Reading all the Signs

Long Way Home
Tom Waits

Reading all the Signs

Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze
Hans Holbein,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg

The song talks about taking “the long way home.” Often the shortest, and the quickest, distance between two points is not the most interesting journey. Just as a quick look at the painting will not reveal all the painting has to offer. When I was younger I rode a bicycle through England, Scotland, and Wales, Holland, Germany, and France. When I started my trip my plan was to hitchhike everywhere. When I left London I hitchhiked down the motorway to Salisbury. While I was there I walked to Stonehenge, about a ten mile walk from where I was camping just outside the town. It was a beautiful walk that made me aware of what I would be missing if I traveled the motorways. When I got back to town I went to the Salisbury Cycle Works and bought a ten-speed bicycle. They put a rack on the bike so that I could more easily carry my backpack. The second day out I went down a quiet country road in a valley beneath one of the houses in which Jane Austen lived. There was a woman by the side of the road selling strawberries and cream. I, of course, bought some and enjoyed the whole “Jane Austen” aura of the moment, a moment I would have not enjoyed on the motorway. I imagine the strawberry vendor was there for the benefit of tourists visiting Austen’s house, but I arrived early and was the only other person on the road at the time so I did not feel so much like a tourist.

The point is that it often profits us to take the long way and to not rush so much from place to place. I could have seen much more of Europe than I did if I had stuck to the motorway, but in another sense, though I would have covered more miles and visited more places I would not have seen as much. I also think that people responded to me differently riding a bicycle than they would have if I were rushing by car from place to place. I was a tourist and folks looked at me as such, but the bicycle initiated conversations that probably would not have been initiated otherwise. When the rack that carried my pack broke (because of the books I brought with me it weighed close to sixty pounds) a couple in a large black Bentley invited me to join them for tea by the side of the road. They could not give me a ride to town but they did give me a pleasant break from pushing my bike.

I made the journey that Chaucer’s pilgrims made from Canterbury to London (their return journey) in one day. I am not certain how long a trip it was for Chaucer, but my sense is that it took a couple of days. I went faster than a fifteenth century traveler, but not nearly as fast or as far as most twentieth century travelers. But it is not just that travel by bicycle is slower than travel by car, but that travel by bicycle puts you closer to the ground and to the rest of the landscape and because you are traveling more slowly many more of the small details are noticeable. In a car you may see the lichen on a stone wall, but you would miss the rabbit lunching behind it.

There was an article in the Guardian last week, “You can’t speed read literature,” about the way we read (or ought to read) literature differently from the newspaper or a textbook. When we read the paper or a textbook we are generally reading for specific information and are less concerned with the subtleties of language or the sound of the words in combination with one another. Our goal is to just get through the material and do whatever we need to do with the facts we have gleaned. But when we read literature, the way the words interact with one another and the phrasing and the figurative language that are used are the source of much of the pleasure we get from the experience. Literature cannot be read quickly, not if we are to enjoy all it has to offer.

A novel can be read quickly for the plot line, to get the gist of the story, but for those that read literature as literature that is not the point. May Sarton once said, “I used to tell my students situation and character are life to a short story and plot kills. Plot kills something, there is no doubt, and in the kind of writer that Katherine Mansfield was, plot is not the point. It is something else. The same thing with Virginia Woolf. You might say that in To the Lighthouse very little happens except inwardly, in the characters, but people go back to reread books where not much may be happening but a great deal of life is being created.” We speed read for plot, we read carefully for character, situation, and to find the other interesting things a great writer can do with language. Those who travel the motorway from Canterbury to London in a few hours have made the same journey as those that make the same trip by bicycle in the course of a day or at least they cover the same ground. But is it really the same journey?

Children’s Games
Pieter Breughel the ElderÄ._041.jpg

As with the painting at the top of the page, in this painting by Breughel there is a lot to see and though a quick glance may be enough for us to enjoy the use of color and the superficial construction of the scene there is much too much happening in the painting for us to get much of its real value from a momentary glance. Every one of the little groups that fills the painting depicts or suggests a different children’s game. To fully enjoy the painting attention needs to be paid to each of the games and the way each game is suggested by what the characters in the painting are doing. It is necessary to spend time with things of value if their full value is to be appreciated.

“The Dirigible”
Alfred Stieglitz

The photographs above and below suggest other reasons to linger over things. The dirigible in the Stieglitz photo, to me anyway, is kind of mysterious. It evokes the wonder of flight. The sun gilding the edge of the clouds suggests the rising or the setting sun, we cannot really tell if it is dawn or dusk or if the clouds are just hiding the sunlight. But the dirigible itself is captivating. The way the gondola hangs beneath the sausage shaped balloon is intriguing to me. It suggests a sailing ship in flight. For me there is also an eeriness to the photograph, something mysterious that I do not fully understand that reminds me of something from a Jules Verne story.

The Adams photograph provokes, or at least it does in some, a meditation on the natural environment and its wild and sublime beauty. It invites us to linger over it, to pursue its details and enjoy the landscape that it captures. There is a similar play between light and shadow, between the ominous and the comforting, that is found in the Stieglitz photograph. Both the storm in the mountains and the currents in the river suggest the power of nature and its potential dangers.

The Tetons and the Snake River
Ansel Adams

There were two reviews in the Washington Post of modern translations of stories from fifteenth century England and Italy. One was of Peter Ackroyd’s prose translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “Book review: ‘The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling’ by Peter Ackroyd,” and the other of Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, “Michael Dirda reviews ‘Orlando Furioso’ by Ludovico Ariosto.” Both of these stories have been personal favorites and that they still generate enough interest to warrant a new translation is encouraging to me, though I am much more surprised about the Ariosto than the Chaucer, who has always been popular in the English speaking world. I think Ariosto repays the time that is spent with him and it is a pleasant thought that many more will perhaps spend some time with him. For me he is like a cross between J. R. R. Tolkien and Jonathan Swift in that it marries the heroics of the one to the comedy of the other. Enjoyment can be gotten by speed reading each of these books but there is so much in each to be savored and lingered over that is sad to think that some could be satisfied with such a meager offering, sort of like taking a single bite from an ice ream cone and throwing the rest away.

Jacques Tati

A film is experienced differently than a book or a painting. One cannot take more time over a film than the film takes to run, well one could, but that would defeat the purpose of the film and probably do some harm to its enjoyment. But careful attention needs to be paid to what happens on screen. In the film clip from Jacques Tati’s Traffic much of the humor can be missed if the viewer does not pay attention to details, like the movements of the individual drivers after the accident or to the debris and the way it moves through the scene. The film is a French film but it is not necessary to understand the language (though I think it is has been dubbed in English) to enjoy the comedy, so much of the humor is visual.

It is not just the spending of time, though, but how the time is spent. One person may read a book slowly because they do not understand the words and have to read and re-read to figure out what is happening while another may take the same amount of time reading because she or he is paying careful attention to the details of the story and the manner in which those details are conveyed. I think the increasing speed at which we move through life makes us less willing to spend time wresting with the written word when we do not understand and can leave us satisfied with a superficial reading when we do understand. Because of the numerous distractions that are available in the modern world, many students do not want to build the language skills necessary to fully understand and enjoy a work of literature.

Thoreau felt, when life went quite a bit more slowly, that we spent too little time with ourselves and the world around us. We probably spend even less time with ourselves and our environment today. I suppose reading and reflection are a kind of mental exercise that many want to avoid in the same way they avoid calisthenics and other forms of physical exercise. In the same way we struggle with delayed gratification in the manner we run our finances we often struggle with delayed gratification in the manner we develop our intellect. As our enjoyment of a thing we desire is often more perfect when we take the time to save up for its purchase, as opposed to using credit of one form or another, so is the object of our study, whether of a text, a concept, or a science, more perfect when we take the time to fully understand that study. There is a difference between knowing and understanding and that difference is often the product of time.

There’s a Word for It

Rhapsody in Blue
George Gershwin

There’s a Word for It

Word Painting
Measures 24-41 of the Tenor line of Every valley shall be exalted Handel’s Messiah

Gershwin’s music captures the movement and the often fractious character of the American city. Woody Allen played this music under the opening sequences of his film Manhattan perhaps because New York City is among the most rambunctious and idiosyncratic of American cities, it often seems the city sees itself this way. Music can often tell stories, sometimes stories that language does not tell quite so well. Just as often, though, music is used in conjunction with language to tell stories more vividly than words or music alone could do.

I have always enjoyed the literary device of synesthesia. It is an under-noticed device I think, but it is used quite frequently. Whenever we refer to the clarity of sound as sound that is crystal clear we are using synesthesia, in that we are using a visual image, that of transparency, to describe an auditory image, a sound without distortion or interference. The image from the score of Handel’s Messiah captures another kind of synesthesia; it illustrates a kind of musical scoring that is called word painting. The music is sung to the words, “Every mountain and hill made low, the crooked made straight, and the rough places plain.” When the mountains are being made low, the music starts low and ascends, imitating the shape of the mountain then ends on a low not suggesting the mountain has been brought “low”. Similarly when the lyric talks about a “crooked” place the melody goes one note up and one note down (alternating “B” and “C” notes I think), suggesting a rough edge. And when the rough places are made plain, a single note is sung throughout the phrase suggesting a level surface. Of course this painting is not done with colors, at least not literal colors, but with sound. I enjoy this flexibility of language that describes a thing by making it into something it is not.

