Walking in Beauty with the Night

Variations On “Ein Mädchen Oder Weibchen”, Op. 66
Ludwig Van Beethoven
András Schiff, Miklós Perényi

Walking in Beauty with the Night

Painiting of Queen of NIght descending against Night Sky

The arrival of the Queen of the Night. Stage set by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) for an 1815 production

There is an article by Laura Miller in this week’s (11/30/08) New York Times “Sunday Book Review”. The article is called The Well-Tended Bookshelf and is about getting rid of books, of thinning the bookshelves in one’s private library. In addition to a discussion of the criteria different people use for getting rid of books she talks a bit about why people collect books in the first place. Among other things she talks about books as a way of signaling to those you find attractive your tastes and interests so that both parties can learn something about potential compatibility before things go too far (the article links to another article by Rachel Donadio that explores this topic in greater detail).

What does what we read reveal about us, are the titles on our shelves that revelatory? Do they necessarily reveal anything at all? Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby has an extensive library. However, as soon as any book in that library is removed from the shelf it is clear they serve only a decorative purpose, that they were selected to convey an image perhaps but the books themselves were never read nor were they purchased with any intent to read them. The Great Gatsby is set in a time when the pages of a book had to be cut before they could be read and the fact that the pages are uncut tells anyone looking at them that they are only for show. I know of people who go to library book sales and buy books based on how well the bindings blend with the interior decorating. Leather bound law books are especially popular, unreadable but impressive looking on any bookshelf.

Being one who accumulates books I can understand the desire some would have for getting rid of a few. I often go through my stacks (in the literal not the library sense) looking for things that might be discarded but am always flummoxed by the process. They all have an attraction. Time being what it is it is not likely they can all be re-read, though some may be rummaged for information. Still they represent a relationship of sorts, with ideas, characters, and evocative bits of language, not to mention the sentimental links to times and places in my personal biography. Somewhere I have a book that I got through The Weekly Reader when I was in the seventh grade. It is an old paperback edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

Henry David Thoreau devotes a chapter of his book Walden to reading books of value. He does not have much patience for the light reading that fills the reading time, such as it is, of his contemporaries.  He thinks it unfortunate that so many spend so little time reading anything of consequence. He sees little value in reading the popular novels of the day or, even worse, the daily newspapers. He says at one point:

The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

He believes reading should stretch the mind and the imagination. He said he went to the woods in the first place to live deeply. Reading as he understands it is a part of the process of living deeply. I do not know if it is necessary to be a great poet to read great poetry but it certainly exercises the mind and imagination much more than the daily paper.

Thoreau was especially drawn to the classical literature, not just that of Greece and Rome, but the literature that formed the cultural foundations of most nations. He rates the classical literature of India and China at least as highly as that of Western Europe. Being associated with pacifist views his praise for a book like Homer’s Iliad might surprise some in that it is for the most part about men at war. But this book, as most national epics, is infused with the culture’s mythology and beliefs about the value of life and how it ought to be lived.

The music at the beginning is from a sonata for piano and cello by Beethoven. The theme of the concerto is taken from an opera by Mozart, The Magic Flute. It is a story revolving around love and enlightenment. There are birds, villains, and musical instruments with magical powers. Mozart got himself in a bit of trouble because it is said the opera reveals some of the secrets of the Masonic Order, of which Mozart was a member. But it also has at its heart the mythology of an ancient culture, Egypt.

The story involves princesses and princes but it also involves the ancient Egyptian deities, Isis and Osiris. They are associated with agriculture, which would have pleased Thoreau. The story of Isis and Osiris is a love story, as is the story of The Magic Flute. As with many quests for love and enlightenment it contains elements not only of the beautiful but of the horrific as well. The opera uses ancient Egyptian mythology to communicate Enlightenment ideas. What is horrific is intended to frighten us away from the irrational. As a rhetorical device this works well, but it is ironic that the “rhetoric” exploits our emotions in order to dissuade us from trusting them.

