Time and Thought

 Candide, “Best of All Possible Worlds”

Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wilbur

“Loquebantur variis linguis”

Thomas Tallis

Tallis Scholars

“Dante’s Prayer”

Loreena McKennitt

“Quiet Please”

Sidney Bechet

Time and Thought


Painting of a tranquil sandy beach

The Seashore

Leon Dabo



I often suggest to students that real scholarship is thought (serious, focused thought) conducted over time. Not just scholarship, though, but much of life revolves around thought conducted over time, of listening carefully and observing closely. In a seascape, or a landscape, like the one above the painter has to look and let the impressions of what is seen wash over her or him, to create an impression of the sea inside the painter that the painter than puts time and energy into getting onto the canvas. The philosophies by which we live our lives ought also to be a product of time and thought. But often it is not. It is important to consider how we ought to respond in certain situations before those situations arise so that we are grounded in something more substantial than an impulsive emotional response to a crisis. In the songs above there is the philosophy of Dr. Pangloss from the Leonard Bernstein musical based on Voltaire’s novel Candide. It is a simplistic superficial philosophy that makes whatever is, the best that could be. Far from being a philosophy it is a justification for the human desire to avoid the responsibility to address the evils seen in the world around us. If confronting evil is too difficult a task than I need to redefine it into something good so that I can turn and walk away from it. Or as Alexander Pope put it:

“All Nature is but art, unknown to thee

All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good.”

I think Pope tries to hedge a bit with the phrase “partial evil,” but “evil” is “evil” whether it contains within it (as it often does) elements that are if not “good” (though they may be) are at least morally neutral. I enjoy Pope’s poetry, but I have always found this passage disturbing.


Sailing ship watched over by angels

A Miracle of St. Nicholas of Bari

Gentile da Fabriano



The words being sung in the second song are, “The Apostles spoke in many languages of the great works of God, / as the Holy Spirit gave them the gift of speech, alleluia. / They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak.” Tallis’ song suggests that God gave the apostles not just the power to speak, but the words to speak as well so that they could be clearly understood by all. The third song revolves around a prayer another kind of thought carried out over time. That it is Dante’s prayer tells us other things that will be lost on those that do not have a literary education (and this being the 750th year of Dante’s birth should give us all a reason to learn more about him, ‘. . .With This Really Ragged Notion You’d Return. . .’,” “Dante Turns Seven Hundred and Fifty”). The final song is “Quiet Please” and evokes the need for quiet (in spite of the raucous nature of the song) in order to think or concentrate. Ours is a noisy time and all the noise is not audible, it cannot all be heard, it is the little distractions that fill our time, the noises in our minds that unsettle us, that demand we make a little noise ourselves or walk aimlessly about in search of other lonely voices.


Man standing on shore looking out to sea

On a Deserted, Wave-Swept Shore
Peter Benois


Joyce Carol Oates wrote an article recently, Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature”, about the importance of language, the reading of difficult books and poems and essays and the like, and asks why we write and where inspiration comes from. The article discusses the way we learn and remember and the power of language. It is through language that we know ourselves, define ourselves. Part of our self identity involves finding the words that describe us; it might be our occupation, some aspect of our interests or aspirations (one sees themselves as a painter, poet, cabinet maker before one does the work of becoming one), or the place we call home, or more likely some combination of all of these and other things. But it is also through language and what we use language to build and create that we define ourselves as a people, not just as a nation, but as species. And the proper use of language, whether for identify or something else, requires time, contemplation, and an adding together of things. She also points to the hippocampus, that part of the brain that houses our long-term memory. It is in the hippocampus that the words that tell our stories as individuals, as a culture, as a species are housed or at least the thoughts, ideas, events, and impressions that provoke those words. It is where the idea of who we are lives, what the words we use seek to define. She concludes her essay with this:

Without the stillness, thoughtfulness, and depths of art, and without the ceaseless moral rigors of art, we would have no shared culture—no collective memory. As if memory were destroyed in the human brain, our identities corrode, and we “were” no one—we become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source. As it is, in contemporary societies, where so much concentration is focused upon social media, insatiable in its fleeting interests, the “stillness and thoughtfulness” of a more permanent art feels threatened. As human beings we crave “meaning”—which only art can provide; but the social media provide no meaning, only this succession of fleeting impressions whose underlying principle may simply be to urge us to consume products.

The motive for metaphor, then, is a motive for survival as a species, as a culture, and as individuals.

This evokes the words Tallis set to music. The words that come from our memory also came from somewhere; they had an origin in something before they became the touchstones of our cultures and our imaginations. Tallis called that something the Holy Spirit, others call it other things; Harold Bloom in his new book calls it the “daemon,” but whatever we choose to name it, it is something powerful, and we would not be who we are without it. We can thank the hippocampus for remembering the words, the stories, the ideas, but it is not their origin. The cupboards do not create what is stored in them; they only house it. But that something inside us which creates and interprets understands that the art not only comes from somewhere but that it fuels our imagination when we tell stories or share ideas and fuels the imagination when we read and make what sense we can of what we read.


“A Pilgrim’s Solace: No. V. Shall I Strive With Words to Move”

John Dolwand

Julian Bream, Golden Age Singers & Margaret Field-Hyde

“In My Reply”

Livingston Taylor

Linda Ronstadt


Thelonious Monk

William Giraldi wrote recently about the importance of books, Object Lesson”, and the meaning they have for us, not just because of the words they contain and that we go on to read, but as physical objects in and of themselves. There is something about books that those who value them desire. Even if they cannot read them (more from lack of time than from lack of desire) they are a joy to possess. I suggest to people on occasion that I have three kinds of books in my library, my passions, my aspirations, and my disappointments. The last are books that did not meet my expectations, but I keep them because I hope that the problem is with me and where my mind was at when I first tried to read them, or with my personal growth, and that at some later date I will find the time to interact with them again and they will join my other passions. Giraldi’s essay begins:

Not long into George Gissing’s 1903 novel The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, you find a scene that no self-respecting bibliophile can fail to remember. In a small bookshop in London, the eponymous narrator spots an eight-volume first edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “To possess those clean-paged quartos,” Ryecroft says, “I would have sold my coat.” He doesn’t have the money on him, and so he returns across town to his flat to retrieve it. Too broke for a ride on an omnibus, and too impatient to wait, he twice more traverses the city on foot, back and forth between the bookshop and home, toting a ton of Gibbon. “My joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy but not much muscular strength, and the end of the last journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching—exultant!”

I remember when I was in college hearing about a bookstore on the other side of Syracuse that had some remaindered paperback editions of some Old English prose and poetry. I made a pilgrimage similar to that of Ryecroft, I did not have a car and I did not know how to negotiate the bus lines, so I walked (not that this was that much of a sacrifice, I have always loved walking and these were paperbacks not weighty hardcovers). I found most of the things I wanted, but some things had sold out in the interim (I remember being a bit disappointed that the Beowulf was gone). I was learning Old English and I was “exultant” that I had these editions of poems but especially of the prose that were much harder to find in translation, let alone in Old English. I was especially excited about Wolfstan’s “Sermo Lupi.” My life has gone on to accumulate other attainments of a similar nature, a used facsimile edition of The Book of Kells (or at least excerpts), Tyndale’s translation of The Old Testament, a late eighteenth century edition of MacPherson’s Ossian poems of the Irish hero Finn MacCool (or Fionn Mac Cumhaill). It is a famous literary hoax; MacPherson claimed to have collected these stories from Gaelic speaking peasants from the Highlands of Scotland. The stories are actually Irish. They were exciting finds and the excitement that surrounds their purchase has become part of my literary experience of them. Giraldi finishes his essay this way:

I feel for Salter’s anxiety, and I agree with Burgess when he wrote, commenting on those delectable editions produced by The Folio Society in London: “We have to relearn pride in books as objects lovely in themselves.” But allow me to assure you of this truth: Like the bicycle, the book is a perfect invention, and perfection dies very, very hard. The car hasn’t murdered the bike, and the Web won’t murder the book. There are innumerable readers for whom the collecting of physical books will remain forever essential to our selfhoods, to our savoring of pleasure and attempted acquisition of wisdom, to our emotional links with our past and our psychological apprehension of others—essential not just as extensions of our identities but as embodiments of those identities. Books, like love, make life worth living.

The reading of books, the serious reading of books, is one of those activities that demand time and thought from the reader. That the possession of these books means so much illustrates how important reading, reflection, and the exercise of the imagination are for some of us. Old books have rarely made one rich, they are not like antiques that generally increase in value. Though there are books, like a Shakespeare folio (it doesn’t even have to be a first folio to have value), that will command large sums of money, but most old books will never be worth much. There was a time when they were very valuable and highly prized, but like the tulip, they will no longer found a fortune.


Illustation of a shipwreck from an illuminated manuscript

Shipwreck of Hugh de Boves

Matthew Paris



In another article, The Virtues of Difficult Fiction” by Joanna Scott the value of reading books that are not easily read is discussed. This is a large part of the value of these books to those that read them; they demand an investment of time, some effort of thought and of imagination that is amply repaid. Our investments say a lot about who we are individually and collectively as a people. Books are living things and those that read them often form relationships with these books. As with any relationship they require an investment of time, we have to devote thought and attention to the beloved. It is what makes a relationship worth fighting for and worth preserving. The time spent cultivating it yields its rewards. Scott says of reading and the purpose it serves:

In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Toni Morrison was asked about the purpose of fiction. A good story, she said, results in “the acquisition of knowledge.” This is the case that must be made for fiction if the genre is going to survive as an art. Fiction gives us knowledge. Of what? If the goal is to document our time and place, nonfiction and film offer more dependable accuracy. For intimate expressions of the human predicament, there’s poetry. If it’s immediate impact we want, there are the visual arts and music. Who needs fiction that requires readers to work to understand it?

The value of fiction was clear to Virginia Woolf, who argued that nonfiction consists of half-truths and approximations that result in a “very inferior form of fiction.” In Woolf’s terms, reading ambitious fiction isn’t comfortable or easy. Far from it: “To go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.” The illuminations that fiction offers are gained only with considerable effort. “To read a novel is a difficult and complex art,” Woolf wrote. “You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.” When we read actively, alertly, opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying “the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.” For Woolf, fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading.

The knowledge gained is not about how the universe works as a machine, about the rules, theories, and laws that govern the physical universe, it is knowledge of that other universe the one that cannot be seen through telescopes, the one inside each of (as Donne says, “I am a little world made cunningly / Of elements and an angelic sprite”), but that must be studied and understood if as a species we are ever to live together in peace, if we are to ever understand each other.


Painting of San Francisco Bay; water and beach

San Francisco Bay

Albert Bierstadt



Scott makes another important point in her article. She begins by pointing out that Literature is different from every other art form. She writes:

Among the arts, literature faces a special challenge. To look at a film, a painting, a play, an audience has to be able to see. To listen to music, an audience must be able to hear. To read, an audience must be literate. This begins when a child learns to match phonemes to letters and then to grasp the implications of grammar. Reading levels are identified as stages, from emergent to fluent. As dedicated students of literature know, fluency is only the beginning of a never-ending education. The world’s library is vast. There will always be something somewhere that will invite a new kind of attention from even the most experienced reader.

It is difficult to truly appreciate a piece of music if it is only heard in the background as we do other things, if it is only a pleasant noise that helps drown out some of the unpleasant noises. Equally it is difficult to fully appreciate a painting if it is just a desktop image that is pleasing to the eye whose real function is only to make the workspace a bit more pleasant to look at while we work on other things. But that said, it is possible to discipline ourselves to listen closely to a piece of music such that we can be enriched by it and though with some additional education we will come to hear other things and appreciate other things about the music we do not need additional education to be moved by Mozart, Bach, or Duke Ellington. The same can be said of visual arts like painting and sculpture and artists like Rembrandt, Michelangelo, or Frank Gehry. We may see more in them with training but we can be deeply moved by them without training. The same cannot be said of literature, especially literature that demands more from us as readers.


Painting of war ships painted with "dazzle paaint"

Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool

Edward Wadsworth



Scott says later in the article, “Careful reading is difficult because it demands continuous learning. We have to work to learn new methods of reading in response to new methods of writing.” We have to be educated to begin to read and we need to continuously revise and “update” our skills if we are to be able to continue to read well (though we may choose to limit ourselves to the “Old Masters” such as Tolstoy and Dickens and the like). Of course this is true of music and the visual art as well to a certain degree, we do not listen to jazz entirely in quite the same way we listen to classical music or to Mozart in quite the same way we listen Schonberg. The painting above also illustrates how the way we see can be “toyed” with. The dazzle ships look odd and a bit garish in dry dock, but on the open sea it was difficult to know for certain what you were looking at or to fix the ships exact location.


Painting of schooner ships docked in Salem Harbor

Salem Harbor

Fitz Henry Lane (formerly Fitz Hugh Lane)



But language and the books that contain them have a value that cannot be measured. It is difficult to imagine for some in this day when the Humanities are less highly valued and much of education is being reduced to that which can be easily (and sometimes not so easily) measured and quantified. It can be difficult to imagine the value that was once placed upon a “classical education” even by those we do not often think of as hungering for this sort of thing. Edith Hall in Classics for the people – why we should all learn from the ancient Greeks” writes about the value that the study of the classics of Greek and Roman literature and the whole of a classical education had for the working people of Britain once upon a time. The article discusses the books themselves and the power they possess and the value of learning the original languages in which they were written so that they could be more fully understood and appreciated, but she also writes about how working people had access to libraries provided by churches, scholars (that usually came from a working background), and businesses. She talks about the importance of these libraries to those that used them:

The 109 libraries of the South Wales coalfield are a wonder of labour history, and the books really were taken out. At Ebbw Vale, each reader borrowed an average of 52 volumes a year. The “Condensed Accessions Book” of Bargoed Colliery Library details its holdings by 1921-2. Texts in Latin and Greek are absent: until 1918 almost all miners had left school on their 13th birthday. But the “alternative classical curriculum” of the miner was wide-ranging. He read translations and biographies such as JB Forbes’s Socrates (1905). He learned about the Greeks from HB Cotterill’s Ancient Greece (1913), the Egyptians from George Rawlinson’s Herodotean History of Ancient Egypt (1880), and mythology from several books by Andrew Lang.

This inspiring past of people’s Greek can help us to look forward. It is theoretically in our power as British citizens to create the curriculum we want. In my personal utopia, the ancient Greek language would be universally available free of charge to everyone who wants to learn it, at whatever age – as would, for that matter, Latin, classical civilisation, ancient history, philosophy, Anglo-Saxon, Basque, Coptic, Syriac and Hittite. But classical civilisation qualifications are the admirable, economically viable and attainable solution that has evolved organically in our state sector. Classicists who do not actively promote them will justifiably be perceived as elitist dinosaurs.

These books were read and studied because they had value, not monetary value necessarily (and these were people who had real need of money), but they had value, enough value that people who worked long hard hours in the mines would put in more long, hard hours developing their intellect and imagination. There is a joy that comes from being well read that well-read people know and it is a real joy. Where the hours in the mine provided what was needed to feed and house the body, the hours spent in the libraries fed the intellect, the imagination, and the spirit. To be a full person, to fully live, we need to feed and nurture all aspects of our personhood.


 Wood blocked of boat being rowed over a large wave

Ocean waves




James McWilliams points out another reason why the Humanities and Humanist scholarship is important in On the Value of Not Knowing Everything”. He points out that the Humanities keep “wonder” alive and wonder keeps us engaged with the universe and the world in which we live:

The marvel that stopped us in our tracks—an aurora borealis, cognate words in languages separated by continents and centuries, the peacock’s tail—becomes only an apparent marvel once explained. Aesthetic appreciation may linger…but composure has returned. We are delighted but no longer discombobulated; what was once an earthquake of the soul is subdued into an agreeable frisson.… The more we know, the less we wonder.

Once the wonder passes, that is the wonder has been explained, we start taking for granted again the “wonders” that surround us. In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories Sherlock makes some deductions that amaze his client. The client asks Holmes how he figured all this out. Holmes says that if I explain it to you it will no longer amaze you. The client suggests it would and wants to know. After Sherlock explains the deductive process the client says its not so surprising once you explain how it’s done. In some sense it is a magic trick that amazes us as long as we do not understand how the trick works. But once we know everything we need to know about something, whether it is the workings of the solar system or what makes the rain to fall, the wonder disappears. Understanding the mechanics of a thing deprives it of its ability to amaze. Afterwards, if we wonder at anything we wonder at those that figured it out.


