The Latest Visual WHY

Click here to read the latest Visual Why.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault - Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791)
“…could we ever know what art makes oneself better, if we were ignorant of what we are ourselves?”

“…a picture’s usually worth even more than the thousand words we commonly ascribe.”

The word “text” derives from Latin, texere, meaning to weave or fit together. For me, text connotes far more than just the printed word – photography, movies, music, sculpture, architecture, the list goes on and on. The Visual WHY offers a specific look at paintings, texts with no less substance and arguably far more aesthetic. But underpinning the textuality of art altogether is its human endeavour. And beyond weaving something together for the sake of weaving, weavers – artists, people – have a further end, communication. Artists across all media are still people with influences and motives for expressing themselves. Conjointly, texts of all kinds are plenty human: provocative and reflective. Whether rich and symbolic for a global audience, or doodled sketches for your own amusement, art is text, and text has purpose. As we try to understand it more thoroughly, we can’t help but raise the level of discourse. Who knows, someday maybe art will save the world…

For those who’ve been wondering about the painting featured both here and on this site’s front page, this latest update will explain that, too.

Click here to read the latest Visual Why.

The Three Appeals Must Be Measured

Have you seen this? This photo has been published via Twitter by The Humane League, an advocacy group who “[work] relentlessly to reduce animal suffering through grassroots education to change eating habits and corporate campaigns to reform farm animal treatment.” In broader respect, their aims relate to mine here on this blog – that is, to reach people by way of their decision-making in order to effect change in our (what I take to be cultural) behaviour. They post this photo on-line, where I’ve had it show up in my Facebook news feed after a friend “likes” it. Twice when it appeared, I posted my thoughts, which I share now for the third (and last) time.

The statement on the sign is clear enough, but what is the process behind enacting the words, specifically “we” and “use” and “leaves”? “We” who, which land owners, which legislators, in which jurisdictions, incentivized how, by whom, coordinated in what manner, measured by what instruments or methods, affirmed by which authorities… the list of questions goes on. The statement on the sign is clear enough, but the sought-for outcome seems way more complicated to achieve than simply eating less meat because Paul Rudd holds a sign.

How could any coordinated effort ever be done, any assurance that you not eating meat, and me not eating meat, and him, and her, and them, any of us… how could we ever know we were making an active difference versus just randomly taking turns not eating meat? On Mondays. Surely, if it were this easy… Meanwhile, the rest of the world who missed Paul Rudd’s signs and movies eats meat.

He ought, at the very least, to hold up a sign with instructions for organising or joining an effort to set aside land as a reserve. Wouldn’t it require financial incentives built in for whomever would otherwise use the land, i.e., to replace the revenue they were getting from this particular sort of agriculture? There’s one more word on the sign that is far too vague: “agriculture.” Specify… Wouldn’t changing the control of the resources, not the consumption, be a more directly effective approach? This ad seems to oversimplify, and that undermines whatever might be worthwhile about the issue.

But further, and maybe more troublesome, oversimplifying does little to flatter the ad’s proponents beyond portraying some collective feel-good wishing for a better world, which would seem to play right into the hands of anyone whom they’re disputing. Farms and land-use and pollution and economics and history are realities to be dealt with responsibly, that need intentional, incentivized discussion between however many various sides. Reality is life – decisions and consequences. If certain land-use can be proven ill-suited, or destructive, whatever the case, then approach with efforts on that basis, but don’t undermine the issue and waste valuable time and attention with fame-dropping. That must be very insulting to people who work hard and earn their livelihood farming, the very people who need to be engaged in the discussion.

It seems to me that employing (financially or colloquially) celebrity appeal as the method for touching an audience emotionally is most responsibly done when it’s also stabilized or held accountable by a detailed plan, like what roots do for plants, being a means of gathering water and nutrients as well as an anchored foundation. Emotions stirred up by reputation ought to be channelled or marshalled or else they could run rampant, and suddenly the whole message gets lost in the maelstrom – or maybe better to say, a new message takes hold. However, responsibility and effectiveness do not always converge.

This photo relies on [whomever]’s favour for a given actor – Paul Rudd, of all people, but it might have been anybody. So at least they chose a fairly peaceful, fun-loving actor and not someone more polarizing or controversial. Evidently, Paul Rudd consented to pose for this (or else hasn’t complained that he was photoshopped? …doesn’t matter, not the point), but in any case, The Humane League believed he’d appeal to the audience they sought. Doubtful they were seeking me! even though (a) I’ve always liked Paul Rudd’s acting and (b) I can sympathise with animal advocacy. But whomever they were seeking, they seem to rely upon the appeal of an actor to suffuse their ad with substance. And if I’m wrong on that point, if The Humane League can point to some ongoing program that addresses what I’ve raised, then this ad is not only a failure of wasted effort but unnecessarily provocative and irresponsible for what it might stir in spite of real programming.