Painting of caged man screaming

Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) desmoinesregister.com
Francis Bacon

Horror has always been popular in literature. Odysseus and his crew battle the Cyclops and Circe, one a monster the other a sorceress of awesome power. The 1001 Arabian Nights provide a generous array of monsters and villains. The epic literature of most nations have monsters of one kind or another in them and events that are truly terrifying. This tradition has been kept alive through the work of Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Steven King. Horror films take the genre a step further perhaps by giving us the opportunity to see the mayhem, though, if the imagination has been properly trained no film can equal the horror of our own minds’ making. This is not because my imagination is better than that of the filmmakers but because my imagination tailors the horror to my own psyche not only by feeding the terrors that haunt me the most but by dressing those terrors in the colors that best amplify my fears.

Joseph Campbell on the Sublime

The painting by Francis Bacon captures what Campbell means by the sublime, that aspect of the ugly and the horrific that inspires awe. The painting does not attempt to be beautiful in the conventional sense, though some may find a degree of conventional beauty in the colors that are used. Sublime is a more useful term for that in art that moves us, inspires us, fills us with awe. The sublime can be beautiful but it can also be ugliness that achieves a kind of perfection. As Campbell points out, the sublime can be found in things of great beauty like the temple and its gardens in Kyoto. But is also seen in the horror of the atom bomb. It is beauty or dread that is so overwhelming that it confronts us with our own mortality and smallness. When Campbell talks about the sublime he often takes on religious overtones. But I think that is because the nature of the sublime is so overpowering.

I think we read to experience the sublime to a degree, to escape the bonds of our own ego and experience and to sample a world that is larger than ourselves. Whether enlightenment follows or not does not alter the fact that we have been moved and if we are not enlightened we are in some way altered. As Thoreau says the things we read should be large enough that they somehow enlarge us; that we have to stand on tippy-toes to get a glimpse of the world the book contains.

Required reading as it is practiced in school is always problematic. No one can be coerced into the sublime. A student made to read a book will at best read the book to fulfill the assignment and then forget it, unless the book, in spite of the circumstances under which it has been read, captures the student’s imagination. On the other hand if the imagination is never challenged, if students are never exposed to literature that rises to the level of the sublime, they may never know that it is out there to be found or fail to appreciate its significance when it is found. Our teachers often present great literature as if it is a thing of unspeakable beauty, something very fragile that must be handled delicately and with reverence. But this demeans great literature.

There is nothing “beautiful” as most understand beauty, in the tales Chaucer has the Summoner and the Miller tell us, or in many of the adventures of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantegruel. These stories are gross, vulgar, and unsuited to mixed company, but they nonetheless capture something that is sublime in human experience. To grasp this aspect in the things we read, at least in those things we read that contain this quality, requires a bit of work. When we are told we must work at what we read in order to get this benefit it seems undesirable to many of us. But as Thoreau also pointed out, this kind of reading exercises the mind in the same way working out at a gym exercises the body. But this aside, what is it that repels us about work, as though work and enjoyment and pleasure are all unrelated? We have coupled, I think, work with tedium. Work can be tedious and sheer drudgery, but it does not have to be. In fact those things that are most satisfying and most enduring challenge us and require some effort on our part if their benefits are to be enjoyed in all their fullness.

Wishing I Knew

“Der Alter Bulgar”
Itzhak Perlman and The Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra
Arranged by Andy Statman

Wishing I Knew

The music is from an album of Klezmer music called In the Fiddler’s House. The song is described in the album notes as one that enables each of the musicians to improvise and go where the music takes them. On the one hand improvisation enables musicians to exercise their creativity, to play a part in the shaping of the song, to help determine what the song will ultimately be. Many of the classical composers left room for improvisation in their work and trusted to the creativity of the musicians interpreting the score. It is the passage of time that has produced a “definitive” score. This suggests the other side of improvisation; it is scary. If the score is not “written” but in the process of being written than each musician is to a degree on her or his own.

