The Look of the Moment

L. A. Freeway
Jerry Jeff Walker

The Look of the Moment

Self Portrait
Leonardo da Vinci

The freeway system of Los Angeles (and perhaps the smog it helps to generate) is in many ways the “face” of Los Angeles, its icon on the cultural desktop. There is of course much more to Los Angeles and much of that “much more” paints the city in much more favorable colors. Those aspects of a landscape that become iconic are not always the aspects that best represent that landscape, just the aspects that get the most attention. Still, it is something we do; we do not just name things but characterize them as well. We give them an identity that may or may not be true to their nature.

But we do not just do this with places; we do this movements, with cultures, with moments in time. How dark were the “Dark Ages”, what were the “Middle Ages” in the middle of? As freeways for some define Los Angeles, Leonardo da Vinci is, for many, the face of the Renaissance. When we think of the “Renaissance Man” the face that comes most readily to mind for many is Leonardo’s and when we call someone a Renaissance man or woman the comparison is for many to Leonardo. His face is iconic with an age and a concept.

Set of Harry Potter books, UK edition
Bloomsbury Publishing

There was an article in the Guardian last week, “Harry Potter: Icons of the decade,” that identified Harry Potter as the icon of the last ten years, the first decade of the third millennium. There have been a number of articles over the past month that pointed out that Rowling’s wizard dominated book and movie ticket sales over the years since he first appeared. Some of these articles were positive, most of them were negative, in that many critics do not think these books have literary merit. But last week’s article pointed out that the Harry Potter books appealed to readers of many generations and asserts that they made reading “children’s books” an acceptable adult practice. Many of the images of an age are literary; they come from the stories that people tell that capture the spirit of the time. And because they capture so effectively the moment that produced them they come to represent that time.

Classical Greece is personified in Homer’s epic heroes and Plato’s representation of Socrates and classical Rome in Virgil’s epic hero with bits of Ovid and Petronius thrown in as well. For Renaissance poets Virgil became the iconic epic poet that everyone else tried to imitate. Milton begins Paradise Lost with an appeal to his heavenly muse that suggests Virgil’s invocation of his muse. Virgil tells the story of The Aeneid over twelve books, Milton tells his story over twelve books. There is an irony in that both The Aeneid and Paradise Lost focus on a character that was on the losing end of a war who ventures off to a new land to start a new kingdom. Perhaps it is this similarity between Aeneas and Satan that cause some to see Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost.

King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detail from the “Christian Heroes Tapestry”

King Arthur has come to represent Great Britain and its destiny. He is called, after all, the “Once and Future King” and it is part of his myth that he will one day return and restore Britain to greatness. The illustrations above and below capture aspects of Arthurian iconography. Arthur was one of the “Nine Worthies” and was at the time of Malory’s retelling of the stories already a revered character who had found his way into the storytelling of many European countries. It is interesting to me that Malory relied more on the French versions of the stories than he did on the more indigenous Welsh versions of the tales. The image below is of the Holy Grail that has become synonymous with excellence and achievement at the highest levels. And as the exclamation from Harry Potter “Merlin’s Beard” reminds us, Arthur’s wizard Merlin has become an icon of wizardry and he makes frequent reappearances in literature.

Apparition of Saint Graal

Where we find the icons of an age suggests to us what was important to that age. The icons of the 1960’s, for example, were rock bands, most notably The Beatles, though there were many others. Victoria and the first Elizabeth have become icons of their age not because of what they produced but what was produced in literature and the arts during their reigns. What does this suggest about how the people of each age saw themselves or, perhaps, how they were seen by those that did the labeling. Did Victorians, for example, see themselves as “Victorians”?

To what extent do our icons actually capture those we are trying to label? If Harry Potter is the icon of the present decade what does he, as a character, say about us? Is he important because of his economic contributions to the book trade or is he important because of the ideals he represents? People read these books because they are captured by the stories they tell. We want, perhaps, to see ourselves as heroic and these books offer an avenue for “experiencing” a bit of heroism. King Arthur represents an ideal of might on the side of justice and that probably contributes to his popularity through the ages and to the extent that Arthur’s vision was planted in his mind by Merlin might suggest Merlin’s rise to an iconic status. Perhaps stories are as much about what we aspire to as they are about who we are.

