Rarely Pure and Never Simple

You Don’t Know Me
Ray Charles
Don Quixote, Op. 35/ Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83
“Variation I – DQ & Sancho set out”
Richard Strauss

Rarely Pure and Never Simple

Edgar Degas

There was an article in this Sunday’s Boston Globe, “What you don’t know about your friends”, by Drake Bennett. The article reports that current research suggests that the better we know someone the less we may know about them, not that we do not know, probably, more than a complete stranger knows, but that what we think we know is often incorrect and that we attribute views to our friends that they in fact do not hold. The article also suggests that it is probably a good thing that we do not know what we think we know and that friendship, even if based on false premises, in fact even if it is only a friendship in our imagination and not in fact, still does us more good than harm. It is important that we think we are liked even if, in fact, we are not. The picture by Degas shows a couple having a drink together and probably little else. There does not seem to be reflected in either their expressions or their body language any hint of warmth one towards the other.

This painting suggests to me the relationship between Meursault and Marie in Camus’ novel The Stranger, or at least it suggests to me Meursault’s feelings toward Marie, which are for the most part dispassionate. I think Marie thinks she understands Meursault and their relationship, but the reader knows that Meursault does not really have any feelings for her. I am not sure, as the article might suggest, this is healthy for either of these characters, though the relationship is probably unhealthy for each of them for different reasons.

The song by Ray Charles also suggests that there might be something to this article. He sings that “You don’t know me” though in the opening chorus “love” is substituted for “know” the first time the line is sung. Relationships are difficult and how is one to really know what goes on inside the mind of another. In some novels that come out of the “stream of consciousness” tradition (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce comes to mind) there are passages where one character may ask a question or make a remark followed by paragraphs of internal dialog where this question or remark is analyzed before a response is made. Though it may take many minutes to read it all, in real time only a second or two has transpired. In these internal dialogues we see characters who are trying to understand each other and not really succeeding, though they seem to think they are understanding the other and being understood by the other. The reader, though, is not so sure.

The second part of the music clip is from a series of variations on a theme by Richard Strauss. This part of the music is meant to evoke Don Quixote and Sancho Panza first starting out on their quests together. The novel, Don Quixote, suggests there is great loyalty one for the other in this friendship. But it also suggests that neither really understands the other. To what extent is Sancho only humoring Don Quixote and to what extent does Don Quixote see Sancho as friend, as opposed to a servant, say? After all, Sancho is Quixote’s squire and that suggests a subservient role. Quixote thinks he is in control, but it is in fact Sancho who often acts to control the situations in which the Don’s madness lands them. I think this novel is a great testament to idealism and friendship, but it is also a satire and that idealism and friendship is often mocked, though, it is usually the wild world that leaves no room for idealism that gets the largest slice of this mockery.

Lost Boys, Wendy, Peter Pan
Alice B Woodward

When I look at this picture from the story of Peter Pan I wonder what is going through the minds of the various children. Wendy is in the position of having to play the role, more than anyone else anyway, of the grown up, which means she has less of the fun. But what about the others? Can they believe that they can remain children for always? Perhaps they do not know enough about the way the world works to know that growing up is part of the bargain. The younger we are the more magical the world is. Maria Tatar in her book The Enchanted Hunters suggests that older children when they read a story about a door opening, need a magical world on the other side of that door to hold their interest. But for very young children all the world, even its simplest and most commonplace elements, is mysterious and it is enough that there is a door and that the door opens to make magic in the child’s mind. For the infant everything is a mystery. What is a chair for, why does it look that way? Spoons, bottles, and tables are all magical objects that are fascinating and inexplicable.

I think this is true. I remember my first calculator. I was amazed at all that it could do. I could sit and add and divide, subtract and multiply and than get out a piece and be amazed when I discovered it did the calculations correctly. Not that I was that surprised, but the magic of a machine that could do these things was enchanting to me. I had once a little pocket calculator that played Fur Elise whenever I opened it up. It was machine music and there was no artistry to the sound, but it too was magical and I would open my calculator even when I had nothing to calculate, just to hear the music. Now of course, I have become jaded and see nothing all that magical about a machine that lets me visit neighborhoods on the far side of the globe and explore their streets. It’s just what machines do, what is the big deal. Still if we take the time, I think we can find in our first exposure to something new a sense of the infant’s world of wonder.

