It’s Just a Story

“With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come”

Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell

St. Andrews Singers and English Chamber Orchestra


It’s Just a Story


Painting of a Classical Roman city

Dido building Carthage aka The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire

J. M. W. Turner


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

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


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

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


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

Clorinda Rescues Olindo und Sophronia

Eugene Delacroix


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

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


Woman carrying the flag of France leading rebel soldiers

Liberty Leading the People

Eugene Delacroixène_Delacroix_-_liberté_guidant_le_peuple.jpg


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


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

Don Quixote
Pablo Picasso


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


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


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

The Order of Release
John Everett Millais


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


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

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion
John William Waterhouse


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


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

Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory
William Blake

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

If Young Hearts Were Not So Clever

In My Room
The Beach Boys

If Young Hearts Were Not So Clever

Eton Library
Frederick Mackenzie

The paintings above and below capture the images that many of us have of learning; the private space where the study is done and the overcrowded public space where that study is tested. The world of the library has an enchantment for some and is a desirable space, but the overcrowded hall gives pleasure to very few. For too many, perhaps, learning is characterized by this second space and it is a space that most want to escape. Even those that earn their living managing and directing this academic space do not feel entirely at home in it when it is given over to activities like the one depicted in The Writing School. It may be a necessary evil, but few are comfortable in the presence of evil, even those that are for one reason or another, necessary.

The title comes from a poem by A. E. Housman that suggests that too much thought can only bring us grief. But I think the poem ironic and maybe the real message is something different; that perhaps some do not think enough, and that those that do think do not think enough of others. There was an article in the Boston Globe recently, “The power of lonely”. It is about the importance of spending time alone with our thoughts and ourselves. The title is misleading, the essay is not about loneliness so much as solitude, which is not really the same thing, we may be lonely when in solitude, but we need not be and that really is the point of the essay. As in the song, a room is a place we can go to search ourselves and to escape what troubles us, including loneliness. The point of the article, and perhaps the song as well, is that without time spent alone in reflection we often do not fully comprehend what we have learned and experienced, in fact we often do not retain what we have learned and experienced without privacy and reflection.

Writing School
Frederick Mackenzie

One of the paradoxes of stories is that they are, usually, read in solitude, but they involve the reader in the world of others, sometimes the world at its most private and intimate and sometimes at its most rowdy and public. As readers we are drawn into a world filled with people and noise and activity. If we are good readers that world becomes as real in our imaginations and the people as much a part of our lives as the physical world that we inhabit and all the people in it. So when the ghost of Christmas Past shows to Scrooge his young self alone in the schoolhouse, because his friends have all gone home for the holidays, Scrooge sees not only himself, but the characters in the stories he read as a child. He says to the spirit, “’Why, it’s Ali Baba!’ Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. ‘It’s dear old honest Ali Baba!’” And in the story Dickens tells Ali Baba is as much a part of the scene as the boy Scrooge and the dark old schoolhouse.

Picture of Ali Baba
Maxfield Parrish

So Scrooge alone need never be alone and we alone need never be alone, even if the “friends” that surround us are visible only to us, and live only in our thoughts (for no two readers bring a story’s characters to life in quite the same way, they are like fraternal twins with the same names). Stories move us in the reading of them; they come to life as we experience the words with which they are told coming to life in our imaginations. But just as it often takes time for us to absorb all we have seen on a visit to a place we have never seen before, it often takes time to fully experience the stories that we read. There is the mystery of the first impression, who fully understands what it is in a story that captures us, and there is the unraveling of parts of the mystery as we contemplate what we have read.

William Wordsworth wrote in the Introduction to The Lyrical Ballads, “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” Wordsworth was expressing his belief about how poetry is written, but there is something to be said perhaps about the imagination following a similar path in the act of reading as well.

The experience of reading is very subjective, we are all moved by different kinds of stories and though many readers like the same stories, I wonder if any two readers share an identical list of “important stories”, life changing stories. What we do with the stories we read after we have read them is often objective, the focus of study and analysis where we try to understand why we were moved as we were. This study in turn often reproduces some of the emotions the original reading produced. The initial emotion is subjective, the contemplation in tranquility is objective and this objective contemplation in turn produces a subjective experience. It is in working our way back from study to the recreation of the emotion that we often learn the important lessons that reading has to teach. If we stop after the first reading and never proceed to contemplation we may be left with a plot and the memory of a pleasant experience, but I wonder if this is enough to teach us much or to produce any kind of epiphany.

Frederic Leighton

The paintings above and below depict people in solitude and contemplation. In both pictures it appears that there is something melancholy about the depiction of solitude. In the painting of the Eton Library displayed earlier the most prominent colors are shades of blue a color often associated with melancholy. This is often the view of solitude and contemplation that comes most immediately to mind when these words are mentioned. I think it is in part this view of being alone that urges some of us to avoid spending time with ourselves and to make the mistake made by the author of the article who in the article’s title equated loneliness with solitude. Where it is true that too much time alone can produce a melancholy state of mind, too much time in the presence of others often produces a false contentment, a contentment not based on satisfaction with who we are or what we have done, but on keeping discontent at bay.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet
Vincent Van Gogh

There has to be a middle ground between thinking too much and thinking too little. There was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Case for Play”, that offsets, perhaps, the article on solitude and balances it out a bit. Just as it is important to spend time alone in thought and contemplation, it is also important to play and perhaps to find ways to incorporate play into our learning. Children who do not learn how to make friends and to make time for leisure and fun, are not likely to grow up to be healthy adults. And this is not just fun in the sense of having a good time, though it is that, but the nurturing of the ability to create enjoyment from the materials we are given. Creation is at the heart of recreation, if we are to be truly carefree we need to learn how to find delight in what we have, to invent our games and pastimes from the commonplace. Even if we have the resources to buy whatever we want, there is often greater satisfaction gotten from making our fun from the simplest most attainable things. It is not the materials but the relationships that are important and it is often the inventing together of our pastimes that build these relationships.

There was also a recent article in Lapham’s Quarterly, “Vanishing Act”, about a young girl, Barbara Follett, who began her career as a novelist at the age of eight. Her father was a prominent writer, Wilson Follett. He wrote an influential book found in the libraries of many English teachers, American Usage, on grammar and such. He gave his daughter Barbara a typewriter and a room of her own. She spent serious time alone writing and with the guidance of her father produced a novel that was eventually published. The book received wonderful reviews, except for one that did not fault the writing but the wisdom of a parent encouraging a child to write this seriously at such a young age. Wilson Follett soon after divorced his wife, started a new family, and left Barbara to fend for herself. She did not do well and at 25 she disappeared and was never heard from again by anyone. The mystery is still unsolved. She depended overly much on a father who disappeared for guidance and did not learn enough of how to build relationships with others.

The Ahn trio
TED Talk

Of course there is another connotation to “play” that is suggested by this video clip, the making of music, the playing of an instrument. I think it is interesting that we refer to something as “play” that requires so much work and such intense concentration to do well. The playing of music also requires us to play well with others, at least most music does, even soloists need accompaniment, even the folksinger accompanying her or him self on an instrument depends on a crew of technicians to be heard. What is meaningful in this for me is the suggestion that those things we work hard at can also bring us intense pleasure and that work and play need not be two different things.

