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

In Three Minds

 From Symphony #2 Age of Anxiety, “Seven Ages of Man

New York Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein


Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young

Neil Young

“Yellow on the Broom”

Jean Redpath


Panis Angelicus

Kiri Te Kanawa; Barry Rose: English Chamber Orchestra

César Franck


In Three Minds


Painitng of woman with two faces signifying doubt

Coup of Doubt

Victor Brauner


Wallace Stevens describes the second way he looks at blackbirds like this:



I was of three minds, 

Like a tree 

In which there are three blackbirds.

        From “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”


A common euphemism for doubt is to be in two minds, so I suppose Stevens is telling us his doubt is a little bit more profound than that of the rest of us. The painting above captures an image of someone who appears “double minded.” Her profile suggests one mind, but the second eye suggesting the full face suggests a second mind, as there are clearly, to me anyway, two sides of the same face depicted. Doubt is a state of mind we often try to avoid, it is an uncomfortable place to live and we want to move on as quickly as we can, and the more minds we are in the more quickly we want to move on. Stevens’ poem is written in the past tense, and perhaps he had moved on and was no longer “trifurcated” in his thinking, but who is to say. The music runs through a gamut of attitudes, emotions, states of mind that often accompany doubt: anxiety, helplessness, hope, and faith. Hope and faith, to some, are the antithesis of doubt, but hope is often what gets us through our doubt and faith needs doubt to keep it alive, to keep it from slipping into complacency. The issue is never doubt, doubt will always be there, the issue is what we do with doubt when it comes.


Painting of a woman painting

     Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Paining

Artemisia Gentileschi


Emerson famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I think he is suggesting that if we are thoughtful and reflective we are going to change our minds. That there will be things we assert one day that we will rethink and “un-assert” the next day. Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself” said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, than I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Whitman is suggesting, and I think this is a part of Emerson’s comment as well, that there will be times when we will hold contradictory ideas. We should not be afraid or ashamed of this; we just need to remain open minded to both. It may come about that we will see the strength in one and the weakness in the other, it may be that there are times when we hold “irreconcilable differences” within ourselves, or it may come about that the inconsistencies over time will resolve themselves. In the meantime we live with the doubt and discomfort that this produces, or we shrug our shoulder, move on, and let it be. 


Francis Bacon (the Elizabethan essayist, not the 20th century painter) thought a bit differently about doubt. He observed, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” I do not think he meant that if we began doubting the truths we hold that they would eventually over time become certainties. I think what he meant is that if we continue to question the truths we hold they will eventually be confirmed as truth where such is the case or they will be shown to be wanting and will be abandoned and replaced by something more substantial, which over time will in turn be either affirmed or abandoned. But at the end of the quest, if we continue to question, our quest will be rewarded. And if the quest is to be made successfully, doubt and uncertainty are states of mind we have to learn to live with, perhaps even to enjoy.

Painting of a woman with a quizzical look on her face being atched by her dog


Arthur Hughes


Nicholas Kristof in discussing the humanities (“Don’t Dismiss the Humanities”) observed, “University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.” It is the toolbox we need if we are to make the journey from doubt to certainty and that will give us the comfort and insight we need to make that journey, which, in all probability will last a lifetime. It is in reading philosophy that we learn not only how to question, but often the questions to ask. It is in reading novels, poems, stories, and essays that we learn how others have made or are making that journey. In a conversation about the humanities and the sciences (The Way We Live Our Lives in Stories“) Jonathan Gottschall suggests “We live our lives in stories, and it’s sort of mysterious that we do this. We’re not really sure why we do this. It’s one of these questions—storytelling—that falls in the gap between the sciences and the humanities.” Gottschall wants to find that common ground where the Sciences and the Humanities can live and work together. Both, in their different ways, are trying to sort through their doubts to find certainties. Philip Ball in “Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark” suggests that many physicists have discovered what is true about physics by making up stories and than pursuing the implications of those stories. Often, maybe usually, the stories end up having no basis in reality, but they help get the journey started and in the course of the journey the truth comes out. 


Painting of a group of people one of whom is in pursuit    

Bacchus and Ariadne



The painting tells the story of Bacchus and Ariadne. The myth explains how the heavens came to be the way they are, or at least that part of the heavens where the Corona constellation is found. Often this was, perhaps still is, the function that myth and folklore served, they oriented the cultures that devised them, explained why things are as they are. Perhaps many or even most saw them as metaphors explaining the universe and our place in it. To a pre-scientific people they may even have had a ring of truth, though I think it is unwise to assume that pre-scientific people were less intelligent than we and perhaps even they only saw these stories as ways of illustrating things they did not have the tools to fully investigate and understand. But on another level, the myths are less concerned with the origins of things and more concerned with understanding human behavior and what proper and improper behavior looked like. Myth often has more to do with psychology than with physics or biology.


Painting of a court from the classical age of a person being accused before a court

Calumny of Apelles

Sandro Botticelli


Botticelli’s painting is an attempt to recreate a painting from Classical antiquity that had been lost. Botticelli constructed his painting around the description by Lucian of a painting by Apelles. Lucian’s description also explained the allegory found in the painting. Though many details are difficult to see when the painting is reduced to a size that will fit on the page, they are clearly seen when the painting is viewed in its actual size.


