Is It Time to Bring Out Twain’s War Prayer?

Boehner and Netanyahu

Boehner and Netanyahu

I’ve been discouraged in recent weeks by how easily war fever returns, even after our disastrous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only does polling reveal increased popular support for “boots on the ground” to fight ISIS, but the GOP. Benjamin Netanyahu, and a handful of Democrats are trying to sabotage the president’s negotiations with Iran. It may be time to pull out Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” again.

I mention “War Prayer” because it reminds us to be careful what we pray for. An aged stranger, hearing a fervent war prayer designed to inspire the troops and the populace, talks about there being two prayers, not one. Shouldering aside the minister, the old man announces,

“I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken.”

The uttered war prayer he responds to concludes with the words, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!” Here’s an excerpt from the unuttered prayer behind the prayer:

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst…

You can go here to read the entire prayer.

Say that Netanyahu and the GOP’s prayer is answered and they succeed in disrupting the current negotiations with Iran. The unuttered prayer is for a war with Iran.

Because—let’s be very clear about this—there is no other plan than war to what Obama is currently doing. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones came to this conclusion after spending the weekend watching “an endless procession of talking heads spend time talking about what we should do about Iran”:

The striking thing was not that there was lots of criticism from conservatives about President Obama’s negotiating strategy. The striking thing was the complete lack of any real alternative from these folks. I listened to interviewer after interviewer ask various people what they’d do instead, and the answers were all the weakest of weak tea. A few mentioned tighter sanctions, but without much conviction since (a) sanctions are already pretty tight and (b) even the hawks seem to understand that mere sanctions are unlikely to stop Iran’s nuclear program anyway. Beyond that there was nothing.

That is, with the refreshing (?) exception of Jason Chaffetz, who sounded a bit like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men after being badgered a bit by Wolf Blitzer. Military action? You’re damn right I want to see military action. Or words to that effect, anyway. But of course, this sentiment was behind the scenes everywhere, even if most of the hawkish talking heads didn’t quite say it so forthrightly. I noticed that even President Obama, in his interview with Reuters, specifically mentioned “military action,” rather than the usual euphemism of “all cards are on the table.”

What would war with Iran entail? Twain only talks about what would happen to the other guys. Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner lays out what it would mean for America, including American Jews:

The dismantling of the regime in Iran…would likely yield power to forces even worse than the current Iranian regime and more likely like the Islamic state in Iraq . It is unwinnable, and it will lead to the loss of many lives, the possibility of terrorism being spread to the U.S. as many people around the world see and resent the U.S. once again intervening in a country that is not intervening here in the U.S.

And this will be a huge disaster for the Jewish people. Americans will quickly see that the resulting war was brought about by those who wanted to put the supposed (though mistaken) interests of Israel above the interests of Americans. The outcome could well be a new flourishing of anti-Semitism in our society that has, since the end of the Second World War, managed to keep our home-grown anti-Semites out of positions of power. As American casualties increase, and Iranian terrorists strike inside the U.S., the anger will almost certainly explode against Jews, whereas it should be only directed at the militarists who once again lead us into war.

At the end of Twain’s story, the aged stranger asks the priest and congregation to think twice about what they say they want: “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

The outcome is predictable:

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Will the country also conclude that Obama’s current negotiations are lunatic? Or is lunacy invading the Middle East over and over and expecting a different outcome?

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King Looks to Children for Hope

The Losers Club in "IT"

The Losers Club in “IT”

I ask indulgence for one last post on Stephen King’s IT, which I’ve been teaching in my American Fantasy class. I chose It not because it is great literature but because I have become convinced that King is today’s Edgar Allen Poe, an author who dreams America’s nightmares. Since I’ve been presenting the problems that King sees in America—the dark aspects of itself that it refuses to face up to and therefore is crippled by—I want to spend a post looking at what he offers by way of solution.

First of all, however, let me theorize about how an author dreams our nightmares. Narrative fiction, as Jonathan Gottschall notes in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, is a powerful way to find meaning in the world. It is also a double-edged sword, however. While stories can plumb the depths of the human soul (The Odyssey, The Brothers Karamazov), they can also be used by paranoid conspiracy theorists to link things that have no real connection. For instance, this past year there were some who claimed that an outlaw president who hates America deliberately allowed illegal Hispanic immigrants with Ebola to cross into the United States.

I use this as an example because, as unhinged as it is, it actually sounds a bit like a Stephen King novel. To be sure, the conspiracy theorists claim that their theories are true while King only claims to write fiction. A thematic reading of King’s fiction, however, shows that he makes his own far-flung connections.

For instance, in IT we see him connecting environmental destruction, domestic abuse, pedophilia and child molestation, race lynching, horrific union busting, prison brutality, and unrestrained gun violence. Michael Hanlon, the narrator, is a Derry librarian and historian who digs through the town’s archives to look for patterns. In each of Derry’s periodic outbreaks of violence (every 27 years or so, which is to say, once a generation), he discovers that a manic clown has made an appearance. Hanlon works as a stand-in for King, who uses his fiction to understand America’s penchant for violence.

Many authors have piled up connections to define America, most notably Walt Whitman. With each author we must ask about the truth of their vision. If authors are our prophets, as I believe, then it must also be acknowledged that there are false prophets and true prophets, those who feed off of paranoid fantasies and shallow wish fulfillments and those who are committed to truth. I would argue that our greatest writers are those who are the most unwavering in this commitment.

If King is at all accurate in his description of America, then does he have any useful solutions? As I see it, IT is telling us that, to successfully fight the clown, we must reconnect with our childhood imagination and idealism.

Several years back a student, Marjorie Kates, wrote a senior project for me in which she argued that King owes a lot to William Wordsworth, especially Intimations of Immortality. Like Wordsworth, King sees us entering the world “trailing clouds of glory.” We feel alive as children and are filled with hope, refusing to be discouraged by reversals.

Many of King’s child characters have special powers, which are symbolic of their special relationship to life. As we grow older, however, we lose the connection–“Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy”—and become dull and listless. Or at least some of us do. Others, more sensitive, become angry over this lost connection and lash out in violence, especially against the children who have what they have lost. But whether they are dull or actively destructive, the republic suffers.

If we get back in touch with our childhood selves, however, we have a fighting chance. In a sense, King is giving us a version of Jesus’ admonition, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In King’s view, the difference between entering and not is that between “disquiet” and “desire”:

Disquiet and desire. All the difference between world and want—the difference between being an adult who counted the cost and a child who just got on it [a reckless bicycle] and went, for instance. All the world between…

Disquiet and desire. What you want and what you’re scared to try for. Where you’ve been and where you want to go.

Or as William Carlos Williams puts it in Paterson, it’s the difference between a calculating, acquisitive approach to the world and an open and wondering approach. (I write about Paterson’s influence on King here.)

IT is about a group of children who save the world because of their special powers of imagination. Everything is vibrant because they are still connected with what Wordsworth calls “the Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star.” But the real drama of the book is the children returning as adults to defeat the forces tearing apart America.

In one respect, they don’t have a lot of motivation to do so because all are living comfortable and successful adult lives. Something is missing, however, a something that includes their inability to have children–which is to say, an inability to move confidently into the future. If they, and America, are to go forward, they must go back and reclaim who they were as children. The memories involve pain, which is one reason it is so hard to go back. But more powerful than the pain is the intense aliveness they felt, which includes the deep love they had for each other.

Childhood pain is something that one finds in King but not in Wordsworth. King knows that children don’t live the seemingly carefree life of Wordsworth’s shepherd boy. (“Thou child of joy, /Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy/Shepherd-boy!”) But that difference being granted, the message is the same. Just as Wordsworth finds a way to recapture childhood intensity, building on the intimations he has of some deeper spirit at work, so does King.

Wordsworth talks about catching at “shadowy recollections” and realizing that they are

the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing 

If we connect with this master-light, then we can ward off both “listlessness” and “mad endeavor,” a good description of modern life. Wordsworth assures us that we get a second chance:

Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
               Which brought us hither;
               Can in a moment travel thither–
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore. 

Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Losers Club in IT and another stand-in for King, has Wordsworthian intimations that our children and memories of own childhood play can reconnect us with a healing force. In IT’s penultimate paragraph, Bill sounds like a combination of Wordsworth and the sister at the end of Alice in Wonderland:

It is good to be a child, but it is also good to be grownup and able to consider the mystery of childhood…its beliefs and desires. I will write about all of this one day, he thinks, and knows it’s just a dawn thought, an after-dreaming thought. But it’s nice to think so for awhile in the morning’s clean silence, to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love. To think that what has looked forward must also look back, and that each life makes its own imitation of immortality: a wheel.

Mortality may be heir to heartache and a thousand natural shocks, yet children’s beliefs and desires, their courage and love, “confirms” it—which is to say, certifies that life is worthwhile. In a play on the poem’s title, King says that, by acting upon our intimations of immortality, we create lives that imitate immortality. Wordsworth assures us our life is guided by the fact that we never lose sight of that “immortal sea that brought us thither” while King describes life as a wheel.

So the next time you find yourself discouraged by the news, look to your children or remember your own childhood. Then live your life accordingly.

One final thought: King sets the childhood portion of IT in 1958 when he, like his child protagonists, was 11. He dedicates the book to his three children, who were 14, 12, and 7 in 1985 when the novel came out and when the adult portion is set. Depressed though he was by the state of America at that time, he looked at his children, remembered his own childhood, and found hope.

Previous posts on Stephen King

Imagination Unleashed: Children on Bikes

Stephen King: Tax Me, Save America

The Ebola Epidemic, a Stephen King Nightmare

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

Unlike Oklahoma, King Wants Real History

King’s Vision of Environmental Devastation

And for an earlier version of today’s post, although far less developed:

How Lost Innocence Can Breed Monsters

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Bigger Thomas, Clarence’s Shadow

Native Son

Over the weekend The New York Times had two authors of color look back at Richard Wright’s Native Son, which sold “an astonishing 215,000 copies within three weeks” when it appeared 75 years ago. Ayana Mathis and Pankaj Misra help me make sense of a topic that has fascinated me: why is Native Son one of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas’ favorite books. I’ve written about this in the past but have now achieved new clarity.

First a note on Thomas, considered the most radical justice on the Supreme Court and, by critics, the cruelest. He has famously voted against affirmative action and voting protections and in general sides with the wealthy and the powerful against minorities, prisoners, students, voters, and consumers. More than any other justice in a long time, he is willing to override precedent in favor of his vision. Some believe that his uncompromising stances, which early on often made him a minority of one, have had the effect of pulling the entire court to the right. That’s because he has given other conservative justices the courage to go further than they otherwise might have gone.

So why would someone like this be a fan of Native Son. The two New York Times authors talk about Wright’s self-hatred, and I think Thomas has a similar self loathing.

Both Mathis and Misra refer to James Baldwin’s famous charge that Wright gives us a caricature of African Americans rather than actual flesh and blood people. Mathis agrees:

I don’t imagine many black people would have embraced such a grotesque portrait of themselves. Bigger Thomas is a rapist and a murderer motivated only by fear, hate and a slew of animal impulses. He is the black ape gone berserk that reigned supreme in the white racial imagination. Other black characters in the novel don’t fare much better — they are petty criminals or mammies or have been so ground under the heel of oppression as to be without agency or even intelligence. Wright’s is a bleak and ungenerous depiction of black life. 

Misra, meanwhile, notes,

[Baldwin’s] main objection to Native Son was that it confirmed the damning judgment on African-Americans delivered by their longstanding tormentors. Damaged by hatred and fear, Bigger Thomas tries to redeem his manhood through murder and rape. But this vengeful cruelty only validates “those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth,” reinforcing old degrading notions about black men. 

We see only too vividly what happens today when police and vigilantes hold such caricatures. Baldwin wanted more nuance, and Mathis points out that other African American authors delivered. For instance, Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jean Toomer in Cane and Ann Petry in The Street gives us African American characters with rich and complex lives.

Seeking to give Wright some credit, Misra observes,

With Bigger Thomas, Wright courageously defied those who would have preferred a milder character, a less provocative commentary on the “problem of the color line” (as Du Bois called it), one that would reassure white readers rather than terrify them. 

There are problems with this line of argument, however, which anticipates Eldridge Cleaver’s defense of the novel (and his attack of Baldwin’s critique) that it is better to be feared than to be loved. (I’ve written on that debate here.) But Cleaver himself became a caricature, and Misra can’t defend Wright beyond his time period. She concludes that Native Son

is limited by a circumscribed vision that fails to extend much beyond the novel’s moment in 1940. 

That doesn’t keep it from resonating with the Supreme Court justice, however. What Clarence Thomas sees in Bigger Thomas, I think, is his own Black rage. He then projects this rage outward and sees Blacks and other minorities as Biggers needing to be constrained. Clarence’s stances in favor of brutal policemen, prison guards, and government torturers are motivated, I suspect, by his belief that extreme measures are necessary. I have little doubt whose side he would take if any of the cases involving unarmed black men shot by police showed up before the Supreme Court. Bigger is Clarence’s shadow, and what we cannot face up to becomes monstrous in our eyes.

For an example of how to face up to one’s shadow in a healthy way, Misra gives us Baldwin, who is relentlessly honest with himself. Rather than dismiss Native Son altogether, Baldwin realizes that he has a “baffling and dangerous place” within himself. “For who has not hated his black brother?” he asks. “Simply because he is black, because he is brother.”

We might get true justice from Clarence Thomas if he engaged in such introspection. I fear his rage will prevent him from ever getting there.

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How to Keep Beauty from Vanishing Away

Sandro Botticelli, "Ideal Portrait of a Lady”

Sandro Botticelli, “Ideal Portrait of a Lady”

Spiritual Sunday

The first poem I shared with the woman who would become my wife was a very Lentenesque lyric by Gerard Manley Hopkins, although I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time. At the time, I also had no idea that Julia and I would become close, much less married.

Julia was a good friend of my college roommate and, when visiting him one day, invited me to her poetry club. I showed up and belted out the Hopkins poem, which I had memorized. Because of its sprung rhythm, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” makes for a very dramatic reading and apparently I made quite an impression on Julia. The following trimester we started dating and we were engaged by the end of the year.

Perhaps there are no accidents when it comes to the literature we are drawn to. Looking back at the poem now, I can see it mirroring my love life that year. In the fall of 1971 I was reeling from a very painful break-up (my own leaden echo). By March of 1972, I was ecstatically in love. I realize that this isn’t exactly what Hopkins has in mind, focused as he is on a more spiritual awakening. Then again, much of Hopkins’ power lies in the way that he uses images of natural beauty to capture the joy he feels in the presence of the divine.

In the “Leaden Echo” half of the poem, Hopkins laments that there is nothing to “keep back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away.” Ultimately good looks will yield to “ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay.” Like Lear’s “never, never, never, never, never” following the death of Cordelia, Hopkins concludes part I with “to despair, to despair,/Despair, despair, despair, despair.”

Then, miraculously, the poem turns around. “Despair” shifts to “Spare!” signaling the Easter promise. Yes, there is a key to keeping beauty from vanishing away, the poet assures us. The beauty Hopkins now has in mind is the beauty of the human soul. Lent understands that sometimes we have to be stripped down to our despairing ashes to see it.

The poet acknowledges that this is not a rational hope (reason is symbolized by the “singeing” sun), but the beauty of his images and the ecstatic rhythm of his words signal his conviction. When Hopkins speaks of “beauty-in-the-ghost,” he has in mind the Holy Ghost. God, who numbers every hair on our head (Luke 12:7), will see to it that none of this beauty is lost. God created earth’s beauty, God revels in earth’s beauty, and God will receive earth’s beauty back.