Sports, too, require this kind of teamwork if we are to play well. It is interesting I think that this kind of teamwork can often bring together people who would normally not be the best of friends. The picture below is of soldiers playing baseball during the Civil War. Soldiers on both sides loved this game and played this game. It is perhaps a healthier form of competition because everyone gets to play again tomorrow. The Housman poem ends, “’tis only thinking / Lays lads underground.” Perhaps there is truth to this, but I think if this is true it is because the wrong people are doing the thinking and that those doing the thinking have probably thought more of ends than of consequences.

Baseball Played During the Civil War


Caricature and Content

Political Science
Randy Newman

Caricature and Content

Let Us Prey
Thomas Nast

There was a review in The Guardian, “Garry Trudeau: ‘Doonesbury quickly became a cause of trouble’”, of a retrospective collection of Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. In the book Trudeau comments on satire and its essential unfairness. He said, “Satire is unfair. It’s rude and uncivil. It lacks balance and proportion, and it obeys none of the normal rules of engagement. Satire picks a one-sided fight, and the more its intended target reacts, the more its practitioner gains the advantage. And as if that weren’t enough, this savage, unregulated sport is protected by the United States constitution. Cool, huh?” This captures satire in all its guises. It may not always be clear when something is intended as a satiric comment or just a general observation (is Glen Beck, for example, a satirist or a political analyst, and can the two coexist in one and the same person at one and the same time) but it is generally clear that someone is being ridiculed and belittled.

But whether it is the right at the mercy of Trudeau or the left at the mercy of Beck (I am not sure if Beck is a satirist or not I only know I respond to Beck much the same way the targets of Doonesbury respond to Trudeau) the targets of each feel they have been misrepresented or even “lied about.” But as Trudeau points out it is all protected by the Constitution and it is all very “cool.” As the Nast cartoon above suggests ridicule is a far more effective weapon for engaging the enemy than rational debate. The most ludicrous of positions can be made to sound reasonable, but even the most reasonable of positions struggles with its credibility when it is made to look ridiculous. Tweed and his cronies survived most assaults upon their power, they did not survive Nast and if we remember Tweed at all it is probably the Tweed of the Nast cartoons we remember and though people were being “nasty” long before Nast, he gave the word an additional twist.

Randy Newman’s song underscores this astringent quality of satire. The world is not treating us we deserve to be treated so we’ll show them, we’ll blow them off the face of the planet. Even if our analysis of our treatment is correct, the satiric response is hardly a measured one. As with most humor it has at its heart adults behaving childishly. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Red Mars begins with a conflict between two colonial factions on Mars, one that wants to create a homogeneous planet by only allowing people of a certain nationalistic view to settle there and the other that wants to create a diverse society with all the conflicts that diversity brings with it. Can satire exist in a world with a single point of view? Can a single point of view be long maintained or do humans by their very natures split into factions and groups incapable of remaining “homogenized”? When we get around to choosing up sides and staking out our satiric positions we are not likely to remain judicious in our portrayals of those with whom we disagree.

The Name of Dante Gabriel Rossetti is Heard for the First Time in the Western States of America
Max Beerbohm

But is it the goal of satire to offend its targets while it amuses those that share its values? The caricatures above and below by Max Beerbohm and Andre Gill suggest that their intent was to give some offense, whether to gain a laugh at the subjects expense or to make a point it is up to the viewer to decide. In Beerbohm’s drawing is it Oscar Wilde or his western audience that is being satirized or is it perhaps both? The Gill cartoon suggests that Darwin and Littré are confronting the ignorance of the time, but they have also been dehumanized in the process. Is there a separate message in that? There are times perhaps when it is the satirist’s intention to offend everyone.

Charles Darwin and Émile Littré depicted as performing monkeys at a circus breaking through gullibility (credulité), superstitions, errors, and ignorance
Andre Gillé_by_André_Gill.jpg

There was an article recently in The London Times, “Misreading Gulliver’s Travels,” about Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels and it suggests that those that read this book as a misanthropic attack on the whole human race miss the point. The article quotes from a letter Swift wrote to Alexander Pope where he says, “But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell.” This suggests that it is not people that Swift despises but what people do when they get together and form a group. Individuals are lovable, groups less so. Those that read of Gulliver and his travels without keeping this thought in mind are bound to misread the book, though, it could be argued that those that misread in this way have not really been paying attention.

Ben Jonson wrote of his plays that they had two audiences, the “understanders,” who got the jokes, but were also illuminated by them and the “pretenders,” who laughed but learned nothing, who essentially missed the point. In his introduction to the play The Alchemist he wrote:

“If thou beest more, thou art an understander, and then I trust thee. If thou art one that takest up, and but a pretender, beware of what hands thou receivest thy commodity; for thou wert never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age, in poetry, especially in plays: wherein, now the concupiscence of dances and of antics so reigneth, as to run away from nature, and be afraid of her, is the only point of art that tickles the spectators. But how out of purpose, and place, do I name art? When the professors are grown so obstinate contemners of it, and presumers on their own naturals, as they are deriders of all diligence that way, and, by simple mocking at the terms, when they understand not the things, think to get off wittily with their ignorance.” (The Alchemist, Ben Jonson)

Jonson is attacking the critics of his day that would praise a play, or a poem, for the “business,” the humor and action but miss the artistry and the message. The understanders are changed by what they see on stage or read from the printed page, the pretenders are merely entertained. Jonson goes on to say, “I speak not this, out of a hope to do good to any man against his will,” suggesting that we all must play a role in our own reformation and even if Jonson wished to make his audience into better people, they cannot hitchhike on his good intentions. Jonathan Swift echoes Jonson’s view when he says, “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein the beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world and that so very few are offended with it.” (Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books) Few are offended because they believe that others and not themselves are on the receiving end of the humor. Swift suggests, I think, that the best satire puts everyone, even the satirist, under the microscope and that we all have something to learn from it.


Patrick Chappatte 2010G On Editorial Cartooning
TED Talks

The film clip is about the influence of satire and cartooning on society. The understander will see a bit or her or himself in many of the cartoons Patrick Chappatte presents but there is also a troubling side to the cartoonist, in general, and the way in which some societies and some cultures respond to the cartoon. The power of the editorial cartoon is, as pointed out above by Gary Trudeau, that it is not always fair and that ridicule reduces anyone, no matter how innocent of the accusation being made, to something small and laughable. Few respond well to such a one sided attack and as in the case of the Danish cartoons ridiculing Islam, not all responses to the satire are docile or good natured.

Jonathan Swift attacked an attempt of the English government to flood Ireland with a currency that was not worth the metal it was stamped from. He made his attack from behind the mask of an anonymous Dublin draper who wrote a series of letters to the newspapers revealing the currency for what it was. The English government offered a substantial reward to anyone who would provide evidence that would lead to the draper’s arrest. The government believed Swift wrote the letters but they could not prove the charge. Unfortunately, for the British, no one was willing to collect the reward and identify Swift as the perpetrator of the letters.

Daniel Defoe also published a bit of satire attacking the religious attitudes of powerful people. He was convicted of libel and pilloried for his crime. At the time being put in the pillory where the convict’s head and hands were secured making movement impossible, could be a very harsh sentence. Passersby could throw most anything at the pilloried individual and it was not unusual to leave the pillory much the worse for wear. In Defoe’s case, though, the crowds sided with him and instead of sticks and stones they threw flowers and came to drink his health. Even when the satirist is legitimately in the wrong, which is questionable in Defoe’s case, it is unwise to respond too harshly, because public sympathy is often disinclined to side with the powerful and it often enjoys a bit of fun at their expense.