Salman Rushdie wrote an article for the London Times Literary Supplement, “Salman Rushdie celebrates the Paris Review”, in which he praises the English language for its great flexibility. He asked a jeweler friend of his why she liked working in gold and she told it is because the metal is so malleable that you can do almost anything with it. Rushdie sees the English language as being like that, pliable like gold and that is what makes it such a marvelous language for telling stories. Old English has a dark guttural sound to it that makes comedy difficult, Middle English has a musicality that makes tragedy difficult (perhaps just for me) but English as it is spoken today has both Old and Middle English elements to it that give real breadth to the possibilities of story telling.

Thomas Nast

The picture is a self-portrait caricature of Thomas Nast, America’s first editorial cartoonist. He used pictures and words to tell stories, as comics do to this day. He gave an additional meaning to the word “nasty”, a word that is much older than he. In the picture, Nast is sharpening his “sword” preparing for another strike. Nast used ridicule to show things up for what they were, in his view. Sir Walter Scott once said, “Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble.” This is the danger of ridicule and the editorial cartoon, I suppose. Nast’s targets were often folks like Boss Tweed and his corrupt cronies, but if he ever got it wrong, that satiric edge could do real harm, as it can to this day, whether employed in an editorial cartoon or some other venue.

In the case made against Socrates a reference was made to Aristophanes’ caricature of the philosopher to support their accusations. Aristophanes, in his play The Clouds, named his philosopher Socrates not because he was out to ridicule Socrates so much as philosophers in general and Socrates just happened to be the most visible philosopher of the day. The play is a great play, but it could be argued that if the ridicule it made of Socrates was undeserved than it is also a play that did some harm. Of course the same could be said of any work of art that was used for political purposes that had nothing to do with the real meaning of the work of art or the artist’s intent, at least to the degree that can be known. The artist is not always responsible for the way in which others misuse her or his work.

Con-Ed Explainers
Jules Feiffer

The cartoon relies almost exclusively on language, though the darkness and the candles make the joke work. You would have to know something about life in New York City in the 1950’s and 60’s to understand what is going on. Con Ed was the local supplier of electricity. They had a reputation for frequent power outages and rate increases and many felt that as the cost of the service went up, the quality of the service went down. The cartoon, though, underscores how simplicity in both the image as it is drawn and the language as it is used can make the most effective commentary.

Ocean Chart
Henry Holiday

Lewis Carroll was an inventor of words, mostly nonsense words but he was also adept at capturing the absurd at its most comical. The images above and below come from his poem The Hunting of the Snark. The story is thought by some to have introduced the word “snark,” along with its cognates, to the language. The image is a map of the sea and it captures with some accuracy what you are likely to see on the open sea, though its usefulness for navigational purposes is at best dubious. The joke works perhaps because it does capture what we expect to see in the open ocean and to those that do not navigate the map is as useful as any other while at sea. The second image captures a scene and is intended to illustrate (some think anyway, because the image does not appear with these words) the lines that accompany it (added by me and not the illustrator or publisher of the book).

To illustrate the lines (maybe):
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They persued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
Henry Holiday

Two prominent figures in the picture are a “careworn” young woman and a “hopeful” looking young woman, the “care” and “hope” referred to in the lines of the verse. Most everyone else has a fork of one kind or another in his hand. Everyone looks very serious and intent, with the possible exception of Hope. The sounds of the words in the rhyme are very serious sounds, though the meaning is of the words is nonsensical. I think this is an aspect of English story telling (though I am sure it is not exclusively English) that I enjoy, the ability of language to sound like one thing when it means something very different and the absurdity of this juxtaposition is what often creates humor in a text, it certainly does in this one. As was pointed out in the Rushdie essay referred to earlier, the English language is malleable and can be shaped in many ways to do many different things, even at times, things that are mutually exclusive, like serious comedy.

Paper Moon
Paramount Pictures

In this film clip we see another attribute of language, its ability to create a kind of verbal slight of hand that the con man can use to manipulate others. I think in the transaction the quick talker, Ryan O’Neal, came away with five dollars, but he may have gotten more, it all takes place so quickly. He is well away before the shopkeeper realizes that something isn’t quite right and even then she is not sure. The dexterous use of language can often achieve unexpected results. Like with many skills, those that use language well often appear to be doing something that is very easy, that anyone can do that is in fact quite difficult. Often in order for this skill to be effective, the person practicing it depends on the appearance of “simplicity” to be successful. As soon as the language is seen to be polished and complex, it becomes suspect and the readers or audience put up their guard, especially when it is language used by those like the Ryan O’Neal character in the film clip.

Language is how we communicate and the better our vocabulary and the more skilled we are at putting words together, the more effective we are at communicating our ideas. However, language is also inherently ambiguous, it means different things to different people. Often it succeeds by using images that lend themselves easily to multiple interpretations so that each hearer or reader can get from the words the message she or he wants to hear. This is often how a political speech works. But it is also how the words of a story enable each of us to use our imaginations in ways that make a story personal. There was an article in the Guardian, “Do you know what today’s kids need? Thumb amputation, that’s what,” about Maurice Sendak and his story Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was asked what he would say to parents who were afraid their children would find the film version of his story “too scary”. Sendak replied, “I would tell them to go to hell.” For their children, he had the following message: “If they can’t handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like.” Not a very sympathetic response from a writer of children’s stories.

The point of the article was that we need to be scared a little bit, especially if we are children. Sam Leith, suggests that the stories we most remember are the stories that frightened us. What makes these stories resonate is that they enable us to “leave home” without actually leaving home, to experience some of the dangers and “scariness” of the world while in a place of safety. We can experience danger without fear that we will actually be harmed by it. This serves a necessary purpose, in that it helps us as children to recognize danger before we actually have to experience it. We also learn how to respond to it after a fashion. We certainly learn that there are forces in the world that must be stood up to if the world is to spin merrily on its way through the universe.

Often we want to keep to children safe and this is a good thing, children by definition are probably not skilled enough to protect themselves in the “real world.” But if they are to ever be ready for the world they must learn what to expect and we always learn best from experience. Stories, especially scary stories, offer us a way to experience the dangers we might encounter in the world without actually experiencing them. They also force us to confront our courage, or sense of loyalty and friendship, or proper place in the world.

In the story Coraline, the central character experiences on the one hand a kind of abandonment by her parents, while at the same time she must accept the responsibility of rescuing them. There are two worlds in the story one safe, but indifferent to her, the other quite dangerous and desirous of her. Isn’t this how it often is in life, the people who seem to desire most our affection are the people that we can trust least with that affection and that the people that are most important to us, often take us the most for granted. Stories teach us that the most important people in our lives, those that we can most depend on, are often not the most exciting people. Because we know them well it is easy to take them for granted.

I enjoy the stories I read in English and I delight in the versatility of the language, but in part this is because English is the only language I know well. I suppose in part it is our familiarity with a language that makes it malleable, that makes it gold and that this quality of language is a product of being fluent in that language. All languages tell stories and they all work well in the cultures that these languages serve. But whatever malleable qualities other languages have I know and enjoy the malleable quality of the English language, that can terrify me in amusing ways and let me taste a sour expression.

Who Do You Think You Are

The Silver Tongued Devil and I
Kris Kristofferson

Who Do You Think You Are

“The Treachery of Images” (1928-9) or “This is not a pipe”
René Magritte

Kris Kristofferson sings of someone who is in a kind of denial for it is clear from the lyric that the “silver tongued devil” and the persona of the song are in fact the same person. The persona may not approve of the actions of his alter ego and it may be in fact the “beer” talking and not himself but like it or not the actions are his actions. Who we are and who we think we are often are very different people. My students are beginning Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Macbeth sees himself as a pretty good guy, he wants to be liked by his peers, but relatively early in the story he allows his ambition to overtake the “better angels of his nature.” The Macbeth at the end of the play may be unrecognizable to the Macbeth of the play’s beginning but they are the same person. Or are they?

The painting is captioned “this is not a pipe” but the image is indeed of a pipe. Of course the image of a pipe is in fact not a pipe, I cannot take this pipe and smoke it, for example. So the painting is and is not a pipe. By the same token the photograph of me found in my passport taken back in 1972 is indeed a photograph of me. But are the person in that photograph and the person writing this the same person? Emerson would say something one day he would disavow the next. Are the Emerson making the statement and disavowing the statement the same person, the same Emerson? At the heart of literary analysis, among other things, is character growth. Characters that do not change in the course of a story are, generally, weak characters. Yet we expect consistency of thought from the people around us, and believe changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness. Heaven help the politician, for example, who has a change of heart.

The Humphrey van Weyden we meet at the beginning of Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf cannot save himself, he cannot even call out to others to save him. He is totally helpless. The Humphrey van Weyden, “Hump”, at the end of the novel is a very different and much stronger and more competent human being. The Hump of the beginning of the novel bears no resemblance to the Hump at the end of the novel. But, under the law anyway, they are the same person. On the other hand, at the end of the novel Wolf Larson, Hump’s nemesis through the book, is largely unchanged. In part this is because he has already thought through his views and made judgments about how the world works that time and experience have shown to be sound. But also Wolf is set in his ways, he has reached his conclusions, no one has been able to effectively challenge those conclusions so he sees no need to change, even when confronted with an alternative view of things that is thoughtful and experiences that ought to cause him to question at least some of his conclusions. In life, as in stories, those characters are strongest who can grow and change and adapt to changing circumstances.

