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posts by Richard Nilsen

 

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by Richard Nilsen

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I want to talk about education. Specifically: Mine.
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It is really only my own that I can speak about. As Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
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I don’t know if I can recommend my own course to others; all I can say is that it has worked for me.
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From my earliest years, I wanted to learn; indeed, I wanted to know everything. Literally: everything. (The older I’ve become the more I’ve faced the fact that the more you learn, the greater is the vastness of what you have yet to learn. Knowledge grows arithmetically; ignorance grows exponentially.)
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There is a story repeated in my family that when I entered second grade, I asked my parents, “Does this mean I get to go to college next year?” School has always been my briar patch.
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I cannot fix whatever is wrong with American schools — or American students (although I am pretty sure that whatever Besty DuVos has in mind is disastrously wrong), but I can recount my own transit through the grades from kindergarten through standing in front of a crowd in a silly robe and stupid hat to get my diploma handed to me. And really, beyond, because education for me has never stopped. There is little I get more pleasure from than tickling my little grey cells and expanding what is stuffed into my melon.
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Mine has been an entire life in a single direction: learning. Others wanted to play baseball, or drive fast cars, perhaps get married and have a houseful of wee bairns; I wanted to get my hands on another book, pore through it and achieve the greatest pleasure from it. Every book — or every class I took — stood not by itself, but as an addition to that I had absorbed before, until all that I had learned became a single great web of interrelated experience.
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In effect, this isn’t simply education, but paideia, the whole of it all rolled into a ball: education, history, culture, philosophy, literature, music, the arts, psychology, economics, law, physics, botany, politics — the whole undifferentiated, all of a piece.
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This has given me the permission — or the chutzpah — to write not only about art, but about music, architecture, dance, politics, history — even about typography. My assignment at The Arizona Republic, where I worked for 25 years, was critic “without portfolio.”
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To quote William Blake, “Less than all cannot satisfy.”
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It has all given me a rather peculiar attitude toward education: that it should make me more complete (and that it should be fun).
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But I’m afraid what I consider education is being left behind by a newer, narrower version: to provide skills to enter the job market. That is not education; that is training. Never have I considered how a class might help me get a job or make a career.
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Is there something subversive about my version? Perhaps.
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Back in the Pleistocene, when I taught photography and art at a two-year college, I told my class on the first day that I considered it my duty as a teacher to make them unemployable. They were to learn in my class the utter ambiguity and equivocality of everything, to learn to question every assumption, to scratch every itch of curiosity, no matter where it lead.
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Current education seems narrowly focused on the “how,” but I was intent on asking the “why.”
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If there is any central argument to my education it is that there has never been a goal, or at least, its only goal was itself. As a matter of fact, I have considered education — my own at least — to be a prophylactic against career, against the limitations of a single direction in my life. I wanted it all.
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I am not advocating that everyone learn the way I did, but that way fit me perfectly. While I have a modest college degree, most of what I have learned, I have come by on my own. My late wife maintained that all learning is self-taught. We are all autodidacts, although we may have been helped by a teacher here and there along the way.
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Even if you had a good teacher, you learned for yourself; if you didn’t internalize the lesson, it wasn’t really learned. How many memorized enough to pass the exam and then promptly forgot it all?
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I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. At the age of 70, this gives me unlimited opportunity for the years ahead. Who knows?
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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We are losing Shakespeare. He is standing on the dock and our boat is drifting off into a fog; we look back and it becomes harder and harder to make out his figure standing there.
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What is happening to the Bard is what has already happened to Chaucer and what has now completely obscured the author of Beowulf. Our drifting boat is

Beowulf

language, and language drifts over time.

