City Symphonies Reg Hartt’s Cineforum
by Will Sloan February 28, 2012
Cities are alive. And a city’s constituent parts often say something about the whole. City Symphonies are short, personal essays about the neatest, weirdest, or otherwise definitive corners of Toronto.
The scariest part of visiting the Cineforum is just making it through the door. I have been to Reg Hartt’s living-room movie theatre at 463 Bathurst maybe two dozen times, but still feel trepidation walking up those front steps with “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” written in Greek scrawled on them.
(Actually the sign in Greek at the top below the arch says, “Be aware all you who enter here.” An unaware person is already damned. The steps clearly do not have “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” on them.–Reg)
I know I’m not alone. We’ve all see those ubiquitous posters for screenings of Triumph Of The Will and spoken-word events with titles like “The Night They Raided Rochdale College,” and heard tales of impatient audience members being thrown out in the middle of pre-screening “lectures”—but, even among cinephiles, I know hardly anyone who has been more than once, if at all. Now that Reg Hartt is back in the news after closing the Cineforum for the third time in four years, then quickly reopening it, it’s time to reconsider one of the most whispered-about but least-appreciated Toronto film venues.
Even more than his unusual venue, Hartt himself seems to unnerve people. He’s an eccentric. I remember my first visit, on my 14th birthday, to see a selection of early Charlie Chaplin shorts. Hartt’s introduction, about how the education system brainwashes us into conformists, ran almost as long as the combined films. (Chaplin’s genius, you see, came from the London streets, not from schools.) One of Hartt’s most unusual offerings is “What I Learned From LSD,” his two-hour video lecture about his life—a tangled and difficult-to-follow web involving God, sex, cinema, Rochdale College, and, yes, LSD (not necessarily in that, or any, order). It’s like every one of Hartt’s lectures rolled into one wild package.
So maybe Hartt’s lectures aren’t your cup of tea. Fair enough. But if you ignore the Cineforum, then you ignore some of the strangest and most interesting film programming this city has to offer. You miss rare public screenings of oddities like Cocksucker Blues, Behind The Green Door, El Topo, and King Kong Vs. Godzilla. You miss Hartt’s programs of uncensored cartoons from the ’30s and ’40s, featuring the violent, sexual, and racist exploits of your favourite rabbits, ducks, and sailors. (Perhaps you’ve already seen Bugs Bunny in blackface on YouTube, but how about Eveready Harton In “Buried Treasure,” a genuine obscenity about a horny little man with a giant, removable erection?) You miss the curious experience of a film screening in a man’s living room. It is one thing to see films by Fritz Lang, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luis Bunuel, and Salvador Dali in the comfort of a museum; it’s another to see them in an environment that makes them feel subversive again.
What I like about Hartt, and what I believe makes him a valuable figure, is his belief in cinema as a living, breathing thing—something to be enjoyed and argued about, not genuflected-at, or framed on a wall and revered at a respectful distance. In his presentations, he attempts to refute the conventional wisdom that films like Birth Of A Nation, The Battleship Potemkin, and The Phantom Of The Opera are better appreciated as historical artifacts than entertainments. To see “Kid Dracula,” his show that pairs F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) with Radiohead to surprisingly effective results, is to be reminded that the classics were made for the raw public before they were made for cinema studies syllabi.
For years, Hartt has been able to operate the Cineforum out of his home on the (thin) pretense that it was either a club (show up the first time and receive a lifetime membership) or a meeting of a friends (show up the first time and make a new friend in Hartt). In recent years, the Cineforum has teetered on the brink of extinction a few times, most recently when the city threatened closure for bylaw violations.
But someone intervened—reportedly Mayor Ford himself—and now the red-neon “Cineforum” sign is lit anew (and Hartt has become an unlikely but adamant Ford supporter). And, of course, there was last week’s flap, part of Hartt’s long-running feud with rival poster distributor Jamie Gillis, perhaps the first time that Reg has been successfully out-crazied. (All of the complaints against The Cineforum were authored by Gillis.–Reg).
For most, the closure of this Toronto institution would be little more than a footnote. I think we take the Cineforum for granted. In 2008, when I interviewed Hartt for a profile in The Varsity, he said, “When people come out and pay their money to see a film, they’ve come to be astonished, and when you’re in a classroom, you’re not sitting there to be astonished. It’s a whole attitude of superiority to what you’re seeing… Usually, students especially miss the mark on them, largely the fault of their teachers, who bring a great weight to this work that was never there in the first place.” The relentlessness of Hartt’s attacks on the education system can be wearying, but I wonder if he might be on to something. On a visceral level, I have rarely felt a film’s greatness in a classroom, but I have often felt it at the Cineforum.
I am far from the only person saying what I say. Andre Gide, a French writer, said, “Everything that needs to be said has been said but there is no harm in saying it again as no one listens.”
Actually, more than a few who have heard me have listened.
REBORN AS LIGHT
“It is good taste not bad taste which is the enemy.”-Salvador Dali.
“The function of the artist is to disturb. His duty is to arouse the sleeper, to shake the complacent pillars of the world. He reminds the world of its dark ancestry, and shows the world its present and points the way to its new birth. He is at once the product and preceptor of his times.”-Norman Bethune.
A person who sees them self as Bethune calls us to be would be like an Old Testament prophet.
“You have no need that any man should teach you.”-1 John 2:27.
“Film students should stay as far away from film schools and film teachers as possible. The only school for the cinema is the cinema.”-Bernardo Bertolucci.
“Admit, assume, because, believe, could, doubt, end, expect, faith,
forget, forgive, guilt, how, it, mercy, pest, promise, should, sorry,
storm, them, us, waste, we, weed-neither these words nor the
conceptions for which they stand appear in this book; they are the
whiteman’s import to the New World, the newcomer’s contribution to the
vocabulary of the man he called Indian. Truly, the parent Indian
families possessed neither these terms nor their equivalents.”
