Keeping It Simple

St. Matthew Passion “Choral: Erkenne mich, mein Huter”
J. S. Bach
American Tune
Paul Simon

Keeping It Simple

Cure for Oversleeping
Rube Goldberg

Beauty often lives in simplicity. Bach so appreciated the beauty of this simple melody that he used it again and again. Paul Simon also valued the simplicity and beauty of the tune and put it to work in his song American Tune. Whether it is a simple melody like that from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (and a half dozen others at least) or a simple explication of a poem or story, or the poem or story itself, simplicity lends a degree of elegance to the work. I like Occam’s Razor (“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”) when it comes to most things, which simply suggests that the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts is probably the truth. What made Rube Goldberg’s cartoons so funny was that they demonstrated excessively complicated ways of solving extremely simple problems, like getting up in the morning. It is human nature, I believe, to prefer simplicity, even though we often live our lives as though our inclinations favored a different direction.

But it is important to remember that there is a difference between being simple and simple minded. The simplest explanation of a poem may be very complex and somewhat opaque. Being simple is not always the same as being easy. I think most of us equate a simple task with an easy one, when in fact it may only be simple because there are not many steps to carry out, though those few steps may place demands on our skill, abilities, and intellects. What simplifying a task often does is make it easier to focus on the work to be done, as there are not a lot of superfluous details that confuse or obfuscate. But that which demands our focus often requires all of our attention.

Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, called The Ambassadors
Hans Holbein the Younger,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg

The other side of the coin is being as simple as possible even though the work itself is very complicated. The painting above is very ornate. There are the designs in the curtains, the rug, the cloth on shelf, and in the robes of the ambassador in brown. There are many objects on the shelf as well. The detail found in the painting of the textiles is necessary to capture the reality of the scene but the objects placed in the painting have a symbolic value, many being associated with the various components of a liberal arts education of the time. Then there is that funny looking object on the floor between the two ambassadors. It is odd and appears, unlike everything else, very unreal.

It is a puzzle that Holbein placed in the painting and can only be seen for exactly what it is if the painting is viewed at the right angle, which is from the side and definitely not straight on. When viewed from the side, the strange object on the floor is seen to be a human skull. One of the stories told about the painting is that it was intended to be hung in a stairwell and that the skull would suddenly jump out at the person climbing up the stairs. One can imagine the effect this might have on a dark and stormy night. But whatever the intended effect this painting is not one that was done simply, though, it is hard to imagine it being done any more simply and still produce the effect that it does, it is as complicated as it needs to be, but not much more complicated, and that is, perhaps, a definition of simplicity.

Static-Dynamic Gradation, 1923
Paul Klee (German, 1879–1940)
Oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink
15 x 10 1/4 in. (38.1 x 26.1 cm)
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.12)

Some have questioned whether the work of modern artists like Paul Klee is really art at all. The painting above is a checkerboard pattern with each of the squares in a different color (in some cases the difference is very slight). But if you look at the photograph below of the Dome of the Rock you see an ancient place that takes a similar delight in geometric shapes in different shades of white, blue and brown. It is the same delight that many of us took as children in playing with a kaleidoscope, which was also play with shades and shapes.

Dome of the Rock

Writing, when it is done well, evokes the simplicity or complexity of its subject but it always attempts to present its subject in as simple a light as possible. The skilled writer looks for the simplest path through the chosen subject. This is not easy and it is important to remember, simple is rarely easy. In fact what often makes poor writing poor is its unnecessary complexity that is usually an indication that the focus has been lost, that words are being used like shotgun pellets to hit everything in the hope that something might stick. I have assignments that I give where I require students to do something in a limited amount of space. They are used to getting assignments where they are told they must write at least a pre-determined number of pages, but they are rarely told they are to write no more than a page or two. I have seen students struggle more writing something that is short and to the point than with something that can be as long as they want to make it.

Simplicity, being concise and to the point, is often the most difficult thing we can be asked to do. When asked to compare writing short stories to writing novels, William Faulkner said, “You can be more careless, you can put more trash in it and be excused for it. In a short story that’s next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right, in the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t.” This is the struggle that all writers face. If they are to write well they must learn to identify what is necessary and what is not. Even in the novel where much will be forgiven, the reader’s patience and tolerance is not endless and even that which is done badly must be done badly in an artful way.

Shaker Loops
John Adams

The music is called Shaker Loops. It was not initially called this, but after re-working the piece Adams thought the Shaker’s ritual practice of ecstatically jumping about and their dedication to simplicity underscored what he was trying to achieve not just in this composition but in most of his work. He comes from, he helped to establish, the minimalist school of composition. The orchestrations are as bare boned as he can make them, they are very simple, but for those that are captured by the work of Adams, and others like him, there is a delight that the music provokes. For music that is as bare boned as this, melody, the most accessible quality of a musical score, plays a relatively minor role. Adams focuses instead on rhythms and harmony, a much more difficult path to ecstasy than melody.

Shaker Furniture

The music is not unlike these pieces of Shaker furniture. There is not much more to these pieces than a graceful line combined with a skilled and sturdy craftsmanship, there is nothing “ornate” about this furniture. The simplicity of the furniture is meant to reflect the simplicity of the soul that crafted and uses it. It is somewhat ironic that one must be almost independently wealthy to afford a good piece of Shaker furniture.

In the world of school work and work itself, we are often drowning in unnecessary complexity. The philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote a review of an interesting sounding book Shop Class as Soul Craft. The review is titled “Making Things Work” and Fukuyama delights in the idea that in shop class things have to work. He talks about how the author of the book, Matthew B. Crawford, spent his spare time while in college taking old Volkswagen engines apart and putting them back together. I took a bit of delight in this part of the review because I, as a young man in college, bought a book by John Muir (not the gentleman who introduced Teddy Roosevelt to Yosemite) that took you step by step through the dismantling and reassembling of the V. W. engine. I could not master this, having no aptitude for mechanics, myself, but I had friends who did. These friends could also attest to the importance of doing the job right. I had one friend who discovered he had not quite gotten it right when he arrived at college five or six hundred miles away from his tools, which were still at home.

It is easy when our work is done exclusively in the mind to overlook whether or not what we are thinking has any practical merit, if it will in fact work. As a professional I think I have only my instincts and judgment to rely upon. But I know from my classroom experience that often those things that I felt were working well, did not in fact accomplish the goal I had set for the exercise. On the other side of the coin, I have had the experience of feeling as though things are not working at all, that all is a dreadful failure, only to find out later that much, sometimes most, of what I set out to do had been accomplished.

This suggests to me that judgment and instinct are not always enough. My limitations as a mechanic become obvious as soon as the key is put in the ignition. The machine that is improperly assembled reveals everything, there are no secrets, there are no abstract theories, just an engine that will not take the spark and do what it does with gasoline and fire. In the end, in the classroom the educational machine must work and the only evidence that it is working is if the spark that lights the intellect and the imagination ignites and does its thing with fire.

Enjoying the Spring and the Stories That It Tells

The Four Seasons – “Spring”
Nigel Kennedy and the English Chamber Orchestra

Enjoying the Spring and the Stories That It Tells

The Los Angeles Public Library Central Library – Pools

The music is by Vivaldi and is the opening of the “Spring” section of his Four Seasons concertos. It is bright and upbeat, just like the spring after a dark cold winter. Spring is often associated with new beginnings. The world looks new again; the frosts have passed (if you live in a place that has frosts.). Spring is also when the library book sales begin (some go on all year long, but the spring and summer is a popular time for annual book sales). Since first introduced to library book sales I have been a great fan of them and have found some marvelous books. Right now my favorite is an edition of John Gower’s poetry that was published in the early 1800’s and is bound in rather old and fragile leather.

There was an article in an edition eSchool News recently about the struggles school libraries are having meeting the requirements for 21st century technology standards while maintaining their traditional services. Libraries are marvelous places and most cities of any age or reputation take pride in their libraries. It is an essential part of any school. How, after all, can students be taught to do research, especially historical and literary research, if the school does not have an adequate library. Add to this fact that the world is changing radically and the way research will be done in the very near future bears little resemblance to how it was done when I was in school. How will our students survive in the 21st century world of college and of work if they are being trained for the world as it looked and behaved yesterday? It is expensive to prepare students for the world they will encounter and relatively cheap to prepare them for the world that was. We are living in an age, it seems, where cost takes priority over value.

