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 There is an irony that many of his ideas have been superseded by the science of our day, but, like Freud, because of the power of his language there is still an interest in reading him.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 

On Happiness with a Classical Twist

Vespers, Op. 37 – “Come, Let Us Worship”

Sergi Rachmaninov_

USSR Ministry Of Culture Chamber Choir


On Happiness with a Classical Twist


Photograph of the colorful "mushroom" dooms of the Orthodox Cathedrals in Russia's Red Square

The Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat (St. Basil’s Cathedral)

Photograph by Christophe Menebeouf


Even someone without religious convictions can appreciate, I think, the irony of a choir representing an atheistic state singing sacred music. Of course the music is beautiful and one need not be religious to appreciate the beauty of the music. Stephen Jay Gould, the author and Harvard professor of Evolutionary Biology used to take part in an annual performance of Hayden’s oratorio The Creation. This too is a beautiful piece of music based on the book of Genesis, and, though not religious, Gould took great delight (or so he said to Christopher Lydon on at least one occasion) in performing it. There is, of course, great happiness to be gotten from listening to great music, reading great stories, looking at great art, and all the other cabinets of the classical tradition. The photograph is of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow. To me it seems out of keeping with the image I have of Russia. When I think of Russia I think of a very cold place and its literature often evokes a tragic people (though this is by no means the same as a humorless people). The colors of the cathedral are bright and they are vibrant and they make me smile. I believe it was created with that intention.

A friend of mine was reading Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoevsky a few years ago. She was in the middle and was finding it a very moving but a very sad book. I told her that much of the book was sad, but that it ended happily. I do not think many think the ending of Crime and Punishment a happy one; my friend did not. But I think it is happy. Albert Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” tells us, after pointing out that Sisyphus’s life is a cycle of anguish, forlornness, and despair, that we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

If this is so, how much more happy must Raskolnikov be. He is a man who has committed a heinous crime. He is a man who appears through most of the novel to be devoid of conscience. He evokes for me in his intensity the line from Yeats “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” He finds, though, at the end of the novel, redemption and forgiveness. He finds peace with himself, his world, and his God. He accepts responsibility for his actions and he is sent to Siberia, one of the harshest, most forlorn locations on the planet. Yet he goes into this harsh physical environment at peace with himself and no longer fighting the much harsher and more relentless demons of his mind and spirit, of his inner self. In addition, he goes into this exile with the woman he loves.


Painting of an ideal kingdom as viewed from the mountain above


Ivan Bilibin


Granted, just as Cinderella, though we are told she lived happily ever after with her prince, must have had moments of conflict with her beloved in the process of that happily ever after. No doubt Raskolnikov and Sonya had their moments of tension as well, but there is no reason to believe they did not live happily every after. Also, for all its civilized refinements and comforts, St. Petersburg has its own impediments to happiness. The issue of happiness is an important one in the novel. Does it rest in our ambitions, our self-image or does it live somewhere else? Does happiness depend on external circumstance or does it come from within us? There are other issues raised in the book, of course, but I think for our time, the idea of where happiness is found and what it proceeds from is an important question. It is one of the questions humans hope to find answered in the books that they read. The painting above is of Buyan, a mythical place, a kind of paradise. It is a place of fairy tales. Neither Siberia nor St. Petersburg are such a place, but on the other hand, perhaps, Buyan and the other earthly paradises of myth, folklore, and story are more of an inner than an outer reality and to a certain extent stories help us to find that inner reality.

There was an essay in the Los Angeles Times recently by James M. Cain (author of hard boiled detective novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice). The essay is titled “Paradise” and it looks at how California in the 1930’s was portrayed in advertising as a paradise. Cain considers issues like truth in advertising, but more importantly he considers what makes any place, not just Southern California, a paradise. The essay finds much in Southern California that ought to make it a paradise, a “Buyan,” but like St. Petersburg in Dostoyevsky’s novel it takes more than creature comforts and cultivated society to make a paradise and, considering Raskolnikov’s Siberian destination, more than sunshine, warmth, and a day at the beach as well.