–Ruth Beebe Hill, HANTA YO.
Imagine growing up in a world where the words admit, assume, because, believe, could, doubt, end, expect, faith,
forget, forgive, guilt, how, it, mercy, pest, promise, should, sorry, storm, them, us, waste, we, weed because the concepts for which they stand were not a part of that world. Imagine how strong you would be inside. These concepts are rust on the self.
“He who without the Muse’s madness in his soul comes knocking at the
door of poesy and thinks that art will make him anything fit to be
called a poet, finds that the poetry which he indites in his sober
senses is beaten hollow by the poetry of madmen.”-Plato.
Salvador Dali was kicked out of art school. His teachers told him he
had no talent and that he was a bad influence on his classmates. Dali
was lucky. At that moment in his life the one thing he most wanted
hung between the legs of his friend Federico Garcia Lorca. When Lorca
left Spain for Paris Dali, a dog following a bitch in heat, trailed
after. Never underestimate the importance of sexual attraction. It is
that pillar of fire which leads us by night; the pillar of smoke which
leads us by day.
“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of
instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry;
for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly
in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without
fail. It is a very great mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing
and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of
duty.”–Albert Einstein (whose teachers thought him retarded).
“My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be
teaching, but prevented me from being educated to an extent which
infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by myself.”–George Bernard Shaw.
“Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by
“School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the
result of teaching. And institutional wisdom continues to accept this
axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”–Ivan Illich.
“We get three educations. The first is from our parents; the second is
from our schoolmasters. The third is from life. The last makes liars
of the first two.”–Montesquieu.
“I had wonderful teachers in the first and second grades who taught me
everything I know. After that, I’m afraid, the teachers were nice, but
they were dopes…I have a lack of ideology, and not because I have an
animus against any particular ideology; it’s just that they don’t make
sense to me…they get in the way of thinking. I don’t see what use they
are…University and uniformity, as ideals, have subtly influenced how
people thought about education, politics, economics, government,
everything…We are misled by universities and other intellectual
institutions to believe that there are separate fields of knowledge.
But it’s clear there are no separate fields of knowledge. It is a
-Jane Jacobs whose books, from her first, THE DEATH AND
LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN CITIES to her last, DARK AGE AHEAD, are
must reading. DARK AGE AHEAD is a warning being ignored. Kurt Vonnegut expressed the same message before his death.
“To outrage public opinion was a basic principle of dada…The devising
and raising of public hell was an essential function of any dadaist
movement, whether its goal was pro-art, non-art, or anti-art. And when
the public, like insects or bacteria, had developed immunity to one
kind of poison, we had to think of another.”
-Hans Richter, THE DADAIST MANIFESTO.
Riots at the last great Dadaist evening led to the public banning of
the movement in Paris. From the ashes of Dada rose the phoenix of
From AN OPEN LETTER TO SURREALISTS EVERYWHERE by Henry Miller:
“Below the belt all men are brothers. Man has never known solitude except in
the upper regions where one is either a poet or a madman-or a criminal…
The brotherhood of man is a permanent delusion common to idealists
everywhere in all epochs; it is the reduction of the principle of
individualation to the least common denominator of intelligibility. It
is what leads the masses to identify with movie stars and
megalomaniacs like Hitler and Mussolini…In every age, just as in every
life worthy of the name, there is the effort to reestablish that
equilibrium which is disturbed by the power and tyranny which a few
great individuals exercise over us. This struggle is fundamentally
personal and religious. It has nothing to do with liberty and justice,
which are idle words signifying nobody knows precisely what…It
consists not in denying these exemplars (of the past), but in
absorbing them, and eventually surpassing them. Each man has to do
this for himself….It is forgotten that the glorious Greeks, whom we
never cease admiring, treated their men of genius more shamefully,
more cruelly perhaps than any other people we know of. It is forgotten
that the mystery which attaches itself to Shakespeare’s life is a
mystery only because the English do not wish to admit that Shakespeare
was driven mad by the stupidity, non-understanding and intolerance of
his countrymen, that he finished his days in a mad-house.
“Life is either a feast or a famine…Right now it is pretty much of a
famine…The famine we are living through is a peculiar one in that it
occurs in the midst of plenty. It is more of a spiritual famine than a
physical one. People are not fighting for bread this time, but for a
right to their piece of bread which is a distinction of some
importance, Bread, figuratively speaking, is everywhere, but most of
us are hungry. Shall I say-especially the poets? I ask because it is
the tradition of poets to starve. It is a little strange therefore to
find them identifying their physical hunger with the spiritual hunger
of the masses. Or is it vice versa? Anyway, now we are all starving,
except the rich, to be sure, and the smug bourgeoisie who have never
known what it is to starve, either spiritually or physically.
“Originally men killed one another in the direct pursuit of booty-
food, weapons, implements, women, and so on. There was a sense to it.
Now we have become sympathetic and charitable and brotherly, but we go
on killing just the same, and we kill without the least hope of
attaining our ends. We kill one another for the benefit of those to
come, that they may enjoy a life more abundant (the hell we do).
“…When at last each man realizes that nothing is to be expected from
God, or society, or friends, or benevolent tyrants, or democratic
governments, or saints, or saviours, or even that holiest of holies,
education, when each man realizes that he must work with his own hands
to save himself, and that we need expect no mercy, perhaps then…
Perhaps! Even then, seeing what manner of men we are, I doubt. The
point is that we are doomed…No God is coming to save us. No system of
government, no belief will provide us with that liberty and justice
which men whistle for with the death-rattle….What distinguishes the
majority of men from the few is their inability to act according to
their beliefs. The hero is he who raises himself above the crowd…To
get men to rally round a cause, a belief, an idea, is always easier
that to persuade them to live their own lives.
