In Three Minds

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

New York Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein


Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young

Neil Young

“Yellow on the Broom”

Jean Redpath


Panis Angelicus

Kiri Te Kanawa; Barry Rose: English Chamber Orchestra

César Franck


In Three Minds


Painitng of woman with two faces signifying doubt

Coup of Doubt

Victor Brauner


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



I was of three minds, 

Like a tree 

In which there are three blackbirds.

        From “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”


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


Painting of a woman painting

     Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Paining

Artemisia Gentileschi


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


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

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


Arthur Hughes


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


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

Bacchus and Ariadne



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


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

Calumny of Apelles

Sandro Botticelli


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


Detail of the accuser and accused from the pevious image 

Detail from The Calumny of Apelles

Sandro Botticelli


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


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

Lament for Icarus

Herbert Draper


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


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

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry

Jean-Baptiste Theodon


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


Fresco of a crowd of people gathered on Mount Parnassus

The Parnassus



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


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


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


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

The Sorceress

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


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


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


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


From Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock

Selznick International Pictures

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


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


Circe Invidiosa

John Williams Waterhouse


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


People seated around an upright antlered animal

Witches’ Sabbath



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


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


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


Painting of a man fighting many serpents


John Singer Sargent,_John_-_Hercules_-_1921.jpg


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


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

Warning Sign in Cologne

US-Army History Images


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


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


Painiting of a woman with flowers in the woods


Arthur Hughes

It’s Just a Story

 “The Rocky Road to Dublin”

The Chieftains and The Rolling Stones

“Sweet Dream (Are Made of This)”


“All the Roadrunning”

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris


It’s Just a Story


Caricature of a clown

Caricature of Albert Brasseur in “Le Rire”



In an interview that first appeared in The New York Review of Books, “Everyman His Own Eckermann,” Edmund Wilson discussed his views on art, music, and literature. Though known mostly as a literary critic, he spent most of his time talking about art, a bit less time talking about music and hardly talked about literature at all. The interview is also interesting because Wilson was both the “interviewee” and the interviewer. In this respect it is something of a Plato-esque dialogue on art and, like Socrates, he rarely asks a question he does not already have an answer for, even when protesting his inability to provide an answer. And though he does not say much about literature, what he says about art and music comes back to what he appreciates in literature, the stories that are told. He enjoys opera because it tells a story, all other forms of music he only listens to on records, not in the theater or the concert hall. He does not care much for the work of Picasso, not because it isn’t well executed, but because it only succeeds at being clever. The drawing above is by one of Wilson’s favorite artists, a caricaturist who called himself Sem, the Hirschfeld of his day, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say Hirschfeld was the Sem of his day. 


Caricature of the singer Liza Minnelli

Liza Minnelli

Al Hirschfeld


Both the Hirschfeld and Sem caricatures capture their subjects doing what they do best in a way that clearly and simply captures the essence of their subjects. Like Hirschfeld many, perhaps most, of Sem’s caricatures were of artists, mostly actors, writers, and musicians; artists associated with theater and the performing arts of one kind or another. Both artists relied on a simplicity of line and expression to capture their subjects. Looking at the Sem drawing suggests a kind of continuity in the arts, as Brasseur’s hat and coat and whip bring Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” to mind; they are not identical but there is a threadbare quality to the costume that is not unlike that of Chaplin’s tramp. And to get back to what Wilson admires about Sem (and what I admire about Hirschfeld) they are spare and simple drawings that tell stories. Like Shakespeare’s theater, the artists’ stage is a bare stage with no more in the way of setting and furniture than is absolutely necessary. As Poe suggests when writing about the short story, there is nothing extra, nothing that is not absolutely necessary for conveying their effect; the expression on each face and the contour of each body. The viewer’s imagination does the rest.

Some might not consider these artists as “great,” as “museum” quality, but their work involves the viewer and provokes an emotional response. Unlike Liza Minnelli, I do not know who Albert Brasseur is (I have discovered that, like Minnelli, he was active in the musical theater). But the caricature is evocative. It may be that the story I see in the picture is not the same story Sem’s original audience would have seen, they are unlikely to make my connection to Chaplin’s persona, and it is not likely that Brasseur was as intimately connected with this character as Chaplin was with the tramp. But this is often how art and story work; we see them in the light of our own time, our own personal history, and our own tastes and interests. Perhaps only I see Chaplin in this drawing. What others see may be colored by their experiences. There is also an ephemeral quality to the work of both artists, they are very topical, but Sem’s work, transient though it may be, has survived for a hundred years, perhaps because, though we may not know who his subjects were, there is a wittiness to their representation that piques our interest or makes us laugh or in some other way makes us care about them. But then, what is it in any story that causes it to live (and not all do) long after the circumstances of their creation have been forgotten. 

The songs at the beginning are about roads that are rocky or arduous; they are also about dreams, sweet or otherwise. These are also at the heart of many stories, there is often a dream or an aspiration; there is always a journey to be made that involves difficulty and conflict. It is often the nature of the dream and the conflict that hold our interest. Brasseur’s road looks like it has been a rocky one but he also appears to be a man with a dream and aspirations. These are also a part of what draws us to him. I like to imagine that Ms. Minnelli is singing Chaplain’s song “Smile”: “Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking. / When there are clouds in the sky / You’ll get by.” This, too, is an important aspect of those stories that survive.


Painting of a man playing the bagpipes

Bagpipe Player

Hendrick ter Brugghen


The paintings above and below tell different stories. They are portraits, not caricatures, of men engaged in something serious, at least from their point of view. Being Scottish I take delight in the picture of the bagpipe and can imagine its sound. The musician playing the bagpipe evokes a story as well. I cannot tell if that is all shadow on his shoulder and not also a bit of dirt or a bruise. The bagpipe is a martial instrument and so it would not be surprising if the player has been involved in conflict. Even if the shoulder is not bruised the shirt does seem a bit disheveled. He seems to enjoy the music he is making, whatever the occasion for the music making.

The old man, on the other hand, appears to be more world weary, more troubled. I cannot know what it is that troubles him, perhaps it is only his advancing years, but the muscles and veins on the neck are tense and the eyes are troubled. He looks determined, though I do not think he looks hopeful. But I empathize with him and I want to help him, though I do not know how. Stories do not always offer answers and often it is not a quest for answers that draws us to stories, but a desire to discover what it means to be fully human and part of being fully human is learning how to comfort those we cannot help, at least not in the way they need to be helped. Job’s friends may not have been able to change Job’s circumstances, but they could have offered him solace and comfort instead of judgment and because they didn’t we judge them and wonder how genuine was their friendship. 


Portrait of an old man with a serious look

Head of an Old Man

Abraham Bloemaert


Wilson, in talking about the artist Callot, mentions the Commedia dell’arte, an early form of Italian theater that is with us to this day, and has many of its antecedents in Plautus and the theater of Rome. Also, as in the painting below, the Commedia was often a kind of “street” theater that appealed to the masses, to the “simple folk” who were rarely as simple as some would have us believe. The Commedia had a cast of stock characters and we as the audience could always tell who was who based on their costumes, their masks, and their antics. There is a language of theater, a language of performance. Ben Jonson in his play Volpone, and many of his other plays, borrowed heavily from the Commedia. Moliere, in his comedies, used characters who had their origins in the Commedia as well. Tartuffe, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid are all characters lifted from this ancient theatrical tradition. The plays are still very funny because the character traits being mocked are all caricatures of personality types we recognize. We are not likely to know anyone who possess these traits to the degree the characters in these plays possess them, it is not likely that anyone has ever possessed these traits to this extreme. They are exaggerations that nonetheless capture something real about how we as humans are corrupted by these traits; how to some degree we all possess these traits and in laughing at the antics on stage we are laughing at ourselves. 


