Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
G. G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE
(On the forepage of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn)
If you are looking for comfort, if you are looking for consolation, if you want the meaning of life handed to you on a plate—don’t go to the arts. Whether it is for parents or children, or their interaction, the arts can disturb and should not avoid the difficult areas of life. But art is not to be feared, for it can also stretch the imagination—art is wonderfully elastic, and it can stir creativity. Art is a wonderful stirrer, and a stirrer of wonder.
I intend to consider art and its effect and value, looking particularly at literature, the art with which I am most engaged. I will refer to four children’s/adult texts that seem relevant—Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly, Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, and folk tales—a phrase I prefer to fairy tales, which sounds effete when in fact the tales are often knotty and tough. I shall consider the range of arts and the range of their practice particularly to children. And I shall conclude by returning to the value in art which we can all take—parents, children, citizens.
For a nonreligious parent or child, art can become an integral part of understanding the world and other people and of creating a meaning in life. Art is not a substitute for religion—no such thing is necessary. But it brings to us all the excitement and danger of being alive, the intensity and delight of love and human relationships, the lasting enhancement of beauty, and the perception of extraordinary wonder.
Art is not just challenging—it can be dangerous. Do not enter if you feel queasy. Kafka wrote in his diary of 1916, “If I am condemned, then I am not only condemned to die, but also condemned to struggle till I die.” The artist is then condemned to struggle, and to some extent the reader or observer may need to struggle, too. Potted biographies of artists are not much use, but an understanding of the Herculean struggle through which some artists go to hammer out their art is worth having. Humanism is a questing, questioning attitude to life, which may not always be easy.
Art is not a substitute for religion—no such thing is necessary. But it brings to us all the excitement and danger of being alive, the intensity and delight of love and human relationships, the lasting enhancement of beauty, and the perception of extraordinary wonder.
Humanism in the arts involves looking at communality, diversity, human sympathy, otherness, freedom, and truth.
We are essentially social animals; it is our place in the community that establishes us as living, feeling, thinking people. Some art is social in nature—joining with others to watch a play or a film, which gives a very different experience from watching television or a PlayStation on one’s own. Laughter together is a liberating force, and no harm if the laughter is subversive. Singing in a choir or playing in an orchestra or a band or group (both experiences I have had at some stage in my life) are social experiences that require intellectual discipline and deep feeling at the same time.
George Eliot, perhaps the greatest of all British 19th-century novelists, created a complete community in Middlemarch. There is a reality to that place and those people that compares with the complete reality of a Dutch painting. Within that town are people struggling: to change the medical establishment, to come to terms with their own dishonesty, to allow great idealism to clash with dry pedantry. Eliot was an agnostic, but one who believed deeply in human values, the power of good. In contrast, Mikhail Bulgakov, a Russian novelist of the first half of the 20th century who fought against repression and censorship, portrayed in The White Guard a city in disarray, with civil disorder in the face of the Bolsheviks. But Bulgakov has the long perspective of the artist: “Everything passes away—suffering, pain, blood, hunger and pestilence.”
These literary masters create worlds in which human values, ambitions, loyalties, and longings compete—worlds that may then be compared quite meaningfully to our own place and time. In this way, literature can serve much the same purpose for secular audiences as scriptural tales do for the religious, providing narratives upon which we reflect and against which we view our own lives and choices.
Equally important to art are the more individual qualities of universal sympathy and human diversity. If we cannot enlarge our understanding by the scrutiny of others—depicted on screen or canvas, on printed page or raised platform—there is a failure of communication. It is the “otherness” of the world around that is so important. We are easily immersed in ourselves, and this leads to a diminishment of our identity. To be aware of the other—the other people, the other places, the other events—is a creative act. It enhances a sense of awe at the world and, indeed, the universe.
Human diversity is seen abundantly in the texts we will shortly consider. Huck’s friendship with the black Jim in Huckleberry Finn, and the two gay angels in the trilogy His Dark Materials by Pullman illustrate the need for children and adults to accept the variety of the human race. Attempts to stifle this are found in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, where the persecution of supposed witches represents the unacceptability of those who are different and the hysteria in response to threats. Miller wrote of that play, “The tranquility of the bad man lies at the heart not only of moral philosophy but dramaturgy as well.”1 Art does not propose moral answers but does offer moral issues for our consideration.
