What’s That You Say

Crazy Words, Crazy Tune
Jim Kweskin Jug Band

What’s That You Say

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
Charles Demuth http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Demuth_Charles_I_Saw_the_Figure_5_in_Gold_1928.jpg

When Polonius asks Hamlet, “Whatcha readin’” (Polonius asks this a bit more eloquently than I quote him here) Hamlet responds, “Words, words, words.” Words are a major form of human communication, who knows, maybe non-human communication as well. According to Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band when Washington was at Valley Forge all he could say (or sing) was bododiyo-bododiyo-do. I am not certain what that means, but it communicates a kind of carefree joyousness. It is not always necessary for words to mean something, at least not something Dr. Johnson or Noah Webster would put in their dictionaries.

Images are another way we communicate. Pictures often tell stories. The painting above tries to do visually what the William Carlos Williams poem “The Great Figure” does with words.

Among the rain and lights I saw the figure 5 in gold on a red firetruck moving tense unheeded to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city

If we read the words and then look at the picture (or look at the picture and then read the words) we can see that there is something similar going on in both. We might interpret the picture differently if we did not know the poem, but the title tells us that the painter is trying to evoke the poem. Does he succeed at communicating everything the poem suggests? Does the poem capture everything that is in the painting? There is a relationship between the poem and the picture, but they each have their own lives as well.

There is a movement in some intellectual circles that would suggest that words do not mean much and perhaps they are right. They would tell us that we do not all mean exactly the same things by the words we use. Some lawyers have crafted a profession out of telling us what words might mean as opposed to what they were clearly intended to mean. As a result torture, which is illegal, becomes something more “benign” that conforms to the letter of the law, as some lawyers would shape that letter. And of course it is clear to most anyone who has more than a passing relationship with language that words are ambiguous and often contain many meanings. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis on the eve of the Civil War might have expressed their intention to cleave the nation and both would have been right by their understanding of the word, for cleave is one of those words that is its own opposite, it can mean to join together (as a man shall cleave unto his wife) or to cut into pieces (as we do to a piece of meat when we use a “cleaver”). Still if we heard each of these men use this word in the manner I suggest it would probably be clear from the context of each man’s words which definition of the word was intended.

In addition, words are often what hold us together as people. The promises we make speak to our integrity, the laws we write shape our society, the treaties we enter into shape our relationships with the rest of the world. These are all expressed using words, often using words chosen very carefully to assure that all parties share a common understanding of those words. Tristram Hunt in a review of Edward Vallance’s book A Radical History of Britain (“The People’s History”) discusses the importance of the Magna Charta to the evolution of liberty in western culture, especially British culture. He points out that though this charter has been used since the 13th century to defend liberty and legal due process and though its “language” may be clear it “has never proved very effective at countering the will of princes or parliaments.” This is I suppose another problem with language, those with the power to ignore it or to make it mean something counter to its intent are free to use their power to make it mean what they want it to mean. It can come down to the argument Socrates tries to refute in The Republic that justice is the will of the strong. Can words alone protect a people from tyranny?

Political Graffiti from Pompei http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Graffiti_politique_de_Pompei.jpg

This image, as the title tells us, is a bit of graffiti from Pompei. It is of a politician who, even if he wasn’t as near sighted, seems to resemble a cartoon character from my youth, Mr. Magoo. It is sometimes easier to fight those in power with anonymous satirical drawing than with documents that identify their authors. Ridicule can often do more damage to those that abuse their position than an expose in the newspaper. Ridicule often makes clear how indefensible the indefensible is. Jonathan Swift published a series of letters; The Draper Letters that attacked with ridicule a plan of the British government to flood Ireland with worthless currency. The letters were unsigned but everyone knew their author, though, no one could prove authorship. The British government offered a substantial reward to anyone who would provide evidence that could be used to catch and to convict the Dublin “Draper” but no one would come forward.

Daniel Defoe got himself into a similar bit of trouble and was sentenced to be pilloried. This was often a death sentence because folks would come by and throw objects at the person in the pillory, which the pilloried individual was helpless to defend against. Instead of throwing lethal objects at Defoe, those in attendance threw flowers and drank his health. He was after a few days removed from the pillory and sent to prison because it was feared his popularity would foment a riot. Perhaps words do have power and mean what they mean despite the efforts of those in authority to make them mean something else.

The Diogenes of the Modern Corinthians without his Tub (Thomas Carlyle)
Max Beerbohm http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/vanityfair/4.html

Of course there is another side to ridicule, those ridiculed are not always deserving of the treatment. Sir Walter Scott said, “Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble.” Language does not lose its power to afflict when those against whom it is directed are undeserving of the affliction, nor does the visual image when it is a fine fellow that is being caricatured in an unflattering fashion. Carlyle may have been an easy fellow to dislike (I am told he was) but he had a point of view and expressed it well. I am not sure if Beerbohm intended to harm or just to have some fun with Carlyle, and for all I know Carlyle may have enjoyed the characterization. I am also not sure if by depicting Carlyle in a pose that clearly evokes that of Whistler’s famous painting of his mother Whistler is flattering Carlyle, regardless of the accuracy of the representation. Perhaps it was viewed differently in its own time than it is today.

Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 2 Thomas Carlye
James Abbot McNeill Whistler http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Whistler_James_Arrangement_in_Gray_and_Black_No2_1873.jpg

Perhaps this is another aspect of language and the visual arts, their interpretations can change with time. What may have appeared harmless or flattering at the time the words were spoken or the image was drawn can assume new unintended meanings as a result of the passage of time. Aristophanes used Socrates as the comic foil of his play The Clouds; a play that ridiculed the “philosophical trades” on the streets of Athens and gave its philosophers a home in a place Aristophanes called “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” I read somewhere that Aristophanes and Socrates were friends and that Aristophanes was only having a bit of fun with his friend in part because Socrates was among the best known philosophers in Athens. However, when Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens the play was introduced as evidence against him. We do not always have control over how our words are used.

Henry V “Speech to the Troops”
Renaissance Films/BBC

On the other hand language can be motivating, inspiring, people to do things that are clearly not in their personal best interest after listening to speeches like this one from Shakespeare’s play Henry V. Of course it ought to be considered whether or not fighting the Battle of Agincourt was in the interest of any of those fighting the battle, with the possible exception of King Harry and some of his higher ranking nobles. But the words themselves and their delivery (especially with the sound track in the background) are very inspiring. When I heard it for the first time, and every time I have heard it since, it gives me chills and I feel myself moved to do something significant for king and country. What I do not find myself doing is questioning whether or not this particular service for king and country is the right thing to do. Often language makes the pretense of appealing to our intellect, after all it is the mind that hears and makes sense of the words, but more often than not, when language truly motivates us, it probably has more to do with what we are led to feel than what we are led to think.

David Crystal in an article for The Guardian, “Which Words Make You Merry?”, a few weeks ago points out that the way words make us feel often has little to do with what the words themselves actually mean. He asks us to imagine landing on a planet in a far away galaxy and that we have been told there are two groups of people, one who is friendly and helpful to folks from other planets and one that would like to make a meal of these people. He then suggests “that one of these groups is called the Lamonians; the other is called the Grataks.” Our inclination would be to trust the Lamonians and distrust Grataks, not because we know anything about either group of people but because the name of one is sweet sounding to our ears and the name of the other suggests a threatening growl. Language can be seductive and it is perhaps important to know how the language we hear is being used and why it is being used in that way and what it is the words actually mean before we decide on a course of action.

View on Delft
Johannes Vermeer

I heard once that one of the generals planning the D-Day invasion (it may have been Eisenhower, but I do not remember and I have not been able to confirm the story) would relieve the tension he was feeling as a result of this planning and what he knew the consequences of the plan would be for many of the soldiers by going to a local museum and looking at the collection of paintings by Vermeer. They would calm and relax him, or so the story went. Looking at the painting above has this effect on me. Even though the sky is cloudy and the water is grey and “cold” I find it calming. The words of a lullaby can calm a baby in much the same way. The point to consider, though, is this painting and the lullaby would have the same calming effect if I were planning a criminal act. According to some, the Nazi officers received a similar kind of solace from the artwork they visited in their museums.

I teach students to read and comprehend stories because I think the stories will make them wise or will help them in some way to engage life’s more troubling moments. I think stories help students to come out of themselves and see a bit of the world from another point of view. But this also gives the receptive student a power they might not otherwise have. There is no guarantee this ability to put oneself in the place of another and see the world from that other’s point of view will be used benignly. It might be used to manipulate and to take advantage as easily as it might be used to heal and to console. I remember reading a book on the Theater of the Absurd, I think it was by Martin Esslin, in which he quotes the playwright Samuel Beckett as saying (the quote was in French but I was told this is what it meant), “The words mean nothing but they are all I have to convince you with.”

If words mean nothing, than how do they convince? If they can be used to serve other ends than the ends the words claim to be serving, how do we avoid being deceived? Many of those that read Milton’s Paradise Lost from a Christian perspective see the devil as villainous and seductive. Many of those that read this same poem from a less theological perspective see the devil as heroic. They read the same words, and even understand those words in much the same way. To a large degree how we understand the devil in this poem is shaped by how we understood the devil before we began reading the poem and there is often hell to pay for those that would bring the one interpretation into the other’s camp.

