Making Ourselves Uncomfortable

“Vorspiel” from Parsifal
Richard Wagner
James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera


Making Ourselves Uncomfortable


Knights and Ladies seated at a long table as a "spiritual" being enters the feastThe Knights of the Round Table Summoned to the Quest by the Strange Damsel
Sir Edward Burne-Jones


Most of the achievements we are proudest of are accomplished by making ourselves uncomfortable. They involve struggle, hardship, and a fair amount of failure before there is success. There was an article recently in the Times Literary Supplement, “The miraculous G. K. Chesterton?”, on the life and “cheerfulness” of G. K. Chesterton. Some described it as a “silly” cheerfulness because it seemed to require an unrealistic view of the world. But it is suggested that he learned to craft cheerfulness from the materials he was given. This is, or ought to be perhaps, a byproduct of making ourselves uncomfortable. The cheerfulness does not make the journey less difficult; it only makes the hardship a bit more bearable.

The music is from Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal. The story the opera tells is of the quest for the Holy Grail. The grail has come to represent in western culture the pinnacle of excellence in any field. Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural tells the story of a baseball player seeking the “grail” of baseball, winning the league title and the opportunity to compete in the World Series. John Feinstein, a sportswriter, wrote a book, The Majors, about the major tournaments in golf. He subtitled this book “The Holy Grail of Golf” because to win one of these tournaments is to rise to the top of the golf world.

What all grail quests have in common is the great demands they place on those involved with the quest. The quest is a trial and brings with it suffering and great discomfort. In some ways this is a metaphor for everyone’s life journey. In Le Mort d’Arthur Thomas Malory, begins his telling of the Holy Grail story with an invitation, depicted in the painting above, to the quest. The knights accept the invitation and begin set off to seek the grail. Malory says of these knights as they start their quest, “And so on the morn they were all accorded that they should depart everyone from the other; and on the morn they departed with weeping cheer, and every knight took the way that he liked best.” In other words each knight rode down the main road and when he (at this time all knights were “he’s”) saw a spot in the woods that looked inviting set off on his own personal quest, leaving the road and entering an uncharted wilderness.

This might suggest to some the line from Robert Frost’s poem, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.” Except if we read this poem Frost also tells us that both paths were worn “really about the same.” In Frost’s poem there are two roads, not one road and a going off into the unknown, and both roads had received about the same amount of foot traffic. This is not the kind of path that Malory was talking about when he described the knights going into the woods. Joseph Campbell, in a conversation with Michael Toms, quotes from another version of the story, “They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest at a point he had chosen where it was darkest and there was no way or path.” The path these knights took was untraveled and chosen because it involved risk.


The Arming and Departure of the Knights
Sir Edward Burne-Jones


This story of the knights setting out on their journey captures the journey each of us takes as we live out our lives. As children our parents select the paths we will take, where we will live (this may not always be the parents’ choice but it is certainly not the child’s), where we go to school, where or if we worship. Others, usually adults, play a significant role in teaching us the values we should embrace, the kind of people we should befriend, and the way we should view the world around us. At some point, though, we start to make our own decisions. At that point we leave the paths that have been chosen for us and enter the dark wood to pursue, . . . pursue what? Our own dreams and aspiration? That is part of it, but the real quest is to find ourselves, who we are as individuals, to establish our identities and we cannot really come to know ourselves without making ourselves uncomfortable.


Man on Horseback Crossing a Bridge
Utagawa Hiroshige

But it goes beyond this. The paintings above and below depict people setting out on or in the midst of a journey. The painting above appears to be the beginning of a journey, it is peaceful, the moon is up and the sky is still dark. There are others on shore watching as the travelers set out over the bridge. Journeys, the easy ones and the most difficult, often begin with this kind of serenity that fosters hopefulness and optimism. There is a story in the painting, though we cannot know what it is. Though the man leading the horse and the man following the horse both seem alert and ready for the journey, the man on the horse seems slumped over and tired, weighed down by a burden of one kind or another. But in all other respects the landscape is peaceful and seems to provide an auspicious beginning to the journey.

The painting below is set in the midst of the journey after a catastrophe of one kind or another has struck. There are some people on a boat in high seas and what appears to be stormy weather. The sun shining behind the clouds may suggest hope for the future, but the present of the painting is of a small boat trying to make headway against high seas and a powerful current. There is a suggestion of landfall in the background far in the distance and tall waves yet to be encountered. We see the outlines of the people on the boat, but, unlike the picture above, not enough to draw any conclusions about how well they are enduring. When I look at the painting the first thing that comes to mind is the story of Odysseus fighting the waves Poseidon has thrown at him as he tries to reach the shore. He does eventually, after receiving a bit of help, but like the folks in the painting there were moments when the outcome did not look to be a happy one.


The Ninth Wave
Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky,_Ivan_-_The_Ninth_Wave.jpg

There was a series of articles in The Guardian (“Yes, Teen fiction can be dark – but it shows teenagers they aren’t alone” and “Teen fiction accused of being ‘rife with depravity‘”) responding to an article in The Wall Street Journal on youth fiction, “Darkness too Visible”, that criticized the dark and violent nature of much of what is called Young Adult Literature (YAL). The concerns some parents might have that the Journal article points out are understandable, but then so are the points made by those writing in The Guardian. The problem with storytelling is that it is compelling because it captures the struggles, real and imagined, that people confront. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov did not care for happy endings and argued that stories that ended happily were not realistic. There may be truth to that but I suppose that largely depends on where one chooses to end the story.

Life is made up, for most of us, of a mix of happy and sad. And then of course, one must consider what is meant by a happy ending. Is a story that ends on a sad or melancholy note with a glimmer of hope a happy ending or a sad ending? When we finish a book like The Grapes of Wrath does the ending leave us feeling hope for the human race in general and the Joads in particular or does it leave feeling an overwhelming sadness. A lot depends on how we interpret the final moments of the novel. It is very difficult to connect with a story, to be captured by it, if we do not empathize with the characters and empathy is usually provoked by struggle and the hardships the characters encounter.

The fiction that many young adults read may be dark and violent, but than so is the fiction read by many adults who are not so young. Perhaps it helps us cope, perhaps it enables us to experience vicariously the adventures we cannot experience in reality. Which is worse, hardship or boredom? Most of the things in life that give us pleasure and make us happy only give us pleasure and make us happy because they are ephemeral, they do not last. The longer they last the more likely it is the pleasure will turn to ennui. This is not to say we should cut the good times short, enjoy them while they last, but appreciate the fact that they end before we are sated by them.


Arvind Gupta
TED Talk


The film is of a toy maker and his work. He uses simple everyday objects to make toys for children. These toys often teach principals of science and mathematics but they teach without interrupting the play. I think the film illustrates that our capacity for play is fed by imagination and I believe this to be true no matter how expensive the materials used to construct our toys. It also illustrates that learning is an act of the imagination; understanding often has its roots in our ability to imagine a principal at work. These toys were developed with poor children in mind but one need not be poor to get enjoyment from playing with them (one also need not be a child to play with them). Toys, like those Arvind Gupta makes, often ease the struggles of growing up and perhaps this takes us back to the stories young adults are reading.

Growing up is a struggle for most, no matter what advantages we are born with. The toys we play with often help us to shape our identities, they give us a chance to experiment with playing roles. Like stories where we imagine ourselves entering the wood where it appears to be the darkest and in our encounters with the darkness learn something about ourselves. It is in stories that we begin to explore who we are and question our ability to hold up under circumstances similar to those encountered by the characters in the stories. It is in play that we begin to act out some of the things we are coming to understand about ourselves. In any adventure, no matter how desirable it appears on the printed page or in the world of play, there is an element of danger that frightens us and fuels our self doubt. Those doubts can only be eased by the struggles and challenges we face and overcome in daily living.

The Forging of the Sampo
Akseli Gallen-Kallela

The painting, The Forging of the Sampo, is from an event in Finnish mythology. No one really knows what the Sampo is; all that is clear is that it is a magical object that provides good luck and protection to whoever possesses it. The ambiguity that surrounds it makes it a useful metaphor for whatever it is that brings us good fortune because whatever it is, it is different for everyone. Most cultures have produced charms, talismans, amulets; objects of one kind or another that are usually worn that ward off evil of one kind or another and keep us safe and prosperous. Perhaps they work because we believe they will work, the way a placebo drug works on patients who believe they are being given a real cure. The stories we carry with us are often a talisman against the darkness we encounter, the troubles that life brings. If we never make ourselves uncomfortable we may have fewer encounters with the forces of fear and doubt. We may live more comfortable lives, but with this kind of comfort often comes a profound dissatisfaction and an emptiness that can only be filled by tribulations of one kind or another, and just as the talismans we each carry are unique to each of us, so are the troubles.


