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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


Edward Hopper


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


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


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

Where the World Can’t Find Me

Down on the Corner
Creedence Clearwater Revival

Where the World Can’t Find Me

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

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

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

Guests from Overseas
Nicholas Roerich,_Guests_from_Overseas.jpg

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

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

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

Book of Kells, Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned.

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

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

Swiss Family Robinson
Buena Vista

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

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

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

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

Looking Backwards, Facing Forward

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Looking Backwards, Facing Forward

Roman ruins and sculpture
G.P. Pannini

The song is an excerpt from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion. The passage glances back to an English “golden age” in order to comment on England’s present and hopefully the contrast will inspire the people of England to make a better, more just future. This illustrates I think our difficult relationship with the past. We often try to distance ourselves from it in order to establish our own moment in our own slice of history. But it is often the past that provides a springboard of sorts or a justification for the path we choose to pursue. Sometimes we forsake the immediate past, so immediate it borders on the present, with an appeal to a more distant past that lends legitimacy to our choices.

The painting is from the Italian Baroque period. It captures images that might be found in a museum from the Classical Roman period. It is a collage of sorts that captures much of what the artist admires about this period. These images also allow him to demonstrate his skill at his craft. Again the past gives the artist, Pannini, his inspiration and lends an aura of authority, of importance, to the work. The painter also assumes an understanding of the significance of these images on the part of his audience, he assumes a certain amount of learning and exposure to the past and those periods in the past that are most revered. But Pannini does not really introduce anything much that is new or different from the painters that came before. The painting reveals a knowledge of the past and great skill with perspective painting, but it does not tell us much, aside from the fashions of the day as worn by the visitors to the museum, about Pannini’s moment in history, except, perhaps, to suggest that Pannini’s moment was captivated more by the past than the present.

Chariots of Fire
Enigma Productions

The film clip from Chariots of Fire illustrates how the past is often used to inspire the youth of the present to make their own mark upon their own time. The Master of Caius College is evoking the memory of earlier students and their accomplishments to provoke this day’s freshman on to greatness. There is an irony here because one of the freshmen present, Harold Abrahams, will go on to greatness by challenging the conventions of his day. Later in the film this same Master of Caius College will lecture Abrahams about the importance of doing things the way they have always been done, a message that in some ways contradicts the message he delivered at the beginning of the film. Abrahams leaves suggesting he will travel his own road and that he will bring the future with him. Much of what Abrahams does is inspired by the traditions of the school, but he does what he does in a way that dismantles some of those traditions. Perhaps this is the healthiest view of the past.

In an article on T. S. Eliot in this week’s Guardian, “TS Eliot rejected Bloomsbury group’s ‘cursed fund’ to work in bank”, the poet Ted Hughes’ comments on hearing of Eliot’s death are quoted. He said, “He was in my mind constantly, like a rather over-watchful, over-powerful father, and now he has gone, I shall have to move – be able to move, maybe.” Eliot was a great influence on Hughes’ work, but to be finally successful Hughes needed to grow beyond that influence, something he could only do with difficulty while that influence was a living presence. The past had to in a sense die before he could make his own present. But is the influence entirely missing from the work and can the work be entirely understood without an understanding of the influences that provoked the work?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The paintings above and below both evoke Classical antiquity, the painting by Rossetti evokes its mythology and the painting by Raphael evokes its philosophy. Yet Rossetti belonged to a movement, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that was actively seeking to distance itself from the work of Raphael, who painted the picture below. Though at odds with each other, each looked back to a similar moment in the past to provide the subjects for their art. The past shapes and inspires the present. It is also difficult for a viewer of these paintings to fully appreciate what is happening in the paintings if that viewer does not also understand the classical allusions the paintings make.

School of Athens
Raphael Sanzio

The painting by Rossetti is of Proserpine, a goddess from Roman mythology associated with the springtime and the harvest. The pomegranate and the vegetation growing along the window evoke this association. In the painting by Raphael the philosophers Plato and Aristotle are the focal point. These two philosophers represent Greek philosophy and the contributions of these philosophers to western civilization. There is a beauty in each of the paintings that can be enjoyed even if the allusions are not known or understood, but a knowledge of these allusions adds richness to each of the works and the viewers’ appreciation of those works.

