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This is a cautionary tale about the importance of clarity in language.

Ordinary conversation is often ambiguous. We speak to our friends in sentence fragments punctuated with “uhs,” “likes” and “ya knows.” But the meaning comes through by context. A good deal of what we communicate comes via gesture, tone of voice, and the fact that our conversant shares our experience. But when instructions are given, it is important that there be no room for misinterpretation.


As Chinese war philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

And so, I have no one to blame but myself.

I am forced to recall the case of Robert E. Lee and Richard Ewell at Gettysburg in 1863. Lee, being a Southern gentleman, had always had a hard time issuing direct orders, choosing instead to make polite suggestions, which he fully expected his officers to understand as commands. When Ewell didn’t do so in front of Culp’s Hill on July 2, the Confederate army lost the advantage, and ultimately, the battle.

Would clearer orders have changed the course of battle and war? Maybe not, but it certainly meant that the battle would continue for days, and it is clear that Gettysburg marked the turning point in the war.

What does this mean for me and my beard?

I have had a beard for 50 years. It has been my constant chin companion. In that time, it has been kept long, sometimes short and often unkempt. It was a rich hue when I was young, has progressively become gray, and finally, so light a shade of gray as to be indistinguishable from white.

I began the shaggy thing in college, not so much as a fashion choice, and not to brag of my manfulness, but rather because I was too lazy to shave. In fact, I hated shaving. Let the damn thing propagate, I thought. After a few years, the beard became so much a part of me, that I never even fancied the thought of seeing what might lie beneath. My chin was obscured by the duck blind of whisker.


The hair on the bottom of my head has grown lush even as the hair on the top has become sparse. Younger men whose hairlines have begun to draw back sometimes shave it all off, preferring the billiard-ball look to the billboard admission of creeping baldness. In recent years, the sheen of scalp has become something of a fashion statement. I have never chosen this route, but have had something of a similar reaction to tonsorial care as I once had on the issue of shaving.

For years now, I have gone to the barber and asked to have my hair trimmed down to an eighth of an inch. This strategy began in Arizona when the summer threatened and an ultra buzzcut promised to be marginally cooler than anything else. I would get the scalp mowed about every six months, after that point where it was necessary to take a comb to it. I didn’t like combing my hair much more than I ever liked shaving my beard. The close crop solved that problem.

“Would you like me to trim the beard, too,” the barber would say. “No, I trim that myself.” And I did, for 50 years, periodically taking a scissors to it to curb its profusion.

Recently, however, I have asked my current barber to tackle the beard also. She is so much more refined a topiarist than I am, and she has been training my shaggy beard into something more delightfully Hemingwayesque.

Well, last week, it was time for my semi-annual. I went to my usual barber shop and waited my turn.

Unfortunately, my regular barber was not there, and I was invited to recline on the chair of an alternate. He was a very kindly old Southern fellow, with hair as snowy as my own. With my regular barber, I never had to explain what I wanted, since she knew very well. “Here for your six-month?” she would say, laughing at my hair-cutting habits.

Alas, she was not there, and my bullpen needed instruction. This is where I should have been more specific. This is where the lessons of General Lee and Sun Tzu should have instructed me.

“What do you want?” the old barber asked.

“Cut it down to about an eighth of an inch,” I said.

“And do you want me to trim your beard, too?”

“Yes,” I said, and the die was cast.
At first, I had no clue of disaster. He took the electric buzzer to my dome and started mowing the hair down. But before I noticed, and before I could say anything, he dragged the mower down my cheek and the glorious chin-garden was deflowered.

Because I am now living in the South, I couldn’t get all Yankee and scream imprecations at the poor barber. “You damn beard murderer! Why, I’ll get my cousin Tony to come down here and burn your house down and see how you like that!”

No, we don’t do things like that in North Carolina, so instead, I said, “Well, it’s a new look, I guess. I’ll see if I can come to like it. But it does mean I won’t be able to dress up as Santa this Christmas.”

But I would be able to impersonate Harvey Weinstein or Steve Bannon. This is not a situation devoutly to be wished. He held a mirror up for me to look at and Harvey and Steve both looked back at me. This was more suited to Halloween than Christmas. I cringed. I weeped inside. I looked facially naked. And the three-day-growth look that seems so sexy with buff young studs looks on me more like grandpa forgot to shave again. And believe me, I don’t wish to be mistaken for either Weinstein or Bannon.

