Wearing a Cultural Face

Lili Marlene
Marlene Dietrich

Wearing a Cultural Face

Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake

The song is actually two songs spliced together, or more precisely two recordings of the same song, one recording done in English and the other done in German. The singer in both recordings is the same, Marlene Dietrich. The records were made during World War II. The English version of the song was among the most popular songs of the war for the English and American soldiers. The German version was one of the most popular songs of the war for the German soldiers. I think it interesting that folks that spent their days shooting at each other went home (or at least to their barracks) and enjoyed the same music. There was this song that united them while the work they were doing kept them apart.

The image is of a woodblock print done by the Japanese artist Hiroshige. It is of a bridge in the rain. I think it captures very well the sensation of being caught in the rain. The woodblocks of Hiroshige made an impression on the French Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh and he imitated the Hiroshige’s style and on at least two occasions copied the images themselves, though he painted them in oils. What is in the art of a Japanese print maker that resonates with a French painter? Both the song and the pictures illustrate that whatever else separates us, art has the ability to draw people together who are in many, maybe most, ways very different.

Left, Hiroshige: Plum Estate, Kameido 1857; from “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”; The Brooklyn Museum.
Right, van Gogh: Japonaiserie, ‘Flowering Plum Tree’ (after Hiroshige)

There may be other aspects of the culture that keep people hopelessly divided, their religion, their form of government, but the songs they sing, the pictures they make, and the books they write often touch people who in just about every other way are in conflict. They even, at times, help shape the cultural directions that their dissimilar neighbors take. This does not mean that art has the ability to bring peace to cultures in conflict, after all the soldiers that were united by a song at night still shot each other the next day. But it does help to illustrate that there are aspects of the human character and imagination that are attracted to certain things no matter the cultural and physical geography.

Fang mask used for the ngil ceremony, an inquisitorial search for sorcerers. Wood, Gabon, 19th century.

Pablo Picasso saw an African mask that looked something like this. This mask had a religious and ceremonial use. It was not made to be a work of art in the way a painting is, but perhaps there is something in the way our psychology works that drives us to make our tools not just useful, but beautiful. The mask has a serenity and a sternness to it and its lines are very graceful. I think the serene sternness goes well with its function, that of an inquisitor. He is certain in his own beliefs and that certainty instills in him a serenity that he brings to the work that he does. And because that work involves the defense of that belief that gives him his serenity he is quite stern in his confrontation of that threat. This is often what the artist captures the conflicts and incongruity in the human character.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Pablo Picasso

If you look into the faces of the two young ladies on the right you will see the influence of the African mask on Picasso’s painting. The young ladies in the painting seem to be looking at the observer of the painting with various attitudes. The attitudes of the ladies with the mask-like faces are especially disturbing. The borrowing of the motif of the mask helps Picasso to say something about these young ladies and their aloofness. Perhaps the masks capture not so much how the ladies look as how they make the painter feel. The lines of the mask also suggest the Cubism that was a feature of Picasso art during one of his many periods. I think there is also an irony here because this African cultural imprint on the French culture was the result of a colonial enterprise that plundered much of Africa.

Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Pictures

The film was adapted from one of Rudyard Kipling’s best novels, Kim. It is about a young boy who has been orphaned in India. He lives on the streets and survives by his wits. It presents “The Raj”, or the British occupation of India, in a favorable light, suggesting things about this occupation that were not true. It is an outsiders view of a culture that assess that culture on the occupiers terms. The indigenous people are a little childish and the occupiers are benign and paternal. Though the book and the film capture the local color and the look of the landscape they both fail to capture the life of the culture. The India of Kim is that of fairy tale and not of reality.

The book, though, did provoke interest in this culture in the minds of many of the book’s readers who as a result went to this land to learn something about it. Many found the real India and not the fairy tale. They discovered the actual culture and not the veneer an occupying force laid over that culture. When I was in graduate school I took a course in the Victorian novel. The instructor seemed to think that the British Empire left behind in the many nations that it controlled when it was at its strongest a civil service and structure of government that served these nations well and enabled them to establish successful governments. I am not sure this is true but it is part of the cultural exchange. As a result of British interests in this part of the world the literature and religion of India and Asia came to play a significant role in shaping the thought of writers like Emerson and Thoreau. This too is part of the cultural exchange.

