Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes

Autumn to May

Taj Mahal

Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes


Gulliver in Brobdingnag

Richard Redgrave

The reading we do always takes us somewhere. The places that we travel to may be real, they may have been real once, or they may have only ever been real in the imagination of the writer and her or his readers. The song is about an imaginary journey, a journey on a large dog with ears like enormous wings that can fly a person “around the world in half a day.” That is quite a journey. I do not think the song expects to believe this journey ever took place; it is a kind of tall tale that colors our literature. From Sinbad and the Arabian Knights to the journeys of Alice and Mr. Toad story telling has often involved journeys like the one in the song and even if they are not believed they are enjoyed. All reading is a journey and like with most journeys those that make the trip learn something important from it.

Often these journeys are metaphors for other things. The painting above illustrates a scene from Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver has just been discovered by the Brobdingnagians, a race of giants living just off the Oregon or Washington Coast, if Swift’s map is to be believed. On a previous journey Gulliver went to a land of tiny people, the Lilliputians. In Swift’s story size often is a metaphor for the size of one’s mind and the openness of one’s attitudes towards those who are different or behaviors that are unusual. The Emperor of Lilliput is a small minded and petty man. Not all the Lilliputians are small minded, but most of their leaders are and the attitudes of the leaders seem to permeate the society. On the other side of the coin, the Brobdingnagians are not large minded and big hearted because they are oversized, but their king, for the most is, and it is this open mindedness that the king tries, often to encourage in the general population.

There was an article in this weekend’s Boston Globe on metaphorical thinking. The article, “Thinking literally”, suggests that there is a relationship between the metaphors we use and the literal meaning of those metaphors. If we are warm, for example, we are often “warm” in our reception of others, or so the article suggests. If this is true it would stand to reason that giants with large hearts would be big hearted and gracious to those a bit smaller than they are. Perhaps there are limits to how far this literal interpretation of metaphor can be taken, but in the Swift’s story there does seem to be a correlation between behavior and metaphors of scale.


Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle

The illustrations above and below depict scenes from two the journeys of two famous explorers, Sir John Mandeville and Marco Polo (though the image below is not from Marco’s time it captures a bit of the architecture that he saw). I do not know if Mandeville went to the places he claims to have visited, but he knew what the people of his day would have expected him to find if he had gone to those places. Mandeville may have gone and chose not to describe what he found but what he was expected to find, folks, for example, with one large leg and a foot that could serve as an umbrella of sorts to keep off the African sun.

Marco Polo on the other hand describes things that he did in fact see and experience and if others had followed in his footsteps they would have seen these things as well. This is one of the benefits of reading of the exploits of others; we have the opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to see. In the case of Mr. Polo’s journey we cannot possibly see what he saw because time has changed these landscapes but by reading his book we can still share in his experience, we can be amazed by the exotic landscapes and the people that shaped that landscape. We can become fifteenth century gentlemen in a strange land. Richard Rodriguez in an interview with Bill Moyers many years ago said that in reading books written by people different from himself he could become those people, or at least see himself in them. He could, he said, become Armenian and African-American by losing himself in the worlds created by Armenian and African American writers. I think there is some truth to this and it is in these experiences that we are able to escape for a time from the limited world of our own experience.


Shwedagon Pagoda

There was an article in the New York Times a week or so ago about Alan Furst’s new novel, the Spies of Warsaw. The article, “Love. Death. Intrigue. Warsaw.”, is not a review of the book but an exploration of the Warsaw and Pre-World War II Poland the book describes. The author of the article, Steve Dougherty, compares present day Warsaw with the Warsaw of the novel and explores this ancient city for the remnants of the world depicted in the novel. Like most old cities the past is a veneer that lies on the surface of most things, but in the case of Warsaw much of this veneer is recreated because of the Nazi regimes determination to leave nothing of consequence standing. Though the war was lost, their armies on the verge of final defeat, they would do their best to destroy this city before they were finally forced to capitulate. As a result much of the Warsaw’s cultural history as reflected in its architecture had to be rebuilt.


