Time and Thought

 Candide, “Best of All Possible Worlds”

Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wilbur

“Loquebantur variis linguis”

Thomas Tallis

Tallis Scholars

“Dante’s Prayer”

Loreena McKennitt

“Quiet Please”

Sidney Bechet

Time and Thought


Painting of a tranquil sandy beach

The Seashore

Leon Dabo



I often suggest to students that real scholarship is thought (serious, focused thought) conducted over time. Not just scholarship, though, but much of life revolves around thought conducted over time, of listening carefully and observing closely. In a seascape, or a landscape, like the one above the painter has to look and let the impressions of what is seen wash over her or him, to create an impression of the sea inside the painter that the painter than puts time and energy into getting onto the canvas. The philosophies by which we live our lives ought also to be a product of time and thought. But often it is not. It is important to consider how we ought to respond in certain situations before those situations arise so that we are grounded in something more substantial than an impulsive emotional response to a crisis. In the songs above there is the philosophy of Dr. Pangloss from the Leonard Bernstein musical based on Voltaire’s novel Candide. It is a simplistic superficial philosophy that makes whatever is, the best that could be. Far from being a philosophy it is a justification for the human desire to avoid the responsibility to address the evils seen in the world around us. If confronting evil is too difficult a task than I need to redefine it into something good so that I can turn and walk away from it. Or as Alexander Pope put it:

“All Nature is but art, unknown to thee

All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good.”

I think Pope tries to hedge a bit with the phrase “partial evil,” but “evil” is “evil” whether it contains within it (as it often does) elements that are if not “good” (though they may be) are at least morally neutral. I enjoy Pope’s poetry, but I have always found this passage disturbing.


Sailing ship watched over by angels

A Miracle of St. Nicholas of Bari

Gentile da Fabriano



The words being sung in the second song are, “The Apostles spoke in many languages of the great works of God, / as the Holy Spirit gave them the gift of speech, alleluia. / They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak.” Tallis’ song suggests that God gave the apostles not just the power to speak, but the words to speak as well so that they could be clearly understood by all. The third song revolves around a prayer another kind of thought carried out over time. That it is Dante’s prayer tells us other things that will be lost on those that do not have a literary education (and this being the 750th year of Dante’s birth should give us all a reason to learn more about him, ‘. . .With This Really Ragged Notion You’d Return. . .’,” “Dante Turns Seven Hundred and Fifty”). The final song is “Quiet Please” and evokes the need for quiet (in spite of the raucous nature of the song) in order to think or concentrate. Ours is a noisy time and all the noise is not audible, it cannot all be heard, it is the little distractions that fill our time, the noises in our minds that unsettle us, that demand we make a little noise ourselves or walk aimlessly about in search of other lonely voices.


Man standing on shore looking out to sea

On a Deserted, Wave-Swept Shore
Peter Benois


Joyce Carol Oates wrote an article recently, Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature”, about the importance of language, the reading of difficult books and poems and essays and the like, and asks why we write and where inspiration comes from. The article discusses the way we learn and remember and the power of language. It is through language that we know ourselves, define ourselves. Part of our self identity involves finding the words that describe us; it might be our occupation, some aspect of our interests or aspirations (one sees themselves as a painter, poet, cabinet maker before one does the work of becoming one), or the place we call home, or more likely some combination of all of these and other things. But it is also through language and what we use language to build and create that we define ourselves as a people, not just as a nation, but as species. And the proper use of language, whether for identify or something else, requires time, contemplation, and an adding together of things. She also points to the hippocampus, that part of the brain that houses our long-term memory. It is in the hippocampus that the words that tell our stories as individuals, as a culture, as a species are housed or at least the thoughts, ideas, events, and impressions that provoke those words. It is where the idea of who we are lives, what the words we use seek to define. She concludes her essay with this:

Without the stillness, thoughtfulness, and depths of art, and without the ceaseless moral rigors of art, we would have no shared culture—no collective memory. As if memory were destroyed in the human brain, our identities corrode, and we “were” no one—we become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source. As it is, in contemporary societies, where so much concentration is focused upon social media, insatiable in its fleeting interests, the “stillness and thoughtfulness” of a more permanent art feels threatened. As human beings we crave “meaning”—which only art can provide; but the social media provide no meaning, only this succession of fleeting impressions whose underlying principle may simply be to urge us to consume products.

The motive for metaphor, then, is a motive for survival as a species, as a culture, and as individuals.

This evokes the words Tallis set to music. The words that come from our memory also came from somewhere; they had an origin in something before they became the touchstones of our cultures and our imaginations. Tallis called that something the Holy Spirit, others call it other things; Harold Bloom in his new book calls it the “daemon,” but whatever we choose to name it, it is something powerful, and we would not be who we are without it. We can thank the hippocampus for remembering the words, the stories, the ideas, but it is not their origin. The cupboards do not create what is stored in them; they only house it. But that something inside us which creates and interprets understands that the art not only comes from somewhere but that it fuels our imagination when we tell stories or share ideas and fuels the imagination when we read and make what sense we can of what we read.


