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.


Piracy in the Land of the Free


Raised on Robbery
Joni Mitchell

Piracy in the Land of the Free

Captain Hook
Walt Disney’s Peter Pan
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CaptainHookcartoon.jpg

The song and the cartoon evoke two images of piracy. The song suggests what is perhaps closer to the reality of piracy, self-interest and self-enrichment that need not be enlightened. The cartoon depicting Captain Hook from the Disney cartoon Peter Pan, suggests the romance of the pirate. The pirate is not, ultimately, very dangerous and the ideal villain with whom a boy might battle to prove his bravery. This is the pirate of the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films and of many of the pirate films of the early American cinema.

The pirate of cinema romance is not even an anti-hero, a humanized bad man or woman with redeeming qualities. The pirates of the early cinema are often like Captain Blood, the Rafael Sabatini character who is driven to piracy by circumstances beyond his control, even the “bad” pirates are more like Captain Hook’s pirate crew than the real pirates of the high seas. As a boy whenever we played “cops and robbers” or pretended to be swashbuckling seafarers it was always the persona of the robbers and the pirates we most wanted to assume.

The Pirates of Stone County Road
John Stewart

What I always enjoyed about this John Stewart song was the way he played with the image of the child pretending to be the pirate and imagining the back porch to be the deck of a pirate ship. Michael Chabon in an article for The New York Review of Books, “Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood”, writes about the role of adventure in the life and development of a child. I suppose his point is one that has been made many times before, that children need to take some of the risks that children always enjoy taking if they are to develop into confident and successful adults. As a culture, though, we are becoming a bit overprotective and as a result children may not be learning some important lessons about risk taking that help prepare them for adult life.

I remember in the neighborhood where I grew up there was a water pipe that spanned a huge ravine that was hundreds, to a child maybe thousands, of feet deep. It provided water, I suppose to homes on both sides of the canyon. As children my friends and I would climb the fence designed to keep us off the water pipe and would walk the pipe from one side of the canyon to the other. It was great fun, but probably not the wisest thing to do. I know I wouldn’t let my child do anything so foolish. But to what extent has my willingness to take risks as an adult been shaped by my eagerness to take risks as a child. Chabon ends his article, “Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?” To a great extent the stories we shape as adults had their beginnings in the stories we imagined as children and perhaps our willingness to try something new and different, whether it’s writing a story or attempting something that seems to be bit more than our abilities, on the surface anyway, will allow us to achieve were nurtured by the foolish risks, like walking across a canyon on a water pipe, we took as children.

Illustration of William “Captain” Kidd
Howard Pyle
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pyle_pirate_relaxing2.jpg

The pictures above and below are both of the notorious pirate Captain Kidd. The one above is a fanciful depiction by Howard Pyle for his book on pirates and the one below of the eighteenth century gentleman who was the real Captain Kidd. The real captain would not have called himself a pirate at all but rather a privateer. A privateer was a pirate who committed piracy in the service of the queen, or the ruling powers of the day. Unfortunately when Captain Kidd was finally caught those for whom he committed piracy in “the service of the queen” disavowed all knowledge of his activities. He was hung and, according to Wikipedia, his body was left hanging for many years in an iron cage as a warning to others considering a career path similar to that of the “good” captain.

William Kidd, Privateer, Pirate
18th century portrait
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_Kidd.jpg

Of course Kidd was following in a long established tradition. The Spanish conquest of the New World was made a bit less profitable by the work of privateers in the service of Queen Elizabeth. Among the more famous was Sir Francis Drake, who, like Mick Jagger, was knighted for his service to the British Empire. Growing up in California I studied in high school of Drake’s exploits along the California coast. He claimed California for Britain not by planting a flag but by nailing a coin to a post. The coin of course had Queen Elizabeth’s image on it and was intended to show Elizabeth as the ruler of this new land, but I think it is appropriate that money and not the “Union Jack” was used to claim the land because the exploration and colonization of the New World was, at its heart, a mercantile enterprise.

The Battle of Trafalgar
J. M. W. Turner
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Turner,_The_Battle_of_Trafalgar_(1806).jpg

The painting by Turner captures the reality and the romance of the pirate “adventure.” In every pirate film I saw as a child there was a scene where pirates swung on ropes from one ship to another, the decks of both ships filled with gun smoke from the ships’ cannons and falling debris as sword fights and other forms of hand to hand combat took place on the deck of one or both of the ships. But if we stop to think at all seriously about what is depicted in the painting the reality of what is taking place cannot be avoided. People are dying and they are dying in horrific and painful ways. Death in the movies, especially the movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s has a romance all its own. It is heroic, often over quickly, and rarely strayed far from the world of “let’s pretend.” Besides, the dying hero always returned in a year or two in another film, so whatever death was it certainly was not permanent. But the painting if carefully considered suggests a tangled mess of broken and burning wood and canvas and an awful lot of blood and dying flesh.

But it is one of the jobs of stories and story telling to provide us with the examples we need to help us live meaningful lives that are consistent with a set of values that shape our human experience. When the cause is just all this bloodshed is an act of patriotic self-sacrifice, and what nation can hope to survive if none are willing to take on such a sacrifice. But when the cause is unjust this death and destruction suggests the waste that accompanies human ego and ambition. When is a pirate a privateer and when is the outlaw the true seeker of justice?

Billy the Kid
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Billykid.jpg

Billy the Kid is one of America’s legendary outlaws. I think it is interesting that “The Kid” and “The Captain” both had the first name of William, well actually William was an alias and not the kid’s real name, but as far as the legends are concerned both “outlaws” shared the same first name. Billy the Kid became a romanticized figure of the Wild West and is joined by other outlaws, like Pretty Boy Floyd, who had more in common with Robin Hood than Al Capone. But if Billy in fact did all that he was accused of doing perhaps it is Pat Garrett who should receive the lion’s share of the attention. But than the legend of Billy the Kid was largely Garrett’s invention, and served to enhance the lawman’s reputation and “bona fides” as a true western lawman in the mold of Wyatt Earp.

