainly true of these two poems. Southey though was a popular target of parody and ridicule. He was, like William Wordsworth, a radical as a young man and a conservative later in life. As a young man his radical politics made him the object of ridicule as is seen in the cartoon below.

 

Illustration of a well dressed prosperous man talking to a poor working man

The Friend of Humanity and the Knife-Grinder

James Gillray

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Knife-Grinder-Gillray.jpeg

 

The poem that follows the cartoon is also a parody of another of Southey’s poems. Most parodies are not as successful as Lewis Carroll’s because they are often very topical in nature and when the event being ridiculed has faded from memory, the parody often fades with it. This is the case with the cartoon and the poem parody attached to it. In the 1960’s there was a parody of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth that received some acclaim. It was called Macbird and it poked fun at the Johnson administration and suggested that Johnson was involved with the Kennedy assassination, a popular conspiracy theory of the times. But like the cartoon, today the play is not well known, and it is likely that after my generation passes on it will be forgotten and only capture the interest of historians.

Those parodies that do survive often do so because, like Carroll’s poem, they do not depend on their sources for their success. Gulliver’s second voyage in Gulliver’s Travels is in part a parody of books written by retired mariners like Alexander Selkirk (the original “Robinson Crusoe”) and William Dampier (the pirate, or if your sympathies are with the British a privateer, who was responsible for later rescuing Selkirk). Selkirk was put ashore on a desolate island for complaining that the ship he was serving on was not seaworthy. The ship later sank and Selkirk was later rescued so his choice may have been a good one. Selkirk and Dampier because of their connection to the Robinson Crusoe story may continue to capture people’s imagination, but their books are forgotten and Swift’s story endures though most readers (unless they read the endnotes to the Penguin and Oxford World Classics edition of the story) know nothing of the works being parodied.

 

Illustration of wealthy people making merry, dancing and drinking

Merrymaking on the Regent’s Birtday, 1812

George Cruikshank

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/61/Regent%27s_brithday.jpg

 

As the illustrations above and below suggest parody, especially that which takes the form of cartoons, is often aimed at politicians and their behavior. The cartoons make use of a popular form of parody the caricature. In the cartoon below the caricature of Napoleon is easily recognized because he is an historical figure that is well known to this day. The caricature of the English Prime Minister, William Pitt, joining Napoleon to carve up the globe is probably less well known, even though he lent his name to the village of Pittsburgh. Also the picture of George IV is probably not well known today, though the behavior at the center of the cartoon still makes its appearance among the political leadership of most nations from time to time.

 

Illustration of a British officer (possibly Wellington) and Napoleon slicing the world into portions for their dessert plates

The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper …

James Gillray

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caricature_gillray_plumpudding.jpg

 

There was another article recently about art and politics, “The New Political Art.” The article points out that political art is often remembered for the wrong reasons and that it is often guilty of doing more harm than good. James Panero, the author of the article, points to Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat. He argues no matter how well the painting itself was executed it led to the execution of many innocent people during the “Reign of Terror” that followed the Revolution the painting helped to inspire. But Panero goes on to talk about the work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei whose art has provoked the anger of the Chinese government by drawing attention to his own treatment and that of other dissidents by that government. Because art often makes its first appeal to the emotions of the viewer or reader its effect can be profound because emotions once aroused often influence behavior. The Chinese government may feel that the effect that Weiwei’s art has upon the citizens of China could, allowed to go unchecked, provoke a response not unlike the one provoked by David’s painting, though it is the government of China whose behavior most resembles that provoked by The Death of Marat. The voice of the artist can be a powerful voice and when that voice uses parody and sarcasm as its means of expression that voice can be even more formidable.

 

Painting of a man lying dead, perhaps in his bath, with pen, ink and parchment paper on which he was writing before him

The Death of Marat

Jacques-Louis David’s

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Death_of_Marat_by_David.jpg

 

Simon Schama in a recent essay, “Why I Write,” discussed the influence of one of the 20th centuries most revered essayists, who at times employed parody, satire, and sarcasm, George Orwell. Schama ends the essay by listing Orwell’s reasons for writing in the first place:

Orwell’s four motives for writing still seem to me the most honest account of why long-form non-fiction writers do what they do, with “sheer egoism” at the top; next, “aesthetic enthusiasm” – the pleasure principle or sheer relish of sonority (“pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”); third, the “historical impulse” (the “desire to see things as they are”), and, finally, “political purpose”: the urge to persuade, a communiqué from our convictions.

