What a Piece of Work

“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”


The Beatles


Charlie Chaplin

Tony Bennett

“Song for Athene”

John Tavener

Stephen Cleobury & King’s College Choir, Camboridge

“In My Life”


The Beatles

“The Tyger”

John Tavener

Harry Christophers & the Sixteen

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken

A. P. Carter

Gregg Allman


What a Piece of Work


Picture of a woman smoking a cigarette

Publicity photo of Marlene Dietrich for the film Shanghai Express (1932)

Don English; Paramount Pictures



The songs run us through a gamut of human emotions, the fear we often have of showing our feelings, the ability to find bits of joy and happiness in the face of suffering or adversity, the impulse to worship, if not a deity, works of nature or the marvels of the cosmos, the need to reflect on and contemplate our lives and how they are lived, feelings of fear and anxiety, and the desire for community, for friends and family and the need to keep them close even after death by preserving memories and traditions. Part of preserving that community also involves earning and keeping respect. We want those who are close to us to not just like us, but to at some level admire something about us. And this is more than an egotistical desire it is a part of how we earn our place in that community and though that place need not necessarily be earned in the eyes of the community, it does need to be earned in our own eyes. In this sense this admiration is a kind of affirmation.

Portraits are often revealing, like the songs they too capture a gamut of emotions. The portrait of Marlene Dietrich is suggestive. I have not seen the film so I do not know the context of the emotions that are portrayed in the photograph, but there seems to be in her eyes and expression a longing and a yearning. She looks like someone who is troubled and alone. But whatever the context, as a portrait it reveals an inner life, an inner consciousness. Hamlet in one of his madder moments says, “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” Is this list of qualities the product of madness or is there reason and method to it? What would his portrait reveal if it were painted at this moment? Many of the characters in this play are at their most profound when they are at their most unreliable. Polonius tells his son, “This above all to thine own self be true.” This from a man who has probably not been true to himself at any moment in the play. He knows how to speak wisely, but he does not know how to act wisely. And those who speak a wisdom they cannot perform are seen as foolish and pompous, and a bit absurd. 


Photograph of a man resting his chin on his arm looking intently

Self Portrait Created for an article for wikipedia on window light photography

Hari Bhagirath



Of course, if we are honest with ourselves we are all of us too much of the time a bit like poor Polonius. Wisdom, like so many things of value, is more easily pronounced than performed. Polonius is also representative of an important office of literature in that it confronts us with a choice. We can sit in judgment on Polonius, and we probably should, or we can take our reading or viewing of the play a step further and reflect on the “Polonius” in ourselves. Reading well often involves personalizing what we read, measuring ourselves against characters, events, and choices that are made. This is not seeing ourselves in the characters but measuring ourselves by the same yardstick we measure these characters. The Guardian is publishing a series of articles by Robert McCrum on the hundred best novels in English (it begins with, “The 100 best novels: No 1 – The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)” and he is now up to twelve, “The 100 best novels: No 12 – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)“). He at one point in the process stops and asks himself and us, how he/we should go about forming this list (“How to choose the 100 Best novels”). As an English teacher I find the lists and short articles interesting. There is an arbitrary quality to this list, McCrum tells us, for example, that authors like Walter Scott have been left out not because they have been found wanting, but because his knowledge of their work is wanting and he does not feel competent to judge them (which is very likely true of everyone who compiles such lists). But the books he has chosen are varied and interesting and they all raise a number of issues that are meaningful to me as a reader. They are books I have read and continue to read not because they are good for me, they are of course, but that is not why I read them, but because they move me and provoke in me powerful emotions, powerful questions, and important issues. They often confront me with goodness and with its absence.


Portrait of Chinese Chan Buddhist monk

Portrait of Chinese Chan-Buddhist monk Wuzhun Shifan

Chinese artist in the year 1238



An article in the New York Review of Books asks “What Is a Good Life”? I misread the title when I first saw it and thought it was asking, “What is the good life?” A very different question in many ways. The article is about a study that followed a number of Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939 through 1944. The study is the longest running study that has ever been done, or is being done, as it is still in progress. It’s followed 268 graduates from graduation to the present and will continue until the last participant dies, or so the article suggests. Along the way it has incorporated into itself participants from a number of other studies following folks from very different backgrounds. The study has problems but what it wanted to discover is what makes a happy life. The assumptions at the time the study began were that a happy life was defined in terms of prosperity, comfort, success, and leisure. It consisted of a good job, a good marriage, and well behaved children who grew to have good jobs and good marriages as well. One conclusion that was drawn was that those with a modest intelligence (the Harvard folks had better than modest intelligence, but others blended into the study at a later date were of a more modest intelligence, at least according to the tests that measure such things) and a good education (who went to college) were more likely to find jobs with comfortable incomes and in the end were more likely to be happy. They were also more likely to be healthier and to live longer.

The article raises many questions about the studies findings, largely because the study lacked a clear focus at the beginning and changed its focus as it progressed. But the question still remains, is leading a good life the same as leading the good life. Do we define a good life in terms of how happy and content we are or do we define it in other ways. Can we have a good life and at the same time be bad people? Does it matter? What does it mean to be “good” and what does it mean to be “bad?” These are questions the study does not seem to consider, though aspects of the study looked at what factors might lead to a life of crime. But what if in order to be fully human or to be fully content as humans we need to know what it means to be good and how goodness is best achieved? How important is an education to living the good life, as opposed to a good life? 


Photograph of men playing cards

Photo – Black and White – Augusto De Luca photographer

Augusto De Luca



Does literature and its study offer us insight into this, does it answer these questions. Lee Siegel thinks, “Fictions lack of practical usefulness is what gives it its special freedom.” (“Should Literature Be Useful”) He says of literature’s ability to arouse and develop empathy, “Yet even if empathy were always the benign, beneficent, socially productive trait it is celebrated as, the argument that producing empathy is literature’s cardinal virtue is a narrowing of literary art, not an exciting new expansion of it.” Though I believe empathy is something we learn from literature, even if we are not particularly good readers, it is not the only thing or even the most important thing to be gotten from reading literature. The freedom that reading can give us is often freedom from our circumstances; it offers us an opportunity to escape, not so that we can avoid the world, but so that we can have time away from it in order to renew our strength and recover the energy we need to confront the challenges it puts in our way. Sometimes we need to leave the world in order to experience what the world ought to be and to reacquaint ourselves with a good and a just society. On the other hand, it can show us what real injustice and tyranny are and in so doing suggest to us that things in our world may not be as bad as we were inclined to believe, stories often rekindle hope and optimism. But as Siegel says, it does many things and no catalog can capture all of them. 


Photograph of a man with a goatee wearing a fedora hat, turtleneck, and an outdoor jacket

Self Portrait

Edward S. Curtis



Charlotte Higgins in an article on The Odyssey The Odyssey: a soldier’s road home,” examines ways that reading can bring healing, in that it suggests that others before us have experienced what we are experiencing and we can than learn from that experience. It is often suggested that old books have little to teach us, that they are boring, uninteresting, and tedious, among other things; but more often they are true and perhaps the greater problem with reading books in school is that students do not have the knowledge or experience that enables them to see that truth. Students often like The Odyssey because it is an adventure and so many strange and unusual things take place. They are carried away by the story without identifying overly much with Odysseus or his struggles on his long voyage home. But, according to Higgins, many soldiers returning from combat have struggled with emotions not unlike those that Odysseus struggles with in the course of his story. There are truths to which we are born with a certain understanding or acquire that understanding early in life. There are other truths we grow into, not that these truths weren’t true before we grew into them, they just were not a conscious part of our lives and experience.


Painting of a young man with a hat

Self Portrait




Edward Short in an article on Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Agony of Spirit,” suggests that there is an ecstasy of language that stimulates the poet in the writing of his poetry and the reader in the reading of it. Hopkins has always fascinated me because no matter what he did he always managed to put himself at odds with those around him. He became a Catholic in a country, England, that did not care much for Catholics, and he not only became a Catholic, but he became a Jesuit, which was the order within the Catholic Church the English liked least. When the Catholic Church sent him to Ireland to teach he supported the English monarchy in a country that was trying to rid itself of the monarch. His poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, a poem in which he took great pride, was totally incomprehensible to those within his order who discarded it (the poem is an elegy on the deaths a group of nuns in a shipwreck and was submitted to a Catholic journal for publication). Robert Bridges published Hopkins’ poems as a tribute to his friend who had died, but he did not fully understand the poems or their significance. The article suggests that the poems were Hopkins’ way of studying and learning patience. Poets of many stripes have struggled with their art and the societies in which they lived and the poems are often the working out of this struggle (“The Sedgwick brothers’ top ten facts about William Blake,” “Last Words,” “The Imaginative Man,” “Enigmatic Dickinson Revealed Online,” and “What can WH Auden do for you?”). Hopkins and the poets in these articles captured the struggles of their times in their poems and through their poems we often find the tools we need to confront the troubles of our times and perhaps the inspiration to do for our times what they did for theirs. But so much of life involves struggle and in seeing the struggles of others depicted with such eloquence we often find strength to confront our own. 


