“Open Our Eyes”

Leon Lumpkins

Earth, Wind, and Fire

“Total Eclipse”

John Tavener

Academy of Ancient Music

From The Creation, “Die Vorstellung Des Chaos”

Franz Joseph Haydn

English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir

“Deep Space”

Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette

“Moon Mist”

Mercer Ellington

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

“It’s Only a Paper Moon”

Billy Rose/Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg

Django Reinhardt




 Galileo's drawings of the moon

Galileo Moon 1

Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius


So a man walks into a bookstore with a very old book to sell. The story is told in an article from the L. A. Review of Books, “Faking Galileo.” The very old book the man was selling was believed to be Galileo’s working copy of Sidereus Nuncius and after having been authenticated by people whose business it is to know about such things it was valued at ten million dollars. Of course the book was a forgery. The book itself documents discoveries Galileo made about the nature of the universe and the celestial bodies that travel through it. The most profound discovery at the time concerned the nature of the moon and its surface. Galileo had telescopes he made himself that were more powerful than those used by other astronomers but what he saw on the surface of the moon was clearly visible to other astronomers. Though others saw what Galileo saw they did not see as Galileo saw. Massimo Mazzotti, the author of the article, explains:

The first thing Galileo discovered was that the moon was not smooth and homogeneous, as everyone believed. Instead, it was covered with craters and mountains whose peaks became awash with light when the “terminator” — the line that separates the illuminated and dark parts of the moon — inched forward through the night. Art historians Samuel Edgerton and Horst Bredekamp have written insightfully about how his skills as a draftsman were key to this discovery. Young artists in training during this period were drilled on treatises designed to, in effect, reshape their perception, so that they unthinkingly interpreted certain configurations of two-dimensional light and dark shapes as the surfaces of three-dimensional figures hit by a light source. Galileo’s draftsman eye thus gave him a crucial advantage over other observers, such as Englishman Thomas Harriot, who, a couple of months earlier, had carried out the first recorded telescopic observation of the moon. To Harriot the moon remained smooth and the terminator a fairly clean line. He only saw mountains and craters after he learned of Galileo’s novel description. 

This suggests there is more to “seeing” than looking. The astronomers of Galileo’s day saw what they had been trained to see, a smooth surfaced celestial globe. Galileo looked differently, as a trained artist looks, and recognized what others did not know how to see. 


A woman sitting at a vanity table that looks like a skull if looked at differently

All Is Vanity

Charles Allan Gilbert


In light of what Galileo’s book is about it is ironic that those that authenticated the book as Galileo’s proof copy made much the same mistake that Harriot made. In looking at the book they saw what they expected to see:

Until recently, forged printed texts have been relatively uncommon, and most of them have been produced with techniques that did not give depth to the typographic characters. One of the reasons ML (Martayan Lan, the name of the bookstore owned by the man that bought the book) rang true was the way its characters bit the paper. But the forger exaggerated this feature: the printing was deeper than it should have been in a 17th-century book. Similarly, the soiling on the pages and the impurities in the paper were overdone. These features were designed to meet the expectations of an expert assessor. In other words, only a forgery could have seemed so authentic. The ML’s many typographic anomalies were chalked up to ML being a proof copy, and thus they ended up reinforcing the perception of its authenticity. When the international team of experts met to analyze ML in 2008, they already shared a collective representation of ML as a collection of proof printings, one that contained drawings that had been authoritatively authenticated. The evidence that they encountered seemed consistent with this representation.

As in the illustration above we often see what we expect to see. Many on first viewing Charles Allan Gilbert’s illustration All Is Vanity see only a woman at dressing table, a “vanity.” That is what I saw when I first saw the picture. But once pointed out, it is difficult to understand why it was you could not see the skull all along. Perhaps this painting by Hans Holbein is a better example of learning to see correctly as the skull in this painting is not so easily found. Even when you know it is that odd object on the carpet at the ambassador’s feet it is not always easy to recognize as a skull. You have to train yourself to look at it correctly if you are to see it at all.


Painting of two ambassadors, the image at their feet is a disguised skull

The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein, the Younger


But this, seeing what others miss by looking through unconventional lenses, is not new, it has long been understood that those that innovate and see what others cannot often do so because they are skilled in more than one discipline, as Galileo was both a scientist and an artist (though his artwork is not as enduring perhaps as his science). It is often a temptation when looking at things to look for what is familiar because this gives us the easiest access to this new thing. We look for ways to make the unfamiliar, familiar. In the case of the Galileo forgery: 

Much in this story has to do with similarity relationships: we came across instances of the same stamp, the same watermark, the same signature, which ended up not being the same at all. The point is that no two perceptible objects are ever identical: we have to learn which traits are important, and what can be ignored. We have to train our eye and our judgment, and we can only do so in coordination with other practitioners. One implication of this view is that there is no uncontested way to split empirical evidence from the knowledge of the observer. Knowledge, no matter how technical, always bears the marks of its historical contingency.

It is sometimes the case that being similar is different from being the same and when this is the case if we are to understand what we are looking at it is more important to become “familiar” with the differences and pay less attention to, or even ignore, the similarities. Perhaps this is a danger in an age that values specialization so highly that we end up closing our eyes to what is not essential to our area of specialization and in so doing blind ourselves to what innovates and transforms our area of specialization. Perhaps “thinking differently” begins at times with “seeing differently.”


Illustration of the Ptolemaic Universe

Ptolemaic Geocentric Model

from “Harmonia Macrocosmica” by Andreas Cellarius


Stephen Greenblatt in writing about the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare, “Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne,” observes, “The angle at which one regards an object, even so intimately familiar an object as oneself, would necessarily change the terms of a depiction. But it is not only a matter of the shifting position of the beholder; rather it is the inner life of the self, as well as the position of the viewer, that is constantly in motion.” It is important to change our perspective, “the angle at which (we) regard an object” if we are to know it fully and this is especially true of how we look at ourselves if we are ever to fully know ourselves, or as Greenblatt quotes Montaigne, “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself. . . . Shamefaced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, labourious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, froward, humorous, debonaire, wise, ignorant, false in words, true-speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself.” We enjoy discovering that we are “wise,” but often conceal from ourselves our foolishness. Of course fooling ourselves is often easier than fooling others. 


Landscape painting of harvesters harvesting a field

The Haresters

Pieter Brueghel


Sometimes learning to see properly has more to do with “paying attention” than with looking differently. In the painting above we read the title, The Harvesters, and focus on the foreground of the painting, the “harvesters,” those that are working and those that are resting. This fills up about two-thirds of the painting and is clearly important. But what a about that other third of the painting, why is it there if we are not supposed to look at it and appreciate what is depicted there. Is it just filler designed to frame what is important in the painting? Perhaps. But there are interesting things going on where we often do not look.


Detail from previous of a road in the distance with people on the road

The Haresters – Detail People on the Road

Pieter Brueghel


In the detail above, which fills the upper left hand corner of the painting, we see something else going on. There are some people walking along a road and what looks like a wagon carrying what, perhaps, has been harvested in other fields. This detail, though not essential to the painting’s theme, does contribute by illustrating the next step in the process, that is, what happens after the harvesters, harvest. But there are still the two figures that appear to be walking down the road uninvolved, perhaps, with the harvest. But what about this detail:


Second detail from "The Harvesters" of people playing field hockey

The Haresters – Detail Child Running Away

Pieter Brueghel


There is no work being done here, there are what appear to be children, and adults also, at play. One youngster looks like he is running away from one of the adults. It is difficult to see what game it is they are playing, it looks like it might be field hockey or something like it; at least one person has what looks like a stick of some sort and there appears to be a goal behind them. Perhaps the message in all this is simply that while the important work of the day is being done life goes on, and in an agrarian society the harvest is among the most important work that is done. It is also work that must be accomplished within a narrow window of time if the harvest is to be fully realized. But even during the most important work of the day, everyday life goes on, the simple things that make up a lifetime continue to take place. While people work others play and others travel. 

The painting suggests that everything is important and has its place. The focus may be on the more important work of the day, but life does not stop, even at the time of the harvest. Who is to say that play is not also important and does not also have its place in the lives we lead? But not everyone in this detail is playing. There is a group that appears to be talking and this too is important. It is in conversation that friendships are formed and affirmed as well as other relationships, work relationships, romantic relationships, community relationships. It should also be remembered that these small details that are so hard to see in the painting when reduced to a size that fits on a page are a bit more noticeable when the original painting is viewed in its proper size. Perhaps there, these details are not so easily missed, though I think they are still easily dismissed. Perhaps this is an important skill that art and art appreciation teach us, that everything in life is important to some degree and that it is important to look not just at the important things going on around us, but the mundane and “unessential” things as well. 


French cave painting of bison

Bison in the Nave at Lascaux



The painting above is from a cave in France. This suggests another aspect of seeing. The painting is of bison, buffalo. When I see bison I think of the American west. If I did not know where this painting was made, I might assume the cave wall that is depicted here was in Utah or New Mexico. I would make assumptions about the painting based on what I know. How does the knowledge that this cave is found in France change the way I look at the painting and its subject? What happened to the bison that once roamed the plains of France? What did the plains of France look like when bison roamed them? Is it important that bison once roamed the plains of France? It suggests that the world and perhaps its people are more connected than we often assume. If the red on the one buffalo is blood, it suggests the painting depicts a hunt. Were the buffalo of France hunted in the same way as the buffalo of the American plains? If nothing else, it gives some pleasure to imagine prehistoric Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen, perhaps) on the plains of France hunting the buffalo as Native Americans did on the plains of America.


People walking down a road by moonlight with cypresses

Country Road in Provence by Night

Vincent Van Gogh


Galileo, among others, changed the way we look at the sun and moon. Van Gogh in this paintings looks at the sun and moon differently still. His way of seeing the sun and moon did not revolutionize science, but it captured ways the sun and moon play upon our imaginations, it captured a magic in the natural world that affects our emotions more than our intellect. Is this perception of the natural world less real because it engages the emotions and not the intellect? How the painting affects our view of the cosmos is probably less important than how it affects us aesthetically. The importance of this way of thinking and seeing probably depends largely on our view of beauty and its importance. If the presence of beauty does not change the world or the people in it, than perhaps it is not that important, but if it does change us, if it speaks to a truth we do not otherwise see, than maybe it is important. 


Painting of the harbor area of Delft

View of Delft

Johannes Vermeer


That beauty affects human beings profoundly is difficult to deny. We do not only build ourselves houses, we build our houses with details that are unnecessary to its function as shelter. Stained glass windows, for example, are not only unnecessary, they are not functional. You cannot see through a stained glass window and the staining inhibits the sunlight. It interferes with the practicality of shelter. But while interfering with the practical it enhances the pleasure one gets from living in the shelter. The same is true of paint, carpets, and furniture. There is something in the human psyche that desires not only a functional space, but a beautiful space. In the Vermeer painting we see buildings that are functional, but we also see details that are unnecessary, but pleasing to the eye, spires, red roofs, arched rather than squared doorways. If beauty does nothing else it is calming, it relaxes us. Perhaps it is a part of the way of seeing of the artist that sees beauty where the rest of us see only the ordinary and undistinguished. This is not to suggest that all ornament is beautiful, only to suggest that the desire for ornament leads to a desire for the beautiful. Of course this doesn’t answer the question, to what extent can we trust our desires, are they always truthful? 