Perhaps the pirate is the bridge between the knight of medieval romance and the cowboy of western romance, who in turn evolved after a fashion into the hard boiled detective. Sam Spade tells us he trades on a reputation for being a little bit crooked, that it is “good for business.” In the ideal western romance the bad guy often has more in common with the outlaw (The Ringo Kidd played by John Wayne) in John Ford’s film Stagecoach than with the actual Wild West bandit. Real bandits and outlaws are not heroic or likable, but there is something in the human psyche that does not like people who are “too” good or “too” virtuous. The true hero of the Grail Quest is Sir Galahad but the readers of the King Arthur stories often find Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain more interesting characters. In fact even Lancelot is a bit “too” good when it comes to too many things and it was Gawain who captured the imaginations of many during the Middle Ages in stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell. But Malory’s Gawain has some very troubling, though also very human, failings.

Captain Blood
Warner Brothers Pictures

Growing up in Los Angeles one of the local television channels ran a program called Million Dollar Movie. This was, for a child, wonderful. They would show the same movie every night for a week. Of course this was no fun if the film was uninteresting to the ten year old imagination, but if it were a film like Captain Blood it could be watched over and over again. As a child I would watch this film and other like it and the next day find an old curtain hanger that could be imagined into a sword and engage in battles like the one shown in the film clip. This was probably not the safest thing to do, I probably wouldn’t let my child do anything so foolish, but it was great fun and it opened up imaginary worlds for me. Of course the plunder and the rewards were all imaginary as well. Though I tried, the ice cream man would not take the “play” money I had accumulated in my high seas adventures.

These thoughts were also provoked by a couple of other articles I read this week. One was a review of a new book by Chris Anderson, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The main idea of this book is that we are evolving into a culture that finds other ways to generate profits than by charging for the merchandise it produces. There is an irony of sorts here in that the author, Chris Anderson, got into a bit of trouble for making “free” use of copyrighted materials found on Wikipedia. The material may be free to whoever wants to make use of it, but good manners, not mention sound editorial practice, dictate that the sources be identified. This is piracy of a different kind. At the heart of piracy, and all theft I suppose, is the desire to get something for nothing. Of course a lot of hard work goes into being an effective pirate, or thief of any kind and as a result little if anything is gotten for nothing if we include our “efforts” as a cost to be paid. Anderson did, after all, have to write quite a bit of his own material in order to take advantage of the opportunity to steal a page or two from Wikipedia.

The flip side of piracy and the “free culture” was suggested by another article this week published in The Guardian. The article, “Authors in revolt against plans to vet them for school visits”, reports on a group of authors of children’s books, Philip Pullman among them, protesting a piece of legislation recently enacted in Britain. This new law requires authors to pay £64.00 (about $100.00, I think) for the privilege of donating their time to speak to children. The intention of the law is good, it wants to protect children from those that may do them harm. But as is pointed out, these writers are never alone when they visit schools but are always accompanied by other adults, primarily teachers and administrators in the schools. The end result is that many of these writers will no longer make a gift of their time to speak at schools.

It is a tenet of our culture that nothing is free; everything comes with a cost, even if we are not the ones paying the cost, or at least not directly. Most online “freebies” are paid for by advertising that is directed at the kind of people likely to use the “freebie”, which means the cost of what is gotten for free is included in the cost of the merchandise we are being tempted to buy when we use the service. But are there other costs to a culture that grows up believing it does not have to pay for what it consumes, that believes itself to be entitled to whatever it needs or enjoys? What happens to news when it is provided at no cost to the consumer of that news? Who is paying for it and do those subsidizing newspapers have a say over what is contained in that newspaper? In a sense it is in paying for what we use that gives us a say over what goes into the products that we use. On the one hand we will pay large sums of money to buy products, everything from shirts to automobiles, that are advertisements for their manufacturers, piracy of a different ilk.

The only journeys that we take that are truly free are journeys of our imagination, though, as with pirates, we pay for these with a kind of effort; time needs to be taken to dream and to imagine. The stories that I read as a child and read today as an adult stimulate and inspire the imagination; they give me the raw materials my imagination needs to construct stories of its own and to craft a human and humane existence. The depth of my character and the motivations behind what I accomplish are often revealed in the stories I hold sacred, whether they are stories of my own making or stories I have pirated from other authors.


Only Human


What a Piece of Work Is Man
Cast of the musical Hair
Gerome Ragni, James Rado & Galt MacDermot

Only Human

Rembrandt Laughing
Rembrandt van Rijn
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_laughing.jpg

The song puts one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies to music. It is a beautiful statement of the human condition that is rendered a bit difficult to interpret within the construct of the play because Hamlet is either mad or pretending to be mad when he says this. Perhaps madness, too, is a part of the human condition and that fabric Hamlet is trying to weave, his words and his actions making the warp and the woof of the metaphorical cloth. Harold Bloom titled one of his books Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human suggesting that it is in Shakespeare that we see our humanity defined for the first time. I think this is not entirely true, because what makes a work of literature survive the generation for which it was written is its ability to capture something of the human condition that resonates with us all. Oedipus and Odysseus may have been kings but their responses to the circumstances in which they found themselves was very human and it is to their humanity that we respond when we read their stories.

Still, there is truth to the suggestion that we discover a part of our humanity through the stories that we read, even if they are not exclusively the stories of Shakespeare. Stories illustrate values, help us see the world from other points of view, remind us that we are not alone, that others in other times have felt the things we feel have struggled with the same sorts of things that we struggle with. Stories help us discover our humanity, our place in the larger communities in which we live and our identity as individuals.

The painting is unusual for Rembrandt, or at least it seems so to me. His most memorable portraits are of serious old men; this seems especially true of his self-portraits. But here he is in the midst of a laugh, perhaps a laugh at his own seriousness. But this is part of what it is to be human; to laugh and to enjoy whatever is happening around you. George Bernard Shaw said, “Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies, as it does not cease to be serious when people laugh.” Living well involves both the humorous and the grave. Getting through the most difficult and trying times often involves laughing at our circumstances.