The View from Here

Symphony No. 5; Allegro
Franz Schubert
Yehudi Menuhin (cond.); Menuhin Festival Orchestra

The View from Here

Archimedes Thoughtful
Domenico Fetti

The music comes from the opening of Schubert’s Symphony #5. It captures for me a simpler time and evokes a rural countryside and village life. Of course the rural countryside and the village may have less to do with the music than with my first hearing the music when it was used as the opening theme for a series of PBS Mystery broadcasts starring Joan Hickson as Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. This lyrical piece of music was played behind images of various individuals with somewhat diabolical expressions on their faces that seemed in ironic contrast to the music. But the point is that often how we see and understand something has as much to do with the circumstances that surrounded our first exposure to that “something” than anything inherent to that “something.”

The painting is of the early Greek scientist Archimedes. He got a lot of things right; perhaps the world of mathematics is a bit more stable than other worlds. But he was also a scientist, and the world of science is not quite as stable as that of mathematics, but even there he has held up pretty well. Still, living when he did, he would have believed, or at least accepted as working hypotheses a lot of science that has since been discredited. What we believe about the world in which we live is shaped by the presumptions of the times in which we live.

Lucien, the Greek satirist who lived about three hundred years after Archimedes, sent some folks on a fantastic voyage to the moon. The ship was caught in a severe storm and landed on the moon. The story was called “A True History” and it begins with Lucian stating there is not a word of truth to it. He was having fun with the historians of his day and though he is describing a voyage to the moon, he does not expect anyone to believe the voyage in fact took place or was in any way possible. The idea of people walking on the moon did not harmonize well with the science of Lucian’s day, but we might be more open to the possibility.

But though the science changes, the human psyche and the human character does not change quite so much. There have been “reality” programs on television that have placed 21st century folks in 19th century and earlier environments to give us all a sense of what life was like in those times. But of course these programs cannot deliver what they promise, because pilgrims landing in New England or settlers farming or ranching the Western Territories of the Louisiana Purchase did not give up electric blankets or backyard swimming pools when they set out on their journeys and though they gave up some comforts they did not give up the same comforts or nearly so many comforts as those that would try to journey back from our more modern age.

But though their battles and their struggles are not our battles and our struggles we can relate to the concept of struggle and fighting for what is important to us and to our future. We can draw inspiration from their experience even if we cannot share it in the same way they experienced it. So though I cannot be Natty Bumpo in the wilderness of pre-Revolutionary War America, I can draw inspiration from him as I set out to confront my own frontiers. This is an important aspect of story, when we enter a story we discover something about the human psyche that our experience alone cannot teach us. Emerson and Whitman suggest in their essays and poems that we learn from history lessons that enable us to live more effectively in our own time and to live more truly to our own characters and consciences. If when I read history I do not understand that Caesar had to confront in himself the same fears I have to confront in myself then I am not imagining a real Caesar, I have stripped him of his humanity.

Claudius Ptolemy: The World
Johannes Schnitzer, engraver
Claudius Ptolemy, cartographer

The map is of the world as it was understood in the second century, and was still understood in the fifteenth century when this engraving was made from Ptolemy’s original. This is the world as most in Europe would have imagined it at the time Columbus set sail for what he thought was the orient, or the right hand side of the map. When he undertook this voyage he believed he knew where he was going. He did not believe he was going where no man had been before but was taking a different route to a place people went everyday. It was only by accident that he ended up in a place where no European had been before, or at least had not been there in quite some time. This is often the story of discovery; we find something profound when we are looking for something else, often for something more mundane than profound.

The value of stories like that of Columbus is that journeys into the unknown are just that and no matter how we prepare and what we set up for expectations we are likely to be surprised. On the other side of the coin are the consequences of such a voyage. It is to be hoped that those that journey today into the unknown will not explore with the attitudes towards those they encounter that guided Columbus and those that followed him; that we can explore our frontiers without exploiting the frontiers we encounter.

Larry McMurtry in his book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen writes about his family coming to the Texas frontier when it was still the Western Frontier. He is known for the western novels he has written, novels both in the spirit of the romance of the west and the reality of the west. He listened to stories of exploration that were the stories of his family.

Frederick Jackson Turner defined America by its western migration and the spirit that drove many Americans westward. The final migration began in the 1860’s and by the 1890’s there was no longer an unsettled corner of the United States. As a people we have been shaped by stories of exploration and reaching the western edge of our continent. We tried for a time to explore the frontiers of space, but it appears we have lost interest. As a child I would get up at four in the morning to watch the launches of the early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecrafts. I watched people walk on the moon for real. My map is very different from Ptolemy’s and the modern frontier is a different frontier from that encountered by Columbus and his European friends.

There was an article, “Science and the Sublime” in The New York Times this week that I found intriguing. It is a review of a book by Richard Holmes on science in the era of the Romantic poets. Holmes wrote a book, I think it was called Footsteps, a number of years ago that gave me a great deal of pleasure in which he took a walking tour of France following the route taken by Robert Louis Stevenson for his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. The two journeys were separated by about one hundred years and the second book in many ways documented how the world had changed over that century and ways in which it had stayed the same. His new book, though, explores ways in which new discoveries in science (at least new for the eighteenth century) influenced the work of the Romantic poets. The stories they told and the poems they wrote began to be shaped by a different view of the universe.

