Portion of Wisdom, with Light and Sound, located above the entrance of 30 Rockefeller Center (GE Building), New York City
Photograph by Jaime Ardiles-Arce
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
Photograph by Filippo from Milano, Italy
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.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Guglielmo (According to Giorgio Vasari)
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.
“New India Assurance Building”
Master, Sarhe and Bhuta, with N.G. Parsare, 1936
Photograph by Colin Rose
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.
“Elgin Marble Friezes”
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.
“Elgin Marbles East Pediment”
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
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.
Psyche revived by the kiss of Love
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.
“Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, Chicago, Illinois, US”
Photograph by J. Crocker