Painting of an Asian man with mustache and goatee

Portrait of late Ming scholar-official Ho Bun

Unknonw, perhaps late Ming portrait painter



Reading also brings comfort. Sometimes we read just to nourish the soul and the spirit. Tim Hanningan, “Comfort Reads: Kim by Rudyard Kipling,” writes about how he takes the novel Kim with him wherever he goes and he talks of taking great comfort from this book. He points out others who have taken comfort from this book as well, in particular a prisoner of war during World War II who trusted an informant solely because his name was Kim and that name evoked for the prisoner the novel that meant so much to him. This, obviously, did not work to his advantage but it does suggest the power the written word can have over us. 

Graham Greene in a scene from his novel The Human Factor has his central character, Maurice Castle, use a novel by Anthony Trollope for a “book code.” The character is a double agent within the British Secret Service and Trollope is a novelist whose books could be taken anywhere without arousing suspicion. In describing this scene the narrator tells us that during the Second World War Trollope’s books enjoyed a resurgence of popularity because they captured so well an earlier more peaceful time that the people yearned for in the midst of war. The novels were a kind of “comfort food” for the spirit. Books do not change our reality, the problems still exist, they do not go away, but for a time, in our imaginations, we can go away, our imaginations enable us to recapture a tranquility our circumstances may not permit us to enjoy.

From It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra

Liberty Pictures/RKO Radio Pictures


The film clip gives us a snapshot of George Bailey, an insight into his character. He is waiting to leave a job he did not want to pursue something he has from a very young age yearned to do, to travel, explore, and achieve “great things.” In the scene he is going over with his uncle Billy what he plans to do after his brother, Harry, gets off the train to take over the running of the family business, which will free George to pursue his dreams. He learns, though, that Harry is not going to take over the firm. He will take over the firm if George insists on it, but it is clear that Harry has other plans. As George Baily walks from the train to where his brother’s new bride is waiting we see the inner struggle and as he approaches his brother’s bride we see a hint of a smile and realize he has made his choice, he will stay and let his brother go. It is this kinetic portraiture, the visual images, that communicate this decision, not a word is spoken. Does he make the right choice? In the context of the film he does, but why is this the right choice? Why, in some situations, is the right thing giving up our dream to let others pursue theirs? What makes George Bailey’s decision the right decision? Would we as viewers of the film believing that to be the right decision, make a similar choice if we found ourselves in a similar circumstance? 

Jim tells Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that most “signs” point to bad things that are going to happen so that we can prepare ourselves for the troubles that are approaching, but that we do not need signs to tell us about the good things, they do not require much in the way of preparation, we just need to be able to enjoy our good fortune. Perhaps sacrifice is a bit like this as well. Stories can prepare us for times when sacrifice is required so that when the time comes we are ready for it, we have thought about our responsibilities and made our decisions before we are actually called upon to make those decisions. But the question still remains, why must I sacrifice? It would not be immoral if George said to his brother “I put in my time, now it’s your turn.” I do not think he would be criticized overly much if he did say so, in fact we might see this outcome as just and fair. But if George had behaved in this way, I think he would have lost stature in our eyes. That is the way with heroes, they do not demand justice for themselves, they do what is the right thing in the unique light of the current circumstances. We look at them and wonder if we share their heroism. We probably want to see ourselves as heroic, but are willing to pay the cost?


Painting of a man contemplating at a table with flowers

Portrait of Dr. Gachet

Vincent Van Gogh



Jeanette Winterson in an article on the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, “Why we need fairytales: Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde,” sees fairy tales as preparing us for the future. They create for children, and for the adults that read them to children, examples of “reversals of fortune” where characters who have had much suddenly find themselves with very little. They are often the story of Job told in a language that is more accessible to children. Hansel and Gretel lose their mother and with this loss they lose everything else as well. The story ends well for Hansel and Gretel, at least it does in the versions we are most familiar with, though I do not think this is true for all versions. For Winterson, Wilde in these stories “prophesied” his coming hardships. But fairy tales often foretell all of our hardships. The world is not fair, God has given the evil one permission for a season to do us harm and we have to come to grips with why has this been permitted to happen. We all have moments when we feel terribly alone when we have not only not done wrong; we have made all the right choices.”  (Another article on children’s stories, “How Children’s Books Thrived Under Stalin,” addresses a more subversive aspect of children’s literature.)


Painting of blacksmith posing in front of his forge

Pat Lyon at the Forge

John Nagle



Reading fills an important role in our lives. As Siegel says often the only role we need to give our attention to is literature’s ability to offer us a kind of freedom. If we approach stories for the liberty they offer, we will get all the rest they have to offer for taking the journey. As a teacher I often struggle on the one hand, with the importance of students reading anything at all for the opportunities the reading gives to young readers. On the other I struggle with the need to help students learn to unravel difficult language so they can explore the depths of what they read and grow in their appreciation of the majesty of language and all of which it is capable. It is also impossible to find stories that every student will enjoy as every student’s tastes, as are every teacher’s, are different. I know most of my students read; I see them with books they are reading (often reading these books when they should be reading other things in class). 


Painting of a man in a tuxedo gesticulating next to a man in an Asian costume shooting an arrow into the sky

Vsevolod Meyerhold

Boris Grigoriev



Neil Gaiman in a recent article, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming,” discusses the importance of libraries and the reading they foster. He talks of being asked to attend a science fiction conference in China. He is puzzled by this because the government had in the past done all they could to discourage the reading of science fiction. He was told when he asked about this, that they found though their engineers were very good at building things others designed, they were not very good at designing. So they asked all those folks that did the designing in America about what inspired them. The Chinese found that every one of them began by reading science fiction and continued to read science fiction. So the Chinese thought there might be something to this and changed their position. 

We live in an age that does not attribute much value to literature, to art, or to music, or the Humanities in general. But they do teach us important things the more practical disciplines like math and science, cannot. It is easy in this environment for students to dismiss literature that demands a lot from them without, on the surface of things as they understand them, promising much in return. But if a goal of our education is to grow in maturity and judgment, there needs to be some focus on what the Humanities can teach us in this regard. The practical arts can teach us how to make a lot of money, but they cannot teach us why making money is important or if it is important. 

Too many are not interested in a good education, they are interested in a good paycheck and they see a good education as a route to a good paycheck. It is not the education they want it is the money, and who can blame them; it is money that gets us what we value, it is money that is the surest way to prosperity, power and comfort. An education that makes us thoughtful and reflective, that reinforces values of love of neighbor and community, of liberty and justice often stands in the way of accumulating wealth. Those for whom the object of a good education is a measure of wisdom are often at a disadvantage in the pursuit of success, as it is understood by the world at large. But, perhaps, also, if that measure of wisdom has been attained the pursuit of that kind of success losses its savor.


Painting of a ballerina dancing

Swan Princess (Portrait of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel)

Mikhail Vrubel


Wise Guys

The Silver Tongued Devil

Kris Kristofferson

Stranger in a Strange Land

Leon Russell

Save the Children

Marvin Gaye


Wise Guys


Portrait of a woman with a pen

“Detail of the portrait of a young woman (so-called Sappho) with writing pen and wax tablets.”

Roman Painting from Pompeii



The painting is of Sappho and suggests, or ought to suggest, that not all “wise guys” are guys. One reason we read literature, listen to music, study paintings is because they help to make us wise. It is not enough, of course, to just engage the arts superficially; like any relationship they require we spend “quality time.” But if we read well, listen carefully, study closely there is much pleasure to be gotten and much insight to be gotten, insight into ourselves, into the world around us, and into those that fill our world. If nothing else they help us to see the limitations of our own experience, while helping us understand the experiences of others, especially those whose experiences are so foreign to our own experience. 

The three songs suggest three varieties of wisdom. The first, The Silver Tongued Devil, revolves around a man who cannot be trusted, who also seems not to accept responsibility for his more irresponsible or self-serving behaviors. It is worth knowing, it is important to know, that there are those that will say anything to achieve their desires and we need to be on our guard against such people. Most of us have gone, or are going, through moments when our naiveté has blinded us to those that would exploit or manipulate us. The experience often makes us bitter, or cynical, or angry. Wisdom helps us to guard against being taken advantage of in this way and it also helps us to get through these experiences and regain our footing. It can also help assuage the pain. We learn from characters like Pip in Great Expectations who as a child is victimized by a vengeful woman or from J. Alfred Prufrock whose love song throws a bit of light on our own insecurities and feelings of alienation. 