Brundibar (Bumble-bee), Act II Scene 5: “Morning, People, Here’s a Bargain”

Hans Krasa

Gerard Schwarz, Music Of Remembrance and Northwest Boychoir

“If I Could Help Somebody”

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Chichester Psalms: “Psalm 23 – (Complete); Psalm 2 – (Verses 1-4)”

Leonard Bernstein

Israel Philharmonic, Soloist from the Vienna Boys’ Choir

Rejoice in the Lamb, “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey”

Benjamin Britten

Michael Hartnett, Jonathan Steele, Philip Todd, Donald Francke, George Malcom, and The Purcell Singers


From Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “Part Three”

Paramount Television and BBC


George Smiley is a different kind of scholar. His looks and manner suggest a quiet, somewhat pedantic college professor. The work that he does is much more troubling. He is working for the good guys so that makes the more disturbing aspects of his work more palpable. But much of what he does involves invading people’s private lives, bullying, and taking advantage of others’ weaknesses. In in this clip he plays upon the woman’s, Connie’s, affections and disappointments. Once he has gotten what he came for he quietly disappears without waiting to listen to her final concerns. But how do we protect our way of life in a world so fraught with danger with so many threats to our way of life. Evil does exist in the world and can it be withstood by “sanitary” means.


Fish climbing waves

Carp leaping up a cascade




The aria from the opera Brundibar is sung by the title character. He is a metaphor for Adolph Hitler disguised as an organ grinder. He is out to protect his territory and he bullies and threatens any who would encroach on his territory. Two fatherless children trying to earn money to help their sick mother by dancing to Brundibar’s music are attacked. Ultimately they win and the evil organ grinder is dispatched. The ultimate irony of the opera, though, is that it was performed (its second performance I believe) for the Red Cross in a special camp set up by Hitler to show the world that the Jews in Germany were not being mistreated. After making a film of the opera for Nazi propaganda everyone involved was sent to Auschwitz and killed. There is evil. The theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer joined a plot to assassinate Hitler even though involvement in such a plot violated his theological principals. What do we do when we find ourselves in situations where to be true to one set of beliefs requires us to abandon another set of beliefs. How does one remain “pure” in such a world? I do not think reading or the Humanities provides answers to problems such as these, but they raise the issues and confront us with them and compel us to give thought to these things and think through and consider what our responses will be when we are confronted by such situations. We want to believe “never again” but our experience of the world and its history suggests that this is not so.

In Humanists Among the Machines” Ian Becock writes about Arnold Toynbee and his concerns over where science, technology, and reason were taking the world after World War I. There was great optimism that new advances would protect the world from anything like the Great War ever happening again. Toynbee was not so sure. Toynbee thought, “The problem with the Industrial System was that it didn’t know when to stop, pushing relentlessly into domains where it simply didn’t work.” He believed the Humanities could put a brake on such thinking, that it could remind us of the limitations of technology and the ability of our new technologies to change the human psyche. Becock believes:

It’s time for humanists to walk out on a limb. Like Toynbee, we should be as engaged in the world as we are courageous in our convictions. The humanities are most of all a moral enterprise, the pursuit of answers to big questions about how we live together and where we’re going. The stakes are high. We must remember how to speak the language of value, encouraging our readers and students to ask not simply ‘Is it more efficient?’ or ‘How much does it cost?’ but ‘Is it good or bad? For whom? According to which standard?’

The US novelist Ursula K Le Guin put it well in her speech at the National Book Awards in New York last year when she observed that we need ‘the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being’. This is what the humanities are for – not writing better quarterly reports or grabbing a gig in corporate communications – but for posing fundamental questions of value and helping us imagine alternatives to the way we live.

It is important to keep thinking and challenging the changes in our world when those changes are not “healthy for children and other living things” as we used to say not so long ago.


Mosaic depicting the Nile River and the communities on its banks

Nile Mosaic

Bernard Andrae



Helen Vendler in her new book The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar makes a distinction between a critic and a scholar. She sees herself as a critic and not as scholar. In her introduction she talks about taking over a survey course of Romantic Poets for a colleague who was not able to teach the course. She says that when the students submitted their review of her teaching of the course they said they learned a lot about individual poets and their poetry, but not much about the Romantic era and its historical significance or its shared themes, ideas, and vision. Jack Hanson in his review of the book, Reading Poetry”, quotes Vendler:

(The critic’s) “learning” resembles the “learning” of poets, which, though deeply etymological and architectonic, is often unsystematic and idiosyncratic. She often fails at the most elementary undertakings of “scholarly” life, such as remembering facts, entering polemical debates, and relating works to the political and philosophical history of their era. She has—at least I have—no capacity for broad synthetic statements.

This to me is what the study of literature entails. There are other branches of the Humanities that enlighten us about those other things, but when we read Literature, the kind of Literature that rewards rereading and changes us over time as our experiences change the Literature and our relationship to it, it is to get at things that are more personal to us and, perhaps, the poet. Reading in this way changes us because it reveals ourselves to ourselves, aspects of ourselves we may have kept hidden or have never noticed.       


Cants màgics: “IV. Misteriós”

Federico Mompou


George Winston

“Dance of the Infidels”

Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden

“Requiem for John Hurt”

John Fahey


These last songs suggest other things about the Humanities and how they move in and out of one another. They suggest notions of belief and unbelief. They also weave out of one another and the traditions from which they come. I enjoy how Mompou’s Màgics makes an appearance in George Winston’s Woods. I like the folk blues sound of a classical form in Fahey’s “Requiem.” I enjoy how all these songs, though they come from different traditions have a “jazzy” feel to them. And this is something else that the study of Literature, music, and all the arts do for us; they reveal what connects one thing to another and one person, one nation, one culture to another. All the arts awaken wonder and self-knowledge and it is difficult to live as fully as we might if we are not open to wonder and the true self living inside us.


Painting of the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Charles W. Bartlett


On Reflection

Scenes from Childhood, “Happy Enough”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

“Sitting on Top of the World”

Doc Watson

“Hard Times”

Stephen Foster

Anna McGarrigle & Kate McGarrigle

The Sound of Music “Climb Every Mountain”

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein III

Patricia Neway

“No Expectations”

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

The Rolling Stones

“I’ve Got the World on a String”

Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen

Frank Sinatra

Madam Butterfly, “Una Nave Da Guerra”

Giacomo Puccini

Fiorenza Cossotto, Renata Tebaldi, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia & Tullio Serafin

“The Reason Why I’m Gone”

Chuck Cannon and Gary Lloyd


Gregorio Allegri

The Tallis Scholars

“Tears in the Holston River”

John R. Cash

Johnny Cash

Lakme, “Dôme épais le jasmin à la rose s’assemble”

Léo Delibes

Dame Joan Sutherland, Huguette Tourangeau, The Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra & Richard Bonynge

“Diamond in the Rough

Sara Carter, Maybelle Carter, and A.P. Carter

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Featuring June Carter Cash With Earl Scruggs

Scenes from Childhood, “Dreaming”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

On Reflection


Painting of the image a woman sees when she looks at herself in the mirror

The Mirror

William Merritt Chase



The songs capture events and life experiences that often produce reflection, lost love, rejection, expectations (or the lack of expectations), death and remembrance, the exhilarating experience of success, the need to confront our dreams no matter the obstacles, worship and encounters with God and the supernatural. The music begins and ends with two movements from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, “Happy Enough” (there is both satisfaction and a hint of regret and diminished expectations) and “Dreaming” (which can be a source of or an escape from reflection and self-awareness). Childhood is where we all begin and the process of growing into maturity is one that often involves reflection and growth in the practice of reflection.


Asian woman looking in a mirror

Kitagawa Utamaro ukiyo-e




The two arias, one from Madame Butterfly, the other from Lakme are both popularly known as “The Flower Duet.” The one in Madame Butterfly has in it a few bars from The Star Spangled Banner, the American National Anthem. The musical quotation is Puccini’s way of suggesting the presence of the American naval officer who betrayed Madame Butterfly. When heard today it suggests, perhaps, that Puccini does not think much of Americans, but at the time the opera was written this anthem was not the National Anthem, but the Navy Anthem, and it is the values of an American seaman that Puccini is calling into question. The aria, though, expresses Butterfly’s love and expectation of a happy reunion, an expectation that is not to be fulfilled. Her mistake is in believing Pinkerton, the naval officer, to be an honorable man. He is not honorable unfortunately, nor was he very courageous. The other “Flower Duet” is a song that delights in flowers and natural beauty, but it also contains a prayer. Lakme begins to worry for her father’s safety, and her servant, Mallika, encourages Lakme to pray for her father’s safety. Adversity often provokes reflection and reflection often carries us through adversity.


Alice from Alice Through the Looking Glass on the mantle touching the mirror above the mantle

Alice through the looking glass

John Tenniel



The illustration from Through the Looking Glass suggests the importance of getting to the other side of the looking glass, to get beyond our image in the glass. Reflection, when it is effective, takes us out of ourselves; it helps us recognize larger communities and the needs of others. I am filled with the desire to be successful, to do what I do not just as well as others, but a little bit better than others. Ambition seems to be engrained and not easily tamed. But at the same time I am often happiest when I am sharing in the success of others. I was a theater major in college and one thing I learned as a young actor was how conflicted I was about praise. I was told that the only thing actors hated more than being praised was not being praised. Being praised brings with it embarrassment, it made me (and many other actors I knew) uncomfortable because on the one hand how do you respond to praise without being immodest, disingenuously humble, and on the other, being well aware of what went wrong in performance, it is difficult to believe in it, to take it as more than a courtesy or a kindness. But as an actor I was also terribly insecure and as a result if there was no praise, that fed my self-doubt. The humble side of my character was uncomfortable with praise, but the egocentric side of my character saw it as a kind of sustenance.


A group of women looking at their reflections in the water

  The Mirror of Venus

Edward Burne-Jones



In life I would like to live, as I never could in the theater, beyond praise, in a realm of genuine self-satisfaction that neither needs praise nor is embarrassed by it. Reflection does not help me attain this; it often reveals to me how far I am from attaining this. It reminds me that about all that anyone can know about wisdom and humility is that those that think they have it, probably do not. Wisdom and humility are always a bit (usually a good bit) beyond our grasp. There were a number of articles recently about a new book by David Brooks on character (“David Brooks: ‘I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard’” and “The Moral Bucket List”). In a You-Tube talk (Should you live for you resume or for your eulogy (Transcript)) Brooks gave on the new book he talks about “the two Adams”:

So I’ve been thinking about that problem (of character), and a thinker who has helped me think about it is a guy named Joseph Soloveitchik, who was a rabbi who wrote a book called “The Lonely Man Of Faith” in 1965. Soloveitchik said there are two sides of our natures, which he called Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the worldly, ambitious, external side of our nature. He wants to build, create, create companies, create innovation. Adam II is the humble side of our nature. Adam II wants not only to do good but to be good, to live in a way internally that honors God, creation and our possibilities. Adam I wants to conquer the world. Adam II wants to hear a calling and obey the world. Adam I savors accomplishment. Adam II savors inner consistency and strength. Adam I asks how things work. Adam II asks why we’re here. Adam I’s motto is “success.” Adam II’s motto is “love, redemption and return.”

And Soloveitchik argued that these two sides of our nature are at war with each other. We live in perpetual self-confrontation between the external success and the internal value. And the tricky thing, I’d say, about these two sides of our nature is they work by different logics. The external logic is an economic logic: input leads to output, risk leads to reward. The internal side of our nature is a moral logic and often an inverse logic. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer the desire to get what you want. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.


Still life painting of variou objects on a table that are objects that promote vanity or about which we are vain about having


Anonymous French Painter



This is a useful way to think about ourselves. Though this is put into a religious context it still has merit when removed from this context. It captures metaphorically the conflict created by the need to excel and the need to be virtuous. Perhaps not everyone sees this as a struggle; perhaps some have an easier time living comfortably with one or the other of the two Adams. The painting above captures most of the avenues to worldly success, wealth, power, accomplishments of various kinds (from musical to gaming). The title, Vanitas, suggests the success that the various objects in the painting represent are not fulfilling. I have seen vanity defined in a couple of ways. One definition equates it with arrogance or conceit or self love and another, the way that it is used, for example, in Ecclesiastes when the preacher tells us “all is vanity,” defines it as uselessness. The suggestion is, perhaps, that all the worldly success illustrated in the painting does not ultimately satisfy; at some level of the human psyche it is useless and cannot cure what ails us. When I try to imagine what a painting of the more virtuous, more humble side of our nature might look like I think of a Shaker Table that is unostentatious with simple, elegant lines. But with the humility of the table probably comes the pride of having built such a beautiful thing, and suggests, perhaps, that pride and humility can coexist at some level.


Woman posing for a painting in front of a mirror that reflects the painter painting the picture

Der-maler-und-jo oppler

Ernst Oppler



Is this painting about the woman whose portrait is being painted or the artist painting the portrait? There is in the woman’s face a serious sadness. In the artist’s there is focus and determination and a hint of satisfaction. The work probably has a lot to do with the painter’s satisfaction and it may be that the lack of work, the necessity of sitting still and doing nothing, may be the cause of the woman’s sadness. But which is better for us. There is something to be said for work, it keeps us occupied and sometimes it keeps us from having to confront in ourselves that which we would rather not confront. If the sadness in the woman’s face is the result of contemplation on what has produced it, it may in the long term bring her to the other side of her sadness. It may be that the work is enabling the painter to avoid confronting what is unpleasant in his own life. And the truth is that we need to enable both sides of our nature, that which thrives on accomplishment to accomplish and that which thrives on the pursuit of goodness to pursue goodness. There is a magic to living well that enables those that live well to nurture the whole of their humanity; to allow all sides of their character to achieve and strive towards fulfillment.


Two men playing chess

De schaakspelers

Isaac Israëls



Art, music, and literature can stimulate reflection. Depending on how deeply we look, listen, or read they encourage us to consider our responses to them and what produced those responses. They raise issues that are important or resonate with our experience and often suggest different ways of responding to the events taking place around us and inside us. They also suggest to us that the various cultures that produced the work share a common humanity even though there are cultural, ethnic, or racial barriers that can come between us. American Jazz, Japanese Kabuki and Noh theater, German Opera, Italian Opera, the Victorian novel, the Russian novel, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, the paintings of the Dutch Masters, the Impressionists, Japanese woodblock, Chinese pen and ink. All of these and many others have been enjoyed by people around the world; people with little or no understanding of the cultures that produced them, but they are still moved by them. They remind us of what humans share in common as well as the aesthetic sense and the values that we share.


Still life ith fruit, flowers, and sheet music on a table in front of a mirror

Cinq sens

Jacques Linard



Stephen Greenblatt was invited to give the keynote address at a Shakespeare festival in Tehran. One of the men that invited him had published papers that were vehemently anti-Zionist, yet Greenblatt is Jewish and though one might draw a distinction between Judaism and Zionism, Greenblatt is a bit puzzled by the invitation in light of being Jewish. But it is a land he has wanted to see since he was an undergraduate in college so he accepts the invitation. He writes about his talk in “Shakespeare in Tehran.“ He speaks of Shakespeare’s ability to achieve a kind of openness and honesty in a culture that was not always friendly to the open and the honest. He also talks about Shakespeare’s ability to bridge cultures and find loyal readers and viewers of his plays in many disparate cultures throughout the world. (I remember a scene in one of the Star Trek movies where a Klingon quotes Shakespeare identifying him as a great Klingon poet.) At one point in his talk he said:

What did it mean that Shakespeare was the magic carpet that had carried me to Iran? For more than four centuries now he has served as a crucial link across the boundaries that divide cultures, ideologies, religions, nations, and all the other ways in which humans define and demarcate their identities. The differences, of course, remain—Shakespeare cannot simply erase them—and yet he offers the opportunity for what he called “atonement.” He used the word in the special sense, no longer current, of “at-one-ment,” a bringing together in shared dialogue of those who have been for too long opposed and apart.

This captures an essence of Shakespeare, but it is also an essence of Cervantes, of Dante, of Tolstoy, of Chikamatsu, Murasaki Shikibu, Bassho, Scheherazade, and Rumi. Literature is often the way one culture speaks to another. It is also a bit subversive. In Greenblatt’s talk a woman asked what he thought of Richard II and the revolt of Bolingbroke. Greenblatt said he did not know and asked her what she thought. “‘I think,’ the student replied, ‘that it was merely one group of thugs replacing another.’” This might be said of many of the world’s revolutions, The French Revolution, The Russian Revolution, and the Iranian Revolution.


Death in the form of a skeleton confronting a woman

Vergänglichkeitsbuch 250 120v Totentanz

Wilhelm Werner von Zimmern



Still, Richard II has some of the most poetic lines in Shakespeare and his abdication is not what one typically associates with a thug:

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;

Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.