Isaac Levitan


On Writing Things Down

Telling Stories
Greg Brown

On Writing Things Down

Poster for Congress of Industrial Rights
Ben Shahn

The old adage tells us that a picture paints a thousand words. The painting above is mostly a painting of words that is, I suppose, intended to suggest a thousand more words or more. Many things in life begin with writing something down. Revolutions often begin with declarations of one sort or another that have been written down in an attempt to explain what it is that makes revolt necessary. Often many things were written down before the declaration was issued that got things going. Thomas Paine, for example, wrote many things before Thomas Jefferson penned the declaration that initiated revolt.

The song that started things is called Telling Stories and it is often the stories that are told that interpret the events that provoke the anger that precipitate the revolt. After the revolt is finished there may not be agreement as to the veracity of the stories that got things going, but be that as it may, the revolutions themselves certainly speak to the power of telling and interpreting stories. Of course there must be a reality, even if it is a misperceived reality, that gives credibility to the stories that are told or else whatever power the stories have would never live outside the covers that contain them. As the song, and our own experience, suggests stories shape destiny, even those stories that live only inside the covers of the books that contain them.

Michael Chabon in an article written in the New York Review of Books, “‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ and the Wonder of Words”, writes about how his career as an author began with the reading of a book, not just the story the book told, but also the way in which that story used and played with language. Writing things down, at least for those that enjoy writing things down, is about playing with language. Someone, it may have been a student, once asked W. H. Auden what does one have to do to become a poet. Auden responded (and I do not remember the exact quote) that to be a poet you have to enjoy standing around and listening to words talk to each other. Perhaps this is true for anyone who does things with language.

I enjoy the Skaldic poets and one of the features of their poetry that is especially attractive to me (though it drove me nuts when I tried to translate it in college) is the way these poets mix up the words. Old Icelandic is an inflected language, which means the words’ endings reveal the place the words occupy in the sentence, not the order in which the words appear in the sentence as is the case in English. Icelandic prose, like most inflected languages, orders the words in sentences in ways that are easy to follow so that word order is much the same as it is in English prose, but the poets often abandon word order all together and this means that the listener or reader has to pay attention and put the sentences together as the poem unfolds. This is part of the fun and where a measure of the enjoyment lives for this poetry.

Study for Distortions; Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space—Map Projections: The Cube, 1978 Agnes Denes (American, born 1931)
Watercolor on graph paper, pen and ink on clear plastic overlay
17 x 14 in. (43.2 x 35.6 cm)
Gift of Sarah-Ann and Werner H. Kramarsky, 1983 (1983.501.3)
© Agnes Denes
Source: Agnes Denes: Study for Distortions; Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space—Map Projections: The Cube (1983.501.3) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The pictures above and below illustrate another aspect of where the pleasure of using language comes from, from expecting the unexpected. Using language too conventionally and too “properly” rarely provides much pleasure. The pleasure of language, for the reader as well as the writer, comes from living on the fringe of syntax and proper usage, not all the time but at the appropriate times, when doing the unorthodox draws attention to something or invigorates something. The drawing above is titled Cube. Everyone knows immediately what it is they are looking at, they are just surprised to see something so familiar look so unlike itself. This suggests that it is important to find ways to be unconventional without being incomprehensible.

The painting below suggests, perhaps, that while it is important not to be too obscure, there is a value to being not entirely transparent. The painting is calledConcord. It consists of two tan parallel lines on a blue background. There is concord in the colors, they do not clash but are comforting to look at and the lines being parallel also suggests concord. There is a peacefulness to the painting that underscores the message suggested by its title, but there is nothing concrete that speaks concord or peace to us. There is also a pun of sorts in the painting, the second syllable of “concord” is “cord” and the parallel lines suggest two cords side by side. The prefix “con” means “with” and the syllables taken together suggests how the painting is done, “with cords.” There are other games the viewer of this painting might play with the images; stringed instruments and the chords that are played on them come to mind. It is this kind of playfulness with language that might be found in the Skaldic poets and in many other poets and writers that enjoy the multi-dimensionality of words, syntax, and the architecture of meaning.

Concord, 1949
Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970)
Oil and masking tape on canvas
89 3/4 x 53 5/8 in. (228 x 136.2 cm)
George A. Hearn Fund, 1968 (68.178)
© 2010 The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Source: Barnett Newman: Concord (68.178) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There was a recent article on the discovery of “sacred trash.” The article, “Buried Treasure”, is a review of the book Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. The book is about the manuscripts that were found in the Cairo Geniza. The review informs us that a geniza is “a traditional storage place for worn or discarded Hebrew texts containing the Divine Name.” These texts included not only old Torah scrolls and prayer books, but also books and documents that were more literary or historical than sacred. Some were just documents that detailed aspects of daily life and recorded the activities of the community. There was also found a manuscript containing poems by a female poet. Hers are the only poems by a woman to be found in the geniza and prior to this discovery her work was completely unknown. It is ironic that she is only identified as “the wife of Dunash ben Labrat” and that though her work now survives her name does not.

One of the people the book focuses on was a scholar at Cambridge University who was visited by some folks asking him if he had an interest in some old documents. They gave him a few samples to look at and he recognized among them a manuscript of the Hebrew original for the Apocryphal book of Ben Sira, or in the Christian Bible, the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Prior to this the only exiting copies of the book were those from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Jewish Bible. It is difficult to imagine how exciting this must have been. For someone who loves language, stories, and history, to say nothing of the religious emotions that must have been felt by a student of rabbinic literature, probably nothing could equal the excitement generated by this unexpected visit.

The Marketplace, Vitebsk, 1917
Marc Chagall (French, born Russia, 1887–1985)
Oil on canvas
26 1/8 x 38 1/4 in. (66.4 x 97.2 cm)
Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982 (1984.433.6)
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Source: Marc Chagall: The Marketplace, Vitebsk (1984.433.6) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When things are written down it is impossible to know when or in what context the words will be rediscovered. There is a science fiction story called A Canticle for Leibowitz. In this story a similar excitement is generated by the discovery of a grocery list. You will have to read the story to find out what could cause something so simple as a grocery list to generate such excitement. The first explorers of the Cairo Geniza were interested in the literary and sacred texts but subsequent explorers brought their enthusiasm to the investigation of bills of lading, wills, and court records. These were exciting not because of the power of their language but because of what they revealed about the way life was lived in the Jewish community of medieval Cairo. The stories these documents tell have to be inferred from what all the bits taken together suggest. They revealed what things cost, identified their trading partners scattered throughout the world, and identified what was to them the known world. For those that are moved by the human experience and how it has changed and stayed the same over time these documents must be very exciting.

Handspring Puppet Theater

TED Talk

Theater is another medium in which what is written down is passed along to others. The written words on the page are often a mystery, how does the speaker feel who is saying the words, what is the environment in which the words are spoken like, what do the characters look like. When we pick up a play script we see only the dialogue, this is especially true of the script as it was first performed, as usually things like set descriptions and character movements and behaviors were added later by the stage manager of the first production of the play. There is little to inform us about what things look and sound like. The imagination must fill the gaps and this is not easy for everyone. The video is about the construction of puppets that were used by a puppet theater and describes how these “creatures” were brought to life. As I watch this video I am amazed at what the puppet masters can do and create and how so much larger than life the puppets become.

It is surprising how much can be done with puppets. I remember reading plays by the Japanese playwright Chikamatsu. Many of his most tragic plays were done originally as puppet theater. It is difficult for me with all the images of puppet theater that I bring from my childhood to imagine how a play as serious as a tragedy could be performed by puppets and not lose some of its seriousness. But puppets were a conventional part of the Japanese theater of Chikamatsu’s day. Of course, when I consider that Greek tragedy was often done with actors in masks and on stilts and the like I start to imagine actors who look almost like puppets and then the leap to the Japanese theater is not so great. Part of this is custom and imagining Chikamatsu’s plays is another way of expecting the unexpected.

Why do we write things down? Why do we tell stories, keep records, and document daily activities? What motivates us to do these things? Often writing things down helps us to understand and make sense of what we see as we watch the world as it is go by. But not all the horizons we overlook or seek are to be found on maps. The horizons of our imaginations can often only be approached through language and what has either been written down by us or by others. For those that enjoy it writing things down is often how the horizons of the imagination are preserved and the words become the maps of our different journeys.

