Seeing

“Open Our Eyes”

Leon Lumpkins

Earth, Wind, and Fire

“Total Eclipse”

John Tavener

Academy of Ancient Music

From The Creation, “Die Vorstellung Des Chaos”

Franz Joseph Haydn

English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir

“Deep Space”

Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette

“Moon Mist”

Mercer Ellington

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

“It’s Only a Paper Moon”

Billy Rose/Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg

Django Reinhardt

Seeing

Galileo Moon 1

Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius

http://www.openculture.com/2014/01/galileos-moon-drawings.html

So a man walks into a bookstore with a very old book to sell. The story is told in an article from the L. A. Review of Books, “Faking Galileo.” The very old book the man was selling was believed to be Galileo’s working copy of Sidereus Nuncius and after having been authenticated by people whose business it is to know about such things it was valued at ten million dollars. Of course the book was a forgery. The book itself documents discoveries Galileo made about the nature of the universe and the celestial bodies that travel through it. The most profound discovery at the time concerned the nature of the moon and its surface. Galileo had telescopes he made himself that were more powerful than those used by other astronomers but what he saw on the surface of the moon was clearly visible to other astronomers. Though others saw what Galileo saw they did not see as Galileo saw. Massimo Mazzotti, the author of the article, explains:

The first thing Galileo discovered was that the moon was not smooth and homogeneous, as everyone believed. Instead, it was covered with craters and mountains whose peaks became awash with light when the “terminator” — the line that separates the illuminated and dark parts of the moon — inched forward through the night. Art historians Samuel Edgerton and Horst Bredekamp have written insightfully about how his skills as a draftsman were key to this discovery. Young artists in training during this period were drilled on treatises designed to, in effect, reshape their perception, so that they unthinkingly interpreted certain configurations of two-dimensional light and dark shapes as the surfaces of three-dimensional figures hit by a light source. Galileo’s draftsman eye thus gave him a crucial advantage over other observers, such as Englishman Thomas Harriot, who, a couple of months earlier, had carried out the first recorded telescopic observation of the moon. To Harriot the moon remained smooth and the terminator a fairly clean line. He only saw mountains and craters after he learned of Galileo’s novel description. 

This suggests there is more to “seeing” than looking. The astronomers of Galileo’s day saw what they had been trained to see, a smooth surfaced celestial globe. Galileo looked differently, as a trained artist looks, and recognized what others did not know how to see. 

All Is Vanity

Charles Allan Gilbert

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Allan_Gilbert#mediaviewer/File:Allisvanity.jpg

In light of what Galileo’s book is about it is ironic that those that authenticated the book as Galileo’s proof copy made much the same mistake that Harriot made. In looking at the book they saw what they expected to see:

Until recently, forged printed texts have been relatively uncommon, and most of them have been produced with techniques that did not give depth to the typographic characters. One of the reasons ML (Martayan Lan, the name of the bookstore owned by the man that bought the book) rang true was the way its characters bit the paper. But the forger exaggerated this feature: the printing was deeper than it should have been in a 17th-century book. Similarly, the soiling on the pages and the impurities in the paper were overdone. These features were designed to meet the expectations of an expert assessor. In other words, only a forgery could have seemed so authentic. The ML’s many typographic anomalies were chalked up to ML being a proof copy, and thus they ended up reinforcing the perception of its authenticity. When the international team of experts met to analyze ML in 2008, they already shared a collective representation of ML as a collection of proof printings, one that contained drawings that had been authoritatively authenticated. The evidence that they encountered seemed consistent with this representation.

As in the illustration above we often see what we expect to see. Many on first viewing Charles Allan Gilbert’s illustration All Is Vanity see only a woman at dressing table, a “vanity.” That is what I saw when I first saw the picture. But once pointed out, it is difficult to understand why it was you could not see the skull all along. Perhaps this painting by Hans Holbein is a better example of learning to see correctly as the skull in this painting is not so easily found. Even when you know it is that odd object on the carpet at the ambassador’s feet it is not always easy to recognize as a skull. You have to train yourself to look at it correctly if you are to see it at all.

The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein, the Younger

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ambassadors_(Holbein)#mediaviewer/File:Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_The_Ambassadors_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

But this, seeing what others miss by looking through unconventional lenses, is not new, it has long been understood that those that innovate and see what others cannot often do so because they are skilled in more than one discipline, as Galileo was both a scientist and an artist (though his artwork is not as enduring perhaps as his science). It is often a temptation when looking at things to look for what is familiar because this gives us the easiest access to this new thing. We look for ways to make the unfamiliar, familiar. In the case of the Galileo forgery: 

Much in this story has to do with similarity relationships: we came across instances of the same stamp, the same watermark, the same signature, which ended up not being the same at all. The point is that no two perceptible objects are ever identical: we have to learn which traits are important, and what can be ignored. We have to train our eye and our judgment, and we can only do so in coordination with other practitioners. One implication of this view is that there is no uncontested way to split empirical evidence from the knowledge of the observer. Knowledge, no matter how technical, always bears the marks of its historical contingency.

It is sometimes the case that being similar is different from being the same and when this is the case if we are to understand what we are looking at it is more important to become “familiar” with the differences and pay less attention to, or even ignore, the similarities. Perhaps this is a danger in an age that values specialization so highly that we end up closing our eyes to what is not essential to our area of specialization and in so doing blind ourselves to what innovates and transforms our area of specialization. Perhaps “thinking differently” begins at times with “seeing differently.”

Ptolemaic Geocentric Model

from “Harmonia Macrocosmica” by Andreas Cellarius

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/24/Ptolemaic-geocentric-model.jpg

Stephen Greenblatt in writing about the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare, “Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne,” observes, “The angle at which one regards an object, even so intimately familiar an object as oneself, would necessarily change the terms of a depiction. But it is not only a matter of the shifting position of the beholder; rather it is the inner life of the self, as well as the position of the viewer, that is constantly in motion.” It is important to change our perspective, “the angle at which (we) regard an object” if we are to know it fully and this is especially true of how we look at ourselves if we are ever to fully know ourselves, or as Greenblatt quotes Montaigne, “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself. . . . Shamefaced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, labourious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, froward, humorous, debonaire, wise, ignorant, false in words, true-speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself.” We enjoy discovering that we are “wise,” but often conceal from ourselves our foolishness. Of course fooling ourselves is often easier than fooling others. 

The Haresters

Pieter Brueghel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Harvesters_(painting)#mediaviewer/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder-_The_Harvesters_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Sometimes learning to see properly has more to do with “paying attention” than with looking differently. In the painting above we read the title, The Harvesters, and focus on the foreground of the painting, the “harvesters,” those that are working and those that are resting. This fills up about two-thirds of the painting and is clearly important. But what a about that other third of the painting, why is it there if we are not supposed to look at it and appreciate what is depicted there. Is it just filler designed to frame what is important in the painting? Perhaps. But there are interesting things going on where we often do not look.

The Haresters – Detail People on the Road

Pieter Brueghel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Harvesters_(painting)#mediaviewer/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder-_The_Harvesters_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

In the detail above, which fills the upper left hand corner of the painting, we see something else going on. There are some people walking along a road and what looks like a wagon carrying what, perhaps, has been harvested in other fields. This detail, though not essential to the painting’s theme, does contribute by illustrating the next step in the process, that is, what happens after the harvesters, harvest. But there are still the two figures that appear to be walking down the road uninvolved, perhaps, with the harvest. But what about this detail:

The Haresters – Detail Child Running Away

Pieter Brueghel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Harvesters_(painting)#mediaviewer/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder-_The_Harvesters_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

There is no work being done here, there are what appear to be children, and adults also, at play. One youngster looks like he is running away from one of the adults. It is difficult to see what game it is they are playing, it looks like it might be field hockey or something like it; at least one person has what looks like a stick of some sort and there appears to be a goal behind them. Perhaps the message in all this is simply that while the important work of the day is being done life goes on, and in an agrarian society the harvest is among the most important work that is done. It is also work that must be accomplished within a narrow window of time if the harvest is to be fully realized. But even during the most important work of the day, everyday life goes on, the simple things that make up a lifetime continue to take place. While people work others play and others travel. 

