Being Whole

Being Whole

Choral Music Over Time “Traditor Autem – Benedictus” Traditional Benedictine Monks Of Santo Domingo De Silos “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” A. P. Carter Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff, Ricky Skaggs, Levon Helm with Emmylou Harris and Jimmy Ibbotson “Noumi Noumi Yaldati” Traditional Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras, Lior Elmaleh & Hespèrion XXI “Loves Me Like a Rock” Paul Simon and The Dixie Hummingbirds “I’ll Fly Away” Albert E. Brumley The Blind Boys Of Alabama “Helplessly Hoping Stephen Stills Crosby, Stills, and Nash “Vespers, Op. 37 – The Great Doxology” Sergei Rachmaninov Irina Arkhipova, Victor Rumyantsev; Valery Polyansky: USSR Ministry Of Culture Chamber Choir “Mass for Five Voices: IV. Sanctus & Benedictus” William Byrd Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars “Inkanyezi Nezazi (Star And The Wiseman)” Joseph Shabalala Ladysmith Black Mambazo “The Warmth of the Sun Brian Wilson and Mike Love The Beach Boys “Dixit Raphael angelus” Anonymous In Dulci Jubilo “In My Life John Lennon and Paul McCartney The Beatles “When I Die” Laura Nyro Sweet Honey in the Rock “People Get Ready Curtis Mayfield Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions “The Tyger John Tavener and William Blake Harry Christophers & The Sixteen “500 Hundred Miles Hedy West Peter, Paul, and Mary “Spem in alium” Thomas Tallis Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars “O Fortuna” Carl Orff Sheila Armstrong, Gerald English, Etc.; André Previn: London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus “After the Love is Gone David Foster, Jay Graydon, and Bill Champlin Earth, Wind, and Fire Missa Luba, “Credo” Traditional, arranged by Father Guido Haazen Les Troubadours Du Roi Baudouin

Painting of violin, glass, crystal ball and other items

Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball

Pieter Claesz

The painting above is a self-portrait, of sorts. The artist can hardly be seen, but the title gives us a clue, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball. The violin dominates the painting and other inanimate objects, including a skull suggesting a person who was once living and animate, but is no more, are also prominent. But if we look carefully at the glass ball at the back of the painting we can see, if we look very closely, the reflection of the painter in the glass. He is distorted as are the other objects in the painting. There is the watch suggesting the passage of time, the skull suggesting the end of life, and objects, like the violin and quill, that suggest the work some do, as well as the wine glass that might suggest how we spend our leisure time. Perhaps this is what vanity is, the objects with which we fill our time that come to say more about who we are than we ourselves, or our actions, perhaps, say about who we are. The painter is lost in the background and the objects that fill his time are all that we see clearly. And is this not, to an extent, what vanity is, the pride we take in what we have or what we do for work or how we fill our time, and not in the way we conduct ourselves, how we behave, how we treat others, or the values our lives embody that define us as members of our communities, which more clearly and truly define who we are as people.

Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Pope Innocent X

By Diego Velázquez,_by_Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez.jpg

Portrait of Charles I, three views

Charles I in Three Positions

Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Painitng of a fishmonger arranging the fish for sale


Adriaen van Ostade

Here are three portraits. Two are of people who possessed great power, Pope Innocent X possessed great religious power and King Charles I possessed great political power. Pope Innocent X, though a religious leader, increased the political power and influence of the 17th century Catholic Church. King Charles I, on the other hand, in the eyes of some, abused his political power and in the end this abuse of power led to his execution. If we look into the face of Pope Innocent X we see a man who looks very serious and, in my view, very hard and uncompromising. If we look into the face of King Charles I, and we have three views of his face, we see man who looks softer and more carefree. There is a kind of “gentle” sternness in his look and also the suggestion that this is a man used to privilege and self-indulgence. The third portrait is of a fishmonger who is focused on his work and there is in his appearance the suggestion that he is content in his work. There is no sense of privilege about him and no sense of power or authority. In these three portraits we see the “three estates” of the medieval and renaissance world. We see in these portraits a view of the world as it is to this day, those that pursue power, those that pursue wealth and luxury (it was the pursuit of luxury that brought about King Charles I downfall, at least in part) and those that pursue work and everyday responsibility. For me, of the three, the fishmonger looks the most content. Art and literature can show us the world and life as it is lived by the various groups and classes of people that fill the world. It can reveal to us how life is and suggest to us how it ought to be.

Painiting of two Russian Scientists, one holding a pipe, the other holding a piece of science apparatus

Kapitsa and Semyonov

Boris Kustodiev

But too often we define ourselves by the work we do. I probably should know who Kapitsa and Semyonov are and in this day and age I can do a “Google” search that would tell me why they were important enough to have their portrait painted. But I can infer from the painting that whatever they did, it had something to do with science for one is showing to the other what appears to be a tool of their trade (of course this may be a trick, the painter may be engaging in deception so I should be careful about my assumptions). And this is often the way of things, we do not want the portraits drawn of us, whether with words or paint, to reveal too much about who we truly are, we want to be remembered for what is safely known about us and has earned us whatever degree of fame and respectability to which we are entitled. Though what we do is important, it often reveals only a small slice of who we really are.

Trumpet Music Over Time Brandenburg Concerto #2 In F, BWV 1047 – “3. Allegro Assai” Johann Sebastian Bach Rudolf Baumgartner: Lucerne Festival Strings Trumpet Concerto In E Flat, H 7E/1 – “1. Allegro” Joseph Haydn Wynton Marsalis; Raymond Leppard: National Philharmonic Orchestra Fanfare for Trumpet Jean-Joseph Mouret Camerata of St. Andrew & Leonard Friedman “Potato Head Blues” Louis Armstrong Louis Armstrong and His Hot 7 Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041: “II. Andante” Johann SebastianBach Alison Balsom, Edward Gardner & Göteborg Symfoniker “E. S. P.” Wayne Shorter The Miles Davis Quintet The Barber’s Timepiece John Woolrich BBC Symphony Orchestra “Red Clay” Freddie Hubbard Freddie Hubbard “Syrinx” Claude Debussy Alison Balsom, Edward Gardner & Göteborg Symfoniker “The Lonely Bull” Burt Bacharach, Hal David/Sol Lake Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass “Brotherhood of Man” Fran Loesser Clark Terry & Oscar Peterson Trio Pictures At An Exhibition – “Promenade; Gnomus” Modest Mussorgsky Gilbert Levine: Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra “Soon We All Will Know” Wynton Marsalis Wynton Marsalis “Things to Come” Gill Fuller Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie “The Unanswered Question” Charles Ives Leonard Bernstein & New York Philharmonic

Woman dresssed warmly for ice skating

Margaret in Skating Costume

Thomas Eakins

But art and literature do more than show us the world and the people in it. Commenting on an assignment recently, I suggested to a student that literature, and the arts in general, teach us to live more fully. The student was commenting on a poem and the emotions the poem evoked. He did not address the ethical implications of the issue the poem addressed, living fully and freely, he only responded to the emotions provoked by the poem. The arts usually appeal first to the emotions, but if we are thoughtful, reflective readers, viewers, or listeners we do not stop with the emotions, we experience the emotions, and enjoy that experience, but we also start to question, why do I feel the way I feel? Ought I to feel the way I feel? What is the psychology of the work, what is the point of view? Our intellect is aroused and engaged, our psyches, our philosophies and faiths, or world view, our point of view are all stimulated and experienced. We begin to live more fully, more dynamically. This is not to suggest other things do not evoke multiple aspects of our being, only that the arts, if we let them, are one of the few pursuits that stimulates all avenues of our existence. We are after all moral (or at least ethical) beings, we have a psychological, an intellectual, and an emotional life and we are most fully alive when all these qualities that define who we are as individuals are given the freedom to express themselves and exert their influence on the choices we make and the lives we construct. Alva Noë in “What Art Unveils”  puts it this way:

Art unveils us ourselves. Art is a making activity because we are by nature and culture organized by making activities. A work of art is a strange tool. It is an alien implement that affords us the opportunity to bring into view everything that was hidden in the background.

If I am right, art isn’t a phenomenon to be explained. Not by neuroscience, and not by philosophy. Art is itself a research practice, a way of investigating the world and ourselves. Art displays us to ourselves, and in a way makes us anew, by disrupting our habitual activities of doing and making.

I think also art confronts us with ourselves.  We look at emotions, for example, that we wish to feel, enjoy feeling, and seek to feel and art asks us to consider the “rightness” of those emotions, the appropriateness of them; or at least to consider them in light of other responsibilities and in light of their suitability to the present moment.  Art does not deny us these emotions or ask us to deny ourselves the emotions, only to consider them in a larger context.  On the other side of the coin they can liberate the emotions, free us from “over-thinking” things.  Art helps us to fully be the complex beings that we are.

a mountain shaped like a man's head with people living on it

Allegory of Iconclasts

Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

The drawing capture an imaginary world and presents itself as a somewhat fantastical allegory. It is perhaps unseemly for an English teacher to be too much in love with fairy tales and other stories grounded more in fantasy and the fantastic than in the world as it is, but often the world as it is, is made clearer by stories set in made up worlds or that involve contact with imaginary creatures and beings. David Mitchel in “David Mitchell on Earthsea – a rival to Tolkien and George RR Martin” writes about the imaginary world Ursula Le Guin created in her series of stories set in the fictional land of Earthsea. Of course the world we live in is made up of earth and sea, and in this respect it is like our world. David Mitchell points out that this world captures the moral complexity of our own world and the dangers of the magical, if we believe Arthur C. Clarke, that the science of today would be seen as magic in a past that could not imagine this science. Or as he said, “Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don’t understand it,” as might be the case if a time machine were to enable you to bring your smart phone with you on a visit to Puritan New England. In this light the magic found in stories and the uses of that magic, might suggest to us how we ought to use the “magic” that science opens up to us. Or in Le Guin’s words, “’Rain on Roke may be drouth in Osskil,’” teaches the Master Summoner, “’and a calm in the East Reach may be storm and ruin in the West, unless you know what you are about.’” Magic has its consequences and what we do here affects the environment over there, as products of our science and technology such as acid rain and nuclear waste, have consequences for those that had nothing to do with their creation. David Mitchell draws some larger conclusions, conclusions more pertinent to all of us and not just the scientists. He writes concerning Le Guin’s fantasy:

If Earthsea is one of literature’s best-written fantasy worlds, it is also one of the most cerebral. Chief among its concerns are morality, identity and power. In The Farthest Shore the Master Patterner on Roke will ask Ged, “What is evil?” and be answered, “A web we men weave,” but the seed of this theme is germinating in A Wizard of Earthsea. From Beowulf to Tolkien, to countless formulaic fantasy movies at a multiplex near you, the genre generates two-dimensional Manichaean struggles between Good and Evil, in which morality’s shades of grey are reduced to one black and one white. The real world, as most of us know (if not all presidents and prime ministers), is rarely so monochromatic, and neither is Earthsea. Ged’s quest is not to take down a Lord of Darkness but to learn the nature of the shadow that his vanity, anger and hatred set loose – to master it, by learning its nature and its name. “All my acts have their echo in it,” says Ged of his shadow; “it is my creature.” The climax of A Wizard of Earthsea is not the magical shootout that lesser novels would have ended with, but the high-risk enactment of a process Jung called “individuation”, in which the warring parts of the psyche integrate into a wiser, stronger whole. To quote Le Guin again: “In serious fantasy, the real battle is moral or internal … To do good, heroes must know or learn that the ‘axis of evil’ is within them.”

This is one of the great benefits of art and literature, it helps us see ourselves and where the true danger is in daily life, often within us and not in the darkness that often seems to surround us. The wizards of Earthsea are responsible for the consequences of what they do, as at the center of the first story are the consequences of Ged’s, or Sparrowhawk’s, actions that he must work to undue as best he can. We may not have magical powers, the ability to work miracles, but we do act in ways that have consequences for others and we ought to at least reflect on what we ought to do to undo to the best of our ability the harm that we have done.

Piano Music Over Time The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 – Prelude & Fugue #8 In E Flat Minor, BWV 853” Johann Sebastian Bach Mieczyslaw Horszowski “Tears from the Children” John Lewis The Modern Jazz Quartet “The Single Petal Of a Rose Duke Ellington Duke Ellington and His Orchestra “Sonata No. 16 In C Major for Piano, K. 545: II. Andante” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Glenn Gould “The Entertainer” Scot Joplin Joshua Rifkin “Your Cheatin’ Heart” Hank Williams Ray Charles “Roll Away the Stone” Leon Russell Leon Russell “Piano Sonata No.7 in D, Op.10 No.3 – 4. Rondo (Allegro)” Ludwig van Beethoven Martha Argerich “Blue Rondo A La Turk Dave Brubeck Dave Brubeck “I Left My Heart in San Francisco D.Cross/G. Cory Tony Bennett 12 Etudes, Op. 25, No. 11 in A Minor “Winter Wind” Frédéric Chopin Maurizio Pollini “Carmel” Joe Sample Joe Sample “My Father” Judy Collins Judy Collins “Phantasy, Op. 47” Arnold Schoenberg Ulf Wallin and Back Country Suite, “New Ground” Mose Allison Mose Allison “Medley: All the Things You Are/Midnight Mood” Oscar Hammerstein II, Joe Zawinul, Jerome Kern & Ben Raleigh Bill Evans “Galveston” Jimmy Webb Jimmy Webb “Prelude & Fugue No.24 In D Minor: Prelude” Dmitri Shostakovich Vladimir Ashkenazy “The Köln Concert, Pt. 2c” Keith Jarrett Keith Jarrett “Imagine” John Lennon John Lennon “3 Gymnopédies – No.1” Erik Satie Jean-Yves Thibaudet “Let It Be” Paul McCartney Paul McCartney “Etude No. 11” Philip Glass Maki Namekawa “Laura” David Raskin Errol Garner

Self portrait of the painter as he paints

Self Portrait with a Palette

Julian Falat

Fairy tales often reflect our inner psychology, the way fear and the way uncertainty and self-doubt work in our imaginations. The dogs that fly through Julian Falat’s self-portrait are probably not painted from life, they are painted from his imagination, which, like all of our imaginations, is a life of its own and unto itself. It thrives by a different set of rules, but if we are healthy human beings it does thrive. Ellen Handler Spitz suggests in her article “The Irresistible Psychology of Fairy Tales” that, as very young children, everything is new and strange. We are aware of needs, of things around us that look strange and maybe scary. It is all new and we do not know what to make of it. Fairy tales can help children confront that world, though, as J. R. R. Tolkien has pointed out in his essay on fairy tales, these stories were not initially stories for children and many of them in their earliest forms are probably much too grizzly and frightening for the very young. In talking about the “uncanny” she points out, “A key concept here is Freud’s notion of the uncanny, by which he meant the way in which familiar objects and events and people can suddenly seem strange and vice versa.” She goes on to say “the first few years of life are inevitably ‘uncanny’ for children, a topic noted and often brilliantly exploited by the finest children’s book authors and illustrators.” From these two thoughts we can see that where almost everything has an uncanny quality to it when we are very young, this sense of the uncanny follows us throughout life and life contains many mysteries. Spitz goes on to point out other aspects of the psychology of fairy tales:

If, by the term “psychological,” we mean relevance for mental life in its entwined cognitive and affective functioning, we are right to invoke it here, for fairy tales speak directly and indirectly to the psyche. They stimulate rainbows of feeling, insatiable curiosity, and inexhaustible searches for meaning. Psychology, moreover, pace Bettelheim, Pullman, and others concerns more than the so-called imaginary inner lives of characters; it concerns the experience of listeners and readers. Year after year, we still need to know what will happen to Cinderella and Rapunzel, to Jack, to the man who needed a godfather, and to the unnamed youngest daughter who asked her father for a rose. Beyond glittering imagery of silver and golden-haired princesses, roses, shiny keys, and iron caskets, thorns, and fry-pans, we are pulled by our deep yearning for, and terror of, that which defies understanding. Beyond sense and beyond justice and morality, the fairy tales beckon us and we sit on the edge of our chairs waiting to find out what lies ahead—even when we have heard the tale a dozen times before.

I personally find this to be true with more than just fairy tales. I want to believe that maybe this time Heathcliff will not seduce Isabella Linton, that the cat will not break Zeena’s dish, that Dr. Jekyll will escape the clutches of Mr. Hyde, that Oedipus will escape his fate and not murder his father and marry his mother, or if he does, somehow he will escape the consequences.  I think there is a fairy tale quality to most great literature that speaks to our psychology, that leads us into the woods of our inner being, our fears, and our hopes and aspirations; that holds up a mirror to our inner lives while also providing an avenue of escape from the terrors that linger there. Often it seems the greatest terrors we face in life are those that live inside of us, the fear of what we will find if we look too deeply into ourselves.  Of course these fears, like all fears can only be confronted and conquered by facing them and stories often help us to do that.

A cliff over water that looks like a human head at rest


Wenceslaus Hollar

The drawing above suggests, at least to me, that the human psyche is a landscape unto itself. It has its forests, its villagers, it towns and villages in which the villagers live and work. In one of Rabelais’ Pantagruelian books, he describes the “world in Pantagruel’s mouth. The world he describes is not unlike the world in this etching. Pantagruel is a giant and therefore the creatures that live there may be more like us than the creatures that live in our imaginary mouths. But as Neil Gaiman said in “Happily Ever After”:

Once upon a time, back when dragons still roared and maidens were beautiful and an honest young man with a good heart and a great deal of luck could always wind up with a princess and half the kingdom – back then, fairytales were for adults.

Children listened to them and enjoyed them, but children were not the primary audience, no more than they were the intended audience of Beowulf, or The Odyssey. J. R. R. Tolkien said, in a robust and fusty analogy, that fairytales were like the furniture in the nursery – it was not that the furniture had originally been made for children: it had once been for adults and was consigned to the nursery only when the adults grew tired of it and it became unfashionable.

There may come a time when the stories we tell today become relegated to the nursery, but then perhaps not. W. H. Auden pointed out that “good literature for adults requires an adult sensibility, but there is no such thing as good literature just for children.” So maybe some of the stories we tell will find their way to the nursery, but, as with other stories from the age of fairy tales there are others that will not. Or, perhaps, as with the fairy tales themselves that in their original form were much too gruesome for children, the stories we tell, when they lose their adult audience, will also be “reformed” for the nursery. Children often understand best the truths that stories tell. But, I think there is a bit more to this. Children’s stories, folk and fairy tales are seen by many to be overly simplistic; simple narratives without much complexity. And though there is truth to this, these stories and the motifs they contain often do find their way into much more complex storytelling. The story of “Sleeping Beauty” is a simple fairy tale in its most familiar form. But its basic motif finds its way into other tales. The story of Brunhilde, for example, in Wagner’s Ring Cycle is on, in part, a “Sleeping Beauty” story. Brunhilde, in The Valkyrie falls in love with Sigmund and when her father, Woden, commands her to orchestrate his death and deliver him to Valhalla, she cannot do it. Woden punishes her disobedience by putting her to sleep on a stone table an surrounding her with a ring of fire. Siegfried, in the subsequent opera in the cycle, Siegfried, finds Brunhilde on the mountain top, penetrates the ring of fire and awakens Brunhilde with a kiss. Basically the same story as “Sleeping Beauty” but with some darker twists. Brunhilde is put to sleep by her father who is the chief of the Norse gods. The story does suggest the power of love, but it also depicts a deity who is not loving, and there is much about Woden that is disturbing. Ultimately the story does not end well as it is the love between Siegfried and Brunhilde, when it is undermined, that brings about the end of the world, the cataclysmic Twilight of the Gods. We might also look at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a “Sleeping Beauty” story that goes off the rails. Juliet does not awaken to Romeo’s kiss producing the tragic ending of that story.

Self portrait of painter in a red dress with black collar and cameo pin

Self Portrait

Gwen John

What does the face reveal about character? Whether the face is like the portrait above or a literary description there is something present, if the portrait is artfully done. The portrait above is a self-portrait, what does it reveal about the painter? In the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (based on the novel of the same name) there is an art teacher at Miss Brodie’s school who is in love with Miss Brodie. All of his portraits look like Miss Brodie, no matter who he looks at Miss Brodie is all that he can see. And from the paintings we see of his, there is little that is original to his work, most of it appears to be derived from other, more competent painters. It is the ability to capture what is not seen in a portrait that makes it artful. In the painting above there is a kind of defiance in the artist’s demeanor. Perhaps it comes from her being a woman in a field dominated by men. Perhaps it comes from her determination to succeed at something very difficult. Whatever it is, there is an interior life that is revealed. But there is also a sense that not all is revealed, that there are secrets she intends to keep as we all have secrets we intend to keep. The portrait painter has the goal to reveal, the subject, perhaps, has the goal to conceal. Art can liberate, but it doesn’t always and if the goal of art is to liberate the viewer, the reader, or the listener, perhaps one way it seeks to liberate is to confront our desire to keep secrets and the propriety of doing that from time to time.