There is a review, “I Pledge Allegiance to Core Knowledge”, in this Sunday’s Washington Post of E. D. Hirsch’s new book, The Making of Americans. Hirsch is ridiculed by some and admired by others for his beliefs surrounding “cultural literacy” and the importance for each generation to learn the culture that has shaped the culture in which they live. He believes that study of difficult texts in an English class is important not only for the ways in which these texts challenge and develop the analytic skills of students, but for how they pass along many of the ideals of the culture. He can point to how students brought up on his curriculum do better on standardized tests. Those that disagree with Hirsch do not have much use for standardized tests and therefore do not see in this much of an argument for his curriculum.

As a teacher I am troubled by our over-reliance on standardized tests, but I am also troubled by those that would do away with the “classical literature.” I agree with Hirsch that reading difficult texts grounded in our cultural heritage develops the cognitive skills of students. There are problems with much of this literature in that it often includes attitudes and views that are troubling. Still, these views are a part of our past and it is unwise to ignore them. It is also unwise to ignore what is valuable in the older authors because there are unsavory elements to their work. The same is true of contemporary works, we may not see what is troubling in them because we are so close to them, but those that come after us will certainly see them. I also think the more aware we are of the problems in the literature of the past the more sensitive we are likely to be to potential problems in the literature of the present.

It is certainly true that America has been shaped by many cultural influences and that each of these influences is to be valued. But it is also true that there is an “American Culture” and it is important that students know this culture. One aspect of American culture that I find particularly attractive is its willingness to incorporate cultural influences from other parts of the world. Isaac Bashevis Singer, an Eastern European Jew, is an American writer, or at least he has been embraced by the American literary traditions and has won many of its most prestigious literary prizes. Amy Tan is an American writer who captures aspects of Asian culture and it influences on American Culture. There are not many cultures in the world that are willing to do this.

Richard III
Bayly/Paré Productions and United Artists

This clip from Shakespeare’s play Richard III illustrates another way the past impacts on the present. Shakespeare used the history of Richard III to comment on the history of his Elizabethan moment. Richard usurps the throne and he is depicted as quite villainous in the play. Later writers, I like Josephine Tey’s novel Daughter of Time, have made the case that Shakespeare misrepresents Richard and that Richard was not an evil king but an enlightened one. But the Elizabethan court was concerned about usurpation, in part because they were a patriarchal society being ruled by a woman. The film in turn resets the play in pre-World War II Europe and uses Shakespeare’s text to comment on the rise of fascism in the not distant past and to perhaps suggest that there are seeds of fascism in contemporary society.

The film illustrates that we can often learn something about the present from studying the past and that we can avoid some of the problems faced by those that came before us by being made aware of those problems. Mark Twain said, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” It is rare for the same thing to happen in the same way, but there are certainly similarities and a knowledge of the past and its literature can offer insights into how some difficulties can be avoided.

Palace of Soviets – Perspective
B.M. Iofan, V.А. Shchuko, V.G. Gelfreich

The past is often evoked to lend legitimacy to an enterprise. This drawing for the “Palace of the Soviets” combines modern and classical architectural forms. These forms lend a kind of majesty to the project. In many ways it is architectural propaganda, and to recognize how the propaganda works it is helps to know how classical forms are being manipulated. The statue of Lenin in some ways evokes The Statue of Liberty (I cannot tell if Lenin is holding a lamp or is merely raising his arm for rhetorical effect but I think the pose is deliberately ambiguous). The classical allusions suggest an historical imperative that culminates with the soviet state and the airplanes flying overhead suggest a modern, technologically advanced culture. There is also the largeness of scale to be considered. The point is, though, that a knowledge of cultural history and the way aspects of that history are being manipulated helps an informed viewer to see through the propaganda.