Painting of comic actors performing on a moveable stage before a rustic audience

Commedia dell’arte

Karel Dujardin


Stories often help us to see ourselves as we are and to not take ourselves too seriously. Malvolio, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is modeled on the same character type as Tartuffe (though he lacks Tartuffe’s intelligence or resourcefulness, but on the other hand Tartuffe does not have Malvolio’s sincerity). We have all known people to whom we wanted to say, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” And if we are honest with ourselves there have been moments in our lives when those around us, probably wanted to say the same to us. Some look askance at others for being too judgmental and some at others who are unwilling to make judgments. It is human to be critical of those that do not adhere to our “code,” whatever our “code” is.

Marin Scorsese in an article for The New York Review of Books talks about the language of film, “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema.” He talks about the environment of film, at least of film viewed as it ought to be viewed. Films need to be seen in a dark room surrounded by strangers (many of whom you might avoid were you to encounter them on the street). For me the clicking sound of the projector is also an important part of the experience. Just as the Commedia had its stock characters, so also cinema has its stock characters. At its simplest we know the good guys because they wear white hats. But in film, the hard-nosed detective, no matter who plays him, is a type of character, the cowboy, whether played by John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, or Steve McQueen is a character type. Both the cowboy and the detective have an “unsavory” veneer about them that is contradicted by their actions, or at least times it is. Black and white as a film “genre” is also a significant part of my film experience. I am used to seeing movies in black and white, even movies that were originally made in color, like, for instance, Invaders from Mars. I saw this film, and many others, every night for a week when it played on a television program called Million Dollar Movie. This program played the same film every night for a week. But television when I was a child was all black and white and I was amazed when I discovered, fairly recently, Invaders from Mars was original shot in color. 


Photograph of the head of a fat man with a thin man standing behind him

Scene from The Maltese Falcon

John Huston/Warner Brothers


But many films were originally shot in black and white because the lack of color helped create an atmosphere, especially in “film noir” movies like The Big Sleep or Laura. Tension and mystery were enhanced by the lack of color, as was the seediness of many of the characters and situations. These films may have been originally shot in black and white for budgetary reasons, but the directors of these films took a limitation and made it into a strength. I remember seeing Brideshead Revisited for the first time on a black and white television set. Because I didn’t know any better I thought the maker of the series was brilliant in choosing to shoot the film in Black and White because it helped capture for me the essence of the 1920’s; it had a newsreel quality to it that enhanced the “feeling” of the times in which the story was set. It was only later that I realized the filmmaker was not as brilliant as I had thought; the series was actually shot in color and I just did not have a color set on which to see it. But again, our experience colors our interpretations and understandings of the stories we experience. 


Spider-Man, The Lion King and life on the creative edge

Julie Taymor

TED Talk


In the video Julie Taymor talks about how she creates theater and films. Spectacle plays a large part in what she tries to do, but so does simplicity. She talks about how, when she was designing the Broadway musical (not the film) The Lion King she began much the same way Hirschfeld and Sem began, with simple lines, what she calls ideograms that capture the essence of character. Her productions, especially her last that did not go that well, are very complex, they attempt to do things not tried before, they take great risks. It can be debated as to whether or not the finished product was worth the risk, but she has done some remarkable things in film and on stage. She tells at the beginning of her talk of witnessing a religious ceremony. She was in darkness and those performing the ceremony were unaware of their “audience.” In fact as marvelous as the spectacle of their dance, costumes, and of the setting for their performance was they were not performing for anyone; their only audience was, as far as they knew, God. 

Taymor believes that there is a religious quality to theater and story telling. The origins of the theater are religious, the Athenian Greeks used theater to communicate their myths and reinforce in the minds of the people the importance of the gods and the gods care for the universe. When actors came on stage wearing a mask the audience knew immediately who the actors were portraying because they saw the same faces on statues everyday as they walked about town. Rabelais in “The Abbey of Theleme” section of Pantagruel has the walls of the abbey painted with pictures that told all the important stories; that taught all the important lessons. This is not an unusual feature in Renaissance utopias, paintings in public spaces that taught the young and the illiterate the values of the utopic culture. A popular book of the time, for those that could afford such things, were “books of hours” that people would use to meditate upon during “hours” of prayer (the medieval day was divided into “canonical hours,” compline, vespers, matins for example). On one page would be the text of a gospel or a psalm and on the facing page an illustration, an illumination, that told in pictures the story of the text. The arts, literature, painting, music, and theater all had their origins in a kind of education that passes along the cultural traditions in a way that is accessible to all and understood by all.


Page from an illuminated manuscript with a picture of a medieval man being arrested

“Folio 31 verso from a Book of Hours (British Library, Royal 2 B XV), the Arrest of Christ”



Peter Thonemann in his article “Seeing Straight” talks about architecture and how the buildings we design and live in are often suggestive of how we view the world and how we think the universe works. Early civilizations often built circular buildings, while later on square buildings became the design of choice. Thonemann suggests this is because the world as we observe it is circular; tree trunks, the sun and moon, the motion of the sun and moon; but ninety degree angles, that is squares and rectangles, are more functional as living and working spaces. I am not sure how much we can tell about a people based on their buildings, but I think we can tell something. What we make, the environments in which we choose to live, the stories that we tell, and how we choose to tell them all say something about us and about how we see ourselves. Are our living and working spaces an extension of our worship or are they places designed to bring us comfort? Can they be both?

There was an article in the online journal First Things, “Faith in Fiction,” that discusses the disappearance of faith from modern fiction. I am not entirely sure this is the case, but much, maybe most, of modern fiction seems to avoid faith. But I do not think this is entirely the case, because I think we all live by faith. We select a worldview, or perhaps our conscience does, that guides the judgments we make. These worldviews are ultimately un-provable; they begin with an article of faith, God exists, God doesn’t exist, science has the answer for every question (if not at the present moment, it will in time), we are born with a conscience, what we call conscience is the result of our upbringing. None of these assertions can be proved empirically, but we all have to start somewhere so we pick one. The stories a culture tells itself reveal the articles of faith that culture has embraced, even if that faith is one of “faithlessness.” But our “gods” may be replaced with other “gods” as time goes by, just as the Jupiter once replaced Zeus.


St. Marks basilica in Venice at sunset

Venetian Fantasy with Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana on an Island

Edward Lear


The painting is Venetian Fantasy. This suggests it captures a Venice that never existed, it is a fantasy, but it bears a close enough resemblance to the Venice we know, or at least that Edward Lear knew, to make the fantasy real. To those that do not share our faith it is a fantasy as others’ faith often appears as a fantasy to us. One thing story should help us with is determining what we are going to “bet our lives on,” because there are consequences attached to the beliefs we adopt; they dictate to us how our lives ought to be lived. Some think it is enough to live consistently with the choices we have made. Others think making the right choice is in itself critical, and those that think this way can often tell us what the right choice is. I believe in truth and that it is important to question everything with the belief that whatever is true can stand up to the scrutiny if it is true. 

Perhaps part of what characterizes the age is a fear of what we might find if we ask too many questions. There is a great temptation, not just in our age, but in every age, to seek comfort, to seek rest, to seek enjoyment and to evade the darkness, and often the easiest way to do this, at least in the short term, is to ignore unpleasant truths and difficult questions. To what degree is what we hunger for determined by the diet we are accustomed to and to what degree does what we hunger for challenge our conventions? I am not sure that stories can give us the answers we seek, but I do think stories encourage us to keep looking and to not be satisfied with easy solutions to difficult problems. The truth may often be simple, but it is never simplistic. 


