It’s Just a Story

“With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come”

Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell

St. Andrews Singers and English Chamber Orchestra


 

It’s Just a Story

 

 

Dido building Carthage aka The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire

J. M. W. Turner

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Turner_Dido_Building_Carthage.jpg

 

Even before we begin to hear the music we can infer a bit about its subject. Even if we do not know the story of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil’s epic Aeneid the title of the aria, “With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come” suggests the subject of the song. Even those who do not know much about Greek or Roman mythology probably know enough about Cupid to know he is associated with love. That the wings of the Cupids are drooping suggests the news is not good news for the one who is in love. The music than affirms this observation and even though the words are difficult to make out, the music the words are set to tell us most of what we need to know about what they are saying. The music tells a story, as the painting tells a story. For those who have read the epic poem, just seeing the names of Dido and Aeneas tells a tragic story. But the real point is that not all stories are told with words, some are told with notes, rhythms, harmonies, and colors.

 

But stories also give us a common language, they help us talk to and understand one another. They can provide a frame or a context for our experiences; the “widow’s mite,” “the white whale,” “the melancholy Dane,” or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” are all phrases and images that carry train loads of associations. When Ernest Hemingway titled one of his novels For Whom the Bell Tolls he was telling a story in five words that permeates the novel and colors the reader’s understanding of the events in theat novel. Of course, one must recognize the references or they are just nice sounding words. When Puccini plays the American National Anthem under a climactic scene in his opera Madame Butterfly he is using a musical phrase to tell another kind of story. If language and the possession of language are the vehicles in which our intellects travel, the materials that give shape and structure to our thoughts and ideas, then the well read, the “liberally” educated are fluent in a language and a vocabulary that adds richness, depth, and clarity to their thinking, even if the thoughts themselves are not that profound.


There was a review recently in the New York Times (“Her Calling”) of Marilyn Robinson’s book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. The book is about the changes that have taken place in America over the past few generations that she finds troubling. But one of the early essays discusses myth and story and why they are, in her view important. She does not believe myth arose as a way to explain how things came to be. Though there may have been the Roman Fundamentalist that believed the stories were literally true, Robinson believes that the myths were seen by most as stories that communicated truths about what it means to be human and how humans ought to live and treat each other. Euripides used the story of the Fall of Troy as a way of commenting on the Peloponnesian Wars and Athenian behavior in that war.

 

Myth and religion are not science and are not to be understood as science. Whether, for example, the Book of Genesis is taken literally or figuratively isn’t the issue. The point of Genesis is not to explain how things came to be, so much, as to instruct us in how we ought to behave. There will always be some for whom the science of Genesis is important, but what is most important for us to understand from this book, whether we agree with it or not, has more to do with philosophy, ethics, and morality than it does with science. It could even be said that arguing the science of Genesis obfuscates the real message of the book. Whatever else an Athenian audience got out of Oedipus the King, they understood from the play that there were powers greater than ourselves to whom we are all answerable whether we are a shepherd or a king. And because Oedipus cannot escape these forces neither can anyone else and at the end of the day justice is done and order is restored. This is the message of the tragedy and why it was not a mere “theatrical” but a part of a religious ceremony. In this respect it might be said that the theater began in church.

 

 

Clorinda Rescues Olindo und Sophronia

Eugene Delacroix

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Delacroix98.jpg

 

The paintings above and below are by Eugene Delacroix and each captures a different epic story of liberation. The first painting illustrates a scene from Tasso’s Liberation of Jerusalem. This is a story of the First Crusade and the “liberation” of Christianity’s (as well as Judaism’s and Islam’s) Holy City. Of course whether this was true liberation depends on which side is telling the story. Saladin would come around a bit later and liberate the city once again. What I found intriguing about Tasso’s story is that one of the more heroic knights from the story (which is also true of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Spenser’s Faerie Queen) is a woman, in Tasso’s story, an Islamic woman. Women in the military was hardly a settled issue at the time and neither the Christian nor the Islamic community of the time looked favorably upon the “woman warrior.” When I read these stories I was surprised to find women in such prominent combat roles in the stories.

 

The painting below is of Liberty leading the people during the French Revolution, which brought another kind of liberation, again depending on which side one pledged allegiance. The young gentleman standing next to Liberty waving the pistols is said to have inspired Victor Hugo’s character Gavroche in the novel Les Miserables. However one feels about the liberation of Jerusalem by the Crusaders or the liberation of France by the forces of the revolution liberty is a powerful concept and stories of liberation often evoke powerful emotions, even if we have misgivings about the actual history.

