Being Whole

Being Whole

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

Painting of violin, glass, crystal ball and other items

Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball

Pieter Claesz

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

Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Pope Innocent X

By Diego Velázquez,_by_Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez.jpg

Portrait of Charles I, three views

Charles I in Three Positions

Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Painitng of a fishmonger arranging the fish for sale


Adriaen van Ostade

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

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

Kapitsa and Semyonov

Boris Kustodiev

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

Woman dresssed warmly for ice skating

Margaret in Skating Costume

Thomas Eakins

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

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

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

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

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

Allegory of Iconclasts

Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

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

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

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

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

Self portrait of the painter as he paints

Self Portrait with a Palette

Julian Falat

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

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

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

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


Wenceslaus Hollar

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

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

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

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

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

Self Portrait

Gwen John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch

Sir David Wilkie

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

Woman brushing her hair in front of a mirror

At the Dressing Table

Zinaida Serebriakova

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

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

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

Self portrait in green jacket witb black collar

Self Portrait

Eugène Delacroix

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

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

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

Self portrait of painter next to skeleton

Self Portrait

Lovis Corinth

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

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

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

Self portrait of the painter holding palette

Self Portrait

Marie Bashkirtseff

From Manhattan

Woody Allen

Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe & United Artists

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

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

Painting of a woman dressed in a gold dress

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Gustav Klimt

On Reflection

Scenes from Childhood, “Happy Enough”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

“Sitting on Top of the World”

Doc Watson

“Hard Times”

Stephen Foster

Anna McGarrigle & Kate McGarrigle

The Sound of Music “Climb Every Mountain”

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein III

Patricia Neway

“No Expectations”

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

The Rolling Stones

“I’ve Got the World on a String”

Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen

Frank Sinatra

Madam Butterfly, “Una Nave Da Guerra”

Giacomo Puccini

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

“The Reason Why I’m Gone”

Chuck Cannon and Gary Lloyd


Gregorio Allegri

The Tallis Scholars

“Tears in the Holston River”

John R. Cash

Johnny Cash

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

Léo Delibes

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

“Diamond in the Rough

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

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

Scenes from Childhood, “Dreaming”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

On Reflection


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

The Mirror

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


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


Asian woman looking in a mirror

Kitagawa Utamaro ukiyo-e



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


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

Alice through the looking glass

John Tenniel


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


A group of women looking at their reflections in the water

  The Mirror of Venus

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


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

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

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


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


Anonymous French Painter


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


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

Der-maler-und-jo oppler

Ernst Oppler


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


Two men playing chess

De schaakspelers

Isaac Israëls


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


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

Cinq sens

Jacques Linard


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

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

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


Death in the form of a skeleton confronting a woman

Vergänglichkeitsbuch 250 120v Totentanz

Wilhelm Werner von Zimmern


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

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

Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.

Now mark me, how I will undo myself;

I give this heavy weight from off my head

And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,

The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,

With mine own hands I give away my crown,

With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,

With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:

All pomp and majesty I do forswear;

My manors, rents, revenues I forego;

My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:

God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!

God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!

Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,

And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!

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

And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!

God save King Harry, unking’d Richard says,

And send him many years of sunshine days!

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

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

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


Hail the Conquering Hero Comes

Preston Sturgis

Universal Studios


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


Woman sitting in front of a mirror with two lit candles

The Repentant Magdalene

Georges de La Tour


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

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

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

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

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


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

Girl in Blue Arranging Flowers

Frederick Carl Frieseke

It’s a Fact

Over the Rainbow

Keith Jarrett


It’s a Fact


Painting of populace and thriving classical city

The Course of Empire Consummation

Thomas Cole


There are those that seem to think the principal purpose of the written word is to convey information. Ours is a digital age and what a digitized world can accumulate quickly are facts and information, data of all kinds, colors, and shapes. Of course there are others who see other purposes for the written word. A recent article in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” considers the wisdom of looking at literature and the humanities as data. What is lost when we value things solely on the basis of the information they provide? What is lost when we look at a book, a film, or a painting, or listen to music as though they were data banks to be mined? The article focuses on the Google project of digitizing (or attempting to digitize) all the world’s libraries, all the books currently in print and argues that what is most important in these books cannot be digitized. Of course the words can be captured and the books put into their digital bindings on a digital shelf, but the true content of these books lives in the human heart and the human imagination and cannot be so easily preserved by machines.