The second song underscores how wisdom sometimes separates us from the world around us, we feel like “strangers in a strange land.” Part of growing wise is learning to be comfortable with who we are, with our place in the world, with our aspirations. Part of growing wise is learning how to accept ourselves while resisting the temptation to be what others expect us to be, to no longer feel the need to “prepare a face for the faces that we meet.” Ben Jonson’s play Volpone revolves around characters that do all they can to manipulate the emotions of a man they believe to be dying in hopes of using his death to enrich themselves. They are wearing the face Volpone expects them to wear in hopes of manipulating him. Volpone, of course, is manipulating them to enrich himself. His first words in the play are “Good morning to the day and next my gold.” Those that fawn over Volpone get what they deserve, and Volpone gets what he deserves as well, while the innocent are kept from harm. Greed and avarice prove the undoing of all the villains. The play is a very funny play and also very wise.

The third song, Save the Children suggests one of the responsibilities of one generation for the generation that follows. Those that are wise among us realize that we have a responsibility to the children entrusted to us and that if our way of life is to be preserved the youth of our age need to be equipped to take over the world and prepare it for the generation that follows them. My parent’s generation provided for me and many of my generation the education and the upbringing we needed to make our way successfully into the world. Not all parents succeeded and probably no parent ever succeeds completely, but the desire to raise us well and the fidelity to their responsibilities made up for the mistakes and misunderstandings. Love, even when it is imperfect, heals many wounds. Of course, not all parents were responsible and not all parents raised their children well, some never tried. But as a generation, it seems to me, and this may only be because it is the product of my experience, they did well. I was allowed to grow and to play and to pursue my aspirations. I was given the education I needed to pursue those aspirations and to find the kind of work that is fulfilling and meaningful to me. I was allowed to become foolish so that I might grow in wisdom, and much of that foolishness was pursued under the protection of their wings. 


Portrait of a bearded man writing at a desk full of papers

Leo Tolstoy at His Desk

Nikolai Ge



There was an article recently about a program using classic Russian Literature, “Crime and punishment: Juvenile offenders study Russian literature,” to help juvenile criminals change so that they could reenter the world without falling into old habits. The characters in these stories and the issues raised resonated with the experiences of these convicts. Perhaps the books played some of the role of a parent for these men and women. They offered the examples, provided some of the alternatives, and suggested ways in which the past could be overcome that might be lessons others learned from parents. Whatever the role played by these stories, they put many on the road to wisdom and recovery. And, of course, as mentioned earlier, not all parents parent well. Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice was a foolish, though well meaning parent; Creon in Antigone was foolish and cruel. The traits that colored their foolishness, the good intentions of the one and the cruelty of the other, had profound consequences for their children. We are all to one degree or another foolish, and for some “meaning to do well” is all of which they are capable. 


Portrait of a woman seated; with a smirk perhaps

Portrait of Jane Austen

Cassandra Austen



Charles Barzun in “A Letter to My Grandfather” captures the essence of how one generation affects another. Charles Barzun talks about the importance of the influence of his grandfather, Jacque Barzun, on his, Charles’, personal development. A large part of that influence was due to the grandfather’s listening to the grandson, taking the grandson seriously and stepping up the depth and level of his advice and praise to correspond to younger man’s personal growth and maturity. When encouragement was what was most needed, there was encouragement, when encouragement needed to be spiced with some criticism and concerns he added criticisms and concerns, but in a way that would not dishearten, but would encourage and motivate improvement. This is a large part of wisdom, knowing what to say at the proper moment and the way to say it. 


Painting of a man seated on a bed surrounded by a group of men

Death of Socrates

Jacques-Louis David



For the Western World Socrates is probably one of the more important models of wisdom. For the Eastern World Confucius was. They both understood that wisdom was something that was sought and rarely, if ever, fully attained. For one to think wisdom had been attained was seen as folly and often provoked ridicule. I think it still does. Perhaps wisdom is a bit like a mirage in the desert, we can always see it out in front us, but we can never quite reach it. Of course, there is a significant difference; the mirage is an illusion, while true wisdom is not. As a people I think we often hold before us examples of wisdom we try to emulate. The Catholic Church has its saints (the Protestant Church does as well, but they are identified differently). There are the philosophers, the “doers of good,” the heroes of our causes or our creeds, whether they be secular or divine. We need examples to follow and to imitate. For Confucius it was the ancestors, though they may not have always been deserving of emulation; for Socrates it was his conscience and his idea of justice as he understood it. He did not trust “the ancestors;” he had problems with the example set by the poets and philosophers (though some of this skepticism may have been attributed to him by his student Plato). Perhaps, the ultimate irony of Greek philosophy was Aristotle placing his teacher, Plato, among the poets that Plato wished to banish. Plato’s idealism became the foundation of the Humanities and Aristotle’s materialism became the foundation of the Sciences and the scientific method. They offer two paths to wisdom we still follow, while recognizing, of course, their limitations.


Portrait of a man seated in a chair with a book





Poems, stories, plays, and essays shaped the way I see the world. Literature gave me insight into the human heart, my heart primarily, but others’ as well. There were a number of essays recently on this subject, “Perhaps Culture Is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities” by Leon Wieseltier, “Ave atque vale” by Donald Kagan, “Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics” by Sam Sacks, and “Idealism and Blindness: Of flaking paint and blemishes” by Leon Wieseltier. What these articles all have in common is the importance that they place on literature and the Humanities in shaping our society and the people we become. Many of the books that comprise our literary tradition are dismissed by our contemporary culture as no longer being relevant. Many today believe the storytellers, poets, and philosophers were addressing issues that belonged to a different time and that they no longer speak to us. Each of these articles suggests this view is false. They do not dismiss contemporary art and literature, they recognize that the Humanities are not a dead thing and that because they are living, they are growing and each generation, including our own, will make its contribution. Each of the articles by Wieseltier makes important points. The first, “Perhaps Culture Is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities” resonates with me because I am not much younger than he, like Wieseltier I saw myself as a part of the “counterculture” when I was in college. Though for me, and most of my counterculture friends, literature, and that included the classic literature produced by those long dead, shaped our view of what culture should be. 

There are aspects of this counterculture that, looking back, seem naïve or insufficient. Other aspects I no longer believe, but much of what I have abandoned was motivated initially by a desire to correct what seemed broken in the culture. Many of those things still seem broken to me, I have not lost my liberal point of view, but I see the likes of St. Francis more than the “rabble rousers” of my youth as better models to follow; but then I have always been more attracted to the Dorothy Day side of the counterculture than the Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman side. After all, Jerry Rubin was in his thirties when he said we should “trust no one over thirty.” However it came to be this way, we have reached a place where those that would defend Culture and try to keep its influence alive have become the counterculture.


Japanese woodblock of a woman seated at a table writing

Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyama-dera

Suzukin Harunobu



I also think Wieseltier’s discussion of idealism in “Idealism and Blindness: Of flaking paint and blemishes” is important. He tells of a man who was blind and could only imagine what the world looked like based on what he read and what he was told. This man was given an operation that gave to him his sight. When he saw what the world really looked like, it failed to live up to the world he had expected to see; its beauty paled when compared to the beauty he had imagined. The man ended up committing suicide because the world failed so dreadfully to live up to his expectations. Wieseltier suggests that this is the challenge that idealists face. The world as it is will never live up to the world the idealist imagines and strives to create. There has to be a dose of reality or hope will be lost. But that dose of reality need not kill our idealism; it should nourish our hope and inspire our effort. It nourishes hope because it keeps it grounded in what is, it inspires our effort because though we recognize the world is not as we would wish it, and may never be as we would wish it, we still have a goal towards which we can aspire and we can still work to make what is a bit better. 