“A Pilgrim’s Solace: No. V. Shall I Strive With Words to Move”

John Dolwand

Julian Bream, Golden Age Singers & Margaret Field-Hyde

“In My Reply”

Livingston Taylor

Linda Ronstadt


Thelonious Monk

William Giraldi wrote recently about the importance of books, Object Lesson”, and the meaning they have for us, not just because of the words they contain and that we go on to read, but as physical objects in and of themselves. There is something about books that those who value them desire. Even if they cannot read them (more from lack of time than from lack of desire) they are a joy to possess. I suggest to people on occasion that I have three kinds of books in my library, my passions, my aspirations, and my disappointments. The last are books that did not meet my expectations, but I keep them because I hope that the problem is with me and where my mind was at when I first tried to read them, or with my personal growth, and that at some later date I will find the time to interact with them again and they will join my other passions. Giraldi’s essay begins:

Not long into George Gissing’s 1903 novel The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, you find a scene that no self-respecting bibliophile can fail to remember. In a small bookshop in London, the eponymous narrator spots an eight-volume first edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “To possess those clean-paged quartos,” Ryecroft says, “I would have sold my coat.” He doesn’t have the money on him, and so he returns across town to his flat to retrieve it. Too broke for a ride on an omnibus, and too impatient to wait, he twice more traverses the city on foot, back and forth between the bookshop and home, toting a ton of Gibbon. “My joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy but not much muscular strength, and the end of the last journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching—exultant!”

I remember when I was in college hearing about a bookstore on the other side of Syracuse that had some remaindered paperback editions of some Old English prose and poetry. I made a pilgrimage similar to that of Ryecroft, I did not have a car and I did not know how to negotiate the bus lines, so I walked (not that this was that much of a sacrifice, I have always loved walking and these were paperbacks not weighty hardcovers). I found most of the things I wanted, but some things had sold out in the interim (I remember being a bit disappointed that the Beowulf was gone). I was learning Old English and I was “exultant” that I had these editions of poems but especially of the prose that were much harder to find in translation, let alone in Old English. I was especially excited about Wolfstan’s “Sermo Lupi.” My life has gone on to accumulate other attainments of a similar nature, a used facsimile edition of The Book of Kells (or at least excerpts), Tyndale’s translation of The Old Testament, a late eighteenth century edition of MacPherson’s Ossian poems of the Irish hero Finn MacCool (or Fionn Mac Cumhaill). It is a famous literary hoax; MacPherson claimed to have collected these stories from Gaelic speaking peasants from the Highlands of Scotland. The stories are actually Irish. They were exciting finds and the excitement that surrounds their purchase has become part of my literary experience of them. Giraldi finishes his essay this way:

I feel for Salter’s anxiety, and I agree with Burgess when he wrote, commenting on those delectable editions produced by The Folio Society in London: “We have to relearn pride in books as objects lovely in themselves.” But allow me to assure you of this truth: Like the bicycle, the book is a perfect invention, and perfection dies very, very hard. The car hasn’t murdered the bike, and the Web won’t murder the book. There are innumerable readers for whom the collecting of physical books will remain forever essential to our selfhoods, to our savoring of pleasure and attempted acquisition of wisdom, to our emotional links with our past and our psychological apprehension of others—essential not just as extensions of our identities but as embodiments of those identities. Books, like love, make life worth living.

The reading of books, the serious reading of books, is one of those activities that demand time and thought from the reader. That the possession of these books means so much illustrates how important reading, reflection, and the exercise of the imagination are for some of us. Old books have rarely made one rich, they are not like antiques that generally increase in value. Though there are books, like a Shakespeare folio (it doesn’t even have to be a first folio to have value), that will command large sums of money, but most old books will never be worth much. There was a time when they were very valuable and highly prized, but like the tulip, they will no longer found a fortune.


Illustation of a shipwreck from an illuminated manuscript

Shipwreck of Hugh de Boves

Matthew Paris



In another article, The Virtues of Difficult Fiction” by Joanna Scott the value of reading books that are not easily read is discussed. This is a large part of the value of these books to those that read them; they demand an investment of time, some effort of thought and of imagination that is amply repaid. Our investments say a lot about who we are individually and collectively as a people. Books are living things and those that read them often form relationships with these books. As with any relationship they require an investment of time, we have to devote thought and attention to the beloved. It is what makes a relationship worth fighting for and worth preserving. The time spent cultivating it yields its rewards. Scott says of reading and the purpose it serves:

In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Toni Morrison was asked about the purpose of fiction. A good story, she said, results in “the acquisition of knowledge.” This is the case that must be made for fiction if the genre is going to survive as an art. Fiction gives us knowledge. Of what? If the goal is to document our time and place, nonfiction and film offer more dependable accuracy. For intimate expressions of the human predicament, there’s poetry. If it’s immediate impact we want, there are the visual arts and music. Who needs fiction that requires readers to work to understand it?