The Arcadian or Pastoral State, second painting in The Course of Empire

Thomas Cole

Often the literary journeys we take are in quest of the perfect place, it is a quest for a kind of Utopia where all is peaceful and to our liking. This is an impossible journey of course, because few of share a vision of the perfect place that is in exact conformity with the visions of others. Most of us would be the barbarians at the gates of our neighbors Utopia trying to bring it down and into conformity with another Utopic vision. That said, often when we read a description of a Utopic place our imaginations play with the details and these places become for us what their authors intended even if not in the way they intended.

Other journeys are to places we may not in fact want to visit, but enjoy observing from the safety of our imaginations. I remember reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. I did not want to visit this place or any place like it “in the flesh” so to speak, but enjoyed my life what life amongst the dinosaurs might have been like if there had in fact been human ancestors to live among them. When a story captures us we are in its space and if that space includes giants, or dragons, or magicians, or vampires we experience for a bit life in their presence. Perhaps all the literary dangers we encounter are mythic or metaphoric or in some other way archetypal and capture the deep and dark workings of our subconscious and bring us into contact with the deeper layers of our being. There was an article in the New York Times last week, The Holy Grail of the Unconscious”, on the eminent publication of Carl Jung’s “Red Book” that documents, it is said, his journey into the depths of his own madness. This journey of Jung’s not only led him through his own experience with madness but shaped the direction his practice of psychology took.

The Martian Chronicles


This scene from the film version of Ray Bradbury’s novel The Martian Chronicles captures another aspect of our real and imagined journeys. The space travelers think they have arrived home, sort of. Everything they see suggests home, except that it is found on Mars. They are lulled into the world of their past and their yearnings. It is of course a trap that plays upon the spacemen’s desires and longings in order to remove them as a threat to Martian civilization. Perhaps there is a sense that our memories of home are seductive and dangerous. Home may represent safety and warmth and acceptance. But it can also be a place that insulates us from life and from pursuing our own unique destinies. Perhaps another office performed by our literary journeys is to wean us from home, to prepare us to go out on our own and face the world and shape it a bit to our own ambitions and desires.

A Passionate Discipline

God Bless the Child
Blood, Sweat, and Tears

A Passionate Discipline

The Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck

The song celebrates the child that knows what she or he wants and is able to get whatever that is. The lyric just says “God bless the child that’s got his own” but I think the thing to have is self-knowledge and the skills necessary to achieve the heart’s desire. Perhaps the song means something different but that is what I think. In an English class the thing to have is the ability to use language well, or the potential that can be shaped into that ability. Not everyone in English class aspires to be a writer, but the English class aspires to make competent writers of everyone. The goal may be seem an unrealistic one to the student, one that makes too many demands on the student, but it is seen as an achievable goal by most English teachers.

Writing as a craft or an art is a very different thing from writing as a skill. I have great admiration for anyone who can tell a story and has the discipline to put that story into a book and then to get that book published. It is a thing that is very difficult to do. There was an article in The Guardian this past week about the writer Dan Brown whose new book The Lost Symbol was published this past week. The article, “True confession: I don’t hate Dan Brown”, is about the reaction Dan Brown’s books often receive from those that write “literature” or “serious fiction and/or non-fiction.” The author of the article, Jean Hannah Edelstein, does not care much for Brown’s books, but is grateful that he brings people into bookstores and gets people excited about reading who might not otherwise get excited about reading and some of these people will go on to read “serious stuff.”

The painting suggests the importance of craft and discipline for the artist. It is a realistic painting that attempts to capture the reality of the scene it portrays down to the reflection in the mirror at the back of the room. The painting, I was told once in an art class, was a kind of marriage certificate and that the scene was not in fact a realistic portrayal of the people in the painting, but a goal for their marriage. The woman in the painting is pregnant. According to the story told by my art teacher she was not in fact pregnant at the time the painting was done, but that was the couple’s hope for the near future. But that said, the painting looks real and is meticulous in its attempt to capture all the little details of the room and the people in it (and also the dog). For the artist that painted the painting this may have just been a commission, a piece of work over which he had few feelings beyond the receipt of his fee. His subject, after all, was chosen for him.