The image at the top is of the Los Angeles Public Library. It often appears in movies, especially television movies, but rarely as a library. The last time I saw it in a movie it was supposed to be a courthouse. A few years before I moved from Los Angeles to Massachusetts the library was seriously damaged by a fire. The city rallied to restore it by donating large sums of money to restore the building and its collections. Even a local pastor known for his ability to raise large sums of money conducted a few fundraisers in support of the cause. The library was successfully rebuilt and though some aspects of its collection that were lost were irreplaceable (if I remember correctly it had copies of every addition of the Los Angeles Times since it first began publication), it has a healthy collection once again.

I think this is a testament to a community’s commitment to learning. Perhaps times were better than. I think that it is interesting that the symbolism employed by the structure, the pyramid on top being the most obvious, is Egyptian (one of the old classic movie houses was also called “The Egyptian Theater” but it may have disappeared in my absences). I like to think this is a nod to the most renowned of classical libraries, the Library at Alexandria, Egypt. But being next door to Hollywood it may have more to do with the silent film version of Cleopatra.

The Library of Congress main reading room, Jefferson Building

The library serves as a kind of symbol of a culture’s literacy and its commitment to literacy and scholarship. This paragraph is sandwiched between two images of famous library reading rooms, that of the Library of Congress and that of the British Museum. Thomas Jefferson sold his book collection to the nation to start the Library of Congress. The British Museum’s reading room has seen many important works assembled beneath its roof and at its reading tables. I am told, for example, that it was here that Karl Marx worked on his Das Capital. On a different side of the coin Mahatma Gandhi also used the Museum’s reading room.

The British Museum Reading Room

There is something inspiring about the thought of so many people doing serious scholarship (and I am sure some not so serious scholarship as well) at these tables jammed on top of each other. If everyone did not work quietly it would be very difficult for anyone to work at all. The Library of Congress, at least in this photograph, has only tables, books and papers, while the British Museum Reading Room is equipped with banks of computers. I have not seen a card catalog in a library in a very long time and I imagine even in the Library of Congress the traditional catalog is being replaced by the computer and the digital card catalog. Maybe not, it is one of those things I will have to check out.

There was an article in the Sunday Guardian on The Free Access World Digital Library. According to the article a number of the world’s major libraries worked together to put their collections online so that they could be accessed anywhere by anyone. The project was the idea of the librarian of the Library of Congress. When the European version was given a test drive it had so many visitors it had to shut down temporarily because it could not handle the traffic. For those interested in seeing a sample of what the library houses there is an online sampler of sorts. The irony of this is that about a month earlier The Guardian published a different article on the disappearing libraries (actually it is series of photographs of library scenes, one of which is the original British Museum reading room). It is odd that at a time the “World Library” suggests the interest in libraries is great, libraries are struggling to survive.

I have an iPod Touch. I also learned this week that through Google Books I can gain access, when I am online, to a huge library of digitized books. This library is available to anyone with a computer, a smart phone, or a device like the iPod Touch. This suggests, among other things, that the library of the future will be a very different place. Copyright laws and such have to be worked out, but that is likely only a matter of time (I suppose until those with the power to say yes recognize a library is a library). My iPod already has about fifty books on it and with the Google app I have access to thousands of books, as long as I also have access to the web and the server is not down.

St Jerome Reading in the Countryside
Giovanni Bellini

If one does not look too intently one could almost imagine that the book in front of St. Jerome is in fact a Kindle. Jerome lived in a time when a book was copied by hand and was probably quite costly. About a thousand years later Gutenberg and moveable type made books available to most anyone who could read one and about two thirds of a millennia later books as we know them are perhaps becoming obsolete. The book itself, though, will probably take on another incarnation and survive in a somewhat different form for another millennia or two.

The City of Dreaming Books Virtual Book Club (suggested by Walter Moers book The City of Dreaming Books)

The film clip shows strange creatures in pursuit of knowledge, learning, and a good story. In the book that inspired the clip a bookstore or a library can be a dangerous place and the championing of a literary text could get a person in very serious trouble. Perhaps a book is a dangerous thing. The ideas found in Jefferson’s library inspired a revolution, as did the ideas developed in the great library of Britain. What is the difference between a good idea and a dangerous one, ideas like Jefferson’s and Ideas like those of Marx? Is it Marx’s ideas that are dangerous or only the way that those ideas were implemented? Like many valuable things in life thought and the ideas that thought produces come with their own special dangers.

The photo of Radcliffe Camera of Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford.

The Bodleian Library is affiliated with one of the word’s oldest and most prestigious universities. The Radcliffe Camera originally housed the science library and dates back to the eighteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century it was made a part of the Bodleian, the Universities principle library. J. R. R. Tolkien, according to Wikipedia, thought this building looked like Sauron’s Temple to Morgoth, which suggests a view of some towards libraries, especially libraries dedicated to science. Perhaps Tolkien’s view of this library has more to do with the time he spent there as an undergraduate than with his view of libraries in general.

I think libraries are exciting places, especially in springtime. Harold Bloom talks about reading his way through libraries. He read the books of various libraries, though I do not know if that means he read everything or only the things that interested him. I have never read my way through a library but the idea is an appealing one, though probably unlikely for one with a reading speed like mine. It was said of Milton that he had read every book that was available in print in his lifetime. He was a very learned man, and knew enough and read enough to make the story plausible. If Google and all the other folks trying to digitize libraries are successful it may not be long before we can carry in our pockets every book that Milton was thought to have read, even if we cannot find the time to read them ourselves.


The Turn of the Screw, Op.54 “Interlude Variation III Scene 4 The Tower”
Benjamin Britten


“Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo”
Théodore Chassériau.

My juniors are reading the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw. The music is from an opera by Benjamin Britten based on the novella. One of the things I enjoy about this book is how it plays against the conventions of the traditional ghost story. The first two sightings of the ghost of Peter Quint take place in the daytime, the first sighting on a sunny summer afternoon. The music has a melancholy flavor to it throughout but the opening section suggests sunshine and sultry summer weather, perhaps in part because it evokes, for me anyway, the “Morning” section of Edvard Grieg’s Peter Gynt Suite, which in turn suggests sunshine. As the music progresses it becomes more tense and takes a turn to the mysterious and ghostly.

I have always enjoyed ghost stories. I think from the popularity of ghosts in literature that I am not alone in this. The picture at the top is of the ghost of Banquo haunting Macbeth after Macbeth has orchestrated Banquo’s murder. From the dialog in the scene we know that the ghost is only visible to Macbeth and that the strange behavior the ghost evokes begins to cast suspicion upon Macbeth and the manner in which he ascended to the throne. Ghosts often serve that purpose. Ghosts make regular appearances in Shakespeare and attest to their popularity in Elizabethan culture.

Marley’s ghost, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol.
John Leech,_1843.jpg

Marley’s ghost is probably the most famous of literary ghosts, at least in the English speaking world. He appears at the beginning of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and gets the book’s festivities underway. He and the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come are the only ghosts that frighten anyone, the others are much more gracious and friendly. Dickens’ tale also underscores another aspect of the ghost story, the tradition of telling a ghost story at Christmas time. James’ story also begins with a Christmas gathering that culminates with the telling of ghost stories.

Robertson Davies wrote a collection of Christmas ghost stories called High Spirits. They were selected from comic tales he told each Christmas to colleagues at the University where he worked and many of the ghosts were familiar characters to the faculty. The stories in this collection suggest P. G. Wodehouse more than Edgar Allen Poe or the traditional view of the genre as one devoted to terror. In an interview with Terrence M. Greene shortly after the book was published, “Beyond the Visible World” (pp 220-223 of the web page if you get lost) Davies talks about ghost stories and the role of ghosts in literature and their associations with evil. He thinks many tellers of ghost stories try too hard to scare the reader and as a result write stories that are not that effective. But those storytellers that use ghosts well, like Shakespeare and Henry James, evoke the essence of evil and it is the presence of evil in the story that is frightening.

Those that have read the Harry Potter books, or Davies collection, realize that there is nothing inherently frightening in a ghost and that they do not have to be evil incarnate to capture a reader’s interest. I think Dickens’ ghost suggest that even when they terrify they can be in the service of virtue and the good. But where they represent evil they are terrifying. In the case of Macbeth the ghost reflect Macbeth’s own actions and start him on his road to a tragic end. It is less clear where the evil lives in the story by James, but there is certainly a malevolent presence in the story.