Terry Eagleton in The Guardian this weekend reviewed a newly published collection of the letters of Isaiah Berlin. The title of the article is “Urbane sprawl” which captures the tone of the letters and Berlin’s good nature, at least in the eyes of Eagleton. Berlin was a man who thought deeply about many things, was a liberal by some definition of the word, and a professor of politics at Oxford University. He was an odd sort of Englishman in that he was a Latvian Jew, the child of Hasidic parents who made himself quite at home at the most English of universities. This too captures what it means to be human, to adapt to new surroundings and to make those surroundings ours, hopefully to be accepted, at least in part, on our own terms. Most of us have had something of the emigrant experience, to have moved from a place that is familiar to us to a place that is very unfamiliar, even if it is only moving from one town to another, or one state to another.

As a child my parents moved about once every year or two. This meant as a child making new friends on a regular basis and adapting to new surroundings, new teachers, new neighbors. We once had a next door neighbor who was on some occasions very welcoming and warm and on others very strange. On one occasion she place a lawn sprinkler on her son’s slide so that it flooded our yard, but in the process of flooding our yard flooded hers. Of course once the sprinkler was removed it had the appearance that the flooding originated with us and that due to our neglect her yard had been flooded. She lodged a complaint to this effect with the local authorities, so did my parents. A police car arrived on both our driveways at about the same time. Fortunately this sort of thing did not happen often. The end result, though, of these many moves was a reluctance to form relationships for fear they would be lost with another move.

Camille Monet at Work
Claude Monet
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_Camille_au_métier.jpg

The paintings above and below capture two views of the human condition. Both paintings are by prominent Post-Impressionist painters. The paintings do not just capture a scene but an attitude towards what is happening in each scene. The painting above is of a woman at work and she appears to be content with her work. Her surroundings are comfortable and pleasant. She is indoors but she is surrounded by greenery; plants that appear to thrive in an environment that is not entirely their own. There is sunshine and no doubt regular meals. Perhaps that is all anyone needs to be comfortable, to be left alone with the bare necessities for life.

There is a hunger on the part of many, perhaps most, to find a way to make their work not just meaningful but pleasant. Fagin in Oliver Twist for all his troubling characteristics seems to enjoy his work, dishonest though it is, in a way that his partner Bill Sykes does not. Most stories of people at work, at least the ones that come immediately to mind, do not involve people enjoying their work, and those that do are not always honest, are like Fagin and Sir John Falstaff.

My favorite work-a-day gentleman is Melville’s scrivener Bartleby. Many at some point during the day would like to respond to an unpleasant instruction with “I would prefer not to.” I know many of my students would. But there are of course other students who would not respond in this way and maybe this suggests that our attitude towards work is sometimes within our control, that we can change the way we look at our work and find something pleasant and enjoyable in it by changing our attitude towards it. Perhaps we need a Tom Sawyer in our lives convincing us that what we really want to do if we want to be happy and satisfied is to white wash this fence.

On the Threshold of Eternity
Vincent Van Gogh
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_002.jpg

This painting by Vincent Van Gogh captures a more troubling side of our existence. There is the suggestion that the man in the painting is near death, at least that is what the title suggests to me. I think it was a Boston politician who said, “everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.” Van Gogh began his adult life with a strong desire to be an evangelical preacher. It is something at which he was not successful. He took up painting instead. But there may be a bit of the preacher in some of his paintings. If the man in the painting has a family, that family is left out of the picture and he is alone to confront his mortality, which would be true even if others were in the room, but the room’s emptiness emphasizes the individual nature of the man’s struggle.

Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf captures various aspects of life and death and the meaning of both. Throughout the novel Humphrey Van Weyden (known throughout the story as Hump) is trying to survive as best he can in as unforgiving an element as is imaginable. His antagonist, Wolf Larsen believes that life and comfort are rewarded to the strong and the weak exist at the pleasure of the strong. It does not appear likely that someone as weak as Hump is at the beginning of the novel could survive in such a world, though, because he is the one telling the story, he must have. By the end of the novel the roles are reversed and the once indomitable Wolf Larsen finds himself in the position of the man in the painting.

Our Town
Thornton Wilder
Masterpiece Theater

This is the opening to Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. In the play the lives, deaths, and meanings of the various characters and their accomplishments are examined. The story is told simply. The deaths of various characters throughout the play, with one exception, are treated almost as asides, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “and so it goes” to mark the deaths of characters in his novel Slaughterhouse Five. To each of us death is a matter of great importance, but as is suggested by Vonnegut, Wilder, and Wolf Larsen, it is not a matter of great importance to the world around us. This suggests that living well, and by that I mean not just fully but virtuously as well, is our only legacy and that it is a legacy we leave first to ourselves.

The play is produced without scenery or props and the simplest of costumes. We are told the play is set in a small New Hampshire town, but it could be anywhere, though perhaps not anytime. It is localized in small town America and the small town is largely being erased by access to a global community. In the Middle Ages few saw the world beyond their village and to a large degree the public (and possibly the private as well) school classroom is localized in a village and most students do not escape that village until they go off to college or the world of work. Sometimes that village is an urban inner-city village and sometimes a quaint small town in the country, not unlike Grover’s Corners. I think there is something good in this, something that can, even in the worst of environments, nurture, though, it seems that we are all being put through a 21st century version of urban renewal and being located into a rather large global city (it does not seem quite right to call this a village).

Our Town
Iris DeMent

This song has the same title as the play and illustrates another aspect of “Our Town” the town that belongs to us; the town that watched us grow and nurtured us. The song is somewhat pessimistic in that it suggests we not only cannot go home again, we cannot stay at home if that is where we are. Life involves moving on and leaving things behind. If it is true that “nothing good ever lasts”, it equally true that nothing bad ever lasts, or it needn’t. Part of growing up is leaving home, and replacing the good times of our youth with other good times.

There was a review by Alain de Botton of the book The Art of Being Human by John Armstrong. The book is an attempt to recapture the purpose of philosophy, to help us live wisely and well. It is an argument for teaching and preserving culture, not the popular culture, but the more elitist culture that belongs to history, tradition, and the various canons of the different arts, because culture helps us to understand and develop our outer self that lives in the material world and our inner self that is more abstract and more spiritual.

