Things Change

David Bowie
“Una Nave da Guerra” From Madama Butterfly
Giacomo Puccini
“Que facevi Que dicevi” from La Boheme
Giacomo Puccini
“A Heart full of Love” From Les Miserables
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg

Things Change

“The Theft” and “The Restitution”
Max Beerbohm

The David Bowie song is about changes and how we all change over time, sometimes in our own eyes, but more often, perhaps, in the eyes of others. The changes that take place between the songs and at the end of the music clip are much more jarring and a bit too noticeable, in large part due to my lack of skill with the tools used to merge the four songs. But there is a transformation within the second song that can almost go unnoticed. The aria is from the end of the opera Madama Butterfly and Madama, realizing she has been abandoned by the man she loved is preparing for the tragic ending of the story. The man who betrayed her was a United States Navy officer and if we are paying attention we notice a point in the aria where Puccini has seamlessly worked into the score “The Star Spangled Banner.” It is woven into the song Madama sings. It only lasts a few seconds and then it is gone, but this musical metamorphosis reminds the listener of who the responsible party is.

The clip segues again into two other views of love that are on the one hand more positive, but in one case equally as tragic, La Boheme ends tragically for Mimi and Rodolfo while Les Miserables ends happily for Cosette and Marius. It may just be me but there seem to be echoes of La Boheme in Les Miserables. When I hear the two pieces of music separately the one evokes the other in my mind, but less so when I hear them together. Perhaps there are other similarities in the two stories that encourage this musical connection or perhaps it is just the mind’s “rage for order”.

Literature is about change. Stories involving characters that do not grow or learn from their actions are either dull stories or stories that are not true to life or stories about foolish people. The illustration at the top underscores a change in the artist, Max Beerbohm. I do not know if this illustration documents an actual event or if it is fictional but it does underscore a change either in Mr. Beerbohm or the character he has invented of the same name. He stole a book from a library as a young man and many years later, as an old man sees the error of his ways and attempts to put things right. Perhaps this act of restitution was the result of something he read in the book he stole, I do not know, but I know people are often transformed by what they read. St. Augustine in his Confessions tells of stealing some pears as a child and how as an adult after converting to Christianity he still carried the guilt for that action; it followed him throughout life. We can argue whether this change that came about as a result of his reading was for the better or for the worse, but it cannot be argued that the change was profound.

What we see, read, and hear changes us. This is true whether we are aware of this or not. I remember as a child watching Leave It to Beaver and shows of a similar ilk that presented the American family in a certain light, and this light colored the way I viewed the family ever after. When I started teaching the American family was represented on television by programs like The Simpson and Married with Children which presented a very different view of the family and where the view I grew up with was probably a bit too rosy, I wonder if the one my students grew up with is a bit too dark. It can be argued that there are families like those depicted The Simpsons, but the same might be said about the television families I grew up with as well.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the reality probably lies somewhere in between. But that is not the point. The point is to what extent is our view of family shaped by our actual experience of by the families we encounter in the media. Do we draw our own conclusions or have they been drawn for us. The issue for me is that our views are being shaped by the books we read, the movies we watch, and the music we listen to. Do we play a part in the changes that take place or are they happening without our knowledge. When the worldview of a nation or a culture changes, does it change as a result of reflections on the good and the bad in past behavior, or does it happen thoughtlessly through shifts in the stories we are told and the passivity with which we engage these stories? As an English teacher this is to me an important question, though I do not pretend to know the answer.

“Apollo and Daphne”
Piero Pollaiuolo

The paintings above and below capture scenes from a classical poem by Ovid, The Metamorphoses, which is entirely about change. Characters change into birds and trees and other objects from nature, stories merge into each other; the world is in a constant state of change and transformation. The poem contains in its pages most of the more important stories from the Greek and Roman myths but it also addresses character and what produces change in character. The young lady in the painting above is changing into a tree in order to avoid the unwanted advances of one of the gods, Apollo. This motif of a human character who is mobile and active changing into a tree that is rooted and bound to a single spot of land is found in other stories.

Spenser in his poem The Faerie Queen has a pair of lover so rooted. In the science fiction novel A Voyage to Arcturus a character whose will is being taken from him by another is being forced to root himself and is slowly changing into a tree. He is made to watch the roots slowly appear from his ankles and his feet. It is a rather terrifying moment in the story, for me at least. But it illustrates how things change, with or without our consent. In the story the man that is being rooted lacks the strength to fight back; his adversary is more powerful. This suggests to me how powerful forces in a culture can change those that are complacent and unreflective without their being aware of what is going on. The stories we read in school can only help us if we engage them actively; if we look at the worlds and the characters the stories offer up and question them and their reality and relevance to our own lives.