As a teacher I find that many students want the answer where what I want to give them is a way of understanding the problem and of working their way through to possible solutions. As an English teacher I am not concerned with telling students what a work of literature means but of helping them find out what it might mean or how it might evade meaning altogether. I think it is more important to understand how interpretations are reached and to understand that many different interpretations have merit than it is find the definitive interpretation, which probably does not exist. The more artfully a text is written the less likely it is to lend itself to a single interpretation, to a simple solution. This is one of the great values of literature; it teaches us that inquiry has value in and of itself even if it does not provide solutions but only more avenues to investigate.

After class one day this week a group of students asked me a question about history. Not being an historian I thought the question a bit odd but I tried to answer. The question concerned the causes of America’s Civil War. I gave the best answer I could but tried to point out that there is not complete agreement among historians. But the group of students that asked the question were not so much in search of a correct answer as demonstrating that a fellow student was wrong in his assessment.

The real problem of the question asked, and of many questions that are asked, is that there is not a simple answer. Different people read the events differently. This has always been the case with literature, that some read thing differently from others and the secret is, if there is in fact a secret, that most things of consequence are complicated and do not lend themselves to simple solutions; there is often not a clear right and a clear wrong answer (though wrong answers are often easier to find than the right ones).

The purpose of education is not to lead students to right answers, though that seems to be what many students want, but to develop curiosity and a mind that questions what is placed before it. There is real pleasure that comes from being able to answer a question, especially a difficult and complicated question, but if we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that the answer we gave was probably inadequate even if it satisfied the questioner. Once an authoritative answer has been given many feel the issue is resolved and they can go on to other things, and no longer trouble themselves with the question that had been nagging them. But it is the nature of a question to nag and of a questioner to go where the nagging leads.

Painting of departed souls entering into credit

Ascent of the Blessed
Hieronymus Bosch

My seniors are looking at bits and pieces from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The character of Satan is probably the most intriguing in the poem. Some believe Satan is the hero. William Blake famously stated “Milton was a true poet and of the devils party, without knowing it”. The key phrase there is “without knowing it” because Milton begins the poem by saying he is justifying the ways of God to man and he asks the Holy Spirit to help him get the story right. Others point to these lines in the poem as the foundation for their interpretation that Satan, though an attractive character in the poem, is in fact the villain.

It is true that Satan has all the best lines and he is certainly heroic. But if Milton was in fact a Puritan and a devout Christian he would have it on Biblical authority that Satan is the Father of Lies and that nothing he says can be trusted. From this point of view Satan’s language is not so much heroic as it is seductive. He is saying what his human listeners want to hear and what sounds attractive to them. There is a bit of the rebel in all of us and the words of Satan resonate, we want to believe it is better to rule than to serve, that the mind can make something good of the most hellish circumstances (Satan says this much better than I but you will have to read the poem if you want to see what he has to say).

As a teacher I present both sides and tell my students that my heart is with Blake but my mind takes Milton at his word. A close reading of the poem does not give the reader an easy choice and that is the real thing for students to understand. We do not read to find answers or to understand necessarily but to learn something about ourselves and the way we think and feel about the world around us. Reading Paradise Lost does not let me rest comfortably on the side of God, the angels, and the archangels nor does it let me rest easily with the devil and his fallen friends. Reading well does not afford solutions to literary problems only the knowledge that how a text is understood depends to a large degree on how it is read and the point of view that is brought to the reading.

Will Richardson in his blog this week discussed how students are approaching knowledge and learning differently than in the past. There is probably truth to this, I know I learned differently from the way my parents learned and that different things interested me than interested them. Quoting from a MacArthur Foundation study he says, “Youth using new media often learn from their peers, not teachers or adults, and notions of expertise and authority have been turned on their heads.” I think on the one hand this is very exciting. Curiosity is the best teacher. But on the other hand many have a limited idea of what it means to understand something. Often we gravitate towards those with ideas similar to our own and as a result the information we get often conforms to the views we brought to the subject. Because there is a single perspective that resembles our own we are not challenged to confront the weaknesses in our views or to see the true depth of the issues before us.

