Living All the Days of Our Lives

“Golem Tant”


Itzhak Perlman & the Klezmatics

“Kyrie” from Mass for Five Voices

William Byrd

The Tallis Scholars

“Kritikos Horos / Theme from ‘Zorba the Greek’”

Mikis Theodorakis


Living All the Days of Our Lives


Painting of cattle crossing a Southwestern United States landscape

Wide Lands of the Navajo

Maynard Dixon


Jonathan Swift wrote somewhere “may you live all the days of your life.” On the one hand this just seems a lighthearted play on words, a bit of a joke. But on the other it says something profound that is in danger of getting lost in the play with words. That we live all the days of our lives would seem to go without saying, but there are many days in the lives of most of us when we do not “live,” we do not experience the richness and joy that is available to be experienced. I will suggest to my students from time to time “don’t kill time waiting for time to kill you.” Each of us is given a parcel of time leavened with a bit of potential. We are not obligated to do anything with it, but we have it. Living all the days of our lives involves our opening the parcel and experiencing what follows. 

It also involves an appreciation and enjoyment of the world and the good things that fill it. Art, literature, music, those things that impart beauty, that encourage and uplift, that heal and nurture. The Klezmer music and Zorba’s theme from the film of the same name provoke exuberance and joyfulness. The title of the Klezmer song, for all its exuberance, evokes a monster from Hebrew folklore, the Golem. This creature was the subject of a classic silent film that was itself based on a novel (“Meyrink’s The Golem: where fact and fiction collide”). In the film based on Meyrink’s novel the Golem is something of a mixed blessing. He is a Frankenstein-esque creature but he is originally created to help protect the Jewish community in Prague. He is fearsome and he goes astray, but he was intended for good. According to the Talmud, Adam, before receiving the breath of life, was the first golem, an “unshaped form” in God’s eye. Perhaps the Klezmer song is only an example of the pleasure we often find in being terrified, at least in the controlled environment of story. On the other hand, the music of William Byrd, and especially his Mass for Five Voices, always purges the tension from my body and exhilarates my spirit. As the music washes over me I feel the troubles and concerns of the day drain out of me. At various levels it heals, renews, and refreshes. It is therapeutic.

I am not alone in this feeling, there are others that would suggest that art is therapeutic (“What Is Art For,” by John Armstrong and “Alain de Botton’s guide to art as therapy,”) and plays a significant role in enabling one to live all the days of their lives. John Armstrong in his article points out that “therapy” and “therapeutic” are terms that have been cheapened a bit by advertising and the dubious promises it makes. But he also points out that the belief in the therapeutic qualities of art is an idea at least as old as Aristotle. When I look at the painting above, Wide Lands of the Navajo by Maynard Dixon it calms and relaxes me. It also awes me, fills me with wonder; the big sky, the barren grandeur of the land, the smallness of the people in contrast with the environment through which they move. Part of this is the effect that the soft blues have on me, and always have had. I suppose for all of us there are colors that affect us more than others, for me it is certain shades of blue, for others it may be reds or greens. 


Landscape painting of a house overlooking the sea


Paul Cézanne


The Cezanne painting L’Estraque produces an effect similar to the Dixon painting. The earth tones of the buildings, the trees, and the water (in addition to the shades of blue) are also calming and exhilarating. It is not just the colors that are evocative. It is shapes, and textures, and the natural world, (and in fairness, many of the products of human labor). It is a part of what Wordsworth in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” meant when he said:

For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity,

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue. And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense,

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

As the beauty of the creation profoundly affects us so do the paintings that capture a bit of its essence, the language of poetry and stories and Literature in general, and music that in their forms evoke this beauty. I remember visiting the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It sits on top of a hill, raised above the noise of the city. It is a beautiful architectural space. I remember roaming through one of the buildings. I turned a corner and was confronted with Van Gogh’s painting of Irises. The space was designed such that I was totally unprepared for what I saw. It was overwhelming. The beauty and design of the space in which it was placed empowered the painting to produce its full and profound effect. In part, the power the painting exerted over me was produced by my being totally unprepared for the experience.