The Paranoiac Face ([1935])
Salvador Dali
The New York Public Library

Looked at one way this is a drawing of some people sitting on the beach, looked at another way it is a human face (according to Andre Breton the face of Jean Paul Marat, or so he said of the photograph that inspired the drawing). How we see ourselves and how others see us may suggest another kind of illusion, just as the people we thought we might become do not always resemble the people we have in fact become. In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch we are confronted by characters with great aspirations for the future, some are taking their first steps towards achieving these aspirations while others have been working towards theirs for some time already. Some of these ambitions are noble and altruistic, others are shallow and self-serving but few are realized. There is a doctor who hopes to reform the practice of medicine but ends up writing a treatise on gout, a disease mostly of well to do old men, there is a scholar who plans to synthesize all the world’s mythic systems but dies before he can do so, there is a wealthy politician with a past, as well as a would be politician without much of a past.

Most of the characters in this novel have high ideals but they make foolish choices and as a result must face real consequences. Most learn to carve a bit of contentment out of the poor choices they have made but they never fulfill their aspirations. When I finished the book I felt Dorothea Brooke proved willing to make risky choices to achieve some personal happiness and I thought she ended well, but not all agree. Still, we are told she made others’ lives better. Perhaps in life that is worth more, and perhaps is more satisfying, than a more “public” success. It certainly illustrates the choices that confront most of us, we can choose safely and attain a modest contentment perhaps, or we can take risks and perhaps achieve some of our higher aspirations, or perhaps not. Life is often this way.

Janus Films

The film Rashomon is about point of view. A crime is committed and it is observed by four different people from four different perspectives. The angle from which the event is viewed determines how it is understood and interpreted. Depending on whose perspective is accepted a crime either was or was not committed. Whose perception is correct? To what extent does this mirror life? Some would argue from a story like this that we cannot know or understand reality, there are too many obstructions between what we perceive and what is, that all life is relative. There is some satisfaction to be gotten from this view in that it enables a person to avoid making judgments about events, and hence, having to take any action in shaping those events.

But I think the story illustrates that, though we all have to act according to our own understanding of what is happening around us, we may want to reserve judgment and keep an open mind. Choices are often difficult, it may not be possible to know all that we need to know to make those choices with certainty, but the choices themselves may be inescapable and need to be made. We can only do our best. I do not know that this kind of story provides comfort or satisfaction, but it does capture an aspect of life that it is important to think about. This is an important service that books, film, and other forms of story telling provide.

Three Musicians (1921), Museum of Modern Art
Pablo Picasso

The painting is called Three Musicians. But is this really what the painting captures. One musician is dressed in white, a color associated with purity and with weddings. White is also a color often associated with angels, at least the good ones. I mention this only because the other musician is all in black, a color associated with death and the angel of death. As white is often associated with goodness, black is often the color of evil. Then there is the musician in the middle who is dressed something like a clown, he is dressed in motley, the traditional garb of the clown. Are the musicians on his right and left, then, his good and evil geniuses? This is another story to be told and understood. Maybe they are just, as the title says, three musicians with very different tastes in clothes.

There was an article a few weeks ago in the Guardian about the American novelist, Philip Roth. The article by Alison Flood, “Philip Roth predicts novel will be minority cult within 25 years”, summarizes an interview that Roth gave to Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast. In the interview Roth contends that the day of the novel has passed and that though the novel will survive, it will have only a “cult” following. I hope this is not true. The novel, like few other art forms, enables us to imagine the world and how people behave in the world. Unlike a film it can take its time to spin its story so that the reader can have a greater insight into the emotional, psychological, and intellectual lives of characters, and see how these characters respond to the situations they encounter. We can see how characters’ lives are shaped and changed by events and how those events change the emotions, the psychology, and the thinking of the characters. Granted it is all made up, all a fiction, but it does help prepare one for the choices and complexities of life. Aristotle believed fiction was superior to history because it showed us what might be not just what was. He felt it was superior to philosophy because it gave us the opportunity to see philosophy put into practice and lived out so that we can see how this philosophy holds up to the pressures of daily living.

There is a story told of Thoreau and the night he spent in jail that Emerson came by and saw Thoreau in jail. He asked Thoreau what he was doing in there. And Thoreau responded that the better question is what are you doing out there. Thoreau was acting on a principle that he learned from Emerson, that the only place for a just man in an unjust society is in jail, a principle Emerson himself was not putting into practice. I do not know if this story is true, I have heard that it is apocryphal, but it illustrates Aristotle’s point that formulating a philosophy to live by may be easier than living by that philosophy and story telling gives us the opportunity to see what pressures the world and daily living will exert upon our philosophies. The picture below is of a waterfall, but is the water in fact falling? I suppose it depends on how you look at it and where you focus your attention.

M. C. Escher

Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes

Autumn to May

Taj Mahal

Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes


Gulliver in Brobdingnag

Richard Redgrave

The reading we do always takes us somewhere. The places that we travel to may be real, they may have been real once, or they may have only ever been real in the imagination of the writer and her or his readers. The song is about an imaginary journey, a journey on a large dog with ears like enormous wings that can fly a person “around the world in half a day.” That is quite a journey. I do not think the song expects to believe this journey ever took place; it is a kind of tall tale that colors our literature. From Sinbad and the Arabian Knights to the journeys of Alice and Mr. Toad story telling has often involved journeys like the one in the song and even if they are not believed they are enjoyed. All reading is a journey and like with most journeys those that make the trip learn something important from it.

Often these journeys are metaphors for other things. The painting above illustrates a scene from Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver has just been discovered by the Brobdingnagians, a race of giants living just off the Oregon or Washington Coast, if Swift’s map is to be believed. On a previous journey Gulliver went to a land of tiny people, the Lilliputians. In Swift’s story size often is a metaphor for the size of one’s mind and the openness of one’s attitudes towards those who are different or behaviors that are unusual. The Emperor of Lilliput is a small minded and petty man. Not all the Lilliputians are small minded, but most of their leaders are and the attitudes of the leaders seem to permeate the society. On the other side of the coin, the Brobdingnagians are not large minded and big hearted because they are oversized, but their king, for the most is, and it is this open mindedness that the king tries, often to encourage in the general population.

There was an article in this weekend’s Boston Globe on metaphorical thinking. The article, “Thinking literally”, suggests that there is a relationship between the metaphors we use and the literal meaning of those metaphors. If we are warm, for example, we are often “warm” in our reception of others, or so the article suggests. If this is true it would stand to reason that giants with large hearts would be big hearted and gracious to those a bit smaller than they are. Perhaps there are limits to how far this literal interpretation of metaphor can be taken, but in the Swift’s story there does seem to be a correlation between behavior and metaphors of scale.


Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle

The illustrations above and below depict scenes from two the journeys of two famous explorers, Sir John Mandeville and Marco Polo (though the image below is not from Marco’s time it captures a bit of the architecture that he saw). I do not know if Mandeville went to the places he claims to have visited, but he knew what the people of his day would have expected him to find if he had gone to those places. Mandeville may have gone and chose not to describe what he found but what he was expected to find, folks, for example, with one large leg and a foot that could serve as an umbrella of sorts to keep off the African sun.

Marco Polo on the other hand describes things that he did in fact see and experience and if others had followed in his footsteps they would have seen these things as well. This is one of the benefits of reading of the exploits of others; we have the opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to see. In the case of Mr. Polo’s journey we cannot possibly see what he saw because time has changed these landscapes but by reading his book we can still share in his experience, we can be amazed by the exotic landscapes and the people that shaped that landscape. We can become fifteenth century gentlemen in a strange land. Richard Rodriguez in an interview with Bill Moyers many years ago said that in reading books written by people different from himself he could become those people, or at least see himself in them. He could, he said, become Armenian and African-American by losing himself in the worlds created by Armenian and African American writers. I think there is some truth to this and it is in these experiences that we are able to escape for a time from the limited world of our own experience.


Shwedagon Pagoda

There was an article in the New York Times a week or so ago about Alan Furst’s new novel, the Spies of Warsaw. The article, “Love. Death. Intrigue. Warsaw.”, is not a review of the book but an exploration of the Warsaw and Pre-World War II Poland the book describes. The author of the article, Steve Dougherty, compares present day Warsaw with the Warsaw of the novel and explores this ancient city for the remnants of the world depicted in the novel. Like most old cities the past is a veneer that lies on the surface of most things, but in the case of Warsaw much of this veneer is recreated because of the Nazi regimes determination to leave nothing of consequence standing. Though the war was lost, their armies on the verge of final defeat, they would do their best to destroy this city before they were finally forced to capitulate. As a result much of the Warsaw’s cultural history as reflected in its architecture had to be rebuilt.


The Arcadian or Pastoral State, second painting in The Course of Empire

Thomas Cole

Often the literary journeys we take are in quest of the perfect place, it is a quest for a kind of Utopia where all is peaceful and to our liking. This is an impossible journey of course, because few of share a vision of the perfect place that is in exact conformity with the visions of others. Most of us would be the barbarians at the gates of our neighbors Utopia trying to bring it down and into conformity with another Utopic vision. That said, often when we read a description of a Utopic place our imaginations play with the details and these places become for us what their authors intended even if not in the way they intended.

Other journeys are to places we may not in fact want to visit, but enjoy observing from the safety of our imaginations. I remember reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. I did not want to visit this place or any place like it “in the flesh” so to speak, but enjoyed my life what life amongst the dinosaurs might have been like if there had in fact been human ancestors to live among them. When a story captures us we are in its space and if that space includes giants, or dragons, or magicians, or vampires we experience for a bit life in their presence. Perhaps all the literary dangers we encounter are mythic or metaphoric or in some other way archetypal and capture the deep and dark workings of our subconscious and bring us into contact with the deeper layers of our being. There was an article in the New York Times last week, The Holy Grail of the Unconscious”, on the eminent publication of Carl Jung’s “Red Book” that documents, it is said, his journey into the depths of his own madness. This journey of Jung’s not only led him through his own experience with madness but shaped the direction his practice of psychology took.