The value of fiction was clear to Virginia Woolf, who argued that nonfiction consists of half-truths and approximations that result in a “very inferior form of fiction.” In Woolf’s terms, reading ambitious fiction isn’t comfortable or easy. Far from it: “To go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.” The illuminations that fiction offers are gained only with considerable effort. “To read a novel is a difficult and complex art,” Woolf wrote. “You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.” When we read actively, alertly, opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying “the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.” For Woolf, fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading.

The knowledge gained is not about how the universe works as a machine, about the rules, theories, and laws that govern the physical universe, it is knowledge of that other universe the one that cannot be seen through telescopes, the one inside each of (as Donne says, “I am a little world made cunningly / Of elements and an angelic sprite”), but that must be studied and understood if as a species we are ever to live together in peace, if we are to ever understand each other.


Painting of San Francisco Bay; water and beach

San Francisco Bay

Albert Bierstadt



Scott makes another important point in her article. She begins by pointing out that Literature is different from every other art form. She writes:

Among the arts, literature faces a special challenge. To look at a film, a painting, a play, an audience has to be able to see. To listen to music, an audience must be able to hear. To read, an audience must be literate. This begins when a child learns to match phonemes to letters and then to grasp the implications of grammar. Reading levels are identified as stages, from emergent to fluent. As dedicated students of literature know, fluency is only the beginning of a never-ending education. The world’s library is vast. There will always be something somewhere that will invite a new kind of attention from even the most experienced reader.

It is difficult to truly appreciate a piece of music if it is only heard in the background as we do other things, if it is only a pleasant noise that helps drown out some of the unpleasant noises. Equally it is difficult to fully appreciate a painting if it is just a desktop image that is pleasing to the eye whose real function is only to make the workspace a bit more pleasant to look at while we work on other things. But that said, it is possible to discipline ourselves to listen closely to a piece of music such that we can be enriched by it and though with some additional education we will come to hear other things and appreciate other things about the music we do not need additional education to be moved by Mozart, Bach, or Duke Ellington. The same can be said of visual arts like painting and sculpture and artists like Rembrandt, Michelangelo, or Frank Gehry. We may see more in them with training but we can be deeply moved by them without training. The same cannot be said of literature, especially literature that demands more from us as readers.


Painting of war ships painted with "dazzle paaint"

Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool

Edward Wadsworth



Scott says later in the article, “Careful reading is difficult because it demands continuous learning. We have to work to learn new methods of reading in response to new methods of writing.” We have to be educated to begin to read and we need to continuously revise and “update” our skills if we are to be able to continue to read well (though we may choose to limit ourselves to the “Old Masters” such as Tolstoy and Dickens and the like). Of course this is true of music and the visual art as well to a certain degree, we do not listen to jazz entirely in quite the same way we listen to classical music or to Mozart in quite the same way we listen Schonberg. The painting above also illustrates how the way we see can be “toyed” with. The dazzle ships look odd and a bit garish in dry dock, but on the open sea it was difficult to know for certain what you were looking at or to fix the ships exact location.


Painting of schooner ships docked in Salem Harbor

Salem Harbor

Fitz Henry Lane (formerly Fitz Hugh Lane)



But language and the books that contain them have a value that cannot be measured. It is difficult to imagine for some in this day when the Humanities are less highly valued and much of education is being reduced to that which can be easily (and sometimes not so easily) measured and quantified. It can be difficult to imagine the value that was once placed upon a “classical education” even by those we do not often think of as hungering for this sort of thing. Edith Hall in Classics for the people – why we should all learn from the ancient Greeks” writes about the value that the study of the classics of Greek and Roman literature and the whole of a classical education had for the working people of Britain once upon a time. The article discusses the books themselves and the power they possess and the value of learning the original languages in which they were written so that they could be more fully understood and appreciated, but she also writes about how working people had access to libraries provided by churches, scholars (that usually came from a working background), and businesses. She talks about the importance of these libraries to those that used them:

The 109 libraries of the South Wales coalfield are a wonder of labour history, and the books really were taken out. At Ebbw Vale, each reader borrowed an average of 52 volumes a year. The “Condensed Accessions Book” of Bargoed Colliery Library details its holdings by 1921-2. Texts in Latin and Greek are absent: until 1918 almost all miners had left school on their 13th birthday. But the “alternative classical curriculum” of the miner was wide-ranging. He read translations and biographies such as JB Forbes’s Socrates (1905). He learned about the Greeks from HB Cotterill’s Ancient Greece (1913), the Egyptians from George Rawlinson’s Herodotean History of Ancient Egypt (1880), and mythology from several books by Andrew Lang.