Don Quixote. From Chapter I
Gustave Doreé_-_Miguel_de_Cervantes_-_Don_Quixote_-_Part_1_-_Chapter_1_-_Plate_1_%22A_world_of_disorderly_notions,_picked_out_of_his_books,_crowded_into_his_imagination%22.jpgé_-_Miguel_de_Cervantes_-_Don_Quixote_-_Part_1_-_Chapter_1_-_Plate_1_%22A_world_of_disorderly_notions,_picked_out_of_his_books,_crowded_into_his_imagination%22.jpg

On the other side of the coin Don Quixote is iconic not just for the ideals he pursued and the manner in which he pursued them but because of his obsession for living in stories, for giving stories too much power over his sense of himself. There is value to the stories we tell, they help us to give life to our ideals, but there is also a danger. Quixote first lived vicariously through his stories than tried to put his vicarious living into practice. He goes beyond emulating the characters in his stories to trying to become the characters in his stories. I think stories can help us to give definitions to concepts and values but we have to make these concepts and values true to the people we are, to our own psychology. There is a difference between learning from stories to live more effectively and using stories to escape from living altogether. There is a place for the Quixotic quest, but only if we pursue the quest in our own name and not that of the hero of some story, that we become Quixotic and not Quixote.

Raiders of the Lost Arc Trailer
Paramount Pictures

Many of our modern icons come not from books but from films. For many the stories that help give definition to their lives and define their values come from the cinema. In the film clip we are introduced to a character who is a scholar with a worldwide reputation for scholarship, Army Intelligence, after all, seeks him out because of his scholarship. But he is also an adept field archeologist, a quick and insightful thinker, and a “super hero” of sorts; he is, in fact, a kind of “Renaissance Man.” He is part Sherlock Holmes and part James Bond with, perhaps, a bit of Errol Flynn thrown into the bargain. The film also draws upon iconic images from films of the past. There is a suggestion of Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre and of John Wayne in Stagecoach.

How important are these icons to our lives and our understanding of our place in the real and the cultural worlds? Do we need these icons; do they provide a kind of shorthand that makes communication easier? If they do, how accurate are they and do they really do what we think they do? It is important to tell stories and to communicate these stories effectively.

But we cannot communicate with others unless we all mean the same thing, or nearly the same thing, by our common iconic vocabulary. Were the Victorians, for example, remarkable because of their real cultural achievements or were they something much less exemplary, a closed minded intolerant people? They gave us the novels of Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy but were also possessed of a prudish set of values that has become an icon of a different color and the term Victorian is positive or negative depending on the context in which it is used.

The great Victorian detective often found the solution to a problem to be “elementary” but the writer of detective fiction often begins with the solution and writes backwards. If we know the end from the beginning much does become elementary, but those who live their lives going forward from beginning to end often depend on others to find the narrative thread that defines their lives. For Sherlock Holmes the story ends with the solution to the problem. But an age, like any individual, is rarely around to define itself by the ending that it makes and depends on those that remain to make an honest assessment.

Sherlock Holmes
Sidney Paget

Reading all the Signs

Long Way Home
Tom Waits

Reading all the Signs

Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze
Hans Holbein,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg

The song talks about taking “the long way home.” Often the shortest, and the quickest, distance between two points is not the most interesting journey. Just as a quick look at the painting will not reveal all the painting has to offer. When I was younger I rode a bicycle through England, Scotland, and Wales, Holland, Germany, and France. When I started my trip my plan was to hitchhike everywhere. When I left London I hitchhiked down the motorway to Salisbury. While I was there I walked to Stonehenge, about a ten mile walk from where I was camping just outside the town. It was a beautiful walk that made me aware of what I would be missing if I traveled the motorways. When I got back to town I went to the Salisbury Cycle Works and bought a ten-speed bicycle. They put a rack on the bike so that I could more easily carry my backpack. The second day out I went down a quiet country road in a valley beneath one of the houses in which Jane Austen lived. There was a woman by the side of the road selling strawberries and cream. I, of course, bought some and enjoyed the whole “Jane Austen” aura of the moment, a moment I would have not enjoyed on the motorway. I imagine the strawberry vendor was there for the benefit of tourists visiting Austen’s house, but I arrived early and was the only other person on the road at the time so I did not feel so much like a tourist.