Neil MacGregor in his new book Shakespeare’s Restless World looks at objects that in one way or another capture what is important in Shakespeare’s plays and how he and his world; how we, and our world, how different times and places have responded to these plays. MacGregor and Eric Hobsbawm wrote articles recently, “Shakespeare, a poet who is still making our history” and “Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor – review,” that addressed issues the book raises. Both articles and the book make reference to the Robben Island Bible. Robben Island was the South African prison where the leaders of the African National Congress and the Anti Apartheid movement were confined. One prisoner, Sonny Venkatrathnam, when he was told he was only allowed one book smuggled in the Complete Works of Shakespeare disguised as a Hindu Bible. As Venkatrathnam’s release date approached he asked his fellow prisoners to sign his book and select meaningful passages, which they all did. The larger point is that literature sustains and nurtures the spirit. If all these prisoners, or any prisoner, especially those jailed for political reasons, had access to were facts, data, and information there would be little consolation to be found. To a prisoner of conscience the facts are often oppressive; they often erode hope and weaken the spirit. Books, paintings, music, and the arts in general remind us that there are forces more powerful than the forces of this world. And these books and paintings and all do not need to be with us in a concrete form. The songs and stories and images live inside those that know them and they can be drawn upon whenever the need arises. As the words of the song suggest, there is a place somewhere over the rainbow where the spirit and the imagination can run free and the power of empire cannot pursue.


Man sleeping with walking stick with lute and water bottle nearby and a lionlooking over him

The Sleeping Gypsy

Henri Rousseau


The paintings above and below suggest the imagination’s work in the world. The sleeper appears to be in a dangerous situation, or perhaps not. The situation depends on the role of the lion. Is the lion keeping watch over the sleeper or is the lion a threat to the sleeper. The lion’s behavior in the painting suggests more one of watchfulness than attack. The objects in the painting are also suggestive. The clothing the woman wears is multi-colored and she has only a walking stick, a mandolin, and a jug, probably of water, but it could be something else. The colors and the musical instrument suggest the woman lives in the imagination. The walking stick and the jug suggests she lives in the real world at the same time, she has provided for both the soul and the body. 

The painting below suggests there are those in heavenly places who dance in time to the music that orchestrates our steps. The musician playing for the earthy dancers has angel’s wings and suggests interaction between the heavens and the earth, that each is involved with the life of the other. There was an article recently, Head and Heart, about politics and morals. The article is actually a review of a couple books exploring the values of liberals and conservatives and suggests that Emerson’s observation, “Of the two great parties, which, at this hour, almost share the nation between them, I should say, that, one has the best cause, and the other contains the best men” still resonates. One of the books argues for the importance of religion in society, not because it is true, but because of its usefulness in maintaining a civil society. Are the angels, the heavenly dancers, the lion watching over us as we sleep, just stories and figments of the imagination we tell ourselves to quieten our fears? Or are they the source of the stories that we tell? Whether the source of comfort, solace, and encouragement is real or imagined, the stories we tell, songs we sing, pictures we paint all have the power to do these things and probably no amount of data analysis will ever be able to tell us why or where, with absolute certainty, this power comes from.