This does not need to be the case but in a culture that has become so dominated by talk radio personalities who present a single side of an argument as if it were the only side to an argument the likelihood of this becoming the case seems very real. Curiosity and the sharing of information ought to be encouraged but there also needs to be a healthy respect for the conclusions of those that have thought deeply and long on a subject, especially when they arrive at conclusions different from our own. I believe in expertise. I think there are rewards for spending time in study and that those who have spent time in study have something to teach us. It is unwise to believe that the mind can function well without training. It is equally unwise to believe that those that train us have all the answers.

Jacques Derrida- Fear of Writing

In the video Derrida I think captures the struggle between a reliance on expertise and a need to explore an independent line of inquiry. Derrida invested a great deal of time with ideas and in the study of ideas. Part of his confidence probably flows from this. But it is the time spent in study that he also had to break away from; to learn to trust his own conclusions and not those of others that were taught to him. This is what an education should provide our students, the willingness to challenge authority and to trust to their own authority. But that education must also give them the tools to think clearly and deeply. If students do not trust their own conclusions and their own ability to reason to those conclusions they will be easily manipulated by others.

If on the other hand they have not been taught rigorously they will arrive at sophistic solutions. Discussions with “experts” often reveal the weaknesses in our thinking and show us where we need to do a bit more work. In my classroom I try to give the most difficult time not to those that disagree with me but to those that cannot articulate clearly their own point of view, whether or not it is my point of view. Real educators train students to clarify their thought; they do not tell students what to think.

As a teacher I try to act as Derrida’s sub-conscious acts in half sleep. It is my hope that my students will respond as Derrida does when he is awake; that they will have learned to trust their conclusions and the thinking that has brought them to those conclusions while recognizing that there is still a certain inadequacy to those conclusions. It is important to understand that the ideas of those we disagree with do have merit but that the merit of those ideas do not necessarily undermine the merit that is to be found in our own thinking.

When musicians improvise they trust the part of the score that is written to lead them safely through that part of the score that is to be composed in performance. Because they have mastered the written score, what the experts have provided, they have the necessary confidence in their own creative abilities to provide the parts that are missing and to go wherever their understanding of the music leads them.

Between the Mountains and the Deep Blue Sea

From “Mohini (Enchantment)”
Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Between the Mountains and the Deep Blue Sea


15th century map
Inverted map of Fra Mauro (1460). Source “The Fra Mauro World map” Piero Falchetta.

The music comes from an album by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, The Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon. It captures the essence of the exotic and the unknown. To those with an adventurous spirit there is something in the music that calls the listener to places where the music was born. Perhaps to others it just sounds foreign and unfamiliar and even, perhaps, uninteresting. There is a short story by Lord Dunsany (“Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean”) that begin:

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, forever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain, and to the north by the voice and anger of the Polar wind. Like a great wall is the mountain to the west. It comes up out of the distance and goes down into the distance again, and it is named Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.


This mountain separates the inner lands from the sea. The inner lands are a land at peace protected by natural boundaries of desert and mountain and by enchantments. It is a land at peace, it is a prosperous land, it is a land whose citizens want for nothing. Yet there is this mountain and on the other side it is rumored there is the sea. But no one in the inner lands have seen the sea and those that have crossed the mountain have never returned.

It is the best and the brightest that are the most tempted by this mountain and are most likely to make the journey over it. Even the royal family and the heir apparent have been seduced by the mountain. Because the desire to cross the mountain and see the ocean has attracted so many, the people of the inner lands resent it. They go so far as to build a temple devoted to cursing this mountain.

I think this story is a fable of sorts about living in a world of change and the unknown. We can live in the relative peace and comfort of the familiar or accept the challenges and opportunities that come with accepting change and embracing the unknown. The phrase “accept change” and others like it are overused to the extent that it is no longer clear what it means. These phrases are often employed to entice people to accept things solely because they are new and different, which can create another set of problems.

The character of that which is new must be assessed, as must that of the familiar. I think that often accepting change, any change, can be a good thing because it forces us to reassess what we think and the way we do things. Elaine May once said “The only safe thing is to take a chance” and that is what those that climbed Poltarnees to get to the other side did. They took a chance. Those that made the journey safely were so entranced by what they found they had no desire to return. Or perhaps they perished. It is something that cannot be known with certainty.

