Being Whole

Being Whole

Choral Music Over Time “Traditor Autem – Benedictus” Traditional Benedictine Monks Of Santo Domingo De Silos “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” A. P. Carter Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff, Ricky Skaggs, Levon Helm with Emmylou Harris and Jimmy Ibbotson “Noumi Noumi Yaldati” Traditional Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras, Lior Elmaleh & Hespèrion XXI “Loves Me Like a Rock” Paul Simon and The Dixie Hummingbirds “I’ll Fly Away” Albert E. Brumley The Blind Boys Of Alabama “Helplessly Hoping Stephen Stills Crosby, Stills, and Nash “Vespers, Op. 37 – The Great Doxology” Sergei Rachmaninov Irina Arkhipova, Victor Rumyantsev; Valery Polyansky: USSR Ministry Of Culture Chamber Choir “Mass for Five Voices: IV. Sanctus & Benedictus” William Byrd Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars “Inkanyezi Nezazi (Star And The Wiseman)” Joseph Shabalala Ladysmith Black Mambazo “The Warmth of the Sun Brian Wilson and Mike Love The Beach Boys “Dixit Raphael angelus” Anonymous In Dulci Jubilo “In My Life John Lennon and Paul McCartney The Beatles “When I Die” Laura Nyro Sweet Honey in the Rock “People Get Ready Curtis Mayfield Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions “The Tyger John Tavener and William Blake Harry Christophers & The Sixteen “500 Hundred Miles Hedy West Peter, Paul, and Mary “Spem in alium” Thomas Tallis Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars “O Fortuna” Carl Orff Sheila Armstrong, Gerald English, Etc.; André Previn: London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus “After the Love is Gone David Foster, Jay Graydon, and Bill Champlin Earth, Wind, and Fire Missa Luba, “Credo” Traditional, arranged by Father Guido Haazen Les Troubadours Du Roi Baudouin

Painting of violin, glass, crystal ball and other items

Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball

Pieter Claesz

The painting above is a self-portrait, of sorts. The artist can hardly be seen, but the title gives us a clue, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball. The violin dominates the painting and other inanimate objects, including a skull suggesting a person who was once living and animate, but is no more, are also prominent. But if we look carefully at the glass ball at the back of the painting we can see, if we look very closely, the reflection of the painter in the glass. He is distorted as are the other objects in the painting. There is the watch suggesting the passage of time, the skull suggesting the end of life, and objects, like the violin and quill, that suggest the work some do, as well as the wine glass that might suggest how we spend our leisure time. Perhaps this is what vanity is, the objects with which we fill our time that come to say more about who we are than we ourselves, or our actions, perhaps, say about who we are. The painter is lost in the background and the objects that fill his time are all that we see clearly. And is this not, to an extent, what vanity is, the pride we take in what we have or what we do for work or how we fill our time, and not in the way we conduct ourselves, how we behave, how we treat others, or the values our lives embody that define us as members of our communities, which more clearly and truly define who we are as people.

Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Pope Innocent X

By Diego Velázquez,_by_Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez.jpg

Portrait of Charles I, three views

Charles I in Three Positions

Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Painitng of a fishmonger arranging the fish for sale


Adriaen van Ostade

Here are three portraits. Two are of people who possessed great power, Pope Innocent X possessed great religious power and King Charles I possessed great political power. Pope Innocent X, though a religious leader, increased the political power and influence of the 17th century Catholic Church. King Charles I, on the other hand, in the eyes of some, abused his political power and in the end this abuse of power led to his execution. If we look into the face of Pope Innocent X we see a man who looks very serious and, in my view, very hard and uncompromising. If we look into the face of King Charles I, and we have three views of his face, we see man who looks softer and more carefree. There is a kind of “gentle” sternness in his look and also the suggestion that this is a man used to privilege and self-indulgence. The third portrait is of a fishmonger who is focused on his work and there is in his appearance the suggestion that he is content in his work. There is no sense of privilege about him and no sense of power or authority. In these three portraits we see the “three estates” of the medieval and renaissance world. We see in these portraits a view of the world as it is to this day, those that pursue power, those that pursue wealth and luxury (it was the pursuit of luxury that brought about King Charles I downfall, at least in part) and those that pursue work and everyday responsibility. For me, of the three, the fishmonger looks the most content. Art and literature can show us the world and life as it is lived by the various groups and classes of people that fill the world. It can reveal to us how life is and suggest to us how it ought to be.

Painiting of two Russian Scientists, one holding a pipe, the other holding a piece of science apparatus

Kapitsa and Semyonov

Boris Kustodiev

But too often we define ourselves by the work we do. I probably should know who Kapitsa and Semyonov are and in this day and age I can do a “Google” search that would tell me why they were important enough to have their portrait painted. But I can infer from the painting that whatever they did, it had something to do with science for one is showing to the other what appears to be a tool of their trade (of course this may be a trick, the painter may be engaging in deception so I should be careful about my assumptions). And this is often the way of things, we do not want the portraits drawn of us, whether with words or paint, to reveal too much about who we truly are, we want to be remembered for what is safely known about us and has earned us whatever degree of fame and respectability to which we are entitled. Though what we do is important, it often reveals only a small slice of who we really are. Trumpet Music Over Time Brandenburg Concerto #2 In F, BWV 1047 – “3. Allegro Assai” Johann Sebastian Bach Rudolf Baumgartner: Lucerne Festival Strings Trumpet Concerto In E Flat, H 7E/1 – “1. Allegro” Joseph Haydn Wynton Marsalis; Raymond Leppard: National Philharmonic Orchestra Fanfare for Trumpet Jean-Joseph Mouret Camerata of St. Andrew & Leonard Friedman “Potato Head Blues” Louis Armstrong Louis Armstrong and His Hot 7 Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041: “II. Andante” Johann SebastianBach Alison Balsom, Edward Gardner & Göteborg Symfoniker “E. S. P.” Wayne Shorter The Miles Davis Quintet The Barber’s Timepiece John Woolrich BBC Symphony Orchestra “Red Clay” Freddie Hubbard Freddie Hubbard “Syrinx” Claude Debussy Alison Balsom, Edward Gardner & Göteborg Symfoniker “The Lonely Bull” Burt Bacharach, Hal David/Sol Lake Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass “Brotherhood of Man” Fran Loesser Clark Terry & Oscar Peterson Trio Pictures At An Exhibition – “Promenade; Gnomus” Modest Mussorgsky Gilbert Levine: Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra “Soon We All Will Know” Wynton Marsalis Wynton Marsalis “Things to Come” Gill Fuller Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie “The Unanswered Question” Charles Ives Leonard Bernstein & New York Philharmonic  

Woman dresssed warmly for ice skating

Margaret in Skating Costume

Thomas Eakins

But art and literature do more than show us the world and the people in it. Commenting on an assignment recently, I suggested to a student that literature, and the arts in general, teach us to live more fully. The student was commenting on a poem and the emotions the poem evoked. He did not address the ethical implications of the issue the poem addressed, living fully and freely, he only responded to the emotions provoked by the poem. The arts usually appeal first to the emotions, but if we are thoughtful, reflective readers, viewers, or listeners we do not stop with the emotions, we experience the emotions, and enjoy that experience, but we also start to question, why do I feel the way I feel? Ought I to feel the way I feel? What is the psychology of the work, what is the point of view? Our intellect is aroused and engaged, our psyches, our philosophies and faiths, or world view, our point of view are all stimulated and experienced. We begin to live more fully, more dynamically. This is not to suggest other things do not evoke multiple aspects of our being, only that the arts, if we let them, are one of the few pursuits that stimulates all avenues of our existence. We are after all moral (or at least ethical) beings, we have a psychological, an intellectual, and an emotional life and we are most fully alive when all these qualities that define who we are as individuals are given the freedom to express themselves and exert their influence on the choices we make and the lives we construct. Alva Noë in “What Art Unveils”  puts it this way:

Art unveils us ourselves. Art is a making activity because we are by nature and culture organized by making activities. A work of art is a strange tool. It is an alien implement that affords us the opportunity to bring into view everything that was hidden in the background.

If I am right, art isn’t a phenomenon to be explained. Not by neuroscience, and not by philosophy. Art is itself a research practice, a way of investigating the world and ourselves. Art displays us to ourselves, and in a way makes us anew, by disrupting our habitual activities of doing and making.

I think also art confronts us with ourselves.  We look at emotions, for example, that we wish to feel, enjoy feeling, and seek to feel and art asks us to consider the “rightness” of those emotions, the appropriateness of them; or at least to consider them in light of other responsibilities and in light of their suitability to the present moment.  Art does not deny us these emotions or ask us to deny ourselves the emotions, only to consider them in a larger context.  On the other side of the coin they can liberate the emotions, free us from “over-thinking” things.  Art helps us to fully be the complex beings that we are.

a mountain shaped like a man's head with people living on it

Allegory of Iconclasts

Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

The drawing capture an imaginary world and presents itself as a somewhat fantastical allegory. It is perhaps unseemly for an English teacher to be too much in love with fairy tales and other stories grounded more in fantasy and the fantastic than in the world as it is, but often to world as it is, is made clearer by stories set in made up worlds or that involve contact with imaginary creatures and beings. David Mitchel in “David Mitchell on Earthsea – a rival to Tolkien and George RR Martin” writes about the imaginary world Ursula Le Guin created in her series of stories set in the fictional land of Earthsea. Of course the world we live in is made up of earth and sea, and in this respect it is like our world. David Mitchell points out that this world captures the moral complexity of our own world and the dangers of the magical, which, if we believe Arthur C. Clarke, that the science of today would be seen as magic in a past that could not imagine this science, or as he said, “Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don’t understand it,” as might be the case if a time machine were to enable you to bring your smart phone with you on a visit to Puritan New England. In this light the magic found in stories and the uses of that magic, might suggest to us how we ought to use the “magic” that science opens up to us. Or in Le Guin’s words, “’Rain on Roke may be drouth in Osskil,’” teaches the Master Summoner, “’and a calm in the East Reach may be storm and ruin in the West, unless you know what you are about.’” Magic has its consequences and what we do here affects the environment over there, as products of our science and technology such as acid rain and nuclear waste, have consequences for those that had nothing to do with their creation. David Mitchell draws some larger conclusions, conclusions more pertinent to all of us and not just the scientists. He writes concerning Le Guin’s fantasy:

If Earthsea is one of literature’s best-written fantasy worlds, it is also one of the most cerebral. Chief among its concerns are morality, identity and power. In The Farthest Shore the Master Patterner on Roke will ask Ged, “What is evil?” and be answered, “A web we men weave,” but the seed of this theme is germinating in A Wizard of Earthsea. From Beowulf to Tolkien, to countless formulaic fantasy movies at a multiplex near you, the genre generates two-dimensional Manichaean struggles between Good and Evil, in which morality’s shades of grey are reduced to one black and one white. The real world, as most of us know (if not all presidents and prime ministers), is rarely so monochromatic, and neither is Earthsea. Ged’s quest is not to take down a Lord of Darkness but to learn the nature of the shadow that his vanity, anger and hatred set loose – to master it, by learning its nature and its name. “All my acts have their echo in it,” says Ged of his shadow; “it is my creature.” The climax of A Wizard of Earthsea is not the magical shootout that lesser novels would have ended with, but the high-risk enactment of a process Jung called “individuation”, in which the warring parts of the psyche integrate into a wiser, stronger whole. To quote Le Guin again: “In serious fantasy, the real battle is moral or internal … To do good, heroes must know or learn that the ‘axis of evil’ is within them.”

