Still Life with Words

From Under Milkwood

Dylan Thomas

 

Still Life with Words

  

  

Starry Night over the Rhone

Vincent Van Gogh

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

    

  

Moonlit Night on the Dniepr

Arkhip Kuindzhi

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

   

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

  

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

  

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

  

  

Vanitas Still Life

Pieter Claesz

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

  

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

  

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

  

  

Cityscape I

Richard Diebenkorn

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

  

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

  

Never did sun more beautifully steep

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

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

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

  

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

  

  

Chichester Canal

J. M. W. Turner

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

    

  

Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans

Lemon Anderson

TED Talk

   

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

   

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

   

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

  

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

   

   

Zhou Maoshu Appreciating Lotuses

Kano Masanobu

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

It’s a Fact

 

Over the Rainbow

Keith Jarrett

 

It’s a Fact

  

 

The Course of Empire Consummation

Thomas Cole

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

  

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

  

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

  

 

The Sleeping Gypsy

Henri Rousseau

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

  

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

  

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

  

 

A Dance to the Music of Time

Nicolas Poussin

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

   

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

  

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

   

From A Handful of Dust

Acorn Media

  

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

  

 Virgil reading to Augustus

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

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

  

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

  

 

Courtyard of the Former Castle in Innsbruck without Clouds

Albrecht Durer

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

  

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

   

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

   

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

   

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

  

 

Landscape, 1918

Félix Vallotton

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

Only a Memory


Looking into You
Jackson Browne

Only a Memory

Memory, Bronze door at main entrance of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building
Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Adams)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Memory-Warner-Highsmith.jpeg

In the song the singer returns to a place he once called home. It has changed as he has changed and the scene the song evokes suggests the true meaning of nostalgia, the pain of coming home. Returning to a place where memories live is often an unpleasant enterprise. The place is never as we remember it and even if the changes in the place are not great the changes in us often are. Our changed selves are out of place in our old worlds. The bronze relief on the main door of the Library of Congress is titled Memory but what is being remembered? The figure in the door could be Penelope remembering Odysseus and wondering when or if he will return. It might be of any woman waiting for a warrior to return (and the objects she holds suggests she is remembering a warrior). Of course this woman could be the wife or mother of a soldier that has died and will not return. Perhaps the door is of a specific event that would be clear if I knew the door’s history but not knowing its history leaves the image open to many interpretations, all of which suggest the more melancholy aspects of memory. Perhaps all memory, by virtue of what it is, is tinged with melancholy.

There is a line from the Wallace Stevens poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (one of the ways of looking at the blackbird) that goes, “I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” I think what the poet is considering, especially in the last phrase, “The blackbird whistling / Or just after” is whether the event (“the blackbird whistling”) or the memory of the event (“just after”) is the more pleasant. Our memories of an experience, especially a pleasant experience, are often more pleasant and more “memorable” than the experience itself. This raises the question to what degree are we shaped by our experiences and to what degree are we shaped by our memories of those experiences, which are not always the same thing. This is perhaps what is being gotten at in the first phrase in the Stevens poem about “The beauty of inflections” and “the beauty of innuendoes.” Which is more beautiful the sounds that we hear or what those sounds suggest, hint at, or evoke? Are we shaped by inflections of memory or by their innuendoes?

The Last of England
Ford Maddox Brown
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brown_last_of_england.jpg

At the back of the song is also the suggestion of leaving home, he is visiting a house he lived in when he “first went out on (his) own.” The singer is not going to a new world in the same way the people depicted in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting above or Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph below are going to a new world, but in a sense when a young man or woman leaves home to make a home for him or herself in the world it is a new world that is opening up. It may not come with as much that is foreign and different as it was for the folks in the painting or the photograph but it still involves entering something of an unknown universe. When we leave home we know the landscape, the people around us look and dress largely as we do, they also speak our language. This helps, but the world is new nonetheless. It takes courage to go out on our own. Ours is a nation of immigrants, which means that for most us there is someone in our ancestry that made the trip the folks in the painting and the photograph are making.

The Steerage
Alfred Stieglitz
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Steerage_1907_Stieglitz.jpg

I think that of the two, the journey in the painting and the photograph, the one depicted in the photograph had to be the most difficult. The folks in steerage are very different from the folks looking at them from above. The world the folks in steerage are entering is a very different world from the one they left. Of course I am assuming that the folks in the painting are going to America, as the folks in Steerage appear to be doing. Of course this is a guess on both parts. It could be the folks in the painting are going to India or Egypt, both parts of the English Commonwealth at the time. It may be the folks in steerage are going to another country that is more like the one they left and that it is those watching from above that will be the ones to feel most out of place. Our lives, perhaps, are shaped as much by our preconceptions as they are by our memories and there are no guarantees that either is entirely reliable.