Or, nearly as bad, the sagging skin-sack, stubble-bound and watery-eyed, of Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil. Gives me the creeps.

The best I can hope for is that others my age will remember Red Connors from the Hopalong Cassidy TV series of the early 1950s. Red was played by the venerable Edgar Buchanan, veteran of hundreds of movies and latterly of dozens of TV shows. His chin stubble defined him for me, through the Hoppy series and the Judge Roy Bean TV show after that, and, although I was too old to watch it regularly by the time it came on, through his stint as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

So, I wait patiently to age into my beard once again, learning the ancient sage lesson of the slow progress of life, and, of course, to be more careful in my language.

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We know what photography is: You point a camera at something and take its picture. But what if you don’t use a camera? And what if there is nothing to make a picture of?

Certainly, many have used their cameras to make abstract or quasi abstract images. Sometimes you just have to get close enough to avoid any context, or take it from some extreme angle.
Many decades ago, when I was teaching photography — so long ago that the photo lab was filled with noxious chemicals and darkness visible — I played around with making abstract photographs. Most of my photographs were landscapes and portraits, but in the darkroom between classes, I had time on my hands and tried a number of things out.

But let’s take this a step at a time. First, some straight photographs.

Many years before I began teaching, I knew an artist in Greensboro, NC, named Aime Groulx (he signed his name with a dot over the “X” as if it were an “I”). He was primarily a sculptor, but he also made photographs. One he made was of a doorknob in his house that looked like nothing else but a newly discovered planet. He called it “Doorknob to the Door of Perception.” He was an indifferent printer, but I used his negative to make a good silver print, which I still have.

The image was both totally realistic — it was a doorknob — and yet, as Minor White used to say, it is “what it is, and what else it is.”

Over the years, I took this lesson to heart and made many an image that seemed to be something more than what it is. An orange can be a planet, too.

Or a sand dune can be a spiral.

Finding interesting and beautiful shapes divorced from their quotidian meaning can make us see them more sharply, make us understand something about the colors, shapes, textures, that being able simply to name the subject of a photo prevents us from acknowledging. When we recognize too easily what our photo is of, the image ceases being visual and becomes instead a word. “That’s a picture of a house;” “That’s a picture of a dog,” and by naming it, we find we have done our job and neglect to actually look and to see.

Making something abstract forces us to see those colors, shapes, textures — allows us to find new emotional meanings in the familiar, and new designs.

So, then, let’s take the camera out of the process. Once digital photography nudged out the silver, dried out the Dektol and replaced the Beseler 23C with Photoshop, there were other ways of making image files.

I began experimenting with a flatbed scanner, making extremely high-definition images of flowers. With the scanner cover left open, the background of these images became a very deep black or blue-black and only the parts of the flowers held flat on the glass platen were fully focused. The images were stunning and essentially shadowless.

I tried other things, too.

But there was still a lens involved in the scanner. So, let us return to earlier days, when chemicals still stained a photographer’s hands. I tried scratching the end-bits of developed rolls of film and printing them as if they were negatives.

Still, however, there was the lens of the enlarger focusing the negative down onto the silver paper.

I wanted to get into the image directly, with no mechanical mediation. I wanted to get my hands into the process the way a potter gets his hands into the clay.

So, I dipped my hand into the tray of sodium hyposulfite and pressed it wet onto a sheet of light-sensitive paper, then washed the hypo off the paper and doused it in the developer, which turned the image black except for where the hypo had left its imprint. It made for rather spooky gorilla hands.

I tried it in the reverse way, too, dipping my hand into the developer and then, after the blacked image appeared, finished the process in stop bath and hypo. That gave me a black hand on a white sheet.

Certainly, this gave me an image of the familiar that was decontextualized and made strange. I saw my hand very differently.

There is, however, only so much you can do with a hand. After the first hundred or so versions of my hand, I tried some other things. Like scattering salt on the paper and spraying the developer like Windex down onto the sheet, leaving a scattering of stars on the paper.

I also tried dusting the paper with dry developer granules and spraying it with water, making the black specks on the lighter background. The spray made the salt or the developer wash weakly over the paper, making mid-tones that I enjoyed.