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for an audience that believed in a supernatural reality. For them it was perhaps plausible that the murder of a king could turn the natural world on its head and cause the sun to spend many months, if not years, hiding behind clouds and though stories with ghosts and monsters and a supernatural world penetrating the natural one remain popular to this day, they are not, I do not think, believed in the same way they were by the Elizabethans. When Mary Shelley creates her monster, she tries to surround it with a patina of scientific plausibility. When modern readers read Frankenstein and encounter Shelley’s reference to Darwin, it is a very different Darwin that comes to our minds than the one Shelley had in mind.

Charles Robert Darwin
A copy made by John Collier

Charles Darwin changed the way the world is seen and many that deny the theory of evolution embrace, at least in practice, the notion of natural selection or survival of the fittest. The images above and below capture the two views of Darwin that persist to this day. The painting above is of a gentle, grandfatherly looking old man, a bit benign in his appearance and a bit sad. The image below is a caricature that appeared in a satiric magazine. His body has a serpentine twist to it and the expression on his face and the look of his eyes are troubling to say the least. Those that embrace Darwin see him in the light of the first image, a wise old man whose life had more than its share of sadness. Those that resist his view of the world see him as the more demonic figure suggested by the caricature. But his vision has permeated our story telling and it would be difficult for those looking back at us to understand us without understanding Darwin as it is difficult for us to look back at the Middle Ages or the Renaissance and understand those that lived at that time without understanding the Bible that shaped their view of reality.

Caricature of Charles Darwin from Vanity Fair magazine
“Coide”, a.k.a. James Jacques Joseph Tissot

Science fiction is largely a 20th and 21st century genre. There are elements of science fiction in stories written earlier, Swift tries, for example, to make his floating island appear scientifically plausible, but the story has little to do with science, except to ridicule what he disliked about science. But the science in a modern science fiction story is an important part of the story telling, even if it is bad science. That said though, it is still the characters and the way they deal with the situations in which they find themselves that hold our interest. Jules Verne, and after him Isaac Asimov, looked down on writers that placed too much importance on character, thinking it was the plot and the science that carried the stories. And though the characters these writers created were often superficial, the conflicts and the problems they had to resolve resonate with readers. And even if he is not as well drawn a character as those found in other stories of the day, Captain Nemo has become iconic in our culture and his submarine the namesake for many real submarines to follow.

At its heart science, like theology, wants to understand where we came from and why we are here and we look to science to provide many of the answers we once expected religion to supply. Perhaps this plays a role in orchestrating our emotional response to science fiction and enables us to embrace characters that would be less satisfying in other settings. Still, more often than not, it is courage, resourcefulness, and tenacity, among other character traits, that hold our interest in these characters and their stories. We want to penetrate that which separates us from these values; we want to know the secret to infusing our own lives with courage, resourcefulness and tenacity. We admire characters that exhibit these traits because we know how difficult it is to develop and nurture these traits in our own lives.

Time Bandits
HandMade Films/AVCO Embassy Pictures

It is difficult for me to imagine a story like Time Bandits being told in a pre-scientific age. When Aeneas and Odysseus visit the underworld and as a result visit past experience, they are not actually visiting the earlier times, only the dead associated with earlier times. In the film the characters travel through various points of history, past and present and future, as well as a few parallel universes where different rules seem to apply than apply in the world in which we live. Perhaps Dante had a similar kind of story to tell in his Divine Comedy that involved travel through a parallel universe of sorts, but again the stories do not take us to another time in history only tell us of these other times, though his ascent through Purgatory and into Paradise do tell a story of a future that was real to Dante.

Image to Replace Calabi-Yau
By Lunch

The image is supposed to suggest something about string theory, but I do not understand enough about the theory or the physics behind it to know what the image is supposed to suggest about string theory. Though, when I look at it the image suggests ideas of a universe that fits well into a science fiction story. To me the image suggests a universe with shortcuts, so that flying from one end to the other might be expedited by wandering into one of the tunnels, or what look like tunnels, that might convey the traveler more quickly to the other side. I think this might make a good story, but I do not know if it has anything to do with what string theory has to tell us about the universe.

But that is the nature of story telling. Henry James said that we must concede to the writer his “donnee”, his premise, his concept for the story. It is then the author’s job to suspend our disbelief. We will accept a few implausibilities from time to time, but on the whole the narrative has to create a sense of reality that remains true through the story. We may not accept that witches are on the prowl that might lay traps for unwary soldiers or that horses will become cannibalistic, but we will concede the point and then enjoy the story that Shakespeare tells. It is not that we are willing to accept what we believe to be impossible, but that we want to know how to behave when we are confronted by life’s surprises. That too is part of the mystery and much that is regarded today as commonplace was once thought the product of an over active imagination.