Dickens Dream
Robert William Buss

This painting suggests the ways an author might be haunted by her or his own creations. In the painting Dickens appears to be haunted by the characters he has created, they seem to live not just in his imagination but inhabit the room in which he worked. This suggests there is more to being haunted than being visited by ghosts. Some may be haunted by memories of past actions, and as the painting suggest, those actions need not be acts that shame us. Dickens is surrounded by the “spirits” of his success. But there is something potentially dangerous in this kind of haunting in that it can result in a satisfaction with the past that interferes with the future and produces stagnation.

The more troubling hauntings, though, are those of past failures or moral lapses that haunt a person and do a bit of damage to the psyche. Some of this damage may be deserved and even necessary if one is to go on to enjoy a happy existence. There are things in all of our lives, I suppose, that must be expiated. There is a poem by William Butler Yeats that captures the essence of this kind of haunting. It addresses the way those involved in the Easter 1916 insurrection at Dublin’s General Post Office were treated after the insurrection was put down. The poem is titled ” The Ghost Of Roger Casement”. Roger Casement was involved in the rebellion and was executed by the British. This execution and others like it that were carried out too quickly many believe by the British and it came back to haunt them later.

“The Ghost Of Roger Casement”
O what has made that sudden noise?
What on the threshold stands?
It never crossed the sea because
John Bull and the sea are friends;
But this is not the old sea
Nor this the old seashore.
What gave that roar of mockery,
That roar in the sea’s roar?

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

John Bull has stood for Parliament,
A dog must have his day,
The country thinks no end of him,
For he knows how to say,
At a beanfeast or a banquet,
That all must hang their trust
Upon the British Empire,
Upon the Church of Christ.

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

John Bull has gone to India
And all must pay him heed,
For histories are there to prove
That none of another breed
Has had a like inheritance,
Or sucked such milk as he,
And there’s no luck about a house
If it lack honesty.

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

I poked about a village church
And found his family tomb
And copied out what I could read
In that religious gloom;
Found many a famous man there;
But fame and virtue rot.
Draw round, beloved and bitter men,
Draw round and raise a shout;

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

John Bull is the British version of Uncle Sam; he is the persona of the British Empire. In the poem wherever he goes Roger Casement haunts him, not literally the ghost of the man but the story of the man’s treatment. It follows John Bull and affects the way he is received when he travels abroad. This haunting reminds us that actions have consequences and that we need to learn to think before we act. I think ghosts are often educational and sent to us, like Marley’s ghost, to aid in our reform.

The Canterville Ghost
Sony Pictures

Perhaps there is nothing more humiliating for a ghost than the inability to scare people. That is one problem the ghost in the film has. The ghost in this story, like many literary ghosts, desires only to be set free, that is, to be able to go to his rest and be relieved from the tedious and tiring work of haunting folks. Marley would like to go to his rest; the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present both go to their rest. The Ghost of Christmas Future, though, is different. He like Marley’s ghost is frightening and he like Marley’s ghost has no rest to go to. Past is past and the present becomes past, but the future always lies ahead and it is in the future that those things we have done that trouble us come to haunt our existence. Perhaps for the religious the rite of confession can put these ghosts to rest, but for the more secular other avenues need to be found.

In James’ story the ghosts might, as is Banquo’s ghost, be a figment of the governess’s imagination. They may not be real. Their presence enables the governess to excel at a job, if only in her own mind. But the consequences of her personal haunting have an evil stamp to them even if the governess herself is not evil. If the ghosts are not real her actions are criminal. The criminal acts the product of a troubled mind. But how do we counter an evil that lives inside us that we do not recognize and that goads us, as in the case of the governess, to actions that in their intent are good and virtuous. That is perhaps the most gruesome aspect of this particular haunting; that the ghosts in their defeat triumph. Perhaps the real terror is the undisciplined mind that is unaware of its limitations.

Reading by the Book

“I’ll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book”
Jimmy Durante

Reading by the Book

Library of Alençon

There is in Durante’s song an attitude towards reading that reflects the attitude of many today, especially those who are in the process of receiving an education. The song is from the 1940’s, as near as I can tell, which suggests that unfriendly attitudes towards books and reading is not a new thing. Mark Twain in his definition of a classic (“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”) captured a similar sentiment.

A book published last year, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard takes this idea a step further by instructing us how to sound knowledgeable about books we have not only not read but have no real desire to read, while also recognizing that there is an image that attaches to a well read person that many who are not well read would like to project. Andre Agassi sold tennis shoes by telling us, “image is everything”, though he probably did not say it first. And he cultivated the image of a champion long before he became successful at actually winning major tournaments. So why is it that so many people do not want to read but want the circles in which they move to think they do?

Inscription regarding Tiberius Claudius Babillus of Rome (d. 56 CE) which confirms that the Library of Alexandria must have existed in some form in the first century AD.”Forschungen in Ephesos”, Vol. III, Vienna 1923, p.128.

This inscription from the first century makes a reference to the ancient Library at Alexandria. It was destroyed on three separate occasions and on all but the last occasion rebuilt. It is said to be the first library that aspired to assemble a serious collection of books and actively sought out books from all parts of the then known world. To this day most communities in America recognize the importance of having a town library, though the library is often one of the first institutions to lose funding when the economy becomes troublesome.

I live a few miles from one of the oldest libraries in the country, The Boston Public Library. It is an impressive place to visit. It is not just a collection of books, but of sculpture and painting as well. There is a collection of murals by John Singer Sargent that have recently been restored among other exhibits in the library that attest to its value as more than a book depository. The New York City Public Library has a cottage industry of sorts accumulating lists of facts and information contained in its collection and publishing them in books under their imprimatur.

If the culture seems to care so little for books why does it go to such lengths to accumulate them and make them available to people, especially if people do not want to read them? Is it just so people can sound credible when they claim to have read a book they have never owned? I think that in spite of what some people say, including many students who do not seem to be personally interested in books, there is a belief that books are important to a culture and that someone should read them. Samuel Goldwyn once said “I read part of it all the way through.” And the parts that he read were turned into some impressive films. I think perhaps this attitude pervades aspects of the culture, that for many it is enough to have read a page or two to get the flavor of a book, they are just not hungry enough for the complete meal.

Part of the blame for this is probably public education that requires everyone to get an education whether they want it or not. Not everyone aspires to be literate, though I believe in the mission of the public schools that encourages everyone to be literate and that the process converts many. But if public schools too rigorously maintain a high academic standard those without academic aspirations will be lost. But to fail to maintain a standard trivializes the whole enterprise. A middle ground of sorts needs to be found that preserves a meaningful standard while providing a path through the process for those that are not interested in the standard. Ideally those that lack interest would be won over, but I am not sure that is possible to win over everyone. It seems that at the heart of the public schools is this compromise between standards and student interest and how far the compromise can go before the diplomas the nation’s schools award lose their value.

There was a discussion this week in a social network for English teachers English Companion. The name of the discussion was “The Difference Between Good Literature and Books We Like to Read.” I cannot link to the actual discussion because you have to be a member to gain access, but do feel free to join and check it out. The gist of the discussion focused on what books should form the curriculum and whether there is a place in the curriculum for the books students like. I do not think students need a whole lot of instruction on the books they already like and in my experience it is as much the analysis of a text that students resist as the books themselves and if I were to introduce more current and popular fiction I would probably be criticized for analyzing it to death, which I am sure I would do because as an English teacher I love analyzing texts to death.

The cover art of the novel The Name of the Rose.

A book about books that I thoroughly loved when it came out about ten or so years ago was The Name of the Rose. It combined a love of books, with a medieval setting and a good detective story. Who could ask for more? Even the detective in the story evoked Sherlock Holmes, one of my favorite detectives. But what I thoroughly enjoyed was the labyrinthine library with its vast collection of books, including one by Aristotle that has since disappeared from the face of the earth. There is also a sentiment on the part of certain characters in the story that books are dangerous things and cannot be entrusted to everyone. I think sometimes that one of the unintended consequences of public education has been that by making books available to all the hunger for books has been quenched. There is something subversive that is appealing to many about doing something that has been forbidden or deemed unhealthy by those in authority.

