If You’re Not Offended, You’re Not Paying Attention

From Four Nights Drunk

Steeleye Span


If You’re Not Offended, You’re Not Paying Attention


A print of a fight breaking out in the balcony of a theater with one man choking another man

Une discussion littéraire à la deuxième Galerie (A Literary Discussion in the Second Gallery)

Honoré Daumier



The illustration above is of a “literary debate.” Most of us try to discuss literature and books in a more subdued manner but there are those that are much more fervent in stating their opinions. When John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World first opened it provoked riots, as did Sean O’Casey’s first plays. It is clear from the illustration and from these theater openings that some people take the arts much more seriously than others. There were a couple of articles recently, one on parody, “In Defense of Parody,” and one on its cousin sarcasm, “Who Killed Sarcasm.” The caption to the illustration is laced with sarcasm in one of its most ancient forms (it was very popular with Anglo-Saxon and Viking poets) litotes or understatement. Though not all sarcasm is parody by any means, much that is parody has a sarcastic edge to it. One of the better known parodies is of the poem “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them” by Robert Southey:

You are old, Father William the young man cried,

The few locks which are left you are grey;

You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth would fly fast,

And abused not my health and my vigour at first,

That I never might need them at last.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

And pleasures with youth pass away;

And yet you lament not the days that are gone,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth could not last;

I thought of the future, whatever I did,

That I never might grieve for the past.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

And life must be hastening away;

You are cheerful, and love to converse upon death,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

I am cheerful, young man, Father William replied,

Let the cause thy attention engage;

In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!

And He hath not forgotten my age.

To most modern readers the poem seems a bit pretentious and “preachy.” Lewis Carroll obviously thought so when he wrote the following poem, “You Are Old Father William,” that first appeared in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“You are old, father William,” the young man said,

“And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head —

Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” father William replied to his son,

“I feared it would injure the brain;

But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,

Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,

And have grown most uncommonly fat;

Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door —

Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,

“I kept all my limbs very supple

By the use of this ointment — one shilling the box —

Allow me to sell you a couple.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak

For anything tougher than suet;

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak —

Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,

Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth; one would hardly suppose

That your eye was as steady as ever;

Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose —

What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”

Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!

Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?

Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

Most who read the parody today are probably unaware of the poem that it parodies and see it as a satiric take on parental advice in general. It is probably true that most people prefer a joke to a lecture and that of the two the joke is the more likely to be remembered. This is certainly true of these two poems. Southey though was a popular target of parody and ridicule. He was, like William Wordsworth, a radical as a young man and a conservative later in life. As a young man his radical politics made him the object of ridicule as is seen in the cartoon below.


Illustration of a well dressed prosperous man talking to a poor working man

The Friend of Humanity and the Knife-Grinder

James Gillray



The poem that follows the cartoon is also a parody of another of Southey’s poems. Most parodies are not as successful as Lewis Carroll’s because they are often very topical in nature and when the event being ridiculed has faded from memory, the parody often fades with it. This is the case with the cartoon and the poem parody attached to it. In the 1960’s there was a parody of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth that received some acclaim. It was called Macbird and it poked fun at the Johnson administration and suggested that Johnson was involved with the Kennedy assassination, a popular conspiracy theory of the times. But like the cartoon, today the play is not well known, and it is likely that after my generation passes on it will be forgotten and only capture the interest of historians.

Those parodies that do survive often do so because, like Carroll’s poem, they do not depend on their sources for their success. Gulliver’s second voyage in Gulliver’s Travels is in part a parody of books written by retired mariners like Alexander Selkirk (the original “Robinson Crusoe”) and William Dampier (the pirate, or if your sympathies are with the British a privateer, who was responsible for later rescuing Selkirk). Selkirk was put ashore on a desolate island for complaining that the ship he was serving on was not seaworthy. The ship later sank and Selkirk was later rescued so his choice may have been a good one. Selkirk and Dampier because of their connection to the Robinson Crusoe story may continue to capture people’s imagination, but their books are forgotten and Swift’s story endures though most readers (unless they read the endnotes to the Penguin and Oxford World Classics edition of the story) know nothing of the works being parodied.


Illustration of wealthy people making merry, dancing and drinking

Merrymaking on the Regent’s Birtday, 1812

George Cruikshank



As the illustrations above and below suggest parody, especially that which takes the form of cartoons, is often aimed at politicians and their behavior. The cartoons make use of a popular form of parody the caricature. In the cartoon below the caricature of Napoleon is easily recognized because he is an historical figure that is well known to this day. The caricature of the English Prime Minister, William Pitt, joining Napoleon to carve up the globe is probably less well known, even though he lent his name to the village of Pittsburgh. Also the picture of George IV is probably not well known today, though the behavior at the center of the cartoon still makes its appearance among the political leadership of most nations from time to time.