The Martian Chronicles


This scene from the film version of Ray Bradbury’s novel The Martian Chronicles captures another aspect of our real and imagined journeys. The space travelers think they have arrived home, sort of. Everything they see suggests home, except that it is found on Mars. They are lulled into the world of their past and their yearnings. It is of course a trap that plays upon the spacemen’s desires and longings in order to remove them as a threat to Martian civilization. Perhaps there is a sense that our memories of home are seductive and dangerous. Home may represent safety and warmth and acceptance. But it can also be a place that insulates us from life and from pursuing our own unique destinies. Perhaps another office performed by our literary journeys is to wean us from home, to prepare us to go out on our own and face the world and shape it a bit to our own ambitions and desires.

When All the World Was Young

Forever Young
Bob Dylan

When All the World Was Young

The Beguiling of Merlin
Edward Burne-Jone

In her book The Enchanted Hunters Maria Tatar tells us “Words have not just the astonishing capacity to banish boredom and create wonders. They also enable contact with the lives of others and the story worlds, arousing endless curiosity about ourselves and the places we inhabit. Such passion promises to keep us, at least intellectually, forever young.” In reading time often stops, or at least it seems to. But even if time does not actually stop, in reading well the mind retains its vigor and becomes more flexible. A story, to be enjoyed and understood requires the reader to enter its world and entertain its point of view. I must read Les Miserables with the heart of a revolutionary and The Man Who Was Thursday with a fondness for the established order (though as is true with most things Chestertonian, it must be a quirky fondness). I must be able to see and embrace the world from both sides of the fence.

This does not mean I stop being myself, or that my world view changes each time I open another book, but it does mean I have to give the point of view of the story a chance to have its say. For the sake of the story the world is seen through a revolutionaries eyes or the eyes of a gentleman with conventional views. I think it is easier for readers of stories to accept people with beliefs different from their own (not that they always will of course) because somewhere along the line there has been a story where those beliefs have been entertained and where they may not have been embraced necessarily by the reader, they have been understood and appreciated and for a fictional time the world was viewed through those lenses. Rosemary Hill in her review of a new edition of Wind and the Willows mentions another story by Kenneth Grahame, “The Roman Road.” The story, she tells us, is “a conversation between a child and an adult, its message that only the artist and the child are imaginatively free.” The reader lost in a book, I think, becomes like the child in the Kenneth Grahame story, “imaginatively free.”

The painting at the top is of Merlin, King Arthur’s magician and mentor. Like Benjamin Button in the Fitzgerald story Merlin, according to some versions of the tale, was born old and grew younger. He was a man who knew from the start what it meant to be old and came to understand what it meant to be young. He is beguiled as an old man, which would make him young and inexperienced in his reverse chronology. He knows what is coming, has foreseen it, but he has lost the wisdom of age and is experiencing the passions of his youth. Perhaps his mind has become that of an adolescent enchanted by a beautiful face. I enjoy the image of Merlin growing younger. Perhaps it is the longing of an aging man for the days of his youth or maybe it is the desire to preserve an enthusiasm for living that age and experience often quench.

“One More Step, Mr. Hands” Illustration for Treasure Island
N. C. Wyeth,_Mr._Hands.jpg

C. S. Lewis once said, “In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” I think it is also true we become a thousand ages. The painting above is an illustration from Treasure Island. When I read this story I become Jack Hawkins, or at least like him in my imagination. When I read The Catcher in the Rye I see the world through the eyes of Holden Caulfield and become a bit like him. Though both these characters are the same age they come from different ages and therefore experience the world very differently and though as the reader I am experiencing the world of a teenager, they are very different teenagers living in very different worlds. So though the “age” I become in reading each of these stories is the same age in years it is not the same age in experience. This too, keeps the mind young and active.

Nor is youth always measured in years. I often tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older, but no power on earth can make me grow up. It can be said that Scrooge is a younger man at the end of A Christmas Carol than he was at the beginning. He is a younger man than he was when Old Marley died seven years before the story begins, if youth is measured in the way we think and behave. Unlike Merlin, Scrooge was not born old, but he lost his youth at an early age and recovers it many years later. Sometimes we need stories to remind us that being childlike is not being childish and that some aspects of age are more a state of mind than of being.

Children Playing on the Beach
Mary Cassatt

The paintings above and below by Mary Cassatt capture certain aspects of the innocence of childhood, playing on a beach, listening to a story. It is the aspect of childhood captured in the two children on the beach that many want to recover when they get older. The children are engrossed in their “work” and nothing seems to distract their focus. Their work is their play and it is what many adults want their work to be. There is a great deal of what I do as a teacher that is like sitting on the beach filling my bucket with sand. It is pleasure and it is sunlight and it is the waves and the cry of gulls. Obviously my classroom is not a beach, there is much in my day that is like a day at the beach.

Auguste Reading To Her Daughter
Mary Cassatt

The young girl listening to the story has a different look, a more mysterious look. Does she like the story she hears, is she listening, or is she somewhere else in her imagination? Adults often think that children want to hear a story, want to be read to, and often this is true. But I think sometimes children, like us, want to explore on their own, do not want others tagging along on the journey. In the reading of a story, whether we are reading on our own or being read to, the journey is always an individual journey, both the reader and the listener are “reading” the same story but they do not take the same journey. None of us can live in the imagination of another, though it is likely that our paths cross.

When I go to Treasure Island the island I visit resembles the island others visit, but it is unlike anyone else’s island. The journey is a personal one and that is important to remember. As a teacher I try to encroach upon the world that has been built in the minds of my students. I try to manipulate the story, to get them to see the palm tree as I see it, but of course this cannot happen. Those that see my palm probably see it only because they either did not read of the palm tree on their own or if they did, they did not see the palm tree, only the words on the page and were waiting for someone else to tell them how to draw the picture.

Baby Herman and Roger Rabbit “Tummy Trouble”
Walt Disney Studios

When we get to the end of this little film we see that the baby is not a baby (or at least we hear the voice of an old man when the baby speaks). If there is a child in this film it is Roger Rabbit, the baby is only masquerading as a child. The adventures these two have are the adventures of childhood, with all the exaggerated situations and expressions and the sense of powerlessness a child might feel in a large world that is out of control. The humor lies in the near misses and the indestructible nature of youth. Everything is dangerous and exciting but nothing, in fact, can do any harm. When the bombs burst Roger and Herman are scorched but unhurt. It is the world that some children crave that has all of the excitement that comes from living dangerously without the pain. After surviving the explosions and the flying objects both Roger and Herman leave the set to return to a safer, saner, and less exciting world.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a review in this weekend’s edition of The Guardian of a book of stories by Italo Calvino. The book is called The Complete Cosmicomics. The stories, according to the review are very fanciful and were not taken seriously when published because they too closely resembled science fiction and science fiction, especially in the 1960’s, was not taken seriously as literature, it still isn’t by some. But they are the stories of a childlike mind, with characters with names that cannot be pronounced having experiences that cannot happen. But that is how the comic world works. That is also how the imagination often works. In the imagination we often do the impossible, say the unsay-able.

I remember as a child I had a recurring dream where I was riding a bomb to earth (this was the late 1950’s and bombs and bomb shelters were often in the news). The dream always began just after the bomb was dropped. I would wake up frightened just before the bomb hit the ground. Then one night as I was having this dream I told myself in the dream “this is just a dream and no harm can come to you”. From that moment on I enjoyed the sensation of free fall and when the bomb hit, it was like Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman, no one got hurt. Perhaps this too is part of the comic world, the world of a “mind forever young,” where there is pain there is also resilience and nothing is hopeless.

Keeping It Simple

St. Matthew Passion “Choral: Erkenne mich, mein Huter”
J. S. Bach
American Tune
Paul Simon

Keeping It Simple

Cure for Oversleeping
Rube Goldberg

Beauty often lives in simplicity. Bach so appreciated the beauty of this simple melody that he used it again and again. Paul Simon also valued the simplicity and beauty of the tune and put it to work in his song American Tune. Whether it is a simple melody like that from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (and a half dozen others at least) or a simple explication of a poem or story, or the poem or story itself, simplicity lends a degree of elegance to the work. I like Occam’s Razor (“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”) when it comes to most things, which simply suggests that the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts is probably the truth. What made Rube Goldberg’s cartoons so funny was that they demonstrated excessively complicated ways of solving extremely simple problems, like getting up in the morning. It is human nature, I believe, to prefer simplicity, even though we often live our lives as though our inclinations favored a different direction.

But it is important to remember that there is a difference between being simple and simple minded. The simplest explanation of a poem may be very complex and somewhat opaque. Being simple is not always the same as being easy. I think most of us equate a simple task with an easy one, when in fact it may only be simple because there are not many steps to carry out, though those few steps may place demands on our skill, abilities, and intellects. What simplifying a task often does is make it easier to focus on the work to be done, as there are not a lot of superfluous details that confuse or obfuscate. But that which demands our focus often requires all of our attention.

Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, called The Ambassadors
Hans Holbein the Younger,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg

The other side of the coin is being as simple as possible even though the work itself is very complicated. The painting above is very ornate. There are the designs in the curtains, the rug, the cloth on shelf, and in the robes of the ambassador in brown. There are many objects on the shelf as well. The detail found in the painting of the textiles is necessary to capture the reality of the scene but the objects placed in the painting have a symbolic value, many being associated with the various components of a liberal arts education of the time. Then there is that funny looking object on the floor between the two ambassadors. It is odd and appears, unlike everything else, very unreal.