Detail of the accuser and accused from the pevious image 

Detail from The Calumny of Apelles

Sandro Botticelli


In this detail from the painting we can see that the man sitting on the throne has donkey’s ears, he is King Midas. The two women on either side of him represent ignorance and suspicion. The man reaching his hand out to Midas is envy. The painting tells a story about the human heart, what it wants to hear, what it often closes its eyes to, those it listens to and those it ignores. Midas in all the myths is a foolish man and the painting suggests that fools are easy prey to the darker sides of humanity. Midas’ folly is rooted in his certainties, that he can trust those around him; the darker sides of his humanity play to his “certainties.” In the painting the innocent are naked; they have no defenses and must trust to others to protect them, must trust to justice, which may or may not save the day for them. The woman in the back who is dressed in black rags represents repentance. She is largely ignored. The others, with the exception of envy, are richly dressed and appear to be rich and powerful; they all represent the antithesis of truth: slander, suspicion, and ignorance. As a story it suggests to us, as it suggested to those that first saw it, whether they saw Apelles’ painting or Botticelli’s recreation of it, that it is unwise to trust to appearances; that it is unwise to listen to those that tell us what we want to hear. Those Midas listens to are like him, they are of his class and like him they are wealthy. Maybe he believes that because they are like him they are worthy of his trust or perhaps he only listens to people like himself. 


The body of Icarus lying on a rock being ministered to water spirits

Lament for Icarus

Herbert Draper


It may be that those that first heard the story of Icarus believed that it was possible to construct wings that would enable them to fly, but whether they did or did not, they understood the emotion captured in the story, the excitement that comes from doing something novel and new and the imprudence that emotion can produce. We get carried away and the wings of our ecstasy often melt. The wings of Icarus in the painting are beautiful and splendid in the light of the setting sun. There is a beauty to Icarus himself. But neither his beauty, nor the beauty of his wings can save him. Often this is the way of things. We get excited by what we have discovered or what we have created and in our enthusiasm to play with what we have made we fall into unintended consequences. Our science and technology, among other things, have enabled us to do things that were once unimaginable, but they have also created problems that will not easily go away, whether it is damage to our environment or the tools that might eventually destroy the planet, and less apocalyptic problems like congested highways and urban blight. This is not to suggest that science and technology are “evils” to be avoided, but that we should be careful. We should make an effort to see what is behind the door our science and technology has opened. The wings of Icarus were are a good and marvelous thing, they would have led him to freedom, but not everything the wings enabled Icarus to do was prudent. To do a thing because we can is not always the best thing to do.


Statue of woman representing "Faith" overcoming two other forces protecting a child

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry

Jean-Baptiste Theodon


There is also the issue of which stories we listen to and how we apply those stories to the way we live our lives. The Ststatue depicts the Triumph of Faith over Idolatry. But the stories represented by the idols were believed in as religiously as the stories represented by faith. St. Augustine wrote The City of God in part to answer the charges made by the believers in Rome’s pagan religion that it was because Rome had become Christianized and had abandoned the gods that the Roman Empire fell to the barbarians. A person’s faith is real to that person even if it is not real to anyone else. When a faith dies, it is difficult for those that come after to understand how it could ever have been taken seriously, just as it is difficult for those that do not share a faith to understand how those that adhere to that faith can take that faith seriously. But the truths that the stories these faiths tell are a part of who we are whether we accept the faiths that gave them to us or not. They are a part of our cultural inheritance. As Americans we believe in certain truths that are self evident, though we may not always be certain of their origins. We believe in justice, that to the extent possible those that have been wronged should receive justice that we should be treated justly. But if we live in a Darwinian world, why should we expect justice?


Fresco of a crowd of people gathered on Mount Parnassus

The Parnassus



The painting above is from a series that depicts the four areas of human knowledge, philosophy, religion, poetry, and law. The paintings capture the whole of the Humanities. The poets are represented; the philosophers, painters, and musicians are represented. Even lawyers and priests are represented. This painting, The Parnassus, captures the poets, which today would include playwrights and novelists as well. Musicians are also included. Perhaps the stories they tell address our doubts and uncertainties, but even if they do not, they bring light into our lives and relief from the struggle. Stories are fun to listen to, they are fun to read, to watch on television or at the movies or in the playhouse. They do not need to be profound they do not need to give us the answers we seek. They delight the heart even if they do nothing else. 


Albert Manguel writes about reading as “Conversations with the Dead.” Though not every book we read comes to us from a dead person, many do. He begins by saying:


Reading has always been for me a sort of practical cartography. Like other readers, I have an absolute trust in the capability that reading has to map my world. I know that on a page somewhere on my shelves, staring down at me now, is the question I’m struggling with today, put into words long ago, perhaps, by someone who could not have known of my existence. The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the sixteenth century, called “conversations with the dead.” In those conversations I’m revealed. They shape me and lend me a certain magical power.


Painting of a woman at a table with a glass full of fluid and one cup that is spilled with an open book

The Sorceress

John Williams Waterhouse,_JW_-_The_Sorceress_(1913).jpg


Many of the problems I confront are new to me, but they are not new to the world and because they are not new to the world there is someone somewhere who has written about her or his struggles with my problem. In reading I discover how others have dealt with my problems. (I also learn something about how others have experienced my joys and accomplishments, because these are not new to the world either.) I may not come to the conclusions these earlier writers arrived at, but they give me help on the journey nonetheless. Like those physicists telling stories in the dark. The reading I do does not always provide me with an answer (to be honest I rarely read solely to find answers) but it usually gives me a way of proceeding, though the reading has almost always been done earlier when I had no need of answers or ways of proceeding. What we read stays with us and is there when we need it. Manguel ends his essay:


Almost twenty years have elapsed since I finished (or abandoned) A History of Reading. At the time, I thought I was exploring the act of reading, the perceived characteristics of the craft and how these came into being. I didn’t know I was in fact affirming our right as readers to pursue our vocation (or passion) beyond economic, political, and technological concerns, in a boundless, imaginative realm where the reader is not forced to choose and, like Eve, can have it all. Literature is not dogma: it offers questions, not conclusive answers. Libraries are essentially places of intellectual freedom: any constraints imposed upon them are our own. Reading is, or can be, the open-ended means by which we come to know a little more about the world and about ourselves, not through opposition but through recognition of words addressed to us individually, far away, and long ago.


