And Letters – Rabindranath Tagore, Renaissance Man

”You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” — Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore with Einstein, 1930

We think of Leonardo da Vinci as the prototype Renaissance Man.  Da Vinci had an unquenchable curiosity, was unhindered by the “you can’t do that” school of thought, and was adept  in a range of fields as diverse as aerodynamics and painting religious scenes.

Rather than seeing da Vinci’s life as that of a rare genius, I think of him as a perfect example of someone who has kept his brain in good shape.  Modern brain science supports the idea that, by exposing yourself to new information throughout life, the brain can remain fit like other muscles and organs in the body.  The work the neurons in the brain do to take in, categorize, and store new data, actually strengthens the connections in the brain.  So, it really is possible to “teach an old dog new tricks” as long as that old dog has been learning new tricks right along.

So, my curiosity was piqued when I came across an article about another “Renaissance Man,” Rabindranath Tagore.  Tagore was a turn of the century Bengali poet, novelist, musician,playwright,  spiritualist, educator, philosopher, composer, singer, and cultural relativist.  Renaissance, indeed.

Illustration, 1913, by Asi Kumar Haldar for a prose-poem "The Hero"

He was born in 1861 and in 1913, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Tagore began writing poetry when he a boy, and published his first poetry when he was only sixteen.  One of his poems is titled “Mind Without Fear”

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up

into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason

has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Tagore's ink on paper drawing "Dancing Girl"



Politically, he took a stand against the British Raj.   His written work shunned the restraints of  classical forms to deal with personal and political issues.  His writing seems as appropriate today as it did in his own time.  Tagore said, “I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung.”  Boy, who hasn’t felt that way in these days of social networking, cell phones, internet overload?

Tagore could have been writing about America’s current wars when he said, “If anger be the basis of our political activities, the excitement tends to become an end in itself, at the expense of the object to be achieved.  Side issues then assume an exaggerated importance, and all gravity of thought and action is lost; such excitement is not an exercise of strength, but a display of weakness.”

A few years before his death, he developed a  new interest —  science.  He wrote extensive essays on various scientific subjects.  He debated Einstein on the newly emerging science of quantum mechanics and chaos.  About physics, Tagore said, ” Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole.  Does something similar to this happen in the physical world?  Are the elements rebellious, dynamic with individual impulse?  And is there a principle in the physical world which dominates them and puts them into an orderly organization?”

It inspires me to learn of someone so accomplished in so many fields of endeavor who gladly takes on new challenges throughout life.

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An Apology of Motherhood – Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten Year Nap

Meg Wolitzer's The Ten Year Nap

I was in my car when I heard Meg Wolitzer on NPR discussing her new novel, The Ten Year Nap. For a weird second, it seemed like I was talking on the radio, but that was impossible because I was in my car, swerving inappropriately into other people’s lanes. Wolitzer was definitely talking about my life-the life of a woman who quit working to stay home with the kids. I dug around for a pen, and scribbled the title of the book on an old bank receipt.

I went straight home and ordered the book. The Ten Year Nap follows a group of women who put careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. But, Wolitzer doesn’t write about that initial decision that comes as such a shock to many modern new moms who find themselves embracing what we thought was an old-fashioned notion of motherhood. Instead she focuses on a later stage of motherhood, when the infants have become school-aged, and what was meant to be a temporary situation begins to feel disturbingly permanent. Wolitzer examines the moment when the mother comes up for air, catches her breath, and figures out how to become comfortable in her own skin again. I responded as strongly as I did to Wolitzer’s book because I am a mother who quit working to raise a child. I was desperate to read The Ten Year Nap because I hoped to find some explanation or justification for the decisions I’ve made. Honestly, I was hoping the book would confirm that what I was doing was smart and worthwhile.

Wolitzer’s book, though, doesn’t take sides in the work-home debate. What it does do is elevate the debate by treating the subject intelligently, with wry humor, and a certain amount of contemplative reverence. It is a fairly realistic paean to the confusing mess of feelings that go along with modern motherhood. The women in the novel, each in their own way, are experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis. One central character, Amy, gave up a law career ten years earlier and now worries that she’s too out-of-date to go back to work. She’s also coming to grips with the financial toll the decision to stay at home has had on her family. Amy’s best friend, Jill, chose to stay at home to raise her adopted daughter with whom she is disturbingly unable to bond. Isolated in her new suburban home, Amy struggles to reconcile her expectations with her real life. The barrier-busting feminists from the early days of the women’s lib movement are represented in the character of Amy’s mother, Antonia. In a way, Antonia and her group of aging feminists seem almost as dated as a group of June Clever moms. Yet Amy can’t help wondering if, in making her decision to quit working, she has turned her back on the hard-fought gains made by women like her mother. Is a woman who quits work to raise children backsliding? It’s a question many women struggle to answer.

