Spending Time

Who Knows Where the Time Goes
Sandy Denny

Spending Time

Woman Reading
Utagawa Kuniyoshi

There was an article recently in the Guardian, “Who stole our reading time?,” about time and reading and the encroachment of interests and obligations. Though it is true for many that work and other obligations are consuming more of their time, it is other leisure activities that are most responsible for a decline in the number of hours spent reading, even on the part of, at least at one time, avid readers. When I first started teaching an English teacher at the school said that being a teacher left him little time to read. This seemed strange to me at the time but less strange now. Not only do papers need to be graded, but everything now has to be documented. Documentation is not a bad thing, but there are only so many hours in the day and that cannot be changed, but the expectations change regularly and it is amazing how much some seem to think can be done in the course of a day. I envy the woman in the painting who is so engrossed in her book; but of course not being a reader of Japanese I do not really know what it is she is reading; it may be local gossip, it may be epic poetry.

The song asks where the time goes. The harder we work the faster the time seems to pass and the more easily it is lost. At the end of each day there is satisfaction over what has been accomplished, but also a bit of frustration over what has been set aside for another day. Where did the time go? Perhaps management is part of the problem but can it be the whole problem. Why at the end of the day is looking at a film often more attractive than reading a book? Is it that our energies are drained by the things that we must do such that there is not sufficient energy for what we would like to do. The more passive the activity the less energy it requires, but also the less satisfaction and enrichment it supplies. What happens to a people whose minds and imaginations are inadequately nourished?

The elephant clock from Al-Jazari’s manuscript

Clocks are interesting machines that keep track of time and how much of it has passed. We may not know where the time goes, but we always know how much of it has gone. The images above and below are of clocks that to me do not look like clocks. It is said that replicas of these clocks have been built and that they keep good time, but for the life of me, I do not know how, I do not see the clock faces that I am accustomed to seeing that indicate the time of day, but there must be a way of reading them. Perhaps it takes little imagination to read these clocks once one understands how they work, but the images suggest that the clocks telling the time are also telling a story.

Clock of al-Jazari

These images also suggest that simple things, like telling time, can be infused with a bit of imagination and magic. These clocks are not purely utilitarian; in fact, they probably serve more of a decorative than a practical purpose. Still, if the story surrounding these clocks is true, they did not merely decorate. I think this speaks to something inside us that wants our tools to be more than merely functional, that they ought to please us as they work for us; they ought, like great poetry, to delight and instruct (or perhaps, merely inform). Who knows, perhaps the work that most deeply satisfies is work that delights us in its performance and enriches us in its contemplation.

The Corpus Clock & Chronophage
John Taylor

The film is of a clock that “consumes” the time. Its maker calls it a “Chronophage” or “time eater.” This clock, too, requires us to “read” time differently, we have to work harder, pay more attention, to the clock to get the time. But like many great clocks it is a thing of beauty to look at; we can lose time in the act of telling it, the clock beguiles and enchants. Perhaps this is another aspect of time and its passing. It is seductive, it charms us into believing we have ample amounts of it and as a result we are at times a bit profligate in its use. A good book in the reading of it also beguiles and enchants and is also a “chronophage” of sorts, though at the end we, hopefully, know more than just the number of hours consumed. For some the “ages” of their lives are marked by books that give their names to aspects of their personal history. They go through a “Beatrix Potter” phase, perhaps, or a “Fitzgerald” phase.

Iliad VIII 245-253 in codex F205

There was an article in this weekend’s Boston Globe, “Looking at ‘The Iliad’ and seeing ourselves,” about how the present moment shapes our understanding of the literature of the past. The specific book in question is Homer’s Iliad, but the principle is true for any book. When reading a story it is important to be aware of the setting. One aspect of setting is time, but time is a bit tricky, it operates on many levels, there is the time day, the time of year, and the time in history. A story takes place in a certain time, the eighteenth century, for example, but it also takes place in the afternoon of a day in summer. In most books historical time is constant, there are exceptions, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine for example and other science fiction stories like it, that move around in time, but most stories occupy at most a single lifetime. Events in the story happen at different times of day or during different seasons, but the whole story moves through a specific period of time.

Sometimes stories are set in the past in order to comment on the present, or at least the present of the author at the time the story was written. Readers reading that story have to be aware of the historical context (the events taking place when the story was written) and the historical setting (the historical events surrounding the period of time in which the story takes place). But there is a third factor the reader must take into account and that is what is happening in the reader’s present and how the reader understands the past, both the past as it existed for the writer and the past as it exists in the story.

I remember reading The Once and Future King for the first time. The book retells the King Arthur legend. Arthur lived about 300 AD, but everyone in the story behaves like an English gentleman of the fifteenth century. So when T. H. White retells the story he sets it not in the time when Arthur lived, but in the age that informs Arthur’s and his knights’ behavior. This gave me some trouble, because I knew Arthur did not live in the late Middle Ages even if he behaved in the stories as though he did. I had the same problem with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. On the other side of the coin Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union did not trouble me, though they were playing similar games with history. Perhaps this is a third element of time the reader must acknowledge, the extent to which her or his knowledge of history as it happened can be suspended so that the story can have its way with it.

But this is not what the article was getting at when it talked about the way we read the literature of the past. Katherine Powers, who wrote the article, is suggesting that how we understand the events of The Iliad is shaped by the events of our own time. There was a film version of Euripides’ Trojan Women that was made in the 1970’s. The play presents Euripides’ view of war. He was using the Trojan War to comment on the conflicts of his day. The film was using Euripides’ presentation of the Trojan War to comment on the Vietnam War. Perhaps Euripides would have shared these views, perhaps not. Powers suggests that modern readers of The Iliad see the story not as a tale of heroism and glory, but of the futility of war and the arrogance of some of those that wage it. She wonders to what extent this is a modern reshaping of Homer’s tale that violates Homer’s intent. But she also points out that Agamemnon is a dubious general at best, and that Homer created him that way and that Achilles’ concerns are not entirely unfounded. She points out that some modern readers see in this poem a commentary on war that is relevant today and speaks to present day concerns.

As readers I suppose we are captured by time. We must fight with time to find the time to read in the first place. We must look at the times being depicted in what we read and shape our understanding of those times in light of what we know of how those times played out and what is true for the time in which we live. We must recognize that how we understand the time may not be how the author understood the time and we must make some decisions about what we will concede to the author. We may enjoy stories that involve knights engaging each other in jousts by the roadside, but we may not be willing to concede to others the right to pursue similar interests in the present day. We may be able to enjoy a story about magicians shaping the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars without being able to take it seriously as even a remote commentary on the history of the time. We accept it in fun and fancy, not in fact. Time may consume the moment but we in our choices may determine how the meal will be seasoned.

The Reader
Jean Honoré Fragonard

Making Copies

Just Like Me
Sarah McLachlan and DMC
Written by Harry Chapin, Sandy Campbell Chapin and Darryl McDaniels

Making Copies

Title Page
First Folio, William Shakespeare

There was an article in the Guardian, “Plagiarism: in the words of someone else… there’s little new in literature,” a few weeks ago about plagiarism. The article tries to identify the difference between copying and plagiarizing. On the surface it would not seem there is a difference and perhaps there isn’t. Robert McCrum, who wrote the article, mentions an article written by Robert Greene, a contemporary of Shakespeare. Greene wrote the article on his deathbed and he called Shakespeare, “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers,” or in more contemporary terms, a plagiarist. The charge is undoubtedly true in a literal sense, Shakespeare told very few original stories, but most agree that many of the stories he stole would likely have been forgotten a long time ago if he had not stolen them.

The song is an example of a more contemporary form of borrowing. The rap artist Darryl McDaniels (DMC) has taken some liberties with a song originally written and performed by Harry Chapin. Each listener’s taste in music may determine which is the better song or if both songs are not equally impressive in their own right. But is McDaniels a plagiarist for taking Chapin’s song, even if Chapin is listed first in the songwriting credits. Nor is McDaniels alone in borrowing bits from other artists. T. S. Eliot once remarked that many of his best lines were written by other people. A reading of The Waste Land, one of his best known poems, will reveal that many of the best passages are not original with Eliot. That said, though, most agree that Eliot has crafted a remarkable poem and even those that do not admire the poem recognize that the lines Eliot has taken from others serve Eliot’s purposes in the poem and not those of the original authors.

