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I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it. 

To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone. 

I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through. 

There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering. 

William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet. 

Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture. 

 He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind? 

I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts. 

Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.” 

Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”

Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him. 

And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”

It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway. 

And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering. 

But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application. 

There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful. 

Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel. 

Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths. 

And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless. 

The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world. 

Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued. 

I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity. 

As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives. 

And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me. 

As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she. 

There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.” 

For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch. 

Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.” 

If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another. 

And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it. 

We all have roots. We draw up family trees, naming as far back as we can our ancestors; sometimes we discover Charlemagne or Henry II hiding in the branches. Many of us have tested our DNA to discover the nameless past before that and perhaps trace our route from Africa through Europe or Asia by haplogroup. 

There is a lineage — a straight line that leads from some familial Adam to ourselves. Or at least, we see it that way: The reality is messier. Each of the names above ours on the family tree doubles; parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. That lineage becomes a mesh, a network of interconnectedness. Thousands of Adams and their Eves woven together.

Yet, there is still the sense of having gotten from there to here. A sense that, however complex the root system, the florescence is now. 

This seems to me to be true culturally as well as genetically. I am certainly American, with my bona fides in Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. But there is still something behind those names. When one marries and begins a family of one’s own, there is still the family in which you were raised and it never really goes away. One day when you are 50, you look down and at the ends of your arms you discover your father’s hands. Or you find yourself saying something that rings the bell of remembrance: This is what the old man used to say. Your wedded family, like your friends are acquired later, but your original family stays with you forever. It is somehow more unshakable than the one you later don. You may divorce a first wife, but you can never lose your birth family: It is traced in your muscle and bone. 

And it is, at least for me, the same for the culture I resonate to. I find ever more as I grow older, that I am at heart European. It is European literature, music, thought — even landscape and city — that I respond to. France has always felt like home to me. And the painting and sculpture of the Old World — from Ancient Greece, through Rome, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and into the horrifying terrors of the 20th century — they all speak to me more directly than the neotenous and optimistic culture of the New World. 

This is not to claim any supremacy for Europe. There are many great cultures in the world, and just as one knows one’s own family may not be the greatest one — indeed, it has its characteristic neuroses and scars — it is nevertheless your own and has a deep comfortableness and familiarity that you cannot get from other families. I am inoculated against any sense of European supremacy; I’ve read my Jared Diamond. But that can’t change my cultural genes.

And so, I see my grandfather’s nose taking over the center of my face. I find the patience so inborn in my father taking over my own, and his natural moderation in all things political guiding my own, and overtaking the youthful certainty and idealism that drove me to chant “Hey, hey, LBJ” and stew in a smug self-righteousness. 

So, there is Homer, Aristotle, Ovid, Montaigne, Dante, Gibbon, Tolstoy — these are my cultural parents and great-grandparents, and I find their hands at the end of my cultural arms. 

Yes, American culture owes a great deal to Africa, Asia and Native America, but underneath it all, the “dead White guys” are peeking out. Whether it is Indian art on canvas or blues riffs over triadic harmony, the basement layer supporting all the ethnic and cultural overlay, all the borrowings and tinctures, is European.

It’s so etched into the American memory, even on a pop-culture level,  that it’s the starting point for all American culture, both highbrow and lowbrow. Can we recognize it when we see it? Do we know how European we are? The older I get, the more I know it. Others feel the amalgam in their blood. They grew up on pop music and TV. I grew up on Stravinsky and Bach, and the pop culture never quite took hold. 

First, what do we mean by “Europe”? We sometimes have to laugh at any definition of Europe; after all, Europeans cannot agree on it. The European Union is now contemplating whether Turkey is part of Europe — a Muslim nation in Europe, and the United Kingdom is trying to divorce itself from the rest of the continent, as if you could divorce your parents. 

The continent got its name from ancient Greece, which divided the world into three: Europe was where “we” lived; to the east was Asia, meaning primarily Persia, the Levant and what is now Turkey; Africa was usually called Libya and included Egypt and Ethiopia. These three continents were surrounded by Ocean, the great river that circled the known world. That is the world as Herodotus knew it. 

Nowadays, Europe usually is defined to include Iceland, the western end of Turkey as measured from the Dardanelles, and Russia to the Ural Mountains.

It’s a huge and disparate place, including cultures that are Mediterranean, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic — even Turkic. But when we talk generically about European culture and art, we most often mean that of Western Europe: a cultural tradition that began in classical Greece, spread through the Roman Empire and flowered again in the Renaissance.

But what makes European art European? What distinguishes Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Shakespeare from art made in China, Ghana or Pre-Columbian Peru?

There are many things Europe gave us, from rationalism to colonialism, from democracy and humanism to the nation state and patriarchy, to say nothing of two world wars. Each aspect is cheered or booed, depending on whether you have come to praise Europe or to bury it.

But there is something familiar to it, whether it’s a Madonna or an Apollo: It is the heritage I feel in a way that Japanese noh theater and Tibetan thankas — no matter how beautiful or meaningful — I do not.

(Do not get me wrong here: I try to be as cosmopolitan as possible. I’ve read the Mahabharata three times, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, Naguib Mahfouz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mao’s little red book. As a teenager, I took up the use of the shizuri and sumi stick; I have a collection of African sculpture. I hope I am not a completely ignorant yob. But I can never drink as deeply from the vast elsewhere as I can from my backyard  European well.) 

For me, it is European art that is a touchstone for history, for ideas of beauty, for widely held social values, some of which are out of date and some of which are lamentable, even shameful. But an Old Master painting has just as much validity in our cultural ambience today as learning about Shakespeare in literature or Mozart and Tchaikovsky in music. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural experience, all tied into European art and culture.

What makes it European? I suggest five key things:

—First, there is a bias toward realism.

—Second, an astonishing persistence of Classical antiquity.

—Third, a belief, justified or not, in the idea of progress. 

—Fourth, the pervasive influence of Christianity.

—And finally, the singular importance of the human body and the nude that we might distill into the word “humanism,” a belief in the nobility, or divinity, of corporeal human existence.

(Also, in music, the use of harmony as the basic building block.) 

Deeply rooted realism

In the caves of southern Europe you can find the world’s oldest art, dating to 30,000 years ago. Even that long ago, proto-European artists created paintings that looked like the world they lived in: the aurochs and horses of Lascaux and Altamira often are so naturalistic that they can be taxonomized by zoologists into genus and species.