Now mark me, how I will undo myself;

I give this heavy weight from off my head

And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,

The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,

With mine own hands I give away my crown,

With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,

With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:

All pomp and majesty I do forswear;

My manors, rents, revenues I forego;

My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:

God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!

God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!

Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,

And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!

Long mayst thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,

And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!

God save King Harry, unking’d Richard says,

And send him many years of sunshine days!

Notice when he speaks of himself and his personal state his lines rhyme. When he officially abdicates the iambic pentameter is maintained, but the rhymes disappear. He goes from rhymed to blank verse. The abdication is official and states what by law must be stated (though it does state a bit more) the rest of it speaks his heart and those lines carry all the emotional effects poetry gives to them. In the abdication he speaks as the office demands when he speaks for himself he speaks with his whole heart and the change in verse forms captures this. There is a poetry of the heart that cannot be touched by mathematics. The abdication maintains the mathematics of poetry, the iambic pentameter; his personal remarks keep the mathematics, but add his humanity. Also, the poetry, as the mirror in the painting, reminds him, and us, of his, and our, own mortality, “And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit.” Michael Roberts in discussing the value of poetry (“Equipment for Living”) sees its true value in consolation not deliverance:

Boethius would have understood: he composed De Consolatione Philosophiae in prison, awaiting execution. According to one reputable
source, “a cord was twisted round his head so tightly that it caused his eyeballs to protrude from their sockets, and … his life was then beaten out of him by a club.” Lady Philosophy does not console the prisoner by freeing him or providing him with worldly goods or happiness, but by reconciling him to his fate. He comes to accept that all things are ordered sweetly by God, and he aspires to achieve spiritual freedom through contemplation of God. (Actual redemption is implied, but not easy consolation.)

Part of being reflective is coming to grips with our mortality, though hopefully, in not as blunt a manner as Boethius.       


Hail the Conquering Hero Comes

Preston Sturgis

Universal Studios


The film is set during World War II, and the character played by Eddie Bracken, Woodrow Truesmith, has been sent home by the Marines because of a severe case of hay fever. He is embarrassed and disappointed. He encounters some soldiers just home from the war that experienced combat and demonstrated real courage. They feel sorry for Truesmith and want to help him save face with his neighbors. They make him one of their company and “write him into” their stories. Truesmith becomes a local hero and before he knows what’s happened he finds himself a candidate for mayor. The scene in the video is Truesmith trying to recover his honesty and his integrity. He is told that no lies have been told; just a few names have been changed. But everything happened just as they are described in the stories. The film is a comedy and a funny one, but the truth at its heart is worth thinking about. What is the nature of honesty; where does corruption begin; what does it mean to have integrity? Ben Jonson imagined two audiences for his plays. One audience got the jokes and went home and thought no more about them. The other audience got the joked but also reflected on them and applied them to their own experience. They were enriched and changed by the humor. Jonson said in one of his epigrams, “Pray thee take care, who tak’st my book in hand, / To read it well: that is, to understand.” He referred to this second audience as the “understanders.”


Woman sitting in front of a mirror with two lit candles

The Repentant Magdalene

Georges de La Tour



Mathematics and the sciences give us wonderful machines, figure out ways to solve problems and cure deadly diseases; they are to be valued and pursued, they have much to teach us and much to offer to lighten the burdens of our days. But the Humanities offer us something real and substantial as well. We cannot always hold what the Humanities give us in our hands, but without them it is difficult to imagine how we become fully alive and complete as human beings. The math and sciences can make us better machines but the Humanities make us better human beings. Lily Tuck in “Reading with Imagination” writes about how reading well differs from the more common ways of reading, for information or for entertainment:

In the Middle Ages, reading was regarded as a contemplative act. It was lectio divina and limited to sacred texts that, for the most part, were read out loud and optimally, the words read were repeated by the listeners in order to fill body and soul with their significance. Reading then was essentially a form of prayer. Today, however, most people read to be informed and instructed — where to take a vacation, how to cook, how to invest their money. Less frequently, the reasons may be escapist or to be entertained, to forget the boredom or anxiety of their daily lives. These are valid reasons, but I believe most of the reading one does for these reasons is actually a “bad” practice for reading literature.

Imagination is defined as “the creative process of the mind,” and its power is both limitless and marvelous and most probably redemptive as well. We are surrounded by works of the imagination: our transportation, our communication, our technology. Every song we hear, every picture we look at that genuinely gladdens our heart for a moment is a work of the imagination. Literature is the language of the imagination refined by heightened sensibility, and reading, to use the literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman’s phrase, should be “an encounter of imagination with imagination.”

This does not mean reading with the imagination does not entertain, but that it does much more than entertain and that it is a kind of reading that does not have entertainment as its sole object.

Perhaps “entertainment” is too “light” a word and we need another, but we live in a time that sees the pursuit of enlightenment and self-knowledge as a kind of work, often arduous work; that does not seem to believe that work can be fun, that it can be entertaining. Jonson’s “understanders” left the theater entertained, but they also left enlightened and much more self-aware. James Parker in “A Most Unlikely Saint” quotes G. K. Chesterton, “The Madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Those of us that spend our lives exclusively with mathematics and the sciences are in danger of loosing everything but our reason; it is the humanities that restore to us the other components that make us fully human and keep us sane.


Girl looking at flowers on a mantlepiece in front of a mirror

Girl in Blue Arranging Flowers

Frederick Carl Frieseke


Making Time

 “Those Were the Days”

Mary Hopkins

“Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is”

Robert Lamm

Chicago Transit Authority

“Time Is on My Side”

Jerry Ragovy

The Rolling Stones

“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”

Charlie Parker

“Time Has Come Today”

Joseph Chambers and Willie Chambers

The Chambers Brothers

Symphony No. 101 in D Major, Hob. I:101, “The Clock”: II. Andante

Franz Joseph Hyden

Johannes Wildner & Camerata Cassovia

“Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Sandy Denny

Fairport Convention


Making Time


Painting of a Man studying the globe by canlelight

The Astronomer

Gerard Dou



“Making time” is one of those expressions that can be something of a self-contradiction. On the one hand, especially when we are trying to arrive at a destination (either a physical destination like New York or a metaphorical destination like the understanding of a concept), when we speak of “making time” we are speaking of how quickly we are getting to where it is we want to go. In this sense “making time” is about speed, which is not always the same thing as efficiency, which is taking no more time than is necessary, but also taking all the time that is necessary. It is just quickness. I may get to New York very quickly, but on the journey miss the Grand Canyon, which, as a visit, would be an efficient use of time, but it would slow me down and so in the interest of speed the visit is not taken.

But there is another sense in which we “make time” and that is when we set aside blocks of time so that we can slow down and think, reflect, and contemplate; so that we can study more deeply or work more slowly and deliberately. This is about lingering, which also may not be efficient, we may be spending more time than is precisely necessary drawing out our investigations; luxuriating in what we have or in the process of discovering. For the astronomer in the painting time seems to have stopped as his hour glass is on its side and the sands are no longer measuring time’s passing. Much of life is spent navigating our way through these two approaches towards making time. Taking things quickly or slowly as the moment demands.


Painting of men sitting around reading newspapers and inspecting cotton

A Cotton Office in New Orleans

Edgar Degas



The gentlemen in this painting are making time in a different way, many in the painting look like they are “killing time.” Idly waiting for time to pass, waiting for something they expect will happen, to happen. They are not making time in an effort to arrive quickly at a destination, nor are they making time so that a task can be completed deliberately and effectively; they are doing little or nothing with time. In a sense they are killing time while waiting for time to kill them, which, considering the painting was painted well over a hundred years ago, time has had its way with them. I suppose these are three choices we face when it comes to time, we can work quickly toward a goal, work slowly towards understanding and self awareness, or we can do nothing at all with our time, we can bury our talent in the mundane activities that occupy our days.


Painting of an old man sitting at his desk contemplatively

Saint Paul at His Writing Desk

Rembrandt van Rijn



In music there is the importance of “keeping time” and how each musician must do the different things they do within the same “measure” of time. I think it is interesting that The Chambers Brothers use a percussion instrument in “Time Has Come to Stay” to suggest the ticking of the clock and the passing of time in much the same way Haydn uses the orchestra at the beginning of his “Clock Symphony” to make a similar evocation. But in order to appreciate how the different musical forms use sound and the instruments that make those sounds we must make time to listen to it carefully and reflectively without loosing the joy and pleasure the music was intended to provide. The arts when appreciated fully often make this demand upon us and this demand illustrates that taking things slowly brings its own exhilaration, but in order to experience this exhilaration we must live contrary to the times and move slowly; resist the urge for speed and fight the compulsion to make time on our journey through life.


Painting of a man with a mischievious look playing the lute

Jester with a Lute

Franz Hals



Ryan Szpiech in “The Dagger of Faith in the Digital Age” contemplates this relationship between time and reading. He looks at the nature of reading; the books we read and how we read them. He is contemplating his investigations of an old and obscure medieval manuscript that has an empty third column that can only be appreciated or even seen when looking at the physical manuscript. The blank space does not appear in a digital representation of the book, the white space on a digital screen, even when the empty column is present, is often interpreted differently from a white space on the printed page. He suggests the rise of the digital book is making us into different kinds of readers, readers who read for information, not to get lost in the world the book creates:

Just as Google Books does not simply strive to augment the reading of a book but to actually replace the reader’s book with the searcher’s book, so the ultimate goal of digital editions and digital facsimiles, I believe, is not only to reflect the “original,” to “capture” or “recapture” it, but to effectively replace it with a better image of itself. Whereas philology, the study of language history through texts, creates (like fetishism) a “desire for presence,” digital philology creates a simulacrum or iconic replacement for this presence. The injunction from Kings against graven images rings in my ears, and I choose a fetishism of the frail human object over an idolatry of the power of the machine.

It is no surprise that the missing third column has been universally overlooked in the Coimbra codex of the Dagger of Faith, because even as it speaks on so many levels of its circumstance and intended meaning and unrepeatable history, it is, in its digital avatar, obscured by the overwhelming presence of its simulacrum. In viewing it from the comfort of a local café, on my own time, at my preferred screen resolution, I am grateful for its accessibility and convenience and I can work more effectively because of it. I am, however, also wary of the dangers it brings, above all the danger of my own complacency before it. I am wary lest I forget that the gleaming digital image of the Coimbra manuscript’s missing third column is a sort of enchanted mirror that ironically reflects back the impossibility of reproduction, of reflection, of control, of total understanding—ironically some of the very things that Ramon Martí (the author of The dagger of Faith) seems to have been coveting in his polemical attacks on Judaism like the Dagger. Yet if we can keep the eyes to see it, the manuscript’s lack leaps out as a stark reminder that reading is an imperfect and imperfectable activity whose final lesson is its own inscrutability, for it bespeaks the inscrutability of all that is time-bound—of history, of fate, of loss—should I say it?—of death. Umberto Eco has stated, “With a book…you are obliged to accept the laws of Fate, and to realize that you cannot change Destiny…In order to be free persons we also need to learn this lesson about Life and Death.” In the age of book searching, however, in which books are now the fodder of a few key strokes and the flitting caprice of an impatient mind, it may now be the inviolate manuscript that can, as never before, best teach us this law of Necessity.

Reading in the sense that Szpiech speaks of is being captured by the book and drawn into the world it creates. We have to leave behind what we want from the book and accept what it has to offer. If the book does not win us to its world, we will not be captured by it and will not set aside our expectations. But if the book does capture us we enter its world and leave our world and our expectations behind. As Henry James said of the novel (quoted in “Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate”), “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it. Naturally I do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it interesting: in case we do not our course is perfectly simple—to let it alone.” We can always let the book alone, but if we read it we ought to read it on its own terms and to do that we need to give the book the time it needs to be properly experienced.


Painting of a man in a library deep in thought surrounded by books on the table in front of him

Edmond Duranty

Edgar Degas



One thing that reading does for me is to remind me of the value of the people around me, that they have worth. I do not need, or should not need, books to remind me of this and I hope I do not depend on books to do this for me; I hope I know, apart from what I read, and that I would know even if I never read a word, that people have value. But the books I read reawaken me to this knowledge. In the course of day to day activity it is difficult to keep this fact of human worth alive. I know in the course of the work I do I get frustrated and angry and in my effort to achieve whatever it is I am trying to achieve that the people around me, at whom for one reason or another I am getting angry or petulant, did nothing to deserve my anger or petulance. In the midst of this I do not stop and read a book in order to regain my bearings, but it often happens that books that I have read come to mind and remind me that the people around me deserve better from me. Marilynne Robinson in an interview with Wyatt Mason (“The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson”) said:

“People,” Robinson said, pausing before she defined that familiar word in original terms: “Brilliant creatures, who at a very high rate, predictably, are incomprehensible to each other. If what people want is to be formally in society, to have status, to have loving relationships, houseplants that don’t die, the failure rate is phenomenal. . . . Excellent people, well-meaning people, their lives do not yield what they hoped. You know? This doesn’t diminish, at all, the fact that their dignity is intact. But their grief . . .”

“. . . is enormous,” I said.

Outside, the Iowa summer afternoon was gathering itself into a storm. Large bursts of thunder began to detonate around us.

“It is,” she said, continuing her previous thought. “ ‘O, Absalom! Absalom! My son, my son.’ The idea that there is an intrinsic worth in a human being. Abuse or neglect of a human being is not the destruction of worth but certainly the denial of it. Worth. We’re always trying to anchor meaning in experience. But without the concept of worth, there’s no concept of meaning. I cannot make a dollar worth a dollar; I have to trust that it is worth a dollar. I can’t make a human being worthy of my respect; I have to assume that he is worthy of my respect. Which I think is so much of the importance of the Genesis narrative. We are given each other in trust. I think people are much too wonderful to be alive briefly and gone. . . .

In the course of our lives we are put in the way of many people, some in more profound ways than others, but many of the troubles of the world find their origins in people’s inability to accept the worth of those around them. The most petty of crimes is at its heart grounded in a belief that one person, the criminal, has more value than another, the victim. We cannot expect nations and states, cities and towns, to recognize this all the time, they are after all artificial human constructs, but each individual has a responsibility to remember this moment to moment as they live their lives.


Painting of a woman giving money to a servant while a child tugs at the servant's dress

Woman Handing over Money to Her Servant

Pieter de Hooch



In this painting we see three people, a mother, a servant, and a child. The servant is taking money from the woman she works for. The reason for her being given the money is not clearly understood in the painting, but it is probably not important. What captures my attention, though, is the child. The child is pulling at the skirts of the servant. I wonder is this because the child does not value the servant and expects the servant to serve her, and if this is the case, where was this behavior learned? Probably from the mother. But there is another way to take this behavior on the part of the child and that is that the child has more of a relationship with the servant than with the mother. The child feels free to tug on the servants dress, would she feel as free to tug on the dress of her mother? Has the child’s care been given over to the servant and as a result does the child view the servant more like a parent than the mother? Our relationships often derive their value from the time invested in them. If the care of our children is given to others then it is these others who are investing time in our children and that our children look up to. What we do with our time, how we spend it, is consequential. Where we spend our time reveals what we value. No person is made valuable or assigned worth on the basis of birth, or to whom they were born, or on the basis of a ceremony, such as a marriage or a Baptism. People are made valuable by the time we invest in them because we have nothing more valuable to give than our time.


Painting of a man studying at a table with golden sunlight coming in through the window

Scholar Reading

Rembrandt van Rijn



I enjoy this painting of the scholar. In some ways it is unlike other of Rembrandt’s paintings, which are dominated almost exclusively by dark colors and earth tones. In this painting there is the blue in the draperies and the golden sunlight in the window. If we take the time to look closely there is the suggestion of joy in the scholar engaged in his study. I am not sure this painting (probably any painting) can be fully appreciated without an investment in time. But what about the time we spend with music, art, and literature, or any other of the humanities? What is produced by the time spent with books, listening to music, or looking at a painting? For that matter what is produced by the study of abstract math or science? There may be at some point down the road some use the math and science can be put to, but the study was not engaged initially for what it might produce, but for love of the investigation, for a desire to deepen our knowledge of the discipline. But where the mathematician and the scientist are often forgiven their luxurious expenditures of time because there is the possibility something may come of it (though they are often ridiculed for studying what seems to some as useless, silly and a waste of time) the study of the humanities is often seen as having nothing useful to offer either in the present moment or at any time in the future.

