“Open Our Eyes”

Leon Lumpkins

Earth, Wind, and Fire

“Total Eclipse”

John Tavener

Academy of Ancient Music

From The Creation, “Die Vorstellung Des Chaos”

Franz Joseph Haydn

English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir

“Deep Space”

Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette

“Moon Mist”

Mercer Ellington

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

“It’s Only a Paper Moon”

Billy Rose/Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg

Django Reinhardt




 Galileo's drawings of the moon

Galileo Moon 1

Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius


So a man walks into a bookstore with a very old book to sell. The story is told in an article from the L. A. Review of Books, “Faking Galileo.” The very old book the man was selling was believed to be Galileo’s working copy of Sidereus Nuncius and after having been authenticated by people whose business it is to know about such things it was valued at ten million dollars. Of course the book was a forgery. The book itself documents discoveries Galileo made about the nature of the universe and the celestial bodies that travel through it. The most profound discovery at the time concerned the nature of the moon and its surface. Galileo had telescopes he made himself that were more powerful than those used by other astronomers but what he saw on the surface of the moon was clearly visible to other astronomers. Though others saw what Galileo saw they did not see as Galileo saw. Massimo Mazzotti, the author of the article, explains:

The first thing Galileo discovered was that the moon was not smooth and homogeneous, as everyone believed. Instead, it was covered with craters and mountains whose peaks became awash with light when the “terminator” — the line that separates the illuminated and dark parts of the moon — inched forward through the night. Art historians Samuel Edgerton and Horst Bredekamp have written insightfully about how his skills as a draftsman were key to this discovery. Young artists in training during this period were drilled on treatises designed to, in effect, reshape their perception, so that they unthinkingly interpreted certain configurations of two-dimensional light and dark shapes as the surfaces of three-dimensional figures hit by a light source. Galileo’s draftsman eye thus gave him a crucial advantage over other observers, such as Englishman Thomas Harriot, who, a couple of months earlier, had carried out the first recorded telescopic observation of the moon. To Harriot the moon remained smooth and the terminator a fairly clean line. He only saw mountains and craters after he learned of Galileo’s novel description. 

This suggests there is more to “seeing” than looking. The astronomers of Galileo’s day saw what they had been trained to see, a smooth surfaced celestial globe. Galileo looked differently, as a trained artist looks, and recognized what others did not know how to see. 


A woman sitting at a vanity table that looks like a skull if looked at differently

All Is Vanity

Charles Allan Gilbert


In light of what Galileo’s book is about it is ironic that those that authenticated the book as Galileo’s proof copy made much the same mistake that Harriot made. In looking at the book they saw what they expected to see:

Until recently, forged printed texts have been relatively uncommon, and most of them have been produced with techniques that did not give depth to the typographic characters. One of the reasons ML (Martayan Lan, the name of the bookstore owned by the man that bought the book) rang true was the way its characters bit the paper. But the forger exaggerated this feature: the printing was deeper than it should have been in a 17th-century book. Similarly, the soiling on the pages and the impurities in the paper were overdone. These features were designed to meet the expectations of an expert assessor. In other words, only a forgery could have seemed so authentic. The ML’s many typographic anomalies were chalked up to ML being a proof copy, and thus they ended up reinforcing the perception of its authenticity. When the international team of experts met to analyze ML in 2008, they already shared a collective representation of ML as a collection of proof printings, one that contained drawings that had been authoritatively authenticated. The evidence that they encountered seemed consistent with this representation.

As in the illustration above we often see what we expect to see. Many on first viewing Charles Allan Gilbert’s illustration All Is Vanity see only a woman at dressing table, a “vanity.” That is what I saw when I first saw the picture. But once pointed out, it is difficult to understand why it was you could not see the skull all along. Perhaps this painting by Hans Holbein is a better example of learning to see correctly as the skull in this painting is not so easily found. Even when you know it is that odd object on the carpet at the ambassador’s feet it is not always easy to recognize as a skull. You have to train yourself to look at it correctly if you are to see it at all.


Painting of two ambassadors, the image at their feet is a disguised skull

The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein, the Younger


But this, seeing what others miss by looking through unconventional lenses, is not new, it has long been understood that those that innovate and see what others cannot often do so because they are skilled in more than one discipline, as Galileo was both a scientist and an artist (though his artwork is not as enduring perhaps as his science). It is often a temptation when looking at things to look for what is familiar because this gives us the easiest access to this new thing. We look for ways to make the unfamiliar, familiar. In the case of the Galileo forgery: 

Much in this story has to do with similarity relationships: we came across instances of the same stamp, the same watermark, the same signature, which ended up not being the same at all. The point is that no two perceptible objects are ever identical: we have to learn which traits are important, and what can be ignored. We have to train our eye and our judgment, and we can only do so in coordination with other practitioners. One implication of this view is that there is no uncontested way to split empirical evidence from the knowledge of the observer. Knowledge, no matter how technical, always bears the marks of its historical contingency.

It is sometimes the case that being similar is different from being the same and when this is the case if we are to understand what we are looking at it is more important to become “familiar” with the differences and pay less attention to, or even ignore, the similarities. Perhaps this is a danger in an age that values specialization so highly that we end up closing our eyes to what is not essential to our area of specialization and in so doing blind ourselves to what innovates and transforms our area of specialization. Perhaps “thinking differently” begins at times with “seeing differently.”