The artist, whether a writer, a painter, a musician, or a worker in some other medium, has to find a balance between passion and polish. If the subject is chosen for the artist, the task becomes one of finding the passion that will give life to the work. If the subject is chosen by the artist passion is probably not the problem, the problem is finding the discipline and the skill to shape that moment of passionate inspiration into something meaningful and “finished.” Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” This suggests to me that the effective poet is able to capture an emotion after that emotion no longer has power over her or him; it is a recollection of an emotional moment after the moment has passed. This recollection must evoke the emotion in the poet without the poet being dominated by it.

The Dot and the Line
Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer

The film captures the essence of artistic discipline. The squiggle is inspiration without form or control. The line, on the other hand, was uninspired but in firm control, at least initially. He is not without passion; he just does not have the tools to give expression to his emotions. The line, though, finds inspirations and brings control and form to that inspiration. He is in the grips of a powerful emotion, love, and while he uses that passion to inspire his work and to motivate him to do his artistic work, the passion does not control his expression. This is, I think, the essence of the artist’s struggle, though, the degree of freedom from that passion may not always be absolute. There may be a conversation between the passion and the intellect that controls the process and polishes the rough edges.

The Yellow House
Talkback Thames

In this film depicting a painting expedition of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin it is clear one painter is in the grips of passionate inspiration and the other is not. Gauguin paints deliberate lines and is in absolute control of what he does and what he does has little interest to the viewer. Van Gogh on the other hand seems to be in the grips of powerful emotion and his end product is one the viewer wants to see in greater detail than the glimpse that is given. Van Gogh helps himself control the process by constructing a kind of grid through which he looks but other than that he creates with a good bit of spontaneity and freedom.

Of course, this is a cinematic portrayal of what the director believes the moment was like, but that does not guarantee that the film got it right. It may be that the director, who meticulously controlled the action of the scene, created an effect that agreed with what he imagined the moment to be like, but that effect may have been fathered not by the facts of the moment but by what the director’s romantic imagination suggested to him were the facts of that moment. But is art necessarily concerned with truth or does it create its own truth.

Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum
Santiago Ramón y Cajal

The painting below and the drawing above both use lines on a piece of paper to suggest the way things work. The image above attempts to illustrate the workings of a pigeon’s brain. The image below depicts the norns, characters from Norse myth who, like the fates in Greek myth, weave a person’s destiny. The lines that run through the drawing are the threads that will make the tapestry that will capture the destiny of the tapestry’s object, the person whose destiny is being cast. I wonder if there is a connection between the lines that illustrate the synapses of the brain and the lines in the tapestry that illustrate a person’s fate.

I have always enjoyed stories that are illustrated. I think the illustrator’s art often adds new dimensions to the storyteller’s art. These dimensions are not always found in the story but if the illustrations are done well, these dimensions were certainly evoked by the story. Tolkien said that he removed a giant’s shoes because he liked the illustration of a barefoot giant more than his description of the giant wearing boots. Sometimes, evidently, the illustrator may influence the direction aspects of the story take. On the other hand there is the story of Seymour. Dickens was hired to write a story around the popular artist’s illustrations. The public, however, preferred Dickens’ story to Seymour’s drawing and Dickens was given the freedom to take the story where he wished. The humiliation led to Seymour’s suicide. Art can be a dangerous business.

Norns weaving destiny
Arthur Rackham

There was an article in the Boston Globe this weekend about books and music and how books rarely evoke music. The article, “Pynchon on shuffle”, was about how Thomas Pynchon created a soundtrack of music from the 1960’s to play behind the events of his story. Most of the songs are real and those who lived through this moment in time recognize them, but many are of his own invention and serve his artistic purposes. But why is it that some art forms are more friendly with one another than others. Why do words and pictures go together so well, and why do words and music when joined in song go together so well, but not words apart from music, words that are not sung but only evoke what might be sung?

