Impressions

Vincent

Don McLean

Country Life

Delaney and Bonnie

 

Impressions

 

Portrait of a man with a hat with hands clasped together

Portrait of Patience Escalier

Vincent van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_086.jpg

 

There were a number of articles recently on poets. This is perhaps not surprising considering that April is National Poetry Month. There were articles on well known poets, W. H, Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Keats (“National Poetry Month: W. H. Auden,” “Working Girl,” and “Poet of Loss”) The Auden article was really a weeklong celebration of the poet’s work. There were also articles on less well known poets, Edward Thomas and R. S. Thomas (“Chapter and Verse: The Unknown Prose of a Great Poet” and “RS Thomas: Serial Obsessive by M Wynn Thomas – review”). These poets, with the possible exception of Auden and Millay, were known largely for their poems on nature and on those that worked in the natural world. One of R. S. Thomas’ early poems focuses on a farmer (or perhaps a fictionalized accumulation of a number of local farmers) from the rural parish he served as an Anglican priest:

A Peasant

Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,

Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,

Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.

Docking mangels, chipping the green skin

From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin

Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth

To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind—

So are his days spent, his spittled mirth

Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks

Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.

And then at night see him fixed in his chair

Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.

There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.

His clothes, sour with years of sweat

And animal contact, shock the refined,

But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.

Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season

Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,

Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress

Not to be stormed, even in death’s confusion.

Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,

Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.

The poem celebrates the simplicity of the peasant’s life. It also celebrates those that work the land and live in communion with the land. The painting by Van Gogh captures a French peasant (a gardener and shepherd) who, according to Wikipedia, Van Gogh painted because the farmer’s features resembled those of his father. There is a similarity of feeling between the landscapes of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters like Van Gogh and the poems of poets whose lyrics revolve around the natural world, the woods and the wilds, like R. S. Thomas’. 

Just as the paintings capture the painters’ impressions of the land rather than a photographic representation of the land, so also do these poets capture the impressions the land makes upon them more than the actual appearance of the land. The song by Don McLean celebrates these features, this Romantic view of nature, in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. The song by Delaney and Bonnie captures also captures a romantic view of nature and life in the country, though perhaps this romanticized view is some distance from the reality as captured in the R. S. Thomas poem. 

 

Painting of a landscaape with river and trees and mountains and an archway

A wooded river landscape with a man and his dog by a waterfall, ruins beyond

George Barrett, Sr.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circle_of_George_Barrett_-_A_wooded_river_landscape_with_a_man_and_his_dog_by_a_waterfall,_ruins_beyond.jpg

 

The paintings above and below are Romantic era paintings (or just before) that, though they are more realistic than those of the Impressionists, capture the wilderness in ways that evoke the poets of that era. In the painting above the ruin is evocative of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” The ruin in the painting suggests Nature’s power and its ability to reclaim its own as that which man has built is slowly broken down into its natural elements. What is often overlooked in these poems and paintings are the more dangerous aspects of this power nature has over us and the world in which we live. Aside from what may lurk in these woods there is also the dangers of the terrain itself. And though the likelihood of getting lost in the woods has diminished over time, other dangers such as bogs and rough water are still a threat. Wordsworth in one section of The Prelude addresses this ambivalence between nature’s beauty and nature’s dangerous power:

I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon’s utmost boundary; for above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace;’ lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat 

Went heaving through the water like a swan; 

When, from behind that craggy steep till then 

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge, 

As if with voluntary power instinct 

Upreared its bead. I struck and struck again, 

And growing still in stature the grim shape 

Towered up between me and the stars, and still, 

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own 

And measured motion like a living thing, 

Strode after me.  

What at first, in its beauty, filled the young poet with awe (he is describing a childhood experience) suddenly fills him with fear. It is for Wordsworth a transformational experience. In reflecting on this event he begins to form an attitude towards nature that recognizes both its sublime beauty and its great power. 

Where the painting above hints at the power of nature that Wordsworth suggests, the painting below by Gainsborough captures the more benign aspects of nature, its pleasant beauty and the rustics going about their business. The gathering clouds may suggest the ability of nature to interrupt our plans for leisure and recreation, but it is in the distance and far removed and more of an inconvenience than a threat.

 

A painting of a road by a bluff with water and cattle

Landscape with the Village Cornard

Thomas Gainsborough

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Gainsborough_009.jpg

 

Unlike the Impressionists, the “impressions” in these paintings come through the choice of subject and not as much in the style in which that subject is painted. Gainsborough and Barrett are realistic painters, they are trying to capture a more “photographic” kind of image, but the subjects of these paintings communicate attitudes, “impressions” of the natural world. It may even be that the scenes themselves never existed as they are painted but that they were largely composed in the imagination of the painters. Where the Impressionists painted what they saw but did not paint what they saw as they saw it, these painters paint what they do not see, but paint it as it would look if they had seen it. 

 

Painting of a mill during the day time

The Old Mill

Vincent van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_(1853-1890)_-_The_Old_Mill_(1888).jpg

 

The paintings above and below are both of “old mills.” Both painters are Dutchmen separated by about two hundred years of history. Both paintings capture an attitude toward the natural world. The brush strokes in the Van Gogh painting seem to suggest that nature is in motion, that it is visibly alive. In the Rembrandt painting the dirt, the stones, and the trees are sedentary and firmly planted in place, but the clouds and the water also suggest a world in motion. Both paintings depict people going about their business. Van Gogh’s mill looks to be a different kind of mill from Rembrandt’s and it may be from a different country as well. Van Gogh’s mill may be like the one Edward Thomas writes of in his poem “The Mill Water:”

 

The Mill-Water

ONLY the sound remains

Of the old mill;

Gone is the wheel;

On the prone roof and walls the nettle reigns.

 

Water that toils no more

Dangles white locks

And, falling, mocks

The music of the mill-wheel’s busy roar.

 

Pretty to see, by day

Its sound is naught

Compared with thought

And talk and noise of labour and of play.

 

Night makes the difference.

In calm moonlight,

Gloom infinite,

The sound comes surging in upon the sense:

 

Solitude, company,–

When it is night,–

Grief or delight

By it must haunted or concluded be.

 

Often the silentness

Has but this one

Companion;

Wherever one creeps in the other is:

 

Sometimes a thought is drowned

By it, sometimes

Out of it climbs;

All thoughts begin or end upon this sound,

 

Only the idle foam

Of water falling

Changelessly calling,

Where once men had a work-place and a home.

The poem meditates on an old mill as a ruin, a building that no longer serves the purpose for which it was created and the natural world, Nature, mocks the building as the sound of the rushing water draws our attention to the silence of the old mill’s machinery. Nature lives on and is slowly dismantling that which man has created; Nature is still at work while man’s machinery is silent and, in the words of Coleridge, “the sole unbusy thing.” 

 

Painting of a mill on a bluff by water at night time

The Mill

Rembrandt van Rijn

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Mill-1645_1648-Rembrandt_van_Rijn.jpg

 

Edward Taylor began as a writer of prose, and was best known in his lifetime for his books and essays on the English landscape. After reading some of Taylor’s prose Robert Frost encouraged Taylor to write poetry (Taylor dedicated his first book of poems to Frost). Today Taylor is better known for his poetry than he is for his prose, but he said that much of his poetry was adapted from his prose depictions of the English landscape. I do not know if the “The Mill Water” began as a prose piece or not, but it is not difficult to imagine that it might have. Thomas, like other poets of his generation, was killed in the First World War. Unlike the other war poets, though, none of his poems are about the war; they focus on the natural world, most often, ironically, on the peace and serenity of the natural world.\

 

Open space with trees and deer at sunset

The Park at Petworth House

J. M. W. Turner

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_015.jpg

 

The painting by Turner is of the deer park attached to a country manor house, Petworth House. It captures the world of the deer park in its natural beauty at sunset (it might be sunrise, but to me it “feels” like I am looking west, though of course it could just as easily be east). Though the focus of the painting is on a man made landscape there is nothing in the painting to identify it as man made and it could easily be mistaken for a “picturesque” scene from nature. Ben Jonson in his poem “To Penshurst” on the other hand focuses on the relationship between the natural world and the world that man has created:

 

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,

Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row

Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;

Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,

Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,

And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.

Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,

Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.

Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;

Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,

Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,

Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;

That taller tree, which of a nut was set

At his great birth where all the Muses met.

There in the writhèd bark are cut the names

Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames;

And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke

The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s Oak.

Thy copse too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,

That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer

When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends.

The lower land, that to the river bends,

Thy sheep, thy bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;

The middle grounds thy mares and horses breed.

There is the “ancient pile” and the “walks for health, as well as sport.” But there is also the deer, sheep, and the river, though there is the suggestion that the natural world has been made to conform to the will of man. In Turner’s painting the opposite seems to be suggested, that the world of man has been made to conform to the will of Nature. Jonson is a part of the Renaissance world, in Turner, on the other hand, we see early hints of what would become the Impressionist style of painting and the influence of the Romantic poets.

 

Painting of a bridge over a river

Wakefield Bridge and Chantry Chapel

Philip Reinagle

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wakefield_Bridge_and_Chantry_Chapel_by_Philip_Reinagle_1793.jpeg

 

The Romantic poets did not concern themselves, though, entirely with the wilderness. Wordsworth in one of his best known sonnets, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” captures the beauty of an urban landscape:

 

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The poem juxtaposes the beauty of the wilderness with the beauty of the city. It may just be me, but I think I detect a bit of “tongue in cheek” in the line “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air,” perhaps a nod to the polluted air of what is becoming the industrialized world. On this morning the smoke is not present, but the word “smokeless” suggests this might not be the air’s normal condition. That said, the poem does capture the beauty that can be found in that which humans create; there is the suggestion that we crave beauty and make our structures not just functional but pleasant to look at with a sublimity all their own. In Barrett’s painting above there can be seen in the ruin the outline of what was once a beautiful structure. In the battle between man and nature, nature may ultimately win, but that does not mean that man’s creations do not have a beauty of their own.

 

Painting of a busy water way with a bridge

Westminster Hall and Bridge

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wesminster_Hall_and_Bridge_edited.jpg

 

Suggested in all this is how we come to know and understand the natural world. There is not much (perhaps no) science in these paintings and poems, nothing to suggest how the natural world works and how it “manufactures” beauty. That which humans construct, the buildings, bridges, and other structures are designed and their construction overseen by architects who understand the laws of the natural world that their structures must contend with and, hopefully conquer, but also they have to have an “eye” for the beautiful, for the sublime. The paintings of the two bridges and the surrounding landscapes reveal not just a functional cityscape, but an attempt to create a cityscape that is pleasurable to look at. The buildings are not just boxes and the bridges do more than just span the water. 

The trees that have been planted around the buildings suggest a desire common to most of us to be surrounded not just by our own creations, but by the natural world as well. As human beings we have a desire to reconcile the natural world to our own world, the world we create to live in, that brings elements of the natural environment together with what we have built in a way that fosters community and cooperation. This is perhaps a bit idealized in that there are many within this community that are motivated solely by the products of trade, wealth and its generation, and the exploitation of labor perhaps to make the products of trade more personally profitable. But be that as it may, what we build, and what many of those “industrialists” build, are more than just functional. To be truly “happy,” truly at peace with the world, we desire the presence of the beautiful. This suggests that beauty and its presence in our lives may not always make us better people, but perhaps in contemplating beauty we are confronted with forces larger than ourselves and in ignoring these larger forces we become complicit in our moral deterioration. 

 

  The Philosophical Breakfast Club

Laura Snyder

TED Talk

 

The video begins by describing a meeting between two worlds, the world of the poet and the world of the scientist, it in fact tells us how the word “scientist” came to be invented. Where the world of the poet is more philosophical (or so Coleridge thought) and less concerned with the nuts and bolts of how nature works, the scientist is concerned with the running of the natural world. The video suggests that the poet, the philosopher, and the scientist all have the best interest of the human race at heart. It suggests they are all in their own way attracted to the natural world and to natural beauty. The members of the “Philosophical Breakfast Club” believed that science should make the world more understandable and that scientists should not profit from their own corner of the intellectual market place, but that their findings should be made public and available to all for free. Those, like harbor masters, that profited from their specialized knowledge were looked upon with disfavor. The public interest, not to mention public safety, was best served by making this information public and readily available. Then as well as now, there was much talk about who actually pays for this information that serves so well the public interest. The workman is worthy of his hire, and the work must be paid for by someone, and than, like now, the role of the public and private sectors in funding this work that serves the public good was an issue.

Of course poets, philosophers, and painters are not just concerned with the natural world, or only that part of the natural world occupied by rivers, woods, and animals. They also contemplate the human heart and much of the best poetry, art, and philosophy revolves around relationships. Shakespeare in his Sonnet XXIII writes about love, as is expected of a sonnet:

 

As an unperfect actor on the stage,

Who with his fear is put beside his part,

Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,

Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;

So I, for fear of trust, forget to say

The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,

And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,

O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.

O! let my looks be then the eloquence

And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,

Who plead for love, and look for recompense,

More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.

O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:

To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

One thing that initially struck me about this sonnet is that it begins with an observation from Shakespeare’s world, the world of the theater. He gives us a picture of a poorly prepared actor struggling with his lack of preparation and with “stage fright.” Anyone who has spent time in the theater is familiar with this sensation. Shakespeare than observes that strong emotions, like rage, when given free reign over us, weaken us. He then speaks of love and how his intense love has made him distrustful of his words and asks his eyes and the silence to speak for him. Poetry, whether it is focused on the natural world or the natural man, gives voice to our emotions, to our insights into the world and into ourselves. Its eloquence proceeds from passion, but as Wordsworth observed, passion that is under the poet’s control. Poetry, and the other arts, gives voice to our passions, but it only succeeds when we are not controlled by our passions. It is perhaps, the most intensely felt and, when done well, the most intensely disciplined acts of human expression.

 

Painting of  houses on a sandy hill top

     

Catterline

Anna King

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Catterline.jpg

Tradition

Penelope

Loreena McKennitt

 

Tradition

 

Prophetic looking man toucing the mankind imparting wisdom and knowledge

Portion of Wisdom, with Light and Sound, located above the entrance of 30 Rockefeller Center (GE Building), New York City

Lee Lawrie

Photograph by Jaime Ardiles-Arce

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RocCt-LeeLawrie-Wisdom.jpg

 

  

The song “Penelope” tells of an aspect of the story of Odysseus that Homer left out, it imagines what Penelope was thinking while waiting for Odysseus to return home. It is a song that has its roots in the “Classical Tradition.” There was a review recently, “Glories of Classicism,” of a new book titled The Classical Tradition. Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner wrote the article. Greenblatt also wrote an article, “Call of the Wild,” on the Shakespearean influences found in the children’s stories of Maurice Sendak. What these articles underscore is the impact of the Classical Tradition on not only modern culture, but the various threads throughout history that have been woven together to create modern culture. The review of The Classical Tradition identifies commonplace things, like the asterisk (“*”) that have their origins in some corner of the classical world. I remember reading a few years ago about the origin of the “&” symbol. It is made by running together the two letters “E” and “t,” which spell “Et.” And “et” is Latin for “and.” The symbol in fact is not a symbol at all, but the conjunction itself. What these suggest is that the classical tradition surrounds us in some of the most mundane aspects of our culture. 