 

 

Liberty Leading the People

Eugene Delacroix

 

 

But how important or necessary are these stories. Do they shape character? Do the stories we read, as Marilyn Robinson and others assert, help to form the people we become or are they just another form of entertainment (which is not to suggest that if the stories shape character that they do not entertain as well). Tim Parks, in a recent article, “Do We Need Stories?,” doesn’t seem to think we need stories. He thinks assigning any great significance to them is a mistake, they give us pleasure, but they do not make us who we are, we are more significant and complex than stories. He ends his article, though, this way:

 

Personally, I fear I’m too enmired in narrative and self narrative to bail out now. I love an engaging novel, I love a complex novel; but I am quite sure I don’t need it. And my recently discovered ability, as discussed in this space a couple of weeks ago, to set down even some fine novels before reaching the end does give me a glimmer of hope that I may yet make a bid for freedom from the fiction that wonderfully enslaves us.

 

Though he does not believe stories are necessary he has not “liberated” himself from them. Some days I think I wake up agreeing with Parks, but usually come back to my senses (or non-senses as the case may be) before bedtime. Whether we have all felt the influence of an apple in a garden or not, does not alter the fact that we live in a world that falls short in a number of different aspects. And even if the story does not account for how this came to be, it offers a kind of hope that we can rise above what is wrong with the world. And even if the story has not shaped my character, in giving me hope it helps me move forward.


 

 

Don Quixote

Pablo Picasso

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donquixote.JPG

 

On the other side of the coin, Jennie Erdal wrote an article, “What’s the big idea?,” on the philosophical novel and its importance. At its heart, behind all the fun and nonsense, Don Quixote is a novel of ideas. Anyone who knows the story recognizes the errant knight in Picasso’ drawing and does not need a title to know who she or he is looking at. The windmills in the background evoke that part of the novel comes to mind for most, whether they have read the novel or not, when they hear the name of Don Quixote. It may be whether we have been shaped by stories or not, that we have all engaged in quixotic behavior of one kind or another. And even if Parks is right and none of us were shaped into the people we have become by this story, this story still defines, metaphorically of course, a bit of who we are. Erdal thinks that novels that wrestle with “big ideas” are important. She thinks the best philosophical novels are not those that discuss philosophy but those in which things with philosophical implications take place, they help us see things rather than try to explain things.

 

In Dostoevsky’s fiction, for example, characters wrestle with events with philosophical implications, but it is the wrestling matches that are the focus and it is through these bouts with moral and ethical ramifications that philosophy is put on trial. In this sense, perhaps, the reader is not shaped by what is read so much as led to consider what is true, what is just, what is moral and it is through this consideration, which does not require one to read a novel for it to take place, that the person is changed and character is shaped. The novel is less a sculptor giving shape to the rough rock that is our unformed personality and more a provocateur that incites us to consider ourselves in ways that might not otherwise have occurred to us and in ways that might be a bit dangerous. Perhaps there is a bit of a paradox in that we have to know ourselves before the stories and the contemplations they provoke can help us to become ourselves.


Building U. S. – China Relations by Banjo

Abigail Washburn

TED Talk


 

The film clip captures another kind of story; music builds more bridges than law. Songs are a form of story telling and even when the words are in a strange language, the sounds and rhythms and harmonies in the music communicate much of what the words would tell us if they could. Before watching this clip I never noticed the bluegrass in Chinese music. Whether these stories are essential, whether they teach us anything, or shape us in any way, they do open us up to one another, as the music did for the young child who lost her mother in an earthquake, and provide opportunities to know and understand one another. What is it in us that drives us to sing songs, tell stories, paint pictures; to make rocks, wood, and hedges look like people, animals, or kitchen tables? Part of it is entertainment, finding ways to fill the time, to amuse ourselves. But is this all there is; are they just stories? Sometimes I think stories give us a safe way of talking to one another. The stories that fill our time tell a lot about who we are, they reveal us to others, but we can sometimes fool ourselves into believing that because they are just stories that we are safe, that others will not put two and two together or solve the riddle.