It is important to be aware of the past and its influences on us, some of which are subliminal and fly easily under our cultural radar, if we are not to be fooled or manipulated. It is also important to build upon the cultural foundations we have inherited. The past, present, and future impact on each other. To exclude the contributions of the present from our study is to blind ourselves to the richness of our moment and the value of our work. But, conversely, to exclude the contributions of the past is to isolate ourselves from the forces that have made us what we are. It is also difficult to appreciate the depth and breadth of the present moment and all that it contains if we cannot see the influences that have shaped that moment. Lichtenberg said “To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation.” I am not sure this is always true, but much of what a culture produces is a response of one kind or another to what has come before, and to fully appreciate that culture it is useful to know its family history.

Only Human

What a Piece of Work Is Man
Cast of the musical Hair
Gerome Ragni, James Rado & Galt MacDermot

Only Human

Rembrandt Laughing
Rembrandt van Rijn

The song puts one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies to music. It is a beautiful statement of the human condition that is rendered a bit difficult to interpret within the construct of the play because Hamlet is either mad or pretending to be mad when he says this. Perhaps madness, too, is a part of the human condition and that fabric Hamlet is trying to weave, his words and his actions making the warp and the woof of the metaphorical cloth. Harold Bloom titled one of his books Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human suggesting that it is in Shakespeare that we see our humanity defined for the first time. I think this is not entirely true, because what makes a work of literature survive the generation for which it was written is its ability to capture something of the human condition that resonates with us all. Oedipus and Odysseus may have been kings but their responses to the circumstances in which they found themselves was very human and it is to their humanity that we respond when we read their stories.

Still, there is truth to the suggestion that we discover a part of our humanity through the stories that we read, even if they are not exclusively the stories of Shakespeare. Stories illustrate values, help us see the world from other points of view, remind us that we are not alone, that others in other times have felt the things we feel have struggled with the same sorts of things that we struggle with. Stories help us discover our humanity, our place in the larger communities in which we live and our identity as individuals.

The painting is unusual for Rembrandt, or at least it seems so to me. His most memorable portraits are of serious old men; this seems especially true of his self-portraits. But here he is in the midst of a laugh, perhaps a laugh at his own seriousness. But this is part of what it is to be human; to laugh and to enjoy whatever is happening around you. George Bernard Shaw said, “Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies, as it does not cease to be serious when people laugh.” Living well involves both the humorous and the grave. Getting through the most difficult and trying times often involves laughing at our circumstances.

Terry Eagleton in The Guardian this weekend reviewed a newly published collection of the letters of Isaiah Berlin. The title of the article is “Urbane sprawl” which captures the tone of the letters and Berlin’s good nature, at least in the eyes of Eagleton. Berlin was a man who thought deeply about many things, was a liberal by some definition of the word, and a professor of politics at Oxford University. He was an odd sort of Englishman in that he was a Latvian Jew, the child of Hasidic parents who made himself quite at home at the most English of universities. This too captures what it means to be human, to adapt to new surroundings and to make those surroundings ours, hopefully to be accepted, at least in part, on our own terms. Most of us have had something of the emigrant experience, to have moved from a place that is familiar to us to a place that is very unfamiliar, even if it is only moving from one town to another, or one state to another.

As a child my parents moved about once every year or two. This meant as a child making new friends on a regular basis and adapting to new surroundings, new teachers, new neighbors. We once had a next door neighbor who was on some occasions very welcoming and warm and on others very strange. On one occasion she place a lawn sprinkler on her son’s slide so that it flooded our yard, but in the process of flooding our yard flooded hers. Of course once the sprinkler was removed it had the appearance that the flooding originated with us and that due to our neglect her yard had been flooded. She lodged a complaint to this effect with the local authorities, so did my parents. A police car arrived on both our driveways at about the same time. Fortunately this sort of thing did not happen often. The end result, though, of these many moves was a reluctance to form relationships for fear they would be lost with another move.