Adam Kirsch and Dana Stevens in a regular feature in the New York Times “Bookends” discuss the usefulness (or uselessness) of literature, “Should Literature Be Considered Useful?”. Kirsch talks about how through time many have sought after a purpose that literature serves, as service it provides, to identify its practicality. He concludes:

To Martin Heidegger, however, this way of looking at art would appear exactly backward. Equipment, tools, “gear,” are for Heidegger what we don’t notice or pay attention to so long as it is working. A hammer in good condition is like an extension of the person using it, a way for him to work his will. It is only when the tool breaks that it escapes the banality of usefulness and takes on determinate existence as a piece of wood and a piece of metal, with its own weight, hardness and luster.

Literature, in this sense, is a tool that is always broken. A functional linguistic tool is like a stop sign, which we barely even read, much less think about; we simply see it and put our foot on the brake. A poem stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from a stop sign, in that it demands attention for itself, its specific verbal weight and nuance, rather than immediately directing us to take an action. Indeed, literature famously has the power to impede action altogether, to sever our relations with the real world in ways that can lead to harm — that is one of the messages of “Madame Bovary,” to use Burke’s example. The life that literature really equips us to live is not the one Wordsworth derided as devoted to “getting and spending,” but the second life of inwardness and imagination. For those who do not believe in the reality of that second life, no amount of insisting on the usefulness of literature will justify it; for those who live it, no such insisting is necessary.

Reading is an expenditure of time intended to produce no outward result or product. It is the building of an inner life. In some ways it is the building of character, both in the sense that it shapes the people we become and in the sense that we look at ourselves more seriously, that in our studies of the characters on the page we come to a deeper understanding of the character that lives inside us, that defines us. But even if it does not change us, and the history of the world is filled with people who were not changed by what they read, heard, or saw in their experience of the arts, it stirs and develops the imagination.


Painter in his studio looking over his work

The Artist in His Studio

Rembrandt van Rijn



This usually produces nothing useful outside of the individual doing the reading or observing or listening. On occasion, though, it develops a different way of looking in the way Galileo, because of his training as a draughtsman, looked at the moon differently than did the other astronomers of his day. I suppose there is little any human does that is entirely useless, though not all may be useful or beneficial. Whatever it is we devote our time to changes us, makes us different. The time spent doing nothing changes the way we look at time and the way we use our time. If the nothing we do is reflective (is this really doing nothing) or relaxing we come to appreciate the need for something like a Sabbath to rest and consider. If we spend substantial quantities of time “wasting time” that changes us too if only in that it creates an empty space that cannot be reclaimed. I suppose it comes down to what we mean by useful and useless, if the definition of a “product” is something I can hold in my hand as opposed to something I hold in my intellect, imagination, or spirit, than Literature and Art are useless. But if there is more to our existence than producing a tangible product it is there that the usefulness of Literature and Art lies.


Abstract painting of a harbor with boats

Little Harbor in Normandy

George Braque



Dana Stevens sees another side to literature, one that is more essential to a meaningful life and what gets lost the farther away we move from a world in which the humanities play a significant role. She says:

Literature is the record we have of the conversation between those of us now alive on earth and everyone who’s come before and will come after, the cumulative repository of humanity’s knowledge, wonder, curiosity, passion, rage, grief and delight. It’s as useless as a spun-sugar snowflake and as practical as a Swiss Army knife (or, in Kafka’s stunning description of what a book should be, “an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us”). All I know is that when my daughter pushes for another chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder at bedtime, I feel a part of something very ancient, mysterious and important, something whose existence justifies in and of itself this unlikely experiment of life on earth. I couldn’t tell you exactly what shelf in the utility closet that equipment for living occupies, but I suspect none of us storytelling apes would survive for long without it.

This is the role that reading often fills for me, it opens my world, takes me out of myself, makes me more understanding of others and of myself. It is a conversation with the dead (or at least, as in the case of living authors, those that are “dead” to me in that they are not people that move in my circles). One of the surprises that comes from reading is how well people that have never known me know me. There is in literature that lives an understanding of life and of people and of the imagination that is timeless. Like Braque’s painting there is something in reading that is on the one hand calming and reassuring, but on the other a bit disturbing, that upsets the way we look at things and presents the world around us in ways we did not expect and with which we are not always comfortable.


From Safety Last

Harold Lloyd

Hal Roach Studios


This film contains one of the iconic images of the silent film era. That of Harold Lloyd suspended high above the city of Los Angeles holding on to the hands of a clock. But for me, there is also the city that is spread out beneath him. In the film I see the cable cars I used to see as a young boy whenever I went into the city which are no longer there to be seen. It brings back a time that is in some ways lost, but through memory and story can still be regained, if only in the imagination. This is the joy that comes from reading Raymond Chandler and recognizing the streets and the parts of the city he describes, that delights in the knowing “I’ve been there, I’ve seen that.” This may be more true of Los Angeles than of other cities because so much of this city’s historical architecture and open spaces has been replaced by modern structures and more “useful” space.

I imagine people living in Boston or Paris or Istanbul experience something similar when they read of their hometown in stories set in their city. But because film came of age in Los Angeles I see much of the history of the city, especially its visual history, how its appearance has evolved, in many of the classical films (and many not so classic films), especially those of the 1920’s through 1950’s. So when watching films like Safety Last or Sullivan’s Travels I have the opportunity in my imagination to ride once again the cable cars of my youth.


Painting of sail boats on the ocea


Eugène Bouden



But more than nostalgia is satisfied by the time we spend with Literature and the Arts. When we look at a seascape or a landscape (whether in the world or in a painting or photograph) we have to look carefully and if we look there is often something calming and serene about it. But if we look at a forest or seascape in the same way we look at a parking lot, invest the same amount of time in our looking we are not likely to appreciate the difference between a forest and a parking lot. In fact, in looking at a full parking lot some may see evidence that the economy is booming, that people are working or shopping, they are investing in the Gross Domestic Product and to them this is a beautiful thing, something deserving of preservation and replication.

Azar Nafisi in her new book The Republic of the Imagination writes about a meeting she had with another Iranian immigrant at a book signing. He was saying that Americans do not read their books the way Iranians do (and by implication others from totalitarian regimes). Nafisi writes:

Thinking over what Ramin had said, I found it intriguing that he suggested not that Americans did not understand our books but that they didn’t understand their own. In an oblique way, he made it seem as if Western Literature belonged more to the hankering souls of the Islamic Republic of Iran than to the inhabitants of the land that had given birth to them. How could this be? And yet it is true that people who brave censorship, jail and torture to gain access to books or music or movies or works of art tend to hold the whole enterprise in an entirely different light.

But she goes on to say:

My impulse, now as then, is to disagree. The majority of people in this country (America) who haunt bookstores, go to readings and book festivals or simply read in the privacy of their homes are not traumatized exiles. Many have seldom left their hometown or state, but does this mean that they do not dream, that they have no fears, that they do not feel pain and anguish and yearn for a life of meaning? Stories are not mere flights of fancy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it. Primo Levi said, “I write in order to rejoin the community of mankind.” Reading is a private act, but it joins us across continents and time.

I think there is truth to both. Those who have been denied access to literature and other of the Humanities have an appreciation that those who have grown up with it and always found it to be available do not have. In addition the influence in modern culture of films, sports, games, and other forms of entertainment that offer quick reward while demanding an increasing percentage or our time contribute to an environment where the Humanities are taken more and more for granted and less and less seriously. It is often the denial of access to these things that create a hunger and thirst for them.


Painting of fruit in bowls and on a table with napkins and a flower print drapery

Still Life with Curtains

Paul Cézanne



But the other is true as well. One does not need to experience persecution to experience the liberation of the imagination. It is this aspect of the Humanities in general and of reading literature in particular that is currently being threatened by the forces in public education that would seek to remove this “useless” expenditure of time from the curriculum and fill it with more meaningful things like technology, math and science. If the right to a public education does not include the liberation of the mind and the imagination that reading and the Humanities provide than public education is a woefully deficient education. We are making it more difficult for our children to “rejoin the community of mankind.”


Sailing ships and boats near the shore by a village

Sailing Ships near a Village

Salomon van Ruysdael



Dan Piepenbring writes in “Natty Bumppo, Soviet Folk Hero” about the influence of Cooper’s novels and their depiction of the American spirit of independence and exploration on the youth of the Soviet Union. Cooper and characters from his stories even found their way onto Soviet postage stamps. Piepenbring observes:

Instead of finding the disgusting evidence of prejudice and imperialism, though, young Russian readers tended to see the novels as ripping good yarns, so much so that their characters were inducted into public life:

What spoke to them were the emotions, the suspense, the adventure, the heroes, and the friendship … In fact, Cooper’s second name, Fenimore, by which he is more readily recognized in Russia, has become a byword for exciting adventures. Loved by even the young Lenin and Stalin, The Last of the Mohicans penetrated Russian society … As [the] poet Tamara Logacheva says, “The heroic image of a courageous and honest Indian—Uncas—noble and devoted to his vanishing traditions, became an example for imitation by many generations of young people.” (Sandra Nickel)

There you have it. You can imagine Gorbachev, his state verging on dissolution, adhering one of the Leatherstocking stamps to a letter—perhaps to Reagan or H. W. Bush—and smiling warmly at the visage of Natty Bumppo, his troubled mind allayed, for the moment, by dusty schoolboy memories of The Deerslayer.

What interests me about this is that this quintessentially American hero moved so profoundly those that lived in a culture so vastly different from that of America. It is, I suppose the same impulse that drives American readers to Greek and Roman epics like The Iliad and The Aeneid. It is important to make time to enter these foreign worlds and to spend time contemplating boats on the water, boats that are doing nothing on the water but “being there,” that merely exist, that remind us that part of merely existing is doing useless things like contemplating words on a page and colors on a canvas.


The Studio Boat

Claude Monet


In Three Minds

 From Symphony #2 Age of Anxiety, “Seven Ages of Man

New York Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein


Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young

Neil Young

“Yellow on the Broom”

Jean Redpath


Panis Angelicus

Kiri Te Kanawa; Barry Rose: English Chamber Orchestra

César Franck


In Three Minds


Painitng of woman with two faces signifying doubt

Coup of Doubt

Victor Brauner



Wallace Stevens describes the second way he looks at blackbirds like this:



I was of three minds, 

Like a tree 

In which there are three blackbirds.

        From “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”


A common euphemism for doubt is to be in two minds, so I suppose Stevens is telling us his doubt is a little bit more profound than that of the rest of us. The painting above captures an image of someone who appears “double minded.” Her profile suggests one mind, but the second eye suggesting the full face suggests a second mind, as there are clearly, to me anyway, two sides of the same face depicted. Doubt is a state of mind we often try to avoid, it is an uncomfortable place to live and we want to move on as quickly as we can, and the more minds we are in the more quickly we want to move on. Stevens’ poem is written in the past tense, and perhaps he had moved on and was no longer “trifurcated” in his thinking, but who is to say. The music runs through a gamut of attitudes, emotions, states of mind that often accompany doubt: anxiety, helplessness, hope, and faith. Hope and faith, to some, are the antithesis of doubt, but hope is often what gets us through our doubt and faith needs doubt to keep it alive, to keep it from slipping into complacency. The issue is never doubt, doubt will always be there, the issue is what we do with doubt when it comes.


Painting of a woman painting

     Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Paining

Artemisia Gentileschi



Emerson famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I think he is suggesting that if we are thoughtful and reflective we are going to change our minds. That there will be things we assert one day that we will rethink and “un-assert” the next day. Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself” said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, than I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Whitman is suggesting, and I think this is a part of Emerson’s comment as well, that there will be times when we will hold contradictory ideas. We should not be afraid or ashamed of this; we just need to remain open minded to both. It may come about that we will see the strength in one and the weakness in the other, it may be that there are times when we hold “irreconcilable differences” within ourselves, or it may come about that the inconsistencies over time will resolve themselves. In the meantime we live with the doubt and discomfort that this produces, or we shrug our shoulder, move on, and let it be. 


Francis Bacon (the Elizabethan essayist, not the 20th century painter) thought a bit differently about doubt. He observed, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” I do not think he meant that if we began doubting the truths we hold that they would eventually over time become certainties. I think what he meant is that if we continue to question the truths we hold they will eventually be confirmed as truth where such is the case or they will be shown to be wanting and will be abandoned and replaced by something more substantial, which over time will in turn be either affirmed or abandoned. But at the end of the quest, if we continue to question, our quest will be rewarded. And if the quest is to be made successfully, doubt and uncertainty are states of mind we have to learn to live with, perhaps even to enjoy.

Painting of a woman with a quizzical look on her face being atched by her dog


Arthur Hughes



Nicholas Kristof in discussing the humanities (“Don’t Dismiss the Humanities”) observed, “University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.” It is the toolbox we need if we are to make the journey from doubt to certainty and that will give us the comfort and insight we need to make that journey, which, in all probability will last a lifetime. It is in reading philosophy that we learn not only how to question, but often the questions to ask. It is in reading novels, poems, stories, and essays that we learn how others have made or are making that journey. In a conversation about the humanities and the sciences (The Way We Live Our Lives in Stories“) Jonathan Gottschall suggests “We live our lives in stories, and it’s sort of mysterious that we do this. We’re not really sure why we do this. It’s one of these questions—storytelling—that falls in the gap between the sciences and the humanities.” Gottschall wants to find that common ground where the Sciences and the Humanities can live and work together. Both, in their different ways, are trying to sort through their doubts to find certainties. Philip Ball in “Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark” suggests that many physicists have discovered what is true about physics by making up stories and than pursuing the implications of those stories. Often, maybe usually, the stories end up having no basis in reality, but they help get the journey started and in the course of the journey the truth comes out. 


Painting of a group of people one of whom is in pursuit    

Bacchus and Ariadne




The painting tells the story of Bacchus and Ariadne. The myth explains how the heavens came to be the way they are, or at least that part of the heavens where the Corona constellation is found. Often this was, perhaps still is, the function that myth and folklore served, they oriented the cultures that devised them, explained why things are as they are. Perhaps many or even most saw them as metaphors explaining the universe and our place in it. To a pre-scientific people they may even have had a ring of truth, though I think it is unwise to assume that pre-scientific people were less intelligent than we and perhaps even they only saw these stories as ways of illustrating things they did not have the tools to fully investigate and understand. But on another level, the myths are less concerned with the origins of things and more concerned with understanding human behavior and what proper and improper behavior looked like. Myth often has more to do with psychology than with physics or biology.


Painting of a court from the classical age of a person being accused before a court

Calumny of Apelles

Sandro Botticelli



Botticelli’s painting is an attempt to recreate a painting from Classical antiquity that had been lost. Botticelli constructed his painting around the description by Lucian of a painting by Apelles. Lucian’s description also explained the allegory found in the painting. Though many details are difficult to see when the painting is reduced to a size that will fit on the page, they are clearly seen when the painting is viewed in its actual size.


Detail of the accuser and accused from the pevious image 

Detail from The Calumny of Apelles

Sandro Botticelli



In this detail from the painting we can see that the man sitting on the throne has donkey’s ears, he is King Midas. The two women on either side of him represent ignorance and suspicion. The man reaching his hand out to Midas is envy. The painting tells a story about the human heart, what it wants to hear, what it often closes its eyes to, those it listens to and those it ignores. Midas in all the myths is a foolish man and the painting suggests that fools are easy prey to the darker sides of humanity. Midas’ folly is rooted in his certainties, that he can trust those around him; the darker sides of his humanity play to his “certainties.” In the painting the innocent are naked; they have no defenses and must trust to others to protect them, must trust to justice, which may or may not save the day for them. The woman in the back who is dressed in black rags represents repentance. She is largely ignored. The others, with the exception of envy, are richly dressed and appear to be rich and powerful; they all represent the antithesis of truth: slander, suspicion, and ignorance. As a story it suggests to us, as it suggested to those that first saw it, whether they saw Apelles’ painting or Botticelli’s recreation of it, that it is unwise to trust to appearances; that it is unwise to listen to those that tell us what we want to hear. Those Midas listens to are like him, they are of his class and like him they are wealthy. Maybe he believes that because they are like him they are worthy of his trust or perhaps he only listens to people like himself. 


