Only Human

What a Piece of Work Is Man
Cast of the musical Hair
Gerome Ragni, James Rado & Galt MacDermot

Only Human

Rembrandt Laughing
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
Claude Monetétier.jpg

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.

Our Town
Thornton Wilder
Masterpiece Theater

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).

Our Town
Iris DeMent

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.

Counting Costs, Assigning Values

Money Changes Everything
Cyndi Lauper

Counting Costs, Assigning Values

The worship of Mammon
Evelyn de Morgan

The song suggests that values, relationships, and other aspects of daily living are changed once money becomes involved. In the painting we see someone depicted as worshipping mammon. Mammon is not money but the term given to its influence. Money in and of itself is just a thing, it is not inherently good or evil, it is an individual’s attitude towards money that is good or evil. The miser is a recurring comic character. He is seen in Moliere’s play The Miser and in Ben Jonson’s play Volpone.

Ben Jonson imagined two audiences for his plays, one that got the jokes and laughed at them and one that not only got the jokes and laughed at them, but also reflected on the nature of the joke and what was being ridiculed. This second audience might recognize in themselves some of those values held up for ridicule and as a result might actually be improved as people. They would at least be a bit more self-aware. When it comes to money it is not unusual to recognize people who have been corrupted by it and to hold those people up to ridicule without realizing our own susceptibility to this weakness.

There was an economic advisor for a recent governor of my state of Massachusetts who justified paying those that worked for the government a lower wage than those doing similar work outside the government. He did not deny that the work these people did deserved the higher wage, he justified lowering the wage as a way of lowering taxes. If by paying a substandard wage the taxpayer could keep more of her or his money than it was all right to pay a substandard wage. I think this is worshipping mammon, it is allowing a relationship towards money to interfere with our sense of right and wrong.

St. Paul says the workman is worthy of his hire and to deny the workman his hire is wrong. What is especially unnerving about the actions of this state official is that he involved the whole state in this dubious attitude towards money. There may have been many other reasons he could have given to justify lowering the wage, but he chose this one and I think that is revealing. When money becomes involved honest people sometimes do things we do not normally associate with honest people. I understand that taxes are a troubling issue and that many believe they pay too much in taxes and that there is no easy answer to this problem. But I think we should be honest about what we are doing. If we do not want to pay the going rate for a service than give up the service, don’t deny those providing the service. That is the responsible thing, I think.

Death of the Miser
Hieronymus Bosch

The painting above depicts a scene almost like that from A Christmas Carol when Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come visits the scene and aftermath of his own death. In the painting the miser is dying, we see a gentleman that looks very like death personified coming in at the door. Others are scavenging through the miser’s belongings. The painting suggests that those around the miser share the miser’s attitude towards wealth and “portable property.”

Looking at the painting we may think the miser is getting what he deserves, he has hoarded his wealth and denied others their due (or at least because he is called a miser we might assume he denied others their due). But just because the man is dying does not entitle those around him to his belongings, any more than Scrooge’s housekeeper was entitled to Scrooge’s bed curtains. If we in looking at this painting justify the actions of those around the miser, perhaps we need to look to ourselves a bit, to follow Jonson’s advice and laugh at the joke but also reflect on our own behavior and attitudes.

Avaritia (Greed), 1558
Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, active by 1551, died 1569)Engraving; only state

The engraving suggests a horrific quest for wealth and property. There are people scrounging up cash and goods while others are undergoing various forms of torture. Many of those collecting the merchandise are demonic in their appearance and many of those that do not look demonic are engaged in demonic behavior. The scene is one of great destruction and suggests that the infatuation with wealth spiritually ravages the individuals that yield to this infatuation while ravaging the physical landscape and those that live upon it in the process.

Avarice is one of the cardinal sins and was often during the Middle Ages and Renaissance depicted as it is in the paintings above. In stories by Chaucer and Boccaccio this attitude towards money is often given prominence. The story Chaucer has his Pardoner tell captures this attitude towards wealth and avarice quite well. The irony of the story is that the Pardoner that tells it does not believe in the moral of his tale, but sees the moral as a way of exploiting his hearers and of satisfying his own avarice.

I think that there is a satiric quality to the paintings as well as to the stories of Chaucer, Moliere, and Jonson. Satire ridicules the imperfections that are its objects. They often make us laugh because the satire reveals these imperfections for what they are and those that are the objects of the satire often end up looking very foolish. Jonathan Swift said of satire, “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein the beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world and that so very few are offended with it.” This is essentially the point Jonson was making about his two audiences, though Swift seems less optimistic in that if there is a second audience like the one described by Jonson whose characters’ are reformed by the satire it is a very small audience.