The photograph above is of a relief panel over the entrance to the Rockefeller Center. The image is fashioned in an Art Deco style, the “Modern Art” of the day, but its subject evokes the Judea-Christian tradition with its quote from Isaiah, “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy time” and an image that suggests the prophet directly above. The figure, though, is also Zeus like and offers, perhaps a connection to classical Greek and Roman Mythology as well. In the lines and colors of the Art Deco movement is found the most ancient of classical and religious traditions. 

One example of the influence of the ancient and modern, the classical tradition and the contemporary view is found in the novel Frankenstein. At one point in the novel the creature finds a trunk that has fallen into the road. He opens it up and among other things he finds three books, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Each represents a different age in the development of human thought, the Classical period and the Classical Education, the Renaissance and 17th century reimagining of the classical tradition, and Romanticism and contemporary view of the world. It is worth noting that both Classical and Renaissance influences find their way into this last “age.” Percy Shelley wrote a narrative poem with the Prometheus, a character from Greek Mythology, as the central character, William Blake did illustrations for Paradise Lost and devoted one of his narrative poems to Milton and Milton’s influence. Keats wrote poems devoted to Greek statuary, pottery, and a Renaissance translation of Homer.

But each book also represents a different aspect of human development. Plutarch’s Lives is integral to the creature’s intellectual and moral development, he learns from this book both to importance of rational thought and of character; what it means to be noble and virtuous. From Goethe’s Werther is integral to his emotional development. From this book he learns what it means to experience emotion and the important role passion plays in a rich and full life and its importance to experience fully the beautiful and the sublime. From Milton and Paradise Lost he learns about himself; what it means to be a created creature and the obligation of the creator to what he or she has created. He learns from this book self-awareness and begins to understand himself as a unique human being. 

These three books represent these three stages in human development and underscore the importance of tradition, especially a literary and artistic tradition, to the full development of the individual. Whitman and Emerson in their poems and essays address the importance of the past and knowledge of the past to the creation of a rich and productive present, that to make a real mark on the present we need to know the influences that produced the present. Each generation as it recreates the world in which it lives builds off what came before.

 

  

The New Zollhof

Frank Gehry

Photograph by Filippo from Milano, Italy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:D%C3%BCsseldorf,_Medienhafen.jpg

 

The photographs above and below are of a very modern building and a fairly ancient one. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a product of the Italian Renaissance and the return to Classical motifs that were at the heart of the Renaissance. The building by Frank Gehry evokes the Leaning Tower with leaning towers of its own that suggest the architecture of an earlier age while at the same time with its curved lines and undulating surfaces suggesting the architecture of an animated cartoon city. The building is on the one hand modern, as was the tower in Pisa when it was built, while at the same time alluding to a long architectural tradition. This is often how it is with tradition, it is a part of who we are whether we acknowledge it or not. The song tells an ancient story with a modern sensibility. The relief sculpture reminds us that the ancient and the modern often live together in our imagination and often shape the directions our imaginations take. The buildings remind us that we want the spaces in which we live and work to be beautiful and that our ideas of beauty have ancient antecedents. 

 

Photograph of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Guglielmo (According to Giorgio Vasari)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leaning_tower_of_pisa_2.jpg

 

  

The Greenblatt and Koerner article reflects on the difficulty we have with tradition and with how it is labeled. The Classical Tradition represented in the book under review is the Greek and Roman classical tradition, but it acknowledges that other parts of the world also have their classical traditions, that are each unique and that form the cultural touchstones of the people that evolved out of those traditions. These traditions play a significant role in shaping the identity of the people that belong to those traditions. There are areas of overlap between traditions but there are also areas of significant difference. It is one of the struggles that we have that people who lived a few centuries ago did not have to struggle with so much. 

Once upon a time a person could grow up in the West without being confronted with the traditions of the East, though, of course, these other traditions could be sought out. I remember being surprised the first time I read Thoreau’s book Walden to discover so many references to the philosophies of India, China, and other parts of Asia. I thought the East was something we had discovered for the first time in the 1970’s because the culture of the day presented it as a new and novel thing. But with communications being what they are today it really is not possible, or at least it is not easy, to live oblivious to the traditions of other parts of the world and modern culture is in more and more ways becoming a world culture. As can be seen in the photograph below, the same Art Deco movement that employed Biblical and Classical Greek and Roman motifs in the image above also absorbed into itself, when it went to India, the cultural motifs of Asia as well. The two “guardians” at the front door of this building also suggest, to me, the guardians at the entrance to that part of Middle Earth that the Fellowship of the Ring visited in the recent film of that story. 

 

Phototgraph of an office building in India with two statues on either side of the doors of mythic women

“New India Assurance Building”

Master, Sarhe and Bhuta, with N.G. Parsare, 1936

Photograph by Colin Rose

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NewIndiaAssuranceBdg.jpg

 

It ought to be possible to enjoy and appreciate the cultural heritages of other parts of the world without abandoning or trivializing our own. Each generation retells the stories it inherits from its past in their own way, the traditions must be personalized if they are to survive. This does not mean we have to embrace those aspects of the tradition that seem out of step with the modern world, but it is difficult to find our footing at all if we abandon all tradition. There is a reason why stories resonate and live on after their time, and not all stories live. Most stories vanish with the generation that created them, but each generation produces stories that become a part of that string of narratives that finds its way back to Homer and Gilgamesh and the Torah, and all the others. Paul Harris asked in a recent article, “Why Is Superman Still So Popular?” He is a comic book character. The language with which his stories are told is not “elevated” by any stretch of the word. The artwork is not exemplary, though it is fun to look at. But the character himself is Herculean and for that reason he resonates, he is a hero of our age and his story does not need to be well written to resonate. We want heroes; we need heroes. That is why the medieval knight becomes the cowboy and why the cowboy becomes the superhero.

 

Marble frieze of men on horseback from the Classical Greek period

“Elgin Marble Friezes”

Unknown

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elgin_marbles_frieze.jpg

 

The photographs above and below are of two of the Elgin Marbles. These marbles have been at the center of a dispute for many, many years between the governments of England and of Greece. To who do these cultural artifacts belong. They are clearly Greek in origin and depict characters and events from Greek mythology, but that mythology and that culture have become a part of the English culture. Brutus, the Roman who allegedly founded Britain was a direct descendant of Aeneas who escaped Troy and eventually founded Rome. This in itself is probably not a strong enough claim for England to deprive Greece of a significant piece of its culture, but it is enough to create a desire to own and to keep the art. Keats wrote of these marbles:

  

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality

   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

   And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep

   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep

Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

  

These marbles may not be English but they certainly touched Keats. One of his best known poems is on another Greek artifact, an urn. There is something unquantifiable in the way a work of art, from whatever tradition, touches the human heart and the human spirit. This is why it endures and will probably always endure. There may be those that see in cultural traditions, both their own and those others, a threat to something they believe and they go about trying to dismantle or trivialize the culture. But a tradition that has lasted for thousands of years is not easily flung aside. 

 

Pieces of marble statuary of men from the Classical Greek period

“Elgin Marbles East Pediment”

Unknown

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elgin_Marbles_east_pediment.jpg

 

There was a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Quest for Permanent Novelty,” that speaks of the human desire to create a work of art that creates a moment of awe that lasts forever; a work of art that can be experienced each time with the same enthusiasm and wonder with which it was experienced the first time. I was told in high school that no one today could experience Hamlet for the first time, that the story is too well known and too much a part of who we are that even our first reading or viewing of the play is a re-visitation. And I suppose there is truth to this. But the first reading of a story or the first exposure to any work of art is rarely the first “experience” of that work of art. The first time I heard the opera Don Giovanni I wanted to run out of the room (I couldn’t because I was in college in a music appreciation course). But there was a first time that I heard this opera and was touched and mesmerized by it and that, for me, is my first experience, the first time my eyes (and ears) were opened to the majesty of this music. That experience is probably a “one time” experience for that work, though subsequent experiences with this opera have also been deeply moving and well worth the time invested in listening to it. And it is not that these subsequent hearings of the opera do not bring new revelations; there is something new to be found with each hearing. But these hearings do not produce the same kind of alchemy that the first hearing produced. 

The article suggests that when we are enraptured by a work of art, time stands still, we are oblivious to its passage and it is this “stopping of time” that we crave and that we want the work to produce each time we encounter it. But of course it can’t. Time won’t stand still. Michael W. Clune, the author of the article, discusses Proust’s view of art:

But perhaps art can do something other than present an object for our experience. Perhaps it can transform the subject of our experience. “The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth,” he continues, “would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another.” Marcel thinks that we have the ability, when studying some works of art, to identify with, to empathize with, the creator’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions. Art can function as a special kind of communication; and what is communicated, he suggests, is the way the world appears to the artist.

And it is in “getting inside” the artist’s mind that time is truly transformed and the world is truly changed. Everything is made new not because everything is new but because we look at everything through “new eyes.” But the real value of art, according to the article, is in what it teaches about time and how we experience it. The article suggests the importance of “slowing the clock” a bit if we are to live fully. We experiment with stopping time, and our experiments always end in failure. But it is a failure that brings its own pleasure and comfort. It is good to stop the clock for a time, but not forever. 

Clune also looks at how the one place where “art” succeeds at stopping time is in Orwell’s Oceana in 1984 and it is a horrible thing. It is the dream of tyrants to control what the people think and to regulate their experiences with art and literature. Ursula Le Guin in an article on reading, “Staying Awake,” concludes:

So why don’t the corporations drop the literary publishing houses, or at least the literary departments of the publishers they bought, with amused contempt, as unprofitable? Why don’t they let them go back to muddling along making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties, while plowing most profits back into taking chances on new writers? Since kids coming up through the schools are seldom taught to read for pleasure and anyhow are distracted by electrons, the relative number of book-readers is unlikely to see any kind of useful increase and may well shrink further. What’s in this dismal scene for you, Mr. Corporate Executive? Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?

Is it because you think if you own publishing you can control what’s printed, what’s written, what’s read? Well, lotsa luck, sir. It’s a common delusion of tyrants. Writers and readers, even as they suffer from it, regard it with amused contempt.

There have always been, and probably always will be, people who will preserve the stories, keep the traditions alive. One cannot say that every great book that some tyrant has tried to suppress has survived in spite of the tyrant’s efforts, there are probably a great many great books that have been silenced, but no tyrant has, so far, succeeded in stifling “the classical tradition” in its entirety and it always comes back to haunt them and delight the rest of us, at least those of us that have a mind for such delights.

 

How Movies Teach Manhood

Colin Stokes

TED Talks

 

The video clip talks about the power of stories and the ability of a story to shape the people we become. The two stories Colin Stokes devotes the most time to are the films The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. Both of these stories revolve around the conflict between good and evil. They suggest it is not enough to confront evil, but that this confrontation has to happen in the right way. I do not know if The Wizard of Oz is indeed a better film than Star Wars or that its message is healthier, but I do think Stokes raises important points about the nature of conflict, of wisdom, and of leadership. The motifs in these are classic, they tell in different ways stories we have been telling throughout most of human history. The names change, the vehicles used to get around are different, but the basic issues are the same. The characters, events, and themes are archetypal. There are principles that must be defended; there are actions that are clearly wrong. We always have to make choices about where we stand in relation to the conflicts of our day. 

 

Statue of an angelic being embrcing a woman

Psyche revived by the kiss of Love

Antonio Canova

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Psyche_revived_Louvre_MR1777.jpg

 

The statue is of Cupid and Psyche, but it contains elements of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast” (though this is an angelic beast). There is a similar “Sleeping Beauty” story found in Wagner’s opera Siegfried,” where Siegfried awakens the sleeping Brunhilde. It is not likely that these stories ever had much contact with each other, that the original tellers of these tales were familiar with other earlier tales that told a similar story. It is probably that the similarities between stories arise out of something that lives within the human psyche that needs the nourishment these stories offer; that there is perhaps something sacramental about them (and stories in general), that they are visible signs of an invisible grace.

 

Abstract depiction of a minataur

“Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, Chicago, Illinois, US”

Pablo Picasso

Photograph by J. Crocker

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:2004-09-07_1800x2400_chicago_picasso.jpg

Still Life with Words

From Under Milkwood

Dylan Thomas

 

Still Life with Words

 

Painting of sars and city lights reflected on water

Starry Night over the Rhone

Vincent Van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Starry_Night_Over_the_Rhone.jpg

 

There was an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, “Poetry Makes You Weird,” suggesting that reading poetry affects us in strange ways; it causes us not only to see things in ways we had not considered before, but through these odd ways of looking reveals what is real or some hidden truth about the thing. Poetry opens our eyes to aspects of the world around us that are not easy to see or, perhaps, are just taken for granted and are not consciously seen or heard though they are right in front of us. There is a sense that this is true about all Literature and is part of what makes the study of Literature valuable. 

There were a series of articles recently in The Guardian about “darkness” in literature that illustrates this point. One of these articles, “Darkness in literature: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas,” looked at the opening lines to Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milk Wood. I have enjoyed this play from the first time I read it (not least because the name of the mythical Welsh town where the play takes place, Llareggub, is “buggerall” spelled backwards, an expression my father was wont to use on comic occasions). The opening lines describe the dark of night in the early hours of the morning.

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

These lines describe the “blackness” in four different ways, “bible-black,” “sloeblack,” “slow, black,” and “crowblack.” Each of the descriptions evokes a different quality of the darkness or gives it a different connotation. The first, “bible-black,” uses the cover color of most Bibles (this may not be as true today as it was in the 1950’s) to suggest to the reader that there is a holy or sacred quality to the darkness. Thomas’ short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” concludes, “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept” that give to the night this same sacred quality. The black leather covers of many family Bibles might also be contained in this image suggesting there is a leathery, dimpled texture to the look and feel of the night and that it has a rough, tactile quality; that the surface of the night is not a smooth surface. 

The second description, “sloeblack,” suggests the darkness of the sea at night has the quality of “sloe” the fruit of the blackthorn bush, a shinny, shimmering blackness, not unlike, perhaps, the color of the water in the painting below. This image also works in conjunction with the third description of darkness, “slow, black.” When spoken from the stage the two sound alike, “sloeblack” and “slow, black” would be almost indistinguishable if it were not for the comma separating “slow” and “black.” So while these descriptions used together suggest on the one hand very different things about the darkness of the sea, the homophonic quality of the sounds of the description lends emphasis to the slowness with which the tides move the water. Of course it is not the water’s blackness that is “slow” but the motion of the water itself, and the slowness of the motion probably contributes to the shimmering quality of the water that is suggested by the color of the fruit. 