Great Expectations was recently voted, by readers of The Guardian, (“Great Expectations voted readers’ favourite Dickens novel”) Dickens’ best novel. This, too, is a book about a man looking for happiness in many of the wrong places who eventually comes to find a bit of it. But like many of us he has to learn it in a very difficult way. Though we may not ever have had Pip’s expectations or Raskolnikov’s demons we understand, and hopefully empathize, with their struggles. Raskolnikov is especially difficult to like. His crime is a brutal one, his self-justifications are very troubling, and his behavior throughout the novel is very hard to forgive. But at the end of the book, I find myself drawn to his character. In some ways Raskolnikov is a kind of Macbeth in reverse. We begin by seeing Macbeth as likeable, as having remarkable qualities and a potential for greatness. We end by seeing him as something of a monstrosity. Raskolnikov is villainous at the outset but by the story’s end he wins our empathy and we care about what happens to him and want him to be well.


Painting of three men; two looking at each other with another man in front, who appears to be blind, looking forward

The Parnassus (detail of Dante, Homer, and Virgil)



There was an article in The New York Review of Books, “Do the Classics Have a Future?” by Mary Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge University. She makes the point that classics have been eulogized and declared dead on a fairly regular basis over the centuries. Jonathan Swift wrote a short story called “The Battle of the Books” that focused on the conflict between the classical tradition and the upstart modernists of his day. Many of the moderns that Swift found wanting have gone on to find their place in the “classical canon” of Western Literature but most of the classical canon of Swift’s day remains intact. The books may be difficult to understand at times, their characters and concerns may seem strange to us, at least they probably will if they are not properly introduced, but if understood these books continue to speak to us and their characters and concerns are found not be as odd as they first appeared. Beard also points out that the classics were written in what are now dead languages, or, as is the case with Chaucer or Dante, a language that no longer resembles the vernacular of our day no matter how vernacular the languages were in their own day. This is what language does, it grows, it develops, it changes.

Beard suggests that one of the better modern translations of The Iliad was done by Christopher Logue who knows no Greek, but has retold the story, using various translations as reference points, in a modern style and idiom. She and others have found Logue’s poetry to be very moving. It has been dramatized and performed successfully suggesting there is something in this story that still resonates. Stephen Mitchell has recently come out with another modern translation of The Iliad. Why such fuss over such an old book if no reads it anymore? The answer is, of course, that people do read it, and will probably go on reading it for quite some time.

One of my “History of the English Language” books when I was in college was called In Forme of Speche is Chaunge. It was a collection of readings from different periods n the growth and development of the English Language, from it’s earliest written forms to its most modern and the earliest bore little resemblance to the latest. Because language is constantly changing books written in other languages have to be constantly retranslated, because an 18th century translation, for example, of a book like The Iliad will present difficulties to the modern English reader. I remember while reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene that for the English reader there were advantages to reading someone like Dante who is always re-translated into the current form of the language, but with Spenser I had to struggle through a language that was a bit anachronistic when it was written and was even more anachronistic to a 20th century reader like myself. Still, I believed at the time and still believe Spenser was worth the time I invested in him.


Trojan Women


Michael Cacoyannis, Director


The play, Trojan Women, on which this film was based, was written by the Greek playwright Euripides in the 5th century B. C. It is set even earlier in the Trojan War, the subject of Homer’s epic The Iliad mentioned above. This film version was made in the 1970’s and was seen as a commentary on the Vietnam War. Were it to be done again today there are conflicts aplenty about which it would have much to say. The scene in the clip focuses on a young child taken from his mother and killed. The child’s parentage makes him a threat to the Greek occupation. Easier to kill him now instead of later. The play at the very least reminds us that the horrors of war have always been seen as horrors. When Euripides wrote the play it was seen as a commentary on the Peloponnesian Wars and the behavior of the Athenians in that war. Like Swift’s Gulliver in the conflict between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscans, Euripides did not want to play a part in the subjugation of a free people.

