When the World Changed

From Jailhouse Rock
Elvis Presley

When the World Change

Map of the World
Martin Waldseemüller

Some see Elvis Presley as the beginning of rock and roll, that his popularity signaled the end of one kind of music and opened the door to another. Some think he introduced to white audiences music that was already popular with black audiences and that he profited a bit off the work of others. Of course, and this may just be me, the names that come most immediately to minds after Elvis’ when the discussion is 1950’s rock and roll are Chuck Berry and Little Richard. After all, it is not Elvis Michael J. Fox imitates in Back to the Future but Chuck Berry. Still, whatever one thinks of Elvis, popular music became a different world the day Elvis topped the charts.

The map above is also credited with changing the world, at least according to Toby Lester in “A world redrawn” an article that appeared in this weekend’s Boston Globe. Copernicus was born into a world that believed the planet earth occupied a sphere of water and that the only reason the planet was not completely submerged was because this sphere of water was set at an angle so that half the surface of the earth could keep its “head” above water. This would place the Eastern half of the world above water and the western half under water. Not many scientists of Copernicus’ day took this cosmological model seriously, there were too many observable contradictions, but there was no opposing system and the existing order of things had become a part of the religious beliefs of the day, a day that did not treat kindly those that challenged its beliefs.

According to Lester, when Copernicus saw this map the “submerged earth theory” became untenable, because according to the map, there was a continent filling that half of the globe that should be under water and though this continent looks nothing like the North and South America of our maps today, it was enough. Once the sphere of water evaporated and Copernicus took a second look at the heavens other cherished beliefs, like the sun revolving around the earth, were seen to be problematic. Lester believes that this change was possible in part because Copernicus did not live in an age that was given to specialization; he lived in an age that could see connections between the earth’s geography and that of the heavens, just as Einstein’s work with clocks in the Swiss patent office contributed to his work in physics and helped him to visualize his theory of relativity.

Florence Cathedral domeFilippo Brunelleschi

Brunelleschi is known mostly as an architect, but he is credited with figuring out the rules of perspective in drawing and painting. Painting prior to Brunelleschi’s discovery was somewhat two-dimensional. Medieval artists had a sense of perspective in that buildings often had corners and the like, but space and relationships of size were depicted poorly. With perspective came paintings that captured space very well. It became popular to paint frescos on walls and ceilings of buildings that created the illusion they went on forever. In theater perspective drawing produced a kind of scene design that was stunning in its evocation of space and distance. Of course there was only one seat in the house where all the lines of perspective worked perfectly. This seat was called the “eye of the duke” because, of course, only the town’s most privileged citizen was permitted to occupy that seat, at least at performances.

I think it is interesting that Brunelleschi might never have abandoned his trade of goldsmith, and as a consequence not have gone on to develop perspective drawing, if he had not lost the competition to design some Baptistery doors for a church in Florence. A college professor of mine said Brunelleschi painted a panel depicting the Florence Baptistery that illustrated how perspective painting worked. The doors of the Baptistery were perfect in every detail except that Brunelleschi substituted his doors for those of Ghiberti, the gentleman who actually won the competition and designed the doors that would be seen by anyone actually visiting the Baptistery. I do not know if this is in fact true, but it is one of those little stories that is, in the words Foucault, “so beautiful it must be true.”

21st Michigan Infantry: Sherman’s Volunteers, 1860s
Mathew B. Brady (American, 1823–1896)
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933 (33.65.232)

The photographs above and below suggest how photography has changed journalism and over time how photography as journalism has evolved. With the photograph a journalist could not only describe an event but provide actual images of what the event looked like, making the coverage not only more real, but, allegedly, more irrefutable. Of course photography as a tool for propaganda followed very shortly afterwards. The photograph as a tool of journalism emerged during the Civil War and with it the practice of “doctoring” photographs to influence public opinion (see “Does the Camera Ever lie” exhibit at the Library of Congress website).

The image below acts more like commentary on an event than as reporting on an event. The Cartier-Bresson photograph is literally a “bull’s eye” view of a bullring. It is difficult to tell if the photograph is a collage, is the man seen through the open doors looking through a window, for example, the same man with the glasses and cigar that faces us? The open gate is the gate through which the bull would enter the arena and the photographer is standing in the bull’s path, were the bull actually entering the arena. The photograph has become an art form in its own right. It is no longer a mere adjunct to the story a reporter tells, but becomes its own story, its own unique form of reportage where each detail of the photograph sends its own message, is its own paragraph in the story the “reporter” tells. In this sense the photograph has changed the world of story telling.

