Tradition

Penelope

Loreena McKennitt

Tradition

   

 

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. 

  

 

 

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. 

  

 

 

“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.

  

 

 

“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. 

  

 

 

“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. 

  

 

 

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.

  

 

 

“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

 

 

   

 

Who Do You Think You Are


The Silver Tongued Devil and I
Kris Kristofferson

Who Do You Think You Are

“The Treachery of Images” (1928-9) or “This is not a pipe”
René Magritte
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MagrittePipe.jpg

Kris Kristofferson sings of someone who is in a kind of denial for it is clear from the lyric that the “silver tongued devil” and the persona of the song are in fact the same person. The persona may not approve of the actions of his alter ego and it may be in fact the “beer” talking and not himself but like it or not the actions are his actions. Who we are and who we think we are often are very different people. My students are beginning Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Macbeth sees himself as a pretty good guy, he wants to be liked by his peers, but relatively early in the story he allows his ambition to overtake the “better angels of his nature.” The Macbeth at the end of the play may be unrecognizable to the Macbeth of the play’s beginning but they are the same person. Or are they?

The painting is captioned “this is not a pipe” but the image is indeed of a pipe. Of course the image of a pipe is in fact not a pipe, I cannot take this pipe and smoke it, for example. So the painting is and is not a pipe. By the same token the photograph of me found in my passport taken back in 1972 is indeed a photograph of me. But are the person in that photograph and the person writing this the same person? Emerson would say something one day he would disavow the next. Are the Emerson making the statement and disavowing the statement the same person, the same Emerson? At the heart of literary analysis, among other things, is character growth. Characters that do not change in the course of a story are, generally, weak characters. Yet we expect consistency of thought from the people around us, and believe changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness. Heaven help the politician, for example, who has a change of heart.

The Humphrey van Weyden we meet at the beginning of Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf cannot save himself, he cannot even call out to others to save him. He is totally helpless. The Humphrey van Weyden, “Hump”, at the end of the novel is a very different and much stronger and more competent human being. The Hump of the beginning of the novel bears no resemblance to the Hump at the end of the novel. But, under the law anyway, they are the same person. On the other hand, at the end of the novel Wolf Larson, Hump’s nemesis through the book, is largely unchanged. In part this is because he has already thought through his views and made judgments about how the world works that time and experience have shown to be sound. But also Wolf is set in his ways, he has reached his conclusions, no one has been able to effectively challenge those conclusions so he sees no need to change, even when confronted with an alternative view of things that is thoughtful and experiences that ought to cause him to question at least some of his conclusions. In life, as in stories, those characters are strongest who can grow and change and adapt to changing circumstances.

The Paranoiac Face ([1935])
Salvador Dali
The New York Public Library

Looked at one way this is a drawing of some people sitting on the beach, looked at another way it is a human face (according to Andre Breton the face of Jean Paul Marat, or so he said of the photograph that inspired the drawing). How we see ourselves and how others see us may suggest another kind of illusion, just as the people we thought we might become do not always resemble the people we have in fact become. In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch we are confronted by characters with great aspirations for the future, some are taking their first steps towards achieving these aspirations while others have been working towards theirs for some time already. Some of these ambitions are noble and altruistic, others are shallow and self-serving but few are realized. There is a doctor who hopes to reform the practice of medicine but ends up writing a treatise on gout, a disease mostly of well to do old men, there is a scholar who plans to synthesize all the world’s mythic systems but dies before he can do so, there is a wealthy politician with a past, as well as a would be politician without much of a past.

Most of the characters in this novel have high ideals but they make foolish choices and as a result must face real consequences. Most learn to carve a bit of contentment out of the poor choices they have made but they never fulfill their aspirations. When I finished the book I felt Dorothea Brooke proved willing to make risky choices to achieve some personal happiness and I thought she ended well, but not all agree. Still, we are told she made others’ lives better. Perhaps in life that is worth more, and perhaps is more satisfying, than a more “public” success. It certainly illustrates the choices that confront most of us, we can choose safely and attain a modest contentment perhaps, or we can take risks and perhaps achieve some of our higher aspirations, or perhaps not. Life is often this way.