The Humane League, professing that a “sense of purpose drives every action in our unrelenting march forward… ,” was not an organisation I ever knew prior to their ad showing up in my news feed. Despite their advocacy, they worry me – not about a march that’s unrelenting so much as a march that’s unchecked, which is why I bothered posting three times. I’m hoping to reach an audience, too, not with purpose merely sensed but more consequentially realised.

From PBS – Nova Next: “Fake News is Spreading Thanks to Information Overload”

Originally posted on Monday, June 26, 2017

 

Has the Internet Revolution helped to raise the level of discourse? Not necessarily – read on. But the situation isn’t entirely without hope, according to Bianca Datta, whose article also offers a dose of good news.

A Pathetic Throne Speech is Not a Dangerous One

Maclean’s columnist, David Moscrop, wrote today (June 23, 2017) about BC Premier Christy Clark’s shallow grasp at retaining power. Below, in reverse order, are my response and Moscrop’s opinion piece that prompted me.

A Pathetic Throne Speech is Not a Dangerous One

“Insidious and dangerous” is a bit much. I do agree on some basis with the article – my own first thought after hearing Clark’s platform announcement was “OK, why even have parties”?

But, obviously, among that 40% of voters are some very upset conservatives. They’ll see that Clark gets turfed as leader, and that will be a measure of accountability for her pathetic desperation-move. She can’t change horses mid-stream without upsetting plenty of Liberals so, no, nothing insidious or dangerous in her move. Moscrop puts it best, himself, near his closing: “…she imagines a world…”

Exactly. In Clark’s imagination, this shameless attempt actually had a chance, which is the only explanation for her attempting it – all the more reason to pity her, cast her aside, and move on. Politics and cynicism are sure to find new heroes anyway. Meanwhile, sixteen years of Clark has been far more than plenty. This move underscores her character, and the one thing long-serving professional politicians need is a dose of humility.

If any government move is insidious (although not necessarily dangerous, as compared to the potential for impasse after impasse), it’s Trudeau’s non-partisan Senate. Plenty has been written about that, even this week. Or how about the ‘Access To Information’ revisions revealed this week that actually expand exemptions and make access to information more difficult?

Incidentally, there’s nothing, repeat, nothing Machiavellian going on with Clark, for a couple reasons: (i) Machiavelli was advising Medici, who wasn’t known for his embrace of representative democracy, and (ii) when implemented shrewdly under the right circumstances, Machiavelli’s advice works. Please don’t insult Machiavelli’s intelligence and insight by lifting Clark to any such achievement. Machiavelli would be pitying her bald-faced panic and laughing – not rolling – in his grave. As for Sophocles, he at least had Antigone kill herself. Then again, Antigone had integrity.

I also agree that Clark’s move reflects the broader political extremism that Moscrop mentions. Seems a bit of poetic justice, then, given how much Clark referred to the US President and his looming presence during her campaign, that she’s fallen victim to similarly extreme behaviour and its consequences. She can’t be impeached, but she can be discarded.

One final point: the NDP-Greens are absolutely not “in the rather awkward position of having to vote against their own ideas” – not at all. What they’re voting against is Clark’s trustworthiness and credibility. Thanks to Clark, they’re able to vote “no confidence” with not only honesty but accuracy. It can only be described as one of the utterly truthful moments politics has ever known.

 

From Maclean’s

The foul cynicism of Christy Clark’s speech from the throne

Why the doomed B.C. Liberals’ Throne Speech—gruesomely stitched together from the platforms of the party’s rivals—was insidious and dangerous

David Moscrop

June 23, 2017

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, left, and NDP leader John Horgan, right, look on as B.C. Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon gives the Speech from the Throne in Victoria, Thursday, June 22, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

There’s an old joke, often attributed to Groucho Marx, that I spent the better part of Thursday thinking about after British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark, presented her doomed government’s speech from the throne. The comedian is said to have quipped: “These are my principles. And if you don’t like them, I have others.” To be honest, I’d be laughing more right now if the line wasn’t so prescient and insightful as an explanatory tool for understanding politics in the province right now.

In Clark’s speech, read by B.C.’s Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon, the premier made 30 pledges that were absent from her Liberal Party’s platform of just weeks ago, including more than a dozen lifted from the platforms of the likely-to-govern-soon New Democrats and their Green Party backers. After opposing proposals (presumably as recently as a week ago) such as a referendum on electoral reform, a ban on corporate and union donations to political parties, increases in funding for daycare, social assistance, and disability, scrapping the requirement for a referendum on new transit funding sources, and getting rid of tolls on the Port Mann Bridge, Clark and her Liberals hastily came to embrace them—and others, too.

Friends, I think I’m starting to become rather cynical towards politics.

The Liberals have spun their remarkable about-face as “listening to the voters.” I call shenanigans. The party received about 40 per cent of the popular vote in the 2017 election—down about 4 per cent from their 2013 result—and dropped from 49 seats to 43. These numbers raise the question: just who is the party listening to? Were they not listening to them in 2013? Or is it different voters they’re listening to now? Which ones? Perhaps voters in swing ridings? Or in presumably safe ridings where they lost by a slim margin? I suppose what the premier means is that she’s listening to some new voters, if those folks happen to live where it counts.