This is one of the great benefits of art and literature, it helps us see ourselves and where the true danger is in daily life, often within us and not in the darkness that often seems to surround us. The wizards of Earthsea are responsible for the consequences of what they do, as at the center of the first story are the consequences of Ged’s, or Sparrowhawk’s, actions that he must work to undue as best he can. We may not have magical powers, the ability to work miracles, but we do act in ways that have consequences for others and we ought to at least reflect on what we ought to do to undo to the best of our ability the harm that we have done.

Piano Music Over Time The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 – Prelude & Fugue #8 In E Flat Minor, BWV 853” Johann Sebastian Bach Mieczyslaw Horszowski “Tears from the Children” John Lewis The Modern Jazz Quartet “The Single Petal Of a Rose Duke Ellington Duke Ellington and His Orchestra “Sonata No. 16 In C Major for Piano, K. 545: II. Andante” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Glenn Gould “The Entertainer” Scot Joplin Joshua Rifkin “Your Cheatin’ Heart” Hank Williams Ray Charles “Roll Away the Stone” Leon Russell Leon Russell “Piano Sonata No.7 in D, Op.10 No.3 – 4. Rondo (Allegro)” Ludwig van Beethoven Martha Argerich “Blue Rondo A La Turk Dave Brubeck Dave Brubeck “I Left My Heart in San Francisco D.Cross/G. Cory Tony Bennett 12 Etudes, Op. 25, No. 11 in A Minor “Winter Wind” Frédéric Chopin Maurizio Pollini “Carmel” Joe Sample Joe Sample “My Father” Judy Collins Judy Collins “Phantasy, Op. 47” Arnold Schoenberg Ulf Wallin and Back Country Suite, “New Ground” Mose Allison Mose Allison “Medley: All the Things You Are/Midnight Mood” Oscar Hammerstein II, Joe Zawinul, Jerome Kern & Ben Raleigh Bill Evans “Galveston” Jimmy Webb Jimmy Webb “Prelude & Fugue No.24 In D Minor: Prelude” Dmitri Shostakovich Vladimir Ashkenazy “The Köln Concert, Pt. 2c” Keith Jarrett Keith Jarrett “Imagine” John Lennon John Lennon “3 Gymnopédies – No.1” Erik Satie Jean-Yves Thibaudet “Let It Be” Paul McCartney Paul McCartney “Etude No. 11” Philip Glass Maki Namekawa “Laura” David Raskin Errol Garner

Self portrait of the painter as he paints

Self Portrait with a Palette

Julian Falat

Fairy tales often reflect our inner psychology, the way fear and the way uncertainty and self-doubt work in our imaginations. The dogs that fly through Julian Falat’s self-portrait are probably not painted from life, they are painted from his imagination, which, like all of our imaginations, is a life of its own and unto itself. It thrives by a different set of rules, but if we are healthy human beings it does thrive. Ellen Handler Spitz suggests in her article “The Irresistible Psychology of Fairy Tales” that, as very young children, everything is new and strange. We are aware of needs, of things around us that look strange and maybe scary. It is all new and we do not know what to make of it. Fairy tales can help children confront that world, though, as J. R. R. Tolkien has pointed out in his essay on fairy tales, these stories were not initially stories for children and many of them in their earliest forms are probably much too grizzly and frightening for the very young. In talking about the “uncanny” she points out, “A key concept here is Freud’s notion of the uncanny, by which he meant the way in which familiar objects and events and people can suddenly seem strange and vice versa.” She goes on to say “the first few years of life are inevitably ‘uncanny’ for children, a topic noted and often brilliantly exploited by the finest children’s book authors and illustrators.” From these two thoughts we can see that where almost everything has an uncanny quality to it when we are very young, this sense of the uncanny follows us throughout life and life contains many mysteries. Spitz goes on to point out other aspects of the psychology of fairy tales:

If, by the term “psychological,” we mean relevance for mental life in its entwined cognitive and affective functioning, we are right to invoke it here, for fairy tales speak directly and indirectly to the psyche. They stimulate rainbows of feeling, insatiable curiosity, and inexhaustible searches for meaning. Psychology, moreover, pace Bettelheim, Pullman, and others concerns more than the so-called imaginary inner lives of characters; it concerns the experience of listeners and readers. Year after year, we still need to know what will happen to Cinderella and Rapunzel, to Jack, to the man who needed a godfather, and to the unnamed youngest daughter who asked her father for a rose. Beyond glittering imagery of silver and golden-haired princesses, roses, shiny keys, and iron caskets, thorns, and fry-pans, we are pulled by our deep yearning for, and terror of, that which defies understanding. Beyond sense and beyond justice and morality, the fairy tales beckon us and we sit on the edge of our chairs waiting to find out what lies ahead—even when we have heard the tale a dozen times before.

I personally find this to be true with more than just fairy tales. I want to believe that maybe this time Heathcliff will not seduce Isabella Linton, that the cat will not break Zeena’s dish, that Dr. Jekyll will escape the clutches of Mr. Hyde, that Oedipus will escape his fate and not murder his father and marry his mother, or if he does, somehow he will escape the consequences.  I think there is a fairy tale quality to most great literature that speaks to our psychology, that leads us into the woods of our inner being, our fears, and our hopes and aspirations; that holds up a mirror to our inner lives while also providing an avenue of escape from the terrors that linger there. Often it seems the greatest terrors we face in life are those that live inside of us, the fear of what we will find if we look too deeply into ourselves.  Of course these fears, like all fears can only be confronted and conquered by facing them and stories often help us to do that.

A cliff over water that looks like a human head at rest


Wenceslaus Hollar

The drawing above suggests, at least to me, that the human psyche is a landscape unto itself. It has its forests, its villagers, it towns and villages in which the villagers live and work. In one of Rabelais’ Pantagruelian books, he describes the “world in Pantagruel’s mouth. The world he describes is not unlike the world in this etching. Pantagruel is a giant and therefore the creatures that live there may be more like us than the creatures that live in our imaginary mouths. But as Neil Gaiman said in “Happily Ever After”:

Once upon a time, back when dragons still roared and maidens were beautiful and an honest young man with a good heart and a great deal of luck could always wind up with a princess and half the kingdom – back then, fairytales were for adults.

Children listened to them and enjoyed them, but children were not the primary audience, no more than they were the intended audience of Beowulf, or The Odyssey. J. R. R. Tolkien said, in a robust and fusty analogy, that fairytales were like the furniture in the nursery – it was not that the furniture had originally been made for children: it had once been for adults and was consigned to the nursery only when the adults grew tired of it and it became unfashionable.

There may come a time when the stories we tell today become relegated to the nursery, but then perhaps not. W. H. Auden pointed out that “good literature for adults requires an adult sensibility, but there is no such thing as good literature just for children.” So maybe some of the stories we tell will find their way to the nursery, but, as with other stories from the age of fairy tales there are others that will not. Or, perhaps, as with the fairy tales themselves that in their original form were much too gruesome for children, the stories we tell, when they lose their adult audience, will also be “reformed” for the nursery. Children often understand best the truths that stories tell. But, I think there is a bit more to this. Children’s stories, folk and fairy tales are seen by many to be overly simplistic; simple narratives without much complexity. And though there is truth to this, these stories and the motifs they contain often do find their way into much more complex storytelling. The story of “Sleeping Beauty” is a simple fairy tale in its most familiar form. But its basic motif finds its way into other tales. The story of Brunhilde, for example, in Wagner’s Ring Cycle is on, in part, a “Sleeping Beauty” story. Brunhilde, in The Valkyrie falls in love with Sigmund and when her father, Woden, commands her to orchestrate his death and deliver him to Valhalla, she cannot do it. Woden punishes her disobedience by putting her to sleep on a stone table an surrounding her with a ring of fire. Siegfried, in the subsequent opera in the cycle, Siegfried, finds Brunhilde on the mountain top, penetrates the ring of fire and awakens Brunhilde with a kiss. Basically the same story as “Sleeping Beauty” but with some darker twists. Brunhilde is put to sleep by her father who is the chief of the Norse gods. The story does suggest the power of love, but it also depicts a deity who is not loving, and there is much about Woden that is disturbing. Ultimately the story does not end well as it is the love between Siegfried and Brunhilde, when it is undermined, that brings about the end of the world, the cataclysmic Twilight of the Gods. We might also look at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a “Sleeping Beauty” story that goes off the rails. Juliet does not awaken to Romeo’s kiss producing the tragic ending of that story.

Self portrait of painter in a red dress with black collar and cameo pin

Self Portrait

Gwen John

What does the face reveal about character? Whether the face is like the portrait above or a literary description there is something present, if the portrait is artfully done. The portrait above is a self-portrait, what does it reveal about the painter? In the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (based on the novel of the same name) there is an art teacher at Miss Brodie’s school who is in love with Miss Brodie. All of his portraits look like Miss Brodie, no matter who he looks at Miss Brodie is all that he can see. And from the paintings we see of his, there is little that is original to his work, most of it appears to be derived from other, more competent painters. It is the ability to capture what is not seen in a portrait that makes it artful. In the painting above there is a kind of defiance in the artist’s demeanor. Perhaps it comes from her being a woman in a field dominated by men. Perhaps it comes from her determination to succeed at something very difficult. Whatever it is, there is an interior life that is revealed. But there is also a sense that not all is revealed, that there are secrets she intends to keep as we all have secrets we intend to keep. The portrait painter has the goal to reveal, the subject, perhaps, has the goal to conceal. Art can liberate, but it doesn’t always and if the goal of art is to liberate the viewer, the reader, or the listener, perhaps one way it seeks to liberate is to confront our desire to keep secrets and the propriety of doing that from time to time. Symphonic Music Over Time Symphony No. 47 in G Major (“The Palindrome”), “Hob.I:47: II. Un poco adagio, cantabile” Joseph Haydn Radio Symphony Orchestra of Zagreb & Antonio Janigro Mozart: Symphony #41 In C, K 551, “Jupiter” – “2. Andante Cantabile” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Bruno Walter: Columbia Symphony Orchestra Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral”: “I. Allegro Ma Non Troppo” Ludwig van Beethoven London Symphony Orchestra & Josef Krips Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417 – “Tragic”: “I. Adagio Molto – Allegro Vivace” Franz Schubert Academy of St. Martin In the Fields & Sir Neville Marriner Symphony #5 In E Minor, Op. 64 – “1. Andante, Allegro Con Anima” Peter Illych Tchaikovsky Herbert Von Karajan: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Siegfried Idyll Richard Wagner Berliner Philharmoniker & Rafael Kubelik The Isle of the Dead, Op.29 Sergei Rachmaninoff Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Vladimir Ashkenazy Symphony #2 In C Minor, “Resurrection” – “1. Allegro Maesto” Gustav Mahler Riccardo Chailly: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra An Alpine Symphony: “Waning Tones / Dying Away of Sound” Richard Strauss The Philadelphia Orchestra & Charles Dutoit Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 104: “I. Allegro molto moderato” Jean Sibelius Kurt Sanderling & Berlin Symphony Orchestra Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra: “I. Presto” Igor Stravinsky Baden-Baden Radio Symphony Orchestra, Harold Byrnes & Charlotte Zelka Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 – “Leningrad”: “I. Allegretto” Dmitri Shostakovich Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Leonard Bernstein Black, Brown & Beige Suite Duke Ellington Maurice Peress: American Composers Orchestra A Symphony of Three Orchestras Elliot Carter New York Philharmonic & Pierre Boulez Introitus (1978) Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra Sofia Gubaidulina Beatrice Rauchs, Kiev Chamber Players & Vladimir Kozhukhar Symphony No. 4 “Heroes”: “I. Heroes” Philip Glass Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra & Marin Alsop “Heroes” David Bowie David Bowie Fantasia on Greensleeves Ralph Vaughan Williams Leonard Bernstein & New York Philharmonic Margaret Atwood suggests in “We are double-plus unfree” that there are two kinds of freedom, two kinds of liberty. When we read, when look at paintings and photographs and sculptures, when we listen to music, we may only be seeking an escape from the present, to be freed from whatever is distressing us or we may be looking for something deeper. The portrait suggests there are times we want to be free to keep our secrets and times we want to be free to express them. But Ms. Atwood considers another kind of liberty:

 “A Robin Redbreast in a cage, Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” wrote William Blake. “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” wrote John Milton, channelling God’s musings about mankind and free will in the third book of Paradise Lost. “Freedom, high-day, high-day, freedom … !” chants Caliban in The Tempest. Mind you, he is drunk at the time, and overly optimistic: the choice he is making is not freedom, but subjection to a tyrant.