When satire is done well, everyone occupies a bit of the frame. We may not be powerful, we may not be guilty of the offenses that are being ridiculed, but as human beings we should be able to recognize that given the opportunity and the ability to take advantage of it we have in ourselves at least the propensity for acting as dubiously as those in the center of the frame. Though there may be a specific individual targeted in the humor, what gives the humor its force is that the behavior under attack is one to which all humans are susceptible and if we are wise we do not laugh at the object of the satire without laughing a bit at ourselves.

Zonker Harris
Gary Trudeau


For Love of the Game

Playing Right Field
Prairie Orchid

For Love of the Game

Comenius on a 20 KCS bill

The picture is of old Soviet era currency from Czechoslovakia. The man depicted on the bill is John Comenius. He was a 17th century philosopher/theologian who is responsible for developing the form that public education takes to this day. He developed a structure for schooling of kindergarten, elementary school, secondary school, college, and university that is the basic structure of public education in America today. He also articulated a philosophy of education centered on thought and investigation, an application of the scientific method to the classroom, that is also practiced in many classrooms to this day. Lastly, his influence on the curriculum and the course of study is also still felt; a belief that getting an education should be enjoyable and that it should be universal both in its scope and in its availability; that it should cover the breadth of human knowledge and that it should be available to all. He was a product of his time and there are things he believed were important that may not be seen as important today, but nonetheless his influence on education is a profound one.

At the heart of modern education is testing. In America in any given year students spend many weeks taking tests. They may be the conventional tests associated with midterms and finals or the completion of a unit of study or the ever more ubiquitous state and federal tests that are being imposed on schools across the land. Most of the time spent testing probably runs counter to Comenius’ belief that getting an education should be pleasant, though if the stress that is placed on grades were less onerous it might be easier to see a test as a pleasant challenge than as a threat to future prospects. There was an article in The Guardian a few weeks ago, “‘You may now turn over your papers’,” about four English writers who were given “the most difficult test in the world” just for the fun of it. Will Self was given the question “Is there something inherently coarsening about sport?” The song at the beginning, Playing Right Field underscores one area in which it coarsens, that of choosing up sides. The last to be chosen have been marked and that mark often never leaves. Though the song is humorous, the issue at its heart can be devastating to the individual experiencing it.

But it is not really this aspect of the coarseness of sport that Self’s essay addressed. Self’s concern is that sport dulls the mind’s capacity to think; that in taking games too seriously we do not take life seriously enough; we become more engrossed in earned run averages than in the maintenance of our democracy. This to an extent can be seen when riot police are sent to secure the streets after a local team wins a championship. This does not always happen and it does not happen everywhere, but it does happen. It is also too often true that too many can draw intelligent conclusions from the statistics surrounding their favorite sport, but cannot do the same with the statistics that surround a mortgage or the choices that life often calls upon all of us to make.

Plaine de Plainpalais with cricket’s players, 1817

The painting above and the woodcut below are of two “elegant” sports, cricket and archery. It is difficult to see cricket as a sport that coarsens. It is structured around the daily life of the typical Englishman, a match begins after breakfast with a break for lunch and tea and ends at suppertime. It is played over a weekend, or so I was told by the man in Salisbury, England who sold me the bicycle I rode throughout Britain and the Continent. He may have been teasing me a bit, I do not know. Wikipedia, though, says a typical match lasts five hours and a test match can take five days to play, so maybe he was not deceiving me, or at least not much. But it is a sport where everyone wears white and is civil to one another, at least in theory.

Japanese Archer

Archery is also an elegant sport. Though the bow and arrow is an effective weapon the sport involves shooting at targets and there is no physical contact between competitors and both winners and losers go home in one piece. When Robin Hood competed for a prize he was a sportsman not a soldier and everyone could enjoy his prowess. There is, of course the less civilized use of the bow that created a greater tension between Robin Hood and the civil authorities of his day. There is, I suppose an aspect of all sport where everyone can enjoy and appreciate the skill and focus of the athlete. To play any sport well requires a great deal of intelligence, discipline, focus, and dedication; qualities that serve anyone well in the long term and have an important place in modern education.

A view from inside the mob taken at the 2006 Royal Shrovetide Football Match (Mob Football)
Gary Austin

The photograph above was taken at a “Mob Football” match from the midst of the festivities. It is said of mob football that there is one rule, you cannot commit manslaughter or murder, but evidently, everything else is fair play. It is also a very democratic sport in that anyone who wishes and who plays by the rule, can compete. It is a game that can accommodate an unlimited number of players. Shakespeare includes in his play Comedy of Errors a football joke, “Am I so round with you, as you with me, That like a foot-ball you do spurn me thus: You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither, If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.” Of course for Shakespeare, as for most in the world to this day, football is soccer, though the football being played in the photograph is a medieval antecedent to rugby.

Truro hurling ball

Mob football is another name for Cornish Hurling, which was adapted from the Celtic game of hurling or shinty. It is interesting, perhaps, that hurling was an antecedent of the modern sport of ice hockey, it was played with a ball on a field of grass with what look like field hockey sticks and Cornish hurling was an antecedent of the modern American sport of football, as well as of rugby; perhaps three of the most aggressive sports being played today and perhaps what Mr. Self had in mind when he wrote of the coarsening influence of sport. A sixteenth century gentleman said of Cornish hurling, “The Cornish-men they are strong, hardy and nimble, so are their exercises violent, two especially, Wrestling and Hurling, sharp and severe activities; and in neither of these doth any Country exceed or equal them. The first is violent, but the second is dangerous.” The photograph above is of the ball that is used in Cornish hurling. It is made of silver and weighs about a pound. It reminds me of the golden snitch that Harry Potter pursues in his games of quidditch, a sport that shares some of hurling’s physicality.

The game was a competition between those who lived in town and those who lived in the country and reflects the tension that has always seemed to exist between those that live in town and those that live in the country. I think the rules of Cornish Hurling amusing and you might also find them so and here, according to Wikipedia, are a few of them:

  • Field of play. The game takes place mainly in streets still open to traffic. The game can also extend onto private property including gardens and fields and sometimes through houses or pubs. The game can stop at any time so that members of the watching crowd can handle the ball. Touching the ball is said to be lucky and can bring good health and fertility. The parish of St. Columb Major is the world’s largest pitch for any ball game, with an area of about 20 square miles.
  • Goals and winning. There are two goals but no goal-keepers. The goals are made of granite. The town goal is the base of an old Celtic cross and the country goal is a shallow stone trough. To win the team must carry the ball to its own goal. Another way to win is to carry the ball out of the parish, which can be up to 3 miles. As soon as the ball is goaled or carried out of the parish, the game finishes.
  • Rules. There is no referee, no official written rules and no organizing committee. The two teams have unequal numbers. The Town team has the larger team since the town has grown larger in size. Before the 1940s the Country team was stronger in numbers due to the number of people who were employed in agriculture.
  • Serious injuries are very rare. The game attracts visitors from miles away but most watchers are local to the area.
  • Time of games. There are only two games a year. The first game is held on Shrove Tuesday. The second game is on the Saturday of a following week. The game is always started at 4:30 pm. The game can last anything up to two hours. After the game the ball is always returned to the start point.

Though the influence of sport may be coarsening, it also teaches collaboration and the importance of teamwork to the achieving of a goal and this has a place not only in sport and education, but also in the fruitful and happy living of a life.