There was another article, “Big Data Meets the Bard,” that took a very different view of literature and of reading. The article examines a number of contemporary scholars that let computers do their reading for them. One of those interviewed, and working on a graduate degree in English, proudly stated (or so it seems to me) that he has not read a book in years and cannot even remember what the last book was that he read, though he believes it was science fiction. The computers crunch language looking for stylistic similarities between writers. Among other things they found that more writers were influenced, based on stylistic similarities, by Walter Scott than by Charles Dickens. This may be in fact true, but perhaps all this suggests is that Scott is more easily imitated than Charles Dickens. But who among us that reads literature for pleasure and enlightenment reads it for “stylistic similarities.” Those that read deeply read for the ideas, read for the development of characters and situations, they read for the beauty of the thing. Now certainly style plays a role, but is the role merely syntactic. I admit to being curious, about all this, to a certain fascination with how language is used by different writers; I am fascinated by the similarities and differences. But this is the “Trivia Pursuit” side of literature, it is little nuggets of information that are curious and interesting and might make for interesting anecdotes, but it misses the whole point of literature. From Homer to Cormac McCarthy no writer ever wrote to be read by a machine, that is not the audience they seek. It is interesting and fun to watch a machine beat a human at chess, but we admire the human a lot more than the machine and are far more impressed by what the human can do. If we are impressed by the machine it is because we marvel at what humans were able to do in building it. What machines cannot appreciate, let alone analyze, is the beautiful, is the working of the imagination, is the internal reflection that a work of art provokes. 


How Books Can Open Your Mind

Lisa Bu

TED Talk


The video addresses another aspect of reading that machines cannot appreciate, at least none that I have encountered anywhere except in science fiction stories. I especially enjoyed how Lisa Bu compared books in their original language with how they were translated into other languages and what she suggests we can learn about our own language from how words we do not think twice about are rendered into another language. We often take words for granted. We know a few connotations and a word’s most common associations. But most words have a history, have multiple meanings, and are often selected because those multiple meanings add multiple colors to the work (this is especially true of poetry, but not just poetry). Nor is this playfulness unique to language. Shostakovich put themes and musical quotations into his music that were intended to insult Stalin, but which Stalin lacked the sophistication and musical knowledge to recognize. It was a dangerous game to play, and Shostakovich had his difficulties with the powers that be. Perhaps, because the nature of his musical jokes were so dangerous, he never said much about them and they have been largely inferred by musicologists studying the music after the fact. Can a joke falling on deaf ears still garner a laugh?


Etching of people living in darkness

Plato’s Cave

Jan Pietersz Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem

Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund



The etching above is of Plato’s cave from The Republic. Those in the cave cannot really see or appreciate the beauty of the world outside or even the world inside the cave that is outside their range of vision or cannot be seen through the darkness. They live in a world of beauty and wisdom but cannot see it. There is a way out of the cave but they refuse to take it. The unknown is frightening. They see shadows that hint at what they are missing but they do not understand what the shadows portend. There is a short story by Lord Dunsany that reminds me of Plato’s cave. It is called “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” It describes a land that is perfect, everything one could want is provided. But people keep leaving to climb the mountain, Poltarnees, to see what is on the other side, to see the ocean. No one who leaves ever returns. I think of the “Inner Lands” as Plato’s cave. They provide security, they are known, they are safe, no one can come to harm. Life is easy and ease is, perhaps, an illusion, the comforts the Inner Lands provide are something like the shadows on the wall. This suggests that pursuit of “comfort” is an illusion that cannot ultimately satisfy; that to experience life fully and to live well we must be willing to put our comforts at risk. Perhaps the safe life, like the unexamined life, is not worth living, or at the very least, is settling for less.

The painting below is of flowers. Flowers do not really serve a purpose in a utilitarian sense. They are not a source of food (they can be I suppose, but their nutritional value is limited), they do not keep out the wind or the sun, they are not much good for anything other than to look at. They are beautiful. They add color to a drab world. Some of us buy flowers and put them on our tables. Others look at those who buy flowers as foolish, as the flowers cost money, sometimes a lot of money (many in Holland became bankrupt when the tulip market crashed). But they offer little in the way of a material return on the investment. They last a week or so and then must be thrown away and replaced. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with oil she was criticized because the oil was expensive and it could have been sold to buy food to feed the poor. But Jesus called it a beautiful thing. For those that appreciate it, beauty brings healing, it opens the heart and mind to forces in the universe that are greater than the material objects that surround us, greater than what the senses alone can perceive. Whether one is religious or not beauty helps us escape ourselves and points us to wisdom. The presence of beauty in the world suggests we were not placed here solely to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. If it does nothing else it reminds us that pleasure is a part of life and that part of our purpose here is to experience joy and delight. 


Painitng of a field of diffent color flowers

Flower Beds in Holland

Vincent van Gogh

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon


Making Sense

From “After the Gold Rush”

Neil Young


Making Sense


Photograph of the silent film actor Buster Keaton reading a book

“Buster Keaton reading”




Helen Vendler reflected recently, “Writers and Artists at Harvard,” on what a university, Harvard specifically but the shoe fits many other institutions as well, should consider when considering which students to admit to the college. The most desired students tend to be those with the best transcripts and the greatest potential to become the next leaders of the free world. By these criteria the next generation of top lawyers, doctors, economists and the like are the most sought after because these are most likely to become the leaders of tomorrow. But what lasting impact will the leaders of tomorrow have on the world they come to lead; how many of the leaders of tomorrow will become the yardstick by which the world they leave to their heirs will be measured. She considers the Harvard graduates of the past century that still have an impact on the world today. Most of them are poets, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and e. e. Cummings. The article also points out that these poets that went on to have such an impact on our culture, were not shoe-ins for admittance and only got in due to special circumstances and that were they to apply today may not have been admitted at all. She also points out that they made their living doing the kinds of things Harvard often prepares their graduates to do, help run the wheels of commerce.


Prof. Vendler goes on to ask if anyone would remember the siege of Troy if Homer had not written about it or if anyone would remember Guernica if Picasso hadn’t painted it? She suggests the further away we get from current events the less likely those events will be remembered and those that are remembered might be remembered more because of the use writers, painters, and musicians of the day made of them than for the events themselves. There was also a recent article on Alexander Von Humboldt, “Humboldt in the New World,” a German scientist, who collaborated with a Frenchman, and traveled on a Spanish passport. He wanted to be among the greatest scientists of his day, and his ability with language (and with languages) helped him to largely succeed. He made some important discoveries, but it was his ability to write about these discoveries that got him attention. There is an irony that many of his ideas have been superseded by the science of our day, but, like Freud, because of the power of his language there is still an interest in reading him. In Humboldt’s case the stories that surround the getting of the science are adventure stories in their own right even if there were no science involved. 


The song, “After the Gold Rush” reflects on what stays with us as we look back. One review of the record when it was first released suggested that the title alludes to Young’s departure from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (or such is my memory of Robert Hilburn’s review in the Los Angeles Times) implying that now Young had “gotten the gold” he could do more of what he preferred doing. Personally I have some doubts about this, because Young seems to value the work he did with the group, but if true the story underscores Vendler’s thesis that there are more important things than chasing gold and many of those more important things will be remembered long after the gold has been squandered. 


The photograph of Buster Keaton suggests a number of things to me. First, that artists in one media appreciate the work of artists in other media (though, of course, Keaton could be reading anything and even though the book is a thick one and in hard covers, it isn’t necessarily a quality publication). But art also provokes reflection and it is clear that Keaton is thinking about something, though again that something may not be found in the book. The photograph also reminds me of how often paintings and photographs capture people in the act of reading. I do not know the statistics on this, only that in the anecdotal evidence of my experience this is a very common theme. Reading a book sends a certain message to others about how we see ourselves, and being photographed in that experience enables that message to speak, potentially, to a larger audience. There was a recent article by Joseph Epstein, “You Are What You Read,” that suggests what we read speaks volumes about who we are as people. The essay is a review of a book on Proust that sees Proust’s large book as being largely about people who read and want to be seen reading. We are told that reading is falling out of fashion and that the book as an art form is in decline. Perhaps this is true and the paintings of the future will focus on other things. But when in the future the history of our day is written, who will most likely need a footnote to explain themselves, the bond trader and market managers that make us prosperous or the artists that at least attempt to make us wise. Socrates does not need a footnote, but those that condemned him do, as they are almost universally forgotten, their names at any rate are forgotten even if because of Socrates their actions are remembered.


Photograph of a boy reading a book amongst rubble during the London blitz

“Boy Sits amid the Ruins of a London Bookshop”

AP Photo



The photographs above and below are of London during World War II and the German blitz of the city. They suggest the importance that books hold on the human imagination. A boy is reading a book in the ruble. Why in the ruble? Perhaps if he were to take it home he would be seen as a looter and there may be consequences for looting. But the book seems to be important to the boy and where he reads that book does not look very comfortable. Though the bombing of London during the war terrorized the people, that terror did not totally subdue curiosity or the life of the imagination. The photograph below is of men scanning the shelves of a bombed out library. Again the books have captured their attention and it is not likely, though certainly possible, that these men are only interested in reading for information, in just finding stuff out. Graham Greene in his novel The Human Factor mentions that during the war many in England returned to the books of Anthony Trollope because they wanted to escape into an earlier age when things were simpler and more peaceful, or at least appeared to be simpler and more peaceful. I imagine Greene had the Barsetshire type books more in mind than the Palliser ones, but perhaps not.