We’re always talking about it, this “freedom”. But what do we mean by it? “There is more than one kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia lectures the captive Handmaids in my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

The robin redbreast is safer in the cage: it won’t get eaten by cats or smash into windows. It will have lots to eat. But it will also not be able to fly wherever it likes. Presumably this is what troubles the inhabitants of heaven: they object to the restriction placed on the flight options of a fellow winged being. The robin should live in nature, where it belongs: it should have “freedom to”, the active mode, rather than “freedom from”, the passive mode.

That’s all very well for robins. Hooray for Blake, we say! But what about us? Should we choose “freedom from” or “freedom to”? The safe cage or the dangerous wild? Comfort, inertia and boredom, or activity, risk and peril? Being human and therefore of mixed motives, we want both; though, as a rule, alternately. Sometimes the desire for risk leads to boundary-crossing and criminal activity, and sometimes the craving for safety leads to self-imprisonment.

Freedom is costly. We live in a time when living in a free and open society carries risks. There are dangerous people who keep their secrets until they can do great harm to those that get in their way and when we see this, it frightens us and we want safety; some want the safety of tyranny. It takes courage to live in a free society and when real danger comes we discover how deep our courage, or lack thereof, runs. In the end, I suppose, a good part of being whole is recognizing our limitations and the limitations that can be changed, ought to be changed, and those that needn’t be changed.

People, soldiers among them, sitting around a table under trees on village road

The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch

Sir David Wilkie

We cannot, of course, always overcome our limitations, and if fearfulness is one of ours, we may not be able to change it, we may seek to be free from the need to, but even if we cannot change ourselves, should we in deference to our limitations, impose restrictions on others’ freedom of movement and expression. I think it is important to at least consider this before we find ourselves in the position of having to make such choices and art and literature can help us inhabit these fearful places and make judgments about what to do in such places before we find ourselves in them. I am not sure how much we can prepare ourselves to be courageous, true courage is often only found in the moment it is called upon, but it helps to know what courage looks like and how others have shown it.

Woman brushing her hair in front of a mirror

At the Dressing Table

Zinaida Serebriakova

The painting above is from 1909, but it illustrates to a degree how things do not change much. There is little in this painting to suggest the date of the painting, the candles perhaps, but not necessarily. Does it capture vanity or does it capture the desire to make a good impression? Does it invite a “value” judgment? I think we all want to look our best in public and one message of the painting is that we needn’t feel ashamed of that desire. I feel happy when I look at this painting because the woman in the painting looks happy and seems to be enjoying her preparations to meet the day. And this, too is a valuable contribution art makes to our finding ourselves and finding wholeness. I think of this in contrast with Pieter Claesz’ painting earlier Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball. Claesz asks us to look at how the way we live prepares us for the way we will end, it invites us to look towards the future and our ultimate destiny. This painting invites us to look into the present moment and the satisfaction that can be gotten from it. I think both are important. “High culture,” which is another word (or two) for “great art” ought to offer us more than just enjoyment, more than entertainment; it should be revelatory and the desire to seek, enjoy, and discover the insights offered by high culture is part of what defines a people. Joseph Epstein in a review of the book Notes on the Death of Culture, “Whatever Happened to High Culture?”, takes a pessimistic view:

Today it is not difficult to imagine a world devoid of high culture. In such a world museums will doubtless stay in business, to store what will come to seem the curiosities of earlier centuries; so, too, will a few symphony orchestras remain, while chamber music will seem quainter than Gregorian chant. Libraries, as has already been shown with bookstores, will no longer be required. The diminishing minority still interested in acquiring the benefits of high culture will have to search for it exclusively in the culture of the past. No longer a continuing enterprise, high culture itself will become dead-ended, a curiosity, little more, and thus over time likely to die out. Life will go on. Machines will grow smarter, human beings gradually dumber. Round the world the vast majority might possibly feel that something grand is missing, though they shan’t have a clue to what it might be.

If art, if “high culture” were to die out, I think Epstein is correct in his analysis of what would be lost and the ultimate price a society would pay. This price was nearly paid during the “Dark Ages” when interest in the arts seemed to be lost, but high culture, civilization, was not lost, it did make a resurgence and not all of that age of darkness was as dark as some would have us believe. But what is not valued will not likely be preserved and it is likely that much could be lost. Its loss is worth thinking about, as is its preservation.

Self portrait in green jacket witb black collar

Self Portrait

Eugène Delacroix

Leon Wieseltier in “Among the Disrupted” also considers the contribution of art and culture to society. We are reaching a time where, digitally, all art, music, and literatures can be saved and preserved. Is this enough? He asks if this desire to preserve a culture, what we call The Humanities just empty, inconsequential sentimentality. Perhaps it is, but is that a bad thing:

Is all this — is humanism — sentimental? But sentimentality is not always a counterfeit emotion. Sometimes sentiment is warranted by reality. The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence. There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life. And a complacent humanist is a humanist who has not read his books closely, since they teach disquiet and difficulty. In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter. Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance.

I had a professor in college who drew a distinction between sentiment and sentimentality. Sentimentality, in his view was the stuff of melodrama, of soap opera, but sentiment was the stuff of something real and deep inside of us. He would suggest that it is sentiment that captures “our complexly beating hearts.” Sentimentality may produce tears, but sentiment along with those tears brings a kind of catharsis, it is evidence of changes being made inside us, of inner truths and insights coming to the surface and the comprehension that this coming to the surface brings. We are in need of regular epiphanies if we are not to be drowned by the cares of the world; if we are to have “a soulful and sensitive existence.”

Self portrait of painter next to skeleton

Self Portrait

Lovis Corinth

Violin Music Over Time “Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006_ I. Preludio” J. S. Bach Rachel Barton Pine “Rhythms of Hope” Jean-Luc Ponty Jean-Luc Ponty “Tati Un Mama Tants” Andy Statman Itzhak Perlman “Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 207: I. Allegro moderato” Wolfgang Amadeus Motzart Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Emmy Verhey & Eduardo Marturet “Violin Concerto In E Minor, Op. 64 – 1. Allegro Molto Appassionato” Felix Mendelssohn Itzhak Perlman; Daniel Barenboim: Chicago Symphony Orchestra “Night and Day” Cole Porter Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grapp “Sonata for solo violin Sz.117 in G Minor_ II. Fuga” Bela Bartok Isabelle Faust “Violin Concerto _To the Memory of an Angel__ I. Andante – Allegretto” Alban Berg Josef Suk, Orchestre philharmonique tchèque, Karel Ančerl “Ashokan Farewell” Jay Unger Aly Bain & Jay Ungar “Concerto For Violin, Cello & Orchestra In A Minor, Op. 102, _Double_ – 1. Allegro” Johannes Brahms Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma; Daniel Barenboim: Chicago Symphony Orchestra “Violin Concerto, Op. 47 in D Minor_ Allegro moderato” Jean Sibelius Itzhak Perlman, Erich Leinsdorf, Boston Symphony Orchestra & Harold Hagopian “Anything Goes” Cole Porter Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli & The Quintet of the Hot Club of France “Violin Concerto In D, Op. 61 – 1. Allegro Ma Non Troppo” Ludwig van Beethoven Itzhak Perlman; Daniel Barenboim: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra “Fiddle Medly” Traditional Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile Storytelling, whether they are the stories we equate with childhood or pulp fiction or the stories we equate with great art, is about telling lies of a sort. They are lies in the sense they did not literally happen, they have been made up, but they are truthful in what they reveal and this is true of even the simplest most “unartful” of stories. There is usually something there that resonates, even if only superficially, with what we need to know if we are ever to become whole. And those stories that are too superficial to fill that empty space we feel inside, they often point us on our way to stories that do help to fill that space. Not all reading is equal, but if the reader is a serious thoughtful reader, and often even if they are not, all reading has the potential to point us in the right direction. Cynthia Ozick in her essay “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” suggests that the novel, that story telling is a kind of gossip:

Gossip is the steady deliverer of secrets, the necessary divulger of who thinks this and who does that, the carrier of speculation and suspicion. The gossiper is often a grand imaginer and, like the novelist, an enemy of the anthill. The communitarian ants rush about with full deliberation, pursuing their tasks with admirable responsibility, efficiency, precision. Everything in their well-structured polity is open and predictable — every gesture, every pathway. They may perish by the hundreds (step on an anthill and precipitate a Vesuvius); the survivors continue as prescribed and do not mourn. And what a creaturely doom it is, not to know sorrow, or regret, or the meaning of death; to have no memory, or wonder, or inquisitiveness, never to go up and down as a talebearer, never to envy, never to be seduced, never to be mistaken or guilty or ashamed. To be destined to live without gossip is to forfeit the perilous cost of being born human — gossip at its root is nothing less than metaphysical, Promethean, hubristic. Or, to frame it otherwise: To choose to live without gossip is to scorn storytelling. And to scorn storytelling is to join the anthill, where there are no secrets to pry open.

There is truth to this, when we read a story and are caught up in it we are spying on people that, in our imaginations, are real people. If we have bought into the story, we believe it is really happening and those that it is happening to are real as well. But also, by the end of the tale we might discover that we are, after a fashion, the target of the gossip, that the gossiper could be talking about us.

Self portrait of the painter holding palette

Self Portrait

Marie Bashkirtseff

From Manhattan

Woody Allen

Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe & United Artists

In this clip from Woody Allen’s film Manhattan the Woody Allen character, which whatever the character’s name may be in the film is usually an incarnation of Woody Allen, is meditating on life, its meaning, and what we live for. He concludes by realizing that part of what he lives for is beauty and that one aspect of that beauty he lives for is his beloved’s face. But whether it is Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony or Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” beauty transports, it is part of what we live for, it does more than fill the time, it transforms the time, it removes us from the constraints of time. One aspect of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse that I find especially satisfying is its depiction of the passage of time. In the opening section of the novel the grandmother is reading one of Grimm’s fairy tales to her grandchild. We can get a sense for how much time has passed between certain events by the grandmother’s place in the story. There are events that take pages to describe that in real time took only as much time as it takes to read a sentence or two and others that may take a few paragraphs to describe that transpired over the reading of many pages. This is how we experience the passage of time, a few hours may feel like a few seconds and a few seconds may feel like hours depending on the nature of the events that fill that time. I do not think anyone who has not lived through an earthquake can possibly know how long fifteen seconds can last.