It is a puzzle that Holbein placed in the painting and can only be seen for exactly what it is if the painting is viewed at the right angle, which is from the side and definitely not straight on. When viewed from the side, the strange object on the floor is seen to be a human skull. One of the stories told about the painting is that it was intended to be hung in a stairwell and that the skull would suddenly jump out at the person climbing up the stairs. One can imagine the effect this might have on a dark and stormy night. But whatever the intended effect this painting is not one that was done simply, though, it is hard to imagine it being done any more simply and still produce the effect that it does, it is as complicated as it needs to be, but not much more complicated, and that is, perhaps, a definition of simplicity.

Static-Dynamic Gradation, 1923
Paul Klee (German, 1879–1940)
Oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink
15 x 10 1/4 in. (38.1 x 26.1 cm)
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.12)

Some have questioned whether the work of modern artists like Paul Klee is really art at all. The painting above is a checkerboard pattern with each of the squares in a different color (in some cases the difference is very slight). But if you look at the photograph below of the Dome of the Rock you see an ancient place that takes a similar delight in geometric shapes in different shades of white, blue and brown. It is the same delight that many of us took as children in playing with a kaleidoscope, which was also play with shades and shapes.

Dome of the Rock

Writing, when it is done well, evokes the simplicity or complexity of its subject but it always attempts to present its subject in as simple a light as possible. The skilled writer looks for the simplest path through the chosen subject. This is not easy and it is important to remember, simple is rarely easy. In fact what often makes poor writing poor is its unnecessary complexity that is usually an indication that the focus has been lost, that words are being used like shotgun pellets to hit everything in the hope that something might stick. I have assignments that I give where I require students to do something in a limited amount of space. They are used to getting assignments where they are told they must write at least a pre-determined number of pages, but they are rarely told they are to write no more than a page or two. I have seen students struggle more writing something that is short and to the point than with something that can be as long as they want to make it.

Simplicity, being concise and to the point, is often the most difficult thing we can be asked to do. When asked to compare writing short stories to writing novels, William Faulkner said, “You can be more careless, you can put more trash in it and be excused for it. In a short story that’s next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right, in the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t.” This is the struggle that all writers face. If they are to write well they must learn to identify what is necessary and what is not. Even in the novel where much will be forgiven, the reader’s patience and tolerance is not endless and even that which is done badly must be done badly in an artful way.

Shaker Loops
John Adams

The music is called Shaker Loops. It was not initially called this, but after re-working the piece Adams thought the Shaker’s ritual practice of ecstatically jumping about and their dedication to simplicity underscored what he was trying to achieve not just in this composition but in most of his work. He comes from, he helped to establish, the minimalist school of composition. The orchestrations are as bare boned as he can make them, they are very simple, but for those that are captured by the work of Adams, and others like him, there is a delight that the music provokes. For music that is as bare boned as this, melody, the most accessible quality of a musical score, plays a relatively minor role. Adams focuses instead on rhythms and harmony, a much more difficult path to ecstasy than melody.

Shaker Furniture

The music is not unlike these pieces of Shaker furniture. There is not much more to these pieces than a graceful line combined with a skilled and sturdy craftsmanship, there is nothing “ornate” about this furniture. The simplicity of the furniture is meant to reflect the simplicity of the soul that crafted and uses it. It is somewhat ironic that one must be almost independently wealthy to afford a good piece of Shaker furniture.

In the world of school work and work itself, we are often drowning in unnecessary complexity. The philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote a review of an interesting sounding book Shop Class as Soul Craft. The review is titled “Making Things Work” and Fukuyama delights in the idea that in shop class things have to work. He talks about how the author of the book, Matthew B. Crawford, spent his spare time while in college taking old Volkswagen engines apart and putting them back together. I took a bit of delight in this part of the review because I, as a young man in college, bought a book by John Muir (not the gentleman who introduced Teddy Roosevelt to Yosemite) that took you step by step through the dismantling and reassembling of the V. W. engine. I could not master this, having no aptitude for mechanics, myself, but I had friends who did. These friends could also attest to the importance of doing the job right. I had one friend who discovered he had not quite gotten it right when he arrived at college five or six hundred miles away from his tools, which were still at home.

It is easy when our work is done exclusively in the mind to overlook whether or not what we are thinking has any practical merit, if it will in fact work. As a professional I think I have only my instincts and judgment to rely upon. But I know from my classroom experience that often those things that I felt were working well, did not in fact accomplish the goal I had set for the exercise. On the other side of the coin, I have had the experience of feeling as though things are not working at all, that all is a dreadful failure, only to find out later that much, sometimes most, of what I set out to do had been accomplished.

This suggests to me that judgment and instinct are not always enough. My limitations as a mechanic become obvious as soon as the key is put in the ignition. The machine that is improperly assembled reveals everything, there are no secrets, there are no abstract theories, just an engine that will not take the spark and do what it does with gasoline and fire. In the end, in the classroom the educational machine must work and the only evidence that it is working is if the spark that lights the intellect and the imagination ignites and does its thing with fire.

On Learning and Other Games of Chance

Dandelion River Run
Mimi and Richard Farina

On Learning and Other Games of Chance

Ad in the Boston Globe to Promote Reading

The dulcimer when played by Richard Farina is such an exuberant instrument. Art of all sorts for me is characterized by exuberance. Whether it be the exuberance the gentleman in the photograph brings to his reading or the exuberance dancers on prom night bring to the dance art is always an intense enterprise that demands a great deal of energy from those that would enjoy and understand it. Some think exuberance must always be cheerful, but I think it must always be energetic and enthusiastic and energy and enthusiasm are not always cheerful. The gentleman reading his book is absorbed, he is investing a great deal of mental energy in what he is doing and because he is doing what he is doing of his own free will there is, I like to believe, a great deal of enthusiasm involved in the process as well. An old philosopher said that art delights and instructs. This is probably true. But art also stimulates the mind and the emotions in ways that are not always instructive and perhaps not always delightful. The end of Twelfth Night, for example, is delightful, but I am not so certain that delight is what I feel at the end of King Lear or if it is, it is a very melancholy species of delight.

There is an autistic student I talk to with some regularity and she often asks me if there are any versions of Hamlet, or other tragedies, that have happy endings. I tell her that for Hamlet the ending is far from happy but for Elsinore and the state of Denmark things have been set right and for them the ending is happy and this is part of the point of tragedy. In the end good people suffer harm, but also a community has been redeemed and order has been restored. Scotland can be a just nation once again, Salem can recapture a truer righteousness. So in this sense all tragedy ends happily and perhaps it is here that the delight lives, though, it remains a delight wanting cheerfulness.

The Card Players
Paul Cezanneézanne,_Les_joueurs_de_carte_(1892-95).jpg

There was an article in last weeks New York Times on taking chances. The article was actually an interview of sorts with the writer Leonard Mlodinow. It was called “What Are the Odds” and it was about speculating on the future. His basic point was that the farther we get from the present the less clear and the harder to predict the future becomes. This seems in some ways to be self-evident, but I wonder if we live our lives this way. We look at the present moment and make decisions about what will be important in the future. Some things we say are irrelevant and others we say are very relevant. But who can know the twists and turns the future will take. Mark Twain invested in a printing press that failed miserably because he did not believe anyone beside himself and his lawyer perhaps would buy a telephone.

The article suggests that what is important is preparation and gives examples of people with mediocre abilities who did extraordinary things because they were ready when opportunity presented itself. But what I found to be the most meaningful part of the article came at the end. He talks about learning to be comfortable with failure. He quotes Thomas Watson, the founder of I. B. M. “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” In our schools it seems that our preoccupation with grades discourages this. Failure is not seen as the first step on the road to success but the end of all hope. I believe that if I am not failing at things that I am not challenging myself, I am pursuing only those things I know I have the skills to accomplish. But to grow at anything I must attempt things that are beyond my grasp. And this means I must willingly flirt with failure and that as a teacher I must encourage my students to do likewise.

Students often do not like the books I teach in my classes. They do not believe they are relevant, but they say this without really having read the books. The problem often is that they are difficult and that students do not wish to wrestle with something so difficult. This may be because they have no interest in books or the stories of those books that I teach, or that they see no value in developing the skills that would enable them to understand these books. Who’s to say they are wrong? I think these books have given comfort, joy, and wisdom to many people over many centuries and that they can continue to give comfort, joy, and wisdom. A book that has spoken to people over centuries has already demonstrated an ability to speak to times very different from those that gave it birth. This would suggest that it speaks to something that is not constrained by time but adapts with some ease to changing circumstances.

The Chess Players
Thomas Eakins

Perhaps education is less a game of chance and more a game of chess, a game in which luck plays a part but is not entirely a roll of the dice, there is skill and preparation involved as well. Chess is a game that, like many of the books we read in school, has survived many centuries, and if Star Trek is to be believed, will survive many more. It is a game that requires the beginning player to enjoy a bit of failure while learning to master the board. It often rewards thought and careful planning, but just as often it does not. In fact a good player must be able at each stage of the game to adapt and rework whatever plan or strategy guided the game’s beginning. As the paintings above and below suggest, the game can be played by anyone, anywhere, any time; by the rich and by the poor, in a great house or in a public house, by sunlight or by moonlight.

The Chess Players
Honoré Daumieré_Daumier_032.jpg

This is also true of the development of the mind. All the money in the world cannot buy intelligence, though it can help those with modest intelligence develop their limited abilities to a far greater extent than those with greater intellectual gifts but fewer financial resources. It is important to wrestle with difficult things, whether it is becoming an accomplished chess player, an accomplished athlete, or an accomplished thinker. We wrestle with a difficult book for the same reason we wrestle with a difficult chess problem or a difficult equation, the wrestling grows the mind and the imagination, it reveals to us our capabilities. It is at the edge of failure that we truly learn our abilities and our limitations. The teacher must set the example. How do we teach students to test their limits if we will not find ways to reward failure? How can we understand what we are asking our students to do if we are unwilling to risk failure in our own practice?