The point is that it often profits us to take the long way and to not rush so much from place to place. I could have seen much more of Europe than I did if I had stuck to the motorway, but in another sense, though I would have covered more miles and visited more places I would not have seen as much. I also think that people responded to me differently riding a bicycle than they would have if I were rushing by car from place to place. I was a tourist and folks looked at me as such, but the bicycle initiated conversations that probably would not have been initiated otherwise. When the rack that carried my pack broke (because of the books I brought with me it weighed close to sixty pounds) a couple in a large black Bentley invited me to join them for tea by the side of the road. They could not give me a ride to town but they did give me a pleasant break from pushing my bike.

I made the journey that Chaucer’s pilgrims made from Canterbury to London (their return journey) in one day. I am not certain how long a trip it was for Chaucer, but my sense is that it took a couple of days. I went faster than a fifteenth century traveler, but not nearly as fast or as far as most twentieth century travelers. But it is not just that travel by bicycle is slower than travel by car, but that travel by bicycle puts you closer to the ground and to the rest of the landscape and because you are traveling more slowly many more of the small details are noticeable. In a car you may see the lichen on a stone wall, but you would miss the rabbit lunching behind it.

There was an article in the Guardian last week, “You can’t speed read literature,” about the way we read (or ought to read) literature differently from the newspaper or a textbook. When we read the paper or a textbook we are generally reading for specific information and are less concerned with the subtleties of language or the sound of the words in combination with one another. Our goal is to just get through the material and do whatever we need to do with the facts we have gleaned. But when we read literature, the way the words interact with one another and the phrasing and the figurative language that are used are the source of much of the pleasure we get from the experience. Literature cannot be read quickly, not if we are to enjoy all it has to offer.

A novel can be read quickly for the plot line, to get the gist of the story, but for those that read literature as literature that is not the point. May Sarton once said, “I used to tell my students situation and character are life to a short story and plot kills. Plot kills something, there is no doubt, and in the kind of writer that Katherine Mansfield was, plot is not the point. It is something else. The same thing with Virginia Woolf. You might say that in To the Lighthouse very little happens except inwardly, in the characters, but people go back to reread books where not much may be happening but a great deal of life is being created.” We speed read for plot, we read carefully for character, situation, and to find the other interesting things a great writer can do with language. Those who travel the motorway from Canterbury to London in a few hours have made the same journey as those that make the same trip by bicycle in the course of a day or at least they cover the same ground. But is it really the same journey?

Children’s Games
Pieter Breughel the ElderÄ._041.jpg

As with the painting at the top of the page, in this painting by Breughel there is a lot to see and though a quick glance may be enough for us to enjoy the use of color and the superficial construction of the scene there is much too much happening in the painting for us to get much of its real value from a momentary glance. Every one of the little groups that fills the painting depicts or suggests a different children’s game. To fully enjoy the painting attention needs to be paid to each of the games and the way each game is suggested by what the characters in the painting are doing. It is necessary to spend time with things of value if their full value is to be appreciated.

“The Dirigible”
Alfred Stieglitz

The photographs above and below suggest other reasons to linger over things. The dirigible in the Stieglitz photo, to me anyway, is kind of mysterious. It evokes the wonder of flight. The sun gilding the edge of the clouds suggests the rising or the setting sun, we cannot really tell if it is dawn or dusk or if the clouds are just hiding the sunlight. But the dirigible itself is captivating. The way the gondola hangs beneath the sausage shaped balloon is intriguing to me. It suggests a sailing ship in flight. For me there is also an eeriness to the photograph, something mysterious that I do not fully understand that reminds me of something from a Jules Verne story.

The Adams photograph provokes, or at least it does in some, a meditation on the natural environment and its wild and sublime beauty. It invites us to linger over it, to pursue its details and enjoy the landscape that it captures. There is a similar play between light and shadow, between the ominous and the comforting, that is found in the Stieglitz photograph. Both the storm in the mountains and the currents in the river suggest the power of nature and its potential dangers.

The Tetons and the Snake River
Ansel Adams

There were two reviews in the Washington Post of modern translations of stories from fifteenth century England and Italy. One was of Peter Ackroyd’s prose translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “Book review: ‘The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling’ by Peter Ackroyd,” and the other of Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, “Michael Dirda reviews ‘Orlando Furioso’ by Ludovico Ariosto.” Both of these stories have been personal favorites and that they still generate enough interest to warrant a new translation is encouraging to me, though I am much more surprised about the Ariosto than the Chaucer, who has always been popular in the English speaking world. I think Ariosto repays the time that is spent with him and it is a pleasant thought that many more will perhaps spend some time with him. For me he is like a cross between J. R. R. Tolkien and Jonathan Swift in that it marries the heroics of the one to the comedy of the other. Enjoyment can be gotten by speed reading each of these books but there is so much in each to be savored and lingered over that is sad to think that some could be satisfied with such a meager offering, sort of like taking a single bite from an ice ream cone and throwing the rest away.