“The Spinners, or The fable of Arachne”
Diego Velázquezázquez_014.jpg

This story of Arachne is a bit different. It is about pride and over-confidence. Arachne boasts that she is a more artful weaver than Minerva (the Roman name for Athena), one of the more prominent goddesses in the Greek and Roman mythology. Arachne losses the contest, of course and is transformed into one of nature’s more capable weavers, the spider. What does this suggest about power, especially divine power. Are there forces that must be respected even though they can at times be malicious?

When I was younger I worked for a few months on a kibbutz in Israel. I left the kibbutz to see something of the country and I hitchhiked down to Elat, a small town on the Red Sea. At one point, after hours of trying, I could not get a ride. I decided it was only twenty miles to Elat and so I would walk the distance (I enjoy walking, but it is unwise to attempt a walk such as this in the desert in the middle of August). The forces of the desert are unremitting and were it not for the kindness of some Israeli soldiers with a jeep, I may not have had as happy a conclusion to my trip. Is the desert malicious or was I foolish? Does it matter in a world that can be hostile if its forces are not respected.

Still Life and Street
M. C. Escher,_Still_Life_and_Street.jpg

This etching by M. C. Escher plays with transformations and expectations. We see a table with a pipe, some cards, and a few books that unfolds into a busy city street. The image is discordant; this cannot be the real world. What does this suggest about the imagination? Is this just a clever piece of perspective drawing that plays with our expectations without really commenting on the nature of reality or does it suggest something about how the imagination works, perhaps how stories work? I enjoy the games that Escher plays with perspective (both in the artistic and the cognitive sense). I think about the articles on the table and what they suggest. The pipe suggests reflection, a person quietly smoking a pipe as he (or perhaps she) thinks things over, like Sherlock Holmes with a six pipe problem. The cards, to me, suggest magic and the magician’s slight of hand (I was an amateur magician as a child and this may color my interpretation). The books suggest the imagination and the ability of the imagination to create new worlds, with their own city streets no doubt, as a magician might pull a world out of a hat.

I think of something G. K. Chesterton once said, “Art exists solely in order to create a miniature universe, a working model of the universe, a toy universe, which we can play with as a child plays with a toy theater.” I think there is some truth to this. We often tell stories and read stories to understand how the world works or how the world might work or be made to work differently. I wanted to say that the artist might seek to create a better world, but than one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. I remember reading in Rabelais of the Academy of Theleme and thinking folks like me might find this an interesting place, but many of my students would probably feel like they had entered 1984. Most of us want to understand and to make things better, but there does not seem to be much consensus as to what constitutes a better world.

There was an article in this week’s Los Angeles Times “A Room of Her Own” by Nahid Rachlin. It is about growing up in Iran and being a woman and desiring to be a writer. She eventually comes to the United States where she can get an education and where she can write. There were conflicts in her home that she had to reconcile. She was raised by a Muslim fundamentalist aunt who gave her the freedom to write and secular parents who were less tolerant, an interesting juxtaposition of stereotypes. She was drawn to reading and writing to find answers and to understand. The reading and writing did not answer the questions she had about the world in which she lived, but the reading and writing brought her peace and often happiness. I think for many this is a service that literature and the written word has provided. Reading and writing cannot change the world perhaps, but they can change us and help us to live with the things we cannot change and to work at changing those things we can change.

Thomas Edison’s Production

I like this film because it was one of the first films ever made and because it helped to start a genre, the Science Fiction film. The special effects by our standards are quite crude, but for 1910 I imagine they were something to write home about. I like science fiction in part because it reflects on reality and how the world might change and how in spite of all the changes that may take place, human beings often remain very much the same. One story I like a lot is A Canticle for Leibowitz. The book imagines a world that has been destroyed by human violence and then sets about rebuilding itself to the place where it can once again destroy itself. In some ways it is very pessimistic but in others it is hopeful. For though the human capacity for destruction remains so does the human capacity for kindness and compassion.

I think as we and the world grow older we have the opportunity to grow wiser, but this is an opportunity we each must accept as individuals, and it gets back to how we define a better world, Is it one with markets that do not crash and where everyone becomes prosperous, or is it one that recognizes the value of making sacrifices for the sake of others? I remember reading something about utopia by Theodore Adorno. He suggested that many of the writers that tried to imagine Utopia would think we are living in a utopia because of all the conveniences that we have. But Utopia is not about an electric blanket on a cold winter’s night, but about the higher aspirations of the human heart. And to have aspirations at all we must reflect on where we are and where we might be.