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I cannot forget that Abigail Adams said, “Remember the ladies.”

I recently wrote a blog about several of my “heroes.” I was not oblivious of the fact that my five choices were all of the dangly-bits gender, and I promised in that entry to follow up with one on women who were also my heroes — those who embody character that I admire and would aspire to, if I were a better person than I have managed to be.

Top on my list of women who are my heroes I would place my wife of 35 years, but I will not be writing about her, for deeply personal reasons. Let us simply acknowledge that there is now a constellation that bears her name, made up of the brightest stars, cast up into the nighttime sky.

As with the previous posting, there are some women who most of the world would add to the list. I will never be as brave or as eloquent as Malala Yousafzai. If someone had shot me in the face, I’m sure I would have lain low for the rest of my life, looking back nervously over my shoulder and jumping at Fourth of July fireworks. But Malala continues to speak out forcefully for the education of women. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, when she was 17, which is the age my granddaughters are now. I think of them as mature for their ages, but Malala — wow. They don’t hand out Nobel Peace Prizes for being class president or state legislative page. She is one in a billion.

They do hand out Nobel Peace Prizes for upholding democracy in the face of authoritarian military juntas, though. Aung San Suu Kyi has one. She spent a total of 15 years under house arrest in her native Burma for speaking out against the repressive government, and finally managed to bring democracy back to her nation. (I recognize that all heroes run the risk of clay feet. Malala so far has avoided that fate, but Aung San Suu Kyi nearly blew decades of good will in the world by failing to condemn violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. One always has to forgive something in one’s heroes. Not one of us is perfect.)

But my personal pantheon comprises five women who have something to give me on a more personal level; they embody traits that I would aspire to and that among them are fervent curiosity; a willingness to include everyone in the circus of humanity; an ability to feel not just sympathy, but empathy; a refusal to accept the conventional wisdom; and a burning aliveness. The each see the multiple layers of existence not as contradictory, but as accumulative.

Toni Morrison — Another Nobel Prize winner, this time for literature, Morrison has the fierce physiognomy of a Tibetan temple’s guardian demon. She suffers not fools gladly. But, as with the Buddhist demons, when you accept her for herself, she turns out to be a guide, not a gatekeeper. I especially appreciate that, although she can walk through walls — indeed, chew the walls up and spit them out — she does not cave in to the conventional definitions laid out for her by society.

When asked about feminism in a 1998 interview in Salon magazine, she said, “In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can’t take positions that are closed. Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book – leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity.” 

She has done a great deal for feminism by being the powerful woman she is. It may be “off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I’m involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don’t subscribe to patriarchy, and I don’t think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it’s a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.”

And geez, can she write.

Agnès Varda — French New Wave cinema broke away from the conventions of studio filmmaking in the 1950s and ’60s, with a fresh approach to storytelling. Varda is often including in their ranks, but really, she isn’t in anyone’s army. She is peculiarly and significantly her own. It is often hard to tell whether she is making documentary or feature film. Her fiction often includes bits of real life, and her documentaries are often so imaginative that the only way you can categorize them is to call them “personal essays” in film language.

She is clearly in love with the things of this world, from her first feature, La Pointe Courte, from 1954, which focuses as much on the physical settings and objects in the small fishing village central to her story, as it does on the two main characters. There are wooden sheds and fishing nets lingered over lovingly by the camera, which moves ever so slowly, giving us all the time we need to pay attention. She dares us to be bored and challenges us to transcend that boredom by paying attention to the wealth she has spread before us.

In The Gleaners and I, she begins by following the poor as they gather bits of food left in the farm fields — a practice written into French law. But, the movie goes on to look at many people who have found value in things forgotten and discarded, including artists who make work from found objects. This includes herself. She said in an interview “I’m not poor, I have enough to eat.” But she points to “another kind of gleaning, which is artistic gleaning. You pick ideas, you pick images, you pick emotions from other people, and then you make it into a film.”

There is no doubting Varda’s feminist bona fides, but her argument is found not in politics, but in human relationships, and in the unembraceable fact that we all die. We wait for the biopsy results with the pop star in Cleo from 5 to 7, we watch the suffering of the poor wraith as she winds down to a cold death in a ditch in Vagabond, and we see Varda’s own love for her husband, Jacques Demy, as he slowly winks out of this life in Jacquot de Nantes. In all of them, death is not a literary device, but a vivifying fact of life we all must face with — if nothing else — creativity.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg — There are many reasons for admiring Ginsburg, not the least of which is her sparkling wit. Even as she becomes older and slower, the words that come out of her mouth always a bit more hesitatingly as age grips her ribcage are often ripping funny. There is always light flashing in those eyes. Whenever she shows up on a C-Span panel discussion, I stop flipping channels and sit through the duration. I love hearing her.