The painting suggests that everything is important and has its place. The focus may be on the more important work of the day, but life does not stop, even at the time of the harvest. Who is to say that play is not also important and does not also have its place in the lives we lead? But not everyone in this detail is playing. There is a group that appears to be talking and this too is important. It is in conversation that friendships are formed and affirmed as well as other relationships, work relationships, romantic relationships, community relationships. It should also be remembered that these small details that are so hard to see in the painting when reduced to a size that fits on a page are a bit more noticeable when the original painting is viewed in its proper size. Perhaps there, these details are not so easily missed, though I think they are still easily dismissed. Perhaps this is an important skill that art and art appreciation teach us, that everything in life is important to some degree and that it is important to look not just at the important things going on around us, but the mundane and “unessential” things as well. 

Bison in the Nave at Lascaux

Unknown

http://www.cavetocanvas.com/post/24630947693/crossed-bison-in-the-nave-at-lascaux-c-15-000

The painting above is from a cave in France. This suggests another aspect of seeing. The painting is of bison, buffalo. When I see bison I think of the American west. If I did not know where this painting was made, I might assume the cave wall that is depicted here was in Utah or New Mexico. I would make assumptions about the painting based on what I know. How does the knowledge that this cave is found in France change the way I look at the painting and its subject? What happened to the bison that once roamed the plains of France? What did the plains of France look like when bison roamed them? Is it important that bison once roamed the plains of France? It suggests that the world and perhaps its people are more connected than we often assume. If the red on the one buffalo is blood, it suggests the painting depicts a hunt. Were the buffalo of France hunted in the same way as the buffalo of the American plains? If nothing else, it gives some pleasure to imagine prehistoric Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen, perhaps) on the plains of France hunting the buffalo as Native Americans did on the plains of America.

Country Road in Provence by Night

Vincent Van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_van_Gogh#mediaviewer/File:Van_Gogh_-_Country_road_in_Provence_by_night.jpg

Galileo, among others, changed the way we look at the sun and moon. Van Gogh in this paintings looks at the sun and moon differently still. His way of seeing the sun and moon did not revolutionize science, but it captured ways the sun and moon play upon our imaginations, it captured a magic in the natural world that affects our emotions more than our intellect. Is this perception of the natural world less real because it engages the emotions and not the intellect? How the painting affects our view of the cosmos is probably less important than how it affects us aesthetically. The importance of this way of thinking and seeing probably depends largely on our view of beauty and its importance. If the presence of beauty does not change the world or the people in it, than perhaps it is not that important, but if it does change us, if it speaks to a truth we do not otherwise see, than maybe it is important. 

View of Delft

Johannes Vermeer

http://www.onlinegalerij.nl/2013/02/22/honderd-topstukken-te-gast-in-het-gemeentemuseum/#.U8L3l61dXVQ

That beauty affects human beings profoundly is difficult to deny. We do not only build ourselves houses, we build our houses with details that are unnecessary to its function as shelter. Stained glass windows, for example, are not only unnecessary, they are not functional. You cannot see through a stained glass window and the staining inhibits the sunlight. It interferes with the practicality of shelter. But while interfering with the practical it enhances the pleasure one gets from living in the shelter. The same is true of paint, carpets, and furniture. There is something in the human psyche that desires not only a functional space, but a beautiful space. In the Vermeer painting we see buildings that are functional, but we also see details that are unnecessary, but pleasing to the eye, spires, red roofs, arched rather than squared doorways. If beauty does nothing else it is calming, it relaxes us. Perhaps it is a part of the way of seeing of the artist that sees beauty where the rest of us see only the ordinary and undistinguished. This is not to suggest that all ornament is beautiful, only to suggest that the desire for ornament leads to a desire for the beautiful. Of course this doesn’t answer the question, to what extent can we trust our desires, are they always truthful? 

Still, though desirability may not in itself make a thing good and true, it is difficult to imagine something being good and true and not being desirable. When Pinocchio is enticed to run off to Toyland and play all day long, it is a desire for play that leads him astray. This desire is not entirely false; it is just false to the extreme Pinocchio takes it. It is a good thing within moderation and it is the moderation that is missing. But even if this desire of Pinocchio’s is entirely false and deceiving, this does not make desire itself a bad thing. Because whatever we make of Pinocchio’s experience, there is also the experience of Mr. Gradgrind’s school in Dickens’ Hard Times. There is nothing desirable about Mr. Gradgrind’s educational program and it is its undesirability that first calls it into question; that causes us to doubt its efficacy. It is not just that no one wants to go to Gradgrind’s school; there is not much of value that is learned there. 

Rashomon

Akira Kurosawa

Janus Films

The film tells a story about seeing. There are four witnesses to a crime, but no one sees the same crime being committed. In fact not all witnesses witnessed a crime. In this story perspective, the angle from which a thing is seen, literally determines what is seen. As a story it reminds us that we each bring a perspective to our experience of the world. This perspective determines how we understand much of what we see and experience. We cannot know the true interpretation of what happens in Rashomon unless we know which angle from which the event was witnessed reveals the “whole” event. In the Renaissance Theater there was one seat, “the eye of the duke” from which the whole stage was in perfect perspective. Only from this seat was all of what was seen on stage seen as it was intended to be seen. From every other seat the perspective is not perfect and the picture within the proscenium is to some degree askew. Perhaps none of the characters in Rashomon observes the crime from “the eye of the duke,” but even if no one saw it from this angle, the angle exists which puts the whole scene in perfect perspective. 

This is not just true for how we look at the events in a story; it is true for how we read stories in general. This is not to say that there is only one way to read rightly, but that some things are more worth reading than others and it is important to know how our own tastes and interests can interfere with our judgments about what we read. Arthur Krystal in an article for Harper’s Magazine, “What Is Literature,” observes:

Eighty-five years ago, in The Whirligig of Taste, the British writer E. E. Kellett disabused absolutists of the notion that books are read the same way by successive generations. Kellett concluded his short but far-ranging survey by noting that “almost all critical judgment . . . is in the main built on prejudice.” This, of course, makes consensus about books only slightly more probable than time travel. But if there is even a remote chance of its happening, the first thing we have to do is acknowledge our own deep-seated preferences. The adept critic Desmond MacCarthy once observed that:

one cannot get away from one’s temperament any more than one can jump away from one’s shadow, but one can discount the emphasis which it produces. I snub my own temperament when I think it is not leading me straight to the spot where a general panorama of an author’s work is visible.

Although the snubbing of temperament is not easily accomplished, we can try. We can move from being ecstatic readers to being critical readers, hesitating to defend a book because we like it or condemn it because we don’t. For when it comes to books, it isn’t always wise to follow our bliss when bliss gets in the way of reason, and reason alone should be sufficient to tell us that War and Peace is objectively greater than The War of the Worlds, no matter which one we prefer to reread.

We should be able to enjoy all the books we read, we should read what we read because we find what we read desirable. The issue is not entirely that War of the Worlds is a desirable book to read and War and Peace is not, if we read both books we read them because, hopefully, they are both desirable books to read. But, whichever book is more “fun” to read, War and Peace gives us more in return for the time invested in the reading of it. And even if we enjoy War of the Worlds more, if we are serious and perceptive readers we are aware, that there is more to Mr. Tolstoy’s book than there is to that of Mr. Wells. 

This also suggests desire can take on many forms. We can desire to do, in this case to read, something because it is fun and we can desire to do something because it enriches us. These are different desires for different things and there is good to be gained from both. Recognizing the superiority of War and Peace as literature does not diminish the pleasure we get from reading War of the Worlds.