Uncertainty and doubt frame much of our existence. No matter how loudly we tell ourselves we understand, we know what’s what, we have the truth. But even when we have the truth doubt malingers. For the truth to stay true it needs regularly to be renewed. Literature is not dogma (well, perhaps some is, but when it is, its life expectancy is rarely long); it gives us a map not a doctrine. Mary Beard in an article on laughter (“What’s So Funny”) says “The pleasure and excitement of studying laughter, for a historian, is that it generates many more questions than answers. Theories of laughter have always been ‘theories of theories,’ a way of talking about laughter and ‘something else.’” This is true of reading and of most all serious study, at least within the Humanities. 


From Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock

Selznick International Pictures

The film clip captures another aspect of doubt and uncertainty. It is an essential element for films and stories like Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Ingrid Bergman’s character, Dr. Petersen, believes in her patient John Ballantyne’s (played by Gregory Peck) innocence. Her old teacher, Dr. Brulov (played by Michael Chekhov) explains to her why that belief is irrational. Brulov is, of course, correct. There is no evidence, other than Dr. Petersen’s faith, that Ballantyne is innocent, in fact all the evidence suggests otherwise, except perhaps, Ballantyne’s character. But, as Dr. Brulov points out, one of the characteristics of a psychopath is that their character often appears trustworthy. It is because there is so much uncertainty and because Dr. Petersen’s faith appears so irrational, that the tension and the terror builds. If what Dr. Brulov tells us were not true we would have no thriller. If Dr. Petersen were not correct in her judgment concerning the character of Ballantyne we would not have a happy ending. 


Painting of a woman empthing a bowl into a body of water


Circe Invidiosa

John Williams Waterhouse


Perhaps one of the reasons we find thrillers, horror films, and other stories that play to our fear (and our desire to be frightened) so attractive is because they are a kind of metaphor for the world as we often experience it. There is much that goes on around us that is frightening, that is beyond our control, that leaves us feeling powerless. In stories that play to our fears and terrify us we see fear and terror confronted. We often, though not always, see fear and terror defeated. This is encouraging. In some ways these stories work according to Aristotle’s notion of “catharsis,” they purge our fear, we live through the terror created on the page or on the screen and we survive. Even if we do not know who Circe in the painting above is, her look inspires fear, if we know her story, we know what lurks behind that look. Also, if we know her story, we know she is eventually overcome. Circe’s is an old story, and the existence of her story suggests that the human desire to be terrified is an old one.


People seated around an upright antlered animal

Witches’ Sabbath



Dan Piepenbring in “So Vivid You Can’t Get Free of Them” writes about Ray Bradbury’s love of metaphor. The article begins with a quote from Bradbury’s book The Art of Fiction


Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story.


Many of Bradbury’s stories terrify, they speak to something at the heart of us. When as a child I went to the movies, more often than not what I went to see was a horror film. Also, as the paintings above and below suggest, horror stories did not begin with the movies. These paintings capture themes from classical mythology and suggest that the delight we take in being terrified goes back to the beginnings of human story telling. These films spoke to me differently, though, than they spoke to my parents. I remember going to the drive-in in the 1950’s when Godzilla and Rodan were both playing, it was a double feature, and at the time these were new movies, first time release in this country (they were originally released in Japan, and I am told the Japanese versions are better than their American counterparts, but I have not seen the Japanese versions). To me the films were about monsters. The premise behind how the monsters came to be did not speak much to me, I wasn’t interested, but I think they spoke to my parents. These films, and another I remember, Beginning of the End, revolved around nuclear power. It was a new thing at the time. I remember reading a “Weekly Reader” (I think) article about radiation being used to grow giant tomatoes. The point though is that the monsters were metaphors for the fears the society was living with at the time the films were made. 


Painting of a man fighting many serpents


John Singer Sargent,_John_-_Hercules_-_1921.jpg


In Beginning of the End these experiments result in giant grasshoppers converging on the city of Chicago. But the reality of nuclear power was not that real to me as child in the 1950’s. My father, however, fought in the Pacific during World War II and was involved in some way with the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. I have photographs my father took of the aftermath and of the bomb itself (though I do not think my father took that picture). For him nuclear power was something much more real and fearful. So for my parents, that which evoked the fear in these movies was much more real and the terror they provoked was probably much more real, though, like for me, it was still just a story. 


Phoograph of a G. I. eading a warning sign in front of the Cathedral at Köln

Warning Sign in Cologne

US-Army History Images


Another film from that era starred Steve McQueen and was called The Blob. At the end of the film it is discovered that the monster, the blob of the title, could not withstand the cold. It was rendered powerless in the freezer compartment of the supermarket, from whence it was taken and flown to the North Pole. The movie ends with Steve McQueen’s girlfriend suggesting that now they are safe, to which Steve McQueen responds, “As long as the North Pole don’t melt.” I suppose when the film was made there was not much chance of that happening. Today, however, who knows. Perhaps we should be on the lookout for a gooey carnivorous substance moving south. 