Jacques Tati

A film is experienced differently than a book or a painting. One cannot take more time over a film than the film takes to run, well one could, but that would defeat the purpose of the film and probably do some harm to its enjoyment. But careful attention needs to be paid to what happens on screen. In the film clip from Jacques Tati’s Traffic much of the humor can be missed if the viewer does not pay attention to details, like the movements of the individual drivers after the accident or to the debris and the way it moves through the scene. The film is a French film but it is not necessary to understand the language (though I think it is has been dubbed in English) to enjoy the comedy, so much of the humor is visual.

It is not just the spending of time, though, but how the time is spent. One person may read a book slowly because they do not understand the words and have to read and re-read to figure out what is happening while another may take the same amount of time reading because she or he is paying careful attention to the details of the story and the manner in which those details are conveyed. I think the increasing speed at which we move through life makes us less willing to spend time wresting with the written word when we do not understand and can leave us satisfied with a superficial reading when we do understand. Because of the numerous distractions that are available in the modern world, many students do not want to build the language skills necessary to fully understand and enjoy a work of literature.

Thoreau felt, when life went quite a bit more slowly, that we spent too little time with ourselves and the world around us. We probably spend even less time with ourselves and our environment today. I suppose reading and reflection are a kind of mental exercise that many want to avoid in the same way they avoid calisthenics and other forms of physical exercise. In the same way we struggle with delayed gratification in the manner we run our finances we often struggle with delayed gratification in the manner we develop our intellect. As our enjoyment of a thing we desire is often more perfect when we take the time to save up for its purchase, as opposed to using credit of one form or another, so is the object of our study, whether of a text, a concept, or a science, more perfect when we take the time to fully understand that study. There is a difference between knowing and understanding and that difference is often the product of time.

Mindful of the Cost

Bach: Cello Suite #1 In G, BWV 1007 – 1. Prelude
Mstislav Rostropovich

Mindful of the Cost

Scholar and His Books
Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

The music of Bach has always seemed very contemplative to me, often there is to it a kind of joyousness as well that captures both the introspective nature of scholarship and the pleasure that scholarly pursuits can give. Perhaps I am just superimposing onto Bach my own feelings and interests, who’s to say. Aristotle believed that the desire to learn and develop intellectually is built into every human being and is part of what makes us all human. I think there is truth to this. The painting also captures the contentment the scholarly gentleman it features experiences as well. He looks very at home with his books and his thoughts.

There was an article in this weekend’s Boston Globe, “,” about a web site that makes student notes (and the many of the professors’ lecture notes) available free online where anyone who wishes can read and learn from them. The specific students and professors being discussed in the article are from Harvard University but the underlying issue addressed by the article is “who owns academic work” and the knowledge that is created by study and scholarship.

This is in part why students are required to document the sources of the information that appears in their essays. They are acknowledging that the ideas and information that appears in their papers do not originate with them. But is all that is cited equally original with the source that is being cited in the paper? Is an encyclopedia article that gives information on the French Revolution as entitled to the ownership of the information presented as Darwin is of the Theory of Evolution or Einstein is of the Theory of Relativity? If the student does not quote the article word for word is that student really stealing from the encyclopedia or are they only stating facts that belong to all that have an interest in history.

There is another issue here of course and that relates to preserving the sources of one’s research so that those that come after can duplicate that research. R. C. Bald in his biography of John Donne points out that an earlier biographer, Edmund Gosse, wrote an excellent biography of Donne. But Bald points out that Gosse published at a time when citing sources and printing bibliographies was not as big a concern as it is today. Gosse did the research and prepared the bibliography of that research, but his publisher did not see the importance of printing the bibliography. As a result most of Gosse’s research had to be done over. I think this is an important concern, but the issue is not so much one of who owns the information so much as leaving a trail that those that come after can follow. Even though it is unlikely that the research done by students in a high school English class will be studied by future scholars, the principle is worth learning and the habits of good scholarship are worth developing.