Our job is to both celebrate God’s beauty and to “freely forfeit” it. We are not to make an idol of beauty and therefore should not mourn when fair faces give way to “these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep.” After all, when we enter the realm of “yonder,” we will find that nothing has been lost.

The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Leaden Echo

HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep 
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away? 
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep, 
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?  
No there ’s none, there ’s none, O no there ’s none, 
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,       
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,    
And wisdom is early to despair:           
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done   
To keep at bay       
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay; 
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.           
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none: 
Be beginning to despair, to despair,                   
Despair, despair, despair, despair.           

The Golden Echo

There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!); 
Only not within seeing of the sun,       
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,      
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,      
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,     
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,   
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,  
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet  
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,  
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth 
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth! 
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—     
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath, 
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver 
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death    
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.  
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair        
Is, hair of the head, numbered.      
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould    
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold    
What while we, while we slumbered.      
O then, weary then why         
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,    
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept     
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder 
A care kept. — Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. —
Yonder. — What high as that! We follow, now we follow. — Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

Yonder, incidentally, is not only life after death but a different way of living life now. After 42 years of marriage, I can report that Julia remains the beautiful girl I saw when I first met her. Ruck and wrinkle have become irrelevant.

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In Support of School Prayer (with a Twist)

Sophie Anderson, "Foundling girls in their school dresses at prayer" (1877)

Sophie Anderson, “Foundling girls in their school dresses at prayer” (1877)

Here’s a story I’ve been sitting on for a while but that’s okay since new versions of it keep popping up. In March of 2012 Florida passed a bill allowing students to “read inspirational messages of their choosing at assemblies and sporting events.” As Huffington Post reported at the time,

Although the word “prayer” was explicitly struck from the bill’s language, the legislation is largely seen as a way for the State to sneak in religion into public schools.

At the time the Governor Rick Scott signed the bill, however, some unexpected support for it came in. Satanists saw the new law as an opportunity for them to get their own message out. In other words, rather than attempt to separate church and state, some are taking an opposite approach and arguing that all religions should be allowed in. Needless to say, this is not exactly what those proposing the bill had in mind.

A similar drama occurred this past December in Detroit when Satanists received permission to erect a Christmas display alongside a Christian crèche. As the Associated Press reported,

Christians and Satanists put up competing displays Sunday on the Michigan Capitol grounds as Christmas week got underway.

The Detroit chapter of the Satanic Temple set up its “Snaketivity Scene” featuring a snake offering a book called “Revolt of the Angels” as a gift. The snake is wrapped around the Satanic cross on the 3-feet-by-3-feet display. 

I don’t know what has been happening in the Florida school system since the bill was passed, but here’s a poem by my father offering the children some suggestions. It was written in the 1990s so the reference to “the Bulls” is to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Juxtaposing the pop star Madonna with the NBA team, however, also suggests the myth of Zeus and Europa, as well as Cretan bull worship. In the end, though, America’s deepest religion may be the trinity that concludes the poem.

The Lingam, incidentally, is male sexual energy, which means that the bored children in the poem should, for balance’s sake, also pray to the Yoni.

School Prayer, Semester Schedule

By Scott Bates

Begin with Lucretius’s prayer to Venus,
         Alexandrian prayers to Pan,
The Golden Ass’s prayer to Isis,
         Humanist prayers to Man;

Continue with Baudelaire’s prayer to Satan,
         Huxley’s prayer to Henry Ford;
And there’s always a Tantric prayer to the Lingam
         Whenever the children get bored.

You can finish with prayers to Gods of the Hour
Like Madonna, the Bulls, Sex, Money, and Power.

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King’s Vision of Environmental Devastation


As I teach Stephen King’s IT in my American Fantasy course, I’ve become fascinated by his allusions to an epic poem written by William Carlos Williams. King has multiple epigraphs for the different sections of his book, and five of those epigraphs are taken from Paterson. King’s references to Williams help clarify my sense that King dreams America’s nightmares. For Williams, a place defines a people, and King’s fictional city of Derry, Maine has a corrupt foundation that taints everything connected with it.

In past posts on IT, I’ve examined America’s penchant for violence and how America seeks to whitewash its dark history. Today I focus on those forces that are threatening the environment.

Williams famously wrote “no ideas but in things,” and the thing/place he chooses to explore in his five volume poem is Paterson, New Jersey. The central image of the poem, Williams notes, is of “the city as a man, a man lying on his side peopling the place with his thoughts.”

Paterson, as Williams sees it/him, is defined by two conflicting American strains: a paranoid, acquisitive Puritan strain and an open-minded, inquisitive strain that Williams associates with the French Jesuit missionary Father Rasles. Williams scholar Walter Scott Peterson lays out the contrast:

The “Puritans,” most simply, symbolize the kind of mind which, pursuing only pragmatic ends, views the world with mistrust or even fear. Such a mind seeks to isolate itself by retreating into conventionality and solipsism. Rasles and Williams’ other heroes, on the contrary, symbolize the kind of mind which, pursuing only the wonder and beauty freely given by its local surroundings, views the world with trust and courage. Through love and imagination such a mind seeks a mutual relationship with its world that is both vital and creative.

In IT, Derry fits the Puritan mold, although only a few sensitive adults sense that something is rotten at the core. The rottenness becomes apparent when one looks into Derry’s history, which includes a horrific treatment of the environment. King describes the clear-cutting of Maine’s “virgin” forests as a rape:

The other members of the [Library] Board are the descendants of the lumber barons. Their support of the library is an act of inherited expiation: they raped the woods and now care for these books the way a libertine might decide, in his middle age, to provide for the gaily gotten bastards of his youth. It was their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who actually spread the legs of the forests north of Derry and Bangor and raped those green-gowned virgins with their axes and peaveys. They cut and slashed and strip-timbered and never looked back. They tore the hymen of those great forests open when Grover Cleveland was President and had pretty well finished the job by the time Woodrow Wilson had his stroke. These lace-ruffled ruffians raped the great woods, impregnated them with a litter of slash and junk spruce, and changed Derry from a sleepy little ship-building town into a booming honky-tonk where the ginmills never closed and the whores turned tricks all night long.

And further on:

So that was Derry right through the first twenty or so years of the twentieth century: all boom and booze and balling. The Penobscot and the Kenduskeag were full of floating logs from ice-out in April to ice-in in November. The business began to slack off in the twenties without the Great War or the hardwoods to feed it, and it staggered to a stop during the Depression. The lumber barons put their money in those New York or Boston banks that had survived the Crash and left Derry’s economy to live—or—die—on its own. They retreated to their gracious houses on West Broadway and sent their children to private schools in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York. And lived on their interest and political connections.

Today, our versions of these timber barons are the Koch Brothers and other fossil fuel magnates, who seek to do away with environmental regulations (which means buying the politicians who will do so) so that they can open up the country to unfettered fracking, tar sand oil extraction, pipeline construction, unfiltered coal emissions, and the like. As a result, we are seeing a marked increase in oil wells exploding, train cars catching fire, oil tankers foundering, pipelines rupturing, and coal ash ponds polluting major waterways. Meanwhile fracking, which is occurring even in residential areas and national parks, is leading to earthquakes and groundwater contamination. King’s maniac clown is on the loose.

Both Williams and King look to love and imagination as the forces that must stand up to the devastation. In King’s novel, these are found in the children, whose minds have not yet been colonized by the adults. I’ll talk about how they defeat the clown next week.

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Hoping against Hope in the Face of Death

Ruth Robbins, Ged and his otak

Illus by Robbins, “Wizard of Earthsea,” Ged and his otak

My faculty reading group grappled with the issue of hope last week. Specifically, we discussed philosopher Adrienne Martin’s book How We Hope: A Moral Psychology. My philosophy colleagues explained to me that Martin is a Kantian, which helps explain why I found the book so difficult. (I still feel the bruises from my college encounters with Kant.) Nevertheless, I emerged with some powerful perspectives on hope in the face of death, including how it played a role when my oldest son died 15 years ago.