Man sitting on the side of a mountain sketching

The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine

Sanford Robinson Gifford



Loreena McKennitt




Prophetic looking man toucing the mankind imparting wisdom and knowledge

Portion of Wisdom, with Light and Sound, located above the entrance of 30 Rockefeller Center (GE Building), New York City

Lee Lawrie

Photograph by Jaime Ardiles-Arce



The song “Penelope” tells of an aspect of the story of Odysseus that Homer left out, it imagines what Penelope was thinking while waiting for Odysseus to return home. It is a song that has its roots in the “Classical Tradition.” There was a review recently, “Glories of Classicism,” of a new book titled The Classical Tradition. Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner wrote the article. Greenblatt also wrote an article, “Call of the Wild,” on the Shakespearean influences found in the children’s stories of Maurice Sendak. What these articles underscore is the impact of the Classical Tradition on not only modern culture, but the various threads throughout history that have been woven together to create modern culture. The review of The Classical Tradition identifies commonplace things, like the asterisk (“*”) that have their origins in some corner of the classical world. I remember reading a few years ago about the origin of the “&” symbol. It is made by running together the two letters “E” and “t,” which spell “Et.” And “et” is Latin for “and.” The symbol in fact is not a symbol at all, but the conjunction itself. What these suggest is that the classical tradition surrounds us in some of the most mundane aspects of our culture. 

The photograph above is of a relief panel over the entrance to the Rockefeller Center. The image is fashioned in an Art Deco style, the “Modern Art” of the day, but its subject evokes the Judea-Christian tradition with its quote from Isaiah, “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy time” and an image that suggests the prophet directly above. The figure, though, is also Zeus like and offers, perhaps a connection to classical Greek and Roman Mythology as well. In the lines and colors of the Art Deco movement is found the most ancient of classical and religious traditions. 

One example of the influence of the ancient and modern, the classical tradition and the contemporary view is found in the novel Frankenstein. At one point in the novel the creature finds a trunk that has fallen into the road. He opens it up and among other things he finds three books, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Each represents a different age in the development of human thought, the Classical period and the Classical Education, the Renaissance and 17th century reimagining of the classical tradition, and Romanticism and contemporary view of the world. It is worth noting that both Classical and Renaissance influences find their way into this last “age.” Percy Shelley wrote a narrative poem with the Prometheus, a character from Greek Mythology, as the central character, William Blake did illustrations for Paradise Lost and devoted one of his narrative poems to Milton and Milton’s influence. Keats wrote poems devoted to Greek statuary, pottery, and a Renaissance translation of Homer.

But each book also represents a different aspect of human development. Plutarch’s Lives is integral to the creature’s intellectual and moral development, he learns from this book both to importance of rational thought and of character; what it means to be noble and virtuous. From Goethe’s Werther is integral to his emotional development. From this book he learns what it means to experience emotion and the important role passion plays in a rich and full life and its importance to experience fully the beautiful and the sublime. From Milton and Paradise Lost he learns about himself; what it means to be a created creature and the obligation of the creator to what he or she has created. He learns from this book self-awareness and begins to understand himself as a unique human being. 

These three books represent these three stages in human development and underscore the importance of tradition, especially a literary and artistic tradition, to the full development of the individual. Whitman and Emerson in their poems and essays address the importance of the past and knowledge of the past to the creation of a rich and productive present, that to make a real mark on the present we need to know the influences that produced the present. Each generation as it recreates the world in which it lives builds off what came before.



The New Zollhof

Frank Gehry

Photograph by Filippo from Milano, Italy,_Medienhafen.jpg


The photographs above and below are of a very modern building and a fairly ancient one. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a product of the Italian Renaissance and the return to Classical motifs that were at the heart of the Renaissance. The building by Frank Gehry evokes the Leaning Tower with leaning towers of its own that suggest the architecture of an earlier age while at the same time with its curved lines and undulating surfaces suggesting the architecture of an animated cartoon city. The building is on the one hand modern, as was the tower in Pisa when it was built, while at the same time alluding to a long architectural tradition. This is often how it is with tradition, it is a part of who we are whether we acknowledge it or not. The song tells an ancient story with a modern sensibility. The relief sculpture reminds us that the ancient and the modern often live together in our imagination and often shape the directions our imaginations take. The buildings remind us that we want the spaces in which we live and work to be beautiful and that our ideas of beauty have ancient antecedents. 


Photograph of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Guglielmo (According to Giorgio Vasari)



The Greenblatt and Koerner article reflects on the difficulty we have with tradition and with how it is labeled. The Classical Tradition represented in the book under review is the Greek and Roman classical tradition, but it acknowledges that other parts of the world also have their classical traditions, that are each unique and that form the cultural touchstones of the people that evolved out of those traditions. These traditions play a significant role in shaping the identity of the people that belong to those traditions. There are areas of overlap between traditions but there are also areas of significant difference. It is one of the struggles that we have that people who lived a few centuries ago did not have to struggle with so much. 

Once upon a time a person could grow up in the West without being confronted with the traditions of the East, though, of course, these other traditions could be sought out. I remember being surprised the first time I read Thoreau’s book Walden to discover so many references to the philosophies of India, China, and other parts of Asia. I thought the East was something we had discovered for the first time in the 1970’s because the culture of the day presented it as a new and novel thing. But with communications being what they are today it really is not possible, or at least it is not easy, to live oblivious to the traditions of other parts of the world and modern culture is in more and more ways becoming a world culture. As can be seen in the photograph below, the same Art Deco movement that employed Biblical and Classical Greek and Roman motifs in the image above also absorbed into itself, when it went to India, the cultural motifs of Asia as well. The two “guardians” at the front door of this building also suggest, to me, the guardians at the entrance to that part of Middle Earth that the Fellowship of the Ring visited in the recent film of that story. 


Phototgraph of an office building in India with two statues on either side of the doors of mythic women

“New India Assurance Building”

Master, Sarhe and Bhuta, with N.G. Parsare, 1936

Photograph by Colin Rose


It ought to be possible to enjoy and appreciate the cultural heritages of other parts of the world without abandoning or trivializing our own. Each generation retells the stories it inherits from its past in their own way, the traditions must be personalized if they are to survive. This does not mean we have to embrace those aspects of the tradition that seem out of step with the modern world, but it is difficult to find our footing at all if we abandon all tradition. There is a reason why stories resonate and live on after their time, and not all stories live. Most stories vanish with the generation that created them, but each generation produces stories that become a part of that string of narratives that finds its way back to Homer and Gilgamesh and the Torah, and all the others. Paul Harris asked in a recent article, “Why Is Superman Still So Popular?” He is a comic book character. The language with which his stories are told is not “elevated” by any stretch of the word. The artwork is not exemplary, though it is fun to look at. But the character himself is Herculean and for that reason he resonates, he is a hero of our age and his story does not need to be well written to resonate. We want heroes; we need heroes. That is why the medieval knight becomes the cowboy and why the cowboy becomes the superhero.


Marble frieze of men on horseback from the Classical Greek period

“Elgin Marble Friezes”



The photographs above and below are of two of the Elgin Marbles. These marbles have been at the center of a dispute for many, many years between the governments of England and of Greece. To who do these cultural artifacts belong. They are clearly Greek in origin and depict characters and events from Greek mythology, but that mythology and that culture have become a part of the English culture. Brutus, the Roman who allegedly founded Britain was a direct descendant of Aeneas who escaped Troy and eventually founded Rome. This in itself is probably not a strong enough claim for England to deprive Greece of a significant piece of its culture, but it is enough to create a desire to own and to keep the art. Keats wrote of these marbles:


On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality

   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

   And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep

   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep

Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.


