At the Moment

The Next Big Thing
Vince Gill

At the Moment

Rose Window, Strasbourg Cathedral

I am a schoolteacher. At the beginning of a school year it is important, I think, to consider what the new year has to offer and what ought to change and not change as a result of the summer’s reflection on the previous year. When is new better and when should the “old ways” be preserved. The song suggests that everything is ephemeral; it has its moment in the sun and then becomes passé and yesterday’s news. Vince Gill is speaking specifically of the music industry but this view of things permeates many other areas of our culture.

With the intense focus this view places on the new and the momentary it is difficult to put much of anything into a larger context. This view has also produced a dismissive attitude towards cultural landmarks, whether they are musical, literary, or some other aspect of our cultural identity. This preoccupation with the present also seems to bring with it a resistance to long term planning. Thinking too much about the past or the future makes it difficult to live effectively in the present moment. It is unwise to live too much in the past or the future, but it is difficult to build a meaningful future without some planning and it is difficult to plan well if we cannot fit our planning into an historical context.

The rose window on the other hand was designed to provoke contemplation, to free us from the “tyranny of the moment.” To me the rose window suggests a kaleidoscopic mandala and its beauty is in the way it diffuses light and color. The rose window also suggests the “next big thing” isn’t that big in the context of time and the universe. As a culture there may be a place for us to build a metaphoric rose window in the mind that invites us to contemplate things outside our own scope and experience and to measure our own accomplishments against a larger yardstick.

In this week’s Boston Globe there was an interview with Marianne Taylor on “The definition of cool.” As a term it resists definition, according to Taylor, and there is more to it than what is currently popular, though it seems that it is often a currency of the moment. Perhaps more than anything else “cool” is a kind of charisma that can attach itself to objects, ideas, or people. A large part of cool though seems to come down to attitude, an edgy, confront the status quo sort of attitude, though one must be careful because in some circles confronting the status quo is the status quo. I think, though, the discussion of cool suggests that too often we attach value to surfaces, as attitude is largely a “surface”, that conceals some turbulent currents beneath.

The Illinois
Frank Lloyd Wright

The sketch is of a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was planned to be a mile high and eventually had to be put aside as unworkable because at the time there were no elevators that could accommodate the design and folks were unlikely to climb stairs a mile in each direction. In order for the next big thing to become the next big thing, I suppose, the technology necessary for its support must exist. Still, it is an elegant looking building and with current technology might even be workable, though the cultural moment for a design of this kind has probably passed.

Ultimately it is about assessing value. What is worthy of preservation; what is worthy of study? Wright was one of America’s great architects, but not all of his buildings have survived. Some were torn down to make way for other buildings. What does that do to the “legacy” of Wright, where did the buildings that were destroyed stand in relation to the body of his work? There is also in this a suggestion as to the purpose of art, especially arts like architecture that are at least in part functional. What if these buildings of Wright’s that were destroyed no longer satisfied the function for which they were built. As an English teacher it is important to ask which literary texts are worthy of preservation and study and which need to be metaphorically pulled down to make way for other edifices.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Frank Gehry

A building like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao could probably not be built in Wright’s time. It takes architecture in a different direction and might be the epitome of architectural “cool” for our time. It reminds me of the buildings one often sees in animated cartoons, like the “Toon Town” section of Los Angeles as seen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But there has also been criticism of Gehry’s style because many of those that work in the buildings he has designed complain about their not being “user friendly” spaces. This is a problem because buildings are not sculpture, though there may be qualities they share in common, and though a well designed building ought to be pleasing to the eye, its ultimate purpose is to serve the people that work in it.

Books are not buildings and we do not live in a book in the way we live in a house, still there is a sense in which readers do occupy a book and in the course of reading it live in the world the book creates. But where a building ought to be designed with the comfort of those it houses in mind, the same is not necessarily true of a book. Good books often make us feel uncomfortable. Often books hold ourselves up to ourselves for scrutiny and that is often not a pleasant experience, but it is, nonetheless, an important thing to do from time to time.

There was an article by Susan Straight in the New York Times this week, “Reading by the Numbers“ about how reading is being assigned and assessed in schools. It concerns a piece of software used by some schools to help encourage students to read. The program assigns point values to books and when students accumulate so many points for the outside reading they have done they are awarded (in some schools, though not in all schools that use the program) a prize.

The article focuses on the point values assigned to various books and tries to understand the “reading” values the program is trying to inculcate and the correlation between the number of points a book is worth and the quality of that book as literature. Some books that are not particularly challenging are worth quite a lot of points while other books that are quite challenging are not worth many points at all. Heart of Darkness, for example, is worth ten points while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was worth forty-four points. Hamlet was worth seven points while the Gossip Girl series was worth eight points.
Perhaps it is just because I teach English, but something does not seem right here.

Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816)
John Constable

Of course one must be careful. We all live on the cusp of change as one style of writing (or of doing most any art) is morphing into what comes next. The paintings above and below suggest this potential problem. Constable and Turner were contemporaries, or nearly so, but Constable remained true to a realistic style of painting that was popular when he began to work while Turner’s style was anticipating the Impressionist painters that would come a bit later. Both painters did fine work but one was a bit behind the times and the other a bit ahead of his time. An attitude toward literary texts that is too focused on past greatness is going to miss the work of writers who, like Turner, are producing the “next big thing”, the thing that will make our time memorable to those who will back at it.

Chichester Canal circa 1828
J. M. W. Turner

It can be difficult to make judgments about the work that is done in our own time because we are too close to it. C. S. Lewis once observed in a book, The Allegory of Love, about the courtly love poets, “For it must be noticed that such dominance (the dominance of a literary form in any given age) is not necessarily good for the form that enjoys it. When everyone feels it natural to attempt the same kind of writing, that kind is in danger. Its characteristics are formalized. A stereotyped monotony, unnoticed by contemporaries, but cruelly apparent to posterity, begins to pervade it.” Contemporary literary forms that enjoy some popularity, like meta-fiction or stories that rely heavily on stream of consciousness, are probably in danger of falling into this kind of stylistic “monotony.” This may not be obvious to readers today but is likely to be very obvious to readers a few generations from now.