Illustration of the Ptolemaic Universe

Ptolemaic Geocentric Model

from “Harmonia Macrocosmica” by Andreas Cellarius


Stephen Greenblatt in writing about the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare, “Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne,” observes, “The angle at which one regards an object, even so intimately familiar an object as oneself, would necessarily change the terms of a depiction. But it is not only a matter of the shifting position of the beholder; rather it is the inner life of the self, as well as the position of the viewer, that is constantly in motion.” It is important to change our perspective, “the angle at which (we) regard an object” if we are to know it fully and this is especially true of how we look at ourselves if we are ever to fully know ourselves, or as Greenblatt quotes Montaigne, “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself. . . . Shamefaced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, labourious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, froward, humorous, debonaire, wise, ignorant, false in words, true-speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself.” We enjoy discovering that we are “wise,” but often conceal from ourselves our foolishness. Of course fooling ourselves is often easier than fooling others. 


Landscape painting of harvesters harvesting a field

The Haresters

Pieter Brueghel


Sometimes learning to see properly has more to do with “paying attention” than with looking differently. In the painting above we read the title, The Harvesters, and focus on the foreground of the painting, the “harvesters,” those that are working and those that are resting. This fills up about two-thirds of the painting and is clearly important. But what a about that other third of the painting, why is it there if we are not supposed to look at it and appreciate what is depicted there. Is it just filler designed to frame what is important in the painting? Perhaps. But there are interesting things going on where we often do not look.


Detail from previous of a road in the distance with people on the road

The Haresters – Detail People on the Road

Pieter Brueghel


In the detail above, which fills the upper left hand corner of the painting, we see something else going on. There are some people walking along a road and what looks like a wagon carrying what, perhaps, has been harvested in other fields. This detail, though not essential to the painting’s theme, does contribute by illustrating the next step in the process, that is, what happens after the harvesters, harvest. But there are still the two figures that appear to be walking down the road uninvolved, perhaps, with the harvest. But what about this detail:


Second detail from "The Harvesters" of people playing field hockey

The Haresters – Detail Child Running Away

Pieter Brueghel


There is no work being done here, there are what appear to be children, and adults also, at play. One youngster looks like he is running away from one of the adults. It is difficult to see what game it is they are playing, it looks like it might be field hockey or something like it; at least one person has what looks like a stick of some sort and there appears to be a goal behind them. Perhaps the message in all this is simply that while the important work of the day is being done life goes on, and in an agrarian society the harvest is among the most important work that is done. It is also work that must be accomplished within a narrow window of time if the harvest is to be fully realized. But even during the most important work of the day, everyday life goes on, the simple things that make up a lifetime continue to take place. While people work others play and others travel. 

The painting suggests that everything is important and has its place. The focus may be on the more important work of the day, but life does not stop, even at the time of the harvest. Who is to say that play is not also important and does not also have its place in the lives we lead? But not everyone in this detail is playing. There is a group that appears to be talking and this too is important. It is in conversation that friendships are formed and affirmed as well as other relationships, work relationships, romantic relationships, community relationships. It should also be remembered that these small details that are so hard to see in the painting when reduced to a size that fits on a page are a bit more noticeable when the original painting is viewed in its proper size. Perhaps there, these details are not so easily missed, though I think they are still easily dismissed. Perhaps this is an important skill that art and art appreciation teach us, that everything in life is important to some degree and that it is important to look not just at the important things going on around us, but the mundane and “unessential” things as well. 


French cave painting of bison

Bison in the Nave at Lascaux



The painting above is from a cave in France. This suggests another aspect of seeing. The painting is of bison, buffalo. When I see bison I think of the American west. If I did not know where this painting was made, I might assume the cave wall that is depicted here was in Utah or New Mexico. I would make assumptions about the painting based on what I know. How does the knowledge that this cave is found in France change the way I look at the painting and its subject? What happened to the bison that once roamed the plains of France? What did the plains of France look like when bison roamed them? Is it important that bison once roamed the plains of France? It suggests that the world and perhaps its people are more connected than we often assume. If the red on the one buffalo is blood, it suggests the painting depicts a hunt. Were the buffalo of France hunted in the same way as the buffalo of the American plains? If nothing else, it gives some pleasure to imagine prehistoric Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen, perhaps) on the plains of France hunting the buffalo as Native Americans did on the plains of America.


People walking down a road by moonlight with cypresses

Country Road in Provence by Night

Vincent Van Gogh


Galileo, among others, changed the way we look at the sun and moon. Van Gogh in this paintings looks at the sun and moon differently still. His way of seeing the sun and moon did not revolutionize science, but it captured ways the sun and moon play upon our imaginations, it captured a magic in the natural world that affects our emotions more than our intellect. Is this perception of the natural world less real because it engages the emotions and not the intellect? How the painting affects our view of the cosmos is probably less important than how it affects us aesthetically. The importance of this way of thinking and seeing probably depends largely on our view of beauty and its importance. If the presence of beauty does not change the world or the people in it, than perhaps it is not that important, but if it does change us, if it speaks to a truth we do not otherwise see, than maybe it is important. 