 

Paintnig of a very dark night with the moon behind a cloud, over a river

Moonlit Night on the Dniepr

Arkhip Kuindzhi

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Archip_Iwanowitsch_Kuindshi_006.jpg

 

The final description, “crowblack,” adds a disturbing quality to the night and to the sea. The crow is probably among the blackest of black birds and so it evokes well the color of the sea in the night. But the crow is also a carrion bird and associated with dead things and evokes death, or more properly in context of the play, foreshadows the role death plays in the play. But there is another quality to the crow, though I do not know if Thomas was aware of this. In many New England folk paintings the crow is a common feature and its connotations in the paintings in which it appears often seem to be positive, though I am at a loss to explain why this is or what the crow represents in these paintings. There are also children’s rhymes in which the crow is good or bad depending on how many crows appear, one for example is bad news, but two mean mirth and five mean riches. 

The “crow” in “crowblack” might also suggest the crowing of the rooster that signifies the break of day, in which case the image might also foreshadow the coming of day. The Encyclopedia of Folk Art mentions the popularity of a crowing rooster as a tattoo among sailors. The Angel Gabriel according to legend heard the cock’s crow as the word of God and the tattoo of the crowing rooster was seen as a way of invoking God’s protection. 

The point of all this, though, is that words are suggestive and poets use words with many of their connotations in mind because they are so suggestive and can take the reader in so many directions at once. As the article referenced above suggests, reading poetry makes us weird because it causes us to see the world in ways that seem strange or even nonsensical to those that do not read poetry or whose eyes are closed to what the poetry suggests. But for those that grasp the insights the world becomes more magical, more mysterious, more wonderful.

 

Still life painting with a skull on books with watch and quill

Vanitas Still Life

Pieter Claesz

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Claesz_002.jpg

 

The images in the painting above suggest that this quirky way of looking at life and the way it is lived is not restricted to poetry, but is part of what makes great art great, part of what leads to think and reflect as a result of our encounters with the sublime and the beautiful. In this instance the painting evokes the poetry of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” Eurozine published recently a discussion, “Proust Is Important for Everyone,” between Mario Vargas Llosa and Giles Lipovetsky about “High Culture,” the art, literature, and music we learn about in school and pop art, or the “society of the spectacle.” On the one hand high culture is seen as part of what defines a culture and a people, it reveals to us a bit of who we are as members of a certain society or nation. On the other it has often been used by totalitarian regimes as a vehicle to further their attempts at world conquest and the worst kinds of oppression, especially of people who are not a part of the “high culture” in question. But Llosa and Lipovetsky also agree that Literature, books like those that Proust wrote, help define and promulgate democracy, that one reason dictators often begin by burning books is because they want to silence these books and limit their influence. They also agree that the “society of the spectacle” often packages these ideas in ways that are more accessible to the general population. 

So there is a place for enjoying the culture of the day while continuing to be enriched by the culture that has been handed down to us. But with that said, there is a more universal quality to “High Culture” a quality that causes it to outlive its own time and speak through time. That there is value to taking the time to learn how to appreciate and understand this culture because it has proven itself to be durable and that long after the culture of the day has been forgotten this other culture that has followed us through time will continue to wield its influence. Of course it is also difficult to say which aspects of popular culture will be woven into the “High Culture.” Dickens was a popular novelist before he was cultural icon.

 

Painting of a houses across the street from an open field

Cityscape I

Richard Diebenkorn

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cityscape_I_360.jpg

 

Paintings often open up the world in ways similar to poetry. This is often more true of impressionistic and expressionistic paintings in that they often suggest aspects to what is seen that realistic depictions do not, just as the odd and quirky images in poetry open the things they describe in unusual ways. The painting above is of a city; at least that is what the title suggests. But where on one side of the street we see the houses closely packed, as we would expect to see them in the city, on the other we see open fields and suggestions of cultivation and farming. The two sides of the street seem at odds with one another and perhaps they are. Or perhaps something along the lines of Wordsworth’s poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” is being suggested, where the beauty of a London morning is juxtaposed with an English countryside:

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The sleeping city is compared to a serene countryside. Just as in the poem, in the painting the two images are on the one hand a stark contrast, but on the other the image of each cause us to see the other differently. The city, usually associated with noise and hurry, is given the tranquility of a quiet pasture, field, or wood. Of course, in the painting something more sinister may be suggested. The shadows cast by the houses fall upon the open field foreshadowing, perhaps, the coming urban sprawl. Wordsworth’s poem describes the city in the morning, but the shadows in the painting, seeming to spread eastward, would suggest the light is coming from a westward, setting sun, evoking the evening, the ending, perhaps, of an era.

 

Painintg of a ship sailing down a waterway as the sun rises

Chichester Canal

J. M. W. Turner

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chichester_Canal_(1828).jpg

 

Paintings that are more realistic in their representations often offer equally revealing insights. In the painting above we see also town and country juxtaposed, though the town is in the distance far from the quiet of the canal. Though, the large ship in the background also evokes the presence of the city, as ships carry cargo from one major world port city to another and the small boat in the foreground is a more pastoral vessel. The painting may suggest that the product of the work done in the quiet countryside finds its way into the hold of the larger more “urban” vessel and that town and country not only touch each other but depend on each other as well. The purpose of a canal was to provide, before trucks, planes, and railroads, a means for transporting goods from one town to the next. There is also a “ghostly” quality to the ship that is shrouded a bit by mist that may suggest the city “haunts” the countryside. Of course it may not be the purpose of the painting to suggest anything, but only to capture a snapshot of a moment, everything else being just the products of the viewers imagination and far from the painters original intent. 

There was an article in Aeon, “The Great Swindle,” that suggests contemporary artists and their art, as well as the critic that give these artists their audience, have betrayed the arts. Roger Scruton, the author of the article, believes these artists and critics are not frauds, but have deceived themselves as effectively as they are deceiving others. He suggests the critics use language in convoluted ways, using many words to say very little; that the language is unnecessarily opaque and that it depends on this opaqueness to give itself the appearance of intellect and depth. As long as this art and criticism is confined to academic circles, the article contends, it does not do much harm as the real work of culture takes place where it is produced in literature, art, and music. The problem for Scruton is that libraries and museum that should know better are being taken in as well; that these academic critics deceive themselves first and then go on to deceive others. He does not see malice in any of this, just poor judgment and bad art, or kitsch. The artists and critics he identifies make “fakeness” the content of their art, that they are not “kitsch” so much as representations of the “kitschiness” of modern culture. It is difficult to know how far this argument can be taken. I agree with Scruton in that I think much in modern art and literature is shallow and “kitschy.” 

But I also know that when I was younger and was first exposed to the contemporary art of my youth it struck me as ugly or offensive, certainly as inartistic. As I have grown and looked at some of this art from my youth I have discovered more to it than I originally thought; Schoenberg and Klee no longer appear as inelegant and artless as I once thought. Some of what appears to us as shallow or lacking art is just the result of our not having trained ourselves to read and listen and observe according to the demands of the work. Scruton addresses this in his article saying there is a difference between the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and the likes of John Cage. This may be true, but I still wonder if the problem isn’t to some degree with me as well; that I need to learn new ways of hearing, reading, and seeing if I am to appreciate that which I do not appreciate at present. Still, Rebecca West in an article written many years ago for The New Republic, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” talks about the importance of making critical judgments about the cultural work a nation’s artists produce. That part of keeping a culture alive is the maintaining of a cultural standard.

 

Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans

Lemon Anderson

TED Talk

 

The video clip captures the way in which a young poet matured into a young poet. Whatever one thinks of his poetry (I found it moving and disturbing as good poetry often is), what Lemon Anderson has to say about language and the poet’s ability to make words sing is at the heart of poetry and is its lifeblood. He also captures that aspect of poetry that comes alive in performance. Not all poets are as successful at bringing their poems to life as others, but there is a quality to good poetry that depends upon hearing the words spoken and how the spoken words sound together. M. A. Abrams in a recent book, Fourth Dimension of a Poem, addresses this quality in poetry. He names a number of poets he has heard read their work, from T. S. Eliot to Dylan Thomas, who all read very differently but who all brought to life aspects of their poems that are lost when they are read quietly off the page. Eliot is much more subdued in the reading of his poetry than is Thomas. But even though Eliot’s reading does not have the passionate intensity of Thomas’, hearing the words spoken brings them to life and the life of the words infect the reading and gives it life as well. 

Poetry touches me at an emotional level before I begin to understand what it means intellectually. This to me captures the importance of teaching poetry, and all literature works this way to a certain degree. Literature is inherently reflective, it turns us inward, it makes us consider things, at least it does if we read well. Paul Krugman in an article for The Guardian, “Paul Krugman: Asimov’s Foundation novels grounded my economics,” writes about how he was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy to study economics. Granted, Asimov is not “High Culture” but it is imaginative literature and it stirred more than the escapist desires that often provoke the consumption of much of popular culture. Neal Stephenson has also written about how the science fiction of the 1930’s to 1950’s inspired many of those that went on to design the rockets and technology that put a man on the moon. Reading literature, even the simplest kinds of stories, teaches the imagination to see what does not yet exist and helps to shape the future.

We use the same skill to read the newspaper that we use to read a poem by Emily Dickinson. We use the same skill to read an instruction manual or a memo at work that we use to read Proust. There is a sense that this is as it should be, because Proust is an instruction manual for life, Proust is a memo to our imagination calling it to wake up and get to work. Dickinson is a newspaper for the soul and spirit; she wakes up what is often dormant inside of us, or affirms it if it is awake. But we only have to learn to read words to read a memo or a manual or a newspaper, we have to learn to read our hearts and spirits and imaginations to read Proust or Dickinson (in addition to growing our vocabularies a bit). 

Reading the newspaper and its cousins makes us knowledgeable, teaches us facts we need to know, so it is important to read such things. But there is more to life than this; there are much more important things in life than this. Knowledge is only as important or as valuable as the work our imaginations give it to do. Both file clerks and poets share a knowledge of the alphabet, but what separates one from the other is what their imaginations can do with what they know.

 

Man sitting in a boat on the banks of a river contemplating nature

Zhou Maoshu Appreciating Lotuses

Kano Masanobu

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zhou_Maoshu_Appreciating_Lotuses.jpg

Making Sense

From “After the Gold Rush”

Neil Young

 

Making Sense

 

Photograph of the silent film actor Buster Keaton reading a book

“Buster Keaton reading”

Unknown

http://books0977.tumblr.com/image/35735549706

 

Helen Vendler reflected recently, “Writers and Artists at Harvard,” on what a university, Harvard specifically but the shoe fits many other institutions as well, should consider when considering which students to admit to the college. The most desired students tend to be those with the best transcripts and the greatest potential to become the next leaders of the free world. By these criteria the next generation of top lawyers, doctors, economists and the like are the most sought after because these are most likely to become the leaders of tomorrow. But what lasting impact will the leaders of tomorrow have on the world they come to lead; how many of the leaders of tomorrow will become the yardstick by which the world they leave to their heirs will be measured. She considers the Harvard graduates of the past century that still have an impact on the world today. Most of them are poets, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and e. e. Cummings. The article also points out that these poets that went on to have such an impact on our culture, were not shoe-ins for admittance and only got in due to special circumstances and that were they to apply today may not have been admitted at all. She also points out that they made their living doing the kinds of things Harvard often prepares their graduates to do, help run the wheels of commerce.

 

Prof. Vendler goes on to ask if anyone would remember the siege of Troy if Homer had not written about it or if anyone would remember Guernica if Picasso hadn’t painted it? She suggests the further away we get from current events the less likely those events will be remembered and those that are remembered might be remembered more because of the use writers, painters, and musicians of the day made of them than for the events themselves. There was also a recent article on Alexander Von Humboldt, “Humboldt in the New World,” a German scientist, who collaborated with a Frenchman, and traveled on a Spanish passport. He wanted to be among the greatest scientists of his day, and his ability with language (and with languages) helped him to largely succeed. He made some important discoveries, but it was his ability to write about these discoveries that got him attention. There is an irony that many of his ideas have been superseded by the science of our day, but, like Freud, because of the power of his language there is still an interest in reading him. In Humboldt’s case the stories that surround the getting of the science are adventure stories in their own right even if there were no science involved. 

 

The song, “After the Gold Rush” reflects on what stays with us as we look back. One review of the record when it was first released suggested that the title alludes to Young’s departure from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (or such is my memory of Robert Hilburn’s review in the Los Angeles Times) implying that now Young had “gotten the gold” he could do more of what he preferred doing. Personally I have some doubts about this, because Young seems to value the work he did with the group, but if true the story underscores Vendler’s thesis that there are more important things than chasing gold and many of those more important things will be remembered long after the gold has been squandered. 

 

The photograph of Buster Keaton suggests a number of things to me. First, that artists in one media appreciate the work of artists in other media (though, of course, Keaton could be reading anything and even though the book is a thick one and in hard covers, it isn’t necessarily a quality publication). But art also provokes reflection and it is clear that Keaton is thinking about something, though again that something may not be found in the book. The photograph also reminds me of how often paintings and photographs capture people in the act of reading. I do not know the statistics on this, only that in the anecdotal evidence of my experience this is a very common theme. Reading a book sends a certain message to others about how we see ourselves, and being photographed in that experience enables that message to speak, potentially, to a larger audience. There was a recent article by Joseph Epstein, “You Are What You Read,” that suggests what we read speaks volumes about who we are as people. The essay is a review of a book on Proust that sees Proust’s large book as being largely about people who read and want to be seen reading. We are told that reading is falling out of fashion and that the book as an art form is in decline. Perhaps this is true and the paintings of the future will focus on other things. But when in the future the history of our day is written, who will most likely need a footnote to explain themselves, the bond trader and market managers that make us prosperous or the artists that at least attempt to make us wise. Socrates does not need a footnote, but those that condemned him do, as they are almost universally forgotten, their names at any rate are forgotten even if because of Socrates their actions are remembered.

 

Photograph of a boy reading a book amongst rubble during the London blitz

“Boy Sits amid the Ruins of a London Bookshop”

AP Photo

http://books0977.tumblr.com/image/25265245067

 

The photographs above and below are of London during World War II and the German blitz of the city. They suggest the importance that books hold on the human imagination. A boy is reading a book in the ruble. Why in the ruble? Perhaps if he were to take it home he would be seen as a looter and there may be consequences for looting. But the book seems to be important to the boy and where he reads that book does not look very comfortable. Though the bombing of London during the war terrorized the people, that terror did not totally subdue curiosity or the life of the imagination. The photograph below is of men scanning the shelves of a bombed out library. Again the books have captured their attention and it is not likely, though certainly possible, that these men are only interested in reading for information, in just finding stuff out. Graham Greene in his novel The Human Factor mentions that during the war many in England returned to the books of Anthony Trollope because they wanted to escape into an earlier age when things were simpler and more peaceful, or at least appeared to be simpler and more peaceful. I imagine Greene had the Barsetshire type books more in mind than the Palliser ones, but perhaps not.