Painting of people dancing with angels dancing in the clouds above them

A Dance to the Music of Time

Nicolas Poussin

As a teacher of literature I constantly struggle with value of literature and the place it holds in the curriculum. I know the power of story and language in my own life, I have seen this power at work in the lives of others, but I have also seen the immense indifference with which my students often respond to it. I know that when I was in high school boredom was the response the stories of the traditional canon most often provoked in students. Many of those students grew out of that indifference, but not all. I think that we are all free to reject the life of the literary and artistic imagination, just as we are free to ignore calculus and microbiology. But one of the purposes of school and of education is to expose ourselves to the different avenues our minds and imaginations might wish to pursue and we will never know that these avenues are open to us if no one ever points them out and helps us on our way. 

One thing that reading and the study of literature develops is a reflective mind, a mind that considers the directions it pursues before it too actively pursues those directions. It is very easy to be caught up in the excitement of the moment and the newness of things without thinking too deeply of the consequences. It is not possible to know all the potential dangers and which of those dangers are ones that should be struggled against and which should be avoided. Risk is incurred whenever we get out of bed in the morning and risk in and of itself is never a reason not to do something. Often those things that come with troubling possible consequences also come with attractive benefits. Nobel invented dynamite to make it easier to build roads and bridges and such. Nothing wrong with that, but there were other, less savory jobs the invention was given to do. Still, there is value to considering the destination before we begin the journey.


From A Handful of Dust

Acorn Media


The video clip is from the film version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust. In the book and the movie an English aristocrat, Tony Last, goes on an expedition to explore South America. He gets hopelessly lost and is rescued, after a fashion, by an older gentlemen living in the jungle. The old man cannot read but he loves stories. He asks Tony to read to him and of course Tony, being a true English gentleman, obliges. The old man arranges things such that those that come looking for Tony believe him to be dead and they go home calling off their search. Such is the power of stories. The old man cannot get enough of them and as a result Tony cannot go home. Part of the magic of the stories is having them read out loud and not every voice, no matter how skilled the reader to whom the voice belongs, is an effective reading voice. Donald Hall in a recent article, Thank-you, Thank-you,” points out that not every poet read their poem well. For every Dylan Thomas with a magical voice there was a T. S. Eliot with a voice that was much less inspiring. The theatrics of Vachel Lindsey made him a popular reader of his verse, but not much of his verse has survived now that he is no longer here to read it to us.   


Painting of a man standing reading to three people seated, one of whom is the emperor

 Virgil reading to Augustus

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres


Virgil in the painting above is reading his poetry to the Emperor Augustus. Unlike Tony last, Virgil was not a captive reader of his stories. But again they are powerful stories and those in high places took pleasure in hearing them read. Virgil’s best known story, The Aeneid was an endorsement of sorts of the Roman Empire and tells the story of its beginnings. But whatever propagandistic task the story was given to do, the story still captures readers. The world its characters inhabit is very different from ours, and discovering this world is part of the fascination. There is also the desire to find a home. Odysseus had a home to go to, he just had problems getting there, but Aeneas has no home, his home has been taken from him. He has a ship and he is able to get most of his family away with him, but they have no place to go. Perhaps part of the attraction is that everyone of one of us at some point leaves a home to make a home for ourselves. We may not have to go to another part of the world, but we do have to “make an escape” and at times burn a few bridges in the process. Stories are often food for the journey.


Painting of a castle courtyard

Courtyard of the Former Castle in Innsbruck without Clouds

Albrecht Durer


Whatever it is in stories that attract us (and even non-readers need stories, they just get them in different packages) they color our lives. Different stories feed us at different times and what we remember of the stories from earlier in our lives may not be found in the stories, but are instead stories that have been provoked by the stories we have read. The castles we explore in the stories we read as children are different from the castles in the stories we read when we are older. The castles of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella are not the castles of Gormenghast or Udolpho, though they all have elements that both delight and terrify. What changes, perhaps, is the nature of that which delights and terrifies as we grow older. Each provides food for a journey, though they provide different food for different journeys and perhaps it is because the nature of our journeys change that we need to garnish the mind with provisions suited to the journey of the day.