There was a review by Salley Vickers in this weekend’s Guardian, of “The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik.” The article suggests that, though they will probably not be teaching philosophy at the local university, that babies and young children are at heart philosophical and inquisitive. It is perhaps not a new notion that some of the finer qualities of the human character are intuitive in children and become trained out of them by experience, but it is pleasant to think this may be true. Gopnik does point out that children will do nasty things from time to time, but she also suggests these children realize they are being nasty and that often, given their druthers they would rather behave less badly. Whether children are or are not natural philosophers is probably not that important, but I think if the child’s sense of wonder for the world could be preserved, the grown ups might take better care of it.

Portrait of William Shakespeare
Unknown Forger

The images above and below suggest the flip side to being childlike, that is, often, gullibility and naivete. These artworks are forgeries; well the first is a forgery while the second may just be a misunderstanding. One of my favorite books is a book by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone. It is about a man who is a gifted art forger and his story is really quite wonderful. The central character is a likeable gentleman who makes his living deceiving others. That is often how it is with con men. We see the same thing in the Robert Redford and Paul Newman characters in The Sting. We also see it in the Duke and the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though in their case they turn into very troubling characters fairly quickly. Some think that Huckleberry Finn is a book about race relations, and that is a part of the book. But what it is really about is human cruelty. The first victim of this cruelty that we encounter is Huck himself. He has had to survive by his wits for many years and he is barely a teenager. The next is Jim, a slave. But there are other forms cruelty besides child abuse and racism. Many of the white characters are the nicest people you could want to meet if you are white, but quite dangerous and cruel if you are not.

Are we being deceived, is this a con job on the part of Twain? There are parts of the book that are very troubling. Some think that are places where Jim acts as a minstrel show character that are sloppy writing and indicative of his rush to finish the thing off. There is probably some truth to this, but also many of those minstrel moments showcase human cruelty at its worst. Tom is putting Jim’s life in peril in the game he plays. As a child he probably doesn’t understand this, but the reader does, or should. Tom’s merriment has a certain innocence about it because he does not know better, he has been brought up badly when it comes to folks like Jim, but the reader knows better and if the reader feels at all tempted to laugh or to be amused, they ought to confront the source of that amusement in themselves.

The Flammarion woodcut is an enigmatic wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man peering through the Earth’s atmosphere as if it were a curtain to look at the inner workings of the universe. The caption translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…” Perhaps engrave by Camille Flammarion but not a German Renaissance woodcut

Orson Welles’ last film was F Is for Fake. It begins with Welles on the platform at a train station doing magic tricks (and as all viewers of the I Love Lucy show know, Welles began as a magician). He tells the audience that for the next hour everything they see and hear will be the absolute truth. The film, though, is about an hour and twenty minutes long and at precisely one hour into the film he stops being truthful. The film itself was inspired by a book by Clifford Irving, Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. After publishing the biography of an actual art forger he went on to publish a fake autobiography of the actual billionaire Howard Hughes. Fakery can only work if we are willing to believe the unbelievable, or at least the barely plausible. It is Satan playing three card monte with Eve in the garden, it is the king making us laugh when, impersonating a pirate, he fleeces the congregation at a revival, but it is also the king making us cry as he fleeces three helpless sisters. We like con men who con others, but do not like being conned ourselves.

Woody Allen
Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions and United Artists

The film clip is something of a tribute to how we con ourselves and are often easily conned by others, and also about how we do not know our friends. It begins with Woody Allen confronting a friend who has betrayed him. We also find, in another part of the film, that he has been “betrayed” by an ex-wife who publishes “lies” about him, that may not be lies. I especially enjoy the confrontation between Allen and his friend with the bones of a gorilla looking on, at least I think it is a gorilla. Everything he says about how we should act toward one another is true, but at the same time Allen’s character does not seem to see that in many of his dealings with other characters he has behaved with a similar dishonesty. In his relationship with a young girl not even half his age we see at the very least a bit of self deception. This is, perhaps, not unlike Robert Redford at the beginning of The Sting pulling off an excellent “con” only to fall victim to a con himself. Even he knows he should have known better, but I am not sure that the Woody Allen character has this same insight into himself.

Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak

There are always the monsters under the bed. There is a place in the psyche of us all where the wild things live. Sometimes they entertain us, sometimes they frighten us. In the story Coraline by Neil Gaimon a young girl finds a parallel universe of sorts on the other side of a locked door. The adults in Coraline’s world are not very communicative and not very aware, but they are basically kind and mean well. The adults on the other side of the door are aware but not kind. These people on the other side of the door have buttons instead of eyes, they have make believe eyes which go along with the “make believe” nature of their relationships, those they have and those they aspire to.

