What a Piece of Work Is Man
Cast of the musical Hair
Gerome Ragni, James Rado & Galt MacDermot
Rembrandt van Rijn
The song puts one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies to music. It is a beautiful statement of the human condition that is rendered a bit difficult to interpret within the construct of the play because Hamlet is either mad or pretending to be mad when he says this. Perhaps madness, too, is a part of the human condition and that fabric Hamlet is trying to weave, his words and his actions making the warp and the woof of the metaphorical cloth. Harold Bloom titled one of his books Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human suggesting that it is in Shakespeare that we see our humanity defined for the first time. I think this is not entirely true, because what makes a work of literature survive the generation for which it was written is its ability to capture something of the human condition that resonates with us all. Oedipus and Odysseus may have been kings but their responses to the circumstances in which they found themselves was very human and it is to their humanity that we respond when we read their stories.
Still, there is truth to the suggestion that we discover a part of our humanity through the stories that we read, even if they are not exclusively the stories of Shakespeare. Stories illustrate values, help us see the world from other points of view, remind us that we are not alone, that others in other times have felt the things we feel have struggled with the same sorts of things that we struggle with. Stories help us discover our humanity, our place in the larger communities in which we live and our identity as individuals.
The painting is unusual for Rembrandt, or at least it seems so to me. His most memorable portraits are of serious old men; this seems especially true of his self-portraits. But here he is in the midst of a laugh, perhaps a laugh at his own seriousness. But this is part of what it is to be human; to laugh and to enjoy whatever is happening around you. George Bernard Shaw said, “Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies, as it does not cease to be serious when people laugh.” Living well involves both the humorous and the grave. Getting through the most difficult and trying times often involves laughing at our circumstances.
Terry Eagleton in The Guardian this weekend reviewed a newly published collection of the letters of Isaiah Berlin. The title of the article is “Urbane sprawl” which captures the tone of the letters and Berlin’s good nature, at least in the eyes of Eagleton. Berlin was a man who thought deeply about many things, was a liberal by some definition of the word, and a professor of politics at Oxford University. He was an odd sort of Englishman in that he was a Latvian Jew, the child of Hasidic parents who made himself quite at home at the most English of universities. This too captures what it means to be human, to adapt to new surroundings and to make those surroundings ours, hopefully to be accepted, at least in part, on our own terms. Most of us have had something of the emigrant experience, to have moved from a place that is familiar to us to a place that is very unfamiliar, even if it is only moving from one town to another, or one state to another.
As a child my parents moved about once every year or two. This meant as a child making new friends on a regular basis and adapting to new surroundings, new teachers, new neighbors. We once had a next door neighbor who was on some occasions very welcoming and warm and on others very strange. On one occasion she place a lawn sprinkler on her son’s slide so that it flooded our yard, but in the process of flooding our yard flooded hers. Of course once the sprinkler was removed it had the appearance that the flooding originated with us and that due to our neglect her yard had been flooded. She lodged a complaint to this effect with the local authorities, so did my parents. A police car arrived on both our driveways at about the same time. Fortunately this sort of thing did not happen often. The end result, though, of these many moves was a reluctance to form relationships for fear they would be lost with another move.
Camille Monet at Work
The paintings above and below capture two views of the human condition. Both paintings are by prominent Post-Impressionist painters. The paintings do not just capture a scene but an attitude towards what is happening in each scene. The painting above is of a woman at work and she appears to be content with her work. Her surroundings are comfortable and pleasant. She is indoors but she is surrounded by greenery; plants that appear to thrive in an environment that is not entirely their own. There is sunshine and no doubt regular meals. Perhaps that is all anyone needs to be comfortable, to be left alone with the bare necessities for life.
There is a hunger on the part of many, perhaps most, to find a way to make their work not just meaningful but pleasant. Fagin in Oliver Twist for all his troubling characteristics seems to enjoy his work, dishonest though it is, in a way that his partner Bill Sykes does not. Most stories of people at work, at least the ones that come immediately to mind, do not involve people enjoying their work, and those that do are not always honest, are like Fagin and Sir John Falstaff.
My favorite work-a-day gentleman is Melville’s scrivener Bartleby. Many at some point during the day would like to respond to an unpleasant instruction with “I would prefer not to.” I know many of my students would. But there are of course other students who would not respond in this way and maybe this suggests that our attitude towards work is sometimes within our control, that we can change the way we look at our work and find something pleasant and enjoyable in it by changing our attitude towards it. Perhaps we need a Tom Sawyer in our lives convincing us that what we really want to do if we want to be happy and satisfied is to white wash this fence.