These marbles may not be English but they certainly touched Keats. One of his best known poems is on another Greek artifact, an urn. There is something unquantifiable in the way a work of art, from whatever tradition, touches the human heart and the human spirit. This is why it endures and will probably always endure. There may be those that see in cultural traditions, both their own and those others, a threat to something they believe and they go about trying to dismantle or trivialize the culture. But a tradition that has lasted for thousands of years is not easily flung aside. 


Pieces of marble statuary of men from the Classical Greek period

“Elgin Marbles East Pediment”



There was a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Quest for Permanent Novelty,” that speaks of the human desire to create a work of art that creates a moment of awe that lasts forever; a work of art that can be experienced each time with the same enthusiasm and wonder with which it was experienced the first time. I was told in high school that no one today could experience Hamlet for the first time, that the story is too well known and too much a part of who we are that even our first reading or viewing of the play is a re-visitation. And I suppose there is truth to this. But the first reading of a story or the first exposure to any work of art is rarely the first “experience” of that work of art. The first time I heard the opera Don Giovanni I wanted to run out of the room (I couldn’t because I was in college in a music appreciation course). But there was a first time that I heard this opera and was touched and mesmerized by it and that, for me, is my first experience, the first time my eyes (and ears) were opened to the majesty of this music. That experience is probably a “one time” experience for that work, though subsequent experiences with this opera have also been deeply moving and well worth the time invested in listening to it. And it is not that these subsequent hearings of the opera do not bring new revelations; there is something new to be found with each hearing. But these hearings do not produce the same kind of alchemy that the first hearing produced. 

The article suggests that when we are enraptured by a work of art, time stands still, we are oblivious to its passage and it is this “stopping of time” that we crave and that we want the work to produce each time we encounter it. But of course it can’t. Time won’t stand still. Michael W. Clune, the author of the article, discusses Proust’s view of art:

But perhaps art can do something other than present an object for our experience. Perhaps it can transform the subject of our experience. “The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth,” he continues, “would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another.” Marcel thinks that we have the ability, when studying some works of art, to identify with, to empathize with, the creator’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions. Art can function as a special kind of communication; and what is communicated, he suggests, is the way the world appears to the artist.

And it is in “getting inside” the artist’s mind that time is truly transformed and the world is truly changed. Everything is made new not because everything is new but because we look at everything through “new eyes.” But the real value of art, according to the article, is in what it teaches about time and how we experience it. The article suggests the importance of “slowing the clock” a bit if we are to live fully. We experiment with stopping time, and our experiments always end in failure. But it is a failure that brings its own pleasure and comfort. It is good to stop the clock for a time, but not forever. 

Clune also looks at how the one place where “art” succeeds at stopping time is in Orwell’s Oceana in 1984 and it is a horrible thing. It is the dream of tyrants to control what the people think and to regulate their experiences with art and literature. Ursula Le Guin in an article on reading, “Staying Awake,” concludes:

So why don’t the corporations drop the literary publishing houses, or at least the literary departments of the publishers they bought, with amused contempt, as unprofitable? Why don’t they let them go back to muddling along making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties, while plowing most profits back into taking chances on new writers? Since kids coming up through the schools are seldom taught to read for pleasure and anyhow are distracted by electrons, the relative number of book-readers is unlikely to see any kind of useful increase and may well shrink further. What’s in this dismal scene for you, Mr. Corporate Executive? Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?

Is it because you think if you own publishing you can control what’s printed, what’s written, what’s read? Well, lotsa luck, sir. It’s a common delusion of tyrants. Writers and readers, even as they suffer from it, regard it with amused contempt.

There have always been, and probably always will be, people who will preserve the stories, keep the traditions alive. One cannot say that every great book that some tyrant has tried to suppress has survived in spite of the tyrant’s efforts, there are probably a great many great books that have been silenced, but no tyrant has, so far, succeeded in stifling “the classical tradition” in its entirety and it always comes back to haunt them and delight the rest of us, at least those of us that have a mind for such delights.


How Movies Teach Manhood

Colin Stokes

TED Talks


The video clip talks about the power of stories and the ability of a story to shape the people we become. The two stories Colin Stokes devotes the most time to are the films The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. Both of these stories revolve around the conflict between good and evil. They suggest it is not enough to confront evil, but that this confrontation has to happen in the right way. I do not know if The Wizard of Oz is indeed a better film than Star Wars or that its message is healthier, but I do think Stokes raises important points about the nature of conflict, of wisdom, and of leadership. The motifs in these are classic, they tell in different ways stories we have been telling throughout most of human history. The names change, the vehicles used to get around are different, but the basic issues are the same. The characters, events, and themes are archetypal. There are principles that must be defended; there are actions that are clearly wrong. We always have to make choices about where we stand in relation to the conflicts of our day. 


Statue of an angelic being embrcing a woman

Psyche revived by the kiss of Love

Antonio Canova


The statue is of Cupid and Psyche, but it contains elements of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast” (though this is an angelic beast). There is a similar “Sleeping Beauty” story found in Wagner’s opera Siegfried,” where Siegfried awakens the sleeping Brunhilde. It is not likely that these stories ever had much contact with each other, that the original tellers of these tales were familiar with other earlier tales that told a similar story. It is probably that the similarities between stories arise out of something that lives within the human psyche that needs the nourishment these stories offer; that there is perhaps something sacramental about them (and stories in general), that they are visible signs of an invisible grace.


Abstract depiction of a minataur

“Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, Chicago, Illinois, US”

Pablo Picasso

Photograph by J. Crocker

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

Truth Be Told

Die Zauberflote, “Overture”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players

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

Felix Mendelssohn

London Symphony Orchestra


Truth Be Told


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

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

Edward Burne-Jones,Princess_Sabra_Led_to_the_Dragon.jpg


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


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


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


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

Beauty and the Beast

Warwick Goble


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


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


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


Ivan Bilibin


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


Sun setting behind vocanic cloud over a river

Cotopaxi (1862)

Frederic Edwin Church


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


 Painting of people following a narrow path over a steep mountain

The Passage of the St. Gothard

J. M. W. Turner


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


Kakinomoto no hitomaro

Utagawa Kuniyoshi


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


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


From The Thief of Bagdad

Douglas Fairbanks Pictures

Republic Pictures


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


Paintng of a man on a flying carpet

The Flying Carpet

Viktor Vasnetsov


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


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

Illustration from Gulliver’s Travles

Richard Redgrave

Investigating the Wild West on Mars

From Come on Back Jesus

Willie Nelson


Investigating the Wild West on Mars


Illustration of a warrior waving a sword with a young woman cowering behind him

Cover Art A Princess of Mars

Frank Schoonover


Ray Bradbury died. There were on the day of his death a number of eulogic articles by various writers on his influence. The ones by Neil Gaiman (“A Man Who Won’t Forget Ray Bradbury”) and Margaret Atwood (“Margaret Atwood on Ray Bradbury: the tale-teller who tapped into the gothic core of America”) were for me especially moving. I felt when I heard the news much the same way I felt when I heard John Lennon had died, though Lennon’s death was much more untimely. Perhaps my reaction is generational, because I grew up reading Bradbury when he was seen as unliterary and people who knew about such things looked at me like I was wasting my time. It would not be that many years later before he would be viewed differently as a writer and the time spent reading him would be looked at differently. There was also reprinted in The Guardian an interview Bradbury gave in the 1990’s (“From the archive: Ray Bradbury: a 1990 interview on life, love and Buck Rogers”) that gave insight as well into his work, his beginnings, and his beliefs as a writer. I especially enjoyed his description of the phone calls he made after the first moon landing.