 

 

The Order of Release

John Everett Millais

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

 

The painting tells another story of liberation. The guard looks quizzically at a piece of paper held up to him by a woman who gives the soldier a look of defiance and perhaps contempt. The man being released is wounded and tired. He is wearing a kilt while the soldier is wearing a British Army uniform. This suggests to me that perhaps the man being released was involved in the Jacobite Rebellion attempting to reclaim Scotland and the British throne for “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

 

Being Scottish the history of the painting resonates with me, though those with little or no interest in Scottish history may not get nearly so much out of it. Part of what makes a story come alive is the way it resonates with our interests and passions. The most effective connections are emotional. There is a lot of emotion in this painting. There is the defiance of the woman, the sleepiness of the child, the excitement of the dog, and the fatigue and injuries of the Scottish clansman (I think that is a MacDonald tartan, but I can’t be sure). We do not need to know the history to be touched by the emotion in the painting. We have most of us been reunited with loved ones at one point or another. We have all at least wanted to stand up to authority especially when some we loved needed defending.

 

 

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion

John William Waterhouse

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

 

I wonder at times if I make more of stories than they merit, if they are not a kind of intoxication potion that get us into trouble. I wonder at times if Tim Parks isn’t right, but my experience suggests otherwise. It agrees with Marilyn Robinson and Jennie Erdal. This to me is evidence. It is not scientific; it is not grounded in data, at least not the kind that is sifted in order to lend support to the conclusions of a formal study. It is subjective but it tries to take into account the experiences of others. I wonder about Mr. Parks and his fiction addiction. I wonder, is the need that it fills for him a real need or a psychological need. Is it like a well balanced meal that makes us healthy, or like smoking a cigarette that does us harm? In my experience stories help me understand people, ideas, and the heart’s core. It illuminates the mysterious.

 

I came home one summer from college for a visit. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I told my parents I was coming home on Wednesday when in fact I would be arriving in Los Angeles on a Monday. I have always liked to walk so I threw my duffle bag over my shoulder and walked from L. A. International Airport to my parents’ house in a little beachside community called Hollywood Riviera. I knocked on the door and my mother answered. Not being expected, she said we don’t want any and slammed the door in my face. I knocked again and this time my father answered, but before he could slam the door, I managed to introduce myself and he let me in. We often get from experience, what we expect. And we often see what we expect to see. Stories often shake up the expected or show us the expected in unexpected ways. I like to think my parents knew me and that the only reason they didn’t recognize was because I was not expected. Often stories work this way, we enter expecting to see something and then something happens and we see something familiar in new and unexpected ways.

 

The painting is of Dante and Virgil standing at the Gate of Purgatory. Purgatory is a transitional place. It is not a pleasant place but it is a place of hope. There is a way out. Sometimes there are moments in which we live that are transitional places. There is unpleasantness. There may be an unhappy ending that changes us and though the ending was unpleasant and painful the changes, once they take place transfigure that unhappy ending into a happy one. We are all seeking to climb the seven story mountain that brings us to that other, happier gate; but to get their we have to spend a bit of time in these transitional places. Stories help to pass the time and in the process often illuminate and hallow the time.

 

 

Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory

William Blake

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blake_Dante_Purgatory_9.jpg

What the Beholder Beholds

From Appalachian Spring

Aaron Copeland

Leonard Bernstein and the London Philharmonic

What the Beholder Beholds

CeliloMuralSalemCapital.jpg

Mural depicting Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea and members of the Corps of Discovery at Celilo Falls during their journey to the Pacific

Frank H. Schwarz

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

The paintings above and below in some ways define America. The Journals of Lewis and Clark have been called the American epic, they tell a story, like The Iliad a true story, of people engaged in an historic adventure. Lewis and Clark’s story is not, like the Greek epic, a war story; it is a story of exploration and adventure. The spirit of the explorer has in many ways defined the American culture, from Daniel Boone and the Cumberland Gag to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. The painting below captures an aspect of the American landscape. This landscape has attracted painters from Georgia O’Keefe and Edward Hopper to the Hudson River Valley School of painters, each finding something beautiful in different aspects of the American landscape, from its mountains, to its deserts, to its cities. The music clip at the start comes from Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. The melody from this part of Copeland’s score borrows an old melody from the American Shakers, “The Gift to Be Simple.” Simplicity, individualism, the pioneer spirit are all engrained in the national identity.

LookingDownYosemiteValley.jpg

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California

Albert Bierstadt

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Looking_Down_Yosemite-Valley.jpg

Every nation has a cultural ethos that somehow captures how they see themselves and often these cultural identities have their home in accomplishments or ideals that belong to a distant past, they illustrate how a people saw themselves once, but have ceased, often long ceased, to be a real part of that nation’s real cultural life. The west was officially “closed,” that is, declared settled and well on its way to being fully developed, in the early 1900’s. The last flight to the moon was decades ago, and the space program has, at the very least, gone on hiatus. What is the national identity today, not the American ethos as it lives in the American imagination, but the American ethos as it is lived in the present day?