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So, what are fardels? A bare bodkin?
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And when Juliet asks, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, why do so many want to answer: “Here! Here I am.” Many an actress speaks the words “Wherefore ART thou, Romeo?” when it needs to be “Wherefore art thou ROMEO?” “Why are you Romeo, when any other name would be better?”
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“Now is the winter of our discontent” gets pulled out of context to mean, “We have arrived at the winter of our discontent,” when it is really just a noun-phrase and implies exactly the opposite: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.”
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Words disappear and change meaning. When Hamlet says, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” the word “conscience” did not mean Jiminy Cricket. “Conscience” meant “consciousness,” and specifically “self awareness.” It wasn’t his scruples that prevented the Dane from killing Claudius, but his awareness of unintended consequences — in other words, what the whole soliloquy is about.
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By the way, fardels are burdens, something you might carry around, like a hobo’s bindle or an Aussie swagman’s  matilda.
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As for a bodkin, nowadays it is a type of sewing needle, but in Shakespeare’s time and before, it was a dagger. Chaucer says that “with bodkins was Julius Caesar murdered.” And in John Stow’s Chronicles (1565), it says “The chief worker of this murder was Brutus Cassius, with two hundred and sixty of the Senate all having bodkins in their sleeves.”
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A quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore tracks the etymology. In A Glossary of Obscure Words and Phrases in the Writings of Shakspeare and his Contemporaries Traced Etymologically to the Ancient Language of the British People as Spoken Before the Irruption of the Danes and Saxons, by Charles Mackay, printed in London in 1887, tells us that “bodkin” can be traced to the Gaelic biodag, a dagger, “But the anterior root is the Keltic and Gaelic bod, a sharp point that pricks, whencebodachean, a sharp-pointed instrument.”
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I can’t help quoting the rest of the entry, for a good laugh at Victorian squeamishness: “On this radical [root] word, that exists in many Asiatic as well as European languages, might be founded an instructive examination into the occult and deeply comprehensive meaning of the root words of all languages, starting from the fact thatbod signifies not only a point that pricks, but the divinely ordered instrument of human propagation, which none but physicians speak of without rendering themselves liable to the imputation of indecency and impropriety.
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As in, “Look at the bod on that lifeguard!”
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The first Shakespeare play I ever saw live was Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., when I was in seventh or eighth grade. It made quite an impression, but I was confused at several points, not the least wondering what kind of sect might be called “sleep-o-nights.” Was it like the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks? I suppose my confusion counts as a minor mondegreen. “Let me have men about me such as sleep o’ nights,” says Caesar. I tried for years to figure out who these people were.
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We also studied in class the Merchant. I was spared the horror of Romeo and Juliet, the play that misguided educators believe is the best way to engage teenagers with Elizabethan drama. Then they have to explain what the underage protagonists were doing all night long together in Juliet’s  bedroom. Remember, when I was that age, it was at an era when the Rolling Stones had to bowdlerize the lyrics of “spend the night together” on Ed Sullivan, turning them into “spend some time together.” Mrs. Grundy, indeed.
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Shakespeare’s plays are not so far gone that a great performance cannot strike home. When excellent actors speak the lines, they can still make the dialog sound like conversation instead of declamation. But much verbiage will have to be glossed over by the audience, asked to parse out the meaning by context.
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Certainly it is more than just language that distances us from Shakespeare. Culture has moved, too. It is difficult to hear the implicit anti-Semitism in Merchant of Venice, and it takes a wrenching deconstruction to make Taming of the Shrew bearable in a time of failing patriarchy.
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And then there are all those kings and dukes. When the exploits of the feckless Windsors fill tabloids, it is hard to sympathize with authoritarian monarchs offing each other and demanding succession for their kin.
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But more than anything, it is the language that makes the problem. Not just vocabulary, but speech patterns have changed, and continue to change over time. Just to beat a dead horse, compare Harry and St. Crispin’s Day with the incoherent ramblings of a certain orange president.
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Even ordinary people used to speak and write with more formality than we encounter today. Listen to those Civil War letters recited in the Ken Burns documentary and marvel at the elaborate sentence structures and the casually assumed cultural references. Or listen to one of those scratchy Edison recordings of politicians in the late 19th century or early 20th century and hear in them the rhetoric of Cicero translated to English. To speak like that nowadays is to court derision and perhaps a skit onSaturday Night Live.
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The French have an answer to all this impermanence in language: The Académie Française, which has the official power to define and preserve the French tongue. Or try. The conservatism of the Academie has been a losing battle in the internet age.
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Language always changes, sometimes quickly, sometimes over centuries. We have a faulty idea that Latin was the same in the days of Brutus as it was in the time of Nero or later, as written by Augustine. All of these Latins were different. And, of course, regional Latins morphed into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. They continue to morph (despite the Académie Française).
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So, is there anything we can do about it? Not really. Consider the speech of your teenage children, which sometimes seems like a foreign language. Their children will subsequently mystify them. And so it goes.
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Even the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt shifted over the centuries, despite the astonishing conservatism of that culture.
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So, when I hear complaints about the singular “their” or the use of “hopefully,” or “less” instead of “fewer,” I cannot get all pedantic. These are evolutions in our language. After all, there used to be a distinction made between “will” and “shall.” No one pays any attention to that anymore, nor should they. “Thou” and “thee” are still there to be used if wanted, but you would sound like a Shakespeare, and he lived 400 years ago. Tempus fugit.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Sometimes, it seems we are entering a new period of Victorianism — an era of increasing censoriousness and a demand for superhuman rectitude. We have not yet got to the point of calling furniture legs “limbs,” but there is an increasing silliness to language proscription.
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I don’t want to call it “political correctness,” because much of our new-found sensitivity to language is certainly a good thing. Not calling people by ethnic slurs cannot be considered thought control. It is merely civility.
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But, on the other hand, some forms of this hand-fanning of our outraged cheeks is, like Victorian prudery, simply a denial of the facts of human existence.