On the Threshold of Eternity
Vincent Van Gogh
This painting by Vincent Van Gogh captures a more troubling side of our existence. There is the suggestion that the man in the painting is near death, at least that is what the title suggests to me. I think it was a Boston politician who said, “everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.” Van Gogh began his adult life with a strong desire to be an evangelical preacher. It is something at which he was not successful. He took up painting instead. But there may be a bit of the preacher in some of his paintings. If the man in the painting has a family, that family is left out of the picture and he is alone to confront his mortality, which would be true even if others were in the room, but the room’s emptiness emphasizes the individual nature of the man’s struggle.
Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf captures various aspects of life and death and the meaning of both. Throughout the novel Humphrey Van Weyden (known throughout the story as Hump) is trying to survive as best he can in as unforgiving an element as is imaginable. His antagonist, Wolf Larsen believes that life and comfort are rewarded to the strong and the weak exist at the pleasure of the strong. It does not appear likely that someone as weak as Hump is at the beginning of the novel could survive in such a world, though, because he is the one telling the story, he must have. By the end of the novel the roles are reversed and the once indomitable Wolf Larsen finds himself in the position of the man in the painting.
This is the opening to Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. In the play the lives, deaths, and meanings of the various characters and their accomplishments are examined. The story is told simply. The deaths of various characters throughout the play, with one exception, are treated almost as asides, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “and so it goes” to mark the deaths of characters in his novel Slaughterhouse Five. To each of us death is a matter of great importance, but as is suggested by Vonnegut, Wilder, and Wolf Larsen, it is not a matter of great importance to the world around us. This suggests that living well, and by that I mean not just fully but virtuously as well, is our only legacy and that it is a legacy we leave first to ourselves.
The play is produced without scenery or props and the simplest of costumes. We are told the play is set in a small New Hampshire town, but it could be anywhere, though perhaps not anytime. It is localized in small town America and the small town is largely being erased by access to a global community. In the Middle Ages few saw the world beyond their village and to a large degree the public (and possibly the private as well) school classroom is localized in a village and most students do not escape that village until they go off to college or the world of work. Sometimes that village is an urban inner-city village and sometimes a quaint small town in the country, not unlike Grover’s Corners. I think there is something good in this, something that can, even in the worst of environments, nurture, though, it seems that we are all being put through a 21st century version of urban renewal and being located into a rather large global city (it does not seem quite right to call this a village).
This song has the same title as the play and illustrates another aspect of “Our Town” the town that belongs to us; the town that watched us grow and nurtured us. The song is somewhat pessimistic in that it suggests we not only cannot go home again, we cannot stay at home if that is where we are. Life involves moving on and leaving things behind. If it is true that “nothing good ever lasts”, it equally true that nothing bad ever lasts, or it needn’t. Part of growing up is leaving home, and replacing the good times of our youth with other good times.
There was a review by Alain de Botton of the book The Art of Being Human by John Armstrong. The book is an attempt to recapture the purpose of philosophy, to help us live wisely and well. It is an argument for teaching and preserving culture, not the popular culture, but the more elitist culture that belongs to history, tradition, and the various canons of the different arts, because culture helps us to understand and develop our outer self that lives in the material world and our inner self that is more abstract and more spiritual.
Bottan in his review quotes a passage from the book about Abbot Suger, a medieval reformer. “Suger’s primary concern is to raise people from mass to elite culture. And his way of doing this is not by being snobbish or hard on ordinary enjoyments. He takes the view that mass culture is just an undeveloped, beginning way of addressing exactly the same things that high culture serves more directly and with greater insight. We desperately need to bring to inner development the sort of clarity and respectability that goes with making your way in the material world.” I think this is the argument for teaching great literature and great art. It is also an argument for using popular culture, whether it is its books, films, music, or art, to edge students inch by inch into the “greater insight” of the “elite culture.”
A culture worth preserving and passing along cannot be simple and easy to learn, because culture comes with baggage. When Shakespeare has Iago say, “Who steals my purse steals trash” he (Shakespeare or Iago, take your pick) has a clear idea of what constitutes trash. Iago’s trash is not our trash, though the concept may be the same. Is it necessary to know what Iago or Shakespeare saw if they made a visit to the town dump? Probably not. But the things that rest in this dump tell us something about the people that use it and that tells us something about the people who created and attended the Elizabethan theater, just as our trash heaps say something about us. It is part of what makes the Elizabethans human and it is largely because we do not understand the humanity of the Elizabethans that their culture is so foreign to us. Trash, like old clothes and worn out shoes, make them human.