Art cannot be cheery—it must face the depths. Consider, for instance, the brilliant If This Is a Man, in which Italian author Primo Levi gives an account of his experiences in a World War II concentration camp. He has to tell the truth of his awful experience. If parents can face this, so can their children at some stage in their development.
This seems a long way from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but growth and development are characteristics of the three central characters in the three texts I shall look at. Huck, who is certainly not of a good background (his father’s a drunk), through his travels along the river, through the types that he meets, through his friendship with the “nigger” Jim, develops an awareness of people and the process of living that he had not had at the beginning. The fact that Jim is described as a “nigger”—now a taboo word, but used regularly at the period of the novel—does not signal a derogatory attitude, for Jim is of pure gold, and when Huck thinks Jim has disappeared “he set down and cried.” Weaver, the black youth in A Gathering Light, living 50 years later, is outraged by being called a “nigger.” Thus, we see the development of language and understanding. And language is important to all the texts, Twain being particularly good at expressing the vernacular and Mattie in A Gathering Light being a person to whom words are life.
Although Twain wants no moral to his story, he is excellent at portraying the ethical ambivalence Huck inhabits, especially when he decides to help Jim escape from slavery. It is worth remembering that Huckleberry Finn was regarded as a subversive book in its day. Pullman’s trilogy has likewise caused controversy, particularly in the opposition to religion. The river that is Huck’s highway has a largeness and a power that we hold in awe. And Huck and Jim, when they lie looking at the stars, discuss whether they are made or “just happened.”
A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly is a remarkable recent novel set at the beginning of the 20th century in a subsistence farming community in New York State. The central character is Mattie, who plays with words and wants to be a writer. A teacher encourages her and tells her that books are dangerous. We need to focus on the fact that art is dangerous. The teacher is herself a poet who has fallen foul of the Comstock Act (which was aimed at suppressing “obscene literature”) and faced censorship. (I am reminded of a recent report of the banning of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang in a North Carolina school, under pressure from conservative Christian groups.) Parents, let your children explore—and especially explore words.
Like Huck, Mattie has an important interracial friendship. Hers is with Weaver, who, like Mattie, wants a college education. She asks him, “Why aren’t people plain and uncomplicated? Why don’t they do what you expect them to do, like characters in a novel?” The best novels are not like that. Mattie is unexpected in many ways: her falling in love with a simple would-be farmer, her toughness in seeing her family through illness, her choice of a new word every day from a dictionary, her loyalty to the poor in the community. Rightly, because novels should leave questions, not answer them, we do not know for sure what success she will have.
Northern Lights, the first of Pullman’s trilogy, is an “other world” novel where all the characters have demons attached to them for support and where the enemy is the church; at the end of this volume there is the hope of the end of centuries of darkness. Lyra, the central character, is resourceful, imaginative, and determined.* One of the novel’s strengths is the great diversity of characters. In a later volume, there is a couple of gay angels of great charm. Just as Huck is aware of the power of the river, so Lyra, when looking at the Aurora, the northern lights, feels “it was so beautiful it was almost holy.”
Folk tales are often told to young children, but they have resonance for parents as well. Tales such as The Arabian Nights have a richness and wonder, delineating the magic and unexpected in life and reminding us of the richness of Islamic culture. Grimm’s tales are much darker, including children who might be shoved into an oven and eaten, the threat of being boiled to death by a witch, the loss of sight when jumping from a tower into thorns. Freud and his disciples had a field day with these tales. Some say they are too grim for children—but children do have dark fantasies and dreams, and it helps them to accept them, or make sense of them, to have them read to them in a controlled way. And the darkness is often followed by an ingenious rescue. Angela Carter, the novelist and storyteller, has praised Perrault, the French fairy story writer, for his “consummate craftsmanship and his good-natured cynicism. . . . From the work of this humane, tolerant and kind-hearted Frenchman, children can learn enlightened self-interest . . . and gain much pleasure besides.”2
Other arts are equally important. Music, theater, film, and other visual arts are all valuable for young and old alike. There have been increasing attempts at outreach by professional artists into schools and community groups. As an example, a group of difficult adolescent youths were taken for some weeks dancing—creating a dance drama. They went back to class completely transformed and ready to learn. Journalist Will Hutton has pointed out that “today’s society does not equip boys with the emotional intelligence to come to terms with their feelings.”3 Schools and families can be harsh and lacking in understanding. They need more democracy and participation and listening—and more artistic activity. Music, for example, teaches self-discipline, working together with others, perseverance, cooperation—and gives great rewards. Why, then, has musical education declined? The state should encourage arts in schools and homes, partly because it pays off in producing balanced, imaginative citizens, and partly because it leads to fulfilled individuals.