Prehistoric art from other cultures — South African, Australian and Southeast Asian — tend to be more diagrammatic: symbolic stick figures rather than shaded, colored images mimicking what the eye sees.

Aristotle said it 2,300 years ago: “Art imitates nature.” You can see it in Greek art from the fifth century B.C. The Greeks were intensely interested in realism. It is not just in the physicality of the statues, the lifelike figures, but in the drapery that clothed those statues. Later European artists, going back to that, like Poussin or Courbet, those lush mythological landscapes with that gleaming pink flesh. It is a love of the actual, of the real, physical world.

In our sophisticated provincialism, after a century of increasingly abstract and intellectualized art, we may think we have left all of that behind. But is Andy Warhol’s soup can any different?

Antiquity endures

We often say Europe was born in ancient Greece, which gave us so many of the philosophical and political ideas that we still live with. But even in art, antiquity remains in our lives. Go to any neighborhood and notice the homes with porticos, columns, architraves and pediments. Or listen to a pop tune sung in major or minor key and hear the remnants of a medieval and Renaissance idea of how the music of antiquity sounded.

Even in films, you have things like 300 and Troy. Even O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a take on Homer’s Odyssey. Theaters have their prosceniums and orchestras. 

Our poets still write odes, 2,500 years after Pindar, and the statues in our city squares mimic the poses of Augustus and Constantine. Turn to the back of your Yellow Pages and you’re likely to see a chiropractic ad with a photograph of a man in pain, in the pose of the famous Greek statue of Laocoon. These things persist in our visual memory.

And where do you think that cupid on your Valentine’s Day card comes from?

Artistic progress?

Technological progress has been a hallmark of Western culture, and the tendency has been to see a parallel development in the arts.

Giorgio Vasari, writing his influential Lives of the Painters in the 16th century, argued that “one artist supersedes the last and is better.”  Always march on to the next style.

But while European art history is a parade of changing styles, science and medicine move forward and improve our lives, but it isn’t so clear in art. Is Tom Clancy really much of an improvement on the Iliad? 

It’s not so easy to embrace the idea of cultural progress anymore. Progress covers up a lot of really nasty stuff, like the looting of other cultures. And as we have come to know and understand other cultures better, it’s harder to maintain that our art is “better” than theirs. 

Christianity’s sway

If you were to name the single-biggest source of imagery in European art, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to step into the ring with Christianity. It’s the winner by default: The central role of religion in the arts is manifest. Just as Islam governs the art of the Middle East and Buddhism colors the art of China and Hinduism the art of India, so the themes and subjects from the Bible are central to Europe.

Christian themes are an overwhelming component of the European sense of morality and ethics. It is through Christian stories, illustrated in art, that we see how we should think about our own lives. The good Samaritan, the prodigal son, doubting Thomas, the woman at the well — these serve in our art as parables and lessons.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the universal grief and suffering of Michelangelo’s Pieta. At the other end, you have the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of your car.

The human figure

It has become an emblem of art: The nude figure. Whether it’s Aphrodite born from the seafoam, King David gazing at a naked Bathsheba or the painter’s lover dropping her dress in the studio, the human figure is primary.

It isn’t just men ogling naked women: It’s Myron’s Discus Thrower and Michelangelo’s David. From the Greeks on, the male nude is just as important.

You won’t find this in the art of Asia, Africa, Australia/Oceania or the New World. When you find the naked figure there, it is almost always a fertility talisman or a figure with exaggerated sex. In Asia, you find such things in “pillow books” and other intentionally pornographic images. In Europe, the figure isn’t only sex and generation, it’s a mirror of the divine. It is man as the measure of all things, and that means men and women.

‘Dead White males’

It has been a long ride from the caves of southern France to the latest pickled roadkill of Damien Hirst, and European culture has changed at least as much as it has persisted.

Listen to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, for instance, and hear the legacy of Beethoven mixed with the Arabian oud, the Balinese gamelan, the pipa of China and Peruvian flutes. It’s all one big mix.

As Europe has changed the cultures it has come in contact with, its own is being changed in return. Globalization isn’t only economic.

But there’s still a great deal to be learned from the long march we have taken. We think it all must be irrelevant because it comes from so long ago. It’s what people mean when they complain about all that art, literature and music from the so-called “dead White males” that have been taught in universities for centuries. Yes, the world has opened up to include more, but the old art is still as meaningful as ever.

Cultural DNA

Just as genealogy fascinates many people, who trace a great-great-grandfather back to the battle of Appomattox or look at old photos to see in faded black and white where the family nose comes from, so a look at our cultural ancestors shows us where we came from. That cultural DNA is still there.

Again, this is not to make any special claims for European culture: It can speak for itself. And the rest of the world is equally compelling. I love Chinese painting, African carvings, Australian designs, Hopi pottery. The case I’m making is that for myself — and I am speaking primarily for myself here — there is a nest in Europe that my psyche fits almost perfectly. Fragments of its past often show up unacknowledged in my prose or my photographs. The art and poetry speaks a language I was born to. I get the idioms, when other cultures, no matter how much I love them and respect them, are a second language — its idioms will always elude me. 

When I go to Brittany or the Vosges Mountains, or visit the Roman arena — now a bull ring — in Arles or the aqueduct at Pont du Gard, or see the stained glass at Saint Denis, or the stave churches in Norway or the polders of Holland, I have an overwhelming sense of being home. This is my family, for all its faults. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Some years ago, when we were looking for a new cello for our daughter, we visited a luthier who took the time to answer our questions about the differences among all the instruments he had. 

What exactly is the advantage of the $40,000 violoncello over the $1500 student piece? The luthier picked up a beginner model and played a few notes. It sounded good; clear pitch and nice tone.

“But notice this,” he said, drawing the bow back over the C-string. The tone began, clear but muted. In a moment, the instrument seemed to wake up and the tone became richer, louder and more resonant. 

He then picked up a better instrument. The bow drew over the same string and immediately, the tone popped. 

A third cello was the high-end he had on hand, a French instrument from the mid-19th century. One touch of the bow and the thing sang like a Pavarotti, clear, bright, loud, rich as foie gras. It almost seemed to vibrate before he moved the bow. It was electric, alive. It was as if the cello was paying as close attention to him as he was to the cello. 