Piracy in the Land of the Free

Raised on Robbery
Joni Mitchell

Piracy in the Land of the Free

Captain Hook
Walt Disney’s Peter Pan

The song and the cartoon evoke two images of piracy. The song suggests what is perhaps closer to the reality of piracy, self-interest and self-enrichment that need not be enlightened. The cartoon depicting Captain Hook from the Disney cartoon Peter Pan, suggests the romance of the pirate. The pirate is not, ultimately, very dangerous and the ideal villain with whom a boy might battle to prove his bravery. This is the pirate of the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films and of many of the pirate films of the early American cinema.

The pirate of cinema romance is not even an anti-hero, a humanized bad man or woman with redeeming qualities. The pirates of the early cinema are often like Captain Blood, the Rafael Sabatini character who is driven to piracy by circumstances beyond his control, even the “bad” pirates are more like Captain Hook’s pirate crew than the real pirates of the high seas. As a boy whenever we played “cops and robbers” or pretended to be swashbuckling seafarers it was always the persona of the robbers and the pirates we most wanted to assume.

The Pirates of Stone County Road
John Stewart

What I always enjoyed about this John Stewart song was the way he played with the image of the child pretending to be the pirate and imagining the back porch to be the deck of a pirate ship. Michael Chabon in an article for The New York Review of Books, “Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood”, writes about the role of adventure in the life and development of a child. I suppose his point is one that has been made many times before, that children need to take some of the risks that children always enjoy taking if they are to develop into confident and successful adults. As a culture, though, we are becoming a bit overprotective and as a result children may not be learning some important lessons about risk taking that help prepare them for adult life.

I remember in the neighborhood where I grew up there was a water pipe that spanned a huge ravine that was hundreds, to a child maybe thousands, of feet deep. It provided water, I suppose to homes on both sides of the canyon. As children my friends and I would climb the fence designed to keep us off the water pipe and would walk the pipe from one side of the canyon to the other. It was great fun, but probably not the wisest thing to do. I know I wouldn’t let my child do anything so foolish. But to what extent has my willingness to take risks as an adult been shaped by my eagerness to take risks as a child. Chabon ends his article, “Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?” To a great extent the stories we shape as adults had their beginnings in the stories we imagined as children and perhaps our willingness to try something new and different, whether it’s writing a story or attempting something that seems to be bit more than our abilities, on the surface anyway, will allow us to achieve were nurtured by the foolish risks, like walking across a canyon on a water pipe, we took as children.

Illustration of William “Captain” Kidd
Howard Pyle

The pictures above and below are both of the notorious pirate Captain Kidd. The one above is a fanciful depiction by Howard Pyle for his book on pirates and the one below of the eighteenth century gentleman who was the real Captain Kidd. The real captain would not have called himself a pirate at all but rather a privateer. A privateer was a pirate who committed piracy in the service of the queen, or the ruling powers of the day. Unfortunately when Captain Kidd was finally caught those for whom he committed piracy in “the service of the queen” disavowed all knowledge of his activities. He was hung and, according to Wikipedia, his body was left hanging for many years in an iron cage as a warning to others considering a career path similar to that of the “good” captain.

William Kidd, Privateer, Pirate
18th century portrait

Of course Kidd was following in a long established tradition. The Spanish conquest of the New World was made a bit less profitable by the work of privateers in the service of Queen Elizabeth. Among the more famous was Sir Francis Drake, who, like Mick Jagger, was knighted for his service to the British Empire. Growing up in California I studied in high school of Drake’s exploits along the California coast. He claimed California for Britain not by planting a flag but by nailing a coin to a post. The coin of course had Queen Elizabeth’s image on it and was intended to show Elizabeth as the ruler of this new land, but I think it is appropriate that money and not the “Union Jack” was used to claim the land because the exploration and colonization of the New World was, at its heart, a mercantile enterprise.

The Battle of Trafalgar
J. M. W. Turner

The painting by Turner captures the reality and the romance of the pirate “adventure.” In every pirate film I saw as a child there was a scene where pirates swung on ropes from one ship to another, the decks of both ships filled with gun smoke from the ships’ cannons and falling debris as sword fights and other forms of hand to hand combat took place on the deck of one or both of the ships. But if we stop to think at all seriously about what is depicted in the painting the reality of what is taking place cannot be avoided. People are dying and they are dying in horrific and painful ways. Death in the movies, especially the movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s has a romance all its own. It is heroic, often over quickly, and rarely strayed far from the world of “let’s pretend.” Besides, the dying hero always returned in a year or two in another film, so whatever death was it certainly was not permanent. But the painting if carefully considered suggests a tangled mess of broken and burning wood and canvas and an awful lot of blood and dying flesh.