Photograph of two men looking at books in the rubble of a library bombed during the London blitz

“Library in London just after the Blitz”

Found in: Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. It has the photo on the cover and also inside. It is apparently the Holland House library in 1941.





Books, paintings, music, film and the other arts have the ability to renew and invigorate the spirit, even if they cannot change our circumstances. Nations are often more concerned with preserving their cultural heritage than in preserving the nation’s wealth. Great sums of money have been spent on libraries and schools, and museums that might have been put to other uses or saved for a rainy day. But it is often this cultural heritage that people are most proud of and contributes most significantly to their national identity. The English people, for the most part, revere Jonathan Swift more than any of the leaders he mocked and ridiculed. It puzzles me that those that oversee the nation’s schools work so hard to remove the arts from its curriculum to give more space to the sifting of information, much of which will change dramatically in the lifetimes of those that are being set to work studying this information. 


There are those that suggest it is more important to study the narrative structure of a story, to find out how the story was built, to glean the stylistic information that it offers, than it is to understand what the story has to say about the human condition. This is not to say there is no value to this kind of study. There are those that study the geology of historical sites, “Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg Through Robert E. Lee’s Eyes,” to better understand the history that took place on those sites, to better understand the “story” of history. So also the study of structure and style reveals something of the geology of a story and tells us something about how the story that is told is effectively told. But just as it is the history that provokes the geological study of the battlefield at Gettysburg, it is the quality and durability of the story that is told that provokes the study of its architecture and the study of the architecture should not take the place of the study of the story itself and the qualities of the story that have caused it to endure. Dante’s Divine Comedy can be read to gather information about medieval religious practices in Italy and attitudes towards famous families, but why would people value it so highly for so long if it were little more than a local newspaper along the lines of the National Enquirer. By the same token it is not the geology of the “seven storey mountain” that gives life to Dante’s story but the story that provokes interest in the mountain.


Painting of a man sitting in a chair reading a book with books stacked around him

Portrait of Dr. Hugo Koller

Egon Schiele



The United States has given to the world some marvelous technologies. However, the wisdom with which these technologies are used will be the product of other contributions, not just from America. The arts cultivate reflection and it is often reflection that is wanting in the uses to which we put our technologies. One of the first films made in America (another of the nations great contributions to the world) was Thomas Alva Edison’s retelling of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. The film has many problems, not all of which are technological, but it is fitting that this early use of a new technology tells a story about the dangers of embracing too rashly new technologies. Victor Frankenstein would have been happier had he contemplated the consequences of his actions before he acted, instead of regretting them afterwards. The arts often invite us to consider what truly makes us happy, and not just ourselves happy, but those around us as well. What I do has consequences not only for me, but for others who come into contact with me and not just with me but with my influence; with those people whose behavior has in some form been shaped by my behavior. In this respect Victor Frankenstein’s influence, in the form of the creature, is the most harmful. It might also be worth considering who would have the easier time getting into a modern university, Victor Frankenstein or Mary Shelley? It is interesting that Victor’s problem was not that he did not read, but that he read the wrong books. I enjoy the painting of Dr. Hugo Koller surrounded by his books and I hope that, unlike Dr. Frankenstein, these books are the right books.


  4 Lessons in Creativity

Julie Burstein

TED Talks


The film clip is about creativity and teaching and nurturing creativity. I am skeptical of this type study because it often focuses on the wrong things. It is easier to teach a student how to understand what it is in a painting, a book, or a piece of music that makes that work great than it is to teach students how to do great work. But this is study that focuses on the past, on what has been done and does not necessarily help us to understand how we might become more creative. As Ezra Pound said, we need “to make it new” and not remake the old. The video touches on this when Julie Burstein talks about the sculptor Richard Serra. Stravinsky challenged his age with Rites of Spring. We are not as challenged by this music because we have learned how to listen to it, and it is important that we listen. But knowing how to hear this music does not guarantee we can go on to create a music that speaks as forcefully to our own age. I marvel that Stravinsky’s first audience rioted, as did the first audiences for the playwrights, John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey. I do not mean to suggest that riots are a good thing, but I do think it is important that the “raw nerve” of the age be exposed somewhat and because nerves are what they are, this exposure should cause a bit of tension. 


Painting of a green mountain and a green valley overlooking a river

“The Moselle near Schengen at the Drailännereck”

Nico Klopp



For me the most sublime image in the video was a photograph of toy cars and trucks caked in dirt on the floor of a room in the World Trade Center after 9/11. It is sublime because of the story it tells. When I saw the picture I choked up and wept a bit. I could not see the toys without being reminded of the children that played with them and what happened to those children as they played. The story of the photograph is a story of good and evil, it could find a place in the Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm. The photograph is the product of a false sense of security and a lack of imagination. Literature and the arts foster hope, encouragement, and tenacity in those that study them seriously, they give us what facts cannot. But they also make us aware of the world in which we live, that there are those in the world that want to do us harm and that we need to be watchful. The greatest failing of the father of Hansel and Gretel was not his indifference towards his children, but his failure to warn them about the witch that lived in the woods. Like the painting above, the world often looks beautiful and inviting. But as in the painting below, there is often a shadow over the world that we do not see, especially on a sunny day.


A city skyline silhouetted by the setting sun

Silhouette of Klosterneuburg

Egon Schiele


It’s a Fact

Over the Rainbow

Keith Jarrett


It’s a Fact


Painting of populace and thriving classical city

The Course of Empire Consummation

Thomas Cole



There are those that seem to think the principal purpose of the written word is to convey information. Ours is a digital age and what a digitized world can accumulate quickly are facts and information, data of all kinds, colors, and shapes. Of course there are others who see other purposes for the written word. A recent article in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” considers the wisdom of looking at literature and the humanities as data. What is lost when we value things solely on the basis of the information they provide? What is lost when we look at a book, a film, or a painting, or listen to music as though they were data banks to be mined? The article focuses on the Google project of digitizing (or attempting to digitize) all the world’s libraries, all the books currently in print and argues that what is most important in these books cannot be digitized. Of course the words can be captured and the books put into their digital bindings on a digital shelf, but the true content of these books lives in the human heart and the human imagination and cannot be so easily preserved by machines.

Neil MacGregor in his new book Shakespeare’s Restless World looks at objects that in one way or another capture what is important in Shakespeare’s plays and how he and his world; how we, and our world, how different times and places have responded to these plays. MacGregor and Eric Hobsbawm wrote articles recently, “Shakespeare, a poet who is still making our history” and “Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor – review,” that addressed issues the book raises. Both articles and the book make reference to the Robben Island Bible. Robben Island was the South African prison where the leaders of the African National Congress and the Anti Apartheid movement were confined. One prisoner, Sonny Venkatrathnam, when he was told he was only allowed one book smuggled in the Complete Works of Shakespeare disguised as a Hindu Bible. As Venkatrathnam’s release date approached he asked his fellow prisoners to sign his book and select meaningful passages, which they all did. The larger point is that literature sustains and nurtures the spirit. If all these prisoners, or any prisoner, especially those jailed for political reasons, had access to were facts, data, and information there would be little consolation to be found. To a prisoner of conscience the facts are often oppressive; they often erode hope and weaken the spirit. Books, paintings, music, and the arts in general remind us that there are forces more powerful than the forces of this world. And these books and paintings and all do not need to be with us in a concrete form. The songs and stories and images live inside those that know them and they can be drawn upon whenever the need arises. As the words of the song suggest, there is a place somewhere over the rainbow where the spirit and the imagination can run free and the power of empire cannot pursue.


Man sleeping with walking stick with lute and water bottle nearby and a lionlooking over him

The Sleeping Gypsy

Henri Rousseau



The paintings above and below suggest the imagination’s work in the world. The sleeper appears to be in a dangerous situation, or perhaps not. The situation depends on the role of the lion. Is the lion keeping watch over the sleeper or is the lion a threat to the sleeper. The lion’s behavior in the painting suggests more one of watchfulness than attack. The objects in the painting are also suggestive. The clothing the woman wears is multi-colored and she has only a walking stick, a mandolin, and a jug, probably of water, but it could be something else. The colors and the musical instrument suggest the woman lives in the imagination. The walking stick and the jug suggests she lives in the real world at the same time, she has provided for both the soul and the body. 