Martin asks how it is possible to hope when there seem no rational grounds for hoping, what she calls “hope against hope.” Must one have religious faith to have such hope, she wonders, or can one ground one’s hope in something more secular as well? To answer the question, Martin draws on Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, which I’ve written about  here and here. Martin argues that Chief Plenty Coups’ “unimaginable hope” that the Crow people would survive, even though he had no rational basis for such a hope, can have a non-religious as well as a religious dimension:

I aim to show that the hope Lear identifies has a kind of essential sustaining power lacked by hope in general, and that it has this power because it targets an outcome that is, for the hopeful person, unimaginable. I then draw from Immanuel Kant’s and Gabriel Marcel’s discussions of religious hope, in order to develop a detailed account of unimaginable hope, and to argue that it is best conceived as a kind of faith. Of course, both Kant and Marcel have in mind a specifically religious form of hope, and, in fact, Plenty Coups’ hope was also religious—it was grounded in a spiritual vision he had as a young man, and it relied on the Crow people’s shared belief that they were the favored people of the god Ah-badt-dadt-deah. However, Lear also suggests such a hope could be secularized—i.e., there is a form of faith available to atheists as well, and it is one that constitutes a virtuous and sustaining response to cultural collapse.

To make sense of this, I turn first to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then to Justin’s death, then to Beowulf, and finally to Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea.

I’ve posted in the past how I came to see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight differently after watching a former Marine respond to it. Matt Alexander, who served two tours in Afghanistan disassembling IEDs, used the poem to get back in touch with certain feelings he had pushed under. Thinking about his experience in terms of Martin’s book as well as the poem, I now see how deep a role hope played in helping Matt hold on to his humanity.

You can read the previous post for more details. I’ll just mention here that Matt thought, when he was in Afghanistan, that he had learned how to shrug off his fear of death. When he saw Gawain taking the green girdle from Lady Bertilak, however, he suddenly realized that he hadn’t accepted death as much as he thought. Rather, he had simply numbed himself to his fears. Matt realized that the care he took in donning his body armor, even though it wouldn’t protect him from an exploding IED, meant that he cared more about his life than he was admitting. The discovery hit him with seismic force, and he stayed up all night reading the poem.

Martin would say that, by putting on the armor, Matt was expressing hope. This hope is so fundamental a part of what it means to be human that, when we abandon hope (as Dante understood), we become inhuman. That’s what Nature, in the form of the Green Knight, is telling the knights of the Round Table. The Green Knight warns us that we can’t let our heads become separated from our bodies, and he himself offers us an example of one who is so in touch with nature that he can’t be beheaded. The fact that Gawain takes the girdle and that he flinches when the axe descends means that he is still human. His challenge is to love the human side that makes him vulnerable, not be ashamed of it.

Matt’s acknowledgement of his humanity has helped in his reintegration into civilian society.

After telling Matt’s story to my  faculty book group, I then shared my experience following Justin’s death. Right after Justin drowned, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever be happy again. And yet I remember making certain decisions that very night that Martin would call expressions of unimaginable hope. I determined that I would not let death Justin’s death blight my family’s life, that I would do whatever it took to find what was life-sustaining about what had happened. To do so, I declared that I would follow grief, unresisting, through whatever paths she led me.

The hope was unimaginable because I couldn’t imagine what my grief would look like or how I would emerge from the ordeal. It was hopeful because I felt sure that the mind has healing properties and knows what is best for us. My job, as I saw it, was to follow grief’s dictates. In other words, I got out of my head and into my body.

What did this look like? Each day I accepted whatever grief had in store for me. Some days I was raging, some days deeply sorrowful, some days more exhausted than I thought it was possible to be. There were also days when I felt fairly calm. In each case, I would see the mood as my agenda for the day—as in, “Okay, today I’ll be really, really tired. I feel this way because of how much I loved Justin. I don’t wish for anything else.”

Lest it sound that I was only caught up in my own emotions, I should mention that I was also looking out for those I loved. In a previous post I’ve written about how one can interpret Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s Mother as a struggle with grief and take inspiration from his wielding the giant sword, which in my case was my commitment to those I loved. It sounds like a contradiction but I both stood up to Grendel’s Mother and let her drag me through her dark waters.

In neither case did I try to dictate what the future would look like. I didn’t demand a certain happy outcome. Nevertheless, I somehow knew, in a deep way, that healing would occur. I never lost that hope, which felt like a certainty. Or as Kant, Marcel, and Martin would say, a faith.

Although I’m Christian, it didn’t seem like a particularly Christian faith in that it didn’t involve images of Jesus. But it seemed to go deeper than psychology. Thinking about Matt, perhaps it involved getting in touch with some deep life force that that wouldn’t allow me to retreat into my head.

I have one more literary image, this one taken from Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, which I taught last week. Ged carries a weasel-like creature called an otak on his shoulder and, at a crisis point when a deep spiritual malaise grips Ged and threatens to bury him, the otak reconnects him with life:

Later, when Geld thought back upon that night, he knew that had none touched him when he lay there spirit-lost, had none called him back in some way, he might have been lost for good. It was only the dumb instinctive wisdom of the beast who licks his hurt companion to comfort him, and yet in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry. From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.

I’ll let you decide whether this deep power, this hope, is religious or secular. Whatever it is, it guides us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Posted in Beowulf Poet, LeGuin (Ursula K.), Sir Gawain Poet | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Unlike Oklahoma, King Wants Real History

Stephen King dreams America's nightmares

Stephen King dreams America’s nightmares

For the first time in my life I’m teaching a novel by Stephen King, whom I have come to regard as today’s Edgar Allen Poe. Last week I talked about how King puts his finger on a deep strain of violence that runs through America. Today, after hearing about how Oklahoma legislators want to whitewash the new American history Advanced Placement curriculum, I return to It since the novel is filled with such instances of covering up.

Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed has a good account of what is happening in Oklahoma. Recently a legislative committee passed a bill declaring that the new curriculum is an “emergency” threatening the “public peace, health and safety.” It’s not entirely clear what’s in the new curriculum but one sees the rightwing fears at work in the concerns mentioned by Flaherty:

Among the Republican committee’s more specific concerns were that the framework “includes little or no discussion of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history and many other critical topics that have always been part of the APUSH course” and that it “excludes discussion of the U.S. military (no battles, commanders or heroes) and omits many other individuals and events that greatly shaped our nation’s history (for example, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Tuskegee Airmen, the Holocaust).”

In response to the criticism, the College Board released a practice exam for the new framework, hoping to reduce suspicions about the test. The questions suggest that, contrary to the Republican resolution, students will study the founding of the United States and the civil rights movement, but also will explore topics such as poverty in American life that are less triumphal than battle victories. 

The committee is being ingenuous when it mentions Parks and King since I doubt if it really wants its history teachers teaching anything but anodyne versions of these two radicals. If it mentions the Holocaust, I’m sure it has in mind Americans heroically liberating the concentration camps rather than, say, America sending back to Nazi Germany the boat filled with Jewish refugees. What the legislators really want is for students not to delve too deeply into our wars, our race history, and our class history.

Harold Bloom has said of Poe that he “dreamt America’s nightmares” and I see King doing the same. We have nightmares when we push under aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge. What gets repressed, of course, becomes toxic. In It, this other America is represented by Derry, Maine, whose bloody history reaches back to the 18th century.

King has a special vantage point from which to view America’s dark underside. Born in 1947 and raised in the hardscrabble industrial city of Lewiston, Maine by a single mother, he witnessed an America different than the one that people saw in Leave It to Beaver. Derry, which shares certain similarities with Lewiston, is the America that Americans want to pretend never happened.

Take, for example, how Derry sets up an “I love Derry” day:

A Canal Days Museum was installed in three empty storefronts downtown, and filled with exhibits by Michael Hanlon, a local librarian and amateur historian. The town’s oldest families loaned freely of their almost priceless treasures, and during the week of the festival nearly forty thousand visitors paid a quarter each to look at eating-house menus from the 1890’s, loggers’ bitts, axes, and peaveys from the 1880s, children’s toys from the 1920s, and over two thousand photographs and nine reels of movie film of life as it had been in Derry over the last hundred years.