Schools and families can be harsh and lacking in understanding. They need more democracy and participation and listening—and more artistic activity.
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.4
Danger is important to life and to art, as we have seen. There is the need to leap into the arts as well as into life.
I finish with Thoreau on the value of knowledge and the arts and sciences—and then ultimately the value of not knowing.
Men say they know many things;
But lo! They have taken wings—
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that anybody knows.5
JIM HERRICK worked for 30 years in the humanist movement in the United Kingdom. He is former editor of New Humanist and International Humanist. His writings include Vision and Realism: A Hundred Years of The Freethinker; Against the Faith: Some Deists, Skeptics and Atheists; and Humanism: An Introduction. He is a cofounder of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association and has written theater reviews regularly for various journals. Now retired, Jim writes, gardens, and plays the oboe.
Dawkins, Richard. The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. Free Press, 2011. A brilliant and accessible introduction to what we know about the universe around us and how we came to know it. Built around the real, hard-won answers to 12 big questions. Hardcover edition (2011) includes illustrations; 2012 paperback is text only. Ages twelve and up.
Harris, Annaka. I Wonder. Four Elephants Press, 2013. A tribute to curiosity by the cofounder (with husband Sam Harris) of Project Reason, this lovely book reinforces the simple virtue of wondering. Preschool and up.
Stock, Gregory. The Kids’ Book of Questions. Workman, 2015. A kids’ version of the classic Book of Questions for adults, this is a collection of more than 200 open-ended questions to get kids to articulate their own values and preferences: “If you could change one thing about your parents, what would it be?” “If you knew you wouldn’t get caught, would you cheat by copying answers on a test?” Several are great conversation-starters for religious questioning: “Of all the things you’ve heard about God and religion, what do you think is true and what do you think is just a story?” “Do you believe in God? If not, why do you think so many people do?” Ages eight–eighteen.
Law, Stephen. The Complete Philosophy Files. Orion, 2011. An excellent introduction to philosophical questions in engaging dialogic form.
Clayton, John C. Alexander Fox and the Amazing Mind Reader. Prometheus, 1998. A con man calling himself Mr. Mystikos has come to town, telling fortunes, reading minds, knowing things he couldn’t possibly know about the people of the town—and parting the gullible townsfolk from their cash. Young Alexander Fox is plenty impressed at first—until he starts thinking carefully. A terrific illustration of the power of skepticism. For years after reading it, you’re kids will turn to you every time they see a faith healer or other huckster on TV and say, “It’s Mr. Mystikos!” Ages six–ten.
Law, Stephen. The War for Children’s Minds. Routledge, 2006. In this powerful book that has been called “a defense of the philosophically liberal life,” Stephen Law calls for a rejection both of right-wing demands for a return to authoritarian religious morality and postmodern relativism. He advocates instead that children be educated in ethics based in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. For adults.
• Smarter Every Day—An engineer puts himself through every imaginable kind of experiment. Search for a special favorite of mine: The Backwards Brain Bicycle.
• ASAP Science—Obsessively watchable white board videos about basic (and not so basic) questions in science.
• Minute Physics—More brilliant whiteboard videos, this time on more serious questions, like whether you can outrun a fart, what happens when you die—that kind of thing.
• Vsauce—There’s just no describing it. Fun, fascinating, awesomely edited videos on such questions as, “Will we ever run out of new music?”; “Is your red the same as my red?”; and “What if everyone jumped at once?”
• Kurzgesagt/In a Nutshell—Complex ideas explained amazingly well with great animations and voice-over.
• Captain Disillusion—A quick, smart, fun debunking of all kinds of visual trickery, from faked videos and photos to magic tricks and other phenomena.
• The Kid Should See This (http://thekidshouldseethis.com/)—Rion Nakaya is not a content creator but a brilliant search-and-collector of the best videos on the web “for curious minds of all ages.” Her mantra, “We don’t underestimate kids around here,” captures it perfectly: Instead of the usual dumbed-down, condescending content intended for children, most of the 2,400-plus videos curated on the site were “not made for kids, but perfect for them.” Trust me, this one is a gem.
* See Shannon and Matthew Cherry, “Doule Vision: Teaching Our Twins Pride and Respect,” in chapter 4 for another appearance of Lyra.