Camille Monet at Work
Claude Monetétier.jpg

The paintings above and below capture two views of the human condition. Both paintings are by prominent Post-Impressionist painters. The paintings do not just capture a scene but an attitude towards what is happening in each scene. The painting above is of a woman at work and she appears to be content with her work. Her surroundings are comfortable and pleasant. She is indoors but she is surrounded by greenery; plants that appear to thrive in an environment that is not entirely their own. There is sunshine and no doubt regular meals. Perhaps that is all anyone needs to be comfortable, to be left alone with the bare necessities for life.

There is a hunger on the part of many, perhaps most, to find a way to make their work not just meaningful but pleasant. Fagin in Oliver Twist for all his troubling characteristics seems to enjoy his work, dishonest though it is, in a way that his partner Bill Sykes does not. Most stories of people at work, at least the ones that come immediately to mind, do not involve people enjoying their work, and those that do are not always honest, are like Fagin and Sir John Falstaff.

My favorite work-a-day gentleman is Melville’s scrivener Bartleby. Many at some point during the day would like to respond to an unpleasant instruction with “I would prefer not to.” I know many of my students would. But there are of course other students who would not respond in this way and maybe this suggests that our attitude towards work is sometimes within our control, that we can change the way we look at our work and find something pleasant and enjoyable in it by changing our attitude towards it. Perhaps we need a Tom Sawyer in our lives convincing us that what we really want to do if we want to be happy and satisfied is to white wash this fence.

On the Threshold of Eternity
Vincent Van Gogh

This painting by Vincent Van Gogh captures a more troubling side of our existence. There is the suggestion that the man in the painting is near death, at least that is what the title suggests to me. I think it was a Boston politician who said, “everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.” Van Gogh began his adult life with a strong desire to be an evangelical preacher. It is something at which he was not successful. He took up painting instead. But there may be a bit of the preacher in some of his paintings. If the man in the painting has a family, that family is left out of the picture and he is alone to confront his mortality, which would be true even if others were in the room, but the room’s emptiness emphasizes the individual nature of the man’s struggle.

Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf captures various aspects of life and death and the meaning of both. Throughout the novel Humphrey Van Weyden (known throughout the story as Hump) is trying to survive as best he can in as unforgiving an element as is imaginable. His antagonist, Wolf Larsen believes that life and comfort are rewarded to the strong and the weak exist at the pleasure of the strong. It does not appear likely that someone as weak as Hump is at the beginning of the novel could survive in such a world, though, because he is the one telling the story, he must have. By the end of the novel the roles are reversed and the once indomitable Wolf Larsen finds himself in the position of the man in the painting.

Our Town
Thornton Wilder
Masterpiece Theater

This is the opening to Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. In the play the lives, deaths, and meanings of the various characters and their accomplishments are examined. The story is told simply. The deaths of various characters throughout the play, with one exception, are treated almost as asides, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “and so it goes” to mark the deaths of characters in his novel Slaughterhouse Five. To each of us death is a matter of great importance, but as is suggested by Vonnegut, Wilder, and Wolf Larsen, it is not a matter of great importance to the world around us. This suggests that living well, and by that I mean not just fully but virtuously as well, is our only legacy and that it is a legacy we leave first to ourselves.

The play is produced without scenery or props and the simplest of costumes. We are told the play is set in a small New Hampshire town, but it could be anywhere, though perhaps not anytime. It is localized in small town America and the small town is largely being erased by access to a global community. In the Middle Ages few saw the world beyond their village and to a large degree the public (and possibly the private as well) school classroom is localized in a village and most students do not escape that village until they go off to college or the world of work. Sometimes that village is an urban inner-city village and sometimes a quaint small town in the country, not unlike Grover’s Corners. I think there is something good in this, something that can, even in the worst of environments, nurture, though, it seems that we are all being put through a 21st century version of urban renewal and being located into a rather large global city (it does not seem quite right to call this a village).