Illustration of a British officer (possibly Wellington) and Napoleon slicing the world into portions for their dessert plates

The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper …

James Gillray



There was another article recently about art and politics, “The New Political Art.” The article points out that political art is often remembered for the wrong reasons and that it is often guilty of doing more harm than good. James Panero, the author of the article, points to Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat. He argues no matter how well the painting itself was executed it led to the execution of many innocent people during the “Reign of Terror” that followed the Revolution the painting helped to inspire. But Panero goes on to talk about the work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei whose art has provoked the anger of the Chinese government by drawing attention to his own treatment and that of other dissidents by that government. Because art often makes its first appeal to the emotions of the viewer or reader its effect can be profound because emotions once aroused often influence behavior. The Chinese government may feel that the effect that Weiwei’s art has upon the citizens of China could, allowed to go unchecked, provoke a response not unlike the one provoked by David’s painting, though it is the government of China whose behavior most resembles that provoked by The Death of Marat. The voice of the artist can be a powerful voice and when that voice uses parody and sarcasm as its means of expression that voice can be even more formidable.


Painting of a man lying dead, perhaps in his bath, with pen, ink and parchment paper on which he was writing before him

The Death of Marat

Jacques-Louis David’s



Simon Schama in a recent essay, “Why I Write,” discussed the influence of one of the 20th centuries most revered essayists, who at times employed parody, satire, and sarcasm, George Orwell. Schama ends the essay by listing Orwell’s reasons for writing in the first place:

Orwell’s four motives for writing still seem to me the most honest account of why long-form non-fiction writers do what they do, with “sheer egoism” at the top; next, “aesthetic enthusiasm” – the pleasure principle or sheer relish of sonority (“pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”); third, the “historical impulse” (the “desire to see things as they are”), and, finally, “political purpose”: the urge to persuade, a communiqué from our convictions.

I like that Orwell begins with “sheer egotism.” To write essays on a regular basis one has to believe they have something important to say, even if, as is often the case, they do not. But the second reason, “aesthetic enthusiasm” is what I enjoy most in essays when I read them (in all writing really) the “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another.” As a reader this pleasure is one of the chief pleasures I get from reading. This is not to say I do not enjoy narratives (stories), whether fiction or non-fiction, but that I especially enjoy the orchestration of sound that many of my favorite writers achieve by where they choose to place their words in relationship to one another. This is often missing from satiric writing. Swift for example used a blunt language that was often zany, rude, and cacophonous; it is very funny but not very musical.

Christopher Beha in another article, The Marquise Went out at Five O’clock: On Making Sentences Do Something,” talks about another danger for the writer, the danger of paying too much attention to sentences and their construction. The worst writing is often writing that is musical as it is read, but that has little or nothing to say; writing that reveals a fascination with the sounds of words, but little concern with what they mean. Beha writes about how he wanted to write good sentences that could stand on their own, but sentences in stories and essays are “team players” and must serve the larger purpose of the piece and not their own self-interest. Parody intends to offend, if only the person whose work or character is being parodied. If it can be musical in its use of language, the Lewis Carroll poem uses the sounds and the rhythms of words very effectively, very musically, as does Orwell much of the time, so much the better. But parody is often most at home with an orchestra that resembles that of Spike Jones than that of the New York Philharmonic. Parody is at its core, I suppose, inelegant and wanting grace.


What Is a Snollygoster

Mark Forsyth

TED Talk

The video takes as its point of departure a very musical word, in a Gilbert and Sullivan sort of way, “snollygoster.” It is also a word that is “rudely” musical and suggests the set up to a joke. The sounds of its parts are sonorous, but when put together they create “rude expectations.” I don’t care how melodic the word sounds, I wouldn’t want to see my name used in the same sentence in which it is featured. The video is about political speech, freedom of the press, and the associations that words often have, especially in a political context. I was surprised to learn the title given to the executive in the American system of government, “president,” was resisted and finally only accepted as a temporary compromise that would be revisited and changed later. We are still waiting these many years later for a more impressive and a more permanent title to be conferred on the President of the United States.

I suppose what makes a thing beautiful is its use. If the beauty of the language used to convey a message overshadows that message, than perhaps that beauty is a false beauty and not worthy of notice. The point of parody is to illustrate shortcomings, and unless the shortcoming being illustrated is pomposity, a beauty that overshadows its object, that is too ornate and glamorous for its subject, is beside the point. But when pomposity is its object what better way to underscore it than by gilding in gold a rancid lily. Sometimes the most musical fanfare is a flatulent one.


Painting of people dancing at a 18th century wedding reception

The Dance / The Happy Marriage VI: The Country Dance (Used to illustrate to The Analysis of Beauty)

William Hogarth


On Writing Things Down

Telling Stories
Greg Brown

On Writing Things Down

Poster for Congress of Industrial Rights
Ben Shahn

The old adage tells us that a picture paints a thousand words. The painting above is mostly a painting of words that is, I suppose, intended to suggest a thousand more words or more. Many things in life begin with writing something down. Revolutions often begin with declarations of one sort or another that have been written down in an attempt to explain what it is that makes revolt necessary. Often many things were written down before the declaration was issued that got things going. Thomas Paine, for example, wrote many things before Thomas Jefferson penned the declaration that initiated revolt.