And certainly one admires the legal career which lead her to the senior position on the U.S. Supreme Court (in age, if not in length of service). She is always on the right side, even if not always on the winning side. Her dissents are deeply felt and forcefully written.

One also admires her fashion choice, wearing that lacy jabot across the front of her judicial robe. She was the third woman to administer the oath of office to a president, and the first Supreme Court justice to preside over a same-sex wedding.

And there is her love of opera; she has even appeared several times as a supernumerary in opera productions. And her long marriage to her late husband, Martin Ginsburg. I have a warm regard for anyone forming so close a bond for so long a time.

But the single quality I most admire in the Notorious RBG is the fact she could be friends with the late Antonin Scalia. How, you ask, could this have been possible. Scalia was the most ideologically inflexible of the justices during his term, and the most biting in his writings, whether in the majority or in dissent. Truculent and pugnacious, he had a nasty turn of phrase and seemed to ooze contempt for those who disagreed with him. Yet, Ginsburg and Scalia had a famous friendship in the court. They went to opera together. For years, the Scalias and the Ginsburgs had dinner together every New Year’s Eve. (His friendship with RBG is the one single redeeming feature I can cite in Scalia’s favor).

Nan Goldin — Seeming a universe apart from the high-achieving Supreme Court justice is an artist known for her snapshots of her drug-using friends. Goldin, now 63, made her name with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in 1985, a slide show with music accompaniment that was presented via a Kodak Carousel transparency projector presented against the walls of a gallery. Along with the hundreds of slides, a recording of music by the Velvet Underground, Charles Aznavour, Nina Simone, James Brown and Richard Strauss played, underlying both the rebellious and romantic nature of the lifestyle portrayed — that of the gay subculture, the heroin chic, the damaging personal life of Goldin herself.

It is painful to look at these lost people, with their bruises, smeared eye-liner, tangled hair and thousand-yard-stares. One critic called them “the beaten down and beaten-up,” with “gritty disheveled miens” photographed in “dark and dank ramshackle interiors.”

An edited-down version of the slide show was published a year later as a book. It would be hard to turn those pages and feel there was anything to admire in them, other than the color and composition of them as photographs. But they are redeemed by two contradictory things: their truth and their romanticism. Goldin was not pointing her camera at this lifestyle to admonish it, but to document it; she was not outside it, but a part of it. It was a harsh self-inspection. But it also, while telling hard truths, explored the deep and abiding search for meaning in life. The need for transcendence, for escaping the banality of bourgeoise existence. Surely we are more important as individuals than as cogs in a societal machine.

For a more in-depth analysis of Goldin’s work, check out: https://richardnilsen.com/2013/08/30/the-goldin-mean/

Anne Iott — There are people who are bilingual, but Anne Iott is so in a very specific way: She is an artist, but she was also the chair of the art department at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va., for many, many years and was fluent both in art and in administration. This is — if you haven’t been subject to either or both — extremely rare. To be able to converse meaningfully with artists about art in their own language, but to be able to function efficiently in the bureaucratic atmosphere of academe is more than a talent, it is a genius.

As an artist, she is first a painter, but that is just the start. There is hardly an art form or medium that she hasn’t essayed brilliantly. There are prints, collages, photographs, assemblages and in recent years, artist books, which she seems to spin out of her like a tree grows apples.

Certainly her prolific drive to create would nominate her for this list, but it is rather more than that. Anne has a special genius for seeing in other people that which they do not see in themselves. She has helped uncounted people with their careers and with their lives. I know; I owe my career as a writer to her. When I was teaching as a lowly adjunct faculty member at TCC, she finagled a position for me at Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot newspaper as a freelance art critic. She knew I was a better writer than teacher. I wound up writing one or two reviews each Sunday for the paper, which gave me the confidence and experience to sign on full-time to the Arizona Republic when my wife and I moved to Phoenix, Ariz.

But it is not mere gratitude for her constant support and aid that I put her on this list, but rather for the particular ability to see other people clearly, even when they don’t see themselves, to go out of her way to make life better for other people. Anne has made a good life for herself, but she has also made good lives for all those she has helped. Nothing feels so good as to be seen. Really seen.

All those on these lists, both men (in a previous post) and women embody qualities I love and admire in them, and would wish to be able to emulate. I can try, but even when I don’t succeed, these are the lodestars of my better self.

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.

Corneille

Corneille

The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.