A Storied Life

Scheherazade, symphonic suite for orchestra, Op. 35: III. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess. Andantino Quasi Allegretto”
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsako
Fanfare for the Common Man
Aaron Copeland

A Storied Life

Medieval Town by Water

After a painting by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (original painting destroyed by fire)

Ezra Pound in one of his saner moments said, “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Books work magic, it is not clear how, not to me anyway, but that is the nature of magic, perhaps the definition of magic itself, something marvelous that defies definition. Reading, or appreciating art of any kind, does not make us better people; some of the worst people that have ever lived had very profound artistic sensibilities. They read the best books, listened to the best music, were moved by the best paintings and sculptures. This ability to appreciate the sublime added depth to their experience of life, but it did not make them good people. It enriched their experience; it did not impact on their humanity. Of course it can also be said that many of the most humane people that ever lived had this same experience of the sublime. It may be that those that brought virtue to their experience of the sublime experienced and understood more fully and more deeply, but that is something that cannot be known with any certainty.

When I look at the painting above I wonder what the original looked like. I am saddened that it has been destroyed because I find the copy so moving. Perhaps the painting that lives in my imagination is not only finer than the copy, but finer than the original as well (as far as that goes, the copy may be finer than the original for all that anyone can know). There was an article in the Boston Globe, “Well worth not reading,” about the books we imagine based on the blurbs on the back cover, or the cover illustration, or a sampling of the text. It is about the books we have encountered but have not read. I am not sure I like this article as much as I imagined I would when I began to understand its premise, though I do think there is truth to it. It is a bit unsettling perhaps for someone who teaches others to read books to contemplate the advantages of not reading them, but it must be owned that there are many books that I have read that did not live up to the expectations created by the first impressions they made. I am glad though that I gave them the opportunity to speak their piece.

The music suggests our first experience with stories, the fairy tale story of the princess and the prince, and the audience for stories, the common man. Though Scheherazade’s princesses and princes often behaved as princesses and princes should, those of the Brothers Grimm and other tellers of folk tales often behaved as though their origins were a bit more humble. When as children we read fairy tales that involved royalty we often looked at those “royals” as though they were just like us that there was not much difference between the pauper and the prince and at some level this is what lies at the heart of any good story, it is what makes the story attractive. It may not be a belief that we and they are the same but it is a belief that we and they share a common humanity and we have something to learn from how they encounter the world.

A portrait of Samuel Johnson
Joshua Reynolds

The painting above is of Samuel Johnson, one of the English Language’s finest professional readers. In the painting he is reading intently, but according to the blurb accompanying the painting this was in part to dispel the image of “blinking Sam,” it was to offer a “counter-narrative” to one that was current at the time. But it makes one wonder, or at least it makes me wonder, why do we read? Because Samuel Johnson was who Samuel Johnson was it also makes me wonder why we analyze what we read? Is literary criticism something readers do to understand a text or does it superimpose the reader’s vision on that of the writer? What makes some readers more “authoritative” readers than others, that is, why do we give more weight to the judgments drawn from the reading done by some than to that done by others?

There was a series of articles recently in the New York Times (I looked at these three, “The Will Not to Power, but to Self-Understanding,” “Translating the Code Into Everyday Language,” and “From the Critical Impulse, the Growth of Literature”) about literary criticism and its usefulness. The articles addressed meanings of literary texts and the like, but the main conclusion they all seemed to come to was that criticism contributes to a literate culture in that it provides a platform for discussing literature, its deeper meaning, and its impact on the culture at large. I enjoyed all of the articles but I was intrigued by Elif Batuman’s applying Freud’s method of interpreting dreams to the interpretation of literature or at least that aspect of Freud’s thinking that recognized the complexity of dreams and the multiplicity of possible meanings that they contain. According to Batuman this same dynamic is at work in our analysis of stories.


Farmer Sitting by the Fire, ReadingVincent Van Gogh
Watercolor, Charcoal, watercolour, heightened with white
Etten: October, 1881
Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, The Netherlands, Europe
F: 897, JH: 63

The painting above is of a farmer sitting by his fire reading a book. This suggests that the printed word can work its magic not only on those that do not read for a living, but those who earn their living from occupations very different from those of “professional” readers. Farmers of course, at least good farmers, are always reading the literature of their trade so it shouldn’t surprise us that farmers read. But when they are reading the literature of their trade they are reading for information, not for enchantment. What are the respective values of each kind of reading, is one better than the other or do each provide their own unique kind of value? At the level at which each works they teach us how to profit from living, on the one hand how to earn a living and on the other how to spend a life in a way that is meaningful and not just productive.

Elderly Man at a WindowYves Trevedy

The paintings above and below are of an old man reading and of a young man reading. They are both engrossed and as one might expect the old man is farther along in his book than the young man, the old man is finishing his book while the young man is starting his. The old man is alone with a single book while the young man has an assortment of books propping up the book he is reading. There are perhaps some obvious metaphors that could be drawn but I’ll let others draw them. What I find attractive about these paintings is the intensity that each reader brings to the reading that he is doing. The young man is described as a student in the painting’s title and perhaps he is reading in the same fashion the farmer reads his agricultural journals, but perhaps not. The old man has his back to the window and to the beautiful landscape that is life as it truly is. Is the man turning his back on reality or is the reality he finds in his book more real than the one outside his window? In my experience all reading teaches and the books that capture my imagination the most intensely make the world outside my window more real and more understandable. As Pound suggests reading makes me and the world outside more intensely alive and more intensely real and comprehensible.