There was an article in the Guardian, “The private life of books,” about what is at times found in second hand books. I know I often buy books that people have written in because I want to know the thoughts of others, if others have understood the book as I understood it or were affected by it as I was affected. The world of the used book is a very different world from that of the new book. I have books that I bought in various places that are quite old. Some were printed before the technology that “burst” or separated the pages was invented. When these books were bought in order to read them the reader had to first cut the pages. There is a scene in The Great Gatsby where the narrator, Nick, is commenting on Gatsby’s library and the magnificence of the volumes that fill the shelves. Nick pulls down a book and soon discovers that none of the pages in any of the books he looks into have been cut. This tells us the books in Gatsby’s library served more of a decorative than literary purpose. When I open a book that is a few hundred years old in which none of the pages have been cut, I am having the experience of reading that book for the first time, not just the first time I am reading that book but the first time anyone has read that book. I have not had this experience often, but each time I have had it, it has filled me with a kind of awe. I am the first person, other than the printer who set the page perhaps, to read this book though it has had a home on someone’s bookshelf for many, many years.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street
Giorgio de Chirico.
http://www.abcgallery.com/C/chirico/chirico9.html

There was a review recently in the Washington Post, “Michael Dirda reviews ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran,” of a book on Agatha Christie’s notebooks, the notebooks she kept as she was writing her mystery stories. I have always been a great fan of detective fiction in general and of Christie’s stories in particular. I remember riding my bicycle through Scotland. I was by the banks of Loch Ness when a rainstorm started. I found a bed and breakfast where I could stay until the rain passed. One of the other guests there recommended the Christie novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. There was a copy of the novel in one of the sitting rooms. I picked it up and it was the first full length novel I ever read in a single sitting. It kept me up all night long and I never got sleepy. This was not the first Agatha Christie novel I read, but it is among the most memorable. Of course there was more to the experience than the book, there was also the place, I was in Great Britain, in a place that was shrouded by its own aura mystery. The window in my room looked out over Loch Ness and I remember looking out each evening to see if there were any strange creatures swimming about. But of course there were not, and my memory refuses to “enliven” this recollection.

Spellbound
Alfred Hitchcock
Selznick International Pictures

The film is about a man trying to figure out who he is and the woman that is trying to help him. Something has happened to the man that has induced amnesia. All we know is that the event that brought on his forgetfulness seemed to involve something white and some lines. We only know this because of how he reacts to straight lines and the color white. The actor playing the old psychiatrist in the film is Michael Chekhov, Anton Chekhov’s nephew. He (Michael Chekhov) was a student of Constantin Stanislavski and went on to develop his own approach to the craft of acting. He is known for developing the concept of the “Psychological Gesture,” a behavior or action that reveals an inner psychological reality in the character being portrayed. I think knowing this makes his portrayal of the psychiatrist in the movie that much more delightful. I think that Gregory Peck in his portrayal of the amnesiac makes use of this theatrical device at various times in the film, including those moments with razor in the clip above. It is also what we do not know about this character’s past (and what we think we know) that creates the tension that permeates this scene.

This suggests the limitations of knowledge or at least the limits of what we think we know. Knowledge can be deceptive. We think we know a thing; we have studied it and found out a lot about that thing. But if there is any complexity to what we know the odds are our knowledge is limited and the conclusions drawn from it are not always reliable. This can create problems because we often have to act on what we know and we often cannot be sure we know enough to act. Chekhov’s character in the film believes he must act on what he knows, but as the film will show he does not know enough to justify the conclusion that he draws. He wants to go to the police because he believes Peck’s character is dangerous. But this view may be questionable. You will have to watch the film to find out if Chekhov calls the police or listens to Ingrid Bergman and suspends judgment.

Memories make our lives richer. They enable us to derive pleasure from an experience over and over again. When I read a book that evokes or alludes to another book that I have read that evocation or allusion brings back the original experience of reading that book (or part of the experience). Of course there is the other side of memory, a side like that experienced by the character in the film, where memories, or the ghosts of memories, haunt us and keep us from enjoying the present or of building a future. And memories often will not be controlled. They will visit us in their own time and often stay longer than they are welcome. Little things often bring them out of hiding. For me the smell of diesel fuel takes me back to London in the 1970’s and graham crackers bring me back to a room above a plumbing store on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach, California. These are pleasant memories and I welcome them when they come. But there are always others that are less welcome that have their own triggers that I will not mention here for fear of provoking them.