The Shock of the New: “David Hockney on What’s Unphotographable”

This film clip from the television series The Shock of the New suggests another aspect of how we assess an art form. David Hockney talks about how he experimented with photographs and discovered that though both photographs and paintings are visual representations of a subject they were not equally effective in capturing the essence of that subject. Hockney is specifically talking about a painting he did of the Alhambra in Spain. He said he could never capture it adequately in a photograph, but he was pleased with the result of his painting. The image of the painting is not realistic and does not offer a recognizable representation of the Alhambra. If it were put next to a photograph of the building the viewer may not realize that the photograph and the painting were of the same building, nor would someone having seen Hockney’s painting recognize the Alhambra if she or he visited it in Spain.

But it is not the purpose of a work of art to produce “photographic” images of a thing. An historical novel with Abraham Lincoln in it as a character is not as obligated to produce the “real” Lincoln in its pages, as is a biography or a work of history. Novels often tell stories that mix elements of fantasy or the fanciful in an otherwise realistic story. Novelists like Garcia Gabriel Marquez or Robertson Davies tell stories that move through a world that in many ways resemble the world in which we live and move, but at times these worlds are penetrated by a “non-realistic” reality that does not coincide with the world as most people experience it. This artistic license does not detract from the artistry of the books but in fact serve that artistry in much the same way that Hockney’s art serves his painting.

It can be difficult maintaining a balance between the artistic legacy we have inherited and the modern age. It is important to preserve a sense of the past and the historical and cultural streams that have brought us to where we are but it is also important to remain receptive to the work that flows from the influences of this legacy. As rose windows provided an opportunity to contemplate what is holy in the world, the gargoyle provided the opportunity to contemplate those forces that are dedicated to our ruin and the ultimate ruin of those forces. Perhaps in this gargoyle from the National Cathedral in Washington D. C. there is an apt object for contemplation that focuses our meditations on the value of the traditions that have brought us to our moment and the value of our moment’s contribution to those traditions and perhaps that which has value from each stream will cleanse the mundane from both.

Darth Vader grotesque on the tower of the Washington National Cathedral

A Taste for the Unusual

Frim Fram Sauce
Diana Krall

A Taste for the Unusual

Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Brueghel the Elder

I do not know what “frim fram” sauce, “oss-en-fay”, or “sha fafa” are, for all I know they may just be the invention of the lyricist. But I like the song because it suggests to me the importance of being a little bit adventurous with our tastes. It is the only way we find out that “fast food” is not the only source of a tasty meal, in fact it may be the only way we discover how “un-tasty” a fast food meal actually is. We often like what we like because it is familiar. How do we ever become familiar with what is unknown to us if we do not take a bit of a risk with something new, unusual, and exotic.

There is nothing wrong with potatoes, tomatoes, steak or any of the other foods that the persona of the song would like to take a pass on, they are all tasty, but they are also somewhat “clichéd,” somewhat “safe.” Generally when I am looking for something to read there are two things that attract me to a book, the author or the cover. If I know the author and have liked what that author has done in the past, I may give the book a try, if I do not know the author it is generally the cover art that captures my attention. The first is often a safe bet, these books are the potatoes and the tomatoes. The second requires a bit of an adventurous spirit, but not that much, because what usually captures my attention about the cover is its ability to evoke the kind of book with which I am already familiar and comfortable. I think we are often attracted to those things, whether in art, music, or literature that promise to deliver an experience that resembles one we have already had.

The painting is a pleasant scene of an active medieval or renaissance street. It is also somewhat typical of Brueghel’s style and delivers the kind of artistic experience we would expect from a Brueghel painting. But the title tells us there is also something more to the painting than the odd people and the quirky landscape. It contains about a hundred different Flemish proverbs, acted out after a fashion by the “actors” in the scene. For example, in the lower left hand corner there is a woman with a water bucket in one hand and tongs with a hot coal in the other. This suggests a proverb about carrying fire in one hand and water in the other, which is to suggest the person is a bit of a hypocrite. Just ahead of her is a man banging his head against a wall, a proverb with which most are familiar.

I used to give this painting to students at the end of the school year (I knew the painting as “The Blue Cloak” because, I suppose, at the center of the painting is a person wearing a blue cloak) and would give them so many points extra credit for each proverb they could find and explain. I would also give them the list of proverbs the painting illustrates. They only had to find ten and most did pretty well. But the thing about the painting that is a bit quirky is that instead of being a picture that might “paint a thousand words”, it is “words painting a hundred pictures.” Though we often gravitate toward the familiar it is often those things that do something new and unfamiliar that are the most memorable.

There was an article in the Boston Globe recently by Joan Wickersham, “If Jane Austen had a laptop”, that speculated on how Jane Austen might have responded to things like “Twitter,” (it suggests that she would have especially enjoyed using certain “search engines”). The article is a fanciful speculation on a technology driven Ms. Jane but it also suggests that we are products of our culture and were Ms. Austen living with us she too would be a product of our age, just as we are products after a fashion of Ms. Austen’s age, and the ages of other writers whose works have shaped our culture. Once a work of art has touched us, it changes us a bit and the way we look at the world around us. We may not wear Regency clothing, but we have entered and been touched by a Regency way of viewing the world and, while in the world of the book, adopted a bit of that view.

Red Mobile
Alexander Calder

The photograph of the Calder mobile and the Matisse paper cuttings suggest another way that art often surprises. Both the mobile and paper cuttings are associated with children and the nursery. Calder and Matisse both pursued “serious” art, one a sculptor the other a painter. They are working with the ingredients of their perspective mediums but they are not working with them in the way we would expect. Part of the reason the art works with the viewer is perhaps because it evokes the nursery and a more innocent and carefree time. There is I think something liberating about a mobile, something that provokes a smile or a chuckle in part because it is not what we expected to find on the menu when we entered the museum.