Rashomon
Janus Films

The film Rashomon is about point of view. A crime is committed and it is observed by four different people from four different perspectives. The angle from which the event is viewed determines how it is understood and interpreted. Depending on whose perspective is accepted a crime either was or was not committed. Whose perception is correct? To what extent does this mirror life? Some would argue from a story like this that we cannot know or understand reality, there are too many obstructions between what we perceive and what is, that all life is relative. There is some satisfaction to be gotten from this view in that it enables a person to avoid making judgments about events, and hence, having to take any action in shaping those events.

But I think the story illustrates that, though we all have to act according to our own understanding of what is happening around us, we may want to reserve judgment and keep an open mind. Choices are often difficult, it may not be possible to know all that we need to know to make those choices with certainty, but the choices themselves may be inescapable and need to be made. We can only do our best. I do not know that this kind of story provides comfort or satisfaction, but it does capture an aspect of life that it is important to think about. This is an important service that books, film, and other forms of story telling provide.

Three Musicians (1921), Museum of Modern Art
Pablo Picasso

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Picasso_three_musicians_moma_2006.jpg

The painting is called Three Musicians. But is this really what the painting captures. One musician is dressed in white, a color associated with purity and with weddings. White is also a color often associated with angels, at least the good ones. I mention this only because the other musician is all in black, a color associated with death and the angel of death. As white is often associated with goodness, black is often the color of evil. Then there is the musician in the middle who is dressed something like a clown, he is dressed in motley, the traditional garb of the clown. Are the musicians on his right and left, then, his good and evil geniuses? This is another story to be told and understood. Maybe they are just, as the title says, three musicians with very different tastes in clothes.

There was an article a few weeks ago in the Guardian about the American novelist, Philip Roth. The article by Alison Flood, “Philip Roth predicts novel will be minority cult within 25 years”, summarizes an interview that Roth gave to Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast. In the interview Roth contends that the day of the novel has passed and that though the novel will survive, it will have only a “cult” following. I hope this is not true. The novel, like few other art forms, enables us to imagine the world and how people behave in the world. Unlike a film it can take its time to spin its story so that the reader can have a greater insight into the emotional, psychological, and intellectual lives of characters, and see how these characters respond to the situations they encounter. We can see how characters’ lives are shaped and changed by events and how those events change the emotions, the psychology, and the thinking of the characters. Granted it is all made up, all a fiction, but it does help prepare one for the choices and complexities of life. Aristotle believed fiction was superior to history because it showed us what might be not just what was. He felt it was superior to philosophy because it gave us the opportunity to see philosophy put into practice and lived out so that we can see how this philosophy holds up to the pressures of daily living.

There is a story told of Thoreau and the night he spent in jail that Emerson came by and saw Thoreau in jail. He asked Thoreau what he was doing in there. And Thoreau responded that the better question is what are you doing out there. Thoreau was acting on a principle that he learned from Emerson, that the only place for a just man in an unjust society is in jail, a principle Emerson himself was not putting into practice. I do not know if this story is true, I have heard that it is apocryphal, but it illustrates Aristotle’s point that formulating a philosophy to live by may be easier than living by that philosophy and story telling gives us the opportunity to see what pressures the world and daily living will exert upon our philosophies. The picture below is of a waterfall, but is the water in fact falling? I suppose it depends on how you look at it and where you focus your attention.

Waterfall
M. C. Escher
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Escher_Waterfall.jpg


Famous for Being Faithful


From Desperados Waiting for a Train
Jerry Jeff Walker

Famous for Being Faithful

Kindred Spirits
Asher Brown Durand
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Asher_Durand_Kindred_Spirits.jpg

The song is about the friendship between a young boy and an old man. The boy is, I imagine, as energetic as you would expect any young boy to be and the old man less energetic than you would expect most old men to be. Yet the boy hangs around with the old man. The title, “Desperados Waiting for a Train” lends an aura of western romance to the relationship. The boy and the old man are not doing anything, just as desperados “casing” the train station in preparation for a robbery do not appear to be doing anything. But the boy and the old man are friends and the friendship makes the sedentary passing of time worthwhile.