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Can we expect our heroes to be spotless virgins? Our artists to be paragons of morality? If we check the record, we will discover that if we make such demands, we will soon have to empty our museums, shut down our theaters and movie houses, clear our bookshelves, and pretty well have to impeach all of Congress — to say nothing of most of the 45 white men who have taken up temporary residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.
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We would be in danger of emulating the Taliban vandals who blew up the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in 2001, or the ISIS bulldozing of Syrian Palmyra in 2015. The certainty of self-righteousness is perhaps the most dangerous thing in the world.
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Just consider the Iconoclasts of the Beeldenstorm in 16th Century Netherlands, when Calvinists tore through Catholic churches and busted statues and destroyed paintings; or the great Gothic cathedral statues with their heads knocked off by French revolutionaries in the late 18th century; or the book burnings of Savonarola’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497; or the destruction of the library in Baghdad in 1258; or that by the Qin Dynasty (including book burning and the burying of Confucian scholars) in the Third Century BCE; or the Nazi book burnings of 1933; or the destruction of Aztec and Mayan codices in the 1560s.
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Of the burning of books there is no end.
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In Chile in 1973; in Sri Lanka in 1981; in Croatia in the 1990s; in Egypt in 2001; in Florida in 2011. Thousands of rare Islamic texts were destroyed by al-Qaeda in Timbuktu in 2013. This short list is just the tip of the iceberg.
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Moral outrage mixed with absolute certainty has done more harm than all the supposed damage contained in the books burned or the art smashed.
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There is a great deal of beauty and wisdom created or written by those whose lives were never exemplary. It is a rare human being with no skeletons in the closet. Let’s consider some of those artists and historical figures who have been praised, read, and listened to over the centuries.
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My personal favorite is George Gordon, Lord Byron, who sodomized his wife, slept with his sister, got a serving girl pregnant, and then impregnated and abandoned his underage mistress, Claire Clairmont, separating her from her daughter, Allegra, who died under Byron’s care. By the way, he also liked to diddle young boys.
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So, should we stop reading Childe Harold or Don Juan? Or “She sleeps in beauty, like the night”?
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Roman Polanski is a reprehensible human being, but a very good filmmaker. Should we stop showing his Macbeth to high school students because of his crimes? Not if we want to convince those teens that Shakespeare is actually an exciting playwright.
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Separating the artist from his work is essential. Otherwise, we will need to get rid of our copies of Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, after all, enjoyed taking photographs of naked little girls.
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And if we are religious, we will have to stop singing that Ave Maria, because Franz Schubert liked sex with underage boys.
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Artists are as venal, evil, self-centered, confused and destructive as the rest of us. The history of art is a landfill of disturbing biography.
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Robert Frost sounds wise and paternal in his poems, but he was such an S.O.B. off the page that he drove his son to suicide.
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William Burroughs and Norman Mailer have been hell on wives.
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Benvenuto Cellini was a murderer. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semitic apologist for Fascism. Herbert von Karajan was a card-carrying Nazi. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Hector Berlioz were drug fiends.
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And we cannot begin to count the number of drunken novelists.
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Percy Shelley married a 16-year-old girl and then told her that he was in love with another teen-ager and that maybe all three could live together.
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Or that Richard Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde while enjoying a love affair with a woman he borrowed from her husband, who was housing and feeding the freeloading composer at the time. Wagner’s wife wasn’t happy about the arrangement, either.
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This rogue’s gallery of adulterers, criminals, perverts and wackos made some of the greatest art of all time.
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Our heroes just can’t seem to keep their noses clean.
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One after the other they self-destruct, turning from demigods into blackguards before our very eyes.
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Pick one, let his luster shine for a few moments and then notice the worm.
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And I mean some of the most accomplished and meaningful personalities of the American century: Charles Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer. Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer. Elvis was a drug addict.
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The list is long and luxurious, and the heroes in question come from politics, sports and the arts. We admire their accomplishments, even aspire to be like them, and then come to find out, as with O.J. Simpson, that they beat their wives and worse.
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It isn’t just a recent phenomenon.
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For every Woody Allen there is a Charlie Chaplin; for every Roman Polanski there is a Fatty Arbuckle. And let’s not forget Ingrid Bergman.
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Let us not forget the charm of Ty Cobb, the graciousness of Babe Ruth and the temperance of Pete Rose.
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Madonna raised eyebrows with her reputed NBA exploits, but what of  Clara Bow, who had a thing for the 1927 University of Southern California football team. Yes, the whole team.
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Just think of some of their stories, moving backward in time. Errol Flynn, the patriotic hero on screen, was a Nazi sympathizer who died in a hotel room with an underage girl.
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Horatio Alger, before he became the author of those inspirational rags-to-riches stories that Republicans like to recommend to those on welfare, was a minister who lost his job because he liked to seduce young boys.
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It seems as if no one can escape: Who was the most saintly man of this century? Mahatma Gandhi liked to sleep naked with young girls, and he regularly weighed his excrement in the morning, keeping track of ingoing and outgoing, both.
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So beside that, a governor with his pants down in a motel room may seem kind of tame. Even if he later became president.
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I do not mean to debunk all our heroes, but to better understand what they are and what role they play in public life.
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But when we hold our heroes up to higher standards than humans can sustain, we are like little children who cannot tell the actor from the part.
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An adult doesn’t condemn Hamlet because Richard Burton was a lush.