Jacque Brel

The song is about a man and a woman, one French and one Flemish. The French and the Flemish, at least at the time the song was written, did not get along. The love pursued by the two people in the song has to overcome cultural prejudices. This prejudice may not rise to the level of the Capulet’s and the Montague’s but it may feel that way to those involved. Love is one of those things that defies reason. It demands a long term commitment from people who often have not thought much or at all about the future and the nature of the commitment they are making. This is true not just of the love a person has for another person but it is also true of the love a person has for ideas, principles, and occupations. We choose our careers, for example, before we fully understand what it will be like to pursue those careers on a daily basis over many years. We embrace a faith before we fully understand how the pressures of daily living will challenge that faith and sow seeds of doubt.

As an educator I must care about those who care very little for that which nurtures me and is the focus of my work. And there is little comfort looking backwards. In the 16th century Robert Burton wrote of schoolteachers, “For what course shall he take (the learned man), being now capable and ready? The most parable and easy, and about which many are employed, is to teach a school, turn lecturer or curate, and for that he shall have falconer’s wages, ten pounds per annum, and his diet, or some small stipend, so long as he can please his patron or the parish; if they approve him not (for usually they do but a year or two), as inconstant as they that cried “Hosanna” one day and “Crucify him” the other; serving-man like, he must go look a new master; if they do what is his reward? At last thy snow-white age in suburb schools / Shall toil in teaching boys their grammar rules.” Things have improved, I suppose, tenure means a bit more job security, though there are those that would seek to take tenure away. But at the end of the day there is the belief, against all odds, that most will learn, and that some will find a similar vocation, or if not a vocation, will find a similar ardor for a beautiful thing and a the subtleties of language.

According to the article the one aspect of success that is under our control is the number of chances we take. I think that many things that we think of as being difficult are only unfamiliar. That means the more chances we take the sooner the unfamiliar will become familiar and with familiarity comes a degree of success. For a teacher last year’s success will not always guarantee success in the new year. Like the chess player the strategy and the plan must adapt to a different combination of moves and counter moves. Every year is new and unfamiliar. Each year must find its own road from failure to success or something resembling success. This process is difficult and it can be disheartening. But as Tom Hanks said in a movie about young women playing baseball “there is no crying in baseball” and “if it was easy, everyone would do it.” The classroom is an exuberant place and it is a thing of beauty.

Farming a Sandy Soil

Dick Dale
Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughn
La Mer “#3 – Dialogue Du Vent Et De La Mer”
Claude Debussy
André Previn: London Symphony Orchestra

Farming a Sandy Soil

Ocean Park #129
Richard Diebenkorn

The painting and the music offer different impressions of the sea. The painting evokes the emotions associated with the color of the sea and its “wetness”. The music evokes its power. Pipeline also evokes for me memories of growing up in Southern California overlooking the ocean. I sometimes tell people that I was there when the skateboard was invented. Not entirely true because there were skateboarders in my neighborhood the day I moved in, but it was when we split up one of a pair of clip on skates and nailed it to a board. I was told that surfers invented the skateboard as a way of practicing their balance on the board when they could not get to the ocean. I do not know if this is true but it seemed to make sense. By the time I graduated high school about seven years later in 1968 customized wheels and boards were on the market and friends were designing their own very fast skate boards that began to resemble those that are so ubiquitous today.

I remember while growing up there would be waves of extraordinary size that would visit the local beaches. There would inevitably be in the morning paper a photograph of a surfer who appeared as a small dot on the face of the wave riding the wave into the shore. It is in part this aspect of the ocean’s power that Dick Dale, the king of the surf guitar, was evoking in his song. Debussy’s impressions of the sea capture a bit more of the oceans “range of emotions” perhaps but the selection used in the musical opening captures the sea’s more tempestuous nature. The sea is a force of nature whose power can overwhelm us and whose beauty can deeply move us.

For me stories have a similar kind of power. Often a story will grab me like the opening chords of Pipeline. They pull me into their depth and I remain lost there. But I also know that not everyone seems to be affected as I am by stories, or at least by the stories that move me. Many do not believe the stories of the past speak to people today. They speak to me, but that may only mean that I am an anomaly, the proverbial exception that proves the rule. But I wonder. Odysseus is a man trying desperately to get home, fighting against divine powers with a grudge. I think most of us know what it means to be lost, if only metaphorically. We are home safe in our rooms, but feel like Odysseus desperately trying to find his way home over an angry sea (he is involved in a grudge match with Poseidon, the god of the sea).

A Bigger Grand Canyon
David Hockney,_A_Bigger_Grand_Canyon.jpg

Often in stories the first adversary is the natural environment, the setting of the story. In stories like The Last of the Mohicans that environment is in part the place, the wilderness in which the story takes place, but in others, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the environment is the culture in which the characters are raised. The paintings by David Hockney and Georgia O’Keefe capture the stark beauty of a desert landscape but the ram’s skull also suggests something of its dangers. In stories like McTeague and Death Comes for the Archbishop characters have to figure out how to survive in a hostile desert environment.

Ram’s Head
Georgia O’Keefe

But often the hostile desert of story is found in the human heart, the heart incapable of compassion, the heart incapable of mercy or forgiveness. The Count of Monte Cristo has ample reason to seek revenge and to harbor an unforgiving heart. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights feels more than justified in pursuing his revenge. But the strongest argument against giving sanctuary to such feelings is found in the manner in which these characters have been molded and changed by their dedication to vengeance. This is a great value of literature; it enables the reader to learn from the experience of others. This is something that we often do not do well, choosing instead to learn through our own suffering, but literature can provide an avenue for avoiding such suffering, or at least engaging some of life’s snares with a little foreknowledge.

There is also something to be learned from a desert. My father owned some land in California’s Anza Borrego desert. We would often go camping there. The roads into my father’s parcel of land were not well maintained and in places were of dirt and sand. I think my father bought the land as a speculation. A new highway was going to be built and the parcel my father bought was on one of the proposed routes, but the state chose an alternative route. But he may not have been speculating. My father loved the desert and when he had to make a difficult decision he would often go into the desert and camp for a few days. The land was very remote and no one went there. During the day things were very quiet and the nights until moonrise were exceptionally dark. For one comfortable with solitude this was a place to plumb the depth of your thought. When the moon finally rose, the desert landscape would become nearly as bright as daylight and the sand would almost glow.

Woman Reading
Henri Matisse

A book is a kind of wilderness in which I can lose myself as my father would lose himself in the moonrise over the desert. I am reading a book by Maria Tatar called Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood. In the book she talks about how children read differently from adults. She quotes Adam Gopnik. He points out that when an adult reads to a child the adult and the child are in different worlds. He says, “In children’s literature the grown-up wants a comforting image of childhood, or just a familiar name or story; the child want a boat, a way out, an example of the life beyond. The parent wants to get back, the child wants to get out.”

I think this is also true of the books I teach and of the students to whom I teach the books. I want to on one level get back to the first experience I had with the book, to the pleasure and excitement the first reading afforded. I want to reawaken the perceptions I had and the understanding I had of what the author was trying to say. Now, of course, the reading I am trying to reawake may not have been my first reading of the book but the first reading of the book in which my mind was engaged and my intellect and my imagination took flight. I am looking to re-sample the literary meal the first reading offered up to me with all its emotional and intellectual intensity.

My students are trying to preserve the way they are used to reading stories; they are looking for a boat or a spaceship, a train, or a jalopy; anything that will get them into the open air. They are a bit like Mr. Toad after his first encounter with the motorcar. If the book does not provide this “magic carpet” (and provide it rather quickly in the reading process) they want to go on to something else. I am trying to teach students to begin reading as adults while they are trying to continue to read as children. I feel a bit torn when I enter this process because on one level I think I am taking away, in a sense, their belief in Santa Claus and the other myths of childhood, myths that I often want to reclaim when I go back to a book I read as a child or a more recent publication that affects children today the way the books I read as a child affected me. I understand this desire.

But I also understand the need to mature as readers and as people. This is something that books have done for me. Books that touch me deeply often bring with them an epiphany and instead of losing myself in a book I find myself. I think this is a kind of reading we all need to grow into, a kind of reading that teaches us, nourishes us, gives us a map of sorts to follow into the dusky night that is the future.

There was an article in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times about reading and writing. It was written by Rich Cohen and is called “Will Facebook Kill Literature’s ‘Leave the Past Behind’ Themes?” The main thesis of the article is that social networks like Facebook keep the past to close to us. We cannot get enough distance from our friends and the events of our youth to be able to shape them into stories. If we were to attempt what Hemingway attempted in writing about Michigan as he remembered it, or as Anderson wrote about Winesburg, Ohio we would get a message on Facebook pointing out everything we got wrong. The article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I think there is some truth to the writer’s need for time alone with his characters and his settings so that he can shape them into the world he wishes to create, give them their own and separate reality.

I think it was E. B. White who said that not only must art not imitate life; it had better be a hell of a lot more interesting (or words to this effect). Part of the power of fiction is that it is imagined, that it is not biography or autobiography though it may contain elements of both. Fiction enables us to imagine the world as we would like it to be, or in the details we choose to emphasize clarify for the reader the world as it is. As someone has said, we experience life as a series of random events but we look back on life after it has been lived to find the purpose and the design.