One Day, Maybe


Longer Boats
Cat Stevens

One Day, Maybe

Pebble in the Sky Cover
Isaac Asimov
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pebble_sky_cover.jpg

I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, my father was an aerospace engineer and I grew up with the space program. I also grew up with science fiction and the belief that very shortly, probably in my lifetime, we would be visiting other planets with an eye turned to other galaxies. Many thought that before long we would be seeing photographs resembling this cover illustration from one of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novels. But somewhere between then and now other things began to occupy the culture’s interests. The song Longer Boats enjoyed a bit of popularity in the early 70’s and it is, as the singer tells us, about space ships. But the space ships never arrived, except in the movies.

In the movies the space ships brought two kinds of folks. There were those like ET who looked frightening to us (as we looked frightening to him) and the alien with his robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still who were either just curious and met us no harm or were actively committed to our welfare and saving us from ourselves. On the other hand there were those, like the folks in the Twilight Zone episode “How to Serve Man” or The Invaders from Mars that were committed to our destruction. There were also creatures like The Blob who were just hungry and had no real thoughts for us at all.

Martian Sunset Spirit Rover
NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/lib/aptree.html

This photograph probably comes as close as any to resembling the cover art found on the science fiction novels of my youth. It is of the sunset on Mars and was taken by one of the Martian “rovers” that have spent quite a long time exploring the surface of this planet. It takes my breath away every time I see it. This is not a painting but the actual surface of another planet as it looked on a certain day. There are no people there to share in this experience only the machines we have sent in our place, but this is the real dirt and dust and mist of Mars. There are some for whom the spirit of exploration has not died who would like to see this story taken a step further and to see people walk this land. But I am not sure that there are any longer enough who are committed to making this happen. Our budgets are smaller and our interests closer to home.

There were a couple of articles recently, one in the Los Angeles Times on the science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (“Kim Stanley Robinson maps the future’s gray areas”) and one in the Washington Post on “New science fiction and fantasy novels” that remind us that science fiction as a genre has not gone away even if the desire to make it fact has somewhat abated. These writers often focus on this planet and how life on it might be different in the future or, in the case of Robinson in the past in ways that affect the future. Science fiction writers have always enjoyed imagining a future earth that has been transformed by human misbehavior. There is one story I particularly enjoy about a man working on his doctoral dissertation who is coaxed through an opening in the wall of his apartment to a parallel universe. What fascinates me about this story is that nearly every character in it is the man writing his dissertation at different points in time. But it was Ray Bradbury’s journey to Mars that awakened my imagination to the possibility of one day doing on Mars what the Martian Rover is doing now.

Galaxy Photograph (Crossfield/Beletsky)
NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/lib/aptree.html

The image above is a photograph taken of a distant galaxy. I think it was taken from the Hubble telescope orbiting in space, but I am not sure. But it, and others like it, resembles paintings made by Jackson Pollack, or at least these photographs suggest Pollack’s paintings to me. I do not know if Pollack had an interest in science fiction or astronomy but this resemblance interests me. Is the universe, like a Pollack painting, somewhat chaotic in its organization or do the kaleidoscopic displays of colors and patterns in both the painting and the universe suggest creative imaginations that think alike. The resemblance certainly suggests that art does not need to be representational to be beautiful.

Perhaps the imagination that sees beauty in random placements of color on canvas is not unlike the imagination that sees stories in the stars. We look at the stars and see bits of color on a dark night sky but our ancient ancestors saw bears and hunters and creatures of various kinds going about their business. Perhaps what we call mythology was a kind of ancient science fiction. That those that told these stories got the same thrill from them that I got from Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein. I am told, and what I have read of the mythology suggest this is true, that the classical mythmakers believed the stories they told, that they were not merely the products of vivid imaginations but a kind of history. Plato believed (or suggested he believed) that those that told the stories of Homer and the other classical writers of myth were possessed, were not in their right minds, but a bit mad. Many think the same thing about Pollack and painters like him. Perhaps his is a mythic madness as well.

Lavender Mist
Jackson Pollack
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lavender_Mist.jpg

The stories change us though or at least they changed me. The myths from antiquity suggest we live in a universe populated by many strange and wonderful beings. The science fiction I read as a child and as a young adult and still read to this very day, suggest the same thing about the universe, that it is inhabited by strange and wonderful beings and if some of the beings that inhabit these stories are not kind or benevolent, well, the same was true of many of the beings that inhabited the popular myths of the ancient world.