There was an ad for Pacific Life that used to play at the end of the News Hour on PBS with Jim Lehrer. It was an animation of a whale, the trademark of the insurance company. But the whale would morph from a whale painted in the style of Seurat to a whale in the style of Van Gogh, to a whale in the style of Monet, Picasso, and Calder. It was an imaginative ad, but I wonder how many viewers would recognize how the ad’s creator was playing with artistic trademarks. The ad also suggests that art can sell a product, perhaps in part because the viewer of the ad is not entirely familiar with what is happening, but I think it is even more effective with the viewer that recognizes what the ad maker is doing. In a sense, by playing with artistic styles and expecting the viewer to recognize the styles the advertiser is motivating us to buy the product by flattering our knowledge and sophistication. There is the “story” of the ad’s narration, “buy this product” and the more subliminal story of the ad’s presentation that tells a story of sorts about the history of art, of whales, and insurance, suggesting, perhaps, they have something in common.

The Sorrows of the King
Henri Matisse

Stories often do this as well. There are many stories written for children that operate exclusively at the child’s level. The adult reader might still enjoy the story, who cannot enjoy The Cat in the Hat, or Goodnight Moon, but the story does not operate at a level that the adult recognizes that the child does not. On the other hand there are other stories associated with children, like Gulliver’s Travels (at least the first two voyages sans a scene or two) and Alice and Wonderland. These books can delight the child but there are other things going on that only an adult would fully appreciate. I remember seeing in a used bookstore a book titled A Boy’s Rabelais. There are aspects of Rabelais that a child might find enjoyable, but there is much about the good friar’s book that may not be entirely suitable for children. It is a book one would not expect to find on the children’s “menu.”

This is, I think, the real reason we incorporate literature in our English classes. The main purpose of the class is to teach fluency with language and ideas and help students to develop a facility with language that will contribute to their future success. But it is also important to help students develop a “sense of adventure” in the choices they make. They know the Phantom Tollbooth or Harry Potter or Vampires living in the great Northwest. These are their “meat and potatoes” so to speak. There are other “foods” that come with more exotic flavors, flavors that may not be initially pleasant (I am told that children do not find sweets tasty at first, they need to acquire the taste) but with time become flavors we cannot live without. We will never outgrow our parochial flavors if someone does not bring to our attention the other flavors that might be experienced and over time enjoyed.

The Sleeping Gypsy
Henri Rousseau

The painting of the lion and the sleeping gypsy evokes another kind of magic. The dreamer does not know what is happening in the world while she or he is captured by the dream. The gypsy may be dreaming of pastures and a flock of sheep while the real world is full of lions, or at least, a lion. To what extent are we safe in our sleep; whether it is the real sleeping we do each night or the sleep of a mind that is unaware of what it needs to learn or the consequences of failing to learn. When we dream the world of the dream is real. I know that often when I dream I come to the dream with a complete history that is not my history, I have memories of experiences I have never experienced, at least not in my waking hours, and I remember them vividly. This world seems real and it serves a purpose, dreams are important.

But what of the waking world; what of the world in which we work and earn our bread? The quality of the bread we earn is often shaped by the quality of the education we receive and the confidence that education gives us to explore the unfamiliar. We read great works of literature from the past not because they feed us a familiar food that goes down easily, but because they feed us a food that though more nourishing, is not always palatable with the first bite. We give students that first taste so that they can go on to develop their intellectual palates. In this sense the English class is more of a restaurant or a tasting room serving exotic foods than a “skills factory.”

The world of the children’s story prepares us for the world of the unfamiliar. If nothing else, the stories we read as children were new and different and unfamiliar when we first read and enjoyed them. They also, often, take us to unexpected places. A character opens a door, goes on a trip, meets a strange person and reality takes an unexpected turn. This is often true of the stories adults read as well. When David Balfour went to sea he did not expect to be kidnapped, he did not deserve to be kidnapped. But through the process of being kidnapped he learns some things about himself and human nature. There is a sense that all stories, or at least the good ones, kidnap their readers and take them to unexpected places. But we have to board the ship, even if we would rather make a different journey.

Hitchcock on Film

The film clip is old and shows its age, it is also in Black and White. But I think Hitchcock makes some important points about story telling. Not least among them that a good story will often set us up for a cliché and just when we expect the cliché the story delivers something entirely unexpected. A good story will in some way surprise us. He also does not believe we need to understand everything in the story, in fact, stories often proceed from something that is suggested but never explained. In many of Hitchcock’s films we do not know why people are chasing other people. Why does James Mason want so badly to catch and to kill Carey Grant? Hitchcock called this unknown something a “McGuffin.” When asked to explain the term he tells a story about a scene from an old film. There are two men on a train going to the Scottish Highlands. One of the travelers asks the other what’s that package in the overhead rack. His fellow traveler tells him, “That’s a McGuffin”. They then have this conversation:

“What’s a McGuffin”?

“A McGuffin is a machine for trapping lions in the Highlands of Scotland.”

“But there are no lions in the Highlands of Scotland.”

“Than that’s no McGuffin.”

At the end of the conversation we know no more about what a McGuffin is than we did before the conversation took place. This is also often true about what motivates characters to do the things they do in stories, or at least the stories that Hitchcock tells. But we do not mind; if the characters are interesting and the storyteller does things that surprise us. Why does Iago want so badly to harm Othello? Is disappointment at being passed over for a promotion enough to explain Iago’s behavior? Why is Voltimort such a bad guy? Is his unhappy childhood enough of an explanation? I do not know, but what is more important, I do not need to know to enjoy the story.

I think Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose has one of the most moving closing lines of any book I have read. The problem with quoting a closing line (and why I won’t do it) is that, unlike a good opening line, it depends for its power on all that has come before. Stegner has introduced us to a man we thought we knew well by the end of the novel and the reader, or at least this reader, expected to part company with a certain kind of man. The last line of the book showed me how the man had unexpectedly changed and that change changed me. This is why it is important to be adventurous in our reading and our living. The familiar does not change us much, we expect it, we know it, it is only the unknown that can show us sides of ourselves we never knew before.