Fantasia – “Night on Bald Mountain”
Walt Disney Studios

I enjoy this film in part because it is the first, and one of the few, films I saw that did not have a clear narrative structure. It is more a series of images than it is a story. The stories that are there, like the “Night on Bald Mountain” evoke a narrative structure; suggest a narrative that our imaginations can then create. There are devils and spirits and bones dancing about, there is hellfire and brimstone but why all this dancing and fire is happening is not made explicitly clear. It is a film that needs to be approached in much the same way we approach a poem, especially a poem by William Blake or Emily Dickinson that does not overtly state its purpose; that calls into question, perhaps, the need for a purpose in everything we do.

The film does what I want a story to do, it lights my imagination and lets me provide my own details. The writer of the story puts the words on the page, but my imagination puts the film into the can, so to speak. This is something else the adult reader does. The child follows the character through the looking glass or through the wardrobe or through whatever the magic door happens to be and than follows along. The child is looking for the vehicle that will take them away and the child imagines what the child must imagine in order for the story to live. But the adult paints, I think, a fuller canvas.

The adult sees the boat but also some of the invisible creatures that are swimming out of sight below the surface. The adult sees some of the pitfalls that are hidden from the child. The story may reveal these pitfalls in the course of the story or it may not, but the adult with the adult experience she or he brings to the reading sees them. I was a big fan of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show as a child. I saw the surface of the narrative and had a good time. But my parents had a good time as well and it was clear to me that they were seeing things that I was not. When I went back to some of these programs as an adult I saw some of the things my parents saw. That there were things happening that the children missed but that delighted the adult.

I think this is part of what I want to do as a teacher and a reader of stories. There is the immediate world of a story that does not require interpretation or analysis; its only demand upon us is that we enjoy it. But there is a less immediate world to the story; one that requires the reader to become a watchmaker of sorts; to disassemble the story and then to reassemble it so that the psychology of the characters can be understood, so that complexities that make the world tick can be seen, so that we can both tell the time and understand the times. It is this taking apart and putting back together that prepares us for the world in which we live; that teaches us to look beneath the surface of human events so that we can influence in our small way the course these events take. This is what I want my students to see and to embrace. But this is often farming in a sandy soil; it is working with a landscape that does not wish to nourish the seeds that have been planted. But the land must produce a harvest if those that live on it are to survive.

Things Change

David Bowie
“Una Nave da Guerra” From Madama Butterfly
Giacomo Puccini
“Que facevi Que dicevi” from La Boheme
Giacomo Puccini
“A Heart full of Love” From Les Miserables
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg

Things Change

“The Theft” and “The Restitution”
Max Beerbohm

The David Bowie song is about changes and how we all change over time, sometimes in our own eyes, but more often, perhaps, in the eyes of others. The changes that take place between the songs and at the end of the music clip are much more jarring and a bit too noticeable, in large part due to my lack of skill with the tools used to merge the four songs. But there is a transformation within the second song that can almost go unnoticed. The aria is from the end of the opera Madama Butterfly and Madama, realizing she has been abandoned by the man she loved is preparing for the tragic ending of the story. The man who betrayed her was a United States Navy officer and if we are paying attention we notice a point in the aria where Puccini has seamlessly worked into the score “The Star Spangled Banner.” It is woven into the song Madama sings. It only lasts a few seconds and then it is gone, but this musical metamorphosis reminds the listener of who the responsible party is.

The clip segues again into two other views of love that are on the one hand more positive, but in one case equally as tragic, La Boheme ends tragically for Mimi and Rodolfo while Les Miserables ends happily for Cosette and Marius. It may just be me but there seem to be echoes of La Boheme in Les Miserables. When I hear the two pieces of music separately the one evokes the other in my mind, but less so when I hear them together. Perhaps there are other similarities in the two stories that encourage this musical connection or perhaps it is just the mind’s “rage for order”.

Literature is about change. Stories involving characters that do not grow or learn from their actions are either dull stories or stories that are not true to life or stories about foolish people. The illustration at the top underscores a change in the artist, Max Beerbohm. I do not know if this illustration documents an actual event or if it is fictional but it does underscore a change either in Mr. Beerbohm or the character he has invented of the same name. He stole a book from a library as a young man and many years later, as an old man sees the error of his ways and attempts to put things right. Perhaps this act of restitution was the result of something he read in the book he stole, I do not know, but I know people are often transformed by what they read. St. Augustine in his Confessions tells of stealing some pears as a child and how as an adult after converting to Christianity he still carried the guilt for that action; it followed him throughout life. We can argue whether this change that came about as a result of his reading was for the better or for the worse, but it cannot be argued that the change was profound.

What we see, read, and hear changes us. This is true whether we are aware of this or not. I remember as a child watching Leave It to Beaver and shows of a similar ilk that presented the American family in a certain light, and this light colored the way I viewed the family ever after. When I started teaching the American family was represented on television by programs like The Simpson and Married with Children which presented a very different view of the family and where the view I grew up with was probably a bit too rosy, I wonder if the one my students grew up with is a bit too dark. It can be argued that there are families like those depicted The Simpsons, but the same might be said about the television families I grew up with as well.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the reality probably lies somewhere in between. But that is not the point. The point is to what extent is our view of family shaped by our actual experience of by the families we encounter in the media. Do we draw our own conclusions or have they been drawn for us. The issue for me is that our views are being shaped by the books we read, the movies we watch, and the music we listen to. Do we play a part in the changes that take place or are they happening without our knowledge. When the worldview of a nation or a culture changes, does it change as a result of reflections on the good and the bad in past behavior, or does it happen thoughtlessly through shifts in the stories we are told and the passivity with which we engage these stories? As an English teacher this is to me an important question, though I do not pretend to know the answer.

“Apollo and Daphne”
Piero Pollaiuolo

The paintings above and below capture scenes from a classical poem by Ovid, The Metamorphoses, which is entirely about change. Characters change into birds and trees and other objects from nature, stories merge into each other; the world is in a constant state of change and transformation. The poem contains in its pages most of the more important stories from the Greek and Roman myths but it also addresses character and what produces change in character. The young lady in the painting above is changing into a tree in order to avoid the unwanted advances of one of the gods, Apollo. This motif of a human character who is mobile and active changing into a tree that is rooted and bound to a single spot of land is found in other stories.

Spenser in his poem The Faerie Queen has a pair of lover so rooted. In the science fiction novel A Voyage to Arcturus a character whose will is being taken from him by another is being forced to root himself and is slowly changing into a tree. He is made to watch the roots slowly appear from his ankles and his feet. It is a rather terrifying moment in the story, for me at least. But it illustrates how things change, with or without our consent. In the story the man that is being rooted lacks the strength to fight back; his adversary is more powerful. This suggests to me how powerful forces in a culture can change those that are complacent and unreflective without their being aware of what is going on. The stories we read in school can only help us if we engage them actively; if we look at the worlds and the characters the stories offer up and question them and their reality and relevance to our own lives.

“The Spinners, or The fable of Arachne”
Diego Velázquezázquez_014.jpg

This story of Arachne is a bit different. It is about pride and over-confidence. Arachne boasts that she is a more artful weaver than Minerva (the Roman name for Athena), one of the more prominent goddesses in the Greek and Roman mythology. Arachne losses the contest, of course and is transformed into one of nature’s more capable weavers, the spider. What does this suggest about power, especially divine power. Are there forces that must be respected even though they can at times be malicious?

When I was younger I worked for a few months on a kibbutz in Israel. I left the kibbutz to see something of the country and I hitchhiked down to Elat, a small town on the Red Sea. At one point, after hours of trying, I could not get a ride. I decided it was only twenty miles to Elat and so I would walk the distance (I enjoy walking, but it is unwise to attempt a walk such as this in the desert in the middle of August). The forces of the desert are unremitting and were it not for the kindness of some Israeli soldiers with a jeep, I may not have had as happy a conclusion to my trip. Is the desert malicious or was I foolish? Does it matter in a world that can be hostile if its forces are not respected.

Still Life and Street
M. C. Escher,_Still_Life_and_Street.jpg

This etching by M. C. Escher plays with transformations and expectations. We see a table with a pipe, some cards, and a few books that unfolds into a busy city street. The image is discordant; this cannot be the real world. What does this suggest about the imagination? Is this just a clever piece of perspective drawing that plays with our expectations without really commenting on the nature of reality or does it suggest something about how the imagination works, perhaps how stories work? I enjoy the games that Escher plays with perspective (both in the artistic and the cognitive sense). I think about the articles on the table and what they suggest. The pipe suggests reflection, a person quietly smoking a pipe as he (or perhaps she) thinks things over, like Sherlock Holmes with a six pipe problem. The cards, to me, suggest magic and the magician’s slight of hand (I was an amateur magician as a child and this may color my interpretation). The books suggest the imagination and the ability of the imagination to create new worlds, with their own city streets no doubt, as a magician might pull a world out of a hat.

I think of something G. K. Chesterton once said, “Art exists solely in order to create a miniature universe, a working model of the universe, a toy universe, which we can play with as a child plays with a toy theater.” I think there is some truth to this. We often tell stories and read stories to understand how the world works or how the world might work or be made to work differently. I wanted to say that the artist might seek to create a better world, but than one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. I remember reading in Rabelais of the Academy of Theleme and thinking folks like me might find this an interesting place, but many of my students would probably feel like they had entered 1984. Most of us want to understand and to make things better, but there does not seem to be much consensus as to what constitutes a better world.