Happiness often has a social component. It could be argued that Euripides wrote his play because the behavior of the society of his day impinged upon his happiness. It is difficult for a conscientious people to be happy when the behavior of the society in which they live disturbs their conscience. It is generally true that the majority of the people in a society, especially a free society, are relatively content. But at what cost is that contentment purchased? And if that cost is largely born by others, how easy is it to ignore the cost? Reading stories, even the classics, will not make one wise or virtuous in and of itself. But these books often raise the issues that a people of conscience ought to consider.

Swift once said of satire that it “is a kind of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” The problem with reading, even when that reading is in the wisest and most revealing of books, is that we often take only from them what we wish to take and leave the rest alone. Often it is the bit that is left alone that is essential for us to comprehend. Raskolnikov ended happily because he allowed himself to be changed. We all are shaped by history and we all have a history. One of the lessons that stories teach us is that all change begins with individuals and that to change a society we often need to begin by changing ourselves. It is often in these changes that happiness is found.


Painting of a woman guiding the hand of a child as he stands next to her and writes


Nikolaos GyzisΗistoria).jpeg

For What It’s Worth

Save the Country

Laura Nyro


For What It’s Worth


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

A study table

William Harnett


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


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


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


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


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

Clio, Euterpe and Thalie

Eustache Le Sueur


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


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

Page from the Book of Common Prayer, 1583


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


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


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

The Magdalen Reading

Rogier van der Weyden


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


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


Paul Bloom

TED Talk


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


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


Amit Snood

TED Talk


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


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


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


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

St Ivo

Roger van der Weyden

A Storied Life

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

A Storied Life

Medieval Town by Water

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

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

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

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

A portrait of Samuel Johnson
Joshua Reynolds

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

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


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

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

Elderly Man at a WindowYves Trevedy

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

The Young Student
Ozias Leduc

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

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


Elif Shafak
TED Talk

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

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

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


A Common Shelf

Make a Better World
Blind Boys of Alabama

A Common Shelf

Anonymous Commonplace book in manuscript

There is a series of books assembled in the early 1900’s by Charles Eliot, president of Harvard at the time, called the “Harvard Classics.” It has been nicknamed the “five foot bookshelf” as that is the size of the shelf required, at least so it is alleged, to hold all the volumes. The idea behind this “bookshelf” was that a person could receive a fairly complete education by spending fifteen minutes a day in these books. I m not sure that a lifetime of fifteen minute daily reading would get a person through everything on the “bookshelf” but it might, it probably depends on reading speed and comprehension of the reader, but it may well be doable.

There was once a practice of compiling “literary scrapbooks” called “commonplace books,” John Milton, for example, kept one. These books were literary journals of sorts in which a person jotted down quotes and passages encountered in the day’s reading, or just random ideas. These could then be reflected upon later, shared with others, or developed into reflective essays, poems, or stories. The photograph above is of such a commonplace book. It can be seen that they were not always neatly kept and the handwriting may be difficult to follow, but than it was more for personal than public consumption.

Virginia Woolf compiled two books of essays called A Common Reader (volumes one and two of course). They were essays on books and writers that were important to her and other “common readers” of her generation. The introduction to the first volume begins with a summary of Dr. Johnson’s definition of the common reader:

“The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing.”

The important thing to see in this is that people of all generations have had a shared literature, a literature that was important to the educated and the uneducated. It is said that Boston policemen could point out Henry James to tourists when Mr. James was walking about town. It was also to be understood that both the tourist and the policemen were familiar with Mr. James’ stories.

There was a recent article in The Guardian, “What happened to essential books?,” about the shared stories, or the lack of shared stories, among the present generation. The article laments the lack of a shared literature, though it acknowledges some shared stories that do not quite meet up to the author’s definition of literature. Perhaps the problem is with the author’s definition of literature, but I do not think so, time, though will tell. Of course those that are alive while a generations “literature” is being created are rarely the best judges of its quality or its endurance, so who is to say if it rises or not to a literary standard. It is probably best to suspend judgment on this generations shared stories and on their literary quality.

The song encourages us to “make a better world;” it encourages us to do this by singing together and the songs we sing together are another form of story telling, another kind of shared literature. The song encourages us to “love our neighbor” and to care for one another. Not a bad story to tell and a story that many of the classic and not so classic stories do tell. One of George Eliot’s characters ponders in Middlemarch, “What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult to each other.” The Blind Boys would probably echo that, as should we all. It is sentiment that is also found in the shared literature of many generations.

