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


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


Wishing Our Way Home

If Wishes Were Horses
Lucinda Williams

Wishing Our Way Home

The Knight’s Dream
Antonio de Pereda

Lucinda Williams is singing about undoing the past, wishing things could be done over differently and seeing that they can’t hoping that perhaps there can be a bit of forgiveness. In the chorus she sings “If wishes were horses I’d have a ranch” and that sentiment captures a lot, not just of lost love but of a great many human activities that have not gone as planned or never got off the ground because there was never much more to them than wishing. Often it is easier to aspire than to achieve. Aspirations are romantic and often a bit adventurous, but achievements are hard work, at least the worthwhile ones are.

The painting captures another aspect of dreaming and wishing. The knight is sleeping at a cluttered table. It seems that the objects on the table are reflections of his dreams. There are a couple of books, one of which is open and both of which are old. That they are set aside and that two objects, skulls, have been set on top of them suggests the books are not what currently occupy his interest. There is at least one musical instrument and some sheet music. These might suggest entertainment or a musical education.

There is also a globe and other objects that might represent conquest, like the miniature clock tower that could suggest a conquered city. There are of course the jewels and cash, representative of the spoils of war perhaps, along with a gun and what look like bits of armor, the tools of conquest. There is also behind the books an object that looks a bit like a bishop’s mitre that might suggest religious connections of one kind or another, either of complicity or a different kind of conquest. And of course there is the angel. Is the angel there to inspire or protect? But the knight is dreaming and perhaps, were he awake, the table would be empty. I think the painting suggests that there are some dreams better left unfulfilled.

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap
George Caleb Bingham

Education is a kind of dream or wish for many and for teachers the desire to teach something of value is a constant struggle between aspirations and accomplishments. There are many different ways that people learn. The painting of Daniel Boone suggests one way in which people learn, they are given guidance. (I think it is interesting that the woman on the horse evokes images of the Virgin Mary on her way to Bethlehem, though I am not sure that that means anything.) The people Boone is leading need to know how to get somewhere and as a result they have not just a desire to learn from Boone, but a need. Where the pupil understands the need to learn a thing, that pupil will perhaps follow without asking too many questions or engaging in disruptive behavior.

The painting might also suggest the limitations of this kind of teaching. Those following Boone have learned how to find their way to a specific place, and perhaps those paying attention will remember also how to find their way back should they decide to return, but they have not been taught how to discover anything on their own, only to follow directions. They need someone to lead them, they cannot lead themselves unless in addition to guiding the party Boone is also instructing them on how to find their bearings in the wilderness, how to find, or if the need arises, to make a trail and to survive on what the wilderness provides in the way of food and shelter. If I make my living as a guide, I want to keep those I guide a little bit ignorant so that they will always need my guidance and will not learn to guide themselves, or worse, become my future competition. As a teacher it is my goal to make myself obsolete, at least to this year’s students.

A Medieval Baker with His Apprentice
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

The apprenticeship system is still a preferred method for teaching another a trade. It was also, at one time, how one learned a profession. In Gulliver’s Travels we learn that Gulliver became a medical man by being apprenticed to a medical man who taught him how to doctor. Abraham Lincoln did not go to law school; he apprenticed himself to a lawyer. In light of the fact that, for the most part, the faculties of medical and law schools are themselves practicing doctors and lawyers might suggest that these professions are still learned through a kind of apprenticeship.

Part of an apprenticeship involves watching a master of the craft practice the craft, which is not unlike following Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap, the master leads and the apprentice follows. But there is more to an apprenticeship, the apprentice eventually does what the master does under the master’s watchful eye. There are mistakes that the master points out, not always in a kindly fashion, that the apprentice must correct.

A number of years ago I remember hearing Daniel Pinkwater on NPR. He was talking about his experience in art school and his apprenticeship of sorts to a sculptor. The sculptor taught him how to cut a piece of marble, something that is almost impossible to do if done incorrectly but very easy (or so Mr. Pinkwater suggested) if done correctly. One day his teacher asked him to cut a piece of marble down to a certain size. But before Mr. Pinkwater began the teacher pointed out that this is special kind of marble and needs to be cut differently. Pinkwater worked for hours trying to cut the stone with no success until another sculptor entered the room and asked him what he was doing. Pinkwater said he was cutting the marble, to which the other sculptor replied why are you doing it like that?