When I entered the work world in the 1980’s, women executives tied little scarves around their necks in a strange homage to the men’s necktie. Female veterans of the workplace warned of the danger of appearing too feminine. We should never coo over pictures of other people’s children and should never bring baked goods to office parties. God forbid anyone should visualize us in the kitchen with a mixer and an oven mitt. We were wedging our way into what had been an exclusively man’s world by mimicking as closely as possible the successful man. What our strategy failed to consider was that by modeling ourselves on men, we became conspirators in further diminishing the value of work traditionally considered “women’s.” If the feminist movement was about “self-actualization,” it has failed women who choose home over work. Women have gained status in the work world. But women who discover they want to stay home with their children can’t shake the feeling that they are somehow settling for less than they should.

If men and women were valued equally, there would be equal numbers of men and women choosing home over work. Clearly that is not the case. The Ten Year Nap illustrates how intensely personal these decisions are. It also reflects the biases that still remain in play between men and women. The decision to return to work or stay home with a child depends, not just on unique personal factors, but also on perceptions. Real parity between the sexes isn’t possible until both sexes perceive both kinds of work as equally valuable.

In Character: Exploring Character in Ken Follett’s World Without End

 

Moon Wishes by ruthsartsandletters on Etsy.com

Last night I said farewell to old friends. I left them where they were and walked down the dirt road that led through town. I passed through the heavy gates that protected the city. I walked over the bridge, the centerpiece of my friends’ lives, and out of the Middle Ages, back into 2010 and the busy paved street that led to my house with indoor plumbing, central heat and air, and a great big comfy reading chair. I closed my book, placed it on the table beside me and sat silently for a few minutes, grieving. I had just finished Ken Follett’s historical fiction novel World Without End.

After nine hundred and twenty-seven pages, I had become attached to a cast of fascinating people. In the best novels, we are deliciously tricked into believing that when we close the cover, life between the pages goes on without us. How can characters so vivid just disappear into thin air when the book is closed? Therein likes the writer’s craft. Character Basics

Unlocking the character code can be a tool for critiquing literature. A character is born where speech, appearance, and action come together around a name. A characterization is the process by which the writer makes the character seem real to the reader. The protagonist, a hero or heroine, is the character with whom we become most deeply involved. The antagonist is the character that parallels or opposes the protagonist, providing the conflict in the story. A character that does not change through the text is a static character. A dynamic character does go through change as a result of the action in the plot. A flat character is one that has one or two simple qualities or traits and is not psychologically complex. Sometimes flat characters are called “stock characters.” These can be easily summarized, and are more a “type” than an individual.

Characters that are more complex and fully developed are round characters or dramatized characters. Round characters generally are consistent in action and reaction, and plausibly motivated. Writers may use direct presentation to tell the reader by exposition or analysis about the character. Writers also use indirect presentation, showing the character in action and letting the reader infer the character’s qualities. Traditionally, readers explore characters on a personal level. In other words, a reader asks, “What kind of person is this character? Is she a person I’d like to know?”

A reader might also try to figure out why the character behaves as she does, or compare the character’s action with what we would do in a similar situation. In order for a reader to become involved with a character on a personal level, we make a few assumptions about literary characters •• The character is motivated from within to act •• The character is responsible for their own actions •• The character is unique and responds in personal ways •• The character is can be judged by comparing thoughts with actions.

A personal approach to reading characters implies that the character is morally accountable for her actions in the same way a real person is judged accountable. As with contextual readings based on social customs, character readings based on social customs may reinforce the prevailing set of values and discount new, different, or novel beliefs and practices.

Characters as Signs

Another way to interpret characters is to see them as signs or devices that represent values in the text. In fiction, characters can be used to open up or explore aspects of human experience, or to illustrate a trait of human behavior. A symbol is something that stands not only for itself, but also for an abstract idea, belief, or quality. Conventional symbols are ones that are widely accepted and used by writers. Some symbolic characters are consistent throughout the text, but others gather new meaning throughout the text.

An archetype is a universal symbol or prototype that evokes response in a reader, sometimes unconsciously. An archetype symbolizes basic human experiences, regardless of time and place. Conventional archetypes include •• the “great mother” •• the “wise old man” •• the “trickster” •• the “scarlet woman” •• the “faceless man.” •• the “artist-scientist”

Example: The Symbolism of the “Artist-Scientist

One archetype is that of the “artist-scientist.” The artist-scientist is a builder, an inventor, a seeker or dreamer, and a thinker. They may be so caught up in their own thoughts, they often must be reminded to eat or sleep, or come in out of the rain. They are both highly knowledgeable and innocent. They represent the wonder and the danger of curiosity.

The artist-scientist is an agent of change. This archetype character might spend hours concocting elaborate plans to reach the tower of the castle to rescue the princess, while the hero simply walks in the front door and up the stairs, scoops up the damsel and rides off into the sunset. The artist-scientist has an idealized view of reality. As a failure, the artist-scientists may symbolize the futility of trying to control one’s own fate. If successful, the artist-scientists can symbolize the idea that you can’t stop a dreamer from trying to change the world. Frequently naïve, the artist-scientist can also symbolize a gap between knowledge and fact.

