Wise Guys

The Silver Tongued Devil

Kris Kristofferson

Stranger in a Strange Land

Leon Russell

Save the Children

Marvin Gaye


Wise Guys


Portrait of a woman with a pen

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

Roman Painting from Pompeii



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

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

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

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


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

Leo Tolstoy at His Desk

Nikolai Ge



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


Portrait of a woman seated; with a smirk perhaps

Portrait of Jane Austen

Cassandra Austen



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


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

Death of Socrates

Jacques-Louis David



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


Portrait of a man seated in a chair with a book





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

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


Japanese woodblock of a woman seated at a table writing

Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyama-dera

Suzukin Harunobu



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

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


How Books Can Open Your Mind

Lisa Bu

TED Talk


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


Etching of people living in darkness

Plato’s Cave

Jan Pietersz Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem

Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund



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

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


Painitng of a field of diffent color flowers

Flower Beds in Holland

Vincent van Gogh

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon


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


Investigating the Wild West on Mars

From Come on Back Jesus

Willie Nelson


Investigating the Wild West on Mars


Illustration of a warrior waving a sword with a young woman cowering behind him

Cover Art A Princess of Mars

Frank Schoonover



Ray Bradbury died. There were on the day of his death a number of eulogic articles by various writers on his influence. The ones by Neil Gaiman (“A Man Who Won’t Forget Ray Bradbury”) and Margaret Atwood (“Margaret Atwood on Ray Bradbury: the tale-teller who tapped into the gothic core of America”) were for me especially moving. I felt when I heard the news much the same way I felt when I heard John Lennon had died, though Lennon’s death was much more untimely. Perhaps my reaction is generational, because I grew up reading Bradbury when he was seen as unliterary and people who knew about such things looked at me like I was wasting my time. It would not be that many years later before he would be viewed differently as a writer and the time spent reading him would be looked at differently. There was also reprinted in The Guardian an interview Bradbury gave in the 1990’s (“From the archive: Ray Bradbury: a 1990 interview on life, love and Buck Rogers”) that gave insight as well into his work, his beginnings, and his beliefs as a writer. I especially enjoyed his description of the phone calls he made after the first moon landing.

Bradbury wrote what was known as “pulp fiction.” It was called pulp fiction because it was published in cheap paperbacks or equally cheap magazines that used the lowest grade of paper available at the time. The acids used in making this paper would cause the paper to slowly “burn up” over the years so that a book bought when I was a child in the 1950’s would be so darkened by the passing of time, it looked as though it barely survived a fire, as to be almost unreadable. There is an irony in this if one considers that one of Bradbury’s most famous novels is about burning books. But he was a passionate advocate of the “pulps” and the kinds of stories they told. In an interview he gave to the Paris Review (“Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203”), Bradbury points out that many of those responsible for landing that man on the moon were attracted to science and to space travel by the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (The original interview was ended before it was completed and resumed and completed many years later by Bradbury’s biographer Sam Weller, which, appropriately enough, was also the name of a very memorable character from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers).

The stories may not have employed a “literary imagination” or a literary language, but they aroused passions, they got the people that read them excited about space travel and about story telling. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, said recently on The News Hour that his interest in economics had it origins in the novels of Isaac Asimov, I suspect Asimov’s Foundation stories, but Krugman does not identify any story by name. Michael Chabon in many of the essays in his book Maps and Legends makes the same point about his experience with Burroughs and the pulps.


Greek vase with an image of one man treating the wound of another man

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow

Painting attributed to the Sosias Painter



About the time of Bradbury’s death the Orange Prize was awarded to Madeline Miller for her novel The Song of Achilles. Charlotte Higgins and Elizabeth Day in articles written for The Guardian, “Madeline Miller’s Orange prize win captures the prevailing literary mood” and “Why the tale of Achilles and his lover still has the power to move us,” argue that Homer is still read today because he arouses many of the same passions that the pulps aroused in Bradbury and others. Higgins and Day also point out that Homer, at least to modern readers, does not seem to take sides. Through much of the poem we empathize with the Trojans and their hero Hector. The pictures above and below, that illustrate events from The Iliad, capture moments from the poem that appeal more to the emotions than the intellect. I think sometimes that Homer and writers like James Jones would have much to talk about and in many ways they tell the same kind of story. The sands of Iwo Jima resemble the walls of windy Troy.

The point is, that it all begins with the power of the story. In a review of Saul Bellow’s letters (“Wise Guy”) it is worth noting that in those letters Bellow makes some of the same points about fiction working first on the emotions that Bradbury makes. Bellow criticizes other writers of his day who let the “ideas” take too much control and in the process weakened the stories that they told, that they became too polemical in his view. Though Bradbury says he writes about ideas and is attracted to ideas he also points out the story must come first. The story does not exist to tout the ideas, but to give them a place to live, where they can be showcased, but not talked about, where, like children, perhaps, they can be seen and not heard.


Photograph of a parcment page from "The Illiad" with Greek writing and an image of two armies fighting

Iliad VIII 245-253 in codex F205 (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana), late 5th or early 6th c. AD




But what about the pulps themselves? They come in many forms, there is science fiction, there is detective fiction (both of the hard-boiled and the drawing room variety), there is the western, and there is fantasy (which spent much of the 20th century renting rooms from science fiction, but has since found a room of its own). Are these books important; will they survive; do they deserve to be remembered? Whatever one thinks of them they raise important issues. Whatever the outcome of that detective novel may be, whether it is written cynically or idealistically, it arouses our sense of justice. The song at the beginning, Come on Back Jesus, evokes John Wayne and his western persona. If people will not be moved by the words of Jesus, perhaps John Wayne can, using a different approach, put them in their place.


Illustration of a man, a cowboy type, sitting in an open window holding a rifle and looking vigilant

Hopalong Takes Command

Frank Schoonover



Whatever the quality of the films or the books on which many of them were based, the western captured important aspects of the American character and the value it places on the rugged individual and fair play. These films and novels, as does much of pulp fiction, establish the American code of chivalry, cowboys are our Knights of the Round Table, the western saloon our Heorot. I think Shane in many ways is not unlike Beowulf and the “man who shot Liberty Valance” is not unlike Sir Gawain or Lancelot. It is difficult to know what will survive. But in many ways, Oedipus the King is a murder mystery, Le Morte d’Arthur is high fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels is science fiction. Whenever I read Gulliver’s Travels I am enchanted by the floating island, even though the people that live there are idiots they have accomplished something remarkable, something that piques the imagination and makes me want to build things.

At the end of the day, much that has survived as myth and folk tale would feel right at home in the pulps, many of these ancient stories have found a home in modern fiction that is often dismissed as escapist. But the stories still capture us and that is why we read, we read to be taken prisoner and held captive for as long as possible. And when we are finally released we begin the search for another captor. Is this all escapism? Is this a desire to find a refuge from the world as it is? There is some truth to this, we are looking for relief, we are looking for a few moments away from all that troubles us. But this is in fact a kind of nurture, it heals. It is also the nature of these stories often to renew hope, to help us work through the problems we are seeking to escape. Often in reading we do not avoid our problems but find their solutions.


Japanese woodblock of two women looking over a child inside the house while two others talk outside the house

Hand painted page from a book set depicting The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

17th Century



The paintings above and below are from a 17th century story from Japan called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. It is about a man who harvests bamboo and in cutting down a stalk of bamboo finds inside a child, a very small child. He takes the child home and he and the child have many adventures. It turns out the child was from the moon. At the end of the story there is an “E. T. phone home” moment and a carriage comes to return the now grown up child to the moon. Everyone is heartbroken, but the young woman is happy to return to her people. We also learn from this story, which is often an element of folk tales and myth, how Mt. Fuji got its name. Of course there is little science here, but then there is little science in H. G. Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is “science fiction” because it involves a trip to the moon. But trips to the moon have been commonplace throughout literary history. Lucian and Cyrano de Bergerac made trips to both the moon and the sun. Bradbury was less concerned with how folks got to Mars than he was with the spirit of exploration that took them there.


Japanese woodblock of a group of people watching a flyihng coach prepare to take off for the moon

Kaguya-hime goes back to the Moon

17th Century



I know that when I read a story I want to be swept away as much by the language as I am by the events of the story itself. It is important to me that a story be well written and well told. I think of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the Hemmingway and Fitzgerald of detection. I don’t think it surprising that the same actor who in films played Hammett’s Sam Spade also played Hemmingway’s Harry Morgan. Much of this comes down to what we value in stories. I enjoy Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that takes place mostly in the minds of the novel’s characters. It is a novel in which nothing happens, or at least not much. There is a lot of talk; we meet some frustrated human beings who do not seem to manage life well. But, for me at least, I care about the characters, I want to see them grow and get better. I enjoy the settings of the novel, though “enjoy” may not be the right word to describe these settings. Many, though, Bradbury not unlikely was among them, find the story tedious and uninteresting. We are not all captured by the same things. That is important to remember as well. Just as writers must be free to tell the stories their imaginations give to them, readers must be free to read the stories that touch their imaginations. And it does need to be remembered that many of the least “respected” stories, at least from a literary point of view, have inspired some of the most earth shattering events.