Orchestral/Combo Music Over Time “Lamento di Tristan” Traditional Martin Best Medieval Ensemble “Laïla Djân” (Afghanistan) Traditional Ensemble Kaboul & Hespèrion XXI “Ave Maria” (China) Anonymous Ferran Savall “Somebody Stole My Gal” Traditional Jim Kweskin “Samhradh, Samhradh (Summetime, Summertime)” Traditional The Chieftains “Recorder Sonata In G Minor, Op. 1/2, HWV 360 – 1. Larghetto” George Frideric Handel Michala Petri and Keith Jarrett Rhapsody In Blue George Gershwin André Previn; London Symphony Orchestra “Night In Tunisia” John “Dizzy” Gillespie and F. Paparell Turtle Island String Quartet “’The Ancient’ _ Giants Under The Sun” Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White, and Rick Wakeman Yes “Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra: I” Gunther Schuller The Modern Jazz Quartet “Serenade in G, K.525 “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” – 1. Allegro” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Alois Posch and Hagen Quartett “Prelude (Re Mineur)” Karl Friedrich Abel Jordi Savall “String Quartet No.3: ‘Mishima’: ‘1957: Award Montage’” Philip Glass The Smith Quartet & Philip Glass “Adagio from Concierto de Aranjues” Luis Manuel Molina arranged by John Lewis The Modern Jazz Quartet “Ceol Bhriotanach (Breton Music)” Traditional The Chieftains Appalachian Spring Suite: “Doppio Movimento” (shaker Melody “The Gift to Be Simple”) Aaron Copeland Leonard Bernstein & New York Philharmonic “Night at the Caravanserai” Turkish Traditional Yo-Yo Ma: Silk Road Ensemble “Emily’ Reel” Traditional Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Mike Marshall “Cluck Old Hen” Traditional Alison Krauss & Union Station The arts also feed each other. In the musical bits included here it is possible to see how musical forms as distant from one another as the Baroque and Rock and Roll still share a kinship. I thought of Philip Glass as a very modern composer with a unique sound, but when his “String Quartet #3” is juxtaposed with Karl Friedrich Abel’s (an 18th century composer) “Prelude” we hear a very similar sound and discover that the pulsating sound that often characterizes Glass’ music is not original with him. We are all the products of our influences. In confronting us with ourselves art invites us, in some senses it demands that we be truthful with ourselves and suggests to us we cannot be wholly ourselves until we have owned ourselves. I am a Christian that works in an academic environment that is often, if not hostile, a bit condescending to those with a religious faith. It is seen by many as falling victim to mythology and superstition. But for those that have experienced faith, the presence of God is as real as the absence of God is to those that have not experienced faith, at least not a theistic one. We are all tempted to conceal what we fear others may ridicule. And part of living fully and being whole demands that we not mind being ridiculed. It has to go beyond just not being angry, because it is in not minding the ridicule that anger is truly vanquished and we have to replace it with something else that enables us to remain true to ourselves. I cannot love my neighbor while I am angry with my neighbor. If love is to survive that vanity that produces embarrassment and makes me susceptible to ridicule, it must find another outlet. As the Bishop in Le Miserables had to find an outlet for his disappointment and feelings of betrayal so that he could enable Jean Valjean to go free by telling the police that what Valjean had stolen was actually a gift. It wasn’t a gift, of course, it was the lie Valjean told in order to escape arrest. But in corroborating the lie, the Bishop not only saved Valjean from prison, he transformed his life. To do this the Bishop had to not mind appearing ridiculous in the eyes of the police and the citizens of his town. The depth of our love is revealed in what we are willing to endure to preserve that love, and it is in preserving that love that true wholeness is found.

Painting of a woman dressed in a gold dress

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Gustav Klimt

Time and Thought

 Candide, “Best of All Possible Worlds”

Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wilbur

“Loquebantur variis linguis”

Thomas Tallis

Tallis Scholars

“Dante’s Prayer”

Loreena McKennitt

“Quiet Please”

Sidney Bechet

Time and Thought


Painting of a tranquil sandy beach

The Seashore

Leon Dabo


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

“All Nature is but art, unknown to thee

All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good.”

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


Sailing ship watched over by angels

A Miracle of St. Nicholas of Bari

Gentile da Fabriano


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


Man standing on shore looking out to sea

On a Deserted, Wave-Swept Shore
Peter Benois


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

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

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

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


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

John Dolwand

Julian Bream, Golden Age Singers & Margaret Field-Hyde

“In My Reply”

Livingston Taylor

Linda Ronstadt


Thelonious Monk

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

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

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

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

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


Illustation of a shipwreck from an illuminated manuscript

Shipwreck of Hugh de Boves

Matthew Paris


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

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

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

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


Painting of San Francisco Bay; water and beach

San Francisco Bay

Albert Bierstadt


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

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

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


Painting of war ships painted with "dazzle paaint"

Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool

Edward Wadsworth


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


Painting of schooner ships docked in Salem Harbor

Salem Harbor

Fitz Henry Lane (formerly Fitz Hugh Lane)


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

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

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

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


 Wood blocked of boat being rowed over a large wave

Ocean waves



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

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

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


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

Hans Krasa

Gerard Schwarz, Music Of Remembrance and Northwest Boychoir

“If I Could Help Somebody”

The Blind Boys of Alabama

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

Leonard Bernstein

Israel Philharmonic, Soloist from the Vienna Boys’ Choir

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

Benjamin Britten

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


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

Paramount Television and BBC


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


Fish climbing waves

Carp leaping up a cascade



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

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

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

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

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


Mosaic depicting the Nile River and the communities on its banks

Nile Mosaic

Bernard Andrae


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

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

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


Cants màgics: “IV. Misteriós”

Federico Mompou


George Winston

“Dance of the Infidels”

Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden

“Requiem for John Hurt”

John Fahey


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


Painting of the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Charles W. Bartlett,_1916,_woodblock_print.JPG#/media/File:%27Taj_Mahal%27_by_Charles_W._Bartlett,_1916,_woodblock_print.JPG

On Reflection

Scenes from Childhood, “Happy Enough”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

“Sitting on Top of the World”

Doc Watson

“Hard Times”

Stephen Foster

Anna McGarrigle & Kate McGarrigle

The Sound of Music “Climb Every Mountain”

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein III

Patricia Neway

“No Expectations”

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

The Rolling Stones

“I’ve Got the World on a String”

Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen

Frank Sinatra

Madam Butterfly, “Una Nave Da Guerra”

Giacomo Puccini

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

“The Reason Why I’m Gone”

Chuck Cannon and Gary Lloyd


Gregorio Allegri

The Tallis Scholars

“Tears in the Holston River”

John R. Cash

Johnny Cash

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

Léo Delibes

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

“Diamond in the Rough

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

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

Scenes from Childhood, “Dreaming”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

On Reflection


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

The Mirror

William Merritt Chase,_Cincinnati_Art_Museum.JPG#/media/File:%27The_Mirror%27_by_William_Merritt_Chase,_Cincinnati_Art_Museum.JPG


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


Asian woman looking in a mirror

Kitagawa Utamaro ukiyo-e



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


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

Alice through the looking glass

John Tenniel


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


A group of women looking at their reflections in the water

  The Mirror of Venus

Edward Burne-Jones,_Edward_-_The_Mirror_of_Venus_-_1875_-_hi_res.jpg#/media/File:Burne-Jones,_Edward_-_The_Mirror_of_Venus_-_1875_-_hi_res.jpg


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

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

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


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


Anonymous French Painter


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


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

Der-maler-und-jo oppler

Ernst Oppler


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


Two men playing chess

De schaakspelers

Isaac Israëls


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


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

Cinq sens

Jacques Linard


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

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

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


Death in the form of a skeleton confronting a woman

Vergänglichkeitsbuch 250 120v Totentanz

Wilhelm Werner von Zimmern


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

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

Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.

Now mark me, how I will undo myself;

I give this heavy weight from off my head

And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,

The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,

With mine own hands I give away my crown,

With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,

With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:

All pomp and majesty I do forswear;

My manors, rents, revenues I forego;

My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:

God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!

God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!

Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,

And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!

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

And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!

God save King Harry, unking’d Richard says,

And send him many years of sunshine days!

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

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

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


Hail the Conquering Hero Comes

Preston Sturgis

Universal Studios


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


Woman sitting in front of a mirror with two lit candles

The Repentant Magdalene

Georges de La Tour


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

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

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

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

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


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

Girl in Blue Arranging Flowers

Frederick Carl Frieseke

For the Sake of Argument

 Missa Luba Kyrie

Les Troubadours Du Roi Baudouin

La Catedral: ii Allegro Solemne

Agustín Barrios Mangoré

Sharon Isbin

Amazigh Lullaby


Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras & Hespèrion XXI

Mireu el Nostre Mar


Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras & Hespèrion XXI

Los Paxaricos (Isaac Levy I.59) – Maciço de Rosas (I.Levy III.41)


Jordi Savall

A Swallow Song

Richard Farina

Joan Baez

Recuerdos de la Alhambra

Francisco Tarrega

Sharon Isbin

Offertorium – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

Sofia Gubaidulina

Oleh Krysa, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra & James DePreist

We Can Work It Out

John Lennon and Paul McCartney

The Beatles

For the Sake of Argument


Man sitting in a boat undeer a tree looking out at the world around him

Zhou Maushu Appreciating Lotuses

Kano Masanobu


The painting above suggests a few things about argument. One, in order to be able to argue a position we need to know it, we need to have thought it through, usually in quiet contemplation. The painting also suggests, perhaps, that our arguments are first with ourselves as we try to articulate, think through in our own minds, what it is we believe and why. These arguments can get quite vociferous, though to others looking on we may appear as serene and composed as the gentlemen in the boat. Once the arguments move from the realm of inner contemplation to that of public discourse, the appearance of serenity often disappears. As Madam de Sévigné has said, “True friendship is never serene.” I remember Paul Simon once introduced Art Garfunkel as his “partner in arguments.” And perhaps a sign of true friendship is that friends can argue strenuously, loudly, intensely without jeopardizing the friendship.

The music evokes “conversations,” some of them heated, that occur throughout the world. The first is “Kyrie” from the Catholic Mass, but it is sung to African folk melodies suggesting a “conversation” between the European and African continents. The guitar music and the music from Jordi Savill’s Hespèrion come from three parts of the world, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Andalusian Spain. What these areas of the world have in common is the presence of a significant Jewish, Christian, and Islamic population with the cultural heritage that each population brings with it. In this music you can hear the influence of each culture in the music of the others. The song “Amazigh Lullaby” is a Berber song (Islamic), “Mireau el Nostre” is Catalan (Christian), and “Les Paxaricos” is from Istanbul (Jewish). The arguments that these cultures have with one another are ancient, but culturally they have given much to each other and each culture has embraced these cultural contributions without conflict.


Men in  a boat looking at the Hagia Sophia

View of the Port of Constantinople

Ivan Alvazovsky

Musee des Beaux Arts Brest (France)


The song, “Les Paxaricos” has a melody that found its way into an American folk song, “A Swallow Song,” that I first heard about the time I started college, which suggests a continuing influence of this musical tradition (I do not know if there is a connection between the parakeet and the swallow, however). The Sofia Gubaidulina composition comes out of Soviet Russia and has its origins in the “conversation” between the atheistic Soviet Government and the religious beliefs of the composer, who did not have an easy time getting her music played in Russia. Then there is The Beatle’s song that suggests we can work things out, if for the sake of argument, you just agree with me; the persona of the song is never going to accept another’s point of view. It suggests to me a tee shirt I saw once, “I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” Such is the nature of argument.


A man and a woman (man standing, woman seated) having a conversation

The Conversation (the grill work spells out “noix” and “a la noix” means “Hopeless”, by itself it means “nut” or “walnut”)

Henri Matisse


I have never liked to argue. Like most people I do not like losing arguments, but also, I do not like winning them either. On those occasions when I have been fortunate enough to win the argument I always felt badly for the other, I remember how I felt when I lost and imagine my interlocutor to feel the same. Also, when winning arguments, I recognize the weaknesses in my own arguments, the points I could not adequately defend and my victory was premised, in large part, on my opponent not happening to recognize these weaknesses. But the fact remains that but for the sake of argument we would as a culture stagnate. It is argument that keeps our ideas sharp that helps us identify the weaknesses in our positions and strengthen them or, if necessary, abandon them. But for the sake of argument we might become arrogant and inflexible and close minded. Argument reminds us of our limitations, if we are thoughtful and honest. This doesn’t mean we are constantly changing our positions, believing this, that, and the other thing as we recognize the weaknesses in each, but that we recognize that whatever position we hold has its limitations. Argument reminds us that we live by principles and not absolutes. For most there are absolutes, lines we will not cross, but these are few and much in life falls between them. We hunger for a world of black and white, but live in a world that is gray and dappled. Argument helps us, in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, “praise God for dappled things.” Though argument can be unpleasant and difficult it is important and we have a responsibility to argue as effectively as we can for what we truly believe, and it might be suggested that we do not truly believe anything we are unwilling to defend.