But what makes a storyteller. As I have grown up I have seen film become the avenue of modern storytelling. I have seen its special effects grow from the sparks that propelled Flash Gordon’s space ship to the warp speeds of starships and the grace and elegance with which these starships moved. But it also seems that as the ability to make magic with special effects increased these effects started to replace the stories. Aristotle acknowledged the place of spectacle in story telling but he believed that spectacle oughtn’t to become the story but should always serve the story.

James Cameron TED Talk

James Cameron talks here about his love of science fiction and of how that love helped to shape him into a storyteller. Like many skillful storytellers he has been accused of borrowing his stories from others. There is probably some truth to this; there are only so many stories to tell, after all. But he creates worlds where wonderful and at times terrifying things happen. Do his stories exploit their special effects, does the spectacle over shadow the stories his films tell? Some think so. But even if they have their limitations they are powerful. Personally I have been more troubled by the limitations of some of his actors than by the inadequacy of his stories.

Three Suns (JPL)
NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/lib/aptree.html

It probably does not matter that much of what happens in a good science fiction story uses flawed science, they are exercises in what might be and perhaps in the worlds they travel different rules apply. How would we be different if we orbited three different suns that appeared at different places against the sky? The three sunned landscape of this illustration has a kind of beauty and I wonder what kind of life could develop on such a planet. But how does imagining such things make life better on a planet with one sun?

There is something in the human character that is curious and wants to know even if there is no practical value to knowing a thing or in speculating about an outcome. Stories often help us to entertain this curious bent of the imagination. And it has often happened that in entertaining the mind with such nonsense great things have been accomplished. The space program may not have solved the world’s problems but it did give us Tang, microwave cooking, and the laptop computer. Jonathan Swift ridiculed the speculative scientists of his day by accusing them of attempting to pull sunlight out of cucumbers. Science may not have succeeded in pulling sunlight out of cucumbers, but they have given us ethanol, something not very different.

Is the object of science to make our lives better, to make us more comfortable, or to understand how to use our resources more effectively and to understand the forces of nature that have created those resources. If the former, science only has value if it can solve our problems. It must produce practical results or it is not worth the investment. If the latter the results are somewhat superfluous because the study of science is not about what it can do for us, but the knowledge it gives and the insights it provides into the universe we occupy. It has usually happened that this knowledge has brought with it practical applications that have solved many problems, but this is just a by-product and not a purpose. So, is the joke on Swift or on us? Perhaps it depends on whether we view science as an end or as a means to an end, as spectacle without much in the way of a story to tell or the intelligence, or an aspect of that intelligence, behind the scenes that drives the story.


Mindful of the Cost


Bach: Cello Suite #1 In G, BWV 1007 – 1. Prelude
Mstislav Rostropovich

Mindful of the Cost

Scholar and His Books
Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gerbrand_van_den_Eeckhout_003.jpg

The music of Bach has always seemed very contemplative to me, often there is to it a kind of joyousness as well that captures both the introspective nature of scholarship and the pleasure that scholarly pursuits can give. Perhaps I am just superimposing onto Bach my own feelings and interests, who’s to say. Aristotle believed that the desire to learn and develop intellectually is built into every human being and is part of what makes us all human. I think there is truth to this. The painting also captures the contentment the scholarly gentleman it features experiences as well. He looks very at home with his books and his thoughts.

There was an article in this weekend’s Boston Globe, “FreeHarvardEducation.com,” about a web site that makes student notes (and the many of the professors’ lecture notes) available free online where anyone who wishes can read and learn from them. The specific students and professors being discussed in the article are from Harvard University but the underlying issue addressed by the article is “who owns academic work” and the knowledge that is created by study and scholarship.

This is in part why students are required to document the sources of the information that appears in their essays. They are acknowledging that the ideas and information that appears in their papers do not originate with them. But is all that is cited equally original with the source that is being cited in the paper? Is an encyclopedia article that gives information on the French Revolution as entitled to the ownership of the information presented as Darwin is of the Theory of Evolution or Einstein is of the Theory of Relativity? If the student does not quote the article word for word is that student really stealing from the encyclopedia or are they only stating facts that belong to all that have an interest in history.

There is another issue here of course and that relates to preserving the sources of one’s research so that those that come after can duplicate that research. R. C. Bald in his biography of John Donne points out that an earlier biographer, Edmund Gosse, wrote an excellent biography of Donne. But Bald points out that Gosse published at a time when citing sources and printing bibliographies was not as big a concern as it is today. Gosse did the research and prepared the bibliography of that research, but his publisher did not see the importance of printing the bibliography. As a result most of Gosse’s research had to be done over. I think this is an important concern, but the issue is not so much one of who owns the information so much as leaving a trail that those that come after can follow. Even though it is unlikely that the research done by students in a high school English class will be studied by future scholars, the principle is worth learning and the habits of good scholarship are worth developing.