You could make an image that vaguely resembled a portrait.

These experiments continued over the six years I taught, but when I left that job, I became a writer instead of a photographer. My camera was used primarily to illustrate stories I was writing.

I look back at some of the images I made so long ago and feel there might have been something in them. Whether there is or not, the process was worth the time; it gave me great pleasure.

Click on any image to enlarge

When I was in second or third grade, we had weekly lists of vocabulary words to learn, lists of ten or a dozen new words. And we were assigned to write sentences using these words. And me, being a smartass even back then, I worked hard each week to write a single sentence using all ten words. Even now I’m not sure if I did it to be clever or because I was lazy and didn’t want to write ten sentences.

But when I look back on it, I realize it was a dead give-away clue that I would later earn my crust by becoming a writer. I loved words, and I loved using words.

Other kidlings might groan when the teacher picked up the chalk to diagram sentences, but I loved those underlines and slants, those networks of adjectives and conjunctions. It was fun, like doing a crossword puzzle or connecting the dots.

When I was young enough, before the cutoff date for it, I didn’t learn words so much as acquire them. But even when it later took the effort, I still did my best to expand my word trove.

And as I grew into adolescence and I read constantly — everything from Lew Wallace to the backs of cereal boxes — I continued to absorb words. I would sometimes pore over a dictionary, picking out new and intriguing words. They were not merely signifiers of semantic meaning, but entities in and of themselves. Others might go “ooh” and “aww” over a puddle of newborn kittens, I did the same thing over bits of verbal amber and gleam.

It did not seem at all odd when the ailing pulp writer Philip Marlow in The Singing Detective asked his nurse, “What’s the loveliest word in the English language? In the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page?” His answer was “elbow.” That would not have been mine, but I’m not sure I could have chosen. Words have a taste in the mouth, and however much one might like foie gras, one cannot do without ripe peaches or buttered asparagus. I loved all words, fair and foul. And I loved the mouth-feel of them, like a perfect custard.

British polymath Stephen Fry often tells the story (perhaps too often) of how when he was a wee bairn, he saw on the small black-and-white TV in his home the 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest. He was struck by a line spoken by Algernon: “I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection.”

“How unbelievably beautiful,” Fry says. “The swing, balance and rhythm. I’d known you could use language to say, ‘May I please be excused to go to the washroom,’ or ‘I want some more,’ but the idea that it could be used to dance, to delight, to enthrall — it was new to me.”

And Fry became what he called “a celebrant and worshipper at the altar of language.”

For me, it wasn’t Wilde, but James Joyce, first reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was in high school and being swept along in a tidal current of language. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo …”

We had been taught in grade school to speed read, along with a dreadful little machine that mechanically drew a rod down along a page, drawing one to move line by line in a forced march through the text; we would then be tested on our comprehension. Day by day, the guide rod was moved more and more speedily down the page, making us read faster and faster, until we could skim and recall very well, thank you.

But that wasn’t the kind of reading that gave me physical, bodily pleasure. And when I came across books like Joyce’s, I slowed down. I could not read them without hearing the words in my head. Without feeling them on my tongue and teeth.

A sentence such as our introduction to our hero in Ulysses cannot be read merely for sense. It has to be understood for its music, almost ecstatic, like Handel’s Zadok the Priest or Beethoven’s Great Fugue: “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” Your tongue creates phonic choreography in your mouth as you form those words.

I remember when I was perhaps 24 or 25, reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and stumbling on so many odd and eccentric words, that I kept a notepad next to my desk to write down such words as I underlined in my copies of the books (yes, I write in my books. If you don’t write in the margins or underline passages, you haven’t really read the book). “Pegamoid,” “ululation,” “usufruct,” “exiguous,” chthonic,” “etiolation,” “boustrophedon,” “tenebrous,” “crepitating,” “cachinnation,” “comminatory,” and, apropos our current resident of the White House, “troglodyte.” (Another great word to remember in this regard is the title of a satiric philippic by Seneca the Younger — “apocalocyntosis” the “Pumpkinification,” in the original of the emperor Claudius, but our case of the Great Orange Boor.)