Passenger, 1999
Doug Aitken (American, born 1968)
Chromogenic print mounted on Plexiglas
39 9/16 x 48 1/16 in. (100.5 x 122 cm)
Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2004 (2004.223)
© Doug Aitken
Source: Doug Aitken: Passenger (2004.223) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art


If Young Hearts Were Not So Clever

In My Room
The Beach Boys

If Young Hearts Were Not So Clever

Eton Library
Frederick Mackenzie

The paintings above and below capture the images that many of us have of learning; the private space where the study is done and the overcrowded public space where that study is tested. The world of the library has an enchantment for some and is a desirable space, but the overcrowded hall gives pleasure to very few. For too many, perhaps, learning is characterized by this second space and it is a space that most want to escape. Even those that earn their living managing and directing this academic space do not feel entirely at home in it when it is given over to activities like the one depicted in The Writing School. It may be a necessary evil, but few are comfortable in the presence of evil, even those that are for one reason or another, necessary.

The title comes from a poem by A. E. Housman that suggests that too much thought can only bring us grief. But I think the poem ironic and maybe the real message is something different; that perhaps some do not think enough, and that those that do think do not think enough of others. There was an article in the Boston Globe recently, “The power of lonely”. It is about the importance of spending time alone with our thoughts and ourselves. The title is misleading, the essay is not about loneliness so much as solitude, which is not really the same thing, we may be lonely when in solitude, but we need not be and that really is the point of the essay. As in the song, a room is a place we can go to search ourselves and to escape what troubles us, including loneliness. The point of the article, and perhaps the song as well, is that without time spent alone in reflection we often do not fully comprehend what we have learned and experienced, in fact we often do not retain what we have learned and experienced without privacy and reflection.

Writing School
Frederick Mackenzie

One of the paradoxes of stories is that they are, usually, read in solitude, but they involve the reader in the world of others, sometimes the world at its most private and intimate and sometimes at its most rowdy and public. As readers we are drawn into a world filled with people and noise and activity. If we are good readers that world becomes as real in our imaginations and the people as much a part of our lives as the physical world that we inhabit and all the people in it. So when the ghost of Christmas Past shows to Scrooge his young self alone in the schoolhouse, because his friends have all gone home for the holidays, Scrooge sees not only himself, but the characters in the stories he read as a child. He says to the spirit, “’Why, it’s Ali Baba!’ Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. ‘It’s dear old honest Ali Baba!’” And in the story Dickens tells Ali Baba is as much a part of the scene as the boy Scrooge and the dark old schoolhouse.

Picture of Ali Baba
Maxfield Parrish

So Scrooge alone need never be alone and we alone need never be alone, even if the “friends” that surround us are visible only to us, and live only in our thoughts (for no two readers bring a story’s characters to life in quite the same way, they are like fraternal twins with the same names). Stories move us in the reading of them; they come to life as we experience the words with which they are told coming to life in our imaginations. But just as it often takes time for us to absorb all we have seen on a visit to a place we have never seen before, it often takes time to fully experience the stories that we read. There is the mystery of the first impression, who fully understands what it is in a story that captures us, and there is the unraveling of parts of the mystery as we contemplate what we have read.

William Wordsworth wrote in the Introduction to The Lyrical Ballads, “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” Wordsworth was expressing his belief about how poetry is written, but there is something to be said perhaps about the imagination following a similar path in the act of reading as well.

The experience of reading is very subjective, we are all moved by different kinds of stories and though many readers like the same stories, I wonder if any two readers share an identical list of “important stories”, life changing stories. What we do with the stories we read after we have read them is often objective, the focus of study and analysis where we try to understand why we were moved as we were. This study in turn often reproduces some of the emotions the original reading produced. The initial emotion is subjective, the contemplation in tranquility is objective and this objective contemplation in turn produces a subjective experience. It is in working our way back from study to the recreation of the emotion that we often learn the important lessons that reading has to teach. If we stop after the first reading and never proceed to contemplation we may be left with a plot and the memory of a pleasant experience, but I wonder if this is enough to teach us much or to produce any kind of epiphany.

Frederic Leighton

The paintings above and below depict people in solitude and contemplation. In both pictures it appears that there is something melancholy about the depiction of solitude. In the painting of the Eton Library displayed earlier the most prominent colors are shades of blue a color often associated with melancholy. This is often the view of solitude and contemplation that comes most immediately to mind when these words are mentioned. I think it is in part this view of being alone that urges some of us to avoid spending time with ourselves and to make the mistake made by the author of the article who in the article’s title equated loneliness with solitude. Where it is true that too much time alone can produce a melancholy state of mind, too much time in the presence of others often produces a false contentment, a contentment not based on satisfaction with who we are or what we have done, but on keeping discontent at bay.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet
Vincent Van Gogh

There has to be a middle ground between thinking too much and thinking too little. There was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Case for Play”, that offsets, perhaps, the article on solitude and balances it out a bit. Just as it is important to spend time alone in thought and contemplation, it is also important to play and perhaps to find ways to incorporate play into our learning. Children who do not learn how to make friends and to make time for leisure and fun, are not likely to grow up to be healthy adults. And this is not just fun in the sense of having a good time, though it is that, but the nurturing of the ability to create enjoyment from the materials we are given. Creation is at the heart of recreation, if we are to be truly carefree we need to learn how to find delight in what we have, to invent our games and pastimes from the commonplace. Even if we have the resources to buy whatever we want, there is often greater satisfaction gotten from making our fun from the simplest most attainable things. It is not the materials but the relationships that are important and it is often the inventing together of our pastimes that build these relationships.

There was also a recent article in Lapham’s Quarterly, “Vanishing Act”, about a young girl, Barbara Follett, who began her career as a novelist at the age of eight. Her father was a prominent writer, Wilson Follett. He wrote an influential book found in the libraries of many English teachers, American Usage, on grammar and such. He gave his daughter Barbara a typewriter and a room of her own. She spent serious time alone writing and with the guidance of her father produced a novel that was eventually published. The book received wonderful reviews, except for one that did not fault the writing but the wisdom of a parent encouraging a child to write this seriously at such a young age. Wilson Follett soon after divorced his wife, started a new family, and left Barbara to fend for herself. She did not do well and at 25 she disappeared and was never heard from again by anyone. The mystery is still unsolved. She depended overly much on a father who disappeared for guidance and did not learn enough of how to build relationships with others.

The Ahn trio
TED Talk

Of course there is another connotation to “play” that is suggested by this video clip, the making of music, the playing of an instrument. I think it is interesting that we refer to something as “play” that requires so much work and such intense concentration to do well. The playing of music also requires us to play well with others, at least most music does, even soloists need accompaniment, even the folksinger accompanying her or him self on an instrument depends on a crew of technicians to be heard. What is meaningful in this for me is the suggestion that those things we work hard at can also bring us intense pleasure and that work and play need not be two different things.

Sports, too, require this kind of teamwork if we are to play well. It is interesting I think that this kind of teamwork can often bring together people who would normally not be the best of friends. The picture below is of soldiers playing baseball during the Civil War. Soldiers on both sides loved this game and played this game. It is perhaps a healthier form of competition because everyone gets to play again tomorrow. The Housman poem ends, “’tis only thinking / Lays lads underground.” Perhaps there is truth to this, but I think if this is true it is because the wrong people are doing the thinking and that those doing the thinking have probably thought more of ends than of consequences.

Baseball Played During the Civil War


Beholders of Ocean

The King of the Fairies
Alan Stivell

Beholders of Ocean

A Man with a Quilted Sleeve

There is a story by Lord Dunsany called “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” It is about an idyllic place, a place of safety and comfort where no one is content, or at least very few are. On the one hand I suppose this is a story of discontent and the harm that it can do, but on the other, the more significant hand perhaps, it is about forsaking comfort and the illusion of contentment for what provides true satisfaction to the soul and spirit. In the story it is the ocean that everyone that leaves is seeking, but it could be anything. This suggests a question that each ought consider. Where is contentment found and what does it look like?

The song, The King of the Fairies, is by Alan Stivell. He is credited by some with re-popularizing the Irish Harp, though he does not play it on this selection. I first heard of him while taking a course on the Irish Renaissance while I was in college in 1975. Stivell is from Brittany, or the Irish province of France. The music of Stivell and others like him fed and cultivated my interest in Celtic myth and folklore, of which Arthur, the Irish story The Tain, and the Welsh stories of The Mabinogion were a part. These stories share a world in common, one in which the natural and the supernatural interact with one another and in which magic and wizardry are somewhat commonplace. In the Arthur stories Merlin is a difficult character to reconcile to the Christianity of the time when they were written down. He is a wizard and wizards are of the devil, but he is also a wise and trusted councilor and everyone in the stories trusts him, even as they are calling him a “son of the devil.” The stories also revolve around heroic characters and the adventures that befall them. They are exciting reading.