The painting idealizes the friendship between Thomas Cole (a friend of Asher Durand who did the painting) and the poet William Cullen Bryant. It imagines a meeting of the two friends in a real place that was important to both. The “place”, the Kaaterskill Falls region of the Catskill Mountains, though, is not painted as it was but as it was remembered many years after Durand had visited the region. The occasion for the painting was the recent death of Thomas Cole. Cole is credited with establishing the Hudson River School of painting, of which this painting is one of the most famous representatives.

The painting was done as an act of friendship on the part of Durand for his friend Thomas Cole and is a remembrance of him. The painting in turn commemorates Cole’s friendship with Bryant. The Hudson River painters, in turn, pursued a friendship of sorts with the environment of Upstate New York (though this love of landscape was exported to other parts of the United States and the world). I suppose that in part this is what friendship is, a commitment between two people that is experienced in the real world, with all the pressures and beauties that the real world brings with it.

The setting of the painting is beautiful; it captures a wilderness, even if it is a wilderness romanticized by memory. Danger and unpredictability are aspects of a wilderness. It is in times of danger and the unpredictable, especially the unpleasant side of the unpredictable, that a friendship is tested. Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is better to be faithful than famous.” This is especially true of friendship and where this is not true that friendship has likely become tainted with exploitation on the part of at least one party to the relationship.

William Wordsworth
Benjamin Haydon
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_Robert_Haydon_002.jpg

There are many examples of literary friendships, some of which did not remain friendly. Joyce’s treatment of Sylvia Beach comes to mind as well as Hemingway’s treatment of just about every literary friend who helped him get his first books published. One of the most productive literary friendships was that between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. These two men essentially began the Romantic Movement in England with the publication of their book Lyrical Ballads. The friendship had its strains and eventually came apart. As the two paintings suggest both these poets had a melancholy side to them and melancholia can put a strain on a friendship. Coleridge also had other problems that made him a difficult friend.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Unknown
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pensive_Coleridge.jpg

Stories help us to define values and concepts. One of the ways we come to understand the true meanings of words and the ideas and values those words stand for is through the stories that we read. We see friendship defined in Huck’s relationship with Jim, a friendship that should never have happened inside the culture from which it evolved. When Huck says he is willing to go to Hell rather than betray a friend he is not speaking figuratively. He has been raised to believe that he will literally go to Hell if he continues to help Jim and does not turn him in to the authorities. Define Hell however you will, are there many in your life that you would risk that consequence to protect.

Huckleberry Finn comes from the literary tradition of the picaro and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a picaresque novel. A picaro is street urchin who must survive by his wits. He is inventive, resourceful and shrewd. The tradition began (or at least it was given its own name as a literary genre, though I think the type is probably older) with a Spanish novella by an anonymous author called La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes. Lazarillo had few friends and survival depended on trickery, “street smarts”, and persistence, many of the same qualities we find in Huck Finn. Huck, on the other hand, is rich in friends. There is Judge Thatcher, Tom Sawyer, and the Widow Douglas, all willing to do most anything to help him out. It is Tom, in fact, who gets Huck to go back to the Widow Douglas’ house to live. Tom is forming a gang of robbers and Huck can only become a member by letting the Widow Douglas make him respectable.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Honoré Daumier
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Honoré_Daumier_017.jpg

Another famous friendship from the picaresque tradition is that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In the painting Don Quixote is seen in the foreground and Sancho seems to be missing, but if you look carefully you can see Sancho off in the distance hurrying to catch up. Of the two it is Sancho that is the most like a picaro, but neither the Don nor Sancho are young urchins. Quixote takes to living by his wits in order to make the world nobler; a place where folks like Lazarillo can live more honestly and more humanely. Sancho watches out for Don Quixote and keeps him from getting into too much trouble, or helps the Don escape when he has gotten into too much trouble. The two are technically master and servant, though Sancho is perhaps, more an apprentice than a servant in that he is Don Quixote’s squire and a squire is a knight in training.

