Where the World Can’t Find Me

Down on the Corner
Creedence Clearwater Revival

Where the World Can’t Find Me

From “Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund”
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

The song celebrates a group of folks, Willie and the Poor Boys, who live in a poor neighborhood but manage to carve out a space for themselves every night where the world behaves more to their liking, and the liking of those that take the time to listen to the music that they make. There is something in human nature that wants its own private space where there is no one to answer to. For some it is their home at the end of the day, that place where there is no doing as they are told, though with the advent of the cell phone and other technologies the idea of a fine and private place is becoming a thing of the past.

The paintings above and below are of Vikings. They produced an impressive literary tradition of Skaldic verse and prose sagas that are among the finest adventure stories in any language. But they were an independent people. When Harold made himself king of Norway they pulled up stakes and moved to Iceland where they set up their own little world with its own somewhat democratic form of government. At the time a land that was a sea voyage away from any other land was an isolated place. Vikings were the best and the most daring navigators of their day. They sailed most of the known world and a bit of the unknown world. And though they were a pain and a terror to much of the world, they had their own corner of it that they could call home where outside forces could not, or at least did not, intrude.

Guests from Overseas
Nicholas Roerich

There was an article in this week’s Boston Globe, “The mystery of Zomia,” about various peoples that live in the mountain regions of Southeast Asia. According to the article groups of people, the Hmong and the Wa for example, migrated into the mountains in order to escape the tyranny of the lowland governments of the Mughals and the Han among others. These mountain folks not only left these oppressive governments behind, but all of the cultural accoutrements that came with them. As a result these mountain people did not develop a written language or a literary or cultural tradition. For these people literature and art were associated with oppression. On the other side of the coin, theirs is a very “survival of the fittest” kind of existence with a very rough justice that can be bit oppressive in its own way to certain groups within the culture.

But this raises an interesting question, is culture a liberating force within society? The Vikings isolated themselves after a fashion and created rich cultural traditions, while other groups have taken themselves into isolation and eschewed the cultural trappings they might have inherited and did not adopt a formal culture of their own. I find it difficult to believe, though, that a people can survive without stories, even if they are the stories told around a campfire that are never written down. Part of what makes a culture and a people, a culture and a people are the ways they go about doing things and the way they look at the world. Even if a formal “Culture” is abandoned there are still ways of doing things, the way a camp is set up for example, the distribution of labor, and the like that become traditions that are handed down from one generation to the next. They are perhaps, the little rituals that Hemingway captures in his stories and novels. When the Old Man, in The Old Man and the Sea, goes fishing, for example, there are proper ways to trim a sail and to set a hook and limits to how far out to sea one takes their little boat.

But are agreed upon ways of living and doing things the same thing as a culture? For Hemingway’s Old Man there is “baseball” which is inessential to daily survival on top of all the little rituals he has learned that are essential to daily survival. There are lessons to be learned from baseball about how we should live, about tenacity, and about giving our best effort to all that we do. These are lessons that our cultural traditions often teach us. And though these traditions may not be set down in writing or preserved in paintings or sculptures they are surely present somewhere in the heritage of a people. The Hmong may not have a print copy of their Iliad or Odyssey but it is very likely there are stories they tell one another that perform for them the office of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Book of Kells, Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned.

There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Monk Saves Threatened Manuscripts Using Ultramodern Means,” about a monk who is digitizing early Christian manuscripts in order to preserve them, he is performing a “transcriptional” service not unlike that performed by the medieval monks that copied and recopied the manuscripts that are now being digitized. (There was an article of a similar nature in the New York Times a few weeks ago about a woman transcribing the Torah, “A Torah Scribe Pushes the Parchment Ceiling,“ a book of great importance to the Jewish culture.) Both the modern and the ancient monks preserved their cultural artifacts using the best technology available to them. The monasteries, especially in the Middle Ages, that preserve these documents are often remote and isolated places. They were removed, often, from worldly influences in order to pursue religious traditions that, for those that practiced them, were liberating.