The substance of our fears may change, but fear, like doubt and uncertainty, is a human constant, and the stories we tell are often our first defense against it. There will always be a place for stories about monsters and the overcoming of monsters. Even if our faith has no room for evil, even if like Alexander Pope we say, “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: / And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, / One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right” there is much that we encounter that is troubling and does not appear to go by the name of goodness. Whatever you call trouble when it comes; I hope you have a story to see you through to the end of it.


Painiting of a woman with flowers in the woods


Arthur Hughes

Truth Be Told

Die Zauberflote, “Overture”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, “Overture”

Felix Mendelssohn

London Symphony Orchestra


Truth Be Told


Painting of a young woman being escorted by solddiers and other women as other soldiers look on

The Princess Sabra Led to the Dragon (Rescued by St. George)

Edward Burne-Jones,Princess_Sabra_Led_to_the_Dragon.jpg


The music suggests the mythical and the magical. Mozart’s Magic Flute has Masonic mysteries (I am told) at its heart and a good bit of magic and wizardry. Mendelssohn’s music was composed to accompany Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is a comic variation, at least the centerpiece of the play is, on the beauty and the beast story. The Queen of the fairies, Titania, falls in love with a man, Bottom, given the head of a donkey. Of course everything happens by magic, the falling in love, the donkey’s head, the romancing in the enchanted forest. Eventually all is set right and everyone goes about their regular business, just as Papageno and Papagena are restored to each other and live happily ever after in the opera. In the opera it is the “beauties” that save the young Tomino, the handsome prince in the story, from the beast. There are all the characters of the traditional beauty and the beast story; they just do not play their traditional roles. The Queen of the Night, whose ladies were the beauties that saved Tomino from the dragon, instructs him to restore to her her daughter. Tomino is given Papageno as company, and both are given magical instruments, Tomino a flute and Papageno bells, to aid them in their task as well as three childlike spirits to watch over them.


The painting also tells a beauty and the beast story, that of the Princess Sabra, a dragon, and St. George. The princess has drawn the lot condemning her to be the dragon’s next victim. I think the faces in this painting are very revealing. The guard seems relatively unconcerned; the ladies following the princess look sad and wistful, perhaps thankful, for the moment, that someone else drew the short straw. But the Princess Sabra’s face reveals her fear, her sadness, and her resignation to her fate. Her hands that clutch at her garments reinforce the emotions her face reveals. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, there is nothing comic about this scene, and unlike Mozart’s opera, there is nothing and no one, man, woman, or spirit, that can offer her any hope or consolation. The story does, though, have a happy ending. St. George kills the dragon and peace and harmony are restored.


The painting below captures the beauty and the beast tale that is most likely to come to mind when we think of beauty and the beast stories. They come in a number of guises, the ones mentioned above and the one below. But there are other variations where the woman is the beast and it is the man that is the beast’s victim. My favorite of these stories is Gawain and the Loathly Lady. It revolves around a man in trouble, Gawain, who is helped by a very ugly and bestial lady. The ending is not that different from the story we usually think of, except the roles are reversed. The story of the Loathly Lady is also told, a bit more crudely, by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. It seems people have always been attracted to stories about beautiful people being pursued by monstrous and terrifying creatures.


Painting of a young woman looking over the dead body of a beast

Beauty and the Beast

Warwick Goble


There were a couple of articles recently about the power of myth and folk tales, “Once Upon a Time” and “Chasing rainbows: why myths matter,” that reflect on the power of these stories and the contribution they make to helping us all live a healthy and psychologically balanced life. “Once Upon a Time” addresses the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. These stories have enchanted adults and children (pretty much in that order) from their first appearance in print. Most of us are used to the sanitized versions of these stories found in films by Walt Disney and others. We think of them with warm and fuzzy feelings of childhood. But the stories are terrifying, they are cruel, and they are incredibly violent, often in ways that offers few if any redeeming features to mitigate or soften the violence. The article concludes that one scholar of these stories, Jack Zipe, likes them because they offer hope and a sense that justice can prevail in the world. But the author of the article, Joan Acocella, thinks differently; she thinks they validate what is, the world as it really works. She concludes the article by saying, “Though Wilhelm tried to Christianize the tales, they still invoke nature, more than God, as life’s driving force, and nature is not kind.” The stories would seem to support this view, but, on the other hand, in stories like Cinderella, characters do find justice and the villains, whether they be stepsisters or stepmothers, are more than adequately punished. Sometimes there is justice, but it is a very rough justice and perhaps what is missing most is not justice, but mercy or redemption. Of course there are other stories in the Grimm collection that offer neither comfort, nor justice, nor hope. But, as the article suggests, the stories were written in a time when the world was cruel and violent and harsh and that what the stories portray is life as it is, with a little magic thrown in. Unfortunately the magic often does not take sides.


Chasing rainbows: why myths matter” on the other hand takes a more positive view towards myth and folklore. Damien Walker points out that yes, those, Richard Dawkins particularly, that tells us the myths aren’t real are telling us the truth but they miss the point. Stories, especially mythic stories, function in the realm of metaphor. It does not much matter whether the world was created in six days or not, what matters is that it was created. They teach us lessons about who we are and how we best survive in the world; how we live productively and wholly/holy in the world. Literally interpreting myth is not really helpful. What they help us with is finding our courage, helping us deal with loss, helping us get in touch with our inner self, our spirit, our ethos. As is often true with poetry, we feel the message of the myth before we fully understand it.