Symphonic Music Over Time Symphony No. 47 in G Major (“The Palindrome”), “Hob.I:47: II. Un poco adagio, cantabile” Joseph Haydn Radio Symphony Orchestra of Zagreb & Antonio Janigro Mozart: Symphony #41 In C, K 551, “Jupiter” – “2. Andante Cantabile” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Bruno Walter: Columbia Symphony Orchestra Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral”: “I. Allegro Ma Non Troppo” Ludwig van Beethoven London Symphony Orchestra & Josef Krips Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417 – “Tragic”: “I. Adagio Molto – Allegro Vivace” Franz Schubert Academy of St. Martin In the Fields & Sir Neville Marriner Symphony #5 In E Minor, Op. 64 – “1. Andante, Allegro Con Anima” Peter Illych Tchaikovsky Herbert Von Karajan: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Siegfried Idyll Richard Wagner Berliner Philharmoniker & Rafael Kubelik The Isle of the Dead, Op.29 Sergei Rachmaninoff Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Vladimir Ashkenazy Symphony #2 In C Minor, “Resurrection” – “1. Allegro Maesto” Gustav Mahler Riccardo Chailly: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra An Alpine Symphony: “Waning Tones / Dying Away of Sound” Richard Strauss The Philadelphia Orchestra & Charles Dutoit Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 104: “I. Allegro molto moderato” Jean Sibelius Kurt Sanderling & Berlin Symphony Orchestra Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra: “I. Presto” Igor Stravinsky Baden-Baden Radio Symphony Orchestra, Harold Byrnes & Charlotte Zelka Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 – “Leningrad”: “I. Allegretto” Dmitri Shostakovich Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Leonard Bernstein Black, Brown & Beige Suite Duke Ellington Maurice Peress: American Composers Orchestra A Symphony of Three Orchestras Elliot Carter New York Philharmonic & Pierre Boulez Introitus (1978) Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra Sofia Gubaidulina Beatrice Rauchs, Kiev Chamber Players & Vladimir Kozhukhar Symphony No. 4 “Heroes”: “I. Heroes” Philip Glass Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra & Marin Alsop “Heroes” David Bowie David Bowie Fantasia on Greensleeves Ralph Vaughan Williams Leonard Bernstein & New York Philharmonic

Margaret Atwood suggests in “We are double-plus unfree” that there are two kinds of freedom, two kinds of liberty. When we read, when look at paintings and photographs and sculptures, when we listen to music, we may only be seeking an escape from the present, to be freed from whatever is distressing us or we may be looking for something deeper. The portrait suggests there are times we want to be free to keep our secrets and times we want to be free to express them. But Ms. Atwood considers another kind of liberty:

 “A Robin Redbreast in a cage, Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” wrote William Blake. “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” wrote John Milton, channelling God’s musings about mankind and free will in the third book of Paradise Lost. “Freedom, high-day, high-day, freedom … !” chants Caliban in The Tempest. Mind you, he is drunk at the time, and overly optimistic: the choice he is making is not freedom, but subjection to a tyrant.

We’re always talking about it, this “freedom”. But what do we mean by it? “There is more than one kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia lectures the captive Handmaids in my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

The robin redbreast is safer in the cage: it won’t get eaten by cats or smash into windows. It will have lots to eat. But it will also not be able to fly wherever it likes. Presumably this is what troubles the inhabitants of heaven: they object to the restriction placed on the flight options of a fellow winged being. The robin should live in nature, where it belongs: it should have “freedom to”, the active mode, rather than “freedom from”, the passive mode.

That’s all very well for robins. Hooray for Blake, we say! But what about us? Should we choose “freedom from” or “freedom to”? The safe cage or the dangerous wild? Comfort, inertia and boredom, or activity, risk and peril? Being human and therefore of mixed motives, we want both; though, as a rule, alternately. Sometimes the desire for risk leads to boundary-crossing and criminal activity, and sometimes the craving for safety leads to self-imprisonment.

Freedom is costly. We live in a time when living in a free and open society carries risks. There are dangerous people who keep their secrets until they can do great harm to those that get in their way and when we see this, it frightens us and we want safety; some want the safety of tyranny. It takes courage to live in a free society and when real danger comes we discover how deep our courage, or lack thereof, runs. In the end, I suppose, a good part of being whole is recognizing our limitations and the limitations that can be changed, ought to be changed, and those that needn’t be changed.

People, soldiers among them, sitting around a table under trees on village road

The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch

Sir David Wilkie

We cannot, of course, always overcome our limitations, and if fearfulness is one of ours, we may not be able to change it, we may seek to be free from the need to, but even if we cannot change ourselves, should we in deference to our limitations, impose restrictions on others’ freedom of movement and expression. I think it is important to at least consider this before we find ourselves in the position of having to make such choices and art and literature can help us inhabit these fearful places and make judgments about what to do in such places before we find ourselves in them. I am not sure how much we can prepare ourselves to be courageous, true courage is often only found in the moment it is called upon, but it helps to know what courage looks like and how others have shown it.

Woman brushing her hair in front of a mirror

At the Dressing Table

Zinaida Serebriakova

The painting above is from 1909, but it illustrates to a degree how things do not change much. There is little in this painting to suggest the date of the painting, the candles perhaps, but not necessarily. Does it capture vanity or does it capture the desire to make a good impression? Does it invite a “value” judgment? I think we all want to look our best in public and one message of the painting is that we needn’t feel ashamed of that desire. I feel happy when I look at this painting because the woman in the painting looks happy and seems to be enjoying her preparations to meet the day. And this, too is a valuable contribution art makes to our finding ourselves and finding wholeness. I think of this in contrast with Pieter Claesz’ painting earlier Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball. Claesz asks us to look at how the way we live prepares us for the way we will end, it invites us to look towards the future and our ultimate destiny. This painting invites us to look into the present moment and the satisfaction that can be gotten from it. I think both are important. “High culture,” which is another word (or two) for “great art” ought to offer us more than just enjoyment, more than entertainment; it should be revelatory and the desire to seek, enjoy, and discover the insights offered by high culture is part of what defines a people. Joseph Epstein in a review of the book Notes on the Death of Culture, “Whatever Happened to High Culture?”, takes a pessimistic view:

Today it is not difficult to imagine a world devoid of high culture. In such a world museums will doubtless stay in business, to store what will come to seem the curiosities of earlier centuries; so, too, will a few symphony orchestras remain, while chamber music will seem quainter than Gregorian chant. Libraries, as has already been shown with bookstores, will no longer be required. The diminishing minority still interested in acquiring the benefits of high culture will have to search for it exclusively in the culture of the past. No longer a continuing enterprise, high culture itself will become dead-ended, a curiosity, little more, and thus over time likely to die out. Life will go on. Machines will grow smarter, human beings gradually dumber. Round the world the vast majority might possibly feel that something grand is missing, though they shan’t have a clue to what it might be.

If art, if “high culture” were to die out, I think Epstein is correct in his analysis of what would be lost and the ultimate price a society would pay. This price was nearly paid during the “Dark Ages” when interest in the arts seemed to be lost, but high culture, civilization, was not lost, it did make a resurgence and not all of that age of darkness was as dark as some would have us believe. But what is not valued will not likely be preserved and it is likely that much could be lost. Its loss is worth thinking about, as is its preservation.

Self portrait in green jacket witb black collar

Self Portrait

Eugène Delacroix

Leon Wieseltier in “Among the Disrupted” also considers the contribution of art and culture to society. We are reaching a time where, digitally, all art, music, and literatures can be saved and preserved. Is this enough? He asks if this desire to preserve a culture, what we call The Humanities just empty, inconsequential sentimentality. Perhaps it is, but is that a bad thing:

Is all this — is humanism — sentimental? But sentimentality is not always a counterfeit emotion. Sometimes sentiment is warranted by reality. The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence. There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life. And a complacent humanist is a humanist who has not read his books closely, since they teach disquiet and difficulty. In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter. Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance.

I had a professor in college who drew a distinction between sentiment and sentimentality. Sentimentality, in his view was the stuff of melodrama, of soap opera, but sentiment was the stuff of something real and deep inside of us. He would suggest that it is sentiment that captures “our complexly beating hearts.” Sentimentality may produce tears, but sentiment along with those tears brings a kind of catharsis, it is evidence of changes being made inside us, of inner truths and insights coming to the surface and the comprehension that this coming to the surface brings. We are in need of regular epiphanies if we are not to be drowned by the cares of the world; if we are to have “a soulful and sensitive existence.”

Self portrait of painter next to skeleton

Self Portrait

Lovis Corinth

Violin Music Over Time “Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006_ I. Preludio” J. S. Bach Rachel Barton Pine “Rhythms of Hope” Jean-Luc Ponty Jean-Luc Ponty “Tati Un Mama Tants” Andy Statman Itzhak Perlman “Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 207: I. Allegro moderato” Wolfgang Amadeus Motzart Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Emmy Verhey & Eduardo Marturet “Violin Concerto In E Minor, Op. 64 – 1. Allegro Molto Appassionato” Felix Mendelssohn Itzhak Perlman; Daniel Barenboim: Chicago Symphony Orchestra “Night and Day” Cole Porter Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grapp “Sonata for solo violin Sz.117 in G Minor_ II. Fuga” Bela Bartok Isabelle Faust “Violin Concerto _To the Memory of an Angel__ I. Andante – Allegretto” Alban Berg Josef Suk, Orchestre philharmonique tchèque, Karel Ančerl “Ashokan Farewell” Jay Unger Aly Bain & Jay Ungar “Concerto For Violin, Cello & Orchestra In A Minor, Op. 102, _Double_ – 1. Allegro” Johannes Brahms Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma; Daniel Barenboim: Chicago Symphony Orchestra “Violin Concerto, Op. 47 in D Minor_ Allegro moderato” Jean Sibelius Itzhak Perlman, Erich Leinsdorf, Boston Symphony Orchestra & Harold Hagopian “Anything Goes” Cole Porter Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli & The Quintet of the Hot Club of France “Violin Concerto In D, Op. 61 – 1. Allegro Ma Non Troppo” Ludwig van Beethoven Itzhak Perlman; Daniel Barenboim: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra “Fiddle Medly” Traditional Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile

Storytelling, whether they are the stories we equate with childhood or pulp fiction or the stories we equate with great art, is about telling lies of a sort. They are lies in the sense they did not literally happen, they have been made up, but they are truthful in what they reveal and this is true of even the simplest most “unartful” of stories. There is usually something there that resonates, even if only superficially, with what we need to know if we are ever to become whole. And those stories that are too superficial to fill that empty space we feel inside, they often point us on our way to stories that do help to fill that space. Not all reading is equal, but if the reader is a serious thoughtful reader, and often even if they are not, all reading has the potential to point us in the right direction. Cynthia Ozick in her essay “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” suggests that the novel, that story telling is a kind of gossip:

Gossip is the steady deliverer of secrets, the necessary divulger of who thinks this and who does that, the carrier of speculation and suspicion. The gossiper is often a grand imaginer and, like the novelist, an enemy of the anthill. The communitarian ants rush about with full deliberation, pursuing their tasks with admirable responsibility, efficiency, precision. Everything in their well-structured polity is open and predictable — every gesture, every pathway. They may perish by the hundreds (step on an anthill and precipitate a Vesuvius); the survivors continue as prescribed and do not mourn. And what a creaturely doom it is, not to know sorrow, or regret, or the meaning of death; to have no memory, or wonder, or inquisitiveness, never to go up and down as a talebearer, never to envy, never to be seduced, never to be mistaken or guilty or ashamed. To be destined to live without gossip is to forfeit the perilous cost of being born human — gossip at its root is nothing less than metaphysical, Promethean, hubristic. Or, to frame it otherwise: To choose to live without gossip is to scorn storytelling. And to scorn storytelling is to join the anthill, where there are no secrets to pry open.

There is truth to this, when we read a story and are caught up in it we are spying on people that, in our imaginations, are real people. If we have bought into the story, we believe it is really happening and those that it is happening to are real as well. But also, by the end of the tale we might discover that we are, after a fashion, the target of the gossip, that the gossiper could be talking about us.

Self portrait of the painter holding palette

Self Portrait

Marie Bashkirtseff

From Manhattan

Woody Allen

Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe & United Artists

In this clip from Woody Allen’s film Manhattan the Woody Allen character, which whatever the character’s name may be in the film is usually an incarnation of Woody Allen, is meditating on life, its meaning, and what we live for. He concludes by realizing that part of what he lives for is beauty and that one aspect of that beauty he lives for is his beloved’s face. But whether it is Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony or Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” beauty transports, it is part of what we live for, it does more than fill the time, it transforms the time, it removes us from the constraints of time. One aspect of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse that I find especially satisfying is its depiction of the passage of time. In the opening section of the novel the grandmother is reading one of Grimm’s fairy tales to her grandchild. We can get a sense for how much time has passed between certain events by the grandmother’s place in the story. There are events that take pages to describe that in real time took only as much time as it takes to read a sentence or two and others that may take a few paragraphs to describe that transpired over the reading of many pages. This is how we experience the passage of time, a few hours may feel like a few seconds and a few seconds may feel like hours depending on the nature of the events that fill that time. I do not think anyone who has not lived through an earthquake can possibly know how long fifteen seconds can last.

Orchestral/Combo Music Over Time “Lamento di Tristan” Traditional Martin Best Medieval Ensemble “Laïla Djân” (Afghanistan) Traditional Ensemble Kaboul & Hespèrion XXI “Ave Maria” (China) Anonymous Ferran Savall “Somebody Stole My Gal” Traditional Jim Kweskin “Samhradh, Samhradh (Summetime, Summertime)” Traditional The Chieftains “Recorder Sonata In G Minor, Op. 1/2, HWV 360 – 1. Larghetto” George Frideric Handel Michala Petri and Keith Jarrett Rhapsody In Blue George Gershwin André Previn; London Symphony Orchestra “Night In Tunisia” John “Dizzy” Gillespie and F. Paparell Turtle Island String Quartet “’The Ancient’ _ Giants Under The Sun” Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White, and Rick Wakeman Yes “Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra: I” Gunther Schuller The Modern Jazz Quartet “Serenade in G, K.525 “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” – 1. Allegro” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Alois Posch and Hagen Quartett “Prelude (Re Mineur)” Karl Friedrich Abel Jordi Savall “String Quartet No.3: ‘Mishima’: ‘1957: Award Montage’” Philip Glass The Smith Quartet & Philip Glass “Adagio from Concierto de Aranjues” Luis Manuel Molina arranged by John Lewis The Modern Jazz Quartet “Ceol Bhriotanach (Breton Music)” Traditional The Chieftains Appalachian Spring Suite: “Doppio Movimento” (shaker Melody “The Gift to Be Simple”) Aaron Copeland Leonard Bernstein & New York Philharmonic “Night at the Caravanserai” Turkish Traditional Yo-Yo Ma: Silk Road Ensemble “Emily’ Reel” Traditional Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Mike Marshall “Cluck Old Hen” Traditional Alison Krauss & Union Station

The arts also feed each other. In the musical bits included here it is possible to see how musical forms as distant from one another as the Baroque and Rock and Roll still share a kinship. I thought of Philip Glass as a very modern composer with a unique sound, but when his “String Quartet #3” is juxtaposed with Karl Friedrich Abel’s (an 18th century composer) “Prelude” we hear a very similar sound and discover that the pulsating sound that often characterizes Glass’ music is not original with him. We are all the products of our influences. In confronting us with ourselves art invites us, in some senses it demands that we be truthful with ourselves and suggests to us we cannot be wholly ourselves until we have owned ourselves. I am a Christian that works in an academic environment that is often, if not hostile, a bit condescending to those with a religious faith. It is seen by many as falling victim to mythology and superstition. But for those that have experienced faith, the presence of God is as real as the absence of God is to those that have not experienced faith, at least not a theistic one. We are all tempted to conceal what we fear others may ridicule. And part of living fully and being whole demands that we not mind being ridiculed. It has to go beyond just not being angry, because it is in not minding the ridicule that anger is truly vanquished and we have to replace it with something else that enables us to remain true to ourselves. I cannot love my neighbor while I am angry with my neighbor. If love is to survive that vanity that produces embarrassment and makes me susceptible to ridicule, it must find another outlet. As the Bishop in Le Miserables had to find an outlet for his disappointment and feelings of betrayal so that he could enable Jean Valjean to go free by telling the police that what Valjean had stolen was actually a gift. It wasn’t a gift, of course, it was the lie Valjean told in order to escape arrest. But in corroborating the lie, the Bishop not only saved Valjean from prison, he transformed his life. To do this the Bishop had to not mind appearing ridiculous in the eyes of the police and the citizens of his town. The depth of our love is revealed in what we are willing to endure to preserve that love, and it is in preserving that love that true wholeness is found.

Painting of a woman dressed in a gold dress

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Gustav Klimt

Time and Thought

 Candide, “Best of All Possible Worlds”

Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wilbur

“Loquebantur variis linguis”

Thomas Tallis

Tallis Scholars

“Dante’s Prayer”

Loreena McKennitt

“Quiet Please”

Sidney Bechet

Time and Thought


Painting of a tranquil sandy beach

The Seashore

Leon Dabo


I often suggest to students that real scholarship is thought (serious, focused thought) conducted over time. Not just scholarship, though, but much of life revolves around thought conducted over time, of listening carefully and observing closely. In a seascape, or a landscape, like the one above the painter has to look and let the impressions of what is seen wash over her or him, to create an impression of the sea inside the painter that the painter than puts time and energy into getting onto the canvas. The philosophies by which we live our lives ought also to be a product of time and thought. But often it is not. It is important to consider how we ought to respond in certain situations before those situations arise so that we are grounded in something more substantial than an impulsive emotional response to a crisis. In the songs above there is the philosophy of Dr. Pangloss from the Leonard Bernstein musical based on Voltaire’s novel Candide. It is a simplistic superficial philosophy that makes whatever is, the best that could be. Far from being a philosophy it is a justification for the human desire to avoid the responsibility to address the evils seen in the world around us. If confronting evil is too difficult a task than I need to redefine it into something good so that I can turn and walk away from it. Or as Alexander Pope put it:

“All Nature is but art, unknown to thee

All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good.”

I think Pope tries to hedge a bit with the phrase “partial evil,” but “evil” is “evil” whether it contains within it (as it often does) elements that are if not “good” (though they may be) are at least morally neutral. I enjoy Pope’s poetry, but I have always found this passage disturbing.


Sailing ship watched over by angels

A Miracle of St. Nicholas of Bari

Gentile da Fabriano


The words being sung in the second song are, “The Apostles spoke in many languages of the great works of God, / as the Holy Spirit gave them the gift of speech, alleluia. / They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak.” Tallis’ song suggests that God gave the apostles not just the power to speak, but the words to speak as well so that they could be clearly understood by all. The third song revolves around a prayer another kind of thought carried out over time. That it is Dante’s prayer tells us other things that will be lost on those that do not have a literary education (and this being the 750th year of Dante’s birth should give us all a reason to learn more about him, ‘. . .With This Really Ragged Notion You’d Return. . .’,” “Dante Turns Seven Hundred and Fifty”). The final song is “Quiet Please” and evokes the need for quiet (in spite of the raucous nature of the song) in order to think or concentrate. Ours is a noisy time and all the noise is not audible, it cannot all be heard, it is the little distractions that fill our time, the noises in our minds that unsettle us, that demand we make a little noise ourselves or walk aimlessly about in search of other lonely voices.


Man standing on shore looking out to sea

On a Deserted, Wave-Swept Shore
Peter Benois


Joyce Carol Oates wrote an article recently, Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature”, about the importance of language, the reading of difficult books and poems and essays and the like, and asks why we write and where inspiration comes from. The article discusses the way we learn and remember and the power of language. It is through language that we know ourselves, define ourselves. Part of our self identity involves finding the words that describe us; it might be our occupation, some aspect of our interests or aspirations (one sees themselves as a painter, poet, cabinet maker before one does the work of becoming one), or the place we call home, or more likely some combination of all of these and other things. But it is also through language and what we use language to build and create that we define ourselves as a people, not just as a nation, but as species. And the proper use of language, whether for identify or something else, requires time, contemplation, and an adding together of things. She also points to the hippocampus, that part of the brain that houses our long-term memory. It is in the hippocampus that the words that tell our stories as individuals, as a culture, as a species are housed or at least the thoughts, ideas, events, and impressions that provoke those words. It is where the idea of who we are lives, what the words we use seek to define. She concludes her essay with this:

Without the stillness, thoughtfulness, and depths of art, and without the ceaseless moral rigors of art, we would have no shared culture—no collective memory. As if memory were destroyed in the human brain, our identities corrode, and we “were” no one—we become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source. As it is, in contemporary societies, where so much concentration is focused upon social media, insatiable in its fleeting interests, the “stillness and thoughtfulness” of a more permanent art feels threatened. As human beings we crave “meaning”—which only art can provide; but the social media provide no meaning, only this succession of fleeting impressions whose underlying principle may simply be to urge us to consume products.

The motive for metaphor, then, is a motive for survival as a species, as a culture, and as individuals.

This evokes the words Tallis set to music. The words that come from our memory also came from somewhere; they had an origin in something before they became the touchstones of our cultures and our imaginations. Tallis called that something the Holy Spirit, others call it other things; Harold Bloom in his new book calls it the “daemon,” but whatever we choose to name it, it is something powerful, and we would not be who we are without it. We can thank the hippocampus for remembering the words, the stories, the ideas, but it is not their origin. The cupboards do not create what is stored in them; they only house it. But that something inside us which creates and interprets understands that the art not only comes from somewhere but that it fuels our imagination when we tell stories or share ideas and fuels the imagination when we read and make what sense we can of what we read.


“A Pilgrim’s Solace: No. V. Shall I Strive With Words to Move”

John Dolwand

Julian Bream, Golden Age Singers & Margaret Field-Hyde

“In My Reply”

Livingston Taylor

Linda Ronstadt


Thelonious Monk

William Giraldi wrote recently about the importance of books, Object Lesson”, and the meaning they have for us, not just because of the words they contain and that we go on to read, but as physical objects in and of themselves. There is something about books that those who value them desire. Even if they cannot read them (more from lack of time than from lack of desire) they are a joy to possess. I suggest to people on occasion that I have three kinds of books in my library, my passions, my aspirations, and my disappointments. The last are books that did not meet my expectations, but I keep them because I hope that the problem is with me and where my mind was at when I first tried to read them, or with my personal growth, and that at some later date I will find the time to interact with them again and they will join my other passions. Giraldi’s essay begins:

Not long into George Gissing’s 1903 novel The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, you find a scene that no self-respecting bibliophile can fail to remember. In a small bookshop in London, the eponymous narrator spots an eight-volume first edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “To possess those clean-paged quartos,” Ryecroft says, “I would have sold my coat.” He doesn’t have the money on him, and so he returns across town to his flat to retrieve it. Too broke for a ride on an omnibus, and too impatient to wait, he twice more traverses the city on foot, back and forth between the bookshop and home, toting a ton of Gibbon. “My joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy but not much muscular strength, and the end of the last journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching—exultant!”