Our Town
Iris DeMent

This song has the same title as the play and illustrates another aspect of “Our Town” the town that belongs to us; the town that watched us grow and nurtured us. The song is somewhat pessimistic in that it suggests we not only cannot go home again, we cannot stay at home if that is where we are. Life involves moving on and leaving things behind. If it is true that “nothing good ever lasts”, it equally true that nothing bad ever lasts, or it needn’t. Part of growing up is leaving home, and replacing the good times of our youth with other good times.

There was a review by Alain de Botton of the book The Art of Being Human by John Armstrong. The book is an attempt to recapture the purpose of philosophy, to help us live wisely and well. It is an argument for teaching and preserving culture, not the popular culture, but the more elitist culture that belongs to history, tradition, and the various canons of the different arts, because culture helps us to understand and develop our outer self that lives in the material world and our inner self that is more abstract and more spiritual.

Bottan in his review quotes a passage from the book about Abbot Suger, a medieval reformer. “Suger’s primary concern is to raise people from mass to elite culture. And his way of doing this is not by being snobbish or hard on ordinary enjoyments. He takes the view that mass culture is just an undeveloped, beginning way of addressing exactly the same things that high culture serves more directly and with greater insight. We desperately need to bring to inner development the sort of clarity and respectability that goes with making your way in the material world.” I think this is the argument for teaching great literature and great art. It is also an argument for using popular culture, whether it is its books, films, music, or art, to edge students inch by inch into the “greater insight” of the “elite culture.”

A culture worth preserving and passing along cannot be simple and easy to learn, because culture comes with baggage. When Shakespeare has Iago say, “Who steals my purse steals trash” he (Shakespeare or Iago, take your pick) has a clear idea of what constitutes trash. Iago’s trash is not our trash, though the concept may be the same. Is it necessary to know what Iago or Shakespeare saw if they made a visit to the town dump? Probably not. But the things that rest in this dump tell us something about the people that use it and that tells us something about the people who created and attended the Elizabethan theater, just as our trash heaps say something about us. It is part of what makes the Elizabethans human and it is largely because we do not understand the humanity of the Elizabethans that their culture is so foreign to us. Trash, like old clothes and worn out shoes, make them human.

Wearing a Cultural Face

Lili Marlene
Marlene Dietrich

Wearing a Cultural Face

Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake

The song is actually two songs spliced together, or more precisely two recordings of the same song, one recording done in English and the other done in German. The singer in both recordings is the same, Marlene Dietrich. The records were made during World War II. The English version of the song was among the most popular songs of the war for the English and American soldiers. The German version was one of the most popular songs of the war for the German soldiers. I think it interesting that folks that spent their days shooting at each other went home (or at least to their barracks) and enjoyed the same music. There was this song that united them while the work they were doing kept them apart.

The image is of a woodblock print done by the Japanese artist Hiroshige. It is of a bridge in the rain. I think it captures very well the sensation of being caught in the rain. The woodblocks of Hiroshige made an impression on the French Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh and he imitated the Hiroshige’s style and on at least two occasions copied the images themselves, though he painted them in oils. What is in the art of a Japanese print maker that resonates with a French painter? Both the song and the pictures illustrate that whatever else separates us, art has the ability to draw people together who are in many, maybe most, ways very different.

Left, Hiroshige: Plum Estate, Kameido 1857; from “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”; The Brooklyn Museum.
Right, van Gogh: Japonaiserie, ‘Flowering Plum Tree’ (after Hiroshige)

There may be other aspects of the culture that keep people hopelessly divided, their religion, their form of government, but the songs they sing, the pictures they make, and the books they write often touch people who in just about every other way are in conflict. They even, at times, help shape the cultural directions that their dissimilar neighbors take. This does not mean that art has the ability to bring peace to cultures in conflict, after all the soldiers that were united by a song at night still shot each other the next day. But it does help to illustrate that there are aspects of the human character and imagination that are attracted to certain things no matter the cultural and physical geography.

Fang mask used for the ngil ceremony, an inquisitorial search for sorcerers. Wood, Gabon, 19th century.

