Wise Guys

 

The Silver Tongued Devil

Kris Kristofferson

Stranger in a Strange Land

Leon Russell

Save the Children

Marvin Gaye

 

Wise Guys

   

   

“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. 

    

    

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 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. 

    

    

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.

    

    

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.

    

    

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?

    

    

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. 

    

 

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

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

 

Discussion280.jpg

 

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.

 

KnifeGrinderGillray.jpg

 

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.

 

RegentsBrithday.jpg

 

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.

 

CaricatureGillrayPlumpudding.jpg

 

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.

 

DeathofMaratbyDavid.jpg

 

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.

 

WilliamHogarthTheDance.jpg

 

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

CirceOfferingtheCuptoOdysseus.jpg

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.

HeliocentricModel.jpg

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.

BartolomeuVelho.jpg

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.

OldBaileyMicrocosm.jpg

“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.

PaulCezanne115.jpg

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.

ClaudeMonetFishermansHouse.jpg

The Fisherman’s house at Varengeville

Claude Monet

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

Whan That Aprill with His Verses Soote


Jerusalem
Hubert Parry
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Whan That Aprill with His Verses Soote

Preface to Milton
William Blake
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Milton_preface.jpg

April is National Poetry Month. For students across America made to study poetry (or at least certain poems) against their will this might also make April the cruelest month. Of course for poetry to be properly appreciated it needs to be not so much studied as contemplated, reflected upon in the context of our lives and how they are lived. In studying poetry the focus often shifts from the passions that were aroused in the poet and which the poet is in turn trying to arouse in the reader to more academic concerns that, though they are important and should be considered, are beside the point. There was a recent article by Sven Birkerts in Lapham’s Quarterly on “idleness, “The Mother of Possibility”, in which he says,

“On a similar track, I wonder about childhood itself. I worry that in our zeal to plan out and fill up our children’s lives with lessons, play dates, CV-building activities we are stripping them of the chance to experience untrammeled idleness. The mind alert but not shunted along a set track, the impulses not pegged to any productivity. The motionless bobber, the hand trailing in the water, the shifting shapes of the clouds overhead. Idleness is the mother of possibility, which is as much as necessity the mother of inventiveness. Now that our technologies so adeptly bridge the old divide between industriousness and relaxation, work and play, either through oscillation or else a kind of merging, everything being merely digits put to different uses, we ought to ask if we aren’t selling off the site of our greatest possible happiness. ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world,’ wrote Thoreau. In idleness, the corollary maxim might run, is the salvaging of the inner life.”

There is a sense in which poetry was created to feed idleness. It will not be understood quickly and does not make many concessions to multi-tasking. It wants our undivided attention; it wants to force upon us a “Sabbath rest” that invigorates and nourishes our consciousness. What well written poetry does more often than it does anything else is change the way we see things; it enables us to see more clearly and deeply its object.

The song that began this is a poem by William Blake set to music. The illustration at the top of the page is Blake’s engraving designed as a visual accompaniment to the poem’s language. The song and the engraving underscore both the musicality of the poem’s language and vividness of its imagery and what is true of this poem is true of many, perhaps most poems; to be fully appreciated they should be heard and allowed to paint their pictures in the hearers imagination. Poems are more than words on a page. And where it is true that all written language is more than words on a page, poetry often becomes more incomprehensible the more it is reduced to the words that form the sum of its parts. Where a novel or an essay is using language to tell a story or communicate an idea, poetry is often using language to evoke, suggest, or point to something beyond itself and in this sense paying too much attention to the words themselves obscures what the words are trying to do.

Buttermere Lake, with Park of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower
J. M. W. Turner
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turner_Buttermere_Lake_with_Park_of_Cromackwater.jpg

In many ways poetry and painting are alike. The painting above is an impressionist landscape by J. M. W. Turner. It creates an image of water, mountains, rocks, vegetation, and sky. There is a boat in the water and one or two people in the boat. It provokes in the viewer an emotional response to the natural world and to its beauty and wildness. The images in the painting are not unlike those found in the opening lines of William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey”

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur
. — Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky
.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

There is not a one to one correlation; not everything in the painting is in the poem and not everything in the poem is in the painting but they both evoke a similar landscape and arouse similar emotions. The language of the poem is familiar and transparent; its meanings are not hidden.

