In the novel David Copperfield by Dickens, the hero's mother -- a spineless, gutless, brainless creature -- remarries, after her husband's death, with a man named Edward Murdstone. When I first read this I had the facetious thought, that if she had read Dickens she would have known better than to marry a man with that name. Indeed, in the novel Mr. Murdstone proves to be a tyrant and a sadist, with murder in his stony heart.

I followed through on this thought, facetious or not. I formed the habit of not only enjoying literature, but also of learning from it about people. There is a wealth of insight about people in Shakespeare, Chekhov, etc. (no need to belabor the obvious). I thought also that perhaps in real life one could achieve similar insights, if only one knew how to read the signs. I had to spend hours riding the New York subway, and this gave me access to many people to study. I tried to deduce their biographies, their weaknesses, their fates, just from their appearance and body language. Undoubtedly I was wrong most of the time, but I observed. 

Meanwhile, I had an overwhelming experience. My piano teacher said that he thought I was ready to tackle a Bach fugue. I said that I had no idea what that was. He played the first fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier for me. I burst into tears. He was disconcerted and distressed, and demanded to know what there was to cry about. Sniffling and stammering, I tried to tell him that I had never dreamed that there could exist anything so nobly beautiful. It was a wonder that I got home without being run over. In a moment, like a thunderclap, it had been revealed to me that the insights I groped for in literature are attainable in all their naked beauty in music, more powerful because they are not verbal. 

I soon learned to do the same thing with paintings. The Piano Lesson by Matisse spoke volumes to me. It might almost have been a portrait of me. I often went to the Museum of Modern Art to commune with it. Later in life, I did the same with Rembrandt's last self-portrait. Whenever I had the opportunity, I went to the National Gallery in London to contemplate that face and learn from it. 

On one memorable occasion I was able to teach this to a university student. At the first meeting of a course, I arranged for each student to prepare a presentation in class. One young man came to me and said that I shouldn't count on his presentation, because he might decide to quit his studies. He wanted to go on a trip round the world, he said, to find himself. I asked him if he had read Peer Gynt. He had never even heard of it. I told him that it is a play by Ibsen about a man who went round the world to find himself, only to discover that he had left himself at home -- and I wished it was required reading for every teenager. At the next lesson, he asked me if he could do his presentation on Peer Gynt, and of course I agreed. He didn't quit, his presentation was masterful, and he thanked me for intervening at a crucial moment in his life. 

This is how I see it: Art is beautiful, and moving, and intellectually stimulating. But I do not believe what Plato seems to have believed: that art (especially music) molds your character whether you want it to or not. I rather agree with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who said: "We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth." The truth we speak of is not the surface subject matter: not the object depicted in the painting, nor the plot of the novel, nor the words of the song. It is the truth beyond these things. As Picasso said: "We all know that art is not the truth; art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." This truth is there in the work of art, but it is yours only if you want to learn it. You get as much of it as you invest in learning it. 

I believe that art, above and beyond all its other wonderful qualities, can be a kind of vicarious life. If you can penetrate to the core of its ultimate truth, you can experience things without paying the price. In this sense, art teaches us how to live our lives.