The Shared Wonder of Film

Beeban Kindron

TED Talk


The film clip talks about the power of film as a vehicle for telling stories and the importance of these stories. Film is in many ways America’s “Globe Theatre.” Americans told and wrote stories long before the movie camera was invented. But films are in many ways our favorite way of telling stories and of preserving many of the stories that were told in our literary infancy and adolescence. More people probably know Moby Dick from the film than from the book. I prefer the book to the movie because there are things that Melville does with language and the development of his story that film cannot do, and I want those things that Melville offers that the film cannot. Still, the film makes most of Melville’s points and who can forget that the same actor that played Ishmael in the movie was also the admiral that on television went on a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.


Photograph of desert landscape with wind formed mountains

Monument Valley, Utah, US

en:User Solipsist



Part of what attracts us to the pulps is the wilderness. In the case of the hard-boiled detective stories that wilderness is the moral wilderness of many cities. In the case of the western it is a more literal wilderness that is often still troubled by the moral ambiguities found in the city. Life is often about standing up to things that must be stood up to. It is Philip Marlowe saying no to a bribe. It is the Virginian reminding the man across the table to smile when he says what he says. It is Montag refusing to burn another book. In many ways the red earth of the American Southwest is not that different from the red soil of the plains of Mars. Explore, seek justice, be true, brave, and kind. That is the lesson of the pulps, at least of those that have endured.


Photograph of Martian landscape

The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars

Roel van der Hoorn


For What It’s Worth

Save the Country

Laura Nyro


For What It’s Worth


Painting of a table filled with books, papers, a tankard, a telescope, and numerous other objects

A study table

William Harnett



There is a story by Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”, that revolves around a mother and her two daughters. At the heart of the story are some quilts. One daughter is well educated and prosperous and wants the quilts because they carry some status as folk art and in my imagination they are beautiful to look at, as are “The Quilts of Gees Bend,” for example, that recently made a tour of museums across the United States. The second daughter wanted them because she could use them; they filled a very practical need. This does not mean these quilts were not beautiful to look at in addition to being useful, only that their usefulness was where their true value lie.


The painting above is of musical instruments and books on a table. William Harnett did another painting similar to this that is also of musical instruments and books on a table. In the painting above these objects are sitting on a tablecloth, the other painting, Music and Literature, has them sitting on an unadorned black table. I chose the painting I did because I find the design on the tablecloth pleasant to look at and as enhancing the visual beauty of the painting. It is not clear from Alice Walker’s story if the sister who wanted the quilts because of their value as folk art really valued the quilts as folk art, but the story does invite us to consider art and its value and, perhaps more importantly, to consider whether art must be useful for it to have value.


To return to the painting it evokes three different art forms, painting (because that is what it is), music, and literature. To what extent are any of these art forms useful in the sense that the quilts in the story are useful? Paintings can be pretty, designed purely to accent a room with little if any artistic merit. There is in my doctor’s office a print of a piano in a living room next to a window overlooking a park. The print was selected because of the colors the artist used and the pleasant design of the room. But if one looks carefully at the piano it becomes clear that the piano keys have not been painted correctly, there are three sets of white and black keys between both the keys of “c” and “e” and between the keys of “f” and “b”. On a real piano there are two sets of white and black keys between “c” and “e” and three between “f” and “b”. Not an important detail but one that suggests the artist either did not look closely at the piano before painting it or did not expect the viewer to look closely at the piano. This, perhaps, illustrates a difference between art and decoration or art and entertainment. Art ought to both decorate and entertain, but, hopefully, it does something more.


There are books that we read solely for entertainment, that we are unlikely to revisit, or if we do revisit, it is to be entertained in much the same way we were the first time we read them. Much of the music we listen to on the radio demands little from us (though it might also be mentioned that some of it offers more than we are willing to receive). An important difference between the pretty and the beautiful is the difference between that which merely decorates and that which does something more. This is not to say that popular songs or popular novels do not have artistic depth, though many do not; nor is it to say we should spend more time reading “the classics” or attending the opera. But this is to say for those willing to invest, perhaps it would be better to say who desire to invest, the additional time and effort there are rewards that make the investment worthwhile. It is, though, like many things in life; we do not know what we are missing until we open ourselves up to what we are missing. The print in my doctors office not only does not stand up to close study, it loses much of its decorative value if it is studied too closely.


Three women seated together associated with history, music, and comedy and idyllic poetry, three of the Greek muses

Clio, Euterpe and Thalie

Eustache Le Sueur



The song, Save the Country, that played at the beginning is about peace and redemption. It is a song with a message and not a bad message. Some see in the study of art, music, and literature a kind of redemption or purification of the soul and spirit; that we read and study the arts because doing so somehow how makes us better people. The painting above is of three muses from Greek mythology, the muses of history, lyric poetry, and comedy. The suggestion is that art was art because it was divinely inspired, that it fulfilled in some fashion the will or purpose of the gods. But what if, as the “art for art’s sake” folks suggested, art serves no purpose, in the sense we usually think of the word, in the sense that the quilts in the story, though they may have been art, served a purpose.


Photograph of a page from an old book using "blackletter" typescript

Page from the Book of Common Prayer, 1583



The pictures above and below are of a printed page, from the 1583 Book of Common Prayer and a painting of Mary Magdalen reading. Though the Book of Common Prayer serves a purpose, is designed to be used as part of a religious practice, it also has beauty all its own. The book is printed using a typeface called “Blackletter” or Gothic script. It is not easily read by 21st century readers, but even if unreadable, it delights the eye and is pleasant to just look at, even if it cannot be understood. Perhaps the angels surrounding the letter “A” are enough to articulate its religious message. In the second painting Mary seems to be “idly” reading while those around her are busy doing things. Of course we do not really see enough of the others in the scene to know if they are doing anything, but I think they are. If this is the case is Mary wasting time and letting others work while she idles the time away. Reading with purpose demands all of our attention and it cannot be done either quickly or while we are doing other things. If nothing else, reading, deep purposeful reading, provides a kind of “Sabbath Rest”, a time where all physical labor must cease. I think the jar next to her suggests the jar of ointment that another Mary (this other Mary is often identified as Mary Magdalen, but this is unlikely) used to anoint Jesus. “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.” Jn. 12:3 She was accused of wasting something precious that could be put to good use, that could be sold and the money used to help the poor. But Jesus said she did a beautiful thing and should not be criticized. The same might be said of The Magdalen reading while those around her are engaged in “more meaningful and useful” activities.


Is reading another kind of work, is it a leisure activity, does it work on us and change us? I do not think that readers, or “appreciators” of any of the arts are better people; many terrible people have been appreciators of the arts, but I do think if we are paying attention we are changed and just as art demands we look more closely and carefully at the work of art, this practice carries over to other things and can make us a bit more reflective as people. Of course, the other side of the equation is probably also true, that we can experience the art, no matter how well and perfectly it is executed, solely as decoration, as entertainment.


Painting of a woman sitting on the floor reading next to a man standing by a window

The Magdalen Reading

Rogier van der Weyden



There was an article recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading”, that suggest most people will never develop into readers who will read deeply and well and that there is, perhaps, little value in trying to teach literature in schools, if our purpose in teaching literature is to make students deep and thoughtful readers. Of course, by this way of thinking there is probably not much point in teaching students geometry or algebra as most will not go on to use or value abstract mathematics. But in the book this essay was taken from, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, the author, Alan Jacobs, argues that this kind of reading is done best if it begins as a whim, with our being carried away by a “fancy” to read and discover. In the book Jacobs recounts Richard Rodriguez’s experience of reading difficult books as a young child where he kept a record of each book along with the book’s “big idea” or theme. In Rodriguez’s view (and Jacobs’) this diminished the books, if only because as literary art, but probably even as just entertainment, most books do not lend themselves to so easy a reduction.


