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

How to Read a Map

Man in the Mirror

Michael Jackson


How to Read a Map


14th Century map of the Mediterranean

Nautical Chart in Portolan Style Probably Drawn in Genoa



There was an article recently in The Boston Globe, “Introducing Ray Bradbury, the Master of Fantasy,” that talks about introducing our kids to the books that were meaningful to us when we were children and reading the books that are important to our kids so that we can build a common heritage. Alice Hoffman, the author of the article, refers to these stories as road maps to our lives. The books become important not only for the stories they tell but for the ways in which they shape our lives and our imaginations and contribute to our growth as individuals. When we re-read these books we not only recapture the stories but those moments in our lives and personal growth when we first discovered the stories. By sharing these stories with our children, and in letting them share their stories with us, we help them to begin to chart the maps of their lives.

Alan Jacobs in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction recalls being on a ferryboat and watching a father read one of the Harry Potter books to his child. Both the father and child were engrossed in the story and were creating the kind of moment that Hoffman talks about in her article. The moment Jacobs describes is a landmark in both the parent and child’s life together. When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness they would stack up stones to mark places where significant events took place. When their children asked them why those stones were there, their parents would retell the story the markers were built to commemorate. The stories we read are often stacks of stones, Cairns, of this kind. It is important to have these landmarks in our lives to which we can return when the need arises and which we can share with those that come after us.

Stories change us. The reading we do changes us, if we read well, even if we do not necessarily choose well the stories that we read. The song, Man in the Mirror, is about change beginning with us, if we are to change the world we need to change ourselves. The books we read can contribute to this change and as we age these books become maps of our development. I think maps are interesting things, even if we cannot figure them out. The drawing at the top of the page is of a map, a map I cannot easily read, of the Mediterranean Sea as it looked to a 14th century cartographer. Maps also say something about how we view the world. There is a scene in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I where the king and the governess of his children are looking at a map of Siam, or present day Thailand. Siam is the largest country on the map. This is not literally true of course, but for the king of Siam it was “psychologically” true, it was the center of his world and the most important place in his world and in that sense the largest country on his map.

And this is not a problem unique to the king of Siam. If we look at maps made throughout history, up to and including our own day, it is not unusual to find similar problems of scale and size, though with most of the planet having now been photographed from space, these geographic distortions are becoming less common. But what is the real truth, the psychological one or the physical one; is the size of a place determined by a scale of miles or by the scale of the places influence in an individual’s life? The smallest town on the planet plays a huge role in the lives of the people that live there.


Map of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea Countries

Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 – upside-down with north oriented up

Mohammad Al-Idrisi


The maps above and below are also very old though a bit easier to follow. The map above, we are told, is upside down, with the north at the top. Of course for us that makes the map right side up. But for the artist that rendered the map, south was at the top. Mohammad Al-Idrisi obviously looked at the world differently than we do. Did drawing the world differently change the way he looked at it; does someone who sees the South Pole at the top of the map view the world differently than someone who sees the North Pole at the top? The artist who drew the map of Africa below saw Africa as “beneath” his European home because he placed the northern hemisphere at the top of his map. For Al-Idrisi, on the other hand, the Middle East, Al-Idrisi’s part of the world, would be at the top of the map and Europe would be “beneath” him.


Nautical map of West Africa

West Africa in a nautical chart

Fernão Vaz Douradoão_Vaz_Dourado_1571-1.jpg


Of course this begs the question of whether or not people see nations that are beneath them geographically as being beneath them in other ways as well. Does seeing the south on top of the map effect the stories that person reads or tells? Probably what touches us each as human beings is not greatly affected by which of the poles we place at the top of the map. But sometimes the way we organize the world, who is put on top and who on the bottom, suggests something about how we view the world and the people in it. Viewed from the cosmos up and down on our planet are very relative terms. But to us they are often loaded with significance.


Map of the solar system

Map of the Solar System

Anonymous (compiled from multiple images from the public domain, published by the Free Software Foundation)


But of course the kind of map Ms. Hoffman had in mind when she compared our reading to the making of maps are not the kinds of maps drawn by Al-Idrisi or Fernão Vaz Dourado. Her maps are more metaphorical, referring to the course of our development, to the steps in the journey that made us who we are. Stories often open us up to new ways of viewing the world, of viewing others, of viewing ourselves. We look at the actions of some characters and, though we may wish this were not so, we cannot see ourselves behaving in the same ways. We do not see in ourselves the courage, the honesty, or the selflessness we see in the characters in stories that we admire. Still we often try to emulate them to become more like them.