The painting is, according to some, of Ariosto (others say it is a self-portrait). Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso is also an important story for me because it caters both to my enjoyment of comedy, satire, and farce and the heroic stories mentioned earlier. It has been recently translated anew into English by David Slavitt. The characters in the story have an epic pedigree and they act as would be expected based on that pedigree. But this pedigree and the order of knighthood in general are also mocked and hence the irreverent humor. It too is exciting reading.

Earliest known portrayal of Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

The paintings above and below are from medieval illuminated manuscripts. The one above depicts the assassination of Thomas a’ Becket. The one below depicts an episode from one of the King Arthur stories. These images evoke the political intrigue of the Middle Ages and its conflicts between Church and State (some things do not change) as well as the heroic tradition of its story telling. There is a passage in the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales where Harry Bailey (though he has not yet been identified by name) says to the pilgrims “We are all free men.” The Canterbury Tales is a book written at the end of the 14th century, barely a hundred years since the final version of The Magna Carta was issued, and it is the first instance I am aware of (though I would not be surprised to learn there are earlier instances) where the commons claim equality with the church and aristocracy and in truth I am probably reading this line within a 21st century context and perhaps Harry does not see himself in as free a light as I do.

I wonder, though, at times if the equality that Harry speaks of is the beginning of a new tradition, a more realistic tradition, that is a bit at odds with that of Medieval Romance. There was an article in The Guardian over Christmas about science fiction, “Stranger than science fiction,” that wonders if our present interest in science fiction is not an attempt to escape the limitations of realism, that is “stuck” with things as they are and often offers few suggestions as to how to live harmoniously with things as they are, other than pretending perhaps that things as they are aren’t so bad. Science fiction also offers us a kind of story telling that is not just “lifelike” but often much larger than life and it is this something larger that readers also find attractive, they want to loose themselves in a world that is more heroic than mundane. The article suggests that it is important to identify the kind of story in which we would like to live or ought to live. The world of the 21st century offers many stories that though they may not be in conflict with each other are often more interested in selling us something, from products to points of view, than they are with helping us learn to live with ourselves, with others, or the world around us.

‘King Arthur fighting the Saxons’ – illustration taken from the Rochefoucauld Grail

Leading up to Christmas there were also some articles in The Guardian about favorite Christmas stories. Two caught my interest; they were about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis and The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (“Season’s Readings: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis” and “Season’s readings: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper”). I read and enjoyed these stories as an adult and their use of myth and folklore (Greek and Roman myth by Lewis and Welsh myth by Cooper) nourished an interest I have always had in myth and folklore and the power of the stories that they tell. The Cooper story especially, with its use of motifs from The Mabinogion fed my interest in things Arthurian. But these were not the stories that provoked my interest initially.

The Nightingal
Edmond Dulac

Above and below are illustrations from children’s stories. Like the illuminated manuscript images above, these help create a world, a magical world, that evoke the stories they illustrate and pique the imagination. Also as was true with some medieval illuminations they help tell the story to those who cannot yet read. When I was in the seventh grade my school gave students the opportunity to purchase books through the Weekly Reader and the Scholastic Book Service. One of the books that I bought was Eleanore Jewett’s book The Hidden Treasure of Glaston. I do not remember much of the book but its opening made a strong impression as well as its use of the Grail legend. The story revolves around a young boy whose father has left him with the monks of Glastonbury (one of the alleged resting places of King Arthur). His father is a knight who has been implicated in the murder of Thomas a’ Becket and must flee the country. The boy, though, is bookish and lame and a disappointment. I empathized with the boy (something we must all do before we can truly enjoy a story) and was fascinated by the Arthurian elements.

The Mermaid and The Prince
Edmond Dulac

But what does this have to do with anything like beholding oceans? I suppose because both my parents were mathematicians I did not think that literature was anyplace I ought to end up. My father was also an aerospace engineer who brought home pictures and articles on space vehicles and rockets. I remember looking at artists’ conceptions of the Apollo spacecraft and the Lunar Excursion Module while watching the Mercury launches on television. Nonetheless I was attracted to a different ocean. If we are to be happy we must find our own ocean and pursue it as best we can and hopefully one day we will behold it. For me the ocean I behold is a sea of stories.


Why Medieval
Dr. Richard Scott Nokes

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes writes a blog, “Unlocked Wordhoard,” that I enjoy. He posted the above video to explain his interest in Medieval Literature and how that interest came about. Sharing a similar interest I found the video attractive but the important point it raises is not about the Middle Ages or even about literature, it is about finding whatever it is in us that motivates us, that gives us joy and satisfaction. We all need to consider what it is we are going to spend our lives doing. On the whole it is a pretty good thing if we can find a way to get someone to pay us for doing what we would do for free. If we must earn a living why not find a way to enjoy ourselves while earning that living.

Elif Batuman in the introduction to her book The Possessed writes, “I stopped believing that ‘theory’ had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” This resonates with me as a teacher of stories, but it also resonates at a different level. We all need to find whatever it is for us that we can spend a lifetime loving, and whatever it is, it must be substantial enough to reward a lifetime’s effort.

As a teacher it is important that I communicate to students who have little interest in what I teach the passion that motivates me to teach what I teach. It is not all about emotions, but than there is perhaps more to passion than emotion. Richard Feynman was at least as passionate about physics and the logic that is its foundation as I am about stories and their logic. Poltarnees may be a high and difficult mountain to climb, but it is wonderful thing to behold the ocean.

Christmas Eve
Carl Larsson


A Common Shelf

Make a Better World
Blind Boys of Alabama

A Common Shelf

Anonymous Commonplace book in manuscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canto 34 of Orlando Furioso
Francesco Franceschi

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

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

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Medieval Illumination

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

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


Tintin – Destination Moon
Ellipse Programmé

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

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

Cover of the Tintin comic book Destination Moon


Only a Memory

Looking into You
Jackson Browne

Only a Memory

Memory, Bronze door at main entrance of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building
Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Adams)

In the song the singer returns to a place he once called home. It has changed as he has changed and the scene the song evokes suggests the true meaning of nostalgia, the pain of coming home. Returning to a place where memories live is often an unpleasant enterprise. The place is never as we remember it and even if the changes in the place are not great the changes in us often are. Our changed selves are out of place in our old worlds. The bronze relief on the main door of the Library of Congress is titled Memory but what is being remembered? The figure in the door could be Penelope remembering Odysseus and wondering when or if he will return. It might be of any woman waiting for a warrior to return (and the objects she holds suggests she is remembering a warrior). Of course this woman could be the wife or mother of a soldier that has died and will not return. Perhaps the door is of a specific event that would be clear if I knew the door’s history but not knowing its history leaves the image open to many interpretations, all of which suggest the more melancholy aspects of memory. Perhaps all memory, by virtue of what it is, is tinged with melancholy.

There is a line from the Wallace Stevens poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (one of the ways of looking at the blackbird) that goes, “I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” I think what the poet is considering, especially in the last phrase, “The blackbird whistling / Or just after” is whether the event (“the blackbird whistling”) or the memory of the event (“just after”) is the more pleasant. Our memories of an experience, especially a pleasant experience, are often more pleasant and more “memorable” than the experience itself. This raises the question to what degree are we shaped by our experiences and to what degree are we shaped by our memories of those experiences, which are not always the same thing. This is perhaps what is being gotten at in the first phrase in the Stevens poem about “The beauty of inflections” and “the beauty of innuendoes.” Which is more beautiful the sounds that we hear or what those sounds suggest, hint at, or evoke? Are we shaped by inflections of memory or by their innuendoes?

The Last of England
Ford Maddox Brown

At the back of the song is also the suggestion of leaving home, he is visiting a house he lived in when he “first went out on (his) own.” The singer is not going to a new world in the same way the people depicted in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting above or Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph below are going to a new world, but in a sense when a young man or woman leaves home to make a home for him or herself in the world it is a new world that is opening up. It may not come with as much that is foreign and different as it was for the folks in the painting or the photograph but it still involves entering something of an unknown universe. When we leave home we know the landscape, the people around us look and dress largely as we do, they also speak our language. This helps, but the world is new nonetheless. It takes courage to go out on our own. Ours is a nation of immigrants, which means that for most us there is someone in our ancestry that made the trip the folks in the painting and the photograph are making.

The Steerage
Alfred Stieglitz

I think that of the two, the journey in the painting and the photograph, the one depicted in the photograph had to be the most difficult. The folks in steerage are very different from the folks looking at them from above. The world the folks in steerage are entering is a very different world from the one they left. Of course I am assuming that the folks in the painting are going to America, as the folks in Steerage appear to be doing. Of course this is a guess on both parts. It could be the folks in the painting are going to India or Egypt, both parts of the English Commonwealth at the time. It may be the folks in steerage are going to another country that is more like the one they left and that it is those watching from above that will be the ones to feel most out of place. Our lives, perhaps, are shaped as much by our preconceptions as they are by our memories and there are no guarantees that either is entirely reliable.