This inspiring past of people’s Greek can help us to look forward. It is theoretically in our power as British citizens to create the curriculum we want. In my personal utopia, the ancient Greek language would be universally available free of charge to everyone who wants to learn it, at whatever age – as would, for that matter, Latin, classical civilisation, ancient history, philosophy, Anglo-Saxon, Basque, Coptic, Syriac and Hittite. But classical civilisation qualifications are the admirable, economically viable and attainable solution that has evolved organically in our state sector. Classicists who do not actively promote them will justifiably be perceived as elitist dinosaurs.

These books were read and studied because they had value, not monetary value necessarily (and these were people who had real need of money), but they had value, enough value that people who worked long hard hours in the mines would put in more long, hard hours developing their intellect and imagination. There is a joy that comes from being well read that well-read people know and it is a real joy. Where the hours in the mine provided what was needed to feed and house the body, the hours spent in the libraries fed the intellect, the imagination, and the spirit. To be a full person, to fully live, we need to feed and nurture all aspects of our personhood.


 Wood blocked of boat being rowed over a large wave

Ocean waves




James McWilliams points out another reason why the Humanities and Humanist scholarship is important in On the Value of Not Knowing Everything”. He points out that the Humanities keep “wonder” alive and wonder keeps us engaged with the universe and the world in which we live:

The marvel that stopped us in our tracks—an aurora borealis, cognate words in languages separated by continents and centuries, the peacock’s tail—becomes only an apparent marvel once explained. Aesthetic appreciation may linger…but composure has returned. We are delighted but no longer discombobulated; what was once an earthquake of the soul is subdued into an agreeable frisson.… The more we know, the less we wonder.

Once the wonder passes, that is the wonder has been explained, we start taking for granted again the “wonders” that surround us. In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories Sherlock makes some deductions that amaze his client. The client asks Holmes how he figured all this out. Holmes says that if I explain it to you it will no longer amaze you. The client suggests it would and wants to know. After Sherlock explains the deductive process the client says its not so surprising once you explain how it’s done. In some sense it is a magic trick that amazes us as long as we do not understand how the trick works. But once we know everything we need to know about something, whether it is the workings of the solar system or what makes the rain to fall, the wonder disappears. Understanding the mechanics of a thing deprives it of its ability to amaze. Afterwards, if we wonder at anything we wonder at those that figured it out.


Brundibar (Bumble-bee), Act II Scene 5: “Morning, People, Here’s a Bargain”

Hans Krasa

Gerard Schwarz, Music Of Remembrance and Northwest Boychoir

“If I Could Help Somebody”

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Chichester Psalms: “Psalm 23 – (Complete); Psalm 2 – (Verses 1-4)”

Leonard Bernstein

Israel Philharmonic, Soloist from the Vienna Boys’ Choir

Rejoice in the Lamb, “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey”

Benjamin Britten

Michael Hartnett, Jonathan Steele, Philip Todd, Donald Francke, George Malcom, and The Purcell Singers


From Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “Part Three”

Paramount Television and BBC


George Smiley is a different kind of scholar. His looks and manner suggest a quiet, somewhat pedantic college professor. The work that he does is much more troubling. He is working for the good guys so that makes the more disturbing aspects of his work more palpable. But much of what he does involves invading people’s private lives, bullying, and taking advantage of others’ weaknesses. In in this clip he plays upon the woman’s, Connie’s, affections and disappointments. Once he has gotten what he came for he quietly disappears without waiting to listen to her final concerns. But how do we protect our way of life in a world so fraught with danger with so many threats to our way of life. Evil does exist in the world and can it be withstood by “sanitary” means.


Fish climbing waves

Carp leaping up a cascade




The aria from the opera Brundibar is sung by the title character. He is a metaphor for Adolph Hitler disguised as an organ grinder. He is out to protect his territory and he bullies and threatens any who would encroach on his territory. Two fatherless children trying to earn money to help their sick mother by dancing to Brundibar’s music are attacked. Ultimately they win and the evil organ grinder is dispatched. The ultimate irony of the opera, though, is that it was performed (its second performance I believe) for the Red Cross in a special camp set up by Hitler to show the world that the Jews in Germany were not being mistreated. After making a film of the opera for Nazi propaganda everyone involved was sent to Auschwitz and killed. There is evil. The theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer joined a plot to assassinate Hitler even though involvement in such a plot violated his theological principals. What do we do when we find ourselves in situations where to be true to one set of beliefs requires us to abandon another set of beliefs. How does one remain “pure” in such a world? I do not think reading or the Humanities provides answers to problems such as these, but they raise the issues and confront us with them and compel us to give thought to these things and think through and consider what our responses will be when we are confronted by such situations. We want to believe “never again” but our experience of the world and its history suggests that this is not so.