“The role the artist plays in society is to revive the primitive,
anarchic instincts which have been sacrificed for the illusion of
living in comfort…
‘”I came not to bring peace, but a sword!’ said the great
humanitarian. That is not the utterance of a militarist, nor is it the
utterance of a pacifist; it is the utterance of one of the greatest
artists who ever lived. If his words mean anything they mean that the
struggle for life, for more life, must be carried on day by day. It
means that life itself is struggle, perpetual struggle. This sounds
almost banal, and in fact it has become banal, thanks to the frog-like
perspective of Darwin…
“For my part, I will say that whatever else I may want, I know I don’t
want work. To live as an artist I stopped work some ten or twelve
years ago…Naturally I was not paid to stop work and live as an artist…
if one chooses to live his life in his own way he must pay the penalty…
I need no leader and no god. I am my own leader and my own god. I make
my own bibles. I believe in myself-that is my whole credo.
“…My books are banned in the only countries where I can be read in my
own tongue. I have enough faith in myself however to know that I will
eventually make myself heard, if not understood. Everything I write is
loaded with dynamite which will one day destroy the barriers erected
“…I am against revolutions because they always involve a return to the
status quo both before and after the revolutions. I don’t want to wear
a black shirt or a red shirt. I want to wear the shirt to suit my
taste…Fuck your capitalistic society! Fuck your Communistic society
and your Fascist society and all other societies! Society is made up
of individuals. It is the individual who interest me-not the society.
“…Freud created a fiction which helped him pass the time away…
“So long as (man) cannot operate as a savage or less than a savage,
and think as a god, or better than god, he will suffer…A man who is
full of God is outside of faith…When a man is truly creative he works
single-handed and he wants no help. A man acting alone, on faith, can
accomplish what trained armies are incapable of doing. To believe in
one’s self, in one’s own powers, is apparently the most difficult
thing in the world…Whenever an English artist of any value has arisen
he has been marked as Public Enemy No. 1.”
This is just a brief excerpt. The complete text can be found in THE COSMOLOGICAL EYE by Henry Miller).
The history of the human race has always been, that the theorists
(priests) of one generation collect examples and make rules out of
them from the lives of the preceding generation, which did not know it
was making rules.
“So we shall let the reader answer the question for himself, ‘Who is the happier man? He who has braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on the shore and merely existed?”
– Hunter S. Thompson (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS) in his high school year book at 17.
“The child sees more clearly than the adult (who has already decided what he will and will not see).”–William S. Burroughs.
This is why Jesus teaches that we must become as a child before we can see the Kingdom of God. To be born again does not mean that we become censors of others and of ourselves. What child ever censored its thoughts?
“We have the seed of God in us,” writes Meister Eckhart, “Pear seeds grow pear trees. Hazel seeds grow hazel trees. God seeds grow God.”
We live in a war based economy. For people to have jobs we need wars.
The invisible war on terror is the perfect war.
In his book FOUR ARGUMENTS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF TELEVISION Jerry Mander writes, “In
retrospect we can see what should have been obvious all along. The Great Depression of the 1930′s never ended. It went underground, covered over by a war which created jobs and expanded industrial capacity, and then, when the war was over, by an advertising fantasy, a pipe dream sold to us with a purpose.”
From ON LIBERTY by John Stuart Mill…
“The initiation of all wise or noble things comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual. The honor and glory of the average man is that he is capable of following that initiative; that he can respond
to wise and noble things: I am not countenancing the sort of ‘hero worship’ which applauds the strong man of genius for forcibly seizing on the government and making it do his bidding in spite of itself. All he can claim is freedom to point the way. The power of compelling others into it is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of the rest, but corrupting to the strong man himself. It does seem, however, that when the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power, that the counterpoint and corrective to that tendency would be the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought. It is in these circumstances most especially, that exceptional individuals, instead of being deterred, should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass. In other times there was no advantage in doing so, unless they acted not only differently but better. In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.
“Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.”
“Any fool can make a law. Every fool will keep it.”-Henry David
“Property is theft.”-Pierre Joseph Proudhon.
“The reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which
protect it, is the want of self-reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes
in ON SELF-RELIANCE, “Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift
you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole
life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you only have
an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none
but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can,
till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have
taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed
Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is
unique. The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part he could not
borrow. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do
that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too
“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather
immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must
explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity
of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the
suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I
was prompted to make to a valued advisor who was wont to importune me
with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, ‘What do I
have with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?’
my friend suggested, ‘–But these impulses may be from below, not from
above,’ I replied. ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the
Devil’s child, I will then live as one from the Devil.’ No law can be
sacred to me but that of my own nature. Good and bad are but names
transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my
constitution; the only wrong what is against it…I am ashamed to think
how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and
PROVERBS FROM HELL, William Blake.
Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without
improvements are the paths of genius.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than
What is now proved was once only imagined.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with is own wings.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
I never saw a wild thing feel sorry for itself.
The small bird will drop frozen dead from the bough of the trees
without ever once having felt sorry for itself.
–D. H. Lawrence.
Until One Is Committed
Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
–W. H. Murray, THE SCOTTISH HIMALYAN EXPEDITION.
For the young who want to
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.