To teach literature well the teacher must not only expose students to the books, but in some way pique their interest enough that they will explore on their own. I am dyslexic and when I was in high school I could not finish the books we were assigned in the time given to read them. So I had to rely on helps, helps familiar to most students. However, the effect of these helps on my imagination was to give me a hunger for these books and over the summer when no one was making demands on my time I read these books, Moby Dick, Great Expectations, Gulliver’s Travels, and others. My affection for these books did not come directly from studying them in school, but if I had never studied them in school I would never have gone on to read them. Even though I would be oblivious to how my life was diminished by not having read these books, that is, I would not know what I was missing, my life would still be diminished.


Paul Bloom

TED Talk


The video makes a couple of points about art and how we assess its value. My favorite story from this film clip is of the man who sold the Vermeer to the Nazis. The sale was treated as an act of treason for which there was no defense. He was Dutch and Vermeer contributed significantly to the Dutch culture. The art dealer, Han Van Megereen had a defense. He, not Vermeer, painted the painting he sold to the Nazis. He went from traitor to folk hero. Of course the painting lost all, or most, of its value. But this raises another question. Is an artwork’s value determined by its content or its history? The painting is what it is, regardless of who painted it. One of my favorite novels is a book by Robertson Davies What is Bred in the Bone. It is about the life, work, and education of an art forger, a very successful art forger. If the forgery contains all the elements of a great work of art, is it not still a great work of art even if it is not what it pretends to be? There is also the issue of how we define ourselves as a culture. For the Dutch Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh are a part of their national identity, in the sense, perhaps, that Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and, perhaps, John Steinbeck are part of our cultural identity. But what do these artists add to our cultural identity? How are we different as a people by the presence of this art in our midst, by these details of our cultural heritage?


The Museum of Fine Art in Boston has recently returned, or agreed to return, a part of a statue to the Turkish people and in the process reunite the two parts that make up the one statue. There has been talk about returning the Elgin Marbles, the Greek statuary that provoked poems by Lord Byron and John Keats that are now part of the British identity, to Greece, their proper home. It is now almost universally a crime to remove artifacts such as these from their native cultures, but it wasn’t a crime when the statues in question were removed from their homelands and now, because of their great beauty those that have them are reluctant to return them.


Amit Snood

TED Talk


This film clip raises another question about art and that is accessibility. Amit Snood is responsible for the Google “Art Project” and as can be seen from the film this project not only brings great art to anyone who wants to look at it, it enables those who wish to, to see the art in ways they could never see it even if they went to the museums in which these painting and statues live. The Art Project enables the viewer to see the paintings so closely and in such detail that aspects of the painting that are nearly invisible become clear. Also, unlike the print in my doctor’s office, these paintings reward the attention to detail. Things that no viewer could really be expected to notice become clear and reveal the importance of every detail to the painter. It will always be true that some works have more to offer than others, but if the work is well done it will always be true to the vision it tries to capture.


When I was starting college there was an issue of the magazine The Saturday Review that featured two articles, one on the public poet, Rod McKuen and one on the private poet, James Merrill. McKuen is for the most part forgotten and Merrill, outside of academic circles has not been that well known, though his poetry deservedly survives. Merrill’s poems are quite beautiful and some are very funny but he places demands on his readers and those that read because they enjoy the demands are richly rewarded. McKuen’s poems entertained for a time, but they did not offer much on rereading. Perhaps this is just me and that I do not have the proper sensibilities to see what lies beneath the surface of his poems, but every time I read a poem by Merrill I continue to be rewarded with new insights, and frustrated by that which remains unclear to me, that which must wait until another day to be revealed. That is in part why I go back to his poetry. 


There is a book recently published by Marjorie Garber, The Use and Abuse of Literature. The book argues that literature is important for the questions it raises and not for the answers it gives and that a literary work reveals different things to different readers. What is important is not that we read and arrive at a preordained destination but that we read and consider and reflect. She makes a case for literature being “useless” in the utilitarian sense; that we do not read to accomplish anything; that in reading we will not change the world, though if we read deeply, perhaps carefully, and well we might change ourselves. But the importance of literature, the importance of any work of art, is in its ability to make us aware of the beautiful; of that which exists for no other purpose than to open our eyes to splendor and the sublime and asks nothing in return except that we take it seriously, that we enjoy it, and that we do not give it a job to do.


Painting of a man reading a letter with an open window behind him that looks out over countryside

St Ivo

Roger van der Weyden


A Storied Life

Scheherazade, symphonic suite for orchestra, Op. 35: III. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess. Andantino Quasi Allegretto”
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsako
Fanfare for the Common Man
Aaron Copeland

A Storied Life

Medieval Town by Water

After a painting by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (original painting destroyed by fire)

Ezra Pound in one of his saner moments said, “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Books work magic, it is not clear how, not to me anyway, but that is the nature of magic, perhaps the definition of magic itself, something marvelous that defies definition. Reading, or appreciating art of any kind, does not make us better people; some of the worst people that have ever lived had very profound artistic sensibilities. They read the best books, listened to the best music, were moved by the best paintings and sculptures. This ability to appreciate the sublime added depth to their experience of life, but it did not make them good people. It enriched their experience; it did not impact on their humanity. Of course it can also be said that many of the most humane people that ever lived had this same experience of the sublime. It may be that those that brought virtue to their experience of the sublime experienced and understood more fully and more deeply, but that is something that cannot be known with any certainty.

When I look at the painting above I wonder what the original looked like. I am saddened that it has been destroyed because I find the copy so moving. Perhaps the painting that lives in my imagination is not only finer than the copy, but finer than the original as well (as far as that goes, the copy may be finer than the original for all that anyone can know). There was an article in the Boston Globe, “Well worth not reading,” about the books we imagine based on the blurbs on the back cover, or the cover illustration, or a sampling of the text. It is about the books we have encountered but have not read. I am not sure I like this article as much as I imagined I would when I began to understand its premise, though I do think there is truth to it. It is a bit unsettling perhaps for someone who teaches others to read books to contemplate the advantages of not reading them, but it must be owned that there are many books that I have read that did not live up to the expectations created by the first impressions they made. I am glad though that I gave them the opportunity to speak their piece.

The music suggests our first experience with stories, the fairy tale story of the princess and the prince, and the audience for stories, the common man. Though Scheherazade’s princesses and princes often behaved as princesses and princes should, those of the Brothers Grimm and other tellers of folk tales often behaved as though their origins were a bit more humble. When as children we read fairy tales that involved royalty we often looked at those “royals” as though they were just like us that there was not much difference between the pauper and the prince and at some level this is what lies at the heart of any good story, it is what makes the story attractive. It may not be a belief that we and they are the same but it is a belief that we and they share a common humanity and we have something to learn from how they encounter the world.

A portrait of Samuel Johnson
Joshua Reynolds

The painting above is of Samuel Johnson, one of the English Language’s finest professional readers. In the painting he is reading intently, but according to the blurb accompanying the painting this was in part to dispel the image of “blinking Sam,” it was to offer a “counter-narrative” to one that was current at the time. But it makes one wonder, or at least it makes me wonder, why do we read? Because Samuel Johnson was who Samuel Johnson was it also makes me wonder why we analyze what we read? Is literary criticism something readers do to understand a text or does it superimpose the reader’s vision on that of the writer? What makes some readers more “authoritative” readers than others, that is, why do we give more weight to the judgments drawn from the reading done by some than to that done by others?

There was a series of articles recently in the New York Times (I looked at these three, “The Will Not to Power, but to Self-Understanding,” “Translating the Code Into Everyday Language,” and “From the Critical Impulse, the Growth of Literature”) about literary criticism and its usefulness. The articles addressed meanings of literary texts and the like, but the main conclusion they all seemed to come to was that criticism contributes to a literate culture in that it provides a platform for discussing literature, its deeper meaning, and its impact on the culture at large. I enjoyed all of the articles but I was intrigued by Elif Batuman’s applying Freud’s method of interpreting dreams to the interpretation of literature or at least that aspect of Freud’s thinking that recognized the complexity of dreams and the multiplicity of possible meanings that they contain. According to Batuman this same dynamic is at work in our analysis of stories.


Farmer Sitting by the Fire, ReadingVincent Van Gogh
Watercolor, Charcoal, watercolour, heightened with white
Etten: October, 1881
Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, The Netherlands, Europe
F: 897, JH: 63

The painting above is of a farmer sitting by his fire reading a book. This suggests that the printed word can work its magic not only on those that do not read for a living, but those who earn their living from occupations very different from those of “professional” readers. Farmers of course, at least good farmers, are always reading the literature of their trade so it shouldn’t surprise us that farmers read. But when they are reading the literature of their trade they are reading for information, not for enchantment. What are the respective values of each kind of reading, is one better than the other or do each provide their own unique kind of value? At the level at which each works they teach us how to profit from living, on the one hand how to earn a living and on the other how to spend a life in a way that is meaningful and not just productive.