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Our heroes are capable of doing all the things ordinary people can do, including lying, cheating and stealing. Murder and rape are not beyond them, nor is mere vanity or meanness.
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Like humans, our heroes are bundles of contradictions; they are large and contain multitudes.
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For their crimes, we prosecute them as we do anyone else. For their simpler sins, we develop short memories. For their art, we need to be grateful.
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What we forget is that an artist is an artist for what he makes, not for who he is.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Where is the East? In a round world, everything is east of somewhere. But the “East” is something different. It is an idea.
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It is an idea that goes back at least as far as Homer and the Trojan War, between the Achaeans of Europe and the Trojans in Asia Minor. It is an idea that recurs over and over. East and West. East Germany and West Germany; eastern Europe and western Europe; the Eastern Bloc and NATO. We have all lived through a Cold War divided with the Soviets playing the part of the East and the U.S. leading what we habitually call the West.
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Us and them is perennial. The real world is seven billion thems, each different, some 200 nations, all different, myriad cultures, each distinct. Yet, we still tend to break the cake in half. Us and them. The enlightened West and the inscrutable or barbarous East.
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Certainly the template for the way we think of this dichotomy was devised in the years during and after the Fifth Century BCE, when the Greeks defended their heterogeneous lands against invasion from the Persian Empire. It was given mythic importance by the writers chronicling the events by making it a culture war between the enlightened, rational Europeans and the Oriental despots of the East. It set the “us against them” trope up for the next 2500 years.
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Yet, the East isn’t merely an opponent. There is a seductiveness to the idea that plays out in Orientalist fantasies, such as the Arabian Nights and its harems; the exoticism of Samarkand and the Trans-Oxiana; the fragrances and flavors of the Spice Islands; and the calm spiritualism of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama.
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In Classical times, the word “Asia” referred to Anatolia and the Levant. There was a vague awareness that there was an India out there that Alexander the Great had almost conquered, and a sense that black pepper and cloves came from somewhere beyond that, but little hard knowledge.
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All that began to change in the 14th century with the diffusion of a famous book that almost no one now reads: The Travels of Marco Polo. It is a wonderful grab bag of information and tall tales, misunderstanding and hyperbole. I have now read it so you don’t have to.
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Marco Polo left his native Venice in 1271 at the age of 17 with his father and uncle headed toward the China of Kublai Khan. He remained in the East for the next 24 years, often working as a diplomat for the Great Khan. He traveled from Beijing (then called Khanbaliq) to Tibet, India, Java and Vietnam. He also learned of other nations from Abyssinia to Mongolia.
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When he finally returned to Venice at the age of 41, he found his city at war with rival Genoa. He was captured by the Genoese and imprisoned. In the introduction to his Travels, he states that “rather than idle away time, he decided to put together this book for the entertainment of readers. So he had all these things written up by Messer Rustichello of Pisa, who was in the same prison; that was in the year 1298 from the birth of Jesus Christ.”
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In other words, like so many quick sports memoirs, it was written “as told to.” Rustichello was a hack writer and how much of the book is a faithful transcription of Marco Polo’s words and how much of it is fabrication has long been an issue.
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(It should also be noted that Polo’s book was compiled before Gutenberg, and hence was distributed in manuscript form, translated, none too scrupulously into dozens of languages, often with new material added, old material deleted and many mistranslations compounding the confusion. There is no single “right” version of the book, only hundreds of guesses.)
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Certainly, it is not a gracefully written book. It is often tedious and repetitive. As Polo moves from city to city and nation to nation, he often repeats the same formula:
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“Kesh-Makran is a kingdom with its own king and language. Some of the people are idolaters, but most are Saracens. They live by trade and crafts. They have plenty of rice and wheat. Their staple foods are rice, meat and milk. Merchants come here in large numbers both by sea and land, bringing many wares and afterwards carrying away those things of this kingdom. There is nothing else worth mentioning.”
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The narrative is rife with stock phrases: “What shall I tell you of?”; “You may believe me when I say that…”; “Now let me tell you…” and the ever-familiar, “There is nothing else worth mentioning.”
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I think one of my favorite paragraphs comes near the end of the text: “Since we have told you about these Tartars of the Levant we will now take our leave of them and go back to speaking about Turkestan, so that we can hear all about it. But as a matter of fact we have already told you all about Turkestan and how it is ruled by Qaidu, so we have nothing left to say about it. And so we will move on and tell you about the provinces and peoples to the north.”
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In the whole book, we learn almost nothing about Polo himself or what he does, but rather like a gazetteer, he lists countries and kingdoms and gives a brief summation of who they worship, what they eat, and whether or not they owe fealty to the Great Khan. If we are lucky, there are weird or interesting footnotes that speak of folkways or cannibalism or wild promiscuity. There are longer set-pieces describing wars and battles.
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It would be hard to overstate the influence of Polo’s book. Despite its many omissions and that it contains much that is apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate, it gave Europeans a new vision of the rest of the world. It most likely influenced Columbus and its inaccuracies may have convinced the Admiral of the Ocean Seas that the Earth is much smaller than it actually is, leading him to believe the voyage west to the East would be shorter than it turned out — not even counting the North American roadblock that he never suspected.
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But you keep coming across passages that describe things Marco Polo has misunderstood or misnamed. I want to give you three of them. The first is part of his description of western China, which he calls Tibet (although not actually the region now called Tibet):
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“You should also know that the emperor … has many enormous lions, much bigger than those of Egypt. They have gorgeous richly colored fur marked with longitudinal stripes of black, red and white.”
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Elsewhere, he lets us know:  “The fact is that throughout the province of Cathay there is a kind of black stone that is dug from seams in the mountains and burns like logs. These stones keep a fire going better than wood. Moreover I assure you that if you put them on the fire in the evening and make sure they are well lit, they will keep burning all night and you will still find them glowing in the morning.”
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Enea Vico after Albrecht Dürer (Italian, 1523 – 1567 ), Rhinoceros, 1548, engraving on laid paper, Gift of Mrs. Robert A. Hauslohner