“Mr. Pickwick’s Reception”
Sol Eytinge, Jr
http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/spe/brg/lifeofauthor/6detail3.html

Sam Weller is another famous friend who doubles as his friend’s servant. He looks after Mr. Pickwick in much the same way Sancho looks after Don Quixote. Like the Don, Mr. Pickwick is a man in great need of someone to save him from himself and that is a task that Mr. Weller performs very well. Both Sam Weller and Sancho Panza are paid for their services (or at least promised payment at the end of the adventure) but both do what they do not for the paycheck but out of friendship. Those who have read both The Pickwick Papers and The Lord of the Rings will recognize a bit of Sam Weller in Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s friend. Both Sam and Samwise are full of worldly wisdom and useful aphorisms (most of which have been learned from a wise parent) to fit most any situation. Though there is not a “cockney” district in the Shire Samwise would probably feel right at home in the markets of Covent Garden.

This tradition of the resourceful servant reaches a pinnacle of sorts in the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P. G. Wodehouse, though neither Jeeves nor Wooster were likely to regard the other as a friend. What Sancho and the Sams did out of friendship Jeeves performs as a professional service. Wooster can fire Jeeves at a moments notice (and does on a few occasions) and Jeeves is free to leave at a moments notice. Jeeves also performs his duties with a bit more sophistication than do his more rustic counterparts. One gets the impression at times that Jeeves not only surpasses his master in common sense but in education as well. Jeeves also embodies the essence of literacy in that not only is he knowledgeable, but he can put that knowledge to practical and effective use.

Curly’s Sweater
The Three Stooges

This film shows friendship taken to another extreme. The Three Stooges, it is clear, are good friends. The Marquise de Sevign said, “True friendship is never serene.” The Three Stooges live out this principle in each of their films. They stick together through thick and thin and a great deal of choreographed abuse. Whatever the hardship, they endure it together and that after all is a large part of what friendship is, enduring together. Robert Frost in his poem “Provide, Provide” suggests the only friends that can be relied upon are those that are bought and can be paid for on a daily basis. The Stooges suggest not only that friendship is not a commodity, but that it willingly endures suffering (largely of their own making) and sacrifice.

Making Gentle Waves
E. H. Shepard
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/mar/11/holymole

For me, though, friendship is seen at its most exemplary in the children’s book The Wind in the Willows. Ratty and Mole are kindred spirits that endure much together, much that is pleasant and much that is trying, especially on behalf of another friend, Mr. Toad. The author of the book, Kenneth Grahame, would be celebrating his 150th birthday this year if he were still with us. To acknowledge this Katherine A. Powers devoted her column, A Reading Life in last week’s Boston Globe to the book and to two new editions of the book. The two new printings are annotated editions of the story and they sound colorful and interesting, even if, according to Powers, they miss the meanings of some of the commonplaces of Edwardian daily life that are found throughout the book. It is the friendship, though, that makes the book remarkable for me. Friendship is something everyone craves and needs but real friends are often difficult to come by. As a result the story resonates.

C. S. Lewis in his book, The Four Loves, discusses the role of love in our daily lives and the life of the culture(s) in which we live. In it he describes each of the four Greek words for love. One of the four loves, phileo, is friendship. According to Lewis this is the most unnecessary of loves, in that it does not have any “work” to do, society and its institutions do not need friendship in order to survive, as a society needs well behaved, well brought up, and well provided for children in order to survive. Friendship exists for no other reason than the relationship itself.

I am not certain that this is entirely true, but it does underscore an aspect of friendship and that is whether the relationship is like that of Ratty and Mole or that of The Three Stooges, all parties are free to leave whenever they choose but for however long the friendship endures, they choose not to. But what is more, the friendship is only a friendship as long as it is pursued out of a love for the other and not out of a sense of duty (though that may enter in from time to time). There can be no obligation in a friendship, only desire.