Painting of the harbor area of Delft

View of Delft

Johannes Vermeer


That beauty affects human beings profoundly is difficult to deny. We do not only build ourselves houses, we build our houses with details that are unnecessary to its function as shelter. Stained glass windows, for example, are not only unnecessary, they are not functional. You cannot see through a stained glass window and the staining inhibits the sunlight. It interferes with the practicality of shelter. But while interfering with the practical it enhances the pleasure one gets from living in the shelter. The same is true of paint, carpets, and furniture. There is something in the human psyche that desires not only a functional space, but a beautiful space. In the Vermeer painting we see buildings that are functional, but we also see details that are unnecessary, but pleasing to the eye, spires, red roofs, arched rather than squared doorways. If beauty does nothing else it is calming, it relaxes us. Perhaps it is a part of the way of seeing of the artist that sees beauty where the rest of us see only the ordinary and undistinguished. This is not to suggest that all ornament is beautiful, only to suggest that the desire for ornament leads to a desire for the beautiful. Of course this doesn’t answer the question, to what extent can we trust our desires, are they always truthful? 

Still, though desirability may not in itself make a thing good and true, it is difficult to imagine something being good and true and not being desirable. When Pinocchio is enticed to run off to Toyland and play all day long, it is a desire for play that leads him astray. This desire is not entirely false; it is just false to the extreme Pinocchio takes it. It is a good thing within moderation and it is the moderation that is missing. But even if this desire of Pinocchio’s is entirely false and deceiving, this does not make desire itself a bad thing. Because whatever we make of Pinocchio’s experience, there is also the experience of Mr. Gradgrind’s school in Dickens’ Hard Times. There is nothing desirable about Mr. Gradgrind’s educational program and it is its undesirability that first calls it into question; that causes us to doubt its efficacy. It is not just that no one wants to go to Gradgrind’s school; there is not much of value that is learned there. 



Akira Kurosawa

Janus Films


The film tells a story about seeing. There are four witnesses to a crime, but no one sees the same crime being committed. In fact not all witnesses witnessed a crime. In this story perspective, the angle from which a thing is seen, literally determines what is seen. As a story it reminds us that we each bring a perspective to our experience of the world. This perspective determines how we understand much of what we see and experience. We cannot know the true interpretation of what happens in Rashomon unless we know which angle from which the event was witnessed reveals the “whole” event. In the Renaissance Theater there was one seat, “the eye of the duke” from which the whole stage was in perfect perspective. Only from this seat was all of what was seen on stage seen as it was intended to be seen. From every other seat the perspective is not perfect and the picture within the proscenium is to some degree askew. Perhaps none of the characters in Rashomon observes the crime from “the eye of the duke,” but even if no one saw it from this angle, the angle exists which puts the whole scene in perfect perspective. 

This is not just true for how we look at the events in a story; it is true for how we read stories in general. This is not to say that there is only one way to read rightly, but that some things are more worth reading than others and it is important to know how our own tastes and interests can interfere with our judgments about what we read. Arthur Krystal in an article for Harper’s Magazine, “What Is Literature,” observes:

Eighty-five years ago, in The Whirligig of Taste, the British writer E. E. Kellett disabused absolutists of the notion that books are read the same way by successive generations. Kellett concluded his short but far-ranging survey by noting that “almost all critical judgment . . . is in the main built on prejudice.” This, of course, makes consensus about books only slightly more probable than time travel. But if there is even a remote chance of its happening, the first thing we have to do is acknowledge our own deep-seated preferences. The adept critic Desmond MacCarthy once observed that:

one cannot get away from one’s temperament any more than one can jump away from one’s shadow, but one can discount the emphasis which it produces. I snub my own temperament when I think it is not leading me straight to the spot where a general panorama of an author’s work is visible.

Although the snubbing of temperament is not easily accomplished, we can try. We can move from being ecstatic readers to being critical readers, hesitating to defend a book because we like it or condemn it because we don’t. For when it comes to books, it isn’t always wise to follow our bliss when bliss gets in the way of reason, and reason alone should be sufficient to tell us that War and Peace is objectively greater than The War of the Worlds, no matter which one we prefer to reread.

We should be able to enjoy all the books we read, we should read what we read because we find what we read desirable. The issue is not entirely that War of the Worlds is a desirable book to read and War and Peace is not, if we read both books we read them because, hopefully, they are both desirable books to read. But, whichever book is more “fun” to read, War and Peace gives us more in return for the time invested in the reading of it. And even if we enjoy War of the Worlds more, if we are serious and perceptive readers we are aware, that there is more to Mr. Tolstoy’s book than there is to that of Mr. Wells. 

This also suggests desire can take on many forms. We can desire to do, in this case to read, something because it is fun and we can desire to do something because it enriches us. These are different desires for different things and there is good to be gained from both. Recognizing the superiority of War and Peace as literature does not diminish the pleasure we get from reading War of the Worlds.