But my favorite is: “They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than an elephant. The unicorn has the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. In the middle of its forehead is a single horn, very thick and black. I assure you it does no harm with its horn but only with its tongue and knees; for it has long, sharp spines on its tongue, and whenever it wishes to hurt anyone it tramples him and holds him down with its knees , then slashes him with its tongue. It has a head like a wild boar’s and always holds it bowed towards the ground. It is perfectly content to wallow in mud and mire. It is a very ugly beast to look at. It is nothing like the animal we talk of and describe in our parts, where we say that it lets itself be caught by a virgin; in fact I can tell you it is the exact opposite of what we believe it to be.”
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A good deal else is the exact opposite of what we believe it to be. The East is burdened by a host of our cliches, misperceptions and prejudices — not the least of which is the idea that there is such a single thing as the East. The earth’s largest continent is home to a profusion of cultures with concomitant variety.
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Those prejudices have caused untold troubles, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Japanese internment camps of 1942. You see the fear and ignorance show up in popular entertainments, novels and movies. From 1919’s Broken Blossoms through James Bond’s Doctor No. There is not room to go into Hollywood’s yellowface tradition, or the stereotyping found in Charlie Chan, and Mister Moto movies, or the embarrassment of Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Marlon Brando as Sakini in Teahouse of the August Moon. Whole books have been written.
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The prototype stereotype of the evil Oriental is perhaps Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu. Introduced in 1913 in The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Rohmer describes his villain: “Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
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Getting things wrong, or mostly wrong, goes back way past Marco Polo, but it goes forward from him also. We see what we think we see, not what is actually there.
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In the 1930 movie, The Mask of Fu Manchu, the fiendish villain is Boris Karloff in yellowface. And he is duded up in Oriental finery, although what he wears is actually a wealthy Chinese woman’s wedding dress.
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Postscript: Two and a half millennia later, Persia is back as a dangerous “other,” although now called Iran. And the yellow peril is now a nuclear North Korea. Of course, China still makes us twitch, too. And on the news one hears the age-old tropes, and it is hard not to worry that the same one-dimensional ignorance is governing our foreign policy. The history of ignorance and misunderstanding is long and painful.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
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by Richard Nilsen
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And then what happened?
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It’s the essence of story. What happened next? Turn the page to find out. Then the next page; then the next. The author who can make you turn the page has a special talent.
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This is a talent that can often be belittled. It is not the virtue of the “literary novel.” You don’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses for the plot. But you don’t read Stephen King for the elegance of his sentences. You read for the story. You turn the damn page.
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It is a talent that I have come to admire, perhaps mostly because I do not possess it. I remember, some several years ago, I was in a book store and while moving among the Classical authors and the Library of America sections, finding a slim volume of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. The Michener I knew wrote doorstop tomes like Hawaii, Centennial, Alaska and Chesapeake. They were big, commercial enterprises, designed from floor level up to be best-sellers. I grandly dismissed him as a hack.
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But I opened Tales of the South Pacific and thought I’d peruse a page or two to see what Michener’s style was like,