When the Saints Go Marching In

You Are So Beautiful
Joe Cocker

When the Saints Go Marching In

Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

The Venerable Bede was one of the first English writers to make a literary impact, at least one of the first whose name we actually know. Actually he is St. Bede but he was called venerable for over a millennia before he was finally canonized and I guess the notion of St. Bede never really became that popular. Perhaps old habits are hard to break and thousand year habits can be especially obdurate. But though he has been declared worthy of honor and a saint, is he “literary” in the “canonical sense?

Bede is in every anthology I have ever used from my years as a student throughout my time as a teacher. He is, or at least his writing is, in the words of Joe Cocker, “so beautiful to me.” But then beauty is in the eye of the beholder and many writers with the detritus of a millennium or more between them and the readers of the day are found wanting; it is difficult to believe they can offer anything of value to those who are so different from them and whose times bear so little resemblance to theirs. But some aspects of the human character do not change all that much or even if they do, they still need a similar kind of nourishment.

Saint Thomas More
Hans Holbein the Younger

Saint Thomas More is, at least in the eyes of most canon builders, a literary saint as well as an ecclesiastical one. Though his little book was not the first to create such a world, it has given its name to all attempts to imagine the perfect world on earth, as well as, by playing a bit with that word he coined, the name for the “worst of all possible worlds.” Which is appropriate because the attentive reader notices at some point during the journey through the book that More’s “utopia” is, in the mind of More, a bit of a dystopia. There are at least two genres of fiction (Utopic/Dystopic and satiric fiction) that we cannot talk intelligently about without tipping our hat to More. Perhaps what is needed in order to sort through all the candidates that present themselves for “canonization” are some clear rules, some steps we can follow on the road to literary sanctification that help the reader and the student to understand what it is about the book and the writer that make them worthy of our attention not just today but for all the days before us.

The Catholic Church has been canonizing people for ages and ages and the process they have established can offer guidance in establishing a path to its literary counterpart. There are five steps that must be gone through to be canonized a saint. Of course, it should also be remembered that the canonization process cannot be started until after the death of the candidate. In the case of books it is to be hoped that books continue to “live and thrive” and in fact would have to do so if they are to be considered, but perhaps the process of considering them should not begin until after the death of their authors. The church has its name for each step but they might be adapted to things literary:

Steps to Canonization

  • Workman Like (Writing)
  • Not a Cult Classic”
  • Venerable
  • Beautiful
  • Literary Classic

To even be considered, a book has to get over a basic hurdle, the writing must seen to be workman like and competent. How this is judged of course can be problematic. It is the nature of great art of all genres and forms to innovate, to, in the words of Ezra Pound, “make it new” in some way. This means that there will be resistance to the writing and that perhaps initial reviews of it will be brutal. Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, “that’s not writing, it’s typing.” Still it remains a staple of bookstores to this day and is still sought out by new readers. This would suggest that there might be a bit more to it than typing. It may be necessary to be a bit generous with this stage in the process and to accept that those nominating the candidate are individuals of good will deserving more benefits than doubts.

Copy of cover of September, 1947 edition of Fantastic Adventures

Some books are read and studied because they have a cult following. I remember reading in an article on best seller lists how groups that wanted to lend legitimacy to their movement would buy up books their leader published. The example they used was Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard books (Hubbard got his start writing stories for publications like Fantastic Adventures that published stories for a kind of select readership). I do not know how much truth there is to this but for purposes of canonization there has to be something substantial to recommend the book. There are books that are taught year to year because they happen to be in the book closet and perhaps the definition of a cult should be expanded to include that. But this, too, can be difficult.

Many writers progress to a revered status within a culture that began as cult writers. It was not unusual to see Philip K. Dick referred to in this way, but he has recently been awarded his own place in the Library of America, a publisher that, usually, only prints books of those writers deemed to be America’s best. So perhaps there needs to be some flexibility here as well and in all probability if the writer is only a cult writer most followers are not likely to outlive the “master” and the difficulty in this sense resolves itself.

The Little Engine that Could, cover from a 1953 edition of a children’s book

This is a book that has played a “venerable” role in the development of many a child and as such is probably worthy of elevation to the place held by Bede for so many centuries. I do not know if it is “canonical” but it taught me a lesson that has stayed with me throughout my life, that I should never give up no matter how hopeless things may look. There are a slew of books that played such a role in my childhood, stories like Stone Soup and Jack and the Beanstalk when I was very young to the stories of H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jules Verne when I was a bit older. Some speak of Goodnight Moon, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys in a similar fashion and perhaps they too, are worthy of a revered place, though the quality of the writing in some is dubious, I think.

That said, I am told many women have gone on to achieve amazing things under the inspiration and example of Ms. Drew. Tom Swift encouraged me to puzzle things out and piqued an interest in things scientific. Looking back at these books today their language seems dated and in some instances they contain troubling examples of the cultural underbelly of America of the 1930’s and 1940’s. But they did inspire. There was an article about race and fiction a few years ago that pointed out how Margaret Mitchell’s book Gone with the Wind is very popular among African-American women even though many see the book as rife with racial stereotypes. Perhaps this is the proper place for flawed books that have done some good in their time.

David Ulin in an article in the Los Angeles Times, “The lost art of reading”, talks about struggling to read. He is a “reading professional” not just a reviewer of books but the book editor of the paper. The article focuses on some of the problems modern readers have carving out the kind of time necessary to do real reading and that the demands and troubles of the day often keep us from spending the kind of time reading that we ought. Larry McMurtry in his book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen writes about how after having had open-heart surgery he could motivate himself to read. The trauma of the event overwhelmed him. He forced himself to read Proust and after getting through these long and beautiful books his love of reading returned, but there were a few years when it looked like it might not. Ulin in his article describe his experience with this loss of desire:

“So what happened? It isn’t a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.”