In Humanists Among the Machines” Ian Becock writes about Arnold Toynbee and his concerns over where science, technology, and reason were taking the world after World War I. There was great optimism that new advances would protect the world from anything like the Great War ever happening again. Toynbee was not so sure. Toynbee thought, “The problem with the Industrial System was that it didn’t know when to stop, pushing relentlessly into domains where it simply didn’t work.” He believed the Humanities could put a brake on such thinking, that it could remind us of the limitations of technology and the ability of our new technologies to change the human psyche. Becock believes:

It’s time for humanists to walk out on a limb. Like Toynbee, we should be as engaged in the world as we are courageous in our convictions. The humanities are most of all a moral enterprise, the pursuit of answers to big questions about how we live together and where we’re going. The stakes are high. We must remember how to speak the language of value, encouraging our readers and students to ask not simply ‘Is it more efficient?’ or ‘How much does it cost?’ but ‘Is it good or bad? For whom? According to which standard?’

The US novelist Ursula K Le Guin put it well in her speech at the National Book Awards in New York last year when she observed that we need ‘the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being’. This is what the humanities are for – not writing better quarterly reports or grabbing a gig in corporate communications – but for posing fundamental questions of value and helping us imagine alternatives to the way we live.

It is important to keep thinking and challenging the changes in our world when those changes are not “healthy for children and other living things” as we used to say not so long ago.


Mosaic depicting the Nile River and the communities on its banks

Nile Mosaic

Bernard Andrae



Helen Vendler in her new book The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar makes a distinction between a critic and a scholar. She sees herself as a critic and not as scholar. In her introduction she talks about taking over a survey course of Romantic Poets for a colleague who was not able to teach the course. She says that when the students submitted their review of her teaching of the course they said they learned a lot about individual poets and their poetry, but not much about the Romantic era and its historical significance or its shared themes, ideas, and vision. Jack Hanson in his review of the book, Reading Poetry”, quotes Vendler:

(The critic’s) “learning” resembles the “learning” of poets, which, though deeply etymological and architectonic, is often unsystematic and idiosyncratic. She often fails at the most elementary undertakings of “scholarly” life, such as remembering facts, entering polemical debates, and relating works to the political and philosophical history of their era. She has—at least I have—no capacity for broad synthetic statements.

This to me is what the study of literature entails. There are other branches of the Humanities that enlighten us about those other things, but when we read Literature, the kind of Literature that rewards rereading and changes us over time as our experiences change the Literature and our relationship to it, it is to get at things that are more personal to us and, perhaps, the poet. Reading in this way changes us because it reveals ourselves to ourselves, aspects of ourselves we may have kept hidden or have never noticed.       


Cants màgics: “IV. Misteriós”

Federico Mompou


George Winston

“Dance of the Infidels”

Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden

“Requiem for John Hurt”

John Fahey


These last songs suggest other things about the Humanities and how they move in and out of one another. They suggest notions of belief and unbelief. They also weave out of one another and the traditions from which they come. I enjoy how Mompou’s Màgics makes an appearance in George Winston’s Woods. I like the folk blues sound of a classical form in Fahey’s “Requiem.” I enjoy how all these songs, though they come from different traditions have a “jazzy” feel to them. And this is something else that the study of Literature, music, and all the arts do for us; they reveal what connects one thing to another and one person, one nation, one culture to another. All the arts awaken wonder and self-knowledge and it is difficult to live as fully as we might if we are not open to wonder and the true self living inside us.


Painting of the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Charles W. Bartlett


On Wonder

“Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”

Andre Previn

“All Through the Night

Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Aoife O’Donovan & Yo-Yo Ma

“Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan



On Wonder


Painting of buildings surrounded by trees

Photograph of a watercolour sketch

John Weeks done while teaching at Elam Art School around 1950



We Want to Be Beguiled. That is, in one sense, what “wonder” is about. That which provokes a sense of wonder in us, beguiles us, that is, not to say that everything that beguiles is wonderful, but if we are not beguiled we are probably not in the presence of wonder. It might also be said that the more wonderful something it is, the longer it continues to beguile us, it may be that this is the difference between the wonderful and the fanciful. That which is merely fanciful beguiles us for the time it takes us to become accustomed to it, but the more accustomed we become with the truly wonderful the more it continues to beguile. Often wonder is provoked by simplicity, as is the case with the first two songs in the audio clip, they are children’s songs; they are lullabies. When Mozart composed his piano concerto, the melody we know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was already a popular song in the nursery. He composed his variations around this simple melody and it beguiles, perhaps not to the extent that the Jupiter Symphony beguiles us, but it is beguiling. The same is true of the lullaby “All Through the Night.” Though the melody itself is quite simple, it has a sophistication that keeps it from sounding out of place on the cello, the richness of the music is complemented by the richness of the cello’s sound.