Bottan in his review quotes a passage from the book about Abbot Suger, a medieval reformer. “Suger’s primary concern is to raise people from mass to elite culture. And his way of doing this is not by being snobbish or hard on ordinary enjoyments. He takes the view that mass culture is just an undeveloped, beginning way of addressing exactly the same things that high culture serves more directly and with greater insight. We desperately need to bring to inner development the sort of clarity and respectability that goes with making your way in the material world.” I think this is the argument for teaching great literature and great art. It is also an argument for using popular culture, whether it is its books, films, music, or art, to edge students inch by inch into the “greater insight” of the “elite culture.”

A culture worth preserving and passing along cannot be simple and easy to learn, because culture comes with baggage. When Shakespeare has Iago say, “Who steals my purse steals trash” he (Shakespeare or Iago, take your pick) has a clear idea of what constitutes trash. Iago’s trash is not our trash, though the concept may be the same. Is it necessary to know what Iago or Shakespeare saw if they made a visit to the town dump? Probably not. But the things that rest in this dump tell us something about the people that use it and that tells us something about the people who created and attended the Elizabethan theater, just as our trash heaps say something about us. It is part of what makes the Elizabethans human and it is largely because we do not understand the humanity of the Elizabethans that their culture is so foreign to us. Trash, like old clothes and worn out shoes, make them human.


Farming a Sandy Soil


Pipeline
Dick Dale
Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughn
La Mer “#3 – Dialogue Du Vent Et De La Mer”
Claude Debussy
André Previn: London Symphony Orchestra

Farming a Sandy Soil

Ocean Park #129
Richard Diebenkorn
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_Diebenkorn%27s_painting_%27Ocean_Park_No.129%27.jpg

The painting and the music offer different impressions of the sea. The painting evokes the emotions associated with the color of the sea and its “wetness”. The music evokes its power. Pipeline also evokes for me memories of growing up in Southern California overlooking the ocean. I sometimes tell people that I was there when the skateboard was invented. Not entirely true because there were skateboarders in my neighborhood the day I moved in, but it was when we split up one of a pair of clip on skates and nailed it to a board. I was told that surfers invented the skateboard as a way of practicing their balance on the board when they could not get to the ocean. I do not know if this is true but it seemed to make sense. By the time I graduated high school about seven years later in 1968 customized wheels and boards were on the market and friends were designing their own very fast skate boards that began to resemble those that are so ubiquitous today.

I remember while growing up there would be waves of extraordinary size that would visit the local beaches. There would inevitably be in the morning paper a photograph of a surfer who appeared as a small dot on the face of the wave riding the wave into the shore. It is in part this aspect of the ocean’s power that Dick Dale, the king of the surf guitar, was evoking in his song. Debussy’s impressions of the sea capture a bit more of the oceans “range of emotions” perhaps but the selection used in the musical opening captures the sea’s more tempestuous nature. The sea is a force of nature whose power can overwhelm us and whose beauty can deeply move us.

For me stories have a similar kind of power. Often a story will grab me like the opening chords of Pipeline. They pull me into their depth and I remain lost there. But I also know that not everyone seems to be affected as I am by stories, or at least by the stories that move me. Many do not believe the stories of the past speak to people today. They speak to me, but that may only mean that I am an anomaly, the proverbial exception that proves the rule. But I wonder. Odysseus is a man trying desperately to get home, fighting against divine powers with a grudge. I think most of us know what it means to be lost, if only metaphorically. We are home safe in our rooms, but feel like Odysseus desperately trying to find his way home over an angry sea (he is involved in a grudge match with Poseidon, the god of the sea).

A Bigger Grand Canyon
David Hockney
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hockney,_A_Bigger_Grand_Canyon.jpg

Often in stories the first adversary is the natural environment, the setting of the story. In stories like The Last of the Mohicans that environment is in part the place, the wilderness in which the story takes place, but in others, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the environment is the culture in which the characters are raised. The paintings by David Hockney and Georgia O’Keefe capture the stark beauty of a desert landscape but the ram’s skull also suggests something of its dangers. In stories like McTeague and Death Comes for the Archbishop characters have to figure out how to survive in a hostile desert environment.

Ram’s Head
Georgia O’Keefe
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:O%27Keeffe_Georgia_Ram%27s_Head.jpg

But often the hostile desert of story is found in the human heart, the heart incapable of compassion, the heart incapable of mercy or forgiveness. The Count of Monte Cristo has ample reason to seek revenge and to harbor an unforgiving heart. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights feels more than justified in pursuing his revenge. But the strongest argument against giving sanctuary to such feelings is found in the manner in which these characters have been molded and changed by their dedication to vengeance. This is a great value of literature; it enables the reader to learn from the experience of others. This is something that we often do not do well, choosing instead to learn through our own suffering, but literature can provide an avenue for avoiding such suffering, or at least engaging some of life’s snares with a little foreknowledge.

There is also something to be learned from a desert. My father owned some land in California’s Anza Borrego desert. We would often go camping there. The roads into my father’s parcel of land were not well maintained and in places were of dirt and sand. I think my father bought the land as a speculation. A new highway was going to be built and the parcel my father bought was on one of the proposed routes, but the state chose an alternative route. But he may not have been speculating. My father loved the desert and when he had to make a difficult decision he would often go into the desert and camp for a few days. The land was very remote and no one went there. During the day things were very quiet and the nights until moonrise were exceptionally dark. For one comfortable with solitude this was a place to plumb the depth of your thought. When the moon finally rose, the desert landscape would become nearly as bright as daylight and the sand would almost glow.

Woman Reading
Henri Matisse
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reading_henri_matisse.jpg

A book is a kind of wilderness in which I can lose myself as my father would lose himself in the moonrise over the desert. I am reading a book by Maria Tatar called Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood. In the book she talks about how children read differently from adults. She quotes Adam Gopnik. He points out that when an adult reads to a child the adult and the child are in different worlds. He says, “In children’s literature the grown-up wants a comforting image of childhood, or just a familiar name or story; the child want a boat, a way out, an example of the life beyond. The parent wants to get back, the child wants to get out.”

