Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes

Autumn to May

Taj Mahal

Journeys to Imaginary Landscapes


Gulliver in Brobdingnag

Richard Redgrave

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

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

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


Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle

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

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


Shwedagon Pagoda

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


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

Thomas Cole

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

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

The Martian Chronicles


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

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

Shiver Me Timbers
Tom Waits

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

The Clipper Ship “Flying Cloud” off the Needles, Isle of WightJames E. Buttersworth

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

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

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

Book of Kells, Incipit to John

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

Lindisfarne Gospels, Incipit to the Gospel of Matthew

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

Lingsberg Runestone,_Lingsberg.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

At the Moment

The Next Big Thing
Vince Gill

At the Moment

Rose Window, Strasbourg Cathedral

I am a schoolteacher. At the beginning of a school year it is important, I think, to consider what the new year has to offer and what ought to change and not change as a result of the summer’s reflection on the previous year. When is new better and when should the “old ways” be preserved. The song suggests that everything is ephemeral; it has its moment in the sun and then becomes passé and yesterday’s news. Vince Gill is speaking specifically of the music industry but this view of things permeates many other areas of our culture.

With the intense focus this view places on the new and the momentary it is difficult to put much of anything into a larger context. This view has also produced a dismissive attitude towards cultural landmarks, whether they are musical, literary, or some other aspect of our cultural identity. This preoccupation with the present also seems to bring with it a resistance to long term planning. Thinking too much about the past or the future makes it difficult to live effectively in the present moment. It is unwise to live too much in the past or the future, but it is difficult to build a meaningful future without some planning and it is difficult to plan well if we cannot fit our planning into an historical context.

The rose window on the other hand was designed to provoke contemplation, to free us from the “tyranny of the moment.” To me the rose window suggests a kaleidoscopic mandala and its beauty is in the way it diffuses light and color. The rose window also suggests the “next big thing” isn’t that big in the context of time and the universe. As a culture there may be a place for us to build a metaphoric rose window in the mind that invites us to contemplate things outside our own scope and experience and to measure our own accomplishments against a larger yardstick.

In this week’s Boston Globe there was an interview with Marianne Taylor on “The definition of cool.” As a term it resists definition, according to Taylor, and there is more to it than what is currently popular, though it seems that it is often a currency of the moment. Perhaps more than anything else “cool” is a kind of charisma that can attach itself to objects, ideas, or people. A large part of cool though seems to come down to attitude, an edgy, confront the status quo sort of attitude, though one must be careful because in some circles confronting the status quo is the status quo. I think, though, the discussion of cool suggests that too often we attach value to surfaces, as attitude is largely a “surface”, that conceals some turbulent currents beneath.

The Illinois
Frank Lloyd Wright

The sketch is of a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was planned to be a mile high and eventually had to be put aside as unworkable because at the time there were no elevators that could accommodate the design and folks were unlikely to climb stairs a mile in each direction. In order for the next big thing to become the next big thing, I suppose, the technology necessary for its support must exist. Still, it is an elegant looking building and with current technology might even be workable, though the cultural moment for a design of this kind has probably passed.

Ultimately it is about assessing value. What is worthy of preservation; what is worthy of study? Wright was one of America’s great architects, but not all of his buildings have survived. Some were torn down to make way for other buildings. What does that do to the “legacy” of Wright, where did the buildings that were destroyed stand in relation to the body of his work? There is also in this a suggestion as to the purpose of art, especially arts like architecture that are at least in part functional. What if these buildings of Wright’s that were destroyed no longer satisfied the function for which they were built. As an English teacher it is important to ask which literary texts are worthy of preservation and study and which need to be metaphorically pulled down to make way for other edifices.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Frank Gehry

A building like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao could probably not be built in Wright’s time. It takes architecture in a different direction and might be the epitome of architectural “cool” for our time. It reminds me of the buildings one often sees in animated cartoons, like the “Toon Town” section of Los Angeles as seen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But there has also been criticism of Gehry’s style because many of those that work in the buildings he has designed complain about their not being “user friendly” spaces. This is a problem because buildings are not sculpture, though there may be qualities they share in common, and though a well designed building ought to be pleasing to the eye, its ultimate purpose is to serve the people that work in it.

Books are not buildings and we do not live in a book in the way we live in a house, still there is a sense in which readers do occupy a book and in the course of reading it live in the world the book creates. But where a building ought to be designed with the comfort of those it houses in mind, the same is not necessarily true of a book. Good books often make us feel uncomfortable. Often books hold ourselves up to ourselves for scrutiny and that is often not a pleasant experience, but it is, nonetheless, an important thing to do from time to time.

There was an article by Susan Straight in the New York Times this week, “Reading by the Numbers“ about how reading is being assigned and assessed in schools. It concerns a piece of software used by some schools to help encourage students to read. The program assigns point values to books and when students accumulate so many points for the outside reading they have done they are awarded (in some schools, though not in all schools that use the program) a prize.

The article focuses on the point values assigned to various books and tries to understand the “reading” values the program is trying to inculcate and the correlation between the number of points a book is worth and the quality of that book as literature. Some books that are not particularly challenging are worth quite a lot of points while other books that are quite challenging are not worth many points at all. Heart of Darkness, for example, is worth ten points while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was worth forty-four points. Hamlet was worth seven points while the Gossip Girl series was worth eight points.
Perhaps it is just because I teach English, but something does not seem right here.

Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816)
John Constable

Of course one must be careful. We all live on the cusp of change as one style of writing (or of doing most any art) is morphing into what comes next. The paintings above and below suggest this potential problem. Constable and Turner were contemporaries, or nearly so, but Constable remained true to a realistic style of painting that was popular when he began to work while Turner’s style was anticipating the Impressionist painters that would come a bit later. Both painters did fine work but one was a bit behind the times and the other a bit ahead of his time. An attitude toward literary texts that is too focused on past greatness is going to miss the work of writers who, like Turner, are producing the “next big thing”, the thing that will make our time memorable to those who will back at it.

Chichester Canal circa 1828
J. M. W. Turner

It can be difficult to make judgments about the work that is done in our own time because we are too close to it. C. S. Lewis once observed in a book, The Allegory of Love, about the courtly love poets, “For it must be noticed that such dominance (the dominance of a literary form in any given age) is not necessarily good for the form that enjoys it. When everyone feels it natural to attempt the same kind of writing, that kind is in danger. Its characteristics are formalized. A stereotyped monotony, unnoticed by contemporaries, but cruelly apparent to posterity, begins to pervade it.” Contemporary literary forms that enjoy some popularity, like meta-fiction or stories that rely heavily on stream of consciousness, are probably in danger of falling into this kind of stylistic “monotony.” This may not be obvious to readers today but is likely to be very obvious to readers a few generations from now.

The Shock of the New: “David Hockney on What’s Unphotographable”

This film clip from the television series The Shock of the New suggests another aspect of how we assess an art form. David Hockney talks about how he experimented with photographs and discovered that though both photographs and paintings are visual representations of a subject they were not equally effective in capturing the essence of that subject. Hockney is specifically talking about a painting he did of the Alhambra in Spain. He said he could never capture it adequately in a photograph, but he was pleased with the result of his painting. The image of the painting is not realistic and does not offer a recognizable representation of the Alhambra. If it were put next to a photograph of the building the viewer may not realize that the photograph and the painting were of the same building, nor would someone having seen Hockney’s painting recognize the Alhambra if she or he visited it in Spain.

But it is not the purpose of a work of art to produce “photographic” images of a thing. An historical novel with Abraham Lincoln in it as a character is not as obligated to produce the “real” Lincoln in its pages, as is a biography or a work of history. Novels often tell stories that mix elements of fantasy or the fanciful in an otherwise realistic story. Novelists like Garcia Gabriel Marquez or Robertson Davies tell stories that move through a world that in many ways resemble the world in which we live and move, but at times these worlds are penetrated by a “non-realistic” reality that does not coincide with the world as most people experience it. This artistic license does not detract from the artistry of the books but in fact serve that artistry in much the same way that Hockney’s art serves his painting.

It can be difficult maintaining a balance between the artistic legacy we have inherited and the modern age. It is important to preserve a sense of the past and the historical and cultural streams that have brought us to where we are but it is also important to remain receptive to the work that flows from the influences of this legacy. As rose windows provided an opportunity to contemplate what is holy in the world, the gargoyle provided the opportunity to contemplate those forces that are dedicated to our ruin and the ultimate ruin of those forces. Perhaps in this gargoyle from the National Cathedral in Washington D. C. there is an apt object for contemplation that focuses our meditations on the value of the traditions that have brought us to our moment and the value of our moment’s contribution to those traditions and perhaps that which has value from each stream will cleanse the mundane from both.

Darth Vader grotesque on the tower of the Washington National Cathedral

A Taste for the Unusual

Frim Fram Sauce
Diana Krall

A Taste for the Unusual

Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Brueghel the Elder

I do not know what “frim fram” sauce, “oss-en-fay”, or “sha fafa” are, for all I know they may just be the invention of the lyricist. But I like the song because it suggests to me the importance of being a little bit adventurous with our tastes. It is the only way we find out that “fast food” is not the only source of a tasty meal, in fact it may be the only way we discover how “un-tasty” a fast food meal actually is. We often like what we like because it is familiar. How do we ever become familiar with what is unknown to us if we do not take a bit of a risk with something new, unusual, and exotic.