Painting of a Paris street in the rain at night

Boulevard Montmartre la nuit

Camille Pissarro


But what of reading? Whether it is Mr. Wells or Mr. Tolstoy we are reading, what is the value in it? What good does it do; what does it change; what does it add to the world? When we are done reading we do not have a building we can occupy, a car we can drive, or a computer we can compute with. But there is little doubt that reading changes those that read seriously and well. When I read a book my imagination is stimulated, that is a real stimulation in the real world. My mind is moved to consider points of view, philosophies towards life, to look at behaviors and assess their value, their rightness or wrongness; the good and the evil that is in them. These are real thoughts about real issues that affect the way people live and interact in the real world. I am also moved to feel things; my emotions are aroused. These are real emotions. It may be that that which evoked those emotions is totally imaginary, but though imaginary they are grounded in something that is real; the injustice that arouses my anger may be an imaginary injustice, but injustice in the world is not imaginary and it is important to think about how we ought to respond to injustice before we are called upon to respond to it. We should know what it means to be loyal and the demands of loyalty before we are in situations where we must prove our loyalty. But there is more to it than this. Harold Bloom in an interview in The Paris Review, “The Art of Criticism No. 1, Harold Bloom,” talked about his early experience with reading poetry:

I was preadolescent, ten or eleven years old. I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me—in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems—though I had no notion what they were about. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me. Indeed it’s the first book I ever owned. I begged my oldest sister to give it to me, and I still have the old black and gold edition she gave me for my birthday back in 1942. It’s up on the third floor. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry . . . where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it?


 Galileo's drawing of the moon surrounded by text

Galileo Moon 2

Galileo Galilei from Sidereus Nuncius


Perhaps this experience is inexplicable to any who have not experienced it, but for those that have had this experience or one like it, it is a very real thing and it changes who we are as people and how we view the world and the people in it. It is being personally touched by the beautiful and transformed by it. Galileo’s book Sidereus Nuncius changed the world. It identified something true about how the cosmos worked and how it is to be understood. Many who have read and been stirred by Milton’s Paradise Lost look at the cosmos differently. Even those like Phillip Pullman and C. S. Lewis who read this poem very differently and whose view of the cosmos was altered in radically different ways were more than entertained by this poem. They were both entertained, but that was just the beginning. We cannot look into a book and come away from it unchanged, unless we never learned how to look in the first place. If I look into a book and see the flat surfaces I expected to see, it is because I have not trained my eye to interpret the shadows that reveal the true contours of the landscape.


Painting of bridge with buildings in the background

River Landscape with a Windmill


Truth Be Told

Die Zauberflote, “Overture”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, “Overture”

Felix Mendelssohn

London Symphony Orchestra


Truth Be Told


Painting of a young woman being escorted by solddiers and other women as other soldiers look on

The Princess Sabra Led to the Dragon (Rescued by St. George)

Edward Burne-Jones,Princess_Sabra_Led_to_the_Dragon.jpg


The music suggests the mythical and the magical. Mozart’s Magic Flute has Masonic mysteries (I am told) at its heart and a good bit of magic and wizardry. Mendelssohn’s music was composed to accompany Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is a comic variation, at least the centerpiece of the play is, on the beauty and the beast story. The Queen of the fairies, Titania, falls in love with a man, Bottom, given the head of a donkey. Of course everything happens by magic, the falling in love, the donkey’s head, the romancing in the enchanted forest. Eventually all is set right and everyone goes about their regular business, just as Papageno and Papagena are restored to each other and live happily ever after in the opera. In the opera it is the “beauties” that save the young Tomino, the handsome prince in the story, from the beast. There are all the characters of the traditional beauty and the beast story; they just do not play their traditional roles. The Queen of the Night, whose ladies were the beauties that saved Tomino from the dragon, instructs him to restore to her her daughter. Tomino is given Papageno as company, and both are given magical instruments, Tomino a flute and Papageno bells, to aid them in their task as well as three childlike spirits to watch over them.


The painting also tells a beauty and the beast story, that of the Princess Sabra, a dragon, and St. George. The princess has drawn the lot condemning her to be the dragon’s next victim. I think the faces in this painting are very revealing. The guard seems relatively unconcerned; the ladies following the princess look sad and wistful, perhaps thankful, for the moment, that someone else drew the short straw. But the Princess Sabra’s face reveals her fear, her sadness, and her resignation to her fate. Her hands that clutch at her garments reinforce the emotions her face reveals. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, there is nothing comic about this scene, and unlike Mozart’s opera, there is nothing and no one, man, woman, or spirit, that can offer her any hope or consolation. The story does, though, have a happy ending. St. George kills the dragon and peace and harmony are restored.


The painting below captures the beauty and the beast tale that is most likely to come to mind when we think of beauty and the beast stories. They come in a number of guises, the ones mentioned above and the one below. But there are other variations where the woman is the beast and it is the man that is the beast’s victim. My favorite of these stories is Gawain and the Loathly Lady. It revolves around a man in trouble, Gawain, who is helped by a very ugly and bestial lady. The ending is not that different from the story we usually think of, except the roles are reversed. The story of the Loathly Lady is also told, a bit more crudely, by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. It seems people have always been attracted to stories about beautiful people being pursued by monstrous and terrifying creatures.