perhaps to gather ammunition to make fun of him. A page or two. I didn’t need much. But some time later, I awoke to find myself standing among the shelves, oblivious to my surroundings, on page 27, flipping them over one after the other without even recognizing that I was sinking deeper and deeper into the story. What happens next? I had fallen into the narrative. He pulled me along like rapids on a river.

 

And I realized, there is a kind of genius to the ability to tell a story.
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I had often made fun of Stephen King. He is not an elegant writer. His sentences are often choppy, awkward and even simple-minded. But, geez, he can tell a story.
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King has made the argument himself that in the past, authors made their reputations on the ability to tell stories. We respect Charles Dickens as a classic, but in his day, he wrote potboilers that were enormously popular with those who wanted to know “what happens next?” King argued that the plot-driven novel should be better valued — and of course, that meant King’s own oeuvre.
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It has been 15 years since King was given a lifetime achievement award by the National Book Awards and gave an acceptance speech scolding academic writers and critics for failing to recognize the importance of story in literature. Those writers and critics did not take it well.
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Harold Bloom — the most erudite and ponderous of critics — complained, “The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. … What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”
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And compared with Joyce, or Flaubert, or Laurence Sterne, this is certainly true. Sentence by sentence, King can be clumsy. But he makes you turn the page. An hour later, you are a hundred pages in, and you don’t remember the time passing.
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As I said, this is a talent not to be sniffed at. Dickens had it; Victor Hugo had it; Henry Fielding had it. Jane Austen had it. What happens next?
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When film director Sam Fuller was asked what makes a good movie, he said: “A story.” Pressed, then, for what makes a good story, he said, with no hesitation, “A story.” He meant it.
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Why should we care? Beads on a string; beads on a rosary, we move from one to the next, chapter follows chapter, sentence follows sentence. What happens next?
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I don’t want to downplay the role story plays in simply keeping us entertained. From the earliest tales told in the cave around a fire to our uncle’s redoubtable blow-by-blow of the fish that got away, a tale fills the hours after work and before sleep. But there are other ways to fill that time.
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And there is the window that fiction gives us on the workings of minds other than our own. They can foster compassion and a wider understanding of the world. A really good character can persuade us they are real: Ask all those Sherlock Holmes fans who visit his “address” in London.
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As Shelley puts it in his Defence of Poetry, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.”
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A good story gives us those pains and pleasures. We internalize them and enlarge ourselves in the process.
But entertainment and empathy are byproducts of story. The power of narrative is found, I believe, in the very fact of one thing leading to another. The story itself is the hold it has over us.
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Consider: We live in a world of simultaneity — a chaotic chorus of seven billion human things happening at once in an infinity of extra-human activity. The world is a constant buzz, incoherent. If we listen to it all, it is white noise, undifferentiated.
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Yet, we live within ourselves as a single quiet stream surfing on the buzz. From birth to death, we understand ourselves to be a single thread, beginning, middle, end. We reassure ourselves that our stream is, indeed, coherent by comparing it with another stream: a story. If a tale being told, a novel being read, a TV show being watched is coherent, perhaps we are, too. This runs contrary to the latest findings of neurobiology, but it is as deeply embedded in our psyches as anything. Coherent narrative is how we make sense of chaos.
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“There is one story and one story only that will prove worth your telling,” wrote Robert Graves, but Graves was a crackpot. And yet, there is something in it: The one story is that of birth, life and death. Yet, it is the multiplicity of that story that reassures us. All that chaos can be combed out, like tangled hair, into parallel strands: Your story, your spouse’s story, Odysseus’s story, Humbert Humbert’s story, Carrie Mathison’s story — all laid out side by side to show that the singular flow, all in one direction, like the rosary beads told one after another, backs up our claim to the way we understand time, ourselves and our existence.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
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by Richard Nilsen
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As I write this, I am listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It is not only profoundly beautiful, it is deeply moving. It speaks both of death and loss, of pain both physical and emotional and yet is also overwhelmingly comforting. It would be hard to find another work of art that says so much about what it means to be human.
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It makes me remember Paul Gauguin’s painting, D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
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The painting’s title asks essential questions, questions central to our occupation of our skins. In some form, these are questions we all come to ask of ourselves, and whether we answer in some philosophical terms, or simply by living the life we do, we cannot avoid them: In a sense, trying to avoid them is answering them.
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I mention that because the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has proposed eliminating majors in humanities. In this, they have joined several other colleges and universities, including Indiana State University, Edinboro University, the University of Southern Maine, Boise State University, Rider University, Western Illinois University, even the University of North Carolina. Some have already axed majors, some are floating the proposals under the guise of making universities function more like business.
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker offered his rational, proposing to change the state education code from requiring the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and now requiring them to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
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How could we have gone so far astray?
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A certain class of politician has coopted the conversation. For them, all questions are economic questions. This seems odd, because, of course, in the past, the Republicans were so big on “values.” Now, however, the only value they seem to comprehend is financial value. All their policy decisions seem based on the acquisition of money — and the belief that this view is universally held, and English majors are just losers in the big zero-sum game.
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In an odd way, the irony of which they would not understand, they have become Marxists. It almost makes me laugh, or at least grin sheepishly. While in the past, these same politicians waxed elegant about values — god, country and family — all they seem to be able to address now is taxes, jobs, and keeping immigrants from taking our jobs.
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But where did those values come from, in the first place?
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A job, per se, does not make life worth living. It may make it possible, or at least easier, but it cannot make it worth the while. It takes an inner life to do that. One has to think and feel, absorb the world and understand the thoughts and feelings of others. This is exactly what the humanities are all about.
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Novelist Francine Prose (who is my age) noted in The Guardian, “Studying the classics and philosophy teaches students where we come from, and how our modes of reasoning have evolved over time. Learning foreign languages, and about other cultures, enables students to understand how other societies resemble or differ from our own.”
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She also questions the motives of those politicians, both national and local, who wish to suppress the humanities in favor of vocational training for a work force.
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“Is it entirely paranoid to wonder if these subjects are under attack because they enable students to think in ways that are more complex than the reductive simplifications so congenial to our current political and corporate discourse?”
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This is not a plea to axe STEM majors and block replace them with courses on moral philosophy, Milton’s prosody and the history of the Ottoman Empire, but rather to realize that they must all be integrated into a single tree of knowledge. Science and literature are both not only important, but vital.
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Those of you who knew the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky may remember that when he was a child in a musical family in Berlin between the wars, Albert Einstein would come over to his house to sit in playing string quartets with Dimitri’s father, mother and brother.
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Dimitri would sometimes quote Friedrich Nietszche, who said, “Life without music would be a mistake.”
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Or physicist Richard Feynman, who played the bongo drums and loved samba.
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Or, when Robert Oppenheimer reacted to the first nuclear blast in the New Mexico desert, he responded with a quote from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” It was poetry that expressed his emotions.
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When Gauguin talked about his magnum opus, spread out like a movie screen, 12-feet wide, showing the course of life from birth to death, he refused to explain his allegory: “Explanations and obvious symbols would give the canvas a sad reality and questions asked would no longer be a poem.”
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Many of us have a poem that speaks most directly to our insides, perhaps two, perhaps more. For me, those poems are Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode,” and Chaucer’s Trouthe. I read them over and over, and especially at times of distress or emotional trauma. The poetry expresses something larger than the words mean directly. They resonate and make our psyches into soundboards.
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STEM and humanities are not opposites; they complement each other. Teaching our children trigonometry and physics without feeding their inner lives at the same time reminds me of the time I was invited to the home of an acquaintance where the walls were entirely bare of art or any decoration — not even an Olan Mills store-bought portrait of the kids. The house felt chill and empty. Like the vacuum of space.
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Finally, I hesitate to defend humanities on simply practical grounds — that it makes us think more clearly, opens our minds to things we knew not of, informs our decisions as citizens, makes graceful our lives.
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I would rather make the case that learning — all learning, whether science or history or literature or mathematics — makes us more interesting to ourselves.
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When I went to college, in 1966 — more than a half a century in the rear-view mirror — I never considered whether my degree would prepare me for a job. Never entered my mind. No, I went to college with the hunger and avidity of someone who wanted to learn, who wanted to know everything. My first semester of my freshman year, I signed up for 23 credit hours; I would have signed up for 40 if they would have let me. I took classes in the widest range of disciplines: Shakespeare; the ancient Greek language; astronomy; the history of India.
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I know I am preaching to the choir here. Those who have signed up for Spirit of the Senses have that same kind of curiosity and come to lectures on everything from how bees think to current politics in Europe to Homer’s Odyssey. And that is just this month.
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Learning is its own reward; considering it as leverage to ensure employment is at best misguided, and at worst, shallow.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
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by Richard Nilsesn
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What do cows in India, Mexican bugs and Egyptian mummies have in common?
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If you said, “Rembrandt,” give yourself a cigar.
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Most of us, when think of color, think in the abstract. Color is the spectrum or the rainbow. Or the deciding factor in which car we buy. We think we know what “blue” means, or “yellow,” but that doesn’t say what blue or what yellow. Just an abstract approximation.
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But for an artist, color is pigment, and pigment is ornery, peculiar and sometimes toxic, sometimes distressing, even morally questionable.
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Poet William Carlos Williams wrote in his book-length Paterson, “No ideas but in things.” It was the total anti-Platonic declaration of faith in the here-and-now, the lumpy, gritty, quotidian things we can feel with our fingers or stub our toe with. I paraphrase his dictum with “No color but in things.” This is not abstract, but palpable.
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A painter cannot simply decide on green or yellow, but on what pigment that paint is made from. Each acts in its own way, mixes with others differently, dilutes differently, requires a different thinner, binder or medium, displays varying levels of permanence, transparency and glossiness. The painter cannot think in abstract hues, but in the actuality of the physical world. Hands in the mud, so to speak.
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ochre pit