Clark’s dramatic conversion to an NDP/Green-light version of her party seems rather like an overcorrection given the modest shift in support between 2013 and 2017. Indeed, if I can be ever-so-cynical for another moment, it seems like the premier is desperately trying to cling to power by selling out her party and its supporters by offering a de facto “renewed” policy platform that stands in stark contrast to the last several years of the B.C. Liberal government and the still-warm corpse of the party’s election platform. No, I think Clark’s volte-face has nothing to do with “listening”—instead, it looks to be the most cynical ploy to maintain (or soon regain) power that I’ve seen in politics in Canada. I mean, who knew that when you mix orange and green you’d get B.C. Liberal blue?

I seem naive, don’t I? How is this any more cynical than politics-as-usual in late-modern liberal democracies? Perhaps Clark’s speech is no different in type when compared to other political ploys, but it’s certainly more extreme in degree. Honestly: The premier lost an election just weeks ago. Her party has been in power for 16 years. She has been premier for six years. And staring down defeat, what does she do? She “borrows” policies from the parties poised to defeat her days from now, abandons years of party commitments, and spins her reversal as “listening to voters,” as if she’d just now discovered the practice of consulting the electorate whom she is meant to serve. And all this after declaring that NDP leader John Horgan is a flip-flopper who isn’t to be trusted and labeling him “Say Anything John.”

Cynicism aside: will the gambit work for Clark? I don’t think so. It’s unlikely that any New Democrat or Green member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) will break ranks and support the premier. Why would they? Once the Liberal government falls, they’ll get their shot at governing, short-lived as it may be; even if an NDP MLA were tempted to trade their shot at governing for a more stable legislature and some of their policies, their supporters wouldn’t soon forget the betrayal. And for the Greens, they’ve just made a deal to support the NDP, so it would be tricky from them to try to wiggle their way out of it so soon. On top of it all, of course, who can trust Clark and her Liberals now? No: the NDP and the Greens will, as expected, defeat the Clark government next week on a confidence motion and John Horgan will become premier of British Columbia.

Nonetheless, the Throne Speech does put the two opposition parties in the rather awkward position of having to vote against their own ideas. Yes, NDP leader John Horgan and Green Party leader Andrew Weaver must instruct their caucuses to defeat their own agenda—for the moment—so that it can be reborn and pursued under the aegis of the NDP-Green supply and confidence agreement. It’s a moment worthy of Sophocles. If Sophocles were a total hack.

As shrewd as this move may seem to Clark, who will surely use the “Nay” votes of NDP and Green MLAs as fodder for her election argument—“See, I tried to work with these guys! I even copied their platforms!”—the Premier may end up hoisted with her own petard. What happens when the NDP and Greens re-introduce these policies in the months to come (after all, the policies are their ideas) and Clark as Leader of the Opposition is faced with either supporting the government or voting against pledges she’s just recently made in her own Throne Speech? Perhaps she’ll be able to find some minor concerns to use as a pretext to oppose the NDP-Green iteration of the policy, but by then we’ll be way, way down the rabbit hole.

Whatever happens in the days, weeks, and months to come, though, one of the most insidious threats embedded in Clark’s cynical Throne Speech is a deeply disturbing conception of politics. Premier Clark has, in effect, tried to reduce politics to mere management and power; by raiding the NDP and Green platforms with abandon, by taking policy ideas that happen to be popular now, and by arguing that she is just borrowing the best bits from each party, she has indicated that deep and persistent ideological differences, which are reflective of real differences that one should expect and even celebrate in a pluralist democracy, are trivial concerns when power is at stake. Clark has stitched together a Frankenstein’s monster that she claims she’s best suited to command. What could go wrong? After all, everything turns out okay in Frankenstein, right?

The Premier’s vision of politics presented in the Throne Speech is post-political; she’s imagining a world where parties are mere brokers of the public will of the moment, interchangeable except for their respective management expertise, and the only questions relevant to politics is how to gain and keep power, alongside some technical questions about how to implement whichever policies happen to be fashionable at the time. Clark’s approach to politics is dangerous, not only because it’s hopelessly and shamelessly cynical, but also because it’s disrespectful and unhelpful to voters who rely on parties as aggregators of ideas that lead to policies they like. Reducing politics to mere whims of the moment, technocratic management concerns, and Machiavellian power struggles undermines parties and productive partisanship as helpful touchstones for voters while also pretending that there aren’t very real and very persistent disagreements in our society that cannot be reduced to technical questions of “how” and “by whom,” rather than “what” or “why.”

British Columbians will survive this frustrating and embarrassing chapter in the history of our politics. Citizens are not fools, and our system of government remains, as ever, plenty sound—if not quite as inclusive and participatory as it might be. Indeed, I believe Clark’s cynical gambit will fail, and we’ll all move on.