Boulevard Montmartre la nuit

Camille Pissarro

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camille_Pissarro#mediaviewer/File:Camille_Pissarro_009.jpg

But what of reading? Whether it is Mr. Wells or Mr. Tolstoy we are reading, what is the value in it? What good does it do; what does it change; what does it add to the world? When we are done reading we do not have a building we can occupy, a car we can drive, or a computer we can compute with. But there is little doubt that reading changes those that read seriously and well. When I read a book my imagination is stimulated, that is a real stimulation in the real world. My mind is moved to consider points of view, philosophies towards life, to look at behaviors and assess their value, their rightness or wrongness; the good and the evil that is in them. These are real thoughts about real issues that affect the way people live and interact in the real world. I am also moved to feel things; my emotions are aroused. These are real emotions. It may be that that which evoked those emotions is totally imaginary, but though imaginary they are grounded in something that is real; the injustice that arouses my anger may be an imaginary injustice, but injustice in the world is not imaginary and it is important to think about how we ought to respond to injustice before we are called upon to respond to it. We should know what it means to be loyal and the demands of loyalty before we are in situations where we must prove our loyalty. But there is more to it than this. Harold Bloom in an interview in The Paris Review, “The Art of Criticism No. 1, Harold Bloom,” talked about his early experience with reading poetry:

I was preadolescent, ten or eleven years old. I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me—in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems—though I had no notion what they were about. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me. Indeed it’s the first book I ever owned. I begged my oldest sister to give it to me, and I still have the old black and gold edition she gave me for my birthday back in 1942. It’s up on the third floor. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry . . . where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it?

Galileo Moon 2

Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius

http://www.openculture.com/2014/01/galileos-moon-drawings.html

Perhaps this experience is inexplicable to any who have not experienced it, but for those that have had this experience or one like it, it is a very real thing and it changes who we are as people and how we view the world and the people in it. It is being personally touched by the beautiful and transformed by it. Galileo’s book Sidereus Nuncius changed the world. It identified something true about how the cosmos worked and how it is to be understood. Many who have read and been stirred by Milton’s Paradise Lost look at the cosmos differently. Even those like Phillip Pullman and C. S. Lewis who read this poem very differently and whose view of the cosmos was altered in radically different ways were more than entertained by this poem. They were both entertained, but that was just the beginning. We cannot look into a book and come away from it unchanged, unless we never learned how to look in the first place. If I look into a book and see the flat surfaces I expected to see, it is because I have not trained my eye to interpret the shadows that reveal the true contours of the landscape.

River Landscape with a Windmill

Rembrandt

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Landscape_paintings_by_Rembrandt#mediaviewer/File:31040.jpg

On Wonder

“Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”

Andre Previn

“All Through the Night

Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Aoife O’Donovan & Yo-Yo Ma

“Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan

  

On Wonder

Photograph of a watercolour sketch

John Weeks done while teaching at Elam Art School around 1950

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Watercolour_sketch_by_John_Weeks,_circa_1950.jpg

We Want to Be Beguiled. That is, in one sense, what “wonder” is about. That which provokes a sense of wonder in us, beguiles us, that is, not to say that everything that beguiles is wonderful, but if we are not beguiled we are probably not in the presence of wonder. It might also be said that the more wonderful something it is, the longer it continues to beguile us, it may be that this is the difference between the wonderful and the fanciful. That which is merely fanciful beguiles us for the time it takes us to become accustomed to it, but the more accustomed we become with the truly wonderful the more it continues to beguile. Often wonder is provoked by simplicity, as is the case with the first two songs in the audio clip, they are children’s songs; they are lullabies. When Mozart composed his piano concerto, the melody we know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was already a popular song in the nursery. He composed his variations around this simple melody and it beguiles, perhaps not to the extent that the Jupiter Symphony beguiles us, but it is beguiling. The same is true of the lullaby “All Through the Night.” Though the melody itself is quite simple, it has a sophistication that keeps it from sounding out of place on the cello, the richness of the music is complemented by the richness of the cello’s sound.

John Weeks’ watercolor sketch is also a simple sketch, probably done quickly, that captivates the viewer with its simplicity, the simplicity of the lines and the simplicity of the color and their placement. The drawing captures the outlines of a space and evokes enough of the reality of that space for the viewer to be able to fill in the missing details. Part of the wonder that is provoked by that which is successfully and simply done lies in the artist’s ability to evoke much with very little. There is something magic about it. The Bob Dylan song is a list, almost Whitman-esque of various images that provoke wonder, the sound of a tambourine, the sound of a singer, the night passing into the morning twilight. The music is also fairly simple, folk blues played on a guitar. And though not everyone finds Dylan’s voice sublime, I do, as do many others.

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628

Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1596/97–1660)

Oil on wood

9 1/2 x 14 1/8 in. (24.1 x 35.9 cm)

Rogers Fund, 1949 (49.107)

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.107

There was a debate that took place recently in The New Republic between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier (“Science Is Not Your Enemy”, “Crimes Against Humanities”, and “Science vs. the Humanities, Round Two”). Pinker thinks the Sciences and the Humanities should unite and work together; Wieseltier thinks they operate in different spheres and one side must give up too much of what makes it what it is for there to be unification. For both Pinker and Wieseltier wonder is an important element of their argument. Pinker sees in the Sciences and the new technologies that which is truly wonderful and awe inspiring. Wieseltier agrees that there is much in science that is wonderful and awe inspiring. But the wonder and the awe proceed from different sources. Wieseltier argues that what science tries to do when it applies its methods to the humanities is identify where the magic is found. But for those that approach the arts from within the humanities it is this “magic” that they find attractive and that it is not so much that the sciences in explaining the magic destroy the magic but that the scientist fails to understand the magic the humanist finds in the arts. It does not lie in the mixture of colors and textures, in the sounds and evocations of language, in the combination of notes in a piece of music. Of course that is where the magic lives, but the scientific explanation of how the magic works reveals a misunderstanding of the magic itself. I wonder, though, how an understanding of the science in Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill would explain its sublime qualities or ease the discomfort it provokes. D. H. Lawrence’s poem “The Third Thing” illustrates the problem the scientist encounters when examining the arts:

Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,

but there is also a third thing, that makes it water

and nobody knows what it is.

The atom locks up two energies

but it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.

The sciences are only capable of exploring the two parts of the atom, but they cannot explore that third thing that makes it an atom, at least not that which makes the atom “wonderful” to the humanist. 

The humanities and the sciences also have a different relationship with the past. Science moves forward, the only reason for it to look backwards is to remind itself where it’s been and what, through investigation and experimentation, has been left behind. There is no need for the scientist to study the pre-Copernican universe because the scientist knows that model of the universe has been disproved. That said, the medievalist C. S. Lewis wrote a book, The Discarded Image that explains the medieval world view and its understanding of the universe. Where the science is no longer relevant the magic of its conception still beguiles the imagination of some, it beguiled Lewis’ imagination. This is not to say he wanted to return to a medieval understanding of the universe, only to say there is an elegance to its construction that is appealing. It worked for Lewis as story, he never accepted it as science, but from the perspective of the humanities, the story is important and still has something to teach us, it possess a different kind of truth. To one critic, Matthew Ward, Lewis’ study of the medieval view of the universe provided the frame upon which he built his series of children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia. For the scientist there is not much point in this looking backwards. This is not to say that good scientists do not keep an open mind and do not continue to test theories, even after they seem to have been proven false. But there comes of a time when the body of accumulated evidence overwhelms a model or a theory and it is abandoned. That which is affirmed is carried forward but in being carried forward it remains part of the present, it does not live in the past. The Humanities have a different relationship to the past. 

Etretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d’Aval

Claude Monet

http://www.wikipaintings.org/nl/claude-monet/etretat-the-needle-rock-and-porte-d-aval

Where science looks to the past to be certain something has not been tried before and found wanting, the humanities sees the past as part of the present. They maintain a dialog of sorts between the wisdom of the past and the wisdom of the present. Humanists believe both the past and the present have something to say to each other, that each can learn from each other and contribute something to the understanding of the other. The past, of course cannot be changed, but our understanding of the past is sometimes changed by what has been learned and understood subsequently. On the other hand, the wisdom of the present is enriched by the wisdom of the past and the wisdom of each contributes to the shape and direction the present and the future take. To close our eyes to either can have detrimental effects on the world we live in and pass along to those that come after us. Math and science make us better machines; the humanities make us better human beings. This is generalization of course, not everything the sciences give us are necessarily better, some insidious machines have been put into our hands that unfortunately work too well. By the same token, not everyone that has embraced the humanities has been made better by them. History is filled with movements and individuals that had a highly refined taste in art and literature who were miserable human beings that did truly evil things.

A Super Moon’s Halo

NASA’s Astronomy Picture Of The Day – Louis Argerich

http://socksonanoctopus.com/blog/2013/06/nasas-astronomy-picture-of-the-day-a-super-moons-halo/

Perhaps the real difference between the humanities and the sciences and the wonder each provokes lies in the different way they look at and experience the universe. The photographs above and below are wonderful in both the scientific and the humanistic sense. They inspire awe. I expect these pictures also provoke awe in the humanistic sense in both scientists and humanists. Both scientists and humanists probably also experience the awe provoked by the science as well. But the scientist wants to explore the awe provoked by the science while the humanist wants to explore the awe that is provoked by the artistry of the photograph and the subject of the photograph. I do not understand how atmosphere, light, gases, and chemical reactions produced the subjects of these photographs, though I wouldn’t mind knowing. But knowing how the subjects of the pictures were produced would not explain to me or clarify for me the sense of wonder the photographs produce. I do not want to understand the science as much as I want to understand what makes them beautiful and why the beauty found in the photographs affects me the way it does.

The Bubble Nebula

NASA Picture of the Day

http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap100902.html

This perhaps draws attention to an old debate, to an old problem, that of materialism vs. idealism. A materialist believes, generally, that there is nothing more to the universe than that which can be perceived through the senses. Things may be there that the senses cannot perceive at present, but once the tools are invented that will enable the senses to perceive their presence the senses will perceive them. Pluto, whether it is a planet or something other, was always present even if it could not always be seen. Once telescopes powerful enough to see it were produced, Pluto could be seen. An idealist believes there is more to the universe than can be perceived through the senses. The debate is, I suppose, about the third thing in Lawrence’s poem. Is it real or imaginary? That something is something more than the Higgs-Boson particle, it is something that cannot be taken in through the senses no matter how sophisticated the tools we invent become. 

Pinker, for example, views all religion as superstition because no religion can be proven through the scientific method. The “evidence” is not there. This makes religion, for Pinker the product of superstition and self-delusion. He is a materialist. Wieseltier argues that religious people, like idealists in general, construct a rational philosophy around their faith. The religious dynamic is as real to them as the scientific dynamic is to the scientist. This does not mean all humanistic thought is religious, but like religious thought, humanistic thought is concerned with more than can be materially proven. There probably is no such thing as a “pure” materialist or a “pure” idealist. Idealists still at times believe only what their senses tell them, still pursue material gain, often without regard to the ethical ramifications of those pursuits. Materialists are often “good” in the sense that they put the interests of others ahead of self-interest; do good things even when it is not in their self-interest to do good things. They are rarely like Wolf Larson, for example, in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf who takes what he wants because he is strong enough to take it. He believes in the “survival of the fittest” and believes because he is one of the fittest he is entitled to take what he wants. He is the consummate materialist.

Landscape with wheat sheaves and rising moon

Vincent van Gogh

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

The painting captures the same moon (though a few years younger) as is seen in the photograph. An understanding of the science behind a moonrise and the atmospheric conditions surrounding it will not tell us anything about why this painting is beautiful. Nor would an understanding of the principles of light and texture and color explain why this painting is wonderful. Such an investigation might help us understand how it was constructed and why certain colors in combination with one another are pleasing to the eye, but this will not unlock its wonder. Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Sonnet to Science” addresses another aspect of the divide between science and the humanities:

SCIENCE! meet daughter of old Time thou art

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes!

Why prey’st thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture! whose wings are dull realities!

How should he love thee – or how deem thee wise

Who woulds’t not leave him, in his wandering,

To seek for treasure in the jewell’d skies

Albeit, he soar with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragg’d Diana from her car,

And driv’n the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star!

The gentle Naiad from her fountain-flood

The elfin from the green grass? and from me

The summer dream beneath the shrubbery?

Poe’s response to Pinker would be to point out that science seeks to explain away the magic, to demonstrate why the magic is not really magic. To the scientist this poem may seem an exercise in denial. Yes, science has shown that all that Poe points out is false, that it does not in fact exist, it is myth, folklore, and superstition. It does not matter that we want the magic to be real, it isn’t and that ends it. But, to this day elves and other magical creatures appear in stories. This does not make them real, but it does say something about the desires and aspirations of the human imagination. And perhaps, in a sense these myths are real, they give an imagined body to principles and quirks of human behavior that enable us to better understand ourselves. There may be no spirits in rivers or in trees, there may be no elves or dwarfs living in the secret places of the earth, but the attitudes elves and dwarfs personify are found all around us. When we enter the worlds in which such creatures live we have to suspend our disbelief, we willingly enter these worlds knowing what we will find there is not real, in the scientific sense, but also that they point to that “third thing” that science cannot explain. 

A carving of a dragon from Imperial City, Huế in Viet Nam

Anonymous

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roof_detail,_dragon.jpg

Steve Paulson in “Monsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science” presents another view of science and its beginnings. One aspect of the article pursues the human fascination with monsters and their ubiquity throughout history. The Photograph above is of a dragon and, being an Asian dragon, it is probably a friendly dragon, but one never knows. Many of our oldest stories involve monsters; Odysseus and the Cyclops, Beowulf and Grendel, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Many of Ovid’s retelling of Roman myths in The Metamorphoses involve monsters and battles with monsters. Many of Snorri Sturluson’s retelling of Norse myths also involve encounters with monsters. They are found everywhere. I think one of the reasons space travel is such a popular vehicle for storytelling is because in the unexplored reaches of space one can expect to find anything (and one can also expect that anything waiting to be found might also pay us a visit). The monsters encountered in The Thing and Alien mean to do us harm, whereas the monsters found in ET and The Day the Earth Stood Still are more concerned with our welfare, they are at the very least motivated more by kindness than malevolence. 

   

 Avatar The Trailer

James Cameron’

20th Century Fox

The film clip captures another aspect of wonder and of the monstrous. Are the creatures of Pandora monsters that need to be subdued, like some of the other wildlife found there? Or are the more “human” colonizers the monsters or at least the more monstrous. The film captures our fascination with what we do not understand. It also speaks to some of our better “angels” in that we find ourselves siding with the “monsters,” the “savages.” In this regard the film is a study in good vs. evil. But it is not just the story that enchants us; the special effects of the movie also provoke wonder. They present us with a grand spectacle. But is it the wonderful that beguiles us in this film or the fanciful. I remember seeing 2001 a Space Odyssey when it first came out. I was enchanted and beguiled by the special effects in that movie. But when I watch it today the effects are not as spellbinding. The art of special effects has far surpassed what was so revolutionary in Kubrick’s film. Much of what appeared wonderful in the film looks merely fanciful today. It is a landmark in film history and probably in the art of filmmaking. There are other aspects of the film that hold up very well as storytelling, but if the artistic life of the film depended on its special effects would it still attract an audience today? I wonder about Avatar if this might not also be the case. The time will come when the art of special effects will far surpass the effects found in this film. As Aristotle said, spectacle is an aspect of the theater, but it is not its most important aspect and not what gives the play (or the screenplay) its longevity. 