I do not think there should be such antipathy between the written word that might be spoken and the written word that was written to be sung. There is often music in the sounds of words and many books to be fully appreciated need to be read aloud. We expect this to be true of poetry but it is often true of prose as well. I think, for example, The Great Gatsby is a very musical text when read aloud. Storytelling began as a spoken art, we ask someone to “tell” us a story and not to “write” us a story (unless of course we are English teachers). The first stories, The Iliad and The Odyssey for example, were not written down until much later, originally they were performed, sung, to their early audiences. Perhaps one day, when the technology allows, books will have their own internal jukebox so that they will sing to us again.

Kay Nielsen

I have always enjoyed the illustrations of Kay Nielson. In this image from the Grimm’s Brother’s story of “Snow White” or “Rosebud” as they called it (or at least as it was called in this edition of the tale), we see an overgrown castle and a prince awakening the sleeping princess. The lines appear in the background and I wonder if they are not the threads of fate woven by the norns in the earlier illustration. Perhaps they are just shafts of light suggesting the first light of morning but they add a nice stylized touch to the image. And being a picture of Snow White, it is difficult not to imagine the story without the soundtrack of the film playing in the background. The title of the painting also evokes another film, a different kind of fairy tale, Citizen Kane, a film in which a different rosebud had a place of prominence. Music and story may not be intimate friends but as stories become films their soundtracks, the music that plays behind the action, become a part of our experience of the story and are often difficult to separate from the story when we are getting the story from the printed page rather than from the silver screen.

Again, though, is the art of the cinema an art that proceeds from passion, as with Van Gogh and his painting in the film clip earlier, or is it one that proceeds from commission, like the painting at the top. A director does not always chose his scripts; actors do not always chose their roles. What part of the process is passion being controlled by a disciplined mind and what part is a disciplined mind seeking out the passion. Can art be the product of a dispassionate process that exerts the artist’s skill on the process without the artist’s emotional involvement? Can the artist be emotionally detached from the work and still produce a work of artistic merit? Can a work of artistic merit be produced without emotional detachment? How much of this painting is unbridled passion and how much is careful control of the painter’s medium? The painter’s emotions emanate from this painting, but the painting is not a squiggle, there is a disciplined hand at work.

Wheat Field with Crows
Vincent Van Gogh

A tall Ship, A Guiding Star, and a Usable Word Hoard

Shiver Me Timbers
Tom Waits

A tall Ship, A Guiding Star, and a Usable Word Hoard

The Clipper Ship “Flying Cloud” off the Needles, Isle of WightJames E. Buttersworth

Tom Waits is singing about a man who is saying good-bye to friends, family, and loved ones as he prepares to go to sea. The painting also captures some of the ethos of being away at sea on a tall sailing ship. The painting and the song seemed apropos in light of the upcoming holiday “International Talk Like a Pirate Day”, celebrated on September 19th. I suppose this holiday resonates more with folks who think of pirates in terms of Errol Flynn and Captain Blood or Johnny Depp and The Pirates of the Caribbean than those who think in terms of current events in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz.

But “Talk Like a Pirate Day” also underscores an important dynamic of language, that the way we talk says something about who we are. This view of language is one of the themes of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Early on the play’s hero, Henry Higgins, says, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Our speech reveals things about us, where we are from, the extent of our education, the kind of work we do. I studied theater in college. It was pointed out by one of my professors that many of the terms for those parts of the theater where lights are hung and sets are kept in readiness and many of the activities performed by stage hands had their origins onboard ships. This was because many of the early stagehands were out of work sailors. There were similarities, or so my professor suggested, between the skills required of an able bodied seaman and a stagehand. I do not know how much truth there is to this, I never spent much time in the professional theater, but it sounds plausible.

There was a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement on the language expert David Crystal, “David Crystal, language geek”, in which Crystal describes some of his adventures in language. In one part of the article he describes working for Randolph Quirk (an interesting name for a language maven) on “The Survey of English Usage.” One day at work he received a phone call from a local shoe store. The marketing folks wanted some new adjectives to use in their advertising. Crystal thought the call was a joke but assembled a collection of words and sent it off. A week later he received a check for services rendered. Perhaps there is a suggestion here of another career path, in addition to teaching, available to the English major.