Elderly Man at a WindowYves Trevedy

The paintings above and below are of an old man reading and of a young man reading. They are both engrossed and as one might expect the old man is farther along in his book than the young man, the old man is finishing his book while the young man is starting his. The old man is alone with a single book while the young man has an assortment of books propping up the book he is reading. There are perhaps some obvious metaphors that could be drawn but I’ll let others draw them. What I find attractive about these paintings is the intensity that each reader brings to the reading that he is doing. The young man is described as a student in the painting’s title and perhaps he is reading in the same fashion the farmer reads his agricultural journals, but perhaps not. The old man has his back to the window and to the beautiful landscape that is life as it truly is. Is the man turning his back on reality or is the reality he finds in his book more real than the one outside his window? In my experience all reading teaches and the books that capture my imagination the most intensely make the world outside my window more real and more understandable. As Pound suggests reading makes me and the world outside more intensely alive and more intensely real and comprehensible.

The Young Student
Ozias Leduc

John Connolly in his book The Book of Lost Things says, “The stories in books hate the stories contained in newspapers, David’s mother would say. Newspaper stories were like newly caught fish, worthy of attention only for as long as they remained fresh, which was not very long at all. They were like the street urchins hawking the evening editions all shouty and insistent, while stories – real stories, proper made-up stories – were like stern but helpful librarians in a well-stocked library. Newspaper stories were insubstantial as smoke, as long-lived as mayflies. They did not take root but were instead like weeds that crawled along the ground, stealing the sunlight from more deserving tales.” It might be that the books we read for information are short lived, they do not deliver anything magical, they are a pragmatic bunch that teach us what we need to know to keep the pantry stocked, but the truths they tell are only true for a short time, relatively, and will in all likelihood be soon replaced with other truths.

The truths contained in stories often help us unravel the mysteries that surround who we are; they help to teach ourselves to ourselves. There was a review by Sarah Bakewell in the New York Times about the lives of great philosophers, “Lives of the Philosophers, Warts and All”. The book points out that most philosophers led very muddled lives and that no matter how profound their insights, the art of living well and happily remained elusive. I am not sure that stories succeed any better at explaining life or simplifying day to day existence, but they do teach us that everyone has problems and that what really matters more than solving our problems is living with integrity while pursuing those solutions.


Elif Shafak
TED Talk

The film is about storytelling or more precisely perhaps being a storyteller. Ms. Shafak tells us that others try to tell her the kinds of stories she should tell, but she does not want to tell those stories. She suggests that as a writer she is pursuing in stories the same things I am as a reader of stories, she wants to explore what makes people from different backgrounds behave as they do. Modern storytelling has become a bit obsessed with the relationship between the characters in a story and the writers that create those characters; that J. D. Salinger, for example, must be a lot like Holden Caulfield, that novelists and storytellers of all stripes are actually engaged in a kind of autobiographical masquerade. When in fact most of the best storytellers from the past made little use of their personal lives. One reason some critics today do not believe Shakespeare could have written Shakespeare is because the stories Shakespeare told were so far removed from his life experience, that somehow because he had never been a nobleman he could not possibly comprehend what it was like to be one. Storytellers that cannot imagine the inner lives of characters different from themselves cannot amount to much as storytellers, their insights, like mine are all local. If I as a reader can enter the inner lives of characters different from myself as I read about them, why can’t storytellers do the same as they write about them?

The painting below is of an emperor of China who was also a literary critic. It is not unusual for a monarch to be engaged in literary pursuits, the first Queen Elizabeth wrote poetry and translated Latin texts, like Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Alexander the great had Aristotle for a teacher. Some learned more from the literature they studied than did others, but it is difficult to imagine that even those who learned the least were not enriched by what they read. If stories do nothing else they take away our excuses. When we read we make judgments about the characters and the things the characters do. This suggests that we have an inner sense of what is just and recognize injustice when we see it; that we understand the need for compassion and recognize cruelty when we see it; that we understand the quality of mercy and recognize hardness of heart when we see it. Some of these conclusions we are led artfully to see due to the skill of the storyteller, but the fact that these virtues are so much more likely to be found in the stories we read than the vices suggests that there is something true about these virtues that resonates in all of us.

Cao Pi, Emperor of Wei (Emperor of China and Literary Critic)
Yan Li-pen


Beholders of Ocean

The King of the Fairies
Alan Stivell

Beholders of Ocean

A Man with a Quilted Sleeve

There is a story by Lord Dunsany called “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” It is about an idyllic place, a place of safety and comfort where no one is content, or at least very few are. On the one hand I suppose this is a story of discontent and the harm that it can do, but on the other, the more significant hand perhaps, it is about forsaking comfort and the illusion of contentment for what provides true satisfaction to the soul and spirit. In the story it is the ocean that everyone that leaves is seeking, but it could be anything. This suggests a question that each ought consider. Where is contentment found and what does it look like?

The song, The King of the Fairies, is by Alan Stivell. He is credited by some with re-popularizing the Irish Harp, though he does not play it on this selection. I first heard of him while taking a course on the Irish Renaissance while I was in college in 1975. Stivell is from Brittany, or the Irish province of France. The music of Stivell and others like him fed and cultivated my interest in Celtic myth and folklore, of which Arthur, the Irish story The Tain, and the Welsh stories of The Mabinogion were a part. These stories share a world in common, one in which the natural and the supernatural interact with one another and in which magic and wizardry are somewhat commonplace. In the Arthur stories Merlin is a difficult character to reconcile to the Christianity of the time when they were written down. He is a wizard and wizards are of the devil, but he is also a wise and trusted councilor and everyone in the stories trusts him, even as they are calling him a “son of the devil.” The stories also revolve around heroic characters and the adventures that befall them. They are exciting reading.

The painting is, according to some, of Ariosto (others say it is a self-portrait). Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso is also an important story for me because it caters both to my enjoyment of comedy, satire, and farce and the heroic stories mentioned earlier. It has been recently translated anew into English by David Slavitt. The characters in the story have an epic pedigree and they act as would be expected based on that pedigree. But this pedigree and the order of knighthood in general are also mocked and hence the irreverent humor. It too is exciting reading.

Earliest known portrayal of Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

The paintings above and below are from medieval illuminated manuscripts. The one above depicts the assassination of Thomas a’ Becket. The one below depicts an episode from one of the King Arthur stories. These images evoke the political intrigue of the Middle Ages and its conflicts between Church and State (some things do not change) as well as the heroic tradition of its story telling. There is a passage in the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales where Harry Bailey (though he has not yet been identified by name) says to the pilgrims “We are all free men.” The Canterbury Tales is a book written at the end of the 14th century, barely a hundred years since the final version of The Magna Carta was issued, and it is the first instance I am aware of (though I would not be surprised to learn there are earlier instances) where the commons claim equality with the church and aristocracy and in truth I am probably reading this line within a 21st century context and perhaps Harry does not see himself in as free a light as I do.

I wonder, though, at times if the equality that Harry speaks of is the beginning of a new tradition, a more realistic tradition, that is a bit at odds with that of Medieval Romance. There was an article in The Guardian over Christmas about science fiction, “Stranger than science fiction,” that wonders if our present interest in science fiction is not an attempt to escape the limitations of realism, that is “stuck” with things as they are and often offers few suggestions as to how to live harmoniously with things as they are, other than pretending perhaps that things as they are aren’t so bad. Science fiction also offers us a kind of story telling that is not just “lifelike” but often much larger than life and it is this something larger that readers also find attractive, they want to loose themselves in a world that is more heroic than mundane. The article suggests that it is important to identify the kind of story in which we would like to live or ought to live. The world of the 21st century offers many stories that though they may not be in conflict with each other are often more interested in selling us something, from products to points of view, than they are with helping us learn to live with ourselves, with others, or the world around us.

‘King Arthur fighting the Saxons’ – illustration taken from the Rochefoucauld Grail

Leading up to Christmas there were also some articles in The Guardian about favorite Christmas stories. Two caught my interest; they were about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis and The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (“Season’s Readings: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis” and “Season’s readings: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper”). I read and enjoyed these stories as an adult and their use of myth and folklore (Greek and Roman myth by Lewis and Welsh myth by Cooper) nourished an interest I have always had in myth and folklore and the power of the stories that they tell. The Cooper story especially, with its use of motifs from The Mabinogion fed my interest in things Arthurian. But these were not the stories that provoked my interest initially.