John Weeks’ watercolor sketch is also a simple sketch, probably done quickly, that captivates the viewer with its simplicity, the simplicity of the lines and the simplicity of the colors and their placement. The drawing captures the outlines of a space and evokes enough of the reality of that space for the viewer to be able to fill in the missing details. Part of the wonder that is provoked by that which is successfully and simply done lies in the artist’s ability to evoke much with very little. There is something magic about it. The Bob Dylan song is a list, almost Whitman-esque of various images that provoke wonder, the sound of a tambourine, the sound of a singer, the night passing into the morning twilight. The music is also fairly simple, folk blues played on a guitar. And though not everyone finds Dylan’s voice sublime, I do, as do many others.


Painting of a skull resting on a book with ink and a quill

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628

Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1596/97–1660)

Oil on wood

9 1/2 x 14 1/8 in. (24.1 x 35.9 cm)

Rogers Fund, 1949 (49.107)



There was a debate that took place recently in The New Republic between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier (“Science Is Not Your Enemy”, “Crimes Against Humanities”, and “Science vs. the Humanities, Round Two”). Pinker thinks the Sciences and the Humanities should unite and work together; Wieseltier thinks they operate in different spheres and one side must give up too much of what makes it what it is for there to be unification. For both Pinker and Wieseltier wonder is an important element of their argument. Pinker sees in the Sciences and the new technologies that which is truly wonderful and awe inspiring. Wieseltier agrees that there is much in science that is wonderful and awe inspiring. But the wonder and the awe proceed from different sources. Wieseltier argues that what science tries to do when it applies its methods to the humanities is identify where the magic is found. But for those that approach the arts from within the humanities it is this “magic” that they find attractive and that it is not so much that the sciences in explaining the magic destroy the magic but that the scientist fails to understand the magic the humanist finds in the arts. It does not lie in the mixture of colors and textures, in the sounds and evocations of language, in the combination of notes in a piece of music. Of course that is where the magic lives, but the scientific explanation of how the magic works reveals a misunderstanding of the magic itself. I wonder, though, how an understanding of the science in Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill would explain its sublime qualities or ease the discomfort it provokes. D. H. Lawrence’s poem “The Third Thing” illustrates the problem the scientist encounters when examining the arts:


Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,

but there is also a third thing, that makes it water

and nobody knows what it is.

The atom locks up two energies

but it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.


The sciences are only capable of exploring the two parts of the atom, but they cannot explore that third thing that makes it an atom, at least not that which makes the atom “wonderful” to the humanist. 


The humanities and the sciences also have a different relationship with the past. Science moves forward, the only reason for it to look backwards is to remind itself where it’s been and what, through investigation and experimentation, has been left behind. There is no need for the scientist to study the pre-Copernican universe because the scientist knows that model of the universe has been disproved. That said, the medievalist C. S. Lewis wrote a book, The Discarded Image that explains the medieval world view and its understanding of the universe. Where the science is no longer relevant the magic of its conception still beguiles the imagination of some, it beguiled Lewis’ imagination. This is not to say he wanted to return to a medieval understanding of the universe, only to say there is an elegance to its construction that is appealing. It worked for Lewis as story, he never accepted it as science, but from the perspective of the humanities, the story is important and still has something to teach us, it possess a different kind of truth. To one critic, Matthew Ward, Lewis’ study of the medieval view of the universe provided the frame upon which he built his series of children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia. For the scientist there is not much point in this looking backwards. This is not to say that good scientists do not keep an open mind and do not continue to test theories, even after they seem to have been proven false. But there comes of a time when the body of accumulated evidence overwhelms a model or a theory and it is abandoned. That which is affirmed is carried forward but in being carried forward it remains part of the present, it does not live in the past. The Humanities have a different relationship to the past. 


Seascape at night time with moon behind clouds and a rocky arch

Etretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d’Aval

Claude Monet



Where science looks to the past to be certain something has not been tried before and found wanting, the humanities sees the past as part of the present. They maintain a dialog of sorts between the wisdom of the past and the wisdom of the present. Humanists believe both the past and the present have something to say to each other, that each can learn from each other and contribute something to the understanding of the other. The past, of course cannot be changed, but our understanding of the past is sometimes changed by what has been learned and understood subsequently. On the other hand, the wisdom of the present is enriched by the wisdom of the past and the wisdom of each contributes to the shape and direction the present and the future take. To close our eyes to either can have detrimental effects on the world we live in and pass along to those that come after us. Math and science make us better machines; the humanities make us better human beings. This is generalization of course, not everything the sciences give us are necessarily better, some insidious machines have been put into our hands that unfortunately work too well. By the same token, not everyone that has embraced the humanities has been made better by them. History is filled with movements and individuals that had a highly refined taste in art and literature who were miserable human beings that did truly evil things.