Living with Attitude


So What
Miles Davis

Living with Attitude

Illustration of Gulliver’s Travels.
Richard Redgrave
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gulliver.jpg

I enjoy this piece of music in part because of its attitude. The name of the song is “So What” and you can hear the piano come in saying “So What” followed by the trumpet joining in that sentiment and echoing the piano’s “So What.” Sometimes we take ourselves to seriously and respond to those around us with, if not a verbal an attitudinal “So What.” As a teacher there is rarely a day that goes by when at least one student does not express this sentiment. The picture above is of Gulliver, from Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels meeting a Brobdingnagian. Gulliver is of average height, about six feet, but he is traveling through a land where the people are 72 feet tall. Gulliver appears to be at his ease, making a friendly gesture to the surprised giant. As this part of the story progresses Gulliver will become more belligerent and respond to some of the inhabitants with the same insolent indifference expressed by the piano and trumpet in the song.

How important is attitude in our daily lives? Does attitude reveal the feelings that we harbor or is it a mask that conceals emotions we do not want those around us to know we are feeling, that is, does attitude reveal or conceal? If I were Gulliver in the picture above my attitude of “pleased to meet you” would be concealing my terror, while the attitude of the Brobdingnagian is probably genuine, revealing his actual feelings. It is probably safe to say that attitude reveals or conceals based on the situations in which we find ourselves.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet
Vincent van Gogh
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Dr._Gachet.jpg

Dr. Gachet was, in addition to being a doctor, an amateur painter who treated Van Gogh’s final illness. Van Gogh was not formally a patient of Dr. Gachet, they were friends and it just happened that one of the friends was sick and one of the friends was a doctor. Van Gogh said of the painting that he was trying to capture the Doctor’s melancholy. I am not sure if this melancholy lived more in the doctor or in the painter but the attitude of sadness can be seen in the painting. The flower the doctor holds is a foxglove, a plant that had medicinal value and may suggest the doctor’s melancholy is directed toward his profession. I think it is often the attitude of the subject captured by the artist that makes a painting interesting. Most photographic and, in Van Gogh’s day, many painted portraits do not reveal much in the way of attitude, or if they do, the attitude is posed to capture that which the subject wishes to project to the world and not necessarily the subjects true attitude toward the world.


Desiderius Erasmus
Hans Holbein the Younger
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Holbein-erasmus.jpg

This is a more formal painting of the Dutch Humanist Erasmus. But, like the Van Gogh portrait of Dr. Gachet, this portrait of Erasmus conveys an attitude and not a pose. The facial expression suggests an attitude of resignation, perhaps towards what he finds in the world. His most famous book is a satire called In Praise of Folly. The title is a Greek pun. The actual title of the book is Moriae Encomium. “Encomium” just refers to a literary work whose purpose is to praise and “moriae” in Greek means fool. However, “More” was also Erasmus’s best friend’s last name, his friend was Sir Thomas More. “Moriae” could also be Thomas More’s last name rendered into Greek. So the title could mean “In Praise of More” or “In Praise of Foolishness or Folly.” The contents of the book, though, suggest the latter. The book mocks the foolishness Erasmus found in the world and the look of resignation may reflect the need to tolerate what one cannot change.

There are also the books that he has surrounded himself with. They were an important part of his life. He once said that when he had money he bought books and if there was any left over he bought food and clothes. This reveals an attitude towards books and learning that some think is being lost today. I am not so sure. But I read over the last few weeks of the closing of some famous bookstores. A blog I visit, The Elegant Variation, lamented the closing of the LIbrairie de France. The blog’s author, Mark Sarvas, grew up with this bookstore and it was an important landmark in his growing up. My brother told me recently of the 100th anniversary of the bookstore I grew up with in San Pedro, Williams Books, and even though I no longer live in San Pedro I know the sadness I would feel if that bookstore were to close.

I also read a few weeks ago of the closing of a bookstore in London’s Charing Cross Road bookstore district. The article included a map of Charing Cross Road that showed the locations of the bookstores than and now. The bookstore that closed was devoted to mystery novels and was called “Murder One.” I enjoy mysteries and am saddened I will not be able to visit this shop. I remember visiting this section of London in the 1970’s and I visited many of the bookstores on the map, many of which are no longer in operation. I am especially fond of second hand bookstores because I enjoy handling books that have been read before in which previous readers have made notes in the margins about what moved them or made them think.