You probably have to be young to read Durrell, when you still hold idealistic and romantic expectations, and to put up with the prose pourpre, but my word-hoard grew. It became something of a joke when I wrote for my newspaper, where I’m sure the copy editors were laughing at me for using six-dollar words like chocolate sprinkles on a donut. I used them because I loved them, and because they were precise: When you develop a ripe vocabulary, you learn there are no synonyms in the English language: Each word carries with it a nimbus of connotation, a flavoring or a shade that makes it the right or wrong word for the context. No matter how close their dictionary definitions, words are not simply interchangeable.

Anyway, I had my little joke back on the copy editors. For a period of about six months back in the 1990s, every story I wrote had in it a word I plain made up. My game was to see if I could sneak them past the copy desk. Some were onomatopoeic, some were Latinate or Hellenic portmanteaus, some were little more than dripping streams of morphemes. And, to my utter delight, every one of them made it through the editors. A few were questioned, but when I explained them, they were permitted. Looking back, I regret this persistent joke, because it was aimed at that little-praised but admirable set of forgotten heroes, who have many times saved my butt when I wrote something stupid. Let me express my gratitude for them; everyone needs a copy editor.

Occasionally, when I have an empty moment, and I don’t have access to a crossword puzzle, I will sit and write lists of words as they come to my brain. Each word has its own cosmos of meaning, an electron-cloud of ambiguity and precision, its emotional scent, its sound and its fury. As I write them down, I savor each one, like an hors d’oeuvre. Such lists, in their way, are my billets doux to my native tongue, which has fed me both spiritually and financially over many decades.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll.

I am sitting at the edge of a continent, looking out at a flat expanse of grayish blue, which falls away from me, and when I force myself to notice it, rolls downward at the horizon and below my line of sight – it is the rounded top of a ferris wheel revolving eastward at some speed.

Nearer to shore, the color is broken with bands of white, breakers on the beach, but further out it is expansive. Somewhat below the horizon, far out to sea, a hurricane is sending its message in waves to our shore. Wind blows the trees nearby, and the surf is riled. There is mizzle in the air. The storm has passed here once again, only glancing at us as it moves by.

When we are young, the sea is romantic. It is the cradle endlessly rocking, we write poems about it, spindrift and seawrack, we stare out at it as if we were expecting to discover our adventure.

Many of us manage to maintain this sense of awe in the face of the waters, but for others, the sea has become a summer rental, or a weekend away from the city. If you were privileged to sail across the ocean on a ship, you will change your attitude in another way: It will become a daily monotony of wet flatness. Either way, the ocean will lose some of its mastery over us.

It is the edge of a continent. I have been back and over that continent more times than I can count, and have a body memory of its extent. I know in my bones the size of it, measured in days on the road, in the exchange of one horizon for the succeeding one. There are hills, cities, forests, grasslands, rivers, traffic lights – let’s not forget the traffic lights – and the homes of friends we stop to visit.

Looking east from here, though, out to sea, the globe is not speckled with features; it is uniform, save for the wiggle of waves and the rise and fall of the swell. It is a face without eyes, nose or mouth. And one senses that if you were to reach the horizon – that edge of your vision from any single location – you would find only another, identical horizon the same distance hence.

Inland, the picture is busy, it is our daily lives, the commerce between people, the schedules, the hubbub, the striving, the disappointment. It is populated and squirming. In that sense, it is life.

Outward, the sea shows us blankness of the non-human cosmos, seeming to be unlimited, at the very least, with no surveyor’s stakes plotting out squares of ownership. It is the blankness of death, and therefore, death itself. It is why we stare out at it, why it stares back, why it fills us up so we are like a bottle overflowing.

I have seen three of the planet’s oceans and several of its smaller seas – small but still immense. I have lived on the Atlantic shore and on the Pacific Coast and felt very different oceans. I have sailed on both. I have seen the Indian Ocean, and felt the warm, humid air, thick as a fur coat, from its shore. I have seen the North Sea and the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez. And all of them leave me with a sense of a flatness stretching out like a drumhead, but curling down over their horizons, and always, I know that past that eye-reach is more flatness. More water; more swell, more wave, more whitecaps, more low clouds, shifting with the barometer.

The oceans are not infinite, I know. They are not eternal, I know. Byron’s encomium is nowadays wishful thinking: “Man marks the earth with ruin; his control/ Stops with the shore.” Pace Byron, but we are fouling the seas quite efficiently now.