Alain de Botton takes us on a tour of different paintings and gives thumbnail sketches of the wisdom and healing they provide. He guides us through a list of values and emotions, hope, empathy, care, sorrow, work, appreciation, relationships, and consumerism. Not everyone will like the artworks he selects (not all of which are paintings) but there is value in the lessons he takes from them even where the art itself is not appealing to us. In his final “value,” consumerism,” he suggests that this idea though “a scourge” to the modern world has value when approached properly. He says, “At its best consumerism is founded on love of the fruits of the earth, delight in human ingenuity and due appreciation of the vast achievements of organised effort and trade.” This reminds us that many things are not harmful in and of themselves, but only when they become an obsession, when we look to them to provide us with things or to satisfy needs they were never intended to provide or to satisfy. Art, according to Armstrong and de Botton, can help us discover our right relationship to the world around us.


Japanese woodblock of a landscape with trees on the banks of a river

Evening Rain at Karasaki

Hasui Kawase


Something similar was produced when Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was performed for the first time in Leningrad (“Shostakovich, Leningrad, and the greatest story ever played”). The music was composed as a tribute to the Russian people, but especially the Russian people enduring the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The first time it was performed in Leningrad (this was not its world premier) was while the siege was in progress. There were few professional musicians so the orchestra was filled with citizens that could play instruments. Performing the symphony was itself arduous. But musicians drew strength from the audience and the audience was inspired by the musicians and the music. Pierre Ryckmans tells the story of Primo Levi and another man trying to survive in a Nazi concentration camp (“Are Books Useless”). Levi was reciting from memory a passage from Dante’s journey through “The Inferno.” He got to a point in the text where his memory went blank and he could not recall the rest of the passage. The poem’s effect was such that Levi and his fellow inmate would trade food they desperately needed for those few lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy, “In Auschwitz, the forgotten poem became literally priceless. In that place, at that instant, the very survival of Primo Levi’s humanity was dependent on it.” The idea that art, music, and literature are nourishment is not a metaphor; it speaks to something very real in the human spirit. It was sustenance during the siege for the people of Leningrad and for Primo Levi and his friend in Auschwitz. I cannot say that literature and art ever fulfilled in my life such a profound space, but these people who lived through these events speak to its power to do this and their witness has value.

Japanese woodblock of a man fighting a huge snake

“Wada Heita Tanenaga killing a huge Python by a waterfall”

Suikoden Series 4

Utagawa Kunlyoshi,_Suikoden_Series_4.jpg


Literature and art and music (the whole of the Humanities) exist, among other things, to upset the world. They begin by upsetting us or confusing us or playing games with us and with our thinking. Wendy Lesser (“The joy of literary destruction: Writers who broke all the rules”) says her favorite passage from Swift’s Tale of a Tub is:

Here is pretended a Defect in the Manuscript, and this is very frequent with our Author, either when he thinks he cannot say any thing worth Reading, or when he has no mind to enter on the Subject, or when it is a Matter of little Moment, or perhaps to amuse his Reader (whereof he is frequently very fond) or lastly, with some Satyrical Intention.

The passage is Swift’s confession, he is the true author, and he is telling us he is having some fun with us. But the nature of satire is often to flatter the reader, to please the reader, while the satirist is in fact challenging the reader’s beliefs and preconceptions. Art slays dragons and the first dragon that it must slay is the closed mind, the unenlightened mind, the mind that is resistant to improvement because it believes itself to be self-sufficient. I like this passage from Swift because it works one way within the fiction of the story but it works another way in the real world of the reader. And what Lesser is really talking about in this part of her essay is satire and how it, in the words of Swift, “is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover every body’s Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind Reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” Most readers, Swift suggests, enjoy the jokes but miss the meaning. Of course laughter also has healing power, it purges pain and other unhealthy forces at work inside of us. Even if we miss the larger theme, the laughter heals. And who knows if the message does not work a kind of magic on the sub-conscious, that it doesn’t fix unawares other things that are broken inside of us.