I like that Orwell begins with “sheer egotism.” To write essays on a regular basis one has to believe they have something important to say, even if, as is often the case, they do not. But the second reason, “aesthetic enthusiasm” is what I enjoy most in essays when I read them (in all writing really) the “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another.” As a reader this pleasure is one of the chief pleasures I get from reading. This is not to say I do not enjoy narratives (stories), whether fiction or non-fiction, but that I especially enjoy the orchestration of sound that many of my favorite writers achieve by where they choose to place their words in relationship to one another. This is often missing from satiric writing. Swift for example used a blunt language that was often zany, rude, and cacophonous; it is very funny but not very musical.

Christopher Beha in another article, The Marquise Went out at Five O’clock: On Making Sentences Do Something,” talks about another danger for the writer, the danger of paying too much attention to sentences and their construction. The worst writing is often writing that is musical as it is read, but that has little or nothing to say; writing that reveals a fascination with the sounds of words, but little concern with what they mean. Beha writes about how he wanted to write good sentences that could stand on their own, but sentences in stories and essays are “team players” and must serve the larger purpose of the piece and not their own self-interest. Parody intends to offend, if only the person whose work or character is being parodied. If it can be musical in its use of language, the Lewis Carroll poem uses the sounds and the rhythms of words very effectively, very musically, as does Orwell much of the time, so much the better. But parody is often most at home with an orchestra that resembles that of Spike Jones than that of the New York Philharmonic. Parody is at its core, I suppose, inelegant and wanting grace.

 

What Is a Snollygoster

Mark Forsyth

TED Talk

The video takes as its point of departure a very musical word, in a Gilbert and Sullivan sort of way, “snollygoster.” It is also a word that is “rudely” musical and suggests the set up to a joke. The sounds of its parts are sonorous, but when put together they create “rude expectations.” I don’t care how melodic the word sounds, I wouldn’t want to see my name used in the same sentence in which it is featured. The video is about political speech, freedom of the press, and the associations that words often have, especially in a political context. I was surprised to learn the title given to the executive in the American system of government, “president,” was resisted and finally only accepted as a temporary compromise that would be revisited and changed later. We are still waiting these many years later for a more impressive and a more permanent title to be conferred on the President of the United States.

I suppose what makes a thing beautiful is its use. If the beauty of the language used to convey a message overshadows that message, than perhaps that beauty is a false beauty and not worthy of notice. The point of parody is to illustrate shortcomings, and unless the shortcoming being illustrated is pomposity, a beauty that overshadows its object, that is too ornate and glamorous for its subject, is beside the point. But when pomposity is its object what better way to underscore it than by gilding in gold a rancid lily. Sometimes the most musical fanfare is a flatulent one.

 

Painting of people dancing at a 18th century wedding reception

The Dance / The Happy Marriage VI: The Country Dance (Used to illustrate to The Analysis of Beauty)

William Hogarth

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hogarth_035.jpg

Awe and Wonder

Lyke-Wake Dirge

Pentangle

 

Awe and Wonder

Woman in a see-through dress seated holding out a wine glass, offering it to a guest who is not seen, but his reflecion in the mirror behind the woman can be seen

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus

John William Waterhouse

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_Odysseus.jpg

 

There was a recent article in Lampham’s Quarterly (Very Superstitious”) about superstition and science and folk wisdom. The article is not an attempt to reawaken a belief in superstition or the irrational, but it does encourage us to look for a truth that may lie beneath the superstition. The article begins by telling a story about a family whose child is stricken with scarlet fever. The medical community, and most everyone else, gave up hope for the child’s survival. So the parents went to a group of women euphemistically referred to as a “jury of matrons;” the author of the article suggests the newspaper was not comfortable referring to them as witches (and perhaps they in fact were not). But they gave the parents the benefit of their “folk wisdom.” The article says these women did not believe the child would survive, but they believed that by doing the things they suggested the parents would make the child’s passing easier. What they suggested was, “open all the doors, drawers, cupboards, and boxes in the house, untie any knots – perhaps in a shoelace, a curtain pull, or an apron sash – and remove all keys from their locks. The parents did these things, and the child did not die. Of course this may just be an example of the philosophical fallacy known as “post hoc – propter hoc” which just attributes anything that follows an action as having been caused by that action, as when Huck tells us of a gentleman who looked over his shoulder at the new moon and died two years later. But some suggest that by opening windows and doors a space that may have been confined and full of stale, infected air, was ventilated and made a healthier environment. In other words there may be a perfectly rational explanation for what happened and that perhaps this folk wisdom articulated something real while incorrectly identifying the source and cause of the benefit.