The body of Icarus lying on a rock being ministered to water spirits

Lament for Icarus

Herbert Draper



It may be that those that first heard the story of Icarus believed that it was possible to construct wings that would enable them to fly, but whether they did or did not, they understood the emotion captured in the story, the excitement that comes from doing something novel and new and the imprudence that emotion can produce. We get carried away and the wings of our ecstasy often melt. The wings of Icarus in the painting are beautiful and splendid in the light of the setting sun. There is a beauty to Icarus himself. But neither his beauty, nor the beauty of his wings can save him. Often this is the way of things. We get excited by what we have discovered or what we have created and in our enthusiasm to play with what we have made we fall into unintended consequences. Our science and technology, among other things, have enabled us to do things that were once unimaginable, but they have also created problems that will not easily go away, whether it is damage to our environment or the tools that might eventually destroy the planet, and less apocalyptic problems like congested highways and urban blight. This is not to suggest that science and technology are “evils” to be avoided, but that we should be careful. We should make an effort to see what is behind the door our science and technology has opened. The wings of Icarus were are a good and marvelous thing, they would have led him to freedom, but not everything the wings enabled Icarus to do was prudent. To do a thing because we can is not always the best thing to do.


Statue of woman representing "Faith" overcoming two other forces protecting a child

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry

Jean-Baptiste Theodon



There is also the issue of which stories we listen to and how we apply those stories to the way we live our lives. The Ststatue depicts the Triumph of Faith over Idolatry. But the stories represented by the idols were believed in as religiously as the stories represented by faith. St. Augustine wrote The City of God in part to answer the charges made by the believers in Rome’s pagan religion that it was because Rome had become Christianized and had abandoned the gods that the Roman Empire fell to the barbarians. A person’s faith is real to that person even if it is not real to anyone else. When a faith dies, it is difficult for those that come after to understand how it could ever have been taken seriously, just as it is difficult for those that do not share a faith to understand how those that adhere to that faith can take that faith seriously. But the truths that the stories these faiths tell are a part of who we are whether we accept the faiths that gave them to us or not. They are a part of our cultural inheritance. As Americans we believe in certain truths that are self evident, though we may not always be certain of their origins. We believe in justice, that to the extent possible those that have been wronged should receive justice that we should be treated justly. But if we live in a Darwinian world, why should we expect justice?


Fresco of a crowd of people gathered on Mount Parnassus

The Parnassus




The painting above is from a series that depicts the four areas of human knowledge, philosophy, religion, poetry, and law. The paintings capture the whole of the Humanities. The poets are represented; the philosophers, painters, and musicians are represented. Even lawyers and priests are represented. This painting, The Parnassus, captures the poets, which today would include playwrights and novelists as well. Musicians are also included. Perhaps the stories they tell address our doubts and uncertainties, but even if they do not, they bring light into our lives and relief from the struggle. Stories are fun to listen to, they are fun to read, to watch on television or at the movies or in the playhouse. They do not need to be profound they do not need to give us the answers we seek. They delight the heart even if they do nothing else. 


Albert Manguel writes about reading as “Conversations with the Dead.” Though not every book we read comes to us from a dead person, many do. He begins by saying:


Reading has always been for me a sort of practical cartography. Like other readers, I have an absolute trust in the capability that reading has to map my world. I know that on a page somewhere on my shelves, staring down at me now, is the question I’m struggling with today, put into words long ago, perhaps, by someone who could not have known of my existence. The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the sixteenth century, called “conversations with the dead.” In those conversations I’m revealed. They shape me and lend me a certain magical power.


Painting of a woman at a table with a glass full of fluid and one cup that is spilled with an open book

The Sorceress

John Williams Waterhouse



Many of the problems I confront are new to me, but they are not new to the world and because they are not new to the world there is someone somewhere who has written about her or his struggles with my problem. In reading I discover how others have dealt with my problems. (I also learn something about how others have experienced my joys and accomplishments, because these are not new to the world either.) I may not come to the conclusions these earlier writers arrived at, but they give me help on the journey nonetheless. Like those physicists telling stories in the dark. The reading I do does not always provide me with an answer (to be honest I rarely read solely to find answers) but it usually gives me a way of proceeding, though the reading has almost always been done earlier when I had no need of answers or ways of proceeding. What we read stays with us and is there when we need it. Manguel ends his essay:


Almost twenty years have elapsed since I finished (or abandoned) A History of Reading. At the time, I thought I was exploring the act of reading, the perceived characteristics of the craft and how these came into being. I didn’t know I was in fact affirming our right as readers to pursue our vocation (or passion) beyond economic, political, and technological concerns, in a boundless, imaginative realm where the reader is not forced to choose and, like Eve, can have it all. Literature is not dogma: it offers questions, not conclusive answers. Libraries are essentially places of intellectual freedom: any constraints imposed upon them are our own. Reading is, or can be, the open-ended means by which we come to know a little more about the world and about ourselves, not through opposition but through recognition of words addressed to us individually, far away, and long ago.


Uncertainty and doubt frame much of our existence. No matter how loudly we tell ourselves we understand, we know what’s what, we have the truth. But even when we have the truth doubt malingers. For the truth to stay true it needs regularly to be renewed. Literature is not dogma (well, perhaps some is, but when it is, its life expectancy is rarely long); it gives us a map not a doctrine. Mary Beard in an article on laughter (“What’s So Funny”) says “The pleasure and excitement of studying laughter, for a historian, is that it generates many more questions than answers. Theories of laughter have always been ‘theories of theories,’ a way of talking about laughter and ‘something else.’” This is true of reading and of most all serious study, at least within the Humanities. 


From Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock

Selznick International Pictures

The film clip captures another aspect of doubt and uncertainty. It is an essential element for films and stories like Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Ingrid Bergman’s character, Dr. Petersen, believes in her patient John Ballantyne’s (played by Gregory Peck) innocence. Her old teacher, Dr. Brulov (played by Michael Chekhov) explains to her why that belief is irrational. Brulov is, of course, correct. There is no evidence, other than Dr. Petersen’s faith, that Ballantyne is innocent, in fact all the evidence suggests otherwise, except perhaps, Ballantyne’s character. But, as Dr. Brulov points out, one of the characteristics of a psychopath is that their character often appears trustworthy. It is because there is so much uncertainty and because Dr. Petersen’s faith appears so irrational, that the tension and the terror builds. If what Dr. Brulov tells us were not true we would have no thriller. If Dr. Petersen were not correct in her judgment concerning the character of Ballantyne we would not have a happy ending. 


Painting of a woman empthing a bowl into a body of water


Circe Invidiosa

John Williams Waterhouse



Perhaps one of the reasons we find thrillers, horror films, and other stories that play to our fear (and our desire to be frightened) so attractive is because they are a kind of metaphor for the world as we often experience it. There is much that goes on around us that is frightening, that is beyond our control, that leaves us feeling powerless. In stories that play to our fears and terrify us we see fear and terror confronted. We often, though not always, see fear and terror defeated. This is encouraging. In some ways these stories work according to Aristotle’s notion of “catharsis,” they purge our fear, we live through the terror created on the page or on the screen and we survive. Even if we do not know who Circe in the painting above is, her look inspires fear, if we know her story, we know what lurks behind that look. Also, if we know her story, we know she is eventually overcome. Circe’s is an old story, and the existence of her story suggests that the human desire to be terrified is an old one.


People seated around an upright antlered animal

Witches’ Sabbath




Dan Piepenbring in “So Vivid You Can’t Get Free of Them” writes about Ray Bradbury’s love of metaphor. The article begins with a quote from Bradbury’s book The Art of Fiction


Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story.


Many of Bradbury’s stories terrify, they speak to something at the heart of us. When as a child I went to the movies, more often than not what I went to see was a horror film. Also, as the paintings above and below suggest, horror stories did not begin with the movies. These paintings capture themes from classical mythology and suggest that the delight we take in being terrified goes back to the beginnings of human story telling. These films spoke to me differently, though, than they spoke to my parents. I remember going to the drive-in in the 1950’s when Godzilla and Rodan were both playing, it was a double feature, and at the time these were new movies, first time release in this country (they were originally released in Japan, and I am told the Japanese versions are better than their American counterparts, but I have not seen the Japanese versions). To me the films were about monsters. The premise behind how the monsters came to be did not speak much to me, I wasn’t interested, but I think they spoke to my parents. These films, and another I remember, Beginning of the End, revolved around nuclear power. It was a new thing at the time. I remember reading a “Weekly Reader” (I think) article about radiation being used to grow giant tomatoes. The point though is that the monsters were metaphors for the fears the society was living with at the time the films were made. 


Painting of a man fighting many serpents


John Singer Sargent



In Beginning of the End these experiments result in giant grasshoppers converging on the city of Chicago. But the reality of nuclear power was not that real to me as child in the 1950’s. My father, however, fought in the Pacific during World War II and was involved in some way with the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. I have photographs my father took of the aftermath and of the bomb itself (though I do not think my father took that picture). For him nuclear power was something much more real and fearful. So for my parents, that which evoked the fear in these movies was much more real and the terror they provoked was probably much more real, though, like for me, it was still just a story. 


Phoograph of a G. I. eading a warning sign in front of the Cathedral at Köln

Warning Sign in Cologne

US-Army History Images



Another film from that era starred Steve McQueen and was called The Blob. At the end of the film it is discovered that the monster, the blob of the title, could not withstand the cold. It was rendered powerless in the freezer compartment of the supermarket, from whence it was taken and flown to the North Pole. The movie ends with Steve McQueen’s girlfriend suggesting that now they are safe, to which Steve McQueen responds, “As long as the North Pole don’t melt.” I suppose when the film was made there was not much chance of that happening. Today, however, who knows. Perhaps we should be on the lookout for a gooey carnivorous substance moving south. 


The substance of our fears may change, but fear, like doubt and uncertainty, is a human constant, and the stories we tell are often our first defense against it. There will always be a place for stories about monsters and the overcoming of monsters. Even if our faith has no room for evil, even if like Alexander Pope we say, “All nature is but art, unknown to thee; / All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; / All discord, harmony, not understood; / All partial evil, universal good: / And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, / One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right” there is much that we encounter that is troubling and does not appear to go by the name of goodness. Whatever you call trouble when it comes; I hope you have a story to see you through to the end of it.


Painiting of a woman with flowers in the woods


Arthur Hughes


Given Voice

“Penelope No. 1, The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Love”

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Shara Worden & Signal

Orphée Et Eurydice, “J’Ai Perdu Mon Eurydice”

Christoph Willibald Von Gluck

Maria Callas

“Song of Eurydice”

Manos Hadjidakis

Nana Mouskouri


Procol Harum

Medea “Solo un pianto con te versare”

Luigi Cherubini

Maria Callas


Richard Strauss


Given Voice


Painting of woman weaving at a loom by candle light


Leandro Bassano



Charlotte Higgins in a recent review of a book on the importance of Homer generally and The Odyssey in particular (“The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson”) writes about the importance of Homer in her own life. She writes, “My Homeric epiphany came seven summers ago, on a road trip to Cornwall, reading Robert Fagles’s translation aloud and having it read to me over the immense chugging of an old camper van’s engine, and then at night, by the light of an oil lamp.” She goes on to explain that her exposure to Homer had been, up to this point, a struggle with Greek Grammar and vocabulary, a struggle with translation that served to conceal the beauties of the text. But hearing it read in English where she could focus on the unraveling of the story was life changing. 


Illustration featuring a woman with an axe standing over a dead body

The Murder of Agamemnon

Alfred Church



Most of us have probably only approached Homer through translations into our respective vernaculars and as a result never had to struggle with a language that is no longer spoken, even in Greece. As a result, those of us that have been transformed by Homer did not have to break through the academic walls Higgins describes, though I imagine we are also deprived of some of the richness that comes from knowing the language of the original. I recall a scene at the beginning of Terence Rattigan’s play The Browning Version where the old schoolmaster who never aroused much passion in anyone is carried away with emotion reading a passage from Aeschylus’ The Agamemnon in the original Greek. The schoolboys do not have a clue what he is saying, they have not after all mastered their Greek; like many school children, they had not done their homework the night before. But they recognize the deep emotion the Greek text has provoked in their teacher. 


Gold ring with Penelope seated on the face

Gold ring representing Penelope waiting for Odysseus.

Syria, last quarter of the 5th century BC.




Marry Beard has pointed out the silence of women in this text. In a talk she gave (“The Public Voice of Women”) she discusses Penelope:

I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey. We tend now to think of the Odyssey as the story of Odysseus and the adventures and scrapes he had returning home after the Trojan War – while for decades Penelope loyally waited for him, fending off the suitors who were pressing for her hand. But the Odyssey is just as much the story of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope; the story of his growing up; how over the course of the poem he matures from boy to man. The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.

The “heroism” of Penelope is different from the heroism of Odysseus. Where Odysseus has, in addition to his wiles, swords, spears, bows and arrows, and other sharp things to help him work his will, Penelope has only her wits, her intelligence, craft, and cunning. The depiction of Penelope on the ring above captures the essence of her gifts; she is pensive and thoughtful. She holds off the suitors with her weaving (and unweaving) and it is her offer (inspired by Athena, another woman in the story) to marry whoever can win the archery contest she proposes that initiates the grand finale of the story and Odysseus’ (and Penelope’s) victory over the suitors. She makes them an offer they not only cannot refuse but cannot win. They think all they need do is shoot an arrow through some ax handles, when in reality they must first string a bow that can only be strung by Odysseus. 


Painting of a woman pouring the contents of a cup ino a small burning cauldren


Frederick Sandys



The songs capture the voices of three different heroines from classical myth, Penelope, Eurydice, and Medea. The title of Penelope’s song is “The Stranger with the face of a Man I Love,” which captures well Penelope’s ordeal. She recognizes the face of the returned Odysseus, but after twenty years how can he be the same man he was when he left? How can she be the same woman? But even in classical storytelling women are not always quiet and passive. There is the example of Medea and also that of Judith from the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament. These women were not easily ignored and they both exacted a brutal, and in Medea’s case not an entirely just revenge.


Woman with sword, watched by a servant, beheading a man

Judith Beheading Holofernes




The woman warrior is, though not a common character, not an uncommon character either in Renaissance epic. One of the central characters in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is a woman named Bradamante. She ultimately marries another knight, Ruggerio, and their child begins the Este family. Cardinal Ippolito d’Este and Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrera were both patrons of Ariosto’s. Bradamante, though, was one of the most valiant and most capable knights in the story. She marries Ruggerio because he is the only knight capable of defeating her in combat. Tasso in his poem The Liberation of Jerusalem also includes a woman warrior, Clorinda. She is a Saracen, but is baptized a Christian as she is dying. Like Bradamante she excels as a warrior. The poem is about the first Crusade and the Christian victory. Clorinda, though a Saracen, is a heroine in the story, hence her conversion (Tasso was after all a Christian poet and he is true to his loyalties). In Spenser’s Faerie Queen there is also a woman warrior that plays prominently in the story, Britomarte. 


Painting of a man pouring water over a woman's head

Tancred baptizes the dying Clorinda

Anonymous Italian Painter



The significance of the women warriors in these poems may only be that Tasso and Spenser were imitating Ariosto and Tasso and Spenser may only have had a woman warrior in their poems because Ariosto had one in his. The poems themselves in spite of the influence are very different from one another. Ariosto’s poem is as comic as it is heroic in its telling. Spenser poem is allegorical while Tasso’s is a straightforward heroic epic, more in the mold of The Iliad or The Aeneid. The women warriors in these poems, though, are warriors, not like Judith whose actions in the story are not in keeping with her “life’s work” or Medea who is the daughter of a king and the granddaughter of a god and as such existed between the human and the divine. Also, being the niece of Circe, a goddess of magic, her weapons were also of a different character from those of a knight in armor. Part of what makes Bradamante, Clorinda, and Britomarte interesting as characters is that they are not silenced and that they live and move through their world not as Penelope moved through hers, but as Odysseus did; that in this patriarchal society these women are treated as, or very nearly as, equals of their male counterparts. These stories also suggest that as much as we may think we understand a time and a place there are often aspects to that time and place that surprise us or do not conform to that understanding. 


Wood carving of a woman's face

Margery Kempe from Kings Lynn

Carving in the church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn



The British Library recently digitized and made available online the first autobiography written in English, The Book of Margery Kempe (“Margery Kempe, the first English autobiographer, goes online”). Though written in English, it is the English of Geoffrey Chaucer and not the English we speak today, though with a bit of patience it can be gotten through, as Kempe’s language is closer to our own than Chaucer’s. She was a woman with a voice she was not afraid to use. Many found her an annoying person to be around and at one point in her travels those traveling with her expelled her from the group. This meant she had to travel alone through very dangerous country. She at one point confronts a bishop with the authority to execute her as a heretic. She spoke “truth to power” when such speech could be punished severely; at a time when such speech was costly. Fortunately for Kempe, the bishop backed down. She traveled the world and accomplished things few men or women of the day accomplished. It is interesting to compare Margery Kempe’s memoirs with those of John Mandeville, who claimed to travel through similar parts of the world at about the same time. Where Mandeville’s are filled with what we now know to be mythological creatures and places, filling the world he traveled with what the people of his day believed would be found there, Kempe’s story remains true to the world as it was and has been shown to be. She may have her superstitions that flavor the story from time to time, but she does not “invent”’ to make her story interesting. When looked at in light of her time her story does not need embellishment. Though her story is a spiritual one, her heroism is as real as that of any hero from myth or legend. Besides that she brewed some of the best ale in her part of the country.