In the classroom it seems that students struggle with new ideas and concepts. They often resist the stories from other times and places and are unwilling to invest the kind of time it takes to get inside the skin of those that made these stories. I think that it is interesting that elements of the Arabian Knights have found their way into European stories like Gulliver’s Travels. Odysseus’ struggles with the Cyclops are not that different from those of Sinbad with similar kind of creature. Critics, the last time I checked, were not certain which story came first or if they both weren’t influenced by some other story that has long since perished. The point is that what interests people of all cultures in story telling is remarkably similar. The places and names are different and perhaps a bit unpronounceable to those outside the culture that tells the story, but the events and challenges are very similar.

Stories shanghai us to places we may at first be unwilling to go (the term “shanghaied” itself is taken from the practice of kidnapping sailors to places they did not want to go). And the reading of stories, especially when read with an open mind, will change the way we think and the way we look at the world around us. Story telling is at its rhetorical, it makes an argument for a different way of viewing things. We may be attracted by something in the characters and the conflicts they must resolve but we often end by assuming the point of view and attitudes of characters in the story. Our minds change and we are often unsure what has changed them.

The classical teachers of rhetoric argued that the emotional argument, not the logical or the ethical argument, was the most effective and therefore ought to be the argument of choice for orators. I read somewhere that St Augustine preferred rhetoric to logic (and by rhetoric he meant the emotional argument) because he could achieve his desired result more easily. If we can be made to feel a certain way about a thing our thoughts and opinions will often follow our feelings. When it comes to stories it seems we start by feeling a certain way about characters and what they encounter and often end up thinking the way the authors want us to about the issues and ideas the characters in the stories must confront.

This is why it is so important to read with our minds engaged and to consider what we think and feel and why we think and feel as we do after we finish reading. The same could be said of the movies we watch and the music we listen to. There is a rhetorical quality to these as well. It seems that as a culture we are becoming increasingly more passive, but perhaps it is just human nature to gravitate towards ease and it is easier to go where the story takes us than it is to consider the journey and whether we want to take it.

One purpose of education is to challenge students to question; to question the world around them, their attitudes toward the world around them, the source of their resistance to the content of the classes they take, whether they be English classes or Science classes, whether they are studying stories or the theory of evolution. The purpose of the classroom is not to produce students that think as they have been taught but students who consider and evaluate effectively what they are being encouraged to think and believe. Totalitarianism thrives more easily when the governed are a non-reflective people that prefer to accept without question what they are invited to believe.


From The Great Dictator

In this scene Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator dances with a globe of the earth as though it were his personal plaything until the bubble bursts. The film is polemical in nature in that it is a passionate argument against war and dictatorship. In the film the Great Dictator is ultimately defeated. Whether his downfall is the result of a triumph of reason or of one emotion prevailing over another, you will have to watch the film to discover. The image of the dictator and the globe though is emotionally powerful and perhaps captures more effectively the dangers of dictatorship than a well-reasoned argument.

Nkosi Sikelel i’Afrika

Zain Bhikha

Philip Sidney in his essay “In Defense of Posey” argues that lyric poetry is a powerful tool for motivating people to act. When the African National Congress was trying to overthrow the apartheid government of South Africa they would rally their supporters by singing “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika.” The song so effectively provoked a spirit of solidarity among those resisting the government that its singing was banned. Both the song and the film quickly and effectively produce a result that most would find desirable. But this result is produced by a manipulation of the emotions. The ends produced make the means acceptable but the danger is of course that the emotions could as easily have been manipulated in a different direction as might be suggested by the films of Leni Riefenstahl that documented Hitler’s rise to power.

Poltarnees is perhaps the mountain that stands between what our feelings invite us to believe that our minds might question.  Because emotions can easily be manipulated for the good or the bad care should be taken not to believe too quickly what our passions would endorse. Optimism and pessimism both have their place. We need a spirit of enthusiasm to make the journey and a spirit of caution not to journey too precipitously. The mountain must be climbed if we are to advance but it is the nature of a mountain to retard progress, to require a slow and deliberate assent.