There were a couple of recent articles that identified the decline of uniquely American institutions, “Future tense, VII: What’s a museum?” and “College at Risk”; not unique in the sense of what they are, but unique in the sense of how they have been established in this country, the museum and the university. Both of these institutions were established in America in ways that are very different from what they were in Europe. They were not established by the state, but by concerned citizens and they were not established for an aristocratic elite, but for everyone, especially those who had historically been excluded from these institutions, though this latter point was truer of the university than of the museum.

NighthawksHopper.jpg

Nighthawks

Edward Hopper

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

Edward Hopper is an iconic American painter. He captures the feelings of isolation that too is often part of the American experience. Whether it is the isolation of individuals as seen in the painting above or the isolation of landscapes. In any case one would expect to find Hopper in any art museum that attempts to capture the American experience. But as James Panero points out, museums do not just display paintings that capture the nation’s heritage (whatever the nation to whom the museum belongs) but the art that is important to that nation; that speaks to the soul of that nation. The article tells the story of the National Portrait Gallery in London that was threatened with destruction and the loss of its paintings during the Blitz of World War II. Kenneth Clark, the director of the museum at the time, wanted to send the paintings to Canada where they would be safe, but Churchill would not hear of it. Instead they were sent to a refurbished slate mine where the bombs would not touch them.

But the people still wanted to see the art. One painting was brought to the museum a month, as one could be safely stored in the depths of the museum’s basements in the event of attack, and more people came to see that one painting then came to the museum when all the paintings hung safely on the walls. Art speaks to people, to their culture and their values. The first two paintings shown were not painted by British painters, they were a Rembrandt and a Titian, but they were the ones the people wanted to see. They were valued for their beauty and for their contribution to the nation’s cultural fabric. As Neil McGregor says in the article, “They ‘exist to enable the public to explore through them their own personal and shared experience, as generations have done before us and will do in the future.’”

Panero points out in his article that in America, unlike Europe, the first museums, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, were established and maintained by citizens and not by the government. Panero is a conservative and he values institutions that maintain their independence from the government, but that said, there is value in “private wealth being transferred to the public trust” and it is this virtue of generosity that he is praising. He believes that “those treasures (the art the museums contain), however singular, are also tokens of the idealism behind the institutions that maintain them.”

Though it can be said that to the extent there is a class system in American it is system based on wealth as opposed to ancestry, and that the wealthy individuals that endowed these museums were in a sense the American aristocracy. The idealism that prompted their founding, however, is a part of the American culture. America is an idealistic nation and idealism is a significant strand in the fabric of the American character. And what Panero is troubled by in his article is the abandonment by many museums of this public trust to the pursuit of profits. Museums in America are becoming like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that advertised itself as a “café with ‘art on the side.’” That the art America’s museums contain is not preserved for its own sake but for the merchandise it can help the museums sell as they become more mercantile in their outlook and practice. What is being lost is the contribution art makes to the national character and the role it plays in nurturing and nourishing public and private virtues.

Panero sees America’s museums as they were originally founded as contributing to the well being of the Republic or as John Adams said, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” The state of the American museum and its management philosophy speaks to the national character. And, if it continues, to the diminishing of the national character.

StPeter'sCollegeCambridge.jpg

St. Peter’s College (Peterhouse), Cambridge

Rudolph Ackermann

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St._Peter%27s_College_Cambridge_3.jpg

Andrew Delbanco’s article addresses the decline of the American University. (As an aside I was first introduced to Andrew Delbanco’s ideas by the first doctor I saw upon moving to Massachusetts, his older brother Doctor Thomas Delbanco.) Delbanco points out that the American university was always meant to be available to all, not just the privileged. He associates the college with the “Puritan principle that no communicants should ‘take any ancient doctrine for truth till they have examined it’ for themselves.” The ideal university is not one where students listen to teachers who lecture, but where students participate in the debates and explore the ideas in concert with their teachers, their professors. Delbanco’s concern is that the university is becoming inaccessible to all but the most privileged because it is becoming too expensive for universities to do the work they do with the funding they receive and therefore to survive they must raise their tuitions and fees.