To be deemed venerable a book must be able to do this. Perhaps it will aspire to, and achieve, greater things, but even if it does not a book that can transport us in this way deserves a special place on the shelf.

Charles Dickens
Daniel Maclise

Being a wordy Victorian, Charles Dickens is often among the writers that have been revered in the past that folks want to send into exile today. Personally I think Mr. Dickens is among the greatest of the saints, but not all agree. Within Catholicism one cannot be “beatified” unless a miracle has taken place by this person’s intersession, after her or his death of course. Where this may be a difficult bar for people to cross I do not think this is as true of the books we read. Books that change us have performed a miracle of sorts, they have delivered the reader from a kind of blindness, scales have been removed and the reader sees what once unseeable. In the case of Dickens, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and The Pickwick Papers, among others, have performed this office.

Ron Rosenbaum writes in The Shakespeare Wars that he got tickets to see Trevor Nunn’s staging of Hamlet and Pete Brook’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He says, “The Hamlet was memorable, one of the best I have ever seen. But it was the Dream that changed my life. (p 8) He then goes on to describe all the changes that took place in him. He also goes on to point out that it changed everyone he met since who saw that production. I do not know how true these statements are, but they should be verifiable. There are surely folks who could attest to the kind of person and scholar Rosenbaum was before he saw this production and the person and scholar he has become.

I know there are those that will look at this as so much facetiousness and even, perhaps, a bit silly. But I really think this is the heart of the matter for books that are elevated to the canon, or just shy of the canon. They are books that over a great many years continue to change people. There are people who after reading Plato’s Republic were forever changed so profoundly they went on to change others. That is one of the roles of the saints in the church, I suppose, they are people whose faith changed the faith of others who went on to change the faith of others still. Perhaps this is too much to ask of a book. But by their very nature the beautiful and the sublime change people, that is part of what it means to be not just pretty, but beautiful, sublime.

Frontispiece to Milton, Prophetic Book by William Blake

Milton is one of those poets who is difficult to know how to take. Blake admired Milton greatly; the engraving above is for an epic poem he wrote about Milton. He writes toward the beginning of the poem “With thunders loud and terrible: so Milton’s shadow fell/ Precipitant loud thund’ring into the Sea of Time & Space. / Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star. / Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift: / And on my left foot falling on the tarsus, enter’d there, / But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe.” The tarsus is the heel and ankle of the foot and Blake seems to be suggesting Milton entered into the bones of his foot and came to dwell there and to inspire Blake to write his poetry. This is truly something miraculous, though I doubt it can be proven.

Still, Milton’s poetry has moved and changed readers from the moment it was first published. I had a student in my class a number of years ago. He was a bright but not very motivated student, I do not even remember if he passed the class. But just before the Christmas break we were looking at some passages from Paradise Lost. It is a hard sell under the best of circumstances and the circumstances surrounding our reading of the poem that day were more typical than extraordinary. But this student was captured by the poem. He spent the Christmas holiday reading it. He said he missed his stop on the Boston underground he was so engrossed. Perhaps he was just trying to impress me, but I do not think so because he could talk enthusiastically about details in the poem that obviously moved him. It may not have made him a good student, but it did make him a literary traveler. There are books that do this, old books, that require some assistance if they are going to be understood and they are worth taking the time to understand.

From Gulliver’s Travels
Lion’s Gate

The film clip is from one of the many films made of the book Gulliver’s Travels. In this clip, Gulliver brings great writers, politicians, thinkers, and a few scoundrels back from the dead to explain themselves to him. Many are the literary saints of Swift’s imagination, the great writers of Classical Greece and Rome mostly. One of Swift’s more enduring books is The Battle of the Books. It is an imaginary combat between the new writers of Swift’s age and those of the past, mostly the distant past. This struggle that we see today about what to include in the curriculum and what to teach is an old one. Part of the problem is that every age is “young” when compared with the flow of history and like many children believe they are much smarter than their elders. Were we to number our ages in decades rather than years we might reach that age where we are amazed by how much our elders have learn.

Though we may not all agree on what makes a great book great, or what books ought to be included in the canon of great books, we all know books that have changed lives and have changed us. No one of us needs to teach all these books, but we all need to have books that are old, venerable, beautiful, and saintly. Thomas Love Peacock in his book Nightmare Abbey talks about the education of Scythrop (a thinly disguised caricature of the poet Shelley). He says, “When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head.” If we want the schools of today to do more than this there needs to be something enduring that is passed along and cultivated. There needs to be less beating and threshing and more transformation and introducing students to those things with the power to transform. The books that do this are not understood easily and they need a teacher to introduce them to a world that has forgotten them.

Rarely Pure and Never Simple

You Don’t Know Me
Ray Charles
Don Quixote, Op. 35/ Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83
“Variation I – DQ & Sancho set out”
Richard Strauss

Rarely Pure and Never Simple

Edgar Degas

There was an article in this Sunday’s Boston Globe, “What you don’t know about your friends”, by Drake Bennett. The article reports that current research suggests that the better we know someone the less we may know about them, not that we do not know, probably, more than a complete stranger knows, but that what we think we know is often incorrect and that we attribute views to our friends that they in fact do not hold. The article also suggests that it is probably a good thing that we do not know what we think we know and that friendship, even if based on false premises, in fact even if it is only a friendship in our imagination and not in fact, still does us more good than harm. It is important that we think we are liked even if, in fact, we are not. The picture by Degas shows a couple having a drink together and probably little else. There does not seem to be reflected in either their expressions or their body language any hint of warmth one towards the other.

This painting suggests to me the relationship between Meursault and Marie in Camus’ novel The Stranger, or at least it suggests to me Meursault’s feelings toward Marie, which are for the most part dispassionate. I think Marie thinks she understands Meursault and their relationship, but the reader knows that Meursault does not really have any feelings for her. I am not sure, as the article might suggest, this is healthy for either of these characters, though the relationship is probably unhealthy for each of them for different reasons.