Bangalore Central Library

There was an article recently in the New York Times, “Despite Ray Bradbury’s Efforts, a California Library Closes,” about how a library that Ray Bradbury had tried to help save last summer was forced to close due to budget cuts and the inability to raise the necessary funding from alternative sources. In the article Bradbury is quoted as saying, “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries, because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” Most of what is worth knowing can be learned at a library. Obviously the bigger the library the more one can learn, but most well stocked and well maintained libraries make a great deal of valuable information available to anyone who wants to learn it. As more books become digitized it is becoming easier to access a good library even if one lives many miles away from the library itself.

National Central Library of Florence

Of course this raises other issues about the ownership of ideas and intellectual property. But as Harry Lewis says in the Harvard article mentioned earlier, “Harvard and MIT and Stanford and Princeton, we’re not Decca records. Our job in life is to provide enlightenment to the world,” says Lewis, an outspoken critic of the way content providers have used copyright law online. “We have to make a living doing it and all the professors have to be paid for their labors, but the notion that universities would inherit the oppressive picture of the way intellectual property is treated by the music industry is really a fundamentally warped view of what the ultimate purpose of universities are.” Lewis believes that professors need to be paid and that universities cannot keep their doors open if they cannot charge for what is taught in their classrooms, but the fundamental mission of a school is radically different from that of a business and that mission should guide the decisions, including the financial decisions, that a school makes. If online libraries and study groups can give more people access to knowledge and scholarship ways ought to be found to accommodate that enterprise.

Portrait of Jean Miélot, secretary, copyist and translator to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy

The medieval monk in his scriptorium worked daily at preserving the accumulated knowledge he had inherited. Most of what was preserved was religious in nature, but not all of it. Classical works of poetry and philosophy were preserved as well. The Beowulf manuscript was probably preserved by a monk. Snorri Sturluson, a Scandinavian monk, preserved a hefty chunk of Skaldic poetry and Norse storytelling. Those who have read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose can appreciate the irony of a manuscript that was lost when the library that provides the setting for his story burns down. This manuscript also lies at the heart of the mystery the story’s protagonist investigates. The novel at the very least suggests who is the owner of the knowledge, of the scholarship, that is housed in the monastery’s library? Is it the property of the monastery and its leadership and are they free to do with it what they will?

Paper Chase

The film clip comes from the television program Paper Chase. The program, like the film, focuses on a law professor, Professor Kingsfield, who teaches contract law at Harvard (or at least a very Harvard-like institution). He is an exacting legal scholar who expects his students to be equally as exacting, and equally as brilliant. In the film there is a moment when Hart comes to class unprepared and cannot answer a question that is put to him by Kingsfield. Kingsfield attack Hart and Hart, eventually attacks back. Kingsfield praises Hart, after a fashion, for fighting back, suggesting that what is important to Kingsfield is not being always right or preserving his ego but in teaching his students to defend their point of view and to make that defense intelligently based on the law as it is written. As for many teachers worthy of the name, what is important is honing the students’ skills by whatever means necessary.

So, who owns scholarship; who owns learning? Why do we go to school, why do we send our children to school? Is the purpose of school merely to teach the next generation a trade by which they can earn their bread, or is there a greater purpose? Some derive great pleasure from being able to reason out a difficult problem. Isaac Newton used to calculate logarithms in his head for fun (anyone who has ever had any experience with logarithms can appreciate the mental effort involved in this exercise). Many go to college to make contacts with others that may be important for the advancement of their careers, some want a degree from a prestigious university because of the doors the degree will open when they enter to job market. There is nothing wrong with this way of thinking about education, it is probably what motivates the majority of students, but for the university itself and for the student who wants more from an education than just the degree that comes with it this is not (or ought not to be) what is important. It is not just the preservation of a culture, but a frame of mind that sees the development of a mind as an important and beautiful thing. The bank note pictured below is of a Turkish twenty million lira note, the world’s largest currency denomination. I think it is fitting that the image that graces this bank note is of a library, the ancient library at Celsus. Of course it should not be overlooked that the library on the bank note is a ruin, which should remind us that libraries cannot survive if those that value them fail to preserve them.

Twenty Million Turkish Lira banknote featuring the Library at Celsus

Where the World Can’t Find Me

Down on the Corner
Creedence Clearwater Revival

Where the World Can’t Find Me

From “Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund”
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

The song celebrates a group of folks, Willie and the Poor Boys, who live in a poor neighborhood but manage to carve out a space for themselves every night where the world behaves more to their liking, and the liking of those that take the time to listen to the music that they make. There is something in human nature that wants its own private space where there is no one to answer to. For some it is their home at the end of the day, that place where there is no doing as they are told, though with the advent of the cell phone and other technologies the idea of a fine and private place is becoming a thing of the past.