Valencia, Spain, 1933
Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908–2004)
Gelatin silver print
7 11/16 x 11 1/2 in. (19.6 x 29.2 cm)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew W. Saul Gift, 2005 (2005.100.164)

In an article for the Huffington Post Adam Peneberg reports that “It’s the End of the Book as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. The article is about the influence of the Kindle and what it may mean for the future of the book. He seems to think we are in the midst of a Guttenbergian revolution, that the book is taking a great step forward and that it will never be the same again. This may be true, it feels like it is, but of course, the problem with predicting the future is that no one knows what tomorrow brings. Steve Jobs left Apple in the 1980’s and developed the “NeXT” computer that was to be the wave of the future. He had credibility; he had been responsible for the “Mac” after all. But NeXT never caught on, though some of its innovations may have gone on to find a home in other technologies., and Jobs is back at Apple. Perhaps Kindle has changed the world a bit but we may have to wait a day or two to find out.

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm

Abel Gance in his film Napoleon introduced the triptych of Medieval and Renaissance art to the cinema. He put three screens next to each other and projected three separate moving images that created one panoramic landscape. It was thought for many years that this film was forever lost, though it was rediscovered in the 1970’s. Though the film was believed to be lost, its technological innovations had been passed along by word of mouth. In the 1950’s Cinemascope was developed as a technology for making films. The clip above from The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm is an example of a film shot in Cinemascope. There are brief moments here and there throughout the film where the three screens become visible. This widescreen technology changed the way films were made. Before this the film lived in a box, after this it came to inhabit a wide and narrow rectangle. There is something about the box that is claustrophobic and something about the rectangle, the longer and the narrower the better, that is panoramic.

Newton’s Telescope

Little things often produce great changes and those that pay attention often see what is coming early on. Perhaps it is those that see the changes taking place the earliest that are the ones that profit most from those changes when the changed landscape becomes visible to the rest of us. There is always a case to be made for being attentive and open-minded. Perhaps the Newton telescope is indicative of this. Those that looked through the Newton reflecting telescope saw the same universe as those looking through the more conventional “refracting” telescope but Newton’s telescope presented a clearer more accurate picture of what he astronomer was looking at and this suggests that it is not only important to look and be vigilant, but to use those tools to aid our vigilance that present the clearest view of the changing world.

When the Saints Go Marching In

You Are So Beautiful
Joe Cocker

When the Saints Go Marching In

Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

The Venerable Bede was one of the first English writers to make a literary impact, at least one of the first whose name we actually know. Actually he is St. Bede but he was called venerable for over a millennia before he was finally canonized and I guess the notion of St. Bede never really became that popular. Perhaps old habits are hard to break and thousand year habits can be especially obdurate. But though he has been declared worthy of honor and a saint, is he “literary” in the “canonical sense?

Bede is in every anthology I have ever used from my years as a student throughout my time as a teacher. He is, or at least his writing is, in the words of Joe Cocker, “so beautiful to me.” But then beauty is in the eye of the beholder and many writers with the detritus of a millennium or more between them and the readers of the day are found wanting; it is difficult to believe they can offer anything of value to those who are so different from them and whose times bear so little resemblance to theirs. But some aspects of the human character do not change all that much or even if they do, they still need a similar kind of nourishment.

Saint Thomas More
Hans Holbein the Younger

Saint Thomas More is, at least in the eyes of most canon builders, a literary saint as well as an ecclesiastical one. Though his little book was not the first to create such a world, it has given its name to all attempts to imagine the perfect world on earth, as well as, by playing a bit with that word he coined, the name for the “worst of all possible worlds.” Which is appropriate because the attentive reader notices at some point during the journey through the book that More’s “utopia” is, in the mind of More, a bit of a dystopia. There are at least two genres of fiction (Utopic/Dystopic and satiric fiction) that we cannot talk intelligently about without tipping our hat to More. Perhaps what is needed in order to sort through all the candidates that present themselves for “canonization” are some clear rules, some steps we can follow on the road to literary sanctification that help the reader and the student to understand what it is about the book and the writer that make them worthy of our attention not just today but for all the days before us.