Painting of a young woman looking over the dead body of a beast

Beauty and the Beast

Warwick Goble


There were a couple of articles recently about the power of myth and folk tales, “Once Upon a Time” and “Chasing rainbows: why myths matter,” that reflect on the power of these stories and the contribution they make to helping us all live a healthy and psychologically balanced life. “Once Upon a Time” addresses the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. These stories have enchanted adults and children (pretty much in that order) from their first appearance in print. Most of us are used to the sanitized versions of these stories found in films by Walt Disney and others. We think of them with warm and fuzzy feelings of childhood. But the stories are terrifying, they are cruel, and they are incredibly violent, often in ways that offers few if any redeeming features to mitigate or soften the violence. The article concludes that one scholar of these stories, Jack Zipe, likes them because they offer hope and a sense that justice can prevail in the world. But the author of the article, Joan Acocella, thinks differently; she thinks they validate what is, the world as it really works. She concludes the article by saying, “Though Wilhelm tried to Christianize the tales, they still invoke nature, more than God, as life’s driving force, and nature is not kind.” The stories would seem to support this view, but, on the other hand, in stories like Cinderella, characters do find justice and the villains, whether they be stepsisters or stepmothers, are more than adequately punished. Sometimes there is justice, but it is a very rough justice and perhaps what is missing most is not justice, but mercy or redemption. Of course there are other stories in the Grimm collection that offer neither comfort, nor justice, nor hope. But, as the article suggests, the stories were written in a time when the world was cruel and violent and harsh and that what the stories portray is life as it is, with a little magic thrown in. Unfortunately the magic often does not take sides.


Chasing rainbows: why myths matter” on the other hand takes a more positive view towards myth and folklore. Damien Walker points out that yes, those, Richard Dawkins particularly, that tells us the myths aren’t real are telling us the truth but they miss the point. Stories, especially mythic stories, function in the realm of metaphor. It does not much matter whether the world was created in six days or not, what matters is that it was created. They teach us lessons about who we are and how we best survive in the world; how we live productively and wholly/holy in the world. Literally interpreting myth is not really helpful. What they help us with is finding our courage, helping us deal with loss, helping us get in touch with our inner self, our spirit, our ethos. As is often true with poetry, we feel the message of the myth before we fully understand it.


Woman in a dark forest holding a stick with a skull on it and lights shining through the skull's eyes and ligts behind her also coming fron the eyes of skulls


Ivan Bilibin


The painting above is of a character from Russian folklore, Vasilisa. The part of the story the painting captures seems, to me, horrifying. Vasilisa is holding a human skull that functions as a lantern. When she needs light, light pours out of the eye sockets of the skull and when she does not need light, the eye sockets are dark. This “lamp” is given to her by a witch who demands that Vasilisa leave. She gives Vasilisa the skull on a stick to light her way. I am not sure what the correct interpretation of this story is, but I think it is true that wisdom and direction are often given to us by our ancestors, often dead ancestors through the stories they have passed along and the stories that have been told about them. Vasilisa, unlike many women in folk tales, is very resourceful and courageous. She is fearless, or perhaps it would be better to say that she has her fear under control; it is not that she does not experience fear but that she does not let that fear debilitate her. This is a message of folklore and myth, we are pursued by our fears, we all must overcome them if we are to act, perhaps it is more precise to say that we need the wisdom to distinguish between those fears that keep us from harm and those fears that keeping us from doing what must be done. The same fear that keeps us from running in front of a speeding automobile keeps us from standing up to wickedness. The fear tells us that wickedness is powerful and it is important that we understand that, but it is also important that we resist it and perhaps the proper office of fear is not to make us powerless but to help us use our power properly, to understand what that proper use is, to use it with wisdom and discretion.


Sun setting behind vocanic cloud over a river

Cotopaxi (1862)

Frederic Edwin Church


The paintings above and below capture the sublime. They are beautiful but they capture scenes that are powerful, they capture scenes that depict nature’s power, the first in the form of an erupting volcano and the second in the form of a treacherous mountain path. I think of the “Fellowship of the Ring” trying to get over the mountains on their way to Mordor. This is the nature of the sublime. It is powerful, awesomely so and it is not always pretty. Church did an earlier painting of this same place, Cotopaxi, but it was bucolic and peaceful and the mountain in the background was silent. Both paintings are beautiful, but the later is sublime as well. There was an article in The New Republic, “Art Over Biology,” about art and its evolutionary origins. What does art contribute to our survival, what has caused the “art” gene to survive and be passed along from generation to generation? The article points out that art often acts as a cultural catalyst, that is, it becomes one of those things that tie a culture together, that makes a people a “People.” But where this is a real benefit to the culture it is often of little benefit to the artist. I am not sure that Adam Kirsch’s conclusions actually happen the way he describes them, especially those concerning the artist and children. He points to evidence that suggests that artists are private people who often do not do well in social situations and therefore are not in the best position to procreate. And there is much to suggest that there is truth to this assertion, but it is also true that artists often have families, some have large families. Granted they may be terrible spouses and terrible parents, but they do produce children to carry their genes forward.