Bradbury wrote what was known as “pulp fiction.” It was called pulp fiction because it was published in cheap paperbacks or equally cheap magazines that used the lowest grade of paper available at the time. The acids used in making this paper would cause the paper to slowly “burn up” over the years so that a book bought when I was a child in the 1950’s would be so darkened by the passing of time, it looked as though it barely survived a fire, as to be almost unreadable. There is an irony in this if one considers that one of Bradbury’s most famous novels is about burning books. But he was a passionate advocate of the “pulps” and the kinds of stories they told. In an interview he gave to the Paris Review (“Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203”), Bradbury points out that many of those responsible for landing that man on the moon were attracted to science and to space travel by the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (The original interview was ended before it was completed and resumed and completed many years later by Bradbury’s biographer Sam Weller, which, appropriately enough, was also the name of a very memorable character from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers).

The stories may not have employed a “literary imagination” or a literary language, but they aroused passions, they got the people that read them excited about space travel and about story telling. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, said recently on The News Hour that his interest in economics had it origins in the novels of Isaac Asimov, I suspect Asimov’s Foundation stories, but Krugman does not identify any story by name. Michael Chabon in many of the essays in his book Maps and Legends makes the same point about his experience with Burroughs and the pulps.


Greek vase with an image of one man treating the wound of another man

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow

Painting attributed to the Sosias Painter


About the time of Bradbury’s death the Orange Prize was awarded to Madeline Miller for her novel The Song of Achilles. Charlotte Higgins and Elizabeth Day in articles written for The Guardian, “Madeline Miller’s Orange prize win captures the prevailing literary mood” and “Why the tale of Achilles and his lover still has the power to move us,” argue that Homer is still read today because he arouses many of the same passions that the pulps aroused in Bradbury and others. Higgins and Day also point out that Homer, at least to modern readers, does not seem to take sides. Through much of the poem we empathize with the Trojans and their hero Hector. The pictures above and below, that illustrate events from The Iliad, capture moments from the poem that appeal more to the emotions than the intellect. I think sometimes that Homer and writers like James Jones would have much to talk about and in many ways they tell the same kind of story. The sands of Iwo Jima resemble the walls of windy Troy.

The point is, that it all begins with the power of the story. In a review of Saul Bellow’s letters (“Wise Guy”) it is worth noting that in those letters Bellow makes some of the same points about fiction working first on the emotions that Bradbury makes. Bellow criticizes other writers of his day who let the “ideas” take too much control and in the process weakened the stories that they told, that they became too polemical in his view. Though Bradbury says he writes about ideas and is attracted to ideas he also points out the story must come first. The story does not exist to tout the ideas, but to give them a place to live, where they can be showcased, but not talked about, where, like children, perhaps, they can be seen and not heard.


Photograph of a parcment page from "The Illiad" with Greek writing and an image of two armies fighting

Iliad VIII 245-253 in codex F205 (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana), late 5th or early 6th c. AD



But what about the pulps themselves? They come in many forms, there is science fiction, there is detective fiction (both of the hard-boiled and the drawing room variety), there is the western, and there is fantasy (which spent much of the 20th century renting rooms from science fiction, but has since found a room of its own). Are these books important; will they survive; do they deserve to be remembered? Whatever one thinks of them they raise important issues. Whatever the outcome of that detective novel may be, whether it is written cynically or idealistically, it arouses our sense of justice. The song at the beginning, Come on Back Jesus, evokes John Wayne and his western persona. If people will not be moved by the words of Jesus, perhaps John Wayne can, using a different approach, put them in their place.


Illustration of a man, a cowboy type, sitting in an open window holding a rifle and looking vigilant

Hopalong Takes Command

Frank Schoonover


Whatever the quality of the films or the books on which many of them were based, the western captured important aspects of the American character and the value it places on the rugged individual and fair play. These films and novels, as does much of pulp fiction, establish the American code of chivalry, cowboys are our Knights of the Round Table, the western saloon our Heorot. I think Shane in many ways is not unlike Beowulf and the “man who shot Liberty Valance” is not unlike Sir Gawain or Lancelot. It is difficult to know what will survive. But in many ways, Oedipus the King is a murder mystery, Le Morte d’Arthur is high fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels is science fiction. Whenever I read Gulliver’s Travels I am enchanted by the floating island, even though the people that live there are idiots they have accomplished something remarkable, something that piques the imagination and makes me want to build things.

At the end of the day, much that has survived as myth and folk tale would feel right at home in the pulps, many of these ancient stories have found a home in modern fiction that is often dismissed as escapist. But the stories still capture us and that is why we read, we read to be taken prisoner and held captive for as long as possible. And when we are finally released we begin the search for another captor. Is this all escapism? Is this a desire to find a refuge from the world as it is? There is some truth to this, we are looking for relief, we are looking for a few moments away from all that troubles us. But this is in fact a kind of nurture, it heals. It is also the nature of these stories often to renew hope, to help us work through the problems we are seeking to escape. Often in reading we do not avoid our problems but find their solutions.


Japanese woodblock of two women looking over a child inside the house while two others talk outside the house

Hand painted page from a book set depicting The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

17th Century


The paintings above and below are from a 17th century story from Japan called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. It is about a man who harvests bamboo and in cutting down a stalk of bamboo finds inside a child, a very small child. He takes the child home and he and the child have many adventures. It turns out the child was from the moon. At the end of the story there is an “E. T. phone home” moment and a carriage comes to return the now grown up child to the moon. Everyone is heartbroken, but the young woman is happy to return to her people. We also learn from this story, which is often an element of folk tales and myth, how Mt. Fuji got its name. Of course there is little science here, but then there is little science in H. G. Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is “science fiction” because it involves a trip to the moon. But trips to the moon have been commonplace throughout literary history. Lucian and Cyrano de Bergerac made trips to both the moon and the sun. Bradbury was less concerned with how folks got to Mars than he was with the spirit of exploration that took them there.


Japanese woodblock of a group of people watching a flyihng coach prepare to take off for the moon

Kaguya-hime goes back to the Moon

17th Century


I know that when I read a story I want to be swept away as much by the language as I am by the events of the story itself. It is important to me that a story be well written and well told. I think of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the Hemmingway and Fitzgerald of detection. I don’t think it surprising that the same actor who in films played Hammett’s Sam Spade also played Hemmingway’s Harry Morgan. Much of this comes down to what we value in stories. I enjoy Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that takes place mostly in the minds of the novel’s characters. It is a novel in which nothing happens, or at least not much. There is a lot of talk; we meet some frustrated human beings who do not seem to manage life well. But, for me at least, I care about the characters, I want to see them grow and get better. I enjoy the settings of the novel, though “enjoy” may not be the right word to describe these settings. Many, though, Bradbury not unlikely was among them, find the story tedious and uninteresting. We are not all captured by the same things. That is important to remember as well. Just as writers must be free to tell the stories their imaginations give to them, readers must be free to read the stories that touch their imaginations. And it does need to be remembered that many of the least “respected” stories, at least from a literary point of view, have inspired some of the most earth shattering events.