The song that started things is called Telling Stories and it is often the stories that are told that interpret the events that provoke the anger that precipitate the revolt. After the revolt is finished there may not be agreement as to the veracity of the stories that got things going, but be that as it may, the revolutions themselves certainly speak to the power of telling and interpreting stories. Of course there must be a reality, even if it is a misperceived reality, that gives credibility to the stories that are told or else whatever power the stories have would never live outside the covers that contain them. As the song, and our own experience, suggests stories shape destiny, even those stories that live only inside the covers of the books that contain them.

Michael Chabon in an article written in the New York Review of Books, “‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ and the Wonder of Words”, writes about how his career as an author began with the reading of a book, not just the story the book told, but also the way in which that story used and played with language. Writing things down, at least for those that enjoy writing things down, is about playing with language. Someone, it may have been a student, once asked W. H. Auden what does one have to do to become a poet. Auden responded (and I do not remember the exact quote) that to be a poet you have to enjoy standing around and listening to words talk to each other. Perhaps this is true for anyone who does things with language.

I enjoy the Skaldic poets and one of the features of their poetry that is especially attractive to me (though it drove me nuts when I tried to translate it in college) is the way these poets mix up the words. Old Icelandic is an inflected language, which means the words’ endings reveal the place the words occupy in the sentence, not the order in which the words appear in the sentence as is the case in English. Icelandic prose, like most inflected languages, orders the words in sentences in ways that are easy to follow so that word order is much the same as it is in English prose, but the poets often abandon word order all together and this means that the listener or reader has to pay attention and put the sentences together as the poem unfolds. This is part of the fun and where a measure of the enjoyment lives for this poetry.

Study for Distortions; Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space—Map Projections: The Cube, 1978 Agnes Denes (American, born 1931)
Watercolor on graph paper, pen and ink on clear plastic overlay
17 x 14 in. (43.2 x 35.6 cm)
Gift of Sarah-Ann and Werner H. Kramarsky, 1983 (1983.501.3)
© Agnes Denes
Source: Agnes Denes: Study for Distortions; Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space—Map Projections: The Cube (1983.501.3) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The pictures above and below illustrate another aspect of where the pleasure of using language comes from, from expecting the unexpected. Using language too conventionally and too “properly” rarely provides much pleasure. The pleasure of language, for the reader as well as the writer, comes from living on the fringe of syntax and proper usage, not all the time but at the appropriate times, when doing the unorthodox draws attention to something or invigorates something. The drawing above is titled Cube. Everyone knows immediately what it is they are looking at, they are just surprised to see something so familiar look so unlike itself. This suggests that it is important to find ways to be unconventional without being incomprehensible.

The painting below suggests, perhaps, that while it is important not to be too obscure, there is a value to being not entirely transparent. The painting is calledConcord. It consists of two tan parallel lines on a blue background. There is concord in the colors, they do not clash but are comforting to look at and the lines being parallel also suggests concord. There is a peacefulness to the painting that underscores the message suggested by its title, but there is nothing concrete that speaks concord or peace to us. There is also a pun of sorts in the painting, the second syllable of “concord” is “cord” and the parallel lines suggest two cords side by side. The prefix “con” means “with” and the syllables taken together suggests how the painting is done, “with cords.” There are other games the viewer of this painting might play with the images; stringed instruments and the chords that are played on them come to mind. It is this kind of playfulness with language that might be found in the Skaldic poets and in many other poets and writers that enjoy the multi-dimensionality of words, syntax, and the architecture of meaning.

Concord, 1949
Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970)
Oil and masking tape on canvas
89 3/4 x 53 5/8 in. (228 x 136.2 cm)
George A. Hearn Fund, 1968 (68.178)
© 2010 The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Source: Barnett Newman: Concord (68.178) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There was a recent article on the discovery of “sacred trash.” The article, “Buried Treasure”, is a review of the book Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. The book is about the manuscripts that were found in the Cairo Geniza. The review informs us that a geniza is “a traditional storage place for worn or discarded Hebrew texts containing the Divine Name.” These texts included not only old Torah scrolls and prayer books, but also books and documents that were more literary or historical than sacred. Some were just documents that detailed aspects of daily life and recorded the activities of the community. There was also found a manuscript containing poems by a female poet. Hers are the only poems by a woman to be found in the geniza and prior to this discovery her work was completely unknown. It is ironic that she is only identified as “the wife of Dunash ben Labrat” and that though her work now survives her name does not.