From The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Jaques Demy

Parc Film


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an opera written for film. The images in the opening moments of the film revolve around umbrellas and cobblestones and rain. The mother of one of the major characters owns a shop that sells umbrellas called “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” (I am not sure how a business remains viable when it sells only umbrellas, even if it also sells other rain gear.) I remember seeing the film in the 1960’s. When I rode my bicycle through Europe I and my bike took a train that on its way from Köln to Marseilles passed through Cherbourg. And though I do not remember it as a remarkable city, my imagination was so stirred by the film I waited with eager anticipation to pass through this town. We went through at night and I could not see much, but I was very pleased that I could say I had been there. I enjoy the moment in the film clip where one of the mechanics says he prefers film to opera because he cannot stand all the singing. The line is of course sung and the film is an opera and it is a wonderfully funny moment. 

But the ending of this film is very moving and does something that is not often done successfully in film. (If you have not seen the film I am probably about to reveal something that you may want to pass over and not read until after you have seen it.) It is a moment of great sadness when two people who were once very much in love meet unexpectedly. Both have difficulty containing their emotions. The viewer’s emotions are also not easily contained. But the moment ends and the two part. One of the characters, the man who was in love once with the woman who has just left, remains on screen as the woman goes on her way. But he is married now and has a small child. In the final scene we know that he still feels pain over the lost relationship, but he sees his child and his wife and he begins playing with the child and it is equally clear he is taking great pleasure in playing with the child. The scene provokes sadness over what was lost, but it also provokes joy over what has been gained. The artistry of the film lies in its ability to produce in the viewer the same conflicting emotions that we see in the young man onscreen. Art helps us not only to understand our emotions, but the complexity of those emotions. There is a kind of pleasure in feeling the pain of lost love vicariously when we know the moment will end and that it is not our love that has been lost. Maybe it prepares us for the future; maybe it assuages a past pain. But it does not have to, it is enough that it makes it us feel something, that it puts us in touch with something that helps us experience our humanity more fully, to live more fully the days of our lives.


Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes

Martin Johnson Heade


Robert McCrum in The Guardian has been taking us on an excursion through the one hundred best novels in English. He is up to novel number twenty-two. The twenty-first novel in his series is Middlemarch (“The 100 best novels: No 21 – Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)”). There are many aspects of the book that he admires, but it is the conclusion reached about Dorothea that is the most important, 

But Eliot has the last word, a famous and deeply moving valedictory page celebrating Dorothea’s ‘finely-touched spirit’. Here, Eliot concludes that ‘the effect of [Dorothea’s] being’ was ‘incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’” 

The book does something rare in literature, it succeeds in teaching a kind of moral lesson without being preachy or making the reader overtly conscious of the fact they are being instructed. But this closing raises an important point that is not addressed often enough. The well being of most of us has been secured by nameless people who receive little or no attention. They are teachers, they are nurses; they may serve us our food or repair our clothes. We do not notice them overly much. Certainly the larger world does not notice them, or if it does, it is often to criticize or demean them. They are unimportant in the worldly sense but essential to those that they touch, and essential to the happiness of the world. But the names of those we remember, whose tombs we visit for the most part did little to shape us as people or to make our day to day living easier. We have our heroes whose examples we follow, but it is because of people we have largely forgotten that we know of or can emulate those heroes.  There is something of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in this:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile

The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,

If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,

Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault

The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

But of course it is not just that we all share a common grave regardless of the memorials that are raised above it, but that those without memorials have done more, perhaps, to preserve the common good than all those whose accomplishments history preserves. 