I think reading is important. All reading. I think more information is gotten from reading an article in the newspaper than is gotten from watching a summary on the nightly news or reading the blurbs on Netscape or MSN when we open our web browsers. I think there is also a broader spectrum of coverage in a newspaper. The paper does not have to be read off sheets of newsprint, it can be read online (I just got an iPod Touch that lets me read books and newspapers and even instruction manuals online wherever I go). It is not the venue in which the reading is done but the reading itself.

I want to introduce students to the wonders of great literature as was done for me, but I also understand that like solving the Riemann hypothesis, it is only those who already posses an interest, or are susceptible to the temptation to cultivate an interest that are going to be won over. As an English teacher I am not only passing the wonders of the language on to the next generation of English teachers but also to the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and carpenters whose interests lie in different directions. I do not remember much of my high school biology, but I imagine I would remember significantly more if I had gone on to become a Biologist instead of an English teacher.

84 Charing Cross RoadBrooks Films and Columbia Pictures

Many find this movie overly chatty because all that really takes place in the film are conversations, through the mails, about books. The hunt for books, the nature of books, whole works verses abridgements and the like. But anyone who appreciates a passion for books will find that passion comes through the dialogue in this film. I also like the film because like the book collector in the film, Helene Hanff, I am captivated by British Literature. As a result I could identify personally with most of the authors that are mentioned.

It is this passion that cannot be taught. I can share the passion I have and that passion might be a bit contagious, but for someone who has never experienced this passion for the written word it may not resonate very much. I think most of my students have books that have deeply moved them and they will probably go on to read books that resemble the books they have enjoyed. I am not certain there is a decline in the number of people, as a percentage of the population, who read classic literature or the kinds of modern books that will one day be classic literature. I imagine that as a percentage of the population those moved by language are probably comparable to those moved by quantum physics or evolutionary biology. But whatever the numbers actually reveal there will be some that got so excited the day they read a book that they rushed out and read another and others for whom it will be a fond memory of something they did once upon a time.

O, For a Muse of Fire, a Few Fernels, and a Follow Spot

“Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington”
Noel Coward

O, For a Muse of Fire, a Few Fernels, and a Follow Spot

(“David Garrick as the title character in Shakespeare’s ”Richard III””

William Hogarth.

It is always dangerous to attempt to put your daughters, or your sons for that matter, on the stage. It is a very risky business with the odds of success (and by success I only mean being able to earn a living without the aid of a taxi cab) significantly stacked against you. As in gambling, the odds favor the house, the house in this case being the folks that collect the ticket receipts and even they have a hard go of it.

But nonetheless there is something alluring about the theater. What is produced is called a play and is staged in playhouse. This speaks volumes about the nature of the work. A good actor, as well as a number of bad ones, if nothing else know how to play, they have not lost the sense of make believe, the ability to imagine themselves as someone else. Of course there is a lot more to it than that; it is first a craft that can be learned like the craft of writing, or house painting, and it requires an apprenticeship of sorts where the tools of the trade are mastered. It is also an art and that cannot be taught any more than the art of painting, sculpture, or hitting baseballs successfully over the center field fence on a regular basis can be taught.

One premise of the theater is that it provides a glimpse into life as it is lived by others, that it is real and captures the reality of the moment. When an actor brings a character alive on stage she or he is said to be “in the moment.” It is what every actor strives for, “to be in the moment.” There is a lesson here for us all perhaps as life is a lot richer if we can find a way to embrace each moment and make the most of it, though, speaking for myself, there are many moments in life that are not easily embraced. Like cactus they are best experienced from afar.

Still, the actor is trying to make the moment real, to make it look like life as it is actually experienced. E. B. White once said (though I forget his exact words) not only does art not imitate life, it better be a hell of a lot more interesting than life. This does not mean that what art captures is not true to life only that much of life is very uninteresting and the artist selects the interesting bits and gets rid of the rest. We never, for example, see Hamlet cleaning up his room or doing the dishes. There is not much there to hold an audiences’ attention. And if there were a scene featuring Hamlet cleaning his room it would be what is happening to him as he goes about cleaning his room that keeps us interested. Like the scene where Polonius comes upon Hamlet reading. The interaction between Polonius and Hamlet holds the audience’s interest; a scene featuring a man quietly reading a book, not so much.

The theater group at school is doing a play that steals its title from an old Jack Nicholson film (Five Easy Pieces) and its plot from Othello with a dash of Finding Nemo. It is Othello as it might have happened if Othello and Iago were fish. It is called Five Easy Pisces. Being a lover of puns I am thrilled by the title. It was written by the group’s director, Don Bliss. There are few who will mistake the life in a fish bowl with life in the real world, but often it is the theater’s ability to remove us from the real world that provides some of its magic. Edward Albee’s Seascape involves crustaceans on the beach. Some of the most dramatic moments in Peter Schaeffer’s play Equus revolve around horses. Then there is, of course, The Lion King; music, dance, and political intrigue in the animal kingdom.

Stage SetBaldassare Peruzzi

These plays are entertaining and a pleasure to watch. But what do they say to us about who we are and how to live from day to day. Is that the purpose of theater, or of any art? If not what is the purpose? Renaissance theaters in Europe (England did things a bit differently) tried to make the theater as true to life as possible. The stage design was intricate to the extreme. Often three sided panels would have each side painted with a different scene and by rotating each of the panels the scene could change from a city street to a room in the palace and each scene was painted in perspective to create the illusion of space and true architecture. There was, of course, only one seat in the house where the perspective was perfect for all the angles of vision and that of course went to the local monarch. The seat was in fact called “the eye of the duke.”

The point is that these theatricals were expected to look and feel real. They even had an elaborate set of rules that a play was expected to follow. The action of the play had to be limited to a single day, the setting of the play had to be limited to a single town, and there could only be one plot line that resolved all loose ends at the play’s conclusion. These were called “the unities” and no self-respecting playwright would ignore them.

The Swan Theater

The English were different. They did not care if the play took a day or a number of years. As can be seen from the illustration their sets were much simpler. But the plays they produced at their best captured better than most the human psyche and its complications. Everyone says Shakespeare did it best, but Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson didn’t do too badly either. The point is that it is not the set design, it is not that the characters are like you and me, it is that for the moments the characters spend on stage a kind of life is being lived. We may not know what it feels like to be a fish in love or a lion with ambition beyond his station. But we have experienced love, jealousy, and ambition. Do we come away learning how to better deal with these shortcomings of the human character as a result of watching the play?

In Mr. Bliss’ play it is the fish tank’s filtration system that does the fish in, something that is not likely to worry most of us. But it is not the cause of the fish’s demise; it is the personal interactions that produce this cause that is the heart of the drama, and the comedy. These are struggles that are human, and perhaps the play offers insight. Or perhaps, the true nature of the play and of theater in general is to offer commiseration, a chance to say “and I thought I had it bad.”

From Slings and Arrows

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

As the director says “the whole thing falls apart if one of the actors is not good at pretending.” This is the heart of good theater. For a play to work well the cast must work as an ensemble. Each actor must be able to pretend well or the production falls apart no matter how good the rest of the cast may be. In order for the audience to enter this magic world a group of people must learn to work together and to play together well. If the work looks like work and not play the play does not work. If the pretending is not built upon something real it amounts to pretense and no one believes it. And it takes work to rise above pretense. There is, I think, a truth here for all of us. A key to living well is discovering how to put the play back into the work that we do, while maintaining the quality of the work that we do.

For the Greeks this was there religion. Once a year everyone went to the theater to learn something about how they should live, to be reminded that the gods are involved in our daily lives and the rich and the powerful cannot escape the will of the gods. Oedipus may be king but at the end of the day he is as answerable for his misdeeds as the slave that sets his table. That is the point of the catharsis at the end of the play. Bad news for Oedipus, but when put into perspective good news for the rest of us.

I had a professor in college that believed plays, even the plays of Shakespeare, should not be read as literature, as we read a poem or a novel, that plays are not literature. The only way a play can be experienced properly is by watching it performed. A play creates a bit of magic and it goes against the creed of the magician to reveal the secret of the trick. A play is multi-sensory and audiovisual. Lee Strasberg, one of the founders of the Actors Studio, said nothing of importance gets said in a play except for maybe five minutes in the last act (or words to that effect). Yet when we read a script all we have is the words that are spoken.