A review in this weekend’s Guardian concerns a book about the British Midlands. The article is “Land of hope, glory, and shall I be mother?” and it was written by Euan Ferguson about Stuart Maconie’s book Adventures on the High Teas. According to the review the book attempts to find the real Midlands of England as opposed to the Midlands of popular fiction. What this suggests is that even when we are at home we do not always understand correctly our own culture. Which is the true Los Angeles, that of Raymond Chandler or of The Beach Boys. What is the true Boston, that of Henry James, Robert Parker, or Mayor Menino? Does the culture of any place have a single face? Does the cultural mask that any place assumes resemble the place where its people actually live? Perhaps at some level our culture is an assumed identity.

The Remains of the Day
Columbia Pictures

Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese writer, wrote the novel on which this film was based. It is a depiction of life in a British manor house. The manor belongs to an aristocrat who has grown dangerously close to the Nazi Party. His aspirations are good, in that he hopes to prevent a war. But his is the avenue of appeasement that would overlook the more troubling side of the German leadership of the time. What is interesting, though, is that Ishiguro is not English and that the observations are those of an outsider looking in. In some ways Ishiguro is looking at Britain in the same way Kipling looked at India, but are the portrayals of English culture as condescending as Kipling’s were of Indian culture.

The character of Miss Kenton is just, while that of Mr. Stevens is domineering and condescending to those that he leads as the chief butler. I do not think the characters are intended to be viewed allegorically but Mr. Stevens’ attitudes are very like the attitudes the British brought to the lands they occupied. Ms. Kenton on the other hand tries to accept everyone and look out for those that cannot protect themselves. This is where most of the conflict between these two servants dwells. Things do not end happily for either, but that is another story. What is it in these characters and this European culture that an Asian writer finds so intriguing?

I think one of the reasons we study art and literature is to try to understand what those outside a culture find attractive about that culture. For all the problems that nations have they all leave a record of their aspirations and their idea of beauty in the art they leave behind. It is this art that we study and to a large degree most remember about what has come before. The Elizabethan Age and the Victorian Age left behind great works of art and literature. We know the names of the monarchs that have given their names to these historical moments, but most do not know much of the monarchs themselves.

Japonaiserie: Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige)
Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe

If there were no Shakespeare would the name of Elizabeth or if there were no Dickens would the name of Victoria be so widely known? How much of the romance of India and the east are due to the misrepresentations of Kipling and others like him? One reason to study culture is to separate out the myths that have been passed down about those cultures that are different from our own and to preserve the most admirable aspects of our own culture. The culture that we build and the materials that we use to build that culture will have more to do with how we are remembered than will any of those we serve as we go about our daily business. A nation that does not know its culture probably does not know itself very well.


The Faces of Culture – Are There Only Two

Pack Up Your Sorrows
Richard and Mimi Farinia

The Faces of Culture – Are There Only Two


William Blake’s


In the 1950’s C. P. Snow wrote an influential essay called The Two Cultures. He referred to the two cultures that dominated the universities of his day and to a significant extent still to this day. The two cultures are the Humanities and the Sciences, or perhaps as they are more popularly known the “arts and sciences.” Snow’s argument centered on which of the two cultures would be most able to practically address the issue of human suffering or, as the song suggests, if you could pack up your sorrows which, the Humanities or the Sciences, is best equipped to take them from you and, perhaps, put them to some good use. But even if no use is found, they are no longer your troubles.

William Blake’s painting of Isaac Newton is an apt representation of that struggle. Blake was one of the more obscure poets; he has kept people pulling their hair out trying to understand his poems since the day the poems were written. Newton, the subject of the painting, was the quintessential scientist mathematician, who, it is said, would wile away his leisure hours computing logarithms in his head. These lines from his poem Milton also suggest a role played by the arts and sciences in the arena of human suffering.

And did those feet in ancient times,
Walk upon England’s mountain green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease my Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

The poem attacks the misery caused by the Industrial Revolution. Though it is true that the scientists and engineers that created the machinery of the Industrial Revolution are not responsible for how that machinery was used do they bear any culpability at all for the anguish their machines caused? Should they have known enough of human nature to know what would follow? Is this a fair question; is progress inevitable and human nature being what it is will progress always produce a bit of suffering?

An article in this weekend’s New York Times Review of Books raised this issue of Snow’s essay and its continuing influence a half decade later. The article is by Peter Dizikes and is titled “Our Two Cultures.” Snow was concerned that because most of the free world’s politicians came from some branch of the humanities, law mostly, the sciences were getting short shrift. Snow believed that it was the sciences that were best suited to eliminating poverty improving living conditions in the impoverished corners of the globe. The undeveloped world needed technology and the sciences, which includes math, is the best suited to solve this problem.