The painting below suggests there are those in heavenly places who dance in time to the music that orchestrates our steps. The musician playing for the earthy dancers has angel’s wings and suggests interaction between the heavens and the earth, that each is involved with the life of the other. There was an article recently, Head and Heart, about politics and morals. The article is actually a review of a couple books exploring the values of liberals and conservatives and suggests that Emerson’s observation, “Of the two great parties, which, at this hour, almost share the nation between them, I should say, that, one has the best cause, and the other contains the best men” still resonates. One of the books argues for the importance of religion in society, not because it is true, but because of its usefulness in maintaining a civil society. Are the angels, the heavenly dancers, the lion watching over us as we sleep, just stories and figments of the imagination we tell ourselves to quieten our fears? Or are they the source of the stories that we tell? Whether the source of comfort, solace, and encouragement is real or imagined, the stories we tell, songs we sing, pictures we paint all have the power to do these things and probably no amount of data analysis will ever be able to tell us why or where, with absolute certainty, this power comes from.


Painting of people dancing with angels dancing in the clouds above them

A Dance to the Music of Time

Nicolas Poussin


As a teacher of literature I constantly struggle with value of literature and the place it holds in the curriculum. I know the power of story and language in my own life, I have seen this power at work in the lives of others, but I have also seen the immense indifference with which my students often respond to it. I know that when I was in high school boredom was the response the stories of the traditional canon most often provoked in students. Many of those students grew out of that indifference, but not all. I think that we are all free to reject the life of the literary and artistic imagination, just as we are free to ignore calculus and microbiology. But one of the purposes of school and of education is to expose ourselves to the different avenues our minds and imaginations might wish to pursue and we will never know that these avenues are open to us if no one ever points them out and helps us on our way. 

One thing that reading and the study of literature develops is a reflective mind, a mind that considers the directions it pursues before it too actively pursues those directions. It is very easy to be caught up in the excitement of the moment and the newness of things without thinking too deeply of the consequences. It is not possible to know all the potential dangers and which of those dangers are ones that should be struggled against and which should be avoided. Risk is incurred whenever we get out of bed in the morning and risk in and of itself is never a reason not to do something. Often those things that come with troubling possible consequences also come with attractive benefits. Nobel invented dynamite to make it easier to build roads and bridges and such. Nothing wrong with that, but there were other, less savory jobs the invention was given to do. Still, there is value to considering the destination before we begin the journey.


From A Handful of Dust

Acorn Media


The video clip is from the film version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust. In the book and the movie an English aristocrat, Tony Last, goes on an expedition to explore South America. He gets hopelessly lost and is rescued, after a fashion, by an older gentlemen living in the jungle. The old man cannot read but he loves stories. He asks Tony to read to him and of course Tony, being a true English gentleman, obliges. The old man arranges things such that those that come looking for Tony believe him to be dead and they go home calling off their search. Such is the power of stories. The old man cannot get enough of them and as a result Tony cannot go home. Part of the magic of the stories is having them read out loud and not every voice, no matter how skilled the reader to whom the voice belongs, is an effective reading voice. Donald Hall in a recent article, Thank-you, Thank-you,” points out that not every poet read their poem well. For every Dylan Thomas with a magical voice there was a T. S. Eliot with a voice that was much less inspiring. The theatrics of Vachel Lindsey made him a popular reader of his verse, but not much of his verse has survived now that he is no longer here to read it to us.   


Painting of a man standing reading to three people seated, one of whom is the emperor

 Virgil reading to Augustus

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres



Virgil in the painting above is reading his poetry to the Emperor Augustus. Unlike Tony last, Virgil was not a captive reader of his stories. But again they are powerful stories and those in high places took pleasure in hearing them read. Virgil’s best known story, The Aeneid was an endorsement of sorts of the Roman Empire and tells the story of its beginnings. But whatever propagandistic task the story was given to do, the story still captures readers. The world its characters inhabit is very different from ours, and discovering this world is part of the fascination. There is also the desire to find a home. Odysseus had a home to go to, he just had problems getting there, but Aeneas has no home, his home has been taken from him. He has a ship and he is able to get most of his family away with him, but they have no place to go. Perhaps part of the attraction is that everyone of one of us at some point leaves a home to make a home for ourselves. We may not have to go to another part of the world, but we do have to “make an escape” and at times burn a few bridges in the process. Stories are often food for the journey.


Painting of a castle courtyard

Courtyard of the Former Castle in Innsbruck without Clouds

Albrecht Durer



Whatever it is in stories that attract us (and even non-readers need stories, they just get them in different packages) they color our lives. Different stories feed us at different times and what we remember of the stories from earlier in our lives may not be found in the stories, but are instead stories that have been provoked by the stories we have read. The castles we explore in the stories we read as children are different from the castles in the stories we read when we are older. The castles of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella are not the castles of Gormenghast or Udolpho, though they all have elements that both delight and terrify. What changes, perhaps, is the nature of that which delights and terrifies as we grow older. Each provides food for a journey, though they provide different food for different journeys and perhaps it is because the nature of our journeys change that we need to garnish the mind with provisions suited to the journey of the day.

Is the mind without an adequately formed imagination in peril? Can the heart and the mind and the imagination be overly developed; do we reach a point where the stories we tell ourselves begin to do more harm than good? I do not think so, but I wonder what others do, what they carry in place of the stories that nourish me. I think it is important to question the stories, the beliefs, the assumptions that we have made, that part of aging well is remaining skeptical and curious. The best stories revolve around characters that are capable of change, who can not just adapt to changing circumstances but know when the circumstances require change and when they require perseverance and standing firmly on a conviction that mustn’t change. 

An article in the New Statesman, Tragedy’s Decline and Fall,” contrasts the stories that Sophocles and other tragedians have told with those stories that are told today in gossip magazines, reality programs, and action films and questions the place each fills in their respective societies. Robert McCrum in an article on Macbeth, “What Macbeth tells us about the digital world,” examines the Porter’s speech, one of the few comic moments in an otherwise grim play. McCrum points out that many of the jokes in this comic monologue are topical references worthy of the tabloids of the day, but in Shakespeare’s handling of the material and in the context of the larger issues present in the play the humor rises above the topical and continues to resonate today. Of course that is what the written word must always do if it is to outlive the generation for which the words were written. In Macbeth there is a meeting of the tabloid and the tragic.

In one sense they both help their audiences come to grips with the tensions and conflicts of the day, but one is deeper and far less shallow than other. Where tragedy provokes empathy and catharsis, the reality show and its cultural brethren cater to a delight many of us have in watching the suffering of others. Much of life is lived in the tension between conflicting values where each contain a truth, like when does the value of mercy override the value of justice; when does the value of generosity override the value of self-sufficiency; when is it important to adhere to the one at the expense of the other? Answering these questions depends more on wisdom than on knowledge, and where facts and data can provide us knowledge, stories are often where we turn for wisdom, a rarer quality and one much more difficult to master.


Painting of a tree growing in a meadow

Landscape, 1918

Félix Vallotton


What We Put Away

The Janitor’s Boy
Natalie Merchant/Nathalia Crane

What We Put Away

A Children’s Puppet Show
Liu Songnian

St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” What are those things we put away when we pass from childhood to adulthood? In the painting above some children are putting on a puppet show. These might be considered childish things, though there are those that manipulate puppets to entertain adults. The Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote some of his most famous plays to be performed by puppets. Granted Chikamatsu’s plays probably dealt with more serious subjects than those found in the children’s puppet plays, still the play of children often imitates the behavior of the adults that surround them and the same may be true of the plays their puppets perform.

The song is from a collection of songs by Natalie Merchant that puts mostly children’s poetry to music. The song The Janitor’s Boy revolves around children seeking to find a place for themselves in an adult world, even if it is an uninhabited corner of the adult world. Perhaps the putting away of childish things revolves around working at being an adult as opposed to playing at being an adult, though I am not entirely sure if it is the child or the adult that is doing the playing much of the time. But for children it is a game of “let’s pretend” while for adults it is making ends meet and fulfilling very real obligations and responsibilities.

There was an article recently in the Guardian about the 70th anniversary of the children’s book label, Puffin Books; “Puffin marks 70 years by celebrating best ever books.” The article identifies what Puffin Books regards as their seventy best titles in a number of different categories. Many of these books are also adult books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, and Dracula. I remember reading when I just got out of high school that in England Moby Dick was regarded as a book for children, yet it is studied very seriously by adults who seem to be of the opinion the book was written with an adult audience in mind. Of course this line of thought might seem to suggest that the things we do and read as children are all childish, which is probably not the case. We do not put away everything we had as children, nor change all the behaviors we had as children, only the “childish” things and the “childish” behaviors. Perhaps an essential ingredient of maturity is the ability to recognize those qualities of our youth that should be preserved and brought with us into adulthood.