The magic of theater, and a reason we study plays and watch plays, is discovering what is happening behind the words. What motivates Hamlet to say what he says? What is the real life that lives under the words? Most of what we say in conversation is a kind of playing for time, filling the space with words while we try to figure out what the moment is all about. In watching characters on stage, or reading their words in the script, we realize that we are not alone in our struggle to find meaning in the day to day activities that fill our lives. Plays confront important issues but at the end of the day most of us are not concerned with how the powerful misuse their power or whatever the important issue of the play is. What does concern us is preserving the scent of the rose in our day to day experience while enjoying the coffee. It is not what happens to Hamlet and his family but how they persevere.

A Life of the Mind is the Heart of the Matter

“That’s All”
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis

A Life of the Mind is the Heart of the Matter

William Hogarth’s 1736 engraving, “Scholars at a Lecture”

The lyric suggests that wisdom and education do not go together. It is true that the song is talking about a preacher being an educated fool if all she or he has to offer is book learning and nothing in the way of practical wisdom. While it is difficult to argue with practical wisdom, we all want to know what will succeed in making us happy and help us have a productive and contented life, it is not necessarily the case that practical wisdom and book learning share no common ground.

William Hogarth’s engraving captures the common perception of the well educated. There is a group of scholars listening to another scholar giving a lecture. Some are talking while the lecturer is speaking; others are yawning and drifting off to sleep, while the remainder stare somewhat blankly at the speaker. A few are paying real attention, but very few. The implication is that what the lecturer has to say is of little value to anyone and even his colleagues do not take him seriously. As a classroom teacher I recognize this scene, it is frequently acted out in my classroom. I wonder where the problem is in fact, is it with the lecturer or with the audience?

It is probably with both. No two people have identical interests and even those that share many of the scholar’s interests are going to find some less than compelling and as a result there will be times when the minds of like minded colleagues will wander. This is often further complicated in the classrooms by students that lack the life experience necessary to understand fully what is and is not of value in the curriculum they are being encouraged to master.

Add to this that most of the students in any of my classes, even the most advanced classes, are going to pursue careers unrelated to what I teach. This is not because English is less important than math or science but because statistically the academic interests of my students are spread somewhat equally across the academic disciplines of which English is only one of five or six. It is important that those with a scientific bent are exposed to poetry and the arts, not because this will produce better scientists but because there is more to life than science and our lives are richer if they are not confined to a narrow band of interests. Of course it is also important that scientist write clearly and articulately about what they have discovered. I am not sure that Darwin and Freud understood most deeply and completely the sciences they helped to establish but only that they could write more persuasively than others about what they found.

There are two statements that I often come back to when I think of education and the value of educating the mind. The first takes a comic view of education and comes from a book called Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock. The book is a satire on the lives and views of the Romantic poets of his generation. The central character is named Scythrop who is modeled on Peacock’s friend the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He says of Scythrop’s schooling:

“When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head.”

I think this reflects a view of education that is prevalent today, that it is a nice thing to have, but in the end is not that important. We have embraced an egalitarian view of education that values common knowledge or common sense to a richly and deeply trained mind. On the one hand political leaders will talk about the importance of math and science while on the other proposing budgets that do not add up and trying to silence the science with which they disagree.

The other quote is from a book that is appreciated by a very select few (not because it is a book only a few are smart enough to appreciate but because only a few have a taste for this style of writing). It comes from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton thought that educators as a group belonged the to the race of melancholics. He lived at a time where everyone was placed in one of four personality groups based on the ” four humours”, or the four fluids that flow through the human body that shape a person’s temperament. The ideal is to have all four fluids in balance, which in turn puts the mind and emotions in balance. But most have a fluid that dominates. Melancholy was produced by the presence black bile in an unhealthy proportion to the other fluids, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile. Now you all are on your way to becoming medieval physicians.

The Philosopher in MeditationRembrandt

Burton was himself an educator and scholar and was himself of a melancholy temperament. Perhaps the melancholic nature of scholars was aggravated by the fact that to be a scholar and teacher, especially at the university level, you were expected to live the celibate life of the monastic. Too much time spent in our own company can make us all a bit dour. Burton said of educators:

“For first, not one of a many proves to be a scholar, all are not capable and docile; we can make majors and officers every year, but not scholars: kings can invest knights and barons, as Sigismund the emperor confessed; universities can give degrees; but he nor they, nor all the world can give learning, make philosophers, artists, orators, poets; we can soon say, as Seneca well notes, ”point at a rich man, a good, a happy man, a prosperous man, but tis not so easily performed to find out a learned man.”

This captures the essence of what it means to be truly learned with a heart for scholarship. The scholastic temperament comes from within and cannot be given with degrees or diplomas. It is a frame of mind that does not use knowledge to gain advantages over others but delights in the acquiring and the preserving of it.

From Goodbye Mr. Chips – PBS

Mr. Chips is probably everyone from my generation’s favorite teacher. After reading James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizons we we went on to read his other famous novel Goodbye Mr. Chips. He is a good teacher with a heart for developing the potential of all his students. In this scene he is working with a scholarship boy, that is, a boy from a poor family that could not afford to educate their children. Because of the academic potential seen in the boy he was given a scholarship that paid his way through school. But most of the students in the school come from wealthy families that could afford to pay for their children’s education. Because the scholarship boy came from a different social class from the rest of the students he was often ridiculed and his academic road was often brutal. I like Mr. Chips’ argument for getting an education in spite of the difficulties encountered along the way and think this should be a part of the academic make-up of all students (though it goes without saying that all students do not have this passion for learning).

The book review section of The Guardian published a series of articles on the 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read. This is a very diverse list taking into account most of the genres of popular fiction. The writers range from Danielle Steele and Ian Fleming to Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner. There is something for everyone. I would like to propose an addendum to the list of books about scholars and scholarship. These are books that put academics at the center of the story and celebrates their quirks, eccentricities, and humanity. This is not an exhaustive list, just my list.

The Book and the Academician

To Serve Them All My Days – R. F. Delderfield
Goodbye Mr. Chips – James Hilton
Gaudy Night – Dorothy Sayers
The Browning Version – Terrence Rattigan
The Moving Toy Shop – Edmund Crispin
Hag’s Nook – John Dickinson Carr
A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
A Separate Peace – John Knowles
Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut

Well this is enough to get you started. The list includes science fiction, detective, and coming of age type novels. But at the heart of each of them is an academic setting and an attitude toward learning that colors the story. The life of the true scholar is characterized by a passion for learning, she or he trains the mind to satisfy the heart.

When All the World Is Young, Lad

“The Marvelous Toy”
Tom Paxton

When All the World Is Young, Lad

Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandArthur Rackham

The song describes the wonder that a child felt upon receiving a strange toy. The toy has no real purpose and it isn’t even clear how one is supposed to play with it, but the way the toy behaves creates its own magic. This is, I think, how stories often work. We are not exactly sure what we are supposed to get from the story, we only know that we are bewitched. I also find much of this same magic in the illustrations that often accompany children’s stories. Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of many children books (and many adult books) have defined the characters in these stories for me as in the scene above from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The illustrations define Alice and the White Rabbit for me as well as some of the mystery of “Wonderland.” The trees and stones in the scene have a life of their own, the landscape almost becomes a character in its own right.

The stories we read as children profoundly influence the adults we become, and not always in the way the stories may have intended. Adults looking back at what they read as children sometimes feel a bit betrayed when they discover the hidden morals or a subversive kind of preaching in the story telling they never realized was there as children. I have heard this said of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. In fact, Philip Pullman wrote the trilogy His Dark Materials as a kind of antidote to the influence of Lewis’ books. But I wonder if the children reading his books are any more attuned to the hidden messages than I was as a child to those concealed in the Narnia stories. I think children often experience books differently than adults and ignore the preaching (and ignore the books themselves when the preaching becomes too overt).

I was looking at the children’s book section of The Guardian this weekend and it got me thinking about children’s literature and its importance (at least it was important to me). Graham Greene said of the books we read as children:

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair, it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back. But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune-teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water, they influence the future.

I think there is truth to this observation. I think a child has a greater capacity to believe in the world the author has created and the characters, no matter how far fetched, are more easily accepted. I am not sure that a child looks at the Cat in the Hat as a character in the same light as an adult. And like the marvelous toy of the song a story can spin its magic and carry away the child (and sometimes the child within the adult) to places that can only be real in the imagination.