The story “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean” ends, “Once every year, with solemn rite and ceremony, they curse the tides of the Sea; and the moon looks in and hates them.” It is in our nature as human beings to quest and to explore and the moon that guides us through the darkness of our uncertainty looks with disfavor on our unwillingness to make the journey.

Aiming the Canon – Studying Words of Art

Roll Over Beethoven

Chuck Berry

Aiming the Canon – Studying Words of Art

Those that like the music of Beethoven, or progressive jazz, may not like Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” The artistry that Berry aspires to is not the same artistry that Beethoven aspired to and those that find art in Beethoven may deny that it is to be found in Chuck Berry’s song. Others find great artistry in the song, the magazine Rolling Stone ranked the song 97th in their list of the five hundred greatest songs of all time (of course there is a facetiousness in the label “all time” unless time began somewhere in the 1950’s).

Librarian Arcimboldo Stokholm.jpg‎ (434 × 599 pixels, file size: 71 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Arcimboldo_Librarian_Stokholm.jpg

The painting is of a man, a librarian, made of books and for me it captures the essence of the bibliophile. A person so in love with literature that books form the very essence of his being. Trying to teach classic literature to young adults, on the other hand, has always been difficult and it seems to get more difficult as time goes by. Books for these young people are not intimately woven into the fiber of their being. I was born in 1949. When I was born books had only radio and the movies to compete with and it was not long before that when there was even less competition. Books were a popular form of entertainment for much of modern history because reading and playing a musical instrument were about the only forms of entertainment available that could be done without others to play along. This is probably an oversimplification, there were no doubt other ways people amused themselves, but the written word had it much easier in the competition for discretionary time.

I remember when the first television came into our house. I remember vaguely a house before television in the early 1950’s but have a harder time remembering how the time was filled before television. I doubt I was a voracious reader, being only about half way through the single digits of my existence, but I remember the first television and know there was no television for us or anyone else before that first television, so it could not have played a part in the evening’s entertainment.

Nor are television and movies the only competition with which the book must compete. The book is also at something of disadvantage because reading is a difficult pastime to pursue passively. But is the canon concerned with books that are read for entertainment. It is unlikely that a book that fails to entertain will survive long enough to find its way into the canon, but for a book to find a place in the canon that book must probably do more than just entertain. And it is that something else that is studied in literature classes and it is also that something else that holds little interest for students (or for many of their parents I suppose).

Jonathan Lethem in this Sunday’s (11/09) New York Times reviews a new book by Roberto Bolano, 2666 (it also included the Arcimboldo painting of the Librarian). The review is entitled “The Departed” and begins with a reflection on the nature of art, especially literary art and whether it is possible for flawed human beings to produce something perfect enough to be called art. He points out that there is much that is wrong with the books that are labeled great, in part because of the inherent ambiguity of language and in part because of the imperfection of the human character. But perhaps that is part of the greatness of literature in that it showcases the human psyche at odds with an imperfect world and other imperfect people. If nothing else they can provide models for how to live in a broken world. Though there is still the problem of what imperfect human authors consider “proper behavior.”

Twilight Zone “Time Enough at Last”

Henry Bemis in this Twilight Zone episode is a man with a passion for books. He reads with enthusiasm even when he ought to be doing other things and this gets him in a bit of trouble. He cannot read at work and he cannot read at home. There are few in his life who share his enthusiasm. There is also the problem of his passive acquiescence to everyone who criticizes him primarily because he wastes so much of his time reading. It is a stereotype of the bookish person out of touch with the world and incapable of functioning in social situations. I think this is the first stereotype that must somehow be addressed if reading is to retain a place of prominence in the culture.

I think we read books because they are by and about imperfect human beings. It cannot be overlooked that many writers project views and attitudes that are troubling and these views must be shown for what they are. But often these views reflect the times in which the author lived and are surrounded by other attitudes that challenge what is wrong with those times. Dickens’ portrayal of Victorian society in Oliver Twist confronts much that is wrong with the treatment of the poor, especially poor children by that society. But then there is also the Anti-Semitism found in the depiction of Fagin. Should works like this be abandoned and replaced with others that do not get some things so glaringly wrong. Is it possible to produce a book that does not get it glaringly wrong? That which replaces the works removed from the canon will be shown over time to have flaws that are as bad or worse.