Painting of a landscape with Jerusalem off in the distance

Pilgrimage to Jerusalem

David Roberts


Leon Wieseltier wrote about the importance of argument (“Reason and the Republic of Opinion,” “Among the Disrupted,” and “The Argumentative Jew”). In each of these articles he writes not just about the importance of argument, but how argument is a quest for truth and understanding. We see in our opponent’s argument what our opponent cannot see, just as our opponent sees what we cannot see. Argument is revelatory. And if the things we argue about were not important, we would not invest the time and energy argument, especially passionate argument, demands. At one point in the article “The Argumentative Jew” Wieseltier discusses a quarrel between two groups within Judaism:

This same epic quarrel between the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai is described in a mishnah as “a quarrel for the sake of heaven [which therefore] will endure.” The endurance of a quarrel: What sort of aspiration is this? It is the aspiration of a mentality that is genuinely rigorous and genuinely pluralistic. The tradition of commentary on that mishnah is a kind of history of Jewish views on intellectual inquiry—from the Levant in the 15th century, for example, there is Ovadiah Bertinoro’s remark that “only by means of debate will truth be established,” an uncanny anticipation of Milton and Mill, and from Hungary in the 19th century there is the gloss by Rabbi Moses Schick, who himself had a role in a community-wide schism, that “sometimes it is our duty to make a quarrel . . . For the sake of truth we are not only permitted to make a quarrel, we are obligated to make a quarrel.”

He goes on to say, “Learning to live with disagreement, moreover, is a way of learning to live with each other.” This is as true within Judaism as it is within any pluralistic culture. For the culture to survive its citizens must find a way to talk to each other and disagree. I cannot imagine a society that is both free and free of argument. Not only is true friendship never serene, neither is true citizenship. A free nation can survive its quarrels if it agrees to respectfully disagree. Once respect is lost, the fabric of the society begins to unravel. “Political correctness” undermines democracy, but so does a dearth of kindness and an absence of consideration. But kindness and consideration cannot be achieved by mandate, only by mutual consent. And even where this consent is present, in the course of argument, “things will be said” that both sides to the argument will need to at some point forgive and overlook.


Painting of buildings in Granada, Spain

Old Buildings on the Darro, Granada

David Roberts,_Granada,_by_David_Roberts_1834.JPG


Tim Parks wrote an article on reading (“Weapons for Readers”) that views readers’ weapons as pens or pencils with which they writes “Rubbish” or “Brilliant” in the margins as a way of maintaining an argument and a conversation with the book and its author. That even when we read solely for pleasure (which I would hope is most of the time) we should be reading aggressively; we should debate the authors and their ideas and in so doing make the reading more our own, the writers thoughts will not always be our thoughts, but our thoughts about the writers thoughts ought always to be ours, and in reading this way we grow our intellect and develop our imaginations. I think there are three ways of reading (there are probably more) we read for pleasure alone, just to get the gist of the plot and follow the story line; we read for information, to find facts we need to know; and we read for depth and understanding, we debate the books we read, dig for subtext, and try to understand how arguments and ideas are shaped and developed. The last is probably the most difficult way to read but also the most rewarding and the only kind of reading that changes us as human beings while it nurtures our spirit and adds depth to our character. It is also the source of much of the wisdom we will accumulate in our lifetime.


Drawing of two men arguing


E. W. Kimble


It has been suggested that peace is not the absence of conflict, but the commitment to resolving conflict. In seeking peace we often try to find a way to avoid conflict, to make it go away, when in fact it is in making conflict go away that we sow the seeds that undermine peace. Making conflict go away often involves putting a blanket over it and pretending it isn’t there, but eventually it explodes. The explosion will force us to work at resolution, if all goes well, so that peace can be restored, but just as often it damages the common ground that may have provided the foundation for our peacemaking. Of course the more important the issues at the heart of our arguments the more difficult they are to resolve. Living in peace requires we resolve the conflicts that can be resolved and learn to live with and respect the differences that cannot be. In any relationship the relationship itself is a living thing and when we argue we must decide at some point which is more important, the life of the relationship or our individual views and desires. Relationships die when we place a greater value on ourselves than we do on the relationship.


A painting of Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel

Arthur Rackham


Myth, fairy tale, and folklore very often help us to confront and live with those things we cannot change; provide an avenue, especially for children, to move forward when their arguments and confrontations with authority cannot be resolved. Rowan Williams in a review of a book by Marina Warner Once Upon a Time: a Short History of the Fairy Tale (“Why we need fairy tales now more than ever”) wrote about the role fairy tales and myth play in helping us survive in a hostile world, where our views are ignored and our lives are at risk:

The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons. There is indeed, as Warner (in the wake of scholars such as Jack Zipes) makes clear, a strand of social resistance running through much of the old material, a strand repeatedly weakened, if not denied, by nervous rewriting. But this depends on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush . . .

What does this mean when it comes to argument? It is often true that our views and arguments are overlooked, ignored, or trivialized by those with the power to ignore us. Our views may have value to us, but they often have little value to others, especially others we hope or expect will take us seriously, like parents, teachers, and those in authority of one kind or another. Though it may appear we are being ignored, there are ears that hear us and may answer us somewhere down the road. But, on the other hand, they may not. But wonder is as much a part of life as any of the other less happy aspects of our existence and we ought to remain open to wonder.


The Quarrel

Eli Cohen

Apple and Honey Productions


The film clip is from the movie The Quarrel based on a short story, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” by Chaim Grade. The story revolves around two men that had been best friends when they were younger and both Yeshiva students. One lost his faith and became a writer. The other became a Rabbi. They both survived The Holocaust, one by hiding from the Nazis (the writer) and the other (the Rabbi) by surviving Auschwitz. Their friendship broke down before World War II and the events that followed. They had an argument about God and religion that became heated and they went their separate ways. Then the war came and they lost touch with each other; each believed the other had been killed in the war. Both lost their families to The Holocaust. They meet by chance in Montreal and resume their argument. At the end of the story their conflict is not resolved, but their friendship is restored.

The film and the story suggests that arguments are important and that no real friendship can exist if there is no potential for disagreement, especially on the most important and primary of our beliefs. There is speech that might appear hostile, cruel, even bigoted outside of the relationship. But inside the relationship, where a bond of trust has been established, much can be said that cannot be said outside of a relationship, at least not said easily or in a way that will be taken seriously. Friends can talk about the most divisive of issues, be on opposite sides of the most divisive of issues, and the relationship will enable conversation and debate. It also protects each side from being misunderstood. The friendship intercedes and colors what is said. What might provoke anger and resentment from a stranger does not from a friend. It provides a means of being understood and for explaining a point of view without the necessity of “winning” the argument or appearing to judge or condemn.


Painting of men fighting over a game of backgammon

Argument Over a Card Game

Jan Steen


Of course there are those arguments that end like the one in the painting, though that seems to me to be an argument based more on ethics (cheating at cards, perhaps) than principle. In many of the arguments that permeate our society there is this aspect of confrontation, sometimes violent confrontation, that characterizes them. Friendship rarely plays a part in these arguments, often they are between people who do not know each other well or at all. Erasmus wrote a book called In Praise of Folly. The Latin title is Morias Encomium. The title was a bit of an in-joke between Erasmus and his friend Thomas More. “Morias” is also the Latin form of Thomas More’s last name, so the title of the book could be read as “in praise of folly” or “in praise of More.” As every sophomore knows, “more” is the source for English words like “moron” (sophomore translate to “wise fool”). It is the friendship between the two men that makes this a joke and not an insult. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams argued strenuously over issues and were enemies for most of their lives. The painting may capture the emotions that characterized their relationship even if it did not result in the actual outcome depicted in the painting. Later in life they became good friends who could disagree without anger or animosity. Perhaps they are a metaphor of sorts of the national divide, as Jefferson was from the South and Adams was from the North, but the argument between these two regions of the country did not end so amicably.


Three men walking and laguhing together

Three Men Laugh by the Tiger Stream

Song Dynasty


The painting depicts three men who have just walked through a bit of land infested by tigers. The bridge they have just crossed has taken them safely out of this tiger infested territory. While passing through this territory they were engaged in a fierce debate. One of the men is a Confucian, one is a Taoist, and one is Buddhist. They each hold firmly to their faith and worldview, and being scholars in their respective faiths, each argues earnestly and well and with conviction. Each tries to convince the others of the superiority the faith he holds, none are convinced by the arguments the others make. When they cross the bridge they realize where they have been and the danger they had escaped and they begin to laugh. In their case the argument was not just an exchange of views, it offered a kind of protection from danger; a distraction that enabled them to “pleasantly” survive what could have been a terrifying ordeal. Our arguments are often what preserve our relationships and the fabric of our community. If we cannot argue we cannot truly love and if we cannot love we are not likely to dwell together in peace.


Painting of a woman looking out of the window while a man sits in a chair next to her reading a newsaper


Gustave Caillebotte

Living All the Days of Our Lives

“Golem Tant”


Itzhak Perlman & the Klezmatics

“Kyrie” from Mass for Five Voices

William Byrd

The Tallis Scholars

“Kritikos Horos / Theme from ‘Zorba the Greek’”

Mikis Theodorakis


Living All the Days of Our Lives


Painting of cattle crossing a Southwestern United States landscape

Wide Lands of the Navajo

Maynard Dixon


Jonathan Swift wrote somewhere “may you live all the days of your life.” On the one hand this just seems a lighthearted play on words, a bit of a joke. But on the other it says something profound that is in danger of getting lost in the play with words. That we live all the days of our lives would seem to go without saying, but there are many days in the lives of most of us when we do not “live,” we do not experience the richness and joy that is available to be experienced. I will suggest to my students from time to time “don’t kill time waiting for time to kill you.” Each of us is given a parcel of time leavened with a bit of potential. We are not obligated to do anything with it, but we have it. Living all the days of our lives involves our opening the parcel and experiencing what follows. 

It also involves an appreciation and enjoyment of the world and the good things that fill it. Art, literature, music, those things that impart beauty, that encourage and uplift, that heal and nurture. The Klezmer music and Zorba’s theme from the film of the same name provoke exuberance and joyfulness. The title of the Klezmer song, for all its exuberance, evokes a monster from Hebrew folklore, the Golem. This creature was the subject of a classic silent film that was itself based on a novel (“Meyrink’s The Golem: where fact and fiction collide”). In the film based on Meyrink’s novel the Golem is something of a mixed blessing. He is a Frankenstein-esque creature but he is originally created to help protect the Jewish community in Prague. He is fearsome and he goes astray, but he was intended for good. According to the Talmud, Adam, before receiving the breath of life, was the first golem, an “unshaped form” in God’s eye. Perhaps the Klezmer song is only an example of the pleasure we often find in being terrified, at least in the controlled environment of story. On the other hand, the music of William Byrd, and especially his Mass for Five Voices, always purges the tension from my body and exhilarates my spirit. As the music washes over me I feel the troubles and concerns of the day drain out of me. At various levels it heals, renews, and refreshes. It is therapeutic.