One of the people the book focuses on was a scholar at Cambridge University who was visited by some folks asking him if he had an interest in some old documents. They gave him a few samples to look at and he recognized among them a manuscript of the Hebrew original for the Apocryphal book of Ben Sira, or in the Christian Bible, the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Prior to this the only exiting copies of the book were those from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Jewish Bible. It is difficult to imagine how exciting this must have been. For someone who loves language, stories, and history, to say nothing of the religious emotions that must have been felt by a student of rabbinic literature, probably nothing could equal the excitement generated by this unexpected visit.

The Marketplace, Vitebsk, 1917
Marc Chagall (French, born Russia, 1887–1985)
Oil on canvas
26 1/8 x 38 1/4 in. (66.4 x 97.2 cm)
Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982 (1984.433.6)
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Source: Marc Chagall: The Marketplace, Vitebsk (1984.433.6) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When things are written down it is impossible to know when or in what context the words will be rediscovered. There is a science fiction story called A Canticle for Leibowitz. In this story a similar excitement is generated by the discovery of a grocery list. You will have to read the story to find out what could cause something so simple as a grocery list to generate such excitement. The first explorers of the Cairo Geniza were interested in the literary and sacred texts but subsequent explorers brought their enthusiasm to the investigation of bills of lading, wills, and court records. These were exciting not because of the power of their language but because of what they revealed about the way life was lived in the Jewish community of medieval Cairo. The stories these documents tell have to be inferred from what all the bits taken together suggest. They revealed what things cost, identified their trading partners scattered throughout the world, and identified what was to them the known world. For those that are moved by the human experience and how it has changed and stayed the same over time these documents must be very exciting.

Handspring Puppet Theater

TED Talk

Theater is another medium in which what is written down is passed along to others. The written words on the page are often a mystery, how does the speaker feel who is saying the words, what is the environment in which the words are spoken like, what do the characters look like. When we pick up a play script we see only the dialogue, this is especially true of the script as it was first performed, as usually things like set descriptions and character movements and behaviors were added later by the stage manager of the first production of the play. There is little to inform us about what things look and sound like. The imagination must fill the gaps and this is not easy for everyone. The video is about the construction of puppets that were used by a puppet theater and describes how these “creatures” were brought to life. As I watch this video I am amazed at what the puppet masters can do and create and how so much larger than life the puppets become.

It is surprising how much can be done with puppets. I remember reading plays by the Japanese playwright Chikamatsu. Many of his most tragic plays were done originally as puppet theater. It is difficult for me with all the images of puppet theater that I bring from my childhood to imagine how a play as serious as a tragedy could be performed by puppets and not lose some of its seriousness. But puppets were a conventional part of the Japanese theater of Chikamatsu’s day. Of course, when I consider that Greek tragedy was often done with actors in masks and on stilts and the like I start to imagine actors who look almost like puppets and then the leap to the Japanese theater is not so great. Part of this is custom and imagining Chikamatsu’s plays is another way of expecting the unexpected.

Why do we write things down? Why do we tell stories, keep records, and document daily activities? What motivates us to do these things? Often writing things down helps us to understand and make sense of what we see as we watch the world as it is go by. But not all the horizons we overlook or seek are to be found on maps. The horizons of our imaginations can often only be approached through language and what has either been written down by us or by others. For those that enjoy it writing things down is often how the horizons of the imagination are preserved and the words become the maps of our different journeys.

Passenger, 1999
Doug Aitken (American, born 1968)
Chromogenic print mounted on Plexiglas
39 9/16 x 48 1/16 in. (100.5 x 122 cm)
Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2004 (2004.223)
© Doug Aitken
Source: Doug Aitken: Passenger (2004.223) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Well Written, Well Told

Ever After
Stephen Sondheim
Into the Woods

Well Written, Well Told

The Death of Chatterton
Henry Wallis

The song title is a play on the most familiar storybook ending “and they lived happily ever after.” The song is from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, a play about the role of folk and fairy tales in shaping our lives. The song suggests that we all must go into the woods, that dark place where all of our fears live and come out the other side if we are to “live happily ever after.” If we do not, whatever is our secret terror will continue to haunt us. It is, I suppose, the place where we all go to learn courage and fortitude.

Thomas Chatterton went into the woods in his effort to achieve acceptance as a writer. He is perhaps most famous for the poems he claims to have found written by a medieval monk, Thomas Rowley. Chatterton was never successful as a poet or a writer, at least not during his lifetime. Everyone thought his best known poems were written by someone else. It is believed he committed suicide at the age of seventeen in poverty and discouragement at his inability to be taken seriously as a writer. I bought in a library book sale once a two volume set of the poems of Chatterton that was published by Little Brown and Company in 1863 and donated to the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1867. It is an interesting collection and as Horace Walpole said the poems are “wonderful for their harmony and spirit.” Here are a few lines from Chatterton’s poem The Battle of Hastings:

Duke Wyllyam drewe agen hys arrowe strynge,
An arrowe with a sylver-hede drewe he;
The arrowe dauncynge in the ayre dyd synge.
And hytt the horse Tosselyn on the knee.
At this brave Tosslyn threwe his short horse-speare;
Duke Wyllyam stooped to avoyde the blowe;
The yrone weapon hummed in his eare,
And hitte Sir Doullie Naibor on the prowe;
Upon his helme soe furious was the stroke,
It splete his bever, and the rivets broke.