Perhaps the real issue is the necessity of a canon at all. Are great books and the reading of them an out of date exercise? Is it necessary to expose the young people of today to Charles Dickens or Homer or Cervantes or Shakespeare? Emerson believed we studied the past and the literature of the past in order to better understand our present and more importantly to better understand ourselves.

A proper understanding of history does not involve remembering key dates and events but understanding the people that shaped those events and the forces inside of them that motivated their actions. There is little value to knowing that Washington led the forces of the American Revolution. There may be something to be learned, though, in trying to understand what led him to take on such a task as there would be value in trying to understand why a king in a country many thousands of miles away (and a journey of some months) would try to force his will so stridently on a people that he aroused such a fierce resistance. There is also a value to confronting or encouraging as the case may be, those motivations when we find them in ourselves. We cannot confront them if we have not first been taught how to identify them.

There need not be a conflict, to return to the initial point, between Beethoven and his admirers and Chuck Berry and those that admire him. In fact there are many that reside in both camps. The same may be true of books. The books of the past still have power to move and influence those that read them. The problem perhaps lies in trying to force on those we teach the terms by which those books are read. I do not read for the same reasons as my students. What moves and motivates me probably does not move or motivate them. The problem is often that I am trying to get them to look at a book that does not interest them while employing a way of reading and a point of view that is to them irrelevant. The book has to ignite a spark within the reader if it is to come to life within that reader and that spark is unique for each of us.

But on the other hand reading a book seriously and closely with an eye to the little things that work so well within it is a skill and a craft that must be learned and it is learned in part by following the journey through a book that another has taken. Before Emerson could apply the lessons of literature to his own life someone had to show him what lies beneath the surface of plot, or if in fact anything does lives beneath that surface. I don’t try to teach students to look at a book the way I look at a book because I want them to read like me but because I want to give them the tools to read profoundly for themselves. All I can do is take them down the path I have traveled and point out some of the things I have noticed and hope that at some point along the way they will take off on a path of their own making.

In describing King Arthur’s knights as they went off in search of the grail Sir Thomas Malory says, “And so on the morn they were all accorded that they should depart everyone from the other; and on the morn they departed with weeping cheer, and every knight took the way that he liked best.” They all left the castle using the same road, but disappeared at different times and places into the woods to pursue their own unique path. That is perhaps what we all must do both in the way we read and the way we live our lives.

Tone Deaf or Just Atonal – Sensing Change

From Rites of Spring, ” Part 1_ Adoration Of The Earth_ Dance Of The Young Girls”
Igor Stravinsky
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic

Tone Deaf or Just Atonal – Sensing Change

When Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rites of Spring was first performed the audience rioted. The ballet evoked a pagan ritual celebrating the coming of spring with a heavy emphasis on percussion instruments and using conventional instruments almost as though they were percussive instruments at times. Needless to say the change was greater than most in the audience were prepared to accept.

Part of the problem is that we have to retrain the way we absorb a thing when something about it changes. Part of the problem with Stravinsky’s music was, I think, that people did not know how to listen to it. Their reaction certainly suggests they did not get it. With time, though, the music has become a part of the mainstream and is appreciated and enjoyed by many who enjoy and appreciate classical music.

Arnold Schoenberg’s music also provoked profound disinterest when his music was first performed, though there were no riots that I am aware of. He developed a twelve-tone compositional system that many found intriguing and many others to this day find almost unlistenable. His composition courses, though, were very popular. It is said that many hoping to write music for the movies, especially for horror movies found his twelve-tone system (a form of atonality) well suited to film where music is used not so much as a stand alone item but as something to underscore or add emphasis to what is happening on screen.

Schoenberg’s method could be used effectively for creating mood and atmosphere, though I am told that those composers that employed this technique in the movies lacked Schoenberg’s skill and artistry. I think that hints of Schoenberg’s atonality can be heard in the work of some jazz composers, especially those, like John Coltrane, whose compositions are often dissonant and not always overtly melodic. Listening to John Coltrane and other jazz composers like him also requires a bit of retraining for the ear.