The museum was sponsored by the Derry Ladies’ Society, which vetoed some of Hanlon’s proposed exhibits (such as the notorious tramp chair from the 1930s) and photographs (such as those of the Bradley Gang after the notorious shoot-out). But all agreed it was a great success, and no one really wanted to see those gory old things anyway. It was so much better to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, as the old song said.

The dark side of Derry, symbolized by a horrible clown, is acknowledged only by the seven children who set about to defeat it. The year is 1958 and they are all 11, as was King in that year. One of the characters, now an adult who is returning to confront the return of the clown, explains why he is taking this awful trip down memory lane and why he has forgotten the reality he witnessed as a child:

I’m going because all I’ve ever gotten and all I have now is somehow due to what we did then, and you pay for what you get in this world. Maybe that’s why God made us kids first and built us close to the ground, because He knows you got to fall down a lot and bleed a lot before you learn that one simple lesson. You pay for what you get, you own what you pay for…and sooner or later whatever you own comes back home to you.

America is a great nation and one that I love very much. A lot of blood has been spilled to get where we are, however, and we will continue to make terrible mistakes if we don’t face up to our history. What the Oklahoma legislators fail to realize is that grappling with the past, the bad as well as the good, makes us stronger. Patriotic platitudes, by contrast, are dangerous because too many people act out their rage and disappointment when reality fails to go along.

Unfortunately, they may well get their way. Mike Hanlon, the Black librarian and unofficial historian who stays on the lookout for It, tells what happens when people reveal historical truth. The rich folk from Derry, he notes,

would take “my library” away from me in jig time (pun definitely intended) if I published anything about the Legion of Decency, the fire at the Black Spot, the execution of the Bradley Gang…or the affair of Claude Heroux and the Silver Dollar.

Just as the younger generation turns to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report for news voices they feel they can trust, so they may, if the Oklahoma legislators prevail, turn to Stephen King for how history really works. Unlike their frightened and patronizing elders, he acknowledges the dirty secrets.

Further thought: George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Stephen King would say, “Those who refuse to remember the past will be driven mad by it.”

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Motion Picture Industry, It’s You I Love!

Jeanette MacDonald of the flaming hair and lips and long, long neck

Jeanette MacDonald of the flaming hair and lips and long, long neck

For a poem that captures our ambivalent feelings about Oscar night, Frank O’Hara’s “To the Film Industry in Crisis” is as good as it gets. Written in 1955 when television was seriously threatening the film industry, the poem simultaneously mocks and celebrates Hollywood.

On the one hand, O’Hara captures the breathless adulation of fans with lines like “Motion Picture Industry, it’s you I love.” By ending his poem with an echo of Byron’s “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean roll!/Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain,” O’Hara is satirically comparing the movies with the irresistible power of nature. Such over-the-top statements are entirely in line with how Hollywood sees itself and how last night’s red carpet announcers breathlessly ushered in the stars. Hollywood has always been puffed up with self importance, and O’Hara mocks us for going along.

But that being acknowledged, O’Hara is perfectly serious that Hollywood has an energy and allure that are missing from poetic quarterlies, experimental theater, and opera. Celebrity culture has a stature that the Catholic Church and the American Legion (God and country) have trouble competing with. The poet wouldn’t lovingly enumerate so many star performances if he himself weren’t in thrall to the movies.

The 1950s saw many high art vs. low art debates amongst cultural critics. Was high art elitist and out of touch with the masses? Did the allure of the movies threaten to drag us all down to the lowest common denominator? O’Hara doesn’t give us a definite answer. He obviously likes the vibrancy of the silver screen but statements like “may the money of the world glitteringly cover you” makes the poem sound like less than a full-throated endorsement.

Incidentally, there’s a Walt Whitman-quality to the poem, and Whitman presented his own challenge to high art critics 100 years before with Leaves of Grass.

Unless you know your film history, many of the names in the poem may be obscure. It’s not hard to imagine an updated version of the poem, however. As you read it, have fun laughing at the film industry, even as you revel in fond memories. Perhaps you were of the same two minds last night.

To the Film Industry in Crisis

By Frank O’Hara

Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
with your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants,
nor you, experimental theatre in which Emotive Fruition
is wedding Poetic Insight perpetually, nor you,
promenading Grand Opera, obvious as an ear (though you
are close to my heart), but you, Motion Picture Industry,
it’s you I love!

In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.
And give credit where it’s due: not to my starched nurse, who taught me
how to be bad and not bad rather than good (and has lately availed
herself of this information), not to the Catholic Church
which is at best an oversolemn introduction to cosmic entertainment,
not to the American Legion, which hates everybody, but to you,
glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope,
stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all
your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms! To
Richard Bartelhmess as the “tol’able boy” barefoot and in pants,
Jeanette MacDonald of the flaming hair and lips and long, long neck,
Sue Carroll as she sits for eternity on the damaged fender of a car
and smiles, Ginger Rogers with her pageboy bob like a sausage
on her shuffling shoulders, peach-melba-voiced Fred Astaire of the feet,
Eric von Stroheim, the seducer of mountain climbers’ gasping spouses,
the Tarzans, each and every one of you (I cannot bring myself to prefer
Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker, I cannot!), Mae West in a furry sled,
her bordello radiance and bland remarks, Rudolph Valentino of the moon,
its crushing passions and moonlike, too, the gentle Norma Shearer,
Miriam Hopkins dropping her champagne glass off Joel McCrea’s yacht
and crying into the dappled sea, Clark Gable rescuing Gene Tierney
from Russia and Allan Jones rescuing Kitty Carlisle from Harpo Marx,
Cornel Wilde coughing blood on the piano keys while Merle Oberon berates,
Marilyn Monroe in her little spike heels reeling through Niagara Falls,
Joseph Cotten puzzling and Orson Welles puzzled and Dolores del Rio

eating orchids for lunch and breaking mirrors, Gloria Swanson reclining,
and Jean Harlow reclining and wiggling, and Alice Faye reclining
and wiggling and singing, Myrna Loy being calm and wise, William Powell
in his stunning urbanity, Elizabeth Taylor blossoming, yes, to you
and to all you others, the great, the near-great, the featured, the extras

who pass quickly and return in dreams saying your one or two lines,
my love!
Long may you illumine spaces with your marvelous appearances, delays
and enunciations, and may the money of the world glitteringly cover you
as you rest after a long day under the klieg lights with your faces
in packs for our edification, the way the clouds come often at night
but the heavens operate on the star system. It is a divine precedent
you perpetuate! Roll on, wheels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!

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Tracking Eliot’s Spiritual Journey for Lent

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve decided to make it my Lenten quest to come to terms with T. S. Eliot’s religious poems. They have always confused me—at times I have no idea what Eliot is talking about—and I took a stab at one last Sunday with my post on Part I of “Ash Wednesday.” Though I have mixed feelings about Eliot, he and I go far enough back that I’m sure to learn something. I’m hoping the immersion will help me understand my own grappling with faith..

Like many literary geeks, I fell in love with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when I in high school. As a freshman, I overheard an English teacher discussing it with a sophomore and felt that being able to enter such conversations would be like joining an exclusive club, one that had a special language and knew special things. “Prufrock” was the first poem that felt adult to me.

This perspective of Eliot was only reinforced when, my junior year, I encountered “The Hollow Men” and saw Eliot in dialogue with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Although Eliot, even at 27 when he wrote “Prufrock,” sounds like a man going through a midlife crisis, his world-weariness speaks directly to intelligent but insecure adolescents, who know all about putting on a face to meet the faces that you meet and stumbling around avoiding eye contact in death’s other kingdom. I was drawn to Eliot for the same reason I was drawn to Sartre, Camus, and Dostoevsky. I thought it profound to describe the world as meaningless.