Three Laughing Men by the Tiger Stream
Song painting in the Litang style

The three men in the painting are a Taoist, a Confucian, and a Buddhist. They were so engrossed in a conversation that they did not realize they were passing through a bit of land infested by tigers and as a result were unafraid. After crossing the bridge and realizing what has happened they laugh together. The painting is meant to suggest that the three religions practiced by the three men were truly one religion, I guess because the intensity of their beliefs as they discussed them actually protected them from harm. It might also be because that each in his own worldview saw the same event as funny and they all laughed in unison, and this laughter is what unifies them. The Bible mentions on one occasion that Jesus wept, but it does not explicitly say that he laughed. I like to believe this is because laughter was such a regular part of his life that it did not need mentioning. Perhaps the reason why Aristotle’s treatise on comedy was lost while his treatise on tragedy survives is because we need less help understanding the comic side of life and enter into it with greater relish, though there are those that see laughter as a superficial thing that lacks seriousness, who regard it as one of the childish things, though I would like to believe this view is less prevalent today than it was once upon a time.

Baby at Play
Thomas Eakins

Perhaps one of the childish things we leave behind is the seriousness of play. In the paintings above and below we see children playing. The adults watch the children play at the beach but seem a bit restrained in their play, they certainly are not dressed to enjoy the water as zealously as the children. There are those in modern education that tell us we must prepare children for the world of work and behind that exhortation there seems to be a suggestion that the world of play must give way to the world of work, that work is real and play is frivolous. As a teacher I am one of the ones this exhortation is aimed at and I feel a bit conflicted about how to embrace this exhortation. For me, my work is a kind of play, not all the time, but much of the time and I would feel a bit of a fraud if I were to suggest the world of work and play cannot intersect. I think the most successful adults are those that have managed to convince others to pay them for what they would do for free.

At the Beach
Edward Henry Potthast

It is difficult to know at what point we go from being children to being adults. In many religions there is a ritual that is supposed to inaugurate our passage from one state to the other, but it is doubtful that maturity is a byproduct of ritual; it is more likely that the ritual serves to remind us that society’s attitude towards us and expectations of us have changed. But the passage of time by itself does not make us more mature, more “adult.” It is one of the goals of a teacher to help students not only gain a set of skills and abilities but to put them on a path towards wisdom and responsible adulthood. But what are the childish things that get put away? What is it that I, as a teacher, am trying to help my students leave behind?

Many of the behaviors we label as childish are behaviors we do not want to loose entirely. I want to approach the world as an adult with a sense of wonder, but “too much wonder” might border on naiveté and foolishness. I do not want to loose my playfulness but being “too playful” might be another sign of immaturity. I think that coming of age does not necessarily mean leaving certain behaviors behind so much as establishing boundaries and limits for those behaviors. It is, perhaps, recognizing the difference between a leader and a bully, between good cheer and flippancy, perhaps between a Mr. Micawber or Mr. Skimpole and a Joe Gargery. I often tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older but no power on earth can make me grow up and I think there is some truth to this. We have no say in the passage of time, but we do play a part in the shaping of our own characters.

Walt Disney Pictures

The film is about a puppet that wants to be a boy and it chronicles his passage from being an animated toy to becoming a mature young child. The film is basically about the quality of the choices he makes and how he learns from experience. Pinocchio as he grows wiser does not give up play, he does not stop doing things that give him pleasure and enjoyment, he succeeds where many “real boys” fail because he learns from his mistakes, he becomes less foolish as the story progresses and wiser in the ways he plays. Perhaps this is what we all aspire to, to hold on to our capacity to have fun and to enjoy life; that though we may never become wise we, like Pinocchio, may succeed at becoming less foolish.

Playing Children
Su Han Ch’en


The Genius Next Door

Teach Your Children Well
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

The Genius Next Door

Genius of America
Adolphe Yvon

There was a review in the New York Times, “How to Be Brilliant,” of a book on genius and how to become one, The Genius in All of Us. The premise of the book is that everyone has the potential to be a genius of one kind or another, mathematical, musical, and so on, it just requires a bit of hard work and tenacity. According to the book becoming the best at anything is a matter of dedication, self-confidence, and a willingness to fail often in pursuit of a single thing. The research suggests that anyone who achieved greatness at anything did so by working relentlessly at developing the necessary skills. This probably comes as no huge surprise but the question that seems to go unanswered is how many worked relentlessly and did not achieve. We know who Mozart and Einstein are because they achieved the thing that they pursued, but are there others who were as relentless in their pursuit that we never heard of because they never arrived at their goal.

Of course it is probably a good thing to pursue our interests wholeheartedly and to work as best we can at developing our abilities and interests, but is that in itself enough. Is there something extra that some have that others do not that is as important to success as hard work. I suppose if our aspirations are in proportion to our abilities than the hard work by itself should be enough, but is this how dreams and aspirations operate? In an American Idol culture many are infected with a dream but the American Idol culture suggests that at best one or two will actually succeed. The American culture is built on competition and where it is true that competition can bring out a person’s best, it is also true that competition usually allows for only one winner. There was a sign at the Olympic games held in Atlanta, for example, that said, “Second is the first loser.”

The song, Teach Your Children suggests that much comes down to being true to ourselves and teaching our children to be true to themselves. Having a code to live by is important, so is knowing ourselves and our abilities. It is also important to remember that not all genius is appreciated in its lifetime. Jonathan Swift said that “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Swift is suggesting not only that most are not geniuses but also that most are resentful of the true genius when she or he appears. According to Peter Schaeffer’s play Amadeus Mozart was poisoned by another composer who was envious of Mozart’s ability. Though the history of this is a bit dubious, it does underscore that for the genius even if fame is not elusive there will always be rivals to contend with.


The play Copenhagen is about a meeting between two physicists that were geniuses of their day, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. The meeting took place early in World War II and is of interest because Heisenberg was a German physicist working for the Nazis and Bohr was a Danish physicist of Jewish decent (his mother was Jewish). The two men were friends before the war but their relationship was to say the least a bit strained by the war and the ideology of the German government that fought it. I think this raises another important point about genius and that is it does not protect one from embracing idiotic ideas. Heisenberg may not have believed the Nazi ideology but he still worked for it. Germany at the time of the Nazis was one of the most intelligent countries in the world if intelligence is measured by the number of highly educated men and women, men and women of genius perhaps. Wisdom and genius are often not the same thing and perhaps if the former were revered more than the latter the world would be a better more benevolent place.

Wotan visits Mime and offers him his help
Arthur Rackham

Another name for a genius is a “wiz,” an abbreviated form of wizard, someone for whom everything seems to come easily, someone who can work magic with ideas, a musical instrument, or a ball of one kind or another. I like the wizards in stories. The good ones not only can do marvelous things, but they are often wise to boot. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word wizard etymologically means “wise one” (actually the word is formed from “wise” + “ard”) and it was once a word for a philosopher or sage, though even in its archaic sense it had a derogatory connotation, as it often does to this day. Still, it suggests that the true genius is not only intelligent, but also wise. If we keep Arthur C. Clarke’s third law in mind, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” than the scientists that create the cutting edge technologies we use or are waiting for are themselves wizards in the mold of Merlin or Gandalf.

For most the science that runs our technology and many of our tools is like magic, we understand that they work and know how to make the machines do what we want them to do, but few of us understand how they work, how they do what they do. Science is for many a kind of magic that we believe in because the scientists that work the magic tell us there is nothing mysterious in it, that it all works according to certain rules. But then, those in the wizarding schools of J. K. Rowling or Ursula Le Guin are learning the rules by which the magic of those books work. There is, they would have us believe, a kind of “science” to the art of witchcraft and wizardry.

Map of “Mercury” as described in The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
David Bedell

The painting that started this off and the map above suggest the true meaning of genius and that is the spirit of a place or a person, or even a thing, one might say the spirit of a noun. The painting captures the spirit of America, some of what makes it a unique place and the painting is full of truly American images, like frontiersmen and frontiers that in the painting are a bit mysterious. But in this sense we are all geniuses in that we all have a spirit that in some way defines us. That spirit might also be summed up as our character, the spirit by which others know us. It is this kind of genius we all need to cultivate and to infuse with maturity and a bit of wisdom. Is our genius one of fidelity and courage, or of duplicity or timidity?

In most of the stories in which the great wizards appear, there is this concern for being true to something worthwhile and noble. Merlin wanted to make Britain a more just society, Gandalf wants to preserve what is best in Middle Earth, and Dumbledore wants to see magic used to promote wise and virtuous ends. The story of Ged, or Sparrowhawk, the wizard of The Wizard of Earthsea, is about finding redemption and the wisdom to use his skill with magic to better his world and himself.