 

Photograph of two men looking at books in the rubble of a library bombed during the London blitz

“Library in London just after the Blitz”

Found in: Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. It has the photo on the cover and also inside. It is apparently the Holland House library in 1941.

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?p=35388454

and

http://thestack.wordpress.com/

 

Books, paintings, music, film and the other arts have the ability to renew and invigorate the spirit, even if they cannot change our circumstances. Nations are often more concerned with preserving their cultural heritage than in preserving the nation’s wealth. Great sums of money have been spent on libraries and schools, and museums that might have been put to other uses or saved for a rainy day. But it is often this cultural heritage that people are most proud of and contributes most significantly to their national identity. The English people, for the most part, revere Jonathan Swift more than any of the leaders he mocked and ridiculed. It puzzles me that those that oversee the nation’s schools work so hard to remove the arts from its curriculum to give more space to the sifting of information, much of which will change dramatically in the lifetimes of those that are being set to work studying this information. 

 

There are those that suggest it is more important to study the narrative structure of a story, to find out how the story was built, to glean the stylistic information that it offers, than it is to understand what the story has to say about the human condition. This is not to say there is no value to this kind of study. There are those that study the geology of historical sites, “Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg Through Robert E. Lee’s Eyes,” to better understand the history that took place on those sites, to better understand the “story” of history. So also the study of structure and style reveals something of the geology of a story and tells us something about how the story that is told is effectively told. But just as it is the history that provokes the geological study of the battlefield at Gettysburg, it is the quality and durability of the story that is told that provokes the study of its architecture and the study of the architecture should not take the place of the study of the story itself and the qualities of the story that have caused it to endure. Dante’s Divine Comedy can be read to gather information about medieval religious practices in Italy and attitudes towards famous families, but why would people value it so highly for so long if it were little more than a local newspaper along the lines of the National Enquirer. By the same token it is not the geology of the “seven storey mountain” that gives life to Dante’s story but the story that provokes interest in the mountain.

 

Painting of a man sitting in a chair reading a book with books stacked around him

Portrait of Dr. Hugo Koller

Egon Schiele

http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/egon-schiele/portrait-of-dr-hugo-koller-1918

 

The United States has given to the world some marvelous technologies. However, the wisdom with which these technologies are used will be the product of other contributions, not just from America. The arts cultivate reflection and it is often reflection that is wanting in the uses to which we put our technologies. One of the first films made in America (another of the nations great contributions to the world) was Thomas Alva Edison’s retelling of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. The film has many problems, not all of which are technological, but it is fitting that this early use of a new technology tells a story about the dangers of embracing too rashly new technologies. Victor Frankenstein would have been happier had he contemplated the consequences of his actions before he acted, instead of regretting them afterwards. The arts often invite us to consider what truly makes us happy, and not just ourselves happy, but those around us as well. What I do has consequences not only for me, but for others who come into contact with me and not just with me but with my influence; with those people whose behavior has in some form been shaped by my behavior. In this respect Victor Frankenstein’s influence, in the form of the creature, is the most harmful. It might also be worth considering who would have the easier time getting into a modern university, Victor Frankenstein or Mary Shelley? It is interesting that Victor’s problem was not that he did not read, but that he read the wrong books. I enjoy the painting of Dr. Hugo Koller surrounded by his books and I hope that, unlike Dr. Frankenstein, these books are the right books.

 

  4 Lessons in Creativity

Julie Burstein

TED Talks

 

The film clip is about creativity and teaching and nurturing creativity. I am skeptical of this type study because it often focuses on the wrong things. It is easier to teach a student how to understand what it is in a painting, a book, or a piece of music that makes that work great than it is to teach students how to do great work. But this is study that focuses on the past, on what has been done and does not necessarily help us to understand how we might become more creative. As Ezra Pound said, we need “to make it new” and not remake the old. The video touches on this when Julie Burstein talks about the sculptor Richard Serra. Stravinsky challenged his age with Rites of Spring. We are not as challenged by this music because we have learned how to listen to it, and it is important that we listen. But knowing how to hear this music does not guarantee we can go on to create a music that speaks as forcefully to our own age. I marvel that Stravinsky’s first audience rioted, as did the first audiences for the playwrights, John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey. I do not mean to suggest that riots are a good thing, but I do think it is important that the “raw nerve” of the age be exposed somewhat and because nerves are what they are, this exposure should cause a bit of tension. 

 

Painting of a green mountain and a green valley overlooking a river

“The Moselle near Schengen at the Drailännereck”

Nico Klopp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Klopp_Moselle_near_Schengen.jpg

 

For me the most sublime image in the video was a photograph of toy cars and trucks caked in dirt on the floor of a room in the World Trade Center after 9/11. It is sublime because of the story it tells. When I saw the picture I choked up and wept a bit. I could not see the toys without being reminded of the children that played with them and what happened to those children as they played. The story of the photograph is a story of good and evil, it could find a place in the Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm. The photograph is the product of a false sense of security and a lack of imagination. Literature and the arts foster hope, encouragement, and tenacity in those that study them seriously, they give us what facts cannot. But they also make us aware of the world in which we live, that there are those in the world that want to do us harm and that we need to be watchful. The greatest failing of the father of Hansel and Gretel was not his indifference towards his children, but his failure to warn them about the witch that lived in the woods. Like the painting above, the world often looks beautiful and inviting. But as in the painting below, there is often a shadow over the world that we do not see, especially on a sunny day.

 

A city skyline silhouetted by the setting sun

Silhouette of Klosterneuburg

Egon Schiele

http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/egon-schiele/silhouette-of-klosterneuburg 

It’s a Fact

Over the Rainbow

Keith Jarrett

 

It’s a Fact

 

Painting of populace and thriving classical city

The Course of Empire Consummation

Thomas Cole

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Course_of_Empire_Consummation_Thomas_Cole_1835_1836.jpeg

 

There are those that seem to think the principal purpose of the written word is to convey information. Ours is a digital age and what a digitized world can accumulate quickly are facts and information, data of all kinds, colors, and shapes. Of course there are others who see other purposes for the written word. A recent article in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” considers the wisdom of looking at literature and the humanities as data. What is lost when we value things solely on the basis of the information they provide? What is lost when we look at a book, a film, or a painting, or listen to music as though they were data banks to be mined? The article focuses on the Google project of digitizing (or attempting to digitize) all the world’s libraries, all the books currently in print and argues that what is most important in these books cannot be digitized. Of course the words can be captured and the books put into their digital bindings on a digital shelf, but the true content of these books lives in the human heart and the human imagination and cannot be so easily preserved by machines.

Neil MacGregor in his new book Shakespeare’s Restless World looks at objects that in one way or another capture what is important in Shakespeare’s plays and how he and his world; how we, and our world, how different times and places have responded to these plays. MacGregor and Eric Hobsbawm wrote articles recently, “Shakespeare, a poet who is still making our history” and “Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor – review,” that addressed issues the book raises. Both articles and the book make reference to the Robben Island Bible. Robben Island was the South African prison where the leaders of the African National Congress and the Anti Apartheid movement were confined. One prisoner, Sonny Venkatrathnam, when he was told he was only allowed one book smuggled in the Complete Works of Shakespeare disguised as a Hindu Bible. As Venkatrathnam’s release date approached he asked his fellow prisoners to sign his book and select meaningful passages, which they all did. The larger point is that literature sustains and nurtures the spirit. If all these prisoners, or any prisoner, especially those jailed for political reasons, had access to were facts, data, and information there would be little consolation to be found. To a prisoner of conscience the facts are often oppressive; they often erode hope and weaken the spirit. Books, paintings, music, and the arts in general remind us that there are forces more powerful than the forces of this world. And these books and paintings and all do not need to be with us in a concrete form. The songs and stories and images live inside those that know them and they can be drawn upon whenever the need arises. As the words of the song suggest, there is a place somewhere over the rainbow where the spirit and the imagination can run free and the power of empire cannot pursue.

 

Man sleeping with walking stick with lute and water bottle nearby and a lionlooking over him

The Sleeping Gypsy

Henri Rousseau

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Henri_Rousseau_-_La_zingara_addormentata.jpg

 

The paintings above and below suggest the imagination’s work in the world. The sleeper appears to be in a dangerous situation, or perhaps not. The situation depends on the role of the lion. Is the lion keeping watch over the sleeper or is the lion a threat to the sleeper. The lion’s behavior in the painting suggests more one of watchfulness than attack. The objects in the painting are also suggestive. The clothing the woman wears is multi-colored and she has only a walking stick, a mandolin, and a jug, probably of water, but it could be something else. The colors and the musical instrument suggest the woman lives in the imagination. The walking stick and the jug suggests she lives in the real world at the same time, she has provided for both the soul and the body. 

The painting below suggests there are those in heavenly places who dance in time to the music that orchestrates our steps. The musician playing for the earthy dancers has angel’s wings and suggests interaction between the heavens and the earth, that each is involved with the life of the other. There was an article recently, Head and Heart, about politics and morals. The article is actually a review of a couple books exploring the values of liberals and conservatives and suggests that Emerson’s observation, “Of the two great parties, which, at this hour, almost share the nation between them, I should say, that, one has the best cause, and the other contains the best men” still resonates. One of the books argues for the importance of religion in society, not because it is true, but because of its usefulness in maintaining a civil society. Are the angels, the heavenly dancers, the lion watching over us as we sleep, just stories and figments of the imagination we tell ourselves to quieten our fears? Or are they the source of the stories that we tell? Whether the source of comfort, solace, and encouragement is real or imagined, the stories we tell, songs we sing, pictures we paint all have the power to do these things and probably no amount of data analysis will ever be able to tell us why or where, with absolute certainty, this power comes from.

 

Painting of people dancing with angels dancing in the clouds above them

A Dance to the Music of Time

Nicolas Poussin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_dance_to_the_music_of_time_c._1640.jpg

As a teacher of literature I constantly struggle with value of literature and the place it holds in the curriculum. I know the power of story and language in my own life, I have seen this power at work in the lives of others, but I have also seen the immense indifference with which my students often respond to it. I know that when I was in high school boredom was the response the stories of the traditional canon most often provoked in students. Many of those students grew out of that indifference, but not all. I think that we are all free to reject the life of the literary and artistic imagination, just as we are free to ignore calculus and microbiology. But one of the purposes of school and of education is to expose ourselves to the different avenues our minds and imaginations might wish to pursue and we will never know that these avenues are open to us if no one ever points them out and helps us on our way. 

One thing that reading and the study of literature develops is a reflective mind, a mind that considers the directions it pursues before it too actively pursues those directions. It is very easy to be caught up in the excitement of the moment and the newness of things without thinking too deeply of the consequences. It is not possible to know all the potential dangers and which of those dangers are ones that should be struggled against and which should be avoided. Risk is incurred whenever we get out of bed in the morning and risk in and of itself is never a reason not to do something. Often those things that come with troubling possible consequences also come with attractive benefits. Nobel invented dynamite to make it easier to build roads and bridges and such. Nothing wrong with that, but there were other, less savory jobs the invention was given to do. Still, there is value to considering the destination before we begin the journey.

 

From A Handful of Dust

Acorn Media

 

The video clip is from the film version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust. In the book and the movie an English aristocrat, Tony Last, goes on an expedition to explore South America. He gets hopelessly lost and is rescued, after a fashion, by an older gentlemen living in the jungle. The old man cannot read but he loves stories. He asks Tony to read to him and of course Tony, being a true English gentleman, obliges. The old man arranges things such that those that come looking for Tony believe him to be dead and they go home calling off their search. Such is the power of stories. The old man cannot get enough of them and as a result Tony cannot go home. Part of the magic of the stories is having them read out loud and not every voice, no matter how skilled the reader to whom the voice belongs, is an effective reading voice. Donald Hall in a recent article, Thank-you, Thank-you,” points out that not every poet read their poem well. For every Dylan Thomas with a magical voice there was a T. S. Eliot with a voice that was much less inspiring. The theatrics of Vachel Lindsey made him a popular reader of his verse, but not much of his verse has survived now that he is no longer here to read it to us.   

 

Painting of a man standing reading to three people seated, one of whom is the emperor

 Virgil reading to Augustus

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ingres_Tu_Marcellus_eris.jpg

 

Virgil in the painting above is reading his poetry to the Emperor Augustus. Unlike Tony last, Virgil was not a captive reader of his stories. But again they are powerful stories and those in high places took pleasure in hearing them read. Virgil’s best known story, The Aeneid was an endorsement of sorts of the Roman Empire and tells the story of its beginnings. But whatever propagandistic task the story was given to do, the story still captures readers. The world its characters inhabit is very different from ours, and discovering this world is part of the fascination. There is also the desire to find a home. Odysseus had a home to go to, he just had problems getting there, but Aeneas has no home, his home has been taken from him. He has a ship and he is able to get most of his family away with him, but they have no place to go. Perhaps part of the attraction is that everyone of one of us at some point leaves a home to make a home for ourselves. We may not have to go to another part of the world, but we do have to “make an escape” and at times burn a few bridges in the process. Stories are often food for the journey.

 

Painting of a castle courtyard

Courtyard of the Former Castle in Innsbruck without Clouds

Albrecht Durer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Innsbruck_castle_courtyard.jpg

 

Whatever it is in stories that attract us (and even non-readers need stories, they just get them in different packages) they color our lives. Different stories feed us at different times and what we remember of the stories from earlier in our lives may not be found in the stories, but are instead stories that have been provoked by the stories we have read. The castles we explore in the stories we read as children are different from the castles in the stories we read when we are older. The castles of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella are not the castles of Gormenghast or Udolpho, though they all have elements that both delight and terrify. What changes, perhaps, is the nature of that which delights and terrifies as we grow older. Each provides food for a journey, though they provide different food for different journeys and perhaps it is because the nature of our journeys change that we need to garnish the mind with provisions suited to the journey of the day.

Is the mind without an adequately formed imagination in peril? Can the heart and the mind and the imagination be overly developed; do we reach a point where the stories we tell ourselves begin to do more harm than good? I do not think so, but I wonder what others do, what they carry in place of the stories that nourish me. I think it is important to question the stories, the beliefs, the assumptions that we have made, that part of aging well is remaining skeptical and curious. The best stories revolve around characters that are capable of change, who can not just adapt to changing circumstances but know when the circumstances require change and when they require perseverance and standing firmly on a conviction that mustn’t change. 

An article in the New Statesman, Tragedy’s Decline and Fall,” contrasts the stories that Sophocles and other tragedians have told with those stories that are told today in gossip magazines, reality programs, and action films and questions the place each fills in their respective societies. Robert McCrum in an article on Macbeth, “What Macbeth tells us about the digital world,” examines the Porter’s speech, one of the few comic moments in an otherwise grim play. McCrum points out that many of the jokes in this comic monologue are topical references worthy of the tabloids of the day, but in Shakespeare’s handling of the material and in the context of the larger issues present in the play the humor rises above the topical and continues to resonate today. Of course that is what the written word must always do if it is to outlive the generation for which the words were written. In Macbeth there is a meeting of the tabloid and the tragic.