I remember when I was in college hearing about a bookstore on the other side of Syracuse that had some remaindered paperback editions of some Old English prose and poetry. I made a pilgrimage similar to that of Ryecroft, I did not have a car and I did not know how to negotiate the bus lines, so I walked (not that this was that much of a sacrifice, I have always loved walking and these were paperbacks not weighty hardcovers). I found most of the things I wanted, but some things had sold out in the interim (I remember being a bit disappointed that the Beowulf was gone). I was learning Old English and I was “exultant” that I had these editions of poems but especially of the prose that were much harder to find in translation, let alone in Old English. I was especially excited about Wolfstan’s “Sermo Lupi.” My life has gone on to accumulate other attainments of a similar nature, a used facsimile edition of The Book of Kells (or at least excerpts), Tyndale’s translation of The Old Testament, a late eighteenth century edition of MacPherson’s Ossian poems of the Irish hero Finn MacCool (or Fionn Mac Cumhaill). It is a famous literary hoax; MacPherson claimed to have collected these stories from Gaelic speaking peasants from the Highlands of Scotland. The stories are actually Irish. They were exciting finds and the excitement that surrounds their purchase has become part of my literary experience of them. Giraldi finishes his essay this way:

I feel for Salter’s anxiety, and I agree with Burgess when he wrote, commenting on those delectable editions produced by The Folio Society in London: “We have to relearn pride in books as objects lovely in themselves.” But allow me to assure you of this truth: Like the bicycle, the book is a perfect invention, and perfection dies very, very hard. The car hasn’t murdered the bike, and the Web won’t murder the book. There are innumerable readers for whom the collecting of physical books will remain forever essential to our selfhoods, to our savoring of pleasure and attempted acquisition of wisdom, to our emotional links with our past and our psychological apprehension of others—essential not just as extensions of our identities but as embodiments of those identities. Books, like love, make life worth living.

The reading of books, the serious reading of books, is one of those activities that demand time and thought from the reader. That the possession of these books means so much illustrates how important reading, reflection, and the exercise of the imagination are for some of us. Old books have rarely made one rich, they are not like antiques that generally increase in value. Though there are books, like a Shakespeare folio (it doesn’t even have to be a first folio to have value), that will command large sums of money, but most old books will never be worth much. There was a time when they were very valuable and highly prized, but like the tulip, they will no longer found a fortune.


Illustation of a shipwreck from an illuminated manuscript

Shipwreck of Hugh de Boves

Matthew Paris


In another article, The Virtues of Difficult Fiction” by Joanna Scott the value of reading books that are not easily read is discussed. This is a large part of the value of these books to those that read them; they demand an investment of time, some effort of thought and of imagination that is amply repaid. Our investments say a lot about who we are individually and collectively as a people. Books are living things and those that read them often form relationships with these books. As with any relationship they require an investment of time, we have to devote thought and attention to the beloved. It is what makes a relationship worth fighting for and worth preserving. The time spent cultivating it yields its rewards. Scott says of reading and the purpose it serves:

In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Toni Morrison was asked about the purpose of fiction. A good story, she said, results in “the acquisition of knowledge.” This is the case that must be made for fiction if the genre is going to survive as an art. Fiction gives us knowledge. Of what? If the goal is to document our time and place, nonfiction and film offer more dependable accuracy. For intimate expressions of the human predicament, there’s poetry. If it’s immediate impact we want, there are the visual arts and music. Who needs fiction that requires readers to work to understand it?

The value of fiction was clear to Virginia Woolf, who argued that nonfiction consists of half-truths and approximations that result in a “very inferior form of fiction.” In Woolf’s terms, reading ambitious fiction isn’t comfortable or easy. Far from it: “To go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.” The illuminations that fiction offers are gained only with considerable effort. “To read a novel is a difficult and complex art,” Woolf wrote. “You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.” When we read actively, alertly, opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying “the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.” For Woolf, fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading.

The knowledge gained is not about how the universe works as a machine, about the rules, theories, and laws that govern the physical universe, it is knowledge of that other universe the one that cannot be seen through telescopes, the one inside each of (as Donne says, “I am a little world made cunningly / Of elements and an angelic sprite”), but that must be studied and understood if as a species we are ever to live together in peace, if we are to ever understand each other.


Painting of San Francisco Bay; water and beach

San Francisco Bay

Albert Bierstadt


Scott makes another important point in her article. She begins by pointing out that Literature is different from every other art form. She writes:

Among the arts, literature faces a special challenge. To look at a film, a painting, a play, an audience has to be able to see. To listen to music, an audience must be able to hear. To read, an audience must be literate. This begins when a child learns to match phonemes to letters and then to grasp the implications of grammar. Reading levels are identified as stages, from emergent to fluent. As dedicated students of literature know, fluency is only the beginning of a never-ending education. The world’s library is vast. There will always be something somewhere that will invite a new kind of attention from even the most experienced reader.

It is difficult to truly appreciate a piece of music if it is only heard in the background as we do other things, if it is only a pleasant noise that helps drown out some of the unpleasant noises. Equally it is difficult to fully appreciate a painting if it is just a desktop image that is pleasing to the eye whose real function is only to make the workspace a bit more pleasant to look at while we work on other things. But that said, it is possible to discipline ourselves to listen closely to a piece of music such that we can be enriched by it and though with some additional education we will come to hear other things and appreciate other things about the music we do not need additional education to be moved by Mozart, Bach, or Duke Ellington. The same can be said of visual arts like painting and sculpture and artists like Rembrandt, Michelangelo, or Frank Gehry. We may see more in them with training but we can be deeply moved by them without training. The same cannot be said of literature, especially literature that demands more from us as readers.


Painting of war ships painted with "dazzle paaint"

Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool

Edward Wadsworth


Scott says later in the article, “Careful reading is difficult because it demands continuous learning. We have to work to learn new methods of reading in response to new methods of writing.” We have to be educated to begin to read and we need to continuously revise and “update” our skills if we are to be able to continue to read well (though we may choose to limit ourselves to the “Old Masters” such as Tolstoy and Dickens and the like). Of course this is true of music and the visual art as well to a certain degree, we do not listen to jazz entirely in quite the same way we listen to classical music or to Mozart in quite the same way we listen Schonberg. The painting above also illustrates how the way we see can be “toyed” with. The dazzle ships look odd and a bit garish in dry dock, but on the open sea it was difficult to know for certain what you were looking at or to fix the ships exact location.


Painting of schooner ships docked in Salem Harbor

Salem Harbor

Fitz Henry Lane (formerly Fitz Hugh Lane)


But language and the books that contain them have a value that cannot be measured. It is difficult to imagine for some in this day when the Humanities are less highly valued and much of education is being reduced to that which can be easily (and sometimes not so easily) measured and quantified. It can be difficult to imagine the value that was once placed upon a “classical education” even by those we do not often think of as hungering for this sort of thing. Edith Hall in Classics for the people – why we should all learn from the ancient Greeks” writes about the value that the study of the classics of Greek and Roman literature and the whole of a classical education had for the working people of Britain once upon a time. The article discusses the books themselves and the power they possess and the value of learning the original languages in which they were written so that they could be more fully understood and appreciated, but she also writes about how working people had access to libraries provided by churches, scholars (that usually came from a working background), and businesses. She talks about the importance of these libraries to those that used them:

The 109 libraries of the South Wales coalfield are a wonder of labour history, and the books really were taken out. At Ebbw Vale, each reader borrowed an average of 52 volumes a year. The “Condensed Accessions Book” of Bargoed Colliery Library details its holdings by 1921-2. Texts in Latin and Greek are absent: until 1918 almost all miners had left school on their 13th birthday. But the “alternative classical curriculum” of the miner was wide-ranging. He read translations and biographies such as JB Forbes’s Socrates (1905). He learned about the Greeks from HB Cotterill’s Ancient Greece (1913), the Egyptians from George Rawlinson’s Herodotean History of Ancient Egypt (1880), and mythology from several books by Andrew Lang.

This inspiring past of people’s Greek can help us to look forward. It is theoretically in our power as British citizens to create the curriculum we want. In my personal utopia, the ancient Greek language would be universally available free of charge to everyone who wants to learn it, at whatever age – as would, for that matter, Latin, classical civilisation, ancient history, philosophy, Anglo-Saxon, Basque, Coptic, Syriac and Hittite. But classical civilisation qualifications are the admirable, economically viable and attainable solution that has evolved organically in our state sector. Classicists who do not actively promote them will justifiably be perceived as elitist dinosaurs.

These books were read and studied because they had value, not monetary value necessarily (and these were people who had real need of money), but they had value, enough value that people who worked long hard hours in the mines would put in more long, hard hours developing their intellect and imagination. There is a joy that comes from being well read that well-read people know and it is a real joy. Where the hours in the mine provided what was needed to feed and house the body, the hours spent in the libraries fed the intellect, the imagination, and the spirit. To be a full person, to fully live, we need to feed and nurture all aspects of our personhood.


 Wood blocked of boat being rowed over a large wave

Ocean waves



James McWilliams points out another reason why the Humanities and Humanist scholarship is important in On the Value of Not Knowing Everything”. He points out that the Humanities keep “wonder” alive and wonder keeps us engaged with the universe and the world in which we live:

The marvel that stopped us in our tracks—an aurora borealis, cognate words in languages separated by continents and centuries, the peacock’s tail—becomes only an apparent marvel once explained. Aesthetic appreciation may linger…but composure has returned. We are delighted but no longer discombobulated; what was once an earthquake of the soul is subdued into an agreeable frisson.… The more we know, the less we wonder.

Once the wonder passes, that is the wonder has been explained, we start taking for granted again the “wonders” that surround us. In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories Sherlock makes some deductions that amaze his client. The client asks Holmes how he figured all this out. Holmes says that if I explain it to you it will no longer amaze you. The client suggests it would and wants to know. After Sherlock explains the deductive process the client says its not so surprising once you explain how it’s done. In some sense it is a magic trick that amazes us as long as we do not understand how the trick works. But once we know everything we need to know about something, whether it is the workings of the solar system or what makes the rain to fall, the wonder disappears. Understanding the mechanics of a thing deprives it of its ability to amaze. Afterwards, if we wonder at anything we wonder at those that figured it out.


Brundibar (Bumble-bee), Act II Scene 5: “Morning, People, Here’s a Bargain”

Hans Krasa

Gerard Schwarz, Music Of Remembrance and Northwest Boychoir

“If I Could Help Somebody”

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Chichester Psalms: “Psalm 23 – (Complete); Psalm 2 – (Verses 1-4)”

Leonard Bernstein

Israel Philharmonic, Soloist from the Vienna Boys’ Choir

Rejoice in the Lamb, “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey”

Benjamin Britten

Michael Hartnett, Jonathan Steele, Philip Todd, Donald Francke, George Malcom, and The Purcell Singers


From Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “Part Three”

Paramount Television and BBC


George Smiley is a different kind of scholar. His looks and manner suggest a quiet, somewhat pedantic college professor. The work that he does is much more troubling. He is working for the good guys so that makes the more disturbing aspects of his work more palpable. But much of what he does involves invading people’s private lives, bullying, and taking advantage of others’ weaknesses. In in this clip he plays upon the woman’s, Connie’s, affections and disappointments. Once he has gotten what he came for he quietly disappears without waiting to listen to her final concerns. But how do we protect our way of life in a world so fraught with danger with so many threats to our way of life. Evil does exist in the world and can it be withstood by “sanitary” means.


Fish climbing waves

Carp leaping up a cascade



The aria from the opera Brundibar is sung by the title character. He is a metaphor for Adolph Hitler disguised as an organ grinder. He is out to protect his territory and he bullies and threatens any who would encroach on his territory. Two fatherless children trying to earn money to help their sick mother by dancing to Brundibar’s music are attacked. Ultimately they win and the evil organ grinder is dispatched. The ultimate irony of the opera, though, is that it was performed (its second performance I believe) for the Red Cross in a special camp set up by Hitler to show the world that the Jews in Germany were not being mistreated. After making a film of the opera for Nazi propaganda everyone involved was sent to Auschwitz and killed. There is evil. The theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer joined a plot to assassinate Hitler even though involvement in such a plot violated his theological principals. What do we do when we find ourselves in situations where to be true to one set of beliefs requires us to abandon another set of beliefs. How does one remain “pure” in such a world? I do not think reading or the Humanities provides answers to problems such as these, but they raise the issues and confront us with them and compel us to give thought to these things and think through and consider what our responses will be when we are confronted by such situations. We want to believe “never again” but our experience of the world and its history suggests that this is not so.

In Humanists Among the Machines” Ian Becock writes about Arnold Toynbee and his concerns over where science, technology, and reason were taking the world after World War I. There was great optimism that new advances would protect the world from anything like the Great War ever happening again. Toynbee was not so sure. Toynbee thought, “The problem with the Industrial System was that it didn’t know when to stop, pushing relentlessly into domains where it simply didn’t work.” He believed the Humanities could put a brake on such thinking, that it could remind us of the limitations of technology and the ability of our new technologies to change the human psyche. Becock believes:

It’s time for humanists to walk out on a limb. Like Toynbee, we should be as engaged in the world as we are courageous in our convictions. The humanities are most of all a moral enterprise, the pursuit of answers to big questions about how we live together and where we’re going. The stakes are high. We must remember how to speak the language of value, encouraging our readers and students to ask not simply ‘Is it more efficient?’ or ‘How much does it cost?’ but ‘Is it good or bad? For whom? According to which standard?’

The US novelist Ursula K Le Guin put it well in her speech at the National Book Awards in New York last year when she observed that we need ‘the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being’. This is what the humanities are for – not writing better quarterly reports or grabbing a gig in corporate communications – but for posing fundamental questions of value and helping us imagine alternatives to the way we live.

It is important to keep thinking and challenging the changes in our world when those changes are not “healthy for children and other living things” as we used to say not so long ago.


Mosaic depicting the Nile River and the communities on its banks

Nile Mosaic

Bernard Andrae


Helen Vendler in her new book The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar makes a distinction between a critic and a scholar. She sees herself as a critic and not as scholar. In her introduction she talks about taking over a survey course of Romantic Poets for a colleague who was not able to teach the course. She says that when the students submitted their review of her teaching of the course they said they learned a lot about individual poets and their poetry, but not much about the Romantic era and its historical significance or its shared themes, ideas, and vision. Jack Hanson in his review of the book, Reading Poetry”, quotes Vendler:

(The critic’s) “learning” resembles the “learning” of poets, which, though deeply etymological and architectonic, is often unsystematic and idiosyncratic. She often fails at the most elementary undertakings of “scholarly” life, such as remembering facts, entering polemical debates, and relating works to the political and philosophical history of their era. She has—at least I have—no capacity for broad synthetic statements.

This to me is what the study of literature entails. There are other branches of the Humanities that enlighten us about those other things, but when we read Literature, the kind of Literature that rewards rereading and changes us over time as our experiences change the Literature and our relationship to it, it is to get at things that are more personal to us and, perhaps, the poet. Reading in this way changes us because it reveals ourselves to ourselves, aspects of ourselves we may have kept hidden or have never noticed.       


Cants màgics: “IV. Misteriós”

Federico Mompou


George Winston

“Dance of the Infidels”

Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden

“Requiem for John Hurt”

John Fahey


These last songs suggest other things about the Humanities and how they move in and out of one another. They suggest notions of belief and unbelief. They also weave out of one another and the traditions from which they come. I enjoy how Mompou’s Màgics makes an appearance in George Winston’s Woods. I like the folk blues sound of a classical form in Fahey’s “Requiem.” I enjoy how all these songs, though they come from different traditions have a “jazzy” feel to them. And this is something else that the study of Literature, music, and all the arts do for us; they reveal what connects one thing to another and one person, one nation, one culture to another. All the arts awaken wonder and self-knowledge and it is difficult to live as fully as we might if we are not open to wonder and the true self living inside us.


Painting of the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Charles W. Bartlett,_1916,_woodblock_print.JPG#/media/File:%27Taj_Mahal%27_by_Charles_W._Bartlett,_1916,_woodblock_print.JPG

On Reflection

Scenes from Childhood, “Happy Enough”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

“Sitting on Top of the World”

Doc Watson

“Hard Times”

Stephen Foster

Anna McGarrigle & Kate McGarrigle

The Sound of Music “Climb Every Mountain”

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein III

Patricia Neway

“No Expectations”

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

The Rolling Stones

“I’ve Got the World on a String”

Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen

Frank Sinatra

Madam Butterfly, “Una Nave Da Guerra”

Giacomo Puccini

Fiorenza Cossotto, Renata Tebaldi, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia & Tullio Serafin

“The Reason Why I’m Gone”

Chuck Cannon and Gary Lloyd


Gregorio Allegri

The Tallis Scholars

“Tears in the Holston River”

John R. Cash

Johnny Cash

Lakme, “Dôme épais le jasmin à la rose s’assemble”

Léo Delibes

Dame Joan Sutherland, Huguette Tourangeau, The Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra & Richard Bonynge

“Diamond in the Rough

Sara Carter, Maybelle Carter, and A.P. Carter

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Featuring June Carter Cash With Earl Scruggs

Scenes from Childhood, “Dreaming”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

On Reflection


Painting of the image a woman sees when she looks at herself in the mirror

The Mirror

William Merritt Chase,_Cincinnati_Art_Museum.JPG#/media/File:%27The_Mirror%27_by_William_Merritt_Chase,_Cincinnati_Art_Museum.JPG


The songs capture events and life experiences that often produce reflection, lost love, rejection, expectations (or the lack of expectations), death and remembrance, the exhilarating experience of success, the need to confront our dreams no matter the obstacles, worship and encounters with God and the supernatural. The music begins and ends with two movements from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, “Happy Enough” (there is both satisfaction and a hint of regret and diminished expectations) and “Dreaming” (which can be a source of or an escape from reflection and self-awareness). Childhood is where we all begin and the process of growing into maturity is one that often involves reflection and growth in the practice of reflection.


Asian woman looking in a mirror

Kitagawa Utamaro ukiyo-e



The two arias, one from Madame Butterfly, the other from Lakme are both popularly known as “The Flower Duet.” The one in Madame Butterfly has in it a few bars from The Star Spangled Banner, the American National Anthem. The musical quotation is Puccini’s way of suggesting the presence of the American naval officer who betrayed Madame Butterfly. When heard today it suggests, perhaps, that Puccini does not think much of Americans, but at the time the opera was written this anthem was not the National Anthem, but the Navy Anthem, and it is the values of an American seaman that Puccini is calling into question. The aria, though, expresses Butterfly’s love and expectation of a happy reunion, an expectation that is not to be fulfilled. Her mistake is in believing Pinkerton, the naval officer, to be an honorable man. He is not honorable unfortunately, nor was he very courageous. The other “Flower Duet” is a song that delights in flowers and natural beauty, but it also contains a prayer. Lakme begins to worry for her father’s safety, and her servant, Mallika, encourages Lakme to pray for her father’s safety. Adversity often provokes reflection and reflection often carries us through adversity.


Alice from Alice Through the Looking Glass on the mantle touching the mirror above the mantle

Alice through the looking glass

John Tenniel


The illustration from Through the Looking Glass suggests the importance of getting to the other side of the looking glass, to get beyond our image in the glass. Reflection, when it is effective, takes us out of ourselves; it helps us recognize larger communities and the needs of others. I am filled with the desire to be successful, to do what I do not just as well as others, but a little bit better than others. Ambition seems to be engrained and not easily tamed. But at the same time I am often happiest when I am sharing in the success of others. I was a theater major in college and one thing I learned as a young actor was how conflicted I was about praise. I was told that the only thing actors hated more than being praised was not being praised. Being praised brings with it embarrassment, it made me (and many other actors I knew) uncomfortable because on the one hand how do you respond to praise without being immodest, disingenuously humble, and on the other, being well aware of what went wrong in performance, it is difficult to believe in it, to take it as more than a courtesy or a kindness. But as an actor I was also terribly insecure and as a result if there was no praise, that fed my self-doubt. The humble side of my character was uncomfortable with praise, but the egocentric side of my character saw it as a kind of sustenance.


A group of women looking at their reflections in the water

  The Mirror of Venus

Edward Burne-Jones,_Edward_-_The_Mirror_of_Venus_-_1875_-_hi_res.jpg#/media/File:Burne-Jones,_Edward_-_The_Mirror_of_Venus_-_1875_-_hi_res.jpg


In life I would like to live, as I never could in the theater, beyond praise, in a realm of genuine self-satisfaction that neither needs praise nor is embarrassed by it. Reflection does not help me attain this; it often reveals to me how far I am from attaining this. It reminds me that about all that anyone can know about wisdom and humility is that those that think they have it, probably do not. Wisdom and humility are always a bit (usually a good bit) beyond our grasp. There were a number of articles recently about a new book by David Brooks on character (“David Brooks: ‘I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard’” and “The Moral Bucket List”). In a You-Tube talk (Should you live for you resume or for your eulogy (Transcript)) Brooks gave on the new book he talks about “the two Adams”:

So I’ve been thinking about that problem (of character), and a thinker who has helped me think about it is a guy named Joseph Soloveitchik, who was a rabbi who wrote a book called “The Lonely Man Of Faith” in 1965. Soloveitchik said there are two sides of our natures, which he called Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the worldly, ambitious, external side of our nature. He wants to build, create, create companies, create innovation. Adam II is the humble side of our nature. Adam II wants not only to do good but to be good, to live in a way internally that honors God, creation and our possibilities. Adam I wants to conquer the world. Adam II wants to hear a calling and obey the world. Adam I savors accomplishment. Adam II savors inner consistency and strength. Adam I asks how things work. Adam II asks why we’re here. Adam I’s motto is “success.” Adam II’s motto is “love, redemption and return.”