Painting of a one eyed gian pursuing men in a boat tryng to escape as the giant gets ready to throw a massive boulder

Odysseus and Polyphemus

Arnold Böcklin



To a certain extent the heroes of epic, myth, and folklore serve as metaphors of a kind (perhaps not metaphors in the conventional sense, but there might be a useful insight or two to be gotten by thinking of them as such, for a moment or two anyway). Their stories excite and readers come back to them in part because of the spectacle the language of the stories create in the mind. But there is more to them than just the excitement and splendor of the stories. If strength and courage were all it took to be a hero, than the sequel to The Iliad might better have been about Ajax who was a stronger and more powerful warrior than Odysseus. Even Odysseus recognizes (or so their conversation in the underworld seems to suggest) that Ajax was more deserving of Achilles’ shield. But what gets Odysseus the shield is his cunning and intellect, and Homer seems to suggest to us that these are important attributes and part of what sets Odysseus apart. Homer recognizes Odysseus’ failings and part of what he suffers on his long journey home is a kind of penance for his shortcomings, but with all his failings he remains remarkable. It is on this the heroic metaphor is built. It is the strength, tenacity, resourcefulness, adaptability and wisdom that make up the character of Odysseus that makes him metaphoric. Michael Wood in a review of Denis Donoghues new book Metaphor (“From Milton to McEwan: the beauty of metaphor”) writes:

We have recourse to our sense of absurdity in order to register the stretch and strangeness of these images. But then we need to let it go so that the images may do their enchanted work; Donoghue says, in a memorable phrase, that he thinks of reading “as enchanted interpretation”. 

This is his repeated, lyrical theme. “Readers expand metaphorically when they encounter metaphor”; metaphors “add perceptions that were not there before”; a metaphor “gives us more abundant life”; metaphors “offer to change the world by changing one’s sense of it”; the source of metaphor “is the liberty of the mind among such words as there are”.

Odysseus expands our sense of the heroic. He is in many ways an unlikeable character. This is seen in his literary evolution. In Shakespeare and in Virgil (though it must be added that it served Virgil’s own epic purposes to make him less likeable) Odysseus becomes more villainous. But this un-likeability expands our sense of the hero into someone that need not be “pure” or even good in every instance. They are like us; they have a dark side, in some cases a side that is darker than our own. It is this aspect of a common, fallible humanity that makes them effective archetypes worthy of emulation. It is not the specificity necessarily of their actions so much as what they are willing to risk for a cause or a principle. 


Painting of a woman holding a child against a Russian cityscape

Petrograd Madonna

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin



Socialist Realism was an art form used by the Soviet Union and other Communist nations for propaganda purposes. The images in these paintings work because what they depict work as heroic metaphors. There is a beauty and a truth to these paintings. The women in both paintings capture a true nobility and a true heroism. What the women in these paintings represent give the propaganda the grain of truth it needs to be successful, it is a kind of “goodness by association.” The courage and purity of the images transfer to the messages and aspirations of those manipulating the images. This is something that is true of all art created with the intent to shape public opinion. It is why we need to be literate not just in language but in media; we need to know how music, images, and language affect us and shape the way we think and the conclusions we reach.


Poster featuring a woman walking with a Russian cityscape in the background

What the October Revolution gave to the female worker and peasant. 1920 Soviet propaganda poster. The Inscription of the buildings read “library”, “kindergarten”, “school for grown-ups. Etc.

Unknown Artist



In America, and most of the western world, these images are seen to propagate an insidious intent and of course there is the truth of the Soviet Gulag to underscore the insidiousness of that intent. Human history is filled with those that blinded themselves to what those around them were doing because they accepted the argument that what was being done was being done to achieve a good and a noble end. But how noble and good can the ends be when the means of achieving those ends are evil? Is it possible for the ends to remain untouched by the means through which they were achieved? In reading any book or in listening to any piece of music or looking at any picture we need to consider the philosophy and the point of view that lies behind it. What work are the notes, the images, the words being given to perform? How are our thoughts and perceptions being shaped by what we see, hear, and read? In the end we all need to decide whether we are going to be passive or active consumers of the arts? A good education ought to cultivate a curiosity that seeks to understand the points of view and ways of thinking that are the foundations of the arts and entertainment we enjoy.


The Long Reach of Reason

Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

TED Talks


The animated TED Talk asks us to consider philosophy and reason and their place not just in our world but in the world of our ancestors for as far back as one would care to go. One of the participants in the discussion, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein addresses similar issues in an article she wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Philosophy Makes Progress” (also in a new book Plato at the Googleplex). She makes an argument for what philosophy and the Humanities in general provide that science cannot. She sees philosophy occupying a space that lies between science and literature. Plato, because he distrusted the poets, excludes them from his ideal state and his philosophy, which suggests a tension exists between philosophy and literature and probably the other arts. In the article Newberger says of philosophy:

The naysayer’s view of philosophy as failed or immature science denies it the possibility of progress, as does the yea-sayer’s view of philosophy as a species of literature. But neither conforms to what philosophy is really about, which is to render our human points of view ever more coherent. It’s in terms of our increased coherence that the measure of progress has to be taken, not in terms suitable for evaluating science or literature. We lead conceptually compartmentalized lives, our points of view balkanized so that we can live happily with our internal tensions and contradictions, many of the borders fortified by unexamined presumptions. It’s the job of philosophy to undermine that happiness, and it’s been at it ever since the Athenians showed their gratitude to Socrates for services rendered by offering him a cupful of hemlock.

Philosophy is included among the Humanities, as are music, art, and literature. But it is different from the other Humanities. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise, as Biology is different from Physics even though they are all included among the sciences. What the Humanities share is a grounding in their past, their present is built upon their past (the sciences tend to kill off their past in creating their present). Also, the materials the Humanities work with are materials that cannot be tested or evaluated by the scientific method; they cannot be studied in a laboratory. 


Painting of man leading an army with a rifle in one hand and a bible in the other

Tragic Prelude

John Steuart Curry



The Humanities give us images that are both disturbing, as the painting above and serene, as the painting below and much that is in between. All the Humanities do this, philosophy, art, music, and literature. In this respect they confront us with the difficulties and pleasures of being human. They make us confront issues we might rather avoid. They make us aware of what is beautiful and hopefully make us aware of the need to preserve what is beautiful. As is pointed out in the video and the article humanity’s moral progress is the result of reasoning through what the Humanities teach us. The world of Homer was more brutal and far less humane then our own. Yet the world of Homer gave us Homer. Much of our moral and philosophical progress began by grappling with the questions that were first, if not raised, recorded by Plato. It is in going back to reconsider these questions that we make moral progress. We often answer these questions differently than Plato and his contemporaries, but because the questions are the right questions it is important to re-ask them and to consider them in light of what has been learned about the world and our own humanity in the intervening years. 


Painitng of a ship sailing the sea off of a rocky coast

In the Blue Expanse

Arkady Rylov



What does it mean to be given voice, to be allowed to speak for ourselves, for our aspirations, for our ideals? The Humanities give us a voice that the sciences cannot. We are allowed to reason through things that do not have a concrete reality. We are free to feel things that cannot be shown to be true or relevant by any kind of scientific test. These thoughts and emotions are an important part of what it means to be human. But because we are free to think and feel these things, does that mean that these things have a place in the academy, that they are worthy of study. Edward Mendelson points out a side of the poet W. H. Auden’s character that he often kept secret ((“The Secret Auden”). Knowing his sensitivity to the sufferings of others does not increase our understanding of his poetry or provide a rationale for studying it, but perhaps in part it is because he was the kind of poet he was that he was the kind of man he was and that there is in his poems a voice that asks us to consider being kind and generous and virtuous in spite of our inclinations be otherwise, or at least to consider the possibility. 


Painting with boats on a sandy beach with ship and a customs house in the background

Evening on Dnieper River

Vladimir Ivanovich Ovchinnikov



Penelope had only her intellect as a weapon to confront her enemies. She had no one to fight for her and she was not permitted to fight, in the conventional sense, for herself. But she exercised a kind of voice, a subversive and a cunning voice. In this way she and Odysseus made a “perfect couple.” And perhaps the metaphor here for us, the Penelopean voice we need to find, is that in living our daily lives we need to practice that kind of heroism practiced by Penelope. We may not be in positions where we can confront those that threaten us and our ideals; we are not permitted to use weapons with sharp edges or explosives, we have to find more subtle, though equally effective way of achieving our ends. Being allowed to speak what we think is not the same thing as being given voice. To be given voice we need not only to express our views, but also to have a way of putting those views into practice. We are not silenced when our voice is silenced we are silenced when our ability to act in concert with our beliefs is prevented. It is not enough to be heard; often speaking our mind is easy. We are given voice, and often this is something that is not given to us by others but by ourselves, when we live out what we say. That’s why Aristotle thought plot was so important, it enables us to see what people do while we listen to what they say and measure the distance between the two.


Seascape at night with lighted ships and shoreline

Moonlight Night on the Volga River

Vladimir Ivanovich Ovchinnikov


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



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


What a Piece of Work

“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”


The Beatles


Charlie Chaplin

Tony Bennett

“Song for Athene”

John Tavener

Stephen Cleobury & King’s College Choir, Camboridge

“In My Life”


The Beatles

“The Tyger”

John Tavener

Harry Christophers & the Sixteen

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken

A. P. Carter

Gregg Allman


What a Piece of Work


Picture of a woman smoking a cigarette

Publicity photo of Marlene Dietrich for the film Shanghai Express (1932)

Don English; Paramount Pictures



The songs run us through a gamut of human emotions, the fear we often have of showing our feelings, the ability to find bits of joy and happiness in the face of suffering or adversity, the impulse to worship, if not a deity, works of nature or the marvels of the cosmos, the need to reflect on and contemplate our lives and how they are lived, feelings of fear and anxiety, and the desire for community, for friends and family and the need to keep them close even after death by preserving memories and traditions. Part of preserving that community also involves earning and keeping respect. We want those who are close to us to not just like us, but to at some level admire something about us. And this is more than an egotistical desire it is a part of how we earn our place in that community and though that place need not necessarily be earned in the eyes of the community, it does need to be earned in our own eyes. In this sense this admiration is a kind of affirmation.

Portraits are often revealing, like the songs they too capture a gamut of emotions. The portrait of Marlene Dietrich is suggestive. I have not seen the film so I do not know the context of the emotions that are portrayed in the photograph, but there seems to be in her eyes and expression a longing and a yearning. She looks like someone who is troubled and alone. But whatever the context, as a portrait it reveals an inner life, an inner consciousness. Hamlet in one of his madder moments says, “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” Is this list of qualities the product of madness or is there reason and method to it? What would his portrait reveal if it were painted at this moment? Many of the characters in this play are at their most profound when they are at their most unreliable. Polonius tells his son, “This above all to thine own self be true.” This from a man who has probably not been true to himself at any moment in the play. He knows how to speak wisely, but he does not know how to act wisely. And those who speak a wisdom they cannot perform are seen as foolish and pompous, and a bit absurd. 


Photograph of a man resting his chin on his arm looking intently

Self Portrait Created for an article for wikipedia on window light photography

Hari Bhagirath



Of course, if we are honest with ourselves we are all of us too much of the time a bit like poor Polonius. Wisdom, like so many things of value, is more easily pronounced than performed. Polonius is also representative of an important office of literature in that it confronts us with a choice. We can sit in judgment on Polonius, and we probably should, or we can take our reading or viewing of the play a step further and reflect on the “Polonius” in ourselves. Reading well often involves personalizing what we read, measuring ourselves against characters, events, and choices that are made. This is not seeing ourselves in the characters but measuring ourselves by the same yardstick we measure these characters. The Guardian is publishing a series of articles by Robert McCrum on the hundred best novels in English (it begins with, “The 100 best novels: No 1 – The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)” and he is now up to twelve, “The 100 best novels: No 12 – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)“). He at one point in the process stops and asks himself and us, how he/we should go about forming this list (“How to choose the 100 Best novels”). As an English teacher I find the lists and short articles interesting. There is an arbitrary quality to this list, McCrum tells us, for example, that authors like Walter Scott have been left out not because they have been found wanting, but because his knowledge of their work is wanting and he does not feel competent to judge them (which is very likely true of everyone who compiles such lists). But the books he has chosen are varied and interesting and they all raise a number of issues that are meaningful to me as a reader. They are books I have read and continue to read not because they are good for me, they are of course, but that is not why I read them, but because they move me and provoke in me powerful emotions, powerful questions, and important issues. They often confront me with goodness and with its absence.


Portrait of Chinese Chan Buddhist monk

Portrait of Chinese Chan-Buddhist monk Wuzhun Shifan

Chinese artist in the year 1238



An article in the New York Review of Books asks “What Is a Good Life”? I misread the title when I first saw it and thought it was asking, “What is the good life?” A very different question in many ways. The article is about a study that followed a number of Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939 through 1944. The study is the longest running study that has ever been done, or is being done, as it is still in progress. It’s followed 268 graduates from graduation to the present and will continue until the last participant dies, or so the article suggests. Along the way it has incorporated into itself participants from a number of other studies following folks from very different backgrounds. The study has problems but what it wanted to discover is what makes a happy life. The assumptions at the time the study began were that a happy life was defined in terms of prosperity, comfort, success, and leisure. It consisted of a good job, a good marriage, and well behaved children who grew to have good jobs and good marriages as well. One conclusion that was drawn was that those with a modest intelligence (the Harvard folks had better than modest intelligence, but others blended into the study at a later date were of a more modest intelligence, at least according to the tests that measure such things) and a good education (who went to college) were more likely to find jobs with comfortable incomes and in the end were more likely to be happy. They were also more likely to be healthier and to live longer.

The article raises many questions about the studies findings, largely because the study lacked a clear focus at the beginning and changed its focus as it progressed. But the question still remains, is leading a good life the same as leading the good life. Do we define a good life in terms of how happy and content we are or do we define it in other ways. Can we have a good life and at the same time be bad people? Does it matter? What does it mean to be “good” and what does it mean to be “bad?” These are questions the study does not seem to consider, though aspects of the study looked at what factors might lead to a life of crime. But what if in order to be fully human or to be fully content as humans we need to know what it means to be good and how goodness is best achieved? How important is an education to living the good life, as opposed to a good life? 


Photograph of men playing cards

Photo – Black and White – Augusto De Luca photographer

Augusto De Luca



Does literature and its study offer us insight into this, does it answer these questions. Lee Siegel thinks, “Fictions lack of practical usefulness is what gives it its special freedom.” (“Should Literature Be Useful”) He says of literature’s ability to arouse and develop empathy, “Yet even if empathy were always the benign, beneficent, socially productive trait it is celebrated as, the argument that producing empathy is literature’s cardinal virtue is a narrowing of literary art, not an exciting new expansion of it.” Though I believe empathy is something we learn from literature, even if we are not particularly good readers, it is not the only thing or even the most important thing to be gotten from reading literature. The freedom that reading can give us is often freedom from our circumstances; it offers us an opportunity to escape, not so that we can avoid the world, but so that we can have time away from it in order to renew our strength and recover the energy we need to confront the challenges it puts in our way. Sometimes we need to leave the world in order to experience what the world ought to be and to reacquaint ourselves with a good and a just society. On the other hand, it can show us what real injustice and tyranny are and in so doing suggest to us that things in our world may not be as bad as we were inclined to believe, stories often rekindle hope and optimism. But as Siegel says, it does many things and no catalog can capture all of them. 


Photograph of a man with a goatee wearing a fedora hat, turtleneck, and an outdoor jacket

Self Portrait

Edward S. Curtis



Charlotte Higgins in an article on The Odyssey The Odyssey: a soldier’s road home,” examines ways that reading can bring healing, in that it suggests that others before us have experienced what we are experiencing and we can than learn from that experience. It is often suggested that old books have little to teach us, that they are boring, uninteresting, and tedious, among other things; but more often they are true and perhaps the greater problem with reading books in school is that students do not have the knowledge or experience that enables them to see that truth. Students often like The Odyssey because it is an adventure and so many strange and unusual things take place. They are carried away by the story without identifying overly much with Odysseus or his struggles on his long voyage home. But, according to Higgins, many soldiers returning from combat have struggled with emotions not unlike those that Odysseus struggles with in the course of his story. There are truths to which we are born with a certain understanding or acquire that understanding early in life. There are other truths we grow into, not that these truths weren’t true before we grew into them, they just were not a conscious part of our lives and experience.