In one sense they both help their audiences come to grips with the tensions and conflicts of the day, but one is deeper and far less shallow than other. Where tragedy provokes empathy and catharsis, the reality show and its cultural brethren cater to a delight many of us have in watching the suffering of others. Much of life is lived in the tension between conflicting values where each contain a truth, like when does the value of mercy override the value of justice; when does the value of generosity override the value of self-sufficiency; when is it important to adhere to the one at the expense of the other? Answering these questions depends more on wisdom than on knowledge, and where facts and data can provide us knowledge, stories are often where we turn for wisdom, a rarer quality and one much more difficult to master.

 

Painting of a tree growing in a meadow

Landscape, 1918

Félix Vallotton

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Valloton-Paysage.jpg

Truth Be Told

Die Zauberflote, “Overture”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, “Overture”

Felix Mendelssohn

London Symphony Orchestra

 

Truth Be Told

 

Painting of a young woman being escorted by solddiers and other women as other soldiers look on

The Princess Sabra Led to the Dragon (Rescued by St. George)

Edward Burne-Jones

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Burne_,Princess_Sabra_Led_to_the_Dragon.jpg

 

The music suggests the mythical and the magical. Mozart’s Magic Flute has Masonic mysteries (I am told) at its heart and a good bit of magic and wizardry. Mendelssohn’s music was composed to accompany Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is a comic variation, at least the centerpiece of the play is, on the beauty and the beast story. The Queen of the fairies, Titania, falls in love with a man, Bottom, given the head of a donkey. Of course everything happens by magic, the falling in love, the donkey’s head, the romancing in the enchanted forest. Eventually all is set right and everyone goes about their regular business, just as Papageno and Papagena are restored to each other and live happily ever after in the opera. In the opera it is the “beauties” that save the young Tomino, the handsome prince in the story, from the beast. There are all the characters of the traditional beauty and the beast story; they just do not play their traditional roles. The Queen of the Night, whose ladies were the beauties that saved Tomino from the dragon, instructs him to restore to her her daughter. Tomino is given Papageno as company, and both are given magical instruments, Tomino a flute and Papageno bells, to aid them in their task as well as three childlike spirits to watch over them.

 

The painting also tells a beauty and the beast story, that of the Princess Sabra, a dragon, and St. George. The princess has drawn the lot condemning her to be the dragon’s next victim. I think the faces in this painting are very revealing. The guard seems relatively unconcerned; the ladies following the princess look sad and wistful, perhaps thankful, for the moment, that someone else drew the short straw. But the Princess Sabra’s face reveals her fear, her sadness, and her resignation to her fate. Her hands that clutch at her garments reinforce the emotions her face reveals. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, there is nothing comic about this scene, and unlike Mozart’s opera, there is nothing and no one, man, woman, or spirit, that can offer her any hope or consolation. The story does, though, have a happy ending. St. George kills the dragon and peace and harmony are restored.

 

The painting below captures the beauty and the beast tale that is most likely to come to mind when we think of beauty and the beast stories. They come in a number of guises, the ones mentioned above and the one below. But there are other variations where the woman is the beast and it is the man that is the beast’s victim. My favorite of these stories is Gawain and the Loathly Lady. It revolves around a man in trouble, Gawain, who is helped by a very ugly and bestial lady. The ending is not that different from the story we usually think of, except the roles are reversed. The story of the Loathly Lady is also told, a bit more crudely, by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. It seems people have always been attracted to stories about beautiful people being pursued by monstrous and terrifying creatures.

 

Painting of a young woman looking over the dead body of a beast

Beauty and the Beast

Warwick Goble

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Warwick_goble_beauty_and_beast.jpg

 

There were a couple of articles recently about the power of myth and folk tales, “Once Upon a Time” and “Chasing rainbows: why myths matter,” that reflect on the power of these stories and the contribution they make to helping us all live a healthy and psychologically balanced life. “Once Upon a Time” addresses the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. These stories have enchanted adults and children (pretty much in that order) from their first appearance in print. Most of us are used to the sanitized versions of these stories found in films by Walt Disney and others. We think of them with warm and fuzzy feelings of childhood. But the stories are terrifying, they are cruel, and they are incredibly violent, often in ways that offers few if any redeeming features to mitigate or soften the violence. The article concludes that one scholar of these stories, Jack Zipe, likes them because they offer hope and a sense that justice can prevail in the world. But the author of the article, Joan Acocella, thinks differently; she thinks they validate what is, the world as it really works. She concludes the article by saying, “Though Wilhelm tried to Christianize the tales, they still invoke nature, more than God, as life’s driving force, and nature is not kind.” The stories would seem to support this view, but, on the other hand, in stories like Cinderella, characters do find justice and the villains, whether they be stepsisters or stepmothers, are more than adequately punished. Sometimes there is justice, but it is a very rough justice and perhaps what is missing most is not justice, but mercy or redemption. Of course there are other stories in the Grimm collection that offer neither comfort, nor justice, nor hope. But, as the article suggests, the stories were written in a time when the world was cruel and violent and harsh and that what the stories portray is life as it is, with a little magic thrown in. Unfortunately the magic often does not take sides.

 

Chasing rainbows: why myths matter” on the other hand takes a more positive view towards myth and folklore. Damien Walker points out that yes, those, Richard Dawkins particularly, that tells us the myths aren’t real are telling us the truth but they miss the point. Stories, especially mythic stories, function in the realm of metaphor. It does not much matter whether the world was created in six days or not, what matters is that it was created. They teach us lessons about who we are and how we best survive in the world; how we live productively and wholly/holy in the world. Literally interpreting myth is not really helpful. What they help us with is finding our courage, helping us deal with loss, helping us get in touch with our inner self, our spirit, our ethos. As is often true with poetry, we feel the message of the myth before we fully understand it.

 

Woman in a dark forest holding a stick with a skull on it and lights shining through the skull's eyes and ligts behind her also coming fron the eyes of skulls

Vasilisa

Ivan Bilibin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vasilisa.jpg

 

The painting above is of a character from Russian folklore, Vasilisa. The part of the story the painting captures seems, to me, horrifying. Vasilisa is holding a human skull that functions as a lantern. When she needs light, light pours out of the eye sockets of the skull and when she does not need light, the eye sockets are dark. This “lamp” is given to her by a witch who demands that Vasilisa leave. She gives Vasilisa the skull on a stick to light her way. I am not sure what the correct interpretation of this story is, but I think it is true that wisdom and direction are often given to us by our ancestors, often dead ancestors through the stories they have passed along and the stories that have been told about them. Vasilisa, unlike many women in folk tales, is very resourceful and courageous. She is fearless, or perhaps it would be better to say that she has her fear under control; it is not that she does not experience fear but that she does not let that fear debilitate her. This is a message of folklore and myth, we are pursued by our fears, we all must overcome them if we are to act, perhaps it is more precise to say that we need the wisdom to distinguish between those fears that keep us from harm and those fears that keeping us from doing what must be done. The same fear that keeps us from running in front of a speeding automobile keeps us from standing up to wickedness. The fear tells us that wickedness is powerful and it is important that we understand that, but it is also important that we resist it and perhaps the proper office of fear is not to make us powerless but to help us use our power properly, to understand what that proper use is, to use it with wisdom and discretion.

 

Sun setting behind vocanic cloud over a river

Cotopaxi (1862)

Frederic Edwin Church

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cotopaxi_church.jpg

 

The paintings above and below capture the sublime. They are beautiful but they capture scenes that are powerful, they capture scenes that depict nature’s power, the first in the form of an erupting volcano and the second in the form of a treacherous mountain path. I think of the “Fellowship of the Ring” trying to get over the mountains on their way to Mordor. This is the nature of the sublime. It is powerful, awesomely so and it is not always pretty. Church did an earlier painting of this same place, Cotopaxi, but it was bucolic and peaceful and the mountain in the background was silent. Both paintings are beautiful, but the later is sublime as well. There was an article in The New Republic, “Art Over Biology,” about art and its evolutionary origins. What does art contribute to our survival, what has caused the “art” gene to survive and be passed along from generation to generation? The article points out that art often acts as a cultural catalyst, that is, it becomes one of those things that tie a culture together, that makes a people a “People.” But where this is a real benefit to the culture it is often of little benefit to the artist. I am not sure that Adam Kirsch’s conclusions actually happen the way he describes them, especially those concerning the artist and children. He points to evidence that suggests that artists are private people who often do not do well in social situations and therefore are not in the best position to procreate. And there is much to suggest that there is truth to this assertion, but it is also true that artists often have families, some have large families. Granted they may be terrible spouses and terrible parents, but they do produce children to carry their genes forward.

 

 Painting of people following a narrow path over a steep mountain

The Passage of the St. Gothard

J. M. W. Turner

http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/william-turner/the-passage-of-the-st-gothard

 

But of course the larger issue is why do we produce art? There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “Poetry Is a Destructive Force” that seems to suggest that this desire to produce art, poetry, novels, is not a pleasant desire to live with, it is to be “like a man / In the body of a violent beast.” It is to be entirely under the control of some other. According to the evidence that Kirsch cites it is to be, often, terribly alone and misunderstood. Of course the rewards of those that succeed are often very satisfying. The successful artist often receives a lot praise and attention, something that humans seem to crave and often these are accompanied with prosperity and comfort. Perhaps these are rewards enough to make the less pleasant aspects of the life of the artist more acceptable. But in the end the article suggests there are no satisfying evolutionary answers to explain how art came to be. But the article goes further to suggest that an evolutionary answer, were one to be found, would not change much because with art it is not the why that is really important. For a Darwinian explanation to have value, it must be “useful” and “it is hard to see how it would change the way we experience art, any more than knowing the mechanics of the eye makes a difference to the avidity of our sight.” Just as knowing how the eye works does not change the way we see and experience sight so knowing how art came to be, though it may satisfy some bits of our curiosity, does not affect our appreciation or understanding of the work of art itself.

 

Kakinomoto no hitomaro

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kakinomoto_no_hitomaro.jpg

 

The painting is of a prominent 8th century Japanwe poet, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. In the painting he is observing and reflecting. He appears to be at peace. An article in the Boston Review, “Poetry Changed the World,” looks at another contribution of art, especially literary art. Reflecting on a new book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Elaine Perry, the author of the article, considers how the written word has made humans more peaceful, empathetic, and nurturing creatures. She has problems with Pinker’s conclusions and how they are reached, but she agrees that when we look at how people have changed over time that reading has had a civilizing effect on people; that as books became more readily available and as more and more people were taught how to read them, people have become less brutal. Perry points out two ways that reading has changed us. One relates to the poetry itself. Early poetry often presented their themes in the form of debates. The article points to poems in different cultures in different parts of the world and at different times that present arguments for and against various issues. Often they function like Plato’s dialogues. She points out how different poetic forms, like the eclogue and the sonnet, are structurally suited to debate. In this way poetry encouraged deliberation over hasty action.

 

But the more powerful change is the one produced by novels. When reading a novel the reader enters into the experiences of the characters in the stories and begins to see the world through the eyes of these characters. This can have a profound effect upon readers; it takes readers out of their own mind, experience, and point of view and places them in the mind, experience, and point of view of the characters in the story. C. S. Lewis once said that in reading he became a thousand other men but remained himself. This ability to become thousands of other people develops empathy for others on the part of the reader, by expanding their understanding of others. Instead of judging people and events from our own perspective, reading stories encourages us to look for other ways of understanding what is happening around us, so that we do not look solely at the effect events taking place around us have on us alone, we start to look at how these events effect others, giving us a larger perspective, enabling us to understand not just how we are affected, but how the culture as a whole in which we live is affected.

 

From The Thief of Bagdad

Douglas Fairbanks Pictures

Republic Pictures

 

The film, The Thief of Bagdad, captures the spirit of the 1001 Arabian Knights. These stories illustrate the power of story upon the imagination. These stories have influenced the literature of cultures all over the world to the point that we cannot know for sure which came first Odysseus or Sinbad, for example, or if there were a third voyager, now lost, that inspired both stories. There was an article in Times Literary Supplement, “The magic of the Nights,” about the impact of these stories on world culture. The book is specifically addressing the stories of the 1001 Nights but it contributes to the discussion found in other articles about the power of stories, the power they have over us, the power they have to color how we interpret the world around us. The stories themselves are of uncertain origin, some come from Persia, some from Arabia, some had their origins in Sanskrit, but no one is quite certain where the stories found in this book first appeared. The book as it has come down to us is not even from a single collection of stories. The first of the Arabian Nights stories I encountered as a child was the film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Looking at the film as an adult it is difficult to understand what was so appealing to my childhood imagination, but appealing it was. But Ali Baba was not one of the stories that made up the “original” Arabian Nights; it was added to the collection by editors trying to account for all one thousand and one nights. Sinbad and Aladdin were also absent from the earliest editions of the Nights. Any modern editor that tries to assemble a more “authentic” version of the tales by limiting their edition to only those stories found in the earliest, most authentic editions is eventually forced, we are told, to add the missing stories. We know them too well and they have touched us too deeply.

 

Paintng of a man on a flying carpet

The Flying Carpet

Viktor Vasnetsov

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vasnetsov_samolet.jpg

 

One story that has included elements of the Arabian Night is Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels. In the second voyage the bird that takes Gulliver from Bobdingnag and drops him out to sea is instantly identified as the Roc that Sinbad encountered, instantly identified by anyone familiar with the stories that is. The Yahoos Gulliver encounters on his last voyage also have antecedents in the 1001 Nights. There was an article in The New Atlantis, “The Truth About Human Nature” that applies the lessons Gulliver takes from his various voyages, especially his last voyage, to our common human experience. The thrust of the article is that we cannot live entirely in a rational world; that as admirable as the Houyhnhnms may be to Gulliver, they are missing something, they are not, to state the obvious, human and where a life governed entirely by reason may be ideal for horses and other animals, it is not ideal for the human animal. The article suggests that what the Houyhnhnms lack that humans need is imagination. Gulliver is standing in front of them, he was brought to their island on a ship, but the Houyhnhnms cannot conceive of a ship, they do not have the imagination for it. And this is something that stories provoke and provide that makes the human experience richer and more profound. The article also tells us that the Houyhnhnm is not capable of telling a lie. This I think is not true. The master Houyhnhnm has in him the “milk of human kindness” in that he will not reveal the true nature of Gulliver’s appearance, that the clothes Gulliver wears are not his skin. The Master Houyhnhnm does not tell overt lies to conceal this fact about Gulliver; he just does not correct the misimpressions those around him have formed concerning Gulliver. This raises another issue, the issue of what constitutes a lie and is a lie always spoken or can a lie be told by saying nothing. I think the Master Houyhnhnm says the thing that is not when he says nothing at all about Gulliver’s clothes. He is perpetrating a lie and it is a humane lie, it shows compassion and a desire to protect a friend, something Houyhnhnms as rule do not do. Perhaps the stories that Gulliver has told his master Houyhnhnm has humanized the Horse, has done for the horse what Elaine Perry suggests the novel has done for us, it has given him a larger view of the world.