And Soloveitchik argued that these two sides of our nature are at war with each other. We live in perpetual self-confrontation between the external success and the internal value. And the tricky thing, I’d say, about these two sides of our nature is they work by different logics. The external logic is an economic logic: input leads to output, risk leads to reward. The internal side of our nature is a moral logic and often an inverse logic. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer the desire to get what you want. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.


Still life painting of variou objects on a table that are objects that promote vanity or about which we are vain about having


Anonymous French Painter


This is a useful way to think about ourselves. Though this is put into a religious context it still has merit when removed from this context. It captures metaphorically the conflict created by the need to excel and the need to be virtuous. Perhaps not everyone sees this as a struggle; perhaps some have an easier time living comfortably with one or the other of the two Adams. The painting above captures most of the avenues to worldly success, wealth, power, accomplishments of various kinds (from musical to gaming). The title, Vanitas, suggests the success that the various objects in the painting represent are not fulfilling. I have seen vanity defined in a couple of ways. One definition equates it with arrogance or conceit or self love and another, the way that it is used, for example, in Ecclesiastes when the preacher tells us “all is vanity,” defines it as uselessness. The suggestion is, perhaps, that all the worldly success illustrated in the painting does not ultimately satisfy; at some level of the human psyche it is useless and cannot cure what ails us. When I try to imagine what a painting of the more virtuous, more humble side of our nature might look like I think of a Shaker Table that is unostentatious with simple, elegant lines. But with the humility of the table probably comes the pride of having built such a beautiful thing, and suggests, perhaps, that pride and humility can coexist at some level.


Woman posing for a painting in front of a mirror that reflects the painter painting the picture

Der-maler-und-jo oppler

Ernst Oppler


Is this painting about the woman whose portrait is being painted or the artist painting the portrait? There is in the woman’s face a serious sadness. In the artist’s there is focus and determination and a hint of satisfaction. The work probably has a lot to do with the painter’s satisfaction and it may be that the lack of work, the necessity of sitting still and doing nothing, may be the cause of the woman’s sadness. But which is better for us. There is something to be said for work, it keeps us occupied and sometimes it keeps us from having to confront in ourselves that which we would rather not confront. If the sadness in the woman’s face is the result of contemplation on what has produced it, it may in the long term bring her to the other side of her sadness. It may be that the work is enabling the painter to avoid confronting what is unpleasant in his own life. And the truth is that we need to enable both sides of our nature, that which thrives on accomplishment to accomplish and that which thrives on the pursuit of goodness to pursue goodness. There is a magic to living well that enables those that live well to nurture the whole of their humanity; to allow all sides of their character to achieve and strive towards fulfillment.


Two men playing chess

De schaakspelers

Isaac Israëls


Art, music, and literature can stimulate reflection. Depending on how deeply we look, listen, or read they encourage us to consider our responses to them and what produced those responses. They raise issues that are important or resonate with our experience and often suggest different ways of responding to the events taking place around us and inside us. They also suggest to us that the various cultures that produced the work share a common humanity even though there are cultural, ethnic, or racial barriers that can come between us. American Jazz, Japanese Kabuki and Noh theater, German Opera, Italian Opera, the Victorian novel, the Russian novel, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, the paintings of the Dutch Masters, the Impressionists, Japanese woodblock, Chinese pen and ink. All of these and many others have been enjoyed by people around the world; people with little or no understanding of the cultures that produced them, but they are still moved by them. They remind us of what humans share in common as well as the aesthetic sense and the values that we share.


Still life ith fruit, flowers, and sheet music on a table in front of a mirror

Cinq sens

Jacques Linard


Stephen Greenblatt was invited to give the keynote address at a Shakespeare festival in Tehran. One of the men that invited him had published papers that were vehemently anti-Zionist, yet Greenblatt is Jewish and though one might draw a distinction between Judaism and Zionism, Greenblatt is a bit puzzled by the invitation in light of being Jewish. But it is a land he has wanted to see since he was an undergraduate in college so he accepts the invitation. He writes about his talk in “Shakespeare in Tehran.“ He speaks of Shakespeare’s ability to achieve a kind of openness and honesty in a culture that was not always friendly to the open and the honest. He also talks about Shakespeare’s ability to bridge cultures and find loyal readers and viewers of his plays in many disparate cultures throughout the world. (I remember a scene in one of the Star Trek movies where a Klingon quotes Shakespeare identifying him as a great Klingon poet.) At one point in his talk he said:

What did it mean that Shakespeare was the magic carpet that had carried me to Iran? For more than four centuries now he has served as a crucial link across the boundaries that divide cultures, ideologies, religions, nations, and all the other ways in which humans define and demarcate their identities. The differences, of course, remain—Shakespeare cannot simply erase them—and yet he offers the opportunity for what he called “atonement.” He used the word in the special sense, no longer current, of “at-one-ment,” a bringing together in shared dialogue of those who have been for too long opposed and apart.

This captures an essence of Shakespeare, but it is also an essence of Cervantes, of Dante, of Tolstoy, of Chikamatsu, Murasaki Shikibu, Bassho, Scheherazade, and Rumi. Literature is often the way one culture speaks to another. It is also a bit subversive. In Greenblatt’s talk a woman asked what he thought of Richard II and the revolt of Bolingbroke. Greenblatt said he did not know and asked her what she thought. “‘I think,’ the student replied, ‘that it was merely one group of thugs replacing another.’” This might be said of many of the world’s revolutions, The French Revolution, The Russian Revolution, and the Iranian Revolution.


Death in the form of a skeleton confronting a woman

Vergänglichkeitsbuch 250 120v Totentanz

Wilhelm Werner von Zimmern


Still, Richard II has some of the most poetic lines in Shakespeare and his abdication is not what one typically associates with a thug:

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;

Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.

Now mark me, how I will undo myself;

I give this heavy weight from off my head

And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,

The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,

With mine own hands I give away my crown,

With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,

With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:

All pomp and majesty I do forswear;

My manors, rents, revenues I forego;

My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:

God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!

God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!

Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,

And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!

Long mayst thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,

And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!

God save King Harry, unking’d Richard says,

And send him many years of sunshine days!

Notice when he speaks of himself and his personal state his lines rhyme. When he officially abdicates the iambic pentameter is maintained, but the rhymes disappear. He goes from rhymed to blank verse. The abdication is official and states what by law must be stated (though it does state a bit more) the rest of it speaks his heart and those lines carry all the emotional effects poetry gives to them. In the abdication he speaks as the office demands when he speaks for himself he speaks with his whole heart and the change in verse forms captures this. There is a poetry of the heart that cannot be touched by mathematics. The abdication maintains the mathematics of poetry, the iambic pentameter; his personal remarks keep the mathematics, but add his humanity. Also, the poetry, as the mirror in the painting, reminds him, and us, of his, and our, own mortality, “And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit.” Michael Roberts in discussing the value of poetry (“Equipment for Living”) sees its true value in consolation not deliverance:

Boethius would have understood: he composed De Consolatione Philosophiae in prison, awaiting execution. According to one reputable
source, “a cord was twisted round his head so tightly that it caused his eyeballs to protrude from their sockets, and … his life was then beaten out of him by a club.” Lady Philosophy does not console the prisoner by freeing him or providing him with worldly goods or happiness, but by reconciling him to his fate. He comes to accept that all things are ordered sweetly by God, and he aspires to achieve spiritual freedom through contemplation of God. (Actual redemption is implied, but not easy consolation.)

Part of being reflective is coming to grips with our mortality, though hopefully, in not as blunt a manner as Boethius.       


Hail the Conquering Hero Comes

Preston Sturgis

Universal Studios


The film is set during World War II, and the character played by Eddie Bracken, Woodrow Truesmith, has been sent home by the Marines because of a severe case of hay fever. He is embarrassed and disappointed. He encounters some soldiers just home from the war that experienced combat and demonstrated real courage. They feel sorry for Truesmith and want to help him save face with his neighbors. They make him one of their company and “write him into” their stories. Truesmith becomes a local hero and before he knows what’s happened he finds himself a candidate for mayor. The scene in the video is Truesmith trying to recover his honesty and his integrity. He is told that no lies have been told; just a few names have been changed. But everything happened just as they are described in the stories. The film is a comedy and a funny one, but the truth at its heart is worth thinking about. What is the nature of honesty; where does corruption begin; what does it mean to have integrity? Ben Jonson imagined two audiences for his plays. One audience got the jokes and went home and thought no more about them. The other audience got the joked but also reflected on them and applied them to their own experience. They were enriched and changed by the humor. Jonson said in one of his epigrams, “Pray thee take care, who tak’st my book in hand, / To read it well: that is, to understand.” He referred to this second audience as the “understanders.”


Woman sitting in front of a mirror with two lit candles

The Repentant Magdalene

Georges de La Tour


Mathematics and the sciences give us wonderful machines, figure out ways to solve problems and cure deadly diseases; they are to be valued and pursued, they have much to teach us and much to offer to lighten the burdens of our days. But the Humanities offer us something real and substantial as well. We cannot always hold what the Humanities give us in our hands, but without them it is difficult to imagine how we become fully alive and complete as human beings. The math and sciences can make us better machines but the Humanities make us better human beings. Lily Tuck in “Reading with Imagination” writes about how reading well differs from the more common ways of reading, for information or for entertainment:

In the Middle Ages, reading was regarded as a contemplative act. It was lectio divina and limited to sacred texts that, for the most part, were read out loud and optimally, the words read were repeated by the listeners in order to fill body and soul with their significance. Reading then was essentially a form of prayer. Today, however, most people read to be informed and instructed — where to take a vacation, how to cook, how to invest their money. Less frequently, the reasons may be escapist or to be entertained, to forget the boredom or anxiety of their daily lives. These are valid reasons, but I believe most of the reading one does for these reasons is actually a “bad” practice for reading literature.

Imagination is defined as “the creative process of the mind,” and its power is both limitless and marvelous and most probably redemptive as well. We are surrounded by works of the imagination: our transportation, our communication, our technology. Every song we hear, every picture we look at that genuinely gladdens our heart for a moment is a work of the imagination. Literature is the language of the imagination refined by heightened sensibility, and reading, to use the literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman’s phrase, should be “an encounter of imagination with imagination.”

This does not mean reading with the imagination does not entertain, but that it does much more than entertain and that it is a kind of reading that does not have entertainment as its sole object.

Perhaps “entertainment” is too “light” a word and we need another, but we live in a time that sees the pursuit of enlightenment and self-knowledge as a kind of work, often arduous work; that does not seem to believe that work can be fun, that it can be entertaining. Jonson’s “understanders” left the theater entertained, but they also left enlightened and much more self-aware. James Parker in “A Most Unlikely Saint” quotes G. K. Chesterton, “The Madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Those of us that spend our lives exclusively with mathematics and the sciences are in danger of loosing everything but our reason; it is the humanities that restore to us the other components that make us fully human and keep us sane.


Girl looking at flowers on a mantlepiece in front of a mirror

Girl in Blue Arranging Flowers

Frederick Carl Frieseke

For the Sake of Argument

 Missa Luba Kyrie

Les Troubadours Du Roi Baudouin

La Catedral: ii Allegro Solemne

Agustín Barrios Mangoré

Sharon Isbin

Amazigh Lullaby


Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras & Hespèrion XXI

Mireu el Nostre Mar


Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras & Hespèrion XXI

Los Paxaricos (Isaac Levy I.59) – Maciço de Rosas (I.Levy III.41)


Jordi Savall

A Swallow Song

Richard Farina

Joan Baez

Recuerdos de la Alhambra

Francisco Tarrega

Sharon Isbin

Offertorium – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

Sofia Gubaidulina

Oleh Krysa, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra & James DePreist

We Can Work It Out

John Lennon and Paul McCartney

The Beatles

For the Sake of Argument


Man sitting in a boat undeer a tree looking out at the world around him

Zhou Maushu Appreciating Lotuses

Kano Masanobu


The painting above suggests a few things about argument. One, in order to be able to argue a position we need to know it, we need to have thought it through, usually in quiet contemplation. The painting also suggests, perhaps, that our arguments are first with ourselves as we try to articulate, think through in our own minds, what it is we believe and why. These arguments can get quite vociferous, though to others looking on we may appear as serene and composed as the gentlemen in the boat. Once the arguments move from the realm of inner contemplation to that of public discourse, the appearance of serenity often disappears. As Madam de Sévigné has said, “True friendship is never serene.” I remember Paul Simon once introduced Art Garfunkel as his “partner in arguments.” And perhaps a sign of true friendship is that friends can argue strenuously, loudly, intensely without jeopardizing the friendship.

The music evokes “conversations,” some of them heated, that occur throughout the world. The first is “Kyrie” from the Catholic Mass, but it is sung to African folk melodies suggesting a “conversation” between the European and African continents. The guitar music and the music from Jordi Savill’s Hespèrion come from three parts of the world, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Andalusian Spain. What these areas of the world have in common is the presence of a significant Jewish, Christian, and Islamic population with the cultural heritage that each population brings with it. In this music you can hear the influence of each culture in the music of the others. The song “Amazigh Lullaby” is a Berber song (Islamic), “Mireau el Nostre” is Catalan (Christian), and “Les Paxaricos” is from Istanbul (Jewish). The arguments that these cultures have with one another are ancient, but culturally they have given much to each other and each culture has embraced these cultural contributions without conflict.


Men in  a boat looking at the Hagia Sophia

View of the Port of Constantinople

Ivan Alvazovsky

Musee des Beaux Arts Brest (France)


The song, “Les Paxaricos” has a melody that found its way into an American folk song, “A Swallow Song,” that I first heard about the time I started college, which suggests a continuing influence of this musical tradition (I do not know if there is a connection between the parakeet and the swallow, however). The Sofia Gubaidulina composition comes out of Soviet Russia and has its origins in the “conversation” between the atheistic Soviet Government and the religious beliefs of the composer, who did not have an easy time getting her music played in Russia. Then there is The Beatle’s song that suggests we can work things out, if for the sake of argument, you just agree with me; the persona of the song is never going to accept another’s point of view. It suggests to me a tee shirt I saw once, “I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” Such is the nature of argument.


A man and a woman (man standing, woman seated) having a conversation

The Conversation (the grill work spells out “noix” and “a la noix” means “Hopeless”, by itself it means “nut” or “walnut”)

Henri Matisse


I have never liked to argue. Like most people I do not like losing arguments, but also, I do not like winning them either. On those occasions when I have been fortunate enough to win the argument I always felt badly for the other, I remember how I felt when I lost and imagine my interlocutor to feel the same. Also, when winning arguments, I recognize the weaknesses in my own arguments, the points I could not adequately defend and my victory was premised, in large part, on my opponent not happening to recognize these weaknesses. But the fact remains that but for the sake of argument we would as a culture stagnate. It is argument that keeps our ideas sharp that helps us identify the weaknesses in our positions and strengthen them or, if necessary, abandon them. But for the sake of argument we might become arrogant and inflexible and close minded. Argument reminds us of our limitations, if we are thoughtful and honest. This doesn’t mean we are constantly changing our positions, believing this, that, and the other thing as we recognize the weaknesses in each, but that we recognize that whatever position we hold has its limitations. Argument reminds us that we live by principles and not absolutes. For most there are absolutes, lines we will not cross, but these are few and much in life falls between them. We hunger for a world of black and white, but live in a world that is gray and dappled. Argument helps us, in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, “praise God for dappled things.” Though argument can be unpleasant and difficult it is important and we have a responsibility to argue as effectively as we can for what we truly believe, and it might be suggested that we do not truly believe anything we are unwilling to defend.


Painting of a landscape with Jerusalem off in the distance

Pilgrimage to Jerusalem

David Roberts


Leon Wieseltier wrote about the importance of argument (“Reason and the Republic of Opinion,” “Among the Disrupted,” and “The Argumentative Jew”). In each of these articles he writes not just about the importance of argument, but how argument is a quest for truth and understanding. We see in our opponent’s argument what our opponent cannot see, just as our opponent sees what we cannot see. Argument is revelatory. And if the things we argue about were not important, we would not invest the time and energy argument, especially passionate argument, demands. At one point in the article “The Argumentative Jew” Wieseltier discusses a quarrel between two groups within Judaism:

This same epic quarrel between the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai is described in a mishnah as “a quarrel for the sake of heaven [which therefore] will endure.” The endurance of a quarrel: What sort of aspiration is this? It is the aspiration of a mentality that is genuinely rigorous and genuinely pluralistic. The tradition of commentary on that mishnah is a kind of history of Jewish views on intellectual inquiry—from the Levant in the 15th century, for example, there is Ovadiah Bertinoro’s remark that “only by means of debate will truth be established,” an uncanny anticipation of Milton and Mill, and from Hungary in the 19th century there is the gloss by Rabbi Moses Schick, who himself had a role in a community-wide schism, that “sometimes it is our duty to make a quarrel . . . For the sake of truth we are not only permitted to make a quarrel, we are obligated to make a quarrel.”

He goes on to say, “Learning to live with disagreement, moreover, is a way of learning to live with each other.” This is as true within Judaism as it is within any pluralistic culture. For the culture to survive its citizens must find a way to talk to each other and disagree. I cannot imagine a society that is both free and free of argument. Not only is true friendship never serene, neither is true citizenship. A free nation can survive its quarrels if it agrees to respectfully disagree. Once respect is lost, the fabric of the society begins to unravel. “Political correctness” undermines democracy, but so does a dearth of kindness and an absence of consideration. But kindness and consideration cannot be achieved by mandate, only by mutual consent. And even where this consent is present, in the course of argument, “things will be said” that both sides to the argument will need to at some point forgive and overlook.


Painting of buildings in Granada, Spain

Old Buildings on the Darro, Granada

David Roberts,_Granada,_by_David_Roberts_1834.JPG


Tim Parks wrote an article on reading (“Weapons for Readers”) that views readers’ weapons as pens or pencils with which they writes “Rubbish” or “Brilliant” in the margins as a way of maintaining an argument and a conversation with the book and its author. That even when we read solely for pleasure (which I would hope is most of the time) we should be reading aggressively; we should debate the authors and their ideas and in so doing make the reading more our own, the writers thoughts will not always be our thoughts, but our thoughts about the writers thoughts ought always to be ours, and in reading this way we grow our intellect and develop our imaginations. I think there are three ways of reading (there are probably more) we read for pleasure alone, just to get the gist of the plot and follow the story line; we read for information, to find facts we need to know; and we read for depth and understanding, we debate the books we read, dig for subtext, and try to understand how arguments and ideas are shaped and developed. The last is probably the most difficult way to read but also the most rewarding and the only kind of reading that changes us as human beings while it nurtures our spirit and adds depth to our character. It is also the source of much of the wisdom we will accumulate in our lifetime.


Drawing of two men arguing


E. W. Kimble


It has been suggested that peace is not the absence of conflict, but the commitment to resolving conflict. In seeking peace we often try to find a way to avoid conflict, to make it go away, when in fact it is in making conflict go away that we sow the seeds that undermine peace. Making conflict go away often involves putting a blanket over it and pretending it isn’t there, but eventually it explodes. The explosion will force us to work at resolution, if all goes well, so that peace can be restored, but just as often it damages the common ground that may have provided the foundation for our peacemaking. Of course the more important the issues at the heart of our arguments the more difficult they are to resolve. Living in peace requires we resolve the conflicts that can be resolved and learn to live with and respect the differences that cannot be. In any relationship the relationship itself is a living thing and when we argue we must decide at some point which is more important, the life of the relationship or our individual views and desires. Relationships die when we place a greater value on ourselves than we do on the relationship.


A painting of Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel

Arthur Rackham


Myth, fairy tale, and folklore very often help us to confront and live with those things we cannot change; provide an avenue, especially for children, to move forward when their arguments and confrontations with authority cannot be resolved. Rowan Williams in a review of a book by Marina Warner Once Upon a Time: a Short History of the Fairy Tale (“Why we need fairy tales now more than ever”) wrote about the role fairy tales and myth play in helping us survive in a hostile world, where our views are ignored and our lives are at risk:

The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons. There is indeed, as Warner (in the wake of scholars such as Jack Zipes) makes clear, a strand of social resistance running through much of the old material, a strand repeatedly weakened, if not denied, by nervous rewriting. But this depends on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush . . .

What does this mean when it comes to argument? It is often true that our views and arguments are overlooked, ignored, or trivialized by those with the power to ignore us. Our views may have value to us, but they often have little value to others, especially others we hope or expect will take us seriously, like parents, teachers, and those in authority of one kind or another. Though it may appear we are being ignored, there are ears that hear us and may answer us somewhere down the road. But, on the other hand, they may not. But wonder is as much a part of life as any of the other less happy aspects of our existence and we ought to remain open to wonder.


The Quarrel

Eli Cohen

Apple and Honey Productions


The film clip is from the movie The Quarrel based on a short story, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” by Chaim Grade. The story revolves around two men that had been best friends when they were younger and both Yeshiva students. One lost his faith and became a writer. The other became a Rabbi. They both survived The Holocaust, one by hiding from the Nazis (the writer) and the other (the Rabbi) by surviving Auschwitz. Their friendship broke down before World War II and the events that followed. They had an argument about God and religion that became heated and they went their separate ways. Then the war came and they lost touch with each other; each believed the other had been killed in the war. Both lost their families to The Holocaust. They meet by chance in Montreal and resume their argument. At the end of the story their conflict is not resolved, but their friendship is restored.