These thoughts about money and how it is used and conserved were prompted by an article. “A Literary Legend Fights for a Local Library”, in The New York Times. It is about Ray Bradbury trying to help a local library on the verge of being closed. In the town where I teach the local library is struggling to survive. It had to discontinue its membership in a cooperative of local libraries that enabled it to make resources available to the community that the community itself could not afford. Many communities do this; it enables a library with limited funds to enlarge its collection of books, music, and films by joining its collection to that of other libraries in the area.

The same issue is raised with funding cuts to schools and services that help the most vulnerable in our communities. We tell ourselves we cannot afford to help others; we have too many problems of our own. In this economy there is some truth to that statement, but what happens to a people who in the name of conserving their own resources deny necessary resources to others. Perhaps it can be said that adults that are struggling bear some responsibility for those struggles, they made unwise choices, did not think ahead. But what of the children? When library budgets are cut, it is the children that are hurt the most, as is also true when school funding is cut.

The extra-curricular activities and after school programs that are often the first to go are often the programs and activities that get some students into school in the morning. I have many students whose grades decline as soon as the sports they play finish their seasons. If the sport were taken away many of these students would not pass their courses, some would stop coming to school. That is, of course, the student’s choice and we are not to blame if students make poor choices, or so some would say.

“Money Makes the World Go Around”
From Cabaret

Perhaps money does make the world go around, perhaps that is all that is truly important. In fairness money presents many difficulties. The film, Cabaret is set in Germany at a time of massive inflation during an international depression. The song could mock attitudes toward money, but at the same time there was a great need for money or for something that would keep food on the table and a roof over one’s head. Samuel Gompers, one of the leaders of the union movement in America said that businesses had a moral responsibility to earn a profit. Many people’s well being depended on the ability of companies to make a profit and pay a decent wage. When does a company in its quest to generate more profit cross the line and go from fulfilling a moral obligation to provide for its employees to worshipping at the feet of Mammon?

“Siegfried Comes upon the Sleeping Brunnhilde” illustration from 1910 to Wagner’s Das Rheingold
Arthur Rackham

The story of Siegfried and Brunnhilde is a kind of “Sleeping Beauty” story. Brunnhilde has been put to sleep by her father Wotan because she disobeyed him and he has encircled her with a wall of flame. To be awakened from her sleep someone must find a way through this wall of flame at the top of a high mountain. Siegfried makes the climb and penetrates the fire and wins the love of Brunnhilde. Like in all “Sleeping Beauty” stories Brunnhilde is vulnerable and cannot save or protect herself.

Economic collapse makes us all feel vulnerable and many do not feel they can protect themselves. Stories, especially myths and fairy tales, often end happily. Siegfried climbs the mountain; Brunnhilde is delivered. But in life there often is no Siegfried, we feel we are on our own and have to think of ourselves first. There is truth to this that cannot be overlooked. Cormac McCarthy creates an every man for himself world in his novel The Road. But can any man long survive in an every man for himself world?

Scrooge is redeemed at the end of his story and uses his wealth more benevolently. Many of us would like to believe in this kind of world. Volpone and Mosca, on the other hand, and the others they took advantage of, get their just desserts in the end, but there is no “Christmas morning” experience. The fools are shown to be fools, the corrupt reap the rewards of their corruption, but others are left unfulfilled and not entirely happy though they have done nothing to deserve unhappiness. In the end, perhaps, we must choose between Volpone’s credo of “Good morning to the day and next my gold” or the more open handed one of the reformed Scrooge. Maybe it is enough to realize the choices we are being presented with and to make those choices honestly and in good faith.

When All the World Was Young

Forever Young
Bob Dylan

When All the World Was Young

The Beguiling of Merlin
Edward Burne-Jone

In her book The Enchanted Hunters Maria Tatar tells us “Words have not just the astonishing capacity to banish boredom and create wonders. They also enable contact with the lives of others and the story worlds, arousing endless curiosity about ourselves and the places we inhabit. Such passion promises to keep us, at least intellectually, forever young.” In reading time often stops, or at least it seems to. But even if time does not actually stop, in reading well the mind retains its vigor and becomes more flexible. A story, to be enjoyed and understood requires the reader to enter its world and entertain its point of view. I must read Les Miserables with the heart of a revolutionary and The Man Who Was Thursday with a fondness for the established order (though as is true with most things Chestertonian, it must be a quirky fondness). I must be able to see and embrace the world from both sides of the fence.