The article is a study in sympathetic magic and its characterization by James G. Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough and the coiner of the term. Sympathetic magic has a long and colorful history. One way of determining longitude at sea, for example, is by knowing the time where you are and the time at the port you sailed from. One proposed solution to the problem involved using a powder that would be sprinkled over the used bandages of an injured dog that traveled with the voyagers (the dog, not the bandages). Applying the powder to the bandages at a specified time, say 12:00 PM, would cause the dog on board the ship to yelp, telling the ships navigator the time at the home port. The navigator, knowing the time on board ship, would have the second time setting he needed to determine longitude. The article gives many examples, some used to cause harm, some put to good and merciful ends, it does not argue, I do not think, for magic, only that things attributed to “sympathetic magic” may have other causes.

The article brings up a second example; that of two clinics in a Vienna hospital assisting mothers in giving birth, one run by midwives and one by physicians. Deliveries performed by midwives at their clinic in the hospital had a mortality rate of 2 percent. The physicians’ mortality rate was 10 percent. A physician at the hospital, Ignaz Semmelweis, tried to figure out why. He observed that in the hospital none of the staff washed their hands, in the 1840’s this was just not done, and was seen as unnecessary. Physicians would go to the maternity clinic after performing other surgeries and would bring infection with them. When, under Dr. Semmelweis’ instructions, the doctors began to wash their hands the mortality rates evened out to 2 percent at both clinic. But the medical community said there was no scientific framework for the washing of hands making a difference. They said this remedy was nothing more than a belief in “sympathetic magic.” Later folks like Pasteur did the scientific tests that gave credence to the practice of washing up, and the practice was then adopted.

The article concludes by saying we turn to magic sometimes because it is all we have. The song that began this, Lyke-Wake Dirge is a song of mourning and songs of mourning perform a kind of magic, they help healing, they often draw attention to more mysterious aspects of human existence that do not lend themselves to easy answers or point to powers beyond our understanding. The article does not endorse superstition, but it does suggest there are things in life we cannot explain and times when we need comforts the rational world cannot provide. Sven Birkerts in an essay “Vertigo” suggests that reading often provides a similar kind of “magical” experience. He does not call it “magical” but he does see it as transformational, and there is a kind of magic involved with this process as he describes it:

Books are so easily masked by familiarity, crowded into indistinctness by others of their kind, their original explosiveness gone latent, awaiting some circumstance in the life of the reader to make them actual, as the writing was for the writer. Books are singularities, trade routes for private intensities. We forget this. Reading itself falls to habit, the eye switching back and forth down pages, down the lengths of columns, just another thing we do, until one day a book comes along that has the force, or is such a fit to what we need, that it renews the act for us. How did we ever forget what happened that first time, whenever it was, with the eruption of another’s voice, that stark surprise breaching of time and distance, the sense we had of standing high on a ledge looking over?

What ever we call it, those that read in the way Birkerts describes have experienced this. Time stops, the mind is awakened, it is reshaped, it becomes aware of things it was unaware of before and understands things it did not understand before. Neuroscientists have begun studying this and have tried to formulate theories that explain why, but to the person experiencing these things, the “whys” are not really that important.

 

A map of our solar system with the sun in the center

Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica

Andreas Cellarius

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Heliocentric.jpg

 

There was an article and an interview recently (Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one” and Progress Isn’t A Linear Development”) that both discussed the sciences and the humanities and how they each address different human needs and incorporate different ways of thinking and seeing. Both articles assert the importance of both the humanities and the sciences and the need to teach and explore them both, that our human existence is diminished if we give greater importance to one or marginalize the other. The illustrations above and below suggest two different ways of looking at the universe, the top is heliocentric and the bottom is geocentric. The first sees the sun as stationary and at the center of our solar system. The other sees the earth as stationary and at the solar system’s center. Both models of the universe are based on observation. Galileo when he formulated his theories that put the sun at the center based those theories on what he saw and the only way he could explain what he saw. Of course when we standing on earth look at the sky, it appears as though it is the sun that is moving and we are standing still, but with training and adequate tools, telescopes and the like, we can see why what appears to be true cannot be true. But we can also understand how early astronomers without Galileo’s tools would reach other conclusions.

 

Map of the western and eastern hemispheres of the earth in a planatery map, with the earth at the center of the solar system

 Ptolemaic geocentric model

Bartolomeu Velho

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bartolomeu_Velho_1568.jpg

 

There is a little poster I saw recently that said, “Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.” I think this captures a real truth that is often absent in the world today. The sciences teach us how to do things, and prod us to search for new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing the world around us. The humanities teach us how to look at the world around us, to reflect on what we do before we do it, so that we may not come to regret our actions later. The sciences help us to understand our world and how it works, the humanities help us to reflect on what we learn about our world and on how we ought to respond to and interact with it. What we loose when we loose science is a method for examining our world and how it works. We loose the tools and procedures to study the natural world, to document the steps, to test what has been discovered so that we can know if we understand what we have discovered. True science is built on skepticism and a belief that the method is more important than the scientist employing it (or at least more important than the scientist’s ego).