Painting of a man admiring a bust

Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer

Rembrandt van Rijn


We are living through one of those times that praises and exults engineering and the things that engineering and science and math can bring us. I think it odd in this light that the sciences seem to have become so preoccupied with reducing Literature and the Humanities to something “scientific.” Jane Austen is a game theorist, Proust a neuroscientist (Jane Austen Was Not a Game Theorist”). I think it is a bit sad that some within the Humanities see in this a kind of validation for what they do. But this attention misses the whole point about what is important in the Humanities. No matter how well we understand the ways in which sounds and images, language and colors work upon the mind to cause it to feel what it does it cannot speak to the ineffable things that are accomplished in the mind by the Humanities. There is a worldview involved here, one that believes that everything comes through the sense and one that believes that some things come through the imagination and their sources cannot be clearly identified. The world may have been created by a big bang, but we cannot know where the materials that produced the big bang came from scientifically. We make choices about what we believe in this regard, but we cannot prove these choices because the evidence lies outside the material world, at least it does for the time being. Aristotle is regarded by many as an early scientist in that he tried to proceed on the basis of observable data. But in Rembrandt’s painting it is Homer, the poet, that he contemplates not Pythagoras the mathematician and scientist. Perhaps this is just Rembrandt’s fancy and there is not any more to the notion the painting evokes than Rembrandt’s fancy. But though science can tell us how the world works, it is often at a loss when it comes to helping us to live more effectively in it.

So as music and art, literature and philosophy are given a smaller and smaller place in the education we give our children there is reason to stop and ask ourselves is art therapeutic, can literature help us learn to live happily, can music inspire and move us to action? When we find ourselves in our metaphorical prisons, which, thankfully perhaps, is the only kind most of us will experience, where will we turn. The nourishment we need to persevere through hardship and struggle is rarely the food and drink we buy in stores. Too often it is the spirit that dies first, lacking the nourishment it needs to survive. Though the body endures we have lost the ability to live all the days of our lives. 


Landscape painting of mountains surrounding a valley with trees and water

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California

Albert Bierstadt

It’s Just a Story

 “The Rocky Road to Dublin”

The Chieftains and The Rolling Stones

“Sweet Dream (Are Made of This)”


“All the Roadrunning”

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris


It’s Just a Story


Caricature of a clown

Caricature of Albert Brasseur in “Le Rire”



In an interview that first appeared in The New York Review of Books, “Everyman His Own Eckermann,” Edmund Wilson discussed his views on art, music, and literature. Though known mostly as a literary critic, he spent most of his time talking about art, a bit less time talking about music and hardly talked about literature at all. The interview is also interesting because Wilson was both the “interviewee” and the interviewer. In this respect it is something of a Plato-esque dialogue on art and, like Socrates, he rarely asks a question he does not already have an answer for, even when protesting his inability to provide an answer. And though he does not say much about literature, what he says about art and music comes back to what he appreciates in literature, the stories that are told. He enjoys opera because it tells a story, all other forms of music he only listens to on records, not in the theater or the concert hall. He does not care much for the work of Picasso, not because it isn’t well executed, but because it only succeeds at being clever. The drawing above is by one of Wilson’s favorite artists, a caricaturist who called himself Sem, the Hirschfeld of his day, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say Hirschfeld was the Sem of his day. 


Caricature of the singer Liza Minnelli

Liza Minnelli

Al Hirschfeld


Both the Hirschfeld and Sem caricatures capture their subjects doing what they do best in a way that clearly and simply captures the essence of their subjects. Like Hirschfeld many, perhaps most, of Sem’s caricatures were of artists, mostly actors, writers, and musicians; artists associated with theater and the performing arts of one kind or another. Both artists relied on a simplicity of line and expression to capture their subjects. Looking at the Sem drawing suggests a kind of continuity in the arts, as Brasseur’s hat and coat and whip bring Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” to mind; they are not identical but there is a threadbare quality to the costume that is not unlike that of Chaplin’s tramp. And to get back to what Wilson admires about Sem (and what I admire about Hirschfeld) they are spare and simple drawings that tell stories. Like Shakespeare’s theater, the artists’ stage is a bare stage with no more in the way of setting and furniture than is absolutely necessary. As Poe suggests when writing about the short story, there is nothing extra, nothing that is not absolutely necessary for conveying their effect; the expression on each face and the contour of each body. The viewer’s imagination does the rest.