But it is one of the jobs of stories and story telling to provide us with the examples we need to help us live meaningful lives that are consistent with a set of values that shape our human experience. When the cause is just all this bloodshed is an act of patriotic self-sacrifice, and what nation can hope to survive if none are willing to take on such a sacrifice. But when the cause is unjust this death and destruction suggests the waste that accompanies human ego and ambition. When is a pirate a privateer and when is the outlaw the true seeker of justice?

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid is one of America’s legendary outlaws. I think it is interesting that “The Kid” and “The Captain” both had the first name of William, well actually William was an alias and not the kid’s real name, but as far as the legends are concerned both “outlaws” shared the same first name. Billy the Kid became a romanticized figure of the Wild West and is joined by other outlaws, like Pretty Boy Floyd, who had more in common with Robin Hood than Al Capone. But if Billy in fact did all that he was accused of doing perhaps it is Pat Garrett who should receive the lion’s share of the attention. But than the legend of Billy the Kid was largely Garrett’s invention, and served to enhance the lawman’s reputation and “bona fides” as a true western lawman in the mold of Wyatt Earp.

Perhaps the pirate is the bridge between the knight of medieval romance and the cowboy of western romance, who in turn evolved after a fashion into the hard boiled detective. Sam Spade tells us he trades on a reputation for being a little bit crooked, that it is “good for business.” In the ideal western romance the bad guy often has more in common with the outlaw (The Ringo Kidd played by John Wayne) in John Ford’s film Stagecoach than with the actual Wild West bandit. Real bandits and outlaws are not heroic or likable, but there is something in the human psyche that does not like people who are “too” good or “too” virtuous. The true hero of the Grail Quest is Sir Galahad but the readers of the King Arthur stories often find Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain more interesting characters. In fact even Lancelot is a bit “too” good when it comes to too many things and it was Gawain who captured the imaginations of many during the Middle Ages in stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell. But Malory’s Gawain has some very troubling, though also very human, failings.

Captain Blood
Warner Brothers Pictures

Growing up in Los Angeles one of the local television channels ran a program called Million Dollar Movie. This was, for a child, wonderful. They would show the same movie every night for a week. Of course this was no fun if the film was uninteresting to the ten year old imagination, but if it were a film like Captain Blood it could be watched over and over again. As a child I would watch this film and other like it and the next day find an old curtain hanger that could be imagined into a sword and engage in battles like the one shown in the film clip. This was probably not the safest thing to do, I probably wouldn’t let my child do anything so foolish, but it was great fun and it opened up imaginary worlds for me. Of course the plunder and the rewards were all imaginary as well. Though I tried, the ice cream man would not take the “play” money I had accumulated in my high seas adventures.

These thoughts were also provoked by a couple of other articles I read this week. One was a review of a new book by Chris Anderson, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The main idea of this book is that we are evolving into a culture that finds other ways to generate profits than by charging for the merchandise it produces. There is an irony of sorts here in that the author, Chris Anderson, got into a bit of trouble for making “free” use of copyrighted materials found on Wikipedia. The material may be free to whoever wants to make use of it, but good manners, not mention sound editorial practice, dictate that the sources be identified. This is piracy of a different kind. At the heart of piracy, and all theft I suppose, is the desire to get something for nothing. Of course a lot of hard work goes into being an effective pirate, or thief of any kind and as a result little if anything is gotten for nothing if we include our “efforts” as a cost to be paid. Anderson did, after all, have to write quite a bit of his own material in order to take advantage of the opportunity to steal a page or two from Wikipedia.

The flip side of piracy and the “free culture” was suggested by another article this week published in The Guardian. The article, “Authors in revolt against plans to vet them for school visits”, reports on a group of authors of children’s books, Philip Pullman among them, protesting a piece of legislation recently enacted in Britain. This new law requires authors to pay £64.00 (about $100.00, I think) for the privilege of donating their time to speak to children. The intention of the law is good, it wants to protect children from those that may do them harm. But as is pointed out, these writers are never alone when they visit schools but are always accompanied by other adults, primarily teachers and administrators in the schools. The end result is that many of these writers will no longer make a gift of their time to speak at schools.

It is a tenet of our culture that nothing is free; everything comes with a cost, even if we are not the ones paying the cost, or at least not directly. Most online “freebies” are paid for by advertising that is directed at the kind of people likely to use the “freebie”, which means the cost of what is gotten for free is included in the cost of the merchandise we are being tempted to buy when we use the service. But are there other costs to a culture that grows up believing it does not have to pay for what it consumes, that believes itself to be entitled to whatever it needs or enjoys? What happens to news when it is provided at no cost to the consumer of that news? Who is paying for it and do those subsidizing newspapers have a say over what is contained in that newspaper? In a sense it is in paying for what we use that gives us a say over what goes into the products that we use. On the one hand we will pay large sums of money to buy products, everything from shirts to automobiles, that are advertisements for their manufacturers, piracy of a different ilk.