The Catholic Church has been canonizing people for ages and ages and the process they have established can offer guidance in establishing a path to its literary counterpart. There are five steps that must be gone through to be canonized a saint. Of course, it should also be remembered that the canonization process cannot be started until after the death of the candidate. In the case of books it is to be hoped that books continue to “live and thrive” and in fact would have to do so if they are to be considered, but perhaps the process of considering them should not begin until after the death of their authors. The church has its name for each step but they might be adapted to things literary:

Steps to Canonization

  • Workman Like (Writing)
  • Not a Cult Classic”
  • Venerable
  • Beautiful
  • Literary Classic

To even be considered, a book has to get over a basic hurdle, the writing must seen to be workman like and competent. How this is judged of course can be problematic. It is the nature of great art of all genres and forms to innovate, to, in the words of Ezra Pound, “make it new” in some way. This means that there will be resistance to the writing and that perhaps initial reviews of it will be brutal. Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, “that’s not writing, it’s typing.” Still it remains a staple of bookstores to this day and is still sought out by new readers. This would suggest that there might be a bit more to it than typing. It may be necessary to be a bit generous with this stage in the process and to accept that those nominating the candidate are individuals of good will deserving more benefits than doubts.

Copy of cover of September, 1947 edition of Fantastic Adventures

Some books are read and studied because they have a cult following. I remember reading in an article on best seller lists how groups that wanted to lend legitimacy to their movement would buy up books their leader published. The example they used was Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard books (Hubbard got his start writing stories for publications like Fantastic Adventures that published stories for a kind of select readership). I do not know how much truth there is to this but for purposes of canonization there has to be something substantial to recommend the book. There are books that are taught year to year because they happen to be in the book closet and perhaps the definition of a cult should be expanded to include that. But this, too, can be difficult.

Many writers progress to a revered status within a culture that began as cult writers. It was not unusual to see Philip K. Dick referred to in this way, but he has recently been awarded his own place in the Library of America, a publisher that, usually, only prints books of those writers deemed to be America’s best. So perhaps there needs to be some flexibility here as well and in all probability if the writer is only a cult writer most followers are not likely to outlive the “master” and the difficulty in this sense resolves itself.

The Little Engine that Could, cover from a 1953 edition of a children’s book

This is a book that has played a “venerable” role in the development of many a child and as such is probably worthy of elevation to the place held by Bede for so many centuries. I do not know if it is “canonical” but it taught me a lesson that has stayed with me throughout my life, that I should never give up no matter how hopeless things may look. There are a slew of books that played such a role in my childhood, stories like Stone Soup and Jack and the Beanstalk when I was very young to the stories of H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jules Verne when I was a bit older. Some speak of Goodnight Moon, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys in a similar fashion and perhaps they too, are worthy of a revered place, though the quality of the writing in some is dubious, I think.

That said, I am told many women have gone on to achieve amazing things under the inspiration and example of Ms. Drew. Tom Swift encouraged me to puzzle things out and piqued an interest in things scientific. Looking back at these books today their language seems dated and in some instances they contain troubling examples of the cultural underbelly of America of the 1930’s and 1940’s. But they did inspire. There was an article about race and fiction a few years ago that pointed out how Margaret Mitchell’s book Gone with the Wind is very popular among African-American women even though many see the book as rife with racial stereotypes. Perhaps this is the proper place for flawed books that have done some good in their time.

David Ulin in an article in the Los Angeles Times, “The lost art of reading”, talks about struggling to read. He is a “reading professional” not just a reviewer of books but the book editor of the paper. The article focuses on some of the problems modern readers have carving out the kind of time necessary to do real reading and that the demands and troubles of the day often keep us from spending the kind of time reading that we ought. Larry McMurtry in his book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen writes about how after having had open-heart surgery he could motivate himself to read. The trauma of the event overwhelmed him. He forced himself to read Proust and after getting through these long and beautiful books his love of reading returned, but there were a few years when it looked like it might not. Ulin in his article describe his experience with this loss of desire:

“So what happened? It isn’t a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.”

To be deemed venerable a book must be able to do this. Perhaps it will aspire to, and achieve, greater things, but even if it does not a book that can transport us in this way deserves a special place on the shelf.