Some might not consider these artists as “great,” as “museum” quality, but their work involves the viewer and provokes an emotional response. Unlike Liza Minnelli, I do not know who Albert Brasseur is (I have discovered that, like Minnelli, he was active in the musical theater). But the caricature is evocative. It may be that the story I see in the picture is not the same story Sem’s original audience would have seen, they are unlikely to make my connection to Chaplin’s persona, and it is not likely that Brasseur was as intimately connected with this character as Chaplin was with the tramp. But this is often how art and story work; we see them in the light of our own time, our own personal history, and our own tastes and interests. Perhaps only I see Chaplin in this drawing. What others see may be colored by their experiences. There is also an ephemeral quality to the work of both artists, they are very topical, but Sem’s work, transient though it may be, has survived for a hundred years, perhaps because, though we may not know who his subjects were, there is a wittiness to their representation that piques our interest or makes us laugh or in some other way makes us care about them. But then, what is it in any story that causes it to live (and not all do) long after the circumstances of their creation have been forgotten. 

The songs at the beginning are about roads that are rocky or arduous; they are also about dreams, sweet or otherwise. These are also at the heart of many stories, there is often a dream or an aspiration; there is always a journey to be made that involves difficulty and conflict. It is often the nature of the dream and the conflict that hold our interest. Brasseur’s road looks like it has been a rocky one but he also appears to be a man with a dream and aspirations. These are also a part of what draws us to him. I like to imagine that Ms. Minnelli is singing Chaplain’s song “Smile”: “Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking. / When there are clouds in the sky / You’ll get by.” This, too, is an important aspect of those stories that survive.


Painting of a man playing the bagpipes

Bagpipe Player

Hendrick ter Brugghen


The paintings above and below tell different stories. They are portraits, not caricatures, of men engaged in something serious, at least from their point of view. Being Scottish I take delight in the picture of the bagpipe and can imagine its sound. The musician playing the bagpipe evokes a story as well. I cannot tell if that is all shadow on his shoulder and not also a bit of dirt or a bruise. The bagpipe is a martial instrument and so it would not be surprising if the player has been involved in conflict. Even if the shoulder is not bruised the shirt does seem a bit disheveled. He seems to enjoy the music he is making, whatever the occasion for the music making.

The old man, on the other hand, appears to be more world weary, more troubled. I cannot know what it is that troubles him, perhaps it is only his advancing years, but the muscles and veins on the neck are tense and the eyes are troubled. He looks determined, though I do not think he looks hopeful. But I empathize with him and I want to help him, though I do not know how. Stories do not always offer answers and often it is not a quest for answers that draws us to stories, but a desire to discover what it means to be fully human and part of being fully human is learning how to comfort those we cannot help, at least not in the way they need to be helped. Job’s friends may not have been able to change Job’s circumstances, but they could have offered him solace and comfort instead of judgment and because they didn’t we judge them and wonder how genuine was their friendship. 


Portrait of an old man with a serious look

Head of an Old Man

Abraham Bloemaert


Wilson, in talking about the artist Callot, mentions the Commedia dell’arte, an early form of Italian theater that is with us to this day, and has many of its antecedents in Plautus and the theater of Rome. Also, as in the painting below, the Commedia was often a kind of “street” theater that appealed to the masses, to the “simple folk” who were rarely as simple as some would have us believe. The Commedia had a cast of stock characters and we as the audience could always tell who was who based on their costumes, their masks, and their antics. There is a language of theater, a language of performance. Ben Jonson in his play Volpone, and many of his other plays, borrowed heavily from the Commedia. Moliere, in his comedies, used characters who had their origins in the Commedia as well. Tartuffe, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid are all characters lifted from this ancient theatrical tradition. The plays are still very funny because the character traits being mocked are all caricatures of personality types we recognize. We are not likely to know anyone who possess these traits to the degree the characters in these plays possess them, it is not likely that anyone has ever possessed these traits to this extreme. They are exaggerations that nonetheless capture something real about how we as humans are corrupted by these traits; how to some degree we all possess these traits and in laughing at the antics on stage we are laughing at ourselves. 