What makes stories meaningful to me, is that they help me replace the “buttons” I have for eyes, the make believe eyes, with a real view of the world and what it is like. But more importantly they help me see into myself and what I am like. When I wear the buttons the world is there to serve me, to give me my heart’s desire. But this is not a world where joy can be found. Selfishness is never satisfied; it is the greatest con we can play on ourselves. It enables me to substitute a forgery of myself for the real person I might become. There is an old Twilight Zone episode about aliens visiting the planet earth. They bring with them a book called How to Serve Man. The people of earth believe these aliens have come to make life on earth more pleasant; that they have come to help the human race. The book is, in fact, not a book of altruism, but a cookbook. It is important to know something about service and what it means to serve. It is also important to know if those that claim to serve us come with charity or an appetite.

Famous for Being Faithful

From Desperados Waiting for a Train
Jerry Jeff Walker

Famous for Being Faithful

Kindred Spirits
Asher Brown Durand

The song is about the friendship between a young boy and an old man. The boy is, I imagine, as energetic as you would expect any young boy to be and the old man less energetic than you would expect most old men to be. Yet the boy hangs around with the old man. The title, “Desperados Waiting for a Train” lends an aura of western romance to the relationship. The boy and the old man are not doing anything, just as desperados “casing” the train station in preparation for a robbery do not appear to be doing anything. But the boy and the old man are friends and the friendship makes the sedentary passing of time worthwhile.

The painting idealizes the friendship between Thomas Cole (a friend of Asher Durand who did the painting) and the poet William Cullen Bryant. It imagines a meeting of the two friends in a real place that was important to both. The “place”, the Kaaterskill Falls region of the Catskill Mountains, though, is not painted as it was but as it was remembered many years after Durand had visited the region. The occasion for the painting was the recent death of Thomas Cole. Cole is credited with establishing the Hudson River School of painting, of which this painting is one of the most famous representatives.

The painting was done as an act of friendship on the part of Durand for his friend Thomas Cole and is a remembrance of him. The painting in turn commemorates Cole’s friendship with Bryant. The Hudson River painters, in turn, pursued a friendship of sorts with the environment of Upstate New York (though this love of landscape was exported to other parts of the United States and the world). I suppose that in part this is what friendship is, a commitment between two people that is experienced in the real world, with all the pressures and beauties that the real world brings with it.

The setting of the painting is beautiful; it captures a wilderness, even if it is a wilderness romanticized by memory. Danger and unpredictability are aspects of a wilderness. It is in times of danger and the unpredictable, especially the unpleasant side of the unpredictable, that a friendship is tested. Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is better to be faithful than famous.” This is especially true of friendship and where this is not true that friendship has likely become tainted with exploitation on the part of at least one party to the relationship.

William Wordsworth
Benjamin Haydon

There are many examples of literary friendships, some of which did not remain friendly. Joyce’s treatment of Sylvia Beach comes to mind as well as Hemingway’s treatment of just about every literary friend who helped him get his first books published. One of the most productive literary friendships was that between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. These two men essentially began the Romantic Movement in England with the publication of their book Lyrical Ballads. The friendship had its strains and eventually came apart. As the two paintings suggest both these poets had a melancholy side to them and melancholia can put a strain on a friendship. Coleridge also had other problems that made him a difficult friend.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Stories help us to define values and concepts. One of the ways we come to understand the true meanings of words and the ideas and values those words stand for is through the stories that we read. We see friendship defined in Huck’s relationship with Jim, a friendship that should never have happened inside the culture from which it evolved. When Huck says he is willing to go to Hell rather than betray a friend he is not speaking figuratively. He has been raised to believe that he will literally go to Hell if he continues to help Jim and does not turn him in to the authorities. Define Hell however you will, are there many in your life that you would risk that consequence to protect.

Huckleberry Finn comes from the literary tradition of the picaro and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a picaresque novel. A picaro is street urchin who must survive by his wits. He is inventive, resourceful and shrewd. The tradition began (or at least it was given its own name as a literary genre, though I think the type is probably older) with a Spanish novella by an anonymous author called La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes. Lazarillo had few friends and survival depended on trickery, “street smarts”, and persistence, many of the same qualities we find in Huck Finn. Huck, on the other hand, is rich in friends. There is Judge Thatcher, Tom Sawyer, and the Widow Douglas, all willing to do most anything to help him out. It is Tom, in fact, who gets Huck to go back to the Widow Douglas’ house to live. Tom is forming a gang of robbers and Huck can only become a member by letting the Widow Douglas make him respectable.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Honoré Daumier