Those that knew what Middle English looked like were not fooled by the vocabulary or the quaint spellings and did not believe the poems to be ancient. He is probably not a great poet but there is a romantic aura that clings to him that attracted poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth and the other Romantics to his cause. The poems themselves do tell stories that if not well written were effectively told, at least for their time.

The Boyhood of Raligh
John Everett Millais

There was an article recently in the Guardian, “Museum ‘of story and storytelling’ planned for Oxford”, about a museum to be built at Oxford University to celebrate story telling. It will begin with the stories that originated at Oxford, stories by Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman. The museum already lives online as The Story Museum. It sounds like it will be a fascinating place where children can go to hear stories and to invent them. It seems that many of the stories that speak to the development of our humanity are stories written for children. This is a generality of course but more and more of the stories written for adults (aside from genre fiction, which many seem to dismiss as stories written for “older children”) address the inner lives and psychology of their characters who often do not seem to “do” very much. Their courage lies in the way in which they confront their inner demons. There is value of course to these stories and they do attract readers but many of the elements of traditional storytelling seem to be missing. Perhaps I have been exposed to too narrow a spectrum of modern stories.

Cover of the pulp magazine Mystery (February 1934)
A Tower Magazine

The suggestion is often made that genre fiction and those stories that attempt to tell a more traditional kind of story are not that well written. For example “serious” literary critics often trivialize the work of J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Stephen King. Yet these stories resonate with many readers. One of C. S. Lewis’ favorite books was A Voyage to Arcturus, a book Lewis said was badly written but tells a mesmerizing story. Does a story have to be well written to be well told? It is difficult to know whether or not the storytellers that move us today will move anyone else tomorrow. I think sometimes that what is considered good writing is more transitory than what is considered good storytelling. A good story can perhaps survive bad writing but as writing styles and tastes change the “good” writing of one generation is often seen as wanting by the generations that follow.

A further complication of writing well is that often it is impossible to quantify. There was an article in the Guardian, “Marking computer says no to lazy Dickens and dull Austen”, about a new computer program used to score the essays for student proficiency exams given by the English government. Sort of like the exams we give students here before we will give them a high school diploma. The machine gave low or failing grades to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and many other prominent writers when their work was fed through the machine. The opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, was marked down “for repetition and poor and restricted choice of vocabulary.” As soon as we try to define what is and is not good writing, writing that ought to be bad will be recognized for its brilliance.

City Lights
United Artists

The film tells a powerful story. The full effect of this final scene from City Lights cannot be felt without knowing the story that precedes this moment. The woman giving Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” the flower and the coin was, at the beginning of the film, a blind flower seller on the street. Chaplin is able to “manipulate” events so that she is able to have an operation that will restore her sight. Unfortunately the tramps “manipulations” get him arrested. The scene in the clip is the reunion of the tramp and the blind flower seller, who now can see, but she has never seen the tramp. She does, however, know the touch of his hand and recognizes him immediately upon touching his hand. It is a remarkable piece of story telling and to do it justice the film should be seen in its entirety. But what this film clip suggests is that the power of story telling is often in its images and relationships. It is not the narrative so much as how the settings and events are woven in our minds. In a film the filmmaker creates this for us and leaves us free to focus on other things. But for the story told with words on a printed page the reader has to be able to construct the settings, characters, and events in her or his mind and the more vividly the story is told the more easily the reader makes these constructions.

Scheherazade Went on with Her Story
Illustration from Arabian Nights by Virginia Frances Sterrett

My favorite storyteller, or at least one of them, is Scheherazade. She tells the stories found in the 1001 Arabian Nights. Perhaps this is because these are stories I grew up with, both in written form and through, when viewed today, quite awful film versions of the “Voyages of Sinbad” or “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” But even when I look at these films today with their awful production values and often equally awful performances, the images of the films as I remember them still captivate. The image of the thieves’ captain saying “open sesame” and a wall of rock parting to reveal a huge cave full of mountains of treasure in all its brilliance (or at least as brilliant as black and white cinematography could make it) still captures me to this day. I do not know if it is just because these are the stories of my youth or if there are other aspects to the stories that preserve their magic.

There are many stories I read as a child but these stories have endured in my imagination. I have only read them in translation and as I grow older I continue to read them in different translations. Some of them very good and others quite wanting. But no matter how bad the writing the stories usually come alive. This suggests to me that it is not the writing that gives life to a story but the ability of the story to enchant the reader in spite of the deficiencies of its language.