The Shared Wonder of Film

Beeban Kindron

TED Talk


The film clip talks about the power of film as a vehicle for telling stories and the importance of these stories. Film is in many ways America’s “Globe Theatre.” Americans told and wrote stories long before the movie camera was invented. But films are in many ways our favorite way of telling stories and of preserving many of the stories that were told in our literary infancy and adolescence. More people probably know Moby Dick from the film than from the book. I prefer the book to the movie because there are things that Melville does with language and the development of his story that film cannot do, and I want those things that Melville offers that the film cannot. Still, the film makes most of Melville’s points and who can forget that the same actor that played Ishmael in the movie was also the admiral that on television went on a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.


Photograph of desert landscape with wind formed mountains

Monument Valley, Utah, US

en:User Solipsist


Part of what attracts us to the pulps is the wilderness. In the case of the hard-boiled detective stories that wilderness is the moral wilderness of many cities. In the case of the western it is a more literal wilderness that is often still troubled by the moral ambiguities found in the city. Life is often about standing up to things that must be stood up to. It is Philip Marlowe saying no to a bribe. It is the Virginian reminding the man across the table to smile when he says what he says. It is Montag refusing to burn another book. In many ways the red earth of the American Southwest is not that different from the red soil of the plains of Mars. Explore, seek justice, be true, brave, and kind. That is the lesson of the pulps, at least of those that have endured.


Photograph of Martian landscape

The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars

Roel van der Hoorn

It’s Just a Story

“With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come”

Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell

St. Andrews Singers and English Chamber Orchestra


It’s Just a Story


Painting of a Classical Roman city

Dido building Carthage aka The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire

J. M. W. Turner


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

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


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

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


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

Clorinda Rescues Olindo und Sophronia

Eugene Delacroix


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

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


Woman carrying the flag of France leading rebel soldiers

Liberty Leading the People

Eugene Delacroixène_Delacroix_-_liberté_guidant_le_peuple.jpg


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


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

Don Quixote
Pablo Picasso


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


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


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

The Order of Release
John Everett Millais


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


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

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion
John William Waterhouse


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


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

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

What the Beholder Beholds

From Appalachian Spring

Aaron Copeland

Leonard Bernstein and the London Philharmonic


What the Beholder Beholds


Mural od a group of men with boats by a river with a waterfall in the background

Mural depicting Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea and members of the Corps of Discovery at Celilo Falls during their journey to the Pacific

Frank H. Schwarz


The paintings above and below in some ways define America. The Journals of Lewis and Clark have been called the American epic, they tell a story, like The Iliad a true story, of people engaged in an historic adventure. Lewis and Clark’s story is not, like the Greek epic, a war story; it is a story of exploration and adventure. The spirit of the explorer has in many ways defined the American culture, from Daniel Boone and the Cumberland Gag to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. The painting below captures an aspect of the American landscape. This landscape has attracted painters from Georgia O’Keefe and Edward Hopper to the Hudson River Valley School of painters, each finding something beautiful in different aspects of the American landscape, from its mountains, to its deserts, to its cities. The music clip at the start comes from Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. The melody from this part of Copeland’s score borrows an old melody from the American Shakers, “The Gift to Be Simple.” Simplicity, individualism, the pioneer spirit are all engrained in the national identity.


Painting of a valley surrounded by mountains at sunrise

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California

Albert Bierstadt


Every nation has a cultural ethos that somehow captures how they see themselves and often these cultural identities have their home in accomplishments or ideals that belong to a distant past, they illustrate how a people saw themselves once, but have ceased, often long ceased, to be a real part of that nation’s real cultural life. The west was officially “closed,” that is, declared settled and well on its way to being fully developed, in the early 1900’s. The last flight to the moon was decades ago, and the space program has, at the very least, gone on hiatus. What is the national identity today, not the American ethos as it lives in the American imagination, but the American ethos as it is lived in the present day?

There were a couple of recent articles that identified the decline of uniquely American institutions, “Future tense, VII: What’s a museum?” and “College at Risk”; not unique in the sense of what they are, but unique in the sense of how they have been established in this country, the museum and the university. Both of these institutions were established in America in ways that are very different from what they were in Europe. They were not established by the state, but by concerned citizens and they were not established for an aristocratic elite, but for everyone, especially those who had historically been excluded from these institutions, though this latter point was truer of the university than of the museum.


Painting of diner on a dark night with the lights on in the diner and three people sitting at the counter with a working behind the counter


Edward Hopper


Edward Hopper is an iconic American painter. He captures the feelings of isolation that too is often part of the American experience. Whether it is the isolation of individuals as seen in the painting above or the isolation of landscapes. In any case one would expect to find Hopper in any art museum that attempts to capture the American experience. But as James Panero points out, museums do not just display paintings that capture the nation’s heritage (whatever the nation to whom the museum belongs) but the art that is important to that nation; that speaks to the soul of that nation. The article tells the story of the National Portrait Gallery in London that was threatened with destruction and the loss of its paintings during the Blitz of World War II. Kenneth Clark, the director of the museum at the time, wanted to send the paintings to Canada where they would be safe, but Churchill would not hear of it. Instead they were sent to a refurbished slate mine where the bombs would not touch them.

But the people still wanted to see the art. One painting was brought to the museum a month, as one could be safely stored in the depths of the museum’s basements in the event of attack, and more people came to see that one painting then came to the museum when all the paintings hung safely on the walls. Art speaks to people, to their culture and their values. The first two paintings shown were not painted by British painters, they were a Rembrandt and a Titian, but they were the ones the people wanted to see. They were valued for their beauty and for their contribution to the nation’s cultural fabric. As Neil McGregor says in the article, “They ‘exist to enable the public to explore through them their own personal and shared experience, as generations have done before us and will do in the future.’”

Panero points out in his article that in America, unlike Europe, the first museums, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, were established and maintained by citizens and not by the government. Panero is a conservative and he values institutions that maintain their independence from the government, but that said, there is value in “private wealth being transferred to the public trust” and it is this virtue of generosity that he is praising. He believes that “those treasures (the art the museums contain), however singular, are also tokens of the idealism behind the institutions that maintain them.”

Though it can be said that to the extent there is a class system in American it is system based on wealth as opposed to ancestry, and that the wealthy individuals that endowed these museums were in a sense the American aristocracy. The idealism that prompted their founding, however, is a part of the American culture. America is an idealistic nation and idealism is a significant strand in the fabric of the American character. And what Panero is troubled by in his article is the abandonment by many museums of this public trust to the pursuit of profits. Museums in America are becoming like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that advertised itself as a “café with ‘art on the side.’” That the art America’s museums contain is not preserved for its own sake but for the merchandise it can help the museums sell as they become more mercantile in their outlook and practice. What is being lost is the contribution art makes to the national character and the role it plays in nurturing and nourishing public and private virtues.

Panero sees America’s museums as they were originally founded as contributing to the well being of the Republic or as John Adams said, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” The state of the American museum and its management philosophy speaks to the national character. And, if it continues, to the diminishing of the national character.


Painting of sheep being driven down the street running in front of a college

St. Peter’s College (Peterhouse), Cambridge

Rudolph Ackermann


Andrew Delbanco’s article addresses the decline of the American University. (As an aside I was first introduced to Andrew Delbanco’s ideas by the first doctor I saw upon moving to Massachusetts, his older brother Doctor Thomas Delbanco.) Delbanco points out that the American university was always meant to be available to all, not just the privileged. He associates the college with the “Puritan principle that no communicants should ‘take any ancient doctrine for truth till they have examined it’ for themselves.” The ideal university is not one where students listen to teachers who lecture, but where students participate in the debates and explore the ideas in concert with their teachers, their professors. Delbanco’s concern is that the university is becoming inaccessible to all but the most privileged because it is becoming too expensive for universities to do the work they do with the funding they receive and therefore to survive they must raise their tuitions and fees.