Steven Johnson Where Ideas Come From
TED Talk

This film clip illustrates the importance of inspiration, collaboration, and of thought conducted over time. The image of the coffee house as a space where ideas could be exchanged and developed is a fruitful one. It is not just that the consumption of coffee replaced the consumption of alcohol (or at least moderated its consumption) but that the coffee house provided a space for sober conversation. But I think the most moving part of the clip concerned the incubators sent to impoverished corners of the world where infant mortality rates were high. As long as the machines worked the babies survived, but when after a year or two of use they broke down, there was no one who could fix them. This part of presentation suggests the importance of design and that design be adapted to the circumstances of those the design is intended to serve. Where these machines went there were few skilled in the maintenance of high tech machines, but many skilled in the maintenance of automobiles and an incubator made of car parts could accomplish more than its high tech cousin. Most innovation begins with someone thinking differently about something. But the end product usually takes time and often requires some help and input from others; that without collaboration innovation may be much slower in coming if it comes at all.

Perhaps sport illustrates this, and perhaps this is a way in which its influence does not coarsen. Though every team has its star players, the team is at the end of the day a team and if they all do not work together the stars cannot make the team successful. When I was a boy there was a new team in Los Angele, The Los Angeles Clippers (I think they have moved since to San Diego). I remember one sports writer saying that this team had some very talented players on it but that they were all playing for themselves; too many aspired to be team’s “star player” to the extent that they were incapable of playing like a team. Skill by itself is often not enough to make us successful in life, it helps if we also know how to play well with others, to collaborate and allow our ideas to be nurtured and nourished by the ideas of others. It also helps to have a place, like the coffee shop perhaps, where ideas can be shared. Ideas and innovation need both the den and the conference room to achieve their potential.

I like Rabelais description of the Abbey of Theleme. His is a Renaissance idea of the perfect space and it is idealistic (though it may not be agreeable to the ideals of all). But what I like about Rabelais is his enthusiasm for life and thought and his belief that a happy life cannot be a “thoughtless” life, that thought is essential to happiness. If Comenius was correct in his belief that learning should give pleasure than Rabelais must also be, at least in part, correct. I think the problem with sport is that it is often given too much space in our lives; we equate “happiness” and “fulfillment” with fun. Not that there is no place for fun, but that it is necessary to recognize, perhaps, its limitations; though often I think the problem is much more profound. Many have forgotten how to have fun at anything other than play, or perhaps more precisely they have lost the ability to find the play and the fun in the work that they do.


Pub Sign with a group of boys playing Cornish Hurling

“The Silver Ball Pub Sign”

Phil Ellery (Photographed the sign)

The Beginning of Things

High Hopes
Frank Sinatra

The Beginning of Things

Arthur Rackham

The song talks about having “high hopes” and that with those high hopes a great deal can be accomplished that does not, from appearances, seem to be possible. Much of life revolves around confronting the impossible and often what is labeled impossible has as much to do with lack of confidence as it does with lack of ability. Of course there are probably many things we do not have the skills or abilities to accomplish, but why begin by assuming that a beguiling challenge is beyond us; why do we not first try to prove to ourselves we cannot do a thing rather than assume we cannot?

The Norns in the painting above represent fate or destiny. These are familiar figures in the myth and folklore of many parts of the world. In the German myths the Norns were, as were the Fates in the myths of Greece and Rome, weavers who wove the tapestries of individual lives and when a life was done, they cut the thread and the tapestry that was that individual life was finished. But how was the tapestry created. Did the Norns weave into the tapestry what an individual accomplished or did the tapestry come first, preordaining what that individual would accomplish? It probably does not make much difference which came first, the tapestry or the acts that were woven into it, what is important is that the action is done, that the attempt is made. We will find out soon enough if it is our “destiny” or not and if it is not there are other “destinies” to pursue.

The Seven Virtues – “Hope”
Giotto Di Bondone–Hope-1306-large.html

Succeeding at most things involves taking something we hope for or dream of and making it real, bringing it to pass. Often the difference between something hoped for and a goal is planning, figuring out how to get to where we want to go, or at least planning out the first few steps on the journey, perhaps its just figuring out where to start. Hope often has more to do with yearning than with planning, but perhaps often hope is where goal setting begins. It is after all one of the “Seven Virtues.” There was an article in The Boston Globe a few weeks ago, “The bright side of wrong” about the importance of making mistakes, of being willing to get it wrong. The article suggests that a great deal of success is the product of intuition, of insight into a problem or a project that is instantaneous and does not appear to be the product of careful thought. Sometimes decisions have to be made quickly and there is no time to “think things through.” We know many things and our minds can process the many things we know quickly and often what seems the product of intuition is the result of a kind of sorting process our minds can complete with speed and efficiency.

The article gives the following example to demonstrate this:

“To change how we think about wrongness, we must start by understanding how we get things right.

“Try filling in the following blank: “The giraffe had a very long ____.”

“You can answer that question in a flash, and so can my 4-year-old neighbor. Yet a computer — a machine that can calculate pi out to a thousand digits while you sneeze — would be completely stymied by it. Long after you’ve moved on from the giraffe and finished the sports section and gone for a walk, the computer would still be frantically spitting out ideas to fill in that blank. Maybe the giraffe had a very long…tongue? Flight from Kenya? History of drug abuse? Paralyzed by so many potentially right answers, the computer would struggle to generate any answer at all.”

This reasoning process, even when it is applied to much more complicated problems than the neck of a giraffe, is a reliable one more often than not for most of us. The more one has learned the more this is probably true. We have to be willing to live with the embarrassment that comes from getting it wrong from time to time if we are to enjoy the success that comes from getting it right at some crucial moment. It also means running the risk of getting it wrong in one of those crucial moments.

The Garden of EdenThomas Cole

The paintings above and below depict The Garden of Eden, the one above of Adam and Eve enjoying the garden and the one below of them being sent out of the garden, after getting it wrong in what was for them a crucial moment. Cole’s vision of paradise may not be your vision of paradise but most of us know what it is to have attained and lost something beautiful, something secure and life sustaining. There is a sense that every major disappointment is a lose of paradise, something we have hung our hopes on has been denied, maybe it is losing an important game, getting a poor grade on a test we thought we were ready for. Maybe it is losing a job or failing to achieve a goal. Unlike Adam and Eve’s loss, though, most of our disappointments lose a bit of their significance with time and reflection. If we are wise we realize we must reassess if we are to be happy, it is important to feel the disappointment as a part of the healing process, but it is also important to grow beyond it.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was celebrated as Russia’s greatest author upon the publication of his first novel. His second novel was published two weeks later and he was labeled among one of Russia’s worst writers, the praise had turned to scorn. He became insufferably cocky after his first book was published and well received. After his fall from grace fifteen days later he never recovered his confidence, though he did indeed go on to become one of Russia’s greatest novelists. His first book wasn’t as good as everyone said it was and his second book may not have been as bad, but the work of his maturity is recognized by most as truly great and part of what made it great probably lies somewhere in that earlier success and failure.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Thomas Cole

When Adam and Eve lost paradise it was for them truly lost. For us, though, it is often a bit different. It is not unusual for people to set their sights too low, to settle for something less because it appears to be easily achievable. We, often, must lose an inadequate conception of paradise, through disappointment perhaps, to wake up to a truer more worthy view of paradise. Of course it could as easily happen that the fruit of our disappointment is to give up on paradise altogether. Still, I think there is a place for looking at failure as a kind of gift that puts us on a more rewarding path; a path more in keeping with our gifts and temperament.