Still, though desirability may not in itself make a thing good and true, it is difficult to imagine something being good and true and not being desirable. When Pinocchio is enticed to run off to Toyland and play all day long, it is a desire for play that leads him astray. This desire is not entirely false; it is just false to the extreme Pinocchio takes it. It is a good thing within moderation and it is the moderation that is missing. But even if this desire of Pinocchio’s is entirely false and deceiving, this does not make desire itself a bad thing. Because whatever we make of Pinocchio’s experience, there is also the experience of Mr. Gradgrind’s school in Dickens’ Hard Times. There is nothing desirable about Mr. Gradgrind’s educational program and it is its undesirability that first calls it into question; that causes us to doubt its efficacy. It is not just that no one wants to go to Gradgrind’s school; there is not much of value that is learned there. 



Akira Kurosawa

Janus Films


The film tells a story about seeing. There are four witnesses to a crime, but no one sees the same crime being committed. In fact not all witnesses witnessed a crime. In this story perspective, the angle from which a thing is seen, literally determines what is seen. As a story it reminds us that we each bring a perspective to our experience of the world. This perspective determines how we understand much of what we see and experience. We cannot know the true interpretation of what happens in Rashomon unless we know which angle from which the event was witnessed reveals the “whole” event. In the Renaissance Theater there was one seat, “the eye of the duke” from which the whole stage was in perfect perspective. Only from this seat was all of what was seen on stage seen as it was intended to be seen. From every other seat the perspective is not perfect and the picture within the proscenium is to some degree askew. Perhaps none of the characters in Rashomon observes the crime from “the eye of the duke,” but even if no one saw it from this angle, the angle exists which puts the whole scene in perfect perspective. 

This is not just true for how we look at the events in a story; it is true for how we read stories in general. This is not to say that there is only one way to read rightly, but that some things are more worth reading than others and it is important to know how our own tastes and interests can interfere with our judgments about what we read. Arthur Krystal in an article for Harper’s Magazine, “What Is Literature,” observes:

Eighty-five years ago, in The Whirligig of Taste, the British writer E. E. Kellett disabused absolutists of the notion that books are read the same way by successive generations. Kellett concluded his short but far-ranging survey by noting that “almost all critical judgment . . . is in the main built on prejudice.” This, of course, makes consensus about books only slightly more probable than time travel. But if there is even a remote chance of its happening, the first thing we have to do is acknowledge our own deep-seated preferences. The adept critic Desmond MacCarthy once observed that:

one cannot get away from one’s temperament any more than one can jump away from one’s shadow, but one can discount the emphasis which it produces. I snub my own temperament when I think it is not leading me straight to the spot where a general panorama of an author’s work is visible.

Although the snubbing of temperament is not easily accomplished, we can try. We can move from being ecstatic readers to being critical readers, hesitating to defend a book because we like it or condemn it because we don’t. For when it comes to books, it isn’t always wise to follow our bliss when bliss gets in the way of reason, and reason alone should be sufficient to tell us that War and Peace is objectively greater than The War of the Worlds, no matter which one we prefer to reread.

We should be able to enjoy all the books we read, we should read what we read because we find what we read desirable. The issue is not entirely that War of the Worlds is a desirable book to read and War and Peace is not, if we read both books we read them because, hopefully, they are both desirable books to read. But, whichever book is more “fun” to read, War and Peace gives us more in return for the time invested in the reading of it. And even if we enjoy War of the Worlds more, if we are serious and perceptive readers we are aware, that there is more to Mr. Tolstoy’s book than there is to that of Mr. Wells. 

This also suggests desire can take on many forms. We can desire to do, in this case to read, something because it is fun and we can desire to do something because it enriches us. These are different desires for different things and there is good to be gained from both. Recognizing the superiority of War and Peace as literature does not diminish the pleasure we get from reading War of the Worlds.


Painting of a Paris street in the rain at night

Boulevard Montmartre la nuit

Camille Pissarro


But what of reading? Whether it is Mr. Wells or Mr. Tolstoy we are reading, what is the value in it? What good does it do; what does it change; what does it add to the world? When we are done reading we do not have a building we can occupy, a car we can drive, or a computer we can compute with. But there is little doubt that reading changes those that read seriously and well. When I read a book my imagination is stimulated, that is a real stimulation in the real world. My mind is moved to consider points of view, philosophies towards life, to look at behaviors and assess their value, their rightness or wrongness; the good and the evil that is in them. These are real thoughts about real issues that affect the way people live and interact in the real world. I am also moved to feel things; my emotions are aroused. These are real emotions. It may be that that which evoked those emotions is totally imaginary, but though imaginary they are grounded in something that is real; the injustice that arouses my anger may be an imaginary injustice, but injustice in the world is not imaginary and it is important to think about how we ought to respond to injustice before we are called upon to respond to it. We should know what it means to be loyal and the demands of loyalty before we are in situations where we must prove our loyalty. But there is more to it than this. Harold Bloom in an interview in The Paris Review, “The Art of Criticism No. 1, Harold Bloom,” talked about his early experience with reading poetry:

I was preadolescent, ten or eleven years old. I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me—in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems—though I had no notion what they were about. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me. Indeed it’s the first book I ever owned. I begged my oldest sister to give it to me, and I still have the old black and gold edition she gave me for my birthday back in 1942. It’s up on the third floor. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry . . . where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it?


 Galileo's drawing of the moon surrounded by text

Galileo Moon 2

Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius


Perhaps this experience is inexplicable to any who have not experienced it, but for those that have had this experience or one like it, it is a very real thing and it changes who we are as people and how we view the world and the people in it. It is being personally touched by the beautiful and transformed by it. Galileo’s book Sidereus Nuncius changed the world. It identified something true about how the cosmos worked and how it is to be understood. Many who have read and been stirred by Milton’s Paradise Lost look at the cosmos differently. Even those like Phillip Pullman and C. S. Lewis who read this poem very differently and whose view of the cosmos was altered in radically different ways were more than entertained by this poem. They were both entertained, but that was just the beginning. We cannot look into a book and come away from it unchanged, unless we never learned how to look in the first place. If I look into a book and see the flat surfaces I expected to see, it is because I have not trained my eye to interpret the shadows that reveal the true contours of the landscape.


Painting of bridge with buildings in the background

River Landscape with a Windmill


On Wonder

“Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”

Andre Previn

“All Through the Night

Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Aoife O’Donovan & Yo-Yo Ma

“Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan



On Wonder


Painting of buildings surrounded by trees

Photograph of a watercolour sketch

John Weeks done while teaching at Elam Art School around 1950,_circa_1950.jpg


We Want to Be Beguiled. That is, in one sense, what “wonder” is about. That which provokes a sense of wonder in us, beguiles us, that is, not to say that everything that beguiles is wonderful, but if we are not beguiled we are probably not in the presence of wonder. It might also be said that the more wonderful something it is, the longer it continues to beguile us, it may be that this is the difference between the wonderful and the fanciful. That which is merely fanciful beguiles us for the time it takes us to become accustomed to it, but the more accustomed we become with the truly wonderful the more it continues to beguile. Often wonder is provoked by simplicity, as is the case with the first two songs in the audio clip, they are children’s songs; they are lullabies. When Mozart composed his piano concerto, the melody we know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was already a popular song in the nursery. He composed his variations around this simple melody and it beguiles, perhaps not to the extent that the Jupiter Symphony beguiles us, but it is beguiling. The same is true of the lullaby “All Through the Night.” Though the melody itself is quite simple, it has a sophistication that keeps it from sounding out of place on the cello, the richness of the music is complemented by the richness of the cello’s sound.


John Weeks’ watercolor sketch is also a simple sketch, probably done quickly, that captivates the viewer with its simplicity, the simplicity of the lines and the simplicity of the colors and their placement. The drawing captures the outlines of a space and evokes enough of the reality of that space for the viewer to be able to fill in the missing details. Part of the wonder that is provoked by that which is successfully and simply done lies in the artist’s ability to evoke much with very little. There is something magic about it. The Bob Dylan song is a list, almost Whitman-esque of various images that provoke wonder, the sound of a tambourine, the sound of a singer, the night passing into the morning twilight. The music is also fairly simple, folk blues played on a guitar. And though not everyone finds Dylan’s voice sublime, I do, as do many others.


Painting of a skull resting on a book with ink and a quill

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628

Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1596/97–1660)

Oil on wood

9 1/2 x 14 1/8 in. (24.1 x 35.9 cm)

Rogers Fund, 1949 (49.107)


There was a debate that took place recently in The New Republic between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier (“Science Is Not Your Enemy”, “Crimes Against Humanities”, and “Science vs. the Humanities, Round Two”). Pinker thinks the Sciences and the Humanities should unite and work together; Wieseltier thinks they operate in different spheres and one side must give up too much of what makes it what it is for there to be unification. For both Pinker and Wieseltier wonder is an important element of their argument. Pinker sees in the Sciences and the new technologies that which is truly wonderful and awe inspiring. Wieseltier agrees that there is much in science that is wonderful and awe inspiring. But the wonder and the awe proceed from different sources. Wieseltier argues that what science tries to do when it applies its methods to the humanities is identify where the magic is found. But for those that approach the arts from within the humanities it is this “magic” that they find attractive and that it is not so much that the sciences in explaining the magic destroy the magic but that the scientist fails to understand the magic the humanist finds in the arts. It does not lie in the mixture of colors and textures, in the sounds and evocations of language, in the combination of notes in a piece of music. Of course that is where the magic lives, but the scientific explanation of how the magic works reveals a misunderstanding of the magic itself. I wonder, though, how an understanding of the science in Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill would explain its sublime qualities or ease the discomfort it provokes. D. H. Lawrence’s poem “The Third Thing” illustrates the problem the scientist encounters when examining the arts:


Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,

but there is also a third thing, that makes it water

and nobody knows what it is.

The atom locks up two energies

but it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.


The sciences are only capable of exploring the two parts of the atom, but they cannot explore that third thing that makes it an atom, at least not that which makes the atom “wonderful” to the humanist. 


The humanities and the sciences also have a different relationship with the past. Science moves forward, the only reason for it to look backwards is to remind itself where it’s been and what, through investigation and experimentation, has been left behind. There is no need for the scientist to study the pre-Copernican universe because the scientist knows that model of the universe has been disproved. That said, the medievalist C. S. Lewis wrote a book, The Discarded Image that explains the medieval world view and its understanding of the universe. Where the science is no longer relevant the magic of its conception still beguiles the imagination of some, it beguiled Lewis’ imagination. This is not to say he wanted to return to a medieval understanding of the universe, only to say there is an elegance to its construction that is appealing. It worked for Lewis as story, he never accepted it as science, but from the perspective of the humanities, the story is important and still has something to teach us, it possess a different kind of truth. To one critic, Matthew Ward, Lewis’ study of the medieval view of the universe provided the frame upon which he built his series of children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia. For the scientist there is not much point in this looking backwards. This is not to say that good scientists do not keep an open mind and do not continue to test theories, even after they seem to have been proven false. But there comes of a time when the body of accumulated evidence overwhelms a model or a theory and it is abandoned. That which is affirmed is carried forward but in being carried forward it remains part of the present, it does not live in the past. The Humanities have a different relationship to the past. 


Seascape at night time with moon behind clouds and a rocky arch

Etretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d’Aval

Claude Monet


Where science looks to the past to be certain something has not been tried before and found wanting, the humanities sees the past as part of the present. They maintain a dialog of sorts between the wisdom of the past and the wisdom of the present. Humanists believe both the past and the present have something to say to each other, that each can learn from each other and contribute something to the understanding of the other. The past, of course cannot be changed, but our understanding of the past is sometimes changed by what has been learned and understood subsequently. On the other hand, the wisdom of the present is enriched by the wisdom of the past and the wisdom of each contributes to the shape and direction the present and the future take. To close our eyes to either can have detrimental effects on the world we live in and pass along to those that come after us. Math and science make us better machines; the humanities make us better human beings. This is generalization of course, not everything the sciences give us are necessarily better, some insidious machines have been put into our hands that unfortunately work too well. By the same token, not everyone that has embraced the humanities has been made better by them. History is filled with movements and individuals that had a highly refined taste in art and literature who were miserable human beings that did truly evil things.