The film and the story suggests that arguments are important and that no real friendship can exist if there is no potential for disagreement, especially on the most important and primary of our beliefs. There is speech that might appear hostile, cruel, even bigoted outside of the relationship. But inside the relationship, where a bond of trust has been established, much can be said that cannot be said outside of a relationship, at least not said easily or in a way that will be taken seriously. Friends can talk about the most divisive of issues, be on opposite sides of the most divisive of issues, and the relationship will enable conversation and debate. It also protects each side from being misunderstood. The friendship intercedes and colors what is said. What might provoke anger and resentment from a stranger does not from a friend. It provides a means of being understood and for explaining a point of view without the necessity of “winning” the argument or appearing to judge or condemn.


Painting of men fighting over a game of backgammon

Argument Over a Card Game

Jan Steen


Of course there are those arguments that end like the one in the painting, though that seems to me to be an argument based more on ethics (cheating at cards, perhaps) than principle. In many of the arguments that permeate our society there is this aspect of confrontation, sometimes violent confrontation, that characterizes them. Friendship rarely plays a part in these arguments, often they are between people who do not know each other well or at all. Erasmus wrote a book called In Praise of Folly. The Latin title is Morias Encomium. The title was a bit of an in-joke between Erasmus and his friend Thomas More. “Morias” is also the Latin form of Thomas More’s last name, so the title of the book could be read as “in praise of folly” or “in praise of More.” As every sophomore knows, “more” is the source for English words like “moron” (sophomore translate to “wise fool”). It is the friendship between the two men that makes this a joke and not an insult. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams argued strenuously over issues and were enemies for most of their lives. The painting may capture the emotions that characterized their relationship even if it did not result in the actual outcome depicted in the painting. Later in life they became good friends who could disagree without anger or animosity. Perhaps they are a metaphor of sorts of the national divide, as Jefferson was from the South and Adams was from the North, but the argument between these two regions of the country did not end so amicably.


Three men walking and laguhing together

Three Men Laugh by the Tiger Stream

Song Dynasty


The painting depicts three men who have just walked through a bit of land infested by tigers. The bridge they have just crossed has taken them safely out of this tiger infested territory. While passing through this territory they were engaged in a fierce debate. One of the men is a Confucian, one is a Taoist, and one is Buddhist. They each hold firmly to their faith and worldview, and being scholars in their respective faiths, each argues earnestly and well and with conviction. Each tries to convince the others of the superiority the faith he holds, none are convinced by the arguments the others make. When they cross the bridge they realize where they have been and the danger they had escaped and they begin to laugh. In their case the argument was not just an exchange of views, it offered a kind of protection from danger; a distraction that enabled them to “pleasantly” survive what could have been a terrifying ordeal. Our arguments are often what preserve our relationships and the fabric of our community. If we cannot argue we cannot truly love and if we cannot love we are not likely to dwell together in peace.


Painting of a woman looking out of the window while a man sits in a chair next to her reading a newsaper


Gustave Caillebotte

Making Time

 “Those Were the Days”

Mary Hopkins

“Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is”

Robert Lamm

Chicago Transit Authority

“Time Is on My Side”

Jerry Ragovy

The Rolling Stones

“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”

Charlie Parker

“Time Has Come Today”

Joseph Chambers and Willie Chambers

The Chambers Brothers

Symphony No. 101 in D Major, Hob. I:101, “The Clock”: II. Andante

Franz Joseph Hyden

Johannes Wildner & Camerata Cassovia

“Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Sandy Denny

Fairport Convention


Making Time


Painting of a Man studying the globe by canlelight

The Astronomer

Gerard Dou


“Making time” is one of those expressions that can be something of a self-contradiction. On the one hand, especially when we are trying to arrive at a destination (either a physical destination like New York or a metaphorical destination like the understanding of a concept), when we speak of “making time” we are speaking of how quickly we are getting to where it is we want to go. In this sense “making time” is about speed, which is not always the same thing as efficiency, which is taking no more time than is necessary, but also taking all the time that is necessary. It is just quickness. I may get to New York very quickly, but on the journey miss the Grand Canyon, which, as a visit, would be an efficient use of time, but it would slow me down and so in the interest of speed the visit is not taken.

But there is another sense in which we “make time” and that is when we set aside blocks of time so that we can slow down and think, reflect, and contemplate; so that we can study more deeply or work more slowly and deliberately. This is about lingering, which also may not be efficient, we may be spending more time than is precisely necessary drawing out our investigations; luxuriating in what we have or in the process of discovering. For the astronomer in the painting time seems to have stopped as his hour glass is on its side and the sands are no longer measuring time’s passing. Much of life is spent navigating our way through these two approaches towards making time. Taking things quickly or slowly as the moment demands.


Painting of men sitting around reading newspapers and inspecting cotton

A Cotton Office in New Orleans

Edgar Degas


The gentlemen in this painting are making time in a different way, many in the painting look like they are “killing time.” Idly waiting for time to pass, waiting for something they expect will happen, to happen. They are not making time in an effort to arrive quickly at a destination, nor are they making time so that a task can be completed deliberately and effectively; they are doing little or nothing with time. In a sense they are killing time while waiting for time to kill them, which, considering the painting was painted well over a hundred years ago, time has had its way with them. I suppose these are three choices we face when it comes to time, we can work quickly toward a goal, work slowly towards understanding and self awareness, or we can do nothing at all with our time, we can bury our talent in the mundane activities that occupy our days.


Painting of an old man sitting at his desk contemplatively

Saint Paul at His Writing Desk

Rembrandt van Rijn


In music there is the importance of “keeping time” and how each musician must do the different things they do within the same “measure” of time. I think it is interesting that The Chambers Brothers use a percussion instrument in “Time Has Come to Stay” to suggest the ticking of the clock and the passing of time in much the same way Haydn uses the orchestra at the beginning of his “Clock Symphony” to make a similar evocation. But in order to appreciate how the different musical forms use sound and the instruments that make those sounds we must make time to listen to it carefully and reflectively without loosing the joy and pleasure the music was intended to provide. The arts when appreciated fully often make this demand upon us and this demand illustrates that taking things slowly brings its own exhilaration, but in order to experience this exhilaration we must live contrary to the times and move slowly; resist the urge for speed and fight the compulsion to make time on our journey through life.


Painting of a man with a mischievious look playing the lute

Jester with a Lute

Franz Hals


Ryan Szpiech in “The Dagger of Faith in the Digital Age” contemplates this relationship between time and reading. He looks at the nature of reading; the books we read and how we read them. He is contemplating his investigations of an old and obscure medieval manuscript that has an empty third column that can only be appreciated or even seen when looking at the physical manuscript. The blank space does not appear in a digital representation of the book, the white space on a digital screen, even when the empty column is present, is often interpreted differently from a white space on the printed page. He suggests the rise of the digital book is making us into different kinds of readers, readers who read for information, not to get lost in the world the book creates:

Just as Google Books does not simply strive to augment the reading of a book but to actually replace the reader’s book with the searcher’s book, so the ultimate goal of digital editions and digital facsimiles, I believe, is not only to reflect the “original,” to “capture” or “recapture” it, but to effectively replace it with a better image of itself. Whereas philology, the study of language history through texts, creates (like fetishism) a “desire for presence,” digital philology creates a simulacrum or iconic replacement for this presence. The injunction from Kings against graven images rings in my ears, and I choose a fetishism of the frail human object over an idolatry of the power of the machine.

It is no surprise that the missing third column has been universally overlooked in the Coimbra codex of the Dagger of Faith, because even as it speaks on so many levels of its circumstance and intended meaning and unrepeatable history, it is, in its digital avatar, obscured by the overwhelming presence of its simulacrum. In viewing it from the comfort of a local café, on my own time, at my preferred screen resolution, I am grateful for its accessibility and convenience and I can work more effectively because of it. I am, however, also wary of the dangers it brings, above all the danger of my own complacency before it. I am wary lest I forget that the gleaming digital image of the Coimbra manuscript’s missing third column is a sort of enchanted mirror that ironically reflects back the impossibility of reproduction, of reflection, of control, of total understanding—ironically some of the very things that Ramon Martí (the author of The dagger of Faith) seems to have been coveting in his polemical attacks on Judaism like the Dagger. Yet if we can keep the eyes to see it, the manuscript’s lack leaps out as a stark reminder that reading is an imperfect and imperfectable activity whose final lesson is its own inscrutability, for it bespeaks the inscrutability of all that is time-bound—of history, of fate, of loss—should I say it?—of death. Umberto Eco has stated, “With a book…you are obliged to accept the laws of Fate, and to realize that you cannot change Destiny…In order to be free persons we also need to learn this lesson about Life and Death.” In the age of book searching, however, in which books are now the fodder of a few key strokes and the flitting caprice of an impatient mind, it may now be the inviolate manuscript that can, as never before, best teach us this law of Necessity.

Reading in the sense that Szpiech speaks of is being captured by the book and drawn into the world it creates. We have to leave behind what we want from the book and accept what it has to offer. If the book does not win us to its world, we will not be captured by it and will not set aside our expectations. But if the book does capture us we enter its world and leave our world and our expectations behind. As Henry James said of the novel (quoted in “Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate”), “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it. Naturally I do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it interesting: in case we do not our course is perfectly simple—to let it alone.” We can always let the book alone, but if we read it we ought to read it on its own terms and to do that we need to give the book the time it needs to be properly experienced.


Painting of a man in a library deep in thought surrounded by books on the table in front of him

Edmond Duranty

Edgar Degas


One thing that reading does for me is to remind me of the value of the people around me, that they have worth. I do not need, or should not need, books to remind me of this and I hope I do not depend on books to do this for me; I hope I know, apart from what I read, and that I would know even if I never read a word, that people have value. But the books I read reawaken me to this knowledge. In the course of day to day activity it is difficult to keep this fact of human worth alive. I know in the course of the work I do I get frustrated and angry and in my effort to achieve whatever it is I am trying to achieve that the people around me, at whom for one reason or another I am getting angry or petulant, did nothing to deserve my anger or petulance. In the midst of this I do not stop and read a book in order to regain my bearings, but it often happens that books that I have read come to mind and remind me that the people around me deserve better from me. Marilynne Robinson in an interview with Wyatt Mason (“The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson”) said:

“People,” Robinson said, pausing before she defined that familiar word in original terms: “Brilliant creatures, who at a very high rate, predictably, are incomprehensible to each other. If what people want is to be formally in society, to have status, to have loving relationships, houseplants that don’t die, the failure rate is phenomenal. . . . Excellent people, well-meaning people, their lives do not yield what they hoped. You know? This doesn’t diminish, at all, the fact that their dignity is intact. But their grief . . .”

“. . . is enormous,” I said.

Outside, the Iowa summer afternoon was gathering itself into a storm. Large bursts of thunder began to detonate around us.

“It is,” she said, continuing her previous thought. “ ‘O, Absalom! Absalom! My son, my son.’ The idea that there is an intrinsic worth in a human being. Abuse or neglect of a human being is not the destruction of worth but certainly the denial of it. Worth. We’re always trying to anchor meaning in experience. But without the concept of worth, there’s no concept of meaning. I cannot make a dollar worth a dollar; I have to trust that it is worth a dollar. I can’t make a human being worthy of my respect; I have to assume that he is worthy of my respect. Which I think is so much of the importance of the Genesis narrative. We are given each other in trust. I think people are much too wonderful to be alive briefly and gone. . . .

In the course of our lives we are put in the way of many people, some in more profound ways than others, but many of the troubles of the world find their origins in people’s inability to accept the worth of those around them. The most petty of crimes is at its heart grounded in a belief that one person, the criminal, has more value than another, the victim. We cannot expect nations and states, cities and towns, to recognize this all the time, they are after all artificial human constructs, but each individual has a responsibility to remember this moment to moment as they live their lives.


Painting of a woman giving money to a servant while a child tugs at the servant's dress

Woman Handing over Money to Her Servant

Pieter de Hooch


In this painting we see three people, a mother, a servant, and a child. The servant is taking money from the woman she works for. The reason for her being given the money is not clearly understood in the painting, but it is probably not important. What captures my attention, though, is the child. The child is pulling at the skirts of the servant. I wonder is this because the child does not value the servant and expects the servant to serve her, and if this is the case, where was this behavior learned? Probably from the mother. But there is another way to take this behavior on the part of the child and that is that the child has more of a relationship with the servant than with the mother. The child feels free to tug on the servants dress, would she feel as free to tug on the dress of her mother? Has the child’s care been given over to the servant and as a result does the child view the servant more like a parent than the mother? Our relationships often derive their value from the time invested in them. If the care of our children is given to others then it is these others who are investing time in our children and that our children look up to. What we do with our time, how we spend it, is consequential. Where we spend our time reveals what we value. No person is made valuable or assigned worth on the basis of birth, or to whom they were born, or on the basis of a ceremony, such as a marriage or a Baptism. People are made valuable by the time we invest in them because we have nothing more valuable to give than our time.


Painting of a man studying at a table with golden sunlight coming in through the window

Scholar Reading

Rembrandt van Rijn


I enjoy this painting of the scholar. In some ways it is unlike other of Rembrandt’s paintings, which are dominated almost exclusively by dark colors and earth tones. In this painting there is the blue in the draperies and the golden sunlight in the window. If we take the time to look closely there is the suggestion of joy in the scholar engaged in his study. I am not sure this painting (probably any painting) can be fully appreciated without an investment in time. But what about the time we spend with music, art, and literature, or any other of the humanities? What is produced by the time spent with books, listening to music, or looking at a painting? For that matter what is produced by the study of abstract math or science? There may be at some point down the road some use the math and science can be put to, but the study was not engaged initially for what it might produce, but for love of the investigation, for a desire to deepen our knowledge of the discipline. But where the mathematician and the scientist are often forgiven their luxurious expenditures of time because there is the possibility something may come of it (though they are often ridiculed for studying what seems to some as useless, silly and a waste of time) the study of the humanities is often seen as having nothing useful to offer either in the present moment or at any time in the future.

Adam Kirsch and Dana Stevens in a regular feature in the New York Times “Bookends” discuss the usefulness (or uselessness) of literature, “Should Literature Be Considered Useful?”. Kirsch talks about how through time many have sought after a purpose that literature serves, as service it provides, to identify its practicality. He concludes:

To Martin Heidegger, however, this way of looking at art would appear exactly backward. Equipment, tools, “gear,” are for Heidegger what we don’t notice or pay attention to so long as it is working. A hammer in good condition is like an extension of the person using it, a way for him to work his will. It is only when the tool breaks that it escapes the banality of usefulness and takes on determinate existence as a piece of wood and a piece of metal, with its own weight, hardness and luster.

Literature, in this sense, is a tool that is always broken. A functional linguistic tool is like a stop sign, which we barely even read, much less think about; we simply see it and put our foot on the brake. A poem stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from a stop sign, in that it demands attention for itself, its specific verbal weight and nuance, rather than immediately directing us to take an action. Indeed, literature famously has the power to impede action altogether, to sever our relations with the real world in ways that can lead to harm — that is one of the messages of “Madame Bovary,” to use Burke’s example. The life that literature really equips us to live is not the one Wordsworth derided as devoted to “getting and spending,” but the second life of inwardness and imagination. For those who do not believe in the reality of that second life, no amount of insisting on the usefulness of literature will justify it; for those who live it, no such insisting is necessary.

Reading is an expenditure of time intended to produce no outward result or product. It is the building of an inner life. In some ways it is the building of character, both in the sense that it shapes the people we become and in the sense that we look at ourselves more seriously, that in our studies of the characters on the page we come to a deeper understanding of the character that lives inside us, that defines us. But even if it does not change us, and the history of the world is filled with people who were not changed by what they read, heard, or saw in their experience of the arts, it stirs and develops the imagination.


Painter in his studio looking over his work

The Artist in His Studio

Rembrandt van Rijn


This usually produces nothing useful outside of the individual doing the reading or observing or listening. On occasion, though, it develops a different way of looking in the way Galileo, because of his training as a draughtsman, looked at the moon differently than did the other astronomers of his day. I suppose there is little any human does that is entirely useless, though not all may be useful or beneficial. Whatever it is we devote our time to changes us, makes us different. The time spent doing nothing changes the way we look at time and the way we use our time. If the nothing we do is reflective (is this really doing nothing) or relaxing we come to appreciate the need for something like a Sabbath to rest and consider. If we spend substantial quantities of time “wasting time” that changes us too if only in that it creates an empty space that cannot be reclaimed. I suppose it comes down to what we mean by useful and useless, if the definition of a “product” is something I can hold in my hand as opposed to something I hold in my intellect, imagination, or spirit, than Literature and Art are useless. But if there is more to our existence than producing a tangible product it is there that the usefulness of Literature and Art lies.


Abstract painting of a harbor with boats

Little Harbor in Normandy

George Braque,_1909,_Port_en_Normandie_(Little_Harbor_in_Normandy),_81.1_x_80.5_cm_(32_x_31.7_in),_The_Art_Institute_of_Chicago.jpg


Dana Stevens sees another side to literature, one that is more essential to a meaningful life and what gets lost the farther away we move from a world in which the humanities play a significant role. She says:

Literature is the record we have of the conversation between those of us now alive on earth and everyone who’s come before and will come after, the cumulative repository of humanity’s knowledge, wonder, curiosity, passion, rage, grief and delight. It’s as useless as a spun-sugar snowflake and as practical as a Swiss Army knife (or, in Kafka’s stunning description of what a book should be, “an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us”). All I know is that when my daughter pushes for another chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder at bedtime, I feel a part of something very ancient, mysterious and important, something whose existence justifies in and of itself this unlikely experiment of life on earth. I couldn’t tell you exactly what shelf in the utility closet that equipment for living occupies, but I suspect none of us storytelling apes would survive for long without it.

This is the role that reading often fills for me, it opens my world, takes me out of myself, makes me more understanding of others and of myself. It is a conversation with the dead (or at least, as in the case of living authors, those that are “dead” to me in that they are not people that move in my circles). One of the surprises that comes from reading is how well people that have never known me know me. There is in literature that lives an understanding of life and of people and of the imagination that is timeless. Like Braque’s painting there is something in reading that is on the one hand calming and reassuring, but on the other a bit disturbing, that upsets the way we look at things and presents the world around us in ways we did not expect and with which we are not always comfortable.


From Safety Last

Harold Lloyd

Hal Roach Studios


This film contains one of the iconic images of the silent film era. That of Harold Lloyd suspended high above the city of Los Angeles holding on to the hands of a clock. But for me, there is also the city that is spread out beneath him. In the film I see the cable cars I used to see as a young boy whenever I went into the city which are no longer there to be seen. It brings back a time that is in some ways lost, but through memory and story can still be regained, if only in the imagination. This is the joy that comes from reading Raymond Chandler and recognizing the streets and the parts of the city he describes, that delights in the knowing “I’ve been there, I’ve seen that.” This may be more true of Los Angeles than of other cities because so much of this city’s historical architecture and open spaces has been replaced by modern structures and more “useful” space.

I imagine people living in Boston or Paris or Istanbul experience something similar when they read of their hometown in stories set in their city. But because film came of age in Los Angeles I see much of the history of the city, especially its visual history, how its appearance has evolved, in many of the classical films (and many not so classic films), especially those of the 1920’s through 1950’s. So when watching films like Safety Last or Sullivan’s Travels I have the opportunity in my imagination to ride once again the cable cars of my youth.


Painting of sail boats on the ocea


Eugène Bouden


But more than nostalgia is satisfied by the time we spend with Literature and the Arts. When we look at a seascape or a landscape (whether in the world or in a painting or photograph) we have to look carefully and if we look there is often something calming and serene about it. But if we look at a forest or seascape in the same way we look at a parking lot, invest the same amount of time in our looking we are not likely to appreciate the difference between a forest and a parking lot. In fact, in looking at a full parking lot some may see evidence that the economy is booming, that people are working or shopping, they are investing in the Gross Domestic Product and to them this is a beautiful thing, something deserving of preservation and replication.

Azar Nafisi in her new book The Republic of the Imagination writes about a meeting she had with another Iranian immigrant at a book signing. He was saying that Americans do not read their books the way Iranians do (and by implication others from totalitarian regimes). Nafisi writes:

Thinking over what Ramin had said, I found it intriguing that he suggested not that Americans did not understand our books but that they didn’t understand their own. In an oblique way, he made it seem as if Western Literature belonged more to the hankering souls of the Islamic Republic of Iran than to the inhabitants of the land that had given birth to them. How could this be? And yet it is true that people who brave censorship, jail and torture to gain access to books or music or movies or works of art tend to hold the whole enterprise in an entirely different light.

But she goes on to say:

My impulse, now as then, is to disagree. The majority of people in this country (America) who haunt bookstores, go to readings and book festivals or simply read in the privacy of their homes are not traumatized exiles. Many have seldom left their hometown or state, but does this mean that they do not dream, that they have no fears, that they do not feel pain and anguish and yearn for a life of meaning? Stories are not mere flights of fancy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it. Primo Levi said, “I write in order to rejoin the community of mankind.” Reading is a private act, but it joins us across continents and time.

I think there is truth to both. Those who have been denied access to literature and other of the Humanities have an appreciation that those who have grown up with it and always found it to be available do not have. In addition the influence in modern culture of films, sports, games, and other forms of entertainment that offer quick reward while demanding an increasing percentage or our time contribute to an environment where the Humanities are taken more and more for granted and less and less seriously. It is often the denial of access to these things that create a hunger and thirst for them.


Painting of fruit in bowls and on a table with napkins and a flower print drapery

Still Life with Curtains

Paul Cézanne,_Paul_-_Still_Life_with_a_Curtain.jpg


But the other is true as well. One does not need to experience persecution to experience the liberation of the imagination. It is this aspect of the Humanities in general and of reading literature in particular that is currently being threatened by the forces in public education that would seek to remove this “useless” expenditure of time from the curriculum and fill it with more meaningful things like technology, math and science. If the right to a public education does not include the liberation of the mind and the imagination that reading and the Humanities provide than public education is a woefully deficient education. We are making it more difficult for our children to “rejoin the community of mankind.”


