Scheherazade, symphonic suite for orchestra, Op. 35: III. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess. Andantino Quasi Allegretto”
Fanfare for the Common Man
A Storied Life
Medieval Town by WaterAfter a painting by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (original painting destroyed by fire)
Ezra Pound in one of his saner moments said, “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Books work magic, it is not clear how, not to me anyway, but that is the nature of magic, perhaps the definition of magic itself, something marvelous that defies definition. Reading, or appreciating art of any kind, does not make us better people; some of the worst people that have ever lived had very profound artistic sensibilities. They read the best books, listened to the best music, were moved by the best paintings and sculptures. This ability to appreciate the sublime added depth to their experience of life, but it did not make them good people. It enriched their experience; it did not impact on their humanity. Of course it can also be said that many of the most humane people that ever lived had this same experience of the sublime. It may be that those that brought virtue to their experience of the sublime experienced and understood more fully and more deeply, but that is something that cannot be known with any certainty.
When I look at the painting above I wonder what the original looked like. I am saddened that it has been destroyed because I find the copy so moving. Perhaps the painting that lives in my imagination is not only finer than the copy, but finer than the original as well (as far as that goes, the copy may be finer than the original for all that anyone can know). There was an article in the Boston Globe, “Well worth not reading,” about the books we imagine based on the blurbs on the back cover, or the cover illustration, or a sampling of the text. It is about the books we have encountered but have not read. I am not sure I like this article as much as I imagined I would when I began to understand its premise, though I do think there is truth to it. It is a bit unsettling perhaps for someone who teaches others to read books to contemplate the advantages of not reading them, but it must be owned that there are many books that I have read that did not live up to the expectations created by the first impressions they made. I am glad though that I gave them the opportunity to speak their piece.
The music suggests our first experience with stories, the fairy tale story of the princess and the prince, and the audience for stories, the common man. Though Scheherazade’s princesses and princes often behaved as princesses and princes should, those of the Brothers Grimm and other tellers of folk tales often behaved as though their origins were a bit more humble. When as children we read fairy tales that involved royalty we often looked at those “royals” as though they were just like us that there was not much difference between the pauper and the prince and at some level this is what lies at the heart of any good story, it is what makes the story attractive. It may not be a belief that we and they are the same but it is a belief that we and they share a common humanity and we have something to learn from how they encounter the world.
A portrait of Samuel Johnson
The painting above is of Samuel Johnson, one of the English Language’s finest professional readers. In the painting he is reading intently, but according to the blurb accompanying the painting this was in part to dispel the image of “blinking Sam,” it was to offer a “counter-narrative” to one that was current at the time. But it makes one wonder, or at least it makes me wonder, why do we read? Because Samuel Johnson was who Samuel Johnson was it also makes me wonder why we analyze what we read? Is literary criticism something readers do to understand a text or does it superimpose the reader’s vision on that of the writer? What makes some readers more “authoritative” readers than others, that is, why do we give more weight to the judgments drawn from the reading done by some than to that done by others?
There was a series of articles recently in the New York Times (I looked at these three, “The Will Not to Power, but to Self-Understanding,” “Translating the Code Into Everyday Language,” and “From the Critical Impulse, the Growth of Literature”) about literary criticism and its usefulness. The articles addressed meanings of literary texts and the like, but the main conclusion they all seemed to come to was that criticism contributes to a literate culture in that it provides a platform for discussing literature, its deeper meaning, and its impact on the culture at large. I enjoyed all of the articles but I was intrigued by Elif Batuman’s applying Freud’s method of interpreting dreams to the interpretation of literature or at least that aspect of Freud’s thinking that recognized the complexity of dreams and the multiplicity of possible meanings that they contain. According to Batuman this same dynamic is at work in our analysis of stories.
Farmer Sitting by the Fire, ReadingVincent Van Gogh
Watercolor, Charcoal, watercolour, heightened with white Etten: October, 1881 Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, The Netherlands, Europe F: 897, JH: 63
The painting above is of a farmer sitting by his fire reading a book. This suggests that the printed word can work its magic not only on those that do not read for a living, but those who earn their living from occupations very different from those of “professional” readers. Farmers of course, at least good farmers, are always reading the literature of their trade so it shouldn’t surprise us that farmers read. But when they are reading the literature of their trade they are reading for information, not for enchantment. What are the respective values of each kind of reading, is one better than the other or do each provide their own unique kind of value? At the level at which each works they teach us how to profit from living, on the one hand how to earn a living and on the other how to spend a life in a way that is meaningful and not just productive.