Nevertheless, that does not change our sense of the watery parts of the world. They beckon us to our life adventure – at least in our minds, they do – and they speak what Whitman called the low, delicious word, “The word final, superior to all.”

They remind us of the vastness of the universe, our measly place in it as pismires, our short parole upon the watery planet, to be revoked at a time unknown to us – a knock on the door, a suitcase packed ready to go.

No doubt it is why the oceans look so beautiful to us. They promise that there is something larger, less transitory, less mutable.

I look out on the Atlantic this morning, storm offshore, waves pawing the sand around like a cat playing with a mouse. I look up at the clouds, gray as the water beneath; I look beyond them.

“If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

I recently wrote about the Bible as part of our cultural heritage, along with Ovid, and the importance for our younger readers to be familiar with both of them, since they provide such an important resonance for so much of our art and literature. Not simply as footnotes to explain some obscure allusion in some poem you are studying, but as a kind of foundation layer — a diapason for everything that has followed and sounding deeply underneath it.

I received one rather snarky comment complaining that my piece was characteristically over-weighted with Western culture, and that I should have also mentioned non-Western writings.

My reader, I think, had rather missed the point. I was talking about the Western culture we were born into. I was not making a value judgement that ours is necessarily better or more important than others. But I was not born into the Chinese, Indian, African or Native American cultures.

I have always encouraged the widest possible exposure to the rest of the world. I have tried to read widely in other cultures, and to familiarize myself with the art and music of other peoples.

But there are two problems inherent in the criticism my misguided reader has leveled at me. This is not to exculpate myself — I do sometimes overvalue my own culture — but rather to point out some serious problems with trying to be too cosmopolitan. I wish I could embrace all times and all cultures, and god knows, I have tried my best. I read widely, whether the Mahabharata or the Tao Te Ching; I have studied the development of Chinese landscape painting and the impenetrable glyphs of Mesoamerica; I have attended Chinese opera; I watch the new cinema of Iran. I traveled to South Africa to study contemporary art there.

One should be familiar with the Popol Vuh, with the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead, Gilgamesh and the Shahnameh.

One should also read more recent things by Chinua Achebe, Athol Fugard, R.K. Narayan, Kobo Abe, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa. Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are hardly less essential than Leo Tolstoy or William Faulkner.

Still, there are insurmountable problems with the whole idea.

The first is that no matter how much I study, how much I learn — even if I were to get my Ph.D. in the Fu poets of China and were able to read them in their original language — Chinese culture would never be native to me. Culture, like language, is acquired, not learned. And just as it is impossible after the teen years to acquire a new language as a native tongue, no matter how well you learn that new language, you can never fully absorb a non-native culture. You will always know it from the outside.  Its idioms are elusive.

So, the sort of resonance I wrote about — the unconscious undertones you pick up when reading in your own lingua that deepen your emotional understanding of your text — you can never fully acquire in a culture you study later in life. Deep as you penetrate, you cannot soak it in the same way a Chinese child, or an Indian child soaks in his own.

Related to this is the second problem.

The pretense of assuming a non-native culture is almost always a form of Orientalizing. That is, there is a kind of romanticized sheen that is cast over the other culture. And that other culture is often used as a flail to scourge one’s native culture.

Lord knows, Europe has a lot to answer for historically. And those who bemoan Western culture use the counter-example from some other culture to make the point. The problem with this kind of cultural self-loathing is that it ignores the simple fact that it is not Western culture that creates the evil, it is human beings that do so. Every culture has its evils to answer for. Europe may, in the past 500 years been dominant, and have a list of sins more immediate in our cultural memory, but we should never forget that all cultures are made up of humans, and humans do and have always done reprehensible things.

I once made a study of genocides, and which religions have been responsible for the largest portion of them. Turns out they all have their murders. The religion least likely to turn on others is Buddhism. Yet, even they have their share; not the least is the current situation with the Rohingya in Burma. So, historically speaking, no one escapes blame. Before Columbus, Native Americans were not living in peace and amity: They were killing each other. China had Mao; Cambodia had Pol Pot; Rwanda had its Tutsis and Hutus. Humans red in tooth and claw.

The romanticization of other cultures leads to some utter silliness. I never cease to be stunned by all the “harmony with nature” blather about American Indians, as if they, as a group (and not a hundred different languages and cultures), had some magic relationship with the natural world that Europeans do not. You look at European painting or read Western poetry and practically all you see or hear is nature, finely seen and deeply felt.