Is the mind without an adequately formed imagination in peril? Can the heart and the mind and the imagination be overly developed; do we reach a point where the stories we tell ourselves begin to do more harm than good? I do not think so, but I wonder what others do, what they carry in place of the stories that nourish me. I think it is important to question the stories, the beliefs, the assumptions that we have made, that part of aging well is remaining skeptical and curious. The best stories revolve around characters that are capable of change, who can not just adapt to changing circumstances but know when the circumstances require change and when they require perseverance and standing firmly on a conviction that mustn’t change. 

An article in the New Statesman, Tragedy’s Decline and Fall,” contrasts the stories that Sophocles and other tragedians have told with those stories that are told today in gossip magazines, reality programs, and action films and questions the place each fills in their respective societies. Robert McCrum in an article on Macbeth, “What Macbeth tells us about the digital world,” examines the Porter’s speech, one of the few comic moments in an otherwise grim play. McCrum points out that many of the jokes in this comic monologue are topical references worthy of the tabloids of the day, but in Shakespeare’s handling of the material and in the context of the larger issues present in the play the humor rises above the topical and continues to resonate today. Of course that is what the written word must always do if it is to outlive the generation for which the words were written. In Macbeth there is a meeting of the tabloid and the tragic.

In one sense they both help their audiences come to grips with the tensions and conflicts of the day, but one is deeper and far less shallow than other. Where tragedy provokes empathy and catharsis, the reality show and its cultural brethren cater to a delight many of us have in watching the suffering of others. Much of life is lived in the tension between conflicting values where each contain a truth, like when does the value of mercy override the value of justice; when does the value of generosity override the value of self-sufficiency; when is it important to adhere to the one at the expense of the other? Answering these questions depends more on wisdom than on knowledge, and where facts and data can provide us knowledge, stories are often where we turn for wisdom, a rarer quality and one much more difficult to master.


Painting of a tree growing in a meadow

Landscape, 1918

Félix Vallotton


Wondering Where the Lions Are
Bruce Cockburn


Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red
Piet Mondrian

There was an article recently in the New York Times, “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” about boredom. Fredrick Nietzsche said that “Boredom is a necessary precondition to creativity” and perhaps there is truth in this. The article suggests that boredom is hard work and that when we are doing nothing the creative centers of our brains are hard at work imagining things, being, as Nietzsche suggested, creative. The song is about finding “ecstasy,” overwhelming joy. That joy is found in simple experiences of the natural world, watching waves or smelling the trees in a forest. Perhaps boredom is represented by the lions that do not frighten him so much anymore.

The paintings by Mondrian are found boring by some because not much seems to be happening and even after close study and scrutiny some still find the paintings boring because they just aren’t to everyone’s taste. This suggests other aspects of boredom that have to do with the cultivated mind and individual likes and dislikes. Many do not like opera the first time they hear it, but many that did not like opera on a first hearing go on to become quite enthusiastic about it once they have learned something about how it works and are exposed to the music as performed by those that know how to perform it well. For many opera is something you grow into and perhaps the same is true of Mondrian’s paintings, they need to be grown into.

Of course it must be remembered that one can like opera without liking all operas and perhaps the same is true with painting, that one can enjoy some abstract paintings without enjoying all abstract paintings. The issue is not one of exposure so much as not having a taste for certain things and this is true of people with the most cultivated tastes. There are of course others who feign an interest in something because they are trying to impress others. No one, whatever the stage of cultural development they live at, enjoys everything. Out tastes are defined as much by what we do not like as they are by what we do like.

The Piet Mondrian – Nike Dunk Low SB

On the other hand it is difficult to know what will excite people and some things, like a Mondrian painting, that might bore a person if they were encountered in a museum might excite that same person if they were found on a tennis shoe. If we are attracted at all to the Mondrian painting it is probably the design that we find attractive and the design does not have to be found solely on a canvas to excite our interest, in fact a design that does not attract us in one venue may attract us in some other. As with fine dining, presentation is an important part of design.