Glasses

Gilles Tran

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Glasses_800_edit.png

Then there is the image above. It is entirely computer generated. It provokes a sense of wonder when one considers what a series of “ones and zeros” can create. It suggests the beginning, perhaps, of the holodeck, that place in the science fiction world of Star Trek where we can live out and participate in the creations of our imaginations. It might also suggest that for the scientist to fully enjoy the fruits of science they need a bit of the humanist inside them in order to imagine what to do with all those wonderful machines. But again, is this fanciful or truly beguiling? Is the wonder created by our technology a short-lived wonder or does it have a longer life? Is there a story in the image that can keep it interesting after the novelty of how it was created has worn off? Sometimes science gives us the tools while the humanities provide the inspiration for their use, where humane uses are available. Of course one must be careful here to distinguish between the humanities and effective marketing.

Sam Kean (“Science, Right and Wrong”) picks up on another aspect of Paulson’s article, science and changing attitudes towards curiosity. Both articles point out that curiosity for a very long time was seen as a vice and not a virtue. Curiosity was a paving stone on the road to hell. This seems an odd and foreign attitude today; at least it does to me today. I cannot imagine a life lived without curiosity. There is an aspect of wonder that is aligned with curiosity. Wonder stimulates our senses and our senses want answers. It is curiosity that drives the scientist to understand science and its objects of study and curiosity that drives the humanist to comprehend the humanities’ significance to human life and experience. There are times when these two responses to wonder run parallel with each other, or can at least feed each other if each is given its own path to travel. 

When I look at the night sky I see something wonderfully sublime. It strikes an emotional cord inside me that has nothing to do with physics, astronomy, or the pull of gravity. It has to do with grandeur and magnificence and other things that are perhaps subjective at some level, but at another level I do not think so because so many before me have responded in the same way. For the sciences the focus is on its subjects measurability, on quantifying and defining it; for the humanities it is the subjects ineffability, that which defies measurement and quantification. Sometimes it seems the scientific response is the easier one, because it proceeds with answers to all questions or at least the belief that answers are forthcoming. For the humanist the questions are often provoked by what remains after the scientist has finished. 

Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell, and Chip-Wood Box, ca. 1630

Sébastien Stoskopff (Alsatian, 1597–1657)

Oil on canvas

18 1/2 x 23 3/8 in. (47 x 59.4 cm)

Wrightsman Fund, 2002 (2002.68)

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2002.68

 

Awe and Wonder

Lyke-Wake Dirge

Pentangle

Awe and Wonder

CirceOfferingtheCuptoOdysseus.jpg

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus

John William Waterhouse

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

There was a recent article in Lampham’s Quarterly (Very Superstitious”) about superstition and science and folk wisdom. The article is not an attempt to reawaken a belief in superstition or the irrational, but it does encourage us to look for a truth that may lie beneath the superstition. The article begins by telling a story about a family whose child is stricken with scarlet fever. The medical community, and most everyone else, gave up hope for the child’s survival. So the parents went to a group of women euphemistically referred to as a “jury of matrons;” the author of the article suggests the newspaper was not comfortable referring to them as witches (and perhaps they in fact were not). But they gave the parents the benefit of their “folk wisdom.” The article says these women did not believe the child would survive, but they believed that by doing the things they suggested the parents would make the child’s passing easier. What they suggested was, “open all the doors, drawers, cupboards, and boxes in the house, untie any knots – perhaps in a shoelace, a curtain pull, or an apron sash – and remove all keys from their locks. The parents did these things, and the child did not die. Of course this may just be an example of the philosophical fallacy known as “post hoc – propter hoc” which just attributes anything that follows an action as having been caused by that action, as when Huck tells us of a gentleman who looked over his shoulder at the new moon and died two years later. But some suggest that by opening windows and doors a space that may have been confined and full of stale, infected air, was ventilated and made a healthier environment. In other words there may be a perfectly rational explanation for what happened and that perhaps this folk wisdom articulated something real while incorrectly identifying the source and cause of the benefit.

The article is a study in sympathetic magic and its characterization by James G. Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough and the coiner of the term. Sympathetic magic has a long and colorful history. One way of determining longitude at sea, for example, is by knowing the time where you are and the time at the port you sailed from. One proposed solution to the problem involved using a powder that would be sprinkled over the used bandages of an injured dog that traveled with the voyagers (the dog, not the bandages). Applying the powder to the bandages at a specified time, say 12:00 PM, would cause the dog on board the ship to yelp, telling the ships navigator the time at the home port. The navigator, knowing the time on board ship, would have the second time setting he needed to determine longitude. The article gives many examples, some used to cause harm, some put to good and merciful ends, it does not argue, I do not think, for magic, only that things attributed to “sympathetic magic” may have other causes.

The article brings up a second example; that of two clinics in a Vienna hospital assisting mothers in giving birth, one run by midwives and one by physicians. Deliveries performed by midwives at their clinic in the hospital had a mortality rate of 2 percent. The physicians’ mortality rate was 10 percent. A physician at the hospital, Ignaz Semmelweis, tried to figure out why. He observed that in the hospital none of the staff washed their hands, in the 1840’s this was just not done, and was seen as unnecessary. Physicians would go to the maternity clinic after performing other surgeries and would bring infection with them. When, under Dr. Semmelweis’ instructions, the doctors began to wash their hands the mortality rates evened out to 2 percent at both clinic. But the medical community said there was no scientific framework for the washing of hands making a difference. They said this remedy was nothing more than a belief in “sympathetic magic.” Later folks like Pasteur did the scientific tests that gave credence to the practice of washing up, and the practice was then adopted.

The article concludes by saying we turn to magic sometimes because it is all we have. The song that began this, Lyke-Wake Dirge is a song of mourning and songs of mourning perform a kind of magic, they help healing, they often draw attention to more mysterious aspects of human existence that do not lend themselves to easy answers or point to powers beyond our understanding. The article does not endorse superstition, but it does suggest there are things in life we cannot explain and times when we need comforts the rational world cannot provide. Sven Birkerts in an essay “Vertigo” suggests that reading often provides a similar kind of “magical” experience. He does not call it “magical” but he does see it as transformational, and there is a kind of magic involved with this process as he describes it:

Books are so easily masked by familiarity, crowded into indistinctness by others of their kind, their original explosiveness gone latent, awaiting some circumstance in the life of the reader to make them actual, as the writing was for the writer. Books are singularities, trade routes for private intensities. We forget this. Reading itself falls to habit, the eye switching back and forth down pages, down the lengths of columns, just another thing we do, until one day a book comes along that has the force, or is such a fit to what we need, that it renews the act for us. How did we ever forget what happened that first time, whenever it was, with the eruption of another’s voice, that stark surprise breaching of time and distance, the sense we had of standing high on a ledge looking over?

What ever we call it, those that read in the way Birkerts describes have experienced this. Time stops, the mind is awakened, it is reshaped, it becomes aware of things it was unaware of before and understands things it did not understand before. Neuroscientists have begun studying this and have tried to formulate theories that explain why, but to the person experiencing these things, the “whys” are not really that important.

HeliocentricModel.jpg

Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica

Andreas Cellarius

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

There was an article and an interview recently (Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one” and Progress Isn’t A Linear Development”) that both discussed the sciences and the humanities and how they each address different human needs and incorporate different ways of thinking and seeing. Both articles assert the importance of both the humanities and the sciences and the need to teach and explore them both, that our human existence is diminished if we give greater importance to one or marginalize the other. The illustrations above and below suggest two different ways of looking at the universe, the top is heliocentric and the bottom is geocentric. The first sees the sun as stationary and at the center of our solar system. The other sees the earth as stationary and at the solar system’s center. Both models of the universe are based on observation. Galileo when he formulated his theories that put the sun at the center based those theories on what he saw and the only way he could explain what he saw. Of course when we standing on earth look at the sky, it appears as though it is the sun that is moving and we are standing still, but with training and adequate tools, telescopes and the like, we can see why what appears to be true cannot be true. But we can also understand how early astronomers without Galileo’s tools would reach other conclusions.