Photograph of the moon over the ocean surrounded by a halo of light

A Super Moon’s Halo

NASA’s Astronomy Picture Of The Day – Louis Argerich



Perhaps the real difference between the humanities and the sciences and the wonder each provokes lies in the different way they look at and experience the universe. The photographs above and below are wonderful in both the scientific and the humanistic sense. They inspire awe. I expect these pictures also provoke awe in the humanistic sense in both scientists and humanists. Both scientists and humanists probably also experience the awe provoked by the science as well. But the scientist wants to explore the awe provoked by the science while the humanist wants to explore the awe that is provoked by the artistry of the photograph and the subject of the photograph. I do not understand how atmosphere, light, gases, and chemical reactions produced the subjects of these photographs, though I wouldn’t mind knowing. But knowing how the subjects of the pictures were produced would not explain to me or clarify for me the sense of wonder the photographs produce. I do not want to understand the science as much as I want to understand what makes them beautiful and why the beauty found in the photographs affects me the way it does.


Photograph of the night sky with the a celestial body surrounded by stars

The Bubble Nebula

NASA Picture of the Day



This perhaps draws attention to an old debate, to an old problem, that of materialism vs. idealism. A materialist believes, generally, that there is nothing more to the universe than that which can be perceived through the senses. Things may be there that the senses cannot perceive at present, but once the tools are invented that will enable the senses to perceive their presence the senses will perceive them. Pluto, whether it is a planet or something other, was always present even if it could not always be seen. Once telescopes powerful enough to see it were produced, Pluto could be seen. An idealist believes there is more to the universe than can be perceived through the senses. The debate is, I suppose, about the third thing in Lawrence’s poem. Is it real or imaginary? That something is something more than the Higgs-Boson particle, it is something that cannot be taken in through the senses no matter how sophisticated the tools we invent become. 


Pinker, for example, views all religion as superstition because no religion can be proven through the scientific method. The “evidence” is not there. This makes religion, for Pinker the product of superstition and self-delusion. He is a materialist. Wieseltier argues that religious people, like idealists in general, construct a rational philosophy around their faith. The religious dynamic is as real to them as the scientific dynamic is to the scientist. This does not mean all humanistic thought is religious, but like religious thought, humanistic thought is concerned with more than can be materially proven. There probably is no such thing as a “pure” materialist or a “pure” idealist. Idealists still at times believe only what their senses tell them, still pursue material gain, often without regard to the ethical ramifications of those pursuits. Materialists are often “good” in the sense that they put the interests of others ahead of self-interest; do good things even when it is not in their self-interest to do good things. They are rarely like Wolf Larson, for example, in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf who takes what he wants because he is strong enough to take it. He believes in the “survival of the fittest” and believes because he is one of the fittest he is entitled to take what he wants. He is the consummate materialist.


The moon rising from behind a mountain over a wheat field

Landscape with wheat sheaves and rising moon

Vincent van Gogh



The painting captures the same moon (though a few years younger) as is seen in the photograph. An understanding of the science behind a moon rise and the atmospheric conditions surrounding it will not tell us anything about why this painting is beautiful. Nor would an understanding of the principles of light and texture and color explain why this painting is wonderful. Such an investigation might help us understand how it was constructed and why certain colors in combination with one another are pleasing to the eye, but this will not unlock its wonder. Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Sonnet to Science” addresses another aspect of the divide between science and the humanities:


SCIENCE! meet daughter of old Time thou art

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes!

Why prey’st thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture! whose wings are dull realities!

How should he love thee – or how deem thee wise

Who woulds’t not leave him, in his wandering,

To seek for treasure in the jewell’d skies

Albeit, he soar with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragg’d Diana from her car,

And driv’n the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star!

The gentle Naiad from her fountain-flood

The elfin from the green grass? and from me

The summer dream beneath the shrubbery?


Poe’s response to Pinker would be to point out that science seeks to explain away the magic, to demonstrate why the magic is not really magic. To the scientist this poem may seem an exercise in denial. Yes, science has shown that all that Poe points out is false, that it does not in fact exist, it is myth, folklore, and superstition. It does not matter that we want the magic to be real, it isn’t and that ends it. But, to this day elves and other magical creatures appear in stories. This does not make them real, but it does say something about the desires and aspirations of the human imagination. And perhaps, in a sense these myths are real, they give an imagined body to principles and quirks of human behavior that enable us to better understand ourselves. There may be no spirits in rivers or in trees, there may be no elves or dwarfs living in the secret places of the earth, but the attitudes elves and dwarfs personify are found all around us. When we enter the worlds in which such creatures live we have to suspend our disbelief, we willingly enter these worlds knowing what we will find there is not real, in the scientific sense, but also that they point to that “third thing” that science cannot explain. 