The Young Student
Ozias Leduc

John Connolly in his book The Book of Lost Things says, “The stories in books hate the stories contained in newspapers, David’s mother would say. Newspaper stories were like newly caught fish, worthy of attention only for as long as they remained fresh, which was not very long at all. They were like the street urchins hawking the evening editions all shouty and insistent, while stories – real stories, proper made-up stories – were like stern but helpful librarians in a well-stocked library. Newspaper stories were insubstantial as smoke, as long-lived as mayflies. They did not take root but were instead like weeds that crawled along the ground, stealing the sunlight from more deserving tales.” It might be that the books we read for information are short lived, they do not deliver anything magical, they are a pragmatic bunch that teach us what we need to know to keep the pantry stocked, but the truths they tell are only true for a short time, relatively, and will in all likelihood be soon replaced with other truths.

The truths contained in stories often help us unravel the mysteries that surround who we are; they help to teach ourselves to ourselves. There was a review by Sarah Bakewell in the New York Times about the lives of great philosophers, “Lives of the Philosophers, Warts and All”. The book points out that most philosophers led very muddled lives and that no matter how profound their insights, the art of living well and happily remained elusive. I am not sure that stories succeed any better at explaining life or simplifying day to day existence, but they do teach us that everyone has problems and that what really matters more than solving our problems is living with integrity while pursuing those solutions.


Elif Shafak
TED Talk

The film is about storytelling or more precisely perhaps being a storyteller. Ms. Shafak tells us that others try to tell her the kinds of stories she should tell, but she does not want to tell those stories. She suggests that as a writer she is pursuing in stories the same things I am as a reader of stories, she wants to explore what makes people from different backgrounds behave as they do. Modern storytelling has become a bit obsessed with the relationship between the characters in a story and the writers that create those characters; that J. D. Salinger, for example, must be a lot like Holden Caulfield, that novelists and storytellers of all stripes are actually engaged in a kind of autobiographical masquerade. When in fact most of the best storytellers from the past made little use of their personal lives. One reason some critics today do not believe Shakespeare could have written Shakespeare is because the stories Shakespeare told were so far removed from his life experience, that somehow because he had never been a nobleman he could not possibly comprehend what it was like to be one. Storytellers that cannot imagine the inner lives of characters different from themselves cannot amount to much as storytellers, their insights, like mine are all local. If I as a reader can enter the inner lives of characters different from myself as I read about them, why can’t storytellers do the same as they write about them?

The painting below is of an emperor of China who was also a literary critic. It is not unusual for a monarch to be engaged in literary pursuits, the first Queen Elizabeth wrote poetry and translated Latin texts, like Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Alexander the great had Aristotle for a teacher. Some learned more from the literature they studied than did others, but it is difficult to imagine that even those who learned the least were not enriched by what they read. If stories do nothing else they take away our excuses. When we read we make judgments about the characters and the things the characters do. This suggests that we have an inner sense of what is just and recognize injustice when we see it; that we understand the need for compassion and recognize cruelty when we see it; that we understand the quality of mercy and recognize hardness of heart when we see it. Some of these conclusions we are led artfully to see due to the skill of the storyteller, but the fact that these virtues are so much more likely to be found in the stories we read than the vices suggests that there is something true about these virtues that resonates in all of us.

Cao Pi, Emperor of Wei (Emperor of China and Literary Critic)
Yan Li-pen


Between the Mountains and the Deep Blue Sea

From “Mohini (Enchantment)”
Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Between the Mountains and the Deep Blue Sea


15th century map
Inverted map of Fra Mauro (1460). Source “The Fra Mauro World map” Piero Falchetta.

The music comes from an album by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, The Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon. It captures the essence of the exotic and the unknown. To those with an adventurous spirit there is something in the music that calls the listener to places where the music was born. Perhaps to others it just sounds foreign and unfamiliar and even, perhaps, uninteresting. There is a short story by Lord Dunsany (“Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean”) that begin:

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, forever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain, and to the north by the voice and anger of the Polar wind. Like a great wall is the mountain to the west. It comes up out of the distance and goes down into the distance again, and it is named Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.


This mountain separates the inner lands from the sea. The inner lands are a land at peace protected by natural boundaries of desert and mountain and by enchantments. It is a land at peace, it is a prosperous land, it is a land whose citizens want for nothing. Yet there is this mountain and on the other side it is rumored there is the sea. But no one in the inner lands have seen the sea and those that have crossed the mountain have never returned.

It is the best and the brightest that are the most tempted by this mountain and are most likely to make the journey over it. Even the royal family and the heir apparent have been seduced by the mountain. Because the desire to cross the mountain and see the ocean has attracted so many, the people of the inner lands resent it. They go so far as to build a temple devoted to cursing this mountain.