I began my college career in California in the 1960’s. I attended first a small State College that had just opened a few years earlier, California State College (now University) Dominguez Hills. When I attended the campus was not finished and many of the classes were still meeting in an old motel building that had been converted into classrooms to be used as a temporary campus. The freshman composition courses were constructed around tutorials where students would meet once a week as a class and at least once a week, one on one, with the professor. It was, for me, a life changing experience. But it was an experience that was available to me because the California colleges and universities were subsidized by the state. I received my master’s degree from Cal-State Dominguez in 1989 and during the three or four years I was enrolled in the program the cost to me never went above $150.00 in enrollment fees. I paid more for my books than I did for my classes. At this time Junior College tuition, in state schools, was $15.00 a credit. In the painting of St. Peter’s College, Cambridge the college is on the “High Road” or at least it looks like the high road to me because there is a farmer bringing his cattle to town passing in front of the college gates. This suggests to me that the college ought to be integrated into the community it serves, even though in practice there is a “wall of separation” that often exists between the college and the town, even if it is only an imaginary wall.

I do not believe everyone should be made to go to college, but I do believe all with the ability and the desire ought to be able to get a college education. I think this is not just good for the individuals being educated, but for the long-term health of the country. If having a college education makes one a member of some elite, it is an elite to which any who choose to put forth the effort can belong. As the article points out this is, or at least was, not the case in other parts of the world. In Europe college was reserved, mostly, for those with resources. Students were also expected to commit to a course of study upon entering the college or university. In America students have always been free to explore different courses of study before finally deciding on the one they wish to pursue. This was an aspect of American culture that many supported with pride and when I was young it was an aspect of the national identity that I think I took somewhat for granted.

100 Years at the Movies

Turner Classic Movies

There was also a recent article, “When Critics Mattered,” on another American cultural institution, the cinema. The video clip gives a brief synopsis of the first hundred years of American film making. As an English teacher stories are important to me. I teach novels I believe to be important because they tell stories that I think are important to the human psyche and soul. I also believe these stories are so powerful that whether they are taught in schools or not, the stories will always survive, most of them have survived for hundreds of years without any help from schools, some for thousands of years. They will survive because they provide nourishment we need that cannot be gotten from any other source. Films also tell these stories.

Many think films are more of a passive than an active medium. The viewer does not have to pay as careful attention to what is going on as does the reader and often this is true, but not always. In the film Judgment at Nuremberg, for example, there is a scene between Marlene Dietrich and Spencer Tracy where their characters are discussing the opera The Master Singer of Nuremberg. The soundtrack plays in the background a few moments from the overture to this opera as Tracy and Dietrich are talking. It is not necessary for the viewer to know where this music comes from, but for the viewer that does know, it adds richness and another layer of meaning. If careful attention were not paid the moment would likely be missed. In the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers Groucho is taking the college widow boating. The widow asks Grouch if he does this often (goes boating) to which Grouch replies, not since reading American Tragedy. A little joke, but the joke only works if the viewer has read the book. It too passes quickly and could also be easily missed.

HorseFeathers.jpg

Horse Feathers Film Poster

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

But it is not just the subtlety of the cinematic allusions. There is often depth to the story telling and the performances and as scripts film scripts can rival anything from the world stage that is studied in classrooms. James Agee said the final scene from City Lights was the best moment of acting on film; at least it was in his view when he wrote the article. The final scene is incredibly moving and it only works if the viewer has been paying attention. It also speaks to the same human needs and values as the great books that are studied in school.

Culture defines a people in very important ways. It tells those on the outside looking in what that people value, the depth to which that people look beneath the surface of things, the value that people place on thought and discourse. The American culture has in many ways been an inclusive culture, even while it was busy excluding one group or another. It borrows voraciously from other languages, other cuisines, other philosophies. It borrows stories and makes them its own. It borrows music and makes that its own. Jazz borrows its rhythms and motifs from many parts of the world. The music clip at the beginning is woven around an American folk tune. Dvorak, an East European composer who came to America, did something similar with his New World Symphony. So we freely share our culture as well. But also at the heart of the American culture is the spirit of exploration. When Americans finished exploring the new world they looked for new worlds to explore. Often American music, art, and literature have been and are an exploration of these different forms. There has also been an aspect of American culture that has worked tenaciously to understand and fix problems. Perhaps this last will be what repairs those other strands in the cultural fabric that are beginning to fray.