The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms
is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
–Marge Piercy (1936-)
Copyright 1982 Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy
Alfred A. Knopf. Notes M.F.A.’s: Master of Fine Arts degrees.
phlogiston: invisible hypothetical matter or `principle’ thought to
combine with all combustible bodies and be expelled during burning –
a concept popular in the 18th century but abandoned once oxygen was
“Writing is a gift. It can not be taught. All I could do by teaching
it is destroy the gift in myself and damage it in those I would be
teaching.”-CATCHER IN THE RYE author J. D. Salinger after turning down
millions of dollars to teach writing at Yale or Harvard.
“It’s all a matter of getting out of the way of yourself, or you’re
dead. Standing out of the way and letting what you really know take
over.”-William S. Burroughs, author of NAKED LUNCH.
CRAZY JANE TALKS WITH THE BISHOP
I met the Bishop on the road And much said he and I.
“Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon run dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul pigsty.”
“Fair and foul and near of kin,
And fair needs foul,” I cried,
“My friends are gone, but that’s the truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.
“A woman can be proud and stiff
when on love intent;
But love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not first been rent!”
-William Butler Yeats.
How public education cripples our kids, and why
By John Taylor Gatto
I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan,
and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in
boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the
kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the
same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense,
that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something
real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know
much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning
more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored
as they were.
Boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who has
spent time in a teachers’ lounge can vouch for the low energy, the
whining, the dispirited attitudes, to be found there. When asked why
they feel bored, the teachers tend to blame the kids, as you might
expect. Who wouldn’t get bored teaching students who are rude and
interested only in grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are
themselves products of the same twelve-year compulsory school programs
that so thoroughly bore their students, and as school personnel they
are trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed upon
the children. Who, then, is to blame?
We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was
seven I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the
head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence
again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The
obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and
people who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if
possible. Certainly not to be trusted. That episode cured me of
boredom forever, and here and there over the years I was able to pass
on the lesson to some remarkable student. For the most part, however,
I found it futile to challenge the official notion that boredom and
childishness were the natural state of affairs in the classroom. Often
I had to defy custom, and even bend the law, to help kids break out of
The empire struck back, of course; childish adults regularly conflate
opposition with disloyalty. I once returned from a medical leave to
discover that all evidence of my having been granted the leave had
been purposely destroyed, that my job had been terminated, and that I
no longer possessed even a teaching license. After nine months of
tormented effort I was able to retrieve the license when a school
secretary te/strongstified to witnessing the plot unfold. In the meantime my
family suffered more than I care to remember. By the time I finally
retired in 1991, 1 had more than enough reason to think of our schools-
with their long-term, cell-block-style, forced confinement of both
students and teachers-as virtual factories of childishness. Yet I
honestly could not see why they had to be that way. My own experience
had revealed to me what many other teachers must learn along the way,
too, yet keep to themselves for fear of reprisal: if we wanted to we
could easily and inexpensively jettison the old, stupid structures and
help kids take an education rather than merely receive a schooling. We
could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness-curiosity,
adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by
being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids
to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he
or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.
But we don’t do that. And the more I asked why not, and persisted in
thinking about the “problem” of schooling as an engineer might, the
more I missed the point: What if there is no “problem” with our
schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively flying in
the face of common sense and long experience in how children learn
things, not because they are doing something wrong but because they
are doing something right? Is it possible that George W. Bush
accidentally spoke the truth when he said we would “leave no child
behind”? Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure not
one of them ever really grows up?
Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced
schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year,
for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so,
for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a
rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that
banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable
number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year
wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right.
George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham
Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products
of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a
secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids generally
didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like
Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry like Carnegie
and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even
scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact, until pretty recently people
who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at
all. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote an enormous, and very good,
multivolume history of the world with her husband, Will, was happily
married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that Ariel Durant
was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps, but not uneducated.
We have been taught (that is, schooled) in this country to think of
“success” as synonymous with, or at least dependent upon, “schooling,”
but historically that isn’t true in either an intellectual or a
financial sense. And plenty of people throughout the world today find
a way to educate themselves without resorting to a system of
compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons. Why,
then, do Americans confuse education with just such a system? What
exactly is the purpose of our public schools?
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the
United States between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much
earlier and pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century. The
reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural
traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:
1) To make good people. 2) To make good citizens. 3) To make each
person his or her personal best. These goals are still trotted out
today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or
another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however
short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong.
Compounding our error is the fact that the national literature holds
numerous and surprisingly consistent statements of compulsory
schooling’s true purpose. We have, for example, the great H. L.
Mencken, who wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim
of public education is not
to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their
intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim …
is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe
level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down
dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States… and
that is its aim everywhere else.
Because of Mencken’s reputation as a satirist, we might be tempted to
dismiss this passage as a bit of hyperbolic sarcasm. His article,
however, goes on to trace the template for our own educational system
back to the now vanished, though never to be forgotten, military state
of Prussia. And although he was certainly aware of the irony that we
had recently been at war with Germany, the heir to Prussian thought
and culture, Mencken was being perfectly serious here. Our educational
system really is Prussian in origin, and that really is cause for
The odd fact of a Prussian provenance for our schools pops up again
and again once you know to look for it. William James alluded to it
many times at the turn of the century. Orestes Brownson, the hero of
Christopher Lasch’s 1991 book, The True and Only Heaven, was publicly
denouncing the Prussianization of American schools back in the 1840s.
Horace Mann’s “Seventh Annual Report” to the Massachusetts State Board
of Education in 1843 is essentially a paean to the land of Frederick
the Great and a call for its schooling to be brought here. That
Prussian culture loomed large in America is hardly surprising, given
our early association with that utopian state. A Prussian served as
Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, and so many German-
speaking people had settled here by 1795 that Congress considered
publishing a German-language edition of the federal laws. But what
shocks is that we should so eagerly have adopted one of the very worst
aspects of Prussian culture: an educational system deliberately
designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life,
to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile
and incomplete citizens 11 in order to render the populace
It was from James Bryant Conant-president of Harvard for twenty years,
WWI poison-gas specialist, WWII executive on the atomic-bomb project,
high commissioner of the American zone in Germany after WWII, and
truly one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century-
that I first got wind of the real purposes of American schooling.