I think this is also true of the books I teach and of the students to whom I teach the books. I want to on one level get back to the first experience I had with the book, to the pleasure and excitement the first reading afforded. I want to reawaken the perceptions I had and the understanding I had of what the author was trying to say. Now, of course, the reading I am trying to reawake may not have been my first reading of the book but the first reading of the book in which my mind was engaged and my intellect and my imagination took flight. I am looking to re-sample the literary meal the first reading offered up to me with all its emotional and intellectual intensity.

My students are trying to preserve the way they are used to reading stories; they are looking for a boat or a spaceship, a train, or a jalopy; anything that will get them into the open air. They are a bit like Mr. Toad after his first encounter with the motorcar. If the book does not provide this “magic carpet” (and provide it rather quickly in the reading process) they want to go on to something else. I am trying to teach students to begin reading as adults while they are trying to continue to read as children. I feel a bit torn when I enter this process because on one level I think I am taking away, in a sense, their belief in Santa Claus and the other myths of childhood, myths that I often want to reclaim when I go back to a book I read as a child or a more recent publication that affects children today the way the books I read as a child affected me. I understand this desire.

But I also understand the need to mature as readers and as people. This is something that books have done for me. Books that touch me deeply often bring with them an epiphany and instead of losing myself in a book I find myself. I think this is a kind of reading we all need to grow into, a kind of reading that teaches us, nourishes us, gives us a map of sorts to follow into the dusky night that is the future.

There was an article in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times about reading and writing. It was written by Rich Cohen and is called “Will Facebook Kill Literature’s ‘Leave the Past Behind’ Themes?” The main thesis of the article is that social networks like Facebook keep the past to close to us. We cannot get enough distance from our friends and the events of our youth to be able to shape them into stories. If we were to attempt what Hemingway attempted in writing about Michigan as he remembered it, or as Anderson wrote about Winesburg, Ohio we would get a message on Facebook pointing out everything we got wrong. The article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I think there is some truth to the writer’s need for time alone with his characters and his settings so that he can shape them into the world he wishes to create, give them their own and separate reality.

I think it was E. B. White who said that not only must art not imitate life; it had better be a hell of a lot more interesting (or words to this effect). Part of the power of fiction is that it is imagined, that it is not biography or autobiography though it may contain elements of both. Fiction enables us to imagine the world as we would like it to be, or in the details we choose to emphasize clarify for the reader the world as it is. As someone has said, we experience life as a series of random events but we look back on life after it has been lived to find the purpose and the design.

Fantasia – “Night on Bald Mountain”
Walt Disney Studios

I enjoy this film in part because it is the first, and one of the few, films I saw that did not have a clear narrative structure. It is more a series of images than it is a story. The stories that are there, like the “Night on Bald Mountain” evoke a narrative structure; suggest a narrative that our imaginations can then create. There are devils and spirits and bones dancing about, there is hellfire and brimstone but why all this dancing and fire is happening is not made explicitly clear. It is a film that needs to be approached in much the same way we approach a poem, especially a poem by William Blake or Emily Dickinson that does not overtly state its purpose; that calls into question, perhaps, the need for a purpose in everything we do.

The film does what I want a story to do, it lights my imagination and lets me provide my own details. The writer of the story puts the words on the page, but my imagination puts the film into the can, so to speak. This is something else the adult reader does. The child follows the character through the looking glass or through the wardrobe or through whatever the magic door happens to be and than follows along. The child is looking for the vehicle that will take them away and the child imagines what the child must imagine in order for the story to live. But the adult paints, I think, a fuller canvas.

The adult sees the boat but also some of the invisible creatures that are swimming out of sight below the surface. The adult sees some of the pitfalls that are hidden from the child. The story may reveal these pitfalls in the course of the story or it may not, but the adult with the adult experience she or he brings to the reading sees them. I was a big fan of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show as a child. I saw the surface of the narrative and had a good time. But my parents had a good time as well and it was clear to me that they were seeing things that I was not. When I went back to some of these programs as an adult I saw some of the things my parents saw. That there were things happening that the children missed but that delighted the adult.

I think this is part of what I want to do as a teacher and a reader of stories. There is the immediate world of a story that does not require interpretation or analysis; its only demand upon us is that we enjoy it. But there is a less immediate world to the story; one that requires the reader to become a watchmaker of sorts; to disassemble the story and then to reassemble it so that the psychology of the characters can be understood, so that complexities that make the world tick can be seen, so that we can both tell the time and understand the times. It is this taking apart and putting back together that prepares us for the world in which we live; that teaches us to look beneath the surface of human events so that we can influence in our small way the course these events take. This is what I want my students to see and to embrace. But this is often farming in a sandy soil; it is working with a landscape that does not wish to nourish the seeds that have been planted. But the land must produce a harvest if those that live on it are to survive.


Pastimes and Times Past


Que Sera, Sera
Doris Day

Pastimes and Times Past

Children’s Games
Pieter Brueghel the Elder
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Children.jpg

Those who were around in the 1950’s will remember the song as will the Alfred Hitchcock fan who has seen the remake of The Man Who Knew too Much. Doris Day sings this song at the beginning of the film. It is about growing up and how one plans for growing up (the song not the film). It is, of course, not something easily done. How many adults are doing things they dreamed of as young children. But even those with a “Whatever will be, will be” approach to life and the future have to have a certain amount of training to be prepared for that “whatever will be” when it comes along.

The painting also captures the world of childhood and wonder. It is difficult to view properly in such a small scale but it is a street scene of children playing various children’s games, hence the painting’s title. I do not know if this is intentional or just the nature of children’s dress at the time but most of the children look an awful lot like adults. To me this suggests that a lot of what children do is in imitation of the adults around them, but it also suggests that adults, or many of them, do not entirely lose the childlike or the childish.

I like to tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older but no power on earth can make me grow up and I think this sentiment might be in the painting as well. Playfulness is a quality that must be nurtured if we are to survive the world as it is and, maybe more importantly, not take ourselves too seriously. It often seems that the purpose of education, as it is practiced today, is to drive the child out of the person, to make the student a productive and responsible member of the society but not necessarily a happy or content member.