But what is plagiarism? J. D. Salinger is quick to take legal action against any work by another author that, in his view, too overtly borrows from his stories or intrudes into his private life. Just last year he brought suit in New York to prevent the American publication of a new book, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye by J. D. California (the name of the author on the title page is a pseudonym for Fredrik Colting). The central character of the new novel is a “Mr. C”, but the title all but tells most readers Mr. C’s full name. Has Holden Caulfield become so iconic a figure in the culture that his name is no longer the private property of Mr. Salinger? Or is Mr. Salinger within his rights to try to block publication of a work of fiction that so overtly borrows from his fiction?

J. K. Rowling not too long ago successfully blocked publication of a Harry Potter reference book that, in her opinion, borrowed too heavily from her books; that did little more than quote passages she had written. If she was within her rights to stop publication of this book are the makers of the 1986 film Troll within their rights to sue Rowling for using the name of one of their characters, Harry Potter, in her novels? Ursula Le Guin said of Rowling, “She has many virtues, but originality isn’t one of them.” Is this just one author sniping at another who has had a bit more success writing about wizards and their school days? How original is any author, to what extent is any story truly new? Most stories resemble other stories that came before them, but for the new story to succeed it has to find some way of setting itself apart. For example, how like Harry Potter in the film Troll is Harry Potter in the series of books that bear his name? Whether or not the borrowing of the character’s name is coincidental depends on how closely the Harry Potter of the books resembles the Harry Potter of the film. In the case of the novel featuring Mr. C. the author is hoping readers will recognize Mr. C as Holden Caulfield and not take it as a coincidental resemblance. But than Shakespeare expected his audience to know something about a story featuring a Danish prince named Hamlet.

The Courtesan or Oiran (after Eisen)
Vincent van Gogh

The paintings above and below by Vincent Van Gogh suggest other aspects of borrowing. In the first painting Van Gogh was clearly copying another painting by the Japanese painter Eisen. Van Gogh did this a lot; he felt that just as a musician could play music she or he did not writer so could painters borrow images from other artists. But what he did was not at all like what young art students sometimes do when they go to a museum and copy the paintings that are hanging there. Where young artists are trying to master technique and craft, Van Gogh, like Eliot, is using other images created by other artists to make his own unique statements.

In the painting of his bedroom at Arles he has placed some of his other paintings on the walls. He did three versions of this painting and each version has different paintings hanging on the walls. Gauguin lived with Van Gogh for a while and I wonder, what if the paintings hanging on the walls were Gauguin’s paintings. Would Van Gogh be plagiarizing if he painted the paintings of his friend on the walls of the room? What if the paintings of his friend were in fact hanging on the walls when he painted the painting, would painting what he saw be an act of plagiarism?

Bedroom in Arles
Vincent Van Gogh

There are obvious problems with students passing off the work of others as their own, but are writers always plagiarizing when they make use of the work of other writers? When an author adapts the work of others to her or his own purposes, does this not make the work new? There is a difference between cutting an image out of one painting (or photograph) and pasting it into another and painting into a canvas an image from another painter’s work, especially if the image that is borrowed is iconic. I remember an old series from the Doonesbury comic strip in which Zonker wins the lottery and uses his winnings to buy a title; he becomes Lord Zonker, or some such thing. In one of the episodes Zonker buys a Monet and the Monet is hung in his apartment by the water cooler. The painting by the water cooler is clearly a Monet but I do not think of this image as plagiarized.

My Sweet Lord
George Harrison
(He’s So Fine by the Chiffons)

Most borrowing like that done by Shakespeare, Eliot, and Gary Trudeau depends on audience recognition of the borrowing to work its full effect. The borrowing is conscious and done with the expectation that the borrowing will be seen for what it is. However, what about borrowing that is unconscious. George Harrison was taken to court for stealing the melody of his song My Sweet Lord from an earlier song, He’s So Fine by the Chiffons. The judge in ruling against Harrison admitted that she preferred his song to the original but upheld the copyright of the composer of the original tune. Harrison had to share royalties both from the song and from the record on which the song appeared. Harrison had his revenge though. He had earned enough money from work he had done earlier in his career to buy the rights to the original song. Harrison maintained, though, that if he had borrowed the melody he did not do it consciously. Does this really make a difference? It may be a mitigating factor that the pirating of another’s work was not done intentionally, but the lack of intent does not alter the fact that the work itself is the property of another.

Campbell’s Soup Can 1
Andy Warhol

I grew up with Andy Warhol and his soup cans. Some took these paintings seriously and some saw them as silly or contrived. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s I saw these soup cans on television with great regularity and looked on the paintings the way some look at bad puns. The paintings were, to me, like those plays on words that elicited groans of pleasure from those that heard them. It may be that Warhol’s soup cans were an obvious and artificial representation of American consumerism and the advertising that promoted it, but the obviousness of the statement was only recognized after the statement was made.

A few years ago I developed an online course in which I used artwork to make points about the literature I was teaching. The paintings I used were painted many years ago and I took it for granted that the images were in the public domain and that I was free to use them. I learned in the process of assembling the materials for the class I was creating that though the original images, the paintings the painters created, were in the public domain, the photographs of them were not. So though the Mona Lisa has outlived its copyright, the photograph made of it may not have, in fact probably has not, outlived its copyright. The law was changed a year or two after I developed the course and I could now claim fair use of the images for educational purposes. Still, for the images I now use I rely on creative commons like that provided by Wikipedia as my sources. I do not want to infringe upon anyone’s right to earn an honest living from her or his work, even if that work involves capturing as accurately as possible something that someone else has created.

La Gioconda (Monna Lisa)
Leonardo da Vinci

The Look of the Moment

L. A. Freeway
Jerry Jeff Walker

The Look of the Moment

Self Portrait
Leonardo da Vinci

The freeway system of Los Angeles (and perhaps the smog it helps to generate) is in many ways the “face” of Los Angeles, its icon on the cultural desktop. There is of course much more to Los Angeles and much of that “much more” paints the city in much more favorable colors. Those aspects of a landscape that become iconic are not always the aspects that best represent that landscape, just the aspects that get the most attention. Still, it is something we do; we do not just name things but characterize them as well. We give them an identity that may or may not be true to their nature.

But we do not just do this with places; we do this movements, with cultures, with moments in time. How dark were the “Dark Ages”, what were the “Middle Ages” in the middle of? As freeways for some define Los Angeles, Leonardo da Vinci is, for many, the face of the Renaissance. When we think of the “Renaissance Man” the face that comes most readily to mind for many is Leonardo’s and when we call someone a Renaissance man or woman the comparison is for many to Leonardo. His face is iconic with an age and a concept.

Set of Harry Potter books, UK edition
Bloomsbury Publishing

There was an article in the Guardian last week, “Harry Potter: Icons of the decade,” that identified Harry Potter as the icon of the last ten years, the first decade of the third millennium. There have been a number of articles over the past month that pointed out that Rowling’s wizard dominated book and movie ticket sales over the years since he first appeared. Some of these articles were positive, most of them were negative, in that many critics do not think these books have literary merit. But last week’s article pointed out that the Harry Potter books appealed to readers of many generations and asserts that they made reading “children’s books” an acceptable adult practice. Many of the images of an age are literary; they come from the stories that people tell that capture the spirit of the time. And because they capture so effectively the moment that produced them they come to represent that time.

Classical Greece is personified in Homer’s epic heroes and Plato’s representation of Socrates and classical Rome in Virgil’s epic hero with bits of Ovid and Petronius thrown in as well. For Renaissance poets Virgil became the iconic epic poet that everyone else tried to imitate. Milton begins Paradise Lost with an appeal to his heavenly muse that suggests Virgil’s invocation of his muse. Virgil tells the story of The Aeneid over twelve books, Milton tells his story over twelve books. There is an irony in that both The Aeneid and Paradise Lost focus on a character that was on the losing end of a war who ventures off to a new land to start a new kingdom. Perhaps it is this similarity between Aeneas and Satan that cause some to see Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost.