 Painting of people following a narrow path over a steep mountain

The Passage of the St. Gothard

J. M. W. Turner


But of course the larger issue is why do we produce art? There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “Poetry Is a Destructive Force” that seems to suggest that this desire to produce art, poetry, novels, is not a pleasant desire to live with, it is to be “like a man / In the body of a violent beast.” It is to be entirely under the control of some other. According to the evidence that Kirsch cites it is to be, often, terribly alone and misunderstood. Of course the rewards of those that succeed are often very satisfying. The successful artist often receives a lot praise and attention, something that humans seem to crave and often these are accompanied with prosperity and comfort. Perhaps these are rewards enough to make the less pleasant aspects of the life of the artist more acceptable. But in the end the article suggests there are no satisfying evolutionary answers to explain how art came to be. But the article goes further to suggest that an evolutionary answer, were one to be found, would not change much because with art it is not the why that is really important. For a Darwinian explanation to have value, it must be “useful” and “it is hard to see how it would change the way we experience art, any more than knowing the mechanics of the eye makes a difference to the avidity of our sight.” Just as knowing how the eye works does not change the way we see and experience sight so knowing how art came to be, though it may satisfy some bits of our curiosity, does not affect our appreciation or understanding of the work of art itself.


Kakinomoto no hitomaro

Utagawa Kuniyoshi


The painting is of a prominent 8th century Japanwe poet, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. In the painting he is observing and reflecting. He appears to be at peace. An article in the Boston Review, “Poetry Changed the World,” looks at another contribution of art, especially literary art. Reflecting on a new book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Elaine Perry, the author of the article, considers how the written word has made humans more peaceful, empathetic, and nurturing creatures. She has problems with Pinker’s conclusions and how they are reached, but she agrees that when we look at how people have changed over time that reading has had a civilizing effect on people; that as books became more readily available and as more and more people were taught how to read them, people have become less brutal. Perry points out two ways that reading has changed us. One relates to the poetry itself. Early poetry often presented their themes in the form of debates. The article points to poems in different cultures in different parts of the world and at different times that present arguments for and against various issues. Often they function like Plato’s dialogues. She points out how different poetic forms, like the eclogue and the sonnet, are structurally suited to debate. In this way poetry encouraged deliberation over hasty action.


But the more powerful change is the one produced by novels. When reading a novel the reader enters into the experiences of the characters in the stories and begins to see the world through the eyes of these characters. This can have a profound effect upon readers; it takes readers out of their own mind, experience, and point of view and places them in the mind, experience, and point of view of the characters in the story. C. S. Lewis once said that in reading he became a thousand other men but remained himself. This ability to become thousands of other people develops empathy for others on the part of the reader, by expanding their understanding of others. Instead of judging people and events from our own perspective, reading stories encourages us to look for other ways of understanding what is happening around us, so that we do not look solely at the effect events taking place around us have on us alone, we start to look at how these events effect others, giving us a larger perspective, enabling us to understand not just how we are affected, but how the culture as a whole in which we live is affected.


From The Thief of Bagdad

Douglas Fairbanks Pictures

Republic Pictures


The film, The Thief of Bagdad, captures the spirit of the 1001 Arabian Knights. These stories illustrate the power of story upon the imagination. These stories have influenced the literature of cultures all over the world to the point that we cannot know for sure which came first Odysseus or Sinbad, for example, or if there were a third voyager, now lost, that inspired both stories. There was an article in Times Literary Supplement, “The magic of the Nights,” about the impact of these stories on world culture. The book is specifically addressing the stories of the 1001 Nights but it contributes to the discussion found in other articles about the power of stories, the power they have over us, the power they have to color how we interpret the world around us. The stories themselves are of uncertain origin, some come from Persia, some from Arabia, some had their origins in Sanskrit, but no one is quite certain where the stories found in this book first appeared. The book as it has come down to us is not even from a single collection of stories. The first of the Arabian Nights stories I encountered as a child was the film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Looking at the film as an adult it is difficult to understand what was so appealing to my childhood imagination, but appealing it was. But Ali Baba was not one of the stories that made up the “original” Arabian Nights; it was added to the collection by editors trying to account for all one thousand and one nights. Sinbad and Aladdin were also absent from the earliest editions of the Nights. Any modern editor that tries to assemble a more “authentic” version of the tales by limiting their edition to only those stories found in the earliest, most authentic editions is eventually forced, we are told, to add the missing stories. We know them too well and they have touched us too deeply.


Paintng of a man on a flying carpet

The Flying Carpet

Viktor Vasnetsov


One story that has included elements of the Arabian Night is Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels. In the second voyage the bird that takes Gulliver from Bobdingnag and drops him out to sea is instantly identified as the Roc that Sinbad encountered, instantly identified by anyone familiar with the stories that is. The Yahoos Gulliver encounters on his last voyage also have antecedents in the 1001 Nights. There was an article in The New Atlantis, “The Truth About Human Nature” that applies the lessons Gulliver takes from his various voyages, especially his last voyage, to our common human experience. The thrust of the article is that we cannot live entirely in a rational world; that as admirable as the Houyhnhnms may be to Gulliver, they are missing something, they are not, to state the obvious, human and where a life governed entirely by reason may be ideal for horses and other animals, it is not ideal for the human animal. The article suggests that what the Houyhnhnms lack that humans need is imagination. Gulliver is standing in front of them, he was brought to their island on a ship, but the Houyhnhnms cannot conceive of a ship, they do not have the imagination for it. And this is something that stories provoke and provide that makes the human experience richer and more profound. The article also tells us that the Houyhnhnm is not capable of telling a lie. This I think is not true. The master Houyhnhnm has in him the “milk of human kindness” in that he will not reveal the true nature of Gulliver’s appearance, that the clothes Gulliver wears are not his skin. The Master Houyhnhnm does not tell overt lies to conceal this fact about Gulliver; he just does not correct the misimpressions those around him have formed concerning Gulliver. This raises another issue, the issue of what constitutes a lie and is a lie always spoken or can a lie be told by saying nothing. I think the Master Houyhnhnm says the thing that is not when he says nothing at all about Gulliver’s clothes. He is perpetrating a lie and it is a humane lie, it shows compassion and a desire to protect a friend, something Houyhnhnms as rule do not do. Perhaps the stories that Gulliver has told his master Houyhnhnm has humanized the Horse, has done for the horse what Elaine Perry suggests the novel has done for us, it has given him a larger view of the world.