My seniors are starting the book Great Expectations this week. It is a book about aspirations, growing up, and how we treat those around us, especially those that have treated us well. Pip is a self absorbed child, as many children are, but he has been derailed from a path of contentment by malicious forces in the society in which he lives. Some of these forces, Uncle Pumblechook for example, probably mean Pip well; believe that fortune has worked to Pip’s benefit, even if Pumblechook is looking to his own interests in the process. Most of the adults in Pip’s life have advice for him that is intended to make him a productive member of society and this advice though often given to puff up the advisor is not ill intentioned, which is probably true of most of the advice adults give to the young.

But the adult that Pip is closest to, and hurts the most, is Joe, a man who has preserved the child within but who also behaves as an adult should when the situation demands. More than any other character in the book Joe is content and it is a similar contentment that he desires for Pip. But Pip acquires other aspirations. You have to read the story to find out how this all works out and how Pip got so far off track. But his story mirrors how many come of age, looking to status, position, and the good opinions of others to make one happy. The young are forced to decide what they will do when they are often more attracted to the bright surfaces of things than the darker realities that can lie underneath.

Children on the Beach
Mary Cassatt
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cassatt_Mary_Children_on_the_Beach_1884_.jpg

What many try to preserve of childhood is the carefree quality of childhood found in this painting. To be able to play at the beach without having to worry about where the buckets and shovels come from or how they are paid for. The sailboat in the distance looks inviting and carefree in its own right, but in order for the sailboat to look like this there must be those on board doing the hard work of keeping it on course and before the wind. If the boat is a “pleasure” boat those on board no doubt enjoy the work that they do, but if it is a commercial vessel there may be a different reality.

I met a young man while I was bicycling through England who was in the Merchant Marine. He seemed to enjoy what he did, but he did not really have a choice. He took an exam in the sixth or seventh grade or thereabouts that suggested an academic career was not for him and he was placed on an educational track that would prepare him for a trade and that trade became the Merchant Marine. I had an uncle who began in the Merchant Marine, went on to the Navy and submarines, and on to other things naval and seemed to enjoy it. He had opportunities to become an officer but enjoyed being a common sailor and so went as far as one can go without becoming an Officer, a Chief Petty Officer or something of that nature. Perhaps the young man I met felt about his career as my uncle did, I hope so anyway.

But it concerns me when the adults in a child’s life get too heavy handed about directing the child’s future. It may be that we will all spend our lives working on commercial vessels but I would like to think it is possible to approach our work in the same spirit as those on the pleasure boat; whatever the purpose of the boat, to generate profit or pleasure, the work is much the same. As a teacher I often wonder what is the role of education in preparing one for the world of work, in preparing a student for a career. I know what the image of school and education often is, I know how students often react to what I attempt to do, but I do not know if at the end of the day I have given students clarity about the future and how to prepare for it. Perhaps all anyone can do for others is show them how to use the tools that will help them find clarity.

Illustration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Norman Rockwell
http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/tomsawye/nostalgia/rockwellhp.html

I think this painting by Norman Rockwell probably captures if not the reality of school the spirit of it, or how it feels, if only metaphorically, to be a student. In the painting a number of students appear to be taking delight in seeing a fellow student put on the spot so to speak, being beaten by an adult in authority. Teachers cannot work their way through a supply of willow branches, as the instructor here has done (notice the broken sticks on the floor) but they can put students on the spot, make them feel inadequate because they cannot read a passage in a book or solve a math problem in front of a classroom of their peers. I remember when I was a freshman in high school I had started to nap in an algebra class. The next instant I heard my name called. I did not hear the question, I did not know what was going on in class but I saw an equation on the board and gave the answer to that equation. Evidently that was what I was supposed to do because the instructor was pleased and things moved away from me. I felt very pleased with myself and have obviously remembered the event to this day nearly fifty years later. But that was the exception and certainly not the rule; I have just forgotten most of the other less pleasant class room experiences.

From Big
Gracie Films and Twentieth Century-Fox

In the film all the character wants is to be big enough to ride the exciting rides at the amusement park, so he makes a wish. He wakes up a child with an adult’s body. He cannot stay at home, he does not have enough money to support himself, and he does not have the skills to make his way in the work force. He finds his niche in society and gets a different kind of education from the one he got in school. In many ways the education he received packaged as an adult was more meaningful than the education he got in school but what he missed out on was some of the play. He was literally a kid in a toy store so he was not deprived of the toys themselves what he was deprived of was another to enjoy the toys with him. We never lose our hunger for community. Even the shiest most introverted, whether a child or an adult, yearns for a community in which to participate.

As an English teacher I make it my life’s work to foist books on young people that would rather be doing something other than reading books. This may not be true of all students but it is true of many students. What is often missed in the stories we tell in school is the stories. We make them into objects for analysis; things to be pulled apart and dissected like a dead frog and it is no wonder that many students have no more interest in them than they do in dead frogs. I read an essay by Philip Pullman. It is his “Isis Speech“. I do not know what Isis is as an organization, only as a myth so I do not know what the purpose of the speech was or of the organization to which it was given. I do agree with what he has to say about the teaching of literature and the importance of teaching it.

Among other things he believes that we all love stories and that it is often the story that is removed from a book when it is studied in school. But he also believes that stories we study in school need to be challenging and difficult. That just as human beings have many layers to their personalities so should the stories they tell each other. One purpose of studying stories is to see that there is more to most things than meets the eye. When we are reduced to who we are on the surface of our personalities we are reduced to stereotypes and one way to outgrow stereotyping others is to see beyond the stereotypes in the stories that we read.

Stories are what many of us had read to us by our parents as children and what we in turn read to our children. It is in telling stories that we come to understand the world, but it is also in telling stories that we come to find what is delightful in the world. For me stories are how I guard against growing up, stories preserve the magic and mystery beneath the surface of life and the mundane activities that fill up much of what we call living. Life is my beach and the books I read are my bucket and shovel.