Woman in a dark forest holding a stick with a skull on it and lights shining through the skull's eyes and ligts behind her also coming fron the eyes of skulls


Ivan Bilibin


The painting above is of a character from Russian folklore, Vasilisa. The part of the story the painting captures seems, to me, horrifying. Vasilisa is holding a human skull that functions as a lantern. When she needs light, light pours out of the eye sockets of the skull and when she does not need light, the eye sockets are dark. This “lamp” is given to her by a witch who demands that Vasilisa leave. She gives Vasilisa the skull on a stick to light her way. I am not sure what the correct interpretation of this story is, but I think it is true that wisdom and direction are often given to us by our ancestors, often dead ancestors through the stories they have passed along and the stories that have been told about them. Vasilisa, unlike many women in folk tales, is very resourceful and courageous. She is fearless, or perhaps it would be better to say that she has her fear under control; it is not that she does not experience fear but that she does not let that fear debilitate her. This is a message of folklore and myth, we are pursued by our fears, we all must overcome them if we are to act, perhaps it is more precise to say that we need the wisdom to distinguish between those fears that keep us from harm and those fears that keeping us from doing what must be done. The same fear that keeps us from running in front of a speeding automobile keeps us from standing up to wickedness. The fear tells us that wickedness is powerful and it is important that we understand that, but it is also important that we resist it and perhaps the proper office of fear is not to make us powerless but to help us use our power properly, to understand what that proper use is, to use it with wisdom and discretion.


Sun setting behind vocanic cloud over a river

Cotopaxi (1862)

Frederic Edwin Church


The paintings above and below capture the sublime. They are beautiful but they capture scenes that are powerful, they capture scenes that depict nature’s power, the first in the form of an erupting volcano and the second in the form of a treacherous mountain path. I think of the “Fellowship of the Ring” trying to get over the mountains on their way to Mordor. This is the nature of the sublime. It is powerful, awesomely so and it is not always pretty. Church did an earlier painting of this same place, Cotopaxi, but it was bucolic and peaceful and the mountain in the background was silent. Both paintings are beautiful, but the later is sublime as well. There was an article in The New Republic, “Art Over Biology,” about art and its evolutionary origins. What does art contribute to our survival, what has caused the “art” gene to survive and be passed along from generation to generation? The article points out that art often acts as a cultural catalyst, that is, it becomes one of those things that tie a culture together, that makes a people a “People.” But where this is a real benefit to the culture it is often of little benefit to the artist. I am not sure that Adam Kirsch’s conclusions actually happen the way he describes them, especially those concerning the artist and children. He points to evidence that suggests that artists are private people who often do not do well in social situations and therefore are not in the best position to procreate. And there is much to suggest that there is truth to this assertion, but it is also true that artists often have families, some have large families. Granted they may be terrible spouses and terrible parents, but they do produce children to carry their genes forward.


 Painting of people following a narrow path over a steep mountain

The Passage of the St. Gothard

J. M. W. Turner


But of course the larger issue is why do we produce art? There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “Poetry Is a Destructive Force” that seems to suggest that this desire to produce art, poetry, novels, is not a pleasant desire to live with, it is to be “like a man / In the body of a violent beast.” It is to be entirely under the control of some other. According to the evidence that Kirsch cites it is to be, often, terribly alone and misunderstood. Of course the rewards of those that succeed are often very satisfying. The successful artist often receives a lot praise and attention, something that humans seem to crave and often these are accompanied with prosperity and comfort. Perhaps these are rewards enough to make the less pleasant aspects of the life of the artist more acceptable. But in the end the article suggests there are no satisfying evolutionary answers to explain how art came to be. But the article goes further to suggest that an evolutionary answer, were one to be found, would not change much because with art it is not the why that is really important. For a Darwinian explanation to have value, it must be “useful” and “it is hard to see how it would change the way we experience art, any more than knowing the mechanics of the eye makes a difference to the avidity of our sight.” Just as knowing how the eye works does not change the way we see and experience sight so knowing how art came to be, though it may satisfy some bits of our curiosity, does not affect our appreciation or understanding of the work of art itself.


Kakinomoto no hitomaro

Utagawa Kuniyoshi


The painting is of a prominent 8th century Japanwe poet, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. In the painting he is observing and reflecting. He appears to be at peace. An article in the Boston Review, “Poetry Changed the World,” looks at another contribution of art, especially literary art. Reflecting on a new book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Elaine Perry, the author of the article, considers how the written word has made humans more peaceful, empathetic, and nurturing creatures. She has problems with Pinker’s conclusions and how they are reached, but she agrees that when we look at how people have changed over time that reading has had a civilizing effect on people; that as books became more readily available and as more and more people were taught how to read them, people have become less brutal. Perry points out two ways that reading has changed us. One relates to the poetry itself. Early poetry often presented their themes in the form of debates. The article points to poems in different cultures in different parts of the world and at different times that present arguments for and against various issues. Often they function like Plato’s dialogues. She points out how different poetic forms, like the eclogue and the sonnet, are structurally suited to debate. In this way poetry encouraged deliberation over hasty action.


