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.