CityLightsFilm.jpg

City Lights Film Poster

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

The Look of the Moment


L. A. Freeway
Jerry Jeff Walker

The Look of the Moment

Self Portrait
Leonardo da Vinci
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leonardo_self.jpg

The freeway system of Los Angeles (and perhaps the smog it helps to generate) is in many ways the “face” of Los Angeles, its icon on the cultural desktop. There is of course much more to Los Angeles and much of that “much more” paints the city in much more favorable colors. Those aspects of a landscape that become iconic are not always the aspects that best represent that landscape, just the aspects that get the most attention. Still, it is something we do; we do not just name things but characterize them as well. We give them an identity that may or may not be true to their nature.

But we do not just do this with places; we do this movements, with cultures, with moments in time. How dark were the “Dark Ages”, what were the “Middle Ages” in the middle of? As freeways for some define Los Angeles, Leonardo da Vinci is, for many, the face of the Renaissance. When we think of the “Renaissance Man” the face that comes most readily to mind for many is Leonardo’s and when we call someone a Renaissance man or woman the comparison is for many to Leonardo. His face is iconic with an age and a concept.

Set of Harry Potter books, UK edition
Bloomsbury Publishing
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harry_Potter_Books.png

There was an article in the Guardian last week, “Harry Potter: Icons of the decade,” that identified Harry Potter as the icon of the last ten years, the first decade of the third millennium. There have been a number of articles over the past month that pointed out that Rowling’s wizard dominated book and movie ticket sales over the years since he first appeared. Some of these articles were positive, most of them were negative, in that many critics do not think these books have literary merit. But last week’s article pointed out that the Harry Potter books appealed to readers of many generations and asserts that they made reading “children’s books” an acceptable adult practice. Many of the images of an age are literary; they come from the stories that people tell that capture the spirit of the time. And because they capture so effectively the moment that produced them they come to represent that time.

Classical Greece is personified in Homer’s epic heroes and Plato’s representation of Socrates and classical Rome in Virgil’s epic hero with bits of Ovid and Petronius thrown in as well. For Renaissance poets Virgil became the iconic epic poet that everyone else tried to imitate. Milton begins Paradise Lost with an appeal to his heavenly muse that suggests Virgil’s invocation of his muse. Virgil tells the story of The Aeneid over twelve books, Milton tells his story over twelve books. There is an irony in that both The Aeneid and Paradise Lost focus on a character that was on the losing end of a war who ventures off to a new land to start a new kingdom. Perhaps it is this similarity between Aeneas and Satan that cause some to see Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost.

King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detail from the “Christian Heroes Tapestry”
Anonymous
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arth_tapestry2.jpg

King Arthur has come to represent Great Britain and its destiny. He is called, after all, the “Once and Future King” and it is part of his myth that he will one day return and restore Britain to greatness. The illustrations above and below capture aspects of Arthurian iconography. Arthur was one of the “Nine Worthies” and was at the time of Malory’s retelling of the stories already a revered character who had found his way into the storytelling of many European countries. It is interesting to me that Malory relied more on the French versions of the stories than he did on the more indigenous Welsh versions of the tales. The image below is of the Holy Grail that has become synonymous with excellence and achievement at the highest levels. And as the exclamation from Harry Potter “Merlin’s Beard” reminds us, Arthur’s wizard Merlin has become an icon of wizardry and he makes frequent reappearances in literature.

Apparition of Saint Graal
Anonymous
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Apparition_saint_graal.jpg

Where we find the icons of an age suggests to us what was important to that age. The icons of the 1960’s, for example, were rock bands, most notably The Beatles, though there were many others. Victoria and the first Elizabeth have become icons of their age not because of what they produced but what was produced in literature and the arts during their reigns. What does this suggest about how the people of each age saw themselves or, perhaps, how they were seen by those that did the labeling. Did Victorians, for example, see themselves as “Victorians”?

To what extent do our icons actually capture those we are trying to label? If Harry Potter is the icon of the present decade what does he, as a character, say about us? Is he important because of his economic contributions to the book trade or is he important because of the ideals he represents? People read these books because they are captured by the stories they tell. We want, perhaps, to see ourselves as heroic and these books offer an avenue for “experiencing” a bit of heroism. King Arthur represents an ideal of might on the side of justice and that probably contributes to his popularity through the ages and to the extent that Arthur’s vision was planted in his mind by Merlin might suggest Merlin’s rise to an iconic status. Perhaps stories are as much about what we aspire to as they are about who we are.