And yet, we shouldn’t forget what happened with this speech from the throne. That speech represents the worst of a short-sighted, desperate, and cynical kind of politics. In the future, leaders ought to hold it up as an example of what we should all strive to avoid in civic life. If we can do that, perhaps some good will come from this sad mess.

http://www.macleans.ca/opinion/the-foul-cynicism-of-christy-clarks-speech-from-the-throne/

On “The Nobility of the Political Enterprise”

Well-respected journalist, Dan Rather, posted on Facebook today (June 20, 2017). Below, in reverse order, are my response, then Rather’s post, and finally the editorial that prompted him, a column by Michael Gerson of The Washington Post.

**********

On “The Nobility of the Political Enterprise”

On nearly every point (from Gerson, cited by Rather) I agree, as each pertains to this president. But this final one… “the nobility of the political enterprise, viewing politics as conquest rather than as service” is all too easily suggested, in light of all this president’s incompetence. Surely the nobility of the political enterprise is under continual threat, just for starters: extremely bi-partisan Washington, talk radio echo chambers, silos of identity-politics, the debt-ceiling game of chicken, professional lobbying, gerrymandering, the list goes on, and these merely recent examples.

Remember the movie, ‘Dave,’ when Charles Grodin says his business would fail if he ran it like government? We all got the joke, and that was nearly thirty years ago, so the threat to nobility was just as real then, and before then. Ironically, today, this president is proving the opposite, that government can’t be run like business because – indeed – it is a noble enterprise, not a profit-making endeavour, and it requires careful stewardship on behalf of everyone.

Where in the world does any systemic “political nobility” exist in the first place, aside from the abstract, like the Constitution on paper? I don’t ask about one-off examples but, rather, for some historical examples of noble political longevity. My guess is that any example comes down to the inter-relationship of many many people, altogether, which dovetails nicely with all the criticism aimed here at this president and his childish lies and bullying. Yes, this president’s incompetence amplifies and reinvigorates itself in noteworthy, significant ways, and he is a fool and an ignoramus, and he is pathetic. But he is far from the lone guilty party when it comes to the nobility of the political enterprise. If anything, the current political enterprise is guilty of permitting him any kind of access, much less success, in the first place.

With respect to service over conquest, or any sought-after political outcomes in a system that’s up-and-running, don’t we simply get what we deserve? If we don’t like the outcomes, then change the inner works and the loopholes and various machinations. This president is undeniably hapless and utterly out of his depth, dead to any nobility. Yet he’s also an American citizen whose ultimate path to government was inherently made possible and available because there he now sits as living proof.

 

From Facebook

Dan Rather

This is quite a quote:

“Trump has been ruled by compulsions, obsessions and vindictiveness, expressed nearly daily on Twitter. He has demonstrated an egotism that borders on solipsism. His political skills as president have been close to nonexistent. His White House is divided, incompetent and chaotic, and key administration jobs remain unfilled. His legislative agenda has gone nowhere. He has told constant, childish, refuted, uncorrected lies, and demanded and habituated deception among his underlings. He has humiliated and undercut his staff while requiring and rewarding flattery. He has promoted self-serving conspiracy theories. He has displayed pathetic, even frightening, ignorance on policy matters foreign and domestic. He has inflicted his ethically challenged associates on the nation. He is dead to the poetry of language and to the nobility of the political enterprise, viewing politics as conquest rather than as service.”

Such is the verdict of Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post. He is not some liberal critic but a proud Republican who was a top aide to President George W. Bush. Needless to say he is not a fan of Donald Trump, but neither does he support Democratic policies. His point is that no good will come to the GOP from its complicity with Donald Trump, because we are on a dangerous path with no clear end game.

His column is worth reading in full.

 

From The Washington Post

The GOP’s hard, messy options for destroying Trumpism

by Michael Gerson

Opinion writer

June 19 at 8:07 PM

Nearly 150 days into the Trump era, no non-delusional conservative can be happy with the direction of events or pleased with the options going forward.

President Trump is remarkably unpopular, particularly with the young (among whom his approval is underwater by a remarkable 48 percentage points in one poll). And the reasons have little to do with elitism or media bias.

Trump has been ruled by compulsions, obsessions and vindictiveness, expressed nearly daily on Twitter. He has demonstrated an egotism that borders on solipsism. His political skills as president have been close to nonexistent. His White House is divided, incompetent and chaotic, and key administration jobs remain unfilled. His legislative agenda has gone nowhere. He has told constant, childish, refuted, uncorrected lies, and demanded and habituated deception among his underlings. He has humiliated and undercut his staff while requiring and rewarding flattery. He has promoted self-serving conspiracy theories. He has displayed pathetic, even frightening, ignorance on policy matters foreign and domestic. He has inflicted his ethically challenged associates on the nation. He is dead to the poetry of language and to the nobility of the political enterprise, viewing politics as conquest rather than as service.