King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detail from the “Christian Heroes Tapestry”

King Arthur has come to represent Great Britain and its destiny. He is called, after all, the “Once and Future King” and it is part of his myth that he will one day return and restore Britain to greatness. The illustrations above and below capture aspects of Arthurian iconography. Arthur was one of the “Nine Worthies” and was at the time of Malory’s retelling of the stories already a revered character who had found his way into the storytelling of many European countries. It is interesting to me that Malory relied more on the French versions of the stories than he did on the more indigenous Welsh versions of the tales. The image below is of the Holy Grail that has become synonymous with excellence and achievement at the highest levels. And as the exclamation from Harry Potter “Merlin’s Beard” reminds us, Arthur’s wizard Merlin has become an icon of wizardry and he makes frequent reappearances in literature.

Apparition of Saint Graal

Where we find the icons of an age suggests to us what was important to that age. The icons of the 1960’s, for example, were rock bands, most notably The Beatles, though there were many others. Victoria and the first Elizabeth have become icons of their age not because of what they produced but what was produced in literature and the arts during their reigns. What does this suggest about how the people of each age saw themselves or, perhaps, how they were seen by those that did the labeling. Did Victorians, for example, see themselves as “Victorians”?

To what extent do our icons actually capture those we are trying to label? If Harry Potter is the icon of the present decade what does he, as a character, say about us? Is he important because of his economic contributions to the book trade or is he important because of the ideals he represents? People read these books because they are captured by the stories they tell. We want, perhaps, to see ourselves as heroic and these books offer an avenue for “experiencing” a bit of heroism. King Arthur represents an ideal of might on the side of justice and that probably contributes to his popularity through the ages and to the extent that Arthur’s vision was planted in his mind by Merlin might suggest Merlin’s rise to an iconic status. Perhaps stories are as much about what we aspire to as they are about who we are.

Don Quixote. From Chapter I
Gustave Dore
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gustave_Doré_-_Miguel_de_Cervantes_-_Don_Quixote_-_Part_1_-_Chapter_1_-_Plate_1_%22A_world_of_disorderly_notions,_picked_out_of_his_books,_crowded_into_his_imagination%22.jpg en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gustave_Doré_-_Miguel_de_Cervantes_-_Don_Quixote_-_Part_1_-_Chapter_1_-_Plate_1_%22A_world_of_disorderly_notions,_picked_out_of_his_books,_crowded_into_his_imagination%22.jpg

On the other side of the coin Don Quixote is iconic not just for the ideals he pursued and the manner in which he pursued them but because of his obsession for living in stories, for giving stories too much power over his sense of himself. There is value to the stories we tell, they help us to give life to our ideals, but there is also a danger. Quixote first lived vicariously through his stories than tried to put his vicarious living into practice. He goes beyond emulating the characters in his stories to trying to become the characters in his stories. I think stories can help us to give definitions to concepts and values but we have to make these concepts and values true to the people we are, to our own psychology. There is a difference between learning from stories to live more effectively and using stories to escape from living altogether. There is a place for the Quixotic quest, but only if we pursue the quest in our own name and not that of the hero of some story, that we become Quixotic and not Quixote.

Raiders of the Lost Arc Trailer
Paramount Pictures

Many of our modern icons come not from books but from films. For many the stories that help give definition to their lives and define their values come from the cinema. In the film clip we are introduced to a character who is a scholar with a worldwide reputation for scholarship, Army Intelligence, after all, seeks him out because of his scholarship. But he is also an adept field archeologist, a quick and insightful thinker, and a “super hero” of sorts; he is, in fact, a kind of “Renaissance Man.” He is part Sherlock Holmes and part James Bond with, perhaps, a bit of Errol Flynn thrown into the bargain. The film also draws upon iconic images from films of the past. There is a suggestion of Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre and of John Wayne in Stagecoach.

How important are these icons to our lives and our understanding of our place in the real and the cultural worlds? Do we need these icons; do they provide a kind of shorthand that makes communication easier? If they do, how accurate are they and do they really do what we think they do? It is important to tell stories and to communicate these stories effectively.

But we cannot communicate with others unless we all mean the same thing, or nearly the same thing, by our common iconic vocabulary. Were the Victorians, for example, remarkable because of their real cultural achievements or were they something much less exemplary, a closed minded intolerant people? They gave us the novels of Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy but were also possessed of a prudish set of values that has become an icon of a different color and the term Victorian is positive or negative depending on the context in which it is used.

The great Victorian detective often found the solution to a problem to be “elementary” but the writer of detective fiction often begins with the solution and writes backwards. If we know the end from the beginning much does become elementary, but those who live their lives going forward from beginning to end often depend on others to find the narrative thread that defines their lives. For Sherlock Holmes the story ends with the solution to the problem. But an age, like any individual, is rarely around to define itself by the ending that it makes and depends on those that remain to make an honest assessment.

Sherlock Holmes
Sidney Paget

Reading all the Signs

Long Way Home
Tom Waits

Reading all the Signs

Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze
Hans Holbein

The song talks about taking “the long way home.” Often the shortest, and the quickest, distance between two points is not the most interesting journey. Just as a quick look at the painting will not reveal all the painting has to offer. When I was younger I rode a bicycle through England, Scotland, and Wales, Holland, Germany, and France. When I started my trip my plan was to hitchhike everywhere. When I left London I hitchhiked down the motorway to Salisbury. While I was there I walked to Stonehenge, about a ten mile walk from where I was camping just outside the town. It was a beautiful walk that made me aware of what I would be missing if I traveled the motorways. When I got back to town I went to the Salisbury Cycle Works and bought a ten-speed bicycle. They put a rack on the bike so that I could more easily carry my backpack. The second day out I went down a quiet country road in a valley beneath one of the houses in which Jane Austen lived. There was a woman by the side of the road selling strawberries and cream. I, of course, bought some and enjoyed the whole “Jane Austen” aura of the moment, a moment I would have not enjoyed on the motorway. I imagine the strawberry vendor was there for the benefit of tourists visiting Austen’s house, but I arrived early and was the only other person on the road at the time so I did not feel so much like a tourist.

The point is that it often profits us to take the long way and to not rush so much from place to place. I could have seen much more of Europe than I did if I had stuck to the motorway, but in another sense, though I would have covered more miles and visited more places I would not have seen as much. I also think that people responded to me differently riding a bicycle than they would have if I were rushing by car from place to place. I was a tourist and folks looked at me as such, but the bicycle initiated conversations that probably would not have been initiated otherwise. When the rack that carried my pack broke (because of the books I brought with me it weighed close to sixty pounds) a couple in a large black Bentley invited me to join them for tea by the side of the road. They could not give me a ride to town but they did give me a pleasant break from pushing my bike.

I made the journey that Chaucer’s pilgrims made from Canterbury to London (their return journey) in one day. I am not certain how long a trip it was for Chaucer, but my sense is that it took a couple of days. I went faster than a fifteenth century traveler, but not nearly as fast or as far as most twentieth century travelers. But it is not just that travel by bicycle is slower than travel by car, but that travel by bicycle puts you closer to the ground and to the rest of the landscape and because you are traveling more slowly many more of the small details are noticeable. In a car you may see the lichen on a stone wall, but you would miss the rabbit lunching behind it.

There was an article in the Guardian last week, “You can’t speed read literature,” about the way we read (or ought to read) literature differently from the newspaper or a textbook. When we read the paper or a textbook we are generally reading for specific information and are less concerned with the subtleties of language or the sound of the words in combination with one another. Our goal is to just get through the material and do whatever we need to do with the facts we have gleaned. But when we read literature, the way the words interact with one another and the phrasing and the figurative language that are used are the source of much of the pleasure we get from the experience. Literature cannot be read quickly, not if we are to enjoy all it has to offer.

A novel can be read quickly for the plot line, to get the gist of the story, but for those that read literature as literature that is not the point. May Sarton once said, “I used to tell my students situation and character are life to a short story and plot kills. Plot kills something, there is no doubt, and in the kind of writer that Katherine Mansfield was, plot is not the point. It is something else. The same thing with Virginia Woolf. You might say that in To the Lighthouse very little happens except inwardly, in the characters, but people go back to reread books where not much may be happening but a great deal of life is being created.” We speed read for plot, we read carefully for character, situation, and to find the other interesting things a great writer can do with language. Those who travel the motorway from Canterbury to London in a few hours have made the same journey as those that make the same trip by bicycle in the course of a day or at least they cover the same ground. But is it really the same journey?

