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.

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16 thoughts on “Walking in Beauty with the Night

  1. I feel that the books we read and accumulate over the years do reveal things about who we are and what we are like. By reading these books we show what we like and what we find captivating. I believe the books we have on our shelves show how our minds work in a way. To me they show what appeals to us as opposed to what doesn’t. I think the reason we have a hard time getting rid of our books is because it represents who we were. When you look at the books you used to love and compare them to the ones you love now it shows how much you have grown and changed over the years. For example, when I was younger, I loved to read Shel Silverstein and his poetry, but now I enjoy reading Robert Frost’s poems or plays by William Shakespeare. In a way books are a part of who we are and that’s why we keep them around.

  2. I agree with the point about required reading. Experiencing the sublime is important , but required reading usually does not do this. Anything forced upon you could likely result in disdain, most of all a book like Walden, where there is no action to keep the reader’s attention. However, if you look deeper into the book, Thoreau presents some very interesting philosophical theories. Too often kids will just breeze through the book and fill out the homework without really thinking about what it is all about. Without this, there is gain little from the reading.

  3. I think that the books we keep around the house reveal alot about who we are. They give people a sense of what they are like. Or perhaps what they like to read. The books we read and refer to for examples show that we have come across evidence to suport something. This example must have stuck out in our minds for some reason, whatever it may be. It helps others see what you remember from a book you’ve read. I also find it true that whether you pick out the book yourself or are required to read it,it will stand out in your mind if you have a reason to rmemeber it. The reason could be for future reference or for a test that you’ll have to take once you come back to school. For many assignments, we’re required to use examples from literature, history or culture to support our opinion. The books that we have read will help us to include more literary examples into our writing.

  4. I agree with the point about required reading and the importance of reading books of value. At a first glance, a book may appear to be or seem boring, but there is deeper meaning, and important theories and ideas within the text. Thoreau believed that reading should stretch the mind and imagination. He also believed that people spend too much time reading popular novels or books with little value. I believe there is nothing wrong with reading for entertainement and there are values in these books as well.

  5. I agree with Ms. Fillion about popular novels. I think Thoreau can be bit “puritanical” in his views in the sense he has little tolerance for those who think differently than he. But I think “great” novels (Or great anything for that matter) often begin as “popular” novels. Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare were popular before they were “great”.

  6. I strongly believe that the books that we both read and own depict who we are. I feel that through books much can be exposed about a persons character. By observing what one reads you can easily understand what that person likes, what interests them, their points of view on certain subjects, and various other things. I also believe that books can illustrate how a person has developed by comparing books read in the past to those in the present. They clearly demonstrate the changes in people over time, representing that persons growth and maturity. I also comply with the argument made about required reading. To a student these books may at first seem dull but when analyzed a deeper meaning can be found within the text. Most of the time these books have some sort of important value when read properly.

  7. I would have to agree in the fact that the books one has shows a glimpse of who they are. Stories in general, are picked to be enjoyed. The books enjoyed by someone shows what kind of person they are. For example, a person with numerous love stories could be described as a romantic. Though books are written for entertainment or information, they show what kind of person the reader is because all books are intended for a certain type of audience.

  8. I don’t agree with ever throwing out books. I personally keep almost every book i ever buy, and I frequently reread them. They spark memories in me, and each time i read them i discover something new that I didn’t notice before. I also am guilty of buying books for looks. I bought classics such as “War and Peace” knowing full well the possibility of me reading it any time soon was extremely slim. I will one day read it some day when I find time, but for the time being it is pure decoration. I do not agree with Thoreau on reading though. I do not believe that reading “lesser” books is a bad thing. Books of less substance are a good way to escape reality, especially in stressful times. Obviously reading a “heavier” book gives a person more in return, but I think this often more difficult reading should be replaced with lighter and more entertaining reading. The sublime certainly inspires great awe into people. I am very captivated by grotesque things. It is not that I LIKE the sublime, it is that it is very foreign to me, so it captures my attention. Because of this, as stated in your blog, horror books and books with the grotesque in them are very successful. Books filled with foreign and disgusting things, such as “The Painted Bird” have become famous due to the attention they are paid. It is evident that this fact is well known (and has been for centuries) by authors. Off the top of my head I can think of at least ten books I have read in the past two years that have included an extremely grotesque scene. It seems its almost impossible to avoid as the level of books I read increases. Personally i believe that school assigned reading is being used far too often. I agree that certain class wide books must be used but, for me at least, I learn much more, and retain much more out of a personal choice of a book. I think more of a focus on book reports will not only increase participation, but add to most students reading habits. Last year in Ms. Anastasia’s class, we had two self choice books reports. After those reports, I had lists of books I wanted to read on my own. Giving maybe a certain time period or subject matter for a book assignment would, in my opinion, be very beneficial. Required reading is essential on reading comprehension, but I think the focus should be more placed on broadening a students horizon in literature. Adding more reading choice would, in my opinion, help to raise that.