Statue of an Asian dragon

A carving of a dragon from Imperial City, Huế in Viet Nam




Steve Paulson in “Monsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science” presents another view of science and its beginnings. One aspect of the article pursues the human fascination with monsters and their ubiquity throughout history. The Photograph above is of a dragon and, being an Asian dragon, it is probably a friendly dragon, but one never knows. Many of our oldest stories involve monsters; Odysseus and the Cyclops, Beowulf and Grendel, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Many of Ovid’s retellings of Roman myths in The Metamorphoses involve monsters and battles with monsters. Many of Snorri Sturluson’s retelling of Norse myths also involve encounters with monsters. They are found everywhere. I think one of the reasons space travel is such a popular vehicle for storytelling is because in the unexplored reaches of space one can expect to find anything (and one can also expect that anything waiting to be found might also pay us a visit). The monsters encountered in The Thing and Alien mean to do us harm, whereas the monsters found in ET and The Day the Earth Stood Still are more concerned with our welfare, they are at the very least motivated more by kindness than malevolence. 


 Avatar The Trailer

James Cameron’

20th Century Fox


The film clip captures another aspect of wonder and of the monstrous. Are the creatures of Pandora monsters that need to be subdued, like some of the other wildlife found there? Or are the more “human” colonizers the monsters or at least the more monstrous. The film captures our fascination with what we do not understand. It also speaks to some of our better “angels” in that we find ourselves siding with the “monsters,” the “savages.” In this regard the film is a study in good vs. evil. But it is not just the story that enchants us; the special effects of the movie also provoke wonder. They present us with a grand spectacle. But is it the wonderful that beguiles us in this film or the fanciful. I remember seeing 2001 a Space Odyssey when it first came out. I was enchanted and beguiled by the special effects in that movie. But when I watch it today the effects are not as spellbinding. The art of special effects has far surpassed what was so revolutionary in Kubrick’s film. Much of what appeared wonderful in the film looks merely fanciful today. It is a landmark in film history and probably in the art of filmmaking. There are other aspects of the film that hold up very well as storytelling, but if the artistic life of the film depended on its special effects would it still attract an audience today? I wonder about Avatar if this might not also be the case. The time will come when the art of special effects will far surpass the effects found in this film. As Aristotle said, spectacle is an aspect of the theater, but it is not its most important aspect and not what gives the play (or the screenplay) its longevity. 


Computer generated image of glasses and a pair of dice


Gilles Tran



Then there is the image above. It is entirely computer generated. It provokes a sense of wonder when one considers what a series of “ones and zeros” can create. It suggests the beginning, perhaps, of the holodeck, that place in the science fiction world of Star Trek where we can live out and participate in the creations of our imaginations. It might also suggest that for the scientist to fully enjoy the fruits of science they need a bit of the humanist inside them in order to imagine what to do with all those wonderful machines. But again, is this fanciful or truly beguiling? Is the wonder created by our technology a short-lived wonder or does it have a longer life? Is there a story in the image that can keep it interesting after the novelty of how it was created has worn off? Sometimes science gives us the tools while the humanities provide the inspiration for their use, where humane uses are available. Of course one must be careful here to distinguish between the humanities and effective marketing.


Sam Kean (“Science, Right and Wrong”) picks up on another aspect of Paulson’s article, science and changing attitudes towards curiosity. Both articles point out that curiosity for a very long time was seen as a vice and not a virtue. Curiosity was a paving stone on the road to hell. This seems an odd and foreign attitude today; at least it does to me today. I cannot imagine a life lived without curiosity. There is an aspect of wonder that is aligned with curiosity. Wonder stimulates our senses and our senses want answers. It is curiosity that drives the scientist to understand science and its objects of study and curiosity that drives the humanist to comprehend the humanities’ significance to human life and experience. There are times when these two responses to wonder run parallel with each other, or can at least feed each other if each is given its own path to travel. 


When I look at the night sky I see something wonderfully sublime. It strikes an emotional cord inside me that has nothing to do with physics, astronomy, or the pull of gravity. It has to do with grandeur and magnificence and other things that are perhaps subjective at some level, but at another level I do not think so because so many before me have responded in the same way. For the sciences the focus is on its subjects measurability, on quantifying and defining it; for the humanities it is the subjects ineffability, that which defies measurement and quantification. Sometimes it seems the scientific response is the easier one, because it proceeds with answers to all questions or at least the belief that answers are forthcoming. For the humanist the questions are often provoked by what remains after the scientist has finished. 


Painting of a box with shell

Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell, and Chip-Wood Box, ca. 1630

Sébastien Stoskopff (Alsatian, 1597–1657)

Oil on canvas

18 1/2 x 23 3/8 in. (47 x 59.4 cm)

Wrightsman Fund, 2002 (2002.68)