There is a paradox, I suppose, to a tradition that imposes rules and restrictions on the practitioners of that tradition that most would find constraining and restrictive but the practitioners themselves find freeing. Perhaps an aspect of liberty is the willingness to place limitations on the exercise of that liberty to insure that it is exercised responsibly. Of course the restrictions monks placed upon themselves go beyond this and suggest that self-denial is perhaps an essential aspect of the liberty they enjoyed, that true liberty lives not just in doing but in choosing freely not to do certain things. Liberties, like those found in the Bill of Rights free us to live as we choose in our free society, it liberates us from the tyranny of government. Self-denial on the other hand liberates us from the tyranny of ourselves and the desires, compulsions, and impulses that often dictate our actions and behaviors.

Swiss Family Robinson
Buena Vista

The film clip suggests another aspect of isolation, though in this instance it is not a self-imposed isolation. In the film (and the book) a family is shipwrecked on an uninhabited island and must find a way to survive with what little is left them and with what they can “harvest” from their surroundings. But as with those groups that have isolated themselves there is a freedom that comes with being marooned. The family can make their own rules; shape a lifestyle that is pleasing to them, within the limitations imposed by the island. They are a bit different from other castaways, like Tom Hanks in the film Castaway or Robinson Crusoe in the book that bears his name, in that they have each other, they have company and can make the beginnings of a small society. Of course it is a very small society and over time they are likely to feel the need for a larger community. But for the moment they are shaping an idyllic paradise. But there are no guarantees, I suppose, that the life of a company of castaways will turn out so well. William Golding’s book The Lord of the Flies suggests other, less desirable, possibilities.

Still, mountains and other natural barriers provide a means for cultural discontents to separate themselves from a way of life, a social order they find distasteful or oppressive. The Scottish Highlands offered such a refuge to the more independent and iconoclastic clans of the region, as did the western frontier for many American malcontents. Perhaps the region of America most like the Zomia region of Southeast Asia is Appalachia. The people that settled these mountains were also looking for a way to separate themselves from a culture they found disagreeable. They resisted public education, at least as it was practiced in the lowlands, and were distrustful of any cultural baggage that they associated with the lowlands. The stereotype of the region is often of a people that are ignorant, illiterate, and unsophisticated. However, as the Foxfire series of books, bluegrass music, and other cultural contributions of this region of the United States attest, this is a community with a deep, rich and vibrant heritage, and the culture of the nation is enriched by it.

It is the culture we choose to preserve that identifies us as a people. We may enjoy the cultures of other parts of the world, read their books, enjoy their paintings and music, but it is the literature, art, music, and traditions that we as a people preserve and value because of what they reveal about us as a people that define who we are as a people. We are the curmudgeonly anger of talk radio; we are the brash in-you-face iconoclasm of rock and roll music and graffiti art; we are the kitschy “camp” culture of vampires and young wizards. But we are also the epic, literary individualism of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, the stark loneliness of an Edward Hopper painting, and the urban lyricism of George and Ira Gershwin. There is a “high brow” and a “low brow” culture that say much the same things about who we are as a people and there is a place, I suppose, where the high and the low meet and put a face on the character of the nation.

Detail of Diego Gutiérrez’s 1562 map of the Western Hemisphere, showing the first known use of a variation of the place name “Appalachia” (“Apalchen”)
Diego Gutiérrez

At the Moment

The Next Big Thing
Vince Gill

At the Moment

Rose Window, Strasbourg Cathedral

I am a schoolteacher. At the beginning of a school year it is important, I think, to consider what the new year has to offer and what ought to change and not change as a result of the summer’s reflection on the previous year. When is new better and when should the “old ways” be preserved. The song suggests that everything is ephemeral; it has its moment in the sun and then becomes passé and yesterday’s news. Vince Gill is speaking specifically of the music industry but this view of things permeates many other areas of our culture.