 

Illustration of a very small man looking at a very large man

Illustration from Gulliver’s Travles

Richard Redgrave

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gulliver.jpg

A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking

Doctor Atomic: “Batter My Heart”

John Adams

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerald Finley & Edward Gardner

Rave on John Donne

Van Morrison

 

A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking

 

Portrait of young man

Self Portrait

Anthony Van Dyck

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Anthonis_van_Dyck_008.jpg

 

In the Guardian recently were the first two in a series of articles on the poet John Donne, “John Donne, priest and poet, part 1: love, conscience and martyrdom” and “John Donne, priest and poet, part 2: theologian who played with poetic form.” The articles focus on the intensity of his thought and how seriously he pursued life and the choices life placed in his way. The second of the articles addresses Ben Jonson’s criticism of Donne, that “for not keeping of accent, (he) deserved hanging.” Roz Kaveney, the author of the articles, thinks there is a purpose to this failure, that Donne demonstrated the ability to keep accent very well when he wanted to, but that some things were so serious that the subject had to take precedence over the mechanics and that there is a very deliberate message in this. This message may not have been appreciated as much in his own time as it is in ours and in the time immediately preceding ours, the time of Eliot and the moderns. His poetry was largely ignored for a very long time, but fortunately it was not lost. I remembered finding, shortly after finishing graduate school, a copy of the Grierson edition of Donne’s poetry that preserved the spelling and orthography. I had used this edition when writing my masters thesis on Donne, and I loved the blue bindings and the thick pages of the Oxford edition. Packaging is important.

The music suggests that Donne’s influence is still felt. It blends together two songs, one from an Opera, Dr. Atomic, By John Adams and a folk-rock song by Van Morrison. The Morrison song is not just about Donne, but about poetry, poets, and their influence on the world and how the world changes. Still, these songs suggest the depth and breadth of Donne’s influence. The opera is about the making of the atomic bomb and Adam’s puts the words of Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV into the mouth of Oppenheimer, who oversaw the bomb’s creation. It is a kind of plea for forgiveness. The Morrison song connects Donne to the nuclear age as well, suggesting that, even if he did not foresee this awesomely destructive weapon, he understood what it was in the human heart that could imagine its creation and bring it into the world. The Guardian published another article recently about poetry and contemporary music, “I will show you Arcade Fire in a handful of dust: why pop music loves T. S. Eliot.” This article, too, addresses popular culture and the influence of poetry, T. S. Eliot’s poetry specifically, on contemporary music. For all that is said about the waning influences of “high” culture on “popular” culture there is evidence that the two have more than a passing acquaintance.

The painting above was painted by a contemporary of John Donne’s, Anthony Van Dyck. What intrigues me about the painting is that it almost suggests a style that will not come into fashion for a couple of more centuries. This may just be because it is an early painting by a young artist who has not yet found his true “style.” But when I look at it, the painting, for reason that may not be entirely clear, reminds me of Augustus John’s painting below of Dylan Thomas. There is something in the eyes and hair and, perhaps, the look that seem similar to me. But what I like about it is what I like about Augustus John’s painting, it is not entirely realistic, it is an impression. The painters are treating their subjects in much the same way poets treat theirs. They remind me of the lines from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Man with the Blue Guitar:”

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

This suggest to me that artists, poets, painters, or whatever the case may be, use the “tools” of their craft to present “reality” in ways that are unique to their vision. Stevens seems to suggest it is not his fault but the fault of “the blue guitar,” the typewriter, pencil, whatever the implement used to shape the work of art may be. Who knows where inspiration comes from, how the words, or the colors, or the shapes find their way from the artists imagination to the canvas, the page, whatever the medium may be. Stevens seems to suggest that he certainly does not understand where it comes from and that the audience will just have to take it, the poem, the song, the painting, on its own terms.

 

Portrait of a young man with a blue scarf

Dylan Thomas

Augustus John

http://www.englishwordplay.com/poetry.html

 

I think that poets are like painters in that they are not bound to reality, to things as they appear. They both present impressions, abstractions, expressions that capture more than the things themselves. A professor of mine once aid that a lyric poem, unlike a story, does not progress, but circles its object and looks at it from many different angles. Where a story must move on a poem can linger. Often it is with a poem, as with a painting, its ability to capture the common place and imbue with something unusual, something very uncommon, that makes it so appealing. D. H. Lawrence wrote a short poem “The Third Thing:”

Water is H20, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,

But there is also a third thing, that makes it water

And nobody knows what that is.

The atom locks up two energies

But it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.

There is in most things no matter how common a “third thing” that makes it what it is and that thing is magical, it is mysterious, and it is this third thing that poetry often captures.

 

A painting of different colored squares on a field of various shades of green and yellow

The Gate

Hans Hofmann

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Hofmann%27s_painting_%27The_Gate%27,_1959–60.jpg

 

There was a talk given by Will Self, “A Point of View: In Defense of Obscure Words,” about how modern culture is being oversimplified, that we, as a culture, pursue what is quick, what is easy, we are “risk averse” whether that risk is a physical or a mental risk. Stories, poems, paintings, music, any of the arts that reward often require time and energy spent learning how to understand them. The painting is called The Gate but it is not a painting of a gate that we are familiar with, though once we see title we sort of understand the picture a little better. But we have to spend time with it. It may reward this investment of time, it may not, part of this depends on taste, but the meaning is not explicit and it must, like a Wallace Stevens poem, be considered and thought about. Self is concerned because he sees a society that thinks that because something is difficult to understand we need not try to understand it. He tells the story of a teacher who gives away the ending to the novel Great Expectations because knowing the summary of the story is enough and there is no need to bother with the whole of this “indigestible” novel. When I look at where I am asked to go, as a teacher of English, in order to comply with new state standards, it seems that this trivialization of literature and of art has now been legislated.

 

Impressionist painting of a road with two people walking with stars and a cypress tree

Road with Cypress and Star

Vincent Van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Country_road_in_Provence_by_night.jpg

 

When I look at a painting like the one above I wonder what people see in it. I see something that is very moving, that touches my emotions in a very real and physical way, it is almost a pain, but a pleasant pain. But is this experience common to all viewers, or many viewers? The colors that are used are “pretty” colors. The people and the landscape have a “cartoonish” quality to them. Is this all that resonates, is this all that people see? I think there is something inherent in the beautiful that is true, that runs deep and that affects people in ways they may not understand. But the truth of the art is real and that even if it is trivialized to sell insurance (I remember an ad put out by Pacific Life where a painted whale morphs through the styles of Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat, Calder, and Picasso, it was an effective ad, but it was selling insurance not art) its truth cannot be suppressed. I think that no matter what is done to marginalize art as long as it is present it will speak to those that experience it. I do not think it is always necessary for my students to enjoy Dickens, Austen, Chaucer, Baldwin, add whatever name works for you, it is only necessary for them to be exposed to these books. The stories will haunt them, they will “not go gentle into that good night” they will “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” They will live and they will resonate in the unconscious if they are put there. For some the response will be immediate, but for others, the response will come much later. Maybe for some, the art will remain forever silent, but I would like to think that is not so. I do not think it is my job to make others see the light, only to keep the light lit so that when the time comes it can be seen.

 

Paintinf of a town with buildings and a church steeple

St. Mary’s with Houses and Chimney (Bonn)

August Macke

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:August_Macke_030.jpg

 

In this painting we see the modern, chimneys and apartment buildings living side by side with the ancient, the church steeples. The old is forever with us, it does not go away. It is there to remind us that every generation leaves its mark and those that come after have to make their mark in a way that acknowledges what came before. Notice the decorative carving at the top of the chimney that in some ways mirror details in the church spires. Art can remind us that objects can be beautiful and functional at the same time, that there is no reason why the tools we make, the buildings we live in, the cars we drive, cannot do their very necessary jobs and be esthetically pleasing at the same time. If you ever visit Edward Gorey’s house, you will notice he was intrigued with different kinds of pliers and they are sprinkled throughout the house like little alligators watching over things. There was something about their form that was beautiful to Gorey. We are not better people because we develop artistic sensibilities, because we appreciate what is beautiful and desire to fill our world with beauty, but as Kaveney says of Donne, whether we share his beliefs, his faith, it is important to wrestle with the issues he wrestles with, and that something beautiful can come from this engagement. Whatever else may or may not be true, people in ugly surroundings are often depressed and people in beautiful surroundings, though they may not be made happy by these surroundings, find solace in them.

 

Metaphorically Speaking

James Geary

TED Talk

 

The film clip discusses the importance of metaphor in our lives. At their heart metaphors are basically poetic, they are impressionist paintings that do not show what something is but what something is like. Often a thing’s name does not tell us much. A hammer is a tool that can be useful or cause harm, depending on how it is used. When the hammer is used metaphorically it is used to reveal something that is true about something else that we cannot see when we look at that something else. Romeo calls Juliet “the sun” because, in the words of a popular song she “lights up” Romeo’s life. But one thing that is often true of metaphors is that the object used for comparison has many facets and often they are not always positive or always negative. The same literal sun that lights up Romeo’s life can burn if he stays to long in its presence, it can be dangerous. So also can love and the beloved. In the play it kills him and her. Often when we think metaphorically we focus on a particular connotation. Romeo is oblivious to the dangers of love; he only sees its light, its beauty (even though he has had recent experience with its unpleasant side). But though Romeo is unaware of the dark side of his metaphor, the audience, perhaps is not, and almost certainly Shakespeare was not.

The value of metaphorical, poetic thought is that it is complex, that it does make demands on our emotions, our thoughts, and our imaginations. That is why we develop our metaphor making skills. All allusions have a metaphoric side to them. When Adams places Donne’s sonnet in his opera he is expecting the audience to recognize the source of the aria, and to, perhaps, be reminded of other sonnets in this cycle, like, perhaps, “Death be not proud.” The audience may also be familiar with other things Donne wrote that the quoted passage may evoke, like “No man is an island” and “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” from Donne’s “Meditation 17” which is all about how we are all involved in the lives of our neighbors. To think metaphorically is a skill, a skill that must be trained and developed. It is a skill that enables us to see beneath the surface of things. They require an educated mind; a curious mind. In the jargon of the day, they require “critical thinking skills.” And nothing brings about the death of something important more quickly than by making it into a “catch phrase” used unthoughtfully day by day.

As a literature teacher it is important to me that students experience the exasperation, frustration, and trauma that comes from trying to make sense of complex and layered language; language that does not say explicitly what it has to say, but requires us to explore the caverns that lie beneath its surface. Like many things that are unpleasant, that are frustrating, that are confusing when we first encounter them, literature, poetry, stories, essays, that begin by tormenting us end by healing us, by revealing ourselves to ourselves if we will only mine their depths.

 

Portrait of young man wearing a dark coat and light blue shirt

W. B. yeats

Augustus John

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Augustus_John_-_Yeats.jpg

It’s Just a Story

“With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come”

Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell

St. Andrews Singers and English Chamber Orchestra

 

It’s Just a Story

 

Painting of a Classical Roman city

Dido building Carthage aka The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire

J. M. W. Turner

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Turner_Dido_Building_Carthage.jpg

 

Even before we begin to hear the music we can infer a bit about its subject. Even if we do not know the story of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil’s epic Aeneid the title of the aria, “With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come” suggests the subject of the song. Even those who do not know much about Greek or Roman mythology probably know enough about Cupid to know he is associated with love. That the wings of the Cupids are drooping suggests the news is not good news for the one who is in love. The music than affirms this observation and even though the words are difficult to make out, the music the words are set to tell us most of what we need to know about what they are saying. The music tells a story, as the painting tells a story. For those who have read the epic poem, just seeing the names of Dido and Aeneas tells a tragic story. But the real point is that not all stories are told with words, some are told with notes, rhythms, harmonies, and colors.

But stories also give us a common language, they help us talk to and understand one another. They can provide a frame or a context for our experiences; the “widow’s mite,” “the white whale,” “the melancholy Dane,” or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” are all phrases and images that carry train loads of associations. When Ernest Hemingway titled one of his novels For Whom the Bell Tolls he was telling a story in five words that permeates the novel and colors the reader’s understanding of the events in theat novel. Of course, one must recognize the references or they are just nice sounding words. When Puccini plays the American National Anthem under a climactic scene in his opera Madame Butterfly he is using a musical phrase to tell another kind of story. If language and the possession of language are the vehicles in which our intellects travel, the materials that give shape and structure to our thoughts and ideas, then the well read, the “liberally” educated are fluent in a language and a vocabulary that adds richness, depth, and clarity to their thinking, even if the thoughts themselves are not that profound.

 

There was a review recently in the New York Times (“Her Calling”) of Marilyn Robinson’s book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. The book is about the changes that have taken place in America over the past few generations that she finds troubling. But one of the early essays discusses myth and story and why they are, in her view important. She does not believe myth arose as a way to explain how things came to be. Though there may have been the Roman Fundamentalist that believed the stories were literally true, Robinson believes that the myths were seen by most as stories that communicated truths about what it means to be human and how humans ought to live and treat each other. Euripides used the story of the Fall of Troy as a way of commenting on the Peloponnesian Wars and Athenian behavior in that war.

Myth and religion are not science and are not to be understood as science. Whether, for example, the Book of Genesis is taken literally or figuratively isn’t the issue. The point of Genesis is not to explain how things came to be, so much, as to instruct us in how we ought to behave. There will always be some for whom the science of Genesis is important, but what is most important for us to understand from this book, whether we agree with it or not, has more to do with philosophy, ethics, and morality than it does with science. It could even be said that arguing the science of Genesis obfuscates the real message of the book. Whatever else an Athenian audience got out of Oedipus the King, they understood from the play that there were powers greater than ourselves to whom we are all answerable whether we are a shepherd or a king. And because Oedipus cannot escape these forces neither can anyone else and at the end of the day justice is done and order is restored. This is the message of the tragedy and why it was not a mere “theatrical” but a part of a religious ceremony. In this respect it might be said that the theater began in church.

 

A Renaissance woman warrior rescues a man and a woman about the be burned at the stake from an angry crowd

Clorinda Rescues Olindo und Sophronia

Eugene Delacroix

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Delacroix98.jpg

 

The paintings above and below are by Eugene Delacroix and each captures a different epic story of liberation. The first painting illustrates a scene from Tasso’s Liberation of Jerusalem. This is a story of the First Crusade and the “liberation” of Christianity’s (as well as Judaism’s and Islam’s) Holy City. Of course whether this was true liberation depends on which side is telling the story. Saladin would come around a bit later and liberate the city once again. What I found intriguing about Tasso’s story is that one of the more heroic knights from the story (which is also true of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Spenser’s Faerie Queen) is a woman, in Tasso’s story, an Islamic woman. Women in the military was hardly a settled issue at the time and neither the Christian nor the Islamic community of the time looked favorably upon the “woman warrior.” When I read these stories I was surprised to find women in such prominent combat roles in the stories.