The Nightingal
Edmond Dulac

Above and below are illustrations from children’s stories. Like the illuminated manuscript images above, these help create a world, a magical world, that evoke the stories they illustrate and pique the imagination. Also as was true with some medieval illuminations they help tell the story to those who cannot yet read. When I was in the seventh grade my school gave students the opportunity to purchase books through the Weekly Reader and the Scholastic Book Service. One of the books that I bought was Eleanore Jewett’s book The Hidden Treasure of Glaston. I do not remember much of the book but its opening made a strong impression as well as its use of the Grail legend. The story revolves around a young boy whose father has left him with the monks of Glastonbury (one of the alleged resting places of King Arthur). His father is a knight who has been implicated in the murder of Thomas a’ Becket and must flee the country. The boy, though, is bookish and lame and a disappointment. I empathized with the boy (something we must all do before we can truly enjoy a story) and was fascinated by the Arthurian elements.

The Mermaid and The Prince
Edmond Dulac

But what does this have to do with anything like beholding oceans? I suppose because both my parents were mathematicians I did not think that literature was anyplace I ought to end up. My father was also an aerospace engineer who brought home pictures and articles on space vehicles and rockets. I remember looking at artists’ conceptions of the Apollo spacecraft and the Lunar Excursion Module while watching the Mercury launches on television. Nonetheless I was attracted to a different ocean. If we are to be happy we must find our own ocean and pursue it as best we can and hopefully one day we will behold it. For me the ocean I behold is a sea of stories.


Why Medieval
Dr. Richard Scott Nokes

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes writes a blog, “Unlocked Wordhoard,” that I enjoy. He posted the above video to explain his interest in Medieval Literature and how that interest came about. Sharing a similar interest I found the video attractive but the important point it raises is not about the Middle Ages or even about literature, it is about finding whatever it is in us that motivates us, that gives us joy and satisfaction. We all need to consider what it is we are going to spend our lives doing. On the whole it is a pretty good thing if we can find a way to get someone to pay us for doing what we would do for free. If we must earn a living why not find a way to enjoy ourselves while earning that living.

Elif Batuman in the introduction to her book The Possessed writes, “I stopped believing that ‘theory’ had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” This resonates with me as a teacher of stories, but it also resonates at a different level. We all need to find whatever it is for us that we can spend a lifetime loving, and whatever it is, it must be substantial enough to reward a lifetime’s effort.

As a teacher it is important that I communicate to students who have little interest in what I teach the passion that motivates me to teach what I teach. It is not all about emotions, but than there is perhaps more to passion than emotion. Richard Feynman was at least as passionate about physics and the logic that is its foundation as I am about stories and their logic. Poltarnees may be a high and difficult mountain to climb, but it is wonderful thing to behold the ocean.

Christmas Eve
Carl Larsson


Caricature and Content

Political Science
Randy Newman

Caricature and Content

Let Us Prey
Thomas Nast

There was a review in The Guardian, “Garry Trudeau: ‘Doonesbury quickly became a cause of trouble’”, of a retrospective collection of Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. In the book Trudeau comments on satire and its essential unfairness. He said, “Satire is unfair. It’s rude and uncivil. It lacks balance and proportion, and it obeys none of the normal rules of engagement. Satire picks a one-sided fight, and the more its intended target reacts, the more its practitioner gains the advantage. And as if that weren’t enough, this savage, unregulated sport is protected by the United States constitution. Cool, huh?” This captures satire in all its guises. It may not always be clear when something is intended as a satiric comment or just a general observation (is Glen Beck, for example, a satirist or a political analyst, and can the two coexist in one and the same person at one and the same time) but it is generally clear that someone is being ridiculed and belittled.

But whether it is the right at the mercy of Trudeau or the left at the mercy of Beck (I am not sure if Beck is a satirist or not I only know I respond to Beck much the same way the targets of Doonesbury respond to Trudeau) the targets of each feel they have been misrepresented or even “lied about.” But as Trudeau points out it is all protected by the Constitution and it is all very “cool.” As the Nast cartoon above suggests ridicule is a far more effective weapon for engaging the enemy than rational debate. The most ludicrous of positions can be made to sound reasonable, but even the most reasonable of positions struggles with its credibility when it is made to look ridiculous. Tweed and his cronies survived most assaults upon their power, they did not survive Nast and if we remember Tweed at all it is probably the Tweed of the Nast cartoons we remember and though people were being “nasty” long before Nast, he gave the word an additional twist.

Randy Newman’s song underscores this astringent quality of satire. The world is not treating us we deserve to be treated so we’ll show them, we’ll blow them off the face of the planet. Even if our analysis of our treatment is correct, the satiric response is hardly a measured one. As with most humor it has at its heart adults behaving childishly. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Red Mars begins with a conflict between two colonial factions on Mars, one that wants to create a homogeneous planet by only allowing people of a certain nationalistic view to settle there and the other that wants to create a diverse society with all the conflicts that diversity brings with it. Can satire exist in a world with a single point of view? Can a single point of view be long maintained or do humans by their very natures split into factions and groups incapable of remaining “homogenized”? When we get around to choosing up sides and staking out our satiric positions we are not likely to remain judicious in our portrayals of those with whom we disagree.

The Name of Dante Gabriel Rossetti is Heard for the First Time in the Western States of America
Max Beerbohm

But is it the goal of satire to offend its targets while it amuses those that share its values? The caricatures above and below by Max Beerbohm and Andre Gill suggest that their intent was to give some offense, whether to gain a laugh at the subjects expense or to make a point it is up to the viewer to decide. In Beerbohm’s drawing is it Oscar Wilde or his western audience that is being satirized or is it perhaps both? The Gill cartoon suggests that Darwin and Littré are confronting the ignorance of the time, but they have also been dehumanized in the process. Is there a separate message in that? There are times perhaps when it is the satirist’s intention to offend everyone.

Charles Darwin and Émile Littré depicted as performing monkeys at a circus breaking through gullibility (credulité), superstitions, errors, and ignorance
Andre Gill

There was an article recently in The London Times, “Misreading Gulliver’s Travels,” about Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels and it suggests that those that read this book as a misanthropic attack on the whole human race miss the point. The article quotes from a letter Swift wrote to Alexander Pope where he says, “But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell.” This suggests that it is not people that Swift despises but what people do when they get together and form a group. Individuals are lovable, groups less so. Those that read of Gulliver and his travels without keeping this thought in mind are bound to misread the book, though, it could be argued that those that misread in this way have not really been paying attention.

Ben Jonson wrote of his plays that they had two audiences, the “understanders,” who got the jokes, but were also illuminated by them and the “pretenders,” who laughed but learned nothing, who essentially missed the point. In his introduction to the play The Alchemist he wrote:

“If thou beest more, thou art an understander, and then I trust thee. If thou art one that takest up, and but a pretender, beware of what hands thou receivest thy commodity; for thou wert never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age, in poetry, especially in plays: wherein, now the concupiscence of dances and of antics so reigneth, as to run away from nature, and be afraid of her, is the only point of art that tickles the spectators. But how out of purpose, and place, do I name art? When the professors are grown so obstinate contemners of it, and presumers on their own naturals, as they are deriders of all diligence that way, and, by simple mocking at the terms, when they understand not the things, think to get off wittily with their ignorance.” (The Alchemist, Ben Jonson)

Jonson is attacking the critics of his day that would praise a play, or a poem, for the “business,” the humor and action but miss the artistry and the message. The understanders are changed by what they see on stage or read from the printed page, the pretenders are merely entertained. Jonson goes on to say, “I speak not this, out of a hope to do good to any man against his will,” suggesting that we all must play a role in our own reformation and even if Jonson wished to make his audience into better people, they cannot hitchhike on his good intentions. Jonathan Swift echoes Jonson’s view when he says, “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein the beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world and that so very few are offended with it.” (Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books) Few are offended because they believe that others and not themselves are on the receiving end of the humor. Swift suggests, I think, that the best satire puts everyone, even the satirist, under the microscope and that we all have something to learn from it.


Patrick Chappatte 2010G On Editorial Cartooning
TED Talks

The film clip is about the influence of satire and cartooning on society. The understander will see a bit or her or himself in many of the cartoons Patrick Chappatte presents but there is also a troubling side to the cartoonist, in general, and the way in which some societies and some cultures respond to the cartoon. The power of the editorial cartoon is, as pointed out above by Gary Trudeau, that it is not always fair and that ridicule reduces anyone, no matter how innocent of the accusation being made, to something small and laughable. Few respond well to such a one sided attack and as in the case of the Danish cartoons ridiculing Islam, not all responses to the satire are docile or good natured.