In my defense, I was an adolescent at a very confusing time. All around me I saw the race hatred of George Wallace and heard the drum beat of the Vietnam War. In 1968 when I turned 17, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, Wallace was shot, the Soviets quashed the Czechoslovak awakening, Chicago police beat up protesters at the Democratic National Convention, and Richard Nixon was elected president. No wonder I put on a cynical mask.

Eliot also seemed important because I grew up in Sewanee, Tennessee and Eliot was a major influence on The Sewanee Review. As an Episcopalian college, Sewanee liked the fact that Eliot found his way to Anglicanism.

For the longest time I only liked the early poems and reacted against Eliot’s reactionary politics and his high church sensibilities. Looking back now, I realize I was reacting against Sewanee as well as Eliot. Then, after a long hiatus, I made my way back to the Episcopalianism of my youth, although I was attracted more by the poetry of its liturgy than by its high church rituals. In the last couple of years, I have also found my way back to The Waste Land, in part because I was interested in how poetry could comfort a man who felt like the world was flying apart. Last week, “Ash Wednesday” seemed to be a good poem to reflect on as we move into Lent. And here I am.

In reading articles about Eliot’s religious poetry, I am struck by two different views. Joseph Bottum, in “What Eliot Almost Believed” (1995), writes that Eliot was never able to move beyond the intellect. Bottum believes that the poet wrote eloquently about what stood in the way of belief but never truly believed. Of “Ash Wednesday” Bottum writes,

It is a poem not so much about God as a prayer for God, and not so much about prayer as about the effort of the poet to put himself in the attitude of prayer.

Bottum contrasts Eliot was St. Augustine, who he argues was driven mad by his intellect but then, propelled by grace, made a leap of faith into faith:

Augustine falls further and further into self-willed madness as he advances further and further into self-willed self-consciousness, and at last (in a garden as the Confessions tells the story) he converts by the grace of God from madness to that pure and selfless act he sought. But it is a pure and selfless act of will and not of intellect. Augustine becomes an unthinking, irrational, and motiveless desire for the Will of God. And when a child’s voice-saying, “Take up and read”–wafts over the garden wall, Augustine drifts as gently as a leaf across the garden and over to the table where he finds the letters of St. Paul.

That Eliot was never able to so drift, Bottum contends, can be seen in the closing lines of “Ash Wednesday” where, addressing Mary and the Holy Spirit, he describes union with God by what it is not. Rather than asking to be filled with God’s grace, he asks not to be separated:

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

C.E. Chaffin also sees Eliot exploring in “Ash Wednesday,” describing the poem as “more an approach to faith than a record of conversion or a revelation of wisdom.” Chaffin agrees with Bottum that Eliot was stumbling towards faith after having written himself into a corner with “The Hollow Men”:

If Eliot had not been converted after writing “The Hollow Men,” what more could he have written? It is hard to imagine him re-working the theme of worldly despair more vividly. Without some tangible hope to follow that dark poem it seems to me his only options were either suicide or to stop writing poetry altogether.

Happily, Eliot’s body of work chronicles a spiritual and artistic journey that rebounds from such things. Thus we might call “The Hollow Men” his artistic “dark night of the soul.”

But where Bottum sees subsequent failure, Chaffin sees an ever more confident journey:

One might say Eliot was always and only working on one poem, the record of his spiritual journey—from the timid neurosis of “Prufrock” through the superannuated persona of “Gerontion” to the psychotic pilgrimage of “The Waste Land,” on to the hopeless limbo of “The Hollow Men,” through the delicate negotiation of faith in “Ash Wednesday,” finally arriving at the triumphant resolution of “Four Quartets.”

Since I am not familiar with Choruses from the Rock or “Four Quartets” and since I read Eliot’s religious plays (The Cocktail Party, Murder in the Cathedral) at a very different time in my life, I’m curious about what I will learn. I promise to report back.

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Old Lit as a Transformational Experience

Rembrandt, "Scholar Seated at Table with Books"

Rembrandt, “Scholar Seated at Table with Books”

I’ve been heartened by a couple of New York Times columns that Frank Bruni wrote recently (here and here) about a college encounter with an inspirational English teacher. I have some quibbles with the teacher, however.

Bruni’s first column was written in response to the contempt Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has been expressing for the University of Wisconsin, by slashing the budget and by attempting to strike “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” from the University’s mission statement. Walker wants to replace these phrases with “the state’s work force needs.”

To which Bruni asks,

I’m not sure where Lear fits into work force needs.

Actually, I think that King Lear should be required reading for CEOs since it shows clearly how a leader living within his power bubble can run an organization off the rails. Bruni, however, is referring to a moment in a Shakespeare class at the University of North Carolina when Professor Anne Hall made the Bard’s language come alive. Bruni describes this as the most transformational educational experience of his life.

In his mind’s eye Bruni sees Professor Hall

swooning and swaying as she stood at the front of a classroom in Chapel Hill, N.C., and explained the rawness and majesty of emotion in King Lear.

I heard three words: “Stay a little.” They’re Lear’s plea to Cordelia, the truest of his three daughters, as she slips away. When Hall recited them aloud, it wasn’t just her voice that trembled. It was all of her.

Rediscovering love only to lose it again is about as tragic as life gets. Literary moments like this remind us what is truly important. No wonder Bruni was blown away.

Bruni believes that the country started taking a Gradgrindian approach to education when then Governor of California Ronald Reagan asserted that taxpayers shouldn’t be  “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” and that “there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” Since then too many public policy makers have insisted that college should be judged according to its financial payoff. Bruni argues otherwise:

But it’s impossible to put a dollar value on a nimble, adaptable intellect, which isn’t the fruit of any specific course of study and may be the best tool for an economy and a job market that change unpredictably.

And it’s dangerous to forget that in a democracy, college isn’t just about making better engineers but about making better citizens, ones whose eyes have been opened to the sweep of history and the spectrum of civilizations.

Bruni also describes how, because of Hall’s Shakespeare class, he learned about the power of language:

“Stay a little.” She showed how that simple request harbored such grand anguish, capturing a fallen king’s hunger for connection and his tenuous hold on sanity and contentment. And thus she taught us how much weight a few syllables can carry, how powerful the muscle of language can be.

She demonstrated the rewards of close attention. And the way she did this — her eyes wild with fervor, her body aquiver with delight — was an encouragement of passion and a validation of the pleasure to be wrung from art. It informed all my reading from then on. It colored the way I listened to people and even watched TV. 

So far I’m totally with Bruni. I have a couple of concerns about Professor Hall, however, who contacted Bruni after the column appeared and who was the subject of a follow-up column.

I am worried that a lifetime of teaching literature hasn’t kept her from becoming “cranky,” a word that she applies jokingly to herself but that may fit. Here she is sounding like the curmudgeonly William Bennett as she complains about the current state of the English curriculum:

She expressed regret about how little an English department’s offerings today resemble those from the past. “There’s a lot of capitalizing on what is fashionable,” she said. Survey courses have fallen out of favor, as have courses devoted to any one of the “dead white men,” she said.

“Chaucer has become Chaucer and …” she said. “Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

She didn’t want to single out any particular course for derision but encouraged me to look at what Penn is offering this semester. There’s Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance From Chaucer to Tarantino. Also Sex and the City: Women, Novels and Urban Life. Global Feminisms. Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film. Literatures of Psychoanalysis.

I admit to feeling a bit defensive here, given that I teach a British Fantasy class that ranges from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to The Golden Compass, with works like The Tempest, Eve of St. Agnes, Goblin Market, and Fellowship of the Ring ranged in between. I also teach a course entitled “Couples Comedy in the Restoration and 18th century” and have been known to show a current romantic comedy or two to demonstrate how Wilmot, Congreve, Behn, Poe, Fielding, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Burney, and Austen are negotiating relationship issues in ways that we can relate to. The class fills up and the students get excited about how, say, Rape of the Lock addresses current sexual assault concerns.