There was an article in the Guardian, “The private life of books,” about what is at times found in second hand books. I know I often buy books that people have written in because I want to know the thoughts of others, if others have understood the book as I understood it or were affected by it as I was affected. The world of the used book is a very different world from that of the new book. I have books that I bought in various places that are quite old. Some were printed before the technology that “burst” or separated the pages was invented. When these books were bought in order to read them the reader had to first cut the pages. There is a scene in The Great Gatsby where the narrator, Nick, is commenting on Gatsby’s library and the magnificence of the volumes that fill the shelves. Nick pulls down a book and soon discovers that none of the pages in any of the books he looks into have been cut. This tells us the books in Gatsby’s library served more of a decorative than literary purpose. When I open a book that is a few hundred years old in which none of the pages have been cut, I am having the experience of reading that book for the first time, not just the first time I am reading that book but the first time anyone has read that book. I have not had this experience often, but each time I have had it, it has filled me with a kind of awe. I am the first person, other than the printer who set the page perhaps, to read this book though it has had a home on someone’s bookshelf for many, many years.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street
Giorgio de Chirico.

There was a review recently in the Washington Post, “Michael Dirda reviews ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran,” of a book on Agatha Christie’s notebooks, the notebooks she kept as she was writing her mystery stories. I have always been a great fan of detective fiction in general and of Christie’s stories in particular. I remember riding my bicycle through Scotland. I was by the banks of Loch Ness when a rainstorm started. I found a bed and breakfast where I could stay until the rain passed. One of the other guests there recommended the Christie novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. There was a copy of the novel in one of the sitting rooms. I picked it up and it was the first full length novel I ever read in a single sitting. It kept me up all night long and I never got sleepy. This was not the first Agatha Christie novel I read, but it is among the most memorable. Of course there was more to the experience than the book, there was also the place, I was in Great Britain, in a place that was shrouded by its own aura mystery. The window in my room looked out over Loch Ness and I remember looking out each evening to see if there were any strange creatures swimming about. But of course there were not, and my memory refuses to “enliven” this recollection.

Alfred Hitchcock
Selznick International Pictures

The film is about a man trying to figure out who he is and the woman that is trying to help him. Something has happened to the man that has induced amnesia. All we know is that the event that brought on his forgetfulness seemed to involve something white and some lines. We only know this because of how he reacts to straight lines and the color white. The actor playing the old psychiatrist in the film is Michael Chekhov, Anton Chekhov’s nephew. He (Michael Chekhov) was a student of Constantin Stanislavski and went on to develop his own approach to the craft of acting. He is known for developing the concept of the “Psychological Gesture,” a behavior or action that reveals an inner psychological reality in the character being portrayed. I think knowing this makes his portrayal of the psychiatrist in the movie that much more delightful. I think that Gregory Peck in his portrayal of the amnesiac makes use of this theatrical device at various times in the film, including those moments with razor in the clip above. It is also what we do not know about this character’s past (and what we think we know) that creates the tension that permeates this scene.

This suggests the limitations of knowledge or at least the limits of what we think we know. Knowledge can be deceptive. We think we know a thing; we have studied it and found out a lot about that thing. But if there is any complexity to what we know the odds are our knowledge is limited and the conclusions drawn from it are not always reliable. This can create problems because we often have to act on what we know and we often cannot be sure we know enough to act. Chekhov’s character in the film believes he must act on what he knows, but as the film will show he does not know enough to justify the conclusion that he draws. He wants to go to the police because he believes Peck’s character is dangerous. But this view may be questionable. You will have to watch the film to find out if Chekhov calls the police or listens to Ingrid Bergman and suspends judgment.

Memories make our lives richer. They enable us to derive pleasure from an experience over and over again. When I read a book that evokes or alludes to another book that I have read that evocation or allusion brings back the original experience of reading that book (or part of the experience). Of course there is the other side of memory, a side like that experienced by the character in the film, where memories, or the ghosts of memories, haunt us and keep us from enjoying the present or of building a future. And memories often will not be controlled. They will visit us in their own time and often stay longer than they are welcome. Little things often bring them out of hiding. For me the smell of diesel fuel takes me back to London in the 1970’s and graham crackers bring me back to a room above a plumbing store on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach, California. These are pleasant memories and I welcome them when they come. But there are always others that are less welcome that have their own triggers that I will not mention here for fear of provoking them.

Is It Real

Tupelo Honey
Van Morrison

Is It Real

Education (Center)
Louis Comfort Tiffany

There was an article in the Guardian a few weeks ago about hoaxes, “The greatest literary hoax ever?”. The article talks about how the writer William Boyd got together with a number of influential friends to invent and promote an artist who never existed. Before they were done, they were exhibiting this artist’s paintings and getting well known, and not so well known people, to talk about how they knew and admired this artist. Before he could bring the hoax to its planned conclusion a co-conspirator let the secret slip out. It makes for an interesting story and illustrates the gullibility of people. The song is about placing values on things, and recognizing the best and being willing to make certain investments (all the tea in China, for example) to demonstrate this value.

The picture is of one of three stained-glass panels done by Louis Comfort Tiffany celebrating education. If we are well educated we are perhaps less likely to be caught in a fabrication and more able to access the accurate and true values of things. But maybe not. Boyd’s crowd of art admirers included well educated people who ought to have known better. Perhaps this was what the hoax was playing off of. If these people expected to be taken seriously as knowledgeable appreciators of art they must not let it be supposed there are influential artists of whom they were unaware. Perhaps the first thing the truly knowledgeable learn is that they do not know everything and that there is nothing wrong with not knowing everything.

Of course the story that Boyd invented was a good story and perhaps what truly lay at the heart of the deception was a human desire to be a part of a truly good story, even if that means inventing a personal history that is different from one’s true history. Or maybe the story was so good it suggested artists from these people’s past whose names they had forgotten but whose work they held onto. Maybe the works they shared were done by a corps of unknown artists that met early and tragic ends. Maybe the invented story was the story of many unknown and unappreciated artists that gave into despair. In the stained glass panel celebrating education at the top of the page the two disciplines represented are “science” and “religion,” two disciplines that often interpret the truths they encounter by different lights and maybe both offer a truth that resonates even if at times they conflict. Each often accuses the other of perpetrating hoaxes and each answers these accusations rationally according to their separate understandings. As one dubious judge once remarked “What is truth?” Perhaps all truth begins with faith in something and it is on that something that all that follows rests.

Illustrations from Old French Fairy Tales
Virginia Sterrett

As an English teacher I think stories teach basic truths about the world humans inhabit. These stories are fiction and it would seem by definition are not true. It is something of a paradox, perhaps, that something that is fabricated, like a story, can illuminate so much and give such insight. The illustration above was done to illustrate a fairy tale. Fairy tales introduced most of us to the world as it is, a world of “evil stepmothers” that cannot be trusted and “fairy godmothers” that can. Yet there is in this something of a life lesson, many that should be trusted cannot be, and many that should be doubted can be trusted. Much of life revolves around sorting out these kinds of problems.

There was an article last week, “Mind your language,” also in the Guardian about language and how we use it. The specific word in question was the word “skeptic” and what that word literally means. According to the article a true skeptic is a seeker after truth and questions everything in order to discover what is true. Yet the word is being applied to those that question nothing their own ideology teaches and doubt everything that challenges that ideology, often without doing very much to sort out which is in fact true. In other words the very opposite of a skeptic in that they accept one body of knowledge without question and challenge any contradictory body of knowledge without examination.

Corner House
István Orosz

The illustrations above and below are interesting in this regard in the way they play with perspective. The one above is of a corner of a house. But is it an outer corner or an inner corner, does it open on a courtyard or a sidewalk. As I look at it the perspective changes, one minute it is turning a corner and the next it is at the back of a corner, one minute one window is invisible to the other, the next it is facing the other. Which is true? Of course, in this picture anyway, they are both true, it all depends on how we look. Is this a work of art or geometric gamesmanship? It is hard to say, but it is kind of fun to look at.

The picture below is of two roads, or bridges really, that cross a body of water but at some point beyond where the two cross each disappears into its reflection in the water. The pictures are Escher-esque in the way they play with perspective, but they offer a kind of pleasure in the way they play with how the eye focuses and sees. Stories often teach us that life is about maintaining our perspective on things, about seeing things correctly, even though life often presents itself in a confusing and incomprehensible manner. Is the nice lady in the gingerbread house inviting us for dinner or “having” us for dinner? The answer to this question, whether it is literal or metaphoric, often determines whether the day’s events have a happy or unhappy conclusion and as with the pictures, appearances can be deceiving.