Painting of comic actors performing on a moveable stage before a rustic audience

Commedia dell’arte

Karel Dujardin


Stories often help us to see ourselves as we are and to not take ourselves too seriously. Malvolio, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is modeled on the same character type as Tartuffe (though he lacks Tartuffe’s intelligence or resourcefulness, but on the other hand Tartuffe does not have Malvolio’s sincerity). We have all known people to whom we wanted to say, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” And if we are honest with ourselves there have been moments in our lives when those around us, probably wanted to say the same to us. Some look askance at others for being too judgmental and some at others who are unwilling to make judgments. It is human to be critical of those that do not adhere to our “code,” whatever our “code” is.

Marin Scorsese in an article for The New York Review of Books talks about the language of film, “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema.” He talks about the environment of film, at least of film viewed as it ought to be viewed. Films need to be seen in a dark room surrounded by strangers (many of whom you might avoid were you to encounter them on the street). For me the clicking sound of the projector is also an important part of the experience. Just as the Commedia had its stock characters, so also cinema has its stock characters. At its simplest we know the good guys because they wear white hats. But in film, the hard-nosed detective, no matter who plays him, is a type of character, the cowboy, whether played by John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, or Steve McQueen is a character type. Both the cowboy and the detective have an “unsavory” veneer about them that is contradicted by their actions, or at least times it is. Black and white as a film “genre” is also a significant part of my film experience. I am used to seeing movies in black and white, even movies that were originally made in color, like, for instance, Invaders from Mars. I saw this film, and many others, every night for a week when it played on a television program called Million Dollar Movie. This program played the same film every night for a week. But television when I was a child was all black and white and I was amazed when I discovered, fairly recently, Invaders from Mars was original shot in color. 


Photograph of the head of a fat man with a thin man standing behind him

Scene from The Maltese Falcon

John Huston/Warner Brothers


But many films were originally shot in black and white because the lack of color helped create an atmosphere, especially in “film noir” movies like The Big Sleep or Laura. Tension and mystery were enhanced by the lack of color, as was the seediness of many of the characters and situations. These films may have been originally shot in black and white for budgetary reasons, but the directors of these films took a limitation and made it into a strength. I remember seeing Brideshead Revisited for the first time on a black and white television set. Because I didn’t know any better I thought the maker of the series was brilliant in choosing to shoot the film in Black and White because it helped capture for me the essence of the 1920’s; it had a newsreel quality to it that enhanced the “feeling” of the times in which the story was set. It was only later that I realized the filmmaker was not as brilliant as I had thought; the series was actually shot in color and I just did not have a color set on which to see it. But again, our experience colors our interpretations and understandings of the stories we experience. 


Spider-Man, The Lion King and life on the creative edge

Julie Taymor

TED Talk


In the video Julie Taymor talks about how she creates theater and films. Spectacle plays a large part in what she tries to do, but so does simplicity. She talks about how, when she was designing the Broadway musical (not the film) The Lion King she began much the same way Hirschfeld and Sem began, with simple lines, what she calls ideograms that capture the essence of character. Her productions, especially her last that did not go that well, are very complex, they attempt to do things not tried before, they take great risks. It can be debated as to whether or not the finished product was worth the risk, but she has done some remarkable things in film and on stage. She tells at the beginning of her talk of witnessing a religious ceremony. She was in darkness and those performing the ceremony were unaware of their “audience.” In fact as marvelous as the spectacle of their dance, costumes, and of the setting for their performance was they were not performing for anyone; their only audience was, as far as they knew, God. 