This does not mean I stop being myself, or that my world view changes each time I open another book, but it does mean I have to give the point of view of the story a chance to have its say. For the sake of the story the world is seen through a revolutionaries eyes or the eyes of a gentleman with conventional views. I think it is easier for readers of stories to accept people with beliefs different from their own (not that they always will of course) because somewhere along the line there has been a story where those beliefs have been entertained and where they may not have been embraced necessarily by the reader, they have been understood and appreciated and for a fictional time the world was viewed through those lenses. Rosemary Hill in her review of a new edition of Wind and the Willows mentions another story by Kenneth Grahame, “The Roman Road.” The story, she tells us, is “a conversation between a child and an adult, its message that only the artist and the child are imaginatively free.” The reader lost in a book, I think, becomes like the child in the Kenneth Grahame story, “imaginatively free.”

The painting at the top is of Merlin, King Arthur’s magician and mentor. Like Benjamin Button in the Fitzgerald story Merlin, according to some versions of the tale, was born old and grew younger. He was a man who knew from the start what it meant to be old and came to understand what it meant to be young. He is beguiled as an old man, which would make him young and inexperienced in his reverse chronology. He knows what is coming, has foreseen it, but he has lost the wisdom of age and is experiencing the passions of his youth. Perhaps his mind has become that of an adolescent enchanted by a beautiful face. I enjoy the image of Merlin growing younger. Perhaps it is the longing of an aging man for the days of his youth or maybe it is the desire to preserve an enthusiasm for living that age and experience often quench.

“One More Step, Mr. Hands” Illustration for Treasure Island
N. C. Wyeth,_Mr._Hands.jpg

C. S. Lewis once said, “In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” I think it is also true we become a thousand ages. The painting above is an illustration from Treasure Island. When I read this story I become Jack Hawkins, or at least like him in my imagination. When I read The Catcher in the Rye I see the world through the eyes of Holden Caulfield and become a bit like him. Though both these characters are the same age they come from different ages and therefore experience the world very differently and though as the reader I am experiencing the world of a teenager, they are very different teenagers living in very different worlds. So though the “age” I become in reading each of these stories is the same age in years it is not the same age in experience. This too, keeps the mind young and active.

Nor is youth always measured in years. I often tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older, but no power on earth can make me grow up. It can be said that Scrooge is a younger man at the end of A Christmas Carol than he was at the beginning. He is a younger man than he was when Old Marley died seven years before the story begins, if youth is measured in the way we think and behave. Unlike Merlin, Scrooge was not born old, but he lost his youth at an early age and recovers it many years later. Sometimes we need stories to remind us that being childlike is not being childish and that some aspects of age are more a state of mind than of being.

Children Playing on the Beach
Mary Cassatt

The paintings above and below by Mary Cassatt capture certain aspects of the innocence of childhood, playing on a beach, listening to a story. It is the aspect of childhood captured in the two children on the beach that many want to recover when they get older. The children are engrossed in their “work” and nothing seems to distract their focus. Their work is their play and it is what many adults want their work to be. There is a great deal of what I do as a teacher that is like sitting on the beach filling my bucket with sand. It is pleasure and it is sunlight and it is the waves and the cry of gulls. Obviously my classroom is not a beach, there is much in my day that is like a day at the beach.

Auguste Reading To Her Daughter
Mary Cassatt

The young girl listening to the story has a different look, a more mysterious look. Does she like the story she hears, is she listening, or is she somewhere else in her imagination? Adults often think that children want to hear a story, want to be read to, and often this is true. But I think sometimes children, like us, want to explore on their own, do not want others tagging along on the journey. In the reading of a story, whether we are reading on our own or being read to, the journey is always an individual journey, both the reader and the listener are “reading” the same story but they do not take the same journey. None of us can live in the imagination of another, though it is likely that our paths cross.

When I go to Treasure Island the island I visit resembles the island others visit, but it is unlike anyone else’s island. The journey is a personal one and that is important to remember. As a teacher I try to encroach upon the world that has been built in the minds of my students. I try to manipulate the story, to get them to see the palm tree as I see it, but of course this cannot happen. Those that see my palm probably see it only because they either did not read of the palm tree on their own or if they did, they did not see the palm tree, only the words on the page and were waiting for someone else to tell them how to draw the picture.