The paintings above and below are of Vikings. They produced an impressive literary tradition of Skaldic verse and prose sagas that are among the finest adventure stories in any language. But they were an independent people. When Harold made himself king of Norway they pulled up stakes and moved to Iceland where they set up their own little world with its own somewhat democratic form of government. At the time a land that was a sea voyage away from any other land was an isolated place. Vikings were the best and the most daring navigators of their day. They sailed most of the known world and a bit of the unknown world. And though they were a pain and a terror to much of the world, they had their own corner of it that they could call home where outside forces could not, or at least did not, intrude.

Guests from Overseas
Nicholas Roerich,_Guests_from_Overseas.jpg

There was an article in this week’s Boston Globe, “The mystery of Zomia,” about various peoples that live in the mountain regions of Southeast Asia. According to the article groups of people, the Hmong and the Wa for example, migrated into the mountains in order to escape the tyranny of the lowland governments of the Mughals and the Han among others. These mountain folks not only left these oppressive governments behind, but all of the cultural accoutrements that came with them. As a result these mountain people did not develop a written language or a literary or cultural tradition. For these people literature and art were associated with oppression. On the other side of the coin, theirs is a very “survival of the fittest” kind of existence with a very rough justice that can be bit oppressive in its own way to certain groups within the culture.

But this raises an interesting question, is culture a liberating force within society? The Vikings isolated themselves after a fashion and created rich cultural traditions, while other groups have taken themselves into isolation and eschewed the cultural trappings they might have inherited and did not adopt a formal culture of their own. I find it difficult to believe, though, that a people can survive without stories, even if they are the stories told around a campfire that are never written down. Part of what makes a culture and a people, a culture and a people are the ways they go about doing things and the way they look at the world. Even if a formal “Culture” is abandoned there are still ways of doing things, the way a camp is set up for example, the distribution of labor, and the like that become traditions that are handed down from one generation to the next. They are perhaps, the little rituals that Hemingway captures in his stories and novels. When the Old Man, in The Old Man and the Sea, goes fishing, for example, there are proper ways to trim a sail and to set a hook and limits to how far out to sea one takes their little boat.

But are agreed upon ways of living and doing things the same thing as a culture? For Hemingway’s Old Man there is “baseball” which is inessential to daily survival on top of all the little rituals he has learned that are essential to daily survival. There are lessons to be learned from baseball about how we should live, about tenacity, and about giving our best effort to all that we do. These are lessons that our cultural traditions often teach us. And though these traditions may not be set down in writing or preserved in paintings or sculptures they are surely present somewhere in the heritage of a people. The Hmong may not have a print copy of their Iliad or Odyssey but it is very likely there are stories they tell one another that perform for them the office of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Book of Kells, Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned.

There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Monk Saves Threatened Manuscripts Using Ultramodern Means,” about a monk who is digitizing early Christian manuscripts in order to preserve them, he is performing a “transcriptional” service not unlike that performed by the medieval monks that copied and recopied the manuscripts that are now being digitized. (There was an article of a similar nature in the New York Times a few weeks ago about a woman transcribing the Torah, “A Torah Scribe Pushes the Parchment Ceiling,“ a book of great importance to the Jewish culture.) Both the modern and the ancient monks preserved their cultural artifacts using the best technology available to them. The monasteries, especially in the Middle Ages, that preserve these documents are often remote and isolated places. They were removed, often, from worldly influences in order to pursue religious traditions that, for those that practiced them, were liberating.

There is a paradox, I suppose, to a tradition that imposes rules and restrictions on the practitioners of that tradition that most would find constraining and restrictive but the practitioners themselves find freeing. Perhaps an aspect of liberty is the willingness to place limitations on the exercise of that liberty to insure that it is exercised responsibly. Of course the restrictions monks placed upon themselves go beyond this and suggest that self-denial is perhaps an essential aspect of the liberty they enjoyed, that true liberty lives not just in doing but in choosing freely not to do certain things. Liberties, like those found in the Bill of Rights free us to live as we choose in our free society, it liberates us from the tyranny of government. Self-denial on the other hand liberates us from the tyranny of ourselves and the desires, compulsions, and impulses that often dictate our actions and behaviors.