More Than Meets the Eye


From Mythodea “Movement 8”
Vangelis

More Than Meets the Eye

Title Page from Poetic Edda

The title page of a manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript ÍB 299 4to, now in the care of the Icelandic National Library.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IB_299_4to_Edda.jpg

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

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

Illustration of Gylfi being fooled

King Gylfi gets himself beguiled. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Manuscript_Gylfi.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postage stamp depicting Ask and Embla

Faroe_stamp_430_The_First_Human_Beings.jpg‎ (244 × 360 pixels, file size: 50 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Faroe_stamp_430_The_First_Human_Beings.jpg

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

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

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

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

Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Time Has Come Today
Joseph Chambers & Willie Chambers
The Chambers Brothers

Who Knows Where the Time Goes

A Man hanging by the big hand of a clock on a clock tower.
Harold Lloyd from the film Safety Last
http://www.filmforum.org/films/lloyd.html

Filling the time is often difficult. Some believe ninety minutes is too long for a class to last and others that forty-five minutes is much too short. It all depends, I suppose, on how the time is employed, The modern teacher has excite the class about something, give the instruction on how to complete the assignment, and have time left over to actually complete the task. Ideally there is time after the task is done to review important points, discuss the homework, and set up the nights reading assignment. Time and its management is a tricky thing.

How is time used most effectively, especially in the classroom where I work (not that time isn’t important for people that work outside the classroom, but they will have to find their own answers)? So much of effective education depends on repetition and paying attention. Instruction is given, for example, on how to complete a bibliography (something few outside of academia care much about). The steps are pretty simple. The citation that must be placed inside the paper is also pretty simple. These tasks do not have much that is confusing about them, but the tasks and the instructions on how to complete them, are tedious. And even if the students are going through the motions of paying attention, their minds are elsewhere. When the time comes to complete the bibliography or cite the source most will be back asking how it is done.

Other tasks are more complex and have the potential of inspiring more interest, but only to those that already possess an interest in the subject. I often tell students that if the class is statistically balanced fifteen to twenty percent will be interested in what I teach, English. The remaining eighty percent or so will be interested in the other disciplines (math, science, history, phys-ed, and foreign languages). There will probably be another few percent that are interested in other things that are not likely to be found in a classroom. But then many students have not yet come to understand why education is important (they understand the argument that is made and most agree with it, but many have not “owned” the task as necessary.)

So does it matter if the class is ninety minutes or half an hour? Does it only matter that the time is somehow filled, however much it is, with material that will hold interest and provoke, perhaps, students to dig deeper into the material on their own time and at their own pace? I think educating the mind is exciting, I have always been curious, and as a result have always wanted to know more than the teacher taught, no matter how much the teacher taught, but, honestly, only about the things that interested me. I found Gauss an interesting man so I looked up material on him while in high school and learned a lot about his life and work, but did not learn much of the math that is necessary to really understand his work. I suppose that is how most of us are; we investigate what interests us and, maybe, a few of the tangents, a bit less deeply, that present themselves along the way.

The school that sponsors my classroom went from ninety minute blocks to seventy-five minute blocks in the morning, hence the concern for time. I find that I cannot get done in seventy-five minutes what I used to get done in ninety. That should come as no surprise, the other fifteen minutes should have been filled with something, and that has to be left behind. Another five minutes have been added to the afternoon classes, going from forty-five to fifty minutes. But five minutes is not enough time to introduce something new and than finish whatever that something new happened to be. For those that count minutes in the classroom five minutes is five minutes no matter where it lives. But of course in the classroom where the five minutes lives can make all the difference in the world.

When I was in college the university I attended thought they would save money and make students happy by ending the first semester at Christmas break in the middle of December rather than the middle of the following January where it traditionally ended. However, the missing four weeks or so had to be made up somehow. This was done by adding a chunk of time to each class. I forget exactly how much time was added to each class but it equaled the amount of class time lost by ending early. One of my professors thought this was wrong. That adding some time to each class could not make up for the time lost because in those four additional weeks students could be given additional books to read and discuss. The time in class did not change but the time spent out of class preparing for what happened in class did change. It takes time to read, digest, and reflect on a work of literature. Much of the time devoted to reading and reflecting is what was lost.

That is perhaps the larger issue. We are in the midst of an election. Time needs to be spent finding out what it is we want the government to do, and what it is the government must do if the nation is to remain healthy and strong. Most importantly we need to think about which candidate can do those things. This decision ought to be the product of time spent thinking and reflecting on issues and problems. Most, though, will probably make this decision based on their political philosophy; the conservative will vote for the most conservative candidate and the liberal for the most liberal. Odds are that after reflecting a bit the result would be the same anyway so why invest the time. There is some truth in this, but what happens to a society that does not nurture reflection or develop it as a skill in the first place.


Popeye for President
Director: Seymour Kneitel
Producer: Paramount Pictures

In the Popeye cartoon we see Popeye and Bluto both running for office. Their platforms revolve around giving something to voters, not on the best interests of the community, though by promising the electorate spinach Popeye has the health of the electorate more in mind than his opponent. This is satire of course and real politicians are not as blunt as this. For this sort of campaign to work, the electorate cannot look too deeply into what the candidate truly stands for. Few voters would be won over by campaigns as crass as Bluto or Popeye’s, but to avoid being fooled time must be spent. James Thurber believed you could “fool too many of the people too much of the time.”

That may be true, but only if citizens do not take the time to find things out to think in some depth about what is actually going on and being promised. Some complain about how long this election has gone on. It has been longer than most, but though the candidates have spent more time talking and debating have voters spent more time thinking about the process. Do they complain because they are used to things taking less time, not more, to be completed. Again, the issue is not so much the election, though that is important I suppose, but the resistance to the contemplative process. There are important decisions that life and society place in front of us and though we would wish otherwise there is a cost to making these decisions too quickly and too thoughtlessly.

I wonder what the desire to streamline things, from classrooms to computer access, has on people. I know in my classroom students struggle with books that make demands on their time and interest. They have difficulty understanding what a book is about when plot is set aside for other interests of the author, like setting or character. In their minds understanding a book relates almost entirely to knowing what is happening. When Beowulf is fighting Grendel students know what is going on, but when he is giving a speech or the poet is philosophizing about the nature of honor students get lost. That, I suppose is what the teacher is for, but is it wise for the teacher to always help them out of these literary potholes; don’t students need to work their way through some of these problems on their own? This becomes difficult when class time disappears.