Hall, who like me is in her sixties, laments the passing of a time when students felt that they were not well-rounded if they hadn’t read all of the “dead white men” in the canon. This leads me to wonder how she responds to the fact that in literature, as in art, music, history, philosophy, and the other arts and humanities, coverage is no longer possible. We’ve discovered too much good stuff to ever return to 1950s curriculums. Even in our introductory surveys we have to assign representative works rather than everything.

Hall also doesn’t acknowledge that often students in her golden era would sometimes come to regard the subjects of required surveys, whether Chaucer or Milton, as dusty museum relics rather than as living, breathing human beings trying to make sense of the world. The key lies in the teachers, not the courses. Good teachers, including Professor Hall, do whatever is necessary to engage students in the material. If taking advantage of students’ love of animals helps to get them excited about “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” then I see no problem. And for those appalled by the inclusion of Quentin Tarantino in a course, have you taken a good look at 17th century revenge tragedies? John Webster is the Tarantino of Jacobean drama.

I notice, incidentally, that Hall herself teaches a course called “Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece” and raves about one of her students, an undergraduate business major. Would this student have taken the course without the “and Politics”?

Hall needn’t be worried about Shakespeare, who will always have his own surveys. So will Jane Austen, the Brontes, Mark Twain and various others. But as for special classes on Chaucer, John Dryden, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson, there’s a reason that lamenting their demise (of the special classes, not the authors) feels like lamenting the end of compulsory Latin and Greek. And I speak as one who still teaches all these writers.

Better to be like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who bravely waves a fond goodbye to her youth and vigor:

Lat go. Farewel! The devel go therwith!     
The flour is goon; ther is namoore to telle;
The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle;
But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde.

The bran we English teachers have to sell is still pretty good stuff—sometimes even better than the flour we grew up with—and we can be right merry as we peddle it.

Posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Murphy: Something Funny in Everything

Murphy's "word for the day" in  SNL's "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood"

Murphy’s “word for the day” in SNL’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood”

Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary celebration turned out to be quite a show, especially with the appearance of Eddie Murphy, who skipped the 25th anniversary. This gives me an excuse to share a Lucille Clifton’s poem about Murphy, “from the wisdom of sister brown.”

By all accounts, Murphy saved SNL in the early 1980s when it was on the verge of collapse. According to actor Ed Norton, Murray represented a “seismic shift and a reinjection of excitement” into the show. Monologues like “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” and “Lincoln’s Birthday” are still striking for their handling of racial stereotypes.

In her poem Clifton also mentions Murphy’s comic predecessor, Richard Pryor. Pryor also made fun of stereotypes of race, most famously in his word association interchange with Chevy Chase where racial epithets, including the n-word, fly wild and free. Clifton picks up a key difference, however.

I don’t know if Sister Brown is an actual person or if Clifton is simply taking on the persona of a wise old woman who looks at the world and sees things that the younger generation misses. For instance, whereas many are dazzled by Elizabeth Taylor, “Sister Brown” is drawn to the tricky smile of singer Lena Horne. Brown sees world weariness where others, especially white audiences, might see only fun. It’s a carefully masked weariness, however. Here’s the poem in its entirety:

from the wisdom of sister brown

By Lucille Clifton

on sisterhood

some of our sisters
who put down the bucket
lookin for us
to pick it up

on lena (born 6/30/17)

people talk about beautiful
and look at lizabeth taylor
lena just stand there smilin
a tricky smile

on the difference between
eddie murphy and richard pryor

eddie, he a young blood
he see somethin funny
in everythin   ol rich
been around a long time
he know aint nothin
really funny

If Murphy became a bigger star than Pryor, it may be in part because he was less threatening to white audiences. A refusal to avoid certain topics helps explain why Pryor’s s television show didn’t succeed. I’m not certain that Clifton is accusing Murphy of failing to pick up the bucket put down by Pryor, however. Perhaps she is just shaking her head at a generational shift.

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Teaching Gender Sensitivity at West Point

Richardson in "Handmaid's Tale"

Richardson in “Handmaid’s Tale”

Here’s a story I never thought I would see: The Handmaid’s Tale is required reading for entering West Point cadets.

Salon reported the story of Margaret Atwood’s trip to the military academy to speak about her novel. The cadets were also assigned Ursula Le Guin’s fine short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

I’ve posted on Handmaid’s Tale in the past, usually in the context of conservatives trying to roll back women’s reproduction rights (here and here). Her dystopian future, inspired by 1984, imagines that fundamentalist Christians have taken over America following an environmental catastrophe that has led to significant declines in fertility. To rectify the situation, they decree that young fertile women are to serve as “handmaids” to produce children for patriarchs and their sterile wives. The model is the Abraham-Sarah-Hagar-Ishmael story in the Book of Genesis, a plausible illustration of how zealots pick and choose the passages they want from holy scripture. Women who have abortions and men who aid them are publicly executed.

The Salon article, unfortunately, doesn’t go deeply into the kind of conversations that the orientation leaders hope will emerge from the book. Lt. Col. Naomi Mercer, an Iraqi war veteran and assistant professor, just observes that “[t]he Army has real gender issues, still” and that Handmaid’s Tale “at least creates a vocabulary to talk about those issues. It was very prescient.”

Among those issues, of course, is the large number of sexual assaults in the military. Last year 5,983 assaults were reported, and the number is probably low. In any event, sensitivity needs to be raised, and Atwood’s novel is one way to raise it.

For instance, it articulates how society is crippled by gender power imbalance. West Point cadets surely pick up on the fact that the patriarch described in Handmaid’s Tale is a military general. Though the state sanctions his having sex with Offred, his handmaid, his life is not fulfilling. In fact, we see him starved for intimacy, so much so that he secretly plays scrabble with her at night. If West Point men understand that men as well as women pay a price for patriarchal sexism, then something important will have been achieved. True happiness in a relationship occurs when there is genuine reciprocity, but one needs to think beyond traditional notions of dominance and submission to get there.

There are also important lessons in the book for women who turn their back on feminism, as noted in this interchange between a cadet and Atwood:

But he did have a question. He couldn’t help but notice that some of the worst treatment the novel’s female characters receive comes at the hands of other women.

“That’s true,” Atwood said. “That’s how these things work. All dictatorships try to control women, although sometimes in different ways. And one of the ways they control any group is to create a hierarchy where some members of the group have power over the others. You get those people to control their own group for you.”

The general’s wife Serena Joy, who may be modeled on Phyllis Schafly, is deeply unhappy, even though she lives as the honored wife in the kind of patriarchal marriage that she, like Schlafly, has advocated. To live a pedestal life is not to honor one’s whole being, as West Point female cadets understand well. Like Schlafly, Joy has once been a public figure, but she is now reduced to keeping house and feeling resentful towards the handmaid that she hopes will provide her with a child. Not surprisingly, she turns to alcohol to cope with a discontent she can’t acknowledge.

I like the idea of the male and female cadets discussing the end of the novel, where Offred collaborates with her male guards to get free and fight back against the system. If assigning the book can help influence men and women to work together to break free of traditional ways of thinking, then Lt. Col. Mercer will have accomplished something special.

A note on the other reading assignment, which involves a related imaginative exercise. In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Le Guin asks us to imagine a perfect society that has only one flaw: its existence relies on the imprisonment of a child.

From the perspective of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis a la Jeremy Bentham, the trade-off seems a good one: although one child is victimized, everyone else is happy. The truly enlightened, however, are those who can empathize with the child and who walk away from Omelas, even at the cost of their comfortable existence.

How wonderful that tomorrow’s military leaders are being challenged to think outside their own perspectives. They will be better leaders if they can see the world through the eyes of the men and women who they command and the men and women they interact with in other cultures. This is literature being called upon to do heavy lifting.


Previous posts on Handmaid’s Tale

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True?

Threatened by Female Empowerment

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A Song of Love for Julia

Julia Bates, the love of my life

Julia Bates, the love of my life

Today the woman I married 42 years ago turns 64, which means that two Beatles songs come to mind. I still need her and I still feed her and I continue to sing a song of love for Julia, Julia, Julia.