I suppose the whole issue of what is art and why we ought to appreciate it is at the heart of boredom. There are aspects of culture that we feel guilty for not appreciating and other aspects of culture for which we feel the need to suppress our appreciation. In some parts of the world sports are at the heart of one’s cultural experience in others it may be the ballet. But in any culture there are things folks feel compelled to know and other things that are more discretionary. In America it is more acceptable, I suppose, to be bored at the opera than at a football game.

The Human Condition
René Magritte

This painting plays with the idea of art imitating life to the extent that it is difficult to see where “life” ends and the painting begins. But is it the purpose of art to imitate life. I remember reading somewhere that E. B. White (writing under a pseudonym) once said that “art should not only “not” imitate life, it had better be a helluva lot more interesting.” I do not know if I remember correctly and I have not been able to verify the quote anywhere, still the quote is apt. A work of art may be true to life, but to keep the work from boring its audience the artist is selective about what is put into the work and what is kept out.

A Young Hare
Albrecht Durer

The choice of what to put in does not need to be “exciting in and of itself, it just has to have a quality about it that holds our interest. A painting of a rabbit could be maudlin or “cute” but it can also been done from life and catch our interest. The rabbit in the painting seems a serious fellow deep in thought. I think what attracts me is the level of realism, the texture of the fur, the facial expression, the tension in the body. But the point is simplicity is often exciting and capable of holding our interest. Perhaps the ability to find pleasure in simple things is an essential life skill, one that frees us from all the busyness and activity that goes on around us. Often what makes a good reader is the ability to see beyond the plot of a story, to see the well drawn details that help establish the reality of the story without contributing that much to what happens in the story. In some stories (Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles comes to mind) the scenery and the weather and the “actions” of the natural world reinforce or give insight into what is happening inside the characters.

I think that we read stories, poems, plays, and essays (and whatever else that is out there requiring us to decipher symbols on a page) to help us answer questions about life and how to live it well. Perhaps we become bored with a story when it stops answering questions that are relevant to our own existence. A story may be a good story for others without being a good story for me, or it may not be a story I need for this stage in my life. There was a review in the Guardian recently of a new biography of Michel Montaigne, “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.” Montaigne’s life was radically changed by an encounter with death. He lived in a time when death was a much more common occurrence than it is for us, at least on a personal level. And, as is often the case with things we have in abundance, he took death for granted, until he had his accident.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
Thomas de Leu

Montaigne went on to invent the essay (well he didn’t really invent the essay so much as give it a name). He used the form to answer questions, how should we live, what should we do with the time that we have? Primarily, he thought, we need to stop worrying about death. But he also thought we should read more, though not remember that much of what we read (we must wade through a lot of nonsense I suppose before we find things of real value), take things slowly, be curious. His essays help us understand friendship, the importance of learning from the experience of others, and knowing the difference between those that would deceive and those who can be trusted. But can someone find these essays interesting if she or he is not already aware of the importance of coming to grips with the issues the essays address. Often what bores us is not the work itself, but our own immaturity that blinds us to the need to confront the problems the work confronts.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro
20th Century Fox

This clip from the film The Snows of Kilimanjaro raises another issue of story telling. How does the storyteller make a static scene interesting? I suppose this is an especially serious problem for the filmmaker. How do we hold the audience’s interest in a man in bed who is slowly dying? A large part of the responsibility falls on the actors who must capture the audience almost solely with their words and the emotions that can be packed into the words. What we watch, I imagine, is the behavior, is it true, is this how a person would act and speak and “be” under these circumstances? Because under the surface of the action, such as it is, is the same question Montaigne raises, how do we face our own mortality without “worrying about death.” If a scene like the one in the film is boring, it is either because we do not feel our own mortality or because the actors failed to convince us they were confronting their own.

