The Silver Tongued Devil
Stranger in a Strange Land
Save the Children
“Detail of the portrait of a young woman (so-called Sappho) with writing pen and wax tablets.”
Roman Painting from Pompeii
The painting is of Sappho and suggests, or ought to suggest, that not all “wise guys” are guys. One reason we read literature, listen to music, study paintings is because they help to make us wise. It is not enough, of course, to just engage the arts superficially; like any relationship they require we spend “quality time.” But if we read well, listen carefully, study closely there is much pleasure to be gotten and much insight to be gotten, insight into ourselves, into the world around us, and into those that fill our world. If nothing else they help us to see the limitations of our own experience, while helping us understand the experiences of others, especially those whose experiences are so foreign to our own experience.
The three songs suggest three varieties of wisdom. The first, The Silver Tongued Devil, revolves around a man who cannot be trusted, who also seems not to accept responsibility for his more irresponsible or self-serving behaviors. It is worth knowing, it is important to know, that there are those that will say anything to achieve their desires and we need to be on our guard against such people. Most of us have gone, or are going, through moments when our naiveté has blinded us to those that would exploit or manipulate us. The experience often makes us bitter, or cynical, or angry. Wisdom helps us to guard against being taken advantage of in this way and it also helps us to get through these experiences and regain our footing. It can also help assuage the pain. We learn from characters like Pip in Great Expectations who as a child is victimized by a vengeful woman or from J. Alfred Prufrock whose love song throws a bit of light on our own insecurities and feelings of alienation.
The second song underscores how wisdom sometimes separates us from the world around us, we feel like “strangers in a strange land.” Part of growing wise is learning to be comfortable with who we are, with our place in the world, with our aspirations. Part of growing wise is learning how to accept ourselves while resisting the temptation to be what others expect us to be, to no longer feel the need to “prepare a face for the faces that we meet.” Ben Jonson’s play Volpone revolves around characters that do all they can to manipulate the emotions of a man they believe to be dying in hopes of using his death to enrich themselves. They are wearing the face Volpone expects them to wear in hopes of manipulating him. Volpone, of course, is manipulating them to enrich himself. His first words in the play are “Good morning to the day and next my gold.” Those that fawn over Volpone get what they deserve, and Volpone gets what he deserves as well, while the innocent are kept from harm. Greed and avarice prove the undoing of all the villains. The play is a very funny play and also very wise.
The third song, Save the Children suggests one of the responsibilities of one generation for the generation that follows. Those that are wise among us realize that we have a responsibility to the children entrusted to us and that if our way of life is to be preserved the youth of our age need to be equipped to take over the world and prepare it for the generation that follows them. My parent’s generation provided for me and many of my generation the education and the upbringing we needed to make our way successfully into the world. Not all parents succeeded and probably no parent ever succeeds completely, but the desire to raise us well and the fidelity to their responsibilities made up for the mistakes and misunderstandings. Love, even when it is imperfect, heals many wounds. Of course, not all parents were responsible and not all parents raised their children well, some never tried. But as a generation, it seems to me, and this may only be because it is the product of my experience, they did well. I was allowed to grow and to play and to pursue my aspirations. I was given the education I needed to pursue those aspirations and to find the kind of work that is fulfilling and meaningful to me. I was allowed to become foolish so that I might grow in wisdom, and much of that foolishness was pursued under the protection of their wings.
Leo Tolstoy at His Desk
There was an article recently about a program using classic Russian Literature, “Crime and punishment: Juvenile offenders study Russian literature,” to help juvenile criminals change so that they could reenter the world without falling into old habits. The characters in these stories and the issues raised resonated with the experiences of these convicts. Perhaps the books played some of the role of a parent for these men and women. They offered the examples, provided some of the alternatives, and suggested ways in which the past could be overcome that might be lessons others learned from parents. Whatever the role played by these stories, they put many on the road to wisdom and recovery. And, of course, as mentioned earlier, not all parents parent well. Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice was a foolish, though well meaning parent; Creon in Antigone was foolish and cruel. The traits that colored their foolishness, the good intentions of the one and the cruelty of the other, had profound consequences for their children. We are all to one degree or another foolish, and for some “meaning to do well” is all of which they are capable.
Portrait of Jane Austen
Charles Barzun in “A Letter to My Grandfather” captures the essence of how one generation affects another. Charles Barzun talks about the importance of the influence of his grandfather, Jacque Barzun, on his, Charles’, personal development. A large part of that influence was due to the grandfather’s listening to the grandson, taking the grandson seriously and stepping up the depth and level of his advice and praise to correspond to younger man’s personal growth and maturity. When encouragement was what was most needed, there was encouragement, when encouragement needed to be spiced with some criticism and concerns he added criticisms and concerns, but in a way that would not dishearten, but would encourage and motivate improvement. This is a large part of wisdom, knowing what to say at the proper moment and the way to say it.