Phillips: Hurdy-gurdy for beginners
TED Talks

The video is a TED Talk about the Hurdy-gurdy. As the clip suggests it is an odd instrument. My first exposure to the hurdy-gurdy was in the film Captains Courageous. Manuel, a Portugese fisherman played by Spencer Tracy in the film, plays the hurdy-gurdy to pass the long times of inactivity at sea. When I saw the instrument being played in the film I thought it could only play one tune; that it worked like a music box playing a pre-programmed song. From the video I learned that it is in fact an instrument that can play any tune, though its inner workings are odd and unlike any other instrument I know of. Learning is often like this, it surprises us, it draws us out of preconceptions and introduces us to new ways the world, or those things in it, work. Learning often opens the mind by teaching us something new about those things we believed we already knew, if not all there was to be known, at least all that was worth knowing. This is another way that hope is kept alive and “high hopes” are reawakened. The closer we get to learning all that is worth learning, the less interesting life becomes. It is often the surprises in life that keep it from becoming mundane and when we reach a place where we think we know all that is worth knowing we begin to believe there are no more surprises and this can be disheartening.

The painting below is of Ra setting forth on his nightly cruise of the underworld. This journey takes Ra through night and the land of the dead to the next morning and the world’s recreation. Each day the world is made anew and brings with it new possibilities. There is a sense that the failures of the previous day have been put behind us and we start the new day with not just renewed energy, but perhaps with new abilities or beliefs in existing abilities we did not possess the day before.

Book of Gates Barque of Ra

There was a review recently in The Guardian, “On Evil by Terry Eagleton,” of a book on evil by Terry Eagleton. The book is something of a paradox. Eagleton a Marxist, and one would assume, perhaps incorrectly, an atheist, has written a book on preserving the idea of evil as it is understood from, if not a Christian, at least a religions perspective. But the issue here is not evil, but a reminder that we can never quite know who all of our friends are and that sometimes discovering a friend can come as something of a surprise. Insights of this sort, too, recreate the world for us, because they make it a bit less hostile. Of course these insights can also go in the other direction and expose enemies we once believed were friends.

Still, the knowledge does us good and is probably worth having. It is a good thing to learn stuff, the good stuff and the bad. Learning can renew hope, and it can make us wiser if we use that learning to pursue wisdom. In the drawing below St. Anthony is reading a book. Reading is one of the conventional means by which learning is attained, though it is certainly not the only means. Still, if we are to read well when we open a book, it helps to open our minds first.

St. Anthony
Albrecht Durer–Anthony-large.html

What We Put Away

The Janitor’s Boy
Natalie Merchant/Nathalia Crane

What We Put Away

A Children’s Puppet Show
Liu Songnian

St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” What are those things we put away when we pass from childhood to adulthood? In the painting above some children are putting on a puppet show. These might be considered childish things, though there are those that manipulate puppets to entertain adults. The Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote some of his most famous plays to be performed by puppets. Granted Chikamatsu’s plays probably dealt with more serious subjects than those found in the children’s puppet plays, still the play of children often imitates the behavior of the adults that surround them and the same may be true of the plays their puppets perform.

The song is from a collection of songs by Natalie Merchant that puts mostly children’s poetry to music. The song The Janitor’s Boy revolves around children seeking to find a place for themselves in an adult world, even if it is an uninhabited corner of the adult world. Perhaps the putting away of childish things revolves around working at being an adult as opposed to playing at being an adult, though I am not entirely sure if it is the child or the adult that is doing the playing much of the time. But for children it is a game of “let’s pretend” while for adults it is making ends meet and fulfilling very real obligations and responsibilities.

There was an article recently in the Guardian about the 70th anniversary of the children’s book label, Puffin Books; “Puffin marks 70 years by celebrating best ever books.” The article identifies what Puffin Books regards as their seventy best titles in a number of different categories. Many of these books are also adult books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, and Dracula. I remember reading when I just got out of high school that in England Moby Dick was regarded as a book for children, yet it is studied very seriously by adults who seem to be of the opinion the book was written with an adult audience in mind. Of course this line of thought might seem to suggest that the things we do and read as children are all childish, which is probably not the case. We do not put away everything we had as children, nor change all the behaviors we had as children, only the “childish” things and the “childish” behaviors. Perhaps an essential ingredient of maturity is the ability to recognize those qualities of our youth that should be preserved and brought with us into adulthood.

Three Laughing Men by the Tiger Stream
Song painting in the Litang style

The three men in the painting are a Taoist, a Confucian, and a Buddhist. They were so engrossed in a conversation that they did not realize they were passing through a bit of land infested by tigers and as a result were unafraid. After crossing the bridge and realizing what has happened they laugh together. The painting is meant to suggest that the three religions practiced by the three men were truly one religion, I guess because the intensity of their beliefs as they discussed them actually protected them from harm. It might also be because that each in his own worldview saw the same event as funny and they all laughed in unison, and this laughter is what unifies them. The Bible mentions on one occasion that Jesus wept, but it does not explicitly say that he laughed. I like to believe this is because laughter was such a regular part of his life that it did not need mentioning. Perhaps the reason why Aristotle’s treatise on comedy was lost while his treatise on tragedy survives is because we need less help understanding the comic side of life and enter into it with greater relish, though there are those that see laughter as a superficial thing that lacks seriousness, who regard it as one of the childish things, though I would like to believe this view is less prevalent today than it was once upon a time.

Baby at Play
Thomas Eakins,_Baby_at_Play_1876.jpg

Perhaps one of the childish things we leave behind is the seriousness of play. In the paintings above and below we see children playing. The adults watch the children play at the beach but seem a bit restrained in their play, they certainly are not dressed to enjoy the water as zealously as the children. There are those in modern education that tell us we must prepare children for the world of work and behind that exhortation there seems to be a suggestion that the world of play must give way to the world of work, that work is real and play is frivolous. As a teacher I am one of the ones this exhortation is aimed at and I feel a bit conflicted about how to embrace this exhortation. For me, my work is a kind of play, not all the time, but much of the time and I would feel a bit of a fraud if I were to suggest the world of work and play cannot intersect. I think the most successful adults are those that have managed to convince others to pay them for what they would do for free.

At the Beach
Edward Henry Potthast

It is difficult to know at what point we go from being children to being adults. In many religions there is a ritual that is supposed to inaugurate our passage from one state to the other, but it is doubtful that maturity is a byproduct of ritual; it is more likely that the ritual serves to remind us that society’s attitude towards us and expectations of us have changed. But the passage of time by itself does not make us more mature, more “adult.” It is one of the goals of a teacher to help students not only gain a set of skills and abilities but to put them on a path towards wisdom and responsible adulthood. But what are the childish things that get put away? What is it that I, as a teacher, am trying to help my students leave behind?

Many of the behaviors we label as childish are behaviors we do not want to loose entirely. I want to approach the world as an adult with a sense of wonder, but “too much wonder” might border on naiveté and foolishness. I do not want to loose my playfulness but being “too playful” might be another sign of immaturity. I think that coming of age does not necessarily mean leaving certain behaviors behind so much as establishing boundaries and limits for those behaviors. It is, perhaps, recognizing the difference between a leader and a bully, between good cheer and flippancy, perhaps between a Mr. Micawber or Mr. Skimpole and a Joe Gargery. I often tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older but no power on earth can make me grow up and I think there is some truth to this. We have no say in the passage of time, but we do play a part in the shaping of our own characters.