I am not alone in this feeling, there are others that would suggest that art is therapeutic (“What Is Art For,” by John Armstrong and “Alain de Botton’s guide to art as therapy,”) and plays a significant role in enabling one to live all the days of their lives. John Armstrong in his article points out that “therapy” and “therapeutic” are terms that have been cheapened a bit by advertising and the dubious promises it makes. But he also points out that the belief in the therapeutic qualities of art is an idea at least as old as Aristotle. When I look at the painting above, Wide Lands of the Navajo by Maynard Dixon it calms and relaxes me. It also awes me, fills me with wonder; the big sky, the barren grandeur of the land, the smallness of the people in contrast with the environment through which they move. Part of this is the effect that the soft blues have on me, and always have had. I suppose for all of us there are colors that affect us more than others, for me it is certain shades of blue, for others it may be reds or greens. 


Landscape painting of a house overlooking the sea


Paul Cézanne


The Cezanne painting L’Estraque produces an effect similar to the Dixon painting. The earth tones of the buildings, the trees, and the water (in addition to the shades of blue) are also calming and exhilarating. It is not just the colors that are evocative. It is shapes, and textures, and the natural world, (and in fairness, many of the products of human labor). It is a part of what Wordsworth in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” meant when he said:

For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity,

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue. And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense,

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

As the beauty of the creation profoundly affects us so do the paintings that capture a bit of its essence, the language of poetry and stories and Literature in general, and music that in their forms evoke this beauty. I remember visiting the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It sits on top of a hill, raised above the noise of the city. It is a beautiful architectural space. I remember roaming through one of the buildings. I turned a corner and was confronted with Van Gogh’s painting of Irises. The space was designed such that I was totally unprepared for what I saw. It was overwhelming. The beauty and design of the space in which it was placed empowered the painting to produce its full and profound effect. In part, the power the painting exerted over me was produced by my being totally unprepared for the experience.

Alain de Botton takes us on a tour of different paintings and gives thumbnail sketches of the wisdom and healing they provide. He guides us through a list of values and emotions, hope, empathy, care, sorrow, work, appreciation, relationships, and consumerism. Not everyone will like the artworks he selects (not all of which are paintings) but there is value in the lessons he takes from them even where the art itself is not appealing to us. In his final “value,” consumerism,” he suggests that this idea though “a scourge” to the modern world has value when approached properly. He says, “At its best consumerism is founded on love of the fruits of the earth, delight in human ingenuity and due appreciation of the vast achievements of organised effort and trade.” This reminds us that many things are not harmful in and of themselves, but only when they become an obsession, when we look to them to provide us with things or to satisfy needs they were never intended to provide or to satisfy. Art, according to Armstrong and de Botton, can help us discover our right relationship to the world around us.


Japanese woodblock of a landscape with trees on the banks of a river

Evening Rain at Karasaki

Hasui Kawase


Something similar was produced when Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was performed for the first time in Leningrad (“Shostakovich, Leningrad, and the greatest story ever played”). The music was composed as a tribute to the Russian people, but especially the Russian people enduring the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The first time it was performed in Leningrad (this was not its world premier) was while the siege was in progress. There were few professional musicians so the orchestra was filled with citizens that could play instruments. Performing the symphony was itself arduous. But musicians drew strength from the audience and the audience was inspired by the musicians and the music. Pierre Ryckmans tells the story of Primo Levi and another man trying to survive in a Nazi concentration camp (“Are Books Useless”). Levi was reciting from memory a passage from Dante’s journey through “The Inferno.” He got to a point in the text where his memory went blank and he could not recall the rest of the passage. The poem’s effect was such that Levi and his fellow inmate would trade food they desperately needed for those few lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy, “In Auschwitz, the forgotten poem became literally priceless. In that place, at that instant, the very survival of Primo Levi’s humanity was dependent on it.” The idea that art, music, and literature are nourishment is not a metaphor; it speaks to something very real in the human spirit. It was sustenance during the siege for the people of Leningrad and for Primo Levi and his friend in Auschwitz. I cannot say that literature and art ever fulfilled in my life such a profound space, but these people who lived through these events speak to its power to do this and their witness has value.

Japanese woodblock of a man fighting a huge snake

“Wada Heita Tanenaga killing a huge Python by a waterfall”

Suikoden Series 4

Utagawa Kunlyoshi,_Suikoden_Series_4.jpg


Literature and art and music (the whole of the Humanities) exist, among other things, to upset the world. They begin by upsetting us or confusing us or playing games with us and with our thinking. Wendy Lesser (“The joy of literary destruction: Writers who broke all the rules”) says her favorite passage from Swift’s Tale of a Tub is:

Here is pretended a Defect in the Manuscript, and this is very frequent with our Author, either when he thinks he cannot say any thing worth Reading, or when he has no mind to enter on the Subject, or when it is a Matter of little Moment, or perhaps to amuse his Reader (whereof he is frequently very fond) or lastly, with some Satyrical Intention.

The passage is Swift’s confession, he is the true author, and he is telling us he is having some fun with us. But the nature of satire is often to flatter the reader, to please the reader, while the satirist is in fact challenging the reader’s beliefs and preconceptions. Art slays dragons and the first dragon that it must slay is the closed mind, the unenlightened mind, the mind that is resistant to improvement because it believes itself to be self-sufficient. I like this passage from Swift because it works one way within the fiction of the story but it works another way in the real world of the reader. And what Lesser is really talking about in this part of her essay is satire and how it, in the words of Swift, “is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover every body’s Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind Reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” Most readers, Swift suggests, enjoy the jokes but miss the meaning. Of course laughter also has healing power, it purges pain and other unhealthy forces at work inside of us. Even if we miss the larger theme, the laughter heals. And who knows if the message does not work a kind of magic on the sub-conscious, that it doesn’t fix unawares other things that are broken inside of us.


From The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Jaques Demy

Parc Film


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an opera written for film. The images in the opening moments of the film revolve around umbrellas and cobblestones and rain. The mother of one of the major characters owns a shop that sells umbrellas called “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” (I am not sure how a business remains viable when it sells only umbrellas, even if it also sells other rain gear.) I remember seeing the film in the 1960’s. When I rode my bicycle through Europe I and my bike took a train that on its way from Köln to Marseilles passed through Cherbourg. And though I do not remember it as a remarkable city, my imagination was so stirred by the film I waited with eager anticipation to pass through this town. We went through at night and I could not see much, but I was very pleased that I could say I had been there. I enjoy the moment in the film clip where one of the mechanics says he prefers film to opera because he cannot stand all the singing. The line is of course sung and the film is an opera and it is a wonderfully funny moment. 

But the ending of this film is very moving and does something that is not often done successfully in film. (If you have not seen the film I am probably about to reveal something that you may want to pass over and not read until after you have seen it.) It is a moment of great sadness when two people who were once very much in love meet unexpectedly. Both have difficulty containing their emotions. The viewer’s emotions are also not easily contained. But the moment ends and the two part. One of the characters, the man who was in love once with the woman who has just left, remains on screen as the woman goes on her way. But he is married now and has a small child. In the final scene we know that he still feels pain over the lost relationship, but he sees his child and his wife and he begins playing with the child and it is equally clear he is taking great pleasure in playing with the child. The scene provokes sadness over what was lost, but it also provokes joy over what has been gained. The artistry of the film lies in its ability to produce in the viewer the same conflicting emotions that we see in the young man onscreen. Art helps us not only to understand our emotions, but the complexity of those emotions. There is a kind of pleasure in feeling the pain of lost love vicariously when we know the moment will end and that it is not our love that has been lost. Maybe it prepares us for the future; maybe it assuages a past pain. But it does not have to, it is enough that it makes it us feel something, that it puts us in touch with something that helps us experience our humanity more fully, to live more fully the days of our lives.


Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes

Martin Johnson Heade


Robert McCrum in The Guardian has been taking us on an excursion through the one hundred best novels in English. He is up to novel number twenty-two. The twenty-first novel in his series is Middlemarch (“The 100 best novels: No 21 – Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)”). There are many aspects of the book that he admires, but it is the conclusion reached about Dorothea that is the most important, 

But Eliot has the last word, a famous and deeply moving valedictory page celebrating Dorothea’s ‘finely-touched spirit’. Here, Eliot concludes that ‘the effect of [Dorothea’s] being’ was ‘incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’” 

The book does something rare in literature, it succeeds in teaching a kind of moral lesson without being preachy or making the reader overtly conscious of the fact they are being instructed. But this closing raises an important point that is not addressed often enough. The well being of most of us has been secured by nameless people who receive little or no attention. They are teachers, they are nurses; they may serve us our food or repair our clothes. We do not notice them overly much. Certainly the larger world does not notice them, or if it does, it is often to criticize or demean them. They are unimportant in the worldly sense but essential to those that they touch, and essential to the happiness of the world. But the names of those we remember, whose tombs we visit for the most part did little to shape us as people or to make our day to day living easier. We have our heroes whose examples we follow, but it is because of people we have largely forgotten that we know of or can emulate those heroes.  There is something of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in this:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile

The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,

If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,

Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault

The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

But of course it is not just that we all share a common grave regardless of the memorials that are raised above it, but that those without memorials have done more, perhaps, to preserve the common good than all those whose accomplishments history preserves. 


Painting of a man admiring a bust

Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer

Rembrandt van Rijn


We are living through one of those times that praises and exults engineering and the things that engineering and science and math can bring us. I think it odd in this light that the sciences seem to have become so preoccupied with reducing Literature and the Humanities to something “scientific.” Jane Austen is a game theorist, Proust a neuroscientist (Jane Austen Was Not a Game Theorist”). I think it is a bit sad that some within the Humanities see in this a kind of validation for what they do. But this attention misses the whole point about what is important in the Humanities. No matter how well we understand the ways in which sounds and images, language and colors work upon the mind to cause it to feel what it does it cannot speak to the ineffable things that are accomplished in the mind by the Humanities. There is a worldview involved here, one that believes that everything comes through the sense and one that believes that some things come through the imagination and their sources cannot be clearly identified. The world may have been created by a big bang, but we cannot know where the materials that produced the big bang came from scientifically. We make choices about what we believe in this regard, but we cannot prove these choices because the evidence lies outside the material world, at least it does for the time being. Aristotle is regarded by many as an early scientist in that he tried to proceed on the basis of observable data. But in Rembrandt’s painting it is Homer, the poet, that he contemplates not Pythagoras the mathematician and scientist. Perhaps this is just Rembrandt’s fancy and there is not any more to the notion the painting evokes than Rembrandt’s fancy. But though science can tell us how the world works, it is often at a loss when it comes to helping us to live more effectively in it.

So as music and art, literature and philosophy are given a smaller and smaller place in the education we give our children there is reason to stop and ask ourselves is art therapeutic, can literature help us learn to live happily, can music inspire and move us to action? When we find ourselves in our metaphorical prisons, which, thankfully perhaps, is the only kind most of us will experience, where will we turn. The nourishment we need to persevere through hardship and struggle is rarely the food and drink we buy in stores. Too often it is the spirit that dies first, lacking the nourishment it needs to survive. Though the body endures we have lost the ability to live all the days of our lives. 


Landscape painting of mountains surrounding a valley with trees and water

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California

Albert Bierstadt

It’s Just a Story

 “The Rocky Road to Dublin”

The Chieftains and The Rolling Stones

“Sweet Dream (Are Made of This)”


“All the Roadrunning”

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris


It’s Just a Story


Caricature of a clown

Caricature of Albert Brasseur in “Le Rire”



In an interview that first appeared in The New York Review of Books, “Everyman His Own Eckermann,” Edmund Wilson discussed his views on art, music, and literature. Though known mostly as a literary critic, he spent most of his time talking about art, a bit less time talking about music and hardly talked about literature at all. The interview is also interesting because Wilson was both the “interviewee” and the interviewer. In this respect it is something of a Plato-esque dialogue on art and, like Socrates, he rarely asks a question he does not already have an answer for, even when protesting his inability to provide an answer. And though he does not say much about literature, what he says about art and music comes back to what he appreciates in literature, the stories that are told. He enjoys opera because it tells a story, all other forms of music he only listens to on records, not in the theater or the concert hall. He does not care much for the work of Picasso, not because it isn’t well executed, but because it only succeeds at being clever. The drawing above is by one of Wilson’s favorite artists, a caricaturist who called himself Sem, the Hirschfeld of his day, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say Hirschfeld was the Sem of his day. 