What we loose when we loose the humanities is the ability to see consequences before they happen, the ability to reflect on our actions, on the actions of others, the ability to shape a view of the world and how we ought to live in it. Science helps understand how the stars came to be and how they work, how they produce light and energy. The humanities help us to understand why they are beautiful and how their beauty blesses human existence. The humanities teach us there is more to life than respiration, reproduction, and work. It is the discipline of the sciences that teach the scientist how to do his work. It is the humanities that teach the scientist why she or he draws pleasure from that work and, perhaps, who that work should serve.

 

Painting of a filled courtroom

“The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court”

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Bailey_Microcosm_edited.jpg

 

Law is categorized as a branch of the humanities. It touches on many areas of human life, but it is devoted, in its purest sense, to the protection of the innocent. We regulate markets, for example, not because we want to limit people’s rewards for their labor, but because we want to prevent the human propensity for greed from harming the innocent. Regulation’s intent, when it is done correctly, is to act as a break on the darker angels of our nature. But the law is often more than this. The law often tells stories, it points us to moments in history that provoked the legislation and often in the process of legislating tells the stories that provoked the legislation. This is often true of “common law” that is based on a narrative that explains a legal situation. A common law marriage, for example, is one that is not defined by a rite or ceremony or any official action by the state but by the “story” of two people’s lives together. The administration lawyer (I believe he came from the Reagan administration) who wrote the “RICO” statute, the law intended to control racketeering, was asked if the acronym “RICO” (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act) was inspired by the film Little Caesar and its central character Rico Bandello. The lawyer refused to answer the question, but he did add that he was a film buff. The only point being, and it may not be that large of a point, is that stories are important and they play a large role in our life. The law against racketeering was not motivated by the film or the story the film tells, but the story the film tells helps illustrate the importance of the law that may have been named in its honor.

 

The Art of Creating Awe

Rob Legato

TED Talk

 

The film clip is about the creating of “awe” in the movies. It is a talk given by a man who creates special effects in films that move us, that capture the imagination. When we read, if we read well, our minds are capable of producing effects that cannot be created in studios, that are far more awesome; it is this working of the human imagination that creates the magic that Birkerts describes in his essay. The human imagination is the richest source of wonder on the planet and even in the case of films each of the effects began as an image in the mind of its maker. There was an article on Ludwig Wittgenstein (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking”) and his belief in the importance of “looking.” In the article Wittgenstein is quoted as saying, “don’t think look.” Or as Yogi Berra put it, “You can see a lot just by looking.” The article is about the importance of seeing things and not just thinking about things. It tells the story of Bertrand Russell taking a test that was based on geometric shapes. He did well at first and then he began having trouble. When asked why he was having problems he said it was because he no longer had names for the shapes he was being shown and without the names he did not know how to think about them. Russell believed more in thinking than in looking. There is probably value to both ways of approaching problems, but often we give greater credence to what we think about things than we do to what we see and how what we see affects us.

 

Paintiing of woods opening onto a valley with an aquaduct in the distance

Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley

Paul Cezanne

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Cézanne_115.jpg

 

There was an article in The Guardian about walking and inspiration (Path to enlightenment: how walking inspires writers”) that also addresses this issue of paying attention to the world around us and the beauty that is there. The article discusses writers who wrote and walked and whose writing was a product of these rambles, Wordsworth for example, and Wittgenstein are mentioned. The paintings above and below are of landscapes that are serene and comforting. It is an aspect of beauty that it often brings comfort and produces an inner peace. The focus of the article, or its inspiration anyway, is a house in Connemara, Ireland that belonged to an Irish poet named Richard Murphy. He wandered around the area and he sailed its harbor. This wandering helped to integrate him into the community but it also helped to build community because his wandering about, and his writing about wandering about, provoked interest in others and people came to visit and these visits in turn helped the economy of this poor community.

Living on Cape Cod I can see how on the one hand visitors to a beautiful place do help the economy of the place but they can also change the look of the place. Sometimes real objects of beauty are not universally appreciated, but their appreciation is dictated by taste. Georgia O’Keefe loved the desert, but many find it a hostile unfriendly place. But when people who share O’Keefe’s interest in the desert come to the desert, the neon soon begins to replace the Joshua Trees and the cactus. But what is probably of greater concern is that those that visit the desert or the coast of Cape Cod want to shape it to fit a private conception of “the beautiful” that is at odds with the beauty that brought them, and others, there in the first place. As Yogi Berra also said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” and there is something in the beautiful that does not like a crowd.

 

Painting of a house on a bluff overlooking the ocean

The Fisherman’s house at Varengeville

Claude Monet

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_029.jpg