Application:   The Artist-Scientist in World Without End

In Follett’s historical novel World Without End, the characters were vivid and detailed. His research was thorough, and he effectively used indirect presentation to flesh out the characters, which behaved, thought, and spoke in keeping with the historical period. The character Murthin is an example of the artist-scientist archetype. He’s of noble birth, but forced by poverty to become a builder. Since little science and engineering was known in those days, Murthin had to excel as an engineer, an architect, and a physicist.

When faced with a problem, Murthin never failed to invent or create something that solves it. In particular, Murthin designed a bridge to replace one that failed. Murthin studied the problems with the old bridge, and came up with new technologies to solve them. Superstition and religion are at cross purposes with Murthin’s science and Murthin mirrors the medieval trend from church rule to secular rule.

 To the townspeople, Murthin’s methods are strange and untried, and Murthin is faced with constant efforts to thwart his plan. Murthin represents the science side of the science-religion debate. He is determined, logical, and tolerant of new ideas. He is so persistent, that the changes he wants to bring to the town seem inevitable, like the proverbial progress that is said to be unstoppable.

By refusing to work with mindless adherence to the past, Murthin represents the idea that knowledge isn’t finite, that all there is to know is not already known. For Murthin, knowledge as dynamic rather than static, and mere mortals are capable of moving knowledge forward. Murthin literally and figuratively builds, stone by stone, the foundation for the village’s inevitable crossing into an uncertain future.

Bibliography

Schema (psychology); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schema_(psychology)

Glossary of Literary Terms, Mayer Literature

http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/literature/bedlit/glossary_p.htm#top

 PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide – An Ongoing Project, Paul P. Reuben http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/append/AXG.HTML

Literary Archetypes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Literary_archetypes

Schema Theory: An Introduction, Sharon Alayne Widmayer, George Mason University, http://www2.yk.psu.edu/~jlg18/506/SchemaTheory.pdf

A Glossary of Literary Criticism http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/gloss.htm Anatomy of Literary Criticism, Frye, Northrop 1957.

http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/anacrit.htm

Follett, Ken, World Without End

 New York, Penguin Group. Moon, Brian, Literary Terms,

The NCTE Chalkface Series, 1999 Segal, Robert Alan; Jung, C. G. (1998). On mythology, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01736-0  

Too Cool Artist: The creative eye of lucybones

Browsing through Etsy on a dull post-Christmas morning, I came across lucybones.  (http://www.etsy.com/shop/lucybones).  Lucybones incorporates nature into the art in a unique way.  For instance, “Stem” is an original oil painting and photomicrograph on Hahnemuhle William Turner 310 gsm paper.  The subject of this piece is bamboo.

Stem by lucybones on Etsy

“Warmth” is another oil painting and photomicrograph.

Warmth by lucybones on Etsy

 The subject of “Warmth” is a silicone breast implant.  Lucybones draws on her appreciation of “the unseen world of minerals, plants, and animals” in her art.

Before Christmas, I was thinking about creativity and analogy.  I’ve read that very creative people are those who can think in analogies.  The Private Eye is an education program based on encouraging just such thinking. Creativity is fostered by looking at common objects through a jeweler’s loupe and asking questions like, “this reminds me of…” or “When I see this it makes me think of…”  When I see lucybones’s art, it makes me think she is a master of analogy, for it’s not just anyone who can find warmth and beauty in a silicone breast implant!

As artists, we should all make a New Year’s resolution  to look at the things around us with fresh eyes.

Symbols in Art

I’ve been reading Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, so I’ve been thinking lately of symbols.  I’ve also been reading Joseph Campbell on myths.  In the past, I’ve always thought verbally – analogies, parables, myths – all these are written symbols.  Words were the tools I tried to use to express myself. 

Never before did I realize how powerful visual symbols can be and how rewarding it can be to express oneself visually.  I found it to be a much different and profound expression.

That said, I don’t think I’ve quite got the hand of it yet.  Two nights ago, as I was immersed in The Lost Symbol, I decided to delve into my own experiment with symbology.  I found an image of a vintage-looking woman superimposed on the shadowy profile of a man.  You don’t have to be Isaac Newton to get that.  I glued that image in the center spot on my panel.  Then, I found a few more image of stereotypical damsels looking longingly for something they could not possess and affixed those around the central image.  I found an image of an audience and cut it into tiny pieces and scattered them around the whole piece — aren’t we always playing a role, us girls?

I added a few frilly images, and then affixed an image of Father Time.  It was a short leap from this to the brass clock charms for which I’d never figured out a place and glued three of them about the piece.  Who knew those little charms were biological clickers! 

The final piece was of chaos.  Perhaps I overdid.  My first festival is in a couple of days and I think I may have drained my creative well for the moment.  Still, I am reminded of an 8th grade English Class.  Mrs. Benningfield was teaching us about symbolism.  I wrote a story about a dog who had a special bone that he believed gave him special powers.  He carefully buried the bone so that he wouldn’t lose it.  He went about his life courageously, knowing that his powerful bone was in a safe place.  One day he went to dig the bone up, but it wasn’t there.  He had been courageous all on his own.  He didn’t need special powers.

Heavyhanded, yes.  But still a basically good message.  Hopefully I will develop more finesse with my visual images just as I gained a certain degree with my verbal symbology.  

May the force be with you.