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.