In a good story it is not the action entirely that holds our interest. A good story, for me anyway, is one we can come back to and read again and still draw something from the experience. Where all a story has to offer is a plot, a series of events, unfortunate or otherwise, there is nothing to hold our interest on a second reading. If the action of the story is presented exceptionally well it may succeed in arousing our interest on one or two more readings, but once we get to the point we can “tell the story” to ourselves without needing the book there will be nothing left to draw us back in.

But in a well told story where real questions of human existence are being confronted, where the characters confront these questions in a meaningful and honest way, there will always be something to hold our interest. We are not reading because we have been captured by what people do but because we have been captured by the people themselves and they hold us, at times perhaps, against our will.

Things Change

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

Things Change

“The Theft” and “The Restitution”
Max Beerbohm

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

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

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

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

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

“Apollo and Daphne”
Piero Pollaiuolo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Edison’s Production

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

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

Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Time Has Come Today
Joseph Chambers & Willie Chambers
The Chambers Brothers

Who Knows Where the Time Goes

A Man hanging by the big hand of a clock on a clock tower.
Harold Lloyd from the film Safety Last

Filling the time is often difficult. Some believe ninety minutes is too long for a class to last and others that forty-five minutes is much too short. It all depends, I suppose, on how the time is employed, The modern teacher has excite the class about something, give the instruction on how to complete the assignment, and have time left over to actually complete the task. Ideally there is time after the task is done to review important points, discuss the homework, and set up the nights reading assignment. Time and its management is a tricky thing.

How is time used most effectively, especially in the classroom where I work (not that time isn’t important for people that work outside the classroom, but they will have to find their own answers)? So much of effective education depends on repetition and paying attention. Instruction is given, for example, on how to complete a bibliography (something few outside of academia care much about). The steps are pretty simple. The citation that must be placed inside the paper is also pretty simple. These tasks do not have much that is confusing about them, but the tasks and the instructions on how to complete them, are tedious. And even if the students are going through the motions of paying attention, their minds are elsewhere. When the time comes to complete the bibliography or cite the source most will be back asking how it is done.

Other tasks are more complex and have the potential of inspiring more interest, but only to those that already possess an interest in the subject. I often tell students that if the class is statistically balanced fifteen to twenty percent will be interested in what I teach, English. The remaining eighty percent or so will be interested in the other disciplines (math, science, history, phys-ed, and foreign languages). There will probably be another few percent that are interested in other things that are not likely to be found in a classroom. But then many students have not yet come to understand why education is important (they understand the argument that is made and most agree with it, but many have not “owned” the task as necessary.)

So does it matter if the class is ninety minutes or half an hour? Does it only matter that the time is somehow filled, however much it is, with material that will hold interest and provoke, perhaps, students to dig deeper into the material on their own time and at their own pace? I think educating the mind is exciting, I have always been curious, and as a result have always wanted to know more than the teacher taught, no matter how much the teacher taught, but, honestly, only about the things that interested me. I found Gauss an interesting man so I looked up material on him while in high school and learned a lot about his life and work, but did not learn much of the math that is necessary to really understand his work. I suppose that is how most of us are; we investigate what interests us and, maybe, a few of the tangents, a bit less deeply, that present themselves along the way.

The school that sponsors my classroom went from ninety minute blocks to seventy-five minute blocks in the morning, hence the concern for time. I find that I cannot get done in seventy-five minutes what I used to get done in ninety. That should come as no surprise, the other fifteen minutes should have been filled with something, and that has to be left behind. Another five minutes have been added to the afternoon classes, going from forty-five to fifty minutes. But five minutes is not enough time to introduce something new and than finish whatever that something new happened to be. For those that count minutes in the classroom five minutes is five minutes no matter where it lives. But of course in the classroom where the five minutes lives can make all the difference in the world.