Without Conant, we would probably not have the same style and degree
of standardized testing that we enjoy today, nor would we be blessed
with gargantuan high schools that warehouse 2,000 to 4,000 students at
a time, like the famous Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Shortly
after I retired from teaching I picked up Conant’s 1959 book-length
essay, The Child the Parent and the State, and was more than a little
intrigued to see him mention in passing that the modem schools we
attend were the result of a “revolution” engineered between 1905 and
1930. A revolution? He declines to elaborate, but he does direct the
curious and the uninformed to Alexander Inglis’s 1918 book, Principles
of Secondary Education, in which “one saw this revolution through the
eyes of a revolutionary.”
Inglis, for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it
perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent was
intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth
column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give
the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table.
Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort of
surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses.
Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on
tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that
the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-
integrate into a dangerous whole.
Inglis breaks down the purpose – the actual purpose – of modem
schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl
the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional
goals listed earlier:
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed
habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical
judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful
or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for
reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn,
and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity
function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as
possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use
to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine
each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence
mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your
permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.
4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been
“diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far
as their destination in the social machine merits – and not one step
further. So much for making kids their personal best.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but
to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called
“the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by
consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are
meant to tag the unfit – with poor grades, remedial placement, and
other punishments – clearly enough that their peers will accept them
as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive
sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first
grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these
rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small
fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this
continuing project, how to watch over and control a population
deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might
proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient
That, unfortunately, is the purpose of mandatory public education in
this country. And lest you take Inglis for an isolated crank with a
rather too cynical take on the educational enterprise, you should know
that he was hardly alone in championing these ideas. Conant himself,
building on the ideas of Horace Mann and others, campaigned tirelessly
for an American school system designed along the same lines. Men like
George Peabody, who funded the cause of mandatory schooling throughout
the South, surely understood that the Prussian system was useful in
creating not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force but
also a virtual herd of mindless consumers. In time a great number of
industrial titans came to recognize the enormous profits to be had by
cultivating and tending just such a herd via public education, among
them Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
There you have it. Now you know. We don’t need Karl Marx’s conception
of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the
interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people
down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to
discard them if they don’t conform. Class may frame the proposition,
as when Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, said
the following to the New York City School Teachers Association in
1909: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and
we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of
necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal
education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual
tasks.” But the motives behind the disgusting decisions that bring
about these ends need not be class-based at all. They can stem purely
from fear, or from the by now familiar belief that “efficiency” is the
paramount virtue, rather than love, liberty, laughter, or hope. Above
all, they can stem from simple greed.
There were vast fortunes to be made, after all, in an economy based on
mass production and organized to favor the large corporation rather
than the small business or the family farm. But mass production
required mass consumption, and at the turn of the twentieth century
most Americans considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things
they didn’t actually need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that
count. School didn’t have to train kids in any direct sense to think
they should consume nonstop, because it did something even better: it
encouraged them not to think at all. And that left them sitting ducks
for another great invention of the modem era – marketing.
Now, you needn’t have studied marketing to know that there are two
groups of people who can always be convinced to consume more than they
need to: addicts and children. School has done a pretty good job of
turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job
of turning our children into children. Again, this is no accident.
Theorists from Plato to Rousseau to our own Dr. Inglis knew that if
children could be cloistered with other children, stripped of
responsibility and independence, encouraged to develop only the
trivializing emotions of greed, envy, jealousy, and fear, they would
grow older but never truly grow up. In the 1934 edition of his once
well-known book Public Education in the United States, Ellwood P.
Cubberley detailed and praised the way the strategy of successive
school enlargements had extended childhood by two to six years, and
forced schooling was at that point still quite new. This same
Cubberley – who was dean of Stanford’s School of Education, a textbook
editor at Houghton Mifflin, and Conant’s friend and correspondent at
Harvard – had written the following in the 1922 edition of his book
Public School Administration: “Our schools are … factories in which
the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned …. And it
is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the
specifications laid down.”
It’s perfectly obvious from our society today what those
specifications were. Maturity has by now been banished from nearly
every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to
work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal
self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to
entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask
questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our
judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial
blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and
then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and
then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers
whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy
another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a
kind of life insurance, even when we’re upside-down in them. And,
worst of all, we don’t bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to “be
careful what you say,” even if we remember having been told somewhere
back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy
that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.
Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern
schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School
trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be
leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively;
teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled
kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an
inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the
serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature,
philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff
schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with
plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company,
to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to
dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the
TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships
quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a
more meaningful life, and they can.
First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are:
laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the
habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory
education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to
turn them into servants. Don’t let your own have their childhoods
extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of
a captured British warship as a pre-teen, if Thomas Edison could
publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could
apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself
through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today),
there’s no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and
thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius
is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t
yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women.
The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage
John Taylor Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher
of the Year and the author, most recently, of The Underground History
of American Education. He was a participant in the Harper’s Magazine
forum “School on a Hill, “which appeared in the September 2003 issue.
Twenty-First. Night. Monday.
Twenty-first. Night. Monday.
Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.
Some-good-for-nothing-who knows why-
made up the tale that love exists on earth.
People believe it, maybe from laziness
or boredom, and live accordingly:
they wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
and when they sing, they sing about love.