With the intense focus this view places on the new and the momentary it is difficult to put much of anything into a larger context. This view has also produced a dismissive attitude towards cultural landmarks, whether they are musical, literary, or some other aspect of our cultural identity. This preoccupation with the present also seems to bring with it a resistance to long term planning. Thinking too much about the past or the future makes it difficult to live effectively in the present moment. It is unwise to live too much in the past or the future, but it is difficult to build a meaningful future without some planning and it is difficult to plan well if we cannot fit our planning into an historical context.

The rose window on the other hand was designed to provoke contemplation, to free us from the “tyranny of the moment.” To me the rose window suggests a kaleidoscopic mandala and its beauty is in the way it diffuses light and color. The rose window also suggests the “next big thing” isn’t that big in the context of time and the universe. As a culture there may be a place for us to build a metaphoric rose window in the mind that invites us to contemplate things outside our own scope and experience and to measure our own accomplishments against a larger yardstick.

In this week’s Boston Globe there was an interview with Marianne Taylor on “The definition of cool.” As a term it resists definition, according to Taylor, and there is more to it than what is currently popular, though it seems that it is often a currency of the moment. Perhaps more than anything else “cool” is a kind of charisma that can attach itself to objects, ideas, or people. A large part of cool though seems to come down to attitude, an edgy, confront the status quo sort of attitude, though one must be careful because in some circles confronting the status quo is the status quo. I think, though, the discussion of cool suggests that too often we attach value to surfaces, as attitude is largely a “surface”, that conceals some turbulent currents beneath.

The Illinois
Frank Lloyd Wright

The sketch is of a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was planned to be a mile high and eventually had to be put aside as unworkable because at the time there were no elevators that could accommodate the design and folks were unlikely to climb stairs a mile in each direction. In order for the next big thing to become the next big thing, I suppose, the technology necessary for its support must exist. Still, it is an elegant looking building and with current technology might even be workable, though the cultural moment for a design of this kind has probably passed.

Ultimately it is about assessing value. What is worthy of preservation; what is worthy of study? Wright was one of America’s great architects, but not all of his buildings have survived. Some were torn down to make way for other buildings. What does that do to the “legacy” of Wright, where did the buildings that were destroyed stand in relation to the body of his work? There is also in this a suggestion as to the purpose of art, especially arts like architecture that are at least in part functional. What if these buildings of Wright’s that were destroyed no longer satisfied the function for which they were built. As an English teacher it is important to ask which literary texts are worthy of preservation and study and which need to be metaphorically pulled down to make way for other edifices.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Frank Gehry

A building like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao could probably not be built in Wright’s time. It takes architecture in a different direction and might be the epitome of architectural “cool” for our time. It reminds me of the buildings one often sees in animated cartoons, like the “Toon Town” section of Los Angeles as seen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But there has also been criticism of Gehry’s style because many of those that work in the buildings he has designed complain about their not being “user friendly” spaces. This is a problem because buildings are not sculpture, though there may be qualities they share in common, and though a well designed building ought to be pleasing to the eye, its ultimate purpose is to serve the people that work in it.

Books are not buildings and we do not live in a book in the way we live in a house, still there is a sense in which readers do occupy a book and in the course of reading it live in the world the book creates. But where a building ought to be designed with the comfort of those it houses in mind, the same is not necessarily true of a book. Good books often make us feel uncomfortable. Often books hold ourselves up to ourselves for scrutiny and that is often not a pleasant experience, but it is, nonetheless, an important thing to do from time to time.

There was an article by Susan Straight in the New York Times this week, “Reading by the Numbers“ about how reading is being assigned and assessed in schools. It concerns a piece of software used by some schools to help encourage students to read. The program assigns point values to books and when students accumulate so many points for the outside reading they have done they are awarded (in some schools, though not in all schools that use the program) a prize.