But the more powerful change is the one produced by novels. When reading a novel the reader enters into the experiences of the characters in the stories and begins to see the world through the eyes of these characters. This can have a profound effect upon readers; it takes readers out of their own mind, experience, and point of view and places them in the mind, experience, and point of view of the characters in the story. C. S. Lewis once said that in reading he became a thousand other men but remained himself. This ability to become thousands of other people develops empathy for others on the part of the reader, by expanding their understanding of others. Instead of judging people and events from our own perspective, reading stories encourages us to look for other ways of understanding what is happening around us, so that we do not look solely at the effect events taking place around us have on us alone, we start to look at how these events effect others, giving us a larger perspective, enabling us to understand not just how we are affected, but how the culture as a whole in which we live is affected.


From The Thief of Bagdad

Douglas Fairbanks Pictures

Republic Pictures


The film, The Thief of Bagdad, captures the spirit of the 1001 Arabian Knights. These stories illustrate the power of story upon the imagination. These stories have influenced the literature of cultures all over the world to the point that we cannot know for sure which came first Odysseus or Sinbad, for example, or if there were a third voyager, now lost, that inspired both stories. There was an article in Times Literary Supplement, “The magic of the Nights,” about the impact of these stories on world culture. The book is specifically addressing the stories of the 1001 Nights but it contributes to the discussion found in other articles about the power of stories, the power they have over us, the power they have to color how we interpret the world around us. The stories themselves are of uncertain origin, some come from Persia, some from Arabia, some had their origins in Sanskrit, but no one is quite certain where the stories found in this book first appeared. The book as it has come down to us is not even from a single collection of stories. The first of the Arabian Nights stories I encountered as a child was the film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Looking at the film as an adult it is difficult to understand what was so appealing to my childhood imagination, but appealing it was. But Ali Baba was not one of the stories that made up the “original” Arabian Nights; it was added to the collection by editors trying to account for all one thousand and one nights. Sinbad and Aladdin were also absent from the earliest editions of the Nights. Any modern editor that tries to assemble a more “authentic” version of the tales by limiting their edition to only those stories found in the earliest, most authentic editions is eventually forced, we are told, to add the missing stories. We know them too well and they have touched us too deeply.


Paintng of a man on a flying carpet

The Flying Carpet

Viktor Vasnetsov


One story that has included elements of the Arabian Night is Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels. In the second voyage the bird that takes Gulliver from Bobdingnag and drops him out to sea is instantly identified as the Roc that Sinbad encountered, instantly identified by anyone familiar with the stories that is. The Yahoos Gulliver encounters on his last voyage also have antecedents in the 1001 Nights. There was an article in The New Atlantis, “The Truth About Human Nature” that applies the lessons Gulliver takes from his various voyages, especially his last voyage, to our common human experience. The thrust of the article is that we cannot live entirely in a rational world; that as admirable as the Houyhnhnms may be to Gulliver, they are missing something, they are not, to state the obvious, human and where a life governed entirely by reason may be ideal for horses and other animals, it is not ideal for the human animal. The article suggests that what the Houyhnhnms lack that humans need is imagination. Gulliver is standing in front of them, he was brought to their island on a ship, but the Houyhnhnms cannot conceive of a ship, they do not have the imagination for it. And this is something that stories provoke and provide that makes the human experience richer and more profound. The article also tells us that the Houyhnhnm is not capable of telling a lie. This I think is not true. The master Houyhnhnm has in him the “milk of human kindness” in that he will not reveal the true nature of Gulliver’s appearance, that the clothes Gulliver wears are not his skin. The Master Houyhnhnm does not tell overt lies to conceal this fact about Gulliver; he just does not correct the misimpressions those around him have formed concerning Gulliver. This raises another issue, the issue of what constitutes a lie and is a lie always spoken or can a lie be told by saying nothing. I think the Master Houyhnhnm says the thing that is not when he says nothing at all about Gulliver’s clothes. He is perpetrating a lie and it is a humane lie, it shows compassion and a desire to protect a friend, something Houyhnhnms as rule do not do. Perhaps the stories that Gulliver has told his master Houyhnhnm has humanized the Horse, has done for the horse what Elaine Perry suggests the novel has done for us, it has given him a larger view of the world.


Illustration of a very small man looking at a very large man

Illustration from Gulliver’s Travles

Richard Redgrave

It’s Just a Story

“With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come”

Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell

St. Andrews Singers and English Chamber Orchestra


It’s Just a Story


Painting of a Classical Roman city

Dido building Carthage aka The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire

J. M. W. Turner


Even before we begin to hear the music we can infer a bit about its subject. Even if we do not know the story of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil’s epic Aeneid the title of the aria, “With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come” suggests the subject of the song. Even those who do not know much about Greek or Roman mythology probably know enough about Cupid to know he is associated with love. That the wings of the Cupids are drooping suggests the news is not good news for the one who is in love. The music than affirms this observation and even though the words are difficult to make out, the music the words are set to tell us most of what we need to know about what they are saying. The music tells a story, as the painting tells a story. For those who have read the epic poem, just seeing the names of Dido and Aeneas tells a tragic story. But the real point is that not all stories are told with words, some are told with notes, rhythms, harmonies, and colors.

But stories also give us a common language, they help us talk to and understand one another. They can provide a frame or a context for our experiences; the “widow’s mite,” “the white whale,” “the melancholy Dane,” or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” are all phrases and images that carry train loads of associations. When Ernest Hemingway titled one of his novels For Whom the Bell Tolls he was telling a story in five words that permeates the novel and colors the reader’s understanding of the events in theat novel. Of course, one must recognize the references or they are just nice sounding words. When Puccini plays the American National Anthem under a climactic scene in his opera Madame Butterfly he is using a musical phrase to tell another kind of story. If language and the possession of language are the vehicles in which our intellects travel, the materials that give shape and structure to our thoughts and ideas, then the well read, the “liberally” educated are fluent in a language and a vocabulary that adds richness, depth, and clarity to their thinking, even if the thoughts themselves are not that profound.