BartolomeuVelho.jpg

Ptolemaic geocentric model

Bartolomeu Velho

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bartolomeu_Velho_1568.jpg

There is a little poster I saw recently that said, “Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.” I think this captures a real truth that is often absent in the world today. The sciences teach us how to do things, and prod us to search for new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing the world around us. The humanities teach us how to look at the world around us, to reflect on what we do before we do it, so that we may not come to regret our actions later. The sciences help us to understand our world and how it works, the humanities help us to reflect on what we learn about our world and on how we ought to respond to and interact with it. What we loose when we loose science is a method for examining our world and how it works. We loose the tools and procedures to study the natural world, to document the steps, to test what has been discovered so that we can know if we understand what we have discovered. True science is built on skepticism and a belief that the method is more important than the scientist employing it (or at least more important than the scientist’s ego).

What we loose when we loose the humanities is the ability to see consequences before they happen, the ability to reflect on our actions, on the actions of others, the ability to shape a view of the world and how we ought to live in it. Science helps understand how the stars came to be and how they work, how they produce light and energy. The humanities help us to understand why they are beautiful and how their beauty blesses human existence. The humanities teach us there is more to life than respiration, reproduction, and work. It is the discipline of the sciences that teach the scientist how to do his work. It is the humanities that teach the scientist why she or he draws pleasure from that work and, perhaps, who that work should serve.

OldBaileyMicrocosm.jpg

“The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court”

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin

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

Law is categorized as a branch of the humanities. It touches on many areas of human life, but it is devoted, in its purest sense, to the protection of the innocent. We regulate markets, for example, not because we want to limit people’s rewards for their labor, but because we want to prevent the human propensity for greed from harming the innocent. Regulation’s intent, when it is done correctly, is to act as a break on the darker angels of our nature. But the law is often more than this. The law often tells stories, it points us to moments in history that provoked the legislation and often in the process of legislating tells the stories that provoked the legislation. This is often true of “common law” that is based on a narrative that explains a legal situation. A common law marriage, for example, is one that is not defined by a rite or ceremony or any official action by the state but by the “story” of two people’s lives together. The administration lawyer (I believe he came from the Reagan administration) who wrote the “RICO” statute, the law intended to control racketeering, was asked if the acronym “RICO” (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act) was inspired by the film Little Caesar and its central character Rico Bandello. The lawyer refused to answer the question, but he did add that he was a film buff. The only point being, and it may not be that large of a point, is that stories are important and they play a large role in our life. The law against racketeering was not motivated by the film or the story the film tells, but the story the film tells helps illustrate the importance of the law that may have been named in its honor.

 

The Art of Creating Awe

Rob Legato

TED Talk

The film clip is about the creating of “awe” in the movies. It is a talk given by a man who creates special effects in films that move us, that capture the imagination. When we read, if we read well, our minds are capable of producing effects that cannot be created in studios, that are far more awesome; it is this working of the human imagination that creates the magic that Birkerts describes in his essay. The human imagination is the richest source of wonder on the planet and even in the case of films each of the effects began as an image in the mind of its maker. There was an article on Ludwig Wittgenstein (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking”) and his belief in the importance of “looking.” In the article Wittgenstein is quoted as saying, “don’t think look.” Or as Yogi Berra put it, “You can see a lot just by looking.” The article is about the importance of seeing things and not just thinking about things. It tells the story of Bertrand Russell taking a test that was based on geometric shapes. He did well at first and then he began having trouble. When asked why he was having problems he said it was because he no longer had names for the shapes he was being shown and without the names he did not know how to think about them. Russell believed more in thinking than in looking. There is probably value to both ways of approaching problems, but often we give greater credence to what we think about things than we do to what we see and how what we see affects us.

PaulCezanne115.jpg

Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley

Paul Cezanne

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Cézanne_115.jpg

There was an article in The Guardian about walking and inspiration (Path to enlightenment: how walking inspires writers”) that also addresses this issue of paying attention to the world around us and the beauty that is there. The article discusses writers who wrote and walked and whose writing was a product of these rambles, Wordsworth for example, and Wittgenstein are mentioned. The paintings above and below are of landscapes that are serene and comforting. It is an aspect of beauty that it often brings comfort and produces an inner peace. The focus of the article, or its inspiration anyway, is a house in Connemara, Ireland that belonged to an Irish poet named Richard Murphy. He wandered around the area and he sailed its harbor. This wandering helped to integrate him into the community but it also helped to build community because his wandering about, and his writing about wandering about, provoked interest in others and people came to visit and these visits in turn helped the economy of this poor community.

Living on Cape Cod I can see how on the one hand visitors to a beautiful place do help the economy of the place but they can also change the look of the place. Sometimes real objects of beauty are not universally appreciated, but their appreciation is dictated by taste. Georgia O’Keefe loved the desert, but many find it a hostile unfriendly place. But when people who share O’Keefe’s interest in the desert come to the desert, the neon soon begins to replace the Joshua Trees and the cactus. But what is probably of greater concern is that those that visit the desert or the coast of Cape Cod want to shape it to fit a private conception of “the beautiful” that is at odds with the beauty that brought them, and others, there in the first place. As Yogi Berra also said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” and there is something in the beautiful that does not like a crowd.

ClaudeMonetFishermansHouse.jpg

The Fisherman’s house at Varengeville

Claude Monet

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

It’s Just a Story

“With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come”

Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell

St. Andrews Singers and English Chamber Orchestra


 

It’s Just a Story

 

 

Dido building Carthage aka The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire

J. M. W. Turner

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

 

Clorinda Rescues Olindo und Sophronia

Eugene Delacroix

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Liberty Leading the People

Eugene Delacroix

 

 

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

 

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

 

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


 

 

Don Quixote

Pablo Picasso

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

 

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

 

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


Building U. S. – China Relations by Banjo

Abigail Washburn

TED Talk


 

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


 

 

The Order of Release

John Everett Millais

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion

John William Waterhouse

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

William Blake

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

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.


The View from Here


Symphony No. 5; Allegro
Franz Schubert
Yehudi Menuhin (cond.); Menuhin Festival Orchestra

The View from Here

Archimedes Thoughtful
Domenico Fetti
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Domenico-Fetti_Archimedes_1620.jpg

The music comes from the opening of Schubert’s Symphony #5. It captures for me a simpler time and evokes a rural countryside and village life. Of course the rural countryside and the village may have less to do with the music than with my first hearing the music when it was used as the opening theme for a series of PBS Mystery broadcasts starring Joan Hickson as Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. This lyrical piece of music was played behind images of various individuals with somewhat diabolical expressions on their faces that seemed in ironic contrast to the music. But the point is that often how we see and understand something has as much to do with the circumstances that surrounded our first exposure to that “something” than anything inherent to that “something.”

The painting is of the early Greek scientist Archimedes. He got a lot of things right; perhaps the world of mathematics is a bit more stable than other worlds. But he was also a scientist, and the world of science is not quite as stable as that of mathematics, but even there he has held up pretty well. Still, living when he did, he would have believed, or at least accepted as working hypotheses a lot of science that has since been discredited. What we believe about the world in which we live is shaped by the presumptions of the times in which we live.

Lucien, the Greek satirist who lived about three hundred years after Archimedes, sent some folks on a fantastic voyage to the moon. The ship was caught in a severe storm and landed on the moon. The story was called “A True History” and it begins with Lucian stating there is not a word of truth to it. He was having fun with the historians of his day and though he is describing a voyage to the moon, he does not expect anyone to believe the voyage in fact took place or was in any way possible. The idea of people walking on the moon did not harmonize well with the science of Lucian’s day, but we might be more open to the possibility.