The difference is resonance. Resonance is when one vibrating body causes another, usually larger body, to vibrate sympathetically, which often amplifies the effect — in this case, sound. 

Resonance may be vibrating air, or, as in the cello, the interior and back panel of the instrument. If you bow a naked string, you get a puny sound that cannot project. But let that string’s vibration be carried down through a bridge into the body of the cello through soundposts and it causes the back of the cello to vibrate sympathetically and become, essentially, a speaker, to let the music fill a concert hall. The French cello we heard had a more subtly planed and constructed back panel, of graded thickness, which allowed it to resonate throughout the range of pitches playable on the cello.

Resonance isn’t just for music, though. It is one of the means by which art and literature amplify their meanings. The words say one thing, but behind them, larger and peeking through, are the ghosts of all literary history. 

One of the most famous example is the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. “April is the cruelest month … stirring dull roots with spring rain.” The poem ironically borrows its resonance from Chaucer: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote …” 

When I was a sophomore — like most sophomores — I believed that the “trick” was to spot the allusions intellectually, as if they were footnotes (Eliot did not help by including footnotes with the poem). As if being clever were the point of poetry. 

But that is not it at all, that is not what is meant at all.

Poetry such as Eliot’s assumes a familiarity with a wide variety of literature of the past, but not as a sort of Jeopardy quiz — rather, if you have a chest stuffed with the rags and bones of your culture, the meaning rather vibrates sympathetically. You feel it rather than think it, more like weather than like a weather report.

Consider, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Fourscore and seven years ago…” He could have said, simply, “Eighty-seven years ago…” But his audience was a Bible-familiar one, who would have heard in that cadence an echo of the King James version of Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore and ten.” Listeners to the speech would not have smiled and told themselves, “How clever, he’s referencing the Bible,” but rather, the organ-tones of the Authorized Version would have resonated in their limbic system, adding heft to the president’s words. 

Lincoln also frequently couched his rhetoric in the words of birth and death, which would resonate deeply with his audience at the dedication of a cemetery, when death had undone so many. Few Americans, North or South, escaped losing family members in that conflagration. 

So, when he continues: “brought forth,” “conceived,” “created,” “conceived” again, “endure,” “gave their lives,” “that the nation might live,” “new birth of freedom,” and “shall not perish,” that personally shared sense of accouchement and mortality pushes up from underneath the words, giving the republic blood and veins, nerves and bones. 

This is not a policy speech, filled with abstractions and empty words, but rather, a text resonant with the power of birth and death. That and the biblical tone give it its solemnity and power. 

In English, how much more resonant is the title of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — an echo of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 — than a simple English translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“in search of lost time” — which sounds more like someone trying to catch a missed train). 

In the English-speaking world, the sounding board of so much resonance comes from Shakespeare (Brave New World; Band of Brothers; Pomp and Circumstance; The Winter of our Discontent; Slings and Arrows), the King James Bible (Absalom, Absalom!; The Children of Men; Clouds of Witness; East of Eden), and the Book of Common Prayer (The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Ashes to Ashes; Till Death Us Do Part; Peace in Our Time.)

Resonance overflows in culture, usually passing unremarked, but obvious — at least to those who have absorbed their history, their literature and art, even popular art.

Consider King Kong, captured and shackled with “chains of chrome steel” in New York. The curtain rises and there is our ape, crucified. Kong is not simply a nightmare monster ravaging a city, but a sympathetic sufferer. 

Or take Jeff Koons porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles. Behind that monument to banality is the historical power of the Elgin Marbles and the East Pediment of the Parthenon. 

The resonance can also work in reverse, as a pop culture image can enlarge a high culture image: That wide-shoulder, spindly-leg Richard III of Olivier was built from the image of Disney’s Big Bad Wolf. Olivier has remarked on this several times. 

In music, there are quotes from previous music, such as Rachmaninoff’s constant use of the Dies Irae of plainchant. But such a quote is meant to be recognized immediately for what it is. 

More to the point of resonance is the half-hour finale to Gustav Mahler’s enormous Third Symphony, a deeply moving adagio that can bring a sergeant-major to weeping. Hidden in its main theme is the slow movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet — the one with the epigraph: “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (Must it be? It must be!) When Mahler says his symphony must contain the whole world, this is the resonance behind it. We might not recognize the tune until it is pointed out — when it becomes obvious — but it works its weight upon us in the audience anyway: a faint remembrance of things past that makes the present music glow from inside. 

The problem with all this is that it posits a cultured audience, one reasonably familiar with the art, poetry, literature, music and theater of at least 2,500 years of European culture, something increasingly rare. In the past, those who read poetry or collected art had also read the Bible and Homer. Now it is rare to find even a professed Christian who has actually read the whole Bible, or remembers stories from it that a hundred years ago were common heritage: David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Balshazzar’s feast; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Balaam’s ass. So now, when reading Melville, the name Ahab or Ishmael require footnotes when, in the past, they carried a rich resonance on first reading. 

Of course, no one can have such a complete familiarity of English and European literature and art to catch all of the baited hooks that authors and artists drop down. And some writers (I’m talking about you, Ezra Pound) are so obscure that you would have to be Ezra himself to understand all the buried treasure he has left in his Cantos. This is overkill. Hang it all, Ezra, there can be but one Cantos, and thank god for that. 

But, in the past, even a reasonably well-read audience felt the presence of the pulse underneath the skin of what they were reading. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to what we read and see.

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.

Eiffel TowerI am not watching Downton Abbey. I reached my quotient of British TV drama with Upstairs, Downstairs 40 years ago. Since then, it has been rehash on rehash, and I no longer feel any connection.

It is a widely held truism that American intelligentsia is divided between Anglophiles and Francophiles. The one portion watches Masterpiece Theatre on PBS and cannot get enough of Edwardian melodrama. They swoon over Merchant-Ivory films and generally rate Henry James as readable.Books

The other half reads Camus, loves Montaigne, adores Truffaut.

The one side grieved the death of Princess Di; the other the death of Claude Levi-Strauss.

It is a divide as solid as red-state, blue-state: In one corner, you have Sherlock Holmes, in the other, Inspector Maigret.

The English sleuth, cool, rational, friendless; the Frenchman, intuitive, patient, uxorious and with a small glass of pastis in one hand.

When the English talk of logic, you know a tweedy lecture is in the offing. When the French talk of logique, you know something as baroque as an 18-car pile-up will follow.Palais Garnier - putti

Just as psychologists can divide personalities into types: introvert vs. extrovert — so, too, can we divide Americans into those who identify with the island or the continent.

This is, of course, a divide entirely set amongst the reading, thinking public.  Outside of the library, Americans are suspicious of anything foreign, and especially anything European.

Which is why Americans so much love to despise France. It is hard to understand this, given the history of our two countries, from the time of the American Revolution onwards.

“Cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” we say. Which shows how little we Americans understand about French history. Doesn’t exactly describe Napoleon or his army. And who was it, after all, who won the American Revolution for us? Ah, yes, Admiral de Grasse. And Lafayette was no monkey of any sort.

But back to the bookish Yankee: Perhaps this divide became palpable in 1789. Many Englishman at first applauded the French Revolution, but even most of them eventually grew horrified at the excesses of the Terror.Rabbitshangingmarche

It left England with a slowly dwindling monarchy, and gave France a fresh, if confused start. It has never really comfortably settled, the current Republic being the Fifth, merely five decades old.

The English much earlier had their own paroxysm, but that one ended with the restoration of the monarchy, and an inbred conservatism that has lasted to this day, and I believe, is what so appeals to that brand of American college-educated reader who would rather watch The English Patient.

Or perhaps it is the British Protestant history vs. the lingering Catholicism of France. America is more at ease with the strict, moralistic Puritanism it inherited from its English forebears. There is something suspect about the theatrical exuberance of the Roman religion that is the cultural inheritance of even French atheists.

England says, No, or at least, Not Now. France says Yes, or at least Let’s Try. It is why English food is the butt of jokes, while French food is the world’s standard for gustation. The English do not believe they should enjoy their food.Bayeux store window

For the English, anything of which you partake should be good for you, that is, make you a better person. For the French, it is the same with this difference: Something that excites the senses is good for you and does make you a better person.

The Puritan influence in America wishes to outlaw foie gras.

Well, I love foie gras. It is the most intense flavor I can remember eating,  sunburst of umami, with the cloak of saccharine provided by the onion confiture and finally washed with an excellent fruity sauterne — not the cheap sugary drink Americans buy by that name.

Which means I fall into the camp of Francophiles. I love everything about the country, even their craziness.Rouen Lingerie shop window

I love that the French Revolution elevated reason above all other virtues, and proceeded to get all unreasonable about it. I love that they have a theory for everything, and will argue for an hour on a TV talk show, not about whether a speaker has his facts right, but whether he has his theory right. There is a kind of divine looniness in it all.

In contrast, the British can suck the life out of any proposition. While we can agree that Adam Smith was a genius, have you ever actually tried to read him? Or David Hume? Not bloody likely.

So, you can have your boiled joint and your suet pudding, I will always go for the cassoulet and the moules Normande. There is nothing better tasting than a properly prepared magret de canard. You can keep your English goose.Driving France

When I am in France, I feel at home in a way that is irrational. I do not speak the language; I can never dress as stylishly; I can barely read Le Monde or Figaro. But somehow the culture feels familiar. There is an easy fit, a comfortable tolerance, in the engineer’s sense, you have room to rattle around.

Even the landscape is home. The trees of Verdun, the mountains of the Vosges, the beaches of Normandy, the craggy peaks of the Massif Central, the caves of the Perigord, the waves of the Mediterranean, the 2,000 year history of Arles, the white hills of Aix.Forests of Verdun

And finally, and most importantly, the small, highway-ringed city of Paris, where the girl in the flower shop asks how your wife is doing when you pass in the afternoon and your wife is resting in the hotel room.

I find it all so inviting, so warm, friendly and comfortable. Paris is a city you can negotiate, where every corner — every one of its 20 arrondissements spiraling out from the Ile de la Cité — is as familiar as a classmate from school, and just as distinct.

It is the Berber faces, the Jews of the Marais, the Asians running the butcher shop, the Turks selling pizza, the line each morning and evening at the boulangerie for baguettes, the sculptured heads over the doors, the fountains, the public statues, the warren of roads changing names every few blocks. The squalid suburbs, the train stations, the Bois de Vincennes, the violinist echoing through the tunnels of the Metro, the fromage blanc at the Chinese restaurant, the old men playing pétanque in the flat dust of the Tuileries.Blvd de l'Hopital

There is nothing wrong if you prefer London. If you like bad food and dirty streets, boring television and infuriating politeness.

À chacun ses goûts.

My wife and I have been to France many times and cannot wait to get back. I recently came across the diary I kept on our first trip there, in 2002 (I had visited much earlier — in 1966) and I will be sharing portions of it over the next several blog entries. I don’t know if I can persuade any of you to give up your Downton Abbey for the French version of Inspector Maigret (with Bruno Cremer), but perhaps I can suggest why we find the nation so compelling.

apostle 1When I was leaving the theater after seeing Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, way back in 1997, a loud woman in the back of the crowd screamed out, somewhat redundantly, ”That’s the worst movie I have ever seen … in my entire life.”

At first, I couldn’t understand her reaction. It was a very good film, a quiet, intense character study of a Southern preacher. Perhaps, I thought, there were not enough car crashes in it, not enough glowing, cherry-red petro-explosions.

Certainly the film had not fulfilled her expectations.

And that was the sticking point. I have thought about it long and hard. Was The Apostle an outlier or a harbinger? There have been many articles written about the death of irony, yet, irony refuses quite to go away. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a brief hiccup in our otherwise comforting embrace of the snarky, but it soon returned. If we briefly took a breath and said to ourselves, some things are too real, too important to sniff at, well, then it didn’t stop Stephen Colbert, it didn’t put an end to The Onion.

But there was still something in Duvall’s film. The singular quality of the film is its lack of irony. Everything is presented utterly straight, with no snide comments under the breath, no revelation of hypocrisy, no hidden agenda. Duvall neither makes fun of the Apostle’s deeply held religion, nor does he proselytize for it: It is not a “Christian” film, but a sober look at the complexities of a Christian life, fully rounded, and not a summation of a generic Christian life, but rather only this one person. Irony depends on stereotypes, on “classes” of people, not on individuals.

This straightforwardness is rare in Hollywood, perhaps unique, where we expect a cushion of irony to protect us from messy experience. hangover 1

Irony, narrowly defined, is saying one thing but meaning another. As when we see a friend green-skinned and hung over in the morning and say to him, ”You look bright and chipper today.”

In that, we are both in on the joke. Often, though, an audience is split between those who get it and those who don’t. Irony is thus used frequently as a kind of shibboleth for a clique. Those who ”get it” are in, those who don’t move to a retirement community in Florida.

Irony is also a literary trope, which means, its expectations are linguistic and not experiential. Most Hollywood movies set up a form and audiences know where the story is going. A gun flashed in an early scene will by expectation be used in a later scene. The surprise we wait for is the when.

But The Apostle never quite does this. Each time we spot an obvious plot development, the movie goes elsewhere, and where it goes is closer to what might happen in real life than what we would normally expect in a movie.

All setups are frustrated.

Unlike almost any mainstream Hollywood film, there was no ”in joke” to be in on.

Instead, the story of the Apostle E.F. is given to us as an esthetic construct, something to apprehend and appreciate, to hold in our mind, whole, as we might hold in our hands a glass orb, rotating it and seeing it from all angles.

In its lack of irony, The Apostle is an odd fit for our cultural moment. The 20th Century was a century of irony; irony has been our lingua franca. But, there are some indications that as we descend into the 21st, irony has begun to wear out its welcome. It is still pervasive, but oftentimes, it seems to come by rote, as in so many sitcom pilots, seemingly written from some formula. Irony is tired; it wants to put up its feet and rest. We expect the irony, but we don’t really believe in it anymore. It’s just the norm, which we also are too tired to give up.

This shift away from irony has happened before: It is clearest in the change from the 18th to 19th centuries, from the irony of Alexander Pope to the sincerity of William Wordsworth.

daffodilsOne has only to compare the mock epic tone of The Rape of the Lock with the straightforwardness, almost blandness of “I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o’er vales and hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils.”

A younger generation back then, tired of the artificiality of the older and sought to substitute an authenticity for the artifice.

There were things that were important to be said, the younger generation thought, and to be said clearly and meaningfully. The century that followed Wordsworth was a century without irony — and almost, at times, it seemed without a sense of humor.

Eventually, the century gagged on its own sincerity, so that when the new one began, the page flipped back. Poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound stoked their verses heavily with irony, never saying quite what they meant, always approaching their subject obliquely.

We no longer trusted the Great Truth spelled out in large, direct letters, and for good reason. Too many Great Truths turned out to be miserable lies. Colonialism, Imperialism, racism, purity, idealism. There have been many deaths. picasso violin

This wasn’t true only in literature. Music turned from Tchaikovsky’s grand passions to Stravinsky’s tweaked noses, art from grand historical paintings to pasted bits of daily newspapers and deconstructed violins.

One has only to compare the historical straggler, such as D.W. Griffith’s sentimental Way Down East with Ernst Lubitsch’s brassy Ninotchka. It is the same change. You can see the pendulum swing, saeculorum decursum, over and over.

Between the irony and the directness there is constant battle, for neither is sufficient. Each mode has both its strengths and weaknesses. Direct sentiment soon devolves into Victorian sentimentality, so that we laugh now at the mawkishness of much of it. But irony declines into mere cleverness, so that we admire an author’s wit, without much regard for his sense.

This has certainly been the case in Hollywood. It is rare to find a film in which actors behave the way any real people behave or feel the feelings of real people. Instead, they speak in catch phrases that ring with bell-like cleverness. The plots are artificial; their resolutions preposterous.

”Hasta la vista, baby!”

”Go ahead, punk, make my day!”

”Show me the money.”

“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

On television, it is even thicker. Seinfeld was a wonderfully clever sitcom, but it was, by its own admission, about ”nothing.” All style, no substance.

Most sitcoms are the same, and most hourlong dramas are numbingly formulaic. Forrest gump

Yet, there is a hunger for substance. It shows up in such mainstream places as movies like Forrest Gump, where the sincerity and lack of irony of its main character seems like a breath of life. The movie itself was mildly ironic, but the character was guileless. And what is more, his earnestness — that is, his ”pure heart” — won him all his prizes. (I am not defending the film as a whole, but only making a point about its underlying proposal of directness and sincerity — many people despise the film for this very reason).

In that, the tone of the movie was completely at odds with its predecessor, Being There, where we were all in on the great in-joke, as the idiot gardener, Chance, fools all the supposedly smart stuffed shirts into finding profundity in his inanities. Chauncey Gardner

And just as a clever century distrusts an earnest one, the pendulum swings back and we are beginning to be unsatisfied by the cleverness. The deeper Quentin Tarantino dives into genre film pastiche, the more irrelevant he becomes. His first films were about something — the deaths in Pulp Fiction, however clever in terms of plot, were real deaths with consequences; in Kill Bill, the deaths are just tin ducks in a shooting gallery. They carry no punch.

This great cultural sea change may be due, but it hasn’t become pervasive yet. Still, there are warning signs: Sincerity has also brought us political correctness; it has brought New Age philosophy; it has brought us any part of a Tyler Perry movie that isn’t Madea.

For, while irony requires a modicum of intelligence, sincerity is democratic: Everyone is invited — no brain too small. It runs the gamut from genius to imbecility. Not every 19th century poet was Wordsworth; heck, even Wordsworth was only Wordsworth on a good day.

The watchword for irony is skepticism; for sincerity, credulity. Blind faith in alternative medicines, UFOs and astrology is only possible in a time when our irony is eroding.

Yet, irony doesn’t get off the hook so easily, either. There are reasons some people feel compelled to give it up as the new century reaches its teen years.

The first is that irony is words, not life. It is essentially linguistic. That is, its rules and habits are linguistic rules, not experiential rules.

With irony, as with a joke, you have to have the setup and punch line come in the right order, followed by the rim shot. Out of sequence, they fall flat and meaningless.

Real life has other demands, but with irony, we translate the experience of life into the language. Language is a kind of parallel universe, divorced from reality, but somehow accepted as its mirror: When we are laughing at a joke on a sitcom, we are laughing not at life, but at language.

It is at the core of what is called Modern Art, that the process becomes the subject: The painter paints paintings about paint, the playwright constructs dialogue about speech, the sculptor shows us the raw surface of stone. Modernism has been about the tools it uses.

And that is why, at the end of the Modern century, the armor of irony that has protected our egos from the embarrassment of our sentiment has begun to fall off. We demand real experience.

When that woman yelled out her frustration at The Apostle, she was complaining that her linguistic expectations — the language of film we have all become accustomed to — were violated. Robert Duvall was doing something different.

But our culture now requires of all of us that we rise above our comfortable irony and attempt to see what is actually out there, floating in reality.

And deal with it.

 
 
 
 
 

arrow earth
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote John Keats. He may have intended that ironically, although it has been taken literally by many. Truth is beauty — well, at least in this: that artists have always sought to express the truth, at least as they have known it.John Keats

Art is, in large part, an attempt to discover truth in the welter of the chaos and confusion that is our lives. We write a play and test whether the ideas our characters believe can hold up under scrutiny. We paint canvasses in an attempt to discover what the world looks like. We write music to explore our emotional coherence.

In short, science is the test we give to hard fact; art is the test we give to everything else.

If you look at the broad expanse of cultural history (including art, literature, music, architecture — even politics and religion), you find each generation attempting to ameliorate the fallacies, misconceptions and naivete of their parents’. It is an ongoing march.

(The 20th century was deluded into thinking that there was a directional arrow to this process, and that they were the conclusion of the historical process, the end result of all that dialectic. That was their naivete.)

But the process continues: Our children see right through us. Their children will see through them.

The real “truth” is that our experience is too multifarious, to contradictory, ever to be summarized by a single cultural moment. This does nothing to minimize the efforts of all those generations before us to attempt to understand their lives. Each attempt is heroic in its own way. And each is truthful in its own way.

This constant shifting can be seen in the back-and-forth of certain cultural constants, which I call the pendulums. They swing back and forth. In gross outline, they are the classic and romantic ideas, the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses. But the pendulums are more complex than that simplicity implies. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of competing and repeating ideas that jostle each other out of the way temporarily, only to reappear in their turn and push back.

In the previous blog post, I discussed one of these ideas — the primacy in their turns of the generalized, universalized image, versus the individualized and particularized.

But there are many more oppositions, many more pendulums, swinging back and forth over our shared history.

(My survey encompasses primarily Western art tradition, because it is the one I know best, the one I swim in, but other cultures share the dynamic, albeit with differing permutations. Just consider the Chinese art that swings from the formality of Chen Honshou to the spontaneity of Mu-Ch’i or Pa-ta-shan-jen).chen hongshou and bada sharen

Society or Cosmos

I wanted to look at just a few of these other oppositions in Western culture.

A second large group of oppositions concerns the subject matter, and whether the artist is concerned with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.

In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.”

The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.Prometheus

The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.

Such poetry would have been considered utter nonsense 50 years earlier. One hundred years later, and they were taken for nonsense once again.

One only has to look at Pope and Wordsworth to see the difference.

I said these pendulums swing at different rates: After Romanticism in writing, we swing back to the social nature of Flaubert or Thackery or Dickens. The pendulum tends to remain social through the early part of this century. Eliot, despite his religious conversion, is eminently concerned with man and man, and sees religious conviction as a social good.

But when we hit the mid-century, the pent-up spirituality bursts out with the Beat writers, with the Abstract Expressionists, with Existential philosophy

The social-cosmic pendulum does not swing in synch with the general-particular pendulum.

Social — Cosmic

Limits — No limits

This world — The next world

Political — Apolitical

Regional — International

Active participation — Retreat from world

Rational — Magical

Emblem — Myth

Incarnation — Transcendence

Society — Nature

Nature as desert — Nature as cathedral

Dramatic — Lyric

Irony — Sincerity

Clarity and Ambiguity

The third large category is the fight between clarity and ambiguity. One age likes its art simple and direct; the next likes it textured, complex and busy.

The classic example, of course, is the shift from Renaissance classicism to Baroque emotionalism.

In a Renaissance painting, the artist made sure everything could be seen clearly. He lined everything up with the picture frame, lit it with a general illumination so that confusing shadows would be minimized.

Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno.

castagno

See how clear it all is. But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings.

tintoretto

The Renaissance liked stability and clarity, the Baroque, motion and confusion.

Like the David of Michelangelo and the Bernini statue of Apollo and Daphne.

david and apollo and daphne

Or the Birth of Venus of Botticelli

botticelli

and the Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio.

caravaggio

In buildings, you can see the shift from the Gothic, with its infinite variety and crenelated detail, obscuring the larger structural designs to the clarity of ornament and design in Christopher Wren’s  St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.st pauls milan cathedrals

You can hardly see the actual walls of the Gothic cathedral, so overwhelmed are they by buttresses and sculptures.

But St. Paul’s is a monument to line and form, clearly seen and designed.

Clarity — Ambiguity

Limits — Freedom

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Drawing — Painting

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

Overall — Detail

Formal — Organic

Codify — Explore

Stability — Change

Rules — Anything goes

Clarity — Obscurity

Old form — New form

Discrete disciplines — Mix and match

Relevant or Isolated

Another shift concerns whether art should serve some wider function, like moral instruction or a search for scientific truth, or whether art has no purpose but to stimulate our esthetic tastes. Art for art’s sake.

Should the art hang on the wall to be looked at, or should it decorate the handle of the shovel or spoon? Should it remain outside the mores of its time, or should it be used as propaganda for a righteous cause? Is it merely to look at, or should a Madonna teach you something about your religion?

This is a concern that has become important in the art of our time. A whole herd of artists arose in the 1960s who saw art as divorced from life. Color Field painters preached the gospel: “Art can make nothing happen.”

noland kruger pair

But Postmodernism is largely about inserting political thought into the paintings. Art for art’s sake is declared “elitist” and “irrelevant” and the new art must be judged on its political truth.

 

Art as Art — Art for Function

Entertainment — Edification

Style — Content

Apolitical — Political

Ignore past — Embrace past

Retreat from world — Active participation

Art on wall — Art on implement

Technical — Visionary

Vocation — Inspiration

Contemplation — Propaganda

Ideal — Practical

Tribal or Cosmopolitan

The history of art also pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations. The Gothic style as an international style, but the Renaissance is either Italian or Northern. The Baroque breaks up further into French, Dutch, Italian, Flemish.

In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto.

But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.

Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian.

In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.

The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.”

But ethnic identity is back, and art is once again seen as a key to identity.

Exclusionary — Syncretic

Limits — No limits

Theocratic — Humanistic

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Regional — International

Nationalism — Cosmopolitanism

Discrete disciplines — Mix media

Ajax Defending Greek Ships Against Trojans

All of us or just me

One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”

That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is believed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.

We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.

In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.

Ethos — Ego

General — Particular

Investigate world — Investigate self

Chorus — Individual

Rectitude — Bohemianism

Anonymous creator — Signed art

Vocation — Inspiration

Atelier — Single creator

Talent — Genius

Depiction of emotion — Expression of emotion

Head or Heart

baudelaireThen, there is the fight between wit and sentiment.

To some generations, art needs to take a cool, ironic view of the world. Cervantes in his Quixote, or Pope in his Rape of the Lock.

To other generations, art is about human emotion. The more a person feels, the better the art.

Wit was the hallmark of the 18th century. Sentiment of the 19th. It was a common issue of discussion. Everyone knew just what you meant when you used the terms.

Did you wish to write “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”? or did you want to release pent up emotions, creating something new, never felt before? That’s what Baudelaire did.

Wit — Sentiment

Irony — Sincerity

Universal — Particular

Intellect — Emotion

External — Internal

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Artifice — Naturalism

Social — Cosmic

Verbal — Sensuous

Society — Nature

Emblem or Myth

Penultimately, there is the swing from art which uses its symbols emblematically and that which uses it mythologically.

That is, if you use a symbol, does it stand “for” something else — as cupid stands easily for love in so much pastoral poetry — or does it partake of that which it expresses — that is, in photographer Minor White’s wonderful formulation: “what it is and what ELSE it is.”faerie queene

Cupid is an emblem. The Cross on the Knight’s shield in The Faerie Queene is an emblem. Moby Dick is a myth. One is easily translatable, the other is not and opens itself to investigating that which cannot be put in mere words or images.

A Classic age tends to be emblematic, a Baroque or Romantic age tends to be mythic. The one uses symbols as shorthand, the other as incredibly convoluted mental images that point at, but don’t touch, what it means. It is the opposite of shorthand.

Ovid is the acme of the emblematic. Homer of the mythic. Homer’s gods — for all their occasional silliness — are actual divinities. Ovid’s are puppets playacting for our amusement.

Emblem — Myth

Universal — Particular

Intellectual — Emotional0 R

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

External — Internal

Secular — Religious

Style — Content

Synthetic — Organic

Miniature — Epic

Ironic — Sincere

Mimesis or Poiesis

And finally, there is the issue of whether art should imitate the appearance of nature, or should imitate the processes of nature. That is, whether art is mimetic or poetic. Should it copy or create from whole cloth?

We have seen in our century the change from abstract art to images. Abstraction once seemed unassailable. It was the serious art; anything else was trivial.

kandinsky mondrian pair

lichtenstein 2Well, we got over that. From the time of Pop Art, art has increasingly attempted to look, in some form or other, like the world.

It hasn’t done this in imitation of the look of paintings from earlier centuries. That look cannot come back, or cannot be used without irony.

But artists today paint images of people and things. They are identifiable. Some are almost like the old paintings.

Richard Diebenkorn was hailed as an abstract artist in the 60s.

When he began returning to the figure, he was at first castigated.

diebenkorn before and afterNow he is seen as a prophet.

Abstraction wasn’t only in painting. Waiting for Godot is an abstract play. Gertrude Stein wrote abstract prose. Carl Andre wrote abstract poetry.

Mimesis — Poiesis

Imitation — Abstraction

Particular — General

Individual — Universal

Observed –Stylized

Detail — Overall

Edification — Entertainment

Content — Style

Naturalism — Artifice

Investigate world — Investigate self

Scientific realism — Emotional realism

Stretching the frame

Before we leave the subject, we should point out that oppositions are entirely dependent on context. Baptists and Lutherans are opposites until we pair them as Protestants against Catholics, and we pair those against, say, Islam as the opposite of Christianity, or those paired as religions of the book against, let’s pick, Hinduism, but then we can pair those as religions against atheism, and pair them as belief systems against thoughtlessness, and pair them as philosophies against — well, whatever is the opposite of philosophy.

There are an uncounted number of oppositions; I have listed a few I have considered. I could elaborate blogs about each of pair them.

But you get the picture.

 