Children’s Games
Pieter Breughel the Elder

As with the painting at the top of the page, in this painting by Breughel there is a lot to see and though a quick glance may be enough for us to enjoy the use of color and the superficial construction of the scene there is much too much happening in the painting for us to get much of its real value from a momentary glance. Every one of the little groups that fills the painting depicts or suggests a different children’s game. To fully enjoy the painting attention needs to be paid to each of the games and the way each game is suggested by what the characters in the painting are doing. It is necessary to spend time with things of value if their full value is to be appreciated.

“The Dirigible”
Alfred Stieglitz

The photographs above and below suggest other reasons to linger over things. The dirigible in the Stieglitz photo, to me anyway, is kind of mysterious. It evokes the wonder of flight. The sun gilding the edge of the clouds suggests the rising or the setting sun, we cannot really tell if it is dawn or dusk or if the clouds are just hiding the sunlight. But the dirigible itself is captivating. The way the gondola hangs beneath the sausage shaped balloon is intriguing to me. It suggests a sailing ship in flight. For me there is also an eeriness to the photograph, something mysterious that I do not fully understand that reminds me of something from a Jules Verne story.

The Adams photograph provokes, or at least it does in some, a meditation on the natural environment and its wild and sublime beauty. It invites us to linger over it, to pursue its details and enjoy the landscape that it captures. There is a similar play between light and shadow, between the ominous and the comforting, that is found in the Stieglitz photograph. Both the storm in the mountains and the currents in the river suggest the power of nature and its potential dangers.

The Tetons and the Snake River
Ansel Adams

There were two reviews in the Washington Post of modern translations of stories from fifteenth century England and Italy. One was of Peter Ackroyd’s prose translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “Book review: ‘The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling’ by Peter Ackroyd,” and the other of Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, “Michael Dirda reviews ‘Orlando Furioso’ by Ludovico Ariosto.” Both of these stories have been personal favorites and that they still generate enough interest to warrant a new translation is encouraging to me, though I am much more surprised about the Ariosto than the Chaucer, who has always been popular in the English speaking world. I think Ariosto repays the time that is spent with him and it is a pleasant thought that many more will perhaps spend some time with him. For me he is like a cross between J. R. R. Tolkien and Jonathan Swift in that it marries the heroics of the one to the comedy of the other. Enjoyment can be gotten by speed reading each of these books but there is so much in each to be savored and lingered over that is sad to think that some could be satisfied with such a meager offering, sort of like taking a single bite from an ice ream cone and throwing the rest away.

Jacques Tati

A film is experienced differently than a book or a painting. One cannot take more time over a film than the film takes to run, well one could, but that would defeat the purpose of the film and probably do some harm to its enjoyment. But careful attention needs to be paid to what happens on screen. In the film clip from Jacques Tati’s Traffic much of the humor can be missed if the viewer does not pay attention to details, like the movements of the individual drivers after the accident or to the debris and the way it moves through the scene. The film is a French film but it is not necessary to understand the language (though I think it is has been dubbed in English) to enjoy the comedy, so much of the humor is visual.

It is not just the spending of time, though, but how the time is spent. One person may read a book slowly because they do not understand the words and have to read and re-read to figure out what is happening while another may take the same amount of time reading because she or he is paying careful attention to the details of the story and the manner in which those details are conveyed. I think the increasing speed at which we move through life makes us less willing to spend time wresting with the written word when we do not understand and can leave us satisfied with a superficial reading when we do understand. Because of the numerous distractions that are available in the modern world, many students do not want to build the language skills necessary to fully understand and enjoy a work of literature.

Thoreau felt, when life went quite a bit more slowly, that we spent too little time with ourselves and the world around us. We probably spend even less time with ourselves and our environment today. I suppose reading and reflection are a kind of mental exercise that many want to avoid in the same way they avoid calisthenics and other forms of physical exercise. In the same way we struggle with delayed gratification in the manner we run our finances we often struggle with delayed gratification in the manner we develop our intellect. As our enjoyment of a thing we desire is often more perfect when we take the time to save up for its purchase, as opposed to using credit of one form or another, so is the object of our study, whether of a text, a concept, or a science, more perfect when we take the time to fully understand that study. There is a difference between knowing and understanding and that difference is often the product of time.

Who Do You Think You Are

The Silver Tongued Devil and I
Kris Kristofferson

Who Do You Think You Are

“The Treachery of Images” (1928-9) or “This is not a pipe”
René Magritte

Kris Kristofferson sings of someone who is in a kind of denial for it is clear from the lyric that the “silver tongued devil” and the persona of the song are in fact the same person. The persona may not approve of the actions of his alter ego and it may be in fact the “beer” talking and not himself but like it or not the actions are his actions. Who we are and who we think we are often are very different people. My students are beginning Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Macbeth sees himself as a pretty good guy, he wants to be liked by his peers, but relatively early in the story he allows his ambition to overtake the “better angels of his nature.” The Macbeth at the end of the play may be unrecognizable to the Macbeth of the play’s beginning but they are the same person. Or are they?

The painting is captioned “this is not a pipe” but the image is indeed of a pipe. Of course the image of a pipe is in fact not a pipe, I cannot take this pipe and smoke it, for example. So the painting is and is not a pipe. By the same token the photograph of me found in my passport taken back in 1972 is indeed a photograph of me. But are the person in that photograph and the person writing this the same person? Emerson would say something one day he would disavow the next. Are the Emerson making the statement and disavowing the statement the same person, the same Emerson? At the heart of literary analysis, among other things, is character growth. Characters that do not change in the course of a story are, generally, weak characters. Yet we expect consistency of thought from the people around us, and believe changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness. Heaven help the politician, for example, who has a change of heart.

The Humphrey van Weyden we meet at the beginning of Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf cannot save himself, he cannot even call out to others to save him. He is totally helpless. The Humphrey van Weyden, “Hump”, at the end of the novel is a very different and much stronger and more competent human being. The Hump of the beginning of the novel bears no resemblance to the Hump at the end of the novel. But, under the law anyway, they are the same person. On the other hand, at the end of the novel Wolf Larson, Hump’s nemesis through the book, is largely unchanged. In part this is because he has already thought through his views and made judgments about how the world works that time and experience have shown to be sound. But also Wolf is set in his ways, he has reached his conclusions, no one has been able to effectively challenge those conclusions so he sees no need to change, even when confronted with an alternative view of things that is thoughtful and experiences that ought to cause him to question at least some of his conclusions. In life, as in stories, those characters are strongest who can grow and change and adapt to changing circumstances.

The Paranoiac Face ([1935])
Salvador Dali
The New York Public Library

Looked at one way this is a drawing of some people sitting on the beach, looked at another way it is a human face (according to Andre Breton the face of Jean Paul Marat, or so he said of the photograph that inspired the drawing). How we see ourselves and how others see us may suggest another kind of illusion, just as the people we thought we might become do not always resemble the people we have in fact become. In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch we are confronted by characters with great aspirations for the future, some are taking their first steps towards achieving these aspirations while others have been working towards theirs for some time already. Some of these ambitions are noble and altruistic, others are shallow and self-serving but few are realized. There is a doctor who hopes to reform the practice of medicine but ends up writing a treatise on gout, a disease mostly of well to do old men, there is a scholar who plans to synthesize all the world’s mythic systems but dies before he can do so, there is a wealthy politician with a past, as well as a would be politician without much of a past.

Most of the characters in this novel have high ideals but they make foolish choices and as a result must face real consequences. Most learn to carve a bit of contentment out of the poor choices they have made but they never fulfill their aspirations. When I finished the book I felt Dorothea Brooke proved willing to make risky choices to achieve some personal happiness and I thought she ended well, but not all agree. Still, we are told she made others’ lives better. Perhaps in life that is worth more, and perhaps is more satisfying, than a more “public” success. It certainly illustrates the choices that confront most of us, we can choose safely and attain a modest contentment perhaps, or we can take risks and perhaps achieve some of our higher aspirations, or perhaps not. Life is often this way.