István Orosz

A good story often challenges our way of viewing the world and in so doing reminds us we have to be careful in our judgments and not lean to heavily on our own understanding. It is not always easy to tell where the line falls between being gullible and being open minded, between being generous in our treatment of others and being foolish. Stories do not always help us resolve these problems but good stories make us aware of these problems and the need to resolve them while being true to our character and values. The most dangerous people in the world are those that understand us and what we believe and know how to exploit those beliefs and in the process exploit us. Stories cannot solve these problems perhaps, each situation must be addressed by its own merits, but they can make us wary and wise in our approach to circumstances and events.

The Dot and the Line
Metro Goldwyn Mayer

I like this little story because it addresses the romantic and the realist in all of us. Both the dot and the line are vulnerable to their romantic inclinations and these inclinations lead them to make unwise choices. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for the squiggle perhaps, the story has a happy ending and both the dot and the line are able to experience romance realistically, though I am not sure that means of their deliverance is itself realistic. But we understand when the story ends that the dot and the line are “right” for each other.

Is this story true to life, do things often resolve themselves so neatly? Probably not. The value of the story lies in its pointing out the blindness that romance can bring and hopefully put us on our guard against it. But than other stories, Great Expectations, perhaps, suggest that even when we realize that our emotions and romantic attractions are leading us astray we are powerless when it comes to resisting them. We often find out the hard way, through pain and disappointment, that our affections are not always reciprocated and that those we have never harmed will seek to harm us.

Screenshot from the film Metropolis (1927)
Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann (cinematograpers)

Anyone who knows Breughel’s painting of The Tower of Babel will recognize it in this landscape from the film Metropolis. This knowledge should shape the way we view this cinematic landscape and the story this film is going to tell before the film begins to tell it. The story of Babel ends in tragedy and it is about human arrogance and presumption. The film addresses another kind of human presumption and arrogance, one that has more to do with exploitation of others than of usurping the powers of God, though there is a bit of this as well. But allusion is one way stories tell stories without actually telling the story, they prepare us for what is coming and help create a frame of mind in the reader (or in this case the viewer) that attunes itself to what appears to be coming. We see this picture and knowing its origins we know that what follows will be tragic, or with a different set of cultural signals, comic. The film The Music Box with Laurel and Hardy is, at least in part, a comic retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus. We catch on to how the film plays with the myth early on but because it is a Laurel and Hardy film, we expect a comic and not tragic retelling of the tale.

Poster for the 1911 Ballet Russe season showing Nijinsky in costume for “Le Spectre de la Rose”, Paris.
Jean Cocteau

Nijinsky was an influential Russian dancer and the ballet Russe an influential dance company. The ballet is The Spirit of the Rose. I know nothing about the ballet, but the name is suggestive. “A rose by any other name” and The Name of the Rose are just a few of the literary associations of the rose. It represents beauty and a kind of excellence. Another odd bit of serendipity in this poster is the artist that painted it, Jean Cocteau. He would go on to become a 20th century pioneer of the French cinema. He told powerful film stories. One of his best known films was Beauty and the Beast, not the Disney version by any means, but still a forceful retelling of the original fairy tale, which kind of brings us back to where we started, or near to it. Fairy tales do not just prepare children for the cruel world they may face as adults, but they often remind adults of the darker side of the world they have grown into.

Cocteau’s film was not made for children, though its characters, themes, and settings come from a very well known and beloved children’s story. The story he tells is very dark, but at the same time childlike. There was also this week an obituary for the last Yiddish poet, Abraham Sutzkever. One thing he said that is true of stories and storytellers was “If you carry your childhood with you, you never age.” As children the stories we read help us age wisely, as adults these same stories help us to age gracefully, preserving in us what is best of youth and maturity.

Leaving Home

Child’s Song
Tom Rush

Leaving Home

“Brunnhilde lies asleep, surrounded by magical fire”
Arthur Rackham

The song is about leaving home and the emotions it evokes as well as the concerns. The painting is in a sense about a father throwing his daughter out of the house. Brunnhilde has disobeyed her father and her father, Odin, the chief of the Norse pantheon of gods, punishes her by putting her to sleep and surrounding her resting place with a ring of fire. The story is a “sleeping beauty” story in that she is ultimately awakened by a kiss from Siegfried who braves the fire to rescue her.

For some leaving home involves leaving the house and for others it involves being thrown out of the house. Either way it is difficult. But starting out on one’s own is always about facing the future. There was an article in the Guardian, “Arthur C Clarke and the end of upbeat futurology,” about the futurists of the mid to late 20th century, especially the futurist Arthur C. Clarke. The gist of the article is that for Clarke and others like him and all that followed him the future was full of promise and optimism. There were amazing things that were going to be accomplished by the century’s end, most of which did not come to pass. What is especially disturbing about this is that I grew up in a world where anything was possible and the world that is being given to the next generation seems to be one in which little of consequence is possible. I wonder if children growing up today are as excited about the world they are moving into as I was about the world I was moving into when I was a child.

The Flying Carpet (Ivan Tsarevich with the Firebird on a magic carpet)
Viktor Vasnetsov

Part of the optimism and excitement I felt about the world came from the stories I read. I read a lot of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and other writers of science fiction. Of course Wells’ view of the world was not always a positive view, his most famous novels were about things going wrong, an island with a mad scientist playing games with genetics, alien invasions, and an invisible man who was not motivated by kindness. One story I remember especially well was called “The Magic Shop” about a child with magical powers controlling mom and dad. The child was a malevolent child who was not making the world into a happy place, For children who often feel powerless there may be a delicious irony in the way tables are turned in the story, but the story was not really a happy one and its ending, even to a child enjoying the tables being turned, is disturbing.

But other writers presented a magical world like that of the paintings of the flying carpet. As the article points out, Arthur Clarke believed that “advanced technology (would be) indistinguishable from magic.” Our stories today still have magic but it is unrelated to technology, magic has been put back into the realm of fantasy and taken out of the real world. I enjoyed the stories of flying carpets and exotic places that could only be visited in the imagination, but I was also excited about a world in which some of that magic would be realized. Perhaps it is important to not only teach our children to dream but to give them a realistic hope that dreams can be realized, not just the dreams of a happy and successful life and the ability to set and realize goals, but the ability to believe in dreams of a wiser world with a more active imagination.

Flying Carpet
Viktor VasnetsovКовёр-самолет._1919-1926.jpg

Of course these new worlds that we dreamed of when I was child were often a bit “Utopic” in that they imagined a world in which science made life more just, less painful, and more pleasant for all. Of course these are not things science can deliver and one person’s Utopia is another person’s prison. Much of life is about giving up things we would like so that others can have things they need, whether that is in a marriage where one does what the other desires from time to time, or in a nation where each part gives up something to the greater good of the whole. Part of learning to live well is learning to live with a certain amount of sacrifice and suffering. Stories, even those with magic carpets, often teach us that. Often the most important lesson the stories we read as children teach us is that life can be difficult and that suffering is often followed by rewards of one kind or another.

There was an article in the New York Times, “New Envoy’s Old Advice for Children: Read More,” about Katherine Paterson being made the new “national ambassador for young people’s literature.” She talks about writing the stories she does not for her children but for her own “inner child,” suggesting that the stories we tell should be stories that we would first want told to us. In the article she talks about growing up in China at the start of the Second World War and witnessing some of the things done by the Japanese in China during that war. As a result she came to hate the Japanese. Upon graduating college she was given the opportunity to go to Japan as a missionary. Her hatred was such she did not want to go. She did go. She said, “It was one of the greatest gifts of my life to be able to be in a situation and find yourself loved by people that you thought you had hated.” Her first book also came out of this experience and there is probably a lesson in that as well, it is a lesson stories often tell us, it is a lesson found, for example, in the Harry Potter stories, that those we thought were our enemies are often our friends.

Sleeping Beauty
Walt Disney Studios

Another theme often found in children’s stories is that though we are surrounded by forces that mean us harm there are other forces present that watch out for us and protect us. In the film clip Maleficent intends great harm, but there are three other spirits, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, that guard the sleeping princess. As I have grown older the stories I now read have fewer of these protective spirits and the message is that if we are to be saved we must save ourselves. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect others to come to our aid or to expect divine forces to watch over us, but often it seems that aid and comfort is to be found outside of our own resources. In the classical literature it is not unusual to find characters protected by divine forces, Odysseus is protected by Athena and Aeneas receives help from different gods and goddesses at different points in his journey. But ours is a skeptical age and we tend to believe only in those forces we can see and touch. In this sense, perhaps, the stories we tell our children instill a false sense of security.