There was an article in this week’s Los Angeles Times “A Room of Her Own” by Nahid Rachlin. It is about growing up in Iran and being a woman and desiring to be a writer. She eventually comes to the United States where she can get an education and where she can write. There were conflicts in her home that she had to reconcile. She was raised by a Muslim fundamentalist aunt who gave her the freedom to write and secular parents who were less tolerant, an interesting juxtaposition of stereotypes. She was drawn to reading and writing to find answers and to understand. The reading and writing did not answer the questions she had about the world in which she lived, but the reading and writing brought her peace and often happiness. I think for many this is a service that literature and the written word has provided. Reading and writing cannot change the world perhaps, but they can change us and help us to live with the things we cannot change and to work at changing those things we can change.

Thomas Edison’s Production

I like this film because it was one of the first films ever made and because it helped to start a genre, the Science Fiction film. The special effects by our standards are quite crude, but for 1910 I imagine they were something to write home about. I like science fiction in part because it reflects on reality and how the world might change and how in spite of all the changes that may take place, human beings often remain very much the same. One story I like a lot is A Canticle for Leibowitz. The book imagines a world that has been destroyed by human violence and then sets about rebuilding itself to the place where it can once again destroy itself. In some ways it is very pessimistic but in others it is hopeful. For though the human capacity for destruction remains so does the human capacity for kindness and compassion.

I think as we and the world grow older we have the opportunity to grow wiser, but this is an opportunity we each must accept as individuals, and it gets back to how we define a better world, Is it one with markets that do not crash and where everyone becomes prosperous, or is it one that recognizes the value of making sacrifices for the sake of others? I remember reading something about utopia by Theodore Adorno. He suggested that many of the writers that tried to imagine Utopia would think we are living in a utopia because of all the conveniences that we have. But Utopia is not about an electric blanket on a cold winter’s night, but about the higher aspirations of the human heart. And to have aspirations at all we must reflect on where we are and where we might be.

Making the Grade

Won’t Get Fooled Again
Peter Townshend
The Who

Making the Grade

Faculty of medical school faculty giving an examination
Examination at Faculty of Medicine; Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

It is difficult to know if grades have any real value. Educators are told there must be assessments and measurements of what students have learned and the depth of that learning. Plato once said “Nothing that is learned under compulsion stays with the mind.” Teachers often complain that students forget much of what they learn soon after they take the test, which, if true, suggests that Plato may have been onto something. But of course that must be balanced with the fact that student who hated their math classes can often balance their checkbooks and those that hated English can read newspapers and write, even if only after a fashion.

The first quizzes have come due in most of my classes this year and though, on the whole, the students did better than usual, there were still some “causalities”. High school students are not at an age where they can know what they will and will not need to know to succeed in the future. It is in their interest to learn much of what they are taught in school, they just do not know that yet. But, that said, there is also much they may never need to know that they will still have to learn. The only way future mathematicians can know they are destined to become mathematicians is by being exposed to the more complex forms of math that they are unlikely to encounter in daily life. The students that are exposed to this level of mathematical learning but are not destined for the world of higher mathematics may not ultimately get much value from taking these courses.

This is to say nothing of course about the tests in each of the disciplines that are being made a requirement for graduation in public schools. If I were a public school student today I would have to pass a science proficiency test in order to graduate. I took three or four years of science classes when I was in high school, but I do not remember much of it now and I am rarely asked in my English classes to demonstrate my knowledge of science. I could probably have passed the test at the time if it were a graduation requirement (I passed all my others) but I do not know if passing such a test would have improved my recall.

On the other side of the coin what I learned about the practice of science and the scientific method in those classes has stayed with me to a certain extent. One need not be a scientist to know that methods used to verify scientific facts, truths, or theories are complicated, thorough, and difficult requiring a great deal of training. It helps a person appreciate not only the complexities of life on earth but to approach problems in general with a bit of skepticism especially towards simplistic solutions to difficult problems. It is not necessary to remember a lot of high school math and science to appreciate the value of logical thought and careful analysis.

What then is the value in being able to scan a line of poetry, to understanding a Henry James novel, or knowing about Shakespearean stagecraft? If the study of math and science teaches us to appreciate logical precision in all things what does English teach us that transcends the discipline? English is the only discipline, at present, that is required in all four years of high school. Why is this? If the purpose of studying English (or English Language Arts as it is called today) is to learn to write an effective memo or to understand product brochures, why study novels, poems, and plays that are hundreds of years old and often employ a kind of English no one speaks anymore?

I tell my students that I read to glimpse the world through the eyes of another. To care about the characters in a novel or play I have to enter into the world of these characters and try to understand what is happening from the point of view of these characters. This builds empathy. To live well we must learn to balance our mind and our passions. If we ignore our passions and listen only to our intellect we cut ourselves off from much that makes living worthwhile. Not only that we lose some of our humanity. We start looking at the world clinically as though living well were little more than making the right diagnosis.

The dangers of listening only to our passions are a bit more obvious. One of the slogans of my generations was “If it feels good, do it.” This view of the world resulted in some unfortunate choices. But to ignore the passions altogether is also problematic. I think empathy proceeds from passion; it is after all the ability to feel, to a degree, the joys and sorrows of others. What becomes of a society that divorces itself from the suffering it sees going on around it?

Reading also helps us to understand how to live. I do not think it is an accident that most of the world’s great teachers used stories to illustrate their ideas. Whether it is Plato telling his story about “The Cave” as a metaphor for ignorance or Jesus telling the story of the “Good Samaritan” to illustrate who is the neighbor we ought to love, or Aesop telling his fables as a way of illustrating what he believed to be moral truths, it was the stories that defined ignorance, love, or tenacity not the dictionary.

Students must also learn to write well and to construct meaningful arguments that give weight and credibility to their thoughts and opinions, but aside from the example good writing sets what is the point in devoting the amount of time we do to the study of literature? What is the value of this kind of knowledge for a society? History tells us that many of the most brutal tyrants enjoyed the arts, wept at the theater, read great literature and though many of these works of art and literature showed brutality for what it is, these tyrants at best missed the point. At worst they got the point and were unchanged. Thomas Nashe wrote “Those that care neither for God nor the devil by quills are kept in awe. Multi famam, saith one, pauci conscientiam verentur, (Many respect what others say, few respect what their conscience tells them.)” But the behavior of some of the worst suggests that perhaps they care no more for what others say than they do for what their consciences tell them, though it might be said they have been robbed of any presumption of innocence, that they can no longer say they did not know any better.

My generation also questioned the relevance of everything (or at least we did while we were in college). It was not enough to study a poem or novel there had to be some relevance to that poem or novel; it had to have something important to say about the human condition and the state of the world. If they did not do that they were nothing more than entertainments that were probably not worthy of our time. I think this judgment is a bit severe, but at the same time I do think there should be good cause to make so many young people read so many books against their will. There is of course the medicinal defense that they will be better for having invested the time in books, but that is only true if they in fact invest the time and learn the lessons the books teach and apply these lessons to their own lives.

Certain Victorians saw the study and teaching of great literature as a kind of religious vocation. They saw the professor of literature as a kind of priest and the books themselves as a kind of scripture. It is largely out of this attitude towards literature that English class became more than just the study of rhetoric and classical texts. These Victorian critics lived in a world where anything written after the second or third century of the Common Era was considered “modern literature” and therefore not worthy of serious study.

So is literature worthy of this study, is it relevant? And if it is not relevant why ask students to spend so much time reading and writing. And why ask teachers to spend so much time grading all the stuff that this reading and writing produces that must in turn be assessed? As a teacher I think true learning comes from the love of learning itself and that this love cannot be coerced, though it must be awakened. Without exposure to great writing few will go on to appreciate great writing and those sensitive to the lessons that the literature teaches will perhaps not learn those lessons effectively.

I remember attending a lecture given by the Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal. He talked about, among other things, how refined and sensitive the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was at home with his wife and children and how brutal he was to the rest of the people of Spain. He made the comment that brutality should be taken off the streets and put back in the home where it belonged (he spoke in Spanish and this is the gist of the translation that was given). His point was that if Franco spent more time beating his wife and children perhaps he would not have been so brutal to the people of Spain. As a teacher of literature I would like to think we could learn to be kinder to one another by taking the lessons of literature more seriously and continue to show some kindness to our families. I say this knowing that many of those that wrote this great literature were not themselves very kind. Perhaps this is a bit idealistic and the likelihood of this happening may not justify the time spent reading and writing and grading. I do not know the answer, but it is my personal struggle.

There should be relevance to reading great books and there should be a value to the grades that we assign. I have never liked grading, not just because it is a tedious exercise but because I think it often stifles the true love of learning. But I also know there are those that come to love learning through the educational process as it is practiced today and that grading was a part of the process that inspired these students. The issue may not be whether or not all students can learn at the highest levels, but whether or not all students can be made to want to. I have read stories of Zen masters that used to beat students with sticks who asked them how to find enlightenment. The students were beaten because the question itself betrayed a lack of understanding concerning the nature of enlightenment.

Perhaps study that is motivated only by grades is improper study and must be discouraged. Students who do only what they need to do to pass have perhaps missed the point but have made a bargain with the process and if they are not going to move on to appreciate learning on its own terms they should be left alone to pursue what interests them, so long as they learn the minimum as required by law. Others come to take some pleasure in acquiring knowledge and perhaps a bit of wisdom. For these students grades, though important for other things, are not entirely what motivates them. Perhaps grades are a kind of metaphor for the sticks Zen Masters used on their students. They fall painfully on those students who think the wrong way about grades and the nature of learning. Some students, though, come to understand that “what’s my grade?” is the wrong the question to ask and on those students the sticks fall softly, if at all.