Walt Disney Pictures

The film is about a puppet that wants to be a boy and it chronicles his passage from being an animated toy to becoming a mature young child. The film is basically about the quality of the choices he makes and how he learns from experience. Pinocchio as he grows wiser does not give up play, he does not stop doing things that give him pleasure and enjoyment, he succeeds where many “real boys” fail because he learns from his mistakes, he becomes less foolish as the story progresses and wiser in the ways he plays. Perhaps this is what we all aspire to, to hold on to our capacity to have fun and to enjoy life; that though we may never become wise we, like Pinocchio, may succeed at becoming less foolish.

Playing Children
Su Han Ch’en


Words in Their Finery

God Bless the Child
Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Words in Their Finery

Page from an illuminated manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, watercolor, bodycolor and gold leaf. Calligraphy and ornamentation by William Morris, illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones
William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones

The image is from an edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam designed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. We can see in this image that the beauty of words and of language lies not solely in what the words mean but in their appearance as well. Or at least that words can have a beauty that is independent of the meanings assigned to them by Dr. Johnson or Noah Webster. Morris realized that even if Chaucer had been an inferior poet the Elsmere Manuscript would still be a thing of beauty and worth preserving. The creating of typefaces is an art in itself and the quality of a typeface contributes to the pleasure derived from reading books. The song says, “momma may have, poppa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.” In a work of literature the author and the words used by the author may be the momma and the poppa of the story but the typeface has its own something to offer. The texture and quality of the paper and the design of the letters on the page contribute something important to the experience of reading a book.

When students write a paper they often want to use unusual, decorative fonts. This has to be discouraged, of course, because those students that go onto college will have professors who are not likely to appreciate papers that stray too far from the conventional in their use of fonts or typefaces. It is unfortunate that one of the stories we have to tell our children is to be careful of the clothes in which they dress the stories that they tell. Though the decorative fonts used by students in term papers are often garish and inappropriate to the stories that they tell, these fonts are none the less a part of the student’s expression and reveal a bit of her or his imagination at work. If the design of a thing is as important, some say it is more important, than the task the thing has been given to perform than fonts chosen by students reveal something of their imaginative life and they are certainly an important part of the design of the paper in the student’s mind.

“Trolls with an abducted princess, from the annual, and still published, fairy tale collection Bland Tomtar och Troll
John Bauer

There was a recent article in the Boston Globe, “How fairy tales pit adults against kids,” about fairy tales and the stories that they tell. The point of the article is that these stories are often seen by adults as dangerous and that in the stories themselves adults are often portrayed as the enemy or at best more of a hindrance than a help. Because the first audiences for these stories were adults one wonders how the adults that enjoyed them viewed children and childhood. There is a short story by H. G. Wells, “The Magic Shop,” that follows in the vein of some of these stories in that by the end of the story a child’s parents live in terror of their child. Wells’ story actually reverses the roles of adults and children in the traditional stories. In stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Hansel and Gretel” it is the children that live in fear of the adults. Wells’ story, though, ends less happily for the adults than the traditional stories do for the children in that in the traditional stories the children overcome the malevolent adult forces, in Wells’ story the malevolent child is still in control when the story ends.

Language is a magical tool. The same words can be employed by different people to convey very different messages. In fact, the same words in a single text can even be interpreted by different people to convey very different messages as well. I introduce my students to literary theory by showing them how The Tale of Peter Rabbit can be interpreted as a story about the importance of listening to your parents when read one way but also about the importance of disobeying your parents when read another way. This suggests perhaps that we take from the stories we read the messages we need to find in them in order to live more effectively. Does the author put meaning into a story or do readers place in them the meanings they need to find. This is perhaps the crux of the postmodern problem, does meaning exist, does meaning matter? And if meanings do exist and meanings do matter, who gets to decide what those meanings are and where and how those meanings are found?

Alice surrounded by the characters of Wonderland
Peter Newell

Perhaps no book has as much fun with the “meaning” of things than Lewis Carrol’s Alice books. Humpty Dumpty tells us words mean whatever we want them to mean. There is truth to this of course, because this is how new meanings to old words evolve and new words are invented. It is also how poets employ words. Anyone who has read a poem by Wallace Stevens or Bob Dylan has encountered this amorphous use of language. I often imagine that “Pale Ramon” struggles as much with meaning as he does with order in Wallace Stevens’ poem.

There were two article recently, one in the Washington Post, “Michael Dirda reviews the biography “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll,” by Jenny Woolf,” and one in the Guardian, “How the devastation caused by war came to inspire an artist’s dark images of Alice,” about the Alice stories and their creator. The Guardian article focuses on the illustrations that Mervyn Peake did for these books. He, a bit like Humpty Dumpty perhaps, in that he brought his experiences as a war correspondent during World War II to his interpretation of Carroll’s text through the illustrations he created. He makes the text mean what he wants it to mean, which in many ways is not unlike Carroll’s meaning. Carroll depicted a world at times in chaos due to the ways in which adults employed power, Peake was placed in a world where this chaos was brought to life.

Dirda’s review discusses a book about Carroll that focuses on Carroll’s conventional and unconventional qualities, part Mad Hatter and, perhaps, part Alice, who seems to me to be the most conventional character in the story; a conventional young lady to whom very unconventional things happen. The story often revolves around a deep desire to find meaning and order in a world in which none appears to exist. Though of course Carroll, a mathematician, has created a world with a chaotic zaniness on its surface that conforms, under the surface, to a fairly precise mathematical structure. Perhaps life, when looked at from within the experience of the person living it, appears random and bewildering, when it is in fact orderly and systematic when looked at from the outside, as from within our experience our planet and solar system is the center of the universe, but when looked at from a different vantage point our planet and solar system are found nearer to the edge of the universe. Our point of view and our understanding of reality are shaped more by our vantage point than by the context of that vantage point in the larger universe. If we do not know where we stand we will not be able to properly interpret what we see.

Alice in Wonderland
Walt Disney Pictures

This is the version of Alice in Wonderland that I grew up with, though how I viewed it as a child was very different from how I viewed it as a young adult. As a child in the 1950’s I saw it as a magical story with odd characters and vivid colors, but as a young adult in the 1960’s it took on shades of psychedelia. Vivid colors and the caterpillar’s hookah took on different connotations. The world of the 1960’s offered a very different vantage point from that of the 1950’s, though the different lenses through which I viewed the film may have had as much to do with my age than with the age in which I lived. I wonder how the counter-culture of the 1950’s viewed the film.

W. H. Auden once said, “There are good books which are only for adults because their comprehension presupposes adult experience, but there are no good books only for children.” I believe this is true, but I also believe that adults read children’s books with adult experiences that often shape the way these stories are perceived and they are changed by the adult mind into something different from what they where for the child that first read them. “The Little Engine That Could” and “Stone Soup” have different meanings for me now than they did when I was a child. I enjoyed how the soldiers tricked the townspeople in “Stone Soup” but I did not fully comprehend the point it made about generosity. In fact my views of generosity may have been shaped in part by this story without my being fully aware of how my views were being formed.