But though the science changes, the human psyche and the human character does not change quite so much. There have been “reality” programs on television that have placed 21st century folks in 19th century and earlier environments to give us all a sense of what life was like in those times. But of course these programs cannot deliver what they promise, because pilgrims landing in New England or settlers farming or ranching the Western Territories of the Louisiana Purchase did not give up electric blankets or backyard swimming pools when they set out on their journeys and though they gave up some comforts they did not give up the same comforts or nearly so many comforts as those that would try to journey back from our more modern age.

But though their battles and their struggles are not our battles and our struggles we can relate to the concept of struggle and fighting for what is important to us and to our future. We can draw inspiration from their experience even if we cannot share it in the same way they experienced it. So though I cannot be Natty Bumpo in the wilderness of pre-Revolutionary War America, I can draw inspiration from him as I set out to confront my own frontiers. This is an important aspect of story, when we enter a story we discover something about the human psyche that our experience alone cannot teach us. Emerson and Whitman suggest in their essays and poems that we learn from history lessons that enable us to live more effectively in our own time and to live more truly to our own characters and consciences. If when I read history I do not understand that Caesar had to confront in himself the same fears I have to confront in myself then I am not imagining a real Caesar, I have stripped him of his humanity.

Claudius Ptolemy: The World
Johannes Schnitzer, engraver
Claudius Ptolemy, cartographer
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Claudius_Ptolemy-_The_World.jpg

The map is of the world as it was understood in the second century, and was still understood in the fifteenth century when this engraving was made from Ptolemy’s original. This is the world as most in Europe would have imagined it at the time Columbus set sail for what he thought was the orient, or the right hand side of the map. When he undertook this voyage he believed he knew where he was going. He did not believe he was going where no man had been before but was taking a different route to a place people went everyday. It was only by accident that he ended up in a place where no European had been before, or at least had not been there in quite some time. This is often the story of discovery; we find something profound when we are looking for something else, often for something more mundane than profound.

The value of stories like that of Columbus is that journeys into the unknown are just that and no matter how we prepare and what we set up for expectations we are likely to be surprised. On the other side of the coin are the consequences of such a voyage. It is to be hoped that those that journey today into the unknown will not explore with the attitudes towards those they encounter that guided Columbus and those that followed him; that we can explore our frontiers without exploiting the frontiers we encounter.

Larry McMurtry in his book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen writes about his family coming to the Texas frontier when it was still the Western Frontier. He is known for the western novels he has written, novels both in the spirit of the romance of the west and the reality of the west. He listened to stories of exploration that were the stories of his family.

Frederick Jackson Turner defined America by its western migration and the spirit that drove many Americans westward. The final migration began in the 1860’s and by the 1890’s there was no longer an unsettled corner of the United States. As a people we have been shaped by stories of exploration and reaching the western edge of our continent. We tried for a time to explore the frontiers of space, but it appears we have lost interest. As a child I would get up at four in the morning to watch the launches of the early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecrafts. I watched people walk on the moon for real. My map is very different from Ptolemy’s and the modern frontier is a different frontier from that encountered by Columbus and his European friends.

There was an article, “Science and the Sublime” in The New York Times this week that I found intriguing. It is a review of a book by Richard Holmes on science in the era of the Romantic poets. Holmes wrote a book, I think it was called Footsteps, a number of years ago that gave me a great deal of pleasure in which he took a walking tour of France following the route taken by Robert Louis Stevenson for his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. The two journeys were separated by about one hundred years and the second book in many ways documented how the world had changed over that century and ways in which it had stayed the same. His new book, though, explores ways in which new discoveries in science (at least new for the eighteenth century) influenced the work of the Romantic poets. The stories they told and the poems they wrote began to be shaped by a different view of the universe.

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for an audience that believed in a supernatural reality. For them it was perhaps plausible that the murder of a king could turn the natural world on its head and cause the sun to spend many months, if not years, hiding behind clouds and though stories with ghosts and monsters and a supernatural world penetrating the natural one remain popular to this day, they are not, I do not think, believed in the same way they were by the Elizabethans. When Mary Shelley creates her monster, she tries to surround it with a patina of scientific plausibility. When modern readers read Frankenstein and encounter Shelley’s reference to Darwin, it is a very different Darwin that comes to our minds than the one Shelley had in mind.

Charles Robert Darwin
A copy made by John Collier
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Robert_Darwin_by_John_Collier.jpg

Charles Darwin changed the way the world is seen and many that deny the theory of evolution embrace, at least in practice, the notion of natural selection or survival of the fittest. The images above and below capture the two views of Darwin that persist to this day. The painting above is of a gentle, grandfatherly looking old man, a bit benign in his appearance and a bit sad. The image below is a caricature that appeared in a satiric magazine. His body has a serpentine twist to it and the expression on his face and the look of his eyes are troubling to say the least. Those that embrace Darwin see him in the light of the first image, a wise old man whose life had more than its share of sadness. Those that resist his view of the world see him as the more demonic figure suggested by the caricature. But his vision has permeated our story telling and it would be difficult for those looking back at us to understand us without understanding Darwin as it is difficult for us to look back at the Middle Ages or the Renaissance and understand those that lived at that time without understanding the Bible that shaped their view of reality.

Caricature of Charles Darwin from Vanity Fair magazine
“Coide”, a.k.a. James Jacques Joseph Tissot
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:VanityFair-Darwin2.jpg

Science fiction is largely a 20th and 21st century genre. There are elements of science fiction in stories written earlier, Swift tries, for example, to make his floating island appear scientifically plausible, but the story has little to do with science, except to ridicule what he disliked about science. But the science in a modern science fiction story is an important part of the story telling, even if it is bad science. That said though, it is still the characters and the way they deal with the situations in which they find themselves that hold our interest. Jules Verne, and after him Isaac Asimov, looked down on writers that placed too much importance on character, thinking it was the plot and the science that carried the stories. And though the characters these writers created were often superficial, the conflicts and the problems they had to resolve resonate with readers. And even if he is not as well drawn a character as those found in other stories of the day, Captain Nemo has become iconic in our culture and his submarine the namesake for many real submarines to follow.

At its heart science, like theology, wants to understand where we came from and why we are here and we look to science to provide many of the answers we once expected religion to supply. Perhaps this plays a role in orchestrating our emotional response to science fiction and enables us to embrace characters that would be less satisfying in other settings. Still, more often than not, it is courage, resourcefulness, and tenacity, among other character traits, that hold our interest in these characters and their stories. We want to penetrate that which separates us from these values; we want to know the secret to infusing our own lives with courage, resourcefulness and tenacity. We admire characters that exhibit these traits because we know how difficult it is to develop and nurture these traits in our own lives.

Time Bandits
HandMade Films/AVCO Embassy Pictures

It is difficult for me to imagine a story like Time Bandits being told in a pre-scientific age. When Aeneas and Odysseus visit the underworld and as a result visit past experience, they are not actually visiting the earlier times, only the dead associated with earlier times. In the film the characters travel through various points of history, past and present and future, as well as a few parallel universes where different rules seem to apply than apply in the world in which we live. Perhaps Dante had a similar kind of story to tell in his Divine Comedy that involved travel through a parallel universe of sorts, but again the stories do not take us to another time in history only tell us of these other times, though his ascent through Purgatory and into Paradise do tell a story of a future that was real to Dante.

Image to Replace Calabi-Yau
By Lunch
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Calabi-Yau.png

The image is supposed to suggest something about string theory, but I do not understand enough about the theory or the physics behind it to know what the image is supposed to suggest about string theory. Though, when I look at it the image suggests ideas of a universe that fits well into a science fiction story. To me the image suggests a universe with shortcuts, so that flying from one end to the other might be expedited by wandering into one of the tunnels, or what look like tunnels, that might convey the traveler more quickly to the other side. I think this might make a good story, but I do not know if it has anything to do with what string theory has to tell us about the universe.