Therefore the political class of the free world should give the sciences more resources and set to work addressing this problem. As this was the 1950’s and the heart of the Cold War Snow suggested that if the free world did not give their scientists the resources to solve this problem the Soviets would and Communist sphere of influence would grow while the Free World’s sphere of influences would diminish.

There is truth to the argument; those nations of the world that are struggling economically would probably struggle less if they had a vibrant industrial base. But is this all there is to being human and will this alone take away the sorrows of the poor? It is probably true that failing to solve the problems of economic inequities between nations will result in many poor people staying poor and miserable. But will the eradication of these economic disparities by itself reduce human misery? Will the world’s sorrows have been successfully packaged and shipped off to those that “can use them”

Illustration from Gulliver’s Travels, Voyage III, Sunbeams from Cucumbers
Milo Winters

At the heart of Snow’s argument is a belief that scientists are somehow more moral than those in the Humanities. Being a novelist and a scientist he lived in both worlds and ought to know. He could point to writers like Ezra Pound who became mixed up with the dubious morality of the Fascists to lend support to his argument. But then I suppose others could point to scientists like Werner Von Braun who were plucked from the Nazi’s atomic energy program as evidence that scientists sometimes made poor moral choices as well. The illustration depicts a scene from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It is a scene from the third voyage and depicts the Academy of Lagado. In this part of the story Swift is mocking the scientists of his day (Isaac Newton among them) for what he believes are the poor, impractical choices they made, in his view anyway.

The scientists in Swift’s satire seem most in the service of their egos. None of their experiments are practical and have been designed by Swift to feed the ridicule he has aimed at science. Though in the experiment depicted in the illustration suggests why this is considered by many to be the weakest part of the satire. Swift believed scientists were pursing science for science sake (to corrupt the popular phrase) and that the experiments served no purpose and were the result of totally abstract speculation. There are two things the critics of this voyage think Swift missed. One is that many useful products are by products of abstract science. The second is that what may have appeared to be totally abstract and useless in the experimental stage may when the tests are done produce something very practical. As, for example, if you replaced the cucumbers with corn you might see the beginning of ethanol and other bio-fuels.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump

Joseph Wright of Derby


This painting illustrates what is the most common attack on the ethics of scientists, their treatment of animals. The contraption in the painting will kill the bird in the glass at the top. I do not know the purpose of the experiment or what it was meant to demonstrate but it reveals a somewhat cavalier attitude towards wildlife. Of course, these are not scientists depicted in the painting but ladies and gentlemen playing with an eighteenth century version of the chemistry set.

Scientists that do experiments on animals will say that the purpose is to make discoveries that will benefit the human race and because human life is more important than other kinds of life the experiments are seen to have value. Most humans accept this as a valid argument but most are at the same time opposed to experiments that seem arbitrary and cruel in their use of animal subjects. At the end of the day, though, scientists through these experiments have produced what has improved the quality and the length of life for most that can read this. Still, that there are experiments done on animals that are cruel and inhumane suggests that at times scientists too struggle with ethical choices and do not always choose correctly.

Shock of the New – “Electronic Fragments”
Richard Hughes/BBC

The video illustrates what is the current bane of technology, or perhaps its current boon. At the time this program was broadcast in the 1980’s television was the object of much criticism, as it still is to this day. But the clip is titled “Electronic Fragments” and when viewed today suggests an argument that could be aimed at many other forms of electronic media. Television, iPods, cell phones, DVDs, CDs, and whatever else is to come are the products of modern science and technology and have been marketed quite successfully to entertain us all. Is it fair to criticize the scientists for the uses made of their inventions? Nuclear weapons, for example, were designed and developed by those who are products of the science culture. Those that build and use these weapons have, for the most part, come out of the humanities culture. Are the scientists morally responsible for the way their discoveries and inventions are used?

Or is there a third culture, popular culture perhaps, that exerts its own pressures on both those that come out of the science culture and out of the humanities culture. If the people prefer iPods, for example, to clean, renewable fuels which of these technologies are going to receive funding. If the popular culture wants to keep taxes low, which technologies are going to receive funding from the government? Of course there is more to the science culture than just those engineers that work in the technology industry. And there is more to the humanities culture than those that go into politics. There are those in both cultures that raise objections to what those within their perspective communities do with their talents, resources, and power.