And conversely, you travel through the Navajo reservation in Arizona and see the profound overgrazing that has devastated grasslands. Or visit First Mesa on the Hopi reservation (one of the places I most love in the world), and peek over the edge of the precipice and see the trash and old mattress springs tossed down the cliff as a trash dump. Talk to me then about how Native Americans live in harmony with nature.

No, I don’t mean to imply that Europeans are better than Native Americans, nor do I mean that some Native Americans don’t have a specific cultural relationship with the natural world. What I mean to state is that Native Americans are people too, and are just as capable of being less than their best selves.

These two problems together mean that when we leave our own milieu, we are always tourists — or at best, travelers — strangers in a strange land, fascinated by this bauble or that, able to learn lessons and pick up fresh ways of understanding existence, but these are always souvenirs, the benefits of travel that broaden our horizons.

When we Orientalize — idealize the foreignness of others — we can easily toss away the pith and suck on the bark. There is much value, say, in Buddhism. And if one is to have a religion, it is certainly the least offensive, with the least blood on its hands. But if you want to be one, be a Buddhist in a jacket and tie; don’t shave your head and wear yellow robes. If you were born in Indiana or West Anglia, these Volkgedanken externals miss the elemental meaning and turn profound ideas into cosplay.

So, be aware of the rest of the world. Read widely and deeply. But also, drink deeply from the culture that gave you birth. You may understand other places and other peoples in your head, but you feel your own in your belly. If you are Chinese, dive into Chinese culture; if Mexican, soak in your history, literature and art; if you are born into the culture of Chaucer and King James, imbibe deeply of the Pierian Spring. Learning from other cultures broadens you, but your mother culture nourishes you.

A few years ago, I read the Bible, cover to cover, and my general response was “These people were out in the desert sun too long.”

I mean, you must slice off bits of your private parts, but you must never cut off your sideburns? You cannot wear cotton blends without risking being stoned to death or eternally damned? If you have a flat nose, you cannot go to your house of worship? I mean, either you have to allow the possibility that in 40 years in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, someone suffered sunstroke, or that perhaps the manna from heaven was actually some sort of psychotropic mushroom.

Or, you can read the so-called prophetic books and ask yourself, is this some sort of occult conspiracy gibberish? It too often reads like word salad. There is some sanity in the gospels, but then you descend back into paranoid craziness with St. Paul.

I can think of no better prophylactic against religion than actually reading the Bible. Those who profess belief too often cherry-pick the parts they like and ouija-board interpret the prophesies and ignore the batshit nutjob stuff that surrounds it all.

So, I hope I have established my bona fides as a non-believer when I say I am against removing the Bible from public schools. That’s right — I believe the Bible should be taught in school from an early age. Not for religious indoctrination, and also not for religious inoculation, but rather to familiarize the upcoming students with the stories from the book.

The Four Evangelists by Jacob Jordaens

When I was teaching art history, many, many years ago, I was surprised that my students knew so little about the subject matter of the paintings we were studying. Renaissance and Baroque paintings are suffused with biblical imagery, and to understand what is going on in many of those paintings, you need to know the cultural context — i.e., you need to know the Bible stories.

But, in a test, when I asked “Who were the four Evangelists,” only two of a class of 22 knew. One of them half-remembered, “John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

It hardly mattered if the students considered themselves Christian, or even merely generally religious. They were by and large, astonishingly ignorant of their cultural patrimony.

Abraham and Isaac. Cain and Abel. Lot’s wife. Jacob and Esau. Potiphar’s wife. Jacob’s ladder. Aaron’s rod. The golden calf. Balaam’s ass. Joshua and Jericho. David and Jonathan.

There are tons of stories that were once the common well of cultural reference for all European and Euro-American peoples, and by extension and the African-American church, for Black Americans, too.

It isn’t just Renaissance paintings, but in everything from Medieval illuminated manuscripts to the poetry of W.H. Auden. It shows up in sculpture, in novels, in dance, in symphonic music and Baroque opera.

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Rubens

Daniel in the lion’s den. Boaz and Ruth. Jonah and the great fish. Paul and the road to Damascus. The massacre of the innocents. The wedding at Cana. The raising of Lazarus. The giving unto Caesar. Doubting Thomas.