Swiss Family Robinson
Buena Vista

The film clip suggests another aspect of isolation, though in this instance it is not a self-imposed isolation. In the film (and the book) a family is shipwrecked on an uninhabited island and must find a way to survive with what little is left them and with what they can “harvest” from their surroundings. But as with those groups that have isolated themselves there is a freedom that comes with being marooned. The family can make their own rules; shape a lifestyle that is pleasing to them, within the limitations imposed by the island. They are a bit different from other castaways, like Tom Hanks in the film Castaway or Robinson Crusoe in the book that bears his name, in that they have each other, they have company and can make the beginnings of a small society. Of course it is a very small society and over time they are likely to feel the need for a larger community. But for the moment they are shaping an idyllic paradise. But there are no guarantees, I suppose, that the life of a company of castaways will turn out so well. William Golding’s book The Lord of the Flies suggests other, less desirable, possibilities.

Still, mountains and other natural barriers provide a means for cultural discontents to separate themselves from a way of life, a social order they find distasteful or oppressive. The Scottish Highlands offered such a refuge to the more independent and iconoclastic clans of the region, as did the western frontier for many American malcontents. Perhaps the region of America most like the Zomia region of Southeast Asia is Appalachia. The people that settled these mountains were also looking for a way to separate themselves from a culture they found disagreeable. They resisted public education, at least as it was practiced in the lowlands, and were distrustful of any cultural baggage that they associated with the lowlands. The stereotype of the region is often of a people that are ignorant, illiterate, and unsophisticated. However, as the Foxfire series of books, bluegrass music, and other cultural contributions of this region of the United States attest, this is a community with a deep, rich and vibrant heritage, and the culture of the nation is enriched by it.

It is the culture we choose to preserve that identifies us as a people. We may enjoy the cultures of other parts of the world, read their books, enjoy their paintings and music, but it is the literature, art, music, and traditions that we as a people preserve and value because of what they reveal about us as a people that define who we are as a people. We are the curmudgeonly anger of talk radio; we are the brash in-you-face iconoclasm of rock and roll music and graffiti art; we are the kitschy “camp” culture of vampires and young wizards. But we are also the epic, literary individualism of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, the stark loneliness of an Edward Hopper painting, and the urban lyricism of George and Ira Gershwin. There is a “high brow” and a “low brow” culture that say much the same things about who we are as a people and there is a place, I suppose, where the high and the low meet and put a face on the character of the nation.

Detail of Diego Gutiérrez’s 1562 map of the Western Hemisphere, showing the first known use of a variation of the place name “Appalachia” (“Apalchen”)
Diego Gutiérrez

Well Written, Well Told

Ever After
Stephen Sondheim
Into the Woods

Well Written, Well Told

The Death of Chatterton
Henry Wallis

The song title is a play on the most familiar storybook ending “and they lived happily ever after.” The song is from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, a play about the role of folk and fairy tales in shaping our lives. The song suggests that we all must go into the woods, that dark place where all of our fears live and come out the other side if we are to “live happily ever after.” If we do not, whatever is our secret terror will continue to haunt us. It is, I suppose, the place where we all go to learn courage and fortitude.

Thomas Chatterton went into the woods in his effort to achieve acceptance as a writer. He is perhaps most famous for the poems he claims to have found written by a medieval monk, Thomas Rowley. Chatterton was never successful as a poet or a writer, at least not during his lifetime. Everyone thought his best known poems were written by someone else. It is believed he committed suicide at the age of seventeen in poverty and discouragement at his inability to be taken seriously as a writer. I bought in a library book sale once a two volume set of the poems of Chatterton that was published by Little Brown and Company in 1863 and donated to the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1867. It is an interesting collection and as Horace Walpole said the poems are “wonderful for their harmony and spirit.” Here are a few lines from Chatterton’s poem The Battle of Hastings:

Duke Wyllyam drewe agen hys arrowe strynge,
An arrowe with a sylver-hede drewe he;
The arrowe dauncynge in the ayre dyd synge.
And hytt the horse Tosselyn on the knee.
At this brave Tosslyn threwe his short horse-speare;
Duke Wyllyam stooped to avoyde the blowe;
The yrone weapon hummed in his eare,
And hitte Sir Doullie Naibor on the prowe;
Upon his helme soe furious was the stroke,
It splete his bever, and the rivets broke.