There is nothing wrong with potatoes, tomatoes, steak or any of the other foods that the persona of the song would like to take a pass on, they are all tasty, but they are also somewhat “clichéd,” somewhat “safe.” Generally when I am looking for something to read there are two things that attract me to a book, the author or the cover. If I know the author and have liked what that author has done in the past, I may give the book a try, if I do not know the author it is generally the cover art that captures my attention. The first is often a safe bet, these books are the potatoes and the tomatoes. The second requires a bit of an adventurous spirit, but not that much, because what usually captures my attention about the cover is its ability to evoke the kind of book with which I am already familiar and comfortable. I think we are often attracted to those things, whether in art, music, or literature that promise to deliver an experience that resembles one we have already had.

The painting is a pleasant scene of an active medieval or renaissance street. It is also somewhat typical of Brueghel’s style and delivers the kind of artistic experience we would expect from a Brueghel painting. But the title tells us there is also something more to the painting than the odd people and the quirky landscape. It contains about a hundred different Flemish proverbs, acted out after a fashion by the “actors” in the scene. For example, in the lower left hand corner there is a woman with a water bucket in one hand and tongs with a hot coal in the other. This suggests a proverb about carrying fire in one hand and water in the other, which is to suggest the person is a bit of a hypocrite. Just ahead of her is a man banging his head against a wall, a proverb with which most are familiar.

I used to give this painting to students at the end of the school year (I knew the painting as “The Blue Cloak” because, I suppose, at the center of the painting is a person wearing a blue cloak) and would give them so many points extra credit for each proverb they could find and explain. I would also give them the list of proverbs the painting illustrates. They only had to find ten and most did pretty well. But the thing about the painting that is a bit quirky is that instead of being a picture that might “paint a thousand words”, it is “words painting a hundred pictures.” Though we often gravitate toward the familiar it is often those things that do something new and unfamiliar that are the most memorable.

There was an article in the Boston Globe recently by Joan Wickersham, “If Jane Austen had a laptop”, that speculated on how Jane Austen might have responded to things like “Twitter,” (it suggests that she would have especially enjoyed using certain “search engines”). The article is a fanciful speculation on a technology driven Ms. Jane but it also suggests that we are products of our culture and were Ms. Austen living with us she too would be a product of our age, just as we are products after a fashion of Ms. Austen’s age, and the ages of other writers whose works have shaped our culture. Once a work of art has touched us, it changes us a bit and the way we look at the world around us. We may not wear Regency clothing, but we have entered and been touched by a Regency way of viewing the world and, while in the world of the book, adopted a bit of that view.

Red Mobile
Alexander Calder

The photograph of the Calder mobile and the Matisse paper cuttings suggest another way that art often surprises. Both the mobile and paper cuttings are associated with children and the nursery. Calder and Matisse both pursued “serious” art, one a sculptor the other a painter. They are working with the ingredients of their perspective mediums but they are not working with them in the way we would expect. Part of the reason the art works with the viewer is perhaps because it evokes the nursery and a more innocent and carefree time. There is I think something liberating about a mobile, something that provokes a smile or a chuckle in part because it is not what we expected to find on the menu when we entered the museum.

There was an ad for Pacific Life that used to play at the end of the News Hour on PBS with Jim Lehrer. It was an animation of a whale, the trademark of the insurance company. But the whale would morph from a whale painted in the style of Seurat to a whale in the style of Van Gogh, to a whale in the style of Monet, Picasso, and Calder. It was an imaginative ad, but I wonder how many viewers would recognize how the ad’s creator was playing with artistic trademarks. The ad also suggests that art can sell a product, perhaps in part because the viewer of the ad is not entirely familiar with what is happening, but I think it is even more effective with the viewer that recognizes what the ad maker is doing. In a sense, by playing with artistic styles and expecting the viewer to recognize the styles the advertiser is motivating us to buy the product by flattering our knowledge and sophistication. There is the “story” of the ad’s narration, “buy this product” and the more subliminal story of the ad’s presentation that tells a story of sorts about the history of art, of whales, and insurance, suggesting, perhaps, they have something in common.

The Sorrows of the King
Henri Matisse

Stories often do this as well. There are many stories written for children that operate exclusively at the child’s level. The adult reader might still enjoy the story, who cannot enjoy The Cat in the Hat, or Goodnight Moon, but the story does not operate at a level that the adult recognizes that the child does not. On the other hand there are other stories associated with children, like Gulliver’s Travels (at least the first two voyages sans a scene or two) and Alice and Wonderland. These books can delight the child but there are other things going on that only an adult would fully appreciate. I remember seeing in a used bookstore a book titled A Boy’s Rabelais. There are aspects of Rabelais that a child might find enjoyable, but there is much about the good friar’s book that may not be entirely suitable for children. It is a book one would not expect to find on the children’s “menu.”

This is, I think, the real reason we incorporate literature in our English classes. The main purpose of the class is to teach fluency with language and ideas and help students to develop a facility with language that will contribute to their future success. But it is also important to help students develop a “sense of adventure” in the choices they make. They know the Phantom Tollbooth or Harry Potter or Vampires living in the great Northwest. These are their “meat and potatoes” so to speak. There are other “foods” that come with more exotic flavors, flavors that may not be initially pleasant (I am told that children do not find sweets tasty at first, they need to acquire the taste) but with time become flavors we cannot live without. We will never outgrow our parochial flavors if someone does not bring to our attention the other flavors that might be experienced and over time enjoyed.

The Sleeping Gypsy
Henri Rousseau

The painting of the lion and the sleeping gypsy evokes another kind of magic. The dreamer does not know what is happening in the world while she or he is captured by the dream. The gypsy may be dreaming of pastures and a flock of sheep while the real world is full of lions, or at least, a lion. To what extent are we safe in our sleep; whether it is the real sleeping we do each night or the sleep of a mind that is unaware of what it needs to learn or the consequences of failing to learn. When we dream the world of the dream is real. I know that often when I dream I come to the dream with a complete history that is not my history, I have memories of experiences I have never experienced, at least not in my waking hours, and I remember them vividly. This world seems real and it serves a purpose, dreams are important.

But what of the waking world; what of the world in which we work and earn our bread? The quality of the bread we earn is often shaped by the quality of the education we receive and the confidence that education gives us to explore the unfamiliar. We read great works of literature from the past not because they feed us a familiar food that goes down easily, but because they feed us a food that though more nourishing, is not always palatable with the first bite. We give students that first taste so that they can go on to develop their intellectual palates. In this sense the English class is more of a restaurant or a tasting room serving exotic foods than a “skills factory.”

The world of the children’s story prepares us for the world of the unfamiliar. If nothing else, the stories we read as children were new and different and unfamiliar when we first read and enjoyed them. They also, often, take us to unexpected places. A character opens a door, goes on a trip, meets a strange person and reality takes an unexpected turn. This is often true of the stories adults read as well. When David Balfour went to sea he did not expect to be kidnapped, he did not deserve to be kidnapped. But through the process of being kidnapped he learns some things about himself and human nature. There is a sense that all stories, or at least the good ones, kidnap their readers and take them to unexpected places. But we have to board the ship, even if we would rather make a different journey.

Hitchcock on Film

The film clip is old and shows its age, it is also in Black and White. But I think Hitchcock makes some important points about story telling. Not least among them that a good story will often set us up for a cliché and just when we expect the cliché the story delivers something entirely unexpected. A good story will in some way surprise us. He also does not believe we need to understand everything in the story, in fact, stories often proceed from something that is suggested but never explained. In many of Hitchcock’s films we do not know why people are chasing other people. Why does James Mason want so badly to catch and to kill Carey Grant? Hitchcock called this unknown something a “McGuffin.” When asked to explain the term he tells a story about a scene from an old film. There are two men on a train going to the Scottish Highlands. One of the travelers asks the other what’s that package in the overhead rack. His fellow traveler tells him, “That’s a McGuffin”. They then have this conversation:

“What’s a McGuffin”?

“A McGuffin is a machine for trapping lions in the Highlands of Scotland.”

“But there are no lions in the Highlands of Scotland.”

“Than that’s no McGuffin.”

At the end of the conversation we know no more about what a McGuffin is than we did before the conversation took place. This is also often true about what motivates characters to do the things they do in stories, or at least the stories that Hitchcock tells. But we do not mind; if the characters are interesting and the storyteller does things that surprise us. Why does Iago want so badly to harm Othello? Is disappointment at being passed over for a promotion enough to explain Iago’s behavior? Why is Voltimort such a bad guy? Is his unhappy childhood enough of an explanation? I do not know, but what is more important, I do not need to know to enjoy the story.