There is an attitude towards books and learning that we carry with us throughout our lives. Some think books and learning are being valued less, but perhaps it is just the kind of books and the kind of learning that is valued today is a bit different from what was valued when I was growing up. It may also be that those that make this assertion have an agenda that is served by people thinking attitudes are changing. I do not think books and scholarship have ever really held a place of true esteem in our culture and preserving them has always been a bit of a battle.

But to get back to attitudes and the paintings, Mark Twain once said “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of other persons.” I think a good painting, on the other hand, is one that captures what the subject thinks of himself and those around him. The paintings of both Dr. Gachet and Erasmus suggest that though they view the world in a certain light that is not entirely positive they maintain a sense of equanimity towards the world. Erasmus seems amused by what he sees while there is a gentleness and sensitivity to the doctor’s expression that softens his melancholy a bit.

From Captains Courageous
Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

This film clip reveals a number of different attitudes some of them positive and some of them negative. Lionel Barrymore as the ship’s captain Disko Troop reveals an attitude towards the captain of an approaching ship that seems on the surface somewhat hostile. And that other captain’s attitude seems to reflect a similar hostility. But those that know both men realize that these attitudes are something of an act that proceeds from the competitive spirit of each and from the friendship that each feels for the other. On shore they are good friends while at sea they are competitors. There is a genuine desire on the part of both these men to outdo the other, but there is also a genuine affection that they share for each other. Both these attitudes live side by side in these men and both are true.

Freddy Bartholomew plays a boy named Harvey Cheyne. He on the other hand is insufferable. He is rich kid who thinks the world of himself and much, much less of everyone else. In part this is because of the treatment he has received from his father. His father genuinely cares for the boy, but he is a man of business and his business keeps him away from home and largely uninvolved in the son’s life. The boy has become a bully and has been able to get away with being a bully in part because his father is not involved enough in the boy’s life to curb this behavior.

The character played by Spencer Tracy, Manuel Fidello, is a fisherman on the boat who takes the boy in and tries to be something of a father figure. Manuel is a man who was loved by his father and who is in turn kind to most of the people he encounters. He is proud of what he does and of who he is and has little patience for those like the boy, that think too highly of themselves and too little of others. His pride comes from what he is able to accomplish. His kindness from the kindness he received growing up. His attitude towards the boy’s behavior is not positive, he does not like the boy’s arrogance and selfishness. But he likes the boy. He chooses to listen to the feelings he has for the boy and in listening to those feelings he eventually succeeds in changing the boy’s attitude.

So what is the proper role of attitude and what does it reveal about us and what we think of those around us? Most have approached the world with a variety of different attitudes at different times in their lives. We have probably been as insufferable as the boy and as compassionate as the fisherman. We have probably have friends that those around us that do not know us well think are our enemies. Most have seen friends go on to become enemies.

I think that the attitudes that get us in the most trouble in life are the same attitudes that make us successful. That a good part of learning to live well is learning to discipline our attitudes so that we are perhaps as Mr. Twain advises; that we conceal how much we think of ourselves and our abilities and how little we think of others. Perhaps the wisdom in cultivating this attitude is that over time we can look more realistically at ourselves and those around us without losing our confidence in our own talents or our ability to compete with those whose skills we truly respect.


Who Steals My Purse Steals Trash

“Take Five”
Paul Desmond
The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Who Steals My Purse Steals Trash

The music comes from a record by The Dave Brubeck Quartet called Time Out. The name of the song is “Take Five.” The title is a multi-layered pun. On one level “take five” means take a break; take five minutes to catch your breath. On another level it is how those in a recording studio refer to the fifth attempt to record a track. It may suggest that there were four less than perfect takes and this is the fifth crack at getting it right. It might also suggest five different ways of playing the song and that the group is experimenting with the music, perhaps to find a way of playing the music that is the most interesting.

The title of the song in fact refers to the time signature, the tune was written in 5/4 time, hence take five. Each of the songs on the album employed a different and unusual time signature, hence the title of the album, Time Out. The time signature is important because it suggests how a piece of music is to be played. There is a sense in which literature has a kind of time signature that may refer to the time in which the work is set or the time it was written, or both if the time signature of the story is different from that of its composition. This time signature suggests to the reader how a work of literature is to be read and understood. The Last of the Mohicans, for example, was written in the Post-Revolutionary America of the 1820’s while the story is set in the Colonial America of the 1750’s. How important is it to know and understand the time signature of a work of literature and what exactly constitutes that signature?

