Another Déjà Vu
In the Arts and Philosophy

Last week, I wrote about Yogi Berra’s seemingly paradoxical statement, “It's déjà vu all over again.” Berra was both a great baseball player and an observer of life. However, I added to his one-liner, “It's déjà vu all over again…and again.” This article is about an again.

Let me give you the backstory, which will explain another déjà vu experience. I attended Muskingum College in the early 60s. There was a requirement that all students have to take The Arts, which was a 10-hour class. It could be taken in one’s junior or senior year and was the most feared of all the required courses. Fortunately, I opted for my junior year. I didn’t ace the class and only got a B. However, Louie Palmer, the professor, saw something in me. He hired me as a teaching assistant in my senior year. In fact, I wrote and graded the midterms and finals for both semesters and taught a handful of subsections each week during my senior year.

Of all the classes that changed me during college, graduate school, and post-graduate school, The Arts was the most transformative of all my more than twelve years of higher education. I owe Louie more than I could ever pay him for that opportunity. It changed my Weltanschauung. In the past couple of decades, I have taught art history many times. In fact, I’d rather teach that subject more than any other class. You can view a PowerPoint of my art history class.

A day doesn’t go by with me either writing about some artistic treasure or mentioning it in any of the non-art history classes that I still teach. In fact, a former colleague of mine mentioned a famous painting to me recently. I thought that she had made a mistake and asked her if she meant a Monet painting. It was I who made the mistake.

My former colleague, who corrected me, has also thrust me into attempting to grasp the meaning of my life. It isn’t that I am lax about trying to understand my life at 76, and I have been on a holy terror to do precisely that. My friend’s retort to my drive to explain everything was to live in the moment. Well, I do enjoy the moment but would also relish an understanding of why…the why of everything. I assure you that my friend will write a long letter challenging me about what follows. Remember, she corrected me before about her favorite painting by Andrew Wyeth.

I have written many essays about teaching art history. Of all the paintings in the Western world, my favorite is The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Most everyone calls Turner’s painting merely, The Fighting Temeraire.

I have a print of Turner’s painting next to a painting of the teak bridge and a charcoal picture of me done by an artist that I met in Mandalay, Myanmar a couple years ago. I will be visiting him again during winter break at the end of this year.

Turner’s painting, The Fighting Temeraire, is a painting in the romantic period and is considered by the British the greatest painting done by a British painter. However, Turner was outraged by the British navy taking it to break it up since it had outlived its usefulness as a battleship.

The British painter, William Turner, shared the same type of romanticism as the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich. Both were, in their own painting style, addressing the drive to explain issues facing them. Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is one of Friedrich’s most famous works.

Among artistic aficionados, there is a great deal of debate about whether a person standing above the fog was a self-portrait of Friedrich or his tribute to a great German officer who had recently died in a battle. Interestingly, Friedrich’s hair was the same color as in the painting, but I am not an artistic aficionado.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Whether it was Friedrich, a fallen soldier, or a combination of both, the critical issue is what the person with his back to the viewer is doing atop a mountain above the fog. What is the figure in the painting thinking? Obviously, he is attempting to grasp reality. The fog has blotted out a clear view of truth. The person must be attempting to decipher what he is viewing. Friedrich is pushing the viewer to think about what is going on in the mind of the man standing above a fog covered world. The man can’t control the fog, yet he is trying to resolve the issue facing him. That is the cosmic tension. He is forced to deal with reality without all the facts.

Recently, I wrote an article about Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in C-Minor, Op. 13, Sonata Pathétique, which seems to me the musical version of this painting. Pathétique addresses the hope that rises and rises but then is dashed. However, there is a rebirth or resurrection especially toward the end of the sonata. The sonata is in three parts but listen to the middle section or cantabile. When you get to 4:30, the theme begins to die and fade away. Nevertheless, the coda at the very end seems like a resurrection of the sonata.

The lone figure in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog could be dealing with hope or the seeming death of some dream that he possesses. The painting has an interesting dualism. On the one hand, the person is alone in the vastness of the huge landscape before him. He is alone and isolated. However, he is, to reference Pathétique, facing the music. Look at his stance. He seems to sense the resurrection of his dreams amid the isolation as he stands as an insignificant dot in the middle of nowhere.

Man, I get that situation. I know what that feels like. So, if I have been there, what have I learned about me living life…all 76 years? Suck it up and carry on.

A way to live life

When you suck it up, it doesn’t necessarily assure success. However, not trying will assure failure for you. Bobby Kennedy is my most important mentor. He said, “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.” Just don’t go with the flow. The flow isn’t going anywhere of any importance. You decide what is important. Dream about it and then act. Or you can sit on the sidelines of life.

Bobby Kennedy warns us, “Every generation inherits a world it never made; and, as it does so, it automatically becomes the trustee of that world for those who come after. In due course, each generation makes its own accounting to its children.” What will you leave your children as your legacy? Act now, because, someday, you won’t have a someday.