Pablo Picasso saw an African mask that looked something like this. This mask had a religious and ceremonial use. It was not made to be a work of art in the way a painting is, but perhaps there is something in the way our psychology works that drives us to make our tools not just useful, but beautiful. The mask has a serenity and a sternness to it and its lines are very graceful. I think the serene sternness goes well with its function, that of an inquisitor. He is certain in his own beliefs and that certainty instills in him a serenity that he brings to the work that he does. And because that work involves the defense of that belief that gives him his serenity he is quite stern in his confrontation of that threat. This is often what the artist captures the conflicts and incongruity in the human character.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Pablo Picasso

If you look into the faces of the two young ladies on the right you will see the influence of the African mask on Picasso’s painting. The young ladies in the painting seem to be looking at the observer of the painting with various attitudes. The attitudes of the ladies with the mask-like faces are especially disturbing. The borrowing of the motif of the mask helps Picasso to say something about these young ladies and their aloofness. Perhaps the masks capture not so much how the ladies look as how they make the painter feel. The lines of the mask also suggest the Cubism that was a feature of Picasso art during one of his many periods. I think there is also an irony here because this African cultural imprint on the French culture was the result of a colonial enterprise that plundered much of Africa.

Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Pictures

The film was adapted from one of Rudyard Kipling’s best novels, Kim. It is about a young boy who has been orphaned in India. He lives on the streets and survives by his wits. It presents “The Raj”, or the British occupation of India, in a favorable light, suggesting things about this occupation that were not true. It is an outsiders view of a culture that assess that culture on the occupiers terms. The indigenous people are a little childish and the occupiers are benign and paternal. Though the book and the film capture the local color and the look of the landscape they both fail to capture the life of the culture. The India of Kim is that of fairy tale and not of reality.

The book, though, did provoke interest in this culture in the minds of many of the book’s readers who as a result went to this land to learn something about it. Many found the real India and not the fairy tale. They discovered the actual culture and not the veneer an occupying force laid over that culture. When I was in graduate school I took a course in the Victorian novel. The instructor seemed to think that the British Empire left behind in the many nations that it controlled when it was at its strongest a civil service and structure of government that served these nations well and enabled them to establish successful governments. I am not sure this is true but it is part of the cultural exchange. As a result of British interests in this part of the world the literature and religion of India and Asia came to play a significant role in shaping the thought of writers like Emerson and Thoreau. This too is part of the cultural exchange.

A review in this weekend’s Guardian concerns a book about the British Midlands. The article is “Land of hope, glory, and shall I be mother?” and it was written by Euan Ferguson about Stuart Maconie’s book Adventures on the High Teas. According to the review the book attempts to find the real Midlands of England as opposed to the Midlands of popular fiction. What this suggests is that even when we are at home we do not always understand correctly our own culture. Which is the true Los Angeles, that of Raymond Chandler or of The Beach Boys. What is the true Boston, that of Henry James, Robert Parker, or Mayor Menino? Does the culture of any place have a single face? Does the cultural mask that any place assumes resemble the place where its people actually live? Perhaps at some level our culture is an assumed identity.

The Remains of the Day
Columbia Pictures

Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese writer, wrote the novel on which this film was based. It is a depiction of life in a British manor house. The manor belongs to an aristocrat who has grown dangerously close to the Nazi Party. His aspirations are good, in that he hopes to prevent a war. But his is the avenue of appeasement that would overlook the more troubling side of the German leadership of the time. What is interesting, though, is that Ishiguro is not English and that the observations are those of an outsider looking in. In some ways Ishiguro is looking at Britain in the same way Kipling looked at India, but are the portrayals of English culture as condescending as Kipling’s were of Indian culture.

The character of Miss Kenton is just, while that of Mr. Stevens is domineering and condescending to those that he leads as the chief butler. I do not think the characters are intended to be viewed allegorically but Mr. Stevens’ attitudes are very like the attitudes the British brought to the lands they occupied. Ms. Kenton on the other hand tries to accept everyone and look out for those that cannot protect themselves. This is where most of the conflict between these two servants dwells. Things do not end happily for either, but that is another story. What is it in these characters and this European culture that an Asian writer finds so intriguing?