There is a Woody Guthrie song, “Pretty Boy Floyd” that talks about the outlaw leaving money under the supper dish after he has been given a free meal. I think stories often work this way, there is a gift left under the surface of our consciousness that we are often unaware of until long after we have enjoyed the story’s telling and the magic of the narrative has faded a bit. Sometimes we come back to the stories we read as children and find the messages that have shaped us and we are not always pleased with the way in which our views have been manipulated. This is the rhetorical nature of story telling. We are taken to a world that operates according to certain rules and we learn these rules as we journey through this world, but we bring them back with us to the world of our day to day lives.

Illustration of Alice with the White Rabbit
Arthur Rackham

The White Rabbit tries to live in Wonderland according to the rules of Victorian English society and he is somewhat out of place there. The rules of Victorian England did not apply in Wonderland, or perhaps they did but without their veneer of respectability. What happens to Victorian society, or any “respectable” society, if the rules encountered in Wonderland are brought home to the world on the other side of the looking glass? Which looks quirkier the rules seen in their true light or the individual just back from Wonderland confronting those rules? Sometimes stories do this, they open our eyes to the way things truly are, but in opening our eyes put us at odds with our neighbors whose eyes remain closed and who do not wish to have them opened.

The Genius Next Door

Teach Your Children Well
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

The Genius Next Door

Genius of America
Adolphe Yvon

There was a review in the New York Times, “How to Be Brilliant,” of a book on genius and how to become one, The Genius in All of Us. The premise of the book is that everyone has the potential to be a genius of one kind or another, mathematical, musical, and so on, it just requires a bit of hard work and tenacity. According to the book becoming the best at anything is a matter of dedication, self-confidence, and a willingness to fail often in pursuit of a single thing. The research suggests that anyone who achieved greatness at anything did so by working relentlessly at developing the necessary skills. This probably comes as no huge surprise but the question that seems to go unanswered is how many worked relentlessly and did not achieve. We know who Mozart and Einstein are because they achieved the thing that they pursued, but are there others who were as relentless in their pursuit that we never heard of because they never arrived at their goal.

Of course it is probably a good thing to pursue our interests wholeheartedly and to work as best we can at developing our abilities and interests, but is that in itself enough. Is there something extra that some have that others do not that is as important to success as hard work. I suppose if our aspirations are in proportion to our abilities than the hard work by itself should be enough, but is this how dreams and aspirations operate? In an American Idol culture many are infected with a dream but the American Idol culture suggests that at best one or two will actually succeed. The American culture is built on competition and where it is true that competition can bring out a person’s best, it is also true that competition usually allows for only one winner. There was a sign at the Olympic games held in Atlanta, for example, that said, “Second is the first loser.”

The song, Teach Your Children suggests that much comes down to being true to ourselves and teaching our children to be true to themselves. Having a code to live by is important, so is knowing ourselves and our abilities. It is also important to remember that not all genius is appreciated in its lifetime. Jonathan Swift said that “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Swift is suggesting not only that most are not geniuses but also that most are resentful of the true genius when she or he appears. According to Peter Schaeffer’s play Amadeus Mozart was poisoned by another composer who was envious of Mozart’s ability. Though the history of this is a bit dubious, it does underscore that for the genius even if fame is not elusive there will always be rivals to contend with.


The play Copenhagen is about a meeting between two physicists that were geniuses of their day, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. The meeting took place early in World War II and is of interest because Heisenberg was a German physicist working for the Nazis and Bohr was a Danish physicist of Jewish decent (his mother was Jewish). The two men were friends before the war but their relationship was to say the least a bit strained by the war and the ideology of the German government that fought it. I think this raises another important point about genius and that is it does not protect one from embracing idiotic ideas. Heisenberg may not have believed the Nazi ideology but he still worked for it. Germany at the time of the Nazis was one of the most intelligent countries in the world if intelligence is measured by the number of highly educated men and women, men and women of genius perhaps. Wisdom and genius are often not the same thing and perhaps if the former were revered more than the latter the world would be a better more benevolent place.

Wotan visits Mime and offers him his help
Arthur Rackham

Another name for a genius is a “wiz,” an abbreviated form of wizard, someone for whom everything seems to come easily, someone who can work magic with ideas, a musical instrument, or a ball of one kind or another. I like the wizards in stories. The good ones not only can do marvelous things, but they are often wise to boot. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word wizard etymologically means “wise one” (actually the word is formed from “wise” + “ard”) and it was once a word for a philosopher or sage, though even in its archaic sense it had a derogatory connotation, as it often does to this day. Still, it suggests that the true genius is not only intelligent, but also wise. If we keep Arthur C. Clarke’s third law in mind, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” than the scientists that create the cutting edge technologies we use or are waiting for are themselves wizards in the mold of Merlin or Gandalf.

For most the science that runs our technology and many of our tools is like magic, we understand that they work and know how to make the machines do what we want them to do, but few of us understand how they work, how they do what they do. Science is for many a kind of magic that we believe in because the scientists that work the magic tell us there is nothing mysterious in it, that it all works according to certain rules. But then, those in the wizarding schools of J. K. Rowling or Ursula Le Guin are learning the rules by which the magic of those books work. There is, they would have us believe, a kind of “science” to the art of witchcraft and wizardry.

Map of “Mercury” as described in The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
David Bedell

The painting that started this off and the map above suggest the true meaning of genius and that is the spirit of a place or a person, or even a thing, one might say the spirit of a noun. The painting captures the spirit of America, some of what makes it a unique place and the painting is full of truly American images, like frontiersmen and frontiers that in the painting are a bit mysterious. But in this sense we are all geniuses in that we all have a spirit that in some way defines us. That spirit might also be summed up as our character, the spirit by which others know us. It is this kind of genius we all need to cultivate and to infuse with maturity and a bit of wisdom. Is our genius one of fidelity and courage, or of duplicity or timidity?

In most of the stories in which the great wizards appear, there is this concern for being true to something worthwhile and noble. Merlin wanted to make Britain a more just society, Gandalf wants to preserve what is best in Middle Earth, and Dumbledore wants to see magic used to promote wise and virtuous ends. The story of Ged, or Sparrowhawk, the wizard of The Wizard of Earthsea, is about finding redemption and the wisdom to use his skill with magic to better his world and himself.

Book cover art for the book A Wizard of Earthsea
Ruth Robbins

Perhaps this is the true magic we all need to work, to transform ourselves from selfish people motivated by self-interest into more generous people who work at improving the worlds in which we live and wander. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to greatness of one kind or another. Many, though by no means all, that have been given the label of genius have not been good people. Their genius in that other sense was largely underdeveloped, or at least the more virtuous aspects of it were. Personally, I think that most of us are at some level a bit insecure and that some mask that insecurity with physical strength or some other kind of personal superiority. But even if this is not true, we are somehow diminished as people if we are incapable of living for anyone other than ourselves and in this regard it would benefit us all to develop the better angels of our genius.

Is It Real

Tupelo Honey
Van Morrison

Is It Real

Education (Center)
Louis Comfort Tiffany

There was an article in the Guardian a few weeks ago about hoaxes, “The greatest literary hoax ever?”. The article talks about how the writer William Boyd got together with a number of influential friends to invent and promote an artist who never existed. Before they were done, they were exhibiting this artist’s paintings and getting well known, and not so well known people, to talk about how they knew and admired this artist. Before he could bring the hoax to its planned conclusion a co-conspirator let the secret slip out. It makes for an interesting story and illustrates the gullibility of people. The song is about placing values on things, and recognizing the best and being willing to make certain investments (all the tea in China, for example) to demonstrate this value.