Janus Films

The film Rashomon is about point of view. A crime is committed and it is observed by four different people from four different perspectives. The angle from which the event is viewed determines how it is understood and interpreted. Depending on whose perspective is accepted a crime either was or was not committed. Whose perception is correct? To what extent does this mirror life? Some would argue from a story like this that we cannot know or understand reality, there are too many obstructions between what we perceive and what is, that all life is relative. There is some satisfaction to be gotten from this view in that it enables a person to avoid making judgments about events, and hence, having to take any action in shaping those events.

But I think the story illustrates that, though we all have to act according to our own understanding of what is happening around us, we may want to reserve judgment and keep an open mind. Choices are often difficult, it may not be possible to know all that we need to know to make those choices with certainty, but the choices themselves may be inescapable and need to be made. We can only do our best. I do not know that this kind of story provides comfort or satisfaction, but it does capture an aspect of life that it is important to think about. This is an important service that books, film, and other forms of story telling provide.

Three Musicians (1921), Museum of Modern Art
Pablo Picasso


The painting is called Three Musicians. But is this really what the painting captures. One musician is dressed in white, a color associated with purity and with weddings. White is also a color often associated with angels, at least the good ones. I mention this only because the other musician is all in black, a color associated with death and the angel of death. As white is often associated with goodness, black is often the color of evil. Then there is the musician in the middle who is dressed something like a clown, he is dressed in motley, the traditional garb of the clown. Are the musicians on his right and left, then, his good and evil geniuses? This is another story to be told and understood. Maybe they are just, as the title says, three musicians with very different tastes in clothes.

There was an article a few weeks ago in the Guardian about the American novelist, Philip Roth. The article by Alison Flood, “Philip Roth predicts novel will be minority cult within 25 years”, summarizes an interview that Roth gave to Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast. In the interview Roth contends that the day of the novel has passed and that though the novel will survive, it will have only a “cult” following. I hope this is not true. The novel, like few other art forms, enables us to imagine the world and how people behave in the world. Unlike a film it can take its time to spin its story so that the reader can have a greater insight into the emotional, psychological, and intellectual lives of characters, and see how these characters respond to the situations they encounter. We can see how characters’ lives are shaped and changed by events and how those events change the emotions, the psychology, and the thinking of the characters. Granted it is all made up, all a fiction, but it does help prepare one for the choices and complexities of life. Aristotle believed fiction was superior to history because it showed us what might be not just what was. He felt it was superior to philosophy because it gave us the opportunity to see philosophy put into practice and lived out so that we can see how this philosophy holds up to the pressures of daily living.

There is a story told of Thoreau and the night he spent in jail that Emerson came by and saw Thoreau in jail. He asked Thoreau what he was doing in there. And Thoreau responded that the better question is what are you doing out there. Thoreau was acting on a principle that he learned from Emerson, that the only place for a just man in an unjust society is in jail, a principle Emerson himself was not putting into practice. I do not know if this story is true, I have heard that it is apocryphal, but it illustrates Aristotle’s point that formulating a philosophy to live by may be easier than living by that philosophy and story telling gives us the opportunity to see what pressures the world and daily living will exert upon our philosophies. The picture below is of a waterfall, but is the water in fact falling? I suppose it depends on how you look at it and where you focus your attention.

M. C. Escher

A Wicked Good Guy

Bad Man’s Blunder
The Kingston Trio

A Wicked Good Guy

King Richard III

The song is about an inept outlaw for whom, perhaps because of his incompetence, the listener feels a bit of empathy. Most of us are incompetent at something and so we understand the poor outlaw’s problem. Still there is the problem of the deputy that, he tells us frankly in the opening stanza, he killed. The name in storytelling circles for such a character, for the likable bad guy, or the guy with too many flaws to be heroic, is antihero. What lies behind the antihero is a belief that we all have the capacity to be villainous and part of our reaction is a “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of sympathy. We see our own potential in these characters. In the conventional tragedy we encounter a good man or woman with a significant character flaw. This flaw proves to be the character’s undoing. Because in so many other respects this character is so good the reader or viewer sees the consequences that result from this single flaw as undeserved. But no one sees the antihero as undeserving of her or his fate; it is just that that fate falls too close to home.

The painting is of Richard III. As Shakespeare tells his story he is a totally villainous unredeemable character but many throughout history have championed his cause. When I was growing up it was Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time that made his case. Tey was a writer of detective fiction and her detective, while in the hospital for reasons I have forgotten, becomes intrigued with Richard and the story history has preserved of his legacy. He receives a card with this painting of Richard on it and his curiosity is aroused, also his sense of justice. He does not believe someone with the sensitivity the portrait captures could commit the heinous crimes associated with this “wicked” king. According to history, especially Shakespeare’s history, Richard became king by murdering everyone, including two young children, ahead of him in the line of succession. The Richard of the painting, though probably not the Richard of history, is a bit of an anti-hero in the sense that this portrait provokes a kind of empathy that his actions cannot easily support.

Gustave Dore

There was an article in The Guardian last week, “Francesca Simon’s top 10 antiheroes” on the great antiheroes from literature. Number ten on the list is Satan from Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. I am not sure that Milton intended for this character to be seen in this light, but since the Romantic era this view of Satan as the wronged “hero” of the poem has been popular. It is still a popular view espoused by Philip Pullman, the writer of children’s stories who has made a Satan-like character the hero of one of his tales, and Harold Bloom America’s most popular literary critic. Those who see Satan as, well, “Satanic” point out that the Biblical account of this character is as a liar and a seducer consumed with unbounded pride. He has extraordinary gifts combined with ambitions beyond his station. Of course it is the “beyond his station” part that makes him “likable” because most of us have aspired to things that seemed beyond us and have been “put in our place” as a result. Often it is the point of view we bring to what we read that determines how we understand the characters that live in the stories we read. For the atheist and, perhaps, the agnostic Satan is the ultimate hero, for the theist he is the ultimate villain.

Egill Skallagrímsson from Medieval Illustrated Manuscript

Egil Skallagrimson is one of my favorite anti-heroes. He is a smart and capable man. He is a ferocious fighter and a great poet. His actions are not always to be emulated but he is audacious and it is his audacity that makes him attractive. His flaws are numerous; he is egotistical, ambitious, and avaricious to name a few. He is slow to let go of a grudge and the “quality of mercy” is not something he was interested in cultivating. One must consider the times in which Egil lived which were very harsh and unforgiving times in which mercy and forgiveness were not often rewarded and were often seen instead as signs of weakness. He belonged to a free and independent people that rather than submit to the authority of a king left Norway and established their own “democratic” nation in Iceland. The Icelandic “Althing” is the world’s oldest standing parliament having met in continuous session since 930 CE and still meets to this day.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

The film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is about a Russian submarine and its crew that run aground off the New England coast of the United States. The Russians were the villains of the cold war, though there are probably some in Russia who would take a different view. The crewmembers, though, are just ordinary folks who are trying to survive with little interest in international politics. They run aground because the ship’s captain wanted to see what America looked like. When the film was released the cold war was still intense and these hapless sailors were quintessential antiheroes, members of an “evil empire’s” military, who were really not much different from the Americans that viewed the film. What responsibility do everyday folks have for the decisions their government makes. These sailors are not interested in fighting any war, cold or otherwise, they just want to go home, and who of us, in difficult circumstances far from friends and family would not also want to go home?

A Dime Novel Featuring Jesse James

The pictures above and below capture another side of the antihero. Some whose behavior was seriously out of line have managed to wrap themselves in the aura of romance. In the “wild west” Jesse James was such a character. He was robber and a killer but one way or another he was greeted warmly by some in the culture. The romance surrounding his exploits inspired pulp fiction like that of the cover illustration above. In this “dime novel” (that according to the cover cost a nickel) Mr. James is not only not an outlaw but he as a protector of the people and a solver of crimes. This Mr. James is “the law” not the outlaw. No doubt his criminal record is the result of some misunderstanding and that at heart he has more in common with Pat Garret than with Billy the Kid. Of course, Billy the Kid established his own aura of romance and is an antihero in his own right.