Canto 34 of Orlando Furioso
Francesco Franceschi

The images above and below were made to illustrate two narrative poems. My “common reader” would include many titles from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. The image above came from Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso and the image below is from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I enjoy these two poems because they are both epic and comic. I think Orlando Furioso is a cross between Jonathan Swift and J. R. R. Tolkien; it has moments of heroic struggle and of broad, satiric humor. On one level it follows in the tradition of Lucianic satire and on another level it is in the tradition of The Song of Roland with which it shares a hero. It is an adventure, for me anyway, full of laughter.

One thing I particularly enjoy about this poem is that one of the heroic knights of this story is a woman. This woman warrior character was also introduced into a few later poems inspired by Ariosto, Tasso’s Liberation of Jerusalem and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. These women are the ancestors of Kara Thrace, or as she is more commonly known, Starbuck, in the television series Battlestar Galactica, though she is a bit more worldly than her sixteenth century counterparts. When I first encountered these characters I was taken by surprise because they seemed so out of keeping for the patriarchal societies that created these stories. Perhaps there is a literary lesson in this as well about the danger of imposing our presumptions upon what we read.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Medieval Illumination

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also a comic adventure. On the comic side Sir Gawain with its courtly love gender reversal has elements in common with Billy Wilder’s film comedy Some Like It Hot with a bit of a nod to Damon Runyon’s advice concerning bets one should not take, while on the heroic side it is has all the splendor and adventure of King Arthur and his Round Table knights. The Gawain of this story is very likeable, unlike the Gawain of the Le Morte d’Arthur stories told by Thomas Malory. Gawain is also very human and we understand his failures and ought to realize we may not behave very differently under similar circumstances. But it succeeds for me because of its blend of humor and adventure.

What this suggests also is that those things that make us laugh, make us wonder, make us hang on to the edge of our seats have always made people, laugh and wonder and hang on to the edge of their seats. We may not always understand the nature of the humor due to differences in our cultures, but once those differences are explained the mysteries disappear, of course as with any joke that requires an explanation the humor, on this initial “go-round” anyway, disappears as well. It is difficult to know what makes a story resonate with one and not another. It is even more difficult, perhaps, for the lifelong reader to easily identify the kinds of stories she or he will enjoy, for anyone who has read extensively has been surprised by a story that falls outside the anointed categories. We often get around this by labeling the odd title as something other than it is. I had an English teacher who did not believe there existed such a thing as a well written science fiction story. Someone mentioned 1984 and he said that it was too well written to be science fiction. By this definition, of course, there is no such thing as a well written science fiction story, but is this definition honest.


Tintin – Destination Moon
Ellipse Programmé

The film clip is from a series of animated features based on Herge’s stories of Tintin. I am especially fond of this story because when I was child living in Granada Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, I remember walking down the main street one day and going up a side street. About a block up I came to a storefront with a series of pictures and cel transparencies from this animated film displayed in its big front window. There was no store at this “storefront,” the inside of the building appeared to be empty; there were just these wonderful pictures. Tintin and the movie title Destination Moon were referenced on the display but there was no one inside you could ask about what the display was for, nor was it displayed where anyone was likely to see it on this out of the way side street that neither foot nor automobile traffic was likely to find. I found it though and was fascinated by it.

When I grew older I sought out the stories and read some but it is this story that is the most significant of the Tintin stories for me because of the nature of my discovery of it and the mystery that surrounded it. If there had been someone in the shop that day I could have asked about the story I am not sure it would have had the impact that it had on me as a long unanswered question. There may not be a rhyme or reason that explains how a story makes it into our common reader, but the stories that do find a home there follow us wherever we go and become major destinations on the map of our life’s journey. To a degree they make us the people that we are, they fill more than our conversations and our memories, they shape our characters.