  9. I agree that the books one own or have read can reveal characteristics of one’s personality, but to definetly say this is true is tricky. I feel as though reading does evoke the imagination and that it is as if one can “pause” from their own life into a world that is perhaps vastly different from their own. A lot of times I like to read novels that are different from my own life because I want to learn/experience something different from what I know in my “real world”. What would this reveal about the reader’s personality? That they want relief from their own real lives? On the other hand, people also read books in which the characters are quite similar to people in the reader’s life. Situations that the protagonist may face may be the same as those that the reader themselves are involved in. If this is the case, then perhaps a lot may be revealed about one’s personality.
    I also believe that books required to read for an assignment are often not deemed as important to the student, but I’ve also come to realize the amount of effort an author puts into their creation. I remember thinking in ninth grade that if I had read “To Kill A Mockingbird” on my own, I would not have learned as much about the themes found in it as I had in class.

  10. I agree that the books we read give insight into our lives. Looking through the books we read can tell a lot about who we are. The various genres or the single genre found on our bookshelves define our personalities. They allow others to see our interests and what appeals to us. By saving books from our past and childhood, we are able to witness changes in our personality. It allows us to see how we have grown and developed over time. I also agree with the point of reading books that are required. The books, although not very appealing, allow us to expand our minds and step away from our comfort zone and the norm. Many of the books assigned cause us to look beyond the text and search deeper.

  11. I believe that the literature that we read and own reflects a lot about ourselves. It shows out interests, views and opinions on different things. With the apperance of the book, people do tend to by based on that and the title of the book. For me i get books that are eye-catchy, have a good summary on the back and i tend to like them to be on teen august. I agree with you when you wrote that we read to escpace the bonds of out ego and experience. I personally read to expand my ming and what i think and i like to read book that i can relate to.
    On the topic of summer reading, i really like the books that were assigned. When i first would read them i wouldn’t like them but over time when i get to really analyze and imagine what i read i love the book. Summer reading does me well. I really enjoyed reading this blog and commenting on it!

  12. What is the point of buying books for decorations? Someone else couldve used that book for its original purpose. I handle heavy-duty novels and newspapers lightly. I think most classic novels are only classics because they aren’t modern. Just because a novel is a classic doesnt make it interesting. I believe the newspaper like the news rarely has any good news. Certain books have it all. The good and the bad.People should be so intrigued in a book they shouldnt want to put it down. Required reading restricts students to a box. How can they allow their imaginations to stretch when they are being forced to read a book they aren’t interested in? Most students just read the words but might never understand the meaning. How can they appreciate something they don’t understand? All books should be appreciated for alll the work someone put into them. The truth is though is that not all books are appreciated. Books are used as a way out. A way out of our lives and into someone else’s life. It’s like a fieldtrip.

  13. Books are very important. and their are so many types of books that anyone can find a satisfying book to meet their personality, whether it’s adventure, drama, or a romance.
    “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.”
    i agree with this passage. people enjoy to read to find a different world than their own.

  14. Well to go on about Monikas blog comment I would have to say I would much rather write a book about personal experiences than read a book. Also if kids wrote books I think other kids would read them because they can relate to another kid.

  15. I can speak from experience in saying that books we own are a part of us. When I am put to the task of cleaning my room and I go through the books I have, I find myself unable to get rid of books, even if I haven’t read them in years. The books we own and choose to keep around us show glimpses at who we are. In most cases (assuming that the books on someone’s shelves have actually been read by them) by knowing what books someone reads you can tell a lot about that person. I believe that people keep books around them that they can relate to. For me, The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty is a book that I could really relate to. Even though I haven’t actually read it in about four years I could never will myself to get rid of it, because in a way it is a part of me now.

  16. I agree with the point that required reading can be problematic. I believe that if students read a book they want to read, they are more likely to remember that book. I also agree with the point made about the books we have read over the years do reveal something about our personalities. The books we are surrounded by give people an idea of what we are like. People usually choose books with genres that fit their personalities.

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