Jonathan Swift attacked an attempt of the English government to flood Ireland with a currency that was not worth the metal it was stamped from. He made his attack from behind the mask of an anonymous Dublin draper who wrote a series of letters to the newspapers revealing the currency for what it was. The English government offered a substantial reward to anyone who would provide evidence that would lead to the draper’s arrest. The government believed Swift wrote the letters but they could not prove the charge. Unfortunately, for the British, no one was willing to collect the reward and identify Swift as the perpetrator of the letters.

Daniel Defoe also published a bit of satire attacking the religious attitudes of powerful people. He was convicted of libel and pilloried for his crime. At the time being put in the pillory where the convict’s head and hands were secured making movement impossible, could be a very harsh sentence. Passersby could throw most anything at the pilloried individual and it was not unusual to leave the pillory much the worse for wear. In Defoe’s case, though, the crowds sided with him and instead of sticks and stones they threw flowers and came to drink his health. Even when the satirist is legitimately in the wrong, which is questionable in Defoe’s case, it is unwise to respond too harshly, because public sympathy is often disinclined to side with the powerful and it often enjoys a bit of fun at their expense.

When satire is done well, everyone occupies a bit of the frame. We may not be powerful, we may not be guilty of the offenses that are being ridiculed, but as human beings we should be able to recognize that given the opportunity and the ability to take advantage of it we have in ourselves at least the propensity for acting as dubiously as those in the center of the frame. Though there may be a specific individual targeted in the humor, what gives the humor its force is that the behavior under attack is one to which all humans are susceptible and if we are wise we do not laugh at the object of the satire without laughing a bit at ourselves.

Zonker Harris
Gary Trudeau


For Love of the Game

Playing Right Field
Prairie Orchid

For Love of the Game

Comenius on a 20 KCS bill

The picture is of old Soviet era currency from Czechoslovakia. The man depicted on the bill is John Comenius. He was a 17th century philosopher/theologian who is responsible for developing the form that public education takes to this day. He developed a structure for schooling of kindergarten, elementary school, secondary school, college, and university that is the basic structure of public education in America today. He also articulated a philosophy of education centered on thought and investigation, an application of the scientific method to the classroom, that is also practiced in many classrooms to this day. Lastly, his influence on the curriculum and the course of study is also still felt; a belief that getting an education should be enjoyable and that it should be universal both in its scope and in its availability; that it should cover the breadth of human knowledge and that it should be available to all. He was a product of his time and there are things he believed were important that may not be seen as important today, but nonetheless his influence on education is a profound one.

At the heart of modern education is testing. In America in any given year students spend many weeks taking tests. They may be the conventional tests associated with midterms and finals or the completion of a unit of study or the ever more ubiquitous state and federal tests that are being imposed on schools across the land. Most of the time spent testing probably runs counter to Comenius’ belief that getting an education should be pleasant, though if the stress that is placed on grades were less onerous it might be easier to see a test as a pleasant challenge than as a threat to future prospects. There was an article in The Guardian a few weeks ago, “‘You may now turn over your papers’,” about four English writers who were given “the most difficult test in the world” just for the fun of it. Will Self was given the question “Is there something inherently coarsening about sport?” The song at the beginning, Playing Right Field underscores one area in which it coarsens, that of choosing up sides. The last to be chosen have been marked and that mark often never leaves. Though the song is humorous, the issue at its heart can be devastating to the individual experiencing it.

But it is not really this aspect of the coarseness of sport that Self’s essay addressed. Self’s concern is that sport dulls the mind’s capacity to think; that in taking games too seriously we do not take life seriously enough; we become more engrossed in earned run averages than in the maintenance of our democracy. This to an extent can be seen when riot police are sent to secure the streets after a local team wins a championship. This does not always happen and it does not happen everywhere, but it does happen. It is also too often true that too many can draw intelligent conclusions from the statistics surrounding their favorite sport, but cannot do the same with the statistics that surround a mortgage or the choices that life often calls upon all of us to make.

Plaine de Plainpalais with cricket’s players, 1817

The painting above and the woodcut below are of two “elegant” sports, cricket and archery. It is difficult to see cricket as a sport that coarsens. It is structured around the daily life of the typical Englishman, a match begins after breakfast with a break for lunch and tea and ends at suppertime. It is played over a weekend, or so I was told by the man in Salisbury, England who sold me the bicycle I rode throughout Britain and the Continent. He may have been teasing me a bit, I do not know. Wikipedia, though, says a typical match lasts five hours and a test match can take five days to play, so maybe he was not deceiving me, or at least not much. But it is a sport where everyone wears white and is civil to one another, at least in theory.

Japanese Archer

Archery is also an elegant sport. Though the bow and arrow is an effective weapon the sport involves shooting at targets and there is no physical contact between competitors and both winners and losers go home in one piece. When Robin Hood competed for a prize he was a sportsman not a soldier and everyone could enjoy his prowess. There is, of course the less civilized use of the bow that created a greater tension between Robin Hood and the civil authorities of his day. There is, I suppose an aspect of all sport where everyone can enjoy and appreciate the skill and focus of the athlete. To play any sport well requires a great deal of intelligence, discipline, focus, and dedication; qualities that serve anyone well in the long term and have an important place in modern education.

A view from inside the mob taken at the 2006 Royal Shrovetide Football Match (Mob Football)
Gary Austin

The photograph above was taken at a “Mob Football” match from the midst of the festivities. It is said of mob football that there is one rule, you cannot commit manslaughter or murder, but evidently, everything else is fair play. It is also a very democratic sport in that anyone who wishes and who plays by the rule, can compete. It is a game that can accommodate an unlimited number of players. Shakespeare includes in his play Comedy of Errors a football joke, “Am I so round with you, as you with me, That like a foot-ball you do spurn me thus: You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither, If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.” Of course for Shakespeare, as for most in the world to this day, football is soccer, though the football being played in the photograph is a medieval antecedent to rugby.

Truro hurling ball

Mob football is another name for Cornish Hurling, which was adapted from the Celtic game of hurling or shinty. It is interesting, perhaps, that hurling was an antecedent of the modern sport of ice hockey, it was played with a ball on a field of grass with what look like field hockey sticks and Cornish hurling was an antecedent of the modern American sport of football, as well as of rugby; perhaps three of the most aggressive sports being played today and perhaps what Mr. Self had in mind when he wrote of the coarsening influence of sport. A sixteenth century gentleman said of Cornish hurling, “The Cornish-men they are strong, hardy and nimble, so are their exercises violent, two especially, Wrestling and Hurling, sharp and severe activities; and in neither of these doth any Country exceed or equal them. The first is violent, but the second is dangerous.” The photograph above is of the ball that is used in Cornish hurling. It is made of silver and weighs about a pound. It reminds me of the golden snitch that Harry Potter pursues in his games of quidditch, a sport that shares some of hurling’s physicality.

The game was a competition between those who lived in town and those who lived in the country and reflects the tension that has always seemed to exist between those that live in town and those that live in the country. I think the rules of Cornish Hurling amusing and you might also find them so and here, according to Wikipedia, are a few of them:

  • Field of play. The game takes place mainly in streets still open to traffic. The game can also extend onto private property including gardens and fields and sometimes through houses or pubs. The game can stop at any time so that members of the watching crowd can handle the ball. Touching the ball is said to be lucky and can bring good health and fertility. The parish of St. Columb Major is the world’s largest pitch for any ball game, with an area of about 20 square miles.
  • Goals and winning. There are two goals but no goal-keepers. The goals are made of granite. The town goal is the base of an old Celtic cross and the country goal is a shallow stone trough. To win the team must carry the ball to its own goal. Another way to win is to carry the ball out of the parish, which can be up to 3 miles. As soon as the ball is goaled or carried out of the parish, the game finishes.
  • Rules. There is no referee, no official written rules and no organizing committee. The two teams have unequal numbers. The Town team has the larger team since the town has grown larger in size. Before the 1940s the Country team was stronger in numbers due to the number of people who were employed in agriculture.
  • Serious injuries are very rare. The game attracts visitors from miles away but most watchers are local to the area.
  • Time of games. There are only two games a year. The first game is held on Shrove Tuesday. The second game is on the Saturday of a following week. The game is always started at 4:30 pm. The game can last anything up to two hours. After the game the ball is always returned to the start point.

Though the influence of sport may be coarsening, it also teaches collaboration and the importance of teamwork to the achieving of a goal and this has a place not only in sport and education, but also in the fruitful and happy living of a life.