The Same Old Song

Beethoven – Symphony #5 In C Minor, Op. 67 – 1. Allegro Con Brio
William Weller and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Op. 107
Cesar Cantieri, London Symphony Orchestra

The Same Old Song

Still Life #20′, mixed media work
Tom Wesselmann

There was an article in this Sunday’s Boston Globe on the cliché. It was called “Let us now praise… the cliché”. The article points out that often clichés convey bits of useful information and folk wisdom quickly and somewhat universally, universal at least to the culture that created the cliché. The opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has become a bit of a musical cliché, in that it is well known and carries a certain meaning that listeners are quick to recognize, it has in a way become a cliché for Beethoven’s symphonic work and classical music in general. The work itself is not clichéd, or at least it wasn’t when it was first performed but it has evolved into one. The clip from Mendelssohn that accompanies the Beethoven clip employs a musical cliché of sorts from the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Because this piece of music is so recognizable it conveys quickly a musical idea that gives its name to the symphony as a whole, it is often referred to as the Reformation Symphony.

The painting also makes use of clichés. The door to the cupboard above the sink suggests Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book being a red square (a cliché in and of itself) with a white star, the symbol of Communist China. The white bread, a cliché for wholesomeness, placed strategically next to another grain product that is a bit less wholesome. Then there is the Coca Cola glass, which is another cultural icon/cliché. The Piet Mondrian painting above the bananas is also a bit iconic, especially as it is representative of a kind of modern abstract painting. These components of the painting, because they are clichés, convey quickly a certain depth of meaning to the viewer that enables the painting to succeed as a comment on American culture of the early 1960’s. The painting is from 1962, before the Vietnam War dominated “popular culture.” The colors and the “product placement” suggest the conflict between Communism and Capitalism or perhaps the consumer culture of America.

As a teacher of writing I am usually encouraging my students to avoid clichés. Because clichés are by definition overused they tend to reflect badly on a piece of writing and make the writer appear to be a bit unimaginative. I am not sure that it is always necessary to find a new way of saying something that can be said effectively by a more commonplace phrase, but that is the “conventional wisdom.” As the article points out, many clichés are still around because they “say best what needs to be said” and we will have to wait and see if any of the substitutes writers struggle to invent will go on to become as successful, though, as the music of Beethoven may suggest, this success is something of a “two edged sword”.

It also important to be careful with clichés and how we use them. Sometimes clichés are used as a way of avoiding a real problem or of ignoring an impending problem or, perhaps, as a way of avoiding a little extra work. “Why”, for example, “reinvent the wheel” may be a way of avoiding the work of reinventing something that needs to be reinvented. We do not, after all, use wagon wheels on automobiles, so at some point it was indeed necessary to reinvent the wheel and it may not always be easy to tell which came first the “automobile” or the “reinvented wheel.” Some will tell us “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But just because a thing is not currently broken does not mean it is not in the process of breaking and a bit of preventative maintenance may be “just the ticket.” A cliché, like any piece of writing, needs to be judged by the circumstances in which it is employed. Some may always be dubious, but others may at times still serve a useful purpose. It is also very difficult, at times, to find a phrase that is not on some level clichéd. Is, for example, the phrase “serve a useful purpose” a cliché? Is it an over used expression? Some might think so. Others may see in it an avenue to a more economical compositional style.

The Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, La Gioconda)
Leonardo da Vinci

The paintings above and below are not unlike the two pieces of music, one having become a cliché and the other playing games with clichés. It is a danger for an artist who does something too well that that something may eventually become a cliché. Leonardo da Vinci is almost a Renaissance cliché in and of himself. He is often pointed to as the definition of the Renaissance, an inadequate definition in that he did not represent all areas of cultural advancement with which the Renaissance is associated but probably he was adept at enough of them to make the comparison work. C. S. Lewis said, “For it must be noticed that such dominance (the dominance of a literary form in any given age) is not necessarily good for the form that enjoys it. When everyone feels it natural to attempt the same kind of writing, that kind is in danger. Its characteristics are formalized. A stereotyped monotony, unnoticed by contemporaries, but cruelly apparent to posterity, begins to pervade it.” This is often the fate of the cliché, whether in painting, music, literature, or any other art form. It is because Beethoven’s Fifth (or the opening anyway) has become clichéd that the music often evokes a comic response when there is not necessarily anything comic in the music. Or is there? Was Beethoven being a bit over dramatic to serve a kind of satiric purpose in the music? Does the musical cliché it has become serve the musical purpose for which it was created? I am not sure. I do not think there is a comic intent behind the Mona Lisa but it has devolved a bit into “kitsch” because of the place it holds in the culture.

The Disquieting Muses
Giorgio de Chirico

The painting by Chirico plays with iconic forms from classical art for comic purposes and, probably, social commentary as well. It also plays with allusions to classical culture when it plays with the muses from Greek and Roman myth. There is the juxtaposition of the castle, a Renaissance cliché with the factory, a modernist cliché. The muse in the background appears as a conventional human likeness while the muses in the foreground have . . . well I am not certain what they have for heads. The colored box suggests the motley costume of the clown Pierrot from the Comedia del Arte. But are these in fact clichés or are they archetypes or symbols that add richness and do not in any way detract? For an icon of any kind to work it must be readily identifiable with that which it represents and it is this quick identification that gives it power. The issue is not so much the cliché as it is its use, is it a kind of laziness that enables us to avoid thinking deeply about something by letting the cliché do the thinking for us, or does it evoke ideas that lend a bit of depth to the issue being examined.