Coin de table (Corner Table, Rimbaud is second from left)
Henri Fantin-Latour

The painting is of a group of French writers. The second writer from the left is Arthur Rimbaud a poet with a “colorful” history. He was an influential and popular poet. He gave up poetry to pursue other interests that culminated in gun running among other things. He is the author as antihero and his life after poetry is part of the “romance” that attaches to this writer. He does not, in this painting, look that radical or counter-culture, in fact no one in the painting looks that revolutionary, with the possible exception of the two bearded gentlemen sitting at the back of the table. He became an inspiration to many twentieth century writers, like some of the Beats in America and folks like Jean Genet in France, who sought to cultivate an aura of anti-heroics. They were antiheroes not because they were engaged in activities that were outside the pale but because they were “labeled outlaws” (culturally not legally) by a culture that was, for them, outside the pale and rather than answer the accusations against them, they embraced those accusations and after a fashion made antiheroes of themselves. Whether the post poetic Rimbaud was an antihero or a true villain would depend on who he was running guns for and who benefited from the business that he transacted.

There is something in human nature that wants to rebel. It is this something that makes the antihero attractive. Whether he is the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause or Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise. Laws may be broken, maybe laws it would be better not to break, but these characters are seen to be driven to illegality by other “crimes” the culture chooses to ignore, like sexism and intolerance. Often these characters desire to do good but are driven in other directions by a culture that does not believe them to be capable of good. In the book Frankenstein a monster is created. Monstrous things are expected of him because he looks like such a monster. However, he tries to do the good and noble thing, to be compassionate and kind in his dealings with others, but he is always rewarded according to the expectation and not the act. At one point he is shot for saving a young girl from drowning. He changes, he realizes that no one is ever going to give him a chance and he begins to fight back. That too, is part of the story of the antihero. If we do not let people become kind, if for whatever reason we judge them by something superficial, we should not be surprised if they become what we have pre-judged them to be and that it becomes difficult to identify the true heroes and villains.

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from Frankenstein


Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes

Autumn to May

Taj Mahal

Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes


Gulliver in Brobdingnag

Richard Redgrave


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

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

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


Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle


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

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


Shwedagon Pagoda


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


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

Thomas Cole


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

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

The Martian Chronicles


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

A Passionate Discipline

God Bless the Child
Blood, Sweat, and Tears

A Passionate Discipline

The Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck

The song celebrates the child that knows what she or he wants and is able to get whatever that is. The lyric just says “God bless the child that’s got his own” but I think the thing to have is self-knowledge and the skills necessary to achieve the heart’s desire. Perhaps the song means something different but that is what I think. In an English class the thing to have is the ability to use language well, or the potential that can be shaped into that ability. Not everyone in English class aspires to be a writer, but the English class aspires to make competent writers of everyone. The goal may be seem an unrealistic one to the student, one that makes too many demands on the student, but it is seen as an achievable goal by most English teachers.

Writing as a craft or an art is a very different thing from writing as a skill. I have great admiration for anyone who can tell a story and has the discipline to put that story into a book and then to get that book published. It is a thing that is very difficult to do. There was an article in The Guardian this past week about the writer Dan Brown whose new book The Lost Symbol was published this past week. The article, “True confession: I don’t hate Dan Brown”, is about the reaction Dan Brown’s books often receive from those that write “literature” or “serious fiction and/or non-fiction.” The author of the article, Jean Hannah Edelstein, does not care much for Brown’s books, but is grateful that he brings people into bookstores and gets people excited about reading who might not otherwise get excited about reading and some of these people will go on to read “serious stuff.”

The painting suggests the importance of craft and discipline for the artist. It is a realistic painting that attempts to capture the reality of the scene it portrays down to the reflection in the mirror at the back of the room. The painting, I was told once in an art class, was a kind of marriage certificate and that the scene was not in fact a realistic portrayal of the people in the painting, but a goal for their marriage. The woman in the painting is pregnant. According to the story told by my art teacher she was not in fact pregnant at the time the painting was done, but that was the couple’s hope for the near future. But that said, the painting looks real and is meticulous in its attempt to capture all the little details of the room and the people in it (and also the dog). For the artist that painted the painting this may have just been a commission, a piece of work over which he had few feelings beyond the receipt of his fee. His subject, after all, was chosen for him.

The artist, whether a writer, a painter, a musician, or a worker in some other medium, has to find a balance between passion and polish. If the subject is chosen for the artist, the task becomes one of finding the passion that will give life to the work. If the subject is chosen by the artist passion is probably not the problem, the problem is finding the discipline and the skill to shape that moment of passionate inspiration into something meaningful and “finished.” Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” This suggests to me that the effective poet is able to capture an emotion after that emotion no longer has power over her or him; it is a recollection of an emotional moment after the moment has passed. This recollection must evoke the emotion in the poet without the poet being dominated by it.

The Dot and the Line
Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer

The film captures the essence of artistic discipline. The squiggle is inspiration without form or control. The line, on the other hand, was uninspired but in firm control, at least initially. He is not without passion; he just does not have the tools to give expression to his emotions. The line, though, finds inspirations and brings control and form to that inspiration. He is in the grips of a powerful emotion, love, and while he uses that passion to inspire his work and to motivate him to do his artistic work, the passion does not control his expression. This is, I think, the essence of the artist’s struggle, though, the degree of freedom from that passion may not always be absolute. There may be a conversation between the passion and the intellect that controls the process and polishes the rough edges.

The Yellow House
Talkback Thames

In this film depicting a painting expedition of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin it is clear one painter is in the grips of passionate inspiration and the other is not. Gauguin paints deliberate lines and is in absolute control of what he does and what he does has little interest to the viewer. Van Gogh on the other hand seems to be in the grips of powerful emotion and his end product is one the viewer wants to see in greater detail than the glimpse that is given. Van Gogh helps himself control the process by constructing a kind of grid through which he looks but other than that he creates with a good bit of spontaneity and freedom.

Of course, this is a cinematic portrayal of what the director believes the moment was like, but that does not guarantee that the film got it right. It may be that the director, who meticulously controlled the action of the scene, created an effect that agreed with what he imagined the moment to be like, but that effect may have been fathered not by the facts of the moment but by what the director’s romantic imagination suggested to him were the facts of that moment. But is art necessarily concerned with truth or does it create its own truth.

Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum
Santiago Ramón y Cajal

The painting below and the drawing above both use lines on a piece of paper to suggest the way things work. The image above attempts to illustrate the workings of a pigeon’s brain. The image below depicts the norns, characters from Norse myth who, like the fates in Greek myth, weave a person’s destiny. The lines that run through the drawing are the threads that will make the tapestry that will capture the destiny of the tapestry’s object, the person whose destiny is being cast. I wonder if there is a connection between the lines that illustrate the synapses of the brain and the lines in the tapestry that illustrate a person’s fate.

I have always enjoyed stories that are illustrated. I think the illustrator’s art often adds new dimensions to the storyteller’s art. These dimensions are not always found in the story but if the illustrations are done well, these dimensions were certainly evoked by the story. Tolkien said that he removed a giant’s shoes because he liked the illustration of a barefoot giant more than his description of the giant wearing boots. Sometimes, evidently, the illustrator may influence the direction aspects of the story take. On the other hand there is the story of Seymour. Dickens was hired to write a story around the popular artist’s illustrations. The public, however, preferred Dickens’ story to Seymour’s drawing and Dickens was given the freedom to take the story where he wished. The humiliation led to Seymour’s suicide. Art can be a dangerous business.

Norns weaving destiny
Arthur Rackham

There was an article in the Boston Globe this weekend about books and music and how books rarely evoke music. The article, “Pynchon on shuffle”, was about how Thomas Pynchon created a soundtrack of music from the 1960’s to play behind the events of his story. Most of the songs are real and those who lived through this moment in time recognize them, but many are of his own invention and serve his artistic purposes. But why is it that some art forms are more friendly with one another than others. Why do words and pictures go together so well, and why do words and music when joined in song go together so well, but not words apart from music, words that are not sung but only evoke what might be sung?