Sailing ships and boats near the shore by a village

Sailing Ships near a Village

Salomon van Ruysdael


Dan Piepenbring writes in “Natty Bumppo, Soviet Folk Hero” about the influence of Cooper’s novels and their depiction of the American spirit of independence and exploration on the youth of the Soviet Union. Cooper and characters from his stories even found their way onto Soviet postage stamps. Piepenbring observes:

Instead of finding the disgusting evidence of prejudice and imperialism, though, young Russian readers tended to see the novels as ripping good yarns, so much so that their characters were inducted into public life:

What spoke to them were the emotions, the suspense, the adventure, the heroes, and the friendship … In fact, Cooper’s second name, Fenimore, by which he is more readily recognized in Russia, has become a byword for exciting adventures. Loved by even the young Lenin and Stalin, The Last of the Mohicans penetrated Russian society … As [the] poet Tamara Logacheva says, “The heroic image of a courageous and honest Indian—Uncas—noble and devoted to his vanishing traditions, became an example for imitation by many generations of young people.” (Sandra Nickel)

There you have it. You can imagine Gorbachev, his state verging on dissolution, adhering one of the Leatherstocking stamps to a letter—perhaps to Reagan or H. W. Bush—and smiling warmly at the visage of Natty Bumppo, his troubled mind allayed, for the moment, by dusty schoolboy memories of The Deerslayer.

What interests me about this is that this quintessentially American hero moved so profoundly those that lived in a culture so vastly different from that of America. It is, I suppose the same impulse that drives American readers to Greek and Roman epics like The Iliad and The Aeneid. It is important to make time to enter these foreign worlds and to spend time contemplating boats on the water, boats that are doing nothing on the water but “being there,” that merely exist, that remind us that part of merely existing is doing useless things like contemplating words on a page and colors on a canvas.


The Studio Boat

Claude Monet

In Three Minds

 From Symphony #2 Age of Anxiety, “Seven Ages of Man

New York Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein


Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young

Neil Young

“Yellow on the Broom”

Jean Redpath


Panis Angelicus

Kiri Te Kanawa; Barry Rose: English Chamber Orchestra

César Franck


In Three Minds


Painitng of woman with two faces signifying doubt

Coup of Doubt

Victor Brauner


Wallace Stevens describes the second way he looks at blackbirds like this:



I was of three minds, 

Like a tree 

In which there are three blackbirds.

        From “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”


A common euphemism for doubt is to be in two minds, so I suppose Stevens is telling us his doubt is a little bit more profound than that of the rest of us. The painting above captures an image of someone who appears “double minded.” Her profile suggests one mind, but the second eye suggesting the full face suggests a second mind, as there are clearly, to me anyway, two sides of the same face depicted. Doubt is a state of mind we often try to avoid, it is an uncomfortable place to live and we want to move on as quickly as we can, and the more minds we are in the more quickly we want to move on. Stevens’ poem is written in the past tense, and perhaps he had moved on and was no longer “trifurcated” in his thinking, but who is to say. The music runs through a gamut of attitudes, emotions, states of mind that often accompany doubt: anxiety, helplessness, hope, and faith. Hope and faith, to some, are the antithesis of doubt, but hope is often what gets us through our doubt and faith needs doubt to keep it alive, to keep it from slipping into complacency. The issue is never doubt, doubt will always be there, the issue is what we do with doubt when it comes.


Painting of a woman painting

     Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Paining

Artemisia Gentileschi


Emerson famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I think he is suggesting that if we are thoughtful and reflective we are going to change our minds. That there will be things we assert one day that we will rethink and “un-assert” the next day. Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself” said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, than I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Whitman is suggesting, and I think this is a part of Emerson’s comment as well, that there will be times when we will hold contradictory ideas. We should not be afraid or ashamed of this; we just need to remain open minded to both. It may come about that we will see the strength in one and the weakness in the other, it may be that there are times when we hold “irreconcilable differences” within ourselves, or it may come about that the inconsistencies over time will resolve themselves. In the meantime we live with the doubt and discomfort that this produces, or we shrug our shoulder, move on, and let it be. 


Francis Bacon (the Elizabethan essayist, not the 20th century painter) thought a bit differently about doubt. He observed, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” I do not think he meant that if we began doubting the truths we hold that they would eventually over time become certainties. I think what he meant is that if we continue to question the truths we hold they will eventually be confirmed as truth where such is the case or they will be shown to be wanting and will be abandoned and replaced by something more substantial, which over time will in turn be either affirmed or abandoned. But at the end of the quest, if we continue to question, our quest will be rewarded. And if the quest is to be made successfully, doubt and uncertainty are states of mind we have to learn to live with, perhaps even to enjoy.

Painting of a woman with a quizzical look on her face being atched by her dog


Arthur Hughes


Nicholas Kristof in discussing the humanities (“Don’t Dismiss the Humanities”) observed, “University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.” It is the toolbox we need if we are to make the journey from doubt to certainty and that will give us the comfort and insight we need to make that journey, which, in all probability will last a lifetime. It is in reading philosophy that we learn not only how to question, but often the questions to ask. It is in reading novels, poems, stories, and essays that we learn how others have made or are making that journey. In a conversation about the humanities and the sciences (The Way We Live Our Lives in Stories“) Jonathan Gottschall suggests “We live our lives in stories, and it’s sort of mysterious that we do this. We’re not really sure why we do this. It’s one of these questions—storytelling—that falls in the gap between the sciences and the humanities.” Gottschall wants to find that common ground where the Sciences and the Humanities can live and work together. Both, in their different ways, are trying to sort through their doubts to find certainties. Philip Ball in “Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark” suggests that many physicists have discovered what is true about physics by making up stories and than pursuing the implications of those stories. Often, maybe usually, the stories end up having no basis in reality, but they help get the journey started and in the course of the journey the truth comes out. 


Painting of a group of people one of whom is in pursuit    

Bacchus and Ariadne



The painting tells the story of Bacchus and Ariadne. The myth explains how the heavens came to be the way they are, or at least that part of the heavens where the Corona constellation is found. Often this was, perhaps still is, the function that myth and folklore served, they oriented the cultures that devised them, explained why things are as they are. Perhaps many or even most saw them as metaphors explaining the universe and our place in it. To a pre-scientific people they may even have had a ring of truth, though I think it is unwise to assume that pre-scientific people were less intelligent than we and perhaps even they only saw these stories as ways of illustrating things they did not have the tools to fully investigate and understand. But on another level, the myths are less concerned with the origins of things and more concerned with understanding human behavior and what proper and improper behavior looked like. Myth often has more to do with psychology than with physics or biology.


Painting of a court from the classical age of a person being accused before a court

Calumny of Apelles

Sandro Botticelli


Botticelli’s painting is an attempt to recreate a painting from Classical antiquity that had been lost. Botticelli constructed his painting around the description by Lucian of a painting by Apelles. Lucian’s description also explained the allegory found in the painting. Though many details are difficult to see when the painting is reduced to a size that will fit on the page, they are clearly seen when the painting is viewed in its actual size.


Detail of the accuser and accused from the pevious image 

Detail from The Calumny of Apelles

Sandro Botticelli


In this detail from the painting we can see that the man sitting on the throne has donkey’s ears, he is King Midas. The two women on either side of him represent ignorance and suspicion. The man reaching his hand out to Midas is envy. The painting tells a story about the human heart, what it wants to hear, what it often closes its eyes to, those it listens to and those it ignores. Midas in all the myths is a foolish man and the painting suggests that fools are easy prey to the darker sides of humanity. Midas’ folly is rooted in his certainties, that he can trust those around him; the darker sides of his humanity play to his “certainties.” In the painting the innocent are naked; they have no defenses and must trust to others to protect them, must trust to justice, which may or may not save the day for them. The woman in the back who is dressed in black rags represents repentance. She is largely ignored. The others, with the exception of envy, are richly dressed and appear to be rich and powerful; they all represent the antithesis of truth: slander, suspicion, and ignorance. As a story it suggests to us, as it suggested to those that first saw it, whether they saw Apelles’ painting or Botticelli’s recreation of it, that it is unwise to trust to appearances; that it is unwise to listen to those that tell us what we want to hear. Those Midas listens to are like him, they are of his class and like him they are wealthy. Maybe he believes that because they are like him they are worthy of his trust or perhaps he only listens to people like himself. 


The body of Icarus lying on a rock being ministered to water spirits

Lament for Icarus

Herbert Draper


It may be that those that first heard the story of Icarus believed that it was possible to construct wings that would enable them to fly, but whether they did or did not, they understood the emotion captured in the story, the excitement that comes from doing something novel and new and the imprudence that emotion can produce. We get carried away and the wings of our ecstasy often melt. The wings of Icarus in the painting are beautiful and splendid in the light of the setting sun. There is a beauty to Icarus himself. But neither his beauty, nor the beauty of his wings can save him. Often this is the way of things. We get excited by what we have discovered or what we have created and in our enthusiasm to play with what we have made we fall into unintended consequences. Our science and technology, among other things, have enabled us to do things that were once unimaginable, but they have also created problems that will not easily go away, whether it is damage to our environment or the tools that might eventually destroy the planet, and less apocalyptic problems like congested highways and urban blight. This is not to suggest that science and technology are “evils” to be avoided, but that we should be careful. We should make an effort to see what is behind the door our science and technology has opened. The wings of Icarus were are a good and marvelous thing, they would have led him to freedom, but not everything the wings enabled Icarus to do was prudent. To do a thing because we can is not always the best thing to do.


Statue of woman representing "Faith" overcoming two other forces protecting a child

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry

Jean-Baptiste Theodon


There is also the issue of which stories we listen to and how we apply those stories to the way we live our lives. The Ststatue depicts the Triumph of Faith over Idolatry. But the stories represented by the idols were believed in as religiously as the stories represented by faith. St. Augustine wrote The City of God in part to answer the charges made by the believers in Rome’s pagan religion that it was because Rome had become Christianized and had abandoned the gods that the Roman Empire fell to the barbarians. A person’s faith is real to that person even if it is not real to anyone else. When a faith dies, it is difficult for those that come after to understand how it could ever have been taken seriously, just as it is difficult for those that do not share a faith to understand how those that adhere to that faith can take that faith seriously. But the truths that the stories these faiths tell are a part of who we are whether we accept the faiths that gave them to us or not. They are a part of our cultural inheritance. As Americans we believe in certain truths that are self evident, though we may not always be certain of their origins. We believe in justice, that to the extent possible those that have been wronged should receive justice that we should be treated justly. But if we live in a Darwinian world, why should we expect justice?


Fresco of a crowd of people gathered on Mount Parnassus

The Parnassus



The painting above is from a series that depicts the four areas of human knowledge, philosophy, religion, poetry, and law. The paintings capture the whole of the Humanities. The poets are represented; the philosophers, painters, and musicians are represented. Even lawyers and priests are represented. This painting, The Parnassus, captures the poets, which today would include playwrights and novelists as well. Musicians are also included. Perhaps the stories they tell address our doubts and uncertainties, but even if they do not, they bring light into our lives and relief from the struggle. Stories are fun to listen to, they are fun to read, to watch on television or at the movies or in the playhouse. They do not need to be profound they do not need to give us the answers we seek. They delight the heart even if they do nothing else. 


Albert Manguel writes about reading as “Conversations with the Dead.” Though not every book we read comes to us from a dead person, many do. He begins by saying:


Reading has always been for me a sort of practical cartography. Like other readers, I have an absolute trust in the capability that reading has to map my world. I know that on a page somewhere on my shelves, staring down at me now, is the question I’m struggling with today, put into words long ago, perhaps, by someone who could not have known of my existence. The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the sixteenth century, called “conversations with the dead.” In those conversations I’m revealed. They shape me and lend me a certain magical power.


Painting of a woman at a table with a glass full of fluid and one cup that is spilled with an open book

The Sorceress

John Williams Waterhouse,_JW_-_The_Sorceress_(1913).jpg


Many of the problems I confront are new to me, but they are not new to the world and because they are not new to the world there is someone somewhere who has written about her or his struggles with my problem. In reading I discover how others have dealt with my problems. (I also learn something about how others have experienced my joys and accomplishments, because these are not new to the world either.) I may not come to the conclusions these earlier writers arrived at, but they give me help on the journey nonetheless. Like those physicists telling stories in the dark. The reading I do does not always provide me with an answer (to be honest I rarely read solely to find answers) but it usually gives me a way of proceeding, though the reading has almost always been done earlier when I had no need of answers or ways of proceeding. What we read stays with us and is there when we need it. Manguel ends his essay:


Almost twenty years have elapsed since I finished (or abandoned) A History of Reading. At the time, I thought I was exploring the act of reading, the perceived characteristics of the craft and how these came into being. I didn’t know I was in fact affirming our right as readers to pursue our vocation (or passion) beyond economic, political, and technological concerns, in a boundless, imaginative realm where the reader is not forced to choose and, like Eve, can have it all. Literature is not dogma: it offers questions, not conclusive answers. Libraries are essentially places of intellectual freedom: any constraints imposed upon them are our own. Reading is, or can be, the open-ended means by which we come to know a little more about the world and about ourselves, not through opposition but through recognition of words addressed to us individually, far away, and long ago.


Uncertainty and doubt frame much of our existence. No matter how loudly we tell ourselves we understand, we know what’s what, we have the truth. But even when we have the truth doubt malingers. For the truth to stay true it needs regularly to be renewed. Literature is not dogma (well, perhaps some is, but when it is, its life expectancy is rarely long); it gives us a map not a doctrine. Mary Beard in an article on laughter (“What’s So Funny”) says “The pleasure and excitement of studying laughter, for a historian, is that it generates many more questions than answers. Theories of laughter have always been ‘theories of theories,’ a way of talking about laughter and ‘something else.’” This is true of reading and of most all serious study, at least within the Humanities. 


From Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock

Selznick International Pictures

The film clip captures another aspect of doubt and uncertainty. It is an essential element for films and stories like Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Ingrid Bergman’s character, Dr. Petersen, believes in her patient John Ballantyne’s (played by Gregory Peck) innocence. Her old teacher, Dr. Brulov (played by Michael Chekhov) explains to her why that belief is irrational. Brulov is, of course, correct. There is no evidence, other than Dr. Petersen’s faith, that Ballantyne is innocent, in fact all the evidence suggests otherwise, except perhaps, Ballantyne’s character. But, as Dr. Brulov points out, one of the characteristics of a psychopath is that their character often appears trustworthy. It is because there is so much uncertainty and because Dr. Petersen’s faith appears so irrational, that the tension and the terror builds. If what Dr. Brulov tells us were not true we would have no thriller. If Dr. Petersen were not correct in her judgment concerning the character of Ballantyne we would not have a happy ending. 


Painting of a woman empthing a bowl into a body of water


Circe Invidiosa

John Williams Waterhouse


Perhaps one of the reasons we find thrillers, horror films, and other stories that play to our fear (and our desire to be frightened) so attractive is because they are a kind of metaphor for the world as we often experience it. There is much that goes on around us that is frightening, that is beyond our control, that leaves us feeling powerless. In stories that play to our fears and terrify us we see fear and terror confronted. We often, though not always, see fear and terror defeated. This is encouraging. In some ways these stories work according to Aristotle’s notion of “catharsis,” they purge our fear, we live through the terror created on the page or on the screen and we survive. Even if we do not know who Circe in the painting above is, her look inspires fear, if we know her story, we know what lurks behind that look. Also, if we know her story, we know she is eventually overcome. Circe’s is an old story, and the existence of her story suggests that the human desire to be terrified is an old one.


People seated around an upright antlered animal

Witches’ Sabbath



Dan Piepenbring in “So Vivid You Can’t Get Free of Them” writes about Ray Bradbury’s love of metaphor. The article begins with a quote from Bradbury’s book The Art of Fiction


Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story.


Many of Bradbury’s stories terrify, they speak to something at the heart of us. When as a child I went to the movies, more often than not what I went to see was a horror film. Also, as the paintings above and below suggest, horror stories did not begin with the movies. These paintings capture themes from classical mythology and suggest that the delight we take in being terrified goes back to the beginnings of human story telling. These films spoke to me differently, though, than they spoke to my parents. I remember going to the drive-in in the 1950’s when Godzilla and Rodan were both playing, it was a double feature, and at the time these were new movies, first time release in this country (they were originally released in Japan, and I am told the Japanese versions are better than their American counterparts, but I have not seen the Japanese versions). To me the films were about monsters. The premise behind how the monsters came to be did not speak much to me, I wasn’t interested, but I think they spoke to my parents. These films, and another I remember, Beginning of the End, revolved around nuclear power. It was a new thing at the time. I remember reading a “Weekly Reader” (I think) article about radiation being used to grow giant tomatoes. The point though is that the monsters were metaphors for the fears the society was living with at the time the films were made. 


Painting of a man fighting many serpents


John Singer Sargent,_John_-_Hercules_-_1921.jpg


In Beginning of the End these experiments result in giant grasshoppers converging on the city of Chicago. But the reality of nuclear power was not that real to me as child in the 1950’s. My father, however, fought in the Pacific during World War II and was involved in some way with the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. I have photographs my father took of the aftermath and of the bomb itself (though I do not think my father took that picture). For him nuclear power was something much more real and fearful. So for my parents, that which evoked the fear in these movies was much more real and the terror they provoked was probably much more real, though, like for me, it was still just a story. 


Phoograph of a G. I. eading a warning sign in front of the Cathedral at Köln

Warning Sign in Cologne

US-Army History Images


Another film from that era starred Steve McQueen and was called The Blob. At the end of the film it is discovered that the monster, the blob of the title, could not withstand the cold. It was rendered powerless in the freezer compartment of the supermarket, from whence it was taken and flown to the North Pole. The movie ends with Steve McQueen’s girlfriend suggesting that now they are safe, to which Steve McQueen responds, “As long as the North Pole don’t melt.” I suppose when the film was made there was not much chance of that happening. Today, however, who knows. Perhaps we should be on the lookout for a gooey carnivorous substance moving south. 


The substance of our fears may change, but fear, like doubt and uncertainty, is a human constant, and the stories we tell are often our first defense against it. There will always be a place for stories about monsters and the overcoming of monsters. Even if our faith has no room for evil, even if like Alexander Pope we say, “All nature is but art, unknown to thee; / All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; / All discord, harmony, not understood; / All partial evil, universal good: / And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, / One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right” there is much that we encounter that is troubling and does not appear to go by the name of goodness. Whatever you call trouble when it comes; I hope you have a story to see you through to the end of it.


Painiting of a woman with flowers in the woods


Arthur Hughes


“Open Our Eyes”

Leon Lumpkins

Earth, Wind, and Fire

“Total Eclipse”

John Tavener

Academy of Ancient Music

From The Creation, “Die Vorstellung Des Chaos”

Franz Joseph Haydn

English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir

“Deep Space”

Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette

“Moon Mist”

Mercer Ellington

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

“It’s Only a Paper Moon”

Billy Rose/Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg

Django Reinhardt




 Galileo's drawings of the moon

Galileo Moon 1

Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius


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

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

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


A woman sitting at a vanity table that looks like a skull if looked at differently

All Is Vanity

Charles Allan Gilbert


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

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

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


Painting of two ambassadors, the image at their feet is a disguised skull

The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein, the Younger


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

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

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


Illustration of the Ptolemaic Universe

Ptolemaic Geocentric Model

from “Harmonia Macrocosmica” by Andreas Cellarius


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


Landscape painting of harvesters harvesting a field

The Haresters

Pieter Brueghel


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


Detail from previous of a road in the distance with people on the road

The Haresters – Detail People on the Road

Pieter Brueghel


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


Second detail from "The Harvesters" of people playing field hockey

The Haresters – Detail Child Running Away

Pieter Brueghel


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

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


French cave painting of bison

Bison in the Nave at Lascaux



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


People walking down a road by moonlight with cypresses

Country Road in Provence by Night

Vincent Van Gogh


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


Painting of the harbor area of Delft

View of Delft

Johannes Vermeer


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

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



Akira Kurosawa

Janus Films


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Painting of a Paris street in the rain at night

Boulevard Montmartre la nuit

Camille Pissarro


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

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


 Galileo's drawing of the moon surrounded by text

Galileo Moon 2

Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius


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


Painting of bridge with buildings in the background

River Landscape with a Windmill


Given Voice

“Penelope No. 1, The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Love”

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Shara Worden & Signal

Orphée Et Eurydice, “J’Ai Perdu Mon Eurydice”

Christoph Willibald Von Gluck

Maria Callas

“Song of Eurydice”

Manos Hadjidakis

Nana Mouskouri


Procol Harum

Medea “Solo un pianto con te versare”

Luigi Cherubini

Maria Callas


Richard Strauss


Given Voice


Painting of woman weaving at a loom by candle light


Leandro Bassano


Charlotte Higgins in a recent review of a book on the importance of Homer generally and The Odyssey in particular (“The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson”) writes about the importance of Homer in her own life. She writes, “My Homeric epiphany came seven summers ago, on a road trip to Cornwall, reading Robert Fagles’s translation aloud and having it read to me over the immense chugging of an old camper van’s engine, and then at night, by the light of an oil lamp.” She goes on to explain that her exposure to Homer had been, up to this point, a struggle with Greek Grammar and vocabulary, a struggle with translation that served to conceal the beauties of the text. But hearing it read in English where she could focus on the unraveling of the story was life changing. 