The song by Ray Charles also suggests that there might be something to this article. He sings that “You don’t know me” though in the opening chorus “love” is substituted for “know” the first time the line is sung. Relationships are difficult and how is one to really know what goes on inside the mind of another. In some novels that come out of the “stream of consciousness” tradition (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce comes to mind) there are passages where one character may ask a question or make a remark followed by paragraphs of internal dialog where this question or remark is analyzed before a response is made. Though it may take many minutes to read it all, in real time only a second or two has transpired. In these internal dialogues we see characters who are trying to understand each other and not really succeeding, though they seem to think they are understanding the other and being understood by the other. The reader, though, is not so sure.

The second part of the music clip is from a series of variations on a theme by Richard Strauss. This part of the music is meant to evoke Don Quixote and Sancho Panza first starting out on their quests together. The novel, Don Quixote, suggests there is great loyalty one for the other in this friendship. But it also suggests that neither really understands the other. To what extent is Sancho only humoring Don Quixote and to what extent does Don Quixote see Sancho as friend, as opposed to a servant, say? After all, Sancho is Quixote’s squire and that suggests a subservient role. Quixote thinks he is in control, but it is in fact Sancho who often acts to control the situations in which the Don’s madness lands them. I think this novel is a great testament to idealism and friendship, but it is also a satire and that idealism and friendship is often mocked, though, it is usually the wild world that leaves no room for idealism that gets the largest slice of this mockery.

Lost Boys, Wendy, Peter Pan
Alice B Woodward

When I look at this picture from the story of Peter Pan I wonder what is going through the minds of the various children. Wendy is in the position of having to play the role, more than anyone else anyway, of the grown up, which means she has less of the fun. But what about the others? Can they believe that they can remain children for always? Perhaps they do not know enough about the way the world works to know that growing up is part of the bargain. The younger we are the more magical the world is. Maria Tatar in her book The Enchanted Hunters suggests that older children when they read a story about a door opening, need a magical world on the other side of that door to hold their interest. But for very young children all the world, even its simplest and most commonplace elements, is mysterious and it is enough that there is a door and that the door opens to make magic in the child’s mind. For the infant everything is a mystery. What is a chair for, why does it look that way? Spoons, bottles, and tables are all magical objects that are fascinating and inexplicable.

I think this is true. I remember my first calculator. I was amazed at all that it could do. I could sit and add and divide, subtract and multiply and than get out a piece and be amazed when I discovered it did the calculations correctly. Not that I was that surprised, but the magic of a machine that could do these things was enchanting to me. I had once a little pocket calculator that played Fur Elise whenever I opened it up. It was machine music and there was no artistry to the sound, but it too was magical and I would open my calculator even when I had nothing to calculate, just to hear the music. Now of course, I have become jaded and see nothing all that magical about a machine that lets me visit neighborhoods on the far side of the globe and explore their streets. It’s just what machines do, what is the big deal. Still if we take the time, I think we can find in our first exposure to something new a sense of the infant’s world of wonder.

There was a review by Salley Vickers in this weekend’s Guardian, of “The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik.” The article suggests that, though they will probably not be teaching philosophy at the local university, that babies and young children are at heart philosophical and inquisitive. It is perhaps not a new notion that some of the finer qualities of the human character are intuitive in children and become trained out of them by experience, but it is pleasant to think this may be true. Gopnik does point out that children will do nasty things from time to time, but she also suggests these children realize they are being nasty and that often, given their druthers they would rather behave less badly. Whether children are or are not natural philosophers is probably not that important, but I think if the child’s sense of wonder for the world could be preserved, the grown ups might take better care of it.

Portrait of William Shakespeare
Unknown Forger

The images above and below suggest the flip side to being childlike, that is, often, gullibility and naivete. These artworks are forgeries; well the first is a forgery while the second may just be a misunderstanding. One of my favorite books is a book by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone. It is about a man who is a gifted art forger and his story is really quite wonderful. The central character is a likeable gentleman who makes his living deceiving others. That is often how it is with con men. We see the same thing in the Robert Redford and Paul Newman characters in The Sting. We also see it in the Duke and the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though in their case they turn into very troubling characters fairly quickly. Some think that Huckleberry Finn is a book about race relations, and that is a part of the book. But what it is really about is human cruelty. The first victim of this cruelty that we encounter is Huck himself. He has had to survive by his wits for many years and he is barely a teenager. The next is Jim, a slave. But there are other forms cruelty besides child abuse and racism. Many of the white characters are the nicest people you could want to meet if you are white, but quite dangerous and cruel if you are not.

Are we being deceived, is this a con job on the part of Twain? There are parts of the book that are very troubling. Some think that are places where Jim acts as a minstrel show character that are sloppy writing and indicative of his rush to finish the thing off. There is probably some truth to this, but also many of those minstrel moments showcase human cruelty at its worst. Tom is putting Jim’s life in peril in the game he plays. As a child he probably doesn’t understand this, but the reader does, or should. Tom’s merriment has a certain innocence about it because he does not know better, he has been brought up badly when it comes to folks like Jim, but the reader knows better and if the reader feels at all tempted to laugh or to be amused, they ought to confront the source of that amusement in themselves.

The Flammarion woodcut is an enigmatic wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man peering through the Earth’s atmosphere as if it were a curtain to look at the inner workings of the universe. The caption translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…” Perhaps engrave by Camille Flammarion but not a German Renaissance woodcut

Orson Welles’ last film was F Is for Fake. It begins with Welles on the platform at a train station doing magic tricks (and as all viewers of the I Love Lucy show know, Welles began as a magician). He tells the audience that for the next hour everything they see and hear will be the absolute truth. The film, though, is about an hour and twenty minutes long and at precisely one hour into the film he stops being truthful. The film itself was inspired by a book by Clifford Irving, Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. After publishing the biography of an actual art forger he went on to publish a fake autobiography of the actual billionaire Howard Hughes. Fakery can only work if we are willing to believe the unbelievable, or at least the barely plausible. It is Satan playing three card monte with Eve in the garden, it is the king making us laugh when, impersonating a pirate, he fleeces the congregation at a revival, but it is also the king making us cry as he fleeces three helpless sisters. We like con men who con others, but do not like being conned ourselves.