Photograph of the moon over the ocean surrounded by a halo of light

A Super Moon’s Halo

NASA’s Astronomy Picture Of The Day – Louis Argerich


Perhaps the real difference between the humanities and the sciences and the wonder each provokes lies in the different way they look at and experience the universe. The photographs above and below are wonderful in both the scientific and the humanistic sense. They inspire awe. I expect these pictures also provoke awe in the humanistic sense in both scientists and humanists. Both scientists and humanists probably also experience the awe provoked by the science as well. But the scientist wants to explore the awe provoked by the science while the humanist wants to explore the awe that is provoked by the artistry of the photograph and the subject of the photograph. I do not understand how atmosphere, light, gases, and chemical reactions produced the subjects of these photographs, though I wouldn’t mind knowing. But knowing how the subjects of the pictures were produced would not explain to me or clarify for me the sense of wonder the photographs produce. I do not want to understand the science as much as I want to understand what makes them beautiful and why the beauty found in the photographs affects me the way it does.


Photograph of the night sky with the a celestial body surrounded by stars

The Bubble Nebula

NASA Picture of the Day


This perhaps draws attention to an old debate, to an old problem, that of materialism vs. idealism. A materialist believes, generally, that there is nothing more to the universe than that which can be perceived through the senses. Things may be there that the senses cannot perceive at present, but once the tools are invented that will enable the senses to perceive their presence the senses will perceive them. Pluto, whether it is a planet or something other, was always present even if it could not always be seen. Once telescopes powerful enough to see it were produced, Pluto could be seen. An idealist believes there is more to the universe than can be perceived through the senses. The debate is, I suppose, about the third thing in Lawrence’s poem. Is it real or imaginary? That something is something more than the Higgs-Boson particle, it is something that cannot be taken in through the senses no matter how sophisticated the tools we invent become. 


Pinker, for example, views all religion as superstition because no religion can be proven through the scientific method. The “evidence” is not there. This makes religion, for Pinker the product of superstition and self-delusion. He is a materialist. Wieseltier argues that religious people, like idealists in general, construct a rational philosophy around their faith. The religious dynamic is as real to them as the scientific dynamic is to the scientist. This does not mean all humanistic thought is religious, but like religious thought, humanistic thought is concerned with more than can be materially proven. There probably is no such thing as a “pure” materialist or a “pure” idealist. Idealists still at times believe only what their senses tell them, still pursue material gain, often without regard to the ethical ramifications of those pursuits. Materialists are often “good” in the sense that they put the interests of others ahead of self-interest; do good things even when it is not in their self-interest to do good things. They are rarely like Wolf Larson, for example, in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf who takes what he wants because he is strong enough to take it. He believes in the “survival of the fittest” and believes because he is one of the fittest he is entitled to take what he wants. He is the consummate materialist.


The moon rising from behind a mountain over a wheat field

Landscape with wheat sheaves and rising moon

Vincent van Gogh


The painting captures the same moon (though a few years younger) as is seen in the photograph. An understanding of the science behind a moon rise and the atmospheric conditions surrounding it will not tell us anything about why this painting is beautiful. Nor would an understanding of the principles of light and texture and color explain why this painting is wonderful. Such an investigation might help us understand how it was constructed and why certain colors in combination with one another are pleasing to the eye, but this will not unlock its wonder. Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Sonnet to Science” addresses another aspect of the divide between science and the humanities:


SCIENCE! meet daughter of old Time thou art

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes!

Why prey’st thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture! whose wings are dull realities!

How should he love thee – or how deem thee wise

Who woulds’t not leave him, in his wandering,

To seek for treasure in the jewell’d skies

Albeit, he soar with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragg’d Diana from her car,

And driv’n the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star!

The gentle Naiad from her fountain-flood

The elfin from the green grass? and from me

The summer dream beneath the shrubbery?


Poe’s response to Pinker would be to point out that science seeks to explain away the magic, to demonstrate why the magic is not really magic. To the scientist this poem may seem an exercise in denial. Yes, science has shown that all that Poe points out is false, that it does not in fact exist, it is myth, folklore, and superstition. It does not matter that we want the magic to be real, it isn’t and that ends it. But, to this day elves and other magical creatures appear in stories. This does not make them real, but it does say something about the desires and aspirations of the human imagination. And perhaps, in a sense these myths are real, they give an imagined body to principles and quirks of human behavior that enable us to better understand ourselves. There may be no spirits in rivers or in trees, there may be no elves or dwarfs living in the secret places of the earth, but the attitudes elves and dwarfs personify are found all around us. When we enter the worlds in which such creatures live we have to suspend our disbelief, we willingly enter these worlds knowing what we will find there is not real, in the scientific sense, but also that they point to that “third thing” that science cannot explain. 


Statue of an Asian dragon

A carving of a dragon from Imperial City, Huế in Viet Nam



Steve Paulson in “Monsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science” presents another view of science and its beginnings. One aspect of the article pursues the human fascination with monsters and their ubiquity throughout history. The Photograph above is of a dragon and, being an Asian dragon, it is probably a friendly dragon, but one never knows. Many of our oldest stories involve monsters; Odysseus and the Cyclops, Beowulf and Grendel, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Many of Ovid’s retellings of Roman myths in The Metamorphoses involve monsters and battles with monsters. Many of Snorri Sturluson’s retelling of Norse myths also involve encounters with monsters. They are found everywhere. I think one of the reasons space travel is such a popular vehicle for storytelling is because in the unexplored reaches of space one can expect to find anything (and one can also expect that anything waiting to be found might also pay us a visit). The monsters encountered in The Thing and Alien mean to do us harm, whereas the monsters found in ET and The Day the Earth Stood Still are more concerned with our welfare, they are at the very least motivated more by kindness than malevolence. 


 Avatar The Trailer

James Cameron’

20th Century Fox


The film clip captures another aspect of wonder and of the monstrous. Are the creatures of Pandora monsters that need to be subdued, like some of the other wildlife found there? Or are the more “human” colonizers the monsters or at least the more monstrous. The film captures our fascination with what we do not understand. It also speaks to some of our better “angels” in that we find ourselves siding with the “monsters,” the “savages.” In this regard the film is a study in good vs. evil. But it is not just the story that enchants us; the special effects of the movie also provoke wonder. They present us with a grand spectacle. But is it the wonderful that beguiles us in this film or the fanciful. I remember seeing 2001 a Space Odyssey when it first came out. I was enchanted and beguiled by the special effects in that movie. But when I watch it today the effects are not as spellbinding. The art of special effects has far surpassed what was so revolutionary in Kubrick’s film. Much of what appeared wonderful in the film looks merely fanciful today. It is a landmark in film history and probably in the art of filmmaking. There are other aspects of the film that hold up very well as storytelling, but if the artistic life of the film depended on its special effects would it still attract an audience today? I wonder about Avatar if this might not also be the case. The time will come when the art of special effects will far surpass the effects found in this film. As Aristotle said, spectacle is an aspect of the theater, but it is not its most important aspect and not what gives the play (or the screenplay) its longevity. 


Computer generated image of glasses and a pair of dice


Gilles Tran


Then there is the image above. It is entirely computer generated. It provokes a sense of wonder when one considers what a series of “ones and zeros” can create. It suggests the beginning, perhaps, of the holodeck, that place in the science fiction world of Star Trek where we can live out and participate in the creations of our imaginations. It might also suggest that for the scientist to fully enjoy the fruits of science they need a bit of the humanist inside them in order to imagine what to do with all those wonderful machines. But again, is this fanciful or truly beguiling? Is the wonder created by our technology a short-lived wonder or does it have a longer life? Is there a story in the image that can keep it interesting after the novelty of how it was created has worn off? Sometimes science gives us the tools while the humanities provide the inspiration for their use, where humane uses are available. Of course one must be careful here to distinguish between the humanities and effective marketing.


Sam Kean (“Science, Right and Wrong”) picks up on another aspect of Paulson’s article, science and changing attitudes towards curiosity. Both articles point out that curiosity for a very long time was seen as a vice and not a virtue. Curiosity was a paving stone on the road to hell. This seems an odd and foreign attitude today; at least it does to me today. I cannot imagine a life lived without curiosity. There is an aspect of wonder that is aligned with curiosity. Wonder stimulates our senses and our senses want answers. It is curiosity that drives the scientist to understand science and its objects of study and curiosity that drives the humanist to comprehend the humanities’ significance to human life and experience. There are times when these two responses to wonder run parallel with each other, or can at least feed each other if each is given its own path to travel. 


When I look at the night sky I see something wonderfully sublime. It strikes an emotional cord inside me that has nothing to do with physics, astronomy, or the pull of gravity. It has to do with grandeur and magnificence and other things that are perhaps subjective at some level, but at another level I do not think so because so many before me have responded in the same way. For the sciences the focus is on its subjects measurability, on quantifying and defining it; for the humanities it is the subjects ineffability, that which defies measurement and quantification. Sometimes it seems the scientific response is the easier one, because it proceeds with answers to all questions or at least the belief that answers are forthcoming. For the humanist the questions are often provoked by what remains after the scientist has finished. 


Painting of a box with shell

Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell, and Chip-Wood Box, ca. 1630

Sébastien Stoskopff (Alsatian, 1597–1657)

Oil on canvas

18 1/2 x 23 3/8 in. (47 x 59.4 cm)

Wrightsman Fund, 2002 (2002.68)


Still Life with Words

From Under Milkwood

Dylan Thomas


Still Life with Words


Painting of sars and city lights reflected on water

Starry Night over the Rhone

Vincent Van Gogh


There was an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, “Poetry Makes You Weird,” suggesting that reading poetry affects us in strange ways; it causes us not only to see things in ways we had not considered before, but through these odd ways of looking reveals what is real or some hidden truth about the thing. Poetry opens our eyes to aspects of the world around us that are not easy to see or, perhaps, are just taken for granted and are not consciously seen or heard though they are right in front of us. There is a sense that this is true about all Literature and is part of what makes the study of Literature valuable. 

There were a series of articles recently in The Guardian about “darkness” in literature that illustrates this point. One of these articles, “Darkness in literature: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas,” looked at the opening lines to Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milk Wood. I have enjoyed this play from the first time I read it (not least because the name of the mythical Welsh town where the play takes place, Llareggub, is “buggerall” spelled backwards, an expression my father was wont to use on comic occasions). The opening lines describe the dark of night in the early hours of the morning.

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

These lines describe the “blackness” in four different ways, “bible-black,” “sloeblack,” “slow, black,” and “crowblack.” Each of the descriptions evokes a different quality of the darkness or gives it a different connotation. The first, “bible-black,” uses the cover color of most Bibles (this may not be as true today as it was in the 1950’s) to suggest to the reader that there is a holy or sacred quality to the darkness. Thomas’ short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” concludes, “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept” that give to the night this same sacred quality. The black leather covers of many family Bibles might also be contained in this image suggesting there is a leathery, dimpled texture to the look and feel of the night and that it has a rough, tactile quality; that the surface of the night is not a smooth surface. 

The second description, “sloeblack,” suggests the darkness of the sea at night has the quality of “sloe” the fruit of the blackthorn bush, a shinny, shimmering blackness, not unlike, perhaps, the color of the water in the painting below. This image also works in conjunction with the third description of darkness, “slow, black.” When spoken from the stage the two sound alike, “sloeblack” and “slow, black” would be almost indistinguishable if it were not for the comma separating “slow” and “black.” So while these descriptions used together suggest on the one hand very different things about the darkness of the sea, the homophonic quality of the sounds of the description lends emphasis to the slowness with which the tides move the water. Of course it is not the water’s blackness that is “slow” but the motion of the water itself, and the slowness of the motion probably contributes to the shimmering quality of the water that is suggested by the color of the fruit. 