Illustration featuring a woman with an axe standing over a dead body

The Murder of Agamemnon

Alfred Church


Most of us have probably only approached Homer through translations into our respective vernaculars and as a result never had to struggle with a language that is no longer spoken, even in Greece. As a result, those of us that have been transformed by Homer did not have to break through the academic walls Higgins describes, though I imagine we are also deprived of some of the richness that comes from knowing the language of the original. I recall a scene at the beginning of Terence Rattigan’s play The Browning Version where the old schoolmaster who never aroused much passion in anyone is carried away with emotion reading a passage from Aeschylus’ The Agamemnon in the original Greek. The schoolboys do not have a clue what he is saying, they have not after all mastered their Greek; like many school children, they had not done their homework the night before. But they recognize the deep emotion the Greek text has provoked in their teacher. 


Gold ring with Penelope seated on the face

Gold ring representing Penelope waiting for Odysseus.

Syria, last quarter of the 5th century BC.



Marry Beard has pointed out the silence of women in this text. In a talk she gave (“The Public Voice of Women”) she discusses Penelope:

I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey. We tend now to think of the Odyssey as the story of Odysseus and the adventures and scrapes he had returning home after the Trojan War – while for decades Penelope loyally waited for him, fending off the suitors who were pressing for her hand. But the Odyssey is just as much the story of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope; the story of his growing up; how over the course of the poem he matures from boy to man. The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.

The “heroism” of Penelope is different from the heroism of Odysseus. Where Odysseus has, in addition to his wiles, swords, spears, bows and arrows, and other sharp things to help him work his will, Penelope has only her wits, her intelligence, craft, and cunning. The depiction of Penelope on the ring above captures the essence of her gifts; she is pensive and thoughtful. She holds off the suitors with her weaving (and unweaving) and it is her offer (inspired by Athena, another woman in the story) to marry whoever can win the archery contest she proposes that initiates the grand finale of the story and Odysseus’ (and Penelope’s) victory over the suitors. She makes them an offer they not only cannot refuse but cannot win. They think all they need do is shoot an arrow through some ax handles, when in reality they must first string a bow that can only be strung by Odysseus. 


Painting of a woman pouring the contents of a cup ino a small burning cauldren


Frederick Sandys


The songs capture the voices of three different heroines from classical myth, Penelope, Eurydice, and Medea. The title of Penelope’s song is “The Stranger with the face of a Man I Love,” which captures well Penelope’s ordeal. She recognizes the face of the returned Odysseus, but after twenty years how can he be the same man he was when he left? How can she be the same woman? But even in classical storytelling women are not always quiet and passive. There is the example of Medea and also that of Judith from the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament. These women were not easily ignored and they both exacted a brutal, and in Medea’s case not an entirely just revenge.


Woman with sword, watched by a servant, beheading a man

Judith Beheading Holofernes



The woman warrior is, though not a common character, not an uncommon character either in Renaissance epic. One of the central characters in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is a woman named Bradamante. She ultimately marries another knight, Ruggerio, and their child begins the Este family. Cardinal Ippolito d’Este and Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrera were both patrons of Ariosto’s. Bradamante, though, was one of the most valiant and most capable knights in the story. She marries Ruggerio because he is the only knight capable of defeating her in combat. Tasso in his poem The Liberation of Jerusalem also includes a woman warrior, Clorinda. She is a Saracen, but is baptized a Christian as she is dying. Like Bradamante she excels as a warrior. The poem is about the first Crusade and the Christian victory. Clorinda, though a Saracen, is a heroine in the story, hence her conversion (Tasso was after all a Christian poet and he is true to his loyalties). In Spenser’s Faerie Queen there is also a woman warrior that plays prominently in the story, Britomarte. 


Painting of a man pouring water over a woman's head

Tancred baptizes the dying Clorinda

Anonymous Italian Painter


The significance of the women warriors in these poems may only be that Tasso and Spenser were imitating Ariosto and Tasso and Spenser may only have had a woman warrior in their poems because Ariosto had one in his. The poems themselves in spite of the influence are very different from one another. Ariosto’s poem is as comic as it is heroic in its telling. Spenser poem is allegorical while Tasso’s is a straightforward heroic epic, more in the mold of The Iliad or The Aeneid. The women warriors in these poems, though, are warriors, not like Judith whose actions in the story are not in keeping with her “life’s work” or Medea who is the daughter of a king and the granddaughter of a god and as such existed between the human and the divine. Also, being the niece of Circe, a goddess of magic, her weapons were also of a different character from those of a knight in armor. Part of what makes Bradamante, Clorinda, and Britomarte interesting as characters is that they are not silenced and that they live and move through their world not as Penelope moved through hers, but as Odysseus did; that in this patriarchal society these women are treated as, or very nearly as, equals of their male counterparts. These stories also suggest that as much as we may think we understand a time and a place there are often aspects to that time and place that surprise us or do not conform to that understanding. 


Wood carving of a woman's face

Margery Kempe from Kings Lynn

Carving in the church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn


The British Library recently digitized and made available online the first autobiography written in English, The Book of Margery Kempe (“Margery Kempe, the first English autobiographer, goes online”). Though written in English, it is the English of Geoffrey Chaucer and not the English we speak today, though with a bit of patience it can be gotten through, as Kempe’s language is closer to our own than Chaucer’s. She was a woman with a voice she was not afraid to use. Many found her an annoying person to be around and at one point in her travels those traveling with her expelled her from the group. This meant she had to travel alone through very dangerous country. She at one point confronts a bishop with the authority to execute her as a heretic. She spoke “truth to power” when such speech could be punished severely; at a time when such speech was costly. Fortunately for Kempe, the bishop backed down. She traveled the world and accomplished things few men or women of the day accomplished. It is interesting to compare Margery Kempe’s memoirs with those of John Mandeville, who claimed to travel through similar parts of the world at about the same time. Where Mandeville’s are filled with what we now know to be mythological creatures and places, filling the world he traveled with what the people of his day believed would be found there, Kempe’s story remains true to the world as it was and has been shown to be. She may have her superstitions that flavor the story from time to time, but she does not “invent”’ to make her story interesting. When looked at in light of her time her story does not need embellishment. Though her story is a spiritual one, her heroism is as real as that of any hero from myth or legend. Besides that she brewed some of the best ale in her part of the country.


Painting of a one eyed gian pursuing men in a boat tryng to escape as the giant gets ready to throw a massive boulder

Odysseus and Polyphemus

Arnold Böcklin


To a certain extent the heroes of epic, myth, and folklore serve as metaphors of a kind (perhaps not metaphors in the conventional sense, but there might be a useful insight or two to be gotten by thinking of them as such, for a moment or two anyway). Their stories excite and readers come back to them in part because of the spectacle the language of the stories create in the mind. But there is more to them than just the excitement and splendor of the stories. If strength and courage were all it took to be a hero, than the sequel to The Iliad might better have been about Ajax who was a stronger and more powerful warrior than Odysseus. Even Odysseus recognizes (or so their conversation in the underworld seems to suggest) that Ajax was more deserving of Achilles’ shield. But what gets Odysseus the shield is his cunning and intellect, and Homer seems to suggest to us that these are important attributes and part of what sets Odysseus apart. Homer recognizes Odysseus’ failings and part of what he suffers on his long journey home is a kind of penance for his shortcomings, but with all his failings he remains remarkable. It is on this the heroic metaphor is built. It is the strength, tenacity, resourcefulness, adaptability and wisdom that make up the character of Odysseus that makes him metaphoric. Michael Wood in a review of Denis Donoghues new book Metaphor (“From Milton to McEwan: the beauty of metaphor”) writes:

We have recourse to our sense of absurdity in order to register the stretch and strangeness of these images. But then we need to let it go so that the images may do their enchanted work; Donoghue says, in a memorable phrase, that he thinks of reading “as enchanted interpretation”. 

This is his repeated, lyrical theme. “Readers expand metaphorically when they encounter metaphor”; metaphors “add perceptions that were not there before”; a metaphor “gives us more abundant life”; metaphors “offer to change the world by changing one’s sense of it”; the source of metaphor “is the liberty of the mind among such words as there are”.

Odysseus expands our sense of the heroic. He is in many ways an unlikeable character. This is seen in his literary evolution. In Shakespeare and in Virgil (though it must be added that it served Virgil’s own epic purposes to make him less likeable) Odysseus becomes more villainous. But this un-likeability expands our sense of the hero into someone that need not be “pure” or even good in every instance. They are like us; they have a dark side, in some cases a side that is darker than our own. It is this aspect of a common, fallible humanity that makes them effective archetypes worthy of emulation. It is not the specificity necessarily of their actions so much as what they are willing to risk for a cause or a principle. 


Painting of a woman holding a child against a Russian cityscape

Petrograd Madonna

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin


Socialist Realism was an art form used by the Soviet Union and other Communist nations for propaganda purposes. The images in these paintings work because what they depict work as heroic metaphors. There is a beauty and a truth to these paintings. The women in both paintings capture a true nobility and a true heroism. What the women in these paintings represent give the propaganda the grain of truth it needs to be successful, it is a kind of “goodness by association.” The courage and purity of the images transfer to the messages and aspirations of those manipulating the images. This is something that is true of all art created with the intent to shape public opinion. It is why we need to be literate not just in language but in media; we need to know how music, images, and language affect us and shape the way we think and the conclusions we reach.


Poster featuring a woman walking with a Russian cityscape in the background

What the October Revolution gave to the female worker and peasant. 1920 Soviet propaganda poster. The Inscription of the buildings read “library”, “kindergarten”, “school for grown-ups. Etc.

Unknown Artist


In America, and most of the western world, these images are seen to propagate an insidious intent and of course there is the truth of the Soviet Gulag to underscore the insidiousness of that intent. Human history is filled with those that blinded themselves to what those around them were doing because they accepted the argument that what was being done was being done to achieve a good and a noble end. But how noble and good can the ends be when the means of achieving those ends are evil? Is it possible for the ends to remain untouched by the means through which they were achieved? In reading any book or in listening to any piece of music or looking at any picture we need to consider the philosophy and the point of view that lies behind it. What work are the notes, the images, the words being given to perform? How are our thoughts and perceptions being shaped by what we see, hear, and read? In the end we all need to decide whether we are going to be passive or active consumers of the arts? A good education ought to cultivate a curiosity that seeks to understand the points of view and ways of thinking that are the foundations of the arts and entertainment we enjoy.


The Long Reach of Reason

Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

TED Talks


The animated TED Talk asks us to consider philosophy and reason and their place not just in our world but in the world of our ancestors for as far back as one would care to go. One of the participants in the discussion, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein addresses similar issues in an article she wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Philosophy Makes Progress” (also in a new book Plato at the Googleplex). She makes an argument for what philosophy and the Humanities in general provide that science cannot. She sees philosophy occupying a space that lies between science and literature. Plato, because he distrusted the poets, excludes them from his ideal state and his philosophy, which suggests a tension exists between philosophy and literature and probably the other arts. In the article Newberger says of philosophy:

The naysayer’s view of philosophy as failed or immature science denies it the possibility of progress, as does the yea-sayer’s view of philosophy as a species of literature. But neither conforms to what philosophy is really about, which is to render our human points of view ever more coherent. It’s in terms of our increased coherence that the measure of progress has to be taken, not in terms suitable for evaluating science or literature. We lead conceptually compartmentalized lives, our points of view balkanized so that we can live happily with our internal tensions and contradictions, many of the borders fortified by unexamined presumptions. It’s the job of philosophy to undermine that happiness, and it’s been at it ever since the Athenians showed their gratitude to Socrates for services rendered by offering him a cupful of hemlock.

Philosophy is included among the Humanities, as are music, art, and literature. But it is different from the other Humanities. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise, as Biology is different from Physics even though they are all included among the sciences. What the Humanities share is a grounding in their past, their present is built upon their past (the sciences tend to kill off their past in creating their present). Also, the materials the Humanities work with are materials that cannot be tested or evaluated by the scientific method; they cannot be studied in a laboratory. 


Painting of man leading an army with a rifle in one hand and a bible in the other

Tragic Prelude

John Steuart Curry


The Humanities give us images that are both disturbing, as the painting above and serene, as the painting below and much that is in between. All the Humanities do this, philosophy, art, music, and literature. In this respect they confront us with the difficulties and pleasures of being human. They make us confront issues we might rather avoid. They make us aware of what is beautiful and hopefully make us aware of the need to preserve what is beautiful. As is pointed out in the video and the article humanity’s moral progress is the result of reasoning through what the Humanities teach us. The world of Homer was more brutal and far less humane then our own. Yet the world of Homer gave us Homer. Much of our moral and philosophical progress began by grappling with the questions that were first, if not raised, recorded by Plato. It is in going back to reconsider these questions that we make moral progress. We often answer these questions differently than Plato and his contemporaries, but because the questions are the right questions it is important to re-ask them and to consider them in light of what has been learned about the world and our own humanity in the intervening years. 


Painitng of a ship sailing the sea off of a rocky coast

In the Blue Expanse

Arkady Rylov


What does it mean to be given voice, to be allowed to speak for ourselves, for our aspirations, for our ideals? The Humanities give us a voice that the sciences cannot. We are allowed to reason through things that do not have a concrete reality. We are free to feel things that cannot be shown to be true or relevant by any kind of scientific test. These thoughts and emotions are an important part of what it means to be human. But because we are free to think and feel these things, does that mean that these things have a place in the academy, that they are worthy of study. Edward Mendelson points out a side of the poet W. H. Auden’s character that he often kept secret ((“The Secret Auden”). Knowing his sensitivity to the sufferings of others does not increase our understanding of his poetry or provide a rationale for studying it, but perhaps in part it is because he was the kind of poet he was that he was the kind of man he was and that there is in his poems a voice that asks us to consider being kind and generous and virtuous in spite of our inclinations be otherwise, or at least to consider the possibility. 


Painting with boats on a sandy beach with ship and a customs house in the background

Evening on Dnieper River

Vladimir Ivanovich Ovchinnikov


Penelope had only her intellect as a weapon to confront her enemies. She had no one to fight for her and she was not permitted to fight, in the conventional sense, for herself. But she exercised a kind of voice, a subversive and a cunning voice. In this way she and Odysseus made a “perfect couple.” And perhaps the metaphor here for us, the Penelopean voice we need to find, is that in living our daily lives we need to practice that kind of heroism practiced by Penelope. We may not be in positions where we can confront those that threaten us and our ideals; we are not permitted to use weapons with sharp edges or explosives, we have to find more subtle, though equally effective way of achieving our ends. Being allowed to speak what we think is not the same thing as being given voice. To be given voice we need not only to express our views, but also to have a way of putting those views into practice. We are not silenced when our voice is silenced we are silenced when our ability to act in concert with our beliefs is prevented. It is not enough to be heard; often speaking our mind is easy. We are given voice, and often this is something that is not given to us by others but by ourselves, when we live out what we say. That’s why Aristotle thought plot was so important, it enables us to see what people do while we listen to what they say and measure the distance between the two.


Seascape at night with lighted ships and shoreline

Moonlight Night on the Volga River

Vladimir Ivanovich Ovchinnikov

Living All the Days of Our Lives

“Golem Tant”


Itzhak Perlman & the Klezmatics

“Kyrie” from Mass for Five Voices

William Byrd

The Tallis Scholars

“Kritikos Horos / Theme from ‘Zorba the Greek’”

Mikis Theodorakis


Living All the Days of Our Lives


Painting of cattle crossing a Southwestern United States landscape

Wide Lands of the Navajo

Maynard Dixon


Jonathan Swift wrote somewhere “may you live all the days of your life.” On the one hand this just seems a lighthearted play on words, a bit of a joke. But on the other it says something profound that is in danger of getting lost in the play with words. That we live all the days of our lives would seem to go without saying, but there are many days in the lives of most of us when we do not “live,” we do not experience the richness and joy that is available to be experienced. I will suggest to my students from time to time “don’t kill time waiting for time to kill you.” Each of us is given a parcel of time leavened with a bit of potential. We are not obligated to do anything with it, but we have it. Living all the days of our lives involves our opening the parcel and experiencing what follows. 

It also involves an appreciation and enjoyment of the world and the good things that fill it. Art, literature, music, those things that impart beauty, that encourage and uplift, that heal and nurture. The Klezmer music and Zorba’s theme from the film of the same name provoke exuberance and joyfulness. The title of the Klezmer song, for all its exuberance, evokes a monster from Hebrew folklore, the Golem. This creature was the subject of a classic silent film that was itself based on a novel (“Meyrink’s The Golem: where fact and fiction collide”). In the film based on Meyrink’s novel the Golem is something of a mixed blessing. He is a Frankenstein-esque creature but he is originally created to help protect the Jewish community in Prague. He is fearsome and he goes astray, but he was intended for good. According to the Talmud, Adam, before receiving the breath of life, was the first golem, an “unshaped form” in God’s eye. Perhaps the Klezmer song is only an example of the pleasure we often find in being terrified, at least in the controlled environment of story. On the other hand, the music of William Byrd, and especially his Mass for Five Voices, always purges the tension from my body and exhilarates my spirit. As the music washes over me I feel the troubles and concerns of the day drain out of me. At various levels it heals, renews, and refreshes. It is therapeutic.

I am not alone in this feeling, there are others that would suggest that art is therapeutic (“What Is Art For,” by John Armstrong and “Alain de Botton’s guide to art as therapy,”) and plays a significant role in enabling one to live all the days of their lives. John Armstrong in his article points out that “therapy” and “therapeutic” are terms that have been cheapened a bit by advertising and the dubious promises it makes. But he also points out that the belief in the therapeutic qualities of art is an idea at least as old as Aristotle. When I look at the painting above, Wide Lands of the Navajo by Maynard Dixon it calms and relaxes me. It also awes me, fills me with wonder; the big sky, the barren grandeur of the land, the smallness of the people in contrast with the environment through which they move. Part of this is the effect that the soft blues have on me, and always have had. I suppose for all of us there are colors that affect us more than others, for me it is certain shades of blue, for others it may be reds or greens. 


Landscape painting of a house overlooking the sea


Paul Cézanne


The Cezanne painting L’Estraque produces an effect similar to the Dixon painting. The earth tones of the buildings, the trees, and the water (in addition to the shades of blue) are also calming and exhilarating. It is not just the colors that are evocative. It is shapes, and textures, and the natural world, (and in fairness, many of the products of human labor). It is a part of what Wordsworth in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” meant when he said:

For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity,

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue. And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense,

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

As the beauty of the creation profoundly affects us so do the paintings that capture a bit of its essence, the language of poetry and stories and Literature in general, and music that in their forms evoke this beauty. I remember visiting the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It sits on top of a hill, raised above the noise of the city. It is a beautiful architectural space. I remember roaming through one of the buildings. I turned a corner and was confronted with Van Gogh’s painting of Irises. The space was designed such that I was totally unprepared for what I saw. It was overwhelming. The beauty and design of the space in which it was placed empowered the painting to produce its full and profound effect. In part, the power the painting exerted over me was produced by my being totally unprepared for the experience.

Alain de Botton takes us on a tour of different paintings and gives thumbnail sketches of the wisdom and healing they provide. He guides us through a list of values and emotions, hope, empathy, care, sorrow, work, appreciation, relationships, and consumerism. Not everyone will like the artworks he selects (not all of which are paintings) but there is value in the lessons he takes from them even where the art itself is not appealing to us. In his final “value,” consumerism,” he suggests that this idea though “a scourge” to the modern world has value when approached properly. He says, “At its best consumerism is founded on love of the fruits of the earth, delight in human ingenuity and due appreciation of the vast achievements of organised effort and trade.” This reminds us that many things are not harmful in and of themselves, but only when they become an obsession, when we look to them to provide us with things or to satisfy needs they were never intended to provide or to satisfy. Art, according to Armstrong and de Botton, can help us discover our right relationship to the world around us.


Japanese woodblock of a landscape with trees on the banks of a river

Evening Rain at Karasaki

Hasui Kawase


Something similar was produced when Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was performed for the first time in Leningrad (“Shostakovich, Leningrad, and the greatest story ever played”). The music was composed as a tribute to the Russian people, but especially the Russian people enduring the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The first time it was performed in Leningrad (this was not its world premier) was while the siege was in progress. There were few professional musicians so the orchestra was filled with citizens that could play instruments. Performing the symphony was itself arduous. But musicians drew strength from the audience and the audience was inspired by the musicians and the music. Pierre Ryckmans tells the story of Primo Levi and another man trying to survive in a Nazi concentration camp (“Are Books Useless”). Levi was reciting from memory a passage from Dante’s journey through “The Inferno.” He got to a point in the text where his memory went blank and he could not recall the rest of the passage. The poem’s effect was such that Levi and his fellow inmate would trade food they desperately needed for those few lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy, “In Auschwitz, the forgotten poem became literally priceless. In that place, at that instant, the very survival of Primo Levi’s humanity was dependent on it.” The idea that art, music, and literature are nourishment is not a metaphor; it speaks to something very real in the human spirit. It was sustenance during the siege for the people of Leningrad and for Primo Levi and his friend in Auschwitz. I cannot say that literature and art ever fulfilled in my life such a profound space, but these people who lived through these events speak to its power to do this and their witness has value.

Japanese woodblock of a man fighting a huge snake

“Wada Heita Tanenaga killing a huge Python by a waterfall”

Suikoden Series 4

Utagawa Kunlyoshi,_Suikoden_Series_4.jpg


Literature and art and music (the whole of the Humanities) exist, among other things, to upset the world. They begin by upsetting us or confusing us or playing games with us and with our thinking. Wendy Lesser (“The joy of literary destruction: Writers who broke all the rules”) says her favorite passage from Swift’s Tale of a Tub is:

Here is pretended a Defect in the Manuscript, and this is very frequent with our Author, either when he thinks he cannot say any thing worth Reading, or when he has no mind to enter on the Subject, or when it is a Matter of little Moment, or perhaps to amuse his Reader (whereof he is frequently very fond) or lastly, with some Satyrical Intention.