Painting of a young man with a hat

Self Portrait




Edward Short in an article on Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Agony of Spirit,” suggests that there is an ecstasy of language that stimulates the poet in the writing of his poetry and the reader in the reading of it. Hopkins has always fascinated me because no matter what he did he always managed to put himself at odds with those around him. He became a Catholic in a country, England, that did not care much for Catholics, and he not only became a Catholic, but he became a Jesuit, which was the order within the Catholic Church the English liked least. When the Catholic Church sent him to Ireland to teach he supported the English monarchy in a country that was trying to rid itself of the monarch. His poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, a poem in which he took great pride, was totally incomprehensible to those within his order who discarded it (the poem is an elegy on the deaths a group of nuns in a shipwreck and was submitted to a Catholic journal for publication). Robert Bridges published Hopkins’ poems as a tribute to his friend who had died, but he did not fully understand the poems or their significance. The article suggests that the poems were Hopkins’ way of studying and learning patience. Poets of many stripes have struggled with their art and the societies in which they lived and the poems are often the working out of this struggle (“The Sedgwick brothers’ top ten facts about William Blake,” “Last Words,” “The Imaginative Man,” “Enigmatic Dickinson Revealed Online,” and “What can WH Auden do for you?”). Hopkins and the poets in these articles captured the struggles of their times in their poems and through their poems we often find the tools we need to confront the troubles of our times and perhaps the inspiration to do for our times what they did for theirs. But so much of life involves struggle and in seeing the struggles of others depicted with such eloquence we often find strength to confront our own. 


Painting of an Asian man with mustache and goatee

Portrait of late Ming scholar-official Ho Bun

Unknonw, perhaps late Ming portrait painter



Reading also brings comfort. Sometimes we read just to nourish the soul and the spirit. Tim Hanningan, “Comfort Reads: Kim by Rudyard Kipling,” writes about how he takes the novel Kim with him wherever he goes and he talks of taking great comfort from this book. He points out others who have taken comfort from this book as well, in particular a prisoner of war during World War II who trusted an informant solely because his name was Kim and that name evoked for the prisoner the novel that meant so much to him. This, obviously, did not work to his advantage but it does suggest the power the written word can have over us. 

Graham Greene in a scene from his novel The Human Factor has his central character, Maurice Castle, use a novel by Anthony Trollope for a “book code.” The character is a double agent within the British Secret Service and Trollope is a novelist whose books could be taken anywhere without arousing suspicion. In describing this scene the narrator tells us that during the Second World War Trollope’s books enjoyed a resurgence of popularity because they captured so well an earlier more peaceful time that the people yearned for in the midst of war. The novels were a kind of “comfort food” for the spirit. Books do not change our reality, the problems still exist, they do not go away, but for a time, in our imaginations, we can go away, our imaginations enable us to recapture a tranquility our circumstances may not permit us to enjoy.

From It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra

Liberty Pictures/RKO Radio Pictures


The film clip gives us a snapshot of George Bailey, an insight into his character. He is waiting to leave a job he did not want to pursue something he has from a very young age yearned to do, to travel, explore, and achieve “great things.” In the scene he is going over with his uncle Billy what he plans to do after his brother, Harry, gets off the train to take over the running of the family business, which will free George to pursue his dreams. He learns, though, that Harry is not going to take over the firm. He will take over the firm if George insists on it, but it is clear that Harry has other plans. As George Baily walks from the train to where his brother’s new bride is waiting we see the inner struggle and as he approaches his brother’s bride we see a hint of a smile and realize he has made his choice, he will stay and let his brother go. It is this kinetic portraiture, the visual images, that communicate this decision, not a word is spoken. Does he make the right choice? In the context of the film he does, but why is this the right choice? Why, in some situations, is the right thing giving up our dream to let others pursue theirs? What makes George Bailey’s decision the right decision? Would we as viewers of the film believing that to be the right decision, make a similar choice if we found ourselves in a similar circumstance? 

Jim tells Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that most “signs” point to bad things that are going to happen so that we can prepare ourselves for the troubles that are approaching, but that we do not need signs to tell us about the good things, they do not require much in the way of preparation, we just need to be able to enjoy our good fortune. Perhaps sacrifice is a bit like this as well. Stories can prepare us for times when sacrifice is required so that when the time comes we are ready for it, we have thought about our responsibilities and made our decisions before we are actually called upon to make those decisions. But the question still remains, why must I sacrifice? It would not be immoral if George said to his brother “I put in my time, now it’s your turn.” I do not think he would be criticized overly much if he did say so, in fact we might see this outcome as just and fair. But if George had behaved in this way, I think he would have lost stature in our eyes. That is the way with heroes, they do not demand justice for themselves, they do what is the right thing in the unique light of the current circumstances. We look at them and wonder if we share their heroism. We probably want to see ourselves as heroic, but are willing to pay the cost?


Painting of a man contemplating at a table with flowers

Portrait of Dr. Gachet

Vincent Van Gogh



Jeanette Winterson in an article on the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, “Why we need fairytales: Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde,” sees fairy tales as preparing us for the future. They create for children, and for the adults that read them to children, examples of “reversals of fortune” where characters who have had much suddenly find themselves with very little. They are often the story of Job told in a language that is more accessible to children. Hansel and Gretel lose their mother and with this loss they lose everything else as well. The story ends well for Hansel and Gretel, at least it does in the versions we are most familiar with, though I do not think this is true for all versions. For Winterson, Wilde in these stories “prophesied” his coming hardships. But fairy tales often foretell all of our hardships. The world is not fair, God has given the evil one permission for a season to do us harm and we have to come to grips with why has this been permitted to happen. We all have moments when we feel terribly alone when we have not only not done wrong; we have made all the right choices.”  (Another article on children’s stories, “How Children’s Books Thrived Under Stalin,” addresses a more subversive aspect of children’s literature.)


Painting of blacksmith posing in front of his forge

Pat Lyon at the Forge

John Nagle



Reading fills an important role in our lives. As Siegel says often the only role we need to give our attention to is literature’s ability to offer us a kind of freedom. If we approach stories for the liberty they offer, we will get all the rest they have to offer for taking the journey. As a teacher I often struggle on the one hand, with the importance of students reading anything at all for the opportunities the reading gives to young readers. On the other I struggle with the need to help students learn to unravel difficult language so they can explore the depths of what they read and grow in their appreciation of the majesty of language and all of which it is capable. It is also impossible to find stories that every student will enjoy as every student’s tastes, as are every teacher’s, are different. I know most of my students read; I see them with books they are reading (often reading these books when they should be reading other things in class). 


Painting of a man in a tuxedo gesticulating next to a man in an Asian costume shooting an arrow into the sky

Vsevolod Meyerhold

Boris Grigoriev



Neil Gaiman in a recent article, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming,” discusses the importance of libraries and the reading they foster. He talks of being asked to attend a science fiction conference in China. He is puzzled by this because the government had in the past done all they could to discourage the reading of science fiction. He was told when he asked about this, that they found though their engineers were very good at building things others designed, they were not very good at designing. So they asked all those folks that did the designing in America about what inspired them. The Chinese found that every one of them began by reading science fiction and continued to read science fiction. So the Chinese thought there might be something to this and changed their position. 

We live in an age that does not attribute much value to literature, to art, or to music, or the Humanities in general. But they do teach us important things the more practical disciplines like math and science, cannot. It is easy in this environment for students to dismiss literature that demands a lot from them without, on the surface of things as they understand them, promising much in return. But if a goal of our education is to grow in maturity and judgment, there needs to be some focus on what the Humanities can teach us in this regard. The practical arts can teach us how to make a lot of money, but they cannot teach us why making money is important or if it is important. 

Too many are not interested in a good education, they are interested in a good paycheck and they see a good education as a route to a good paycheck. It is not the education they want it is the money, and who can blame them; it is money that gets us what we value, it is money that is the surest way to prosperity, power and comfort. An education that makes us thoughtful and reflective, that reinforces values of love of neighbor and community, of liberty and justice often stands in the way of accumulating wealth. Those for whom the object of a good education is a measure of wisdom are often at a disadvantage in the pursuit of success, as it is understood by the world at large. But, perhaps, also, if that measure of wisdom has been attained the pursuit of that kind of success losses its savor.


Painting of a ballerina dancing

Swan Princess (Portrait of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel)

Mikhail Vrubel


Wise Guys

The Silver Tongued Devil

Kris Kristofferson

Stranger in a Strange Land

Leon Russell

Save the Children

Marvin Gaye


Wise Guys


Portrait of a woman with a pen

“Detail of the portrait of a young woman (so-called Sappho) with writing pen and wax tablets.”

Roman Painting from Pompeii



The painting is of Sappho and suggests, or ought to suggest, that not all “wise guys” are guys. One reason we read literature, listen to music, study paintings is because they help to make us wise. It is not enough, of course, to just engage the arts superficially; like any relationship they require we spend “quality time.” But if we read well, listen carefully, study closely there is much pleasure to be gotten and much insight to be gotten, insight into ourselves, into the world around us, and into those that fill our world. If nothing else they help us to see the limitations of our own experience, while helping us understand the experiences of others, especially those whose experiences are so foreign to our own experience. 

The three songs suggest three varieties of wisdom. The first, The Silver Tongued Devil, revolves around a man who cannot be trusted, who also seems not to accept responsibility for his more irresponsible or self-serving behaviors. It is worth knowing, it is important to know, that there are those that will say anything to achieve their desires and we need to be on our guard against such people. Most of us have gone, or are going, through moments when our naiveté has blinded us to those that would exploit or manipulate us. The experience often makes us bitter, or cynical, or angry. Wisdom helps us to guard against being taken advantage of in this way and it also helps us to get through these experiences and regain our footing. It can also help assuage the pain. We learn from characters like Pip in Great Expectations who as a child is victimized by a vengeful woman or from J. Alfred Prufrock whose love song throws a bit of light on our own insecurities and feelings of alienation. 

The second song underscores how wisdom sometimes separates us from the world around us, we feel like “strangers in a strange land.” Part of growing wise is learning to be comfortable with who we are, with our place in the world, with our aspirations. Part of growing wise is learning how to accept ourselves while resisting the temptation to be what others expect us to be, to no longer feel the need to “prepare a face for the faces that we meet.” Ben Jonson’s play Volpone revolves around characters that do all they can to manipulate the emotions of a man they believe to be dying in hopes of using his death to enrich themselves. They are wearing the face Volpone expects them to wear in hopes of manipulating him. Volpone, of course, is manipulating them to enrich himself. His first words in the play are “Good morning to the day and next my gold.” Those that fawn over Volpone get what they deserve, and Volpone gets what he deserves as well, while the innocent are kept from harm. Greed and avarice prove the undoing of all the villains. The play is a very funny play and also very wise.

The third song, Save the Children suggests one of the responsibilities of one generation for the generation that follows. Those that are wise among us realize that we have a responsibility to the children entrusted to us and that if our way of life is to be preserved the youth of our age need to be equipped to take over the world and prepare it for the generation that follows them. My parent’s generation provided for me and many of my generation the education and the upbringing we needed to make our way successfully into the world. Not all parents succeeded and probably no parent ever succeeds completely, but the desire to raise us well and the fidelity to their responsibilities made up for the mistakes and misunderstandings. Love, even when it is imperfect, heals many wounds. Of course, not all parents were responsible and not all parents raised their children well, some never tried. But as a generation, it seems to me, and this may only be because it is the product of my experience, they did well. I was allowed to grow and to play and to pursue my aspirations. I was given the education I needed to pursue those aspirations and to find the kind of work that is fulfilling and meaningful to me. I was allowed to become foolish so that I might grow in wisdom, and much of that foolishness was pursued under the protection of their wings. 


Portrait of a bearded man writing at a desk full of papers

Leo Tolstoy at His Desk

Nikolai Ge



There was an article recently about a program using classic Russian Literature, “Crime and punishment: Juvenile offenders study Russian literature,” to help juvenile criminals change so that they could reenter the world without falling into old habits. The characters in these stories and the issues raised resonated with the experiences of these convicts. Perhaps the books played some of the role of a parent for these men and women. They offered the examples, provided some of the alternatives, and suggested ways in which the past could be overcome that might be lessons others learned from parents. Whatever the role played by these stories, they put many on the road to wisdom and recovery. And, of course, as mentioned earlier, not all parents parent well. Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice was a foolish, though well meaning parent; Creon in Antigone was foolish and cruel. The traits that colored their foolishness, the good intentions of the one and the cruelty of the other, had profound consequences for their children. We are all to one degree or another foolish, and for some “meaning to do well” is all of which they are capable. 


Portrait of a woman seated; with a smirk perhaps

Portrait of Jane Austen

Cassandra Austen



Charles Barzun in “A Letter to My Grandfather” captures the essence of how one generation affects another. Charles Barzun talks about the importance of the influence of his grandfather, Jacque Barzun, on his, Charles’, personal development. A large part of that influence was due to the grandfather’s listening to the grandson, taking the grandson seriously and stepping up the depth and level of his advice and praise to correspond to younger man’s personal growth and maturity. When encouragement was what was most needed, there was encouragement, when encouragement needed to be spiced with some criticism and concerns he added criticisms and concerns, but in a way that would not dishearten, but would encourage and motivate improvement. This is a large part of wisdom, knowing what to say at the proper moment and the way to say it. 


Painting of a man seated on a bed surrounded by a group of men

Death of Socrates

Jacques-Louis David



For the Western World Socrates is probably one of the more important models of wisdom. For the Eastern World Confucius was. They both understood that wisdom was something that was sought and rarely, if ever, fully attained. For one to think wisdom had been attained was seen as folly and often provoked ridicule. I think it still does. Perhaps wisdom is a bit like a mirage in the desert, we can always see it out in front us, but we can never quite reach it. Of course, there is a significant difference; the mirage is an illusion, while true wisdom is not. As a people I think we often hold before us examples of wisdom we try to emulate. The Catholic Church has its saints (the Protestant Church does as well, but they are identified differently). There are the philosophers, the “doers of good,” the heroes of our causes or our creeds, whether they be secular or divine. We need examples to follow and to imitate. For Confucius it was the ancestors, though they may not have always been deserving of emulation; for Socrates it was his conscience and his idea of justice as he understood it. He did not trust “the ancestors;” he had problems with the example set by the poets and philosophers (though some of this skepticism may have been attributed to him by his student Plato). Perhaps, the ultimate irony of Greek philosophy was Aristotle placing his teacher, Plato, among the poets that Plato wished to banish. Plato’s idealism became the foundation of the Humanities and Aristotle’s materialism became the foundation of the Sciences and the scientific method. They offer two paths to wisdom we still follow, while recognizing, of course, their limitations.


Portrait of a man seated in a chair with a book





Poems, stories, plays, and essays shaped the way I see the world. Literature gave me insight into the human heart, my heart primarily, but others’ as well. There were a number of essays recently on this subject, “Perhaps Culture Is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities” by Leon Wieseltier, “Ave atque vale” by Donald Kagan, “Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics” by Sam Sacks, and “Idealism and Blindness: Of flaking paint and blemishes” by Leon Wieseltier. What these articles all have in common is the importance that they place on literature and the Humanities in shaping our society and the people we become. Many of the books that comprise our literary tradition are dismissed by our contemporary culture as no longer being relevant. Many today believe the storytellers, poets, and philosophers were addressing issues that belonged to a different time and that they no longer speak to us. Each of these articles suggests this view is false. They do not dismiss contemporary art and literature, they recognize that the Humanities are not a dead thing and that because they are living, they are growing and each generation, including our own, will make its contribution. Each of the articles by Wieseltier makes important points. The first, “Perhaps Culture Is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities” resonates with me because I am not much younger than he, like Wieseltier I saw myself as a part of the “counterculture” when I was in college. Though for me, and most of my counterculture friends, literature, and that included the classic literature produced by those long dead, shaped our view of what culture should be. 

There are aspects of this counterculture that, looking back, seem naïve or insufficient. Other aspects I no longer believe, but much of what I have abandoned was motivated initially by a desire to correct what seemed broken in the culture. Many of those things still seem broken to me, I have not lost my liberal point of view, but I see the likes of St. Francis more than the “rabble rousers” of my youth as better models to follow; but then I have always been more attracted to the Dorothy Day side of the counterculture than the Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman side. After all, Jerry Rubin was in his thirties when he said we should “trust no one over thirty.” However it came to be this way, we have reached a place where those that would defend Culture and try to keep its influence alive have become the counterculture.