Caricature of the singer Liza Minnelli

Liza Minnelli

Al Hirschfeld


Both the Hirschfeld and Sem caricatures capture their subjects doing what they do best in a way that clearly and simply captures the essence of their subjects. Like Hirschfeld many, perhaps most, of Sem’s caricatures were of artists, mostly actors, writers, and musicians; artists associated with theater and the performing arts of one kind or another. Both artists relied on a simplicity of line and expression to capture their subjects. Looking at the Sem drawing suggests a kind of continuity in the arts, as Brasseur’s hat and coat and whip bring Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” to mind; they are not identical but there is a threadbare quality to the costume that is not unlike that of Chaplin’s tramp. And to get back to what Wilson admires about Sem (and what I admire about Hirschfeld) they are spare and simple drawings that tell stories. Like Shakespeare’s theater, the artists’ stage is a bare stage with no more in the way of setting and furniture than is absolutely necessary. As Poe suggests when writing about the short story, there is nothing extra, nothing that is not absolutely necessary for conveying their effect; the expression on each face and the contour of each body. The viewer’s imagination does the rest.

Some might not consider these artists as “great,” as “museum” quality, but their work involves the viewer and provokes an emotional response. Unlike Liza Minnelli, I do not know who Albert Brasseur is (I have discovered that, like Minnelli, he was active in the musical theater). But the caricature is evocative. It may be that the story I see in the picture is not the same story Sem’s original audience would have seen, they are unlikely to make my connection to Chaplin’s persona, and it is not likely that Brasseur was as intimately connected with this character as Chaplin was with the tramp. But this is often how art and story work; we see them in the light of our own time, our own personal history, and our own tastes and interests. Perhaps only I see Chaplin in this drawing. What others see may be colored by their experiences. There is also an ephemeral quality to the work of both artists, they are very topical, but Sem’s work, transient though it may be, has survived for a hundred years, perhaps because, though we may not know who his subjects were, there is a wittiness to their representation that piques our interest or makes us laugh or in some other way makes us care about them. But then, what is it in any story that causes it to live (and not all do) long after the circumstances of their creation have been forgotten. 

The songs at the beginning are about roads that are rocky or arduous; they are also about dreams, sweet or otherwise. These are also at the heart of many stories, there is often a dream or an aspiration; there is always a journey to be made that involves difficulty and conflict. It is often the nature of the dream and the conflict that hold our interest. Brasseur’s road looks like it has been a rocky one but he also appears to be a man with a dream and aspirations. These are also a part of what draws us to him. I like to imagine that Ms. Minnelli is singing Chaplain’s song “Smile”: “Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking. / When there are clouds in the sky / You’ll get by.” This, too, is an important aspect of those stories that survive.


Painting of a man playing the bagpipes

Bagpipe Player

Hendrick ter Brugghen


The paintings above and below tell different stories. They are portraits, not caricatures, of men engaged in something serious, at least from their point of view. Being Scottish I take delight in the picture of the bagpipe and can imagine its sound. The musician playing the bagpipe evokes a story as well. I cannot tell if that is all shadow on his shoulder and not also a bit of dirt or a bruise. The bagpipe is a martial instrument and so it would not be surprising if the player has been involved in conflict. Even if the shoulder is not bruised the shirt does seem a bit disheveled. He seems to enjoy the music he is making, whatever the occasion for the music making.

The old man, on the other hand, appears to be more world weary, more troubled. I cannot know what it is that troubles him, perhaps it is only his advancing years, but the muscles and veins on the neck are tense and the eyes are troubled. He looks determined, though I do not think he looks hopeful. But I empathize with him and I want to help him, though I do not know how. Stories do not always offer answers and often it is not a quest for answers that draws us to stories, but a desire to discover what it means to be fully human and part of being fully human is learning how to comfort those we cannot help, at least not in the way they need to be helped. Job’s friends may not have been able to change Job’s circumstances, but they could have offered him solace and comfort instead of judgment and because they didn’t we judge them and wonder how genuine was their friendship. 


Portrait of an old man with a serious look

Head of an Old Man

Abraham Bloemaert


Wilson, in talking about the artist Callot, mentions the Commedia dell’arte, an early form of Italian theater that is with us to this day, and has many of its antecedents in Plautus and the theater of Rome. Also, as in the painting below, the Commedia was often a kind of “street” theater that appealed to the masses, to the “simple folk” who were rarely as simple as some would have us believe. The Commedia had a cast of stock characters and we as the audience could always tell who was who based on their costumes, their masks, and their antics. There is a language of theater, a language of performance. Ben Jonson in his play Volpone, and many of his other plays, borrowed heavily from the Commedia. Moliere, in his comedies, used characters who had their origins in the Commedia as well. Tartuffe, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid are all characters lifted from this ancient theatrical tradition. The plays are still very funny because the character traits being mocked are all caricatures of personality types we recognize. We are not likely to know anyone who possess these traits to the degree the characters in these plays possess them, it is not likely that anyone has ever possessed these traits to this extreme. They are exaggerations that nonetheless capture something real about how we as humans are corrupted by these traits; how to some degree we all possess these traits and in laughing at the antics on stage we are laughing at ourselves. 


Painting of comic actors performing on a moveable stage before a rustic audience

Commedia dell’arte

Karel Dujardin


Stories often help us to see ourselves as we are and to not take ourselves too seriously. Malvolio, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is modeled on the same character type as Tartuffe (though he lacks Tartuffe’s intelligence or resourcefulness, but on the other hand Tartuffe does not have Malvolio’s sincerity). We have all known people to whom we wanted to say, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” And if we are honest with ourselves there have been moments in our lives when those around us, probably wanted to say the same to us. Some look askance at others for being too judgmental and some at others who are unwilling to make judgments. It is human to be critical of those that do not adhere to our “code,” whatever our “code” is.

Marin Scorsese in an article for The New York Review of Books talks about the language of film, “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema.” He talks about the environment of film, at least of film viewed as it ought to be viewed. Films need to be seen in a dark room surrounded by strangers (many of whom you might avoid were you to encounter them on the street). For me the clicking sound of the projector is also an important part of the experience. Just as the Commedia had its stock characters, so also cinema has its stock characters. At its simplest we know the good guys because they wear white hats. But in film, the hard-nosed detective, no matter who plays him, is a type of character, the cowboy, whether played by John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, or Steve McQueen is a character type. Both the cowboy and the detective have an “unsavory” veneer about them that is contradicted by their actions, or at least times it is. Black and white as a film “genre” is also a significant part of my film experience. I am used to seeing movies in black and white, even movies that were originally made in color, like, for instance, Invaders from Mars. I saw this film, and many others, every night for a week when it played on a television program called Million Dollar Movie. This program played the same film every night for a week. But television when I was a child was all black and white and I was amazed when I discovered, fairly recently, Invaders from Mars was original shot in color. 


Photograph of the head of a fat man with a thin man standing behind him

Scene from The Maltese Falcon

John Huston/Warner Brothers


But many films were originally shot in black and white because the lack of color helped create an atmosphere, especially in “film noir” movies like The Big Sleep or Laura. Tension and mystery were enhanced by the lack of color, as was the seediness of many of the characters and situations. These films may have been originally shot in black and white for budgetary reasons, but the directors of these films took a limitation and made it into a strength. I remember seeing Brideshead Revisited for the first time on a black and white television set. Because I didn’t know any better I thought the maker of the series was brilliant in choosing to shoot the film in Black and White because it helped capture for me the essence of the 1920’s; it had a newsreel quality to it that enhanced the “feeling” of the times in which the story was set. It was only later that I realized the filmmaker was not as brilliant as I had thought; the series was actually shot in color and I just did not have a color set on which to see it. But again, our experience colors our interpretations and understandings of the stories we experience. 


Spider-Man, The Lion King and life on the creative edge

Julie Taymor

TED Talk


In the video Julie Taymor talks about how she creates theater and films. Spectacle plays a large part in what she tries to do, but so does simplicity. She talks about how, when she was designing the Broadway musical (not the film) The Lion King she began much the same way Hirschfeld and Sem began, with simple lines, what she calls ideograms that capture the essence of character. Her productions, especially her last that did not go that well, are very complex, they attempt to do things not tried before, they take great risks. It can be debated as to whether or not the finished product was worth the risk, but she has done some remarkable things in film and on stage. She tells at the beginning of her talk of witnessing a religious ceremony. She was in darkness and those performing the ceremony were unaware of their “audience.” In fact as marvelous as the spectacle of their dance, costumes, and of the setting for their performance was they were not performing for anyone; their only audience was, as far as they knew, God. 

Taymor believes that there is a religious quality to theater and story telling. The origins of the theater are religious, the Athenian Greeks used theater to communicate their myths and reinforce in the minds of the people the importance of the gods and the gods care for the universe. When actors came on stage wearing a mask the audience knew immediately who the actors were portraying because they saw the same faces on statues everyday as they walked about town. Rabelais in “The Abbey of Theleme” section of Pantagruel has the walls of the abbey painted with pictures that told all the important stories; that taught all the important lessons. This is not an unusual feature in Renaissance utopias, paintings in public spaces that taught the young and the illiterate the values of the utopic culture. A popular book of the time, for those that could afford such things, were “books of hours” that people would use to meditate upon during “hours” of prayer (the medieval day was divided into “canonical hours,” compline, vespers, matins for example). On one page would be the text of a gospel or a psalm and on the facing page an illustration, an illumination, that told in pictures the story of the text. The arts, literature, painting, music, and theater all had their origins in a kind of education that passes along the cultural traditions in a way that is accessible to all and understood by all.


Page from an illuminated manuscript with a picture of a medieval man being arrested

“Folio 31 verso from a Book of Hours (British Library, Royal 2 B XV), the Arrest of Christ”



Peter Thonemann in his article “Seeing Straight” talks about architecture and how the buildings we design and live in are often suggestive of how we view the world and how we think the universe works. Early civilizations often built circular buildings, while later on square buildings became the design of choice. Thonemann suggests this is because the world as we observe it is circular; tree trunks, the sun and moon, the motion of the sun and moon; but ninety degree angles, that is squares and rectangles, are more functional as living and working spaces. I am not sure how much we can tell about a people based on their buildings, but I think we can tell something. What we make, the environments in which we choose to live, the stories that we tell, and how we choose to tell them all say something about us and about how we see ourselves. Are our living and working spaces an extension of our worship or are they places designed to bring us comfort? Can they be both?

There was an article in the online journal First Things, “Faith in Fiction,” that discusses the disappearance of faith from modern fiction. I am not entirely sure this is the case, but much, maybe most, of modern fiction seems to avoid faith. But I do not think this is entirely the case, because I think we all live by faith. We select a worldview, or perhaps our conscience does, that guides the judgments we make. These worldviews are ultimately un-provable; they begin with an article of faith, God exists, God doesn’t exist, science has the answer for every question (if not at the present moment, it will in time), we are born with a conscience, what we call conscience is the result of our upbringing. None of these assertions can be proved empirically, but we all have to start somewhere so we pick one. The stories a culture tells itself reveal the articles of faith that culture has embraced, even if that faith is one of “faithlessness.” But our “gods” may be replaced with other “gods” as time goes by, just as the Jupiter once replaced Zeus.