Adults often look down on the books that children read and treat them as a second rate form of literature. It has been pointed out by many (J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis among others) that the fairy tales often told to children in the nursery were originally told to adults and were later, like hand me down clothes, bequeathed to the children. W. H. Auden once observed, “There are good books which are only for adults because their comprehension presupposes adult experience, but there are no good books only for children.” I think this is also true. The literature we read as adults often employ a vocabulary beyond the average child or involve events or sensibilities that can only be appreciated and understood by an adult reader.

But though the vocabulary may be simpler and the elements of the story more accessible to the young mind, the quality of the writing must be able to hold its own. Most children’s literature, like most adult literature, does not survive the generation for which it was written. Those children’s books that survive, like their adult counterparts, have something of literary merit in them that is not defined by the moment of their making.

Perhaps books I read as a child, like Stone Soup or the stories of Dr. Suess only continue to enchant because of the memories of childhood that they evoke, though I think there is more to it than that and that the language of the stories have an enchantment that is all their own, an enchantment I still found in certain stories written for children that I did not read until I was an adult.

The Wind in the Willows – Courtroom Scene

One of my favorite children’s stories is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. As a story it defines friendship, loyalty, and the importance of maintaining a sense of spontaneity and adventure in our daily lives. I am not certain at what point I became an adult (I have serious concerns that perhaps I never have) but there are times when I read a story that I am captured by it in the same way I was captured as a child. I like to tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older but no power on earth can make me grow up. But it may be, as Graham Greene suggests, that the stories that I think are moving me as I was once moved as a child are only in some way flattering me by endorsing a world view I hold, where when I read as a child I did not have a world view to flatter.

Sinbad IllustrationEdmund Dulac

One of my earliest memories of being captured by a book was of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. My parents had books around the house, mostly in the living room. For a time they subscribed to the Heritage Book Club and would receive from time to time illustrated editions of classics like Moby Dick and Frankenstein. One of the books they received was a three volume set of Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. The language, of course, was significantly beyond me but the book contained these marvelous illustrations by Edmund Dulac. I had seen Ali Baba, Aladdin, and Sinbad in the movies so I knew who the characters were (sort of, the films in fact did not much resemble the stories).

I could lie for hours on the living room floor and just get lost in the illustrations. As a result I think that the illustrations are as important a part of a children’s book as the stories themselves. Perhaps it is the illustrations in conjunction with the language of the stories that train the child’s imagination; that gives the mind the practice it needs to be able to imagine the worlds created by the language of the writers that move us as adults. Perhaps without the words and pictures of a Dr. Suess we could not fully appreciate the words of a Shakespeare or a Tolstoy.

Of Wonders and Goodly Creatures and the Worlds Where They Are Found

The Planets, Op. 32, H 125 – 1. “Mars, The Bringer Of War”
Gustav Holst

Of Wonders and Goodly Creatures and the Worlds Where They Are Found

Cover Illustration for Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land Cover

Science fiction is a literary genre that has always struggled to earn a bit of respect. I remember reading H. G. Wells and Jules Verne when in High School. I was asked by one of my English teachers why I read such awful stuff, or words to that effect suggesting that science fiction does not qualify as literature. When I suggested that 1984 and Brave New World (books that friends of mine were reading in honors English) were science fiction he said they were too well written to be science fiction. This definition is of course in orbit around itself but it represents a method often used to maintain a pejorative fiction about what is and is not art, literary or otherwise. Science fiction, though, has a long and “storied” history, especially if we, as many bookstores do, identify fantasy as a branch of science fiction.

The music is from Gustav Holst’s suite for orchestra The Planets. At the beginning of Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land Valentine Michael Smith comes to Earth from the planet Mars, where he, though an earthling, was raised by Martians. His representative insists that Mr. Smith be treated as a “head of state”, or the official representative of the Martian Government (read the novel if you want to find out why) and that the Martian national anthem be played when he enters the room. Because Mars does not have an official national anthem it is agreed that the “Mars” section of Holst’s The Planets be played in lieu of a national anthem. The music begins with the soft martial beat of a drum that grows louder as the music proceeds and is joined by the rest of the orchestra suggesting Mars’ affiliation with the god of war. However, Mr. Smith’s first name identifies him with Mars’ wife Venus, the goddess of love. A deliciously ironic touch to a novel about a character from a planet identified with war who argues for the peaceful resolution of conflict.

Cover Illutstration for The Martian Chronicles

This is the front book cover art for the book The Martian Chronicles by the author(s) Ray Bradbury. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, Doubleday or the cover artist.

Ray Bradbury’s book The Martian Chronicles takes a somewhat different view of Mars. The story has less to do with space travel and the colonization of planets than it does with issues of censorship, human kindness (and its absence), and the nature of difference. In one scene a young boy raised on the planet Mars asks his father to describe what Martians look like. The father takes the boy to a riverbank and tells the boy to look into the water. The boy looks into the water and sees his Martian reflection. The boy was after all born on Mars. There is, of course, a Martian culture and an indigenous people. They are never really seen by those from earth, but manifestations of their presence are seen. You will of course have to read the book to discover the actual content of their characters.

Forbidden Planet – The Short Version

The film Forbidden Planet is a science fiction retelling of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The clip above is a significantly abbreviated form of the film and omits all the Shakespearean plot elements, but if viewed in its entirety Morbius’ daughter Altaira bears a striking resemblance to Prospero’s daughter Miranda and many of the same issues arise in the film as are found in Shakespeare’s play. Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s more venerated writers, believed that Shakespeare’s play would be classified as science fiction by anyone who took the working definition of science fiction seriously. This is especially true when fantasy fiction is considered a branch of science fiction. Caliban, for example, is not unlike the house elves in the Harry Potter stories and is certainly not treated much better. Prospero is a wizard not unlike Dumbledore in many ways, though with some darker aspects to his personality.

In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review section there is a review of a new book by Marjorie Garber Shakespeare and Modern Culture that addresses other modern elements of Shakespeare’s plays for the modern audience. It does not mention science fiction but points out that the aspect of Shakespeare that transcends time is how he captures the way people think and the consequences of that thinking (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the way we think Shakespeare’s characters think like us and the consequences of that thinking for us). Each culture that reads Shakespeare can find themselves in the plays and interpret those plays in light of its own cultural experience and point of view. Shakespeare is working with the inner life of his characters that often resemble the inner lives of a more modern people. Science fiction, at its best, speculates on the consequences of our thinking for the future.

This sci-fi/fantasy aspect to story telling can be found in the most ancient story telling. Leaving aside myth and mythic elements in the epic literature there is still a wealth of literary examples of the fabulous in literature. Lucian in his “True History” has a sailing ship blown significantly off course by a powerful storm that sends the tiny ship to the moon. The Thousand and One Arabian Nights is full of fabulous creatures and events that would feel right at home in modern stories of fantasy and science fiction. For those that are interested this weekend’s book section of The Guardian has a review of a new translation of The Arabian Nights. One of my favorites comes from Orlando Furioso, an epic poem by the Italian Renaissance writer Ariosto, where one of Orlando’s friends goes to the moon on a flying horse to recover Orlando’s wits (the moon being the final resting place of lost wits). The wits are found on the moon in an appropriately labeled jar and returned to Orlando.

I think the first science fiction story is Gulliver’s third voyage, “The Voyage to Laputa” from Gulliver’s Travels. This observation has been made by others and dismissed by others as well. It is the earliest attempt I have encountered where the author of the story has tried to provide a scientific explanation for how a bit of technological magic works. The Floating Island of Laputa hovers over the surface of the earth. Swift explains the island’s ability to hover, rise, and descend as the result of magnetic forces that have been harnessed by the island’s inhabitants. The plausibility of this explanation could be called into question by scientists, especially scientists today who have, perhaps, a deeper understanding of how magnets work, but for the writer of fiction it is only necessary to produce an explanation with a large enough grain of verisimilitude to give an aura of believability. It is certainly a more scientifically sound explanation than H. G. Wells’ Cavorite, an early relative of Flubber.

Painting of the Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel
Pieter Brueghel the Elder

When in college I took a course through the physics department in science fiction. It was a fascinating course, I thought, and one in which I learned more about physics than from the physics course I was required to take as part of my basic studies requirement. We were given the opportunity to either take an exam or to write a science fiction story. Because I did not want to take a test I wrote a story. There was not much science in it and I don’t believe it received a very good grade but it took as its premise that mathematics constituted a kind of universal language, that equations could be understood by mathematicians in any country no matter what language they spoke at home.