The Magpie
Claude Monet
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Magpie.jpg

Not all poetry, though, is as easy to follow. The painting evokes the winter landscape and the emotions winter often brings. The poem “the Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens evokes similar emotions, though the language is less transparent and not so easily understood.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

There is found in both the painting and the poem frost and the boughs of trees and snow to surround the listener. But there are meanings to the poem beyond what the eye can see and the ear can hear. The language of the poem conceals meanings beneath the snow it captures that the painting does not. Or perhaps it does, perhaps it takes a mind of winter and an ear attuned to the sounds of winter to appreciate the painting as fully as Monet would wish.

Oscar Wilde said, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” I am not sure what Wilde meant by this, but it suggests to me that first impressions, those impressions that attract us to something are taken in through the senses. There is something I can see in the poem and the painting that attracts my attention even though I do not fully understand what I see. There is a mystery to be unraveled but the mystery is suggested by what appears on the surface of the canvas and the surface of the language. The first impression is “superficial” but it need not be “shallow.” The depth of that impression is determined by how deeply I pursue the mysteries the surfaces of the canvas and the language evoke.

Rogier Van Der Heide
TED Talk

The video clip suggests another aspect of this mystery of first impressions, of the play of light upon surfaces to create beauty. Using terms like “light” and “darkness” often suggests to us metaphorically “good” and “evil.” But that is not necessarily what is being suggested so much as the need for contrast in order for any surface to be fully appreciated. Robert Browning suggests this in the closing lines of his poem “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” when he says, “And though the fields look rough with hoary dew, / All will be gay when noontide wakes anew / The buttercups, the little children’s dower / – Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!” He is contrasting England’s less sunny landscape with the overly bright “gaudy” landscape of Italy. As is seen in the video when Van Der Heide compares brightly, uniformly lit spaces with those that are less uniformly lit. And even in his examples of cityscapes and of the planet viewed at night from space there is beauty, even though the light is not being used efficiently, in these images that contrast light and dark.

It might be argued that the beauty in a typical Ansel Adams photograph, or any black and white photograph, is created entirely by the contrasting of light colors with dark colors. But more importantly for me and what I am trying to say is what this suggests about poetry. The poems that often resonate the most, touch the reader the most are those that contrast effectively the expected with the unexpected; “the nothing that is not there” with “the nothing that is.” The line is a surprise and it delights us and it delights itself in keeping its secrets close.

The Tyger
William Blake
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Tyger_BM_a_1794.jpg

This element of surprise is also seen in the poem “The Tyger” by William Blake. The surprise begins with the engraving Blake made to illustrate the poem, especially the engraving of the “tyger.” The tyger in the poem is a terrifying creature and though we may not be entirely sure what Blake means in this poem we are entirely sure we would not like to meet this tyger. The poem evokes something more akin to the tiger in the painting below than the “stuffed animal” suggested by Blake’s illustration. And that is part of the surprise. We see from the contrast of the tyger with the lamb a suggestion that this wilder beast is a being equated with the devil as it is contrasted with that tamer beast “the lamb of God.” Perhaps what Blake means to suggest is that evil resides only in our minds and that the world exists in contrasts of light and dark and that neither is “bad” and that both are necessary; that, as Pope suggests in his “Essay on Man” “whatever is, is right.” Or perhaps Blake is suggesting something far more subtle, that evil often appears to us in the guise of innocence and that because we expect the face of evil to terrify us, we do not recognize it when it makes us smile.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)
Henri Rousseau
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Surprised-Rousseau.jpg

How necessary is poetry to life? Can we get along without it? Plato seemed to think so and would have banished poets, he suggests that they lie, distort, and create discontent within a society. His pupil Aristotle felt otherwise. Many avoid poets, not for the reasons Plato suggests but because poetry has gotten a reputation for being difficult to understand requiring too much work to offer any real pleasure. But to those that read poetry and enjoy it the pleasure lies in working things out grappling with the meanings the poems often conceal. But this is often true with life in general. What is easy is often boring; what comes without effort rarely satisfies. There is something in the poem that enchants us and it is this sublime enchantment that the reader and the writer of poetry seek. I think it is this enchantment that we all seek.