Death of Socrates
For the Western World Socrates is probably one of the more important models of wisdom. For the Eastern World Confucius was. They both understood that wisdom was something that was sought and rarely, if ever, fully attained. For one to think wisdom had been attained was seen as folly and often provoked ridicule. I think it still does. Perhaps wisdom is a bit like a mirage in the desert, we can always see it out in front us, but we can never quite reach it. Of course, there is a significant difference; the mirage is an illusion, while true wisdom is not. As a people I think we often hold before us examples of wisdom we try to emulate. The Catholic Church has its saints (the Protestant Church does as well, but they are identified differently). There are the philosophers, the “doers of good,” the heroes of our causes or our creeds, whether they be secular or divine. We need examples to follow and to imitate. For Confucius it was the ancestors, though they may not have always been deserving of emulation; for Socrates it was his conscience and his idea of justice as he understood it. He did not trust “the ancestors;” he had problems with the example set by the poets and philosophers (though some of this skepticism may have been attributed to him by his student Plato). Perhaps, the ultimate irony of Greek philosophy was Aristotle placing his teacher, Plato, among the poets that Plato wished to banish. Plato’s idealism became the foundation of the Humanities and Aristotle’s materialism became the foundation of the Sciences and the scientific method. They offer two paths to wisdom we still follow, while recognizing, of course, their limitations.
Poems, stories, plays, and essays shaped the way I see the world. Literature gave me insight into the human heart, my heart primarily, but others’ as well. There were a number of essays recently on this subject, “Perhaps Culture Is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities” by Leon Wieseltier, “Ave atque vale” by Donald Kagan, “Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics” by Sam Sacks, and “Idealism and Blindness: Of flaking paint and blemishes” by Leon Wieseltier. What these articles all have in common is the importance that they place on literature and the Humanities in shaping our society and the people we become. Many of the books that comprise our literary tradition are dismissed by our contemporary culture as no longer being relevant. Many today believe the storytellers, poets, and philosophers were addressing issues that belonged to a different time and that they no longer speak to us. Each of these articles suggests this view is false. They do not dismiss contemporary art and literature, they recognize that the Humanities are not a dead thing and that because they are living, they are growing and each generation, including our own, will make its contribution. Each of the articles by Wieseltier makes important points. The first, “Perhaps Culture Is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities” resonates with me because I am not much younger than he, like Wieseltier I saw myself as a part of the “counterculture” when I was in college. Though for me, and most of my counterculture friends, literature, and that included the classic literature produced by those long dead, shaped our view of what culture should be.
There are aspects of this counterculture that, looking back, seem naïve or insufficient. Other aspects I no longer believe, but much of what I have abandoned was motivated initially by a desire to correct what seemed broken in the culture. Many of those things still seem broken to me, I have not lost my liberal point of view, but I see the likes of St. Francis more than the “rabble rousers” of my youth as better models to follow; but then I have always been more attracted to the Dorothy Day side of the counterculture than the Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman side. After all, Jerry Rubin was in his thirties when he said we should “trust no one over thirty.” However it came to be this way, we have reached a place where those that would defend Culture and try to keep its influence alive have become the counterculture.
Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyama-dera
I also think Wieseltier’s discussion of idealism in “Idealism and Blindness: Of flaking paint and blemishes” is important. He tells of a man who was blind and could only imagine what the world looked like based on what he read and what he was told. This man was given an operation that gave to him his sight. When he saw what the world really looked like, it failed to live up to the world he had expected to see; its beauty paled when compared to the beauty he had imagined. The man ended up committing suicide because the world failed so dreadfully to live up to his expectations. Wieseltier suggests that this is the challenge that idealists face. The world as it is will never live up to the world the idealist imagines and strives to create. There has to be a dose of reality or hope will be lost. But that dose of reality need not kill our idealism; it should nourish our hope and inspire our effort. It nourishes hope because it keeps it grounded in what is, it inspires our effort because though we recognize the world is not as we would wish it, and may never be as we would wish it, we still have a goal towards which we can aspire and we can still work to make what is a bit better.