Baby Herman and Roger Rabbit “Tummy Trouble”
Walt Disney Studios

When we get to the end of this little film we see that the baby is not a baby (or at least we hear the voice of an old man when the baby speaks). If there is a child in this film it is Roger Rabbit, the baby is only masquerading as a child. The adventures these two have are the adventures of childhood, with all the exaggerated situations and expressions and the sense of powerlessness a child might feel in a large world that is out of control. The humor lies in the near misses and the indestructible nature of youth. Everything is dangerous and exciting but nothing, in fact, can do any harm. When the bombs burst Roger and Herman are scorched but unhurt. It is the world that some children crave that has all of the excitement that comes from living dangerously without the pain. After surviving the explosions and the flying objects both Roger and Herman leave the set to return to a safer, saner, and less exciting world.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a review in this weekend’s edition of The Guardian of a book of stories by Italo Calvino. The book is called The Complete Cosmicomics. The stories, according to the review are very fanciful and were not taken seriously when published because they too closely resembled science fiction and science fiction, especially in the 1960’s, was not taken seriously as literature, it still isn’t by some. But they are the stories of a childlike mind, with characters with names that cannot be pronounced having experiences that cannot happen. But that is how the comic world works. That is also how the imagination often works. In the imagination we often do the impossible, say the unsay-able.

I remember as a child I had a recurring dream where I was riding a bomb to earth (this was the late 1950’s and bombs and bomb shelters were often in the news). The dream always began just after the bomb was dropped. I would wake up frightened just before the bomb hit the ground. Then one night as I was having this dream I told myself in the dream “this is just a dream and no harm can come to you”. From that moment on I enjoyed the sensation of free fall and when the bomb hit, it was like Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman, no one got hurt. Perhaps this too is part of the comic world, the world of a “mind forever young,” where there is pain there is also resilience and nothing is hopeless.

Keeping It Simple

St. Matthew Passion “Choral: Erkenne mich, mein Huter”
J. S. Bach
American Tune
Paul Simon

Keeping It Simple

Cure for Oversleeping
Rube Goldberg

Beauty often lives in simplicity. Bach so appreciated the beauty of this simple melody that he used it again and again. Paul Simon also valued the simplicity and beauty of the tune and put it to work in his song American Tune. Whether it is a simple melody like that from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (and a half dozen others at least) or a simple explication of a poem or story, or the poem or story itself, simplicity lends a degree of elegance to the work. I like Occam’s Razor (“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”) when it comes to most things, which simply suggests that the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts is probably the truth. What made Rube Goldberg’s cartoons so funny was that they demonstrated excessively complicated ways of solving extremely simple problems, like getting up in the morning. It is human nature, I believe, to prefer simplicity, even though we often live our lives as though our inclinations favored a different direction.

But it is important to remember that there is a difference between being simple and simple minded. The simplest explanation of a poem may be very complex and somewhat opaque. Being simple is not always the same as being easy. I think most of us equate a simple task with an easy one, when in fact it may only be simple because there are not many steps to carry out, though those few steps may place demands on our skill, abilities, and intellects. What simplifying a task often does is make it easier to focus on the work to be done, as there are not a lot of superfluous details that confuse or obfuscate. But that which demands our focus often requires all of our attention.

Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, called The Ambassadors
Hans Holbein the Younger,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg

The other side of the coin is being as simple as possible even though the work itself is very complicated. The painting above is very ornate. There are the designs in the curtains, the rug, the cloth on shelf, and in the robes of the ambassador in brown. There are many objects on the shelf as well. The detail found in the painting of the textiles is necessary to capture the reality of the scene but the objects placed in the painting have a symbolic value, many being associated with the various components of a liberal arts education of the time. Then there is that funny looking object on the floor between the two ambassadors. It is odd and appears, unlike everything else, very unreal.

It is a puzzle that Holbein placed in the painting and can only be seen for exactly what it is if the painting is viewed at the right angle, which is from the side and definitely not straight on. When viewed from the side, the strange object on the floor is seen to be a human skull. One of the stories told about the painting is that it was intended to be hung in a stairwell and that the skull would suddenly jump out at the person climbing up the stairs. One can imagine the effect this might have on a dark and stormy night. But whatever the intended effect this painting is not one that was done simply, though, it is hard to imagine it being done any more simply and still produce the effect that it does, it is as complicated as it needs to be, but not much more complicated, and that is, perhaps, a definition of simplicity.

