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.