Don Quixote. From Chapter I
Gustave Dore
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gustave_Doré_-_Miguel_de_Cervantes_-_Don_Quixote_-_Part_1_-_Chapter_1_-_Plate_1_%22A_world_of_disorderly_notions,_picked_out_of_his_books,_crowded_into_his_imagination%22.jpg en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gustave_Doré_-_Miguel_de_Cervantes_-_Don_Quixote_-_Part_1_-_Chapter_1_-_Plate_1_%22A_world_of_disorderly_notions,_picked_out_of_his_books,_crowded_into_his_imagination%22.jpg

On the other side of the coin Don Quixote is iconic not just for the ideals he pursued and the manner in which he pursued them but because of his obsession for living in stories, for giving stories too much power over his sense of himself. There is value to the stories we tell, they help us to give life to our ideals, but there is also a danger. Quixote first lived vicariously through his stories than tried to put his vicarious living into practice. He goes beyond emulating the characters in his stories to trying to become the characters in his stories. I think stories can help us to give definitions to concepts and values but we have to make these concepts and values true to the people we are, to our own psychology. There is a difference between learning from stories to live more effectively and using stories to escape from living altogether. There is a place for the Quixotic quest, but only if we pursue the quest in our own name and not that of the hero of some story, that we become Quixotic and not Quixote.

Raiders of the Lost Arc Trailer
Paramount Pictures

Many of our modern icons come not from books but from films. For many the stories that help give definition to their lives and define their values come from the cinema. In the film clip we are introduced to a character who is a scholar with a worldwide reputation for scholarship, Army Intelligence, after all, seeks him out because of his scholarship. But he is also an adept field archeologist, a quick and insightful thinker, and a “super hero” of sorts; he is, in fact, a kind of “Renaissance Man.” He is part Sherlock Holmes and part James Bond with, perhaps, a bit of Errol Flynn thrown into the bargain. The film also draws upon iconic images from films of the past. There is a suggestion of Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre and of John Wayne in Stagecoach.

How important are these icons to our lives and our understanding of our place in the real and the cultural worlds? Do we need these icons; do they provide a kind of shorthand that makes communication easier? If they do, how accurate are they and do they really do what we think they do? It is important to tell stories and to communicate these stories effectively.

But we cannot communicate with others unless we all mean the same thing, or nearly the same thing, by our common iconic vocabulary. Were the Victorians, for example, remarkable because of their real cultural achievements or were they something much less exemplary, a closed minded intolerant people? They gave us the novels of Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy but were also possessed of a prudish set of values that has become an icon of a different color and the term Victorian is positive or negative depending on the context in which it is used.

The great Victorian detective often found the solution to a problem to be “elementary” but the writer of detective fiction often begins with the solution and writes backwards. If we know the end from the beginning much does become elementary, but those who live their lives going forward from beginning to end often depend on others to find the narrative thread that defines their lives. For Sherlock Holmes the story ends with the solution to the problem. But an age, like any individual, is rarely around to define itself by the ending that it makes and depends on those that remain to make an honest assessment.

Sherlock Holmes
Sidney Paget
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sherlock_Holmes_Portrait_Paget.jpg


A tall Ship, A Guiding Star, and a Usable Word Hoard


Shiver Me Timbers
Tom Waits

A tall Ship, A Guiding Star, and a Usable Word Hoard

The Clipper Ship “Flying Cloud” off the Needles, Isle of WightJames E. Buttersworthhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Buttersworth_-_flying_cloud.jpg

Tom Waits is singing about a man who is saying good-bye to friends, family, and loved ones as he prepares to go to sea. The painting also captures some of the ethos of being away at sea on a tall sailing ship. The painting and the song seemed apropos in light of the upcoming holiday “International Talk Like a Pirate Day”, celebrated on September 19th. I suppose this holiday resonates more with folks who think of pirates in terms of Errol Flynn and Captain Blood or Johnny Depp and The Pirates of the Caribbean than those who think in terms of current events in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz.

But “Talk Like a Pirate Day” also underscores an important dynamic of language, that the way we talk says something about who we are. This view of language is one of the themes of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Early on the play’s hero, Henry Higgins, says, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Our speech reveals things about us, where we are from, the extent of our education, the kind of work we do. I studied theater in college. It was pointed out by one of my professors that many of the terms for those parts of the theater where lights are hung and sets are kept in readiness and many of the activities performed by stage hands had their origins onboard ships. This was because many of the early stagehands were out of work sailors. There were similarities, or so my professor suggested, between the skills required of an able bodied seaman and a stagehand. I do not know how much truth there is to this, I never spent much time in the professional theater, but it sounds plausible.