Book of Kells, Incipit to John

As the illustrations above and below from medieval books suggest there is also a beauty to language, words, and the pages that contain them aside from what the words reveal about the people that use them. The making of books and the shaping of language can have a physical, a visual beauty that, though suggested by the literal meanings of the words, is separate and apart from the content of the language. The manuscripts are works of art in and of themselves and oftentimes the artistry of the decorations surrounding the words detracts from the words themselves. Some books offer pleasures that have nothing to do with the stories they tell. The textures of the paper and the bindings offer pleasures of their own. The illustrations and photographs that sometimes accompany a book are as satisfying as the book itself. I remember reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and thinking that my enjoyment of the book had as much to do with Walker Evans photographs as it did with Agee’s text, which was itself masterful.

Lindisfarne Gospels, Incipit to the Gospel of Matthew

The Anglo-Saxons had a love of riddles. There is a riddle that I do with my twelfth grade students, “Riddle #60” from The Exeter Book. The subject of the riddle is “the reed” and the poem mostly focuses on how the reed, once carved into a writing implement, is used to convey “secret messages”, to pass notes, not in class, but in the mead hall. If one remembers that one of the primary entertainments of the mead hall was the singing of songs and the telling of stories set to music, the riddle of the reed completes a kind of “linguistic circle”, in that it provides an avenue for the written word in an environment dominated by the spoken word.

Lingsberg Runestone,_Lingsberg.jpg

That the Anglo-Saxons and most of the other Germanic tribes that settled Northern Europe and Scandinavia took enjoyment from the “look” of their letters that is attested to by the many “rune-stones” that decorate the region. The earliest English poem is “The Dream of the Rood.” One of the forms in which this poem survives is as a runic inscription on a stone cross in Scotland. The stone cross consists of figures and patterns carved into the stone bordered by the runic text of the poem. I do not think one needs to be a follower of Tolkien’s hobbits to appreciate the visual beauty of these stones. The runic letters were also believed to have magical properties, a power that transcends their mere appearance, and for this reason their use was eventually forbidden by the religious authorities of the time. There is an irony in this because one of the few poets from the Anglo-Saxon period whose name we know is Cynewulf and the only reason we know his name is because he wove the runic letters of his name into his poems. It is not known for certain who he was, but he appears to have been a priest or a bishop, one of those responsible for the suppression of the runic alphabet.

Star Wars “Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”
Lucasfilm Ltd.

Hans Solo’s spaceship the Millennium Falcon is a pirate ship from another age, or at least one gets that impression from Hans’ descriptions of the work he did before joining the rebellion. As he talks of his exploits one is left with the sense that piracy was one of his many skills. The romance of a thing and the reality of a thing are often very different. Just as the romance of the cockney in English culture, the culture of Eliza Doolittle and her father, has a romance about it that is appealing to those on the outside looking in, the reality of day to day cockney life is very different. The poor are often depicted in ways that idealize their lives often to make them appear simpler or more genuine or in ways that accentuate the humor of their situation. Sancho Panza, Sam Weller, and Sanford and Son are characters who are endearingly poor. But there is another side to poverty captured in Maxim Gorky’s plays, novels, and memoirs or Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle.” It may be fun to talk like a pirate, but it is probably less fun to be a pirate or to be captured by one.

The language we use to tell our stories often defines reality as it appears to us. Whether our stories create fictional worlds or capture bits and pieces of the world we inhabit, the language we use shapes a world that we expect readers to accept as real, as “believable”. The real world of poverty as perceived by Horatio Alger is a bit different from that same reality as it appeared to Charles Dickens but both authors expected their readers to accept as “true to life” the landscapes they crafted.

Also the language we use often tells others, in some way, who we are. Often we employ a language that tells us who we are, a “character” that we assume as we might assume a secret identity. When words fail us we lose touch with who we are or think we are. It is often not the case that we cannot find the words to say what we mean but rather that we cannot find the words that both say what we mean while preserving the persona we have crafted for the world to see. We may want to talk like a pirate for a day because it is kind of fun, the hard work is in talking every day like the people we imagine ourselves to be.