In the story scientists gathered to watch the launch of a spacecraft designed by scientists the world over using the common language of mathematics and universally understood symbols that could be employed on the blueprints and designs of the rocket. It was a parody of sorts of the story of “The Tower of Babel” from the “Old Testament” of The Bible. At the end of the story the space ship is destroyed by a cataclysmic event of divine origins.

Though the story itself was contrived and did little to demonstrate a knowledge of physics it illustrates a role played by science fiction. Both the novel by Heinlein and the novel by Bradbury suggest how science fiction can comment on the possibilities and dangers of the human psyche and of human aspirations. Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, was published at the time of the Vietnam War and was seen, as was another science fiction novel of the time Slaughterhouse Five, to be an attack on that war and the attitudes that set that war in motion. It also addresses other issues of political and religious coercion.

Swift’s satire was an attack on the science of his day. Part of his criticism is aimed at the uselessness of many of the scientific pursuits of his day and is seen by many as the weakest link in the satiric chain. He attacks scientific inquiry where it seems to him to be pointless, serving no practical end. He describes machines that write essays and speculations on the ambiguity of language and how these ambiguities might be resolved. The results of these experiments are silly and justly ridiculed, though others might see these speculations as not being entirely without merit.

Other scientists try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from human excrement. These experiments are shown to be equally ridiculous, but in a time that struggles with renewable sources of energy, there might be some value to figuring out how to get the sunbeams, the solar energy, out of cucumbers and other plants. Swift does not seem to be able to see that what often seems as pointless or useless experimentation does produce very useful products that benefit all mankind. I am typing this on a laptop computer. The technology that produced the laptop computer was initially created to serve the needs of the space program, a program that some people still question the value of funding. Following a question or an idea, though it may not seem to offer much of value initially can lead to other things that may have great worth. That is one of the reasons why it is important to question and to explore.

There is another target of Swift’s satire of science, though, that does resonate to this day and that is the ability of scientists to develop tools and technologies that are used to restrict individual liberties and to intimidate and oppress a people. Some of the tools of this oppression that Swift depicts in the novel are drawn for their comic effect and not intended to be taken very seriously, though the mindset that would devise these technologies is truly troubling and it is this mindset that is the object of the satire. Swift is trying to encourage his readers to consider where things are taking us, whether those things are new technologies or the attitudes we have towards those we find disagreeable.

Science fiction on one hand wants to help us imagine a future and the road that must be traveled to achieve that future. Though, when literature of any kind tries to imagine what the future will look like it often gets as much wrong as it gets right. The communications devices in the film clip, for example, look the way people in the 1950’s thought they would look in the 22nd century, but early in the 21st century we can see that they are already out of date.

On the other hand, science fiction can show us how our social institutions may evolve and how troubling these institutions could become if certain forces within those institutions were allowed to go unchecked. As Swift suggests some of the tools of oppression that might be developed have beneficial applications. It is the benefits of science that are often used to sell the science. It is the unintended consequences that often go ignored. The same technology that lets me talk to my brother in California could be used by a malicious government to listen to those conversations. Of course that same technology can help prevent criminal acts that could result in the deaths of many innocent people.

It may not be possible to escape the technologies we have created, nor may it be desirable. It is important, though, to consider where we are going and the tools and technologies that will take us there. It is perhaps unwise to try to retreat to a pre-technological age, but it is perhaps equally unwise to follow where the technology leads without taking the time to find out where we are going.

More Than Meets the Eye

From Mythodea “Movement 8”

More Than Meets the Eye

Title Page from Poetic Edda

The title page of a manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript ÍB 299 4to, now in the care of the Icelandic National Library.

Exploring the heavens was something only possible in the imagination up until about fifty years ago. I remember as a boy my father bringing home a telescope and setting it up in the backyard to watch the moon and planets and stars. It wasn’t a powerful telescope but it brought a small corner of space closer to home. The music was composed to celebrate NASA’s 2001 launch of the Mars Odyssey satellite. The satellite orbits Mars and relays to earth transmissions from the various Mars rovers, as well as collects information of its own from the Martian neighborhood. The music celebrates the mythic nature of the expedition that is suggested by the name given by NASA to the mission, Mars Odyssey. I enjoy the serendipitous coincidence that the composer’s middle name, literally, evokes The Odyssey of Homer and the story’s central character (his full name is Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou).

In myth the stars are the home of the gods and ancient cultures identified their images in the shapes formed by stars splashed across the sky. As a teacher of literature I think it is the mythic quality of stories and their characters that gives them their power. The illustration at the top of the page is from The Prose Edda a collection of Old Norse stories and poems that includes The Gylfaginning (The Deluding of Gylfi) a marvelous story that does for Norse mythology what Ovid’s Metamorphosis does for Greek and Roman mythology. The story concerns a Norse king who is tricked by the gods who in the process of tricking him tell him the stories of the Germanic myths. The story begins with Gylfi’s encounter with a man juggling knives (keeping seven in the air at once) in front of house roofed with shields.

Illustration of Gylfi being fooled

King Gylfi gets himself beguiled. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

The stories Gylfi is told have all the elements that capture our interest in stories to this day, adventure, humor, and a slew of interesting characters with very interesting character flaws. Part of the power of myth is the power of story to capture the imagination while, perhaps, explaining the mysteries of the universe. Gylfi under the guise of trying to get information about the gods and their ways takes on an assumed name. He hopes to con the gods and is perhaps an early example of the flim-flam artist. The gentlemen that delude Gylfi are con men in their own right, which is an interesting commentary on the Norse view of the divine character. In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Huck and Jim are bedeviled by a pair of con men that might be Gylfi’s literary descendants. They are Gylfi’s descendants because though successful in deluding others they are themselves successfully deluded by Huck on a few very significant occasions.

J. R. R. Tolkien on the Myths of Middle Earth

This is often how myth works in story telling, by creating archetypes that can be found in the stories told for less ecclesiastical purposes. When J. R. R. Tolkien created his world of Middle Earth for his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings he created for his characters a whole mythic system that relied to a substantial degree on that of the ancient tribes of Germany and Scandinavia. The name of Gandalf and his horse Shadowfax come from ancient Icelandic stories found in The Poetic Edda.

The journeys of Bilbo in The Hobbit are more like those of the trickster stories, in that, though he is heroic Bilbo is able to succeed by fooling others. He “wins” the ring, for example, by playing a trick on Gollum and by not playing completely by the rules. The Lord of the Rings on the other hand is a heroic quest in the mold of those told in the mythic stories of the classical epics. Jacob Grimm in his book Teutonic Mythologies describes a character called a Hob-wiht that bears certain resemblances to the hobbits of middle earth. Perhaps these creatures described by Grimm suggest the mythic origins of hobbits. Frodo’s journey is mythic in that the outcome of his journey has cosmic consequences. I think this is what raises many stories to levels beyond the quality of the actual writing.

Literary critics are often derogatory in their treatment of the Harry Potter books, claiming J. K. Rawlings is only a mediocre writer. Still, the nature of Harry’s journey captures many elements of the mythic imagination. One of C. S. Lewis’ favorite books was a science fiction story called A Voyage to Arcturus. He said the book was not that well written but its images and motifs were, in his view, very powerful. Ideally a story ought to be well told and the power of its language comparable to the power of the images and emotions it evokes. Perhaps it is only those stories where a powerful narrative is wedded to powerful language that survive the generations for which they were written.

C. S. Lewis’ own books have succeeded in capturing the imagination of readers for many years. A recent study of Lewis’ Narnia books asserts that they have at their heart a medieval cosmology that evokes the stories and myths that are attached to the names of the various gods whose names were given to the medieval planets. Hence the power of the NASA mission to Mars. It evokes the myths of Mars, both those myths told by the Classical Greek and Roman writers but also the myths of Mars as a hostile planet that have become part of the planet’s science fiction persona.

Lewis sets the second novel of his space trilogy Perelandra on the planet of Venus (Perelandra is the name the locals gave to their planet). It is a kind of science fiction retelling of Paradise Lost and the fall of man with the possibility of changing the outcome. On the planet’s surface a new Adam and Eve encounter a different sort of serpent in a different sort of garden. It is also apropos that the story take place on Venus the planet associated with the goddess of love because at the story’s core is a story of love, of the love of the new Adam for the new Eve but also of the divine for the transitory beings that populate the universe.