Charles Dickens
Daniel Maclise

Being a wordy Victorian, Charles Dickens is often among the writers that have been revered in the past that folks want to send into exile today. Personally I think Mr. Dickens is among the greatest of the saints, but not all agree. Within Catholicism one cannot be “beatified” unless a miracle has taken place by this person’s intersession, after her or his death of course. Where this may be a difficult bar for people to cross I do not think this is as true of the books we read. Books that change us have performed a miracle of sorts, they have delivered the reader from a kind of blindness, scales have been removed and the reader sees what once unseeable. In the case of Dickens, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and The Pickwick Papers, among others, have performed this office.

Ron Rosenbaum writes in The Shakespeare Wars that he got tickets to see Trevor Nunn’s staging of Hamlet and Pete Brook’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He says, “The Hamlet was memorable, one of the best I have ever seen. But it was the Dream that changed my life. (p 8) He then goes on to describe all the changes that took place in him. He also goes on to point out that it changed everyone he met since who saw that production. I do not know how true these statements are, but they should be verifiable. There are surely folks who could attest to the kind of person and scholar Rosenbaum was before he saw this production and the person and scholar he has become.

I know there are those that will look at this as so much facetiousness and even, perhaps, a bit silly. But I really think this is the heart of the matter for books that are elevated to the canon, or just shy of the canon. They are books that over a great many years continue to change people. There are people who after reading Plato’s Republic were forever changed so profoundly they went on to change others. That is one of the roles of the saints in the church, I suppose, they are people whose faith changed the faith of others who went on to change the faith of others still. Perhaps this is too much to ask of a book. But by their very nature the beautiful and the sublime change people, that is part of what it means to be not just pretty, but beautiful, sublime.

Frontispiece to Milton, Prophetic Book by William Blake

Milton is one of those poets who is difficult to know how to take. Blake admired Milton greatly; the engraving above is for an epic poem he wrote about Milton. He writes toward the beginning of the poem “With thunders loud and terrible: so Milton’s shadow fell/ Precipitant loud thund’ring into the Sea of Time & Space. / Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star. / Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift: / And on my left foot falling on the tarsus, enter’d there, / But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe.” The tarsus is the heel and ankle of the foot and Blake seems to be suggesting Milton entered into the bones of his foot and came to dwell there and to inspire Blake to write his poetry. This is truly something miraculous, though I doubt it can be proven.

Still, Milton’s poetry has moved and changed readers from the moment it was first published. I had a student in my class a number of years ago. He was a bright but not very motivated student, I do not even remember if he passed the class. But just before the Christmas break we were looking at some passages from Paradise Lost. It is a hard sell under the best of circumstances and the circumstances surrounding our reading of the poem that day were more typical than extraordinary. But this student was captured by the poem. He spent the Christmas holiday reading it. He said he missed his stop on the Boston underground he was so engrossed. Perhaps he was just trying to impress me, but I do not think so because he could talk enthusiastically about details in the poem that obviously moved him. It may not have made him a good student, but it did make him a literary traveler. There are books that do this, old books, that require some assistance if they are going to be understood and they are worth taking the time to understand.

From Gulliver’s Travels
Lion’s Gate

The film clip is from one of the many films made of the book Gulliver’s Travels. In this clip, Gulliver brings great writers, politicians, thinkers, and a few scoundrels back from the dead to explain themselves to him. Many are the literary saints of Swift’s imagination, the great writers of Classical Greece and Rome mostly. One of Swift’s more enduring books is The Battle of the Books. It is an imaginary combat between the new writers of Swift’s age and those of the past, mostly the distant past. This struggle that we see today about what to include in the curriculum and what to teach is an old one. Part of the problem is that every age is “young” when compared with the flow of history and like many children believe they are much smarter than their elders. Were we to number our ages in decades rather than years we might reach that age where we are amazed by how much our elders have learn.

Though we may not all agree on what makes a great book great, or what books ought to be included in the canon of great books, we all know books that have changed lives and have changed us. No one of us needs to teach all these books, but we all need to have books that are old, venerable, beautiful, and saintly. Thomas Love Peacock in his book Nightmare Abbey talks about the education of Scythrop (a thinly disguised caricature of the poet Shelley). He says, “When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head.” If we want the schools of today to do more than this there needs to be something enduring that is passed along and cultivated. There needs to be less beating and threshing and more transformation and introducing students to those things with the power to transform. The books that do this are not understood easily and they need a teacher to introduce them to a world that has forgotten them.