Woody Allen
Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions and United Artists

The film clip is something of a tribute to how we con ourselves and are often easily conned by others, and also about how we do not know our friends. It begins with Woody Allen confronting a friend who has betrayed him. We also find, in another part of the film, that he has been “betrayed” by an ex-wife who publishes “lies” about him, that may not be lies. I especially enjoy the confrontation between Allen and his friend with the bones of a gorilla looking on, at least I think it is a gorilla. Everything he says about how we should act toward one another is true, but at the same time Allen’s character does not seem to see that in many of his dealings with other characters he has behaved with a similar dishonesty. In his relationship with a young girl not even half his age we see at the very least a bit of self deception. This is, perhaps, not unlike Robert Redford at the beginning of The Sting pulling off an excellent “con” only to fall victim to a con himself. Even he knows he should have known better, but I am not sure that the Woody Allen character has this same insight into himself.

Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak

There are always the monsters under the bed. There is a place in the psyche of us all where the wild things live. Sometimes they entertain us, sometimes they frighten us. In the story Coraline by Neil Gaimon a young girl finds a parallel universe of sorts on the other side of a locked door. The adults in Coraline’s world are not very communicative and not very aware, but they are basically kind and mean well. The adults on the other side of the door are aware but not kind. These people on the other side of the door have buttons instead of eyes, they have make believe eyes which go along with the “make believe” nature of their relationships, those they have and those they aspire to.

What makes stories meaningful to me, is that they help me replace the “buttons” I have for eyes, the make believe eyes, with a real view of the world and what it is like. But more importantly they help me see into myself and what I am like. When I wear the buttons the world is there to serve me, to give me my heart’s desire. But this is not a world where joy can be found. Selfishness is never satisfied; it is the greatest con we can play on ourselves. It enables me to substitute a forgery of myself for the real person I might become. There is an old Twilight Zone episode about aliens visiting the planet earth. They bring with them a book called How to Serve Man. The people of earth believe these aliens have come to make life on earth more pleasant; that they have come to help the human race. The book is, in fact, not a book of altruism, but a cookbook. It is important to know something about service and what it means to serve. It is also important to know if those that claim to serve us come with charity or an appetite.

If All Else Fails, Be Kind

Auld Lang Syne
Jean Redpath
Auld Lang Syne
Jimi Hendrix

If All Else Fails, Be Kind

Las Meninas
Diego Velázquez

Every New Year it is the custom to offer a cup of kindness “for old long since” the English equivalent of the Scottish lyric. It is a way of saying, “let bygones be bygones” and for old time’s sake let’s be friends. Not a bad way to finish one year and start another. When I was just out of high school and beginning to make my way in the world I had to make a choice, would I embrace rock and roll or folk music, the popular music genres of the day. For old times sake I have mashed together the two genres in this rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” sung by Jean Redpath and played as an instrumental by Jimi Hendrix. Is it necessary, after all, to form hard and fast cultural alliances?

The painting is a bit of a puzzle and captures another aspect of being grown up. Critics wonder who this painting is really about. The children are in the foreground, as they should be, and that would suggest it is about them. But the subject of the painting seems to be the making of the painting, perhaps an early example of meta-art. If this is the case, than perhaps the painting is about the painter peeking out from behind the canvas. Some suggest the subject of the painting is the couple the painter is painting who are reflected in the mirror on the back wall behind the painter, the king and queen of Spain. This does not seem likely, though, because it is much too easy to miss them as the mirror is not prominently displayed, though they would be the people the painter is peeping out to find. For me, though, the most prominent figure in the painting is the gentleman standing in the doorway. I do not know who he is, he may be a servant for all I know, but his pose in the doorway suggests assurance and perhaps a tad bit of cockiness that commands my attention.

But it is the children that I think most about. It is just like an adult to put the children in a place of prominence and than proceed to ignore them. As a culture we talk about how important it is to educate and care for the children and then when times are tough we cut the very programs, schools, parks, health care, and the like, that were established, ostensibly, for the well being of the children. At times children figure prominently in political discourse as a way of shaming some into making sacrifices for the children that the society as a whole is unwilling to make. It is often said that actions are better teachers than words, but I wonder if we really believe this.

Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher
Thomas Gainsborough

The young lady is obviously poor, her pitcher is broken and her clothes are torn and she has no shoes. But she has her dog and the dog and she seem to enjoy each other’s company. The clouds and somber colors suggest a chill but it is difficult to tell. It is difficult to tell what the child is feeling, her face does not suggest she is happy, but nor does it suggest she is sad, though she seems more somber than carefree. There was a review in this week’s Guardian of a book, Caroline Moorehead’s Dancing to the Precipice, about a woman who married into the French aristocracy and managed to survive the tumultuous aftermath of the French Revolution. The article is titled “French Connections” and the book is about the life and times of Lucie de la Tour du Pin. Among other things, the book points out that the French aristocracy prior to the French Revolution spent exorbitant sums of money building parks where they could live the simple life “enjoyed” by this child, while those living the simple life “endured” by this child wanted for many of the basic necessities of life.

Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamelin
Kate Greenway

The Pied Piper is perhaps an apt metaphor for society’s treatment of children. The town does not want to pay for the services the piper has rendered, even though they promised they would. The service the piper performed was to play his flute and charm the rats out of town. When he was not paid he played his flute again and piped the children out of town. Perhaps, truth be told, after the piper performed these two offices the rodents and the children were gone, but in fact the “rats” were left behind. There comes a time when for our own well being and the well being of those that look up to us, it is important that we are seen to have paid the piper and acknowledged our responsibilities.