Bangalore Central Library
Mouleesha
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BangaloreCentralLibrary.JPG

There was an article recently in the New York Times, “Despite Ray Bradbury’s Efforts, a California Library Closes,” about how a library that Ray Bradbury had tried to help save last summer was forced to close due to budget cuts and the inability to raise the necessary funding from alternative sources. In the article Bradbury is quoted as saying, “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries, because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” Most of what is worth knowing can be learned at a library. Obviously the bigger the library the more one can learn, but most well stocked and well maintained libraries make a great deal of valuable information available to anyone who wants to learn it. As more books become digitized it is becoming easier to access a good library even if one lives many miles away from the library itself.

National Central Library of Florence
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BNCF_7.JPG

Of course this raises other issues about the ownership of ideas and intellectual property. But as Harry Lewis says in the Harvard article mentioned earlier, “Harvard and MIT and Stanford and Princeton, we’re not Decca records. Our job in life is to provide enlightenment to the world,” says Lewis, an outspoken critic of the way content providers have used copyright law online. “We have to make a living doing it and all the professors have to be paid for their labors, but the notion that universities would inherit the oppressive picture of the way intellectual property is treated by the music industry is really a fundamentally warped view of what the ultimate purpose of universities are.” Lewis believes that professors need to be paid and that universities cannot keep their doors open if they cannot charge for what is taught in their classrooms, but the fundamental mission of a school is radically different from that of a business and that mission should guide the decisions, including the financial decisions, that a school makes. If online libraries and study groups can give more people access to knowledge and scholarship ways ought to be found to accommodate that enterprise.

Portrait of Jean Miélot, secretary, copyist and translator to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Escribano.jpg

The medieval monk in his scriptorium worked daily at preserving the accumulated knowledge he had inherited. Most of what was preserved was religious in nature, but not all of it. Classical works of poetry and philosophy were preserved as well. The Beowulf manuscript was probably preserved by a monk. Snorri Sturluson, a Scandinavian monk, preserved a hefty chunk of Skaldic poetry and Norse storytelling. Those who have read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose can appreciate the irony of a manuscript that was lost when the library that provides the setting for his story burns down. This manuscript also lies at the heart of the mystery the story’s protagonist investigates. The novel at the very least suggests who is the owner of the knowledge, of the scholarship, that is housed in the monastery’s library? Is it the property of the monastery and its leadership and are they free to do with it what they will?

Paper Chase
CBS

The film clip comes from the television program Paper Chase. The program, like the film, focuses on a law professor, Professor Kingsfield, who teaches contract law at Harvard (or at least a very Harvard-like institution). He is an exacting legal scholar who expects his students to be equally as exacting, and equally as brilliant. In the film there is a moment when Hart comes to class unprepared and cannot answer a question that is put to him by Kingsfield. Kingsfield attack Hart and Hart, eventually attacks back. Kingsfield praises Hart, after a fashion, for fighting back, suggesting that what is important to Kingsfield is not being always right or preserving his ego but in teaching his students to defend their point of view and to make that defense intelligently based on the law as it is written. As for many teachers worthy of the name, what is important is honing the students’ skills by whatever means necessary.

So, who owns scholarship; who owns learning? Why do we go to school, why do we send our children to school? Is the purpose of school merely to teach the next generation a trade by which they can earn their bread, or is there a greater purpose? Some derive great pleasure from being able to reason out a difficult problem. Isaac Newton used to calculate logarithms in his head for fun (anyone who has ever had any experience with logarithms can appreciate the mental effort involved in this exercise). Many go to college to make contacts with others that may be important for the advancement of their careers, some want a degree from a prestigious university because of the doors the degree will open when they enter to job market. There is nothing wrong with this way of thinking about education, it is probably what motivates the majority of students, but for the university itself and for the student who wants more from an education than just the degree that comes with it this is not (or ought not to be) what is important. It is not just the preservation of a culture, but a frame of mind that sees the development of a mind as an important and beautiful thing. The bank note pictured below is of a Turkish twenty million lira note, the world’s largest currency denomination. I think it is fitting that the image that graces this bank note is of a library, the ancient library at Celsus. Of course it should not be overlooked that the library on the bank note is a ruin, which should remind us that libraries cannot survive if those that value them fail to preserve them.

Twenty Million Turkish Lira banknote featuring the Library at Celsus
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:20million.JPG