The earliest pigments were dug from the earth or sifted from the cook-fire: Ochres and soot. The caves of France and Spain were painted with these pigments. They had to be worked into submission by the artist, grinding, mixing, adding medium and binder. His — or her (we cannot know for sure) — hands got dirty in the process. There was a smell to it, fresh loamy smell or the acrid residue of the hearth. There was a feel, gritty or pulverized, oily, or smudgy like moist clay.

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So, until the mid-19th century, all paints were made from the things of this world. Soils and rocks, plants and snails. Each pigment had its idiosyncrasies and those had to be reckoned with when mixing them or placing them side-by-side. None was pure, save, perhaps, the blackness of soot.
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Then, in 1856, an 18-year-old chemist named William Henry Perkin, trying to find a cure for malaria, found instead a new, synthetic purple dye — the first aniline dye. He called it “mauve,” or “mauveine.”
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A decade later, the German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann, working for BASF, synthesized alizarin crimson, making an artificial pigment that matched the natural alizarin dye that had been extracted from the madder plant. It was the first color created from an element of coal tar — a byproduct of turning coal into coke.
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Apres moi, le deluge” — Since then, there has been a flood of synthetic colors, all devised in the laboratories of giant corporations. There are the aniline dyes, the azo dyes, the phthalocyanine dyes, diazonium dyes, anthraquinone dyes — a whole chemistry lab of new industrial color. Many of these new dyes and pigments were brighter and purer of hue and more permanent (not all: the new chrome yellow that Vincent Van Gogh used developed a tendency to turn brown).
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Nowadays, even oil and acrylic paints with traditional names, such as burnt umber and ultramarine are likely to be produced industrially using chemical derivatives. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Rembrandt or Michelangelo had to arrive at their paints through laborious and time-consuming processes.
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Most pigments came to the artist’s atelier in the form of a rock or a sediment. It had to be ground down to a powder, a process normally done by an apprentice — basically an intern: “Bring me a latte, a bearclaw and the powdered cinnabar.” Being ground to a grit wasn’t enough; the poor apprentice sometimes had to spend days with the pigment between grinding stone and levigator or muller, working it into pulverized paste that could be mixed with a binder and medium and finally used by the artist on canvas.
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It wasn’t until the advent of the industrial revolution and the invention of a pigment-grinding machine in 1718, that the tedious work of pigment making became doable in large quantities. And it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that prepared paints, sold in zinc tubes, made it possible for artists to buy portable paints they could carry out into the countryside to paint in the open.
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But we should not forget the sometimes ancient origins of the paints used for the canvasses of the Renaissance, the Baroque — the Old Masters. This is where the Indian cows, the Mexican bugs and the Egyptian mummies come in.
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First, let’s look at a few of the standard paint-sources from this pre-industrial age. Many of them have wonderful and memorable names, now largely gone out of use.
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Bice — Is a dark green-blue or blue-green pigment made from copper carbonates, primarily the mineral azurite, sometimes malachite. Lightened, it was often used for skies.
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Carmine — This is the Mexican bug I mentioned above. The cochineal scale insect grows on certain cactuses in Central and South America. It is a bright violet- to deep-red color. The Aztecs called it “nocheztli,” which means “tuna blood,” and dyed the tunics of Aztec and Inca royalty.
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Cinnabar — A scarlet red form of mercury sulfide and highly poisonous, it was mined in Europe, Asia and the New World and was used also for cosmetics and medicine — hardly a wise use. See also: Vermilion.
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Crimson — Before the Conquista, a European scale insect, growing on the kermes oak, provided a red dye. It was less efficiently grown and produced than the cochineal of Mexico, and so was replaced. Michelangelo used it in his paint.
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Dragon’s blood — Mentioned in a First-Century Roman travel guide (a periplus), it is a maroon-red pigment made from the sap of various plants, most notably theDracaena cinnabari. Medieval sources wrote that it was made from the blood of actual dragons.
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Gamboge — A yellow pigment formed from the sap of the Cambodian gamboge tree (genus Garcinia). Coincidentally, the name comes from the Latin name for Cambodia.
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Orpiment

