Monthly Archives: February 2015

What do we really know after all?

Charley has just begun to plot her next adventure, a journey forward from Leonardo’s time to a period where the world was unevenly wakening to what it means to be fully alive, fully human. In the early to mid-17s, most of humanity (at least in the Western world) was still firmly in the grips of the Inquisition, superstition. This was pre-Revolutionary America or France, where the Rights of Man (but not Woman) had yet to be enunciated.

But hope and change were in the air.  The thrill of examining another moment in time where brilliance and genius could bubble up, where scientific thought,  and debate were leading us to new innovations that would help define our own post-modern world, is about to draw our girl Charley back into adventure like a moth drawn into flame.

As we start to look at the time of Voltaire, Diderot and the kings of Divine Right in France, there is another pioneer and “brainiac” of the period whose flame has been dimmed by history because–gasp–she is a woman. If Charley has any say about it, la Marquise Emilie du Chatelet is about to get her due.

Meanwhile, a look at the satirical brilliance of Voltaire, Emilie’s consort and intellectual partner, from a modern musical theater performance adapted from his novel, Candide, ou l’Optimist, from a 2011 blog post on my Pass the Talking Stick blog.

What do we really know, after all?

I went to see Candide last night – a musical opera based on Voltaire’s famous satirical novel (“All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”) set to Leonard Bernstein’s music. It was a fabulous production by The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Bernstein decided to undertake the adaptation in 1953 upon the advice of his friend, playwright Lillian Hellman. At the time, Hellman was one of many artists, scientists and intellectuals under investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, the noted McCarthy hearings against alleged Communists. Hellman was one of many artist victims of this modern day witch hunt. Voltaire’s 1758 satire of the institutions that held enormous sway over public opinion in his time – from the Catholic Church to the emperors, from physicians to philosophers – were intent on trying to impose their dogma, and control on the public. Even when the facts didn’t line up with teachings – the inconvenience of the Inquisition being a notable breach of Christian spirit, for example – it was all for the best!In a contemporary parallel, some politicians of our day insist that our country’s Founders had God and right on their side in the original framing of the U.S. Constitution — and that they are the special people who can read he Founders intentions correctly and prune our laws of anything that the framers and their successors didn’t really intend, except those parts that don’t suit their current ideology. No hypocrisy there!

As the French themselves are fond of saying, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
What struck me about the “philosophy” behind Voltaire’s mocking words was how the best knowledge of his day had much of the science wrong. The best medicine then promoted bleeding (leeches) to cure disease, the auto-da-fe to “purify” religion, and Optimism as a philosophical explanation for every Job-like tragedy that befell the world and poor Candide, including earthquake, war, plague. What do we “know” today that will lead the scientists and philosophers 300 years from now to conclude that our best practices are equally misinformed?

It would seem that skepticism – questioning what is generally accepted as fact – is actually a healthy approach to counter the conventional wisdom. Candide’s teacher, Professor Pangloss, tenaciously holds to his optimistic philosophy (“All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”) despite suffering these personal trials and tribulations: war, poverty, beatings, earthquakes, Auto-da-fe (the Inquisition’s infamous public heretics “trials” which inevitably ended up in conviction and public execution), hanging and, finally, destitution. Equally, today, we might be skeptical of the absolutists who claim to “know” what is best for our country, for our children and for our future.

Fortunately, technology, communication, transportation and a healthy public debate in our democracy promote ever greater tools to engage in public skepticism. Through the Internet, television, social media, ever-more transparent government and the free press, Americans now have more power than ever to question, debate, learn and challenge the status quo.

Still, it is tempting to stay out of the debate and “cultivate one’s garden”, as Candide concludes at the bitter end of his story. By this time, Candide’s one true love, the Lady Cunegonde, has lost her station, her beauty, her youth and her wealth. To engage in the conversation – to challenge conventional wisdom publicly – may leave one subject to ridicule or worse. But, as in Voltaire’s time, satire can be a biting tool that, on the face of it, seems to endorse the authorities whose knowledge is “beyond question” while mocking their hypocrisy.

A musical highlight of Candide is the lovely Cunegonde’s famous comic soliloquy, “Glitter and Be Gay”, lamenting that a lady of high nobility stripped of her title, wealth and family should become the sexual object for everyone from Catholic Cardinals, to the City of Lisbon’s wealthiest and most influential men in exchange for baubles and expensive clothes. True to the teachings of Professor Pangloss even in the most horrific circumstances, Cunegonde searches for the best in the situation.

 The aria is here performed by the incomparably gifted actress Kristen Chenoweth. Her high E-flat is a Wicked feat!

Quiet…Teens Writing

350px-SantaCruz-CuevaManos-P2210651b

Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands) in the Santa Cruz province in Argentina

Telling stories is timeless, though the ways we do it have changed. I imagine the original storytellers speaking to tribe, family, friends under a million stars twinkling in the night sky. These ancient stories were as evanescent as the flames of the fire that warmed the gathered listeners, except for the tradition of oral transmission: parent to child to grandchild across generations.

The oral tradition survives today, but heiroglyphics, the alphabet, and writing gave those who had the power to create words and pictures a way to have their stories preserved forever–or at least until the next technological advance removed the storyteller’s advantage. Coal and chalk giving way to chisel, quill and ink giving way Gutenberg’s press, reel-to-reel tape recorders, television and, finally, our digital age giving way to an ever-evolving array of apps, platforms and tools.

Teens Write

But the constant, despite ever-evolving recording technologies, is the storytellers voice. So it was nice, in our soundbite and social media-dominated era, to engage with a group of teens learning and practicing the writer’s craft.

YA author Carolee Noury facilitated the group, offering a creative way to invite the group to think about perspective, setting and scene as key elements in constructing narratives. Setting out a diorama of seemingly random objects on a table that everyone could examine at length, the writers then picked out “mood rings” – small scraps of paper with the names of an emotion or mood on them cut out and formed into a link on which she had pre-prepared. The moods ranged from joyous to cranky. The challenge: to create a story that integrated this setting according to your mood.

After seven minutes of time in which everyone got down to the business of writing, teens were invited to read their stories. Some read aloud. Others, maybe too shy to share, passed. But all seemed intent on recording their stories.

As these teen writers grow in craft and confidence, I will be curious to see where their writing leads them. In another teen writing group, led by writer Mark Willen, one young writer has already published her first book, surely an amazing accomplishment.

Can We Hear You Now?

I came away inspired: we need to hear these voices.

I am now thinking about leading a writing group myself. Wondering if there are any young and aspiring writers out there who might offer their advice: What are the best ways to encourage, engage teens to share their stories with us?