I think one of the reasons we study art and literature is to try to understand what those outside a culture find attractive about that culture. For all the problems that nations have they all leave a record of their aspirations and their idea of beauty in the art they leave behind. It is this art that we study and to a large degree most remember about what has come before. The Elizabethan Age and the Victorian Age left behind great works of art and literature. We know the names of the monarchs that have given their names to these historical moments, but most do not know much of the monarchs themselves.

Japonaiserie: Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige)
Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe

If there were no Shakespeare would the name of Elizabeth or if there were no Dickens would the name of Victoria be so widely known? How much of the romance of India and the east are due to the misrepresentations of Kipling and others like him? One reason to study culture is to separate out the myths that have been passed down about those cultures that are different from our own and to preserve the most admirable aspects of our own culture. The culture that we build and the materials that we use to build that culture will have more to do with how we are remembered than will any of those we serve as we go about our daily business. A nation that does not know its culture probably does not know itself very well.


The Faces of Culture – Are There Only Two

Pack Up Your Sorrows
Richard and Mimi Farinia

The Faces of Culture – Are There Only Two


William Blake’s

In the 1950’s C. P. Snow wrote an influential essay called The Two Cultures. He referred to the two cultures that dominated the universities of his day and to a significant extent still to this day. The two cultures are the Humanities and the Sciences, or perhaps as they are more popularly known the “arts and sciences.” Snow’s argument centered on which of the two cultures would be most able to practically address the issue of human suffering or, as the song suggests, if you could pack up your sorrows which, the Humanities or the Sciences, is best equipped to take them from you and, perhaps, put them to some good use. But even if no use is found, they are no longer your troubles.

William Blake’s painting of Isaac Newton is an apt representation of that struggle. Blake was one of the more obscure poets; he has kept people pulling their hair out trying to understand his poems since the day the poems were written. Newton, the subject of the painting, was the quintessential scientist mathematician, who, it is said, would wile away his leisure hours computing logarithms in his head. These lines from his poem Milton also suggest a role played by the arts and sciences in the arena of human suffering.

And did those feet in ancient times,
Walk upon England’s mountain green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease my Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

The poem attacks the misery caused by the Industrial Revolution. Though it is true that the scientists and engineers that created the machinery of the Industrial Revolution are not responsible for how that machinery was used do they bear any culpability at all for the anguish their machines caused? Should they have known enough of human nature to know what would follow? Is this a fair question; is progress inevitable and human nature being what it is will progress always produce a bit of suffering?

An article in this weekend’s New York Times Review of Books raised this issue of Snow’s essay and its continuing influence a half decade later. The article is by Peter Dizikes and is titled “Our Two Cultures.” Snow was concerned that because most of the free world’s politicians came from some branch of the humanities, law mostly, the sciences were getting short shrift. Snow believed that it was the sciences that were best suited to eliminating poverty improving living conditions in the impoverished corners of the globe. The undeveloped world needed technology and the sciences, which includes math, is the best suited to solve this problem.

Therefore the political class of the free world should give the sciences more resources and set to work addressing this problem. As this was the 1950’s and the heart of the Cold War Snow suggested that if the free world did not give their scientists the resources to solve this problem the Soviets would and Communist sphere of influence would grow while the Free World’s sphere of influences would diminish.

There is truth to the argument; those nations of the world that are struggling economically would probably struggle less if they had a vibrant industrial base. But is this all there is to being human and will this alone take away the sorrows of the poor? It is probably true that failing to solve the problems of economic inequities between nations will result in many poor people staying poor and miserable. But will the eradication of these economic disparities by itself reduce human misery? Will the world’s sorrows have been successfully packaged and shipped off to those that “can use them”

Illustration from Gulliver’s Travels, Voyage III, Sunbeams from Cucumbers
Milo Winters

At the heart of Snow’s argument is a belief that scientists are somehow more moral than those in the Humanities. Being a novelist and a scientist he lived in both worlds and ought to know. He could point to writers like Ezra Pound who became mixed up with the dubious morality of the Fascists to lend support to his argument. But then I suppose others could point to scientists like Werner Von Braun who were plucked from the Nazi’s atomic energy program as evidence that scientists sometimes made poor moral choices as well. The illustration depicts a scene from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It is a scene from the third voyage and depicts the Academy of Lagado. In this part of the story Swift is mocking the scientists of his day (Isaac Newton among them) for what he believes are the poor, impractical choices they made, in his view anyway.