There was another article, “Big Data Meets the Bard,” that took a very different view of literature and of reading. The article examines a number of contemporary scholars that let computers do their reading for them. One of those interviewed, and working on a graduate degree in English, proudly stated (or so it seems to me) that he has not read a book in years and cannot even remember what the last book was that he read, though he believes it was science fiction. The computers crunch language looking for stylistic similarities between writers. Among other things they found that more writers were influenced, based on stylistic similarities, by Walter Scott than by Charles Dickens. This may be in fact true, but perhaps all this suggests is that Scott is more easily imitated than Charles Dickens. But who among us that reads literature for pleasure and enlightenment reads it for “stylistic similarities.” Those that read deeply read for the ideas, read for the development of characters and situations, they read for the beauty of the thing. Now certainly style plays a role, but is the role merely syntactic. I admit to being curious, about all this, to a certain fascination with how language is used by different writers; I am fascinated by the similarities and differences. But this is the “Trivia Pursuit” side of literature, it is little nuggets of information that are curious and interesting and might make for interesting anecdotes, but it misses the whole point of literature. From Homer to Cormac McCarthy no writer ever wrote to be read by a machine, that is not the audience they seek. It is interesting and fun to watch a machine beat a human at chess, but we admire the human a lot more than the machine and are far more impressed by what the human can do. If we are impressed by the machine it is because we marvel at what humans were able to do in building it. What machines cannot appreciate, let alone analyze, is the beautiful, is the working of the imagination, is the internal reflection that a work of art provokes.
How Books Can Open Your Mind
The video addresses another aspect of reading that machines cannot appreciate, at least none that I have encountered anywhere except in science fiction stories. I especially enjoyed how Lisa Bu compared books in their original language with how they were translated into other languages and what she suggests we can learn about our own language from how words we do not think twice about are rendered into another language. We often take words for granted. We know a few connotations and a word’s most common associations. But most words have a history, have multiple meanings, and are often selected because those multiple meanings add multiple colors to the work (this is especially true of poetry, but not just poetry). Nor is this playfulness unique to language. Shostakovich put themes and musical quotations into his music that were intended to insult Stalin, but which Stalin lacked the sophistication and musical knowledge to recognize. It was a dangerous game to play, and Shostakovich had his difficulties with the powers that be. Perhaps, because the nature of his musical jokes were so dangerous, he never said much about them and they have been largely inferred by musicologists studying the music after the fact. Can a joke falling on deaf ears still garner a laugh?
Jan Pietersz Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
The etching above is of Plato’s cave from The Republic. Those in the cave cannot really see or appreciate the beauty of the world outside or even the world inside the cave that is outside their range of vision or cannot be seen through the darkness. They live in a world of beauty and wisdom but cannot see it. There is a way out of the cave but they refuse to take it. The unknown is frightening. They see shadows that hint at what they are missing but they do not understand what the shadows portend. There is a short story by Lord Dunsany that reminds me of Plato’s cave. It is called “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” It describes a land that is perfect, everything one could want is provided. But people keep leaving to climb the mountain, Poltarnees, to see what is on the other side, to see the ocean. No one who leaves ever returns. I think of the “Inner Lands” as Plato’s cave. They provide security, they are known, they are safe, no one can come to harm. Life is easy and ease is, perhaps, an illusion, the comforts the Inner Lands provide are something like the shadows on the wall. This suggests that pursuit of “comfort” is an illusion that cannot ultimately satisfy; that to experience life fully and to live well we must be willing to put our comforts at risk. Perhaps the safe life, like the unexamined life, is not worth living, or at the very least, is settling for less.
The painting below is of flowers. Flowers do not really serve a purpose in a utilitarian sense. They are not a source of food (they can be I suppose, but their nutritional value is limited), they do not keep out the wind or the sun, they are not much good for anything other than to look at. They are beautiful. They add color to a drab world. Some of us buy flowers and put them on our tables. Others look at those who buy flowers as foolish, as the flowers cost money, sometimes a lot of money (many in Holland became bankrupt when the tulip market crashed). But they offer little in the way of a material return on the investment. They last a week or so and then must be thrown away and replaced. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with oil she was criticized because the oil was expensive and it could have been sold to buy food to feed the poor. But Jesus called it a beautiful thing. For those that appreciate it, beauty brings healing, it opens the heart and mind to forces in the universe that are greater than the material objects that surround us, greater than what the senses alone can perceive. Whether one is religious or not beauty helps us escape ourselves and points us to wisdom. The presence of beauty in the world suggests we were not placed here solely to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. If it does nothing else it reminds us that pleasure is a part of life and that part of our purpose here is to experience joy and delight.
Flower Beds in Holland
Vincent van Gogh
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon