Over the years, it has amused me no end that Christians believe, in the face of all evidence, that their religion is monotheistic, when in fact, it features as many gods and godlets — divine spiritual beings — as Hinduism or the pantheon of Greek gods. Yes, Yaweh is the boss, but so was Zeus, or Indra, or Odin. Yet, Christians persist in calling the other religions pagan, and their own as monotheistic. It’s a hoot. 

And I am not here referring merely to the ineffable concept of the trinity — one god in three forms — which is no different, really from Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, who are aspects of the Brahman — the Great Mystery. (The Holy Ghost can be seen as the creator, Christ as the preserver, and vengeful Jehovah as the destroyer making the comparison more apt.) 

No, while that by itself qualifies the Christian religion as polytheistic, what I am really interested in are all the other lesser divinities, the angels, saints and demons. A whole army of Thrones, Archangels, Dominions, Principalities and Seraphim. There are a lot of them. 

In the Bible’s book of Daniel, the prophet describes God and his attendees (Daniel 7:9-10). “His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.” 

Heaven seems traffic-bound with angels. Getting a parking spot must be like in Los Angeles. 

But it isn’t the crowded heavenly city of angels that I am interested in, but their opponents: the devils. And, more than all that, the one balancing deity in opposition to Yaweh —  Satan, aka Beelzebub, Belial, Samael, Old Nick, Lucifer, Apollyon, Old Scratch, Mephisto. Or a host of other names and circumlocutions. 

No agreement is reached among Christian theologians as to whether these are all just aliases of Satan, or whether Beelzebub, Samael or the others are henchmen — sidekicks to Old Nick. There is considerable ambiguity among the sources. 

Either way, there are enough spirits floating around in the spiritual ether to populate a Cecil B. DeMille movie. But the one that interests me particularly is Satan, or rather, how he, as the Devil, has been depicted over the centuries. This is about art history rather than about theology. 

Neither is there any clear picture of Satan’s role. In one version, he is God’s adversary, seemingly nearly co-equal; 

in another, he is cast into hell and suffers eternal punishment and bound in chains; 

in another, he is the presiding spirit of hell — its CEO, as it were — and rules the demons or the damned, like the Greek Hades or Roman Pluto; 

in another, he is the torturer of the damned and devours them; 

and in yet another, he walks the earth creating temptations and havoc. Is Satan to be found in heaven, in hell, or on the earth? 

Satan, after all, is really just a bit player in the Bible. He barely shows up. Yet, he is a major figure in the mythology and iconography of Christianity. In the Bible, the word “satan” is just the Hebrew word for “adversary,” or “advocate” (Yes, Satan is a lawyer). 

He is one of the bureaucracy of Heaven in the book of Job, where he seems to be the commissar who tests the love of humans for Jehovah, and is allowed by God to test his servant, Job. In other Bible verses, the word “satan” simply refers to a normal human who accuses or admonishes someone else. 

It isn’t until after the Second Temple Period, with its Persian influence, when Judaism was heavily colored by Zoroastrianism and its theology of the good Ahura Mazda, god of light, and the evil Angra Mainyu, the god of darkness, that a similar divine dichotomy becomes prevalent in Judaism. Over time, folklore and theology converge. Satan becomes part of the dramatis personae of the theater of beliefs. 

For Satan, devils — and much of saints and angels along with them — are much more the product of folklore than religion. And the stories, myths and legends vary from source to source, from country to country, and from denomination to denomination. (Very like Greek myth, there is no single canonic version of any of the stories.) 

In the early centuries of Christianity, church fathers faced popular paganism and had to deal with the old gods.  Tertullian states unequivocally that all the old gods were disguised demons (De spectaculis, xix).

Pan became one of the templates for our image of Satan, with goat feet and horns. The Germanic earth-sprites, elves, kobolds, fairies, hairy hobgoblins of the forest, water nymphs of the brookside, and dwarfs of the mountains were transformed by Medieval Christianity into devils, or into hellish imps, a sort of assistant or apprentice devils.

One common story involves the rebellion of Lucifer and his army against the angels siding with Jehovah. There are many folkloric versions of this war. In one, Satan’s ambition attempts a coup d’etat against God, in another, God demands Lucifer bow down to God’s newest creation, Man, and the rebellious angel refuses. 

Either way, in one version, a tenth of all angels rebelled, in another a third. No matter how you count, that’s a lot of them. 

“The number of the angels who participated in this movement of rebellion has never been fully ascertained,” wrote scholar Maximilian Rudwin in his exhaustive 1931 book, The Devil in Legend and Literature. “The belief current among the Catholic Schoolmen, based upon an interpretation of a biblical phrase (Rev. xii. 4), is that a third of the angels ranged themselves under Satan’s standard. The rebel leader’s armed force seems to have comprised nearly 2,400 legions (about 14,400,000), of which each demon of rank commanded a certain number. … Alfred de Vigny thinks that a thousand million followed Satan in his fall (Cinq Mars, 1826).”

Apparently, the population of devils and demons has grown since the rebellious angels were cast out of Heaven. Some Medieval theologians believed that devils can procreate just as humans do, and a population explosion has taken place since the Biblical times. Again, according to Rudwin:

“Johannes Wierus, a pupil of the famous Cornelius Agrippa and author of the learned treatise, De praestigiis daemonium (1563), went to the considerable trouble of counting the devils and found that their number was seven and odd millions. According to this German demonologist, the hierarch of hell commands an army of 1,111 legions, each composed of 6,666 devils, which brings the total of evil spirits to 7,405,926, ‘without any possibility of error in calculation.’ A professor of theology in Basle, Alartinus Barrhaus, is, as far as is known, the last man to take the census of the population of hell. According to this infernal statistician, the devils number exactly 2,665,866,746,664.” That’s more than 300 demons for every person currently alive on the planet. 

There have been several times in history when reformers have tried to free theology from myth, to come to an understanding of divinity in the  abstract. But the impulse to anthropomorphize is seemingly too strong to resist. Stories are easier to understand than exegeses. Islam began as a simple assertion of “one god,” and became layered with spirits, angels and their own version of Satan (“Shaitan” or “Iblis”). In the Upanishads in India there is an attempt to demythologize Hinduism, but the myriad devotional deities persist. Many Christian theologians have attempted to demythologize their religion, but it is the stories on the stained glass windows that persuaded the faithful. 

In the New Testament, Satan tempts Jesus in the desert, and then shows up in parable explanations given by him to his disciples. In the book of Revelations, what was obviously intended as an allegory of Roman hegemony turns Satan into a great red dragon with seven heads, ten horns, seven crowns, and a massive tail. 

In later midrash, commentaries and hadith, the stories multiply, and often diverge. And so, Satan has many forms, many motivations, many magical powers, many henchmen. And it is these later forms that are most familiar in art and literature, whether from Dante or Milton, or Salman Rushdie. And the many forms are what interest me, for they change with fashion, just as art does. There are Romanesque devils, Renaissance versions, Baroque Satans, Romantic Satans and modern ones, too. 

“The visuals of Satan have evolved over centuries to create the stereotypical Devil that has become familiar to modern viewers,” writes historian Genevieve Carlton. “Medieval artists borrowed from both the Greeks and Egyptians to depict Satan as a terrifying beast — he was often shown ruling over Hell, tormenting the souls of the damned. By the 16th century, artists began to depict Satan walking the Earth, harassing the living, and working with witches to wreak havoc on society. Satan has also appeared as a goat or a creature with enormous bat wings. This visual Satanic evolution continued in the 18th and 19th centuries, introducing the concept of Satan as a tragic figure or trickster.”

In the Middle Ages, Satan was mostly pictured as a monstrosity, with horns, misshapen face, cloven hooves, gnarly knuckles, and often extra faces where genitals should be, or perhaps a face on his rump. Several versions have faces for every bone joint. 

These are horrific, completely non-human depictions of the father of lies or lord of the flies. It was an image for an age that actually believed in devils and demons, and a hell for the damned. 

And the fear that Satan or his devils or demons could couple with wives or daughters was prevalent.

These were people who took their devils seriously. And they were everywhere, it seemed.

Later ages don’t take Satan so literally, but either as a metaphor for evil, or, if a “real” thing, then an angel fallen from grace. He becomes more literary. 

In Dante’s Inferno, Satan is prisoned at the very bottom of hell. He is portrayed as a giant demon, frozen mid-breast in ice. Satan has three faces and a pair of bat-like wings affixed under each chin. As Satan beats his wings, he creates a cold wind that continues to freeze the ice surrounding him and the other sinners in the Ninth Circle. The winds he creates are felt throughout the other circles of Hell. In his three mouths, he chews on three famous traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.

As seen by an anonymous artist of Dante’s time

As seen by John Flaxman in the late 18th century

As seen by poet William Blake

In Dante, as in many other mythographies, Satan was once the brightest and best angel of heaven (often called Lucifer), who either rose in rebellion to God Almighty, or refused to pay obeisance to God’s latest creation, Man. 

And so, in various versions, Satan is a once-noble being, whose external appearance maintains some of its former beauty and glory. 

That is certainly Milton’s version, in Paradise Lost

“ . . his form had yet not lost all her Original brightness, nor appear’d

less then arch angel ruind, and th’ excess Of Glory obscur’d . . . but his face deep scars of thunder had intrencht, and care Sat on his faded cheek . . . cruel his eye, but cast Signs of remorse and passion to behold the fellows of his crime. (book I, 591–94, 600–2, 604–6)”

These illustrations are from an early edition of the book

The heroic or anti-hero Satan became even more common in the 18th and 19th centuries. English artist John Martin illustrated Paradise Lost

And more famously, Gustave Dore illustrated the epic poem and made Satan even more heroic

But they weren’t alone. The heroic Satan was all over the 19th century

It is difficult to read Paradise Lost and not find Satan more interesting on the page than God or his angels — who come across as ideas, not as personalities. The 19th century tended to see Satan as the real hero of Paradise Lost

Poet William Blake famously expressed his opinion on why this should be in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

For Blake Satan was the symbol of creative energy, while God — or “Nobodaddy” — was the enforcer of stultifying rules. 

But Blake, who was also an artist, illustrated scenes from the book of Revelations where the biblical Satan was a “Great Red Dragon.” 

On the Continent, the devil takes on a dandified aspect, as in Goethe’s Faust, where he goes by the name Mephistopheles. In the Prologue in Heaven, Mephistopheles mimics the scene in Job, where he offers to tempt the scholar Faust. God lets him have his way. As he leaves the scene, Mephistopheles gives an aside:

“I like to see the Old Man now and then, And take good care I don’t fall out with him. How very decent of a Lord Celestial To talk man-to-man with the Devil, of all people.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone in the Middle Ages being so jocular about God and the devil. 

Mephistopheles was portrayed on stage often, in plays and operas, and a standard design developed. 

This devil is an urbane con man

And his stage costume is almost always red. It is from this theatrical version that our common red devil derives. 

You find him all over popular culture. 

In comic books

Tattoo designs

Sports mascots

And, of course, in movies, where there has been an evolution in our versions

In early films, the Mephistophelian model survives, as in the Swedish film Häxan (1922) and the Hollywood My Friend the Devil (1922, now lost)

Over the years, a more Medieval version of devil has been popular, too, with horned monsters, still often red

And, also in animated films, from Betty Boop to Disney’s Fantasia

More recently, Satan has become quite dapper, as in Ingmar Bergman’s The Devil’s Eye, or he’s become a hedge fund manager, such as Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate (etymologically redundant) or Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar on TV. 

It isn’t just Western culture or Christianity that populates a spirit world with imps and demons. It seems to be a universal archetype, or part of the Jungian collective unconscious. 

Either that, or leprechauns, fairies, and trolls are real. 

Arabic countries have their djinn, or genies

China has its demons and Tibetan Buddhism has its guardian spirits

Japanese artists have an entire genre of demon paintings 

There are Pre-Columbian scary gods and demons

that survive today with Mexican festival masks — indeed with masks from many cultures 

More masks, just for fun

 Devils predate modern religions and continue to inspire artists and image makers. The Assyrian wind demon Pazuzu in a statuette from the 8th century BC; a sculpture of Satan by Jean-Jacques Feuchère from 1835; and two demons by Fritz Scholder

I could also go into devils in other artforms, such as Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz or the Witches’ Sabbath finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Or Stravinsky’s A Soldiers Tale. Or Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, which the composer said came to him in a dream of the devil playing the violin. (Pictured here by French artist Louis-Léopold Boilly in 1824)

For this blog entry, I have collected hundreds of devil and demon imagery. I could not post all of them. But I will leave you with a detail from Albrecht Dürer’s 1513 engraving, Knight Death and the Devil

Click on any image to enlarge

I want to correct an injustice. Fifty years ago, back when I knew everything (as most of us do in our 20s), I dismissed symphony conductor Eugene Ormandy as a lightweight. He wasn’t one of the “big boys.” Like many others back then, an assumption was made that if you didn’t wow us with some personal vision of a work, it was just bland candy. All those recordings with the Mormon Pumpernickel Choir didn’t help. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Ormandy, was rich and round, with silky string tones and blended winds. But unlike, say, Leonard Bernstein, who led the technically scruffier New York Philharmonic, there didn’t seem to be any distinct personality behind their music making. 

I was hardly alone back then. In 1967, Harold Schonberg wrote, “There was a singular reluctance in musical circles to admit him into the ranks of great conductors.” He was thought superficial; Toscanini dismissed him as “an ideal conductor of Johann Strauss.” In an era of strong podium personalities, Ormandy seemed merely worksmanlike. 

Time has taught some of us otherwise. 

Orchestra conducting has gone through several major fashion changes over the past century or so. After the First World War, the field was dominated by dominating baton wielders. The Furtwanglers, Mengelbergs, Weingartners and, of course, Toscanini. Each had a personal style, and that style was instantly recognizable: Furtwangler’s waywardness, Mengelberg’s rubato, Toscanini’s rhythmic incisiveness. Oh, and there was Stokowski — glamor on the podium personified, married to Gloria Vanderbilt and originator of the famous “Philadelphia sound.” 

After the Second World War, there arose another generation of superstar conductors but with the advantage of high-fidelity recording. This time, it was Bernstein, Karajan and Mravinsky. Bernstein brought passion; Karajan brought a smoothness, almost like pouring Karo syrup over everything. Mravinsky had his own special intensity. Someone once said of Mravinsky that he would be the perfect man to conduct “the end of the world.” 

There were many others, of course. George Szell made perfection a fetish; Fritz Reiner drove his musicians hard and put them up wet; Erich Leinsdorf kept Boston neat and clean. Several pre-war conductors hit their stride in recordings after the war: Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Fans bought their recordings based on the names of the bandleaders. 

And there was Ormandy, inheritor of the Philadelphia Sound from Stokie, and, it seemed to us then, a caretaker baton overseeing a first-rate orchestra. Yet, he kept it a first-rate orchestra for all of his 44 years at the helm. That didn’t happen because Ormandy was a second-rate conductor. 

And orchestra fashions continued to change. The increasing power of musicians’ unions made it impossible for a conductor to command the orchestra like a dictator. There was negotiation instead of fiat. The next generation of conductors featured a high proportion of time-beaters, who could keep the music moving along, but without much in the way of anything new to say. These were the Kapellmeisters

Christian Thielemann has define this: ”a Kapellmeister now describes a pale, meek figure beating time. A policeman on duty at the podium directing the musical traffic, no more.”

To be fair, this has always described the vast majority of orchestra leaders, in provincial  and civic orchestras and opera houses. But some high-profile conductors have won praise for their supposedly “non-interventionist” approach to music-making. Just the notes, ma’am. 

More recently, something more sinister has crept in. Under the heading of “historically informed performance practice,” many conductors now use theory to guide their musicmaking, rather than their ears. Among the HIPP conductors, what is important is the “conception” of the music. Fast tempi, barline-beats, clipped phrasing, vibratoless strings, motoric rhythms. They profess to be following the composers’ intentions, so we might hear “how it sounded when the composer first heard it.” All well and good, if you are interested in a museum exhibit rather than music. In fact, we cannot know what it sounded like 200 years ago and the reconstruction seems to have more to do with a generation of conductors who grew up with rock and roll. 

And that esthetic has infected even mainstream conductors, who now play with smaller orchestras in quicker tempi and leaner sound. The vaunted “Philadelphia Sound” now seems a lumbering dinosaur. 

Yet, if you listen without prejudice, Philadelphia under Ormandy is not only beautiful to the ear, it feels as if they all understand the music without having to justify it in manifestos. They understood what the music was saying. 

This is something that divides most current musicians from their forebears. The older conductors and their orchestras knew the music was about something, that it was meant to express something — tell a story, make a metaphor for existence, elevate our spirits. But Igor Stravinsky claimed “Music can express nothing.” And for Toscanini, Beethoven’s Eroica was not about heroism. “For me it is just Allegro con brio.” An arrangement of notes. 

But for the composers, especially of the 19th century, music was meant to express something. And it was assumed to be the conductor’s job to shape the music in such a way as to make the meaning clear. 

Certainly, some conductors made their own intensions clearer than the composer’s. The virtue I now recognize in Ormandy is that he absorbed the meaning of the music and got his musicians to express it. Not to glorify Ormandy and not to play a mere arrangement of notes. 

It first conked me side the head when I came across his Sony recording of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, the big ones. They were emotional and direct without being wrought or exaggerated. They flowed with a naturalness that made everything seem inevitable. It was neither metronomic nor taffy-pulled. It breathed. 

If you believe Tchaikovsky’s music has something to say to us (rather than merely entertain us), then coming to Ormandy’s Tchaikovsky again after 50 years will be a revelation. Its directness and naturalness are not the result of Ormandy’s mediocrity, but of a mastery that doesn’t flaunt itself. 

I have since listened to piles of old Ormandy recordings. Many of them are now reissued in cheap box sets. And one comes to recognize that his Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is a reference recording, never been done better. His Sibelius Seventh is one of the best ever. Ormandy and Philadelphia made the world-premiere recording of the Deryck Cooke completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. 

One recording alone should prove Ormandy’s virtues. The Rimsky-Korsakoff Capriccio Espagnol has the idiom perfect and the virtuoso soloists give it a fizz and panache that make you stand up and hoot. It has never been done better. 

No, he didn’t do everything equally well. His specialty was the 19th and early 20th centuries. His Bach is vestigial and his Handel is pretty well confined to a holiday performance of Messiah with the gargantuan Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But when you want Rachmaninoff done the way he’s supposed to go, or Tchaikovsky, or Sibelius, or Debussy, Ormandy is my go-to guy. 

Rediscovering him in my old age has been a joy. 

“I’ve been thinking a lot about evil,” said Stuart. Stuart is now 74 and he’s been with Genevieve for a good seven years now. “Lucky seven,” he calls it. We met again on a visit to New York, and were walking down Ninth Avenue on our way to Lincoln Center. Genevieve was playing there in a pick-up orchestra in a program of all new music by Juilliard students. 

“Well, not evil so much as how we personify evil.”

I guessed he was talking about images of Satan and devils. 

“Yes, there’s Satan,” he said. “And how we picture him keeps changing. In the Middle Ages, he was a monster with goat horns and a second face where his genitals should be. 

“To Dante, he was a giant with bat wings. 

“To Milton, he was a glorious angel who had lost little of his heroic luster. In popular culture, he was an opera villain dressed in red. He had tiny pointed horns and a pitchfork. 

“To modern movie audiences, he’s now a slick hedge-fund manager. 

“The less visually imaginative have a non-personal sense of evil as a force in the cosmos something like gravity — pervasive but not individualized. They feel they have escaped the primitive urge to apostrophize nature. 

“But what interests me isn’t just his appearance, but his character. Satan isn’t a single person, but a range of fictional stereotypes — maybe archetypes. There are probably dozens of Satans, hundreds if you want to count the demons and djinn of other cultures. But they all boil down to what I think are five mega-types. I figure there are five possible motivations for Satan. First, he is a sociopath and has no concern for his effects on the world, no empathy, no compassion — hollow and empty. We’ve seen what happens when a malignant narcissist is given power. His only concern is for himself. 

“Then, he is often seen as a trickster, a Loki, who gets his kicks from knocking the hats off of policemen. His role in the universe is the revivifying power of chaos, without which the world would be a stale and boring place, where nothing interesting ever happens. The side-effect of this is necessarily going to impact some people rather badly. William Blake seems to have seen Satan as this sort of being: a creator through destruction.

“More popular is Satan the con man and seducer, the profferer of the Faustian bargain, the little voice that says, ‘give in to the desire,’ the tempter of Jesus, the snake-oil salesman who knows his potion is either useless or poison. His pleasure is in knowing he is more clever than you, and hence, this Satan is motivated, in part, by vanity. 

“A small portion of theologists envision Satan as the right hand of god, without whom god would not be possible. If there is no evil, there is no good to play against it. God and Satan are coeval, co-existent and co-dependent. This is the Gnostic Satan, as important as Jehovah.  

“Finally, there is evil as ignorance. If we knew better, we’d behave better. For this point of view, Satan does not actually exist, but only our own failure to understand. We do evil because we are blind, stumbling about in the moral darkness. 

“Of course, I don’t believe any of this,” Stuart says. “It’s all just mythology. But myth is interesting. We always seem to better understand through story than through logical argument.”

I couldn’t help but notice the irony. But Stuart went on.

“I had a dream the other night, which set me off into a different direction,” he said. “In it, evil was a machine, not a person. I figured that in a Cartesian universe, a mechanistic and scientific world, evil might well follow laws of nature very like something Isaac Newton might have formulated. Such a conception would require a mechanistic mythology. And so, I tried to imagine a Satan-machine. 

“Like all mythologies, it would have to be built on the things of daily life, what we come into contact with. These are the things that color our imaginations. And so the evil machine of the 18th century wold be all gears and pulleys, spritzing steam and clanking along. Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” 

In the 1950s, the machine would be blinking lights and spinning magnetic-tape reels. 

In 2000, it would be read-out screens and buttons to press.”

“And now?” I asked.

“Now, I think Satan would be a visually inert silicon chip, perhaps the size of George Lucas’ Death Star, working silently and invisibly to our destruction. 

“There is an impersonality to our scientific conception of the cosmos and its creation, and so, my idea of evil should reflect that, and our Satan would be technological. The evil is still there, and it has an origin, but the origin is not shaped in any way like a human being, no arms, no legs, or eyes or tongue stuck out like Gene Simmons’ or the Hindu goddess Kali. No, I am ready for a machine to be the source of all bane and baleful action.”

“OK,” I said. “But machines are manufactured. Who made this Satan-machine? Are we not right back with the proof of god by design? Is there a God in a lab coat who tinkered with silicon until he came up with this machine?”

“Hmm.” Stuart looked thoughtful. “No, it would have to be a writer. I’m imagining Douglas Adams,” he said. 

As a little boy in the 1950s, I remember visiting my great-grandmother in Jersey City. She had a darkened living room, with great stuffy chairs, a mantel clock surrounded by tchotchkes, floor-length curtains over the windows, and the back of every chair featured a lacy antimacassar. There were cut-glass bowls on the animal-claw end-tables, one of which was filled with hard candy, from which we children were offered “one.” 

It was for my tiny little brain, simply what old people lived in, so unlike the split-level suburban home where I grew up. There was the smell of oldness, the wool of oldness, the dark mahogany of oldness. Above all, everything seemed upholstered and dark. Later, when I was an adult, I recognized the style as Victorian. 

As in Norse mythology, there were three separate worlds — the world I knew, with my schoolmates; the world of my parents, with its privileges and authorities; and the distant and rarefied world of the ancients. These were not simply different houses, but completely different universes. 

Each of these reflected the “taste” of its generation. Victorian; Mid-Century Modern; now Postmodern. 

They were three different “tastes.” And taste rules so much of what we like, what we choose, and who we think we are. It is the way we groom our hair, the clothes we wear, the car we drive — we don’t choose a BMW over a Honda because it gets us to our destination any faster, but because it presents to the world the person we think we are — or want to be. The same with a Volvo or a Ford truck. Taste is a powerful driving force in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. But sometimes, it must be transcended. 

When I made my living as an art critic, I had to put aside my individual tastes and attempt to judge art by more impersonal standards. For instance, I have never responded to what are called the Mexican muralists — the Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Orozco paintings and their peasant-proletarian mythologizing. It shared too much with socialist realism and was, to me, rather drab in its muddy earth colors. Nevertheless, I had to acknowledge the importance, art historically, of their work, and to be able to distinguish between the best of Mexican muralism and the lesser, more humdrum examples. To be able to distinguish and understand was more important than my “taste.” 

This problem has cropped up again recently when a friend and former colleague posted a series of videos on YouTube cataloguing the biblical paintings of Marc Chagall, accompanied by ironic and meaningful music by Tori Amos, John Lennon, Mix Master Mike and others. He asked for my opinion. I watched all nine short videos (watch the first one here) and was impressed by his graphic and editing skills, but had a hard time otherwise. I simply don’t much like Chagall’s painting. Never have. 

I recognize his significance in art history, and there are things of his I respond to — a few paintings, such as 

I and the Village (1911); View of Paris from My Window (1913); Cubist Landscape (1919)

his stained glass at Reims Cathedral; 

and the ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris. But the general run of Chagall has always struck me not as childlike, but childish. And he produced way too much with too little editing, leaving dozens and dozens of images virtually identical except for their finish — a blue coat here, turned red coat there, or left as a scribble. This was especially true of the biblical images, of which there seemed to be hundreds. 

My friend had collected them all and divided them into the familiar episodes or stories of the Bible, adding the music and sometimes his own commentary to them. I dutifully sat through all nine chapters of the video, but in the end did not come away with any higher opinion of the artist — indeed, the need for editing seemed all the more imperative. 

I don’t fault anyone for their taste. I recognize it as an individual thing. My taste is not better than anyone else’s, it is just mine. If I respond to Mahler more than I do to Max Reger, well, then, that’s me. If I would rather re-read Milton than James Dickey, so be it. Would travel across the country to see a Pollock retrospective but wouldn’t cross the street for Frank Stella, that’s just the way it is. (This may have something to do with a sense that the world is not tidy and organized, but chaotic and spontaneous. I share Pollock’s sense and not Stella’s). 

Yet…

Yet, there is that passage in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria where he makes the distinction between gustibus and gustus. Plural and singular. We all know the Latin phrase, “de gustibus non est desputandum,” but, Coleridge says, “gustibus” is what I have been talking about so far — personal preference. We like some things more than others. Any argument is silly: “I like pickles.” “No, you’re wrong, I don’t like pickles.” 

But “gustus,” he says is different. It is the ability to differentiate between value and trash. Tastes are personal, but taste is about discernment. It is what allows us to know that Marc Chagall — no matter what I personally think about him — has value that, say, Thomas Kinkade does not. That James Dickey wrote poetry and that Rod McKuen wrote whatever you want to call it, but not really poetry. 

Gustibus allows us to enjoy even trash. It is OK to like Kinkade’s brand of nostalgic goo, but it should never confuse it with quality. 

John Waters is the master of bad taste, but he has taste. The interior of Elvis Presley’s Graceland is also in bad taste, but there is no evidence of actual taste involved. Hence the word “tasteless.” 

The distinction to be made is one of awareness. Taste comes from engagement, from paying attention. Lack of taste comes from acceptance of the conventional, of the expression of sentimentality, or the dependence on what someone else says is good. 

Much has been made of taste as a class distinction. But that is not what I am talking about here. Artist Jenny Holzer has famously said that “Money creates taste,” but it doesn’t. Money creates fashion and fashions change. Taste is a way of experiencing the world; it is not a hemline or this year’s color pairing. British aristocracy includes some of the world’s most tasteless people. 

Here in Asheville, N.C., there is a mansion called the Biltmore House, which is one of the most tasteless, garish pieces of architecture I know. Money creates smugness, not taste. Think of all the money Donald Trump has. 

Taste in the sense I mean it is at its foundation an engagement with the world, with all of it. It is the attempt to see things as they are and appreciate them for their worth.  

There is a problem. It is so easy for gustibus to blind us to gustus. We easily take our tastes as taste and assume that things we like are therefore universally good. It takes some doing to divorce one from the other. We assume we like something because it is good and therefore, everyone should agree with us. I like pickles and if you don’t, you must be a Communist. 

It’s a trap we all fall into at times. Myself certainly included. But I’ve seen many things I initially didn’t appreciate later come to be favorites. Did Bruckner suddenly become better than he used to be? I wrote a whole piece about how my mind changed on the paintings of Joseph (not Frank) Stella (here). The acquisition of taste is an ongoing process and requires constant engagement and re-engagement. Make up your mind too soon and you miss a lot. 

In short, our tastes close us off, while fostering your taste opens you up. Tastes are our hidey-hole, where we burrow in and stave off the parts of the world that make us uncomfortable. Tastes are lazy; taste is adventurous. 

The cultivation of taste is a question of experience. The more we become familiar with, the better our choices will be. 

I remember when the film critic at The Arizona Republic was brand new. Bill Muller had been a political reporter, and when the previous critic left the paper, the feeling was he had been too “arty.” And so, they wanted an “ordinary Joe” to speak for the ordinary moviegoer. Muller seemed the perfect choice. He knew nothing about film (which he readily admitted to. Muller was a very smart guy and honest). 

And so, for his first year as a critic, he loved movies where things “blowed up real good.” He was the demotic critic the company hoped for. The problem was, once you’ve seen 20 or 30 movies where “things blowed up real good,” you begin to be able to distinguish between those films done well and those done poorly. And so, Muller began to give negative reviews to sloppy and cliched movies. His taste grew. 

When he was first hired, Muller often shuffled off art and foreign films to me to review. It was a great gift to me. I loved those films. But as Muller’s taste grew, he began to appreciate the finer points of filmmaking and — as I said, he was a hugely intelligent man — he began to keep the art films for himself. He became a cultured critic. He never lost his common touch and became an Andrew Sarris, for instance, but I watched him with great interest as his taste level rose with his exposure. 

I don’t mean that Muller became a stodgy old pedant like me. He still loved popular movies — if they were good — but popular wasn’t enough. It had to be popular and good. His tastes were always different from mine, but his taste became more and more discerning. 

Taste requires exposure and it grows unbidden. There are no rules for it, as Susan Sontag wrote, “Taste has no system and no proofs.” But you miss it when it’s absent.

We were invited to dinner with one of Carole’s fellow art teachers. They lived in a fairly new housing development, where all the houses were cookie cutter matches, up and down the streets, with the streets lined up-and-down the newly developed Arizona desert. Urbanization was filling up the outskirts of Phoenix like water filling up a pot. 

Our hosts were a very nice young couple with two kids; Carole and Margaret were friends over years of teaching in the sprawling Peoria Unified School District and we both knew Margaret and Curt well. But this was the first time we had come to their house. It was a shock. 

Through the whole house, there was not a single picture on the walls. Not a clock, nor children’s painting on the fridge, nor framed Bible verse — not even an Olan Mills family photograph with the stiff smiles and Sunday dress-up clothing. Nothing. An empty room is spooky.

I don’t think I’d ever seen a house so blank. It was as if they had just moved in and packing boxes were stacked in the corner, except there were no boxes and they’d lived in the house for years. There was a full set of furniture and curtains on the windows, but no art. All the more surprising since Margaret was an art teacher. 

Even cheap motels put decorations on the walls. 

This is not to complain about Margaret and Curt. The dinner was fine and we had a great night together. But the house haunted me afterwards. A house with blank walls is a house without a soul. You feel it in the gut. A void, an emptiness. 

Something on the wall seems almost instinctual, from the cave walls of Altamira to the poster of Farrah Fawcett taped up in the dorm room. If nature abhors a vacuum, house cannot abide a blank expanse of plasterboard. Something — please, something. A framed halftone image from Target of a tree or a cliched Parisian street scene. Something.

In Medieval Jewish folklore, a golem is a clay statue that comes to life when a magic incantation is inserted into its mouth. And so a home becomes alive when a painting or photograph is hung above the sofa or piano. 

When I moved into my first rented house, after leaving the college dorm, I hung photographs on the wall and a color-field painting made by Doug Feeney, a fellow collegian. I even put a frame around the wall phone, as if it were a Duchampian ready-made. Wasn’t I clever. 

Later, in another house, I filled the entire dining room wall, from top to bottom, with photos I made of all our friends. There must have been 30 or 40 pictures there. I couldn’t afford matting and frames, so they were all scattered across the wall, held up with masking tape. They kept us company. Because I was a photographer, most of the art in the houses I have lived in were decorated with my own work. But a good deal of the work that hung was traded for with other artists. This is a great thing about having artist friends and about making art. We mix and match. I now have enough art to fill a gallery. 

I most value art made by my brother, who is a working artist, and by my late wife, Carole, who was a visionary. She made a painting of the tree at night that grew outside our Phoenix house; it is surrounded by stars and the bluest dark sky I’ve ever seen. It now resides over our dining table, sharing the wall with an embroidered copy of a detail of the Unicorn Tapestries from the Museum of Medieval Art in Paris. 

The tree painting is not only a fragment of Carole’s soul remaining with me after her death, it is a window into the larger world she had access to. 

And that is one of the functions of art in the home. For many, it is a photograph of the family or of the parents or grandparents. It is a reminder of our unbreakable bond with the past — both our growing up and our ancestors. 

In old British manor houses, the walls are covered with the stiff, starchy paintings of lineage going back centuries. “That was the third Marquis of Snotsbury. He was hanged as a horsethief.” Thieves are hanged; artwork is hung. 

Sometimes the art is a souvenir of someplace that was meaningful to us: that trip to London or the landscape or our childhood. Sometimes, it is just a pretty picture. For my religious grandmother, it was praying hands and scriptural verses. We find meaning and display it. 

Unfortunately, the art in the house is often just a pro forma accessory, something perhaps picked out by an interior designer. Such art usually offers no emotional connection, just the fulfillment of a middle class expectation. The decor in such cases is usually not more than tchotchkes — something merely to fill the vacuum. Very tasteful — but soulless. 

(I remember that time in college when I painted a large abstract canvas in reds and ochers and gave it to my parents to hang over their sofa. It stayed there perhaps a year. But then, my mother asked me if I could do another one to replace it, one in blues and greens that would better match the room’s decor. I did it for them, after all, they were my parents. But I was miffed. I have rebelled against anything “matching” ever since.)

The interior design impulse means that for some, a concatenation of artwork, collected from various sources over years, is simply not unified enough. It really helps such an impulse if you are an artist yourself and can fill the house with your own artwork. Then it all hangs together. 

And, as I said, most of the art in my house is by me, but there is no unity at all. That is not a quality I admire. I love diversity — a kind of Postmodern mix of everything. I have Hopi pottery, African Tsi-Waras, a Ganesh of sandalwood and a bronze Shiva Nataraja. 

There is some Blue Willow crockery and a gorgeous giant etching made by Carole’s childhood friend, Ruth Haggerty. 

A snow scene by Georgia artist James Lyle. A vintage cookie jar in the rotund shape of a G.I., that we named “Urnie.” And a life-size copy of the Venus of Willendorf made by Tempe artist and friend Bill Tonnesen. 

In the bedroom is a gigantic painting of an abstract nude by Virginia painter Steve Wolf. 

And over my computer is a framed drawing of me made by my granddaughter Carol Lily Cloos when she was 8 or 9. 

And next to my computer, at eye level so I can look at it every day, is a pencil drawing that Carole made of a dead starling. It is resonant in ways that make me weep. 

Over the piano is a large painting by my brother, Craig, that is one of his typical flying antelopes, and in the bathroom there is his “portrait” of our late lamented cat, Ruthie, complete with spaying scar on belly. There is also a Japanese Ukiyo-e print of two graceful women in the snow, under an umbrella. So, there is no order or reason, just a collection of things I love. 

I have several dozen of my own photographs that I framed and showed at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and now I have them stored away, but I retrieve a group and I switch them out occasionally on the walls. Currently, most of them hanging in the hall, office and bedrooms are images of Monet’s gardens at Giverny. 

All of them give character to the house, and more to the point, to life lived in the house. The house isn’t just a group of walls, doors and windows, but a personality.

We were watching Turner Classic Movies, as we so often do during the Covid in-house stay-at-home and the next movie up was Casablanca

“I don’t want to watch it. I’ve seen it,” she said. She has this reaction frequently. Once she has seen a film, she says, she knows how it ends, and so why sit through it again? 

I, of course, was non-plussed. “Do you listen to a song only once and never again, because you know how it goes?,” I asked. No, you listen over and over and get pleasure from it each time. It’s a familiar tune. And so it is, for me, with something like Casablanca. Or The Seventh Seal, or — the tune I’ve heard most often in my life — King Kong. It’s a familiar and favorite song and I can watch over and over. 

Certainly, not every movie is worth multiple viewings. The vast majority of them come and go with the urgency of mud. In fact, for many, the first time is one too many. But there are classics and while I don’t necessarily wish to see them over and over in the space of a single week, when I’m channel surfing and one of my favorites pops up, I will usually stay to the end. 

Each of us has our own list of which movies hit that button, but a favorite film has the same appeal as a favorite song — the pleasure is in hearing yet again. It has nothing to do with plot, or “how it ends.” It’s not like a TV mystery and when we come to the end and find out who dun it, we don’t need to see it over again. The air has been let out of the reason for watching in the first place. 

But a movie such as The Rules of the Game or Seven Samurai bear repeated watchings. There is such pleasure in revisiting these old friends. 

Beyond that, however, there is the issue of getting older and accruing experience — understanding things you didn’t when you were a callow youth. 

This is most near to me in rewatching Marcel Carné’s 1945 classic Les Enfants du Paradis (“Children of Paradise”). It is a long film, at 3 hours and 10 minutes, and I don’t watch it all that often (just as I don’t listen to Beethoven’s Ninth too often, so as not to diminish its special potency), and I have found that the movie itself has changed dramatically over the 50 years since I first watched it. 

Set in Paris in the 1840s, it tells the complicated story of four main characters — 

Baptiste Deburau, a mime at the low-rent pantomime theater; 

Frédérick Le Maître, an aspiring tragedian of indifferent morals; 

a petty criminal, Pierre-François Lacenaire; 

and the ambiguous Garance, with whom they all become involved. As the movie progresses, Garance’s allegiance shifts with the winds. Her motto: “Love is simple.” 

The films is one of the most highly regarded in cinema history, making almost all top 100 lists, and many Top Tens. “I would give up all my films to have directed Les Enfants du Paradis,”said French New Wave film director François Truffaut. Marlon Brando called it “maybe the best movie ever made.” And a 1995 vote by 600 French critics and professionals lent it the plain tag “Best Film Ever.” It can be an overwhelming experience — if you are not simply watching for “what happens next.” 

Each of the characters embodies a distinct idea and world view. Baptiste is an idealist; Le Maître is a practical realist; Lacenaire is a cynic; Garance is a survivor. (There are other characters, too, and they each have distinct world-views that direct their actions. One thinks of Dostoevsky and his ability to embody ideas in distinct personalities.) 

And so, the first time I saw Les Enfants, I was in college and as naively idealistic as Baptiste, and so I saw the film through his eyes and the tragedy of the film as his. 

In my 30s, and disabused of the simple understanding, I was drawn instead to Le Maître as a realist, taking the world as it is and making the most of it. By then Baptiste seemed embarrassingly sentimental. The worldly and world-wise tragedian seemed the anchor for the swirl of relationships that fill the movie. 

It is very hard to avoid becoming cynical, however, by the events of the world, and of the vicissitudes of life, and so, later viewings of the film made me feel quite sympathetic with Lacenaire, who has no illusions about his chosen profession (although he is rife with illusions — and vanity — about himself). It is hard to view Lacenaire’s story as tragedy, but rather as farce. He says so himself. 

But now I am old. And my entree into the movie are the two main women. When Garance abandons Baptiste, he ends up marrying his childhood sweetheart, Nathalie. And the film seems now to me to hover between the twin poles of Garance and Nathalie, both of whom seem so much more real than any of the men, who are all caught up in their own ideas of themselves. The women are the true realists. And both disappointed as the movie closes. They both know love is not simple. 

And so, watching Les Enfants du Paradis over five decades has been the experience of watching several completely different movies. 

The fact that the film is rich enough to  offer such different readings is reason to continue to re-watch some of our favorite movies. 

The Seventh Seal has been different films at different times: Do you identify with the soul-searching knight, the cynical squire — or perhaps with the character of Death himself. Different viewings give you various reactions. On last viewing (only last month and perhaps the 30th time I’ve seen the film) it was the itinerant showpeople Joff and Mia that seemed the point of it all. 

In such a way, re-watching a movie is the same as rereading a book. The best books can take many re-readings. Both so that we may learn different lessons from them, but also so we can re-hear the words that make up the “tune” of the book. I re-read Moby Dick just for the language. 

Perhaps my inclination to rewatch movies came from my childhood, when the New York TV Channel Nine presented the “Million Dollar Movie” several times a day for a week, offering the same film perhaps a dozen times in a week. I saw many movies over and over. 

And the champion — the movie I have seen more than any other, and by a huge margin, is the 1933 King Kong. When I first saw it on TV, I was maybe five years old and am told I watched it from behind a chair, peeking out gingerly during the “scary” stuff. My brother, then age 2 or so, sat in the big chair just happily giggling at the moving images on the screen. 

Since then, I believe I have seen King Kong as many as a hundred times, either in full or in part, picking up another showing on Turner mid-film and holding on to the end. It is neither a well-written or well-acted movie. Indeed some of the acting is among the most leaden in film history. But it has a mythic hold on my imagination, with its Gustave Doré inspired landscapes and mist-shrouded jungle and its tooth-and-claw dinosaurs. 

If anything is a familiar and favorite “tune,” it is King Kong. I have no illusions about its quality, but I cannot gainsay its effect. And yes, I know how it ends, but that makes no difference at all. 

What other tunes rattle round my head? The Big Sleep; Jules and Jim; Nosferatu; Orphée; The Third Man. Many so-called “art films.” There are probably a score, maybe up to 50 movies I re-watch with pleasure and with most of them, I learn something new each time, usually something new about myself.

Sometimes I forget just how stodgy I am. What an old pedant. Just how deeply embedded in a certain class of art and culture. 

And it is good to be given a peek at a different way of seeing things, a different esthetic judgment. 

It happens about once a year when my son, Lars, comes to visit his mother and me in Asheville, and brings along a trove of his favorite movies for us to watch. 

Lars is head programmer for the Austin Film Society in Texas, an organization founded by film director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Bernie, Waking Life, Boyhood). Lars visits the big film festivals to view potential movies for the AFS theaters, but he got his start hosting the “Weird Wednesday” genre film series at Austin’s Alamo Draft House, that featured the kind of movies that used to run in drive-in theaters in the 1970s. Lars has seen more movies than anyone else I know, and I’ve known a number of professional film critics — at least one of whom burnt out watching too many movies per week. Not Lars, at least, not yet. 

That Weird Wednesday series spawned the American Genre Film Archive, which now collects neglected 35mm prints abandoned in old drive-ins and warehouses, restores them and digitizes them. It now owns some 6,000 movie prints, including such timeless masterpieces as Ninja Zombies, Bloodsuckers from Outer Space, and The Return of Superfly — to say nothing of Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971, Thomas Casey, director). Lars is on AGFA’s board of directors, and he’s written a new book, Warped & Faded (Mondo Books, 415pp.), that chronicles the birth and growth of AGFA, and highlights many of the films in the archive. 

In the book, he makes it clear he is not writing about movies “so bad they’re good.” He hates that formulation. No, he finds something in each of these films he genuinely appreciates for its filmmaking, its storytelling, its mythic resonance or its acting. He finds what he believes are moments in them that deserve recognition. These films, he wrote in the book are “worthwhile and deserving of serious consideration.” 

When he comes to visit ma and pa, he brings a trove of titles for us to see, and he seems to take great glee in finding things he knows dear old dad would never, on his own, choose to watch. (I should mention that Lars doesn’t only watch exploitation films — he has a great background in the classics of world cinema, also, and can discuss the films of Vittorio De Sica or Yasujiro Ozu as well as the giallo genre of lesbian vampire films. His erudition is both wide and deep.) 

During this past visit, which lasted three days, we watched 10 movies. Lars’ enthusiasm for them was infectious and we talked about the films late into the early hours of the following day, with me scratching my head over some of them, and Lars making the case for them, as well as any lawyer arguing a case. He didn’t always persuade me, but I am glad I got to see all of them. 

In the end, I found several of these films to be real treasures, a few I still ponder over, and at least one that originally struck me as utter trash, I cannot now get out of my head and have to admit — long after Lars has gone home to Austin — that he was right and I was wrong. 

We started the first night with an easy one: Hi Diddle Diddle  (1941, Andrew Stone, director). Barely an hour long, and light as the foam on a latte, it starred Adolphe Menjou as an amiable con man married to an opera star (Pola Negri, in her last role). His son, home on leave from the military, has 48 hours in which to marry his fiancee (Martha Scott), but complications ensue. Also starring Billie Burke and June Havoc, there is not much more substance than a TV sitcom, but good actors can make a meal of even an undistinguished script, and my particular epiphany watching it was just how good an actor Menjou was — especially in those moments when he is not talking and only reacting. 

After that, we plunged into the deep end with Blood (1975, Andy Milligan). Milligan was an angry man, making his cheapie films on Staten Island in a home-made way, badly photographed with lots of scratches on the film. Sometimes he’d frame a shot so the top of the head was included, but the bottom half cut off. It was a kind of grand guignol horror flick, with a vampire and an lycanthrope and a mad scientist trying to save his dying wife — who, by the way, kills people. It was a complete mess. Sort of fun in its own way — a la Ed Wood — but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a badly made movie. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that Milligan also designed and sewed all the lavish period costumes. They were gorgeous. The film was set in the 1880s and the dresses the women wore in the film would have been not out of place if they had been made by Edith Head. 

Then came the first masterpiece: Election (2006, Johnnie To). In previous visits Lars had introduced me to the films of Hong Kong director To. I had always thought of Hong Kong movies like bad Kung Fu films, with garish colors, bad acting and stupid plots. But Lars first showed me To’s The Mission (1999) several visits back and I was blown away. It was incredibly beautifully photographed and intelligently plotted and acted. Who knew? Well, Lars knew. On a later visit, we watched A Hero Never Dies (1998), and it was also a revelation. 

Election is about a disputed succession among Hong Kong crime bosses — one cold-blooded and strategic (like Michael in Godfather), and his rival hot-blooded and impulsive (like Sonny).  But the film is not simply about plot. To develops his characters and gives them extra dimensions. It was a gem of a movie. 

So much for the first night. On the second, we opened with From Beyond the Grave (1973, Kevin Connor), an anthology horror film from Amicus Productions — a rival British company to Hammer Films. It tells four separate tales with a bookend story enclosing them all — like Scheherazade or Chaucer’s pilgrims. It features a pile of popular English actors, each in for a few days work to add up to a 97-minute movie. Look for Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, Diana Dors, David Warner, Ian Carmichael, Ian Bannen, Lesley-Anne Down, Margaret Leighton and Nyree Dawn Porter (from the 1967 BBC and PBS series The Forsyte Saga).  

Then we did Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949, Burgess Meredith) from the Georges Simenon novel, with Charles Laughton as the famous detective Maigret. The film only exists in a poor-quality print on faded Ansco Color stock, which leaves the colors shifted to the reddish-orange, and somewhat bleached out. Simenon’s book, La Tête d’un homme, is not one of his most distinguished, and the plot boils along, with Franchot Tone playing a too-clever villain, teasing the detective to find the evidence for the crimes everyone knows he has committed. 

The four-film night ended with the first big revelation of the visit: Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). It is a film I had always meant to see, but hadn’t yet. It was brilliant, funny, spooky, clever and spectacularly cinematic. I’m not much into rock music, but it worked perfectly in this updated version of the Gaston Leroux classic, Phantom of the Opera.  

There are many films — and many more books — that one lifetime isn’t long enough to get to. I could name a dozen off the cuff that I haven’t yet managed to see — a bunch of Ozu, the later films of Satyajit Ray, just the tip of the iceberg — and I know that at 73, I don’t have enough time to see them all. I was grateful that Lars brought me Phantom. It was worth the wait. 

The fourth film from the second night was the crux, the fulcrum of the visit, and a tough go for me on first encounter. I could not, for the life of me, figure out why Switchblade Sisters (1975, Jack Hill) should figure on Lars’ list of his four favorite films of all time. It is a cheapie girl-gang film, and I have to admit that my prejudice kept me from appreciating it. To any standard criteria, it is an awful film, full of cliche fights and stilted dialog. I hated it. 

I was wrong. Lars made his best case for it, saying it was amazing considering the budget. “It is a film better than it needs to be,” Lars said. Hill does great work, he argued, considering the script and the merely-adequate actors, and the schedule he had to work with. I wasn’t sure that making something out of straw and sawdust elevates the film to more than drive-in fodder, but Lars persisted. 

Here’s what Lars wrote about it in Warped & Faded: “It’s hard to imagine a more perfect girl-gang movie. All the elements — tone, pacing, performances — are dead-on. The revenge and betrayal-filled plot brings to mind the nastier Elizabethan dramas that were so popular with working-class audiences of 400 years ago, who crammed into disreputable theaters to watch the blood-drenched intrigues of kings and thieves. Some things never change. Hill combines the complicated plot effortlessly with the crisp, classical gangster movie tone of the old Warner Brothers James Cagney films and the directness and intensity of ’70s drive-in cinema. The result is a perfect storm of red-hot teenage bad girls, flashing knives, and social commentary.” 

So, the film, for all its gore and vengeance, is really just a modern version of Elizabethan revenge plays. I could see that, but, beyond Shakespeare, most Elizabethan theater is dreadful. And even Shakespeare has a hard time salvaging Titus Andronicus. (It took Julie Taymor to do that). And it was clear, the bare bones of Othello run under the movie. But my reaction was extreme. I hated, hated, hated Switchblade Sisters. The problem was, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. One of my old definitions of great art is “what you might not understand but can’t get out of your mind.” And here I was faced with something very close to that. 

There are any number of things — books, music, theater — that on first encounter, I found difficult to appreciate, like Bruckner symphonies, which took me years to understand, but later, after time to digest, I came around to seeing their very estimable value. There is something in Switchblade Sisters that sticks to the ribs, and I cannot gainsay its effect. I’m not putting it on my four-favorites-of-all-times list, but I have to admit, a week or so after seeing it, that Lars was right and I was wrong. 

The third night’s viewing was a coda and conclusion. We opened with one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen: Nothing Lasts Forever (1984, Tom Schiller) — A surrealist comedy with tons of names in the cast, including Bill Murray, Imogene Coca, Sam Jaffe, Eddie Fisher, Mort Sahl, Zach Gilligan and Dan Aykroyd. Shot in mock-studio style, like an old Joan Crawford film, it features a plot to get retirees to travel by bus to the moon to shop at an out-of-this-world mall. A film no studio or distribution company admits owning the rights to, and therefore never released commercially. Warner has the film, but won’t admit it. (Really.) Lars had to lobby two corporations and a half dozen lawyers to get his hands on a print to show in Austin. 

Then, we watched Housekeeping (1987, Bill Forsyth), a small, quiet coming-of-age film about two sisters living in the Northwest mountains. When their mother commits suicide, eventually their aunt (Christine Lahti) comes to take over. She is either a free spirit or not quite right in the head. The movie never makes up its mind about that. One sister rejects the aunt, the other embraces her, and her idiosyncratic ways. 

Forsyth made the earlier Local Hero (1983), which is also as deeply felt as Housekeeping. The visit with Lars underlined the different esthetics we have. He is much more interested in the filmmaking itself — as so many of his generation are. It is a meta world they inhabit. He likes genre films, with lesbian vampires, girl prisons, ninja warriors and car chases. (Again, I remind you that he also loves the great art films, he is not one-note). 

But, for me, art — including cinema — is a humanistic concern, and I am more focused on content than style (I have a healthy appreciation of style, also; it’s a matter of priorities). I most enjoy films that address human concerns, the inner feelings of people, the choices, moral and otherwise, that they make, the tragedy that the universe thrusts on us. 

I understand the other argument, too. When I listen to a Haydn symphony or quartet, there is emotion and melody, yes, but most of his power is in establishing a formal expectation and then subverting it, giving the listener a pleasant surprise and pleasure in the recognition of it. It is the 18th century definition of “wit.” And Lars’ knowledge of film and filmmaking instills in him the norms that his favorite films play with and the best ones transcend. 

Still, I want my art to be more than clever. The final film we watched on his visit was Over the Edge (1979, Jonathan Kaplan), another teen gang movie, but one more sociological and realistic, with a nihilistic group of teens in the sterile Denver suburbs with nothing to fill their lives but boredom and mischief. Petty vandalism and low-grade burglary occupy their time, until one of them steals a gun. The emptiness of their lives is soul destroying. One thinks of the anomie of Larry Clark’s Tulsa

The fact that the parents of these kids have lives no more fulfilling only makes the movie more depressing. The apocalypse at the end feels like the only worthwhile thing in the lives of both parents and kids. 

And so, 10 movies in three days. My parameters have been stretched, which is only a good thing. When my head is buried too deeply in Ovid or Tolstoy, I need once in a while to look up, out of the page, and into the rest of the world, and Lars’ films at least briefly give me a glimpse into another way of aiming my sensibility. Whether it takes or not is up in the air. Ovid is awfully good. 

Click on any image to enlarge

My daughter, Susie, is a scant five feet tall. She went to the University of North Carolina at the same time as six-foot-six-inch Michael Jordan. One day, they both got in an empty dorm elevator together. The door closed; one looked up, one looked down and they both spontaneously started laughing. 

Scale is important.

And no matter how many times you’ve seen Monet’s waterlilies in books, on computer screens or in slide shows, you are not prepared for the wallop they have in person at the Orangerie. They spread out across your vision from one peripheral side to the other.

Scale matters.

In 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts photographed the “Blue Marble” Earth from roughly 18,000 miles, giving us an image of the wet, watery ball we live on. It looks small and vulnerable — and it is, in the immensity of space. But it also gives a misleading impression of the scale of the planet.

Scientists may measure scale with numbers and exponents, but each of us, personally, can only conceptualize size and distance against our bodies and senses. Who of us can tell the immediate difference between 1011 and 1110? Which is the larger number? But between your fingers, you can tell which of two grains of sand is larger, merely by feel. 

In 2008, I drove from Phoenix, Ariz. to Reidsville, N.C., over a weekend, a trip of about 2,200 miles, or roughly 1/11th of the circumference of the globe. I left after work on a Friday and pulled in to Reidsville on Monday morning. I was hauling ass, as they say. On the Sunday, I drove 900 miles. The trip was exhausting, but gave me a palpable sense of the size of the world. I could feel it, because I drove over it.

(And, by the way, the world is not flat: I could see the great grain elevators of the Midwest rise from the curved horizon before me and, after I passed, watch them settle, like the setting sun, behind me.)

In 1989, I flew from Phoenix to South Africa, a flight that spent some 40 hours in the air. The popular image is that if you dig straight down in your back yard in America, you eventually hit China, but this isn’t so. Directly opposite Phoenix on the Great Blue Marble is a spot in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of South Africa. 

So my flight was literally to the antipodes. (It took so long because in that apartheid era, I had to take an especially roundabout route to my destination: Phoenix to Philadelphia, changing flights to Frankfurt, Germany, changing again to a South Africa Airlines flight that, because of opposition to apartheid, was not permitted to overfly most other nations in Africa, and so, had to fly out over the Atlantic, refuel in the Azores, and cruise over the water all the way to Namibia before finally landing in Johannesburg.) It took Lindbergh 33 hours to cross just the Atlantic.

Such a trip really gives you a sense of the scale of the planet.

Before air travel, however, such a voyage would take months, not hours, providing an even more body-interior feel for the distance. In 1967, I took a trans-Atlantic ocean liner to Europe, and the monotony of the unchanging sea, day to day, made the earth seem even larger. My trip took four days and a bit. It took Columbus more than two months to cross the Atlantic.

The point I am making with all this travel tale, is that scale, whether looking at Picasso’s Guernica, or watching the odometer while driving from Bangor to Seattle, is that scale is felt in the body, it is measured by human proportions. As Protagoras recognized in the Fifth Century BC, “Man is the measure of all things.”

When we look out at the night sky and realize we are at the bottom of a seemingly infinite and dark well, we can be awed, but we cannot feel in our bodies the inestimable size of the cosmos.

Yes, we can speak of it in abstractions. We can point out that Voyager I, now in interstellar space, is traveling at a speed of 17,000 miles per second — which would take about a second and a half to circle the Earth — and will cover 325 million miles in a year. Yet, at that speed, it would take it  some 45 thousand years to reach the nearest star. There is no way you can process that scale in your paltry human skin. We can talk in big words, like billions and trillions, but outside of abstract mathematical numbers, can you actually feel the difference between a billion miles and a trillion? They are meaningless words. You might as accurately call it a “gazillion.”

Do not misunderstand me. Humans have been amazing at understanding the cosmos intellectually. We can calculate the orbit of a satellite within what seems like a few inches. But I am not talking here about abstract reasoning.

There is a limit to the human imagination. We can calculate overwhelming numbers, but in terms of body knowledge — being able to physically conceptualize — such numbers turn into little more than words. 

We can use the math for engineering and for science, but we must recognize that our puny minds cannot get their arms around such boggling numbers. We are limited by the evolution of our human brains, which grew to process the daily income of sense data. We can feel the road under us as we speed along the interstate; we cannot feel the gap between Earth and Alpha Centauri. We can name it, but we cannot feel it. 

All trans-human scales are metamorphosed into a single size: Infinite, or might-as-well-be. It is what we feel when we turn our eyes up toward Orion or the Milky Way.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Spirit of the Senses website Oct. 2, 2018

The first time I ever saw Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, it was in my art history textbook — the infamous Janson. It was about 5 inches wide on the bottom of page 633. 

Most of the world’s most famous art I first contacted in reproduction; it is the same for most people. It would be hard to travel the world’s great museums to see all the Vermeers, Rembrandts, Titians or Chardins. Instead, we see reproductions in books, or on the computer screen. I’ve seen hundreds, probably thousands of paintings in reproductions before I ever saw the real things. 

So, imagine my amazement when I encountered the real thing at the Louvre in Paris. There it was, the size of a barn. It was a lesson — if I really needed one — teaching me that a picture of a picture is not the same thing as a picture. But so much of what we imbibe of culture comes not in its original form, but as reproduction, whether it is Canaletto in art history class, or Beethoven on a disc. 

One of the things that divides the world I grew up in from the world I live in now is the unconsidered acceptance of a media experience for the live reality. We all have our noses in our screens. In many ways, what was once the secondary simulacrum of a genuine experience has become the end product itself. Since the days of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a great deal of music simply cannot be performed live; the recording is the original. 

In our Postmodern world, suffused with media, many an artist and musician has taken the secondary product as the original. And so, images are designed to be seen on the computer screen. No one asks to see a TikTok video in a movie theater; that would be silly. Content viewed on an iPhone is not an imitation of something else. 

I, myself, now take photographs specifically to be viewed on screen rather than printed out. I edit them differently, I frame them differently. It is a different esthetic. But aside from work made for the virtual world, there is still the palpable object to take into account. 

But the fact is, that many more people listen to recordings than attend concerts; see paintings in book reproductions or on computer screens than visit galleries or museums; prefer audiobooks to sitting in a chair and quietly turning paper pages. It gives a false impression of the art. 

We keep stepping back from an original and choose a Xerox copy. 

I am not here arguing against digital devices — you are reading this blog on one, so where would I be without such devices? — but I am worried that the ubiquity of reproduced media makes us forget that there can be something more immediate, and that through most of history, that immediacy was the primary mode of experiencing art and music. 

My brother and I were once talking about theater. He stated that he didn’t much care for live theater but preferred movies as being so much more realistic — despite the obvious fact that live actors are very real and that celluloid images are only simulacra, and that movies are cut and edited all over the place, while live action must take place in real time. 

But I recognized his point, and when I was younger, I would have agreed with him. Most of us are only subject to live theater, if we are exposed to it at all, in uninspired productions with bad or mediocre acting — the community theater or dinner theater sort of thing. And undistinguished theater is admittedly tedious. 

Most of the theater I had been exposed to was just that sort of thing. Sometimes quite entertaining, but always so darned “theatrical,” i.e. phony. 

Then, in 1994, I got to see the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, both parts over two days. It was the most riveting, even mind-blowing thing I had ever seen. And what was so moving was that it was there, live in front of me. They were real people doing and saying those lines and feeling — or evoking — those very primal emotions. It is still the single greatest experience I ever had in an audience. 

I have now seen the two-play cycle four times and each time it has grabbed me by the lapels and yelled into my face in a way that has left me shaken. I’ve seen the Mike Nichols film version, with Al Pacino, and it is a wonderful production, but it cannot move me with quite the same seismic force that the live version had. If I had seen those same actors in the theater instead of on the TV screen, I’m certain it would have been earthshaking, but the remove of the screen gives the whole thing a distance that the live actors don’t suffer from. 

I since have become an advocate for live theater, though it is hard to convince anyone who has not had the experience of great live performances. I have seen really good professional performances since Angels, and they have something nothing else has. Whether it is Fences by August Wilson, or Amadeus by Peter Shaffer or Hamlet performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, I am completely drawn in, with the same complete concentration one has when reading a great book — the day-to-day world disappears and the esthetic world takes over. 

(Amadeus, by the way, as a play is very different from Amadeus the movie. As wonderful as the film was, a good production of the play is so much more devastating.)

It isn’t only plays that have to be seen live. I have watched a good deal of dance on video or on PBS, and I am always disappointed at some deep level. Ballet and dance theater is the art form that speaks to my inner being the most directly and I love dance profoundly. But only live dance will do it. Balanchine knew this and attempted to re-choreograph a few of his masterpieces especially for video and however beautiful his video versions are, they pale beside seeing them live. You have to see the living, breathing (huffing and puffing), muscle-twisting movement in three dimensions for it to register fully. 

(Mediocre dance, like mediocre theater is the worst ambassador for the artform — how many people have been turned off by watching the local civic ballet company galumph through the annual Nutcracker? That is no more the real thing than little league pitching is like Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax.)

I have well over a thousand CDs on the shelves in my office and listen daily to recordings of Brahms, Bartok, Weill, Mahler and Glazunov. And I don’t know where I’d be without them. But I also know that the real thrills I have had with classical music have been in the concert or recital hall, listening to live music. It has a presence that the recording cannot duplicate. I’ve written before about hearing the eight horns in Strauss’s Don Juan peel off the great horn call and feeling the sound through my chest and my fundament as much as through my ears. 

I want to make the same case for visual art. Everyone knows what the Mona Lisa looks like. Or do they? Almost to a person, those who have seen the original has remarked how small the painting is. It is a very different thing from the same image on a coffee mug or even in an art book. 

But it’s not merely size I mean. The colors cannot be precisely conveyed by printer’s ink or by a computer’s palette. The paint has a texture that isn’t conveyed, and varying levels of gloss or matte. This was brought home to me — very like the revelation of Angels — when I saw a collection of Cezanne still lifes at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. I had not imagined such an exquisite range of greens; way too many variants than can be named. The Cezannes in my Janson were dull and lifeless in comparison. Yes, I could name the subject in them — an apple here, a vase there — but apple and vase were not what the painting was about. This rich range of visual information was the real subject. Gone in the reproduction. The real paintings made me want to chew the colors like a great meal. 

We are led to accept imagery as the purpose of art, but it is only one portion of it. Alone, it is hardly more than the male or female silhouette on a restroom door. It also must include the scale, the finer shades of color and texture — and as with theater — the “presence.” The fact. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is everywhere from lampshades to mouse pads, but if you stand before it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you absorb how complex the painting is. Not just a swirl of blue night sky, but an object, a painting made of pigments and oils. 

The same with the huge paintings of Maria Medici by Rubens, or the meticulous brushstrokes of Robert Campin’s Mérode Alterpiece at the Cloisters in New York. 

But, I hear someone say, you should not let the best be the enemy of the good. As Chaucer said, “Muche wele stant in litel besynesse.” And many of us cannot visit the Louvre or the Prado, or get tickets to the New York City Ballet. Does everything have to be great?

I am not arguing that. I am saying that we should not be bamboozled into thinking that a reproduction can stand in for the genuine and that the real thing can be a life-changing experience, causing you to discover depths in yourself you hadn’t even suspected, whether it is the sympathetic feel of your muscles watching a dancer, or the empathy you extend to Salieri in Amadeus, or the hunger for color you get from Cezanne. 