Paintnig of a very dark night with the moon behind a cloud, over a river

Moonlit Night on the Dniepr

Arkhip Kuindzhi


The final description, “crowblack,” adds a disturbing quality to the night and to the sea. The crow is probably among the blackest of black birds and so it evokes well the color of the sea in the night. But the crow is also a carrion bird and associated with dead things and evokes death, or more properly in context of the play, foreshadows the role death plays in the play. But there is another quality to the crow, though I do not know if Thomas was aware of this. In many New England folk paintings the crow is a common feature and its connotations in the paintings in which it appears often seem to be positive, though I am at a loss to explain why this is or what the crow represents in these paintings. There are also children’s rhymes in which the crow is good or bad depending on how many crows appear, one for example is bad news, but two mean mirth and five mean riches. 

The “crow” in “crowblack” might also suggest the crowing of the rooster that signifies the break of day, in which case the image might also foreshadow the coming of day. The Encyclopedia of Folk Art mentions the popularity of a crowing rooster as a tattoo among sailors. The Angel Gabriel according to legend heard the cock’s crow as the word of God and the tattoo of the crowing rooster was seen as a way of invoking God’s protection. 

The point of all this, though, is that words are suggestive and poets use words with many of their connotations in mind because they are so suggestive and can take the reader in so many directions at once. As the article referenced above suggests, reading poetry makes us weird because it causes us to see the world in ways that seem strange or even nonsensical to those that do not read poetry or whose eyes are closed to what the poetry suggests. But for those that grasp the insights the world becomes more magical, more mysterious, more wonderful.


Still life painting with a skull on books with watch and quill

Vanitas Still Life

Pieter Claesz


The images in the painting above suggest that this quirky way of looking at life and the way it is lived is not restricted to poetry, but is part of what makes great art great, part of what leads to think and reflect as a result of our encounters with the sublime and the beautiful. In this instance the painting evokes the poetry of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” Eurozine published recently a discussion, “Proust Is Important for Everyone,” between Mario Vargas Llosa and Giles Lipovetsky about “High Culture,” the art, literature, and music we learn about in school and pop art, or the “society of the spectacle.” On the one hand high culture is seen as part of what defines a culture and a people, it reveals to us a bit of who we are as members of a certain society or nation. On the other it has often been used by totalitarian regimes as a vehicle to further their attempts at world conquest and the worst kinds of oppression, especially of people who are not a part of the “high culture” in question. But Llosa and Lipovetsky also agree that Literature, books like those that Proust wrote, help define and promulgate democracy, that one reason dictators often begin by burning books is because they want to silence these books and limit their influence. They also agree that the “society of the spectacle” often packages these ideas in ways that are more accessible to the general population. 

So there is a place for enjoying the culture of the day while continuing to be enriched by the culture that has been handed down to us. But with that said, there is a more universal quality to “High Culture” a quality that causes it to outlive its own time and speak through time. That there is value to taking the time to learn how to appreciate and understand this culture because it has proven itself to be durable and that long after the culture of the day has been forgotten this other culture that has followed us through time will continue to wield its influence. Of course it is also difficult to say which aspects of popular culture will be woven into the “High Culture.” Dickens was a popular novelist before he was cultural icon.


Painting of a houses across the street from an open field

Cityscape I

Richard Diebenkorn


Paintings often open up the world in ways similar to poetry. This is often more true of impressionistic and expressionistic paintings in that they often suggest aspects to what is seen that realistic depictions do not, just as the odd and quirky images in poetry open the things they describe in unusual ways. The painting above is of a city; at least that is what the title suggests. But where on one side of the street we see the houses closely packed, as we would expect to see them in the city, on the other we see open fields and suggestions of cultivation and farming. The two sides of the street seem at odds with one another and perhaps they are. Or perhaps something along the lines of Wordsworth’s poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” is being suggested, where the beauty of a London morning is juxtaposed with an English countryside:

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The sleeping city is compared to a serene countryside. Just as in the poem, in the painting the two images are on the one hand a stark contrast, but on the other the image of each cause us to see the other differently. The city, usually associated with noise and hurry, is given the tranquility of a quiet pasture, field, or wood. Of course, in the painting something more sinister may be suggested. The shadows cast by the houses fall upon the open field foreshadowing, perhaps, the coming urban sprawl. Wordsworth’s poem describes the city in the morning, but the shadows in the painting, seeming to spread eastward, would suggest the light is coming from a westward, setting sun, evoking the evening, the ending, perhaps, of an era.


Painintg of a ship sailing down a waterway as the sun rises

Chichester Canal

J. M. W. Turner


Paintings that are more realistic in their representations often offer equally revealing insights. In the painting above we see also town and country juxtaposed, though the town is in the distance far from the quiet of the canal. Though, the large ship in the background also evokes the presence of the city, as ships carry cargo from one major world port city to another and the small boat in the foreground is a more pastoral vessel. The painting may suggest that the product of the work done in the quiet countryside finds its way into the hold of the larger more “urban” vessel and that town and country not only touch each other but depend on each other as well. The purpose of a canal was to provide, before trucks, planes, and railroads, a means for transporting goods from one town to the next. There is also a “ghostly” quality to the ship that is shrouded a bit by mist that may suggest the city “haunts” the countryside. Of course it may not be the purpose of the painting to suggest anything, but only to capture a snapshot of a moment, everything else being just the products of the viewers imagination and far from the painters original intent. 

There was an article in Aeon, “The Great Swindle,” that suggests contemporary artists and their art, as well as the critic that give these artists their audience, have betrayed the arts. Roger Scruton, the author of the article, believes these artists and critics are not frauds, but have deceived themselves as effectively as they are deceiving others. He suggests the critics use language in convoluted ways, using many words to say very little; that the language is unnecessarily opaque and that it depends on this opaqueness to give itself the appearance of intellect and depth. As long as this art and criticism is confined to academic circles, the article contends, it does not do much harm as the real work of culture takes place where it is produced in literature, art, and music. The problem for Scruton is that libraries and museum that should know better are being taken in as well; that these academic critics deceive themselves first and then go on to deceive others. He does not see malice in any of this, just poor judgment and bad art, or kitsch. The artists and critics he identifies make “fakeness” the content of their art, that they are not “kitsch” so much as representations of the “kitschiness” of modern culture. It is difficult to know how far this argument can be taken. I agree with Scruton in that I think much in modern art and literature is shallow and “kitschy.” 

But I also know that when I was younger and was first exposed to the contemporary art of my youth it struck me as ugly or offensive, certainly as inartistic. As I have grown and looked at some of this art from my youth I have discovered more to it than I originally thought; Schoenberg and Klee no longer appear as inelegant and artless as I once thought. Some of what appears to us as shallow or lacking art is just the result of our not having trained ourselves to read and listen and observe according to the demands of the work. Scruton addresses this in his article saying there is a difference between the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and the likes of John Cage. This may be true, but I still wonder if the problem isn’t to some degree with me as well; that I need to learn new ways of hearing, reading, and seeing if I am to appreciate that which I do not appreciate at present. Still, Rebecca West in an article written many years ago for The New Republic, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” talks about the importance of making critical judgments about the cultural work a nation’s artists produce. That part of keeping a culture alive is the maintaining of a cultural standard.


Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans

Lemon Anderson

TED Talk


The video clip captures the way in which a young poet matured into a young poet. Whatever one thinks of his poetry (I found it moving and disturbing as good poetry often is), what Lemon Anderson has to say about language and the poet’s ability to make words sing is at the heart of poetry and is its lifeblood. He also captures that aspect of poetry that comes alive in performance. Not all poets are as successful at bringing their poems to life as others, but there is a quality to good poetry that depends upon hearing the words spoken and how the spoken words sound together. M. A. Abrams in a recent book, Fourth Dimension of a Poem, addresses this quality in poetry. He names a number of poets he has heard read their work, from T. S. Eliot to Dylan Thomas, who all read very differently but who all brought to life aspects of their poems that are lost when they are read quietly off the page. Eliot is much more subdued in the reading of his poetry than is Thomas. But even though Eliot’s reading does not have the passionate intensity of Thomas’, hearing the words spoken brings them to life and the life of the words infect the reading and gives it life as well. 

Poetry touches me at an emotional level before I begin to understand what it means intellectually. This to me captures the importance of teaching poetry, and all literature works this way to a certain degree. Literature is inherently reflective, it turns us inward, it makes us consider things, at least it does if we read well. Paul Krugman in an article for The Guardian, “Paul Krugman: Asimov’s Foundation novels grounded my economics,” writes about how he was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy to study economics. Granted, Asimov is not “High Culture” but it is imaginative literature and it stirred more than the escapist desires that often provoke the consumption of much of popular culture. Neal Stephenson has also written about how the science fiction of the 1930’s to 1950’s inspired many of those that went on to design the rockets and technology that put a man on the moon. Reading literature, even the simplest kinds of stories, teaches the imagination to see what does not yet exist and helps to shape the future.

We use the same skill to read the newspaper that we use to read a poem by Emily Dickinson. We use the same skill to read an instruction manual or a memo at work that we use to read Proust. There is a sense that this is as it should be, because Proust is an instruction manual for life, Proust is a memo to our imagination calling it to wake up and get to work. Dickinson is a newspaper for the soul and spirit; she wakes up what is often dormant inside of us, or affirms it if it is awake. But we only have to learn to read words to read a memo or a manual or a newspaper, we have to learn to read our hearts and spirits and imaginations to read Proust or Dickinson (in addition to growing our vocabularies a bit). 

Reading the newspaper and its cousins makes us knowledgeable, teaches us facts we need to know, so it is important to read such things. But there is more to life than this; there are much more important things in life than this. Knowledge is only as important or as valuable as the work our imaginations give it to do. Both file clerks and poets share a knowledge of the alphabet, but what separates one from the other is what their imaginations can do with what they know.


Man sitting in a boat on the banks of a river contemplating nature

Zhou Maoshu Appreciating Lotuses

Kano Masanobu

A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking

Doctor Atomic: “Batter My Heart”

John Adams

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerald Finley & Edward Gardner

Rave on John Donne

Van Morrison


A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking


Portrait of young man

Self Portrait

Anthony Van Dyck


In the Guardian recently were the first two in a series of articles on the poet John Donne, “John Donne, priest and poet, part 1: love, conscience and martyrdom” and “John Donne, priest and poet, part 2: theologian who played with poetic form.” The articles focus on the intensity of his thought and how seriously he pursued life and the choices life placed in his way. The second of the articles addresses Ben Jonson’s criticism of Donne, that “for not keeping of accent, (he) deserved hanging.” Roz Kaveney, the author of the articles, thinks there is a purpose to this failure, that Donne demonstrated the ability to keep accent very well when he wanted to, but that some things were so serious that the subject had to take precedence over the mechanics and that there is a very deliberate message in this. This message may not have been appreciated as much in his own time as it is in ours and in the time immediately preceding ours, the time of Eliot and the moderns. His poetry was largely ignored for a very long time, but fortunately it was not lost. I remembered finding, shortly after finishing graduate school, a copy of the Grierson edition of Donne’s poetry that preserved the spelling and orthography. I had used this edition when writing my masters thesis on Donne, and I loved the blue bindings and the thick pages of the Oxford edition. Packaging is important.