There was a review recently in the New York Times (“Her Calling”) of Marilyn Robinson’s book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. The book is about the changes that have taken place in America over the past few generations that she finds troubling. But one of the early essays discusses myth and story and why they are, in her view important. She does not believe myth arose as a way to explain how things came to be. Though there may have been the Roman Fundamentalist that believed the stories were literally true, Robinson believes that the myths were seen by most as stories that communicated truths about what it means to be human and how humans ought to live and treat each other. Euripides used the story of the Fall of Troy as a way of commenting on the Peloponnesian Wars and Athenian behavior in that war.

Myth and religion are not science and are not to be understood as science. Whether, for example, the Book of Genesis is taken literally or figuratively isn’t the issue. The point of Genesis is not to explain how things came to be, so much, as to instruct us in how we ought to behave. There will always be some for whom the science of Genesis is important, but what is most important for us to understand from this book, whether we agree with it or not, has more to do with philosophy, ethics, and morality than it does with science. It could even be said that arguing the science of Genesis obfuscates the real message of the book. Whatever else an Athenian audience got out of Oedipus the King, they understood from the play that there were powers greater than ourselves to whom we are all answerable whether we are a shepherd or a king. And because Oedipus cannot escape these forces neither can anyone else and at the end of the day justice is done and order is restored. This is the message of the tragedy and why it was not a mere “theatrical” but a part of a religious ceremony. In this respect it might be said that the theater began in church.


A Renaissance woman warrior rescues a man and a woman about the be burned at the stake from an angry crowd

Clorinda Rescues Olindo und Sophronia

Eugene Delacroix


The paintings above and below are by Eugene Delacroix and each captures a different epic story of liberation. The first painting illustrates a scene from Tasso’s Liberation of Jerusalem. This is a story of the First Crusade and the “liberation” of Christianity’s (as well as Judaism’s and Islam’s) Holy City. Of course whether this was true liberation depends on which side is telling the story. Saladin would come around a bit later and liberate the city once again. What I found intriguing about Tasso’s story is that one of the more heroic knights from the story (which is also true of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Spenser’s Faerie Queen) is a woman, in Tasso’s story, an Islamic woman. Women in the military was hardly a settled issue at the time and neither the Christian nor the Islamic community of the time looked favorably upon the “woman warrior.” When I read these stories I was surprised to find women in such prominent combat roles in the stories.

The painting below is of Liberty leading the people during the French Revolution, which brought another kind of liberation, again depending on which side one pledged allegiance. The young gentleman standing next to Liberty waving the pistols is said to have inspired Victor Hugo’s character Gavroche in the novel Les Miserables. However one feels about the liberation of Jerusalem by the Crusaders or the liberation of France by the forces of the revolution liberty is a powerful concept and stories of liberation often evoke powerful emotions, even if we have misgivings about the actual history.


Woman carrying the flag of France leading rebel soldiers

Liberty Leading the People

Eugene Delacroixène_Delacroix_-_liberté_guidant_le_peuple.jpg


But how important or necessary are these stories. Do they shape character? Do the stories we read, as Marilyn Robinson and others assert, help to form the people we become or are they just another form of entertainment (which is not to suggest that if the stories shape character that they do not entertain as well). Tim Parks, in a recent article, “Do We Need Stories?,” doesn’t seem to think we need stories. He thinks assigning any great significance to them is a mistake, they give us pleasure, but they do not make us who we are, we are more significant and complex than stories. He ends his article, though, this way:
Personally, I fear I’m too enmired in narrative and self narrative to bail out now. I love an engaging novel, I love a complex novel; but I am quite sure I don’t need it. And my recently discovered ability, as discussed in this space a couple of weeks ago, to set down even some fine novels before reaching the end does give me a glimmer of hope that I may yet make a bid for freedom from the fiction that wonderfully enslaves us.
Though he does not believe stories are necessary he has not “liberated” himself from them. Some days I think I wake up agreeing with Parks, but usually come back to my senses (or non-senses as the case may be) before bedtime. Whether we have all felt the influence of an apple in a garden or not, does not alter the fact that we live in a world that falls short in a number of different aspects. And even if the story does not account for how this came to be, it offers a kind of hope that we can rise above what is wrong with the world. And even if the story has not shaped my character, in giving me hope it helps me move forward.


Pen and ink drawing of a knight on a horse followed by a man on a donkey

Don Quixote
Pablo Picasso


On the other side of the coin, Jennie Erdal wrote an article, “What’s the big idea?,” on the philosophical novel and its importance. At its heart, behind all the fun and nonsense, Don Quixote is a novel of ideas. Anyone who knows the story recognizes the errant knight in Picasso’ drawing and does not need a title to know who she or he is looking at. The windmills in the background evoke that part of the novel comes to mind for most, whether they have read the novel or not, when they hear the name of Don Quixote. It may be whether we have been shaped by stories or not, that we have all engaged in quixotic behavior of one kind or another. And even if Parks is right and none of us were shaped into the people we have become by this story, this story still defines, metaphorically of course, a bit of who we are. Erdal thinks that novels that wrestle with “big ideas” are important. She thinks the best philosophical novels are not those that discuss philosophy but those in which things with philosophical implications take place, they help us see things rather than try to explain things.
In Dostoevsky’s fiction, for example, characters wrestle with events with philosophical implications, but it is the wrestling matches that are the focus and it is through these bouts with moral and ethical ramifications that philosophy is put on trial. In this sense, perhaps, the reader is not shaped by what is read so much as led to consider what is true, what is just, what is moral and it is through this consideration, which does not require one to read a novel for it to take place, that the person is changed and character is shaped. The novel is less a sculptor giving shape to the rough rock that is our unformed personality and more a provocateur that incites us to consider ourselves in ways that might not otherwise have occurred to us and in ways that might be a bit dangerous. Perhaps there is a bit of a paradox in that we have to know ourselves before the stories and the contemplations they provoke can help us to become ourselves.