There were two articles in The Guardian recently about stories and their influence. One was about empathy, “Reading fiction ‘improves empathy’, study finds.” This article suggests that reading stories (and the article is clear about this, it asserts that non-fiction does not produce the same effect) develops the ability to empathize; stories help us to get out of ourselves and experience life a little bit from the point of view of the characters in the stories. The article is very short and leaves many questions unresolved but it does raise an interesting point. Faye Weldon in her book Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen says, “You can practice the art of empathy very well on Pride and Prejudice, and on all the works of Jane Austen, and it is this daily practice that we all need, or we will never be good at living, as without practice we will never be good at playing the piano” For Weldon one of the reasons we read is so that we can become more effective empathizers. She also suggests the art of empathy is an essential part of good living. Again, this is an assertion that lacks evidence, but my experience as a teacher and as a reader reinforces for me the truth of this assertion. Until we care about the characters in the stories we read, especially in those stories where plot is of secondary importance, it is very difficult to be engaged by those stories, they will never capture us, worse than that, they are likely to become tedious and to bore us.

The second article was about a poll that asked readers to identify their favorite character from the Harry Potter stories, “Snape is voted favourite Harry Potter character”. The favorite of those taking the poll was Severus Snape. Snape is probably the most complicated, and I think the most human, of the characters in these stories. No matter what readers may have suspected to be the truth about Snape as the story unfolded, it was not until the end that we knew for sure whether he was one of the good guys or the bad guys. He is a character with many faults and many flaws, just like most of us. He is unlike either Potter or Dumbledore on the one hand and clearly good; or like Lord Voldemort or Bellatrix Lestrange on the other and clearly evil. He is either a basically good guy with serious flaws or a very bad guy with a few redeeming qualities. Most of us can identify with the problem of Snape.

Whatever we think of Snape, by about half way through the story we understand that Snape’s darker side is in part the product of how he was treated by characters we see as “good guys,” people like Harry’s father and Harry’s godfather Sirius Black. We also see that his redeeming qualities come from how other “good” people, like Harry’s mother and Dumbledore, have treated him. Snape is responsible for the person he becomes, for both what is good in him and what is not so good, but we understand his struggle. We want to be good and seen as good but if we are honest with ourselves we see our flaws and shortcomings and are aware of the distance between what we are and what we ought and, hopefully, want to be. I also think there is a deeper truth here and that is that often those we do not like or trust, like Snape, are actually acting on our behalf, while those we like and trust, like Professor Quirrell, perhaps, are acting to do us harm.


Marco Tempest The Magic of Truth and Lies

TED Talk


The video clips above and below suggest art’s dual nature. Does art lie to us or does it open our eyes to the truth. In the first clip we see that magic to be successful must succeed in lying to its audience and it helps if the audience, in turn, comes to the performance with a wish to be deceived (for we all know when we attend a magic show that nothing that we are seeing is happening as we are seeing it happen). In this sense art is a magic show. When we look at a painting we often see a two dimensional space appear to take on a third dimension. We know the surface is flat but the artist is able to suggest depth where there is none. Words on a page produce emotions and sensations in a reader that were not there before and the reader has not actually experienced what has elicited those emotions and sensations, she or he has been tricked into imagining those experiences, as the member from the audience who selected the three of clubs imagines that card was selected freely and at random. For art to function we cede control of our thoughts and imaginations, or at least a degree of control, to the artist. We may call this verisimilitude or the suspension of disbelief, but it amounts to much the same thing, we are allowing the artist to deceive us.


Raghava KK Shake Up Your Story

TED Talk


On the other hand, though, the second video also makes a valid point, that stories often reveal truth and reality to us. If we see the world one way, it is useful to “shake our stories” a bit so that we can gain some insight into how others see our world. Richard Rodriguez in an interview with Bill Moyers said that when he read William Saroyan for the first time he, Richard Rodriguez, discovered he was Armenian (Saroyan was Armenian and his stories often captured the experiences of Armenians in America). In allowing himself into Saroyan’s world Rodriguez recognized what it meant to be an Armenian and how aspects of being Armenian were not that different from aspects of being Mexican, that Armenians and Mexicans have a shared humanity. It is this ability of a book read well to bring us out of ourselves that Rodriguez valued. Is Rodriguez deceived in this view, is he only imagining what an author wants him to imagine, that we all share a common humanity? Or is it a “noble lie” that deceives us so that it can reveal to us a greater truth? Perhaps life is a briar patch of truth and deceit, of wisdom and foolishness and that these qualities are so comingled that we need to learn to negotiate the tension that this comingling produces.

The maps we make may be real maps to real places. They may be maps that guide us safely through a dangerous terrain. The stories that we read may take place in real or imagined worlds but the ones that become a part of us have helped us in some way, they have illuminated what was unclear to us, provided models of correct or incorrect behavior, or led us to places of safety within our psyche and our spirit. They me be like the map below, a map of Middle Earth in a language we cannot understand but a map of a terrain that is so familiar to us we do not need to understand the map’s language, we know nonetheless where we are and where we are going. We can find on this map both where the dragons live and the way home again.


Map of Tolkien's Middle Earth with runes and a Swedish text

Map from The Hobbit (Swedish)

A Common Shelf

Make a Better World
Blind Boys of Alabama

A Common Shelf

Anonymous Commonplace book in manuscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canto 34 of Orlando Furioso
Francesco Franceschi

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

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

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Medieval Illumination

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

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


Tintin – Destination Moon
Ellipse Programmé

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

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

Cover of the Tintin comic book Destination Moon



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.