The music suggests that Donne’s influence is still felt. It blends together two songs, one from an Opera, Dr. Atomic, By John Adams and a folk-rock song by Van Morrison. The Morrison song is not just about Donne, but about poetry, poets, and their influence on the world and how the world changes. Still, these songs suggest the depth and breadth of Donne’s influence. The opera is about the making of the atomic bomb and Adam’s puts the words of Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV into the mouth of Oppenheimer, who oversaw the bomb’s creation. It is a kind of plea for forgiveness. The Morrison song connects Donne to the nuclear age as well, suggesting that, even if he did not foresee this awesomely destructive weapon, he understood what it was in the human heart that could imagine its creation and bring it into the world. The Guardian published another article recently about poetry and contemporary music, “I will show you Arcade Fire in a handful of dust: why pop music loves T. S. Eliot.” This article, too, addresses popular culture and the influence of poetry, T. S. Eliot’s poetry specifically, on contemporary music. For all that is said about the waning influences of “high” culture on “popular” culture there is evidence that the two have more than a passing acquaintance.

The painting above was painted by a contemporary of John Donne’s, Anthony Van Dyck. What intrigues me about the painting is that it almost suggests a style that will not come into fashion for a couple of more centuries. This may just be because it is an early painting by a young artist who has not yet found his true “style.” But when I look at it, the painting, for reason that may not be entirely clear, reminds me of Augustus John’s painting below of Dylan Thomas. There is something in the eyes and hair and, perhaps, the look that seem similar to me. But what I like about it is what I like about Augustus John’s painting, it is not entirely realistic, it is an impression. The painters are treating their subjects in much the same way poets treat theirs. They remind me of the lines from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Man with the Blue Guitar:”

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

This suggest to me that artists, poets, painters, or whatever the case may be, use the “tools” of their craft to present “reality” in ways that are unique to their vision. Stevens seems to suggest it is not his fault but the fault of “the blue guitar,” the typewriter, pencil, whatever the implement used to shape the work of art may be. Who knows where inspiration comes from, how the words, or the colors, or the shapes find their way from the artists imagination to the canvas, the page, whatever the medium may be. Stevens seems to suggest that he certainly does not understand where it comes from and that the audience will just have to take it, the poem, the song, the painting, on its own terms.


Portrait of a young man with a blue scarf

Dylan Thomas

Augustus John


I think that poets are like painters in that they are not bound to reality, to things as they appear. They both present impressions, abstractions, expressions that capture more than the things themselves. A professor of mine once aid that a lyric poem, unlike a story, does not progress, but circles its object and looks at it from many different angles. Where a story must move on a poem can linger. Often it is with a poem, as with a painting, its ability to capture the common place and imbue with something unusual, something very uncommon, that makes it so appealing. D. H. Lawrence wrote a short poem “The Third Thing:”

Water is H20, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,

But there is also a third thing, that makes it water

And nobody knows what that is.

The atom locks up two energies

But it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.

There is in most things no matter how common a “third thing” that makes it what it is and that thing is magical, it is mysterious, and it is this third thing that poetry often captures.


A painting of different colored squares on a field of various shades of green and yellow

The Gate

Hans Hofmann,_1959–60.jpg


There was a talk given by Will Self, “A Point of View: In Defense of Obscure Words,” about how modern culture is being oversimplified, that we, as a culture, pursue what is quick, what is easy, we are “risk averse” whether that risk is a physical or a mental risk. Stories, poems, paintings, music, any of the arts that reward often require time and energy spent learning how to understand them. The painting is called The Gate but it is not a painting of a gate that we are familiar with, though once we see title we sort of understand the picture a little better. But we have to spend time with it. It may reward this investment of time, it may not, part of this depends on taste, but the meaning is not explicit and it must, like a Wallace Stevens poem, be considered and thought about. Self is concerned because he sees a society that thinks that because something is difficult to understand we need not try to understand it. He tells the story of a teacher who gives away the ending to the novel Great Expectations because knowing the summary of the story is enough and there is no need to bother with the whole of this “indigestible” novel. When I look at where I am asked to go, as a teacher of English, in order to comply with new state standards, it seems that this trivialization of literature and of art has now been legislated.


Impressionist painting of a road with two people walking with stars and a cypress tree

Road with Cypress and Star

Vincent Van Gogh


When I look at a painting like the one above I wonder what people see in it. I see something that is very moving, that touches my emotions in a very real and physical way, it is almost a pain, but a pleasant pain. But is this experience common to all viewers, or many viewers? The colors that are used are “pretty” colors. The people and the landscape have a “cartoonish” quality to them. Is this all that resonates, is this all that people see? I think there is something inherent in the beautiful that is true, that runs deep and that affects people in ways they may not understand. But the truth of the art is real and that even if it is trivialized to sell insurance (I remember an ad put out by Pacific Life where a painted whale morphs through the styles of Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat, Calder, and Picasso, it was an effective ad, but it was selling insurance not art) its truth cannot be suppressed. I think that no matter what is done to marginalize art as long as it is present it will speak to those that experience it. I do not think it is always necessary for my students to enjoy Dickens, Austen, Chaucer, Baldwin, add whatever name works for you, it is only necessary for them to be exposed to these books. The stories will haunt them, they will “not go gentle into that good night” they will “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” They will live and they will resonate in the unconscious if they are put there. For some the response will be immediate, but for others, the response will come much later. Maybe for some, the art will remain forever silent, but I would like to think that is not so. I do not think it is my job to make others see the light, only to keep the light lit so that when the time comes it can be seen.


Paintinf of a town with buildings and a church steeple

St. Mary’s with Houses and Chimney (Bonn)

August Macke


In this painting we see the modern, chimneys and apartment buildings living side by side with the ancient, the church steeples. The old is forever with us, it does not go away. It is there to remind us that every generation leaves its mark and those that come after have to make their mark in a way that acknowledges what came before. Notice the decorative carving at the top of the chimney that in some ways mirror details in the church spires. Art can remind us that objects can be beautiful and functional at the same time, that there is no reason why the tools we make, the buildings we live in, the cars we drive, cannot do their very necessary jobs and be esthetically pleasing at the same time. If you ever visit Edward Gorey’s house, you will notice he was intrigued with different kinds of pliers and they are sprinkled throughout the house like little alligators watching over things. There was something about their form that was beautiful to Gorey. We are not better people because we develop artistic sensibilities, because we appreciate what is beautiful and desire to fill our world with beauty, but as Kaveney says of Donne, whether we share his beliefs, his faith, it is important to wrestle with the issues he wrestles with, and that something beautiful can come from this engagement. Whatever else may or may not be true, people in ugly surroundings are often depressed and people in beautiful surroundings, though they may not be made happy by these surroundings, find solace in them.


Metaphorically Speaking

James Geary

TED Talk


The film clip discusses the importance of metaphor in our lives. At their heart metaphors are basically poetic, they are impressionist paintings that do not show what something is but what something is like. Often a thing’s name does not tell us much. A hammer is a tool that can be useful or cause harm, depending on how it is used. When the hammer is used metaphorically it is used to reveal something that is true about something else that we cannot see when we look at that something else. Romeo calls Juliet “the sun” because, in the words of a popular song she “lights up” Romeo’s life. But one thing that is often true of metaphors is that the object used for comparison has many facets and often they are not always positive or always negative. The same literal sun that lights up Romeo’s life can burn if he stays to long in its presence, it can be dangerous. So also can love and the beloved. In the play it kills him and her. Often when we think metaphorically we focus on a particular connotation. Romeo is oblivious to the dangers of love; he only sees its light, its beauty (even though he has had recent experience with its unpleasant side). But though Romeo is unaware of the dark side of his metaphor, the audience, perhaps is not, and almost certainly Shakespeare was not.

The value of metaphorical, poetic thought is that it is complex, that it does make demands on our emotions, our thoughts, and our imaginations. That is why we develop our metaphor making skills. All allusions have a metaphoric side to them. When Adams places Donne’s sonnet in his opera he is expecting the audience to recognize the source of the aria, and to, perhaps, be reminded of other sonnets in this cycle, like, perhaps, “Death be not proud.” The audience may also be familiar with other things Donne wrote that the quoted passage may evoke, like “No man is an island” and “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” from Donne’s “Meditation 17” which is all about how we are all involved in the lives of our neighbors. To think metaphorically is a skill, a skill that must be trained and developed. It is a skill that enables us to see beneath the surface of things. They require an educated mind; a curious mind. In the jargon of the day, they require “critical thinking skills.” And nothing brings about the death of something important more quickly than by making it into a “catch phrase” used unthoughtfully day by day.

As a literature teacher it is important to me that students experience the exasperation, frustration, and trauma that comes from trying to make sense of complex and layered language; language that does not say explicitly what it has to say, but requires us to explore the caverns that lie beneath its surface. Like many things that are unpleasant, that are frustrating, that are confusing when we first encounter them, literature, poetry, stories, essays, that begin by tormenting us end by healing us, by revealing ourselves to ourselves if we will only mine their depths.


Portrait of young man wearing a dark coat and light blue shirt

W. B. yeats

Augustus John

Where Dreams are Found

Sonny’s Blues

Jean Redpath


Where Dreams are Found


Two people dressed like clowns stand by a house by trees with a full moon in the sky with three clouds

A Carnival Evening

Henri Rousseau


The song is about a young man who becomes an old man who never pursues his dreams because his mother needs him at home, sort of like Luke Skywalker’s uncle needs Luke about the farm. Later in the song we are told:


Sonny’s dreams can’t be real, they’re just stories he’s read

They’re just stars in his eyes, they’re just dreams in his head

And he’s hungry inside for the wide world outside

And I know I can’t hold him though I’ve tried and I’ve tried


The lyric tells us that Sonny’s dreams can’t be real because they are just stories, stories from books, stories he’s been told, or stories from films, television, and songs that are just made up. The school where I teach is reconsidering its curriculum. We are told on the one hand that the new standards require students to do more with non-fiction and real life type “stuff.” Fiction, of course, is all made up and therefore it can’t be real and cannot really tell us much about life and how it is lived, or so some would suggest to us. Of course it should be remembered that there is a great deal of non-fiction that, if read correctly, is going to be read for more than just the information it provides, that is a body of literature as worthy of study as any important work of fiction, but I fear non-fiction of this variety is seen to be as irrelevant to the school curriculum as the fiction that is being replaced.

They tell us that for the study of literature to have value it must provide students the opportunity to search and to find information. There is no point, for example, to studying Macbeth (or perhaps Edmund Burke or John Locke) if this study does not result in students learning facts they did not previously know; facts that will be useful to them in the future. The future, it seems, is all about gathering information and finding proper uses for it. I think Macbeth has much to teach us, but I do not know if there are many useful facts to be found.

The painting is of a clown and a woman standing under a cloudy, starlit sky. The title tells us it is a painting of a “carnival evening.” I am not sure what an evening must possess in order for it to be a carnival, but the painting captures whatever that something is. There was an article in the New York Times, “The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules”, about Maurice Sendak and other writers of children’s stories that did not play by the rules, whatever the rules are. There is much that is dreamlike, especially in Sendak, in the stories that these and other writers of children’s books tell. C. S. Lewis said of his Narnia books that they began with a dream he had of a faun standing by a lamppost in the middle of a snowy wood. On one level there is, of course, nothing real in a dream. On another, though, the stuff of dreams is immensely important and it silhouettes some of the deeper realities of our lives, realities that are perhaps too difficult to face in a more realistic setting.

Even if we do not believe what the likes of Jung and Freud tell us about dreams, the literature of the world, both sacred and profane, gives great significance to dreams. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is packed with allegorical dreams. I particularly enjoy all the dreams that the various knights seeking the Holy Grail have. They are dreams that contain important information, life and death information, and there is always someone, usually a monk or hermit of some kind, who can tell the knight what the dream means. On at least one occasion the interpreter of the dream is a fraud whose interpretation of the dream is also a fraud. Dreams being what they are, it is not difficult to spin them in a number of different ways, not all of which are enlightening. There is a message here as well; that it is not enough to dream, but it is also important to understand our dreams correctly.