But that is the nature of story telling. Henry James said that we must concede to the writer his “donnee”, his premise, his concept for the story. It is then the author’s job to suspend our disbelief. We will accept a few implausibilities from time to time, but on the whole the narrative has to create a sense of reality that remains true through the story. We may not accept that witches are on the prowl that might lay traps for unwary soldiers or that horses will become cannibalistic, but we will concede the point and then enjoy the story that Shakespeare tells. It is not that we are willing to accept what we believe to be impossible, but that we want to know how to behave when we are confronted by life’s surprises. That too is part of the mystery and much that is regarded today as commonplace was once thought the product of an over active imagination.


The Faces of Culture – Are There Only Two


Pack Up Your Sorrows
Richard and Mimi Farinia

The Faces of Culture – Are There Only Two

Newton

William Blake’s

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Newton-WilliamBlake.jpg

In the 1950’s C. P. Snow wrote an influential essay called The Two Cultures. He referred to the two cultures that dominated the universities of his day and to a significant extent still to this day. The two cultures are the Humanities and the Sciences, or perhaps as they are more popularly known the “arts and sciences.” Snow’s argument centered on which of the two cultures would be most able to practically address the issue of human suffering or, as the song suggests, if you could pack up your sorrows which, the Humanities or the Sciences, is best equipped to take them from you and, perhaps, put them to some good use. But even if no use is found, they are no longer your troubles.

William Blake’s painting of Isaac Newton is an apt representation of that struggle. Blake was one of the more obscure poets; he has kept people pulling their hair out trying to understand his poems since the day the poems were written. Newton, the subject of the painting, was the quintessential scientist mathematician, who, it is said, would wile away his leisure hours computing logarithms in his head. These lines from his poem Milton also suggest a role played by the arts and sciences in the arena of human suffering.

And did those feet in ancient times,
Walk upon England’s mountain green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease my Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

The poem attacks the misery caused by the Industrial Revolution. Though it is true that the scientists and engineers that created the machinery of the Industrial Revolution are not responsible for how that machinery was used do they bear any culpability at all for the anguish their machines caused? Should they have known enough of human nature to know what would follow? Is this a fair question; is progress inevitable and human nature being what it is will progress always produce a bit of suffering?

An article in this weekend’s New York Times Review of Books raised this issue of Snow’s essay and its continuing influence a half decade later. The article is by Peter Dizikes and is titled “Our Two Cultures.” Snow was concerned that because most of the free world’s politicians came from some branch of the humanities, law mostly, the sciences were getting short shrift. Snow believed that it was the sciences that were best suited to eliminating poverty improving living conditions in the impoverished corners of the globe. The undeveloped world needed technology and the sciences, which includes math, is the best suited to solve this problem.

Therefore the political class of the free world should give the sciences more resources and set to work addressing this problem. As this was the 1950’s and the heart of the Cold War Snow suggested that if the free world did not give their scientists the resources to solve this problem the Soviets would and Communist sphere of influence would grow while the Free World’s sphere of influences would diminish.

There is truth to the argument; those nations of the world that are struggling economically would probably struggle less if they had a vibrant industrial base. But is this all there is to being human and will this alone take away the sorrows of the poor? It is probably true that failing to solve the problems of economic inequities between nations will result in many poor people staying poor and miserable. But will the eradication of these economic disparities by itself reduce human misery? Will the world’s sorrows have been successfully packaged and shipped off to those that “can use them”

Illustration from Gulliver’s Travels, Voyage III, Sunbeams from Cucumbers
Milo Winters
http://www.jaffebros.com/lee/gulliver/winter/p9.jpeg

At the heart of Snow’s argument is a belief that scientists are somehow more moral than those in the Humanities. Being a novelist and a scientist he lived in both worlds and ought to know. He could point to writers like Ezra Pound who became mixed up with the dubious morality of the Fascists to lend support to his argument. But then I suppose others could point to scientists like Werner Von Braun who were plucked from the Nazi’s atomic energy program as evidence that scientists sometimes made poor moral choices as well. The illustration depicts a scene from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It is a scene from the third voyage and depicts the Academy of Lagado. In this part of the story Swift is mocking the scientists of his day (Isaac Newton among them) for what he believes are the poor, impractical choices they made, in his view anyway.

The scientists in Swift’s satire seem most in the service of their egos. None of their experiments are practical and have been designed by Swift to feed the ridicule he has aimed at science. Though in the experiment depicted in the illustration suggests why this is considered by many to be the weakest part of the satire. Swift believed scientists were pursing science for science sake (to corrupt the popular phrase) and that the experiments served no purpose and were the result of totally abstract speculation. There are two things the critics of this voyage think Swift missed. One is that many useful products are by products of abstract science. The second is that what may have appeared to be totally abstract and useless in the experimental stage may when the tests are done produce something very practical. As, for example, if you replaced the cucumbers with corn you might see the beginning of ethanol and other bio-fuels.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump

Joseph Wright of Derby

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768.jpg

This painting illustrates what is the most common attack on the ethics of scientists, their treatment of animals. The contraption in the painting will kill the bird in the glass at the top. I do not know the purpose of the experiment or what it was meant to demonstrate but it reveals a somewhat cavalier attitude towards wildlife. Of course, these are not scientists depicted in the painting but ladies and gentlemen playing with an eighteenth century version of the chemistry set.

Scientists that do experiments on animals will say that the purpose is to make discoveries that will benefit the human race and because human life is more important than other kinds of life the experiments are seen to have value. Most humans accept this as a valid argument but most are at the same time opposed to experiments that seem arbitrary and cruel in their use of animal subjects. At the end of the day, though, scientists through these experiments have produced what has improved the quality and the length of life for most that can read this. Still, that there are experiments done on animals that are cruel and inhumane suggests that at times scientists too struggle with ethical choices and do not always choose correctly.

Shock of the New – “Electronic Fragments”
Richard Hughes/BBC

The video illustrates what is the current bane of technology, or perhaps its current boon. At the time this program was broadcast in the 1980’s television was the object of much criticism, as it still is to this day. But the clip is titled “Electronic Fragments” and when viewed today suggests an argument that could be aimed at many other forms of electronic media. Television, iPods, cell phones, DVDs, CDs, and whatever else is to come are the products of modern science and technology and have been marketed quite successfully to entertain us all. Is it fair to criticize the scientists for the uses made of their inventions? Nuclear weapons, for example, were designed and developed by those who are products of the science culture. Those that build and use these weapons have, for the most part, come out of the humanities culture. Are the scientists morally responsible for the way their discoveries and inventions are used?

Or is there a third culture, popular culture perhaps, that exerts its own pressures on both those that come out of the science culture and out of the humanities culture. If the people prefer iPods, for example, to clean, renewable fuels which of these technologies are going to receive funding. If the popular culture wants to keep taxes low, which technologies are going to receive funding from the government? Of course there is more to the science culture than just those engineers that work in the technology industry. And there is more to the humanities culture than those that go into politics. There are those in both cultures that raise objections to what those within their perspective communities do with their talents, resources, and power.

At the end of the day both cultures are, I think, Important. They both help us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. They also help us to think and to reflect about more than just the surface of things. When does self-preservation become self-interest and selfishness? On the surface they look much alike. We need to become a more thoughtful and reflective people in order to recognize when we have taken self-preservation too far. The humanities can help us to become a more reflective people. Many of the world’s most serious problems, disease, hunger, and poverty can be eased if scientists are given the tools and resources to address them. The problem isn’t so much about which culture is the most moral as much as it is about what each culture reveals to us about our responsibilities to the world in which we live and to those that live among us.