The loss of these stories in popular parlance isn’t just a loss of religious faith, but a casting off of hundreds of years of art, literature and mores.

When Herman Melville begins his magnum opus with “Call me Ishmael,” we need to understand who Ishmael was in the Bible if we want to feel the depth of the meaning of such a simple statement. It resonates.

When John Steinbeck titles his book, East of Eden, do we know what geography he is laying out for us? When William Jennings Bryan exhorts us not be be crucified on a “cross of gold,” do we feel the mythic undertones of his rhetoric? Everything we say has resonance, more and less, with the long line of cultural continuity. We have lived with the Bible, in one form or another (depending on denomination) for nearly 2,000 years, and the Torah, for even longer and the residue from it has colored almost every cultural effusion since the Emperor Constantine decided to change the rules for the Roman Empire.

Of course, it isn’t only the Bible that needs to be taught. All of Greek and Roman mythology is equally part of our cultural inheritance. It should also be taught. How can you read Shakespeare or Milton — or John Updike — without it? I would recommend that everyone by the 8th grade have read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

What I see is a rising population of those cut off from their past, from their inheritance. They are like untuned strings, with no fiddle or lute to provide resonance. And it is this resonance that is so important. A familiarity with our cultural origins allows meaning to open up when you read, that emotions become complex and connections are made. The world is electrified: A switch has been turned on and a darkened room is lit.

And what do you get without this resonance? I fear you need only look at the White House and its current occupant (and I use the word advisedly: an “occupant,” like an anonymous piece of junk mail rather than a “resident,” which implies roots.) For without resonance, you have simplicity instead of complexity, you have response without consideration of consequence. If someone insults you, heck, punch him in the face — a simple and simple-minded response. And a dangerous imbecility in the face of the complex cross-forces and dangers of the interconnected world.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Resonance is complexity. It is the plate tectonics under the surface geography.

A great deal of art and literature has something important to say to us, and the best of it resonates within the sounding board of 6,000 years of cultural development, with each layer built on the last and a through-line of meaning. Without it we are intellectually, emotionally and morally naked.

I have a book I love greatly. In august buckram, of a deep navy blue, with gold embossed letters on the spine, it is the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, compiled in 1951 by Iona and Peter Opie. It is more than an anthology; it is a deeply researched tome of scholarship, as one would expect from the Universitatis Oxoniensis.

Each rhyme is compiled with variorum versions and usually several pages of history, interpretation and arcana. Humpty Dumpty covers four pages, with footnotes. We learn that versions exist in Sweden (“Thille Lille”); in Switzerland (“Annebadadeli”); Germany (“Rüntzelkien-Püntzelken”); France (“Boule Boule”) and elsewhere. That Humpty-Dumpty is the name of a boiled ale-and-brandy drink; that there is a little girls’ game by the same name; that the name was also given to a siege engine in the English Civil War.

And we learn that there is a commonly-held belief that the rhyme (I can’t really call it a poem) is really about the fall of “My kingdom for a horse” Richard III. Not, apparently, true.

If there is a common theme in the book, it is that although so many people believe there is a “secret” meaning to so many of these nonsensical nursery rhymes, and seek out who in history is really being referenced, almost always such belief is unfounded. The poems are either attested to much earlier than the historical figure, or we know by internal evidence, it could not be.

How many people believe “Ring around the rosey” is about the Black Death or the Great Plague of 1665? This folk etymology doesn’t appear until after World War II, but now seems universally accepted, despite all evidence to the contrary. The symptoms in the verse are simply not the symptoms of the disease.

Or take “Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye; Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie.” The Opies relate several “interpretations” of the rhyme: “Theories upon which too much ink has been expended are (1) that the twenty-four blackbirds are the hours of the day; the king, the sun; the queen, the moon; (2) that the blackbirds are the choirs of the about-to-be dissolved monasteries making a dainty pie for Henry; the queen, Katherine; the maid, Anne Boleyn; (3) that the king, again, is Henry VIII; the rye, tribute in kind; the birds, twenty-four manorial title deeds presented under a crust; (4) that the maid is a sinner; the blackbird, the demon snapping off the maid’s nose to reach her soul; (5) that the printing of the English Bible is celebrated, blackbirds being the letters of the alphabet which were ‘baked in a pie’ when set up by the printers in pica form. … If any particular explanation is required of the rhyme, the straightforward one that it is a description of a familiar entertainment is the most probable.”