Cover of the Tintin comic book Destination Moon


Staying Well

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Keith Jarrett

Staying Well

Galen and Hippokrates from Anagni Italy
Photo: Nina Aldin Thune

The illustration is of two great physicians of the ancient world, Galen and Hippocrates. They both made early attempts at understanding the human body and what keeps the body in good health. This being National Mental Health month I have placed below a photograph of the “Father of Psychoanalysis” though some might contend that psychoanalysis is much older than Sigmund Freud. There was a review in the Guardian, “A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel,” of a new book, a collection of essays, by Alberto Manguel. The review quotes a passage from the book that summarizes Manguel’s thoughts on reading and why it is so important, “For a reader, this may be the essential, perhaps the only justification for literature: that the madness of the world will not take us over completely though it invades our cellars . . . and then softly takes over the dining room, the living room, the whole house.” In a nutshell reading keeps us sane and has been keeping us sane for many millennia, even if our only sane moments are those spent reading. It might also be said, in the spirit of Galen and Hippocrates, that in quieting the mind, the time spent reading also quiets the body and brings to the body a degree of healing and comfort; that reading is a kind of “Sabbath” for the mind, the soul, and the body.

Sigmund Freud
Max Halberstadt, 1921

The lyric to Fats Waller’s song “Ain’t Misbehavin’” begins, “No one to talk with / All by myself / No one to walk with / But I’m happy on the shelf / Ain’t Misbehavin’ / I’m savin’ my love for you.” The song evokes the loneliness of waiting for someone that is important to us while being true to that person. This is also a way in which reading can keep us sane; it can provide the company that we need. Of course when one is in love there is little that can adequately fill this time of waiting, probably not books, films, or music, though each does provide a kind of solace and sometimes each can remind us that we are not the first to experience this kind of anguish. Books and such can provide the company that misery often enjoys.

On the other side of the coin, though, it seems sometimes that we talk about reading like it were something mysterious and magical, that it is something separate and apart from the real world. To a certain degree it is a world unto itself that is incomprehensible to those that have not experienced its transformational power. Many read newspapers, magazines, and the like mainly for information or to keep up with things, much of this information is gotten from online venues that do not easily lend themselves to reading deeply. But these kinds of reading, whether read on paper or on a computer screen, are often done quickly, the material is skimmed through for the important facts and set aside, the reader of these rarely enters an alternative universe, is rarely “captured” by what has been read. In fact readers of this sort are often looking for ways to keep their footing in this world, to stay up to date, they are not interested in being introduced to new worlds, let alone spending any time living in them. Sometimes this would suggest that those that read deeply in fiction, poetry, essays, and such are looking to escape, are trying to avoid facing the world as it is by seeking refuge in a non-existent world crafted from some writer’s imagination; that it is just one more form of escapism.

My experience is that works of imagination (and not just literary works of imagination) deepen my appreciation and understanding of the world as it is, puts me more in touch with myself and those around me. But I also know that I am incapable of explaining clearly how this works to those that have not been touched by the power of language and the imagination, at least not in an active sense. I think there is a difference between those who actively engage a book or a film or a piece of music, those who interact with what they are hearing or seeing or reading, and those that just let the movie, or song, or book “happen” to them, who receive something from the work but do not give back to it anything of themselves, who do not dig deeply into themselves in response to the work I think there is a difference between those who actively engage a book or a film or a piece of music, those who interact with what they are hearing or seeing or reading, and those that just let the movie, or song, or book “happen” to them, who receive something from the work but do not give back to it anything of themselves, who do not dig deeply into themselves in response to the work. In this sense it is true that it is “more blessed to give than to receive” though unless you have had the experience you will probably remain unconvinced.

Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Football Match

The clip is of a famous soccer match. There was an article in the Guardian last week, “Who’s the thinker in the white?”, about a celebration commemorating this important match, a rematch of sorts with other philosophers taking part. I think there is something apropos in this match if one remembers that Plato argued for the training of both the mind and the body. It may seem that sports and the more sedentary work of reading and scholarship would be somewhat at odds with one another, but it is difficult for the mind to work well if the whole body is not well, and in that sense exercise and athletics are important. To study well it is important to know how to play well. I enjoy this Monty Python sketch because it is only after 89 minutes of play, or wandering, that one of the philosophers finally realizes what the point of the game is, to score goals. The field is full of German and Classical Greek philosophers trying to figure out what it is they are supposed to do, while Confucius, Augustine, and Aquinas officiate the match with some amusement. Sometimes I think when philosophy looses its narrative, its story, it forgets its purpose, like those philosophers playing soccer they know how to think and reflect on life, but have forgotten how to live it.

