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”



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 There is an irony that many of his ideas have been superseded by the science of our day, but, like Freud, because of the power of his language there is still an interest in reading him.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


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.



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


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


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 

When the World Changed

From Jailhouse Rock
Elvis Presley

When the World Change

Map of the World
Martin Waldseemüllerüller_world_map_1508.jpg

Some see Elvis Presley as the beginning of rock and roll, that his popularity signaled the end of one kind of music and opened the door to another. Some think he introduced to white audiences music that was already popular with black audiences and that he profited a bit off the work of others. Of course, and this may just be me, the names that come most immediately to minds after Elvis’ when the discussion is 1950’s rock and roll are Chuck Berry and Little Richard. After all, it is not Elvis Michael J. Fox imitates in Back to the Future but Chuck Berry. Still, whatever one thinks of Elvis, popular music became a different world the day Elvis topped the charts.

The map above is also credited with changing the world, at least according to Toby Lester in “A world redrawn” an article that appeared in this weekend’s Boston Globe. Copernicus was born into a world that believed the planet earth occupied a sphere of water and that the only reason the planet was not completely submerged was because this sphere of water was set at an angle so that half the surface of the earth could keep its “head” above water. This would place the Eastern half of the world above water and the western half under water. Not many scientists of Copernicus’ day took this cosmological model seriously, there were too many observable contradictions, but there was no opposing system and the existing order of things had become a part of the religious beliefs of the day, a day that did not treat kindly those that challenged its beliefs.

According to Lester, when Copernicus saw this map the “submerged earth theory” became untenable, because according to the map, there was a continent filling that half of the globe that should be under water and though this continent looks nothing like the North and South America of our maps today, it was enough. Once the sphere of water evaporated and Copernicus took a second look at the heavens other cherished beliefs, like the sun revolving around the earth, were seen to be problematic. Lester believes that this change was possible in part because Copernicus did not live in an age that was given to specialization; he lived in an age that could see connections between the earth’s geography and that of the heavens, just as Einstein’s work with clocks in the Swiss patent office contributed to his work in physics and helped him to visualize his theory of relativity.

Florence Cathedral domeFilippo Brunelleschi,_Florence.jpg

Brunelleschi is known mostly as an architect, but he is credited with figuring out the rules of perspective in drawing and painting. Painting prior to Brunelleschi’s discovery was somewhat two-dimensional. Medieval artists had a sense of perspective in that buildings often had corners and the like, but space and relationships of size were depicted poorly. With perspective came paintings that captured space very well. It became popular to paint frescos on walls and ceilings of buildings that created the illusion they went on forever. In theater perspective drawing produced a kind of scene design that was stunning in its evocation of space and distance. Of course there was only one seat in the house where all the lines of perspective worked perfectly. This seat was called the “eye of the duke” because, of course, only the town’s most privileged citizen was permitted to occupy that seat, at least at performances.

I think it is interesting that Brunelleschi might never have abandoned his trade of goldsmith, and as a consequence not have gone on to develop perspective drawing, if he had not lost the competition to design some Baptistery doors for a church in Florence. A college professor of mine said Brunelleschi painted a panel depicting the Florence Baptistery that illustrated how perspective painting worked. The doors of the Baptistery were perfect in every detail except that Brunelleschi substituted his doors for those of Ghiberti, the gentleman who actually won the competition and designed the doors that would be seen by anyone actually visiting the Baptistery. I do not know if this is in fact true, but it is one of those little stories that is, in the words Foucault, “so beautiful it must be true.”

21st Michigan Infantry: Sherman’s Volunteers, 1860s
Mathew B. Brady (American, 1823–1896)
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933 (33.65.232)

The photographs above and below suggest how photography has changed journalism and over time how photography as journalism has evolved. With the photograph a journalist could not only describe an event but provide actual images of what the event looked like, making the coverage not only more real, but, allegedly, more irrefutable. Of course photography as a tool for propaganda followed very shortly afterwards. The photograph as a tool of journalism emerged during the Civil War and with it the practice of “doctoring” photographs to influence public opinion (see “Does the Camera Ever lie” exhibit at the Library of Congress website).

The image below acts more like commentary on an event than as reporting on an event. The Cartier-Bresson photograph is literally a “bull’s eye” view of a bullring. It is difficult to tell if the photograph is a collage, is the man seen through the open doors looking through a window, for example, the same man with the glasses and cigar that faces us? The open gate is the gate through which the bull would enter the arena and the photographer is standing in the bull’s path, were the bull actually entering the arena. The photograph has become an art form in its own right. It is no longer a mere adjunct to the story a reporter tells, but becomes its own story, its own unique form of reportage where each detail of the photograph sends its own message, is its own paragraph in the story the “reporter” tells. In this sense the photograph has changed the world of story telling.

Valencia, Spain, 1933
Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908–2004)
Gelatin silver print
7 11/16 x 11 1/2 in. (19.6 x 29.2 cm)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew W. Saul Gift, 2005 (2005.100.164)

In an article for the Huffington Post Adam Peneberg reports that “It’s the End of the Book as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. The article is about the influence of the Kindle and what it may mean for the future of the book. He seems to think we are in the midst of a Guttenbergian revolution, that the book is taking a great step forward and that it will never be the same again. This may be true, it feels like it is, but of course, the problem with predicting the future is that no one knows what tomorrow brings. Steve Jobs left Apple in the 1980’s and developed the “NeXT” computer that was to be the wave of the future. He had credibility; he had been responsible for the “Mac” after all. But NeXT never caught on, though some of its innovations may have gone on to find a home in other technologies., and Jobs is back at Apple. Perhaps Kindle has changed the world a bit but we may have to wait a day or two to find out.

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm

Abel Gance in his film Napoleon introduced the triptych of Medieval and Renaissance art to the cinema. He put three screens next to each other and projected three separate moving images that created one panoramic landscape. It was thought for many years that this film was forever lost, though it was rediscovered in the 1970’s. Though the film was believed to be lost, its technological innovations had been passed along by word of mouth. In the 1950’s Cinemascope was developed as a technology for making films. The clip above from The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm is an example of a film shot in Cinemascope. There are brief moments here and there throughout the film where the three screens become visible. This widescreen technology changed the way films were made. Before this the film lived in a box, after this it came to inhabit a wide and narrow rectangle. There is something about the box that is claustrophobic and something about the rectangle, the longer and the narrower the better, that is panoramic.

Newton’s Telescope

Little things often produce great changes and those that pay attention often see what is coming early on. Perhaps it is those that see the changes taking place the earliest that are the ones that profit most from those changes when the changed landscape becomes visible to the rest of us. There is always a case to be made for being attentive and open-minded. Perhaps the Newton telescope is indicative of this. Those that looked through the Newton reflecting telescope saw the same universe as those looking through the more conventional “refracting” telescope but Newton’s telescope presented a clearer more accurate picture of what he astronomer was looking at and this suggests that it is not only important to look and be vigilant, but to use those tools to aid our vigilance that present the clearest view of the changing world.