Those that knew what Middle English looked like were not fooled by the vocabulary or the quaint spellings and did not believe the poems to be ancient. He is probably not a great poet but there is a romantic aura that clings to him that attracted poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth and the other Romantics to his cause. The poems themselves do tell stories that if not well written were effectively told, at least for their time.

The Boyhood of Raligh
John Everett Millais

There was an article recently in the Guardian, “Museum ‘of story and storytelling’ planned for Oxford”, about a museum to be built at Oxford University to celebrate story telling. It will begin with the stories that originated at Oxford, stories by Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman. The museum already lives online as The Story Museum. It sounds like it will be a fascinating place where children can go to hear stories and to invent them. It seems that many of the stories that speak to the development of our humanity are stories written for children. This is a generality of course but more and more of the stories written for adults (aside from genre fiction, which many seem to dismiss as stories written for “older children”) address the inner lives and psychology of their characters who often do not seem to “do” very much. Their courage lies in the way in which they confront their inner demons. There is value of course to these stories and they do attract readers but many of the elements of traditional storytelling seem to be missing. Perhaps I have been exposed to too narrow a spectrum of modern stories.

Cover of the pulp magazine Mystery (February 1934)
A Tower Magazine

The suggestion is often made that genre fiction and those stories that attempt to tell a more traditional kind of story are not that well written. For example “serious” literary critics often trivialize the work of J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Stephen King. Yet these stories resonate with many readers. One of C. S. Lewis’ favorite books was A Voyage to Arcturus, a book Lewis said was badly written but tells a mesmerizing story. Does a story have to be well written to be well told? It is difficult to know whether or not the storytellers that move us today will move anyone else tomorrow. I think sometimes that what is considered good writing is more transitory than what is considered good storytelling. A good story can perhaps survive bad writing but as writing styles and tastes change the “good” writing of one generation is often seen as wanting by the generations that follow.

A further complication of writing well is that often it is impossible to quantify. There was an article in the Guardian, “Marking computer says no to lazy Dickens and dull Austen”, about a new computer program used to score the essays for student proficiency exams given by the English government. Sort of like the exams we give students here before we will give them a high school diploma. The machine gave low or failing grades to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and many other prominent writers when their work was fed through the machine. The opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, was marked down “for repetition and poor and restricted choice of vocabulary.” As soon as we try to define what is and is not good writing, writing that ought to be bad will be recognized for its brilliance.

City Lights
United Artists

The film tells a powerful story. The full effect of this final scene from City Lights cannot be felt without knowing the story that precedes this moment. The woman giving Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” the flower and the coin was, at the beginning of the film, a blind flower seller on the street. Chaplin is able to “manipulate” events so that she is able to have an operation that will restore her sight. Unfortunately the tramps “manipulations” get him arrested. The scene in the clip is the reunion of the tramp and the blind flower seller, who now can see, but she has never seen the tramp. She does, however, know the touch of his hand and recognizes him immediately upon touching his hand. It is a remarkable piece of story telling and to do it justice the film should be seen in its entirety. But what this film clip suggests is that the power of story telling is often in its images and relationships. It is not the narrative so much as how the settings and events are woven in our minds. In a film the filmmaker creates this for us and leaves us free to focus on other things. But for the story told with words on a printed page the reader has to be able to construct the settings, characters, and events in her or his mind and the more vividly the story is told the more easily the reader makes these constructions.

Scheherazade Went on with Her Story
Illustration from Arabian Nights by Virginia Frances Sterrett

My favorite storyteller, or at least one of them, is Scheherazade. She tells the stories found in the 1001 Arabian Nights. Perhaps this is because these are stories I grew up with, both in written form and through, when viewed today, quite awful film versions of the “Voyages of Sinbad” or “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” But even when I look at these films today with their awful production values and often equally awful performances, the images of the films as I remember them still captivate. The image of the thieves’ captain saying “open sesame” and a wall of rock parting to reveal a huge cave full of mountains of treasure in all its brilliance (or at least as brilliant as black and white cinematography could make it) still captures me to this day. I do not know if it is just because these are the stories of my youth or if there are other aspects to the stories that preserve their magic.

There are many stories I read as a child but these stories have endured in my imagination. I have only read them in translation and as I grow older I continue to read them in different translations. Some of them very good and others quite wanting. But no matter how bad the writing the stories usually come alive. This suggests to me that it is not the writing that gives life to a story but the ability of the story to enchant the reader in spite of the deficiencies of its language.