The article focuses on the point values assigned to various books and tries to understand the “reading” values the program is trying to inculcate and the correlation between the number of points a book is worth and the quality of that book as literature. Some books that are not particularly challenging are worth quite a lot of points while other books that are quite challenging are not worth many points at all. Heart of Darkness, for example, is worth ten points while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was worth forty-four points. Hamlet was worth seven points while the Gossip Girl series was worth eight points.
Perhaps it is just because I teach English, but something does not seem right here.

Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816)
John Constable

Of course one must be careful. We all live on the cusp of change as one style of writing (or of doing most any art) is morphing into what comes next. The paintings above and below suggest this potential problem. Constable and Turner were contemporaries, or nearly so, but Constable remained true to a realistic style of painting that was popular when he began to work while Turner’s style was anticipating the Impressionist painters that would come a bit later. Both painters did fine work but one was a bit behind the times and the other a bit ahead of his time. An attitude toward literary texts that is too focused on past greatness is going to miss the work of writers who, like Turner, are producing the “next big thing”, the thing that will make our time memorable to those who will back at it.

Chichester Canal circa 1828
J. M. W. Turner

It can be difficult to make judgments about the work that is done in our own time because we are too close to it. C. S. Lewis once observed in a book, The Allegory of Love, about the courtly love poets, “For it must be noticed that such dominance (the dominance of a literary form in any given age) is not necessarily good for the form that enjoys it. When everyone feels it natural to attempt the same kind of writing, that kind is in danger. Its characteristics are formalized. A stereotyped monotony, unnoticed by contemporaries, but cruelly apparent to posterity, begins to pervade it.” Contemporary literary forms that enjoy some popularity, like meta-fiction or stories that rely heavily on stream of consciousness, are probably in danger of falling into this kind of stylistic “monotony.” This may not be obvious to readers today but is likely to be very obvious to readers a few generations from now.

The Shock of the New: “David Hockney on What’s Unphotographable”

This film clip from the television series The Shock of the New suggests another aspect of how we assess an art form. David Hockney talks about how he experimented with photographs and discovered that though both photographs and paintings are visual representations of a subject they were not equally effective in capturing the essence of that subject. Hockney is specifically talking about a painting he did of the Alhambra in Spain. He said he could never capture it adequately in a photograph, but he was pleased with the result of his painting. The image of the painting is not realistic and does not offer a recognizable representation of the Alhambra. If it were put next to a photograph of the building the viewer may not realize that the photograph and the painting were of the same building, nor would someone having seen Hockney’s painting recognize the Alhambra if she or he visited it in Spain.

But it is not the purpose of a work of art to produce “photographic” images of a thing. An historical novel with Abraham Lincoln in it as a character is not as obligated to produce the “real” Lincoln in its pages, as is a biography or a work of history. Novels often tell stories that mix elements of fantasy or the fanciful in an otherwise realistic story. Novelists like Garcia Gabriel Marquez or Robertson Davies tell stories that move through a world that in many ways resemble the world in which we live and move, but at times these worlds are penetrated by a “non-realistic” reality that does not coincide with the world as most people experience it. This artistic license does not detract from the artistry of the books but in fact serve that artistry in much the same way that Hockney’s art serves his painting.

It can be difficult maintaining a balance between the artistic legacy we have inherited and the modern age. It is important to preserve a sense of the past and the historical and cultural streams that have brought us to where we are but it is also important to remain receptive to the work that flows from the influences of this legacy. As rose windows provided an opportunity to contemplate what is holy in the world, the gargoyle provided the opportunity to contemplate those forces that are dedicated to our ruin and the ultimate ruin of those forces. Perhaps in this gargoyle from the National Cathedral in Washington D. C. there is an apt object for contemplation that focuses our meditations on the value of the traditions that have brought us to our moment and the value of our moment’s contribution to those traditions and perhaps that which has value from each stream will cleanse the mundane from both.

Darth Vader grotesque on the tower of the Washington National Cathedral