Plan Nine from Outer Space
Ed Wood

Ed Wood enjoyed a moment of popularity a few years back when a film biography was made about him. But what made Wood an attractive subject for this film was the excruciating excess of cliché and poor production techniques that characterized his films. These excesses made them comic, though comedy was not the Wood’s intent when he made the films. From the clip it can be seen how on one level there is almost a Monty-Python-esque humor to them. The characters are so over-blown and caricatured that it is difficult to take them seriously. Groucho Marx once said of Margret Dumont that she was the perfect foil for the comedian because she did not get the jokes. Others disagree with this assessment, but perhaps it has some truth in regards to Ed Wood, maybe he was a film comedian who did not get his own jokes.

Still, the problem with Ed Wood and taking him seriously as a filmmaker is that he did not seem to understand when a film convention had been overused. Films are full of clichés and conventions, even very good ones. Sometimes these are used to point the viewer in the direction of the filmmakers influences, as when Harrison Ford makes his way across the bottom of the German truck in The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg is paying a complement to John Ford by evoking a scene from one of his films, Stagecoach, where John Wayne does something similar traveling underneath a stagecoach. It works like an allusion in literature to an earlier piece of writing. These allusions add richness to the film as they add richness to a poem or story. It is not necessary to understand the allusion for the scene to work, but it gives an additional level of pleasure to those that understand the allusion. They remind us that most works of art are produced by a culture that has a cultural heritage full of symbols, archetypes, and images that connect the parts of the culture to the whole.

Front Cover for the LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the artist The Beatles.
The cover art copyright is believed to belong to EMI Records, Ltd.

If we look at the images that fill the album cover of The Beatles record Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band we will see figures from throughout the culture, including an early version of The Beatles behind the more current incarnation of the album’s release. But amongst the crew that surrounds them are comedians and cowboys and film stars; writers, scientists, and clergy. There does not seem to be much that is left out. What is the point of putting all these images into the cover? Does it make a commentary on the music or is it just there to catch the eye of the record buyer to help sell the record? Often clichés are comfortable because whether they serve a real purpose or not they do not usually ask much of us or even if they do, it is not that difficult to avoid the work they invite us to perform by just focusing on the cliché itself. This is perhaps the ultimate weakness of the cliché, that even if it is intended to serve a higher purpose and the writer or artist is not being lazy in the use of the cliché, it is still very easy for the reader or viewer to be lazy in her or his interpretation of it.

Keeping It Simple

St. Matthew Passion “Choral: Erkenne mich, mein Huter”
J. S. Bach
American Tune
Paul Simon

Keeping It Simple

Cure for Oversleeping
Rube Goldberg

Beauty often lives in simplicity. Bach so appreciated the beauty of this simple melody that he used it again and again. Paul Simon also valued the simplicity and beauty of the tune and put it to work in his song American Tune. Whether it is a simple melody like that from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (and a half dozen others at least) or a simple explication of a poem or story, or the poem or story itself, simplicity lends a degree of elegance to the work. I like Occam’s Razor (“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”) when it comes to most things, which simply suggests that the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts is probably the truth. What made Rube Goldberg’s cartoons so funny was that they demonstrated excessively complicated ways of solving extremely simple problems, like getting up in the morning. It is human nature, I believe, to prefer simplicity, even though we often live our lives as though our inclinations favored a different direction.

But it is important to remember that there is a difference between being simple and simple minded. The simplest explanation of a poem may be very complex and somewhat opaque. Being simple is not always the same as being easy. I think most of us equate a simple task with an easy one, when in fact it may only be simple because there are not many steps to carry out, though those few steps may place demands on our skill, abilities, and intellects. What simplifying a task often does is make it easier to focus on the work to be done, as there are not a lot of superfluous details that confuse or obfuscate. But that which demands our focus often requires all of our attention.

Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, called The Ambassadors
Hans Holbein the Younger

The other side of the coin is being as simple as possible even though the work itself is very complicated. The painting above is very ornate. There are the designs in the curtains, the rug, the cloth on shelf, and in the robes of the ambassador in brown. There are many objects on the shelf as well. The detail found in the painting of the textiles is necessary to capture the reality of the scene but the objects placed in the painting have a symbolic value, many being associated with the various components of a liberal arts education of the time. Then there is that funny looking object on the floor between the two ambassadors. It is odd and appears, unlike everything else, very unreal.