I think Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose has one of the most moving closing lines of any book I have read. The problem with quoting a closing line (and why I won’t do it) is that, unlike a good opening line, it depends for its power on all that has come before. Stegner has introduced us to a man we thought we knew well by the end of the novel and the reader, or at least this reader, expected to part company with a certain kind of man. The last line of the book showed me how the man had unexpectedly changed and that change changed me. This is why it is important to be adventurous in our reading and our living. The familiar does not change us much, we expect it, we know it, it is only the unknown that can show us sides of ourselves we never knew before.

When the Saints Go Marching In

You Are So Beautiful
Joe Cocker

When the Saints Go Marching In

Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

The Venerable Bede was one of the first English writers to make a literary impact, at least one of the first whose name we actually know. Actually he is St. Bede but he was called venerable for over a millennia before he was finally canonized and I guess the notion of St. Bede never really became that popular. Perhaps old habits are hard to break and thousand year habits can be especially obdurate. But though he has been declared worthy of honor and a saint, is he “literary” in the “canonical sense?

Bede is in every anthology I have ever used from my years as a student throughout my time as a teacher. He is, or at least his writing is, in the words of Joe Cocker, “so beautiful to me.” But then beauty is in the eye of the beholder and many writers with the detritus of a millennium or more between them and the readers of the day are found wanting; it is difficult to believe they can offer anything of value to those who are so different from them and whose times bear so little resemblance to theirs. But some aspects of the human character do not change all that much or even if they do, they still need a similar kind of nourishment.

Saint Thomas More
Hans Holbein the Younger

Saint Thomas More is, at least in the eyes of most canon builders, a literary saint as well as an ecclesiastical one. Though his little book was not the first to create such a world, it has given its name to all attempts to imagine the perfect world on earth, as well as, by playing a bit with that word he coined, the name for the “worst of all possible worlds.” Which is appropriate because the attentive reader notices at some point during the journey through the book that More’s “utopia” is, in the mind of More, a bit of a dystopia. There are at least two genres of fiction (Utopic/Dystopic and satiric fiction) that we cannot talk intelligently about without tipping our hat to More. Perhaps what is needed in order to sort through all the candidates that present themselves for “canonization” are some clear rules, some steps we can follow on the road to literary sanctification that help the reader and the student to understand what it is about the book and the writer that make them worthy of our attention not just today but for all the days before us.

The Catholic Church has been canonizing people for ages and ages and the process they have established can offer guidance in establishing a path to its literary counterpart. There are five steps that must be gone through to be canonized a saint. Of course, it should also be remembered that the canonization process cannot be started until after the death of the candidate. In the case of books it is to be hoped that books continue to “live and thrive” and in fact would have to do so if they are to be considered, but perhaps the process of considering them should not begin until after the death of their authors. The church has its name for each step but they might be adapted to things literary:

Steps to Canonization

  • Workman Like (Writing)
  • Not a Cult Classic”
  • Venerable
  • Beautiful
  • Literary Classic

To even be considered, a book has to get over a basic hurdle, the writing must seen to be workman like and competent. How this is judged of course can be problematic. It is the nature of great art of all genres and forms to innovate, to, in the words of Ezra Pound, “make it new” in some way. This means that there will be resistance to the writing and that perhaps initial reviews of it will be brutal. Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, “that’s not writing, it’s typing.” Still it remains a staple of bookstores to this day and is still sought out by new readers. This would suggest that there might be a bit more to it than typing. It may be necessary to be a bit generous with this stage in the process and to accept that those nominating the candidate are individuals of good will deserving more benefits than doubts.

Copy of cover of September, 1947 edition of Fantastic Adventures

Some books are read and studied because they have a cult following. I remember reading in an article on best seller lists how groups that wanted to lend legitimacy to their movement would buy up books their leader published. The example they used was Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard books (Hubbard got his start writing stories for publications like Fantastic Adventures that published stories for a kind of select readership). I do not know how much truth there is to this but for purposes of canonization there has to be something substantial to recommend the book. There are books that are taught year to year because they happen to be in the book closet and perhaps the definition of a cult should be expanded to include that. But this, too, can be difficult.

Many writers progress to a revered status within a culture that began as cult writers. It was not unusual to see Philip K. Dick referred to in this way, but he has recently been awarded his own place in the Library of America, a publisher that, usually, only prints books of those writers deemed to be America’s best. So perhaps there needs to be some flexibility here as well and in all probability if the writer is only a cult writer most followers are not likely to outlive the “master” and the difficulty in this sense resolves itself.

The Little Engine that Could, cover from a 1953 edition of a children’s book

This is a book that has played a “venerable” role in the development of many a child and as such is probably worthy of elevation to the place held by Bede for so many centuries. I do not know if it is “canonical” but it taught me a lesson that has stayed with me throughout my life, that I should never give up no matter how hopeless things may look. There are a slew of books that played such a role in my childhood, stories like Stone Soup and Jack and the Beanstalk when I was very young to the stories of H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jules Verne when I was a bit older. Some speak of Goodnight Moon, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys in a similar fashion and perhaps they too, are worthy of a revered place, though the quality of the writing in some is dubious, I think.

That said, I am told many women have gone on to achieve amazing things under the inspiration and example of Ms. Drew. Tom Swift encouraged me to puzzle things out and piqued an interest in things scientific. Looking back at these books today their language seems dated and in some instances they contain troubling examples of the cultural underbelly of America of the 1930’s and 1940’s. But they did inspire. There was an article about race and fiction a few years ago that pointed out how Margaret Mitchell’s book Gone with the Wind is very popular among African-American women even though many see the book as rife with racial stereotypes. Perhaps this is the proper place for flawed books that have done some good in their time.

David Ulin in an article in the Los Angeles Times, “The lost art of reading”, talks about struggling to read. He is a “reading professional” not just a reviewer of books but the book editor of the paper. The article focuses on some of the problems modern readers have carving out the kind of time necessary to do real reading and that the demands and troubles of the day often keep us from spending the kind of time reading that we ought. Larry McMurtry in his book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen writes about how after having had open-heart surgery he could motivate himself to read. The trauma of the event overwhelmed him. He forced himself to read Proust and after getting through these long and beautiful books his love of reading returned, but there were a few years when it looked like it might not. Ulin in his article describe his experience with this loss of desire:

“So what happened? It isn’t a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.”

To be deemed venerable a book must be able to do this. Perhaps it will aspire to, and achieve, greater things, but even if it does not a book that can transport us in this way deserves a special place on the shelf.

Charles Dickens
Daniel Maclise

Being a wordy Victorian, Charles Dickens is often among the writers that have been revered in the past that folks want to send into exile today. Personally I think Mr. Dickens is among the greatest of the saints, but not all agree. Within Catholicism one cannot be “beatified” unless a miracle has taken place by this person’s intersession, after her or his death of course. Where this may be a difficult bar for people to cross I do not think this is as true of the books we read. Books that change us have performed a miracle of sorts, they have delivered the reader from a kind of blindness, scales have been removed and the reader sees what once unseeable. In the case of Dickens, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and The Pickwick Papers, among others, have performed this office.

Ron Rosenbaum writes in The Shakespeare Wars that he got tickets to see Trevor Nunn’s staging of Hamlet and Pete Brook’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He says, “The Hamlet was memorable, one of the best I have ever seen. But it was the Dream that changed my life. (p 8) He then goes on to describe all the changes that took place in him. He also goes on to point out that it changed everyone he met since who saw that production. I do not know how true these statements are, but they should be verifiable. There are surely folks who could attest to the kind of person and scholar Rosenbaum was before he saw this production and the person and scholar he has become.

I know there are those that will look at this as so much facetiousness and even, perhaps, a bit silly. But I really think this is the heart of the matter for books that are elevated to the canon, or just shy of the canon. They are books that over a great many years continue to change people. There are people who after reading Plato’s Republic were forever changed so profoundly they went on to change others. That is one of the roles of the saints in the church, I suppose, they are people whose faith changed the faith of others who went on to change the faith of others still. Perhaps this is too much to ask of a book. But by their very nature the beautiful and the sublime change people, that is part of what it means to be not just pretty, but beautiful, sublime.

Frontispiece to Milton, Prophetic Book by William Blake

Milton is one of those poets who is difficult to know how to take. Blake admired Milton greatly; the engraving above is for an epic poem he wrote about Milton. He writes toward the beginning of the poem “With thunders loud and terrible: so Milton’s shadow fell/ Precipitant loud thund’ring into the Sea of Time & Space. / Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star. / Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift: / And on my left foot falling on the tarsus, enter’d there, / But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe.” The tarsus is the heel and ankle of the foot and Blake seems to be suggesting Milton entered into the bones of his foot and came to dwell there and to inspire Blake to write his poetry. This is truly something miraculous, though I doubt it can be proven.

Still, Milton’s poetry has moved and changed readers from the moment it was first published. I had a student in my class a number of years ago. He was a bright but not very motivated student, I do not even remember if he passed the class. But just before the Christmas break we were looking at some passages from Paradise Lost. It is a hard sell under the best of circumstances and the circumstances surrounding our reading of the poem that day were more typical than extraordinary. But this student was captured by the poem. He spent the Christmas holiday reading it. He said he missed his stop on the Boston underground he was so engrossed. Perhaps he was just trying to impress me, but I do not think so because he could talk enthusiastically about details in the poem that obviously moved him. It may not have made him a good student, but it did make him a literary traveler. There are books that do this, old books, that require some assistance if they are going to be understood and they are worth taking the time to understand.