Another famous friendship from the picaresque tradition is that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In the painting Don Quixote is seen in the foreground and Sancho seems to be missing, but if you look carefully you can see Sancho off in the distance hurrying to catch up. Of the two it is Sancho that is the most like a picaro, but neither the Don nor Sancho are young urchins. Quixote takes to living by his wits in order to make the world nobler; a place where folks like Lazarillo can live more honestly and more humanely. Sancho watches out for Don Quixote and keeps him from getting into too much trouble, or helps the Don escape when he has gotten into too much trouble. The two are technically master and servant, though Sancho is perhaps, more an apprentice than a servant in that he is Don Quixote’s squire and a squire is a knight in training.

“Mr. Pickwick’s Reception”
Sol Eytinge, Jr

Sam Weller is another famous friend who doubles as his friend’s servant. He looks after Mr. Pickwick in much the same way Sancho looks after Don Quixote. Like the Don, Mr. Pickwick is a man in great need of someone to save him from himself and that is a task that Mr. Weller performs very well. Both Sam Weller and Sancho Panza are paid for their services (or at least promised payment at the end of the adventure) but both do what they do not for the paycheck but out of friendship. Those who have read both The Pickwick Papers and The Lord of the Rings will recognize a bit of Sam Weller in Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s friend. Both Sam and Samwise are full of worldly wisdom and useful aphorisms (most of which have been learned from a wise parent) to fit most any situation. Though there is not a “cockney” district in the Shire Samwise would probably feel right at home in the markets of Covent Garden.

This tradition of the resourceful servant reaches a pinnacle of sorts in the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P. G. Wodehouse, though neither Jeeves nor Wooster were likely to regard the other as a friend. What Sancho and the Sams did out of friendship Jeeves performs as a professional service. Wooster can fire Jeeves at a moments notice (and does on a few occasions) and Jeeves is free to leave at a moments notice. Jeeves also performs his duties with a bit more sophistication than do his more rustic counterparts. One gets the impression at times that Jeeves not only surpasses his master in common sense but in education as well. Jeeves also embodies the essence of literacy in that not only is he knowledgeable, but he can put that knowledge to practical and effective use.

Curly’s Sweater
The Three Stooges

This film shows friendship taken to another extreme. The Three Stooges, it is clear, are good friends. The Marquise de Sevign said, “True friendship is never serene.” The Three Stooges live out this principle in each of their films. They stick together through thick and thin and a great deal of choreographed abuse. Whatever the hardship, they endure it together and that after all is a large part of what friendship is, enduring together. Robert Frost in his poem “Provide, Provide” suggests the only friends that can be relied upon are those that are bought and can be paid for on a daily basis. The Stooges suggest not only that friendship is not a commodity, but that it willingly endures suffering (largely of their own making) and sacrifice.

Making Gentle Waves
E. H. Shepard

For me, though, friendship is seen at its most exemplary in the children’s book The Wind in the Willows. Ratty and Mole are kindred spirits that endure much together, much that is pleasant and much that is trying, especially on behalf of another friend, Mr. Toad. The author of the book, Kenneth Grahame, would be celebrating his 150th birthday this year if he were still with us. To acknowledge this Katherine A. Powers devoted her column, A Reading Life in last week’s Boston Globe to the book and to two new editions of the book. The two new printings are annotated editions of the story and they sound colorful and interesting, even if, according to Powers, they miss the meanings of some of the commonplaces of Edwardian daily life that are found throughout the book. It is the friendship, though, that makes the book remarkable for me. Friendship is something everyone craves and needs but real friends are often difficult to come by. As a result the story resonates.

C. S. Lewis in his book, The Four Loves, discusses the role of love in our daily lives and the life of the culture(s) in which we live. In it he describes each of the four Greek words for love. One of the four loves, phileo, is friendship. According to Lewis this is the most unnecessary of loves, in that it does not have any “work” to do, society and its institutions do not need friendship in order to survive, as a society needs well behaved, well brought up, and well provided for children in order to survive. Friendship exists for no other reason than the relationship itself.

I am not certain that this is entirely true, but it does underscore an aspect of friendship and that is whether the relationship is like that of Ratty and Mole or that of The Three Stooges, all parties are free to leave whenever they choose but for however long the friendship endures, they choose not to. But what is more, the friendship is only a friendship as long as it is pursued out of a love for the other and not out of a sense of duty (though that may enter in from time to time). There can be no obligation in a friendship, only desire.