I am arguing that, in fact, you should look at real paintings and sculpture. Not all of it will be great, but it will be real. It will be present. There is plenty of local art in every town and city. If there is no museum, there may be some Depression-era murals in your post office, or a World War I soldier in your town square. There are local artists working in your neck of the woods, and what they do is real, not virtual. 

Every locale has artists working, and art worth experiencing isn’t only found in museums, or only found in New York or Berlin. 

I remember pulling into a supermarket in Boone, N.C. one fall afternoon and hearing three or four local musicians plucking guitar and banjo on the front steps, gathered informally to play some tunes. It was genuine and I sat and listened with the small crowd for 20 minutes or so before going in for my butter and eggs. 

You never know what you’re going to get. Even the best performer can have an off night, and sometimes an amateur can hit the spot. It isn’t frogs you have to kiss, but you do need to weed through a good deal of acceptable but unexceptional work to find those few that will stick with you for life. 

And then you will know the immediacy of the real. 

Do you enjoy the music of Luigi v. Beethoven? That’s how his name appears on the score of his symphonies when they were printed in Italy. In Paris, he was Louis; in England he was Lewis. 

I’m fascinated by the way names morph and squidge as they travel around the globe. In late Classical times, Ludwig was originally Chlodovech in Frankish, which then took two paths. In Latin, it was written as Clovis. Drop the “C” and remember that in Latin, there is no actual “V” but was written as a “U” and you get Louis — and that’s how the Frankish king Clovis became the perpetual King Louis that hit 16 times before the final head was dropped into the basket. 

But the other path is German, where Chlodovech become Ludwig. In Medieval Latin that become Ludovico. Drop the “D” in the middle to Luovico, turn the “C” to the softer “G” and get Luigi. And that is how our van Beethoven becomes all of the people who wrote the same symphony. 

The variants of Ludwig/Louis/Luigi are legion. Other languages favor different sounds and hammer the name into other shapes. And the name gets feminine versions, too. Nabokov’s Lolita is just another version of Beethoven’s name. 

Alphabetically, there are Alois, Aloysius, Lajos, Lew, Lodovico, Louie, Lucho, Luis, and the Portuguese Luiz. Women get Aloysia (Mozart’s first love was Aloysia Webber, but had to settle for marrying her sister, Constanze); Eloise, Heloise, Lois, Lola, Lou (as in Mary Lou), Lu, Louise, Luisa and Lulu. Many of all these names have other spelling variations. 

It is through many standard linguistic changes (the “D” and “T” switching back and forth, for instance, or “G” and “K” sounds) that these variants arise. Languages have their habits, and so, because Italian doesn’t like to end their words or names in consonants, Luigi has a vowel hanging on. Japanese is similar in that, and so Beethoven becomes pronounced  “Aludowiga” remembering that the “L” needs to be that weird undifferentiated liquid — somewhere between an “L” and an “R.” Perhaps loser to “Awudiwiga.” (The final “A” is really a schwa). 

Several Romance languages habitually change an initial “S” into an “E” and “S” (as in Spain and España) and so Steven becomes Esteban. (the “B” and the “V” are practically the same letter, linguistically speaking). 

The real champion among male names, though, must be John. The variants are endless. You wonder how can Ivan and Sean be the same word? 

The original is ancient Hebrew Iohannani, which derives from Yaweh (God) and Hanani, “Gracious.” — although I can’t say I find much gracious about Jehovah (a variant of Yaweh), who seems to like to smite whole populations in pique. In modern Arabic, that becomes Juhanna — as in Bob Dylan’s song, Visions of Johanna (the visions that form the hallucinatory and paranoid basis of the book of Revelations). 

(When Oscar Wilde wrote his scandalous play, Salome, he called John the Baptist Jokanaan, which is closer to the original than our “John.”)

When the Bible was translated into Greek, the name became Ioannis and in Latin, Iohannes. As the name travels east into Slavic lands, it morphs into Iovanness and eventually into the Russian Ivan. (Pronounced “ee-von” in Russian, “eye-vin” in English). 

Because John is a biblical name, it spread through many European cultures. When Latin broke down into the various Romance languages, John rode along with it. Latin Iohannes shortened to Ioan, then, in Spanish to Juan, in French to Jean and in old Breton into Yann. In old Irish, it became Iohain, which evolved several ways — into Ewan, into Ian, and into Iain. Through the influence of French, which had a zh sound in its “J,” Jean also became Sean, or later, Shawn. 

Taking a more Germanic route, the Latin Iohannes became Johannes in German, and Iohannes in Old English, shortened to Johan in Middle English and then lopped to John in Modern English. (Interestingly, the nickname Johnny joined Spanish as Choni, which came from the Canary Islands version of Spanish as a name for any Englishman — “He’s a choni” — and devolved into a word in Spain for a trashy girl and “chonismo” as “trashiness” as a fashion choice.)

There’s a whole train of John variants: Evan, Giannis, Giovanni, Hans, Iban, Jan, Janos, João, Johann, Jovan, Juhani, Shane, Yahya, Yannis, Younan, Yonas. And for women: Hannah, Joan, Joanna, Joanne, Jeanne, Jane, Anna, Jo, Juana, Juanita, Sian — I could go on. 

Oddly, John and Jon are not closely related, but come from two different sources. David’s bosom buddy in the Old Testament was, in Hebrew, Yehonatan, from Yaweh (God) and Natan (“has given”), which, in English is Jonathan. Jon for short, leaving Nathan for another name. 

Most names have these variants. Susan was originally the Hebrew Shoshanna, which also gives us Susanna. The name probably goes back to ancient Egyptian, where the consonants SSN form the hieroglyph for lotus flower. In modern Hungarian, the name is spelled, delightfully, as Zsuzsanna. 

Mary was the Hebrew name Miryam, which may also go back to Egypt, where mry-t-ymn meant “Beloved of Amun.” (Moses’s sister is Miriam, and both her name and his are Egyptian in origin). In the Greek of the New Testament, this becomes Maria, which becomes French Marie, which becomes English Mary. Long ride from the Nile to the Thames. 

The Bible is the source of many names. We’ve already seen John. Considering the peregrinations of that name over the globe and centuries, the other Gospel authors have been comparatively stable. Mark has been remarkably little changed over the eons, having been merely Marco and Marcus, although it gives women both Marcia and Marsha. Luke was originally Lucius in Latin, but has become Lucas, Luca, and for women, Lucy and Lucinda. 

Matthew has more variants, but mostly just spelling changes. Originally Matityahu in Hebrew, meaning “Gift of God,” it became the Mattathias of New Testament Greek and Latinized to Matthaeus, or Matthew in English. In other languages, it is Mateo, Matthieu, Mathis, Matias, Matha, Madis, and Matko. 

The apostle Paul — originally Paulos in Greek — gives us Pal, Paulinus, Bulus, Pavlo, Pau, Paulo, Pablo, Pol, Pavel, Paavo, Podhi, Paolino, Baoro, Pavlis, and the female names Paula, Pauline, Paulette, etc. 

Jesus made a bilingual pun on the name of Peter, calling him “The rock upon which I build my church.” Jesus spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic word for rock is “kefa.” The Greek word is “petra,” turned masculine to name Peter as Petros. Who knew Jesus was a punster? 

Petros has morphed nearly as much as John, becoming Peter, Pierre, Pedro, Pjetros, Piers, Pyotr, Per, Peder, Peep, Pekka, Bitrus, Pathrus, Pesi, Piero, Pietru, Pita, Bierril, Pelle, Pedrush, Piotrek, Padraig, Pero, Pethuru, and a hundred others. 

The influence of Christianity (and Islam to a lesser degree) has meant that variants of biblical (and Quranic) names show up all over the map. Some, like Methuselah, have found little purchase. Others, the Johns, Pauls, Marys, and Peters, are almost universal, but each showing up in the regional costume of its adopting language. 

And so, one name can spawn many children. Perhaps the most prolific name is Elizabeth. Originally the biblical Elisheva, meaning “My God is Abundance,” it became Elizabeth in the King James translation into English. Elizabeth was the wife of Aaron in the Old Testament and the mother of John the Baptist in the New. 

It comes in various spellings, from Elisabeth to Elisabeta to Lisabek. It morphs into Isabelle and Isabella and all the variants of that. These, and the shortened and nicknamed forms make a list several hundred entries long. 

Among the progeny of Elizabeth are: Ella, Ellie, Elsie, Elisa, Alzbieta, Elixabete, Elsbeth, Yelizaveta, Yilishabai (in Chinese), Isabeau, Sibeal, Lettie, Liesbeth, Lisbet, Zabel, Alisa, Elise, Lisette, Lysa, Elka, Lizzy, Liz, Ilsa, Lisa, Yza, Izzy, Lela, Lila, Lili, Liliana, Lisanne, Liselotte, Babette, Libby, Liddy, Bess, Bessie, Bossie, Beth, Betsy, Betty, Bette, Bitsy, Buffy, Zabeth, Bekta and Bettina. That’s about a smidgeon of those I found. 

Each of these names has a branch on a linguistic family tree, a DNA map of sorts. I’ve mentioned only a few names here. There are many more, some with fewer branches, some with whole piles. My own name, Richard, is fairly sparse, with its variants mostly being variant spellings: Rikard, Ricardo, Rigard. Even in Azerbaijani, it’s Riçard. Its origins are in Proto-Germanic “Rik” for ruler or king, and “hardu” which means strong or hardy. So we see how much the name has declined since then. 

So, don’t place too much faith in the etymology of your name, but seeing its family line can be fascinating. Just remember that John and Jon are completely different.