The only journeys that we take that are truly free are journeys of our imagination, though, as with pirates, we pay for these with a kind of effort; time needs to be taken to dream and to imagine. The stories that I read as a child and read today as an adult stimulate and inspire the imagination; they give me the raw materials my imagination needs to construct stories of its own and to craft a human and humane existence. The depth of my character and the motivations behind what I accomplish are often revealed in the stories I hold sacred, whether they are stories of my own making or stories I have pirated from other authors.

Wishing Our Way Home

If Wishes Were Horses
Lucinda Williams

Wishing Our Way Home

The Knight’s Dream
Antonio de Pereda

Lucinda Williams is singing about undoing the past, wishing things could be done over differently and seeing that they can’t hoping that perhaps there can be a bit of forgiveness. In the chorus she sings “If wishes were horses I’d have a ranch” and that sentiment captures a lot, not just of lost love but of a great many human activities that have not gone as planned or never got off the ground because there was never much more to them than wishing. Often it is easier to aspire than to achieve. Aspirations are romantic and often a bit adventurous, but achievements are hard work, at least the worthwhile ones are.

The painting captures another aspect of dreaming and wishing. The knight is sleeping at a cluttered table. It seems that the objects on the table are reflections of his dreams. There are a couple of books, one of which is open and both of which are old. That they are set aside and that two objects, skulls, have been set on top of them suggests the books are not what currently occupy his interest. There is at least one musical instrument and some sheet music. These might suggest entertainment or a musical education.

There is also a globe and other objects that might represent conquest, like the miniature clock tower that could suggest a conquered city. There are of course the jewels and cash, representative of the spoils of war perhaps, along with a gun and what look like bits of armor, the tools of conquest. There is also behind the books an object that looks a bit like a bishop’s mitre that might suggest religious connections of one kind or another, either of complicity or a different kind of conquest. And of course there is the angel. Is the angel there to inspire or protect? But the knight is dreaming and perhaps, were he awake, the table would be empty. I think the painting suggests that there are some dreams better left unfulfilled.

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap
George Caleb Bingham

Education is a kind of dream or wish for many and for teachers the desire to teach something of value is a constant struggle between aspirations and accomplishments. There are many different ways that people learn. The painting of Daniel Boone suggests one way in which people learn, they are given guidance. (I think it is interesting that the woman on the horse evokes images of the Virgin Mary on her way to Bethlehem, though I am not sure that that means anything.) The people Boone is leading need to know how to get somewhere and as a result they have not just a desire to learn from Boone, but a need. Where the pupil understands the need to learn a thing, that pupil will perhaps follow without asking too many questions or engaging in disruptive behavior.

The painting might also suggest the limitations of this kind of teaching. Those following Boone have learned how to find their way to a specific place, and perhaps those paying attention will remember also how to find their way back should they decide to return, but they have not been taught how to discover anything on their own, only to follow directions. They need someone to lead them, they cannot lead themselves unless in addition to guiding the party Boone is also instructing them on how to find their bearings in the wilderness, how to find, or if the need arises, to make a trail and to survive on what the wilderness provides in the way of food and shelter. If I make my living as a guide, I want to keep those I guide a little bit ignorant so that they will always need my guidance and will not learn to guide themselves, or worse, become my future competition. As a teacher it is my goal to make myself obsolete, at least to this year’s students.

A Medieval Baker with His Apprentice
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

The apprenticeship system is still a preferred method for teaching another a trade. It was also, at one time, how one learned a profession. In Gulliver’s Travels we learn that Gulliver became a medical man by being apprenticed to a medical man who taught him how to doctor. Abraham Lincoln did not go to law school; he apprenticed himself to a lawyer. In light of the fact that, for the most part, the faculties of medical and law schools are themselves practicing doctors and lawyers might suggest that these professions are still learned through a kind of apprenticeship.

Part of an apprenticeship involves watching a master of the craft practice the craft, which is not unlike following Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap, the master leads and the apprentice follows. But there is more to an apprenticeship, the apprentice eventually does what the master does under the master’s watchful eye. There are mistakes that the master points out, not always in a kindly fashion, that the apprentice must correct.

A number of years ago I remember hearing Daniel Pinkwater on NPR. He was talking about his experience in art school and his apprenticeship of sorts to a sculptor. The sculptor taught him how to cut a piece of marble, something that is almost impossible to do if done incorrectly but very easy (or so Mr. Pinkwater suggested) if done correctly. One day his teacher asked him to cut a piece of marble down to a certain size. But before Mr. Pinkwater began the teacher pointed out that this is special kind of marble and needs to be cut differently. Pinkwater worked for hours trying to cut the stone with no success until another sculptor entered the room and asked him what he was doing. Pinkwater said he was cutting the marble, to which the other sculptor replied why are you doing it like that?