Illustration of a very small man looking at a very large man

Illustration from Gulliver’s Travles

Richard Redgrave

How to Read a Map

Man in the Mirror

Michael Jackson


How to Read a Map


14th Century map of the Mediterranean

Nautical Chart in Portolan Style Probably Drawn in Genoa



There was an article recently in The Boston Globe, “Introducing Ray Bradbury, the Master of Fantasy,” that talks about introducing our kids to the books that were meaningful to us when we were children and reading the books that are important to our kids so that we can build a common heritage. Alice Hoffman, the author of the article, refers to these stories as road maps to our lives. The books become important not only for the stories they tell but for the ways in which they shape our lives and our imaginations and contribute to our growth as individuals. When we re-read these books we not only recapture the stories but those moments in our lives and personal growth when we first discovered the stories. By sharing these stories with our children, and in letting them share their stories with us, we help them to begin to chart the maps of their lives.

Alan Jacobs in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction recalls being on a ferryboat and watching a father read one of the Harry Potter books to his child. Both the father and child were engrossed in the story and were creating the kind of moment that Hoffman talks about in her article. The moment Jacobs describes is a landmark in both the parent and child’s life together. When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness they would stack up stones to mark places where significant events took place. When their children asked them why those stones were there, their parents would retell the story the markers were built to commemorate. The stories we read are often stacks of stones, Cairns, of this kind. It is important to have these landmarks in our lives to which we can return when the need arises and which we can share with those that come after us.

Stories change us. The reading we do changes us, if we read well, even if we do not necessarily choose well the stories that we read. The song, Man in the Mirror, is about change beginning with us, if we are to change the world we need to change ourselves. The books we read can contribute to this change and as we age these books become maps of our development. I think maps are interesting things, even if we cannot figure them out. The drawing at the top of the page is of a map, a map I cannot easily read, of the Mediterranean Sea as it looked to a 14th century cartographer. Maps also say something about how we view the world. There is a scene in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I where the king and the governess of his children are looking at a map of Siam, or present day Thailand. Siam is the largest country on the map. This is not literally true of course, but for the king of Siam it was “psychologically” true, it was the center of his world and the most important place in his world and in that sense the largest country on his map.

And this is not a problem unique to the king of Siam. If we look at maps made throughout history, up to and including our own day, it is not unusual to find similar problems of scale and size, though with most of the planet having now been photographed from space, these geographic distortions are becoming less common. But what is the real truth, the psychological one or the physical one; is the size of a place determined by a scale of miles or by the scale of the places influence in an individual’s life? The smallest town on the planet plays a huge role in the lives of the people that live there.


Map of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea Countries

Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 – upside-down with north oriented up

Mohammad Al-Idrisi


The maps above and below are also very old though a bit easier to follow. The map above, we are told, is upside down, with the north at the top. Of course for us that makes the map right side up. But for the artist that rendered the map, south was at the top. Mohammad Al-Idrisi obviously looked at the world differently than we do. Did drawing the world differently change the way he looked at it; does someone who sees the South Pole at the top of the map view the world differently than someone who sees the North Pole at the top? The artist who drew the map of Africa below saw Africa as “beneath” his European home because he placed the northern hemisphere at the top of his map. For Al-Idrisi, on the other hand, the Middle East, Al-Idrisi’s part of the world, would be at the top of the map and Europe would be “beneath” him.


Nautical map of West Africa

West Africa in a nautical chart

Fernão Vaz Douradoão_Vaz_Dourado_1571-1.jpg


Of course this begs the question of whether or not people see nations that are beneath them geographically as being beneath them in other ways as well. Does seeing the south on top of the map effect the stories that person reads or tells? Probably what touches us each as human beings is not greatly affected by which of the poles we place at the top of the map. But sometimes the way we organize the world, who is put on top and who on the bottom, suggests something about how we view the world and the people in it. Viewed from the cosmos up and down on our planet are very relative terms. But to us they are often loaded with significance.


Map of the solar system

Map of the Solar System

Anonymous (compiled from multiple images from the public domain, published by the Free Software Foundation)


But of course the kind of map Ms. Hoffman had in mind when she compared our reading to the making of maps are not the kinds of maps drawn by Al-Idrisi or Fernão Vaz Dourado. Her maps are more metaphorical, referring to the course of our development, to the steps in the journey that made us who we are. Stories often open us up to new ways of viewing the world, of viewing others, of viewing ourselves. We look at the actions of some characters and, though we may wish this were not so, we cannot see ourselves behaving in the same ways. We do not see in ourselves the courage, the honesty, or the selflessness we see in the characters in stories that we admire. Still we often try to emulate them to become more like them.