Elderly Man at a WindowYves Trevedy
The paintings above and below are of an old man reading and of a young man reading. They are both engrossed and as one might expect the old man is farther along in his book than the young man, the old man is finishing his book while the young man is starting his. The old man is alone with a single book while the young man has an assortment of books propping up the book he is reading. There are perhaps some obvious metaphors that could be drawn but I’ll let others draw them. What I find attractive about these paintings is the intensity that each reader brings to the reading that he is doing. The young man is described as a student in the painting’s title and perhaps he is reading in the same fashion the farmer reads his agricultural journals, but perhaps not. The old man has his back to the window and to the beautiful landscape that is life as it truly is. Is the man turning his back on reality or is the reality he finds in his book more real than the one outside his window? In my experience all reading teaches and the books that capture my imagination the most intensely make the world outside my window more real and more understandable. As Pound suggests reading makes me and the world outside more intensely alive and more intensely real and comprehensible.
The Young Student
John Connolly in his book The Book of Lost Things says, “The stories in books hate the stories contained in newspapers, David’s mother would say. Newspaper stories were like newly caught fish, worthy of attention only for as long as they remained fresh, which was not very long at all. They were like the street urchins hawking the evening editions all shouty and insistent, while stories – real stories, proper made-up stories – were like stern but helpful librarians in a well-stocked library. Newspaper stories were insubstantial as smoke, as long-lived as mayflies. They did not take root but were instead like weeds that crawled along the ground, stealing the sunlight from more deserving tales.” It might be that the books we read for information are short lived, they do not deliver anything magical, they are a pragmatic bunch that teach us what we need to know to keep the pantry stocked, but the truths they tell are only true for a short time, relatively, and will in all likelihood be soon replaced with other truths.
The truths contained in stories often help us unravel the mysteries that surround who we are; they help to teach ourselves to ourselves. There was a review by Sarah Bakewell in the New York Times about the lives of great philosophers, “Lives of the Philosophers, Warts and All”. The book points out that most philosophers led very muddled lives and that no matter how profound their insights, the art of living well and happily remained elusive. I am not sure that stories succeed any better at explaining life or simplifying day to day existence, but they do teach us that everyone has problems and that what really matters more than solving our problems is living with integrity while pursuing those solutions.
The film is about storytelling or more precisely perhaps being a storyteller. Ms. Shafak tells us that others try to tell her the kinds of stories she should tell, but she does not want to tell those stories. She suggests that as a writer she is pursuing in stories the same things I am as a reader of stories, she wants to explore what makes people from different backgrounds behave as they do. Modern storytelling has become a bit obsessed with the relationship between the characters in a story and the writers that create those characters; that J. D. Salinger, for example, must be a lot like Holden Caulfield, that novelists and storytellers of all stripes are actually engaged in a kind of autobiographical masquerade. When in fact most of the best storytellers from the past made little use of their personal lives. One reason some critics today do not believe Shakespeare could have written Shakespeare is because the stories Shakespeare told were so far removed from his life experience, that somehow because he had never been a nobleman he could not possibly comprehend what it was like to be one. Storytellers that cannot imagine the inner lives of characters different from themselves cannot amount to much as storytellers, their insights, like mine are all local. If I as a reader can enter the inner lives of characters different from myself as I read about them, why can’t storytellers do the same as they write about them?
The painting below is of an emperor of China who was also a literary critic. It is not unusual for a monarch to be engaged in literary pursuits, the first Queen Elizabeth wrote poetry and translated Latin texts, like Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Alexander the great had Aristotle for a teacher. Some learned more from the literature they studied than did others, but it is difficult to imagine that even those who learned the least were not enriched by what they read. If stories do nothing else they take away our excuses. When we read we make judgments about the characters and the things the characters do. This suggests that we have an inner sense of what is just and recognize injustice when we see it; that we understand the need for compassion and recognize cruelty when we see it; that we understand the quality of mercy and recognize hardness of heart when we see it. Some of these conclusions we are led artfully to see due to the skill of the storyteller, but the fact that these virtues are so much more likely to be found in the stories we read than the vices suggests that there is something true about these virtues that resonates in all of us.
Cao Pi, Emperor of Wei (Emperor of China and Literary Critic)