From Gulliver’s Travels
Lion’s Gate

The film clip is from one of the many films made of the book Gulliver’s Travels. In this clip, Gulliver brings great writers, politicians, thinkers, and a few scoundrels back from the dead to explain themselves to him. Many are the literary saints of Swift’s imagination, the great writers of Classical Greece and Rome mostly. One of Swift’s more enduring books is The Battle of the Books. It is an imaginary combat between the new writers of Swift’s age and those of the past, mostly the distant past. This struggle that we see today about what to include in the curriculum and what to teach is an old one. Part of the problem is that every age is “young” when compared with the flow of history and like many children believe they are much smarter than their elders. Were we to number our ages in decades rather than years we might reach that age where we are amazed by how much our elders have learn.

Though we may not all agree on what makes a great book great, or what books ought to be included in the canon of great books, we all know books that have changed lives and have changed us. No one of us needs to teach all these books, but we all need to have books that are old, venerable, beautiful, and saintly. Thomas Love Peacock in his book Nightmare Abbey talks about the education of Scythrop (a thinly disguised caricature of the poet Shelley). He says, “When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head.” If we want the schools of today to do more than this there needs to be something enduring that is passed along and cultivated. There needs to be less beating and threshing and more transformation and introducing students to those things with the power to transform. The books that do this are not understood easily and they need a teacher to introduce them to a world that has forgotten them.

What’s That You Say

Crazy Words, Crazy Tune
Jim Kweskin Jug Band

What’s That You Say

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
Charles Demuth

When Polonius asks Hamlet, “Whatcha readin’” (Polonius asks this a bit more eloquently than I quote him here) Hamlet responds, “Words, words, words.” Words are a major form of human communication, who knows, maybe non-human communication as well. According to Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band when Washington was at Valley Forge all he could say (or sing) was bododiyo-bododiyo-do. I am not certain what that means, but it communicates a kind of carefree joyousness. It is not always necessary for words to mean something, at least not something Dr. Johnson or Noah Webster would put in their dictionaries.

Images are another way we communicate. Pictures often tell stories. The painting above tries to do visually what the William Carlos Williams poem “The Great Figure” does with words.

Among the rain and lights I saw the figure 5 in gold on a red firetruck moving tense unheeded to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city

If we read the words and then look at the picture (or look at the picture and then read the words) we can see that there is something similar going on in both. We might interpret the picture differently if we did not know the poem, but the title tells us that the painter is trying to evoke the poem. Does he succeed at communicating everything the poem suggests? Does the poem capture everything that is in the painting? There is a relationship between the poem and the picture, but they each have their own lives as well.

There is a movement in some intellectual circles that would suggest that words do not mean much and perhaps they are right. They would tell us that we do not all mean exactly the same things by the words we use. Some lawyers have crafted a profession out of telling us what words might mean as opposed to what they were clearly intended to mean. As a result torture, which is illegal, becomes something more “benign” that conforms to the letter of the law, as some lawyers would shape that letter. And of course it is clear to most anyone who has more than a passing relationship with language that words are ambiguous and often contain many meanings. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis on the eve of the Civil War might have expressed their intention to cleave the nation and both would have been right by their understanding of the word, for cleave is one of those words that is its own opposite, it can mean to join together (as a man shall cleave unto his wife) or to cut into pieces (as we do to a piece of meat when we use a “cleaver”). Still if we heard each of these men use this word in the manner I suggest it would probably be clear from the context of each man’s words which definition of the word was intended.

In addition, words are often what hold us together as people. The promises we make speak to our integrity, the laws we write shape our society, the treaties we enter into shape our relationships with the rest of the world. These are all expressed using words, often using words chosen very carefully to assure that all parties share a common understanding of those words. Tristram Hunt in a review of Edward Vallance’s book A Radical History of Britain (“The People’s History”) discusses the importance of the Magna Charta to the evolution of liberty in western culture, especially British culture. He points out that though this charter has been used since the 13th century to defend liberty and legal due process and though its “language” may be clear it “has never proved very effective at countering the will of princes or parliaments.” This is I suppose another problem with language, those with the power to ignore it or to make it mean something counter to its intent are free to use their power to make it mean what they want it to mean. It can come down to the argument Socrates tries to refute in The Republic that justice is the will of the strong. Can words alone protect a people from tyranny?

Political Graffiti from Pompei

This image, as the title tells us, is a bit of graffiti from Pompei. It is of a politician who, even if he wasn’t as near sighted, seems to resemble a cartoon character from my youth, Mr. Magoo. It is sometimes easier to fight those in power with anonymous satirical drawing than with documents that identify their authors. Ridicule can often do more damage to those that abuse their position than an expose in the newspaper. Ridicule often makes clear how indefensible the indefensible is. Jonathan Swift published a series of letters; The Draper Letters that attacked with ridicule a plan of the British government to flood Ireland with worthless currency. The letters were unsigned but everyone knew their author, though, no one could prove authorship. The British government offered a substantial reward to anyone who would provide evidence that could be used to catch and to convict the Dublin “Draper” but no one would come forward.

Daniel Defoe got himself into a similar bit of trouble and was sentenced to be pilloried. This was often a death sentence because folks would come by and throw objects at the person in the pillory, which the pilloried individual was helpless to defend against. Instead of throwing lethal objects at Defoe, those in attendance threw flowers and drank his health. He was after a few days removed from the pillory and sent to prison because it was feared his popularity would foment a riot. Perhaps words do have power and mean what they mean despite the efforts of those in authority to make them mean something else.

The Diogenes of the Modern Corinthians without his Tub (Thomas Carlyle)
Max Beerbohm

Of course there is another side to ridicule, those ridiculed are not always deserving of the treatment. Sir Walter Scott said, “Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble.” Language does not lose its power to afflict when those against whom it is directed are undeserving of the affliction, nor does the visual image when it is a fine fellow that is being caricatured in an unflattering fashion. Carlyle may have been an easy fellow to dislike (I am told he was) but he had a point of view and expressed it well. I am not sure if Beerbohm intended to harm or just to have some fun with Carlyle, and for all I know Carlyle may have enjoyed the characterization. I am also not sure if by depicting Carlyle in a pose that clearly evokes that of Whistler’s famous painting of his mother Whistler is flattering Carlyle, regardless of the accuracy of the representation. Perhaps it was viewed differently in its own time than it is today.

Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 2 Thomas Carlye
James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Perhaps this is another aspect of language and the visual arts, their interpretations can change with time. What may have appeared harmless or flattering at the time the words were spoken or the image was drawn can assume new unintended meanings as a result of the passage of time. Aristophanes used Socrates as the comic foil of his play The Clouds; a play that ridiculed the “philosophical trades” on the streets of Athens and gave its philosophers a home in a place Aristophanes called “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” I read somewhere that Aristophanes and Socrates were friends and that Aristophanes was only having a bit of fun with his friend in part because Socrates was among the best known philosophers in Athens. However, when Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens the play was introduced as evidence against him. We do not always have control over how our words are used.

Henry V “Speech to the Troops”
Renaissance Films/BBC

On the other hand language can be motivating, inspiring, people to do things that are clearly not in their personal best interest after listening to speeches like this one from Shakespeare’s play Henry V. Of course it ought to be considered whether or not fighting the Battle of Agincourt was in the interest of any of those fighting the battle, with the possible exception of King Harry and some of his higher ranking nobles. But the words themselves and their delivery (especially with the sound track in the background) are very inspiring. When I heard it for the first time, and every time I have heard it since, it gives me chills and I feel myself moved to do something significant for king and country. What I do not find myself doing is questioning whether or not this particular service for king and country is the right thing to do. Often language makes the pretense of appealing to our intellect, after all it is the mind that hears and makes sense of the words, but more often than not, when language truly motivates us, it probably has more to do with what we are led to feel than what we are led to think.

David Crystal in an article for The Guardian, “Which Words Make You Merry?”, a few weeks ago points out that the way words make us feel often has little to do with what the words themselves actually mean. He asks us to imagine landing on a planet in a far away galaxy and that we have been told there are two groups of people, one who is friendly and helpful to folks from other planets and one that would like to make a meal of these people. He then suggests “that one of these groups is called the Lamonians; the other is called the Grataks.” Our inclination would be to trust the Lamonians and distrust Grataks, not because we know anything about either group of people but because the name of one is sweet sounding to our ears and the name of the other suggests a threatening growl. Language can be seductive and it is perhaps important to know how the language we hear is being used and why it is being used in that way and what it is the words actually mean before we decide on a course of action.