Static-Dynamic Gradation, 1923
Paul Klee (German, 1879–1940)
Oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink
15 x 10 1/4 in. (38.1 x 26.1 cm)
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.12)

Some have questioned whether the work of modern artists like Paul Klee is really art at all. The painting above is a checkerboard pattern with each of the squares in a different color (in some cases the difference is very slight). But if you look at the photograph below of the Dome of the Rock you see an ancient place that takes a similar delight in geometric shapes in different shades of white, blue and brown. It is the same delight that many of us took as children in playing with a kaleidoscope, which was also play with shades and shapes.

Dome of the Rock

Writing, when it is done well, evokes the simplicity or complexity of its subject but it always attempts to present its subject in as simple a light as possible. The skilled writer looks for the simplest path through the chosen subject. This is not easy and it is important to remember, simple is rarely easy. In fact what often makes poor writing poor is its unnecessary complexity that is usually an indication that the focus has been lost, that words are being used like shotgun pellets to hit everything in the hope that something might stick. I have assignments that I give where I require students to do something in a limited amount of space. They are used to getting assignments where they are told they must write at least a pre-determined number of pages, but they are rarely told they are to write no more than a page or two. I have seen students struggle more writing something that is short and to the point than with something that can be as long as they want to make it.

Simplicity, being concise and to the point, is often the most difficult thing we can be asked to do. When asked to compare writing short stories to writing novels, William Faulkner said, “You can be more careless, you can put more trash in it and be excused for it. In a short story that’s next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right, in the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t.” This is the struggle that all writers face. If they are to write well they must learn to identify what is necessary and what is not. Even in the novel where much will be forgiven, the reader’s patience and tolerance is not endless and even that which is done badly must be done badly in an artful way.

Shaker Loops
John Adams

The music is called Shaker Loops. It was not initially called this, but after re-working the piece Adams thought the Shaker’s ritual practice of ecstatically jumping about and their dedication to simplicity underscored what he was trying to achieve not just in this composition but in most of his work. He comes from, he helped to establish, the minimalist school of composition. The orchestrations are as bare boned as he can make them, they are very simple, but for those that are captured by the work of Adams, and others like him, there is a delight that the music provokes. For music that is as bare boned as this, melody, the most accessible quality of a musical score, plays a relatively minor role. Adams focuses instead on rhythms and harmony, a much more difficult path to ecstasy than melody.

Shaker Furniture

The music is not unlike these pieces of Shaker furniture. There is not much more to these pieces than a graceful line combined with a skilled and sturdy craftsmanship, there is nothing “ornate” about this furniture. The simplicity of the furniture is meant to reflect the simplicity of the soul that crafted and uses it. It is somewhat ironic that one must be almost independently wealthy to afford a good piece of Shaker furniture.

In the world of school work and work itself, we are often drowning in unnecessary complexity. The philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote a review of an interesting sounding book Shop Class as Soul Craft. The review is titled “Making Things Work” and Fukuyama delights in the idea that in shop class things have to work. He talks about how the author of the book, Matthew B. Crawford, spent his spare time while in college taking old Volkswagen engines apart and putting them back together. I took a bit of delight in this part of the review because I, as a young man in college, bought a book by John Muir (not the gentleman who introduced Teddy Roosevelt to Yosemite) that took you step by step through the dismantling and reassembling of the V. W. engine. I could not master this, having no aptitude for mechanics, myself, but I had friends who did. These friends could also attest to the importance of doing the job right. I had one friend who discovered he had not quite gotten it right when he arrived at college five or six hundred miles away from his tools, which were still at home.

It is easy when our work is done exclusively in the mind to overlook whether or not what we are thinking has any practical merit, if it will in fact work. As a professional I think I have only my instincts and judgment to rely upon. But I know from my classroom experience that often those things that I felt were working well, did not in fact accomplish the goal I had set for the exercise. On the other side of the coin, I have had the experience of feeling as though things are not working at all, that all is a dreadful failure, only to find out later that much, sometimes most, of what I set out to do had been accomplished.

This suggests to me that judgment and instinct are not always enough. My limitations as a mechanic become obvious as soon as the key is put in the ignition. The machine that is improperly assembled reveals everything, there are no secrets, there are no abstract theories, just an engine that will not take the spark and do what it does with gasoline and fire. In the end, in the classroom the educational machine must work and the only evidence that it is working is if the spark that lights the intellect and the imagination ignites and does its thing with fire.