Occam’s razor, once again.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey, largely destitute of what Bruno Bettelheim called the “enchantment of childhood.” I never read any fairy tales until college. And the child rhymes I had about me were not usually the ancyent classiques, but rather, the newer comic ones.

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear

Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair

Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy

Wuz he?

or:

Oo-ee Goo-ee was a worm

A mighty worm was he

He sat upon the railroad track

The train he did not see

Oo-ee goo-ee!

Then there were the spelling rhymes:

Chicken in the car

The car won’t go

That’s how you spell

Chicago.

or

A knife and a fork

A bottle and a cork

That’s the way to spell

New York.

There were those set to familiar tunes, like the “Great green gobs of gooey grimy gopher guts,” or:

Be kind to your webfooted friends

For a duck may be somebody’s mother.

Be kind to your friends in the swamp,

where the weather is very, very damp.

Now you may think that this is the end —

Well, it is!

That abrupt ending was a theme, as in “Ooey-Gooey” and in

There was an old crow 

Sat upon a clod; 

That’s the end of my song. 

—That’s odd.

When I was a kid, I thought that kind of deconstruction of the scansion was hilarious.

Later, I learned such eternal classics as:

O I had a little chicken and she wouldn’t lay an egg

So I ran hot water up and down her leg

O the little chickie cried and the little chickie begged

And the little chickie laid me a hard boiled egg.

Which we rounded off with the modern rewrite of “Shave and a haircut, Five cents:”

Match in the gas tank:

Boom-boom.

Also hilarious:

On top of spaghetti,

All covered with cheese,

I lost my poor meatball

When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table

And onto the floor,

And then my poor meatball

Rolled right out the door.

“Rolled right out the door,” had me rolling on the floor.

Almost as much as:

I see London, I see France;

I see someone’s underpants.

Underwear being, of course, in grade school second in delirious comedy only to farts.

Such rhymes may refer to real personages, of course, as:

Lizzie Borden took an ax

And gave her mother forty whacks

And when she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

(Although court records tell us Lizzie’s stepmother received 18 blows and her father, 11. Still, we don’t go to children’s doggerel for historical research.)

The fact is, this stuff is just nonsense verse, and we loved it, not only because we were immature little brats who found bodily functions risible, but because rhyme and meter delight the mind and ear. The children’s rhymes we recited when we were bairns were one of the ways we acquired language. (It has often been pointed out that we don’t “learn” our native tongue, but rather “acquire” it, picking it up by example, and examples that are memorable are easier to remember, QED.)

I don’t mean to imply these versicles were understood to be, or designed to be pedagogical, but that their effect was to make language magical and something we didn’t simply use, but delighted in.

Of course, sometimes the stupid rhymes were meant to teach, like “In Fourteen-hundred and Ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Or, in even more egregious form, causing lifelong damage to those required to memorize them in music-appreciation classes, those mnemonics that taught classical music:

This is the symphony

That Schubert wrote

And never finished.

Or:

In the hall of the Mountain King

Mountain King

Mountain king

In the hall of the Mountain King

Was written by Edvard Grieg.

Can’t unhear what you’ve heard. Such things led to parodies, also, sung to the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40:

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a Mozart

Shoot him down, shoot him down, shoot him down…

So, as we grew up, we still loved the silliness that we first encountered with our nursery rhymes and nonsense verse. It is why Walt Kelly’s Christmas carols are sung even by people who don’t know where they come from:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie

Walla-Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo

Nora’s freezing on the trolley

Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

It is why we love Shel Silverstein’s ditties:

The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.

He may catch all the others, but he

won’t catch me.

No you won’t catch me, old slithergadee,

you may catch all the others, but you wo— 

My brother says he doesn’t even remember writing this one, but I wrote it down many, many years ago:

Watch your scotch

Or it’ll get brittle.

And I was once asked to be a Cyrano for a college roommate I detested and to write a poem that he could pretend he wrote for a girl he fancied. Her name?

If you have a yen,

Don’t ask if, ask Gwen.

I don’t remember how that romance turned out, but, you know, “Match in the gas tank; Boom-boom.”