Ships anchored in port at night with London's St. Paul's Cathedral silouetted in the backhground

Nightfall down the Thames

John Atkinson Grimshaw


But what has all this to do with curriculum standards and the usefulness of fiction? Aristotle thought that poetry, and by poetry we soon realize he means story telling, has value because, unlike history, it does not tell us what has happened, but what might be. Aristotle also thought that stories show us how a philosophy of life might be lived out. They answer (or suggest answers) to questions like: What are the implications of our philosophy for our futures? How do our beliefs guide our choices? What does our philosophy teach us? The problem with non-fiction, or much of it and certainly the kind of non-fiction the proponents of the new standards seem to have in mind, is that it just presents information that we can accumulate, it does not make us wise, it does not teach us what to do with the information once we acquire it. The paintings above and below are of seaports, one on the River Thames and one on the River Clyde. This is suggestive because these seaports are not on the sea but on rivers that lead to the sea. What is important is not where we are, but where we can get to from where we are. What is important in what we read is not the information that is conveyed, but where that information can take us. A manual that shows us how to properly set up and configure our computers tells us nothing about why we would want or need to set up and configure that computer in the first place.


Ships anchored in port by a rain soaked city street at night

Shipping on the Clyde

John Atkinson Grimshaw


Both of the seaports are shrouded in mist. This mist limits our vision, we cannot see as far in a fog as we can when the horizons are clear and sunlit. To read for information only, without a clear idea as to what the value of the information is, or to even care if it has value, is to read in a fog and at the end of the day all we will have is information without an imagination adequate enough to put that information to good use, or to pass judgment on it and discard it when it has no use or is, worse yet, deceptive or unhealthy. I was told when I was in school that medieval scholars believed everything they read in books, even when what they read in different books was contradictory. This was both a strength and a weakness; a strength because it prodded them to seek synthesis, to find a way to bring these contradictory ideas together to reveal a hopefully deeper truth. A weakness because it produced a kind of naiveté that gave greater value to some of what they read than was warranted or even wise. There is something of this medieval view in the attitude we are being encouraged to take towards non-fiction. It is what justifies the teaching of informational texts in place of literature. But reading for information only is not reading critically, it is premised on the belief that what is written in books must be true and therefore can be trusted.

I am sure that I am oversimplifying the new curriculum standard and the way it is being presented, but one of the things that reading literature does, if we read deeply and well, is to make judgments about characters and ideas and the implications of the actions of the characters in the stories. When we read books like The Catcher in the Rye or The Turn of the Screw we must evaluate the narrators and the validity of the stories they are telling us. For even if these narrators truly believe the stories that they tell and believe they are telling us what happened as it truly happened, we see throughout their narratives that they are not reliable witnesses. In many ways they are the most convincing witnesses against the truth of the story they tell. We in our lives will encounter every day people who will tell us stories that cannot be true, even though on occasion the people telling the stories may honestly believe in the truth of the tale they tell.

When we read fiction well we are learning from experience, from experiences we are having with other people who, even if they are fictional, are forcing us to make judgments about what they say and do and we avoid these judgments to our peril. If we read the books mentioned above for information alone all we know at the end of the story is that Holden Caulfield had a harrowing few days in New York City and a child died in a governess’ arms. What we do not know is whether the most harrowing events are taking place in the city or in the mind of the young narrator or if the governess is the child’s protector or his killer.


Painitng of a house viewed through trees at night

Château Noir

Paul Cezanneézanne_026.jpg


There is another value to reading fiction and that relates to Aristotle’s first point about the value of stories; that they show us what might be. They stimulate the imagination. Neal Stephenson in an article in the World Policy Journal, “Innovation Starvation”, suggests that many of the advancements in science and technology that took place in the 1950’s and 1960’s had their origins in science fiction novels that speculated about the future. And even where the predictions in these novels did not come to pass, they still stimulated the imagination. Stephenson talks about waking up early to watch the old Gemini mission launches. I remember waking up to watch not only the Gemini launches, but the Mercury launches as well and like Stephenson I followed the space program from its glorious beginnings to its more mundane ending. It seems to me that as our cultural imagination went into decline so did our cultural ambitions. We exchanged a dream of visiting other planets and solar systems for a fleet of celestial cargo ships. When the imagination necessary to pursue the dream declined and vanished, the dream died. It is not necessary that the new dreams that replace the old involve space travel, but they do need to involve something large, something that inspires and rekindles our enthusiasm for accomplishing the sublime.


What We Learned from 5 Million Books

TED Talks


The video is not just about collecting books digitally so that they will always be with us, but about the power of language and the value of preserving that language. Aiden and Michel in their presentation point out that much has been lost and is unrecoverable from antiquity. It may be that much, even most, of what has been lost has been lost for good reason. But we cannot know that for sure. There was a review of a new book by Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve, in the Guardian, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt – review”. The book tells the story of the re-discovery of Lucretius’ book On the Nature of Things, a book that had been lost for many centuries and existed only as oblique references in the work of other ancient authors. The name of Lucretius was known as was the name of the book, but the book itself was lost. This book that was lost and was found went on to inspire many Renaissance writers, thinkers, and scientists. The Guardian is of the opinion that Greenblatt’s claims may be a bit exaggerated, but it recognizes the value of the book itself.

In another review in the New York Times, The Almost-Lost Poem That Changed the World” (which you must be a subscriber to the New York Times to read) Greenblatt is quoted saying, “I am constantly struck,” Greenblatt told The Harvard Gazette in 2000, when he was named a university professor, “by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago.” And this is at the heart of why we read literature. Books are letters of a sort, a kind of correspondence where we communicate with those long dead because the content of the conversation will always have relevance if we take the time to understand what is being said to us. Maimonides, St. Paul, Confucius, Homer, Scheherazade, and all the other writers long dead who continue to inspire the living and, if given the opportunity, many generations to come, desire to chat (and I use this word not to be flippant but to suggest the intensely personal nature of the conversation) with us. Like Socrates in the Agora they engage us with questions about life and how it is lived and what gives it meaning.

And even if we do not agree with their conclusions there is value in letting them help us shape our own conclusions, if only by accepting the challenge to think as deeply about things as they have thought, so that our conclusions, though different, will be as acutely considered. Or as Sarah Bakewell, quoting Petrarch, pointed out later in her New York Times review of the Greenblatt book, “Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.” I wonder if a book can have an impact this profound if it is read solely for information, or what is worse, if the only books we read are those that provide information to be gleaned without inspiring the reader to do much of substance with what’s been found.


Painting of a tree with a reddish-brown trunk against a blue sky

Red Tree

Piet Mondrian


Leaving Home

Child’s Song
Tom Rush

Leaving Home

“Brunnhilde lies asleep, surrounded by magical fire”
Arthur Rackham

The song is about leaving home and the emotions it evokes as well as the concerns. The painting is in a sense about a father throwing his daughter out of the house. Brunnhilde has disobeyed her father and her father, Odin, the chief of the Norse pantheon of gods, punishes her by putting her to sleep and surrounding her resting place with a ring of fire. The story is a “sleeping beauty” story in that she is ultimately awakened by a kiss from Siegfried who braves the fire to rescue her.

For some leaving home involves leaving the house and for others it involves being thrown out of the house. Either way it is difficult. But starting out on one’s own is always about facing the future. There was an article in the Guardian, “Arthur C Clarke and the end of upbeat futurology,” about the futurists of the mid to late 20th century, especially the futurist Arthur C. Clarke. The gist of the article is that for Clarke and others like him and all that followed him the future was full of promise and optimism. There were amazing things that were going to be accomplished by the century’s end, most of which did not come to pass. What is especially disturbing about this is that I grew up in a world where anything was possible and the world that is being given to the next generation seems to be one in which little of consequence is possible. I wonder if children growing up today are as excited about the world they are moving into as I was about the world I was moving into when I was a child.

The Flying Carpet (Ivan Tsarevich with the Firebird on a magic carpet)
Viktor Vasnetsov

Part of the optimism and excitement I felt about the world came from the stories I read. I read a lot of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and other writers of science fiction. Of course Wells’ view of the world was not always a positive view, his most famous novels were about things going wrong, an island with a mad scientist playing games with genetics, alien invasions, and an invisible man who was not motivated by kindness. One story I remember especially well was called “The Magic Shop” about a child with magical powers controlling mom and dad. The child was a malevolent child who was not making the world into a happy place, For children who often feel powerless there may be a delicious irony in the way tables are turned in the story, but the story was not really a happy one and its ending, even to a child enjoying the tables being turned, is disturbing.

But other writers presented a magical world like that of the paintings of the flying carpet. As the article points out, Arthur Clarke believed that “advanced technology (would be) indistinguishable from magic.” Our stories today still have magic but it is unrelated to technology, magic has been put back into the realm of fantasy and taken out of the real world. I enjoyed the stories of flying carpets and exotic places that could only be visited in the imagination, but I was also excited about a world in which some of that magic would be realized. Perhaps it is important to not only teach our children to dream but to give them a realistic hope that dreams can be realized, not just the dreams of a happy and successful life and the ability to set and realize goals, but the ability to believe in dreams of a wiser world with a more active imagination.

Flying Carpet
Viktor VasnetsovКовёр-самолет._1919-1926.jpg

Of course these new worlds that we dreamed of when I was child were often a bit “Utopic” in that they imagined a world in which science made life more just, less painful, and more pleasant for all. Of course these are not things science can deliver and one person’s Utopia is another person’s prison. Much of life is about giving up things we would like so that others can have things they need, whether that is in a marriage where one does what the other desires from time to time, or in a nation where each part gives up something to the greater good of the whole. Part of learning to live well is learning to live with a certain amount of sacrifice and suffering. Stories, even those with magic carpets, often teach us that. Often the most important lesson the stories we read as children teach us is that life can be difficult and that suffering is often followed by rewards of one kind or another.

There was an article in the New York Times, “New Envoy’s Old Advice for Children: Read More,” about Katherine Paterson being made the new “national ambassador for young people’s literature.” She talks about writing the stories she does not for her children but for her own “inner child,” suggesting that the stories we tell should be stories that we would first want told to us. In the article she talks about growing up in China at the start of the Second World War and witnessing some of the things done by the Japanese in China during that war. As a result she came to hate the Japanese. Upon graduating college she was given the opportunity to go to Japan as a missionary. Her hatred was such she did not want to go. She did go. She said, “It was one of the greatest gifts of my life to be able to be in a situation and find yourself loved by people that you thought you had hated.” Her first book also came out of this experience and there is probably a lesson in that as well, it is a lesson stories often tell us, it is a lesson found, for example, in the Harry Potter stories, that those we thought were our enemies are often our friends.

Sleeping Beauty
Walt Disney Studios

Another theme often found in children’s stories is that though we are surrounded by forces that mean us harm there are other forces present that watch out for us and protect us. In the film clip Maleficent intends great harm, but there are three other spirits, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, that guard the sleeping princess. As I have grown older the stories I now read have fewer of these protective spirits and the message is that if we are to be saved we must save ourselves. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect others to come to our aid or to expect divine forces to watch over us, but often it seems that aid and comfort is to be found outside of our own resources. In the classical literature it is not unusual to find characters protected by divine forces, Odysseus is protected by Athena and Aeneas receives help from different gods and goddesses at different points in his journey. But ours is a skeptical age and we tend to believe only in those forces we can see and touch. In this sense, perhaps, the stories we tell our children instill a false sense of security.

Leaving home often begins with solitude, with finding ourselves alone and perhaps friendless. Our beliefs teach us to what extent we can depend on forces outside ourselves. For many God and the teachings of their religion are real. For others religious beliefs and practices are an intrusion that takes our focus off of the problems at hand that we alone must solve. I have my beliefs about this but that is not really the point.