Stephen Spender   The English poet Stephen Spender wrote a poem whose first line I can’t get out of my head: “I think continually of those who were truly great.”
Of course, Spender was writing about political issues, but I can’t help thinking how this line might apply to art.
Because, we use such words rather loosely in the art world. This is “great,” that is “great.” But this devalues the word. I think continually, not of the great writer, painters and musicians who have populated our world, our college curricula and our anthologies — there are many: so many, no one — not even Harold Bloom — can read, see and hear them all — but rather I am thinking of what Spender might call the “truly great.” There are so few of them.
These are those men (and I’ll qualify that soon if you give me a minute) whose works either changed the world significantly or at least changed the culture, or whose works are recognized by a preponderance of humankind to have the deepest insight into the human condition.
It is best understood if we start with science. Who was “truly great?” You could name hundreds of great thinkers, from Watson and Crick to Louis Pasteur to Edwin Hubble. Their contributions have been invaluable. But none of them so completely changed our thinking or ruled it for so long as my three nominees: Aristotle, Newton and Einstein. Each remade the world.three scientists
Who in the arts can have had such effect? These are the people whose works are the core of our culture, the central axis of our understanding of how the world looks, feels, acts, and responds.
The Big Boys.
You may have your own thoughts on the matter: That is not the issue.  We can haggle over the contents of the list. The issue is whether there are some creators whose works are so essential to culture that to be ignorant of their work, is to be ignorant. Period.
In literature, I would say the list begins with Homer and Shakespeare. They are the consensus leaders. If I would add Chaucer, Milton and Dante to the list, so be it. You can add your own. But Homer and Shakespeare are “truly great” in this sense.
What I am suggesting is that in each field, there are probably such consensus choices. In music, you have Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Surely others belong on the list. I would include Haydn, Wagner and Stravinsky. You can add your own, but again, if you are not familiar with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, your education is incomplete.
Among painters, you have Raphael, Rembrandt and Picasso. No one will argue against them. There are many painters that could be included: Titian, Michelangelo, Monet, Turner — the list is expandable depending on your taste, but who has had more influence than Raphael? More depth than Rembrandt? More expanse than Picasso?
(I am purposely narrowing my list to European culture, not because I think that is is the only one that counts, but because I swim in it rather than another, and because I have not enough exposure to everything in other cultures to claim even the slim authority I have discussing Western culture. If I had my way, I’d add Hokusai to this list, but he is ruled out by the operating principles of my system.)
Who are the sculptors? Michelangelo, surely; Bernini and Rodin. Others are great, but these are the standard-bearers.
Try it for yourself. Among novelists, who are our Newton and Einstein? Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and James Joyce.
Again, you may put forth your Fielding, your Trollope or Dickens and I won’t argue. This is only my list and it is surely provisional. It is merely my meager assay. It is my claim that there are the “truly great.” And that they offer something bigger, larger and more powerful than even the best of the rest. They have altered the course of the planet. Or at least the people upon it.
One final caveat: Where are the women? I am not so churlish that I don’t recognize the many great artists who are built with X chromosomes. My argument is with history, not with women: Historically, women have been blocked from the world of art. This is not so anymore, or at least not to the extent it has been true in the past. I was an art critic for a quarter of a century, and I saw the art world shift from a boy’s club to a much more open thing. Most of the best artists I came across were women. Many of our best and most honored writers are now women. In the future, I have no doubt there will be women who shake the world the way Michelangelo did. But I have to look backwards for my list, not guess at the future.
So, does Gertrude Stein belong here? Or Virginia Woolf? This is not to gainsay their genius or the quality of their work. Everyone should read them. But I am not writing about the great: I am comparing them to Shakespeare. The lack of women on this list is a historical artifact, not a prescriptive injunction.
The world is sorely lacking for heroes these days. We don’t even trust the idea of the hero. He surely must be in it for himself; there must be some ulterior motive. It’s all about power, say the deconstructionists. It is all reduced to a steaming pile of rubble and we shout with glee over taking down the idols and smashing them.
But I am suggesting that we actually read Homer, study Rembrandt, listen to Beethoven’s late quartets with the intensity and importance we otherwise give to defusing a bomb.
We should read or listen or look as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

oxford red clay roadIn northern Mississippi, where the iron-rich clay is the color of a hunter’s vest, the town of Oxford sits in the middle of Lafayette County in exactly the same central position as Jefferson sits in the middle of William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County.yoknapatawpha map

Faulkner’s fictional county began in the 1820s with the first white settlers and an Indian named Doom. The real Oxford was founded in 1833; 11 years later, the University of Mississippi opened for business. There are many similarities between the fiction and the reality, and not the least of them is the way progress seems to have obscured the the old ways that Faulkner felt were the heart of the South.

The town of 20,000 still radiates out from the central square, where an old, large courthouse still stands and is still the central political and legal fact for the county.

But unlike Jefferson, Oxford is a college town and the existence of Ole Miss changes the equation radically. For one, there are bookstores in Oxford.William Faulkner

And, when you stay in the motel at the edge of town, the nearest restaurant serves Orange Roughy with Cilantro Salsa — an Eastern attempt at Fish Veracruz — and Pork Chops Stuffed with Morel Mushrooms and Pine Nuts.

And what is worse, the trendy, warehouse atmosphere with its scrubbed concrete floor and unfinished wood handrails, is home to waiters brandishing pepper grinders, who say, “Good evening, my name is Brian and I’ll be your server tonight.”

So, it can be disappointing, if you go to Oxford to find the flavor of the Compsons, Sutpens and Snopeses.

The courthouse square, where the town used to buy its dry goods, hardware and groceries, now houses restaurants, sportswear shops and a very fine bookstore with a very fine section of Faulkner first editions. square books interiorUpstairs is a coffee bar and tables, where students and tourists mix while reading the morning paper over a cup of hazelnut mocha.smitty's sign

But if you could walk back in time just a few years, you would find a little shopfront cafe called Smitty’s. In the early morning, it would be filled with courthouse lawyers and snappy waitresses, drawling conversation accompanied by the music of clinking glasses being racked in the kitchen.

At Smitty’s, the waitress still called you “Honey,”’ and meant it. The biscuits were still smothered in white sausage gravy and the buttered grits were always salted and peppered.

And the weathered faces of the Old South still gathered for their morning cup of coffee and the local gossip.

When I was there once, in 1994, one particular and dignified gentleman caught my eye. He must have been 75, with thin white hair combed so the furrows left by the comb were clean lines. He wore a striped tie and a dark blue suit that his frailing limbs couldn’t quite fill out anymore. He also wore bifocals and talked in that sweet, subdued aristocratic drawl.

He was natty in a way only very old, very respectable Southern men can be.

At first, he shared the next table with three other men who we learned were lawyers from the courthouse. The blue suit was a judge.

But more and more men filed in and eventually, they all gravitated to one wall, where several tables were lined up end to end. There must have been 20 or more lawyers, all talking and laughing and keeping each other amused with good ole stories and friendly joshin’.

The judge sat dead center at the row of tables, the obvious center of gravity. The surrounding lawyers looked almost like apostles at the Last Supper.

The old man might as well have been Judge Sartoris. He could have come straight from the pages of Sanctuary or Intruder in the Dust. You could sense he knew not only everyone in town, but knew their granddaddy.

But there were also things that had changed: A few of the lawyers were black.la paz oxford

Smitty’s is gone now, replaced first by a yuppified eatery called 208 South Lamar, after its street address, and currently by a Mexican restaurant.

But even with the changes — in some ways, Oxford is impossible to tell from any other university town, whether Chapel Hill, N.C. or Charlottesville, Va. — but the building now occupied by La Paz, formerly 208, formerly Smitty’s, and before that Grundy’s, and before that other bars and restaurants, was built in the 1880s, and despite the frequent facelifts, the past is still there underneath.faulkner's typewriter

Those who don’t understand it laugh when you tell them that in many ways, the South is more civilized than any other region in the country. They shouldn’t. While the rest of the nation is fragmenting culturally, the South is holding on, however tenuously, to the culture and history that made it what it is and that Faulkner chronicled.

In New York, history is a subject taught in school; in Mississippi, history is your grandfather.