But the secret reveals itself to some,
and on them silence settles down…
I found this out by accident
and now it seems I am sick all the time.
–Anna Akhmatova (translated by Jane Kenyon).
THE CORE OF MASCULINITY
The core of masculinity does not derive from
being male, nor friendliness from those who
console. Your old grandmother says, “Maybe
you shouldn’t go to school. You look a little
pale.” Run when you hear that. A father’s
stern slaps are better. Your bodily soul wants
comforting. The severe father wants spiritual
clarity. He scolds, but eventually leads you into
the open. Pray for a tough instructor to hear and
act and stay within you. We have been busy
accumulating solace. Make us afraid of how we were.
-Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks).
WHICH ONE IS GENUINE
I once knew a woman named Benedicta, who
infused everything with the ideal. When one
looked into her eyes one wanted nobility, glory,
beauty, all those qualities that make us love immortality.
But this exquisite woman was too beautiful to
live long; she died in fact shortly after I met her,
and it was I who buried her one day when spring
was waving his encensoir even through the
cemetery gates. It was I who buried her, well
enclosed in a coffin made of a wood scented and
eternal as the treasure boxes of India.
And while my eyes remained fixed on that spot
where my jewel lay entombed, I saw all at once a
tiny human being much like the dead woman,
doing a bizarre dance, violent and hysterical, on
the loose earth. She howled with laughter as she
spoke: “This is me! Benedicta, as she is! I’m
trash, everyone knows it! And the punishment
for your stupidity and your blind head is this:
You’ll have to love what I am!”
I went into a rage and said, “No! No! No! No!”
And in order to give strength to my no, I
stomped the earth so fiercely with my foot that
my leg sank into the freshly turned earth up to
my knee, and like a wolf caught in a trap, I am
now tied, perhaps for the rest of my life, to the
grave of the ideal.
–Charles Baudelaire (translated by Robert Bly).
The more people cultivate art and cleverness, the more ominous signs
arise. The more law and order are propagated, the more thieves and
robbers there will be.-Lao Tse, THE WAY OF THE TAO.
“There is more faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds and
world’s religions combined as one and more doubt in honest faith than
in all the world’s Marxist, atheistic hand books.”-Aldous Huxley, THE
DEVILS OF LOUDON.
“It ever was, and is, and shall be; Everlasting fire, in measures
being kindled and in measures going out.”–Heraclitus.
“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the
world for the better. Indeed, it is often the only thing that does.”-
THE RITES OF MANHOOD
It’s snowing hard enough that the taxis aren’t running.
I’m walking home, my night’s work finished,
long after midnight, with the whole city to myself
when across the street I see a very young American sailor
standing over a girl who’s kneeling on the sidewalk
and refuses to get up although he’s yelling at her
to tell him where she lives so he can take her there
before they both freeze. The pair of them are drunk
and my guess is he picked her up in a bar
and later got separated from his buddies
and at first it was great fun to play at being
an old salt at liberty in a port full of women with
hinges on their heels, but now he wants only
to find a solution to the infinitely more complex
problem of what to do with her before he falls into
the hands of the police or the shore patrol
-and what keeps this from being squalid is
what’s happening to him inside:
if there were other sailors here
it would be possible for him
to abandon her where she is and joke about it
later, but he’s alone and the guilt can’t be
divided into small forgettable pieces;
he’s finding out what it means
to be a man and how different it is
from the way that only hours ago he imagined it.
Actually: it’s the balls I look for, always.
Men in streets, offices, cars, restaurants.
It’s the nuts I imagine-
firm, soft, in hairy sacks
the way they are
down there rigged between the thighs,
the funny way they are.
One in front, a little in front of the other,
slightly higher. The way they slip
between your fingers, the way they
slip around in their soft sack.
The way they swing when he walks,
hang down when he bends
over. You see them sometimes bright pink
out of a pair of shorts
when he sits wide and unaware,
the hair sparse and wiry
like that on a Poland china pig.
You can see the skin right through-speckled,
with wrinkles like a prune, but loose,
slipping over the those kernels
rocking the smooth, small huevos.
So delicate, the cock becomes a diversion,
a masthead overlarge, its flag distracting
from beautiful pebbles beneath.
He was an undersized little man, with a head too big for his body-a
sickly little man. His nerves were bad. He had skin trouble. It was
agony for him to wear anything next to his skin coarser than silk. And
he had delusions of grandeur.
He was a monster of conceit. Never for one minute did he look at the
world or at people except in relation to himself. He was not only the
most important person in the world, to himself, in his own eyes he was
the only person who existed. He believed himself to be one of the
greatest dramatists in the world, one of the greatest thinkers, and
one of the greatest composers. To hear him talk, he was Shakespeare,
and Beethoven, and Plato, rolled into one. And you would have had no
difficulty in hearing him talk. He was one of the most exhausting
conversationalists that ever lived. An evening with him was an evening
spent in listening to a monologue. Sometimes he was brilliant;
sometimes he was maddeningly tiresome. But whether he was being
brilliant or dull, he had one sole topic of conversation: himself.
What he thought and what he did.
He had a mania for being in the right. The slightest hint of
disagreement, from anyone, on the most trivial point, was enough to
set him off on an harangue that might last for hours, in which he
proved himself right in so many ways, and with such exhausting
volubility, that in the end his hearer, stunned and deafened, agree
with him, for the sake of peace.