View on Delft
Johannes Vermeer

I heard once that one of the generals planning the D-Day invasion (it may have been Eisenhower, but I do not remember and I have not been able to confirm the story) would relieve the tension he was feeling as a result of this planning and what he knew the consequences of the plan would be for many of the soldiers by going to a local museum and looking at the collection of paintings by Vermeer. They would calm and relax him, or so the story went. Looking at the painting above has this effect on me. Even though the sky is cloudy and the water is grey and “cold” I find it calming. The words of a lullaby can calm a baby in much the same way. The point to consider, though, is this painting and the lullaby would have the same calming effect if I were planning a criminal act. According to some, the Nazi officers received a similar kind of solace from the artwork they visited in their museums.

I teach students to read and comprehend stories because I think the stories will make them wise or will help them in some way to engage life’s more troubling moments. I think stories help students to come out of themselves and see a bit of the world from another point of view. But this also gives the receptive student a power they might not otherwise have. There is no guarantee this ability to put oneself in the place of another and see the world from that other’s point of view will be used benignly. It might be used to manipulate and to take advantage as easily as it might be used to heal and to console. I remember reading a book on the Theater of the Absurd, I think it was by Martin Esslin, in which he quotes the playwright Samuel Beckett as saying (the quote was in French but I was told this is what it meant), “The words mean nothing but they are all I have to convince you with.”

If words mean nothing, than how do they convince? If they can be used to serve other ends than the ends the words claim to be serving, how do we avoid being deceived? Many of those that read Milton’s Paradise Lost from a Christian perspective see the devil as villainous and seductive. Many of those that read this same poem from a less theological perspective see the devil as heroic. They read the same words, and even understand those words in much the same way. To a large degree how we understand the devil in this poem is shaped by how we understood the devil before we began reading the poem and there is often hell to pay for those that would bring the one interpretation into the other’s camp.

The View from Here

Symphony No. 5; Allegro
Franz Schubert
Yehudi Menuhin (cond.); Menuhin Festival Orchestra

The View from Here

Archimedes Thoughtful
Domenico Fetti

The music comes from the opening of Schubert’s Symphony #5. It captures for me a simpler time and evokes a rural countryside and village life. Of course the rural countryside and the village may have less to do with the music than with my first hearing the music when it was used as the opening theme for a series of PBS Mystery broadcasts starring Joan Hickson as Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. This lyrical piece of music was played behind images of various individuals with somewhat diabolical expressions on their faces that seemed in ironic contrast to the music. But the point is that often how we see and understand something has as much to do with the circumstances that surrounded our first exposure to that “something” than anything inherent to that “something.”

The painting is of the early Greek scientist Archimedes. He got a lot of things right; perhaps the world of mathematics is a bit more stable than other worlds. But he was also a scientist, and the world of science is not quite as stable as that of mathematics, but even there he has held up pretty well. Still, living when he did, he would have believed, or at least accepted as working hypotheses a lot of science that has since been discredited. What we believe about the world in which we live is shaped by the presumptions of the times in which we live.

Lucien, the Greek satirist who lived about three hundred years after Archimedes, sent some folks on a fantastic voyage to the moon. The ship was caught in a severe storm and landed on the moon. The story was called “A True History” and it begins with Lucian stating there is not a word of truth to it. He was having fun with the historians of his day and though he is describing a voyage to the moon, he does not expect anyone to believe the voyage in fact took place or was in any way possible. The idea of people walking on the moon did not harmonize well with the science of Lucian’s day, but we might be more open to the possibility.

But though the science changes, the human psyche and the human character does not change quite so much. There have been “reality” programs on television that have placed 21st century folks in 19th century and earlier environments to give us all a sense of what life was like in those times. But of course these programs cannot deliver what they promise, because pilgrims landing in New England or settlers farming or ranching the Western Territories of the Louisiana Purchase did not give up electric blankets or backyard swimming pools when they set out on their journeys and though they gave up some comforts they did not give up the same comforts or nearly so many comforts as those that would try to journey back from our more modern age.

But though their battles and their struggles are not our battles and our struggles we can relate to the concept of struggle and fighting for what is important to us and to our future. We can draw inspiration from their experience even if we cannot share it in the same way they experienced it. So though I cannot be Natty Bumpo in the wilderness of pre-Revolutionary War America, I can draw inspiration from him as I set out to confront my own frontiers. This is an important aspect of story, when we enter a story we discover something about the human psyche that our experience alone cannot teach us. Emerson and Whitman suggest in their essays and poems that we learn from history lessons that enable us to live more effectively in our own time and to live more truly to our own characters and consciences. If when I read history I do not understand that Caesar had to confront in himself the same fears I have to confront in myself then I am not imagining a real Caesar, I have stripped him of his humanity.

Claudius Ptolemy: The World
Johannes Schnitzer, engraver
Claudius Ptolemy, cartographer

The map is of the world as it was understood in the second century, and was still understood in the fifteenth century when this engraving was made from Ptolemy’s original. This is the world as most in Europe would have imagined it at the time Columbus set sail for what he thought was the orient, or the right hand side of the map. When he undertook this voyage he believed he knew where he was going. He did not believe he was going where no man had been before but was taking a different route to a place people went everyday. It was only by accident that he ended up in a place where no European had been before, or at least had not been there in quite some time. This is often the story of discovery; we find something profound when we are looking for something else, often for something more mundane than profound.

The value of stories like that of Columbus is that journeys into the unknown are just that and no matter how we prepare and what we set up for expectations we are likely to be surprised. On the other side of the coin are the consequences of such a voyage. It is to be hoped that those that journey today into the unknown will not explore with the attitudes towards those they encounter that guided Columbus and those that followed him; that we can explore our frontiers without exploiting the frontiers we encounter.

Larry McMurtry in his book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen writes about his family coming to the Texas frontier when it was still the Western Frontier. He is known for the western novels he has written, novels both in the spirit of the romance of the west and the reality of the west. He listened to stories of exploration that were the stories of his family.

Frederick Jackson Turner defined America by its western migration and the spirit that drove many Americans westward. The final migration began in the 1860’s and by the 1890’s there was no longer an unsettled corner of the United States. As a people we have been shaped by stories of exploration and reaching the western edge of our continent. We tried for a time to explore the frontiers of space, but it appears we have lost interest. As a child I would get up at four in the morning to watch the launches of the early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecrafts. I watched people walk on the moon for real. My map is very different from Ptolemy’s and the modern frontier is a different frontier from that encountered by Columbus and his European friends.

There was an article, “Science and the Sublime” in The New York Times this week that I found intriguing. It is a review of a book by Richard Holmes on science in the era of the Romantic poets. Holmes wrote a book, I think it was called Footsteps, a number of years ago that gave me a great deal of pleasure in which he took a walking tour of France following the route taken by Robert Louis Stevenson for his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. The two journeys were separated by about one hundred years and the second book in many ways documented how the world had changed over that century and ways in which it had stayed the same. His new book, though, explores ways in which new discoveries in science (at least new for the eighteenth century) influenced the work of the Romantic poets. The stories they told and the poems they wrote began to be shaped by a different view of the universe.

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for an audience that believed in a supernatural reality. For them it was perhaps plausible that the murder of a king could turn the natural world on its head and cause the sun to spend many months, if not years, hiding behind clouds and though stories with ghosts and monsters and a supernatural world penetrating the natural one remain popular to this day, they are not, I do not think, believed in the same way they were by the Elizabethans. When Mary Shelley creates her monster, she tries to surround it with a patina of scientific plausibility. When modern readers read Frankenstein and encounter Shelley’s reference to Darwin, it is a very different Darwin that comes to our minds than the one Shelley had in mind.

Charles Robert Darwin
A copy made by John Collier

Charles Darwin changed the way the world is seen and many that deny the theory of evolution embrace, at least in practice, the notion of natural selection or survival of the fittest. The images above and below capture the two views of Darwin that persist to this day. The painting above is of a gentle, grandfatherly looking old man, a bit benign in his appearance and a bit sad. The image below is a caricature that appeared in a satiric magazine. His body has a serpentine twist to it and the expression on his face and the look of his eyes are troubling to say the least. Those that embrace Darwin see him in the light of the first image, a wise old man whose life had more than its share of sadness. Those that resist his view of the world see him as the more demonic figure suggested by the caricature. But his vision has permeated our story telling and it would be difficult for those looking back at us to understand us without understanding Darwin as it is difficult for us to look back at the Middle Ages or the Renaissance and understand those that lived at that time without understanding the Bible that shaped their view of reality.

Caricature of Charles Darwin from Vanity Fair magazine
“Coide”, a.k.a. James Jacques Joseph Tissot

Science fiction is largely a 20th and 21st century genre. There are elements of science fiction in stories written earlier, Swift tries, for example, to make his floating island appear scientifically plausible, but the story has little to do with science, except to ridicule what he disliked about science. But the science in a modern science fiction story is an important part of the story telling, even if it is bad science. That said though, it is still the characters and the way they deal with the situations in which they find themselves that hold our interest. Jules Verne, and after him Isaac Asimov, looked down on writers that placed too much importance on character, thinking it was the plot and the science that carried the stories. And though the characters these writers created were often superficial, the conflicts and the problems they had to resolve resonate with readers. And even if he is not as well drawn a character as those found in other stories of the day, Captain Nemo has become iconic in our culture and his submarine the namesake for many real submarines to follow.