People eating an elizabethan dinner

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Banquet1.JPEG

When I read a book, especially a book written many years ago, I wonder what daily life was like for the authors. The image above shows Elizabethan types eating dinner. But what exactly did they eat and what did their food taste like. They did not have refrigeration so there must have been compromises made with freshness. Did Shakespeare buy his own groceries, did he take out his own trash, and if he did where did he take it? What was Shakespeare thinking of, for example, when he has Iago say “Who Steals my purse steals trash”? We all know what we mean when we call something trash, but what did Shakespeare mean? Was he thinking of yesterdays newspaper?

It is not necessary to know what specific articles of trash came to Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote this line, but it seems likely there were some specific articles of useless junk that presented themselves to his mind when he used the word, perhaps something he had thrown in his trash basket that morning. It is not necessary to know this to understand the line, but it might give insight into the character of Iago to know the kinds of things he might think about when he thinks about such things.

One reason students have difficulty getting inside literature, classic or otherwise, is because they have difficulty humanizing the people involved. Part of understanding a play by Shakespeare is understanding Shakespeare’s humanity and the human issues he had to confront in his daily life. Do these issues make their way into the plays, does knowing what he did with his garbage make his plays more accessible? Probably not, but it does make the reader place him in a real world with real problems and the plays are influenced by the world in which Shakespeare lived. The characters in his plays must be humanized if they are to be appreciated and humanizing the author helps to humanize the characters.

It is difficult to be engaged, let alone enjoy, a novel if we do not care about the characters. I think empathy is the door that leads to involvement in any literary work that revolves around characters, whether it is a poem, a play, or a novel. I think this is even true of the personal essay, we will not be taken in by the essayist if we do not care about the struggle she or he documents on the page. Fay Weldon in her book Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen writes “You can practice the art of empathy very well on Pride and Prejudice, and on all the works of Jane Austen, and it is this daily practice that we all need, or we will never be good at living, as without practice we will never be good at playing the piano.” Part of understanding this novel and of empathizing with its heroine is understanding the risks a young woman of Jane Austen’s time took in refusing the proposal of a well to do young man. I read this passage by Faye Weldon often to my students to emphasize the importance of empathy to getting a foothold in the world of the stories we read.

Though it may not influence our understanding of the tale, to a certain extent understanding some of the details of daily life in the story’s historical setting helps the reader to empathize with the characters, to appreciate what they are going through and all that is involved in living day to day. I know what it means for me to get up in the morning, what it means to go through various daily rituals. What were Shakespeare’s daily rituals and by extension the daily rituals of the characters, like Iago? Did Iago brush his teeth that morning? Was the remark about stealing trash perhaps precipitated by his taking out the garbage that morning?

Like any metaphor, that of time signatures can only be taken so far. When a contemporary novel is set in the fourteenth century, as, for example, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was, it is to say something about contemporary life, not about the time in which the novel is set. To what extent are Friar Baskerville’s sensibilities 20th century sensibilities and to what extent are they those of the novel’s setting. Even the name of the monk suggests a certain 19th century detective.

Can readers of the modern age, whatever that age may be, divorce themselves entirely from their own time and read as a reader of the story’s present. I remember being told by one of my college professors that such a thing is impossible. I disagreed at the time but after watching a few reality programs where 20th century folks are placed in the American west of the late 1880’s or the East Coast of America of the early 1600’s I am not so sure. These people had to live with only those materials available to the people of the time in which they were placed.

But these people struggled in ways the original pilgrims and pioneers did not. Those of the 17th and 19th centuries did not expect and were not used to anything other than what they had, those transplanted into the past brought with them memories of all the modern conveniences they left behind and also brought with them the knowledge that these conveniences were available and they were enduring a voluntary technological fast. Still, there is, I think, a value to understanding the life and times of a story’s setting and setting off, if only in our own minds, on a journey where we live for an imaginary day or two in the world of William Shakespeare and perhaps help him to take out the trash.
brubeck