It never occurred to him that he and his doing were not of the most
intense and fascinating interest to anyone with whom he came in
contact. He had theories about almost any subject under the sun,
including vegetarianism, the drama, politics and music; and in support
of these theories he wrote pamphlets, letters, books…thousands upon
thousands of words, hundreds and hundreds of pages. He not only wrote
these things, and published them-usually at somebody else’s expenses-
but he would sit and read them aloud, for hours, to his friends and
He wrote operas; and no sooner did he have the synopsis of a story,
but he would invite-or rather summon-a crowd of his friends to his
house and read it aloud to them. Not for criticism. For applause. When
the complete poem was written, the friends had to come again, and hear
that read aloud. Then he would publish the poem, sometimes years
before the music that went with it was written. He played the piano
like a composer, in the worst sense of what that implies, and he would
sit down at the piano before parties that included some of the finest
pianists of his time, and play for them, by the hour, his own music,
needless to say. He had a composer’s voice. And he would invite
eminent vocalists to his house, and sing them his operas, taking all
He had the emotional stability of a six year old child. When he felt
out of sorts, he would rave and stamp, or sink into suicidal gloom and
talk darkly of going to the east to end his days as a Buddhist monk.
Ten minutes later, when something pleased him, he would rush out of
doors and run around the garden, or jump up and down on the sofa, or
stand on his head. He could be grief stricken about the death of a pet
dog, and he could be callous and heartless to a degree that would have
made a Roman emperor shudder.
He was almost innocent of any sense of responsibility. Not only did he
seem incapable of supporting himself, but it never occurred to him
that he was under any obligation to do so. He was convinced the world
owed him a living. In support of this belief, he borrowed money from
everybody who was good for a loan-men, women, friends or strangers. He
wrote begging letters by the score, sometimes groveling without shame,
at others loftily offering his intended benefactor the privilege of
contributing to his support, and being mortally offended if the
recipient denied the honor. I have found no record of his ever paying
money or repaying money to anyone who did not have a legal claim upon
What money he could lay his hands on he spent like an Indian rajah.
The mere prospect of a performance of one of his operas was enough to
set him to running up bills amounting to ten times the amount of his
prospective royalties. On an income that would reduce a more
scrupulous man to doing his own laundry, he would keep two servants.
Without enough money in his pocket to pay his rent, he would have the
walls and ceiling of his study lined with pink silk. No one will ever
know-certainly he never knew-how much money he owed. We do know that
his greatest benefactor gave him $6,000.00 to pay the most pressing of
his debts in one city, and a year later had to give him 16,000 to
enable him to live in another city without being thrown into jail for
He was equally unscrupulous in other ways. An endless procession of
women marches through his life. His first wife spent twenty years
enduring and forgiving his infidelities. His second wife had been the
wife of his most devoted admirer, from whom he stole her. And even
while he was trying to persuade her to leave her first husband he was
writing to a friend to enquire whether he could suggest some wealthy
woman-any wealthy woman-he could marry for her money.
He was completely selfish in his other personal relationships. His
liking for his friends was measured solely by their devotion to him,
or their usefulness to him, whether financial or artistic. The minute
they failed him-even by refusing a dinner invitation-or began to
lessen in usefulness, he cast them off without a second thought. At
the end of his life he had exactly one friend left whom he had known
even in middle age.
He had a genius for making enemies. He would insult a man who
disagreed with him about the weather. He would pull endless wires in
order to meet some man who admired his work, and was able and anxious
to be of use to him-and would proceed to make a mortal enemy of him
with some idiotic and wholly uncalled-for exhibition of arrogance and
bad manners. A character in one of his operas was a caricature of the
most powerful music critic of his day. Not content with burlesquing
him, he invited the critic to his house and read him the libretto
aloud in front of his friends.
The name of this monster was Richard Wagner. Everything that I have
said about him you can find on record-in newspapers, in police
reports, in the testimony of people who knew him, in his own letters,
between the lines of his autobiography. And the curious thing about
this record is that it doesn’t matter in the least.
Because this undersized, sickly, disagreeable, fascinating little man
was right all the time. The joke was on us. He was one of the world’s
great dramatists; he was a great thinker; he was one of the most
stupendous musical geniuses that, up to now, the world has ever seen.
The world did owe him a living. People couldn’t know those things at
the time, I suppose; and yet to us, who know his music, it does seem
as though they should have known. What if he did talk about himself
all the time? If he had talked about himself for twenty-four hours for
every day of his life he would not have uttered half the number of
words other men have spoken and written about him since his death.
When you consider what he wrote-thirteen operas and music dramas,
eleven of them still holding the stage, eight of them unquestionably
ranking among the world’s great musico-dramatic masterpieces-when you
listen to what he wrote, the debts and heartaches that people had to
endure from him don’t seem much of a price. Eduard Hanslick, the
critic whom he caricatured in DIE MEISTERSINGER and who hated him ever
after, now lives only because he was caricatured in DIE MEISTERSINGER.
The women whose hearts he broke are long since dead; and the man who
could never love anyone but himself has made them deathless atonement,
I think, with TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. Think of the luxury with which for a
time, at least, fate rewarded Napoleon, the man who ruined France and
looted Europe; and then perhaps you will agree that a few thousand
dollars’ worth of debt were not too high a price to pay for the RING
What if he was faithless to his friends and to his wives? He had one
mistress to whom he was faithful to the day of his death: Music. Not
for a single moment did he ever compromise with what he believed, with
what he dreamed. There is not a line of his music that could have been
written by a little mind. Even when he is dull, or downright bad, he
is dull in the grand manner. There is greatness about his worst
mistakes. Listening to his music, one does not forgive him for what he
may or may not have been. It is not a matter of forgiveness. It is a
matter of being dumb with wonder that his poor body didn’t burst under
the torment of the demon of creative energy living inside him,
struggling, clawing, scratching to be released; tearing, shrieking at
him to write the music that was in him. The miracle is that what he
did in the little space of seventy years could have been done at all,
even by a great genius. Is it any wonder that he had no time to be a
man?-Deems Taylor, from OF MEN AND MUSIC, 1937.