There were two articles in The Guardian recently about stories and their influence. One was about empathy, “Reading fiction ‘improves empathy’, study finds.” This article suggests that reading stories (and the article is clear about this, it asserts that non-fiction does not produce the same effect) develops the ability to empathize; stories help us to get out of ourselves and experience life a little bit from the point of view of the characters in the stories. The article is very short and leaves many questions unresolved but it does raise an interesting point. Faye Weldon in her book Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen says, “You can practice the art of empathy very well on Pride and Prejudice, and on all the works of Jane Austen, and it is this daily practice that we all need, or we will never be good at living, as without practice we will never be good at playing the piano” For Weldon one of the reasons we read is so that we can become more effective empathizers. She also suggests the art of empathy is an essential part of good living. Again, this is an assertion that lacks evidence, but my experience as a teacher and as a reader reinforces for me the truth of this assertion. Until we care about the characters in the stories we read, especially in those stories where plot is of secondary importance, it is very difficult to be engaged by those stories, they will never capture us, worse than that, they are likely to become tedious and to bore us.

The second article was about a poll that asked readers to identify their favorite character from the Harry Potter stories, “Snape is voted favourite Harry Potter character”. The favorite of those taking the poll was Severus Snape. Snape is probably the most complicated, and I think the most human, of the characters in these stories. No matter what readers may have suspected to be the truth about Snape as the story unfolded, it was not until the end that we knew for sure whether he was one of the good guys or the bad guys. He is a character with many faults and many flaws, just like most of us. He is unlike either Potter or Dumbledore on the one hand and clearly good; or like Lord Voldemort or Bellatrix Lestrange on the other and clearly evil. He is either a basically good guy with serious flaws or a very bad guy with a few redeeming qualities. Most of us can identify with the problem of Snape.

Whatever we think of Snape, by about half way through the story we understand that Snape’s darker side is in part the product of how he was treated by characters we see as “good guys,” people like Harry’s father and Harry’s godfather Sirius Black. We also see that his redeeming qualities come from how other “good” people, like Harry’s mother and Dumbledore, have treated him. Snape is responsible for the person he becomes, for both what is good in him and what is not so good, but we understand his struggle. We want to be good and seen as good but if we are honest with ourselves we see our flaws and shortcomings and are aware of the distance between what we are and what we ought and, hopefully, want to be. I also think there is a deeper truth here and that is that often those we do not like or trust, like Snape, are actually acting on our behalf, while those we like and trust, like Professor Quirrell, perhaps, are acting to do us harm.


Marco Tempest The Magic of Truth and Lies

TED Talk


The video clips above and below suggest art’s dual nature. Does art lie to us or does it open our eyes to the truth. In the first clip we see that magic to be successful must succeed in lying to its audience and it helps if the audience, in turn, comes to the performance with a wish to be deceived (for we all know when we attend a magic show that nothing that we are seeing is happening as we are seeing it happen). In this sense art is a magic show. When we look at a painting we often see a two dimensional space appear to take on a third dimension. We know the surface is flat but the artist is able to suggest depth where there is none. Words on a page produce emotions and sensations in a reader that were not there before and the reader has not actually experienced what has elicited those emotions and sensations, she or he has been tricked into imagining those experiences, as the member from the audience who selected the three of clubs imagines that card was selected freely and at random. For art to function we cede control of our thoughts and imaginations, or at least a degree of control, to the artist. We may call this verisimilitude or the suspension of disbelief, but it amounts to much the same thing, we are allowing the artist to deceive us.


Raghava KK Shake Up Your Story

TED Talk


On the other hand, though, the second video also makes a valid point, that stories often reveal truth and reality to us. If we see the world one way, it is useful to “shake our stories” a bit so that we can gain some insight into how others see our world. Richard Rodriguez in an interview with Bill Moyers said that when he read William Saroyan for the first time he, Richard Rodriguez, discovered he was Armenian (Saroyan was Armenian and his stories often captured the experiences of Armenians in America). In allowing himself into Saroyan’s world Rodriguez recognized what it meant to be an Armenian and how aspects of being Armenian were not that different from aspects of being Mexican, that Armenians and Mexicans have a shared humanity. It is this ability of a book read well to bring us out of ourselves that Rodriguez valued. Is Rodriguez deceived in this view, is he only imagining what an author wants him to imagine, that we all share a common humanity? Or is it a “noble lie” that deceives us so that it can reveal to us a greater truth? Perhaps life is a briar patch of truth and deceit, of wisdom and foolishness and that these qualities are so comingled that we need to learn to negotiate the tension that this comingling produces.

The maps we make may be real maps to real places. They may be maps that guide us safely through a dangerous terrain. The stories that we read may take place in real or imagined worlds but the ones that become a part of us have helped us in some way, they have illuminated what was unclear to us, provided models of correct or incorrect behavior, or led us to places of safety within our psyche and our spirit. They me be like the map below, a map of Middle Earth in a language we cannot understand but a map of a terrain that is so familiar to us we do not need to understand the map’s language, we know nonetheless where we are and where we are going. We can find on this map both where the dragons live and the way home again.


Map of Tolkien's Middle Earth with runes and a Swedish text

Map from The Hobbit (Swedish)