Trump has made consistent appeals to prejudice based on religion and ethnicity, and associated the Republican Party with bias. He has stoked tribal hostilities. He has carelessly fractured our national unity. He has attempted to undermine respect for any institution that opposes or limits him — be it the responsible press, the courts or the intelligence community. He has invited criminal investigation through his secrecy and carelessness. He has publicly attempted to intimidate law enforcement. He has systematically alarmed our allies and given comfort to authoritarians. He promised to emancipate the world from American moral leadership — and has kept that pledge.

For many Republicans and conservatives, there is apparently no last straw, with offenses mounting bale by bale. The argument goes: Trump is still superior to Democratic rule — which would deliver apocalyptic harm — and thus anything that hurts Trump is bad for the republic. He is the general, so shut up and salute. What, after all, is the conservative endgame other than Trump’s success?

This is the recommendation of sycophancy based on hysteria. At some point, hope for a new and improved Trump deteriorates into unreason. The idea that an alliance with Trump will end anywhere but disaster is a delusion. Both individuals and parties have long-term interests that are served by integrity, honor and sanity. Both individuals and the Republican Party are being corrupted and stained by their embrace of Trump. The endgame of accommodation is to be morally and politically discredited. Those committed to this approach warn of national decline — and are practically assisting it. They warn of decadence — and provide refreshments at the orgy.

So what is the proper objective for Republicans and conservatives? It is the defeat of Trumpism, preferably without the destruction of the GOP itself. And how does that happen?

Creating a conservative third party — as some have proposed — would have the effect of delivering national victories to a uniformly liberal and unreformed Democratic Party. A bad idea.

A primary challenge to Trump in the 2020 presidential election is more attractive, but very much an outside shot. An unlikely idea.

It is possible — if Democrats take the House in 2018 — that impeachment will ripen into a serious movement, which thoughtful Republicans might join (as they eventually did against Richard Nixon). But this depends on matters of fact and law that are currently hidden from view. A theoretical idea.

A Democratic victory in the 2020 election would represent the defeat of Trumpism and might be a prelude to Republican reform. But Democrats seem to be viewing Trump’s troubles as an opportunity to plunge leftward with a more frankly socialistic and culturally liberal message. That is hardly attractive to Republican reformers. A heretical idea.

Or Republicans and conservatives could just try to outlast Trump — closing the shutters and waiting for the hurricane to pass — while rooting for the success of a strong bench of rising 40-something leaders (Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Nikki Haley, Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse). This may be the most practical approach but risks eight years of ideological entrenchment by Trumpism, along with massive damage to the Republican brand. A complacent idea.

Whatever option is chosen, it will not be easy or pretty. And any comfort for Republicans will be cold because they brought this fate on themselves and the country.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-gops-hard-messy-options-for-destroying-trumpism/2017/06/19/d6483a56-5517-11e7-a204-ad706461fa4f_story.html?hpid=hp_no-name_opinion-card-f%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.c05d8b886293

 

Why Read All This Stuff Into Literature?

Teaching Secondary English for sixteen years, I frequently faced questions from students like the ones listed below…

  • Why do we analyse stuff so much in English class?
  • Why read all this into a poem? How can we ever really know what the poet actually meant? Does it matter anyway? Why even study poetry in the first place?
  • Is [some deep analysis] what Shakespeare really intended? Didn’t he just write his plays to entertain people?
  • By over-analysing literature, aren’t we unfairly putting words in someone’s mouth?

Fair questions, all. Indeed, why do we read stuff into literature? English teachers can drive students up the wall with questions like, “What does this poem mean to you?” or “What’s the significance of the theme?”

“AHHHRRRRG!!!!!” replies the student.

Here are some initial thoughts I’ve had on the subject (far from exhaustive!) to address this frustration. For simplicity, I refer to Shakespeare as one primary example, plus a few other writers, but I don’t mean by that to leave out or ignore other artists or creative types of expression as compared to literature alone. Therein the students must transpose for themselves.

  • Is our analysis what Shakespeare really intended? Didn’t he just write his plays to entertain people and make a living?

Shakespeare had his own intentions, of course. We will never really know what was on his mind. What’s more, Shakespeare is dead now, gone, kaput. For 400 years, the man himself has not been a factor in the literature – sad but inevitable!

But what he’s left behind, his poems and his plays, is what we have to work with. In his words live ideas and people and memories that he knew and loved and remembered. Shakespeare said as much himself in Sonnet 55:

“Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rime;

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone, …”

And sure, maybe it’s not one-to-one correspondence to actual living (now dead) people although there is oodles of studied conjecture about many of his characters and plot lines. But, despite the fascinating academic and journalistic exploration regarding possible real-life connections, consider that (a) nobody will ever truly know, since Shakespeare never explained one way or the other, and he’s dead now, and (b) Shakespeare had to have drawn upon his real-life relationships, cultural observations, and historical knowledge to develop any characters and situations because what else could any human being ever do? It’s not like he lived in isolation from all human contact on another planet or suffered from daily bouts of amnesia (although truly, again, who knows…?) But if you’re a human being who writes, especially for a living, I’ll bet you know other people and work from your human experience. Surely, your own life is your best source. Write what you know, isn’t that the advice?