The painting below is of Liberty leading the people during the French Revolution, which brought another kind of liberation, again depending on which side one pledged allegiance. The young gentleman standing next to Liberty waving the pistols is said to have inspired Victor Hugo’s character Gavroche in the novel Les Miserables. However one feels about the liberation of Jerusalem by the Crusaders or the liberation of France by the forces of the revolution liberty is a powerful concept and stories of liberation often evoke powerful emotions, even if we have misgivings about the actual history.

 

Woman carrying the flag of France leading rebel soldiers

Liberty Leading the People

Eugene Delacroix

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eugène_Delacroix_-_liberté_guidant_le_peuple.jpg

 

But how important or necessary are these stories. Do they shape character? Do the stories we read, as Marilyn Robinson and others assert, help to form the people we become or are they just another form of entertainment (which is not to suggest that if the stories shape character that they do not entertain as well). Tim Parks, in a recent article, “Do We Need Stories?,” doesn’t seem to think we need stories. He thinks assigning any great significance to them is a mistake, they give us pleasure, but they do not make us who we are, we are more significant and complex than stories. He ends his article, though, this way:
Personally, I fear I’m too enmired in narrative and self narrative to bail out now. I love an engaging novel, I love a complex novel; but I am quite sure I don’t need it. And my recently discovered ability, as discussed in this space a couple of weeks ago, to set down even some fine novels before reaching the end does give me a glimmer of hope that I may yet make a bid for freedom from the fiction that wonderfully enslaves us.
Though he does not believe stories are necessary he has not “liberated” himself from them. Some days I think I wake up agreeing with Parks, but usually come back to my senses (or non-senses as the case may be) before bedtime. Whether we have all felt the influence of an apple in a garden or not, does not alter the fact that we live in a world that falls short in a number of different aspects. And even if the story does not account for how this came to be, it offers a kind of hope that we can rise above what is wrong with the world. And even if the story has not shaped my character, in giving me hope it helps me move forward.

 

Pen and ink drawing of a knight on a horse followed by a man on a donkey

Don Quixote
Pablo Picasso
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donquixote.JPG

 

On the other side of the coin, Jennie Erdal wrote an article, “What’s the big idea?,” on the philosophical novel and its importance. At its heart, behind all the fun and nonsense, Don Quixote is a novel of ideas. Anyone who knows the story recognizes the errant knight in Picasso’ drawing and does not need a title to know who she or he is looking at. The windmills in the background evoke that part of the novel comes to mind for most, whether they have read the novel or not, when they hear the name of Don Quixote. It may be whether we have been shaped by stories or not, that we have all engaged in quixotic behavior of one kind or another. And even if Parks is right and none of us were shaped into the people we have become by this story, this story still defines, metaphorically of course, a bit of who we are. Erdal thinks that novels that wrestle with “big ideas” are important. She thinks the best philosophical novels are not those that discuss philosophy but those in which things with philosophical implications take place, they help us see things rather than try to explain things.
In Dostoevsky’s fiction, for example, characters wrestle with events with philosophical implications, but it is the wrestling matches that are the focus and it is through these bouts with moral and ethical ramifications that philosophy is put on trial. In this sense, perhaps, the reader is not shaped by what is read so much as led to consider what is true, what is just, what is moral and it is through this consideration, which does not require one to read a novel for it to take place, that the person is changed and character is shaped. The novel is less a sculptor giving shape to the rough rock that is our unformed personality and more a provocateur that incites us to consider ourselves in ways that might not otherwise have occurred to us and in ways that might be a bit dangerous. Perhaps there is a bit of a paradox in that we have to know ourselves before the stories and the contemplations they provoke can help us to become ourselves.

 

Building U. S. – China Relations by Banjo
Abigail Washburn
TED Talk
 
The film clip captures another kind of story; music builds more bridges than law. Songs are a form of story telling and even when the words are in a strange language, the sounds and rhythms and harmonies in the music communicate much of what the words would tell us if they could. Before watching this clip I never noticed the bluegrass in Chinese music. Whether these stories are essential, whether they teach us anything, or shape us in any way, they do open us up to one another, as the music did for the young child who lost her mother in an earthquake, and provide opportunities to know and understand one another. What is it in us that drives us to sing songs, tell stories, paint pictures; to make rocks, wood, and hedges look like people, animals, or kitchen tables? Part of it is entertainment, finding ways to fill the time, to amuse ourselves. But is this all there is; are they just stories? Sometimes I think stories give us a safe way of talking to one another. The stories that fill our time tell a lot about who we are, they reveal us to others, but we can sometimes fool ourselves into believing that because they are just stories that we are safe, that others will not put two and two together or solve the riddle.

 

A man in a Scottish kilt is released to his wife and child and family dog as a red coated soldier looks on

The Order of Release
John Everett Millais
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Millais_Order_of_Release.jpg

 

The painting tells another story of liberation. The guard looks quizzically at a piece of paper held up to him by a woman who gives the soldier a look of defiance and perhaps contempt. The man being released is wounded and tired. He is wearing a kilt while the soldier is wearing a British Army uniform. This suggests to me that perhaps the man being released was involved in the Jacobite Rebellion attempting to reclaim Scotland and the British throne for “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
Being Scottish the history of the painting resonates with me, though those with little or no interest in Scottish history may not get nearly so much out of it. Part of what makes a story come alive is the way it resonates with our interests and passions. The most effective connections are emotional. There is a lot of emotion in this painting. There is the defiance of the woman, the sleepiness of the child, the excitement of the dog, and the fatigue and injuries of the Scottish clansman (I think that is a MacDonald tartan, but I can’t be sure). We do not need to know the history to be touched by the emotion in the painting. We have most of us been reunited with loved ones at one point or another. We have all at least wanted to stand up to authority especially when some we loved needed defending.

 

A man and a woman about to drink from a goblet containing a love potion, of which they are unaware

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion
John William Waterhouse
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:John_william_waterhouse_tristan_and_isolde_with_the_potion.jpg

 

I wonder at times if I make more of stories than they merit, if they are not a kind of intoxication potion that get us into trouble. I wonder at times if Tim Parks isn’t right, but my experience suggests otherwise. It agrees with Marilyn Robinson and Jennie Erdal. This to me is evidence. It is not scientific; it is not grounded in data, at least not the kind that is sifted in order to lend support to the conclusions of a formal study. It is subjective but it tries to take into account the experiences of others. I wonder about Mr. Parks and his fiction addiction. I wonder, is the need that it fills for him a real need or a psychological need. Is it like a well balanced meal that makes us healthy, or like smoking a cigarette that does us harm? In my experience stories help me understand people, ideas, and the heart’s core. It illuminates the mysterious.
I came home one summer from college for a visit. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I told my parents I was coming home on Wednesday when in fact I would be arriving in Los Angeles on a Monday. I have always liked to walk so I threw my duffle bag over my shoulder and walked from L. A. International Airport to my parents’ house in a little beachside community called Hollywood Riviera. I knocked on the door and my mother answered. Not being expected, she said we don’t want any and slammed the door in my face. I knocked again and this time my father answered, but before he could slam the door, I managed to introduce myself and he let me in. We often get from experience, what we expect. And we often see what we expect to see. Stories often shake up the expected or show us the expected in unexpected ways. I like to think my parents knew me and that the only reason they didn’t recognize was because I was not expected. Often stories work this way, we enter expecting to see something and then something happens and we see something familiar in new and unexpected ways.
The painting is of Dante and Virgil standing at the Gate of Purgatory. Purgatory is a transitional place. It is not a pleasant place but it is a place of hope. There is a way out. Sometimes there are moments in which we live that are transitional places. There is unpleasantness. There may be an unhappy ending that changes us and though the ending was unpleasant and painful the changes, once they take place transfigure that unhappy ending into a happy one. We are all seeking to climb the seven story mountain that brings us to that other, happier gate; but to get their we have to spend a bit of time in these transitional places. Stories help to pass the time and in the process often illuminate and hallow the time.

 

Color etching of two man standing before a stoop leading up to an open door. An old bearded man sits in the doorway.

Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory
William Blake
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blake_Dante_Purgatory_9.jpg

What the Beholder Beholds

From Appalachian Spring

Aaron Copeland

Leonard Bernstein and the London Philharmonic

 

What the Beholder Beholds

 

Mural od a group of men with boats by a river with a waterfall in the background

Mural depicting Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea and members of the Corps of Discovery at Celilo Falls during their journey to the Pacific

Frank H. Schwarz

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Celilo_mural_salem_capital.jpg

 

The paintings above and below in some ways define America. The Journals of Lewis and Clark have been called the American epic, they tell a story, like The Iliad a true story, of people engaged in an historic adventure. Lewis and Clark’s story is not, like the Greek epic, a war story; it is a story of exploration and adventure. The spirit of the explorer has in many ways defined the American culture, from Daniel Boone and the Cumberland Gag to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. The painting below captures an aspect of the American landscape. This landscape has attracted painters from Georgia O’Keefe and Edward Hopper to the Hudson River Valley School of painters, each finding something beautiful in different aspects of the American landscape, from its mountains, to its deserts, to its cities. The music clip at the start comes from Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. The melody from this part of Copeland’s score borrows an old melody from the American Shakers, “The Gift to Be Simple.” Simplicity, individualism, the pioneer spirit are all engrained in the national identity.

 

Painting of a valley surrounded by mountains at sunrise

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California

Albert Bierstadt

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Looking_Down_Yosemite-Valley.jpg

 

Every nation has a cultural ethos that somehow captures how they see themselves and often these cultural identities have their home in accomplishments or ideals that belong to a distant past, they illustrate how a people saw themselves once, but have ceased, often long ceased, to be a real part of that nation’s real cultural life. The west was officially “closed,” that is, declared settled and well on its way to being fully developed, in the early 1900’s. The last flight to the moon was decades ago, and the space program has, at the very least, gone on hiatus. What is the national identity today, not the American ethos as it lives in the American imagination, but the American ethos as it is lived in the present day?

There were a couple of recent articles that identified the decline of uniquely American institutions, “Future tense, VII: What’s a museum?” and “College at Risk”; not unique in the sense of what they are, but unique in the sense of how they have been established in this country, the museum and the university. Both of these institutions were established in America in ways that are very different from what they were in Europe. They were not established by the state, but by concerned citizens and they were not established for an aristocratic elite, but for everyone, especially those who had historically been excluded from these institutions, though this latter point was truer of the university than of the museum.

 

Painting of diner on a dark night with the lights on in the diner and three people sitting at the counter with a working behind the counter

Nighthawks

Edward Hopper

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nighthawks.jpg

 

Edward Hopper is an iconic American painter. He captures the feelings of isolation that too is often part of the American experience. Whether it is the isolation of individuals as seen in the painting above or the isolation of landscapes. In any case one would expect to find Hopper in any art museum that attempts to capture the American experience. But as James Panero points out, museums do not just display paintings that capture the nation’s heritage (whatever the nation to whom the museum belongs) but the art that is important to that nation; that speaks to the soul of that nation. The article tells the story of the National Portrait Gallery in London that was threatened with destruction and the loss of its paintings during the Blitz of World War II. Kenneth Clark, the director of the museum at the time, wanted to send the paintings to Canada where they would be safe, but Churchill would not hear of it. Instead they were sent to a refurbished slate mine where the bombs would not touch them.

But the people still wanted to see the art. One painting was brought to the museum a month, as one could be safely stored in the depths of the museum’s basements in the event of attack, and more people came to see that one painting then came to the museum when all the paintings hung safely on the walls. Art speaks to people, to their culture and their values. The first two paintings shown were not painted by British painters, they were a Rembrandt and a Titian, but they were the ones the people wanted to see. They were valued for their beauty and for their contribution to the nation’s cultural fabric. As Neil McGregor says in the article, “They ‘exist to enable the public to explore through them their own personal and shared experience, as generations have done before us and will do in the future.’”

Panero points out in his article that in America, unlike Europe, the first museums, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, were established and maintained by citizens and not by the government. Panero is a conservative and he values institutions that maintain their independence from the government, but that said, there is value in “private wealth being transferred to the public trust” and it is this virtue of generosity that he is praising. He believes that “those treasures (the art the museums contain), however singular, are also tokens of the idealism behind the institutions that maintain them.”

Though it can be said that to the extent there is a class system in American it is system based on wealth as opposed to ancestry, and that the wealthy individuals that endowed these museums were in a sense the American aristocracy. The idealism that prompted their founding, however, is a part of the American culture. America is an idealistic nation and idealism is a significant strand in the fabric of the American character. And what Panero is troubled by in his article is the abandonment by many museums of this public trust to the pursuit of profits. Museums in America are becoming like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that advertised itself as a “café with ‘art on the side.’” That the art America’s museums contain is not preserved for its own sake but for the merchandise it can help the museums sell as they become more mercantile in their outlook and practice. What is being lost is the contribution art makes to the national character and the role it plays in nurturing and nourishing public and private virtues.

Panero sees America’s museums as they were originally founded as contributing to the well being of the Republic or as John Adams said, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” The state of the American museum and its management philosophy speaks to the national character. And, if it continues, to the diminishing of the national character.

 

Painting of sheep being driven down the street running in front of a college

St. Peter’s College (Peterhouse), Cambridge

Rudolph Ackermann

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St._Peter%27s_College_Cambridge_3.jpg

 

Andrew Delbanco’s article addresses the decline of the American University. (As an aside I was first introduced to Andrew Delbanco’s ideas by the first doctor I saw upon moving to Massachusetts, his older brother Doctor Thomas Delbanco.) Delbanco points out that the American university was always meant to be available to all, not just the privileged. He associates the college with the “Puritan principle that no communicants should ‘take any ancient doctrine for truth till they have examined it’ for themselves.” The ideal university is not one where students listen to teachers who lecture, but where students participate in the debates and explore the ideas in concert with their teachers, their professors. Delbanco’s concern is that the university is becoming inaccessible to all but the most privileged because it is becoming too expensive for universities to do the work they do with the funding they receive and therefore to survive they must raise their tuitions and fees.

I began my college career in California in the 1960’s. I attended first a small State College that had just opened a few years earlier, California State College (now University) Dominguez Hills. When I attended the campus was not finished and many of the classes were still meeting in an old motel building that had been converted into classrooms to be used as a temporary campus. The freshman composition courses were constructed around tutorials where students would meet once a week as a class and at least once a week, one on one, with the professor. It was, for me, a life changing experience. But it was an experience that was available to me because the California colleges and universities were subsidized by the state. I received my master’s degree from Cal-State Dominguez in 1989 and during the three or four years I was enrolled in the program the cost to me never went above $150.00 in enrollment fees. I paid more for my books than I did for my classes. At this time Junior College tuition, in state schools, was $15.00 a credit. In the painting of St. Peter’s College, Cambridge the college is on the “High Road” or at least it looks like the high road to me because there is a farmer bringing his cattle to town passing in front of the college gates. This suggests to me that the college ought to be integrated into the community it serves, even though in practice there is a “wall of separation” that often exists between the college and the town, even if it is only an imaginary wall.