The picture is of one of three stained-glass panels done by Louis Comfort Tiffany celebrating education. If we are well educated we are perhaps less likely to be caught in a fabrication and more able to access the accurate and true values of things. But maybe not. Boyd’s crowd of art admirers included well educated people who ought to have known better. Perhaps this was what the hoax was playing off of. If these people expected to be taken seriously as knowledgeable appreciators of art they must not let it be supposed there are influential artists of whom they were unaware. Perhaps the first thing the truly knowledgeable learn is that they do not know everything and that there is nothing wrong with not knowing everything.

Of course the story that Boyd invented was a good story and perhaps what truly lay at the heart of the deception was a human desire to be a part of a truly good story, even if that means inventing a personal history that is different from one’s true history. Or maybe the story was so good it suggested artists from these people’s past whose names they had forgotten but whose work they held onto. Maybe the works they shared were done by a corps of unknown artists that met early and tragic ends. Maybe the invented story was the story of many unknown and unappreciated artists that gave into despair. In the stained glass panel celebrating education at the top of the page the two disciplines represented are “science” and “religion,” two disciplines that often interpret the truths they encounter by different lights and maybe both offer a truth that resonates even if at times they conflict. Each often accuses the other of perpetrating hoaxes and each answers these accusations rationally according to their separate understandings. As one dubious judge once remarked “What is truth?” Perhaps all truth begins with faith in something and it is on that something that all that follows rests.

Illustrations from Old French Fairy Tales
Virginia Sterrett

As an English teacher I think stories teach basic truths about the world humans inhabit. These stories are fiction and it would seem by definition are not true. It is something of a paradox, perhaps, that something that is fabricated, like a story, can illuminate so much and give such insight. The illustration above was done to illustrate a fairy tale. Fairy tales introduced most of us to the world as it is, a world of “evil stepmothers” that cannot be trusted and “fairy godmothers” that can. Yet there is in this something of a life lesson, many that should be trusted cannot be, and many that should be doubted can be trusted. Much of life revolves around sorting out these kinds of problems.

There was an article last week, “Mind your language,” also in the Guardian about language and how we use it. The specific word in question was the word “skeptic” and what that word literally means. According to the article a true skeptic is a seeker after truth and questions everything in order to discover what is true. Yet the word is being applied to those that question nothing their own ideology teaches and doubt everything that challenges that ideology, often without doing very much to sort out which is in fact true. In other words the very opposite of a skeptic in that they accept one body of knowledge without question and challenge any contradictory body of knowledge without examination.

Corner House
István Orosz

The illustrations above and below are interesting in this regard in the way they play with perspective. The one above is of a corner of a house. But is it an outer corner or an inner corner, does it open on a courtyard or a sidewalk. As I look at it the perspective changes, one minute it is turning a corner and the next it is at the back of a corner, one minute one window is invisible to the other, the next it is facing the other. Which is true? Of course, in this picture anyway, they are both true, it all depends on how we look. Is this a work of art or geometric gamesmanship? It is hard to say, but it is kind of fun to look at.

The picture below is of two roads, or bridges really, that cross a body of water but at some point beyond where the two cross each disappears into its reflection in the water. The pictures are Escher-esque in the way they play with perspective, but they offer a kind of pleasure in the way they play with how the eye focuses and sees. Stories often teach us that life is about maintaining our perspective on things, about seeing things correctly, even though life often presents itself in a confusing and incomprehensible manner. Is the nice lady in the gingerbread house inviting us for dinner or “having” us for dinner? The answer to this question, whether it is literal or metaphoric, often determines whether the day’s events have a happy or unhappy conclusion and as with the pictures, appearances can be deceiving.

István Orosz

A good story often challenges our way of viewing the world and in so doing reminds us we have to be careful in our judgments and not lean to heavily on our own understanding. It is not always easy to tell where the line falls between being gullible and being open minded, between being generous in our treatment of others and being foolish. Stories do not always help us resolve these problems but good stories make us aware of these problems and the need to resolve them while being true to our character and values. The most dangerous people in the world are those that understand us and what we believe and know how to exploit those beliefs and in the process exploit us. Stories cannot solve these problems perhaps, each situation must be addressed by its own merits, but they can make us wary and wise in our approach to circumstances and events.

The Dot and the Line
Metro Goldwyn Mayer

I like this little story because it addresses the romantic and the realist in all of us. Both the dot and the line are vulnerable to their romantic inclinations and these inclinations lead them to make unwise choices. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for the squiggle perhaps, the story has a happy ending and both the dot and the line are able to experience romance realistically, though I am not sure that means of their deliverance is itself realistic. But we understand when the story ends that the dot and the line are “right” for each other.

Is this story true to life, do things often resolve themselves so neatly? Probably not. The value of the story lies in its pointing out the blindness that romance can bring and hopefully put us on our guard against it. But than other stories, Great Expectations, perhaps, suggest that even when we realize that our emotions and romantic attractions are leading us astray we are powerless when it comes to resisting them. We often find out the hard way, through pain and disappointment, that our affections are not always reciprocated and that those we have never harmed will seek to harm us.

Screenshot from the film Metropolis (1927)
Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann (cinematograpers)

Anyone who knows Breughel’s painting of The Tower of Babel will recognize it in this landscape from the film Metropolis. This knowledge should shape the way we view this cinematic landscape and the story this film is going to tell before the film begins to tell it. The story of Babel ends in tragedy and it is about human arrogance and presumption. The film addresses another kind of human presumption and arrogance, one that has more to do with exploitation of others than of usurping the powers of God, though there is a bit of this as well. But allusion is one way stories tell stories without actually telling the story, they prepare us for what is coming and help create a frame of mind in the reader (or in this case the viewer) that attunes itself to what appears to be coming. We see this picture and knowing its origins we know that what follows will be tragic, or with a different set of cultural signals, comic. The film The Music Box with Laurel and Hardy is, at least in part, a comic retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus. We catch on to how the film plays with the myth early on but because it is a Laurel and Hardy film, we expect a comic and not tragic retelling of the tale.

Poster for the 1911 Ballet Russe season showing Nijinsky in costume for “Le Spectre de la Rose”, Paris.
Jean Cocteau

Nijinsky was an influential Russian dancer and the ballet Russe an influential dance company. The ballet is The Spirit of the Rose. I know nothing about the ballet, but the name is suggestive. “A rose by any other name” and The Name of the Rose are just a few of the literary associations of the rose. It represents beauty and a kind of excellence. Another odd bit of serendipity in this poster is the artist that painted it, Jean Cocteau. He would go on to become a 20th century pioneer of the French cinema. He told powerful film stories. One of his best known films was Beauty and the Beast, not the Disney version by any means, but still a forceful retelling of the original fairy tale, which kind of brings us back to where we started, or near to it. Fairy tales do not just prepare children for the cruel world they may face as adults, but they often remind adults of the darker side of the world they have grown into.

Cocteau’s film was not made for children, though its characters, themes, and settings come from a very well known and beloved children’s story. The story he tells is very dark, but at the same time childlike. There was also this week an obituary for the last Yiddish poet, Abraham Sutzkever. One thing he said that is true of stories and storytellers was “If you carry your childhood with you, you never age.” As children the stories we read help us age wisely, as adults these same stories help us to age gracefully, preserving in us what is best of youth and maturity.