Leaving home often begins with solitude, with finding ourselves alone and perhaps friendless. Our beliefs teach us to what extent we can depend on forces outside ourselves. For many God and the teachings of their religion are real. For others religious beliefs and practices are an intrusion that takes our focus off of the problems at hand that we alone must solve. I have my beliefs about this but that is not really the point.

I think we depend on stories to show us something of the way and to help us figure out how to live well. We all need comfort and we all need to feel cared for. That we have these needs does not mean that there are forces out there that will see to it these needs are met, but it does suggest that others have these same needs and that we have an obligation to care for our neighbor. It suggests in part that our need is met by giving what we need to others, that there is a beauty sleeping in all of us that needs to be awakened.

Sleeping Beauty
Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Who Do You Think You Are

The Silver Tongued Devil and I
Kris Kristofferson

Who Do You Think You Are

“The Treachery of Images” (1928-9) or “This is not a pipe”
René Magritte

Kris Kristofferson sings of someone who is in a kind of denial for it is clear from the lyric that the “silver tongued devil” and the persona of the song are in fact the same person. The persona may not approve of the actions of his alter ego and it may be in fact the “beer” talking and not himself but like it or not the actions are his actions. Who we are and who we think we are often are very different people. My students are beginning Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Macbeth sees himself as a pretty good guy, he wants to be liked by his peers, but relatively early in the story he allows his ambition to overtake the “better angels of his nature.” The Macbeth at the end of the play may be unrecognizable to the Macbeth of the play’s beginning but they are the same person. Or are they?

The painting is captioned “this is not a pipe” but the image is indeed of a pipe. Of course the image of a pipe is in fact not a pipe, I cannot take this pipe and smoke it, for example. So the painting is and is not a pipe. By the same token the photograph of me found in my passport taken back in 1972 is indeed a photograph of me. But are the person in that photograph and the person writing this the same person? Emerson would say something one day he would disavow the next. Are the Emerson making the statement and disavowing the statement the same person, the same Emerson? At the heart of literary analysis, among other things, is character growth. Characters that do not change in the course of a story are, generally, weak characters. Yet we expect consistency of thought from the people around us, and believe changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness. Heaven help the politician, for example, who has a change of heart.

The Humphrey van Weyden we meet at the beginning of Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf cannot save himself, he cannot even call out to others to save him. He is totally helpless. The Humphrey van Weyden, “Hump”, at the end of the novel is a very different and much stronger and more competent human being. The Hump of the beginning of the novel bears no resemblance to the Hump at the end of the novel. But, under the law anyway, they are the same person. On the other hand, at the end of the novel Wolf Larson, Hump’s nemesis through the book, is largely unchanged. In part this is because he has already thought through his views and made judgments about how the world works that time and experience have shown to be sound. But also Wolf is set in his ways, he has reached his conclusions, no one has been able to effectively challenge those conclusions so he sees no need to change, even when confronted with an alternative view of things that is thoughtful and experiences that ought to cause him to question at least some of his conclusions. In life, as in stories, those characters are strongest who can grow and change and adapt to changing circumstances.

The Paranoiac Face ([1935])
Salvador Dali
The New York Public Library

Looked at one way this is a drawing of some people sitting on the beach, looked at another way it is a human face (according to Andre Breton the face of Jean Paul Marat, or so he said of the photograph that inspired the drawing). How we see ourselves and how others see us may suggest another kind of illusion, just as the people we thought we might become do not always resemble the people we have in fact become. In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch we are confronted by characters with great aspirations for the future, some are taking their first steps towards achieving these aspirations while others have been working towards theirs for some time already. Some of these ambitions are noble and altruistic, others are shallow and self-serving but few are realized. There is a doctor who hopes to reform the practice of medicine but ends up writing a treatise on gout, a disease mostly of well to do old men, there is a scholar who plans to synthesize all the world’s mythic systems but dies before he can do so, there is a wealthy politician with a past, as well as a would be politician without much of a past.

Most of the characters in this novel have high ideals but they make foolish choices and as a result must face real consequences. Most learn to carve a bit of contentment out of the poor choices they have made but they never fulfill their aspirations. When I finished the book I felt Dorothea Brooke proved willing to make risky choices to achieve some personal happiness and I thought she ended well, but not all agree. Still, we are told she made others’ lives better. Perhaps in life that is worth more, and perhaps is more satisfying, than a more “public” success. It certainly illustrates the choices that confront most of us, we can choose safely and attain a modest contentment perhaps, or we can take risks and perhaps achieve some of our higher aspirations, or perhaps not. Life is often this way.

Janus Films

The film Rashomon is about point of view. A crime is committed and it is observed by four different people from four different perspectives. The angle from which the event is viewed determines how it is understood and interpreted. Depending on whose perspective is accepted a crime either was or was not committed. Whose perception is correct? To what extent does this mirror life? Some would argue from a story like this that we cannot know or understand reality, there are too many obstructions between what we perceive and what is, that all life is relative. There is some satisfaction to be gotten from this view in that it enables a person to avoid making judgments about events, and hence, having to take any action in shaping those events.

But I think the story illustrates that, though we all have to act according to our own understanding of what is happening around us, we may want to reserve judgment and keep an open mind. Choices are often difficult, it may not be possible to know all that we need to know to make those choices with certainty, but the choices themselves may be inescapable and need to be made. We can only do our best. I do not know that this kind of story provides comfort or satisfaction, but it does capture an aspect of life that it is important to think about. This is an important service that books, film, and other forms of story telling provide.

Three Musicians (1921), Museum of Modern Art
Pablo Picasso

The painting is called Three Musicians. But is this really what the painting captures. One musician is dressed in white, a color associated with purity and with weddings. White is also a color often associated with angels, at least the good ones. I mention this only because the other musician is all in black, a color associated with death and the angel of death. As white is often associated with goodness, black is often the color of evil. Then there is the musician in the middle who is dressed something like a clown, he is dressed in motley, the traditional garb of the clown. Are the musicians on his right and left, then, his good and evil geniuses? This is another story to be told and understood. Maybe they are just, as the title says, three musicians with very different tastes in clothes.

There was an article a few weeks ago in the Guardian about the American novelist, Philip Roth. The article by Alison Flood, “Philip Roth predicts novel will be minority cult within 25 years”, summarizes an interview that Roth gave to Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast. In the interview Roth contends that the day of the novel has passed and that though the novel will survive, it will have only a “cult” following. I hope this is not true. The novel, like few other art forms, enables us to imagine the world and how people behave in the world. Unlike a film it can take its time to spin its story so that the reader can have a greater insight into the emotional, psychological, and intellectual lives of characters, and see how these characters respond to the situations they encounter. We can see how characters’ lives are shaped and changed by events and how those events change the emotions, the psychology, and the thinking of the characters. Granted it is all made up, all a fiction, but it does help prepare one for the choices and complexities of life. Aristotle believed fiction was superior to history because it showed us what might be not just what was. He felt it was superior to philosophy because it gave us the opportunity to see philosophy put into practice and lived out so that we can see how this philosophy holds up to the pressures of daily living.

There is a story told of Thoreau and the night he spent in jail that Emerson came by and saw Thoreau in jail. He asked Thoreau what he was doing in there. And Thoreau responded that the better question is what are you doing out there. Thoreau was acting on a principle that he learned from Emerson, that the only place for a just man in an unjust society is in jail, a principle Emerson himself was not putting into practice. I do not know if this story is true, I have heard that it is apocryphal, but it illustrates Aristotle’s point that formulating a philosophy to live by may be easier than living by that philosophy and story telling gives us the opportunity to see what pressures the world and daily living will exert upon our philosophies. The picture below is of a waterfall, but is the water in fact falling? I suppose it depends on how you look at it and where you focus your attention.

M. C. Escher

Rarely Pure and Never Simple

You Don’t Know Me
Ray Charles
Don Quixote, Op. 35/ Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83
“Variation I – DQ & Sancho set out”
Richard Strauss

Rarely Pure and Never Simple

Edgar Degas

There was an article in this Sunday’s Boston Globe, “What you don’t know about your friends”, by Drake Bennett. The article reports that current research suggests that the better we know someone the less we may know about them, not that we do not know, probably, more than a complete stranger knows, but that what we think we know is often incorrect and that we attribute views to our friends that they in fact do not hold. The article also suggests that it is probably a good thing that we do not know what we think we know and that friendship, even if based on false premises, in fact even if it is only a friendship in our imagination and not in fact, still does us more good than harm. It is important that we think we are liked even if, in fact, we are not. The picture by Degas shows a couple having a drink together and probably little else. There does not seem to be reflected in either their expressions or their body language any hint of warmth one towards the other.