You might also read the poems listed below, which express similar sentiments – the magic and music of poetic words and imagery; the lasting immutability of words and ideas that resist the entropic passing of time; the futility of our human attempts to create enduring institutions and monuments of brick and stone. Read on, and do not despair…

Scorn Not The Sonnet” by William Wordsworth

Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shakespeare” by Matthew Arnold

  • Why read all this detail into a poem or piece of literature? How can we ever really know what the poet / author actually meant? Does it matter anyway? Why even study poetry in the first place?

Not to ignore the human being who created something artistic, but what really matters as far as this question’s concerned is the literature itself – the poem, the song, the novel; the images, the ideas, the sensations that live within the words; the themes and nuances and rhythms that play in our ears or in front of our gaze or within our thoughts.

Shakespeare’s lingual creations are so wonderful if only for their magical, playful, balanced rhythms – it is beautiful poetry. We enjoy music for the same reason. We enjoy a painting on our wall for its palette, or its brushstrokes, or its portrayal. Sometimes we don’t even understand it yet like it all the same. A sculpture, a garden, a finely prepared meal, all these we enjoy and understand as art, for myriad reasons ranging from our senses and our emotions to our beliefs and our memories.

But not only are these art forms musical, or aesthetic, or appealing (or whatever), they’re also deeply human – art is a human response to the world around us, in which we live and share with other people and other living things and other non-living things. That world and all its contents and relationships are there for us to perceive. And if they are not enough, we’re able to look up at the sky, day or night, or down into the ocean, or into a microscope, or a microprocessor, or how about inward to our own imagination? On and on and on they go, our curiosity and creativity, hand in marvellous hand. The perceived world is the artist’s muse, and it’s likewise the artist’s resource. It’s fuel for the imagination.

In his short book, The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye opens by suggesting that we possess three levels of perception, of “language”:

  1. State of Consciousness or Awareness: we distinguish things in the world around us from ourselves; a kind of “self-expression” prompting thinking and conversation
  2. Pragmatic Attitude: we project upon this outside world a “human” way of understanding such things; a kind of “social participation” prompting deliberate knowledge and practical action
  3. Imaginative Attitude: we combine the first two perceptions and imagine a world we would prefer to see as compared to the real one we occupy; a kind of creative exercise, producing art forms, literature among them

Back to the artist: in his literature, Shakespeare created such depth and complexity, so closely mirroring the real world, and our relationships and the human condition, that we simply can’t help but see ourselves in them. Yes, he was that good, and his works resonate so much that we still find ourselves studying, admiring, and marvelling over them four hundred years later. So, for example, the genius of Shakespeare’s plays, for me, is how realistically he captures the essence of people and motives and relationships, all by way of dialogue – we watch his plays, we study his literature, we know ourselves better. More than that, we admire it, we revel in it! In the same way that we listen to our most favourite music to enjoy its melodies, we read and watch and listen to Shakespeare because he stirs us at the core.

Let’s consider one more example, the author, J. R. R. Tolkien. He tenaciously disliked allegory, and he continually denied as invalid, as definitely not his deliberate intention, all comparisons made between The Lord Of The Rings and the two World Wars [1]. Even so, evident in Tolkien’s storytelling, upon closer reading, are his concerns for the environment, polluted and abused by industrial development, his disquiet for the human race, stricken as it is with the potential for hubris and evil, and his belief that hope still exists for us, exemplified best by his beloved characters, the hobbits. Do we attribute such biased concerns as these to something from his life, say his Catholicism? Does it even matter since they’re genuine concerns whether you’re Catholic or not? His books express what they express, that much is evident. What need to pursue Tolkien’s motives or intentions when we’re able to glean something meaningful for ourselves? So far as there’s room for allegorical interpretation, it’s merely an intellectual luxury. Alright, then, Sauron is not a deliberate parallel either to Hitler or to Satan; there is nothing we are meant to spy of either Jesus Christ or an infantryman in Samwise Gamgee. The list goes ever on, but none was Tolkien’s intention for us to correlate in any direct way, according to the man himself. So I will take him at his word.

Yet how could Tolkien have written any of his stories without them somehow reflecting his background and beliefs? The case has been made, apart from any allegory, that his life necessarily had an impact on his storytelling. He remembered the Somme in dreadful detail while parts of The Lord Of The Rings he wrote during the London blitz. The very substance of his creative writing is as clear a reflection of Tolkien, the man, as any allegory we may seek to attribute to him. The Hobbit was borne of bedtime stories for his children, adventures he felt they would enjoy, undertaken by characters he thought they would like. We might even conclude that no other books were possible from Tolkien apart from the ones he produced. Tolkien himself described the entire phenomenon of Middle Earth as arising from his professional passion, philology, and his desire to express and share his passions in a tangible way. Sounds like art to me.