Steven Johnson Where Ideas Come From
TED Talk

This film clip illustrates the importance of inspiration, collaboration, and of thought conducted over time. The image of the coffee house as a space where ideas could be exchanged and developed is a fruitful one. It is not just that the consumption of coffee replaced the consumption of alcohol (or at least moderated its consumption) but that the coffee house provided a space for sober conversation. But I think the most moving part of the clip concerned the incubators sent to impoverished corners of the world where infant mortality rates were high. As long as the machines worked the babies survived, but when after a year or two of use they broke down, there was no one who could fix them. This part of presentation suggests the importance of design and that design be adapted to the circumstances of those the design is intended to serve. Where these machines went there were few skilled in the maintenance of high tech machines, but many skilled in the maintenance of automobiles and an incubator made of car parts could accomplish more than its high tech cousin. Most innovation begins with someone thinking differently about something. But the end product usually takes time and often requires some help and input from others; that without collaboration innovation may be much slower in coming if it comes at all.

Perhaps sport illustrates this, and perhaps this is a way in which its influence does not coarsen. Though every team has its star players, the team is at the end of the day a team and if they all do not work together the stars cannot make the team successful. When I was a boy there was a new team in Los Angele, The Los Angeles Clippers (I think they have moved since to San Diego). I remember one sports writer saying that this team had some very talented players on it but that they were all playing for themselves; too many aspired to be team’s “star player” to the extent that they were incapable of playing like a team. Skill by itself is often not enough to make us successful in life, it helps if we also know how to play well with others, to collaborate and allow our ideas to be nurtured and nourished by the ideas of others. It also helps to have a place, like the coffee shop perhaps, where ideas can be shared. Ideas and innovation need both the den and the conference room to achieve their potential.

I like Rabelais description of the Abbey of Theleme. His is a Renaissance idea of the perfect space and it is idealistic (though it may not be agreeable to the ideals of all). But what I like about Rabelais is his enthusiasm for life and thought and his belief that a happy life cannot be a “thoughtless” life, that thought is essential to happiness. If Comenius was correct in his belief that learning should give pleasure than Rabelais must also be, at least in part, correct. I think the problem with sport is that it is often given too much space in our lives; we equate “happiness” and “fulfillment” with fun. Not that there is no place for fun, but that it is necessary to recognize, perhaps, its limitations; though often I think the problem is much more profound. Many have forgotten how to have fun at anything other than play, or perhaps more precisely they have lost the ability to find the play and the fun in the work that they do.


Pub Sign with a group of boys playing Cornish Hurling

“The Silver Ball Pub Sign”

Phil Ellery (Photographed the sign)


The Beginning of Things

High Hopes
Frank Sinatra

The Beginning of Things

Arthur Rackham

The song talks about having “high hopes” and that with those high hopes a great deal can be accomplished that does not, from appearances, seem to be possible. Much of life revolves around confronting the impossible and often what is labeled impossible has as much to do with lack of confidence as it does with lack of ability. Of course there are probably many things we do not have the skills or abilities to accomplish, but why begin by assuming that a beguiling challenge is beyond us; why do we not first try to prove to ourselves we cannot do a thing rather than assume we cannot?

The Norns in the painting above represent fate or destiny. These are familiar figures in the myth and folklore of many parts of the world. In the German myths the Norns were, as were the Fates in the myths of Greece and Rome, weavers who wove the tapestries of individual lives and when a life was done, they cut the thread and the tapestry that was that individual life was finished. But how was the tapestry created. Did the Norns weave into the tapestry what an individual accomplished or did the tapestry come first, preordaining what that individual would accomplish? It probably does not make much difference which came first, the tapestry or the acts that were woven into it, what is important is that the action is done, that the attempt is made. We will find out soon enough if it is our “destiny” or not and if it is not there are other “destinies” to pursue.

The Seven Virtues – “Hope”
Giotto Di Bondone

Succeeding at most things involves taking something we hope for or dream of and making it real, bringing it to pass. Often the difference between something hoped for and a goal is planning, figuring out how to get to where we want to go, or at least planning out the first few steps on the journey, perhaps its just figuring out where to start. Hope often has more to do with yearning than with planning, but perhaps often hope is where goal setting begins. It is after all one of the “Seven Virtues.” There was an article in The Boston Globe a few weeks ago, “The bright side of wrong” about the importance of making mistakes, of being willing to get it wrong. The article suggests that a great deal of success is the product of intuition, of insight into a problem or a project that is instantaneous and does not appear to be the product of careful thought. Sometimes decisions have to be made quickly and there is no time to “think things through.” We know many things and our minds can process the many things we know quickly and often what seems the product of intuition is the result of a kind of sorting process our minds can complete with speed and efficiency.

The article gives the following example to demonstrate this:

“To change how we think about wrongness, we must start by understanding how we get things right.

“Try filling in the following blank: “The giraffe had a very long ____.”

“You can answer that question in a flash, and so can my 4-year-old neighbor. Yet a computer — a machine that can calculate pi out to a thousand digits while you sneeze — would be completely stymied by it. Long after you’ve moved on from the giraffe and finished the sports section and gone for a walk, the computer would still be frantically spitting out ideas to fill in that blank. Maybe the giraffe had a very long…tongue? Flight from Kenya? History of drug abuse? Paralyzed by so many potentially right answers, the computer would struggle to generate any answer at all.”

This reasoning process, even when it is applied to much more complicated problems than the neck of a giraffe, is a reliable one more often than not for most of us. The more one has learned the more this is probably true. We have to be willing to live with the embarrassment that comes from getting it wrong from time to time if we are to enjoy the success that comes from getting it right at some crucial moment. It also means running the risk of getting it wrong in one of those crucial moments.

The Garden of EdenThomas Cole

The paintings above and below depict The Garden of Eden, the one above of Adam and Eve enjoying the garden and the one below of them being sent out of the garden, after getting it wrong in what was for them a crucial moment. Cole’s vision of paradise may not be your vision of paradise but most of us know what it is to have attained and lost something beautiful, something secure and life sustaining. There is a sense that every major disappointment is a lose of paradise, something we have hung our hopes on has been denied, maybe it is losing an important game, getting a poor grade on a test we thought we were ready for. Maybe it is losing a job or failing to achieve a goal. Unlike Adam and Eve’s loss, though, most of our disappointments lose a bit of their significance with time and reflection. If we are wise we realize we must reassess if we are to be happy, it is important to feel the disappointment as a part of the healing process, but it is also important to grow beyond it.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was celebrated as Russia’s greatest author upon the publication of his first novel. His second novel was published two weeks later and he was labeled among one of Russia’s worst writers, the praise had turned to scorn. He became insufferably cocky after his first book was published and well received. After his fall from grace fifteen days later he never recovered his confidence, though he did indeed go on to become one of Russia’s greatest novelists. His first book wasn’t as good as everyone said it was and his second book may not have been as bad, but the work of his maturity is recognized by most as truly great and part of what made it great probably lies somewhere in that earlier success and failure.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Thomas Cole

When Adam and Eve lost paradise it was for them truly lost. For us, though, it is often a bit different. It is not unusual for people to set their sights too low, to settle for something less because it appears to be easily achievable. We, often, must lose an inadequate conception of paradise, through disappointment perhaps, to wake up to a truer more worthy view of paradise. Of course it could as easily happen that the fruit of our disappointment is to give up on paradise altogether. Still, I think there is a place for looking at failure as a kind of gift that puts us on a more rewarding path; a path more in keeping with our gifts and temperament.

Phillips: Hurdy-gurdy for beginners
TED Talks

The video is a TED Talk about the Hurdy-gurdy. As the clip suggests it is an odd instrument. My first exposure to the hurdy-gurdy was in the film Captains Courageous. Manuel, a Portugese fisherman played by Spencer Tracy in the film, plays the hurdy-gurdy to pass the long times of inactivity at sea. When I saw the instrument being played in the film I thought it could only play one tune; that it worked like a music box playing a pre-programmed song. From the video I learned that it is in fact an instrument that can play any tune, though its inner workings are odd and unlike any other instrument I know of. Learning is often like this, it surprises us, it draws us out of preconceptions and introduces us to new ways the world, or those things in it, work. Learning often opens the mind by teaching us something new about those things we believed we already knew, if not all there was to be known, at least all that was worth knowing. This is another way that hope is kept alive and “high hopes” are reawakened. The closer we get to learning all that is worth learning, the less interesting life becomes. It is often the surprises in life that keep it from becoming mundane and when we reach a place where we think we know all that is worth knowing we begin to believe there are no more surprises and this can be disheartening.

The painting below is of Ra setting forth on his nightly cruise of the underworld. This journey takes Ra through night and the land of the dead to the next morning and the world’s recreation. Each day the world is made anew and brings with it new possibilities. There is a sense that the failures of the previous day have been put behind us and we start the new day with not just renewed energy, but perhaps with new abilities or beliefs in existing abilities we did not possess the day before.