There was a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement on the language expert David Crystal, “David Crystal, language geek”, in which Crystal describes some of his adventures in language. In one part of the article he describes working for Randolph Quirk (an interesting name for a language maven) on “The Survey of English Usage.” One day at work he received a phone call from a local shoe store. The marketing folks wanted some new adjectives to use in their advertising. Crystal thought the call was a joke but assembled a collection of words and sent it off. A week later he received a check for services rendered. Perhaps there is a suggestion here of another career path, in addition to teaching, available to the English major.

Book of Kells, Incipit to John
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KellsFol292rIncipJohn.jpg

As the illustrations above and below from medieval books suggest there is also a beauty to language, words, and the pages that contain them aside from what the words reveal about the people that use them. The making of books and the shaping of language can have a physical, a visual beauty that, though suggested by the literal meanings of the words, is separate and apart from the content of the language. The manuscripts are works of art in and of themselves and oftentimes the artistry of the decorations surrounding the words detracts from the words themselves. Some books offer pleasures that have nothing to do with the stories they tell. The textures of the paper and the bindings offer pleasures of their own. The illustrations and photographs that sometimes accompany a book are as satisfying as the book itself. I remember reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and thinking that my enjoyment of the book had as much to do with Walker Evans photographs as it did with Agee’s text, which was itself masterful.

Lindisfarne Gospels, Incipit to the Gospel of Matthew
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt.jpg

The Anglo-Saxons had a love of riddles. There is a riddle that I do with my twelfth grade students, “Riddle #60” from The Exeter Book. The subject of the riddle is “the reed” and the poem mostly focuses on how the reed, once carved into a writing implement, is used to convey “secret messages”, to pass notes, not in class, but in the mead hall. If one remembers that one of the primary entertainments of the mead hall was the singing of songs and the telling of stories set to music, the riddle of the reed completes a kind of “linguistic circle”, in that it provides an avenue for the written word in an environment dominated by the spoken word.

Lingsberg Runestone
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:U_240,_Lingsberg.jpg

That the Anglo-Saxons and most of the other Germanic tribes that settled Northern Europe and Scandinavia took enjoyment from the “look” of their letters that is attested to by the many “rune-stones” that decorate the region. The earliest English poem is “The Dream of the Rood.” One of the forms in which this poem survives is as a runic inscription on a stone cross in Scotland. The stone cross consists of figures and patterns carved into the stone bordered by the runic text of the poem. I do not think one needs to be a follower of Tolkien’s hobbits to appreciate the visual beauty of these stones. The runic letters were also believed to have magical properties, a power that transcends their mere appearance, and for this reason their use was eventually forbidden by the religious authorities of the time. There is an irony in this because one of the few poets from the Anglo-Saxon period whose name we know is Cynewulf and the only reason we know his name is because he wove the runic letters of his name into his poems. It is not known for certain who he was, but he appears to have been a priest or a bishop, one of those responsible for the suppression of the runic alphabet.

Star Wars “Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”
Lucasfilm Ltd.

Hans Solo’s spaceship the Millennium Falcon is a pirate ship from another age, or at least one gets that impression from Hans’ descriptions of the work he did before joining the rebellion. As he talks of his exploits one is left with the sense that piracy was one of his many skills. The romance of a thing and the reality of a thing are often very different. Just as the romance of the cockney in English culture, the culture of Eliza Doolittle and her father, has a romance about it that is appealing to those on the outside looking in, the reality of day to day cockney life is very different. The poor are often depicted in ways that idealize their lives often to make them appear simpler or more genuine or in ways that accentuate the humor of their situation. Sancho Panza, Sam Weller, and Sanford and Son are characters who are endearingly poor. But there is another side to poverty captured in Maxim Gorky’s plays, novels, and memoirs or Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle.” It may be fun to talk like a pirate, but it is probably less fun to be a pirate or to be captured by one.

The language we use to tell our stories often defines reality as it appears to us. Whether our stories create fictional worlds or capture bits and pieces of the world we inhabit, the language we use shapes a world that we expect readers to accept as real, as “believable”. The real world of poverty as perceived by Horatio Alger is a bit different from that same reality as it appeared to Charles Dickens but both authors expected their readers to accept as “true to life” the landscapes they crafted.

Also the language we use often tells others, in some way, who we are. Often we employ a language that tells us who we are, a “character” that we assume as we might assume a secret identity. When words fail us we lose touch with who we are or think we are. It is often not the case that we cannot find the words to say what we mean but rather that we cannot find the words that both say what we mean while preserving the persona we have crafted for the world to see. We may want to talk like a pirate for a day because it is kind of fun, the hard work is in talking every day like the people we imagine ourselves to be.