For a superb exposition on why to bother specifically with poetry, check out this article. For a more brief but still informative meditation, check out this one.

  • By over-analysing literature, aren’t we unfairly putting words in someone’s mouth?

Not really, no, and what’s more, be careful – asking this question is like giving away the freedom to decide for yourself. Now, I know when my students asked, they just didn’t want to do any thinking or work, and teens will be teens. But anyone seriously considering this question owes it to the rest of us, if not themselves, to reconsider.

As I mentioned above about Tolkien, he had intentions and motives behind his storytelling – who doesn’t? – irrespective of us knowing what they were. After it was published, though, Tolkien was famously bemused and upset by those in the audience who turned The Lord Of The Rings into an LSD experience, and by those who made it a screenplay. But whose problem is that? Copyright laws protect content and intellectual property, but heaven knows we’re unable to stop people from thinking. Attempts might try to control what is available to think about, or how what’s available is presented, or worse, how people think, period. We ignore such detail at our peril because whether we’re for or against a particular interpretation, how and why something is offered is at least as important as what. This is a whole ’nuther topic.

But, as to Tolkien’s problem, the only substantive response in the aftermath of publishing his story was not to have published it at all. That balance between private creativity and public expression is inescapable, unless you’re a hermit, I guess. As creative as you want to be, go crazy, but don’t forget that creativity for an audience means some lost degree of autonomy because everybody has an opinion. I don’t know if it’s a zero-sum equation, but there is a sliding scale from artist to audience, as far as we’re considering any kind of interpretive control. What else is criticism but artistic interpretation, Frye’s third language? The critic is an artist, sometimes a very good one, and there’s something to be said for the decline of public discourse (as compared to debate over the decline of public intellectualism, which is a different topic). But opinions are as numerous as the people who possess them, and sometimes just as popular.

For artists like Shakespeare and Tolkien, who have since died, this question of putting words in their mouths is moot anyway. And, as I mentioned above, once the creative process ends, once the artist decides it’s time to stop creating and start exhibiting, they rather exit the equation of their own accord. Even an explicit interpretive explanation from the artist during an interview or in a press release or on the back of a napkin is itself subject to interpretation. Bias is inescapable (and makes life worth living, so long as it’s checked by responsible morality). An artist is a catalyst, in this respect, nothing more. There are bound to be audience members who defend an artist’s interpretation of X-Y-Z, just as there are bound to be members who dispute it. But aside from any intended message, artist inevitably accedes interpretation to audience. There is no other way.

What of the creation, itself, the artefact or text, that contains the message – or should we say, by which the message is conveyed? As the medium, it enables us to experience a relationship with the artist by proxy – this avenue has lead to some fascinating cultural restoration that far exceeds in scope and import anything I offer here. It has also yielded some curious responses on behalf of artists by other artists. Still, for some others, an object of art somehow literally has its own “words in its mouth,” as people imbue an artefact with life all its own. To me, that’s the same as putting words in the artist’s mouth because, again, the kinds of artefacts I’ve had in mind here are not living, breathing things but more conventional creations such as books, paintings, songs, and sculptures.

I suppose someone out there will know a living, breathing artefact or text in this more conventional sense of art – fair enough although we now fall into discussion over a definition of “art,” which I’d argue has as its basis intentionality, which necessarily implicates the artist, not the artefact. Any conversation that might occur between an audience and an artefact or text would still depend on the frame of mind and experience of the audience after depending on the creative will of the artist. And with no two relationships ever being the same, every person unique, an art experience by its very nature is an intimate, personal phenomenon. Even when someone experiences the same art piece over and over, the interpretation will vary: a movie is different depending on your mood each time you watch it, say, or your age. In that sense, you’re putting words in your own mouth from the last time you watched it!

The same idea put a different way: I once heard from a Jimi Hendrix fan that he liked listening to songs over and over because he heard new things each time, stuff that he missed those other times. Then, after taking up guitar ten years later, he listened to the same songs with yet another new appreciation since his understanding of guitar playing had grown more sophisticated. It’s an easy example to grasp, and it respects both sides of the medium – in this instance, guitar players and guitar listeners.

So yes, then, we can respect this question being asked on behalf of an artist, that of putting words in their mouth, but it risks the cost of silencing your own words, which these days, especially, is anathema. When an audience gets involved, a published or exhibited creation of any kind takes on a new, unpredictable existence – many, in fact, each one personally derived by those who partake. As I briefly acknowledged above, this discussion can encompass not just objects or texts or songs but, more broadly, ideas, beliefs, and cultural practice. But leave the details of any such area for others to discuss who have the appropriate nuance and expertise.