It turned out that it did not matter that the marble was a special kind of marble, all marble is cut alike. When Pinkwater confronted his teacher the teacher replied it is not enough to know, you have to know that you know. We are not so easily fooled when we know we know what we know. There is a scene in the book The Chosen where the Rabbi teaches a sermon at the dinner table. In the sermon he gives a piece of misinformation and it is his son, Daniel’s responsibility to catch his father in the mistake. Daniel knows that when the sermon is done his father is going to ask him (Daniel) to not only identify the mistake but to correct the mistake. Daniel is in a sense apprenticed to his father, because it is expected that Daniel will eventually take over as Rabbi. This is another effective way of teaching and helping the student to know that he knows, though it may be unwise as a practice in the public schools.

Carl Sagan

When I was younger I was a big fan of Carl Sagan, I still am. He explained science in a way that was both interesting and inspiring. I did not become a scientist but he created in me an interest in it that has never gone away. His television program Cosmos reached many people and explained in ways that were relatively easy to understand how science and the universe worked. Sagan used television as a teaching tool and as a result he taught many. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the current host of the PBS series Nova, was asked who inspired him to go into science. He said that was an easy question to answer and after giving a few biographical details identified Carl Sagan as his greatest influence. Tyson then told a story about Sagan.

As a graduating senior Tyson was accepted to Cornell University, where Sagan taught. Shortly after being accepted by Cornell Tyson received an invitation from Sagan to come and take a tour of the campus. Sagan offered to not just take Tyson on a tour of the campus but to show him the laboratories where the faculty and students conducted their research. This is another way of teaching. Sagan was at the time an important enough figure that he did not have to spend this time with a high school senior, but he did. This sets a different kind of example. Tyson concluded his story by saying that whenever a prospective student asks him something, he stops what he is doing and tries to answer. Ultimately we do what we do, whatever it is that we do, because someone took an interest in us and thought it important to guide us into the craft or profession and to show us the ropes.

There was an article this week in The Guardian. It was written by the children’s laureate, Anthony Browne. I was surprised that there existed such an office as children’s laureate anywhere. The title of the article is “Creativity in schools: Every story needs a picture” In the article Browne discusses creativity and picture making. He is concerned that too many students, and adults, tell themselves they cannot draw. He thought schools were doing more to discourage picture making than to encourage it. He then talked about the “shape game” which involves one person drawing a shape on a piece of paper and others adding to the shape in order to create or redefine a picture. It is sort of like the game that folks interested in stories play where one person starts a story and others continue it. He thinks more time should be spent playing the shape game or something like it.

He was especially troubled on a visit to a school highly regarded for its success in guiding students through the various standardized tests. The students could read well and they could write competently, but they couldn’t draw and their imaginations seemed to him to be underdeveloped. It troubled him that none of the students recognized the Mona Lisa probably one of the most famous paintings ever made. Browne acknowledged the need for students to master skills but he is troubled that in teaching the skills we are often quenching the imagination. Skills are necessary if we are to continue doing what we are doing today, but without imagination we will not shape the future, that will be done by those who can first imagine what it could look like.

When You Wish Upon a Star
Keith Jarrett Trio
Hitomi Memorial Hall Tokyo on October 26, 1986

The song comes from the Disney film Pinocchio. As most know Pinocchio is a puppet who wishes to be a boy. He is instructed to wish upon a star. There may be dreams that are achieved by wishing on stars but most require, as did Pinocchio’s dream, a lot of hard work. When I wish upon a star I wish good things for my students, I wish for the skills that will help me lead my students to those good things. But as the earlier song says, “If wishes were horses.” Wishes are not enough. Sometimes we wish for things that it are not in our power to provide or to achieve. But there are doable wishes that with effort can be attained.

Teaching others is a wish with an outcome over which I have some but not complete control. I can work at developing my skills, at keeping an open mind to new ways of doing things, but I cannot will my students to desire what I have to offer. Some can be motivated to change their minds but probably not all. It is a complicated thing. I feel that in saying that I cannot reach all, I am giving up on some, that I have to believe in all of the students and in their ultimate success, but this can be a dangerous road to go down, it can lead to discouragement and even to forsaking the craft. It is important not only to know our limitations as individuals but also to recognize that others have choices as well.

The desire to teach, the wish, the dream to teach is romantic, it is adventurous, but the wish and the dream by themselves do not teach anyone. There is work that must be done, exciting work, but work nonetheless. There is a bargain that is made in any classroom. The teacher promises to work as hard as she or he can but the students must work as hard as they can to make their teacher obsolete.