I think we depend on stories to show us something of the way and to help us figure out how to live well. We all need comfort and we all need to feel cared for. That we have these needs does not mean that there are forces out there that will see to it these needs are met, but it does suggest that others have these same needs and that we have an obligation to care for our neighbor. It suggests in part that our need is met by giving what we need to others, that there is a beauty sleeping in all of us that needs to be awakened.

Sleeping Beauty
Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The Mind and the Maker

Variations On an Original Theme, Op. 36 Enigma Theme (Andante)
Edward Elgar

The Mind and the Maker

Head, 1960
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard S. Field, 1990 (1990.192)

There were a couple of articles published this week on the mind and how it works, actually they were both reviews of recently published books. One in the Guardian, “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist”, and one in the New York Times Review of Books, “Mind Reading.” The first article is about how the left and right hand sides of the brain work and the second about how we evolved into readers. They do not have much in common in that they address two very different functions of the brain, but they raise issues about how the mind works and how we learn that are interesting to anyone who works in, or appreciates, the humanities.

The Guardian article reviews a book about how the different sides of the brain are responsible for two very different and somewhat contradictory operations of the brain. The left hand side focusing on the immediate and the concrete and the right hand side focusing on the future, the bigger, long term picture, and the abstract. The music by Edward Elgar is from The Enigma Variations and suggests that music, like language can take us in a number of different directions at once. The title, Enigma, suggests there is a mystery behind the music, which Elgar never explained other than to suggest the actual theme at the heart of the variations is never played. But the variations also suggest the different ways a melody can be heard and performed and, by extension, the different ways the mind can “understand” a piece of music.

The painting by Picasso gives us two views of a human face at the same time, the full face and the face in profile, again suggesting that how we see something depends on our perspective or point of view. The book reviewed in the article argues that for the mind to do what we need it to do each side must perform its part of the job and then hand the task back to the other part of the brain to do its part of the task. The left hand side of the brain does what it needs to do to address immediate problems than hands the task back to the right hand side to make plans for the future. If one side monopolizes the task and refuses to turn it over to the other side problems can arise. In practice it is the left hand side, that is more focused and less abstract, that is more likely to try to dominate.

Ocean Park No.129
Richard Diebenkorn

It is the two sides of the brain that allow us to see more than one side of a thing, as in Picasso’s painting, at a time. The painting by Diebenkorn is from a series of paintings called Ocean Park. Each painting is different and offers a different view of the same landscape. Ocean Park is a real place in Santa Monica, a suburb of Los Angeles. As with the music, that same view may change depending on how we see it at any given moment, seasons change, different aspects of a landscape may capture our attention at different times. A more left side of the brain painting of the landscape may be more identifiable as a Southern California beach city, but does that make it more “real”?

Ralph’s Diner
Ralph Goings

A more left brain way of looking at a landscape might be suggested by Ralph Going’s painting Ralph’s Diner. The painting attempts to capture a photograph with paint and canvas and to make that painting to the extent possible an exact duplicate of the photograph. It is an impressive demonstration of what can be done with paint, canvas, and an artist’s skill. But if all it does is duplicate the photograph what makes it more than just a demonstration of an artist’s skill, what makes it a work of art in its own right, what is the contribution of the right hand side of the brain?

I suppose it is the same thing that makes a Renaissance painting of a landscape, that captures that landscape as realistically, as photographically, as possible, a work of art. In any painting there are at least two components, the artist’s choice of a subject and the manner in which that subject is captured. The Renaissance painter tried to capture what was seen as a photograph might if the camera had existed. The photorealist painter is trying to capture the photograph as though it were a Renaissance landscape, sort of.

Paramount Picture

In this film clip Henry II makes Thomas Becket his Lord Chancellor. He is trying to use the brilliance of his friend and advisor to achieve certain ends with the church. Henry is a very concrete, left brain, kind of thinker. He knows what the immediate problem is and he knows the most effective way of achieving an immediate solution to that problem. Becket on the other hand is more imaginative, a more right brain kind of thinker, better at using abstract thought and abstract language to achieve the ends Henry desires.

Later in the film Henry will put Becket in charge of the English Church by making him Archbishop of Canterbury. Because it is the church that is giving him trouble he, thinking very concretely, will put his friend who will do what he asks in charge of the church. He misunderstands Becket who is immensely loyal in his service to Henry. By making Thomas head of the church his loyalty must be to the Church and not to Henry. Becket tries to warn Henry, but Henry is not able to make that abstract leap and imagine his friend as anything but loyal to the king.

Wallace Stevens in the first part of his poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar” captures the relationship between the concrete and the abstract sides of the brain, or perhaps lack of a relationship would be more to the point.

The Man with the Blue Guitar


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

The audience wants “things as they are” they want what is “real” but the guitar captures it own reality, it changes what “it sees” and makes it into something else, as Diebenkorn does with his seascape. The artist, even the photorealist artist, captures the world in her or his imagination and makes that world into a piece of music, into a story, into a painting or a sculpture, the world is changed, after a fashion, by the imagination.

Blue and Green Music
Georgia O’Keeffe

The painting claims to represent music, blue music and green music, it is a visual representation of what O’Keeffe imagines music to “look” like. But it is not just any music; it is green music and blue music. What are the colors intended to suggest about the music? Did she have a specific piece of music in mind when she painted it? I wonder what the story is that O’Keeffe is trying to tell. There is a suggestion of sound waves and of flowers in the painting but I do not know what they are meant to suggest about music (perhaps I am too concrete in my thinking). There is also a sense in the painting that music is a force that is penetrating, perhaps the furrows that might suggest sound waves are not waves at all but furrows and it is the earth the music is penetrating. In that sense you might have the “blue” sky and the “green” earth.

The New York Times article is about reading and writing and how they evolved. It is a review of a book that tries to understand how the black (usually) marks on a white (usually) surface (that is not always a paper surface anymore) can produce such profound emotions in the human psyche. It wonders why the letters we use to make words are shaped the way they are and why do we use letters, like “b” and “d” that are so easily confused. The article also points out that the shapes of some letters, the “t” for example, have primal associations that might have made them attractive to those who invented the first letters, though it does not go on to say how these associations relate to the letters they have become. At its heart the written word seems to be a very right brain kind of function but it is often used to achieve very left brain kinds of things.

But for me it is the coming together of the imagination with language to tell stories that I find most attractive. It is the right brain ability to think abstractly and to imagine that causes me to wonder how we have evolved into storytellers who shape meanings through sounds and images and words. I also wonder why it is that reading Jonathan Swift excites me and makes me laugh but seems to put many of my students to sleep. Is it just an inadequate vocabulary or are there significant ways in which we all process what we read differently? Obviously we all see different things in what we read, but why is it that some of us can develop a “literary” imagination that can take complex texts and shape them into meaning and merriment while others not only cannot but do not have an interest in developing the skill?

It is not that those that are not attracted to the written word lack imagination, though it might be that some do, because many that are not captivated by the written word have very rich imaginations, they may be dancers, musicians, or painters. Maybe it is just a case of finding the right story to bewitch the imagination and that until that story is found the “literary” imagination pursues other things. Maybe it is just that it is difficult to understand how what is gold to one person is brass to another. We do not all value the same things; we are not all touched by the same things. It is probably enough that the imagination lives even if it is sustained by a different kind of nourishment.

Well Written, Well Told

Ever After
Stephen Sondheim
Into the Woods

Well Written, Well Told

The Death of Chatterton
Henry Wallis

The song title is a play on the most familiar storybook ending “and they lived happily ever after.” The song is from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, a play about the role of folk and fairy tales in shaping our lives. The song suggests that we all must go into the woods, that dark place where all of our fears live and come out the other side if we are to “live happily ever after.” If we do not, whatever is our secret terror will continue to haunt us. It is, I suppose, the place where we all go to learn courage and fortitude.

Thomas Chatterton went into the woods in his effort to achieve acceptance as a writer. He is perhaps most famous for the poems he claims to have found written by a medieval monk, Thomas Rowley. Chatterton was never successful as a poet or a writer, at least not during his lifetime. Everyone thought his best known poems were written by someone else. It is believed he committed suicide at the age of seventeen in poverty and discouragement at his inability to be taken seriously as a writer. I bought in a library book sale once a two volume set of the poems of Chatterton that was published by Little Brown and Company in 1863 and donated to the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1867. It is an interesting collection and as Horace Walpole said the poems are “wonderful for their harmony and spirit.” Here are a few lines from Chatterton’s poem The Battle of Hastings:

Duke Wyllyam drewe agen hys arrowe strynge,
An arrowe with a sylver-hede drewe he;
The arrowe dauncynge in the ayre dyd synge.
And hytt the horse Tosselyn on the knee.
At this brave Tosslyn threwe his short horse-speare;
Duke Wyllyam stooped to avoyde the blowe;
The yrone weapon hummed in his eare,
And hitte Sir Doullie Naibor on the prowe;
Upon his helme soe furious was the stroke,
It splete his bever, and the rivets broke.

Those that knew what Middle English looked like were not fooled by the vocabulary or the quaint spellings and did not believe the poems to be ancient. He is probably not a great poet but there is a romantic aura that clings to him that attracted poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth and the other Romantics to his cause. The poems themselves do tell stories that if not well written were effectively told, at least for their time.

The Boyhood of Raligh
John Everett Millais

There was an article recently in the Guardian, “Museum ‘of story and storytelling’ planned for Oxford”, about a museum to be built at Oxford University to celebrate story telling. It will begin with the stories that originated at Oxford, stories by Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman. The museum already lives online as The Story Museum. It sounds like it will be a fascinating place where children can go to hear stories and to invent them. It seems that many of the stories that speak to the development of our humanity are stories written for children. This is a generality of course but more and more of the stories written for adults (aside from genre fiction, which many seem to dismiss as stories written for “older children”) address the inner lives and psychology of their characters who often do not seem to “do” very much. Their courage lies in the way in which they confront their inner demons. There is value of course to these stories and they do attract readers but many of the elements of traditional storytelling seem to be missing. Perhaps I have been exposed to too narrow a spectrum of modern stories.

Cover of the pulp magazine Mystery (February 1934)
A Tower Magazine

The suggestion is often made that genre fiction and those stories that attempt to tell a more traditional kind of story are not that well written. For example “serious” literary critics often trivialize the work of J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Stephen King. Yet these stories resonate with many readers. One of C. S. Lewis’ favorite books was A Voyage to Arcturus, a book Lewis said was badly written but tells a mesmerizing story. Does a story have to be well written to be well told? It is difficult to know whether or not the storytellers that move us today will move anyone else tomorrow. I think sometimes that what is considered good writing is more transitory than what is considered good storytelling. A good story can perhaps survive bad writing but as writing styles and tastes change the “good” writing of one generation is often seen as wanting by the generations that follow.

A further complication of writing well is that often it is impossible to quantify. There was an article in the Guardian, “Marking computer says no to lazy Dickens and dull Austen”, about a new computer program used to score the essays for student proficiency exams given by the English government. Sort of like the exams we give students here before we will give them a high school diploma. The machine gave low or failing grades to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and many other prominent writers when their work was fed through the machine. The opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, was marked down “for repetition and poor and restricted choice of vocabulary.” As soon as we try to define what is and is not good writing, writing that ought to be bad will be recognized for its brilliance.

