Category Archives: Literature

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!

What’s Worth More — the Story or the Merchandise?

Pen and inkAs I toil away on the second draft of my novel, Out of Time, thinking of the time, care, creative energy and effort I have put forth on this epic adventure, beginning with the seed of a story in 1997 through the prodigious output resulting in today’s (2014) screenplay-novel-tweet storytelling, Web-based learning platform, I wonder what it’s all worth. Not in the sense of the value in my life to serve this purpose of Creator-in-Chief of Charley’s adventures in Leonardo’s World, but in the marketplace.

As I learn more about the publishing industry today, and how much of the take on book sales flows back to authors–and compare that to the perceived benefits of self-publishing where, once the initial investment in the print process is recouped, 100 percent of the returns go to the author, the results even for bestselling authors look discouraging. For a $14.95 paperback, the author receives–wait for it–95 cents a book. Not much of an ROI, is it? How does anyone with less of a runaway success than Harry Potter ever hope to earn a respectable living.

Then there’s this: today’s Washington Post runs a story on this season’s Christmas must-haves for all little girls: the Princesses Elsa and Anna dolls from the Disney movie “Frozen.” These mass-produced molded dolls retail for $75.99 and $49.99, respectively, outfits sold separately.

By my reckoning, that’s $125.00 for dolls that will be left in the dust as soon as the NEXT BIG THING hits the shelves. Granted, the doll merch grows out of storytelling–and there’s nothing to say that a Charley superhero action figure couldn’t hit the shelves in a big way. But the marketplace again rewards the stuff and not the value that a book, a movie, a story can confer to nurture a child’s lifelong growth.

Barbie dollsBecause, honestly, I remember getting my first Barbie doll at my fifth birthday party at The Pee Wee Valley amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio. After riding the rides, and having cake and milk at the picnic tables, it was that Barbie, with her frozen expression and her stiffly moving limbs and neck, that captured my attention for the rest of the party. This doll, and the Ken doll I later got (along with a Barbie wedding dress–in those days, my mom wanted to ensure Barbie would be married before she could play with Ken!) were the phenom du jour.  A certain amount of role-playing and rehearsal for growing up went along with these teenaged dolls of ridiculous proportions. But in the end, Barbie lost her hair in a swimming accident in the bathroom sink, her wardrobe in a garage sale, and her Dream House to the little girl down the street.

The Secret Garden, Fances Hodgson Burnett's classic

The Secret Garden, Fances Hodgson Burnett’s classic

But it is within the pages of kid and teen lit that I remember finding myself. A Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie…and later, Gone with the Wind, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, To Kill a Mockingbird–these were stories where I could identify aspects of myself, engage in pretend, and take on the problems of the world within a safe context as rehearsal for who I wanted to become.

But maybe I wasn’t the ordinary kid. I was more interested in creating worlds than living through someone else’s version.

I think every child has the creative capacity to become who they are meant to be, if only we know how to nurture, provoke, engage and further that superpower. Which is the genesis for all things Out of Time.

As an author, this is my 95 cents worth. Though I am hoping it is actually worth more to the children with the power to become. Impossible dream?

I like to think not. Let me know what you think.