Monday, April 29, 2013

Open to Whales

This blog entry contains a number of links which I hope that you will follow. The first link (and the kicking-off point for the blog) is to a cartoon in a recent issue of the New Yorker:

It is generally acknowledged that to explain a joke is to ruin it; but in the expectation that you have looked at the cartoon and already gotten the joke, I feel free to expatiate upon it. We laugh at Captain Ahab in the cartoon because in his fervent quest for revenge upon the creature that has cost him his leg he registers only disappointment in not seeing the white whale--when he should be staring with wild surmise at A RED WHALE! As we move out from the joke itself, we should recognize that this discovery of such an anomalous creature offers Ahab the opportunity for a positive fame above that of most men; but he cannot see beyond  his obsession—the desire to destroy the white whale. And so he ends up destroying himself and his fellow men.
W. H. Auden's poem “Musee de Beaux Arts” concerns another watery death, that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and had the wax of his fabricated wings melt away, and so plunged to his demise in the sea. Auden focuses on the painting “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus” by the 16th Century Flemish master Pieter Breughel. ( He observes that people who could have witnessed “Something amazing” were too absorbed in their mundane tasks to turn away from them:
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
And so death occurs (in the lower right hand part of the painting) without acknowledgment.
But we need not talk just about death and destruction here. The singlemindedness of obsession or the narrowly-focused pursuit of one's everyday tasks can also lead one to miss the exceptional which is also the beautiful and the sublime. On January 12, 2007, the great American violinist Joshua Bell undertook an experiment (arranged by the Washington Post) to play works by Bach and other masters during the morning rush hour at a location in a Washington metro station. A few months later the British newspaper the Independent decided to replicate the D. C. experiment in London with the help of one of Britain's foremost violinists Tasmin Little. In the paper's words, “The Independent decided to give Little one of the more difficult challenges of her career - to test how people would react to a great artist giving a performance in a totally unexpected setting,” in her case the tunnel under the railway bridge by Waterloo station.

The Post clocked 1,097 people passing by Bell during the three-quarters of an hour he played, while the Independent estimated 900 to 1,000 passers-by in the London tunnel during the same amount of time. With some of the world's greatest music being played by great artists how many people were not absorbed in the singleminded purpose that they had “somewhere to get to and [so] sailed calmly on”? In Little's case, eight people, “of whom one was under the age of three.” For Bell, seven stopped.

Little summed up the experiment astutely:
"Sometimes we're guilty of giving ourselves a goal, even if it's only catching a train, and leaving very little room for spontaneity in our lives. We don't deviate from our pattern. People forget to take into account that something different might happen."
They might even discover a red whale!

For Bell:

For Little:


For Auden (full text of "Musee des Beaux Arts"):

Monday, April 1, 2013

Counting the Spoons

Rummaging among some old papers the other day, I came upon a draft of a letter I composed apparently in the spring of 1962. The draft has no date, but by the letterhead on the paper, I can be confident that it was written no earlier. The draft also does not state who I was writing to, but I assume it was the editor of the New York Times. The issue I was addressing was the recommendation by a commission appointed by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and headed by Henry T. Heald, president of the Ford Foundation, that the City University of New York abandon its long-standing practice of offering students free tuition. (It is worth noting that before Mr. Heald went to the Ford Foundation, he was president of New York University, a private institution in direct competition with the four-year colleges that comprised the City University system at that time: City College, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and Queens College.) As a graduate of City College, I had no desire to see those who came after me be deprived of the great gift that the City of New York had given me--a free college education.

Here is the text of my letter. The only alterations I have made is spelling out the abbreviations in the original draft.
Dear Sir:
I should like to offer a few comments on your stand for tuition at the City University of New York. Like Mr. Heald, whose committee favored the imposition of tuition at the senior colleges of the University, you seem to believe that free tuition is unprincipled. I derive that conclusion from the fact that you claim, together with Mr. Heald, that it is time to introduce the “principle” of having the City University students pay a token amount of money for their education. The money involved is, of course, not important, for the token payment is not even related to the cost of the student’s education. The token—the “principle”—is the be-all and end-all of the press for tuition. Reason does not dictate the token offering, since the deficit would remain and would still have to be borne by the City and State governments. Were the proponents of tuition to argue for reason, they would have to ask the students to pay all the cost of their education (and not only the students at this one university, but also at all others, public or private). That, I should imagine, would be the only “reasonable” position.
If reason does not dictate the token payment (since it is only a token), what does propel the “principled” proponents of tuition? If I am allowed to make a guess, I should state that tuition is a reflection of the Weltanschauung of its proponents. That is, the tuition-pushers believe that America’s business is business and that “money talks.” Money rules our social, artistic, and governmental spheres—as well as most of our educational scene. The great holdout—the nay-sayer to our commercial jungle is the City University of New York. Money may dictate what books will be published and what plays will be produced (leaving us with commercial wastelands). But money cannot dictate the educational policies of at least one great educational institution. The City University confounds those who believe that everything must have a pricetag and that nothing is good in and of itself. The education received by the undergraduates of the City University must not, despite the efforts of the tuition-pushers, ever be reduced to a commercial standard. The search for knowledge must always remain valuable for intrinsic reasons, not for business ones.
The students at City College, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and Queens College must never be seduced into believing that it is better to be rich, gross, and business-minded than poor, virtuous, and truth-seeking. Money morality may or may not be in itself evil, but the belief that everything good, true, or beautiful must first pass commercial muster is.
Need I say that the letter—wherever it was sent—was never published, and that the campaign to maintain free tuition was another of the battles that I was on the losing side of.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented about a dinner guest:

“The louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted the spoons.”

I think we might update the remark to:

“When they come at you speaking of principles, guard your wallet!”