When I was in college the university I attended thought they would save money and make students happy by ending the first semester at Christmas break in the middle of December rather than the middle of the following January where it traditionally ended. However, the missing four weeks or so had to be made up somehow. This was done by adding a chunk of time to each class. I forget exactly how much time was added to each class but it equaled the amount of class time lost by ending early. One of my professors thought this was wrong. That adding some time to each class could not make up for the time lost because in those four additional weeks students could be given additional books to read and discuss. The time in class did not change but the time spent out of class preparing for what happened in class did change. It takes time to read, digest, and reflect on a work of literature. Much of the time devoted to reading and reflecting is what was lost.

That is perhaps the larger issue. We are in the midst of an election. Time needs to be spent finding out what it is we want the government to do, and what it is the government must do if the nation is to remain healthy and strong. Most importantly we need to think about which candidate can do those things. This decision ought to be the product of time spent thinking and reflecting on issues and problems. Most, though, will probably make this decision based on their political philosophy; the conservative will vote for the most conservative candidate and the liberal for the most liberal. Odds are that after reflecting a bit the result would be the same anyway so why invest the time. There is some truth in this, but what happens to a society that does not nurture reflection or develop it as a skill in the first place.

Popeye for President
Director: Seymour Kneitel
Producer: Paramount Pictures

In the Popeye cartoon we see Popeye and Bluto both running for office. Their platforms revolve around giving something to voters, not on the best interests of the community, though by promising the electorate spinach Popeye has the health of the electorate more in mind than his opponent. This is satire of course and real politicians are not as blunt as this. For this sort of campaign to work, the electorate cannot look too deeply into what the candidate truly stands for. Few voters would be won over by campaigns as crass as Bluto or Popeye’s, but to avoid being fooled time must be spent. James Thurber believed you could “fool too many of the people too much of the time.”

That may be true, but only if citizens do not take the time to find things out to think in some depth about what is actually going on and being promised. Some complain about how long this election has gone on. It has been longer than most, but though the candidates have spent more time talking and debating have voters spent more time thinking about the process. Do they complain because they are used to things taking less time, not more, to be completed. Again, the issue is not so much the election, though that is important I suppose, but the resistance to the contemplative process. There are important decisions that life and society place in front of us and though we would wish otherwise there is a cost to making these decisions too quickly and too thoughtlessly.

I wonder what the desire to streamline things, from classrooms to computer access, has on people. I know in my classroom students struggle with books that make demands on their time and interest. They have difficulty understanding what a book is about when plot is set aside for other interests of the author, like setting or character. In their minds understanding a book relates almost entirely to knowing what is happening. When Beowulf is fighting Grendel students know what is going on, but when he is giving a speech or the poet is philosophizing about the nature of honor students get lost. That, I suppose is what the teacher is for, but is it wise for the teacher to always help them out of these literary potholes; don’t students need to work their way through some of these problems on their own? This becomes difficult when class time disappears.

I think stories are important in this regard. When we reflect on them they give substance to the concepts we believe and help us recognize the importance of the issues the stories raise to our daily lives. The stories do not need to come from the canon of great literature, nor do they need to be long and involved. Theodore Roosevelt (I believe) once said “Loyalty is being faithful without being famous.” That is a story of sorts or at least it contains the kernel of a plot that could make a good story. I started reading a new book by Margaret Atwood today. It is called Payback and she begins with an observation by another writer, Alistair MacLeod, that writers write about what worries them. Atwood adds that writers also write about what puzzles them.

Our relationship to time and our attitudes toward time, worry and puzzle me. We are becoming less and less comfortable with free time. But it is in these unfilled blocks of time where we come to know ourselves and the world around us. Atwood’s book begins by telling a story of Ernest Thompson Seton and the debt he owed his father (it is a wonderful story and you should read the book). She wonders about our indebtedness to those that raised us. Time spent by the adults around us teaching and caring for us is an investment. No one has figured out how to quicken the race to adulthood, it still seems to require eighteen some odd years. The kind of adults our children become depends on the kind of time we invest in them. Some of this time is invested in classrooms. I worry about how this time is spent and am puzzled by what some think is a wise and productive allotment of that time.