Orpiment — A bright yellow pigment gathered from volcanoes and hot springs and is a highly poisonous compound of arsenic and was once used as an insecticide and to tip poison arrows. It was traded as far back as the Roman empire. Its name is a corruption of the latin auripigmentum or “gold pigment.”

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Madder — Another dye that goes as far back as ancient Egypt, it is a violet to red color extracted from the Rubia tinctorum and related species, plants that grows on many continents, and in southern France is called garance — for those of you who love the great French film Les Enfants du Paradis. It is turned into a pigment from a dye by the process known as “laking,” and so often encountered as madder lake.
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Minium — Also known as red lead, this orange-red pigment was commonly used in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. It was made by roasting oxidized lead in the air to form lead tetroxide.
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Sepia — a dark brown to black dye and pigment extracted from various species of squid. Most popular as an ink, it has also been used for oil paint.
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Smalt — First used in ancient Egypt, it is a cobalt oxide use to color glass a deep blue. The glass is then ground into a powder used as a pigment.

Bottled smalt

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Tyrian purple — This is the purple of the Roman emperors, and is extracted from a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of a predatory sea snail found in the eastern Mediterranean. It was worth its weight in silver and it might take 12,000 snails to produce enough dye for a single garment.
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Ultramarine — The ultimate blue, made from the mineral lapis lazuli, found almost exclusively in Afghanistan, which, for Europeans, was “beyond the (Mediterranean) sea” or “ultra-marine.” The process of making the pigment from the mineral was complex and the final color was so highly prized, and so expensive, that its use had to be expressed in the contract commissioning a painting by Renaissance artists, less they use some less costly, and less glorious blue.
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Verdigris — A green pigment formed by copper carbonate, chloride or acetate. It is the patina on the Statue of Liberty, but in oil paint, it has the odd property of being initially a light blue-green and turning, after about a month into a bright grass green.
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Vermilion — First synthesized in China in the fourth century BCE, the bright red is mercuric sulphide and depending how well powdered it has been ground produces hues from orangey-red to a reddish purple that  one writer compared to “fresh duck liver.” It is also produced by grinding cinnabar. The finer the grinding, the brighter the red. Painter Cennino Cennini in his 15th century Craftsman’s Handbook wrote: “If you were to grind it every day for 20 years it would simply become better and more perfect.” It is also highly poisonous, but was the most common red in painting until it was replaced in the 20th century by cadmium red.
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Viridian — A darkish blue-green pigment, a hydrated chromium oxide, popularized by Venetian painter Paolo Veronese.
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You will have undoubtedly noticed how many of these pigments were poisonous. It has certainly been suggested that Van Gogh’s madness may have been caused by his habit of tipping his brushes with his spit.
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The most common toxic color through history was white, which was most often lead carbonate, or flake white, aka lead white. It was easy to manufacture by soaking sheets of lead in vinegar for weeks at a time and scraping the resulting white powder off the surface of the metal. Flake white was a wonderful, opaque and brilliant white pigment. Unfortunately, it could kill, blind or make mad those who used it. Even today, older houses have sometimes to be de-leaded of their original paint in order to be sold legally. Children are especially vulnerable.
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A substitute for white lead was looked for. Zinc white — an oxide of zinc — was tried, but was not as opaque or as white. Nowadays, titanium white is used, safer and nearly as good a pigment.
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Turner’s ‘Tegnmouth Harbour’ is painted with Indian yellow”

But, as I said at the top of this article, some of the old pigments were not only dangerous, but morally questionable.
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Ivory black — made from elephant ivory, and essentially ivory charcoal, it is (or was) an intense black pigment. Nowadays, it is most often made from bones, as bone black, aka Mars black.
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Indian yellow — A pigment brought to Europe from the east, it was described as being made by feeding cows solely on mango leaves, which made their urine an intense yellow, which was then evaporated into a sludge, dried and sold. The cattle were severely malnourished by this diet, and the practice outlawed. There are those who doubt this explanation of the pigment, but no one doubts the strong stench of the bolus. It is no longer made.
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Mummy brown — A bituminous brown, made from ground-up Egyptian mummies, both human and feline. Popular from the 16th century, it was good for “glazes, shadows, flesh tones and shading.” In the 19th century, the supply of Egyptian mummies was so great that in England, they were used as fuel for steam locomotives. But when the actual origin of the pigment became widely known, a moral repugnance swept England and the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones was horrified to find out what he was using, “and when he heard what his brown was made of, he gave all his tubes of this color a decent burial” in his garden.
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Makes you look at all those rich, warm browns in Rembrandt with a slightly different eye.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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