I think stories are important in this regard. When we reflect on them they give substance to the concepts we believe and help us recognize the importance of the issues the stories raise to our daily lives. The stories do not need to come from the canon of great literature, nor do they need to be long and involved. Theodore Roosevelt (I believe) once said “Loyalty is being faithful without being famous.” That is a story of sorts or at least it contains the kernel of a plot that could make a good story. I started reading a new book by Margaret Atwood today. It is called Payback and she begins with an observation by another writer, Alistair MacLeod, that writers write about what worries them. Atwood adds that writers also write about what puzzles them.

Our relationship to time and our attitudes toward time, worry and puzzle me. We are becoming less and less comfortable with free time. But it is in these unfilled blocks of time where we come to know ourselves and the world around us. Atwood’s book begins by telling a story of Ernest Thompson Seton and the debt he owed his father (it is a wonderful story and you should read the book). She wonders about our indebtedness to those that raised us. Time spent by the adults around us teaching and caring for us is an investment. No one has figured out how to quicken the race to adulthood, it still seems to require eighteen some odd years. The kind of adults our children become depends on the kind of time we invest in them. Some of this time is invested in classrooms. I worry about how this time is spent and am puzzled by what some think is a wise and productive allotment of that time.

Telling Stories Out of (and in) School


“Vesti La Giubba” from Pagliacci
Ruggiero Leoncavallo
Luciano Pavarotti

Telling Stories Out of (and in) School

The song is from the opera Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. It is the story of a brokenhearted circus clown. It is in fact a story about a story in that there is action taking place on the “circus stage” that mirrors the action that is taking place in real life. Do “clowns” (including class-clowns I suppose) have real feelings? The clown suffers in life and his suffering to a degree is the source of his comedy.

Mark Twain, one of America’s most popular and most enduring comic writers was also one of America’s most “tragic” celebrities. There is a photograph of Mark Twain with what look like telephone poles and telephone wires in the background. These poles and wires are probably telegraph poles and wires but to a modern viewer telephones are what most likely come to mind. I find this a tragic image in that when given the opportunity to invest in the telephone Twain replied that he would buy one and his lawyer would buy one but it was unlikely anyone else would buy one. Instead of investing in the telephone he invested in a new design for a printing press that eventually left him bankrupt, while we know quite well that many more people besides Twain and his lawyer purchased telephones. This, though, was just one of the more minor “tragedies” of Twain’s life.

D. C. Comics cover of Beowulf

Classics Illustrated Comics cover of Last of the Mohicans

Comics covers for Beowulf and Last of the Mohicans

I begin the school year with two stories, The Last of the Mohicans and Beowulf, stories I enjoyed even when I read them as Classics Illustrated comics (though I missed the D. C. Comics version). I do these stories with my eleventh and twelfth grade classes respectively. The response of my students to these stories are not always as enthusiastic as I would wish and I find myself reflecting at the beginning of each year on stories and why we read and study them.

I think good stories are essential to our mental, imaginative, and ethical well-being. Stories enable us to imagine what we might do in certain situations by living vicariously through the choices made by characters with whom we empathize. Good stories make demands upon their audiences. I remember watching the film Judgment at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich (among others). During one scene in the film Dietrich is reminiscing, in a conversation with Tracy, about a night at the opera spent with her husband and Adolph Hitler (the film revolves around war crimes trials held at the end of World War II). As Dietrich shares her memories of the evening and the performance an orchestral theme from The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, the opera Dietrich is recalling, plays underneath.

Most in the viewing audience may miss the significance of this piece of music in the soundtrack of the film but for those who recognize the music there is a kind of ironic joke. Wagner, the opera’s composer, was a hero of the Nazis, the film itself takes place in Nuremberg, and there is also a resonance of sorts between the history of the film and the story of the opera. Hitler, as an orator, was a kind of “Mastersinger” who mesmerized the German people. Wagner was also renowned for his use of the “leitmotif”, a recurring musical theme that underscores a character, concept, or place. This has become something of a staple in film scoring. Those paying close attention to the soundtrack in the film Jaws, for example, knew immediately that the one “fake” shark attack in the film was a hoax before it was revealed to be a hoax because the “shark attack” theme does not play underneath the scene as it does under every other shark attack scene.

If we watch a film only for what happens (as many of us do) or read a book only for plot (as also many of us do) the imagination is not greatly provoked by the story. But if we get beyond the images on screen or the events on the page stories help us learn about ourselves and our world. The decline in reading underscores two problems in modern culture (there are probably more, but two stand out to me) a lack of imagination and a lack of reflection.

Stories, especially written stories, make almost as many demands on the audience as they do on those that create them. For a written story to work I as the reader must be able to bring that story to life in my imagination (I think this is also true of a film story though not to the same degree). The reader may not be the artist that the writer of the story is, but to imagine a story well does require a certain artistry.

But more important than the demands made upon the imagination are those made upon our inner lives, on our ability to reflect on what is taking place around and within us. Ben Jonson, the Jacobean satiric playwright and poet, imagined two audiences for his work. The first audience understood the jokes and laughed at them but that was as far as it went. The second audience got the jokes as well but also made connections to themselves, saw in themselves the same human failings the playwright was making the object of his satire. The insights gained from the reading of the poems or the viewing of the plays provoked reflections and, or so Jonson hoped, reformation.

To read well one needs to care about the characters of the story and the circumstances in which these characters find themselves. I do not believe we learn the meaning of courage or loyalty from the dictionary; we learn the meanings of these words from the stories we read, whether these stories be found in fiction or biography, and the things that happen to people we care about. Hamlet struggles with the murder of his father and this struggle leads him very close to, if not into, madness. Anyone who has experienced even a minor injustice can begin to understand what at the human level Hamlet is experiencing.

When we read only for plot we can easily escape the implications of what we read for our own lives. If we read to the depths the stories contain (and I do understand that many stories do not go very deep) there is an opportunity to learn something about the depths of our own lives. If the stories we surround ourselves with do not contain much depth it is unlikely there will be much depth to our lives either. This is not to say that those that do not read are somehow more shallow than those that do (I am sure there are many shallow readers) only that they are going to have to go elsewhere to find the stories that help to define themselves to themselves. Some stories make it easier for us to be passive observers of life; the best stories provoke our involvement and give us the tools that help us to understand ourselves and the world around us.