I began my college career in California in the 1960’s. I attended first a small State College that had just opened a few years earlier, California State College (now University) Dominguez Hills. When I attended the campus was not finished and many of the classes were still meeting in an old motel building that had been converted into classrooms to be used as a temporary campus. The freshman composition courses were constructed around tutorials where students would meet once a week as a class and at least once a week, one on one, with the professor. It was, for me, a life changing experience. But it was an experience that was available to me because the California colleges and universities were subsidized by the state. I received my master’s degree from Cal-State Dominguez in 1989 and during the three or four years I was enrolled in the program the cost to me never went above $150.00 in enrollment fees. I paid more for my books than I did for my classes. At this time Junior College tuition, in state schools, was $15.00 a credit. In the painting of St. Peter’s College, Cambridge the college is on the “High Road” or at least it looks like the high road to me because there is a farmer bringing his cattle to town passing in front of the college gates. This suggests to me that the college ought to be integrated into the community it serves, even though in practice there is a “wall of separation” that often exists between the college and the town, even if it is only an imaginary wall.

I do not believe everyone should be made to go to college, but I do believe all with the ability and the desire ought to be able to get a college education. I think this is not just good for the individuals being educated, but for the long-term health of the country. If having a college education makes one a member of some elite, it is an elite to which any who choose to put forth the effort can belong. As the article points out this is, or at least was, not the case in other parts of the world. In Europe college was reserved, mostly, for those with resources. Students were also expected to commit to a course of study upon entering the college or university. In America students have always been free to explore different courses of study before finally deciding on the one they wish to pursue. This was an aspect of American culture that many supported with pride and when I was young it was an aspect of the national identity that I think I took somewhat for granted.


100 Years at the Movies

Turner Classic Movies


There was also a recent article, “When Critics Mattered,” on another American cultural institution, the cinema. The video clip gives a brief synopsis of the first hundred years of American film making. As an English teacher stories are important to me. I teach novels I believe to be important because they tell stories that I think are important to the human psyche and soul. I also believe these stories are so powerful that whether they are taught in schools or not, the stories will always survive, most of them have survived for hundreds of years without any help from schools, some for thousands of years. They will survive because they provide nourishment we need that cannot be gotten from any other source. Films also tell these stories.

Many think films are more of a passive than an active medium. The viewer does not have to pay as careful attention to what is going on as does the reader and often this is true, but not always. In the film Judgment at Nuremberg, for example, there is a scene between Marlene Dietrich and Spencer Tracy where their characters are discussing the opera The Master Singer of Nuremberg. The soundtrack plays in the background a few moments from the overture to this opera as Tracy and Dietrich are talking. It is not necessary for the viewer to know where this music comes from, but for the viewer that does know, it adds richness and another layer of meaning. If careful attention were not paid the moment would likely be missed. In the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers Groucho is taking the college widow boating. The widow asks Grouch if he does this often (goes boating) to which Grouch replies, not since reading American Tragedy. A little joke, but the joke only works if the viewer has read the book. It too passes quickly and could also be easily missed.


Movie poster fesaturing the Marx Brothers playing football

Horse Feathers Film Poster


But it is not just the subtlety of the cinematic allusions. There is often depth to the story telling and the performances and as scripts film scripts can rival anything from the world stage that is studied in classrooms. James Agee said the final scene from City Lights was the best moment of acting on film; at least it was in his view when he wrote the article. The final scene is incredibly moving and it only works if the viewer has been paying attention. It also speaks to the same human needs and values as the great books that are studied in school.

Culture defines a people in very important ways. It tells those on the outside looking in what that people value, the depth to which that people look beneath the surface of things, the value that people place on thought and discourse. The American culture has in many ways been an inclusive culture, even while it was busy excluding one group or another. It borrows voraciously from other languages, other cuisines, other philosophies. It borrows stories and makes them its own. It borrows music and makes that its own. Jazz borrows its rhythms and motifs from many parts of the world. The music clip at the beginning is woven around an American folk tune. Dvorak, an East European composer who came to America, did something similar with his New World Symphony. So we freely share our culture as well. But also at the heart of the American culture is the spirit of exploration. When Americans finished exploring the new world they looked for new worlds to explore. Often American music, art, and literature have been and are an exploration of these different forms. There has also been an aspect of American culture that has worked tenaciously to understand and fix problems. Perhaps this last will be what repairs those other strands in the cultural fabric that are beginning to fray.


Movie poster featuring a sillouetted Charlie Chaplin looking at city-scape lit up at night with the image of woman looking down from the clours

City Lights Film Poster

Our Books Ourselves




Our Books Ourselves


A photograph of my book crammed library

My Library

J. D. Wilson, Jr.


There was an article in The New Republic, “Voluminous” by Leon Wieseltier that talks about how the books we read shape the people we become, about how some books will shape our biography. They do not just entertain us or move us, but become us, shape our memories and who we become, or as Wieseltier says “Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography.” A library is more than a collection of books, it contains those books with which we have established an intimacy; we have conversed with them, written in them and they have written upon us.

The photograph above is of my library and it suggests a lot about who I am. It is very diverse everything from Proust to Dr. Seuss; from the earliest myths and folk tales to The Changing Light at Sandover. It is very disordered and serendipitous, with stacks in front of books put away in the more conventional fashion, standing up with their backs to us; with many that were purchased on a whim or because they addressed a topic that at the time fascinated, and probably still fascinates, me. They are hugely overstocked suggesting an appetite that it is impossible to satisfy in that few, and certainly not me, are capable of consuming so much. It suggests my curiosity on subjects ranging from the American West, to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to astronomy, psychology, and “great” thinkers past and present. But mostly there are stories from Scheherazade to Chekhov, from the mighty walls of Priam to Toad Hall and the Misty Mountains. The song that started things is called Teatime by a group I discovered in 1973 while walking through the streets of Edinburgh and one of the universities there (St. Andrews I think). The song is there because tea is an important adjunct to reading. C. S. Lewis once said something about there not being a book long enough or a cup of tea large enough. He said it much more eloquently of course, but I endorse the sentiment.


Photograph of my cluttered desk

My Desk

J. D. Wilson, Jr.


The desk I work at in my library is uncluttered and more organized, though still surrounded by books that have significance for me, Shakespeare’s First Folio (a facsimile, not the original), Aubrey Beardsley’s edition of Le Mort d’Arthur, probably one of my favorite books and one of the books that drove me, in the sixth grade, towards serious literature. I could not read Malory’s and Caxton’s English, though I tried, but I had read one of the stories in my sixth grade reader at school, a modern adaptation, and so I wanted the “big book” the adaptation came from. I struggled with the opening chapters, but unlike some eleven year olds, the book was clearly beyond me. That said, though, any edition that does not open with the words “It came to pass in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that waged war against him a long time” is no edition for me. There is a sense that a library is a self-portrait of its owner and reveals a great deal about the person who possesses it, and is probably a good reason not to show one’s library to just anyone.


Illustration depicting a very large library for Borges' short story "The Library of Babel

Érik Desmazières: La Salle des planètes, from his series of illustrations for Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘The Library of Babel,’ 1997–2001. A new volume of Desmazières’s catalogue raisonné will be published by the Fitch-Febvrel Gallery later this year. Illustration © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.