Finally, an anonymous quotation – if anybody knows the source, please say so! – on the topic of literary interpretation and criticism in general…

“One way students learn to interpret fiction, poetry, and drama is through an understanding of the conventional elements of literature. Another way to deepen our appreciation and enhance our understanding of literature is to learn how readers have interpreted it over the years since it was written. Therefore, reading and discussing the ideas of scholars who have studied particular authors, periods, or genres provide us with knowledge that enriches all our reading experiences. Likewise, reading literature with an awareness of specific critical views of the major schools of literary theory – such as mythological, historical, psychological, reader-response, feminist, or deconstructive perspectives – further expands our reading experiences. Through knowledge of the historical impact of literature and the major literary theories, students of literature learn to appreciate a work of literature for its social, moral, or spiritual worth – in other words, its cultural value.”

It’s nothing so ground-breaking or, as I mentioned, music to the ears of students who just don’t want to study. Yet this response underscores a most fundamental precept of academics, across every discipline, just as it pleads for culture – the sincere stewardship of our stores of knowledge, inherited, refined, and passed on over time to future generations, is an artistic task of creativity, that is to say a shared process, and we all therefore bear a measure of responsibility. If that’s not a compelling “motive for metaphor,” then I don’t know what else to say!

I hope this helps to address some of the more common issues and questions that people raise regarding the analysis of literature, specifically, and of art in general.

[1] Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien. George Allen and Unwin, London, 1981.

Umm, This.

So, it’s interesting, listening to people talk these days, quite frankly, in terms of their words, their language, their speech. I have an issue, with what everyone’s saying – not like everyone everyone but, you know, it’s just their actual words when they talk about complex issues and such, or like politics, what with the whole Trump thing and Senate hearings and everything that goes with that. I was a high school English teacher for sixteen years, so I started noticing all this, you know, frankly, during class discussions. I’m also a bit of a news hound, so that’s how I started noticing this on-air style of speeching, of making it sound thoughtful and taking them seriously. And it’s so much out there, like an epidemic or something, which is interesting, which speaks to on-line streaming and TV news, talk radio, and pretty much the whole 24-hour news cycle.

Here’s the thing, though, because I guess substantive quality will always be up for debate, but that’s just it – it’s so wide-ranging that it’s like people have no idea they’re even doing it, which is interesting. It’s almost like it’s the new normal, which really begs the question – are people getting dumber? Is education failing us? In terms of intelligent debate, that will always be something that probably might be true or false. And let’s have those conversations! But in terms of intelligible debate, it’s interesting because, when I listen to how people are talking, it gets really interesting because when I listen what they actually say, it’s like they’re making it all up on the spot in the moment as they go, so it’s just that that makes me not as sure it’s intelligent as it’s less intelligible. But it’s all in a sober tone, and they’re just expressing their opinion, which is democracy.

And that’s the thing – if you challenge anybody with all what I’m saying, clarity-wise, it’s interesting, they’ll get all defensive and whatnot, like it’s a personal attack that you’re calling them stupid or whatever, like you’re some kind of Grammar Jedi.

And, I mean, I get that. So that’s where I think people don’t really get it because I totally get where they’re coming from.

Seriously, who would want to be called like not intelligent or anything all like that, whatever, especially if we’re trying to discuss serious world issues like the whole Russia thing that’s been happening or the environment or all the issues in China and the Middle East? Or terrorism and all? I mean, if you look at all that’s happening in the world right now, but you’re going to get that detailed of the way someone talks, maybe you should look in the mirror.

SNL did the most amazinggggggg job with all this, with Cecily Strong on Weekend Update as The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party. Comedy-wise, she even makes a point, but basically, she’s furthering the point about intelligence, except I’m talking about intelligibility. But still, if you haven’t seen it, what can I tell you? You’re missing out, SO FUNNY. She. Is. Amazing.

The other thing, and this one’s especially interesting, is just how there’s just SO MUCH out there, what with Google and the Internet, and Wikipedia, so who could possibly be expected to know every single detail about all the different political things or the economy and all the stuff that’s out there? And it’s even more with speaking because pretty much most people aren’t like writing a book or something. (W’ll, and that’s just it – nobody speaks the way they write, so… )

Anyway, so yeah, no, it’s interesting. At the end of the day, first and foremost, one of the things that’s interesting is that everybody deserves to have a say because that’s democracy. But the world gets so serious, probs I just need to chill and ease off, see the bright side, like jokey Buzzfeed headlines or Five Thirty-Eight’s “Comey Bingo.” News it up! There’s plenty of other examples. How about an article based entirely on a viral tweet, for an audience intimately familiar with pop culture? The world faces serious aspects, for sure, but the thing is, work hard but party harder. I mean, we’re only here for a good time, not a long time!

And it’s interesting ‘cuz people seem to require more frequent, more intense, more repeated engagement, to spice up their attention spans. There’s some good drinking games, too, on that, because politicians! I know, right? But not like drunk drunk, just like happy drunk, you know? Not sure if all this counts as it means we’re getting dumber, per se, but it’s just interesting.

So, yeah, it’s interesting because we’ve come such a long way, and history fought for our freedom and everything, so I just really think going forward we should just really appreciate that, and all, you know?