Aristotle with a Bust of Homer Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, Leiden 1606–1669 Amsterdam)
This is the image we’re using for the cover of my book Imagined worlds and classroom realities, to be released later this year or early in 2015.
I saw this painting a couple of years ago, in the Met in New York, and the first thing that struck me was the deep thoughtfulness in the philosopher Aristotle’s eyes as he reaches out and rests his right hand on the bust of the storyteller Homer. He seems more than lost in thought. He’s also full of feeling, wondering perhaps about the place of poetry and mythology – with their evocations of beauty, love, courage, truth and the good – in his thinking about the world.
Then I remembered that Aristotle was a teacher. In fact we can just see the image of his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, on the medallion which hangs from the chain around his neck. Aristotle’s left hand is touching the chain, a gift from Alexander, representing (perhaps) Aristotle’s connection to the world of action, power and the everyday.
These two – the mythopoetic represented by Homer’s bust and the political represented by Alexander’s chain – are the teacher’s worlds. We necessarily pay attention to everyday necessities and realities – the bells, routines, timetables, expectations, demands, complexities, resistances, power dynamics and so on. We try to stay in touch with the values that brought us into teaching in the first place, and which animate our best moments in the classroom.
The stories in my book are attempts to represent this ‘living in two worlds’, this reaching out to stay in touch with what we care most deeply about amidst our classroom realities.
Earlier this week, I read on Clare O’Farrell’s blog a post (called ‘Foucault: truth, language and philosophy’) which talked about ‘degrees of fiction,’ and I’ve pilfered the phrase as the title of my new blog.
I’ve always been interested in stories, their effect, function and relationship to the real world, ever since I discovered as an unhappy 11 year old, separated from my parents and at boarding school, that a story could be both a consolation and a lifebuoy. Then, as a young teacher, I soon realized that a story could both settle a difficult class and be a teaching tool. In my Masters thesis, written during a period in my professional life when I was a psychotherapist, I argued that story can ‘transform the leaden sense of fruitless struggle’, and my PhD was about the ways in which the sharing of stories links both teller and listener to desired and animating worlds. A central idea, through all of this, has been John Holt’s suggesting that the imagination is more a reaching out towards reality, rather than an attempt to escape from it.
Clare’s post explores this connection between words and phrases and their relationship with truth or reality. She writes: ‘We are always faced with degrees of fiction: human culture, language and thought are fabrications from the very outset’.
I’m imagining that I’ll be using this blog to continue my exploration of these ‘fabrications’.
Rembrandt's Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653
As I write this, I’m suddenly reminded of a painting I saw recently. It’s by Rembrandt, and shows the philosopher Aristotle deep in thought as he rests his hand on a bust of Homer, the story-teller, the inventor of fabrications. I like to imagine that Aristotle’s deep thoughts are born out of his respect for, or love of, the mythopoetic.