Of course the quintessential library is Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel.” If the library we have speaks to who we are what do the libraries we imagine say about us. The Library of Babel is essentially unusable in its size and complexity though more complete than any could hope for. But part of what makes a real library a real library is selection, a library that includes everything cannot say much about the collector of the library because the only criteria is that it be in print. Theoretically the Library of Congress is something of an accumulation of everything published in America. It represents the depth and breadth of writing in America but being a collection of everything it does not pass judgment, it does not by exclusion and inclusion suggest what is worth reading and what is not. The case could be made that a public library also does not pass judgment on books, that they merely collect, but their collections often represent the interests of the communities they serve, while also including titles that suggest where the librarian thinks the community should be. Where a personal library may be a self-portrait of the person to whom it belongs a public library in many ways is a self-portrait of the community to whom it belongs.


Pen and ink drawing of teenage boy with long hair

Self-Portrait at the age of thirteen

Albrecht Durerürer.jpg


The drawing above and the painting below are self-portraits of Albrecht Durer, one at thirteen and one at twenty-nine. What do these portraits tell us about the artist and how the artist changed over those sixteen years? The first is much simpler and the subject much younger. The painting shows the unique signature that Durer developed, his initials actually, the letter “D” embedded in the letter “A”. Though both are detailed the later painting captures details that are more complex and intricate. The most obvious difference is probably that of color, which is perhaps the primary difference between a drawing and a painting. I have been told that hands are often the most difficult for an artist to do well. The hands in both the painting and the drawing are very well drawn and suggest the thirteen year old Durer was already a master craftsman. For me the significant difference is in what the artist attempts, the painting revealing an artist who has grown in skill and maturity.


Painitng of a bearded man with long hair in a fur lined robe

Self-Portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe

Albrecht Durer


Where paintings are snapshots of sorts, they capture a moment in time and the way things were at that moment, a library is more of a living self-portrait, it evolves and grows as its “curator” evolves and grows, and though the painting suggests growth and an evolution of style over the drawing, the painting does not contain the drawing in the same way a library contains some of its earlier manifestations. Also, with the passage of time some things are discarded and others are added. The library reveals the librarian then in two ways. What is discarded suggests those things that are left behind or outgrown; they reveal a change in intellectual, spiritual, and cultural directions. My first library included many Batman and Superman comics that are now no more. My brother picked up for a dime or a quarter a copy of the first Superman comic. He found it in a junk shop when we were children in San Pedro, California. That comic book and many others from about the same period were purchased by my brother and I from an old thrift shop three or four blocks up the street from the old ferry building and the ferry that would take my brother and I to the shipyard on Terminal Island where our father worked. There was a table toward the front of the store where the comics were scattered in no particular order. There were many of them and we would rummage for the oldest Batman and Superman comics we could find. We had never read them so they were like new to us, and a little cheaper than the brand new ones we could purchase at the drug store.

When he threw that book away he threw away what would come to be worth over a million dollars (the copy of the same edition having sold for that much in a recent auction). What does this suggest about the value of books and what we choose to keep and what we choose to discard. Is my library better served by this Superman comic or by the old Skeat edition of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, with the navy blue bindings that identify it as one of the Standard Oxford Authors (they are roughly the same age, coming as they both do from the 1930’s)? I suppose how that question is answered says something as well about the keeper of the library and how he has grown as a person and a collector of literature.


Illustration of a Martian war machine attacking a British war ship

Drawing for the novel The War of the Worlds, showing a Martian fighting-machine battling with the warship Thunder Child

Henrique Alvim Corrêa


There were a number of other articles about books and the kinds of stories people have been attracted to over the millennia. There was an article in the London Review of Books, “Homer Inc”, on The Iliad and why, despite what Matt Damon said in Goodwill Hunting, it has from the beginning always been more popular than The Odyssey, which on the surface seems to tell the better story. There was a review of a book on the illustrations done for The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, “Visions of the Arabian Nights”, and how they have changed over time. There was a third article on monsters and what makes them attractive to readers, “Monsters, magic and miracles”. Each of these articles touches on different aspects of what makes a story attractive and draws readers to it. There are monsters in the Arabian Nights, but there are no monsters in The Iliad though The Odyssey is populated with a healthy number of monsters. It might be said that it is the humans in The Iliad that are somewhat monstrous in their behavior. Perhaps that is what combat does to people or maybe it is just a snapshot of a more primitive people who do view human life in quite the same way we do. There is also, generally, something epic in the battle with monsters, whether it is the Martians in The War of the Worlds or dragons in Beowulf and other stories from medieval Europe.


IvanBilibinRussianDragon.jpgIllustration of a knight fighting a multi-headed dragon

Zmey Gorynych, the Russian three-headed dragon

Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin


Monsters engage us perhaps because they are so different from us on one level, but on others not so different. We empathize at least as much with the monster in Frankenstein as we do with Frankenstein himself because we understand the monster’s loneliness and desire for companionship. I enjoy the scene in ET where ET and Eliot first see each other and each is terrified by the “monstrous” appearance of the other. ET needs help and Eliot empathizes with ET’s need, in this we see that they both share a common humanity in spite of their terrifying differences and their shared humanity enables each to befriend the other. This suggests that what makes a monster is relative. Polyphemus was not a monster in the eyes of the other Cyclopes with whom he lived. In my library there are many monsters and many monstrous acts depicted. There are monsters, like Frankenstein’s creature and Quasimodo that draw my empathy and others like Grendel and Wells’ extraterrestrial beings that evoke fear and terror. There are also many ghosts who evoke a different kind of terror. There is something in me that enjoys being horrified and seeks out terror in all its grisly forms.

My Immigration Story

Tan Le

TED Talk


The video tells another story of survival and acceptance. It is not a book; it is a video clip of the person telling their story. Oral histories have become more a part of our culture’s historical legacy. Of course there is nothing new in this. In The Last of the Mohicans we are introduced to Hawk-eye and Chingachgook as they discuss, among other things, the relative value of written versus oral history. Neither Hawk-eye nor Chingachgook trust written history, seeing them as shaped more by the interests of the historian than by giving an accurate account of what has occurred. I imagine the veracity of those telling the story, whether written down or spoken, has a lot to do with reliability of the narrative each presents. But how do we classify these stories, whether made up or stating facts? What do we do with films, recordings, photographs, all that other media that tell stories without writing anything down? Many libraries are film libraries or record (CD) libraries. What do these libraries reveal and should an honest “librarian” draw from all forms of story telling? I suppose this is a matter of taste, but Tan Le’s story has some of the qualities of Odysseus’s journey home. There are the predators, the overcoming of the odds, there are elements of fate and destiny. Stories, even true stories, are told after the fact, that is they are selective, events are included others are rejected, based on their relevance to the story being told. This suggests there is purpose to the story, that, even when the story is a true story, a memoir, that there is a kind of order to the events, the suggestion, perhaps, that the outcome was destined.

In the earliest of stories this was true, the Norns or the Fates cut the thread that wove the tapestry of a life when that life reached its end. No matter what the characters involved do, Oedipus will murder his father and will marry his mother. It will all happen inadvertently and no one is to blame for the way things go, but people are accountable nonetheless and all is foreordained. Today it is chance and serendipity that lead to these outcomes. Life is chaotic; there is no order or purpose. When I look at my library it has haphazardly come together the way it has, but there is also a guiding hand, my interests, my values, my tastes in literature; these are the “fates’ that guide my library’s destiny and shape the person my library has made. Perhaps these are the the fates that shape all our destinies. That said, when I look at my library I see the books I have read and collected and they have formed in many ways the person I have become, one can read in them all my strengths and failings, my inadequacies and redeeming qualities. It is where they first took breath.


Portrait of a bearded man in (mostly) shades of blue with hair and beard in shades of red


Vincent Van Gogh

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)