At the end of the day both cultures are, I think, Important. They both help us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. They also help us to think and to reflect about more than just the surface of things. When does self-preservation become self-interest and selfishness? On the surface they look much alike. We need to become a more thoughtful and reflective people in order to recognize when we have taken self-preservation too far. The humanities can help us to become a more reflective people. Many of the world’s most serious problems, disease, hunger, and poverty can be eased if scientists are given the tools and resources to address them. The problem isn’t so much about which culture is the most moral as much as it is about what each culture reveals to us about our responsibilities to the world in which we live and to those that live among us.

Putting Down Roots and Pulling Them Up Again

California Bloodlines
John Stewart

Putting Down Roots and Pulling Them Up Again

Montage of Los Angeles pictures on Commons

John Stewart is probably best known as one of the Kingston Trio. He was not an original member but filled in when one of the founding members left. He grew up in California. His father worked at one of the Orange County race tracks and one of his songs celebrates the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. In this song he acknowledges his California roots and how he cannot imagine himself as anything but a Californian. I think it interesting that he finds his roots in one of the most rootless states in the union.

My two sisters were born in California and one stayed and one moved east, to Nevada. My brother, like me, was born in Schenectady, New York, but he was not even a year old when we moved to California. I was four. Though I lived in California until I was able to move east, to Massachusetts, in the 1990’s when I was in my forties, I never thought of it as home, I always identified with the East Coast and the changing seasons. The image above contains images of Los Angeles I know very well and I have pleasant memories of them, but though it was home for a long time I never felt my “roots” were there.

My father used to take us camping weekends to those mountains behind the L. A. skyline at least once a month when the snow was not around. Somewhere in those snowy mountains there is a little town called Wrightwood and a campground on the banks of Jackson Lake in an area of the Los Padres National Forest called Big Pines, where we used to camp. We did not have sleeping bags only heavy canvas blankets that we used to throw over us as we slept on the ground. It was great fun.

Many great stories revolve around home and our relationship with home and our roots. My juniors are reading Ethan Frome about a man who has never felt home at home. They will be reading next The Grapes of Wrath about a family that is quite attached to their home but circumstances force them to leave home. Grandpa Joad was one of the pioneers that first settled the Oklahoma land that he has farmed for many years. Larry McMurtry tells a similar story in his memoir Reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen of his grandfather moving west to settle an undeveloped land and watched it develop and become settled. Pulling up roots to set them down someplace else makes a good story whether, like the Joads, the move is undesired or, like the McMurtrys, it fulfills an aspiration.

The Plaza and “Old Plaza Church”

This is a Los Angeles street when the west was wild. The gold rush has passed but California and Los Angeles was still a desired destination. Wallace Stegner wrote a marvelous novel Angle of Repose about an old college professor trying to reconstruct the story oh his grandparents’ life. His grandfather was an engineer who had aspirations to settle in the west and use his skills to extract the earth’s riches. He is taken advantage of much of the time but he is ultimately successful as he pursued his engineering career throughout the Western United States and Mexico, settling finally in California, where the family sets down its roots. His grandmother was from the East Coast and moved in sophisticated circles that included Henry James. They were a very different pair but at the same time, the kind of people that settled the west and rebuilt it in their image, an image with roots in Europe.

Perhaps this is what rootlessness produces, a land that comes to resemble the land that was left behind. I enjoy western novels, both those that aspire to be literary art, like those of Wallace Stegner, and those that preserve the romance of the west and whose fiction is a bit pulpy, like those of Zane Grey and Owen Wister. The western, if one can forget for a moment the harm that was done to the people to whom the land originally belonged, is about restlessness and the quest for new horizons and new adventures. The western is often about courage and an ethic that in many ways resembles that of chivalry and the order of knighthood in the medieval romances of Europe. I think this is also a part of the American character, or at least it used to be; a desire to push limits, explore the unknown, and to remake the world.

Los Angeles City Hall shortly after its completion (1931)

About seventy years after the earlier photograph was taken Los Angeles looked more like this, like a major city with a City Hall and paved streets. In the voyages of discovery a place was claimed by the “mother country” with the posting of a flag and the recitation of a few words but the place actually became the “mother country” when it began to resemble this national parent. The stories of Sinbad and Odysseus revolve around men on a journey. Each has many adventures but each wants ultimately to get home, not to a place that has been made to resemble home but to the home they remember. Aeneas is also a man on a journey with no home to go to and the desire to find a corner of the world in which he can make a home. That home became Rome. Aeneas will put down roots that centuries later others will attempt to pull up and replant someplace else.