The scientists in Swift’s satire seem most in the service of their egos. None of their experiments are practical and have been designed by Swift to feed the ridicule he has aimed at science. Though in the experiment depicted in the illustration suggests why this is considered by many to be the weakest part of the satire. Swift believed scientists were pursing science for science sake (to corrupt the popular phrase) and that the experiments served no purpose and were the result of totally abstract speculation. There are two things the critics of this voyage think Swift missed. One is that many useful products are by products of abstract science. The second is that what may have appeared to be totally abstract and useless in the experimental stage may when the tests are done produce something very practical. As, for example, if you replaced the cucumbers with corn you might see the beginning of ethanol and other bio-fuels.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump

Joseph Wright of Derby,_1768.jpg

This painting illustrates what is the most common attack on the ethics of scientists, their treatment of animals. The contraption in the painting will kill the bird in the glass at the top. I do not know the purpose of the experiment or what it was meant to demonstrate but it reveals a somewhat cavalier attitude towards wildlife. Of course, these are not scientists depicted in the painting but ladies and gentlemen playing with an eighteenth century version of the chemistry set.

Scientists that do experiments on animals will say that the purpose is to make discoveries that will benefit the human race and because human life is more important than other kinds of life the experiments are seen to have value. Most humans accept this as a valid argument but most are at the same time opposed to experiments that seem arbitrary and cruel in their use of animal subjects. At the end of the day, though, scientists through these experiments have produced what has improved the quality and the length of life for most that can read this. Still, that there are experiments done on animals that are cruel and inhumane suggests that at times scientists too struggle with ethical choices and do not always choose correctly.

Shock of the New – “Electronic Fragments”
Richard Hughes/BBC

The video illustrates what is the current bane of technology, or perhaps its current boon. At the time this program was broadcast in the 1980’s television was the object of much criticism, as it still is to this day. But the clip is titled “Electronic Fragments” and when viewed today suggests an argument that could be aimed at many other forms of electronic media. Television, iPods, cell phones, DVDs, CDs, and whatever else is to come are the products of modern science and technology and have been marketed quite successfully to entertain us all. Is it fair to criticize the scientists for the uses made of their inventions? Nuclear weapons, for example, were designed and developed by those who are products of the science culture. Those that build and use these weapons have, for the most part, come out of the humanities culture. Are the scientists morally responsible for the way their discoveries and inventions are used?

Or is there a third culture, popular culture perhaps, that exerts its own pressures on both those that come out of the science culture and out of the humanities culture. If the people prefer iPods, for example, to clean, renewable fuels which of these technologies are going to receive funding. If the popular culture wants to keep taxes low, which technologies are going to receive funding from the government? Of course there is more to the science culture than just those engineers that work in the technology industry. And there is more to the humanities culture than those that go into politics. There are those in both cultures that raise objections to what those within their perspective communities do with their talents, resources, and power.

At the end of the day both cultures are, I think, Important. They both help us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. They also help us to think and to reflect about more than just the surface of things. When does self-preservation become self-interest and selfishness? On the surface they look much alike. We need to become a more thoughtful and reflective people in order to recognize when we have taken self-preservation too far. The humanities can help us to become a more reflective people. Many of the world’s most serious problems, disease, hunger, and poverty can be eased if scientists are given the tools and resources to address them. The problem isn’t so much about which culture is the most moral as much as it is about what each culture reveals to us about our responsibilities to the world in which we live and to those that live among us.