I do not believe everyone should be made to go to college, but I do believe all with the ability and the desire ought to be able to get a college education. I think this is not just good for the individuals being educated, but for the long-term health of the country. If having a college education makes one a member of some elite, it is an elite to which any who choose to put forth the effort can belong. As the article points out this is, or at least was, not the case in other parts of the world. In Europe college was reserved, mostly, for those with resources. Students were also expected to commit to a course of study upon entering the college or university. In America students have always been free to explore different courses of study before finally deciding on the one they wish to pursue. This was an aspect of American culture that many supported with pride and when I was young it was an aspect of the national identity that I think I took somewhat for granted.

 

100 Years at the Movies

Turner Classic Movies

 

There was also a recent article, “When Critics Mattered,” on another American cultural institution, the cinema. The video clip gives a brief synopsis of the first hundred years of American film making. As an English teacher stories are important to me. I teach novels I believe to be important because they tell stories that I think are important to the human psyche and soul. I also believe these stories are so powerful that whether they are taught in schools or not, the stories will always survive, most of them have survived for hundreds of years without any help from schools, some for thousands of years. They will survive because they provide nourishment we need that cannot be gotten from any other source. Films also tell these stories.

Many think films are more of a passive than an active medium. The viewer does not have to pay as careful attention to what is going on as does the reader and often this is true, but not always. In the film Judgment at Nuremberg, for example, there is a scene between Marlene Dietrich and Spencer Tracy where their characters are discussing the opera The Master Singer of Nuremberg. The soundtrack plays in the background a few moments from the overture to this opera as Tracy and Dietrich are talking. It is not necessary for the viewer to know where this music comes from, but for the viewer that does know, it adds richness and another layer of meaning. If careful attention were not paid the moment would likely be missed. In the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers Groucho is taking the college widow boating. The widow asks Grouch if he does this often (goes boating) to which Grouch replies, not since reading American Tragedy. A little joke, but the joke only works if the viewer has read the book. It too passes quickly and could also be easily missed.

 

Movie poster fesaturing the Marx Brothers playing football

Horse Feathers Film Poster

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HorseFea.jpg

 

But it is not just the subtlety of the cinematic allusions. There is often depth to the story telling and the performances and as scripts film scripts can rival anything from the world stage that is studied in classrooms. James Agee said the final scene from City Lights was the best moment of acting on film; at least it was in his view when he wrote the article. The final scene is incredibly moving and it only works if the viewer has been paying attention. It also speaks to the same human needs and values as the great books that are studied in school.

Culture defines a people in very important ways. It tells those on the outside looking in what that people value, the depth to which that people look beneath the surface of things, the value that people place on thought and discourse. The American culture has in many ways been an inclusive culture, even while it was busy excluding one group or another. It borrows voraciously from other languages, other cuisines, other philosophies. It borrows stories and makes them its own. It borrows music and makes that its own. Jazz borrows its rhythms and motifs from many parts of the world. The music clip at the beginning is woven around an American folk tune. Dvorak, an East European composer who came to America, did something similar with his New World Symphony. So we freely share our culture as well. But also at the heart of the American culture is the spirit of exploration. When Americans finished exploring the new world they looked for new worlds to explore. Often American music, art, and literature have been and are an exploration of these different forms. There has also been an aspect of American culture that has worked tenaciously to understand and fix problems. Perhaps this last will be what repairs those other strands in the cultural fabric that are beginning to fray.

 

Movie poster featuring a sillouetted Charlie Chaplin looking at city-scape lit up at night with the image of woman looking down from the clours

City Lights Film Poster

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:City_Lights_film.jpg

For What It’s Worth

Save the Country

Laura Nyro

 

For What It’s Worth

 

Painting of a table filled with books, papers, a tankard, a telescope, and numerous other objects

A study table

William Harnett

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harnett_William_A_Study_Table_1882.jpg

 

There is a story by Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”, that revolves around a mother and her two daughters. At the heart of the story are some quilts. One daughter is well educated and prosperous and wants the quilts because they carry some status as folk art and in my imagination they are beautiful to look at, as are “The Quilts of Gees Bend,” for example, that recently made a tour of museums across the United States. The second daughter wanted them because she could use them; they filled a very practical need. This does not mean these quilts were not beautiful to look at in addition to being useful, only that their usefulness was where their true value lie.

 

The painting above is of musical instruments and books on a table. William Harnett did another painting similar to this that is also of musical instruments and books on a table. In the painting above these objects are sitting on a tablecloth, the other painting, Music and Literature, has them sitting on an unadorned black table. I chose the painting I did because I find the design on the tablecloth pleasant to look at and as enhancing the visual beauty of the painting. It is not clear from Alice Walker’s story if the sister who wanted the quilts because of their value as folk art really valued the quilts as folk art, but the story does invite us to consider art and its value and, perhaps more importantly, to consider whether art must be useful for it to have value.

 

To return to the painting it evokes three different art forms, painting (because that is what it is), music, and literature. To what extent are any of these art forms useful in the sense that the quilts in the story are useful? Paintings can be pretty, designed purely to accent a room with little if any artistic merit. There is in my doctor’s office a print of a piano in a living room next to a window overlooking a park. The print was selected because of the colors the artist used and the pleasant design of the room. But if one looks carefully at the piano it becomes clear that the piano keys have not been painted correctly, there are three sets of white and black keys between both the keys of “c” and “e” and between the keys of “f” and “b”. On a real piano there are two sets of white and black keys between “c” and “e” and three between “f” and “b”. Not an important detail but one that suggests the artist either did not look closely at the piano before painting it or did not expect the viewer to look closely at the piano. This, perhaps, illustrates a difference between art and decoration or art and entertainment. Art ought to both decorate and entertain, but, hopefully, it does something more.

 

There are books that we read solely for entertainment, that we are unlikely to revisit, or if we do revisit, it is to be entertained in much the same way we were the first time we read them. Much of the music we listen to on the radio demands little from us (though it might also be mentioned that some of it offers more than we are willing to receive). An important difference between the pretty and the beautiful is the difference between that which merely decorates and that which does something more. This is not to say that popular songs or popular novels do not have artistic depth, though many do not; nor is it to say we should spend more time reading “the classics” or attending the opera. But this is to say for those willing to invest, perhaps it would be better to say who desire to invest, the additional time and effort there are rewards that make the investment worthwhile. It is, though, like many things in life; we do not know what we are missing until we open ourselves up to what we are missing. The print in my doctors office not only does not stand up to close study, it loses much of its decorative value if it is studied too closely.

 

Three women seated together associated with history, music, and comedy and idyllic poetry, three of the Greek muses

Clio, Euterpe and Thalie

Eustache Le Sueur

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eustache_Le_Sueur_002.jpg

 

The song, Save the Country, that played at the beginning is about peace and redemption. It is a song with a message and not a bad message. Some see in the study of art, music, and literature a kind of redemption or purification of the soul and spirit; that we read and study the arts because doing so somehow how makes us better people. The painting above is of three muses from Greek mythology, the muses of history, lyric poetry, and comedy. The suggestion is that art was art because it was divinely inspired, that it fulfilled in some fashion the will or purpose of the gods. But what if, as the “art for art’s sake” folks suggested, art serves no purpose, in the sense we usually think of the word, in the sense that the quilts in the story, though they may have been art, served a purpose.

 

Photograph of a page from an old book using "blackletter" typescript

Page from the Book of Common Prayer, 1583

http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/sceti/printedbooksNew/index.cfm?TextID=commonprayer&PagePosition=3

 

The pictures above and below are of a printed page, from the 1583 Book of Common Prayer and a painting of Mary Magdalen reading. Though the Book of Common Prayer serves a purpose, is designed to be used as part of a religious practice, it also has beauty all its own. The book is printed using a typeface called “Blackletter” or Gothic script. It is not easily read by 21st century readers, but even if unreadable, it delights the eye and is pleasant to just look at, even if it cannot be understood. Perhaps the angels surrounding the letter “A” are enough to articulate its religious message. In the second painting Mary seems to be “idly” reading while those around her are busy doing things. Of course we do not really see enough of the others in the scene to know if they are doing anything, but I think they are. If this is the case is Mary wasting time and letting others work while she idles the time away. Reading with purpose demands all of our attention and it cannot be done either quickly or while we are doing other things. If nothing else, reading, deep purposeful reading, provides a kind of “Sabbath Rest”, a time where all physical labor must cease. I think the jar next to her suggests the jar of ointment that another Mary (this other Mary is often identified as Mary Magdalen, but this is unlikely) used to anoint Jesus. “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.” Jn. 12:3 She was accused of wasting something precious that could be put to good use, that could be sold and the money used to help the poor. But Jesus said she did a beautiful thing and should not be criticized. The same might be said of The Magdalen reading while those around her are engaged in “more meaningful and useful” activities.

 

Is reading another kind of work, is it a leisure activity, does it work on us and change us? I do not think that readers, or “appreciators” of any of the arts are better people; many terrible people have been appreciators of the arts, but I do think if we are paying attention we are changed and just as art demands we look more closely and carefully at the work of art, this practice carries over to other things and can make us a bit more reflective as people. Of course, the other side of the equation is probably also true, that we can experience the art, no matter how well and perfectly it is executed, solely as decoration, as entertainment.

 

Painting of a woman sitting on the floor reading next to a man standing by a window

The Magdalen Reading

Rogier van der Weyden

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Magdalen_Reading_Rogier.jpg

 

There was an article recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading”, that suggest most people will never develop into readers who will read deeply and well and that there is, perhaps, little value in trying to teach literature in schools, if our purpose in teaching literature is to make students deep and thoughtful readers. Of course, by this way of thinking there is probably not much point in teaching students geometry or algebra as most will not go on to use or value abstract mathematics. But in the book this essay was taken from, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, the author, Alan Jacobs, argues that this kind of reading is done best if it begins as a whim, with our being carried away by a “fancy” to read and discover. In the book Jacobs recounts Richard Rodriguez’s experience of reading difficult books as a young child where he kept a record of each book along with the book’s “big idea” or theme. In Rodriguez’s view (and Jacobs’) this diminished the books, if only because as literary art, but probably even as just entertainment, most books do not lend themselves to so easy a reduction.

 

To teach literature well the teacher must not only expose students to the books, but in some way pique their interest enough that they will explore on their own. I am dyslexic and when I was in high school I could not finish the books we were assigned in the time given to read them. So I had to rely on helps, helps familiar to most students. However, the effect of these helps on my imagination was to give me a hunger for these books and over the summer when no one was making demands on my time I read these books, Moby Dick, Great Expectations, Gulliver’s Travels, and others. My affection for these books did not come directly from studying them in school, but if I had never studied them in school I would never have gone on to read them. Even though I would be oblivious to how my life was diminished by not having read these books, that is, I would not know what I was missing, my life would still be diminished.

 

Paul Bloom

TED Talk

 

The video makes a couple of points about art and how we assess its value. My favorite story from this film clip is of the man who sold the Vermeer to the Nazis. The sale was treated as an act of treason for which there was no defense. He was Dutch and Vermeer contributed significantly to the Dutch culture. The art dealer, Han Van Megereen had a defense. He, not Vermeer, painted the painting he sold to the Nazis. He went from traitor to folk hero. Of course the painting lost all, or most, of its value. But this raises another question. Is an artwork’s value determined by its content or its history? The painting is what it is, regardless of who painted it. One of my favorite novels is a book by Robertson Davies What is Bred in the Bone. It is about the life, work, and education of an art forger, a very successful art forger. If the forgery contains all the elements of a great work of art, is it not still a great work of art even if it is not what it pretends to be? There is also the issue of how we define ourselves as a culture. For the Dutch Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh are a part of their national identity, in the sense, perhaps, that Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and, perhaps, John Steinbeck are part of our cultural identity. But what do these artists add to our cultural identity? How are we different as a people by the presence of this art in our midst, by these details of our cultural heritage?

 

The Museum of Fine Art in Boston has recently returned, or agreed to return, a part of a statue to the Turkish people and in the process reunite the two parts that make up the one statue. There has been talk about returning the Elgin Marbles, the Greek statuary that provoked poems by Lord Byron and John Keats that are now part of the British identity, to Greece, their proper home. It is now almost universally a crime to remove artifacts such as these from their native cultures, but it wasn’t a crime when the statues in question were removed from their homelands and now, because of their great beauty those that have them are reluctant to return them.

 

Amit Snood

TED Talk

 

This film clip raises another question about art and that is accessibility. Amit Snood is responsible for the Google “Art Project” and as can be seen from the film this project not only brings great art to anyone who wants to look at it, it enables those who wish to, to see the art in ways they could never see it even if they went to the museums in which these painting and statues live. The Art Project enables the viewer to see the paintings so closely and in such detail that aspects of the painting that are nearly invisible become clear. Also, unlike the print in my doctor’s office, these paintings reward the attention to detail. Things that no viewer could really be expected to notice become clear and reveal the importance of every detail to the painter. It will always be true that some works have more to offer than others, but if the work is well done it will always be true to the vision it tries to capture.

 

When I was starting college there was an issue of the magazine The Saturday Review that featured two articles, one on the public poet, Rod McKuen and one on the private poet, James Merrill. McKuen is for the most part forgotten and Merrill, outside of academic circles has not been that well known, though his poetry deservedly survives. Merrill’s poems are quite beautiful and some are very funny but he places demands on his readers and those that read because they enjoy the demands are richly rewarded. McKuen’s poems entertained for a time, but they did not offer much on rereading. Perhaps this is just me and that I do not have the proper sensibilities to see what lies beneath the surface of his poems, but every time I read a poem by Merrill I continue to be rewarded with new insights, and frustrated by that which remains unclear to me, that which must wait until another day to be revealed. That is in part why I go back to his poetry. 

 

There is a book recently published by Marjorie Garber, The Use and Abuse of Literature. The book argues that literature is important for the questions it raises and not for the answers it gives and that a literary work reveals different things to different readers. What is important is not that we read and arrive at a preordained destination but that we read and consider and reflect. She makes a case for literature being “useless” in the utilitarian sense; that we do not read to accomplish anything; that in reading we will not change the world, though if we read deeply, perhaps carefully, and well we might change ourselves. But the importance of literature, the importance of any work of art, is in its ability to make us aware of the beautiful; of that which exists for no other purpose than to open our eyes to splendor and the sublime and asks nothing in return except that we take it seriously, that we enjoy it, and that we do not give it a job to do.

 

Painting of a man reading a letter with an open window behind him that looks out over countryside

St Ivo

Roger van der Weyden

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Weyden_Ivo.jpg