Taymor believes that there is a religious quality to theater and story telling. The origins of the theater are religious, the Athenian Greeks used theater to communicate their myths and reinforce in the minds of the people the importance of the gods and the gods care for the universe. When actors came on stage wearing a mask the audience knew immediately who the actors were portraying because they saw the same faces on statues everyday as they walked about town. Rabelais in “The Abbey of Theleme” section of Pantagruel has the walls of the abbey painted with pictures that told all the important stories; that taught all the important lessons. This is not an unusual feature in Renaissance utopias, paintings in public spaces that taught the young and the illiterate the values of the utopic culture. A popular book of the time, for those that could afford such things, were “books of hours” that people would use to meditate upon during “hours” of prayer (the medieval day was divided into “canonical hours,” compline, vespers, matins for example). On one page would be the text of a gospel or a psalm and on the facing page an illustration, an illumination, that told in pictures the story of the text. The arts, literature, painting, music, and theater all had their origins in a kind of education that passes along the cultural traditions in a way that is accessible to all and understood by all.


Page from an illuminated manuscript with a picture of a medieval man being arrested

“Folio 31 verso from a Book of Hours (British Library, Royal 2 B XV), the Arrest of Christ”



Peter Thonemann in his article “Seeing Straight” talks about architecture and how the buildings we design and live in are often suggestive of how we view the world and how we think the universe works. Early civilizations often built circular buildings, while later on square buildings became the design of choice. Thonemann suggests this is because the world as we observe it is circular; tree trunks, the sun and moon, the motion of the sun and moon; but ninety degree angles, that is squares and rectangles, are more functional as living and working spaces. I am not sure how much we can tell about a people based on their buildings, but I think we can tell something. What we make, the environments in which we choose to live, the stories that we tell, and how we choose to tell them all say something about us and about how we see ourselves. Are our living and working spaces an extension of our worship or are they places designed to bring us comfort? Can they be both?

There was an article in the online journal First Things, “Faith in Fiction,” that discusses the disappearance of faith from modern fiction. I am not entirely sure this is the case, but much, maybe most, of modern fiction seems to avoid faith. But I do not think this is entirely the case, because I think we all live by faith. We select a worldview, or perhaps our conscience does, that guides the judgments we make. These worldviews are ultimately un-provable; they begin with an article of faith, God exists, God doesn’t exist, science has the answer for every question (if not at the present moment, it will in time), we are born with a conscience, what we call conscience is the result of our upbringing. None of these assertions can be proved empirically, but we all have to start somewhere so we pick one. The stories a culture tells itself reveal the articles of faith that culture has embraced, even if that faith is one of “faithlessness.” But our “gods” may be replaced with other “gods” as time goes by, just as the Jupiter once replaced Zeus.


St. Marks basilica in Venice at sunset

Venetian Fantasy with Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana on an Island

Edward Lear


The painting is Venetian Fantasy. This suggests it captures a Venice that never existed, it is a fantasy, but it bears a close enough resemblance to the Venice we know, or at least that Edward Lear knew, to make the fantasy real. To those that do not share our faith it is a fantasy as others’ faith often appears as a fantasy to us. One thing story should help us with is determining what we are going to “bet our lives on,” because there are consequences attached to the beliefs we adopt; they dictate to us how our lives ought to be lived. Some think it is enough to live consistently with the choices we have made. Others think making the right choice is in itself critical, and those that think this way can often tell us what the right choice is. I believe in truth and that it is important to question everything with the belief that whatever is true can stand up to the scrutiny if it is true. 

Perhaps part of what characterizes the age is a fear of what we might find if we ask too many questions. There is a great temptation, not just in our age, but in every age, to seek comfort, to seek rest, to seek enjoyment and to evade the darkness, and often the easiest way to do this, at least in the short term, is to ignore unpleasant truths and difficult questions. To what degree is what we hunger for determined by the diet we are accustomed to and to what degree does what we hunger for challenge our conventions? I am not sure that stories can give us the answers we seek, but I do think stories encourage us to keep looking and to not be satisfied with easy solutions to difficult problems. The truth may often be simple, but it is never simplistic. 


Man sitting on the side of a mountain sketching

The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine

Sanford Robinson Gifford