Growing up in Los Angeles about twenty-five years farther down the road the city did not look that different from the last photograph. There was a trolley system that knit the downtown together. As time passed that trolley system was replaced by a freeway system that threw the city boundaries out many miles in all directions. My brother and two sisters embraced the sunshine and picnics on the beach in mid-January. I longed for snow and a sled.

From The Endless Summer
Bruce Brown Films

This scene from the movie The Endless Summer takes place in South Africa but the quest for the perfect wave was what motivated my brother and many of my friends. I never learned to balance myself on a surfboard, though I could do pretty well on a skateboard. This is the California of Venice Beach, in the montage at the beginning, and The Beach Boys. It was an important part of the California culture in which I grew up. It is the sun and the surf that allegedly draws people to California. I like the ice and the snow. What are roots, what motivates people to set them down one place instead of another? What is the future of roots?

As the world changes the corners of the world are being pulled together. It is now possible for a teacher in Massachusetts to teach students in Ohio, Georgia, and California; Brazil, China, and Arabia. How does this change the classroom and more importantly how does this change the students in that classroom? In some ways it seems that we are beginning to set down roots into a more digital soil, that we are less dependent on a physical place. Our friends do not have to live in our neighborhood or even our state. We no longer have to report at a certain time to a cubicle in a certain place to do our jobs. Perhaps this last is an exaggeration, the world of work is largely unchanged for most, but it is changing and for some it is no longer necessary to “commute to the office” to do their work.

I think we continue to give our loyalty to a nation but we are less bound by the borders of that nation. China, for example, has managed to get Google modified for its citizens so that they do not have the access that citizens of other countries have to news and the lifestyles of the world. But how long will this be possible? What happens when a government can no longer control our digital travel? How will this change the world and our corner of it?

The L. A. Times this week advertised a couple of talks on the city as it was presented in the literature of the past, particularly the books of Raymond Chandler and how it is presented today in the works of contemporary authors. How will this discussion be different twenty years hence? As more and more of us spend more and more time living not on the city sidewalks or the neighborhood hangouts but on a digital cable car that can take us almost anywhere how will our view of “roots” and “place” change? How will this affect our loyalties and our sense of community spirit? What will our “communities” look like?

Public schools are struggling with technology. I was this week invited by my principal to join a teacher discussion group sponsored by one of the districts technology people. The discussion is being hosted on Facebook. The irony of this is that our school blocks Facebook so that no teacher can participate in this discussion during school hours, even though the school is promoting the discussion. On the one hand schools can see the potential that the new technology offers for the future of education but they cannot, on the other hand, get past the problems the technology will bring along with it.

I think the potential gains make the potential risks worthwhile, if only because the students will be using this technology whether the schools use it or not. There are many tools we entrust to our students that are potentially dangerous, automobiles, dissecting knives, and laboratories. Generally students are safer using tools that have potential dangers if they have been taught how to use them properly. But the advantages go beyond this. The schoolroom as it exists today is constrained by geography; it rests on a plot of ground within the village or town that supports it. The technology enables students to study in a world that is larger than their hometown.

Poster for the Film The Endless Summer

Family will always have a claim to some of the roots we put down, which in turn will always tie us to a physical place. But our roots can go deeper and farther and for many this is already happening. I never learned to surf because I could not keep my balance on the surfboard. Perhaps the surfboard has changed a bit, and balance is achieved using different skills and the perfect wave is no longer found at the beach.

Living with Attitude

So What
Miles Davis

Living with Attitude

Illustration of Gulliver’s Travels.
Richard Redgrave

I enjoy this piece of music in part because of its attitude. The name of the song is “So What” and you can hear the piano come in saying “So What” followed by the trumpet joining in that sentiment and echoing the piano’s “So What.” Sometimes we take ourselves to seriously and respond to those around us with, if not a verbal an attitudinal “So What.” As a teacher there is rarely a day that goes by when at least one student does not express this sentiment. The picture above is of Gulliver, from Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels meeting a Brobdingnagian. Gulliver is of average height, about six feet, but he is traveling through a land where the people are 72 feet tall. Gulliver appears to be at his ease, making a friendly gesture to the surprised giant. As this part of the story progresses Gulliver will become more belligerent and respond to some of the inhabitants with the same insolent indifference expressed by the piano and trumpet in the song.