At its heart science, like theology, wants to understand where we came from and why we are here and we look to science to provide many of the answers we once expected religion to supply. Perhaps this plays a role in orchestrating our emotional response to science fiction and enables us to embrace characters that would be less satisfying in other settings. Still, more often than not, it is courage, resourcefulness, and tenacity, among other character traits, that hold our interest in these characters and their stories. We want to penetrate that which separates us from these values; we want to know the secret to infusing our own lives with courage, resourcefulness and tenacity. We admire characters that exhibit these traits because we know how difficult it is to develop and nurture these traits in our own lives.

Time Bandits
HandMade Films/AVCO Embassy Pictures

It is difficult for me to imagine a story like Time Bandits being told in a pre-scientific age. When Aeneas and Odysseus visit the underworld and as a result visit past experience, they are not actually visiting the earlier times, only the dead associated with earlier times. In the film the characters travel through various points of history, past and present and future, as well as a few parallel universes where different rules seem to apply than apply in the world in which we live. Perhaps Dante had a similar kind of story to tell in his Divine Comedy that involved travel through a parallel universe of sorts, but again the stories do not take us to another time in history only tell us of these other times, though his ascent through Purgatory and into Paradise do tell a story of a future that was real to Dante.

Image to Replace Calabi-Yau
By Lunch

The image is supposed to suggest something about string theory, but I do not understand enough about the theory or the physics behind it to know what the image is supposed to suggest about string theory. Though, when I look at it the image suggests ideas of a universe that fits well into a science fiction story. To me the image suggests a universe with shortcuts, so that flying from one end to the other might be expedited by wandering into one of the tunnels, or what look like tunnels, that might convey the traveler more quickly to the other side. I think this might make a good story, but I do not know if it has anything to do with what string theory has to tell us about the universe.

But that is the nature of story telling. Henry James said that we must concede to the writer his “donnee”, his premise, his concept for the story. It is then the author’s job to suspend our disbelief. We will accept a few implausibilities from time to time, but on the whole the narrative has to create a sense of reality that remains true through the story. We may not accept that witches are on the prowl that might lay traps for unwary soldiers or that horses will become cannibalistic, but we will concede the point and then enjoy the story that Shakespeare tells. It is not that we are willing to accept what we believe to be impossible, but that we want to know how to behave when we are confronted by life’s surprises. That too is part of the mystery and much that is regarded today as commonplace was once thought the product of an over active imagination.

Piracy in the Land of the Free

Raised on Robbery
Joni Mitchell

Piracy in the Land of the Free

Captain Hook
Walt Disney’s Peter Pan

The song and the cartoon evoke two images of piracy. The song suggests what is perhaps closer to the reality of piracy, self-interest and self-enrichment that need not be enlightened. The cartoon depicting Captain Hook from the Disney cartoon Peter Pan, suggests the romance of the pirate. The pirate is not, ultimately, very dangerous and the ideal villain with whom a boy might battle to prove his bravery. This is the pirate of the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films and of many of the pirate films of the early American cinema.

The pirate of cinema romance is not even an anti-hero, a humanized bad man or woman with redeeming qualities. The pirates of the early cinema are often like Captain Blood, the Rafael Sabatini character who is driven to piracy by circumstances beyond his control, even the “bad” pirates are more like Captain Hook’s pirate crew than the real pirates of the high seas. As a boy whenever we played “cops and robbers” or pretended to be swashbuckling seafarers it was always the persona of the robbers and the pirates we most wanted to assume.

The Pirates of Stone County Road
John Stewart

What I always enjoyed about this John Stewart song was the way he played with the image of the child pretending to be the pirate and imagining the back porch to be the deck of a pirate ship. Michael Chabon in an article for The New York Review of Books, “Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood”, writes about the role of adventure in the life and development of a child. I suppose his point is one that has been made many times before, that children need to take some of the risks that children always enjoy taking if they are to develop into confident and successful adults. As a culture, though, we are becoming a bit overprotective and as a result children may not be learning some important lessons about risk taking that help prepare them for adult life.

I remember in the neighborhood where I grew up there was a water pipe that spanned a huge ravine that was hundreds, to a child maybe thousands, of feet deep. It provided water, I suppose to homes on both sides of the canyon. As children my friends and I would climb the fence designed to keep us off the water pipe and would walk the pipe from one side of the canyon to the other. It was great fun, but probably not the wisest thing to do. I know I wouldn’t let my child do anything so foolish. But to what extent has my willingness to take risks as an adult been shaped by my eagerness to take risks as a child. Chabon ends his article, “Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?” To a great extent the stories we shape as adults had their beginnings in the stories we imagined as children and perhaps our willingness to try something new and different, whether it’s writing a story or attempting something that seems to be bit more than our abilities, on the surface anyway, will allow us to achieve were nurtured by the foolish risks, like walking across a canyon on a water pipe, we took as children.

Illustration of William “Captain” Kidd
Howard Pyle

The pictures above and below are both of the notorious pirate Captain Kidd. The one above is a fanciful depiction by Howard Pyle for his book on pirates and the one below of the eighteenth century gentleman who was the real Captain Kidd. The real captain would not have called himself a pirate at all but rather a privateer. A privateer was a pirate who committed piracy in the service of the queen, or the ruling powers of the day. Unfortunately when Captain Kidd was finally caught those for whom he committed piracy in “the service of the queen” disavowed all knowledge of his activities. He was hung and, according to Wikipedia, his body was left hanging for many years in an iron cage as a warning to others considering a career path similar to that of the “good” captain.

William Kidd, Privateer, Pirate
18th century portrait

Of course Kidd was following in a long established tradition. The Spanish conquest of the New World was made a bit less profitable by the work of privateers in the service of Queen Elizabeth. Among the more famous was Sir Francis Drake, who, like Mick Jagger, was knighted for his service to the British Empire. Growing up in California I studied in high school of Drake’s exploits along the California coast. He claimed California for Britain not by planting a flag but by nailing a coin to a post. The coin of course had Queen Elizabeth’s image on it and was intended to show Elizabeth as the ruler of this new land, but I think it is appropriate that money and not the “Union Jack” was used to claim the land because the exploration and colonization of the New World was, at its heart, a mercantile enterprise.

The Battle of Trafalgar
J. M. W. Turner,_The_Battle_of_Trafalgar_(1806).jpg

The painting by Turner captures the reality and the romance of the pirate “adventure.” In every pirate film I saw as a child there was a scene where pirates swung on ropes from one ship to another, the decks of both ships filled with gun smoke from the ships’ cannons and falling debris as sword fights and other forms of hand to hand combat took place on the deck of one or both of the ships. But if we stop to think at all seriously about what is depicted in the painting the reality of what is taking place cannot be avoided. People are dying and they are dying in horrific and painful ways. Death in the movies, especially the movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s has a romance all its own. It is heroic, often over quickly, and rarely strayed far from the world of “let’s pretend.” Besides, the dying hero always returned in a year or two in another film, so whatever death was it certainly was not permanent. But the painting if carefully considered suggests a tangled mess of broken and burning wood and canvas and an awful lot of blood and dying flesh.

But it is one of the jobs of stories and story telling to provide us with the examples we need to help us live meaningful lives that are consistent with a set of values that shape our human experience. When the cause is just all this bloodshed is an act of patriotic self-sacrifice, and what nation can hope to survive if none are willing to take on such a sacrifice. But when the cause is unjust this death and destruction suggests the waste that accompanies human ego and ambition. When is a pirate a privateer and when is the outlaw the true seeker of justice?

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid is one of America’s legendary outlaws. I think it is interesting that “The Kid” and “The Captain” both had the first name of William, well actually William was an alias and not the kid’s real name, but as far as the legends are concerned both “outlaws” shared the same first name. Billy the Kid became a romanticized figure of the Wild West and is joined by other outlaws, like Pretty Boy Floyd, who had more in common with Robin Hood than Al Capone. But if Billy in fact did all that he was accused of doing perhaps it is Pat Garrett who should receive the lion’s share of the attention. But than the legend of Billy the Kid was largely Garrett’s invention, and served to enhance the lawman’s reputation and “bona fides” as a true western lawman in the mold of Wyatt Earp.

Perhaps the pirate is the bridge between the knight of medieval romance and the cowboy of western romance, who in turn evolved after a fashion into the hard boiled detective. Sam Spade tells us he trades on a reputation for being a little bit crooked, that it is “good for business.” In the ideal western romance the bad guy often has more in common with the outlaw (The Ringo Kidd played by John Wayne) in John Ford’s film Stagecoach than with the actual Wild West bandit. Real bandits and outlaws are not heroic or likable, but there is something in the human psyche that does not like people who are “too” good or “too” virtuous. The true hero of the Grail Quest is Sir Galahad but the readers of the King Arthur stories often find Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain more interesting characters. In fact even Lancelot is a bit “too” good when it comes to too many things and it was Gawain who captured the imaginations of many during the Middle Ages in stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell. But Malory’s Gawain has some very troubling, though also very human, failings.