William Adolphe Bouguereau

One of the more famous love stories is that of “Cupid and Psyche.” It is not just a story from Classical mythology but one that has been incorporated into the folklore of different cultures. The painting above is of Psyche while the one below comes from a Norwegian retelling of the story called “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Psyche in the classical world represented the soul, the self, and the mind, that which defines us as individuals. Cupid, on the other hand, represents love, specifically physical love, that aspect of human experience that requires us to sacrifice a bit of ourselves in order to the meet needs of another, at least when practiced within a relationship. The Norwegian story focuses on the more mysterious qualities of the Cupid and Psyche story, the identity of the unknown lover. This suggests that what lies behind any successful marriage, perhaps any kind of successful relationship, is the realization that the other, no matter how well we know them, will always be a bit of a mystery, we will never know and understand everything about this other person, as the other will never fully know and understand us. The problem for the characters in these stories is to learn to live with and accept this unknown quality of the other.

This illustration came from:
Asbjornsen, Peter Christen and Moe, Jorgen. East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North. Kay Nielsen, illustrator. New York: George H. Doran, n.d. [1914].

The allegorical quality of Psyche that I find most interesting, though, is her connection to the mind. From this perspective the relationship between Cupid and Psyche suggests the relationship between the intellect and the emotions. Being fully human means giving both our mind and our emotions equal opportunities to grow and develop and be fully realized. Suppression of either is not healthy. Reading often provides an opportunity to exercise both the intellect and the emotions. Stories, poems, and essays make me think and feel and encourage me to recognize when each (thinking or feeling) is the more appropriate response or, as is often the case, when a bit of both is required. But again this is probably a subjective response based on my experience and practice.

I first saw the painting below when it was used as the cover illustration for my edition of Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. It evokes the world of the bibliophile. Books like Benet’s encyclopedia give thumb nail sketches of many different works; provide a brief introduction to writers and their books. They are travelogues of a sort, where the books themselves are the journeys. But they come with a caution, or ought to. The painting suggests that the reader, like the philosophers in the soccer match, needs to engage the world beyond the library. The worlds of the imagination can be seductive and may be reluctant to let us go once they have ensnared us. The value of reading, like any human enterprise, is measured by its contribution to a life well lived. A book can become like a map and a mirror, that both shows us a bit of who we are while helping us to discover where we are going. But it can also become a shell in which we can hide, a place to go to escape unpleasant realities, and though this may be a useful thing to do from time to time, one must be cautious. A book, like any tool, is only as effective as the one wielding it. It is not the tool that is important, but the work it is given to do.

The Bookworm
Carl Spitzweg

Spending Time

Who Knows Where the Time Goes
Sandy Denny

Spending Time

Woman Reading
Utagawa Kuniyoshi,_Woman_reading.jpg

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

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

The elephant clock from Al-Jazari’s manuscript

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

Clock of al-Jazari

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

The Corpus Clock & Chronophage
John Taylor

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

Iliad VIII 245-253 in codex F205,_Milan,_Biblioteca_Ambrosiana,_late_5c_or_early_6c.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

The Reader
Jean Honoré Fragonard,_The_Reader.jpg

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.

Reading all the Signs

Long Way Home
Tom Waits

Reading all the Signs

Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze
Hans Holbein,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Children’s Games
Pieter Breughel the ElderÄ._041.jpg

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

“The Dirigible”
Alfred Stieglitz

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

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

The Tetons and the Snake River
Ansel Adams

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

Jacques Tati

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

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

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

A Wicked Good Guy

Bad Man’s Blunder
The Kingston Trio

A Wicked Good Guy

King Richard III

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

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

Gustave Dore

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

Egill Skallagrímsson from Medieval Illustrated Manuscript

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

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

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

A Dime Novel Featuring Jesse James

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

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

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

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

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from Frankenstein