How important is attitude in our daily lives? Does attitude reveal the feelings that we harbor or is it a mask that conceals emotions we do not want those around us to know we are feeling, that is, does attitude reveal or conceal? If I were Gulliver in the picture above my attitude of “pleased to meet you” would be concealing my terror, while the attitude of the Brobdingnagian is probably genuine, revealing his actual feelings. It is probably safe to say that attitude reveals or conceals based on the situations in which we find ourselves.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet
Vincent van Gogh

Dr. Gachet was, in addition to being a doctor, an amateur painter who treated Van Gogh’s final illness. Van Gogh was not formally a patient of Dr. Gachet, they were friends and it just happened that one of the friends was sick and one of the friends was a doctor. Van Gogh said of the painting that he was trying to capture the Doctor’s melancholy. I am not sure if this melancholy lived more in the doctor or in the painter but the attitude of sadness can be seen in the painting. The flower the doctor holds is a foxglove, a plant that had medicinal value and may suggest the doctor’s melancholy is directed toward his profession. I think it is often the attitude of the subject captured by the artist that makes a painting interesting. Most photographic and, in Van Gogh’s day, many painted portraits do not reveal much in the way of attitude, or if they do, the attitude is posed to capture that which the subject wishes to project to the world and not necessarily the subjects true attitude toward the world.

Desiderius Erasmus
Hans Holbein the Younger

This is a more formal painting of the Dutch Humanist Erasmus. But, like the Van Gogh portrait of Dr. Gachet, this portrait of Erasmus conveys an attitude and not a pose. The facial expression suggests an attitude of resignation, perhaps towards what he finds in the world. His most famous book is a satire called In Praise of Folly. The title is a Greek pun. The actual title of the book is Moriae Encomium. “Encomium” just refers to a literary work whose purpose is to praise and “moriae” in Greek means fool. However, “More” was also Erasmus’s best friend’s last name, his friend was Sir Thomas More. “Moriae” could also be Thomas More’s last name rendered into Greek. So the title could mean “In Praise of More” or “In Praise of Foolishness or Folly.” The contents of the book, though, suggest the latter. The book mocks the foolishness Erasmus found in the world and the look of resignation may reflect the need to tolerate what one cannot change.

There are also the books that he has surrounded himself with. They were an important part of his life. He once said that when he had money he bought books and if there was any left over he bought food and clothes. This reveals an attitude towards books and learning that some think is being lost today. I am not so sure. But I read over the last few weeks of the closing of some famous bookstores. A blog I visit, The Elegant Variation, lamented the closing of the LIbrairie de France. The blog’s author, Mark Sarvas, grew up with this bookstore and it was an important landmark in his growing up. My brother told me recently of the 100th anniversary of the bookstore I grew up with in San Pedro, Williams Books, and even though I no longer live in San Pedro I know the sadness I would feel if that bookstore were to close.

I also read a few weeks ago of the closing of a bookstore in London’s Charing Cross Road bookstore district. The article included a map of Charing Cross Road that showed the locations of the bookstores than and now. The bookstore that closed was devoted to mystery novels and was called “Murder One.” I enjoy mysteries and am saddened I will not be able to visit this shop. I remember visiting this section of London in the 1970’s and I visited many of the bookstores on the map, many of which are no longer in operation. I am especially fond of second hand bookstores because I enjoy handling books that have been read before in which previous readers have made notes in the margins about what moved them or made them think.

There is an attitude towards books and learning that we carry with us throughout our lives. Some think books and learning are being valued less, but perhaps it is just the kind of books and the kind of learning that is valued today is a bit different from what was valued when I was growing up. It may also be that those that make this assertion have an agenda that is served by people thinking attitudes are changing. I do not think books and scholarship have ever really held a place of true esteem in our culture and preserving them has always been a bit of a battle.

But to get back to attitudes and the paintings, Mark Twain once said “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of other persons.” I think a good painting, on the other hand, is one that captures what the subject thinks of himself and those around him. The paintings of both Dr. Gachet and Erasmus suggest that though they view the world in a certain light that is not entirely positive they maintain a sense of equanimity towards the world. Erasmus seems amused by what he sees while there is a gentleness and sensitivity to the doctor’s expression that softens his melancholy a bit.

From Captains Courageous

This film clip reveals a number of different attitudes some of them positive and some of them negative. Lionel Barrymore as the ship’s captain Disko Troop reveals an attitude towards the captain of an approaching ship that seems on the surface somewhat hostile. And that other captain’s attitude seems to reflect a similar hostility. But those that know both men realize that these attitudes are something of an act that proceeds from the competitive spirit of each and from the friendship that each feels for the other. On shore they are good friends while at sea they are competitors. There is a genuine desire on the part of both these men to outdo the other, but there is also a genuine affection that they share for each other. Both these attitudes live side by side in these men and both are true.