Book cover art for the book A Wizard of Earthsea
Ruth Robbins

Perhaps this is the true magic we all need to work, to transform ourselves from selfish people motivated by self-interest into more generous people who work at improving the worlds in which we live and wander. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to greatness of one kind or another. Many, though by no means all, that have been given the label of genius have not been good people. Their genius in that other sense was largely underdeveloped, or at least the more virtuous aspects of it were. Personally, I think that most of us are at some level a bit insecure and that some mask that insecurity with physical strength or some other kind of personal superiority. But even if this is not true, we are somehow diminished as people if we are incapable of living for anyone other than ourselves and in this regard it would benefit us all to develop the better angels of our genius.

Is It Real

Tupelo Honey
Van Morrison

Is It Real

Education (Center)
Louis Comfort Tiffany

There was an article in the Guardian a few weeks ago about hoaxes, “The greatest literary hoax ever?”. The article talks about how the writer William Boyd got together with a number of influential friends to invent and promote an artist who never existed. Before they were done, they were exhibiting this artist’s paintings and getting well known, and not so well known people, to talk about how they knew and admired this artist. Before he could bring the hoax to its planned conclusion a co-conspirator let the secret slip out. It makes for an interesting story and illustrates the gullibility of people. The song is about placing values on things, and recognizing the best and being willing to make certain investments (all the tea in China, for example) to demonstrate this value.

The picture is of one of three stained-glass panels done by Louis Comfort Tiffany celebrating education. If we are well educated we are perhaps less likely to be caught in a fabrication and more able to access the accurate and true values of things. But maybe not. Boyd’s crowd of art admirers included well educated people who ought to have known better. Perhaps this was what the hoax was playing off of. If these people expected to be taken seriously as knowledgeable appreciators of art they must not let it be supposed there are influential artists of whom they were unaware. Perhaps the first thing the truly knowledgeable learn is that they do not know everything and that there is nothing wrong with not knowing everything.

Of course the story that Boyd invented was a good story and perhaps what truly lay at the heart of the deception was a human desire to be a part of a truly good story, even if that means inventing a personal history that is different from one’s true history. Or maybe the story was so good it suggested artists from these people’s past whose names they had forgotten but whose work they held onto. Maybe the works they shared were done by a corps of unknown artists that met early and tragic ends. Maybe the invented story was the story of many unknown and unappreciated artists that gave into despair. In the stained glass panel celebrating education at the top of the page the two disciplines represented are “science” and “religion,” two disciplines that often interpret the truths they encounter by different lights and maybe both offer a truth that resonates even if at times they conflict. Each often accuses the other of perpetrating hoaxes and each answers these accusations rationally according to their separate understandings. As one dubious judge once remarked “What is truth?” Perhaps all truth begins with faith in something and it is on that something that all that follows rests.

Illustrations from Old French Fairy Tales
Virginia Sterrett

As an English teacher I think stories teach basic truths about the world humans inhabit. These stories are fiction and it would seem by definition are not true. It is something of a paradox, perhaps, that something that is fabricated, like a story, can illuminate so much and give such insight. The illustration above was done to illustrate a fairy tale. Fairy tales introduced most of us to the world as it is, a world of “evil stepmothers” that cannot be trusted and “fairy godmothers” that can. Yet there is in this something of a life lesson, many that should be trusted cannot be, and many that should be doubted can be trusted. Much of life revolves around sorting out these kinds of problems.

There was an article last week, “Mind your language,” also in the Guardian about language and how we use it. The specific word in question was the word “skeptic” and what that word literally means. According to the article a true skeptic is a seeker after truth and questions everything in order to discover what is true. Yet the word is being applied to those that question nothing their own ideology teaches and doubt everything that challenges that ideology, often without doing very much to sort out which is in fact true. In other words the very opposite of a skeptic in that they accept one body of knowledge without question and challenge any contradictory body of knowledge without examination.

Corner House
István Orosz

The illustrations above and below are interesting in this regard in the way they play with perspective. The one above is of a corner of a house. But is it an outer corner or an inner corner, does it open on a courtyard or a sidewalk. As I look at it the perspective changes, one minute it is turning a corner and the next it is at the back of a corner, one minute one window is invisible to the other, the next it is facing the other. Which is true? Of course, in this picture anyway, they are both true, it all depends on how we look. Is this a work of art or geometric gamesmanship? It is hard to say, but it is kind of fun to look at.

The picture below is of two roads, or bridges really, that cross a body of water but at some point beyond where the two cross each disappears into its reflection in the water. The pictures are Escher-esque in the way they play with perspective, but they offer a kind of pleasure in the way they play with how the eye focuses and sees. Stories often teach us that life is about maintaining our perspective on things, about seeing things correctly, even though life often presents itself in a confusing and incomprehensible manner. Is the nice lady in the gingerbread house inviting us for dinner or “having” us for dinner? The answer to this question, whether it is literal or metaphoric, often determines whether the day’s events have a happy or unhappy conclusion and as with the pictures, appearances can be deceiving.

István Orosz

A good story often challenges our way of viewing the world and in so doing reminds us we have to be careful in our judgments and not lean to heavily on our own understanding. It is not always easy to tell where the line falls between being gullible and being open minded, between being generous in our treatment of others and being foolish. Stories do not always help us resolve these problems but good stories make us aware of these problems and the need to resolve them while being true to our character and values. The most dangerous people in the world are those that understand us and what we believe and know how to exploit those beliefs and in the process exploit us. Stories cannot solve these problems perhaps, each situation must be addressed by its own merits, but they can make us wary and wise in our approach to circumstances and events.

The Dot and the Line
Metro Goldwyn Mayer

I like this little story because it addresses the romantic and the realist in all of us. Both the dot and the line are vulnerable to their romantic inclinations and these inclinations lead them to make unwise choices. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for the squiggle perhaps, the story has a happy ending and both the dot and the line are able to experience romance realistically, though I am not sure that means of their deliverance is itself realistic. But we understand when the story ends that the dot and the line are “right” for each other.

Is this story true to life, do things often resolve themselves so neatly? Probably not. The value of the story lies in its pointing out the blindness that romance can bring and hopefully put us on our guard against it. But than other stories, Great Expectations, perhaps, suggest that even when we realize that our emotions and romantic attractions are leading us astray we are powerless when it comes to resisting them. We often find out the hard way, through pain and disappointment, that our affections are not always reciprocated and that those we have never harmed will seek to harm us.

Screenshot from the film Metropolis (1927)
Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann (cinematograpers)

Anyone who knows Breughel’s painting of The Tower of Babel will recognize it in this landscape from the film Metropolis. This knowledge should shape the way we view this cinematic landscape and the story this film is going to tell before the film begins to tell it. The story of Babel ends in tragedy and it is about human arrogance and presumption. The film addresses another kind of human presumption and arrogance, one that has more to do with exploitation of others than of usurping the powers of God, though there is a bit of this as well. But allusion is one way stories tell stories without actually telling the story, they prepare us for what is coming and help create a frame of mind in the reader (or in this case the viewer) that attunes itself to what appears to be coming. We see this picture and knowing its origins we know that what follows will be tragic, or with a different set of cultural signals, comic. The film The Music Box with Laurel and Hardy is, at least in part, a comic retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus. We catch on to how the film plays with the myth early on but because it is a Laurel and Hardy film, we expect a comic and not tragic retelling of the tale.

Poster for the 1911 Ballet Russe season showing Nijinsky in costume for “Le Spectre de la Rose”, Paris.
Jean Cocteau

Nijinsky was an influential Russian dancer and the ballet Russe an influential dance company. The ballet is The Spirit of the Rose. I know nothing about the ballet, but the name is suggestive. “A rose by any other name” and The Name of the Rose are just a few of the literary associations of the rose. It represents beauty and a kind of excellence. Another odd bit of serendipity in this poster is the artist that painted it, Jean Cocteau. He would go on to become a 20th century pioneer of the French cinema. He told powerful film stories. One of his best known films was Beauty and the Beast, not the Disney version by any means, but still a forceful retelling of the original fairy tale, which kind of brings us back to where we started, or near to it. Fairy tales do not just prepare children for the cruel world they may face as adults, but they often remind adults of the darker side of the world they have grown into.

Cocteau’s film was not made for children, though its characters, themes, and settings come from a very well known and beloved children’s story. The story he tells is very dark, but at the same time childlike. There was also this week an obituary for the last Yiddish poet, Abraham Sutzkever. One thing he said that is true of stories and storytellers was “If you carry your childhood with you, you never age.” As children the stories we read help us age wisely, as adults these same stories help us to age gracefully, preserving in us what is best of youth and maturity.