St. Marks basilica in Venice at sunset

Venetian Fantasy with Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana on an Island

Edward Lear


The painting is Venetian Fantasy. This suggests it captures a Venice that never existed, it is a fantasy, but it bears a close enough resemblance to the Venice we know, or at least that Edward Lear knew, to make the fantasy real. To those that do not share our faith it is a fantasy as others’ faith often appears as a fantasy to us. One thing story should help us with is determining what we are going to “bet our lives on,” because there are consequences attached to the beliefs we adopt; they dictate to us how our lives ought to be lived. Some think it is enough to live consistently with the choices we have made. Others think making the right choice is in itself critical, and those that think this way can often tell us what the right choice is. I believe in truth and that it is important to question everything with the belief that whatever is true can stand up to the scrutiny if it is true. 

Perhaps part of what characterizes the age is a fear of what we might find if we ask too many questions. There is a great temptation, not just in our age, but in every age, to seek comfort, to seek rest, to seek enjoyment and to evade the darkness, and often the easiest way to do this, at least in the short term, is to ignore unpleasant truths and difficult questions. To what degree is what we hunger for determined by the diet we are accustomed to and to what degree does what we hunger for challenge our conventions? I am not sure that stories can give us the answers we seek, but I do think stories encourage us to keep looking and to not be satisfied with easy solutions to difficult problems. The truth may often be simple, but it is never simplistic. 


Man sitting on the side of a mountain sketching

The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine

Sanford Robinson Gifford

Making Sense

From “After the Gold Rush”

Neil Young


Making Sense


Photograph of the silent film actor Buster Keaton reading a book

“Buster Keaton reading”



Helen Vendler reflected recently, “Writers and Artists at Harvard,” on what a university, Harvard specifically but the shoe fits many other institutions as well, should consider when considering which students to admit to the college. The most desired students tend to be those with the best transcripts and the greatest potential to become the next leaders of the free world. By these criteria the next generation of top lawyers, doctors, economists and the like are the most sought after because these are most likely to become the leaders of tomorrow. But what lasting impact will the leaders of tomorrow have on the world they come to lead; how many of the leaders of tomorrow will become the yardstick by which the world they leave to their heirs will be measured. She considers the Harvard graduates of the past century that still have an impact on the world today. Most of them are poets, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and e. e. Cummings. The article also points out that these poets that went on to have such an impact on our culture, were not shoe-ins for admittance and only got in due to special circumstances and that were they to apply today may not have been admitted at all. She also points out that they made their living doing the kinds of things Harvard often prepares their graduates to do, help run the wheels of commerce.


Prof. Vendler goes on to ask if anyone would remember the siege of Troy if Homer had not written about it or if anyone would remember Guernica if Picasso hadn’t painted it? She suggests the further away we get from current events the less likely those events will be remembered and those that are remembered might be remembered more because of the use writers, painters, and musicians of the day made of them than for the events themselves. There was also a recent article on Alexander Von Humboldt, “Humboldt in the New World,” a German scientist, who collaborated with a Frenchman, and traveled on a Spanish passport. He wanted to be among the greatest scientists of his day, and his ability with language (and with languages) helped him to largely succeed. He made some important discoveries, but it was his ability to write about these discoveries that got him attention. There is an irony that many of his ideas have been superseded by the science of our day, but, like Freud, because of the power of his language there is still an interest in reading him. In Humboldt’s case the stories that surround the getting of the science are adventure stories in their own right even if there were no science involved. 


The song, “After the Gold Rush” reflects on what stays with us as we look back. One review of the record when it was first released suggested that the title alludes to Young’s departure from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (or such is my memory of Robert Hilburn’s review in the Los Angeles Times) implying that now Young had “gotten the gold” he could do more of what he preferred doing. Personally I have some doubts about this, because Young seems to value the work he did with the group, but if true the story underscores Vendler’s thesis that there are more important things than chasing gold and many of those more important things will be remembered long after the gold has been squandered. 


The photograph of Buster Keaton suggests a number of things to me. First, that artists in one media appreciate the work of artists in other media (though, of course, Keaton could be reading anything and even though the book is a thick one and in hard covers, it isn’t necessarily a quality publication). But art also provokes reflection and it is clear that Keaton is thinking about something, though again that something may not be found in the book. The photograph also reminds me of how often paintings and photographs capture people in the act of reading. I do not know the statistics on this, only that in the anecdotal evidence of my experience this is a very common theme. Reading a book sends a certain message to others about how we see ourselves, and being photographed in that experience enables that message to speak, potentially, to a larger audience. There was a recent article by Joseph Epstein, “You Are What You Read,” that suggests what we read speaks volumes about who we are as people. The essay is a review of a book on Proust that sees Proust’s large book as being largely about people who read and want to be seen reading. We are told that reading is falling out of fashion and that the book as an art form is in decline. Perhaps this is true and the paintings of the future will focus on other things. But when in the future the history of our day is written, who will most likely need a footnote to explain themselves, the bond trader and market managers that make us prosperous or the artists that at least attempt to make us wise. Socrates does not need a footnote, but those that condemned him do, as they are almost universally forgotten, their names at any rate are forgotten even if because of Socrates their actions are remembered.


Photograph of a boy reading a book amongst rubble during the London blitz

“Boy Sits amid the Ruins of a London Bookshop”

AP Photo


The photographs above and below are of London during World War II and the German blitz of the city. They suggest the importance that books hold on the human imagination. A boy is reading a book in the ruble. Why in the ruble? Perhaps if he were to take it home he would be seen as a looter and there may be consequences for looting. But the book seems to be important to the boy and where he reads that book does not look very comfortable. Though the bombing of London during the war terrorized the people, that terror did not totally subdue curiosity or the life of the imagination. The photograph below is of men scanning the shelves of a bombed out library. Again the books have captured their attention and it is not likely, though certainly possible, that these men are only interested in reading for information, in just finding stuff out. Graham Greene in his novel The Human Factor mentions that during the war many in England returned to the books of Anthony Trollope because they wanted to escape into an earlier age when things were simpler and more peaceful, or at least appeared to be simpler and more peaceful. I imagine Greene had the Barsetshire type books more in mind than the Palliser ones, but perhaps not.


Photograph of two men looking at books in the rubble of a library bombed during the London blitz

“Library in London just after the Blitz”

Found in: Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. It has the photo on the cover and also inside. It is apparently the Holland House library in 1941.



Books, paintings, music, film and the other arts have the ability to renew and invigorate the spirit, even if they cannot change our circumstances. Nations are often more concerned with preserving their cultural heritage than in preserving the nation’s wealth. Great sums of money have been spent on libraries and schools, and museums that might have been put to other uses or saved for a rainy day. But it is often this cultural heritage that people are most proud of and contributes most significantly to their national identity. The English people, for the most part, revere Jonathan Swift more than any of the leaders he mocked and ridiculed. It puzzles me that those that oversee the nation’s schools work so hard to remove the arts from its curriculum to give more space to the sifting of information, much of which will change dramatically in the lifetimes of those that are being set to work studying this information. 


There are those that suggest it is more important to study the narrative structure of a story, to find out how the story was built, to glean the stylistic information that it offers, than it is to understand what the story has to say about the human condition. This is not to say there is no value to this kind of study. There are those that study the geology of historical sites, “Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg Through Robert E. Lee’s Eyes,” to better understand the history that took place on those sites, to better understand the “story” of history. So also the study of structure and style reveals something of the geology of a story and tells us something about how the story that is told is effectively told. But just as it is the history that provokes the geological study of the battlefield at Gettysburg, it is the quality and durability of the story that is told that provokes the study of its architecture and the study of the architecture should not take the place of the study of the story itself and the qualities of the story that have caused it to endure. Dante’s Divine Comedy can be read to gather information about medieval religious practices in Italy and attitudes towards famous families, but why would people value it so highly for so long if it were little more than a local newspaper along the lines of the National Enquirer. By the same token it is not the geology of the “seven storey mountain” that gives life to Dante’s story but the story that provokes interest in the mountain.


Painting of a man sitting in a chair reading a book with books stacked around him

Portrait of Dr. Hugo Koller

Egon Schiele


The United States has given to the world some marvelous technologies. However, the wisdom with which these technologies are used will be the product of other contributions, not just from America. The arts cultivate reflection and it is often reflection that is wanting in the uses to which we put our technologies. One of the first films made in America (another of the nations great contributions to the world) was Thomas Alva Edison’s retelling of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. The film has many problems, not all of which are technological, but it is fitting that this early use of a new technology tells a story about the dangers of embracing too rashly new technologies. Victor Frankenstein would have been happier had he contemplated the consequences of his actions before he acted, instead of regretting them afterwards. The arts often invite us to consider what truly makes us happy, and not just ourselves happy, but those around us as well. What I do has consequences not only for me, but for others who come into contact with me and not just with me but with my influence; with those people whose behavior has in some form been shaped by my behavior. In this respect Victor Frankenstein’s influence, in the form of the creature, is the most harmful. It might also be worth considering who would have the easier time getting into a modern university, Victor Frankenstein or Mary Shelley? It is interesting that Victor’s problem was not that he did not read, but that he read the wrong books. I enjoy the painting of Dr. Hugo Koller surrounded by his books and I hope that, unlike Dr. Frankenstein, these books are the right books.


  4 Lessons in Creativity

Julie Burstein

TED Talks


The film clip is about creativity and teaching and nurturing creativity. I am skeptical of this type study because it often focuses on the wrong things. It is easier to teach a student how to understand what it is in a painting, a book, or a piece of music that makes that work great than it is to teach students how to do great work. But this is study that focuses on the past, on what has been done and does not necessarily help us to understand how we might become more creative. As Ezra Pound said, we need “to make it new” and not remake the old. The video touches on this when Julie Burstein talks about the sculptor Richard Serra. Stravinsky challenged his age with Rites of Spring. We are not as challenged by this music because we have learned how to listen to it, and it is important that we listen. But knowing how to hear this music does not guarantee we can go on to create a music that speaks as forcefully to our own age. I marvel that Stravinsky’s first audience rioted, as did the first audiences for the playwrights, John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey. I do not mean to suggest that riots are a good thing, but I do think it is important that the “raw nerve” of the age be exposed somewhat and because nerves are what they are, this exposure should cause a bit of tension. 


Painting of a green mountain and a green valley overlooking a river

“The Moselle near Schengen at the Drailännereck”

Nico Klopp


For me the most sublime image in the video was a photograph of toy cars and trucks caked in dirt on the floor of a room in the World Trade Center after 9/11. It is sublime because of the story it tells. When I saw the picture I choked up and wept a bit. I could not see the toys without being reminded of the children that played with them and what happened to those children as they played. The story of the photograph is a story of good and evil, it could find a place in the Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm. The photograph is the product of a false sense of security and a lack of imagination. Literature and the arts foster hope, encouragement, and tenacity in those that study them seriously, they give us what facts cannot. But they also make us aware of the world in which we live, that there are those in the world that want to do us harm and that we need to be watchful. The greatest failing of the father of Hansel and Gretel was not his indifference towards his children, but his failure to warn them about the witch that lived in the woods. Like the painting above, the world often looks beautiful and inviting. But as in the painting below, there is often a shadow over the world that we do not see, especially on a sunny day.


A city skyline silhouetted by the setting sun

Silhouette of Klosterneuburg

Egon Schiele 

The Mind and the Maker

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

The Mind and the Maker

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

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

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

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

Ocean Park No.129
Richard Diebenkorn

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

Ralph’s Diner
Ralph Goings

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

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

Paramount Picture

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

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

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

The Man with the Blue Guitar


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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue and Green Music
Georgia O’Keeffe

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

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

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

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