Inis Naturalis Reintegralis Inis.
Light made Flesh Reborn as Light.
”It ever was, and is, and shall be; Everlasting fire, in measures
being kindled and in measures going out.”–Heraclitus.
We have the choice between slavery or freedom.
To accept any of this world’s belief systems is to accept slavery.
“So long as (man) cannot operate as a savage or less than a savage,
and think as a god, or better than god, he will suffer…A man who is
full of God is outside of faith…When a man is truly creative he works
single-handed and he wants no help. A man acting alone, on faith, can
accomplish what trained armies are incapable of doing. To believe in
one’s self, in one’s own powers, is apparently the most difficult
thing in the world…Whenever an English artist of any value has arisen
he has been marked as Public Enemy No. 1.”-Henry Miller, THE
“We have the seed of God in us,” writes Meister Eckhart, “Pear seeds
grow pear trees. Hazel seeds grow hazel trees. God seeds grow God.”
“For this Law that I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength
or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven, so that you need to wonder,
‘Who will go up to Heaven for us and bring it down to us, so that we
may hear and keep it?’ Nor is it beyond the seas, so that you need to
wonder, ‘Who will cross the seas for us and bring it back to us, so
that we may hear and keep it?’ No, the Word is very near to you, it is
in your mouth and in your heart for your observance.”-Moses,
The way is strait and narrow. The word “strait” means enormously difficult, almost impossible to handle. A strait is a water passage between two land masses which is so narrow only one ship at a time can pass through and that only with great care and caution.
No one who wants to build muscles lifts feathers.
Judith Merril, the mother of modern science fiction, tells us, “We only really learn in conversation after sex.”
A young man in the American mid-west said to a band leader who came through his town, “Can I play with you.”
“Come to New York, kid, and you can play with me.”
The kid was 17. He got his father to enroll him in Julliard. He refused to take lessons. He went looking for the man who had set him on fire with his music. Everyone warned him that that man was a junkie, a heroin addict. The boy refused to listen to anyone but himself. Finally he found the junkie. He was living on the street, homeless. “Hey, you can live with me,” said the boy. The junkie moved in, stole his sheet music and records using the money he got to buy drugs. The boy turned into a junkie. One rainy night he was going by a club. He heard music. He went inside, took out his horn, got on stage and joined with the band. He was stinking wet. No one said, “You are not with the band.” He was stoned. For over two hours he played variations on one tune. Then he walked back out into the night.
A couple of years passed. He got his first quintet. Someone said, “Hey, you got a junkie in your band. You should get rid of him.”
“There is nothing worse than a dull rhythm section,” he said, adding, “You have got to have that fire. You can’t buy it. If you could buy it they would have it at Newport at the Jazz Festival. He has got the fire I want. He is staying.”
A couple of years later that junkie was playing monkey for the man; singing cover tunes for money people put in a cup. “Hey, John Coltrane! What you doin’ playin’ monkey for the man? Why don’t you let your soul speak through that horn?” said a fellow in the audience.
“Who would want to listen to my soul?” said Coltrane. “Me,” said the man.
Bear in mind that most of the folk there would have been content to hear cover tunes. Also the word “soul” means “self,” “personality.”
Coltrane began to let his soul speak though his horn. Next thing he knew he was flying around the world to play saxophones that had been invented just for him.
The kid who became a junkie? That was Miles Davis. Everyone knows who he is. The junkie who inspired him? Clint Eastwood made a movie about him. That was “The Bird.” That was Charlie Parker. People did not know it then but he was the shaping force in American music at that time and in that place. He was The Man.
There was not a school on earth that would have allowed Charlie Parker inside its doors while he walked the earth. They all teach his music now.
The real teachers are not found in classrooms.
A few years ago one of Canada’s major universities invited me to be one of its teachers. “You will like it here. We get the cream of the crop. We get the ones with money,” I was told.
I went over to see if they looked as silly as they sounded. They had a nun teaching a film course.
When I walked out of high school and came to Toronto the second day I was in the city I was sitting in a park when a group of nuns came. They sat in a circle around a tree. After about half an hour a great flame burst from the base of the tree. It fell flat forward to the earth.
“What a metaphor!” I thought to myself.
The smothered sexual fires burning within these women who had surrendered themselves to the lie of the ideal had set fire in the real world.
At that time I had just started my screenings at The Spadina Hotel at King and Spadina. “Must you show your films in public houses and taverns?” asked the nun.
“You know, when our Lord, Jesus, walked the earth and went into a church, synagogue or temple to teach people threw him out. They made him unwelcome. They refused to listen to him there.
“But whenever he walked into a public house or a tavern, people made him welcome. They offered him food and drink. You can bet he did not say, ‘I can not touch that. It is unclean.’ And they listened to him there. Now, where he was, I AM.”
“You are the rudest person I have ever met,” said the hypocrite. “You realize your name is mud on this campus,” they said.
“I could not wear it with pride if it were any other color,” I replied.
“Whatever the world condemns you for, make it your own. It is yourself.”-Jean Cocteau.
“The nearer the church/synagogue/temple the farther from God,” can be traced in print back to the 14th century though it goes back to the dawn of time. In the East it is put, “The nearer the church/synagogue/temple the farther from Buddha.”
“Most teachers say you should go to school to get your degree to have something to fall back on. Aside from being a huge lie, that also creates a very high level of mediocrity, because nobody who really believes that is going to take the leap of faith required to be a serious artist. Stay out of school.”–Ellis Marsalis to his sons Branford, Delfeayo and Wynton.
I took that leap of faith when I was seventeen.
You are overdue for it.
Come to the Cineforum.–Reg Hartt.