In fairness, though, it is often difficult for a culture to manage all of its responsibilities. The freer, and the more affluent the society, more often than not, the more difficult it is to meet these responsibilities. It is often the case that the affluent are not used to making sacrifices and as a result they do not make them well, if at all. Studies have shown that the poor are often more generous than the well off. This was certainly St. Paul’s experience. He received generous donations from poor churches like the one in Philippi, while the more well to do churches, like those in Corinth, were a bit more miserly.

“Children Will Listen”
From Into the Woods
Stephen Sondheim

At the end of the day, the children do hear and the children do listen. I like that it is the witch who sings this song in the musical, the character that is supposed to be the villain. There was a review (“Easy to Be Hard”) in The New York Times Review of Books last week of the book On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. The book is about the difficulty we have as a culture being kind. According to the book nothing terrifies us quite so much as kindness. Not that we do not like being treated kindly but that we fight being kind for fear, I suppose, of being taken advantage of. We speak of kindness as a value that ought to be cultivated, while at the same time we often retreat from it. If we do a thing as a true act of kindness we cannot expect kindness in return. The act must stand alone and be perceived as having been performed with no thought of reward. We may desire reciprocity but we cannot expect it. As a result, we often avoid acts of kindness.

But, according to the article (and the book I suppose) we cannot be happy living exclusively for ourselves and a life that is not characterized by kindness is probably not a happy life. The article suggests that our children see this inner conflict and grow up to be equally conflicted about acting kindly. The article ends, “Indeed, the ones who pay the largest price for our contemporary cloak-and-dagger relationship with kindness are children, whom adults fail by neglecting to help them ‘keep . . . faith with’ kindness, and thereby sentence to a life ‘robbed of one of the greatest sources of human happiness.’” By not teaching our children to be kind we fail to teach them how to be happy.

As a teacher I often wonder what is the proper way to show kindness to my students. There are those that suggest teachers, especially, English teachers, should structure their classrooms and their practices around those things that their students enjoy or most easily understand and relate to. There is a value to this, because students need an avenue of entry into the academic discipline. It would be unkind to demand that students master a thing that in no way they can understand relates to their lives as it is lived now or as they believe it will be lived in the future. Part of the answer to this dilemma is helping students to see that life as they imagine it will be lived and life as it is likely to be lived are not necessarily the same thing. The literature and composition skills that I teach will, I believe, serve students well in the future, but students often cannot see how that is true.

Sir Isaac Newton
Godfrey Kneller

In this week’s Boston Globe there was an article by Jonah Lehrer “The Truth about Grit.” The article is about tenacity and the importance of tenacity to our ultimate success. It begins by telling the story of Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of the laws of gravity. The story is told of his seeing an apple fall to earth (or of an apple falling on his head) and of how in a flash of inspiration he comprehended the laws of gravity. But the apple allegedly fell in 1866, but his treatise on gravity was not published until 1887. The falling apple may have started Newton thinking, but it took 20 years to finally work out all the details of that inspirational insight. Newton was a smart guy but it was not his intellect alone that enabled him to understand gravity, it took years of hard work and singleness of purpose. Intellect alone would not have solved the problem.

The article goes on to talk about the most important lessons our students learn in school have little to do with finding things out, though that is important, but with staying with a problem until it is solved. It talks about a study where two classes of intelligent fifth graders were given an age appropriate test. Both classes did well on the test. Because they did so well one class was complimented for their intelligence while the other class was complimented for working so hard. Both classes were then given a test that was intended for eight graders. Those that were praised for their hard work, worked their way through the test and solved many of the problems, while the group that was praised for its intelligence gave up when they did not meet with initial success.

I do not know what the parameters of the study were or how reliable the findings are, but I think there is something to be said for encouraging students not to give up, for maintaining a difficult curriculum and then encouraging our students to solve the problems that the curriculum puts in their way. Even if there is no value to studying the works of literature the different cultures of the world have given us, from Chaucer to Confucius, there is a value to helping students develop tenacity, that that skill alone will serve our students well even if the problems they were given to solve do not prove useful later in life. One thing that school teaches us, or ought to teach us, is to work something through to completion whether we like the task or not. Often in the process we find the task less onerous than we had imagined and on rare occasions even come to enjoy the task.

I believe in a difficult and rigorous curriculum. Most of my students will not go on to study Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or William Wordsworth but I think even if the literature does not speak to them there is a value to being able to work out what it means and look into the mind that created that language. What I see as a world of wonder, students often see as a barren and boring landscape. I cannot make them be excited but I can encourage them to look for the problems the authors confront and ask them to assess the outcome of these confrontations. That even if the words themselves do not speak to students, students will gain useful skills from solving problems, will perhaps expand their vocabularies a bit, and learn to give a fair hearing to those they do not necessarily like or agree with. This is hard work. I think often we do our students a disservice by suggesting to them something worthwhile can be accomplished without expending much effort. It is very frustrating working our way through things we do not understand and often, because we do not understand, do not enjoy. But it is my experience that great pleasure can be found at the other end of that frustration.

Snap the Whip, 1872
Oil on canvas”Winslow Homer: Snap the Whip (50.41)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
(October 2006)

That said, it is important to leave a bit of room for play. Play often helps us not only to relieve tension, but rejuvenates us as well. We return to our work with new energy and new enthusiasm. In our rush to cut budgets and make our schools more cost efficient we are cutting the programs that provide the students the opportunity they need to play if they are to study well. When I was in school I had lunch and morning and afternoon recesses to burn of some pent up energy and to refocus my mind. Perhaps this was only because I went to school in Southern California, where it never rains and the weather is always pleasant. But it is not just recess that is being cut; it is music and drama and sports programs along with many of the other extra-curricular activities that drain school budgets. The children in the painting are likely to study better after playing their game, but even if they do not, what becomes of a people who do not know how to balance work and leisure? It takes stamina to be tenacious and our games often develop stamina. It takes a mind that is comfortable with itself to be kind and finding the balance between work and play often helps us to be more comfortable with ourselves. I think it is important to play hard and to work hard, and that in doing so we become a kinder and happier people.