The passage is Swift’s confession, he is the true author, and he is telling us he is having some fun with us. But the nature of satire is often to flatter the reader, to please the reader, while the satirist is in fact challenging the reader’s beliefs and preconceptions. Art slays dragons and the first dragon that it must slay is the closed mind, the unenlightened mind, the mind that is resistant to improvement because it believes itself to be self-sufficient. I like this passage from Swift because it works one way within the fiction of the story but it works another way in the real world of the reader. And what Lesser is really talking about in this part of her essay is satire and how it, in the words of Swift, “is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover every body’s Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind Reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” Most readers, Swift suggests, enjoy the jokes but miss the meaning. Of course laughter also has healing power, it purges pain and other unhealthy forces at work inside of us. Even if we miss the larger theme, the laughter heals. And who knows if the message does not work a kind of magic on the sub-conscious, that it doesn’t fix unawares other things that are broken inside of us.


From The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Jaques Demy

Parc Film


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an opera written for film. The images in the opening moments of the film revolve around umbrellas and cobblestones and rain. The mother of one of the major characters owns a shop that sells umbrellas called “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” (I am not sure how a business remains viable when it sells only umbrellas, even if it also sells other rain gear.) I remember seeing the film in the 1960’s. When I rode my bicycle through Europe I and my bike took a train that on its way from Köln to Marseilles passed through Cherbourg. And though I do not remember it as a remarkable city, my imagination was so stirred by the film I waited with eager anticipation to pass through this town. We went through at night and I could not see much, but I was very pleased that I could say I had been there. I enjoy the moment in the film clip where one of the mechanics says he prefers film to opera because he cannot stand all the singing. The line is of course sung and the film is an opera and it is a wonderfully funny moment. 

But the ending of this film is very moving and does something that is not often done successfully in film. (If you have not seen the film I am probably about to reveal something that you may want to pass over and not read until after you have seen it.) It is a moment of great sadness when two people who were once very much in love meet unexpectedly. Both have difficulty containing their emotions. The viewer’s emotions are also not easily contained. But the moment ends and the two part. One of the characters, the man who was in love once with the woman who has just left, remains on screen as the woman goes on her way. But he is married now and has a small child. In the final scene we know that he still feels pain over the lost relationship, but he sees his child and his wife and he begins playing with the child and it is equally clear he is taking great pleasure in playing with the child. The scene provokes sadness over what was lost, but it also provokes joy over what has been gained. The artistry of the film lies in its ability to produce in the viewer the same conflicting emotions that we see in the young man onscreen. Art helps us not only to understand our emotions, but the complexity of those emotions. There is a kind of pleasure in feeling the pain of lost love vicariously when we know the moment will end and that it is not our love that has been lost. Maybe it prepares us for the future; maybe it assuages a past pain. But it does not have to, it is enough that it makes it us feel something, that it puts us in touch with something that helps us experience our humanity more fully, to live more fully the days of our lives.


Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes

Martin Johnson Heade


Robert McCrum in The Guardian has been taking us on an excursion through the one hundred best novels in English. He is up to novel number twenty-two. The twenty-first novel in his series is Middlemarch (“The 100 best novels: No 21 – Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)”). There are many aspects of the book that he admires, but it is the conclusion reached about Dorothea that is the most important, 

But Eliot has the last word, a famous and deeply moving valedictory page celebrating Dorothea’s ‘finely-touched spirit’. Here, Eliot concludes that ‘the effect of [Dorothea’s] being’ was ‘incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’” 

The book does something rare in literature, it succeeds in teaching a kind of moral lesson without being preachy or making the reader overtly conscious of the fact they are being instructed. But this closing raises an important point that is not addressed often enough. The well being of most of us has been secured by nameless people who receive little or no attention. They are teachers, they are nurses; they may serve us our food or repair our clothes. We do not notice them overly much. Certainly the larger world does not notice them, or if it does, it is often to criticize or demean them. They are unimportant in the worldly sense but essential to those that they touch, and essential to the happiness of the world. But the names of those we remember, whose tombs we visit for the most part did little to shape us as people or to make our day to day living easier. We have our heroes whose examples we follow, but it is because of people we have largely forgotten that we know of or can emulate those heroes.  There is something of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in this:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile

The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,

If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,

Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault

The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

But of course it is not just that we all share a common grave regardless of the memorials that are raised above it, but that those without memorials have done more, perhaps, to preserve the common good than all those whose accomplishments history preserves. 


Painting of a man admiring a bust

Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer

Rembrandt van Rijn


We are living through one of those times that praises and exults engineering and the things that engineering and science and math can bring us. I think it odd in this light that the sciences seem to have become so preoccupied with reducing Literature and the Humanities to something “scientific.” Jane Austen is a game theorist, Proust a neuroscientist (Jane Austen Was Not a Game Theorist”). I think it is a bit sad that some within the Humanities see in this a kind of validation for what they do. But this attention misses the whole point about what is important in the Humanities. No matter how well we understand the ways in which sounds and images, language and colors work upon the mind to cause it to feel what it does it cannot speak to the ineffable things that are accomplished in the mind by the Humanities. There is a worldview involved here, one that believes that everything comes through the sense and one that believes that some things come through the imagination and their sources cannot be clearly identified. The world may have been created by a big bang, but we cannot know where the materials that produced the big bang came from scientifically. We make choices about what we believe in this regard, but we cannot prove these choices because the evidence lies outside the material world, at least it does for the time being. Aristotle is regarded by many as an early scientist in that he tried to proceed on the basis of observable data. But in Rembrandt’s painting it is Homer, the poet, that he contemplates not Pythagoras the mathematician and scientist. Perhaps this is just Rembrandt’s fancy and there is not any more to the notion the painting evokes than Rembrandt’s fancy. But though science can tell us how the world works, it is often at a loss when it comes to helping us to live more effectively in it.

So as music and art, literature and philosophy are given a smaller and smaller place in the education we give our children there is reason to stop and ask ourselves is art therapeutic, can literature help us learn to live happily, can music inspire and move us to action? When we find ourselves in our metaphorical prisons, which, thankfully perhaps, is the only kind most of us will experience, where will we turn. The nourishment we need to persevere through hardship and struggle is rarely the food and drink we buy in stores. Too often it is the spirit that dies first, lacking the nourishment it needs to survive. Though the body endures we have lost the ability to live all the days of our lives. 


Landscape painting of mountains surrounding a valley with trees and water

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California

Albert Bierstadt

What a Piece of Work

“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”


The Beatles


Charlie Chaplin

Tony Bennett

“Song for Athene”

John Tavener

Stephen Cleobury & King’s College Choir, Camboridge

“In My Life”


The Beatles

“The Tyger”

John Tavener

Harry Christophers & the Sixteen

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken

A. P. Carter

Gregg Allman


What a Piece of Work


Picture of a woman smoking a cigarette

Publicity photo of Marlene Dietrich for the film Shanghai Express (1932)

Don English; Paramount Pictures


The songs run us through a gamut of human emotions, the fear we often have of showing our feelings, the ability to find bits of joy and happiness in the face of suffering or adversity, the impulse to worship, if not a deity, works of nature or the marvels of the cosmos, the need to reflect on and contemplate our lives and how they are lived, feelings of fear and anxiety, and the desire for community, for friends and family and the need to keep them close even after death by preserving memories and traditions. Part of preserving that community also involves earning and keeping respect. We want those who are close to us to not just like us, but to at some level admire something about us. And this is more than an egotistical desire it is a part of how we earn our place in that community and though that place need not necessarily be earned in the eyes of the community, it does need to be earned in our own eyes. In this sense this admiration is a kind of affirmation.

Portraits are often revealing, like the songs they too capture a gamut of emotions. The portrait of Marlene Dietrich is suggestive. I have not seen the film so I do not know the context of the emotions that are portrayed in the photograph, but there seems to be in her eyes and expression a longing and a yearning. She looks like someone who is troubled and alone. But whatever the context, as a portrait it reveals an inner life, an inner consciousness. Hamlet in one of his madder moments says, “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” Is this list of qualities the product of madness or is there reason and method to it? What would his portrait reveal if it were painted at this moment? Many of the characters in this play are at their most profound when they are at their most unreliable. Polonius tells his son, “This above all to thine own self be true.” This from a man who has probably not been true to himself at any moment in the play. He knows how to speak wisely, but he does not know how to act wisely. And those who speak a wisdom they cannot perform are seen as foolish and pompous, and a bit absurd. 


Photograph of a man resting his chin on his arm looking intently

Self Portrait Created for an article for wikipedia on window light photography

Hari Bhagirath


Of course, if we are honest with ourselves we are all of us too much of the time a bit like poor Polonius. Wisdom, like so many things of value, is more easily pronounced than performed. Polonius is also representative of an important office of literature in that it confronts us with a choice. We can sit in judgment on Polonius, and we probably should, or we can take our reading or viewing of the play a step further and reflect on the “Polonius” in ourselves. Reading well often involves personalizing what we read, measuring ourselves against characters, events, and choices that are made. This is not seeing ourselves in the characters but measuring ourselves by the same yardstick we measure these characters. The Guardian is publishing a series of articles by Robert McCrum on the hundred best novels in English (it begins with, “The 100 best novels: No 1 – The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)” and he is now up to twelve, “The 100 best novels: No 12 – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)“). He at one point in the process stops and asks himself and us, how he/we should go about forming this list (“How to choose the 100 Best novels”). As an English teacher I find the lists and short articles interesting. There is an arbitrary quality to this list, McCrum tells us, for example, that authors like Walter Scott have been left out not because they have been found wanting, but because his knowledge of their work is wanting and he does not feel competent to judge them (which is very likely true of everyone who compiles such lists). But the books he has chosen are varied and interesting and they all raise a number of issues that are meaningful to me as a reader. They are books I have read and continue to read not because they are good for me, they are of course, but that is not why I read them, but because they move me and provoke in me powerful emotions, powerful questions, and important issues. They often confront me with goodness and with its absence.


Portrait of Chinese Chan Buddhist monk

Portrait of Chinese Chan-Buddhist monk Wuzhun Shifan

Chinese artist in the year 1238


An article in the New York Review of Books asks “What Is a Good Life”? I misread the title when I first saw it and thought it was asking, “What is the good life?” A very different question in many ways. The article is about a study that followed a number of Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939 through 1944. The study is the longest running study that has ever been done, or is being done, as it is still in progress. It’s followed 268 graduates from graduation to the present and will continue until the last participant dies, or so the article suggests. Along the way it has incorporated into itself participants from a number of other studies following folks from very different backgrounds. The study has problems but what it wanted to discover is what makes a happy life. The assumptions at the time the study began were that a happy life was defined in terms of prosperity, comfort, success, and leisure. It consisted of a good job, a good marriage, and well behaved children who grew to have good jobs and good marriages as well. One conclusion that was drawn was that those with a modest intelligence (the Harvard folks had better than modest intelligence, but others blended into the study at a later date were of a more modest intelligence, at least according to the tests that measure such things) and a good education (who went to college) were more likely to find jobs with comfortable incomes and in the end were more likely to be happy. They were also more likely to be healthier and to live longer.

The article raises many questions about the studies findings, largely because the study lacked a clear focus at the beginning and changed its focus as it progressed. But the question still remains, is leading a good life the same as leading the good life. Do we define a good life in terms of how happy and content we are or do we define it in other ways. Can we have a good life and at the same time be bad people? Does it matter? What does it mean to be “good” and what does it mean to be “bad?” These are questions the study does not seem to consider, though aspects of the study looked at what factors might lead to a life of crime. But what if in order to be fully human or to be fully content as humans we need to know what it means to be good and how goodness is best achieved? How important is an education to living the good life, as opposed to a good life? 


Photograph of men playing cards

Photo – Black and White – Augusto De Luca photographer

Augusto De Luca


Does literature and its study offer us insight into this, does it answer these questions. Lee Siegel thinks, “Fictions lack of practical usefulness is what gives it its special freedom.” (“Should Literature Be Useful”) He says of literature’s ability to arouse and develop empathy, “Yet even if empathy were always the benign, beneficent, socially productive trait it is celebrated as, the argument that producing empathy is literature’s cardinal virtue is a narrowing of literary art, not an exciting new expansion of it.” Though I believe empathy is something we learn from literature, even if we are not particularly good readers, it is not the only thing or even the most important thing to be gotten from reading literature. The freedom that reading can give us is often freedom from our circumstances; it offers us an opportunity to escape, not so that we can avoid the world, but so that we can have time away from it in order to renew our strength and recover the energy we need to confront the challenges it puts in our way. Sometimes we need to leave the world in order to experience what the world ought to be and to reacquaint ourselves with a good and a just society. On the other hand, it can show us what real injustice and tyranny are and in so doing suggest to us that things in our world may not be as bad as we were inclined to believe, stories often rekindle hope and optimism. But as Siegel says, it does many things and no catalog can capture all of them. 


Photograph of a man with a goatee wearing a fedora hat, turtleneck, and an outdoor jacket

Self Portrait

Edward S. Curtis


Charlotte Higgins in an article on The Odyssey The Odyssey: a soldier’s road home,” examines ways that reading can bring healing, in that it suggests that others before us have experienced what we are experiencing and we can than learn from that experience. It is often suggested that old books have little to teach us, that they are boring, uninteresting, and tedious, among other things; but more often they are true and perhaps the greater problem with reading books in school is that students do not have the knowledge or experience that enables them to see that truth. Students often like The Odyssey because it is an adventure and so many strange and unusual things take place. They are carried away by the story without identifying overly much with Odysseus or his struggles on his long voyage home. But, according to Higgins, many soldiers returning from combat have struggled with emotions not unlike those that Odysseus struggles with in the course of his story. There are truths to which we are born with a certain understanding or acquire that understanding early in life. There are other truths we grow into, not that these truths weren’t true before we grew into them, they just were not a conscious part of our lives and experience.


Painting of a young man with a hat

Self Portrait



Edward Short in an article on Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Agony of Spirit,” suggests that there is an ecstasy of language that stimulates the poet in the writing of his poetry and the reader in the reading of it. Hopkins has always fascinated me because no matter what he did he always managed to put himself at odds with those around him. He became a Catholic in a country, England, that did not care much for Catholics, and he not only became a Catholic, but he became a Jesuit, which was the order within the Catholic Church the English liked least. When the Catholic Church sent him to Ireland to teach he supported the English monarchy in a country that was trying to rid itself of the monarch. His poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, a poem in which he took great pride, was totally incomprehensible to those within his order who discarded it (the poem is an elegy on the deaths a group of nuns in a shipwreck and was submitted to a Catholic journal for publication). Robert Bridges published Hopkins’ poems as a tribute to his friend who had died, but he did not fully understand the poems or their significance. The article suggests that the poems were Hopkins’ way of studying and learning patience. Poets of many stripes have struggled with their art and the societies in which they lived and the poems are often the working out of this struggle (“The Sedgwick brothers’ top ten facts about William Blake,” “Last Words,” “The Imaginative Man,” “Enigmatic Dickinson Revealed Online,” and “What can WH Auden do for you?”). Hopkins and the poets in these articles captured the struggles of their times in their poems and through their poems we often find the tools we need to confront the troubles of our times and perhaps the inspiration to do for our times what they did for theirs. But so much of life involves struggle and in seeing the struggles of others depicted with such eloquence we often find strength to confront our own. 


Painting of an Asian man with mustache and goatee

Portrait of late Ming scholar-official Ho Bun

Unknonw, perhaps late Ming portrait painter


Reading also brings comfort. Sometimes we read just to nourish the soul and the spirit. Tim Hanningan, “Comfort Reads: Kim by Rudyard Kipling,” writes about how he takes the novel Kim with him wherever he goes and he talks of taking great comfort from this book. He points out others who have taken comfort from this book as well, in particular a prisoner of war during World War II who trusted an informant solely because his name was Kim and that name evoked for the prisoner the novel that meant so much to him. This, obviously, did not work to his advantage but it does suggest the power the written word can have over us. 

Graham Greene in a scene from his novel The Human Factor has his central character, Maurice Castle, use a novel by Anthony Trollope for a “book code.” The character is a double agent within the British Secret Service and Trollope is a novelist whose books could be taken anywhere without arousing suspicion. In describing this scene the narrator tells us that during the Second World War Trollope’s books enjoyed a resurgence of popularity because they captured so well an earlier more peaceful time that the people yearned for in the midst of war. The novels were a kind of “comfort food” for the spirit. Books do not change our reality, the problems still exist, they do not go away, but for a time, in our imaginations, we can go away, our imaginations enable us to recapture a tranquility our circumstances may not permit us to enjoy.

From It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra

Liberty Pictures/RKO Radio Pictures


The film clip gives us a snapshot of George Bailey, an insight into his character. He is waiting to leave a job he did not want to pursue something he has from a very young age yearned to do, to travel, explore, and achieve “great things.” In the scene he is going over with his uncle Billy what he plans to do after his brother, Harry, gets off the train to take over the running of the family business, which will free George to pursue his dreams. He learns, though, that Harry is not going to take over the firm. He will take over the firm if George insists on it, but it is clear that Harry has other plans. As George Baily walks from the train to where his brother’s new bride is waiting we see the inner struggle and as he approaches his brother’s bride we see a hint of a smile and realize he has made his choice, he will stay and let his brother go. It is this kinetic portraiture, the visual images, that communicate this decision, not a word is spoken. Does he make the right choice? In the context of the film he does, but why is this the right choice? Why, in some situations, is the right thing giving up our dream to let others pursue theirs? What makes George Bailey’s decision the right decision? Would we as viewers of the film believing that to be the right decision, make a similar choice if we found ourselves in a similar circumstance? 

Jim tells Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that most “signs” point to bad things that are going to happen so that we can prepare ourselves for the troubles that are approaching, but that we do not need signs to tell us about the good things, they do not require much in the way of preparation, we just need to be able to enjoy our good fortune. Perhaps sacrifice is a bit like this as well. Stories can prepare us for times when sacrifice is required so that when the time comes we are ready for it, we have thought about our responsibilities and made our decisions before we are actually called upon to make those decisions. But the question still remains, why must I sacrifice? It would not be immoral if George said to his brother “I put in my time, now it’s your turn.” I do not think he would be criticized overly much if he did say so, in fact we might see this outcome as just and fair. But if George had behaved in this way, I think he would have lost stature in our eyes. That is the way with heroes, they do not demand justice for themselves, they do what is the right thing in the unique light of the current circumstances. We look at them and wonder if we share their heroism. We probably want to see ourselves as heroic, but are willing to pay the cost?


Painting of a man contemplating at a table with flowers

Portrait of Dr. Gachet

Vincent Van Gogh


Jeanette Winterson in an article on the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, “Why we need fairytales: Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde,” sees fairy tales as preparing us for the future. They create for children, and for the adults that read them to children, examples of “reversals of fortune” where characters who have had much suddenly find themselves with very little. They are often the story of Job told in a language that is more accessible to children. Hansel and Gretel lose their mother and with this loss they lose everything else as well. The story ends well for Hansel and Gretel, at least it does in the versions we are most familiar with, though I do not think this is true for all versions. For Winterson, Wilde in these stories “prophesied” his coming hardships. But fairy tales often foretell all of our hardships. The world is not fair, God has given the evil one permission for a season to do us harm and we have to come to grips with why has this been permitted to happen. We all have moments when we feel terribly alone when we have not only not done wrong; we have made all the right choices.”  (Another article on children’s stories, “How Children’s Books Thrived Under Stalin,” addresses a more subversive aspect of children’s literature.)


Painting of blacksmith posing in front of his forge

Pat Lyon at the Forge

John Nagle


Reading fills an important role in our lives. As Siegel says often the only role we need to give our attention to is literature’s ability to offer us a kind of freedom. If we approach stories for the liberty they offer, we will get all the rest they have to offer for taking the journey. As a teacher I often struggle on the one hand, with the importance of students reading anything at all for the opportunities the reading gives to young readers. On the other I struggle with the need to help students learn to unravel difficult language so they can explore the depths of what they read and grow in their appreciation of the majesty of language and all of which it is capable. It is also impossible to find stories that every student will enjoy as every student’s tastes, as are every teacher’s, are different. I know most of my students read; I see them with books they are reading (often reading these books when they should be reading other things in class). 


Painting of a man in a tuxedo gesticulating next to a man in an Asian costume shooting an arrow into the sky

Vsevolod Meyerhold

Boris Grigoriev


Neil Gaiman in a recent article, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming,” discusses the importance of libraries and the reading they foster. He talks of being asked to attend a science fiction conference in China. He is puzzled by this because the government had in the past done all they could to discourage the reading of science fiction. He was told when he asked about this, that they found though their engineers were very good at building things others designed, they were not very good at designing. So they asked all those folks that did the designing in America about what inspired them. The Chinese found that every one of them began by reading science fiction and continued to read science fiction. So the Chinese thought there might be something to this and changed their position. 

We live in an age that does not attribute much value to literature, to art, or to music, or the Humanities in general. But they do teach us important things the more practical disciplines like math and science, cannot. It is easy in this environment for students to dismiss literature that demands a lot from them without, on the surface of things as they understand them, promising much in return. But if a goal of our education is to grow in maturity and judgment, there needs to be some focus on what the Humanities can teach us in this regard. The practical arts can teach us how to make a lot of money, but they cannot teach us why making money is important or if it is important. 

Too many are not interested in a good education, they are interested in a good paycheck and they see a good education as a route to a good paycheck. It is not the education they want it is the money, and who can blame them; it is money that gets us what we value, it is money that is the surest way to prosperity, power and comfort. An education that makes us thoughtful and reflective, that reinforces values of love of neighbor and community, of liberty and justice often stands in the way of accumulating wealth. Those for whom the object of a good education is a measure of wisdom are often at a disadvantage in the pursuit of success, as it is understood by the world at large. But, perhaps, also, if that measure of wisdom has been attained the pursuit of that kind of success losses its savor.


Painting of a ballerina dancing

Swan Princess (Portrait of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel)

Mikhail Vrubel