Japanese woodblock of a woman seated at a table writing

Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyama-dera

Suzukin Harunobu



I also think Wieseltier’s discussion of idealism in “Idealism and Blindness: Of flaking paint and blemishes” is important. He tells of a man who was blind and could only imagine what the world looked like based on what he read and what he was told. This man was given an operation that gave to him his sight. When he saw what the world really looked like, it failed to live up to the world he had expected to see; its beauty paled when compared to the beauty he had imagined. The man ended up committing suicide because the world failed so dreadfully to live up to his expectations. Wieseltier suggests that this is the challenge that idealists face. The world as it is will never live up to the world the idealist imagines and strives to create. There has to be a dose of reality or hope will be lost. But that dose of reality need not kill our idealism; it should nourish our hope and inspire our effort. It nourishes hope because it keeps it grounded in what is, it inspires our effort because though we recognize the world is not as we would wish it, and may never be as we would wish it, we still have a goal towards which we can aspire and we can still work to make what is a bit better. 

There was another article, “Big Data Meets the Bard,” that took a very different view of literature and of reading. The article examines a number of contemporary scholars that let computers do their reading for them. One of those interviewed, and working on a graduate degree in English, proudly stated (or so it seems to me) that he has not read a book in years and cannot even remember what the last book was that he read, though he believes it was science fiction. The computers crunch language looking for stylistic similarities between writers. Among other things they found that more writers were influenced, based on stylistic similarities, by Walter Scott than by Charles Dickens. This may be in fact true, but perhaps all this suggests is that Scott is more easily imitated than Charles Dickens. But who among us that reads literature for pleasure and enlightenment reads it for “stylistic similarities.” Those that read deeply read for the ideas, read for the development of characters and situations, they read for the beauty of the thing. Now certainly style plays a role, but is the role merely syntactic. I admit to being curious, about all this, to a certain fascination with how language is used by different writers; I am fascinated by the similarities and differences. But this is the “Trivia Pursuit” side of literature, it is little nuggets of information that are curious and interesting and might make for interesting anecdotes, but it misses the whole point of literature. From Homer to Cormac McCarthy no writer ever wrote to be read by a machine, that is not the audience they seek. It is interesting and fun to watch a machine beat a human at chess, but we admire the human a lot more than the machine and are far more impressed by what the human can do. If we are impressed by the machine it is because we marvel at what humans were able to do in building it. What machines cannot appreciate, let alone analyze, is the beautiful, is the working of the imagination, is the internal reflection that a work of art provokes. 


How Books Can Open Your Mind

Lisa Bu

TED Talk


The video addresses another aspect of reading that machines cannot appreciate, at least none that I have encountered anywhere except in science fiction stories. I especially enjoyed how Lisa Bu compared books in their original language with how they were translated into other languages and what she suggests we can learn about our own language from how words we do not think twice about are rendered into another language. We often take words for granted. We know a few connotations and a word’s most common associations. But most words have a history, have multiple meanings, and are often selected because those multiple meanings add multiple colors to the work (this is especially true of poetry, but not just poetry). Nor is this playfulness unique to language. Shostakovich put themes and musical quotations into his music that were intended to insult Stalin, but which Stalin lacked the sophistication and musical knowledge to recognize. It was a dangerous game to play, and Shostakovich had his difficulties with the powers that be. Perhaps, because the nature of his musical jokes were so dangerous, he never said much about them and they have been largely inferred by musicologists studying the music after the fact. Can a joke falling on deaf ears still garner a laugh?


Etching of people living in darkness

Plato’s Cave

Jan Pietersz Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem

Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund



The etching above is of Plato’s cave from The Republic. Those in the cave cannot really see or appreciate the beauty of the world outside or even the world inside the cave that is outside their range of vision or cannot be seen through the darkness. They live in a world of beauty and wisdom but cannot see it. There is a way out of the cave but they refuse to take it. The unknown is frightening. They see shadows that hint at what they are missing but they do not understand what the shadows portend. There is a short story by Lord Dunsany that reminds me of Plato’s cave. It is called “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” It describes a land that is perfect, everything one could want is provided. But people keep leaving to climb the mountain, Poltarnees, to see what is on the other side, to see the ocean. No one who leaves ever returns. I think of the “Inner Lands” as Plato’s cave. They provide security, they are known, they are safe, no one can come to harm. Life is easy and ease is, perhaps, an illusion, the comforts the Inner Lands provide are something like the shadows on the wall. This suggests that pursuit of “comfort” is an illusion that cannot ultimately satisfy; that to experience life fully and to live well we must be willing to put our comforts at risk. Perhaps the safe life, like the unexamined life, is not worth living, or at the very least, is settling for less.

The painting below is of flowers. Flowers do not really serve a purpose in a utilitarian sense. They are not a source of food (they can be I suppose, but their nutritional value is limited), they do not keep out the wind or the sun, they are not much good for anything other than to look at. They are beautiful. They add color to a drab world. Some of us buy flowers and put them on our tables. Others look at those who buy flowers as foolish, as the flowers cost money, sometimes a lot of money (many in Holland became bankrupt when the tulip market crashed). But they offer little in the way of a material return on the investment. They last a week or so and then must be thrown away and replaced. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with oil she was criticized because the oil was expensive and it could have been sold to buy food to feed the poor. But Jesus called it a beautiful thing. For those that appreciate it, beauty brings healing, it opens the heart and mind to forces in the universe that are greater than the material objects that surround us, greater than what the senses alone can perceive. Whether one is religious or not beauty helps us escape ourselves and points us to wisdom. The presence of beauty in the world suggests we were not placed here solely to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. If it does nothing else it reminds us that pleasure is a part of life and that part of our purpose here is to experience joy and delight. 


Painitng of a field of diffent color flowers

Flower Beds in Holland

Vincent van Gogh

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon


Awe and Wonder

Lyke-Wake Dirge



Awe and Wonder

Woman in a see-through dress seated holding out a wine glass, offering it to a guest who is not seen, but his reflecion in the mirror behind the woman can be seen

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus

John William Waterhouse



There was a recent article in Lampham’s Quarterly (Very Superstitious”) about superstition and science and folk wisdom. The article is not an attempt to reawaken a belief in superstition or the irrational, but it does encourage us to look for a truth that may lie beneath the superstition. The article begins by telling a story about a family whose child is stricken with scarlet fever. The medical community, and most everyone else, gave up hope for the child’s survival. So the parents went to a group of women euphemistically referred to as a “jury of matrons;” the author of the article suggests the newspaper was not comfortable referring to them as witches (and perhaps they in fact were not). But they gave the parents the benefit of their “folk wisdom.” The article says these women did not believe the child would survive, but they believed that by doing the things they suggested the parents would make the child’s passing easier. What they suggested was, “open all the doors, drawers, cupboards, and boxes in the house, untie any knots – perhaps in a shoelace, a curtain pull, or an apron sash – and remove all keys from their locks. The parents did these things, and the child did not die. Of course this may just be an example of the philosophical fallacy known as “post hoc – propter hoc” which just attributes anything that follows an action as having been caused by that action, as when Huck tells us of a gentleman who looked over his shoulder at the new moon and died two years later. But some suggest that by opening windows and doors a space that may have been confined and full of stale, infected air, was ventilated and made a healthier environment. In other words there may be a perfectly rational explanation for what happened and that perhaps this folk wisdom articulated something real while incorrectly identifying the source and cause of the benefit.

The article is a study in sympathetic magic and its characterization by James G. Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough and the coiner of the term. Sympathetic magic has a long and colorful history. One way of determining longitude at sea, for example, is by knowing the time where you are and the time at the port you sailed from. One proposed solution to the problem involved using a powder that would be sprinkled over the used bandages of an injured dog that traveled with the voyagers (the dog, not the bandages). Applying the powder to the bandages at a specified time, say 12:00 PM, would cause the dog on board the ship to yelp, telling the ships navigator the time at the home port. The navigator, knowing the time on board ship, would have the second time setting he needed to determine longitude. The article gives many examples, some used to cause harm, some put to good and merciful ends, it does not argue, I do not think, for magic, only that things attributed to “sympathetic magic” may have other causes.

The article brings up a second example; that of two clinics in a Vienna hospital assisting mothers in giving birth, one run by midwives and one by physicians. Deliveries performed by midwives at their clinic in the hospital had a mortality rate of 2 percent. The physicians’ mortality rate was 10 percent. A physician at the hospital, Ignaz Semmelweis, tried to figure out why. He observed that in the hospital none of the staff washed their hands, in the 1840’s this was just not done, and was seen as unnecessary. Physicians would go to the maternity clinic after performing other surgeries and would bring infection with them. When, under Dr. Semmelweis’ instructions, the doctors began to wash their hands the mortality rates evened out to 2 percent at both clinic. But the medical community said there was no scientific framework for the washing of hands making a difference. They said this remedy was nothing more than a belief in “sympathetic magic.” Later folks like Pasteur did the scientific tests that gave credence to the practice of washing up, and the practice was then adopted.

The article concludes by saying we turn to magic sometimes because it is all we have. The song that began this, Lyke-Wake Dirge is a song of mourning and songs of mourning perform a kind of magic, they help healing, they often draw attention to more mysterious aspects of human existence that do not lend themselves to easy answers or point to powers beyond our understanding. The article does not endorse superstition, but it does suggest there are things in life we cannot explain and times when we need comforts the rational world cannot provide. Sven Birkerts in an essay “Vertigo” suggests that reading often provides a similar kind of “magical” experience. He does not call it “magical” but he does see it as transformational, and there is a kind of magic involved with this process as he describes it:

Books are so easily masked by familiarity, crowded into indistinctness by others of their kind, their original explosiveness gone latent, awaiting some circumstance in the life of the reader to make them actual, as the writing was for the writer. Books are singularities, trade routes for private intensities. We forget this. Reading itself falls to habit, the eye switching back and forth down pages, down the lengths of columns, just another thing we do, until one day a book comes along that has the force, or is such a fit to what we need, that it renews the act for us. How did we ever forget what happened that first time, whenever it was, with the eruption of another’s voice, that stark surprise breaching of time and distance, the sense we had of standing high on a ledge looking over?

What ever we call it, those that read in the way Birkerts describes have experienced this. Time stops, the mind is awakened, it is reshaped, it becomes aware of things it was unaware of before and understands things it did not understand before. Neuroscientists have begun studying this and have tried to formulate theories that explain why, but to the person experiencing these things, the “whys” are not really that important.


A map of our solar system with the sun in the center

Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica

Andreas Cellarius



There was an article and an interview recently (Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one” and Progress Isn’t A Linear Development”) that both discussed the sciences and the humanities and how they each address different human needs and incorporate different ways of thinking and seeing. Both articles assert the importance of both the humanities and the sciences and the need to teach and explore them both, that our human existence is diminished if we give greater importance to one or marginalize the other. The illustrations above and below suggest two different ways of looking at the universe, the top is heliocentric and the bottom is geocentric. The first sees the sun as stationary and at the center of our solar system. The other sees the earth as stationary and at the solar system’s center. Both models of the universe are based on observation. Galileo when he formulated his theories that put the sun at the center based those theories on what he saw and the only way he could explain what he saw. Of course when we standing on earth look at the sky, it appears as though it is the sun that is moving and we are standing still, but with training and adequate tools, telescopes and the like, we can see why what appears to be true cannot be true. But we can also understand how early astronomers without Galileo’s tools would reach other conclusions.


Map of the western and eastern hemispheres of the earth in a planatery map, with the earth at the center of the solar system

 Ptolemaic geocentric model

Bartolomeu Velho



There is a little poster I saw recently that said, “Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.” I think this captures a real truth that is often absent in the world today. The sciences teach us how to do things, and prod us to search for new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing the world around us. The humanities teach us how to look at the world around us, to reflect on what we do before we do it, so that we may not come to regret our actions later. The sciences help us to understand our world and how it works, the humanities help us to reflect on what we learn about our world and on how we ought to respond to and interact with it. What we loose when we loose science is a method for examining our world and how it works. We loose the tools and procedures to study the natural world, to document the steps, to test what has been discovered so that we can know if we understand what we have discovered. True science is built on skepticism and a belief that the method is more important than the scientist employing it (or at least more important than the scientist’s ego).

What we loose when we loose the humanities is the ability to see consequences before they happen, the ability to reflect on our actions, on the actions of others, the ability to shape a view of the world and how we ought to live in it. Science helps understand how the stars came to be and how they work, how they produce light and energy. The humanities help us to understand why they are beautiful and how their beauty blesses human existence. The humanities teach us there is more to life than respiration, reproduction, and work. It is the discipline of the sciences that teach the scientist how to do his work. It is the humanities that teach the scientist why she or he draws pleasure from that work and, perhaps, who that work should serve.


Painting of a filled courtroom

“The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court”

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin



Law is categorized as a branch of the humanities. It touches on many areas of human life, but it is devoted, in its purest sense, to the protection of the innocent. We regulate markets, for example, not because we want to limit people’s rewards for their labor, but because we want to prevent the human propensity for greed from harming the innocent. Regulation’s intent, when it is done correctly, is to act as a break on the darker angels of our nature. But the law is often more than this. The law often tells stories, it points us to moments in history that provoked the legislation and often in the process of legislating tells the stories that provoked the legislation. This is often true of “common law” that is based on a narrative that explains a legal situation. A common law marriage, for example, is one that is not defined by a rite or ceremony or any official action by the state but by the “story” of two people’s lives together. The administration lawyer (I believe he came from the Reagan administration) who wrote the “RICO” statute, the law intended to control racketeering, was asked if the acronym “RICO” (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act) was inspired by the film Little Caesar and its central character Rico Bandello. The lawyer refused to answer the question, but he did add that he was a film buff. The only point being, and it may not be that large of a point, is that stories are important and they play a large role in our life. The law against racketeering was not motivated by the film or the story the film tells, but the story the film tells helps illustrate the importance of the law that may have been named in its honor.


The Art of Creating Awe

Rob Legato

TED Talk


The film clip is about the creating of “awe” in the movies. It is a talk given by a man who creates special effects in films that move us, that capture the imagination. When we read, if we read well, our minds are capable of producing effects that cannot be created in studios, that are far more awesome; it is this working of the human imagination that creates the magic that Birkerts describes in his essay. The human imagination is the richest source of wonder on the planet and even in the case of films each of the effects began as an image in the mind of its maker. There was an article on Ludwig Wittgenstein (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking”) and his belief in the importance of “looking.” In the article Wittgenstein is quoted as saying, “don’t think look.” Or as Yogi Berra put it, “You can see a lot just by looking.” The article is about the importance of seeing things and not just thinking about things. It tells the story of Bertrand Russell taking a test that was based on geometric shapes. He did well at first and then he began having trouble. When asked why he was having problems he said it was because he no longer had names for the shapes he was being shown and without the names he did not know how to think about them. Russell believed more in thinking than in looking. There is probably value to both ways of approaching problems, but often we give greater credence to what we think about things than we do to what we see and how what we see affects us.


Paintiing of woods opening onto a valley with an aquaduct in the distance

Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley

Paul Cezanne



There was an article in The Guardian about walking and inspiration (Path to enlightenment: how walking inspires writers”) that also addresses this issue of paying attention to the world around us and the beauty that is there. The article discusses writers who wrote and walked and whose writing was a product of these rambles, Wordsworth for example, and Wittgenstein are mentioned. The paintings above and below are of landscapes that are serene and comforting. It is an aspect of beauty that it often brings comfort and produces an inner peace. The focus of the article, or its inspiration anyway, is a house in Connemara, Ireland that belonged to an Irish poet named Richard Murphy. He wandered around the area and he sailed its harbor. This wandering helped to integrate him into the community but it also helped to build community because his wandering about, and his writing about wandering about, provoked interest in others and people came to visit and these visits in turn helped the economy of this poor community.

Living on Cape Cod I can see how on the one hand visitors to a beautiful place do help the economy of the place but they can also change the look of the place. Sometimes real objects of beauty are not universally appreciated, but their appreciation is dictated by taste. Georgia O’Keefe loved the desert, but many find it a hostile unfriendly place. But when people who share O’Keefe’s interest in the desert come to the desert, the neon soon begins to replace the Joshua Trees and the cactus. But what is probably of greater concern is that those that visit the desert or the coast of Cape Cod want to shape it to fit a private conception of “the beautiful” that is at odds with the beauty that brought them, and others, there in the first place. As Yogi Berra also said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” and there is something in the beautiful that does not like a crowd.


Painting of a house on a bluff overlooking the ocean

The Fisherman’s house at Varengeville

Claude Monet


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

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.