Captain Blood
Warner Brothers Pictures

Growing up in Los Angeles one of the local television channels ran a program called Million Dollar Movie. This was, for a child, wonderful. They would show the same movie every night for a week. Of course this was no fun if the film was uninteresting to the ten year old imagination, but if it were a film like Captain Blood it could be watched over and over again. As a child I would watch this film and other like it and the next day find an old curtain hanger that could be imagined into a sword and engage in battles like the one shown in the film clip. This was probably not the safest thing to do, I probably wouldn’t let my child do anything so foolish, but it was great fun and it opened up imaginary worlds for me. Of course the plunder and the rewards were all imaginary as well. Though I tried, the ice cream man would not take the “play” money I had accumulated in my high seas adventures.

These thoughts were also provoked by a couple of other articles I read this week. One was a review of a new book by Chris Anderson, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The main idea of this book is that we are evolving into a culture that finds other ways to generate profits than by charging for the merchandise it produces. There is an irony of sorts here in that the author, Chris Anderson, got into a bit of trouble for making “free” use of copyrighted materials found on Wikipedia. The material may be free to whoever wants to make use of it, but good manners, not mention sound editorial practice, dictate that the sources be identified. This is piracy of a different kind. At the heart of piracy, and all theft I suppose, is the desire to get something for nothing. Of course a lot of hard work goes into being an effective pirate, or thief of any kind and as a result little if anything is gotten for nothing if we include our “efforts” as a cost to be paid. Anderson did, after all, have to write quite a bit of his own material in order to take advantage of the opportunity to steal a page or two from Wikipedia.

The flip side of piracy and the “free culture” was suggested by another article this week published in The Guardian. The article, “Authors in revolt against plans to vet them for school visits”, reports on a group of authors of children’s books, Philip Pullman among them, protesting a piece of legislation recently enacted in Britain. This new law requires authors to pay £64.00 (about $100.00, I think) for the privilege of donating their time to speak to children. The intention of the law is good, it wants to protect children from those that may do them harm. But as is pointed out, these writers are never alone when they visit schools but are always accompanied by other adults, primarily teachers and administrators in the schools. The end result is that many of these writers will no longer make a gift of their time to speak at schools.

It is a tenet of our culture that nothing is free; everything comes with a cost, even if we are not the ones paying the cost, or at least not directly. Most online “freebies” are paid for by advertising that is directed at the kind of people likely to use the “freebie”, which means the cost of what is gotten for free is included in the cost of the merchandise we are being tempted to buy when we use the service. But are there other costs to a culture that grows up believing it does not have to pay for what it consumes, that believes itself to be entitled to whatever it needs or enjoys? What happens to news when it is provided at no cost to the consumer of that news? Who is paying for it and do those subsidizing newspapers have a say over what is contained in that newspaper? In a sense it is in paying for what we use that gives us a say over what goes into the products that we use. On the one hand we will pay large sums of money to buy products, everything from shirts to automobiles, that are advertisements for their manufacturers, piracy of a different ilk.

The only journeys that we take that are truly free are journeys of our imagination, though, as with pirates, we pay for these with a kind of effort; time needs to be taken to dream and to imagine. The stories that I read as a child and read today as an adult stimulate and inspire the imagination; they give me the raw materials my imagination needs to construct stories of its own and to craft a human and humane existence. The depth of my character and the motivations behind what I accomplish are often revealed in the stories I hold sacred, whether they are stories of my own making or stories I have pirated from other authors.

Counting Costs, Assigning Values

Money Changes Everything
Cyndi Lauper

Counting Costs, Assigning Values

The worship of Mammon
Evelyn de Morgan

The song suggests that values, relationships, and other aspects of daily living are changed once money becomes involved. In the painting we see someone depicted as worshipping mammon. Mammon is not money but the term given to its influence. Money in and of itself is just a thing, it is not inherently good or evil, it is an individual’s attitude towards money that is good or evil. The miser is a recurring comic character. He is seen in Moliere’s play The Miser and in Ben Jonson’s play Volpone.

Ben Jonson imagined two audiences for his plays, one that got the jokes and laughed at them and one that not only got the jokes and laughed at them, but also reflected on the nature of the joke and what was being ridiculed. This second audience might recognize in themselves some of those values held up for ridicule and as a result might actually be improved as people. They would at least be a bit more self-aware. When it comes to money it is not unusual to recognize people who have been corrupted by it and to hold those people up to ridicule without realizing our own susceptibility to this weakness.

There was an economic advisor for a recent governor of my state of Massachusetts who justified paying those that worked for the government a lower wage than those doing similar work outside the government. He did not deny that the work these people did deserved the higher wage, he justified lowering the wage as a way of lowering taxes. If by paying a substandard wage the taxpayer could keep more of her or his money than it was all right to pay a substandard wage. I think this is worshipping mammon, it is allowing a relationship towards money to interfere with our sense of right and wrong.

St. Paul says the workman is worthy of his hire and to deny the workman his hire is wrong. What is especially unnerving about the actions of this state official is that he involved the whole state in this dubious attitude towards money. There may have been many other reasons he could have given to justify lowering the wage, but he chose this one and I think that is revealing. When money becomes involved honest people sometimes do things we do not normally associate with honest people. I understand that taxes are a troubling issue and that many believe they pay too much in taxes and that there is no easy answer to this problem. But I think we should be honest about what we are doing. If we do not want to pay the going rate for a service than give up the service, don’t deny those providing the service. That is the responsible thing, I think.

Death of the Miser
Hieronymus Bosch

The painting above depicts a scene almost like that from A Christmas Carol when Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come visits the scene and aftermath of his own death. In the painting the miser is dying, we see a gentleman that looks very like death personified coming in at the door. Others are scavenging through the miser’s belongings. The painting suggests that those around the miser share the miser’s attitude towards wealth and “portable property.”

Looking at the painting we may think the miser is getting what he deserves, he has hoarded his wealth and denied others their due (or at least because he is called a miser we might assume he denied others their due). But just because the man is dying does not entitle those around him to his belongings, any more than Scrooge’s housekeeper was entitled to Scrooge’s bed curtains. If we in looking at this painting justify the actions of those around the miser, perhaps we need to look to ourselves a bit, to follow Jonson’s advice and laugh at the joke but also reflect on our own behavior and attitudes.

Avaritia (Greed), 1558
Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, active by 1551, died 1569)Engraving; only state

The engraving suggests a horrific quest for wealth and property. There are people scrounging up cash and goods while others are undergoing various forms of torture. Many of those collecting the merchandise are demonic in their appearance and many of those that do not look demonic are engaged in demonic behavior. The scene is one of great destruction and suggests that the infatuation with wealth spiritually ravages the individuals that yield to this infatuation while ravaging the physical landscape and those that live upon it in the process.

Avarice is one of the cardinal sins and was often during the Middle Ages and Renaissance depicted as it is in the paintings above. In stories by Chaucer and Boccaccio this attitude towards money is often given prominence. The story Chaucer has his Pardoner tell captures this attitude towards wealth and avarice quite well. The irony of the story is that the Pardoner that tells it does not believe in the moral of his tale, but sees the moral as a way of exploiting his hearers and of satisfying his own avarice.

I think that there is a satiric quality to the paintings as well as to the stories of Chaucer, Moliere, and Jonson. Satire ridicules the imperfections that are its objects. They often make us laugh because the satire reveals these imperfections for what they are and those that are the objects of the satire often end up looking very foolish. Jonathan Swift said of satire, “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein the beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world and that so very few are offended with it.” This is essentially the point Jonson was making about his two audiences, though Swift seems less optimistic in that if there is a second audience like the one described by Jonson whose characters’ are reformed by the satire it is a very small audience.

These thoughts about money and how it is used and conserved were prompted by an article. “A Literary Legend Fights for a Local Library”, in The New York Times. It is about Ray Bradbury trying to help a local library on the verge of being closed. In the town where I teach the local library is struggling to survive. It had to discontinue its membership in a cooperative of local libraries that enabled it to make resources available to the community that the community itself could not afford. Many communities do this; it enables a library with limited funds to enlarge its collection of books, music, and films by joining its collection to that of other libraries in the area.

The same issue is raised with funding cuts to schools and services that help the most vulnerable in our communities. We tell ourselves we cannot afford to help others; we have too many problems of our own. In this economy there is some truth to that statement, but what happens to a people who in the name of conserving their own resources deny necessary resources to others. Perhaps it can be said that adults that are struggling bear some responsibility for those struggles, they made unwise choices, did not think ahead. But what of the children? When library budgets are cut, it is the children that are hurt the most, as is also true when school funding is cut.

The extra-curricular activities and after school programs that are often the first to go are often the programs and activities that get some students into school in the morning. I have many students whose grades decline as soon as the sports they play finish their seasons. If the sport were taken away many of these students would not pass their courses, some would stop coming to school. That is, of course, the student’s choice and we are not to blame if students make poor choices, or so some would say.