Postage stamp depicting Ask and Embla

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The characters in the stamp, Ask and Embla, are the Norse Adam and Eve and theirs is the story of the creation, the Norse counterpart to Genesis. This story, as do others like it, defines the world, where the world came from, where the people that populate the world came from. This is what stories and myths often do for us and one reason they resonate with readers. In this sense both Darwin and Genesis tell a mythic story, they try to explain how things began and the implications of those beginnings for the way people live their lives.

To those that live within a certain mythology that mythology offers a rational explanation for how things came to be as they are (which is completely irrational to those that live outside that mythology) and as a result these myths structure their lives. The battle between Creationism and Darwinism (or evolution) is in this sense a mythic battle. The science of the day supports Darwin but the science of Kepler’s day supported a seven planet solar system with an intricate network of crystal spheres and an ambiguous center.

But the core issue is probably not over how the human race came to be but how our daily lives should be led. Each mythic system brings with it not only this explanation for how things came to be but also a moral code that delineates how life ought to be lived. The myths both explain the universe and set forth a code of conduct. The Darwinian code is not so much a set of laws telling people how to live but an explanation of forces that determine who will survive. Science after all does not seek to impose a system of rules but only to understand how the various components of our universe work. But often the way a world is understood to work shapes the behaviors of those that live and work within that world.

Perhaps it is the stories we tell that help us to decide how we ought to live and to treat those with whom we come in contact. The forces at work in the world as explained by modern science do not reward behaviors necessarily but only those who figure out how to successfully manipulate those forces. Science does not make judgments but people do and perhaps the stories we continue to tell help shape the modern myths of our existence and, in the words of Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young give us a code that we can live by.

It’s a Long and Dusty Road

“Never Been to Spain”
Hoyt Axton

It’s a Long and Dusty Road

Mexican Travel Poster

Tasco Travel Poster

Hoyt Axton in his song “Never Been to Spain” is a kind of imaginary traveler. He has never been to a number of places but appreciates their culture and people none the less. Music, for Axton, is often the key that unlocks the cultural door. Whether it is the music of Spain or the Beatles it often touches us emotionally and evokes in us an interest in the culture it claims to represent. The music of the Middle East is very different from that of Europe, as the music of most European countries is different from that of their European neighbors. Often the foreign, exotic sounds of the music creates a desire to see the culture that produced it, even when we don’t understand the words being sung or understand the purpose of the music or what inspired it.

I went to high school in the Los Angeles Harbor area, a little town called San Pedro. Richard Henry Dana in his book Two Years Before the Mast speaks of San Pedro as a dreary and desolate place. Of course he visited before the building of the breakwater that enclosed the harbor and made it a more satisfactory anchorage. From our back yard we could see the harbor and the comings and goings of the ships. I remember one year there was a longshoremen’s strike and the ships anchored outside the breakwater and there were ships anchored out to sea for almost as far as the eye could see (or so I remember it).

But like Hoyt Axton we would listen to music and while in high school a popular band was The Tijuana Brass. They were a group of guys playing trumpets who, to us, looked like Italians playing Mexican music. Tunes like “The Tijuana Taxi” and “The Lonely Bull” evoked Mexico to us and gave us a desire to visit and experience the culture more fully, a much easier place to visit than Spain, being only about a hundred miles down the coast. When we finally went to Mexico it became clear that the music painted a more romantic picture than the reality, though our visits to Rosarita Beach and Ensenada were always great fun.

My favorite story about a book involving travel concerns Bram Stoker and his book Dracula (the story is told in the first Annotated Dracula). The opening chapters of the book take place in the Transylvanian mountains and other colorful locations in Eastern Europe. In the novel Stoker has his character, Jonathan Harker, describe the countryside through which he travels as well as the local customs he encounters, the food he eats, and the wine he drinks.

After the book was published Stoker was asked to speak to various organizations about his travels because it was assumed he could not have written so compelling about these places if he had not been there. In fact Stoker never left England. He did all of his research for the novel in London’s fine libraries. I like this story because it suggests the possibility of not just knowing well a culture and people we have never visited, but of appreciating that culture and people.

In this weeks Sunday New York Times (12-07) book review section there is an article devoted to books on the automobile industry that made America a nation in a sense defined by its mobility and the ability to travel. Growing up our television encouraged us to “see the USA in a Chevrolet” and to travel America first by using the vast highway system to explore every corner between our eastern and western beaches. There is another article on travel books. These books are about kayaking the South China Sea and motorcycling through the Congo and traveling the United States in a Mercedes Benz that runs on used cooking oil. These books all remind us of the vastness of the world, the diversity of its cultures and the yearning for adventure that abides in the hearts of most, even those who at heart are like hobbits who, as a people, dislike traveling too far from their front door.

Painting of Sir John Mandeville

Full-page portrait of Sir John Mandeville.
Source “Travels” by John Mandeville (created 1459). Via NYPL Digital Gallery

Sir John Mandeville is one of my favorite travelers. There are those who question whether or not he traveled anywhere. Many of the stories that he tells recount popular beliefs of mythological beasts that were believed to live in far away places. He talks of people with only one leg that operates something like a pogo stick and of people without heads whose faces are in the middle of their chests. (Some of these creatures make an appearance in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader one of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books.) Today we are fairly certain such creatures do not exist, so at best Sir John was having a bit of fun at the expense of the untraveled medieval reader.

Another medieval world traveler was Marco Polo. He did indeed go to China and became a civil servant in the court of Kublai Khan. When he returned to Venice he ended up in jail for some reason and started telling his travel stories to a fellow prisoner who told him he should write a book, which Marco eventually did (his fellow prisoner wrote it down). His book talks of a world few had seen and his accounts of his travels through China still captivate readers to this day. Though there are elements that are bit far fetched they are usually stories Marco heard from others and is merely reporting.

Picture of Marco Polo traveling

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Marco Polo travelling, Miniature from the Book “The Travels of Marco Polo” (“Il milione”), originally published during Polos lifetime(September 15, 1254 – January 8, 1324), but frequently reprinted and translated .

By a serendipitous twist of fate it works out every year that we study Gulliver’s Travels in British Literature at the same time we are studying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in American Literature. Both of these books involve travel one to places that have never existed and one to a place that is rich with historical and cultural significance. The point of these stories, though, is not to take us to exotic places and give us a sampling of their flavors but to make a point about how lives were lived at home. In both cases the travelogue aspects of the book are not the point. Both books effectively skewer the cultures in which their author’s lived.

Sherlock, Jr.
Buster Keaton, 1924

Buster Keaton captures another side of motorized mobility. His is a somewhat carefree journey until he realizes that no one is piloting the motorcycle. Keaton was a master of the visual gag and slapstick comedy. His best films make use of machines, especially machines in motion, like trains, steamboats, and motorcycles. In his films he is often on a journey and the vehicles on which he travels are conspiring against him. One advantage to reading of the journeys others take, even journeys to non-existent places, is that the reader can share in many of the experiences of the traveler while assuming few of the risks.

To a certain extent as travelers we are like Keaton on his motorcycle without a driver. Like Keaton before he realizes he is alone we feel relatively safe and that everything is under control when in fact we are strangers in a strange land. People often say the French do not treat tourists, especially American tourists, very well. My experience was very different, with few exceptions. America is a nation of immigrants and people from different lands are always coming here. As a result we are used to thinking of people from other countries as foreigners. Many bring this attitude with them when they travel to other countries. Perhaps we are a bit like Jim in Huckleberry Finn who finds it odd that the French do not speak English. If all cows moo and all dogs bark than it stands to reason that all men share a common language as well, which, of course, is English.

Part of the adventure of travel comes from realizing we are the foreigners. Gulliver always realizes this and brings a zest and enthusiasm to his discovery of each new land where circumstance brings him. He is not at all like the traveler that views each new land as an extension of his homeland. In fact his experiences in each place he visits increases his feelings of alienation from the culture and people of his own country. These feelings of alienation eventually drive Gulliver mad. There is always this danger for the traveler perhaps, of feeling so far from home that she or he forgets what home is and what it is about home that is, or at least should be, warm and inviting and a shelter from the storms of life.