Freddy Bartholomew plays a boy named Harvey Cheyne. He on the other hand is insufferable. He is rich kid who thinks the world of himself and much, much less of everyone else. In part this is because of the treatment he has received from his father. His father genuinely cares for the boy, but he is a man of business and his business keeps him away from home and largely uninvolved in the son’s life. The boy has become a bully and has been able to get away with being a bully in part because his father is not involved enough in the boy’s life to curb this behavior.

The character played by Spencer Tracy, Manuel Fidello, is a fisherman on the boat who takes the boy in and tries to be something of a father figure. Manuel is a man who was loved by his father and who is in turn kind to most of the people he encounters. He is proud of what he does and of who he is and has little patience for those like the boy, that think too highly of themselves and too little of others. His pride comes from what he is able to accomplish. His kindness from the kindness he received growing up. His attitude towards the boy’s behavior is not positive, he does not like the boy’s arrogance and selfishness. But he likes the boy. He chooses to listen to the feelings he has for the boy and in listening to those feelings he eventually succeeds in changing the boy’s attitude.

So what is the proper role of attitude and what does it reveal about us and what we think of those around us? Most have approached the world with a variety of different attitudes at different times in their lives. We have probably been as insufferable as the boy and as compassionate as the fisherman. We have probably have friends that those around us that do not know us well think are our enemies. Most have seen friends go on to become enemies.

I think that the attitudes that get us in the most trouble in life are the same attitudes that make us successful. That a good part of learning to live well is learning to discipline our attitudes so that we are perhaps as Mr. Twain advises; that we conceal how much we think of ourselves and our abilities and how little we think of others. Perhaps the wisdom in cultivating this attitude is that over time we can look more realistically at ourselves and those around us without losing our confidence in our own talents or our ability to compete with those whose skills we truly respect.


The Turn of the Screw, Op.54 “Interlude Variation III Scene 4 The Tower”
Benjamin Britten


“Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo”
Théodore Chassériau.

My juniors are reading the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw. The music is from an opera by Benjamin Britten based on the novella. One of the things I enjoy about this book is how it plays against the conventions of the traditional ghost story. The first two sightings of the ghost of Peter Quint take place in the daytime, the first sighting on a sunny summer afternoon. The music has a melancholy flavor to it throughout but the opening section suggests sunshine and sultry summer weather, perhaps in part because it evokes, for me anyway, the “Morning” section of Edvard Grieg’s Peter Gynt Suite, which in turn suggests sunshine. As the music progresses it becomes more tense and takes a turn to the mysterious and ghostly.

I have always enjoyed ghost stories. I think from the popularity of ghosts in literature that I am not alone in this. The picture at the top is of the ghost of Banquo haunting Macbeth after Macbeth has orchestrated Banquo’s murder. From the dialog in the scene we know that the ghost is only visible to Macbeth and that the strange behavior the ghost evokes begins to cast suspicion upon Macbeth and the manner in which he ascended to the throne. Ghosts often serve that purpose. Ghosts make regular appearances in Shakespeare and attest to their popularity in Elizabethan culture.

Marley’s ghost, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol.
John Leech

Marley’s ghost is probably the most famous of literary ghosts, at least in the English speaking world. He appears at the beginning of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and gets the book’s festivities underway. He and the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come are the only ghosts that frighten anyone, the others are much more gracious and friendly. Dickens’ tale also underscores another aspect of the ghost story, the tradition of telling a ghost story at Christmas time. James’ story also begins with a Christmas gathering that culminates with the telling of ghost stories.

Robertson Davies wrote a collection of Christmas ghost stories called High Spirits. They were selected from comic tales he told each Christmas to colleagues at the University where he worked and many of the ghosts were familiar characters to the faculty. The stories in this collection suggest P. G. Wodehouse more than Edgar Allen Poe or the traditional view of the genre as one devoted to terror. In an interview with Terrence M. Greene shortly after the book was published, “Beyond the Visible World” (pp 220-223 of the web page if you get lost) Davies talks about ghost stories and the role of ghosts in literature and their associations with evil. He thinks many tellers of ghost stories try too hard to scare the reader and as a result write stories that are not that effective. But those storytellers that use ghosts well, like Shakespeare and Henry James, evoke the essence of evil and it is the presence of evil in the story that is frightening.