Looking Backwards, Facing Forward

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Looking Backwards, Facing Forward

Roman ruins and sculpture
G.P. Pannini

The song is an excerpt from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion. The passage glances back to an English “golden age” in order to comment on England’s present and hopefully the contrast will inspire the people of England to make a better, more just future. This illustrates I think our difficult relationship with the past. We often try to distance ourselves from it in order to establish our own moment in our own slice of history. But it is often the past that provides a springboard of sorts or a justification for the path we choose to pursue. Sometimes we forsake the immediate past, so immediate it borders on the present, with an appeal to a more distant past that lends legitimacy to our choices.

The painting is from the Italian Baroque period. It captures images that might be found in a museum from the Classical Roman period. It is a collage of sorts that captures much of what the artist admires about this period. These images also allow him to demonstrate his skill at his craft. Again the past gives the artist, Pannini, his inspiration and lends an aura of authority, of importance, to the work. The painter also assumes an understanding of the significance of these images on the part of his audience, he assumes a certain amount of learning and exposure to the past and those periods in the past that are most revered. But Pannini does not really introduce anything much that is new or different from the painters that came before. The painting reveals a knowledge of the past and great skill with perspective painting, but it does not tell us much, aside from the fashions of the day as worn by the visitors to the museum, about Pannini’s moment in history, except, perhaps, to suggest that Pannini’s moment was captivated more by the past than the present.

Chariots of Fire
Enigma Productions

The film clip from Chariots of Fire illustrates how the past is often used to inspire the youth of the present to make their own mark upon their own time. The Master of Caius College is evoking the memory of earlier students and their accomplishments to provoke this day’s freshman on to greatness. There is an irony here because one of the freshmen present, Harold Abrahams, will go on to greatness by challenging the conventions of his day. Later in the film this same Master of Caius College will lecture Abrahams about the importance of doing things the way they have always been done, a message that in some ways contradicts the message he delivered at the beginning of the film. Abrahams leaves suggesting he will travel his own road and that he will bring the future with him. Much of what Abrahams does is inspired by the traditions of the school, but he does what he does in a way that dismantles some of those traditions. Perhaps this is the healthiest view of the past.

In an article on T. S. Eliot in this week’s Guardian, “TS Eliot rejected Bloomsbury group’s ‘cursed fund’ to work in bank”, the poet Ted Hughes’ comments on hearing of Eliot’s death are quoted. He said, “He was in my mind constantly, like a rather over-watchful, over-powerful father, and now he has gone, I shall have to move – be able to move, maybe.” Eliot was a great influence on Hughes’ work, but to be finally successful Hughes needed to grow beyond that influence, something he could only do with difficulty while that influence was a living presence. The past had to in a sense die before he could make his own present. But is the influence entirely missing from the work and can the work be entirely understood without an understanding of the influences that provoked the work?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The paintings above and below both evoke Classical antiquity, the painting by Rossetti evokes its mythology and the painting by Raphael evokes its philosophy. Yet Rossetti belonged to a movement, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that was actively seeking to distance itself from the work of Raphael, who painted the picture below. Though at odds with each other, each looked back to a similar moment in the past to provide the subjects for their art. The past shapes and inspires the present. It is also difficult for a viewer of these paintings to fully appreciate what is happening in the paintings if that viewer does not also understand the classical allusions the paintings make.

School of Athens
Raphael Sanzio

The painting by Rossetti is of Proserpine, a goddess from Roman mythology associated with the springtime and the harvest. The pomegranate and the vegetation growing along the window evoke this association. In the painting by Raphael the philosophers Plato and Aristotle are the focal point. These two philosophers represent Greek philosophy and the contributions of these philosophers to western civilization. There is a beauty in each of the paintings that can be enjoyed even if the allusions are not known or understood, but a knowledge of these allusions adds richness to each of the works and the viewers’ appreciation of those works.

There is a review, “I Pledge Allegiance to Core Knowledge”, in this Sunday’s Washington Post of E. D. Hirsch’s new book, The Making of Americans. Hirsch is ridiculed by some and admired by others for his beliefs surrounding “cultural literacy” and the importance for each generation to learn the culture that has shaped the culture in which they live. He believes that study of difficult texts in an English class is important not only for the ways in which these texts challenge and develop the analytic skills of students, but for how they pass along many of the ideals of the culture. He can point to how students brought up on his curriculum do better on standardized tests. Those that disagree with Hirsch do not have much use for standardized tests and therefore do not see in this much of an argument for his curriculum.