It is a puzzle that Holbein placed in the painting and can only be seen for exactly what it is if the painting is viewed at the right angle, which is from the side and definitely not straight on. When viewed from the side, the strange object on the floor is seen to be a human skull. One of the stories told about the painting is that it was intended to be hung in a stairwell and that the skull would suddenly jump out at the person climbing up the stairs. One can imagine the effect this might have on a dark and stormy night. But whatever the intended effect this painting is not one that was done simply, though, it is hard to imagine it being done any more simply and still produce the effect that it does, it is as complicated as it needs to be, but not much more complicated, and that is, perhaps, a definition of simplicity.

Static-Dynamic Gradation, 1923
Paul Klee (German, 1879–1940)
Oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink
15 x 10 1/4 in. (38.1 x 26.1 cm)
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.12)

Some have questioned whether the work of modern artists like Paul Klee is really art at all. The painting above is a checkerboard pattern with each of the squares in a different color (in some cases the difference is very slight). But if you look at the photograph below of the Dome of the Rock you see an ancient place that takes a similar delight in geometric shapes in different shades of white, blue and brown. It is the same delight that many of us took as children in playing with a kaleidoscope, which was also play with shades and shapes.

Dome of the Rock

Writing, when it is done well, evokes the simplicity or complexity of its subject but it always attempts to present its subject in as simple a light as possible. The skilled writer looks for the simplest path through the chosen subject. This is not easy and it is important to remember, simple is rarely easy. In fact what often makes poor writing poor is its unnecessary complexity that is usually an indication that the focus has been lost, that words are being used like shotgun pellets to hit everything in the hope that something might stick. I have assignments that I give where I require students to do something in a limited amount of space. They are used to getting assignments where they are told they must write at least a pre-determined number of pages, but they are rarely told they are to write no more than a page or two. I have seen students struggle more writing something that is short and to the point than with something that can be as long as they want to make it.

Simplicity, being concise and to the point, is often the most difficult thing we can be asked to do. When asked to compare writing short stories to writing novels, William Faulkner said, “You can be more careless, you can put more trash in it and be excused for it. In a short story that’s next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right, in the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t.” This is the struggle that all writers face. If they are to write well they must learn to identify what is necessary and what is not. Even in the novel where much will be forgiven, the reader’s patience and tolerance is not endless and even that which is done badly must be done badly in an artful way.

Shaker Loops
John Adams

The music is called Shaker Loops. It was not initially called this, but after re-working the piece Adams thought the Shaker’s ritual practice of ecstatically jumping about and their dedication to simplicity underscored what he was trying to achieve not just in this composition but in most of his work. He comes from, he helped to establish, the minimalist school of composition. The orchestrations are as bare boned as he can make them, they are very simple, but for those that are captured by the work of Adams, and others like him, there is a delight that the music provokes. For music that is as bare boned as this, melody, the most accessible quality of a musical score, plays a relatively minor role. Adams focuses instead on rhythms and harmony, a much more difficult path to ecstasy than melody.

Shaker Furniture

The music is not unlike these pieces of Shaker furniture. There is not much more to these pieces than a graceful line combined with a skilled and sturdy craftsmanship, there is nothing “ornate” about this furniture. The simplicity of the furniture is meant to reflect the simplicity of the soul that crafted and uses it. It is somewhat ironic that one must be almost independently wealthy to afford a good piece of Shaker furniture.

In the world of school work and work itself, we are often drowning in unnecessary complexity. The philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote a review of an interesting sounding book Shop Class as Soul Craft. The review is titled “Making Things Work” and Fukuyama delights in the idea that in shop class things have to work. He talks about how the author of the book, Matthew B. Crawford, spent his spare time while in college taking old Volkswagen engines apart and putting them back together. I took a bit of delight in this part of the review because I, as a young man in college, bought a book by John Muir (not the gentleman who introduced Teddy Roosevelt to Yosemite) that took you step by step through the dismantling and reassembling of the V. W. engine. I could not master this, having no aptitude for mechanics, myself, but I had friends who did. These friends could also attest to the importance of doing the job right. I had one friend who discovered he had not quite gotten it right when he arrived at college five or six hundred miles away from his tools, which were still at home.

It is easy when our work is done exclusively in the mind to overlook whether or not what we are thinking has any practical merit, if it will in fact work. As a professional I think I have only my instincts and judgment to rely upon. But I know from my classroom experience that often those things that I felt were working well, did not in fact accomplish the goal I had set for the exercise. On the other side of the coin, I have had the experience of feeling as though things are not working at all, that all is a dreadful failure, only to find out later that much, sometimes most, of what I set out to do had been accomplished.

This suggests to me that judgment and instinct are not always enough. My limitations as a mechanic become obvious as soon as the key is put in the ignition. The machine that is improperly assembled reveals everything, there are no secrets, there are no abstract theories, just an engine that will not take the spark and do what it does with gasoline and fire. In the end, in the classroom the educational machine must work and the only evidence that it is working is if the spark that lights the intellect and the imagination ignites and does its thing with fire.