This painting suggests to me the relationship between Meursault and Marie in Camus’ novel The Stranger, or at least it suggests to me Meursault’s feelings toward Marie, which are for the most part dispassionate. I think Marie thinks she understands Meursault and their relationship, but the reader knows that Meursault does not really have any feelings for her. I am not sure, as the article might suggest, this is healthy for either of these characters, though the relationship is probably unhealthy for each of them for different reasons.

The song by Ray Charles also suggests that there might be something to this article. He sings that “You don’t know me” though in the opening chorus “love” is substituted for “know” the first time the line is sung. Relationships are difficult and how is one to really know what goes on inside the mind of another. In some novels that come out of the “stream of consciousness” tradition (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce comes to mind) there are passages where one character may ask a question or make a remark followed by paragraphs of internal dialog where this question or remark is analyzed before a response is made. Though it may take many minutes to read it all, in real time only a second or two has transpired. In these internal dialogues we see characters who are trying to understand each other and not really succeeding, though they seem to think they are understanding the other and being understood by the other. The reader, though, is not so sure.

The second part of the music clip is from a series of variations on a theme by Richard Strauss. This part of the music is meant to evoke Don Quixote and Sancho Panza first starting out on their quests together. The novel, Don Quixote, suggests there is great loyalty one for the other in this friendship. But it also suggests that neither really understands the other. To what extent is Sancho only humoring Don Quixote and to what extent does Don Quixote see Sancho as friend, as opposed to a servant, say? After all, Sancho is Quixote’s squire and that suggests a subservient role. Quixote thinks he is in control, but it is in fact Sancho who often acts to control the situations in which the Don’s madness lands them. I think this novel is a great testament to idealism and friendship, but it is also a satire and that idealism and friendship is often mocked, though, it is usually the wild world that leaves no room for idealism that gets the largest slice of this mockery.

Lost Boys, Wendy, Peter Pan
Alice B Woodward

When I look at this picture from the story of Peter Pan I wonder what is going through the minds of the various children. Wendy is in the position of having to play the role, more than anyone else anyway, of the grown up, which means she has less of the fun. But what about the others? Can they believe that they can remain children for always? Perhaps they do not know enough about the way the world works to know that growing up is part of the bargain. The younger we are the more magical the world is. Maria Tatar in her book The Enchanted Hunters suggests that older children when they read a story about a door opening, need a magical world on the other side of that door to hold their interest. But for very young children all the world, even its simplest and most commonplace elements, is mysterious and it is enough that there is a door and that the door opens to make magic in the child’s mind. For the infant everything is a mystery. What is a chair for, why does it look that way? Spoons, bottles, and tables are all magical objects that are fascinating and inexplicable.

I think this is true. I remember my first calculator. I was amazed at all that it could do. I could sit and add and divide, subtract and multiply and than get out a piece and be amazed when I discovered it did the calculations correctly. Not that I was that surprised, but the magic of a machine that could do these things was enchanting to me. I had once a little pocket calculator that played Fur Elise whenever I opened it up. It was machine music and there was no artistry to the sound, but it too was magical and I would open my calculator even when I had nothing to calculate, just to hear the music. Now of course, I have become jaded and see nothing all that magical about a machine that lets me visit neighborhoods on the far side of the globe and explore their streets. It’s just what machines do, what is the big deal. Still if we take the time, I think we can find in our first exposure to something new a sense of the infant’s world of wonder.

There was a review by Salley Vickers in this weekend’s Guardian, of “The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik.” The article suggests that, though they will probably not be teaching philosophy at the local university, that babies and young children are at heart philosophical and inquisitive. It is perhaps not a new notion that some of the finer qualities of the human character are intuitive in children and become trained out of them by experience, but it is pleasant to think this may be true. Gopnik does point out that children will do nasty things from time to time, but she also suggests these children realize they are being nasty and that often, given their druthers they would rather behave less badly. Whether children are or are not natural philosophers is probably not that important, but I think if the child’s sense of wonder for the world could be preserved, the grown ups might take better care of it.

Portrait of William Shakespeare
Unknown Forger

The images above and below suggest the flip side to being childlike, that is, often, gullibility and naivete. These artworks are forgeries; well the first is a forgery while the second may just be a misunderstanding. One of my favorite books is a book by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone. It is about a man who is a gifted art forger and his story is really quite wonderful. The central character is a likeable gentleman who makes his living deceiving others. That is often how it is with con men. We see the same thing in the Robert Redford and Paul Newman characters in The Sting. We also see it in the Duke and the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though in their case they turn into very troubling characters fairly quickly. Some think that Huckleberry Finn is a book about race relations, and that is a part of the book. But what it is really about is human cruelty. The first victim of this cruelty that we encounter is Huck himself. He has had to survive by his wits for many years and he is barely a teenager. The next is Jim, a slave. But there are other forms cruelty besides child abuse and racism. Many of the white characters are the nicest people you could want to meet if you are white, but quite dangerous and cruel if you are not.

Are we being deceived, is this a con job on the part of Twain? There are parts of the book that are very troubling. Some think that are places where Jim acts as a minstrel show character that are sloppy writing and indicative of his rush to finish the thing off. There is probably some truth to this, but also many of those minstrel moments showcase human cruelty at its worst. Tom is putting Jim’s life in peril in the game he plays. As a child he probably doesn’t understand this, but the reader does, or should. Tom’s merriment has a certain innocence about it because he does not know better, he has been brought up badly when it comes to folks like Jim, but the reader knows better and if the reader feels at all tempted to laugh or to be amused, they ought to confront the source of that amusement in themselves.

The Flammarion woodcut is an enigmatic wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man peering through the Earth’s atmosphere as if it were a curtain to look at the inner workings of the universe. The caption translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…” Perhaps engrave by Camille Flammarion but not a German Renaissance woodcut

Orson Welles’ last film was F Is for Fake. It begins with Welles on the platform at a train station doing magic tricks (and as all viewers of the I Love Lucy show know, Welles began as a magician). He tells the audience that for the next hour everything they see and hear will be the absolute truth. The film, though, is about an hour and twenty minutes long and at precisely one hour into the film he stops being truthful. The film itself was inspired by a book by Clifford Irving, Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. After publishing the biography of an actual art forger he went on to publish a fake autobiography of the actual billionaire Howard Hughes. Fakery can only work if we are willing to believe the unbelievable, or at least the barely plausible. It is Satan playing three card monte with Eve in the garden, it is the king making us laugh when, impersonating a pirate, he fleeces the congregation at a revival, but it is also the king making us cry as he fleeces three helpless sisters. We like con men who con others, but do not like being conned ourselves.

Woody Allen
Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions and United Artists

The film clip is something of a tribute to how we con ourselves and are often easily conned by others, and also about how we do not know our friends. It begins with Woody Allen confronting a friend who has betrayed him. We also find, in another part of the film, that he has been “betrayed” by an ex-wife who publishes “lies” about him, that may not be lies. I especially enjoy the confrontation between Allen and his friend with the bones of a gorilla looking on, at least I think it is a gorilla. Everything he says about how we should act toward one another is true, but at the same time Allen’s character does not seem to see that in many of his dealings with other characters he has behaved with a similar dishonesty. In his relationship with a young girl not even half his age we see at the very least a bit of self deception. This is, perhaps, not unlike Robert Redford at the beginning of The Sting pulling off an excellent “con” only to fall victim to a con himself. Even he knows he should have known better, but I am not sure that the Woody Allen character has this same insight into himself.

Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak

There are always the monsters under the bed. There is a place in the psyche of us all where the wild things live. Sometimes they entertain us, sometimes they frighten us. In the story Coraline by Neil Gaimon a young girl finds a parallel universe of sorts on the other side of a locked door. The adults in Coraline’s world are not very communicative and not very aware, but they are basically kind and mean well. The adults on the other side of the door are aware but not kind. These people on the other side of the door have buttons instead of eyes, they have make believe eyes which go along with the “make believe” nature of their relationships, those they have and those they aspire to.

What makes stories meaningful to me, is that they help me replace the “buttons” I have for eyes, the make believe eyes, with a real view of the world and what it is like. But more importantly they help me see into myself and what I am like. When I wear the buttons the world is there to serve me, to give me my heart’s desire. But this is not a world where joy can be found. Selfishness is never satisfied; it is the greatest con we can play on ourselves. It enables me to substitute a forgery of myself for the real person I might become. There is an old Twilight Zone episode about aliens visiting the planet earth. They bring with them a book called How to Serve Man. The people of earth believe these aliens have come to make life on earth more pleasant; that they have come to help the human race. The book is, in fact, not a book of altruism, but a cookbook. It is important to know something about service and what it means to serve. It is also important to know if those that claim to serve us come with charity or an appetite.