As a teacher I am troubled by our over-reliance on standardized tests, but I am also troubled by those that would do away with the “classical literature.” I agree with Hirsch that reading difficult texts grounded in our cultural heritage develops the cognitive skills of students. There are problems with much of this literature in that it often includes attitudes and views that are troubling. Still, these views are a part of our past and it is unwise to ignore them. It is also unwise to ignore what is valuable in the older authors because there are unsavory elements to their work. The same is true of contemporary works, we may not see what is troubling in them because we are so close to them, but those that come after us will certainly see them. I also think the more aware we are of the problems in the literature of the past the more sensitive we are likely to be to potential problems in the literature of the present.

It is certainly true that America has been shaped by many cultural influences and that each of these influences is to be valued. But it is also true that there is an “American Culture” and it is important that students know this culture. One aspect of American culture that I find particularly attractive is its willingness to incorporate cultural influences from other parts of the world. Isaac Bashevis Singer, an Eastern European Jew, is an American writer, or at least he has been embraced by the American literary traditions and has won many of its most prestigious literary prizes. Amy Tan is an American writer who captures aspects of Asian culture and it influences on American Culture. There are not many cultures in the world that are willing to do this.

Richard III
Bayly/Paré Productions and United Artists

This clip from Shakespeare’s play Richard III illustrates another way the past impacts on the present. Shakespeare used the history of Richard III to comment on the history of his Elizabethan moment. Richard usurps the throne and he is depicted as quite villainous in the play. Later writers, I like Josephine Tey’s novel Daughter of Time, have made the case that Shakespeare misrepresents Richard and that Richard was not an evil king but an enlightened one. But the Elizabethan court was concerned about usurpation, in part because they were a patriarchal society being ruled by a woman. The film in turn resets the play in pre-World War II Europe and uses Shakespeare’s text to comment on the rise of fascism in the not distant past and to perhaps suggest that there are seeds of fascism in contemporary society.

The film illustrates that we can often learn something about the present from studying the past and that we can avoid some of the problems faced by those that came before us by being made aware of those problems. Mark Twain said, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” It is rare for the same thing to happen in the same way, but there are certainly similarities and a knowledge of the past and its literature can offer insights into how some difficulties can be avoided.

Palace of Soviets – Perspective
B.M. Iofan, V.А. Shchuko, V.G. Gelfreich

The past is often evoked to lend legitimacy to an enterprise. This drawing for the “Palace of the Soviets” combines modern and classical architectural forms. These forms lend a kind of majesty to the project. In many ways it is architectural propaganda, and to recognize how the propaganda works it is helps to know how classical forms are being manipulated. The statue of Lenin in some ways evokes The Statue of Liberty (I cannot tell if Lenin is holding a lamp or is merely raising his arm for rhetorical effect but I think the pose is deliberately ambiguous). The classical allusions suggest an historical imperative that culminates with the soviet state and the airplanes flying overhead suggest a modern, technologically advanced culture. There is also the largeness of scale to be considered. The point is, though, that a knowledge of cultural history and the way aspects of that history are being manipulated helps an informed viewer to see through the propaganda.

It is important to be aware of the past and its influences on us, some of which are subliminal and fly easily under our cultural radar, if we are not to be fooled or manipulated. It is also important to build upon the cultural foundations we have inherited. The past, present, and future impact on each other. To exclude the contributions of the present from our study is to blind ourselves to the richness of our moment and the value of our work. But, conversely, to exclude the contributions of the past is to isolate ourselves from the forces that have made us what we are. It is also difficult to appreciate the depth and breadth of the present moment and all that it contains if we cannot see the influences that have shaped that moment. Lichtenberg said “To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation.” I am not sure this is always true, but much of what a culture produces is a response of one kind or another to what has come before, and to fully appreciate that culture it is useful to know its family history.