I do not think there should be such antipathy between the written word that might be spoken and the written word that was written to be sung. There is often music in the sounds of words and many books to be fully appreciated need to be read aloud. We expect this to be true of poetry but it is often true of prose as well. I think, for example, The Great Gatsby is a very musical text when read aloud. Storytelling began as a spoken art, we ask someone to “tell” us a story and not to “write” us a story (unless of course we are English teachers). The first stories, The Iliad and The Odyssey for example, were not written down until much later, originally they were performed, sung, to their early audiences. Perhaps one day, when the technology allows, books will have their own internal jukebox so that they will sing to us again.

Kay Nielsen

I have always enjoyed the illustrations of Kay Nielson. In this image from the Grimm’s Brother’s story of “Snow White” or “Rosebud” as they called it (or at least as it was called in this edition of the tale), we see an overgrown castle and a prince awakening the sleeping princess. The lines appear in the background and I wonder if they are not the threads of fate woven by the norns in the earlier illustration. Perhaps they are just shafts of light suggesting the first light of morning but they add a nice stylized touch to the image. And being a picture of Snow White, it is difficult not to imagine the story without the soundtrack of the film playing in the background. The title of the painting also evokes another film, a different kind of fairy tale, Citizen Kane, a film in which a different rosebud had a place of prominence. Music and story may not be intimate friends but as stories become films their soundtracks, the music that plays behind the action, become a part of our experience of the story and are often difficult to separate from the story when we are getting the story from the printed page rather than from the silver screen.

Again, though, is the art of the cinema an art that proceeds from passion, as with Van Gogh and his painting in the film clip earlier, or is it one that proceeds from commission, like the painting at the top. A director does not always chose his scripts; actors do not always chose their roles. What part of the process is passion being controlled by a disciplined mind and what part is a disciplined mind seeking out the passion. Can art be the product of a dispassionate process that exerts the artist’s skill on the process without the artist’s emotional involvement? Can the artist be emotionally detached from the work and still produce a work of artistic merit? Can a work of artistic merit be produced without emotional detachment? How much of this painting is unbridled passion and how much is careful control of the painter’s medium? The painter’s emotions emanate from this painting, but the painting is not a squiggle, there is a disciplined hand at work.

Wheat Field with Crows
Vincent Van Gogh

A tall Ship, A Guiding Star, and a Usable Word Hoard

Shiver Me Timbers
Tom Waits

A tall Ship, A Guiding Star, and a Usable Word Hoard

The Clipper Ship “Flying Cloud” off the Needles, Isle of WightJames E. Buttersworthhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Buttersworth_-_flying_cloud.jpg

Tom Waits is singing about a man who is saying good-bye to friends, family, and loved ones as he prepares to go to sea. The painting also captures some of the ethos of being away at sea on a tall sailing ship. The painting and the song seemed apropos in light of the upcoming holiday “International Talk Like a Pirate Day”, celebrated on September 19th. I suppose this holiday resonates more with folks who think of pirates in terms of Errol Flynn and Captain Blood or Johnny Depp and The Pirates of the Caribbean than those who think in terms of current events in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz.

But “Talk Like a Pirate Day” also underscores an important dynamic of language, that the way we talk says something about who we are. This view of language is one of the themes of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Early on the play’s hero, Henry Higgins, says, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Our speech reveals things about us, where we are from, the extent of our education, the kind of work we do. I studied theater in college. It was pointed out by one of my professors that many of the terms for those parts of the theater where lights are hung and sets are kept in readiness and many of the activities performed by stage hands had their origins onboard ships. This was because many of the early stagehands were out of work sailors. There were similarities, or so my professor suggested, between the skills required of an able bodied seaman and a stagehand. I do not know how much truth there is to this, I never spent much time in the professional theater, but it sounds plausible.

There was a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement on the language expert David Crystal, “David Crystal, language geek”, in which Crystal describes some of his adventures in language. In one part of the article he describes working for Randolph Quirk (an interesting name for a language maven) on “The Survey of English Usage.” One day at work he received a phone call from a local shoe store. The marketing folks wanted some new adjectives to use in their advertising. Crystal thought the call was a joke but assembled a collection of words and sent it off. A week later he received a check for services rendered. Perhaps there is a suggestion here of another career path, in addition to teaching, available to the English major.

Book of Kells, Incipit to John

As the illustrations above and below from medieval books suggest there is also a beauty to language, words, and the pages that contain them aside from what the words reveal about the people that use them. The making of books and the shaping of language can have a physical, a visual beauty that, though suggested by the literal meanings of the words, is separate and apart from the content of the language. The manuscripts are works of art in and of themselves and oftentimes the artistry of the decorations surrounding the words detracts from the words themselves. Some books offer pleasures that have nothing to do with the stories they tell. The textures of the paper and the bindings offer pleasures of their own. The illustrations and photographs that sometimes accompany a book are as satisfying as the book itself. I remember reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and thinking that my enjoyment of the book had as much to do with Walker Evans photographs as it did with Agee’s text, which was itself masterful.

Lindisfarne Gospels, Incipit to the Gospel of Matthew

The Anglo-Saxons had a love of riddles. There is a riddle that I do with my twelfth grade students, “Riddle #60” from The Exeter Book. The subject of the riddle is “the reed” and the poem mostly focuses on how the reed, once carved into a writing implement, is used to convey “secret messages”, to pass notes, not in class, but in the mead hall. If one remembers that one of the primary entertainments of the mead hall was the singing of songs and the telling of stories set to music, the riddle of the reed completes a kind of “linguistic circle”, in that it provides an avenue for the written word in an environment dominated by the spoken word.

Lingsberg Runestone

That the Anglo-Saxons and most of the other Germanic tribes that settled Northern Europe and Scandinavia took enjoyment from the “look” of their letters that is attested to by the many “rune-stones” that decorate the region. The earliest English poem is “The Dream of the Rood.” One of the forms in which this poem survives is as a runic inscription on a stone cross in Scotland. The stone cross consists of figures and patterns carved into the stone bordered by the runic text of the poem. I do not think one needs to be a follower of Tolkien’s hobbits to appreciate the visual beauty of these stones. The runic letters were also believed to have magical properties, a power that transcends their mere appearance, and for this reason their use was eventually forbidden by the religious authorities of the time. There is an irony in this because one of the few poets from the Anglo-Saxon period whose name we know is Cynewulf and the only reason we know his name is because he wove the runic letters of his name into his poems. It is not known for certain who he was, but he appears to have been a priest or a bishop, one of those responsible for the suppression of the runic alphabet.

Star Wars “Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”
Lucasfilm Ltd.

Hans Solo’s spaceship the Millennium Falcon is a pirate ship from another age, or at least one gets that impression from Hans’ descriptions of the work he did before joining the rebellion. As he talks of his exploits one is left with the sense that piracy was one of his many skills. The romance of a thing and the reality of a thing are often very different. Just as the romance of the cockney in English culture, the culture of Eliza Doolittle and her father, has a romance about it that is appealing to those on the outside looking in, the reality of day to day cockney life is very different. The poor are often depicted in ways that idealize their lives often to make them appear simpler or more genuine or in ways that accentuate the humor of their situation. Sancho Panza, Sam Weller, and Sanford and Son are characters who are endearingly poor. But there is another side to poverty captured in Maxim Gorky’s plays, novels, and memoirs or Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle.” It may be fun to talk like a pirate, but it is probably less fun to be a pirate or to be captured by one.

The language we use to tell our stories often defines reality as it appears to us. Whether our stories create fictional worlds or capture bits and pieces of the world we inhabit, the language we use shapes a world that we expect readers to accept as real, as “believable”. The real world of poverty as perceived by Horatio Alger is a bit different from that same reality as it appeared to Charles Dickens but both authors expected their readers to accept as “true to life” the landscapes they crafted.

Also the language we use often tells others, in some way, who we are. Often we employ a language that tells us who we are, a “character” that we assume as we might assume a secret identity. When words fail us we lose touch with who we are or think we are. It is often not the case that we cannot find the words to say what we mean but rather that we cannot find the words that both say what we mean while preserving the persona we have crafted for the world to see. We may want to talk like a pirate for a day because it is kind of fun, the hard work is in talking every day like the people we imagine ourselves to be.