City Lights
United Artists

The film tells a powerful story. The full effect of this final scene from City Lights cannot be felt without knowing the story that precedes this moment. The woman giving Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” the flower and the coin was, at the beginning of the film, a blind flower seller on the street. Chaplin is able to “manipulate” events so that she is able to have an operation that will restore her sight. Unfortunately the tramps “manipulations” get him arrested. The scene in the clip is the reunion of the tramp and the blind flower seller, who now can see, but she has never seen the tramp. She does, however, know the touch of his hand and recognizes him immediately upon touching his hand. It is a remarkable piece of story telling and to do it justice the film should be seen in its entirety. But what this film clip suggests is that the power of story telling is often in its images and relationships. It is not the narrative so much as how the settings and events are woven in our minds. In a film the filmmaker creates this for us and leaves us free to focus on other things. But for the story told with words on a printed page the reader has to be able to construct the settings, characters, and events in her or his mind and the more vividly the story is told the more easily the reader makes these constructions.

Scheherazade Went on with Her Story
Illustration from Arabian Nights by Virginia Frances Sterrett

My favorite storyteller, or at least one of them, is Scheherazade. She tells the stories found in the 1001 Arabian Nights. Perhaps this is because these are stories I grew up with, both in written form and through, when viewed today, quite awful film versions of the “Voyages of Sinbad” or “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” But even when I look at these films today with their awful production values and often equally awful performances, the images of the films as I remember them still captivate. The image of the thieves’ captain saying “open sesame” and a wall of rock parting to reveal a huge cave full of mountains of treasure in all its brilliance (or at least as brilliant as black and white cinematography could make it) still captures me to this day. I do not know if it is just because these are the stories of my youth or if there are other aspects to the stories that preserve their magic.

There are many stories I read as a child but these stories have endured in my imagination. I have only read them in translation and as I grow older I continue to read them in different translations. Some of them very good and others quite wanting. But no matter how bad the writing the stories usually come alive. This suggests to me that it is not the writing that gives life to a story but the ability of the story to enchant the reader in spite of the deficiencies of its language.

Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes

Autumn to May

Taj Mahal

Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes


Gulliver in Brobdingnag

Richard Redgrave

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

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

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


Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle

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

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


Shwedagon Pagoda

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


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

Thomas Cole

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

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

The Martian Chronicles


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

A Taste for the Unusual

Frim Fram Sauce
Diana Krall

A Taste for the Unusual

Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Brueghel the Elder

I do not know what “frim fram” sauce, “oss-en-fay”, or “sha fafa” are, for all I know they may just be the invention of the lyricist. But I like the song because it suggests to me the importance of being a little bit adventurous with our tastes. It is the only way we find out that “fast food” is not the only source of a tasty meal, in fact it may be the only way we discover how “un-tasty” a fast food meal actually is. We often like what we like because it is familiar. How do we ever become familiar with what is unknown to us if we do not take a bit of a risk with something new, unusual, and exotic.

There is nothing wrong with potatoes, tomatoes, steak or any of the other foods that the persona of the song would like to take a pass on, they are all tasty, but they are also somewhat “clichéd,” somewhat “safe.” Generally when I am looking for something to read there are two things that attract me to a book, the author or the cover. If I know the author and have liked what that author has done in the past, I may give the book a try, if I do not know the author it is generally the cover art that captures my attention. The first is often a safe bet, these books are the potatoes and the tomatoes. The second requires a bit of an adventurous spirit, but not that much, because what usually captures my attention about the cover is its ability to evoke the kind of book with which I am already familiar and comfortable. I think we are often attracted to those things, whether in art, music, or literature that promise to deliver an experience that resembles one we have already had.

The painting is a pleasant scene of an active medieval or renaissance street. It is also somewhat typical of Brueghel’s style and delivers the kind of artistic experience we would expect from a Brueghel painting. But the title tells us there is also something more to the painting than the odd people and the quirky landscape. It contains about a hundred different Flemish proverbs, acted out after a fashion by the “actors” in the scene. For example, in the lower left hand corner there is a woman with a water bucket in one hand and tongs with a hot coal in the other. This suggests a proverb about carrying fire in one hand and water in the other, which is to suggest the person is a bit of a hypocrite. Just ahead of her is a man banging his head against a wall, a proverb with which most are familiar.

I used to give this painting to students at the end of the school year (I knew the painting as “The Blue Cloak” because, I suppose, at the center of the painting is a person wearing a blue cloak) and would give them so many points extra credit for each proverb they could find and explain. I would also give them the list of proverbs the painting illustrates. They only had to find ten and most did pretty well. But the thing about the painting that is a bit quirky is that instead of being a picture that might “paint a thousand words”, it is “words painting a hundred pictures.” Though we often gravitate toward the familiar it is often those things that do something new and unfamiliar that are the most memorable.

There was an article in the Boston Globe recently by Joan Wickersham, “If Jane Austen had a laptop”, that speculated on how Jane Austen might have responded to things like “Twitter,” (it suggests that she would have especially enjoyed using certain “search engines”). The article is a fanciful speculation on a technology driven Ms. Jane but it also suggests that we are products of our culture and were Ms. Austen living with us she too would be a product of our age, just as we are products after a fashion of Ms. Austen’s age, and the ages of other writers whose works have shaped our culture. Once a work of art has touched us, it changes us a bit and the way we look at the world around us. We may not wear Regency clothing, but we have entered and been touched by a Regency way of viewing the world and, while in the world of the book, adopted a bit of that view.

Red Mobile
Alexander Calder

The photograph of the Calder mobile and the Matisse paper cuttings suggest another way that art often surprises. Both the mobile and paper cuttings are associated with children and the nursery. Calder and Matisse both pursued “serious” art, one a sculptor the other a painter. They are working with the ingredients of their perspective mediums but they are not working with them in the way we would expect. Part of the reason the art works with the viewer is perhaps because it evokes the nursery and a more innocent and carefree time. There is I think something liberating about a mobile, something that provokes a smile or a chuckle in part because it is not what we expected to find on the menu when we entered the museum.

There was an ad for Pacific Life that used to play at the end of the News Hour on PBS with Jim Lehrer. It was an animation of a whale, the trademark of the insurance company. But the whale would morph from a whale painted in the style of Seurat to a whale in the style of Van Gogh, to a whale in the style of Monet, Picasso, and Calder. It was an imaginative ad, but I wonder how many viewers would recognize how the ad’s creator was playing with artistic trademarks. The ad also suggests that art can sell a product, perhaps in part because the viewer of the ad is not entirely familiar with what is happening, but I think it is even more effective with the viewer that recognizes what the ad maker is doing. In a sense, by playing with artistic styles and expecting the viewer to recognize the styles the advertiser is motivating us to buy the product by flattering our knowledge and sophistication. There is the “story” of the ad’s narration, “buy this product” and the more subliminal story of the ad’s presentation that tells a story of sorts about the history of art, of whales, and insurance, suggesting, perhaps, they have something in common.

The Sorrows of the King
Henri Matisse

Stories often do this as well. There are many stories written for children that operate exclusively at the child’s level. The adult reader might still enjoy the story, who cannot enjoy The Cat in the Hat, or Goodnight Moon, but the story does not operate at a level that the adult recognizes that the child does not. On the other hand there are other stories associated with children, like Gulliver’s Travels (at least the first two voyages sans a scene or two) and Alice and Wonderland. These books can delight the child but there are other things going on that only an adult would fully appreciate. I remember seeing in a used bookstore a book titled A Boy’s Rabelais. There are aspects of Rabelais that a child might find enjoyable, but there is much about the good friar’s book that may not be entirely suitable for children. It is a book one would not expect to find on the children’s “menu.”

This is, I think, the real reason we incorporate literature in our English classes. The main purpose of the class is to teach fluency with language and ideas and help students to develop a facility with language that will contribute to their future success. But it is also important to help students develop a “sense of adventure” in the choices they make. They know the Phantom Tollbooth or Harry Potter or Vampires living in the great Northwest. These are their “meat and potatoes” so to speak. There are other “foods” that come with more exotic flavors, flavors that may not be initially pleasant (I am told that children do not find sweets tasty at first, they need to acquire the taste) but with time become flavors we cannot live without. We will never outgrow our parochial flavors if someone does not bring to our attention the other flavors that might be experienced and over time enjoyed.

The Sleeping Gypsy
Henri Rousseau

The painting of the lion and the sleeping gypsy evokes another kind of magic. The dreamer does not know what is happening in the world while she or he is captured by the dream. The gypsy may be dreaming of pastures and a flock of sheep while the real world is full of lions, or at least, a lion. To what extent are we safe in our sleep; whether it is the real sleeping we do each night or the sleep of a mind that is unaware of what it needs to learn or the consequences of failing to learn. When we dream the world of the dream is real. I know that often when I dream I come to the dream with a complete history that is not my history, I have memories of experiences I have never experienced, at least not in my waking hours, and I remember them vividly. This world seems real and it serves a purpose, dreams are important.

But what of the waking world; what of the world in which we work and earn our bread? The quality of the bread we earn is often shaped by the quality of the education we receive and the confidence that education gives us to explore the unfamiliar. We read great works of literature from the past not because they feed us a familiar food that goes down easily, but because they feed us a food that though more nourishing, is not always palatable with the first bite. We give students that first taste so that they can go on to develop their intellectual palates. In this sense the English class is more of a restaurant or a tasting room serving exotic foods than a “skills factory.”

The world of the children’s story prepares us for the world of the unfamiliar. If nothing else, the stories we read as children were new and different and unfamiliar when we first read and enjoyed them. They also, often, take us to unexpected places. A character opens a door, goes on a trip, meets a strange person and reality takes an unexpected turn. This is often true of the stories adults read as well. When David Balfour went to sea he did not expect to be kidnapped, he did not deserve to be kidnapped. But through the process of being kidnapped he learns some things about himself and human nature. There is a sense that all stories, or at least the good ones, kidnap their readers and take them to unexpected places. But we have to board the ship, even if we would rather make a different journey.

Hitchcock on Film

The film clip is old and shows its age, it is also in Black and White. But I think Hitchcock makes some important points about story telling. Not least among them that a good story will often set us up for a cliché and just when we expect the cliché the story delivers something entirely unexpected. A good story will in some way surprise us. He also does not believe we need to understand everything in the story, in fact, stories often proceed from something that is suggested but never explained. In many of Hitchcock’s films we do not know why people are chasing other people. Why does James Mason want so badly to catch and to kill Carey Grant? Hitchcock called this unknown something a “McGuffin.” When asked to explain the term he tells a story about a scene from an old film. There are two men on a train going to the Scottish Highlands. One of the travelers asks the other what’s that package in the overhead rack. His fellow traveler tells him, “That’s a McGuffin”. They then have this conversation:

“What’s a McGuffin”?

“A McGuffin is a machine for trapping lions in the Highlands of Scotland.”

“But there are no lions in the Highlands of Scotland.”

“Than that’s no McGuffin.”

At the end of the conversation we know no more about what a McGuffin is than we did before the conversation took place. This is also often true about what motivates characters to do the things they do in stories, or at least the stories that Hitchcock tells. But we do not mind; if the characters are interesting and the storyteller does things that surprise us. Why does Iago want so badly to harm Othello? Is disappointment at being passed over for a promotion enough to explain Iago’s behavior? Why is Voltimort such a bad guy? Is his unhappy childhood enough of an explanation? I do not know, but what is more important, I do not need to know to enjoy the story.

I think Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose has one of the most moving closing lines of any book I have read. The problem with quoting a closing line (and why I won’t do it) is that, unlike a good opening line, it depends for its power on all that has come before. Stegner has introduced us to a man we thought we knew well by the end of the novel and the reader, or at least this reader, expected to part company with a certain kind of man. The last line of the book showed me how the man had unexpectedly changed and that change changed me. This is why it is important to be adventurous in our reading and our living. The familiar does not change us much, we expect it, we know it, it is only the unknown that can show us sides of ourselves we never knew before.