Those that have read the Harry Potter books, or Davies collection, realize that there is nothing inherently frightening in a ghost and that they do not have to be evil incarnate to capture a reader’s interest. I think Dickens’ ghost suggest that even when they terrify they can be in the service of virtue and the good. But where they represent evil they are terrifying. In the case of Macbeth the ghost reflect Macbeth’s own actions and start him on his road to a tragic end. It is less clear where the evil lives in the story by James, but there is certainly a malevolent presence in the story.

Dickens Dream
Robert William Buss

This painting suggests the ways an author might be haunted by her or his own creations. In the painting Dickens appears to be haunted by the characters he has created, they seem to live not just in his imagination but inhabit the room in which he worked. This suggests there is more to being haunted than being visited by ghosts. Some may be haunted by memories of past actions, and as the painting suggest, those actions need not be acts that shame us. Dickens is surrounded by the “spirits” of his success. But there is something potentially dangerous in this kind of haunting in that it can result in a satisfaction with the past that interferes with the future and produces stagnation.

The more troubling hauntings, though, are those of past failures or moral lapses that haunt a person and do a bit of damage to the psyche. Some of this damage may be deserved and even necessary if one is to go on to enjoy a happy existence. There are things in all of our lives, I suppose, that must be expiated. There is a poem by William Butler Yeats that captures the essence of this kind of haunting. It addresses the way those involved in the Easter 1916 insurrection at Dublin’s General Post Office were treated after the insurrection was put down. The poem is titled ” The Ghost Of Roger Casement”. Roger Casement was involved in the rebellion and was executed by the British. This execution and others like it that were carried out too quickly many believe by the British and it came back to haunt them later.

“The Ghost Of Roger Casement”
O what has made that sudden noise?
What on the threshold stands?
It never crossed the sea because
John Bull and the sea are friends;
But this is not the old sea
Nor this the old seashore.
What gave that roar of mockery,
That roar in the sea’s roar?

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

John Bull has stood for Parliament,
A dog must have his day,
The country thinks no end of him,
For he knows how to say,
At a beanfeast or a banquet,
That all must hang their trust
Upon the British Empire,
Upon the Church of Christ.

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

John Bull has gone to India
And all must pay him heed,
For histories are there to prove
That none of another breed
Has had a like inheritance,
Or sucked such milk as he,
And there’s no luck about a house
If it lack honesty.

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

I poked about a village church
And found his family tomb
And copied out what I could read
In that religious gloom;
Found many a famous man there;
But fame and virtue rot.
Draw round, beloved and bitter men,
Draw round and raise a shout;

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

John Bull is the British version of Uncle Sam; he is the persona of the British Empire. In the poem wherever he goes Roger Casement haunts him, not literally the ghost of the man but the story of the man’s treatment. It follows John Bull and affects the way he is received when he travels abroad. This haunting reminds us that actions have consequences and that we need to learn to think before we act. I think ghosts are often educational and sent to us, like Marley’s ghost, to aid in our reform.

The Canterville Ghost
Sony Pictures

Perhaps there is nothing more humiliating for a ghost than the inability to scare people. That is one problem the ghost in the film has. The ghost in this story, like many literary ghosts, desires only to be set free, that is, to be able to go to his rest and be relieved from the tedious and tiring work of haunting folks. Marley would like to go to his rest; the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present both go to their rest. The Ghost of Christmas Future, though, is different. He like Marley’s ghost is frightening and he like Marley’s ghost has no rest to go to. Past is past and the present becomes past, but the future always lies ahead and it is in the future that those things we have done that trouble us come to haunt our existence. Perhaps for the religious the rite of confession can put these ghosts to rest, but for the more secular other avenues need to be found.

In James’ story the ghosts might, as is Banquo’s ghost, be a figment of the governess’s imagination. They may not be real. Their presence enables the governess to excel at a job, if only in her own mind. But the consequences of her personal haunting have an evil stamp to them even if the governess herself is not evil. If the ghosts are not real her actions are criminal. The criminal acts the product of a troubled mind. But how do we counter an evil that lives inside us that we do not recognize and that goads us, as in the case of the governess, to actions that in their intent are good and virtuous. That is perhaps the most gruesome aspect of this particular haunting; that the ghosts in their defeat triumph. Perhaps the real terror is the undisciplined mind that is unaware of its limitations.