Building U. S. – China Relations by Banjo
Abigail Washburn
TED Talk
The film clip captures another kind of story; music builds more bridges than law. Songs are a form of story telling and even when the words are in a strange language, the sounds and rhythms and harmonies in the music communicate much of what the words would tell us if they could. Before watching this clip I never noticed the bluegrass in Chinese music. Whether these stories are essential, whether they teach us anything, or shape us in any way, they do open us up to one another, as the music did for the young child who lost her mother in an earthquake, and provide opportunities to know and understand one another. What is it in us that drives us to sing songs, tell stories, paint pictures; to make rocks, wood, and hedges look like people, animals, or kitchen tables? Part of it is entertainment, finding ways to fill the time, to amuse ourselves. But is this all there is; are they just stories? Sometimes I think stories give us a safe way of talking to one another. The stories that fill our time tell a lot about who we are, they reveal us to others, but we can sometimes fool ourselves into believing that because they are just stories that we are safe, that others will not put two and two together or solve the riddle.


A man in a Scottish kilt is released to his wife and child and family dog as a red coated soldier looks on

The Order of Release
John Everett Millais


The painting tells another story of liberation. The guard looks quizzically at a piece of paper held up to him by a woman who gives the soldier a look of defiance and perhaps contempt. The man being released is wounded and tired. He is wearing a kilt while the soldier is wearing a British Army uniform. This suggests to me that perhaps the man being released was involved in the Jacobite Rebellion attempting to reclaim Scotland and the British throne for “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
Being Scottish the history of the painting resonates with me, though those with little or no interest in Scottish history may not get nearly so much out of it. Part of what makes a story come alive is the way it resonates with our interests and passions. The most effective connections are emotional. There is a lot of emotion in this painting. There is the defiance of the woman, the sleepiness of the child, the excitement of the dog, and the fatigue and injuries of the Scottish clansman (I think that is a MacDonald tartan, but I can’t be sure). We do not need to know the history to be touched by the emotion in the painting. We have most of us been reunited with loved ones at one point or another. We have all at least wanted to stand up to authority especially when some we loved needed defending.


A man and a woman about to drink from a goblet containing a love potion, of which they are unaware

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion
John William Waterhouse


I wonder at times if I make more of stories than they merit, if they are not a kind of intoxication potion that get us into trouble. I wonder at times if Tim Parks isn’t right, but my experience suggests otherwise. It agrees with Marilyn Robinson and Jennie Erdal. This to me is evidence. It is not scientific; it is not grounded in data, at least not the kind that is sifted in order to lend support to the conclusions of a formal study. It is subjective but it tries to take into account the experiences of others. I wonder about Mr. Parks and his fiction addiction. I wonder, is the need that it fills for him a real need or a psychological need. Is it like a well balanced meal that makes us healthy, or like smoking a cigarette that does us harm? In my experience stories help me understand people, ideas, and the heart’s core. It illuminates the mysterious.
I came home one summer from college for a visit. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I told my parents I was coming home on Wednesday when in fact I would be arriving in Los Angeles on a Monday. I have always liked to walk so I threw my duffle bag over my shoulder and walked from L. A. International Airport to my parents’ house in a little beachside community called Hollywood Riviera. I knocked on the door and my mother answered. Not being expected, she said we don’t want any and slammed the door in my face. I knocked again and this time my father answered, but before he could slam the door, I managed to introduce myself and he let me in. We often get from experience, what we expect. And we often see what we expect to see. Stories often shake up the expected or show us the expected in unexpected ways. I like to think my parents knew me and that the only reason they didn’t recognize was because I was not expected. Often stories work this way, we enter expecting to see something and then something happens and we see something familiar in new and unexpected ways.
The painting is of Dante and Virgil standing at the Gate of Purgatory. Purgatory is a transitional place. It is not a pleasant place but it is a place of hope. There is a way out. Sometimes there are moments in which we live that are transitional places. There is unpleasantness. There may be an unhappy ending that changes us and though the ending was unpleasant and painful the changes, once they take place transfigure that unhappy ending into a happy one. We are all seeking to climb the seven story mountain that brings us to that other, happier gate; but to get their we have to spend a bit of time in these transitional places. Stories help to pass the time and in the process often illuminate and hallow the time.


Color etching of two man standing before a stoop leading up to an open door. An old bearded man sits in the doorway.

Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory
William Blake

Beholders of Ocean

The King of the Fairies
Alan Stivell

Beholders of Ocean

A Man with a Quilted Sleeve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nightingal
Edmond Dulac

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

The Mermaid and The Prince
Edmond Dulac

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


Why Medieval
Dr. Richard Scott Nokes

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

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

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

Christmas Eve
Carl Larsson