I think this story is a fable of sorts about living in a world of change and the unknown. We can live in the relative peace and comfort of the familiar or accept the challenges and opportunities that come with accepting change and embracing the unknown. The phrase “accept change” and others like it are overused to the extent that it is no longer clear what it means. These phrases are often employed to entice people to accept things solely because they are new and different, which can create another set of problems.

The character of that which is new must be assessed, as must that of the familiar. I think that often accepting change, any change, can be a good thing because it forces us to reassess what we think and the way we do things. Elaine May once said “The only safe thing is to take a chance” and that is what those that climbed Poltarnees to get to the other side did. They took a chance. Those that made the journey safely were so entranced by what they found they had no desire to return. Or perhaps they perished. It is something that cannot be known with certainty.

In the classroom it seems that students struggle with new ideas and concepts. They often resist the stories from other times and places and are unwilling to invest the kind of time it takes to get inside the skin of those that made these stories. I think that it is interesting that elements of the Arabian Knights have found their way into European stories like Gulliver’s Travels. Odysseus’ struggles with the Cyclops are not that different from those of Sinbad with similar kind of creature. Critics, the last time I checked, were not certain which story came first or if they both weren’t influenced by some other story that has long since perished. The point is that what interests people of all cultures in story telling is remarkably similar. The places and names are different and perhaps a bit unpronounceable to those outside the culture that tells the story, but the events and challenges are very similar.

Stories shanghai us to places we may at first be unwilling to go (the term “shanghaied” itself is taken from the practice of kidnapping sailors to places they did not want to go). And the reading of stories, especially when read with an open mind, will change the way we think and the way we look at the world around us. Story telling is at its rhetorical, it makes an argument for a different way of viewing things. We may be attracted by something in the characters and the conflicts they must resolve but we often end by assuming the point of view and attitudes of characters in the story. Our minds change and we are often unsure what has changed them.

The classical teachers of rhetoric argued that the emotional argument, not the logical or the ethical argument, was the most effective and therefore ought to be the argument of choice for orators. I read somewhere that St Augustine preferred rhetoric to logic (and by rhetoric he meant the emotional argument) because he could achieve his desired result more easily. If we can be made to feel a certain way about a thing our thoughts and opinions will often follow our feelings. When it comes to stories it seems we start by feeling a certain way about characters and what they encounter and often end up thinking the way the authors want us to about the issues and ideas the characters in the stories must confront.

This is why it is so important to read with our minds engaged and to consider what we think and feel and why we think and feel as we do after we finish reading. The same could be said of the movies we watch and the music we listen to. There is a rhetorical quality to these as well. It seems that as a culture we are becoming increasingly more passive, but perhaps it is just human nature to gravitate towards ease and it is easier to go where the story takes us than it is to consider the journey and whether we want to take it.

One purpose of education is to challenge students to question; to question the world around them, their attitudes toward the world around them, the source of their resistance to the content of the classes they take, whether they be English classes or Science classes, whether they are studying stories or the theory of evolution. The purpose of the classroom is not to produce students that think as they have been taught but students who consider and evaluate effectively what they are being encouraged to think and believe. Totalitarianism thrives more easily when the governed are a non-reflective people that prefer to accept without question what they are invited to believe.


From The Great Dictator

In this scene Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator dances with a globe of the earth as though it were his personal plaything until the bubble bursts. The film is polemical in nature in that it is a passionate argument against war and dictatorship. In the film the Great Dictator is ultimately defeated. Whether his downfall is the result of a triumph of reason or of one emotion prevailing over another, you will have to watch the film to discover. The image of the dictator and the globe though is emotionally powerful and perhaps captures more effectively the dangers of dictatorship than a well-reasoned argument.

Nkosi Sikelel i’Afrika

Zain Bhikha

Philip Sidney in his essay “In Defense of Posey” argues that lyric poetry is a powerful tool for motivating people to act. When the African National Congress was trying to overthrow the apartheid government of South Africa they would rally their supporters by singing “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika.” The song so effectively provoked a spirit of solidarity among those resisting the government that its singing was banned. Both the song and the film quickly and effectively produce a result that most would find desirable. But this result is produced by a manipulation of the emotions. The ends produced make the means acceptable but the danger is of course that the emotions could as easily have been manipulated in a different direction as might be suggested by the films of Leni Riefenstahl that documented Hitler’s rise to power.

Poltarnees is perhaps the mountain that stands between what our feelings invite us to believe that our minds might question.  Because emotions can easily be manipulated for the good or the bad care should be taken not to believe too quickly what our passions would endorse. Optimism and pessimism both have their place. We need a spirit of enthusiasm to make the journey and a spirit of caution not to journey too precipitously. The mountain must be climbed if we are to advance but it is the nature of a mountain to retard progress, to require a slow and deliberate assent.

The story “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean” ends, “Once every year, with solemn rite and ceremony, they curse the tides of the Sea; and the moon looks in and hates them.” It is in our nature as human beings to quest and to explore and the moon that guides us through the darkness of our uncertainty looks with disfavor on our unwillingness to make the journey.