Abstract painting by Jackson Pollock,
No. 5, 1948
An abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, taken from Art Market Watch.com

The painting by Jackson Pollack does not look like much of a painting to many and it too requires the viewer to learn a new way of looking if the work is to be appreciated. There is depth and texture to the painting but identifying what its about may suggest more of Rorschach and his inkblots than art. Art is supposed to move the viewer at some level and many find themselves responding emotionally to the painting. Because it is not representational it can suggest many things, but it is the viewer’s job to establish this meaningful connection. I think it is worth the effort to seek the artistry in this and other paintings like it (like it in the sense that they defy traditional forms of observation).

These thoughts about music and art and the difficulty with which a culture often reacts to change were provoked by attitudes toward change in schools. It seems at times that the reaction to some of the new technologies and less traditional classroom strategies are met with a reaction not unlike that which confronted Stravinsky and Schoenberg. I teach in a school that is a bit standoffish to some of the newer technologies, especially some of the more social technologies, like YouTube. There have been plenty of examples of the misuse of this technology in the media, but does that justify closing the door on it. We do not deny our students access to libraries because they may contain books that we would rather they did not read.

It can be argued that a school library is different than a public library and that it is prudent to keep some books of school library shelves. Still, no one advocates closing the school library altogether. At worst this is an argument for opening the door to some of the things these technologies offer while putting in place some safeguards to make it difficult to access their less savory side. In this Sunday’s Boston Globe (11/2) there is an article (“U Tube“) about how these new technologies are being used to make lectures, interviews, and other educational materials available for free to any who want to learn from them. Prominent people in various fields of study have developed these materials and they offer much that can be of value in the classroom.

YouTube on Grimm’s and Verner’s Laws

The YouTube video is a discussion of Grimm’s Law and how he codified the transitional steps between the Latin branch of the Indo-European language group and the Germanic Languages that do not resemble, at least not superficially, Latin. As an English teacher I find the evolution of language fascinating and I find this video fascinating for understanding how that branch of the English language that has its origins in the German Languages of the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes, came to look and act the way it does. Whatever one thinks of this particular YouTube video, the point is still the same; it serves and was designed to serve an educational purpose, a purpose that has a place in the modern classroom.

I think that over time the nature of the book is going to change. There are already technologies available that could make the book of bound paper pages obsolete. It is not unlikely that books of the future may be multi-media in their presentation. Essays and stories that are published online already incorporate images, film clips, and music to add additional dimensions to the writing and to reinforce points in their arguments. The rise of the graphic novel suggests that a visual component is finding its way into the work (though the work of Arthur Rackham and John Tenniel suggest that this is not an entirely new idea).

The culture changes even if we do not and change is not always comfortable, but it is necessary. What more can be done within the traditional art forms. Music, painting, and the written word do not pass away because there does not seem to be much left to do with them. The novel evolved in part because the epic no longer served as an effective way to tell stories, or so it seemed to those that wrote stories.

I think the same is true of the classroom. It, like any other form, must evolve and grow to fit the times in which it lives or it ceases to be effective, it ceases to be alive. I am not sure changing the way the desks are organized is enough, though it may be an effective place to start. Living things change. We can speak with greater certainty about the meaning of a Latin word than an English or German word because no one speaks Latin anymore and therefore its vocabulary is no longer fluid. Living things change, that is in part what it means to be alive.

The best that can be said of a classroom that operates in much the same way classrooms operated a hundred years ago is that it is in a state of suspended animation waiting to be revived. It is also possible, I think, to use twenty-first century tools and techniques within a nineteenth century classroom structure; to use, for example, a web text in the same way we use a traditional textbook. I am not sure this is enough either. The greatest argument in favor of changing the classroom, not just to incorporate the new technologies, though certainly they should do that, is to keep it healthy and alive. It is difficult to excite the mind with an old idea or an old way of looking at the world or even of looking at new ideas. As our world and the arts and ideas that shape that world change so must our ways of looking, listening, and learning change.