It turned out that it did not matter that the marble was a special kind of marble, all marble is cut alike. When Pinkwater confronted his teacher the teacher replied it is not enough to know, you have to know that you know. We are not so easily fooled when we know we know what we know. There is a scene in the book The Chosen where the Rabbi teaches a sermon at the dinner table. In the sermon he gives a piece of misinformation and it is his son, Daniel’s responsibility to catch his father in the mistake. Daniel knows that when the sermon is done his father is going to ask him (Daniel) to not only identify the mistake but to correct the mistake. Daniel is in a sense apprenticed to his father, because it is expected that Daniel will eventually take over as Rabbi. This is another effective way of teaching and helping the student to know that he knows, though it may be unwise as a practice in the public schools.

Carl Sagan

When I was younger I was a big fan of Carl Sagan, I still am. He explained science in a way that was both interesting and inspiring. I did not become a scientist but he created in me an interest in it that has never gone away. His television program Cosmos reached many people and explained in ways that were relatively easy to understand how science and the universe worked. Sagan used television as a teaching tool and as a result he taught many. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the current host of the PBS series Nova, was asked who inspired him to go into science. He said that was an easy question to answer and after giving a few biographical details identified Carl Sagan as his greatest influence. Tyson then told a story about Sagan.

As a graduating senior Tyson was accepted to Cornell University, where Sagan taught. Shortly after being accepted by Cornell Tyson received an invitation from Sagan to come and take a tour of the campus. Sagan offered to not just take Tyson on a tour of the campus but to show him the laboratories where the faculty and students conducted their research. This is another way of teaching. Sagan was at the time an important enough figure that he did not have to spend this time with a high school senior, but he did. This sets a different kind of example. Tyson concluded his story by saying that whenever a prospective student asks him something, he stops what he is doing and tries to answer. Ultimately we do what we do, whatever it is that we do, because someone took an interest in us and thought it important to guide us into the craft or profession and to show us the ropes.

There was an article this week in The Guardian. It was written by the children’s laureate, Anthony Browne. I was surprised that there existed such an office as children’s laureate anywhere. The title of the article is “Creativity in schools: Every story needs a picture” In the article Browne discusses creativity and picture making. He is concerned that too many students, and adults, tell themselves they cannot draw. He thought schools were doing more to discourage picture making than to encourage it. He then talked about the “shape game” which involves one person drawing a shape on a piece of paper and others adding to the shape in order to create or redefine a picture. It is sort of like the game that folks interested in stories play where one person starts a story and others continue it. He thinks more time should be spent playing the shape game or something like it.

He was especially troubled on a visit to a school highly regarded for its success in guiding students through the various standardized tests. The students could read well and they could write competently, but they couldn’t draw and their imaginations seemed to him to be underdeveloped. It troubled him that none of the students recognized the Mona Lisa probably one of the most famous paintings ever made. Browne acknowledged the need for students to master skills but he is troubled that in teaching the skills we are often quenching the imagination. Skills are necessary if we are to continue doing what we are doing today, but without imagination we will not shape the future, that will be done by those who can first imagine what it could look like.

When You Wish Upon a Star
Keith Jarrett Trio
Hitomi Memorial Hall Tokyo on October 26, 1986

The song comes from the Disney film Pinocchio. As most know Pinocchio is a puppet who wishes to be a boy. He is instructed to wish upon a star. There may be dreams that are achieved by wishing on stars but most require, as did Pinocchio’s dream, a lot of hard work. When I wish upon a star I wish good things for my students, I wish for the skills that will help me lead my students to those good things. But as the earlier song says, “If wishes were horses.” Wishes are not enough. Sometimes we wish for things that it are not in our power to provide or to achieve. But there are doable wishes that with effort can be attained.

Teaching others is a wish with an outcome over which I have some but not complete control. I can work at developing my skills, at keeping an open mind to new ways of doing things, but I cannot will my students to desire what I have to offer. Some can be motivated to change their minds but probably not all. It is a complicated thing. I feel that in saying that I cannot reach all, I am giving up on some, that I have to believe in all of the students and in their ultimate success, but this can be a dangerous road to go down, it can lead to discouragement and even to forsaking the craft. It is important not only to know our limitations as individuals but also to recognize that others have choices as well.

The desire to teach, the wish, the dream to teach is romantic, it is adventurous, but the wish and the dream by themselves do not teach anyone. There is work that must be done, exciting work, but work nonetheless. There is a bargain that is made in any classroom. The teacher promises to work as hard as she or he can but the students must work as hard as they can to make their teacher obsolete.