Book of Gates Barque of Ra

There was a review recently in The Guardian, “On Evil by Terry Eagleton,” of a book on evil by Terry Eagleton. The book is something of a paradox. Eagleton a Marxist, and one would assume, perhaps incorrectly, an atheist, has written a book on preserving the idea of evil as it is understood from, if not a Christian, at least a religions perspective. But the issue here is not evil, but a reminder that we can never quite know who all of our friends are and that sometimes discovering a friend can come as something of a surprise. Insights of this sort, too, recreate the world for us, because they make it a bit less hostile. Of course these insights can also go in the other direction and expose enemies we once believed were friends.

Still, the knowledge does us good and is probably worth having. It is a good thing to learn stuff, the good stuff and the bad. Learning can renew hope, and it can make us wiser if we use that learning to pursue wisdom. In the drawing below St. Anthony is reading a book. Reading is one of the conventional means by which learning is attained, though it is certainly not the only means. Still, if we are to read well when we open a book, it helps to open our minds first.

St. Anthony
Albrecht Durer

Words in Their Finery

God Bless the Child
Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Words in Their Finery

Page from an illuminated manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, watercolor, bodycolor and gold leaf. Calligraphy and ornamentation by William Morris, illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones
William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones

The image is from an edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam designed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. We can see in this image that the beauty of words and of language lies not solely in what the words mean but in their appearance as well. Or at least that words can have a beauty that is independent of the meanings assigned to them by Dr. Johnson or Noah Webster. Morris realized that even if Chaucer had been an inferior poet the Elsmere Manuscript would still be a thing of beauty and worth preserving. The creating of typefaces is an art in itself and the quality of a typeface contributes to the pleasure derived from reading books. The song says, “momma may have, poppa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.” In a work of literature the author and the words used by the author may be the momma and the poppa of the story but the typeface has its own something to offer. The texture and quality of the paper and the design of the letters on the page contribute something important to the experience of reading a book.

When students write a paper they often want to use unusual, decorative fonts. This has to be discouraged, of course, because those students that go onto college will have professors who are not likely to appreciate papers that stray too far from the conventional in their use of fonts or typefaces. It is unfortunate that one of the stories we have to tell our children is to be careful of the clothes in which they dress the stories that they tell. Though the decorative fonts used by students in term papers are often garish and inappropriate to the stories that they tell, these fonts are none the less a part of the student’s expression and reveal a bit of her or his imagination at work. If the design of a thing is as important, some say it is more important, than the task the thing has been given to perform than fonts chosen by students reveal something of their imaginative life and they are certainly an important part of the design of the paper in the student’s mind.

“Trolls with an abducted princess, from the annual, and still published, fairy tale collection Bland Tomtar och Troll
John Bauer

There was a recent article in the Boston Globe, “How fairy tales pit adults against kids,” about fairy tales and the stories that they tell. The point of the article is that these stories are often seen by adults as dangerous and that in the stories themselves adults are often portrayed as the enemy or at best more of a hindrance than a help. Because the first audiences for these stories were adults one wonders how the adults that enjoyed them viewed children and childhood. There is a short story by H. G. Wells, “The Magic Shop,” that follows in the vein of some of these stories in that by the end of the story a child’s parents live in terror of their child. Wells’ story actually reverses the roles of adults and children in the traditional stories. In stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Hansel and Gretel” it is the children that live in fear of the adults. Wells’ story, though, ends less happily for the adults than the traditional stories do for the children in that in the traditional stories the children overcome the malevolent adult forces, in Wells’ story the malevolent child is still in control when the story ends.

Language is a magical tool. The same words can be employed by different people to convey very different messages. In fact, the same words in a single text can even be interpreted by different people to convey very different messages as well. I introduce my students to literary theory by showing them how The Tale of Peter Rabbit can be interpreted as a story about the importance of listening to your parents when read one way but also about the importance of disobeying your parents when read another way. This suggests perhaps that we take from the stories we read the messages we need to find in them in order to live more effectively. Does the author put meaning into a story or do readers place in them the meanings they need to find. This is perhaps the crux of the postmodern problem, does meaning exist, does meaning matter? And if meanings do exist and meanings do matter, who gets to decide what those meanings are and where and how those meanings are found?

Alice surrounded by the characters of Wonderland
Peter Newell

Perhaps no book has as much fun with the “meaning” of things than Lewis Carrol’s Alice books. Humpty Dumpty tells us words mean whatever we want them to mean. There is truth to this of course, because this is how new meanings to old words evolve and new words are invented. It is also how poets employ words. Anyone who has read a poem by Wallace Stevens or Bob Dylan has encountered this amorphous use of language. I often imagine that “Pale Ramon” struggles as much with meaning as he does with order in Wallace Stevens’ poem.

There were two article recently, one in the Washington Post, “Michael Dirda reviews the biography “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll,” by Jenny Woolf,” and one in the Guardian, “How the devastation caused by war came to inspire an artist’s dark images of Alice,” about the Alice stories and their creator. The Guardian article focuses on the illustrations that Mervyn Peake did for these books. He, a bit like Humpty Dumpty perhaps, in that he brought his experiences as a war correspondent during World War II to his interpretation of Carroll’s text through the illustrations he created. He makes the text mean what he wants it to mean, which in many ways is not unlike Carroll’s meaning. Carroll depicted a world at times in chaos due to the ways in which adults employed power, Peake was placed in a world where this chaos was brought to life.

Dirda’s review discusses a book about Carroll that focuses on Carroll’s conventional and unconventional qualities, part Mad Hatter and, perhaps, part Alice, who seems to me to be the most conventional character in the story; a conventional young lady to whom very unconventional things happen. The story often revolves around a deep desire to find meaning and order in a world in which none appears to exist. Though of course Carroll, a mathematician, has created a world with a chaotic zaniness on its surface that conforms, under the surface, to a fairly precise mathematical structure. Perhaps life, when looked at from within the experience of the person living it, appears random and bewildering, when it is in fact orderly and systematic when looked at from the outside, as from within our experience our planet and solar system is the center of the universe, but when looked at from a different vantage point our planet and solar system are found nearer to the edge of the universe. Our point of view and our understanding of reality are shaped more by our vantage point than by the context of that vantage point in the larger universe. If we do not know where we stand we will not be able to properly interpret what we see.

Alice in Wonderland
Walt Disney Pictures

This is the version of Alice in Wonderland that I grew up with, though how I viewed it as a child was very different from how I viewed it as a young adult. As a child in the 1950’s I saw it as a magical story with odd characters and vivid colors, but as a young adult in the 1960’s it took on shades of psychedelia. Vivid colors and the caterpillar’s hookah took on different connotations. The world of the 1960’s offered a very different vantage point from that of the 1950’s, though the different lenses through which I viewed the film may have had as much to do with my age than with the age in which I lived. I wonder how the counter-culture of the 1950’s viewed the film.

W. H. Auden once said, “There are good books which are only for adults because their comprehension presupposes adult experience, but there are no good books only for children.” I believe this is true, but I also believe that adults read children’s books with adult experiences that often shape the way these stories are perceived and they are changed by the adult mind into something different from what they where for the child that first read them. “The Little Engine That Could” and “Stone Soup” have different meanings for me now than they did when I was a child. I enjoyed how the soldiers tricked the townspeople in “Stone Soup” but I did not fully comprehend the point it made about generosity. In fact my views of generosity may have been shaped in part by this story without my being fully aware of how my views were being formed.

There is a Woody Guthrie song, “Pretty Boy Floyd” that talks about the outlaw leaving money under the supper dish after he has been given a free meal. I think stories often work this way, there is a gift left under the surface of our consciousness that we are often unaware of until long after we have enjoyed the story’s telling and the magic of the narrative has faded a bit. Sometimes we come back to the stories we read as children and find the messages that have shaped us and we are not always pleased with the way in which our views have been manipulated. This is the rhetorical nature of story telling. We are taken to a world that operates according to certain rules and we learn these rules as we journey through this world, but we bring them back with us to the world of our day to day lives.

Illustration of Alice with the White Rabbit
Arthur Rackham

The White Rabbit tries to live in Wonderland according to the rules of Victorian English society and he is somewhat out of place there. The rules of Victorian England did not apply in Wonderland, or perhaps they did but without their veneer of respectability. What happens to Victorian society, or any “respectable” society, if the rules encountered in Wonderland are brought home to the world on the other side of the looking glass? Which looks quirkier the rules seen in their true light or the individual just back from Wonderland confronting those rules? Sometimes stories do this, they open our eyes to the way things truly are, but in opening our eyes put us at odds with our neighbors whose eyes remain closed and who do not wish to have them opened.