Looking Backwards, Facing Forward

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Looking Backwards, Facing Forward

Roman ruins and sculpture
G.P. Pannini

The song is an excerpt from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion. The passage glances back to an English “golden age” in order to comment on England’s present and hopefully the contrast will inspire the people of England to make a better, more just future. This illustrates I think our difficult relationship with the past. We often try to distance ourselves from it in order to establish our own moment in our own slice of history. But it is often the past that provides a springboard of sorts or a justification for the path we choose to pursue. Sometimes we forsake the immediate past, so immediate it borders on the present, with an appeal to a more distant past that lends legitimacy to our choices.

The painting is from the Italian Baroque period. It captures images that might be found in a museum from the Classical Roman period. It is a collage of sorts that captures much of what the artist admires about this period. These images also allow him to demonstrate his skill at his craft. Again the past gives the artist, Pannini, his inspiration and lends an aura of authority, of importance, to the work. The painter also assumes an understanding of the significance of these images on the part of his audience, he assumes a certain amount of learning and exposure to the past and those periods in the past that are most revered. But Pannini does not really introduce anything much that is new or different from the painters that came before. The painting reveals a knowledge of the past and great skill with perspective painting, but it does not tell us much, aside from the fashions of the day as worn by the visitors to the museum, about Pannini’s moment in history, except, perhaps, to suggest that Pannini’s moment was captivated more by the past than the present.

Chariots of Fire
Enigma Productions

The film clip from Chariots of Fire illustrates how the past is often used to inspire the youth of the present to make their own mark upon their own time. The Master of Caius College is evoking the memory of earlier students and their accomplishments to provoke this day’s freshman on to greatness. There is an irony here because one of the freshmen present, Harold Abrahams, will go on to greatness by challenging the conventions of his day. Later in the film this same Master of Caius College will lecture Abrahams about the importance of doing things the way they have always been done, a message that in some ways contradicts the message he delivered at the beginning of the film. Abrahams leaves suggesting he will travel his own road and that he will bring the future with him. Much of what Abrahams does is inspired by the traditions of the school, but he does what he does in a way that dismantles some of those traditions. Perhaps this is the healthiest view of the past.

In an article on T. S. Eliot in this week’s Guardian, “TS Eliot rejected Bloomsbury group’s ‘cursed fund’ to work in bank”, the poet Ted Hughes’ comments on hearing of Eliot’s death are quoted. He said, “He was in my mind constantly, like a rather over-watchful, over-powerful father, and now he has gone, I shall have to move – be able to move, maybe.” Eliot was a great influence on Hughes’ work, but to be finally successful Hughes needed to grow beyond that influence, something he could only do with difficulty while that influence was a living presence. The past had to in a sense die before he could make his own present. But is the influence entirely missing from the work and can the work be entirely understood without an understanding of the influences that provoked the work?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The paintings above and below both evoke Classical antiquity, the painting by Rossetti evokes its mythology and the painting by Raphael evokes its philosophy. Yet Rossetti belonged to a movement, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that was actively seeking to distance itself from the work of Raphael, who painted the picture below. Though at odds with each other, each looked back to a similar moment in the past to provide the subjects for their art. The past shapes and inspires the present. It is also difficult for a viewer of these paintings to fully appreciate what is happening in the paintings if that viewer does not also understand the classical allusions the paintings make.

School of Athens
Raphael Sanzio

The painting by Rossetti is of Proserpine, a goddess from Roman mythology associated with the springtime and the harvest. The pomegranate and the vegetation growing along the window evoke this association. In the painting by Raphael the philosophers Plato and Aristotle are the focal point. These two philosophers represent Greek philosophy and the contributions of these philosophers to western civilization. There is a beauty in each of the paintings that can be enjoyed even if the allusions are not known or understood, but a knowledge of these allusions adds richness to each of the works and the viewers’ appreciation of those works.

There is a review, “I Pledge Allegiance to Core Knowledge”, in this Sunday’s Washington Post of E. D. Hirsch’s new book, The Making of Americans. Hirsch is ridiculed by some and admired by others for his beliefs surrounding “cultural literacy” and the importance for each generation to learn the culture that has shaped the culture in which they live. He believes that study of difficult texts in an English class is important not only for the ways in which these texts challenge and develop the analytic skills of students, but for how they pass along many of the ideals of the culture. He can point to how students brought up on his curriculum do better on standardized tests. Those that disagree with Hirsch do not have much use for standardized tests and therefore do not see in this much of an argument for his curriculum.

As a teacher I am troubled by our over-reliance on standardized tests, but I am also troubled by those that would do away with the “classical literature.” I agree with Hirsch that reading difficult texts grounded in our cultural heritage develops the cognitive skills of students. There are problems with much of this literature in that it often includes attitudes and views that are troubling. Still, these views are a part of our past and it is unwise to ignore them. It is also unwise to ignore what is valuable in the older authors because there are unsavory elements to their work. The same is true of contemporary works, we may not see what is troubling in them because we are so close to them, but those that come after us will certainly see them. I also think the more aware we are of the problems in the literature of the past the more sensitive we are likely to be to potential problems in the literature of the present.

It is certainly true that America has been shaped by many cultural influences and that each of these influences is to be valued. But it is also true that there is an “American Culture” and it is important that students know this culture. One aspect of American culture that I find particularly attractive is its willingness to incorporate cultural influences from other parts of the world. Isaac Bashevis Singer, an Eastern European Jew, is an American writer, or at least he has been embraced by the American literary traditions and has won many of its most prestigious literary prizes. Amy Tan is an American writer who captures aspects of Asian culture and it influences on American Culture. There are not many cultures in the world that are willing to do this.

Richard III
Bayly/Paré Productions and United Artists

This clip from Shakespeare’s play Richard III illustrates another way the past impacts on the present. Shakespeare used the history of Richard III to comment on the history of his Elizabethan moment. Richard usurps the throne and he is depicted as quite villainous in the play. Later writers, I like Josephine Tey’s novel Daughter of Time, have made the case that Shakespeare misrepresents Richard and that Richard was not an evil king but an enlightened one. But the Elizabethan court was concerned about usurpation, in part because they were a patriarchal society being ruled by a woman. The film in turn resets the play in pre-World War II Europe and uses Shakespeare’s text to comment on the rise of fascism in the not distant past and to perhaps suggest that there are seeds of fascism in contemporary society.

The film illustrates that we can often learn something about the present from studying the past and that we can avoid some of the problems faced by those that came before us by being made aware of those problems. Mark Twain said, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” It is rare for the same thing to happen in the same way, but there are certainly similarities and a knowledge of the past and its literature can offer insights into how some difficulties can be avoided.

Palace of Soviets – Perspective
B.M. Iofan, V.А. Shchuko, V.G. Gelfreich

The past is often evoked to lend legitimacy to an enterprise. This drawing for the “Palace of the Soviets” combines modern and classical architectural forms. These forms lend a kind of majesty to the project. In many ways it is architectural propaganda, and to recognize how the propaganda works it is helps to know how classical forms are being manipulated. The statue of Lenin in some ways evokes The Statue of Liberty (I cannot tell if Lenin is holding a lamp or is merely raising his arm for rhetorical effect but I think the pose is deliberately ambiguous). The classical allusions suggest an historical imperative that culminates with the soviet state and the airplanes flying overhead suggest a modern, technologically advanced culture. There is also the largeness of scale to be considered. The point is, though, that a knowledge of cultural history and the way aspects of that history are being manipulated helps an informed viewer to see through the propaganda.

It is important to be aware of the past and its influences on us, some of which are subliminal and fly easily under our cultural radar, if we are not to be fooled or manipulated. It is also important to build upon the cultural foundations we have inherited. The past, present, and future impact on each other. To exclude the contributions of the present from our study is to blind ourselves to the richness of our moment and the value of our work. But, conversely, to exclude the contributions of the past is to isolate ourselves from the forces that have made us what we are. It is also difficult to appreciate the depth and breadth of the present moment and all that it contains if we cannot see the influences that have shaped that moment. Lichtenberg said “To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation.” I am not sure this is always true, but much of what a culture produces is a response of one kind or another to what has come before, and to fully appreciate that culture it is useful to know its family history.