“Money Makes the World Go Around”
From Cabaret

Perhaps money does make the world go around, perhaps that is all that is truly important. In fairness money presents many difficulties. The film, Cabaret is set in Germany at a time of massive inflation during an international depression. The song could mock attitudes toward money, but at the same time there was a great need for money or for something that would keep food on the table and a roof over one’s head. Samuel Gompers, one of the leaders of the union movement in America said that businesses had a moral responsibility to earn a profit. Many people’s well being depended on the ability of companies to make a profit and pay a decent wage. When does a company in its quest to generate more profit cross the line and go from fulfilling a moral obligation to provide for its employees to worshipping at the feet of Mammon?

“Siegfried Comes upon the Sleeping Brunnhilde” illustration from 1910 to Wagner’s Das Rheingold
Arthur Rackham

The story of Siegfried and Brunnhilde is a kind of “Sleeping Beauty” story. Brunnhilde has been put to sleep by her father Wotan because she disobeyed him and he has encircled her with a wall of flame. To be awakened from her sleep someone must find a way through this wall of flame at the top of a high mountain. Siegfried makes the climb and penetrates the fire and wins the love of Brunnhilde. Like in all “Sleeping Beauty” stories Brunnhilde is vulnerable and cannot save or protect herself.

Economic collapse makes us all feel vulnerable and many do not feel they can protect themselves. Stories, especially myths and fairy tales, often end happily. Siegfried climbs the mountain; Brunnhilde is delivered. But in life there often is no Siegfried, we feel we are on our own and have to think of ourselves first. There is truth to this that cannot be overlooked. Cormac McCarthy creates an every man for himself world in his novel The Road. But can any man long survive in an every man for himself world?

Scrooge is redeemed at the end of his story and uses his wealth more benevolently. Many of us would like to believe in this kind of world. Volpone and Mosca, on the other hand, and the others they took advantage of, get their just desserts in the end, but there is no “Christmas morning” experience. The fools are shown to be fools, the corrupt reap the rewards of their corruption, but others are left unfulfilled and not entirely happy though they have done nothing to deserve unhappiness. In the end, perhaps, we must choose between Volpone’s credo of “Good morning to the day and next my gold” or the more open handed one of the reformed Scrooge. Maybe it is enough to realize the choices we are being presented with and to make those choices honestly and in good faith.

When All the World Was Young

Forever Young
Bob Dylan

When All the World Was Young

The Beguiling of Merlin
Edward Burne-Jone

In her book The Enchanted Hunters Maria Tatar tells us “Words have not just the astonishing capacity to banish boredom and create wonders. They also enable contact with the lives of others and the story worlds, arousing endless curiosity about ourselves and the places we inhabit. Such passion promises to keep us, at least intellectually, forever young.” In reading time often stops, or at least it seems to. But even if time does not actually stop, in reading well the mind retains its vigor and becomes more flexible. A story, to be enjoyed and understood requires the reader to enter its world and entertain its point of view. I must read Les Miserables with the heart of a revolutionary and The Man Who Was Thursday with a fondness for the established order (though as is true with most things Chestertonian, it must be a quirky fondness). I must be able to see and embrace the world from both sides of the fence.

This does not mean I stop being myself, or that my world view changes each time I open another book, but it does mean I have to give the point of view of the story a chance to have its say. For the sake of the story the world is seen through a revolutionaries eyes or the eyes of a gentleman with conventional views. I think it is easier for readers of stories to accept people with beliefs different from their own (not that they always will of course) because somewhere along the line there has been a story where those beliefs have been entertained and where they may not have been embraced necessarily by the reader, they have been understood and appreciated and for a fictional time the world was viewed through those lenses. Rosemary Hill in her review of a new edition of Wind and the Willows mentions another story by Kenneth Grahame, “The Roman Road.” The story, she tells us, is “a conversation between a child and an adult, its message that only the artist and the child are imaginatively free.” The reader lost in a book, I think, becomes like the child in the Kenneth Grahame story, “imaginatively free.”

The painting at the top is of Merlin, King Arthur’s magician and mentor. Like Benjamin Button in the Fitzgerald story Merlin, according to some versions of the tale, was born old and grew younger. He was a man who knew from the start what it meant to be old and came to understand what it meant to be young. He is beguiled as an old man, which would make him young and inexperienced in his reverse chronology. He knows what is coming, has foreseen it, but he has lost the wisdom of age and is experiencing the passions of his youth. Perhaps his mind has become that of an adolescent enchanted by a beautiful face. I enjoy the image of Merlin growing younger. Perhaps it is the longing of an aging man for the days of his youth or maybe it is the desire to preserve an enthusiasm for living that age and experience often quench.

“One More Step, Mr. Hands” Illustration for Treasure Island
N. C. Wyeth,_Mr._Hands.jpg

C. S. Lewis once said, “In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” I think it is also true we become a thousand ages. The painting above is an illustration from Treasure Island. When I read this story I become Jack Hawkins, or at least like him in my imagination. When I read The Catcher in the Rye I see the world through the eyes of Holden Caulfield and become a bit like him. Though both these characters are the same age they come from different ages and therefore experience the world very differently and though as the reader I am experiencing the world of a teenager, they are very different teenagers living in very different worlds. So though the “age” I become in reading each of these stories is the same age in years it is not the same age in experience. This too, keeps the mind young and active.

Nor is youth always measured in years. I often tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older, but no power on earth can make me grow up. It can be said that Scrooge is a younger man at the end of A Christmas Carol than he was at the beginning. He is a younger man than he was when Old Marley died seven years before the story begins, if youth is measured in the way we think and behave. Unlike Merlin, Scrooge was not born old, but he lost his youth at an early age and recovers it many years later. Sometimes we need stories to remind us that being childlike is not being childish and that some aspects of age are more a state of mind than of being.

Children Playing on the Beach
Mary Cassatt

The paintings above and below by Mary Cassatt capture certain aspects of the innocence of childhood, playing on a beach, listening to a story. It is the aspect of childhood captured in the two children on the beach that many want to recover when they get older. The children are engrossed in their “work” and nothing seems to distract their focus. Their work is their play and it is what many adults want their work to be. There is a great deal of what I do as a teacher that is like sitting on the beach filling my bucket with sand. It is pleasure and it is sunlight and it is the waves and the cry of gulls. Obviously my classroom is not a beach, there is much in my day that is like a day at the beach.

Auguste Reading To Her Daughter
Mary Cassatt

The young girl listening to the story has a different look, a more mysterious look. Does she like the story she hears, is she listening, or is she somewhere else in her imagination? Adults often think that children want to hear a story, want to be read to, and often this is true. But I think sometimes children, like us, want to explore on their own, do not want others tagging along on the journey. In the reading of a story, whether we are reading on our own or being read to, the journey is always an individual journey, both the reader and the listener are “reading” the same story but they do not take the same journey. None of us can live in the imagination of another, though it is likely that our paths cross.

When I go to Treasure Island the island I visit resembles the island others visit, but it is unlike anyone else’s island. The journey is a personal one and that is important to remember. As a teacher I try to encroach upon the world that has been built in the minds of my students. I try to manipulate the story, to get them to see the palm tree as I see it, but of course this cannot happen. Those that see my palm probably see it only because they either did not read of the palm tree on their own or if they did, they did not see the palm tree, only the words on the page and were waiting for someone else to tell them how to draw the picture.

Baby Herman and Roger Rabbit “Tummy Trouble”
Walt Disney Studios

When we get to the end of this little film we see that the baby is not a baby (or at least we hear the voice of an old man when the baby speaks). If there is a child in this film it is Roger Rabbit, the baby is only masquerading as a child. The adventures these two have are the adventures of childhood, with all the exaggerated situations and expressions and the sense of powerlessness a child might feel in a large world that is out of control. The humor lies in the near misses and the indestructible nature of youth. Everything is dangerous and exciting but nothing, in fact, can do any harm. When the bombs burst Roger and Herman are scorched but unhurt. It is the world that some children crave that has all of the excitement that comes from living dangerously without the pain. After surviving the explosions and the flying objects both Roger and Herman leave the set to return to a safer, saner, and less exciting world.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a review in this weekend’s edition of The Guardian of a book of stories by Italo Calvino. The book is called The Complete Cosmicomics. The stories, according to the review are very fanciful and were not taken seriously when published because they too closely resembled science fiction and science fiction, especially in the 1960’s, was not taken seriously as literature, it still isn’t by some. But they are the stories of a childlike mind, with characters with names that cannot be pronounced having experiences that cannot happen. But that is how the comic world works. That is also how the imagination often works. In the imagination we often do the impossible, say the unsay-able.

I remember as a child I had a recurring dream where I was riding a bomb to earth (this was the late 1950’s and bombs and bomb shelters were often in the news). The dream always began just after the bomb was dropped. I would wake up frightened just before the bomb hit the ground. Then one night as I was having this dream I told myself in the dream “this is just a dream and no harm can come to you”. From that moment on I enjoyed the sensation of free fall and when the bomb hit, it was like Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman, no one got hurt. Perhaps this too is part of the comic world, the world of a “mind forever young,” where there is pain there is also resilience and nothing is hopeless.