I fell in love with Julia for many reasons but one of them must have been because of the easy way her name slides off the tongue. My first poetic encounter with the name was not the Beatles song but a wonderfully sensuous Robert Herrick poem. “Upon Julia’s Clothes” was taught to me in 1967 to illustrate iambic meter:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!

Both Julia’s silks and the sound of her name liquefy, and John Lennon’s own handling of the name is filled with water imagery. According to WikipediaLennon’s mother, killed by a drunk driver, was named Julia, and Lennon moves between the name and Yoko Ono, whose first name means “child of the sea.” In the song, Julia is an ocean child calling out to the singer, but he finds language inadequate to express his feelings. He twice turns to the mystical poet Kahlil Gibran to help him out:

The line “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you” was a slight alteration from Kahlil Gibran‘s “Sand and Foam” (1926) in which the original verse reads, “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you.” Lennon also adapted the lines “When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind” from Gibran’s “When life does not find a singer to sing her heart she produces a philosopher to speak her mind.” (Wikipedia)

In this instance, however, life has found a singer to sing her heart. “Julia” works as a kind of mystical incantation, crooned out and repeated over and over. Lennon voices his longing for his mother and elides that longing with his love for Ono.

You can hear the song on YouTube here . The lyrics go as follows:


By John Lennon

Half of what I say is meaningless
But I say it just to reach you, Julia

Julia, Julia, oceanchild, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia
Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia

Her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering
In the sun

Julia, Julia, morning moon, touch me
So I sing a song of love, Julia

When I cannot sing my heart
I can only speak my mind, Julia

Julia, sleeping sand, silent cloud, touch me
So I sing a song of love, Julia
Hum hum hum hum… calls me
So I sing a song of love for Julia, Julia, Julia

Let this also be my song of love for Julia. Happy Birthday, sunshine.

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Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

Stephen King's Pennywise from "It"

Stephen King’s Pennywise from “It”

Following the killing this past week of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Abu-Salhaof, the three North Carolina Muslim students, my inclusion of Steven King’s It in my American Fantasy class seems timely. Perhaps more than any other contemporary author, King dreams America’s nightmares, and one of the nightmares he explores in It is America’s penchant for killing.

“It” is the deranged clown Pennywise, who functions as an archetype of communal violence. He is timeless, and in King’s novel he returns to wreak havoc in the town of Derry, Maine every 25 years or so. In one instance he prompts white supremacists to burn down a black bar with everyone in it, in another to mow down with overwhelming firepower a group of outlaws. In the two years covered by the novel, 1958 and 1985, he is killing children. “It,” it’s useful to remember, is the English word for “id.”

Because the thought that their children are being murdered is so horrific, people find ways to deny that it is really happening, just as they push from their minds the horrific incidents of Derry’s past. They would rather think of themselves as the kind of town one encounters in Leave It to Beaver.

The seven children who comprise “the Losers Club,” however, see It for what it is and confront the clown. In 1958 they rely on their innocence to fight It. In 1985 they must (to quote Jesus) become as little children in order to defeat the monster again.

I’ll be discussing in future posts if King’s novel provides any guidance to countering the violence that we see periodically erupting in different parts of America. In today’s post I examine what King sees when he looks at our country.

Like Poe and Hawthorne, in whose gothic tradition he writes, King sees a contradiction at the heart of America. The Puritans envisioned building a “city upon a hill” and thought that they could start history anew, cleansed of past taint. I discussed last week how the “white city” of the 1893 Columbian Exposition drew on this ideal and in turn inspired The Wizard of Oz (1900). In his introduction, L. Frank Baum writes,

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

Baum in turn inspired Disney, who also sought to leave out the nightmares. Historian Peter Manseau describes the same process at work in  a new book in which he argues that some of John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical power lay in their invocation of the city upon the hill vision. They were promising us that we could be clean again.

Manseau notes that the vision is founded upon a lie, which the 19th century gothic writers also recognized. If you have to think of yourself as pure, you just drive your evil into the subconscious, and the Puritans were haunted by visions of the devil. Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown thinks he can follow the saintly path of his Puritan ancestors, only to discover from the devil that they committed horrific acts:

I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.

It doesn’t seem a stretch to see either the devil or Pennywise as intimate friends of Craig Hicks, who first assembled an arsenal of guns and then murdered the Muslim students. Or for that matter, to see the clown directing the actions of the police officers who killed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice; or the vigilantes who killed Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis; or the Newtown killer, the Aurora killer, the Fort Hood killer… Every month adds new names to the list. In many ways, King seems less to be writing a gothic fantasy and more to be simply recording American life today.

For instance, King has his finger on America’s love of guns, which is integrally bound up in much of the killing. Note, for instance, how he describes the orgasmic bloodletting where Derry unloads on the outlaw gang:

It was all over in four, maybe five minutes, but it seemed a whole hell of a lot longer while it was happening. Pete and Al and Jimmy Gordon just sat there on the courthouse steps and poured bullets into the back end of the Chevrolet. I saw Bob Tanner down on one knee, firing and working the bolt on that old rifle of his like a madman. Jagermeyer and Theramenius were shooting into the right side of the La Salle from under the theater marquee and Greg Cole stood in the gutter, holding that .45 automatic out in both hands, pulling the trigger just as fast as he could work it…There must have been fifty, sixty men firing all at once.

To view America from the outside, with our lax gun laws and our killings, must be to see a community gripped by insanity. Like the inhabitants of Derry, however, those of us who live here close down our minds after our initial horror and fatalistically move on. Only an idealistic child, in all his or her naivete, could imagine putting a stop to the rampages of homicidal clowns.

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Learning to Love the Desert

Ivan Kramskoi, "Christ in the Wilderness"

Ivan Kramskoi, “Christ in the Wilderness” (1872)

Spiritual Sunday

Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, which gives me an opportunity to grapple with a poem that has always eluded me. As far as I can tell, T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” (1930) takes the despair expressed in “The Hollow Men” (1925) and turns it upside down. Now despair seems to represent not the end of hope but the starting point of faith.

For Eliot, however, faith does not come easy. If “Ash Wednesday” provides us with a vision of salvation, it also shows us that salvation may come only after a momentous struggle. As C. E. Chaffin writes in a very clarifying essay on the poem,

In AW Eliot’s poetic persona has somehow found the courage, through spiritual exhaustion, to seek faith. That faith requires of him complete submission, including the admission that faith must ultimately come from without because the “within” is exhausted.

That makes “Ash Wednesday” a very appropriate Lenten poem. Lent is that season that calls upon us to burn away the dross so that we can find the gold. That is the purpose behind Lenten disciplines.

In today’s post I examine the first section of “Ash Wednesday,” where the poet compares himself to a couple of suffering lovers, the 15th century Italian poet Guido Calvacanti and Shakespeare’s sonneteer. After acknowledging his suffering, Eliot then concludes that such suffering is a good opportunity to pare away distraction and begin to build a relationship with God.

“Because I do not hope to turn again” appears in a Calvacanti poem where a poet who is dying tells his love he will not see her again. “Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope,” meanwhile, is from Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, which opens in a state of despair:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least…

Shakespeare’s sonnet dramatically turns around, just as Eliot sees faith in God turning him around:

Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

As I said, such a shift does not come easy to Eliot. “Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?” he asks at one point and then acknowledges that our former wings have become “merely vans to beat the air.” We can no longer recover the “vanished power of the usual reign.”

But rather than despairing in this powerlessness as he does in “The Hollow Men,” Eliot thanks the suffering for pointing him towards the divine. Once we fully realize that we cannot “turn again” and that the world is transitory and limited—when we have hit rock bottom, in other words—then we can “rejoice, having to construct something/Upon which to rejoice.”

Eliot sounds Buddhist when he asks God to “teach us to care and not to care,” which I read as a request for instruction in how to be compassionate even as we give up our old desires. Because we thrash around in our discontent, Eliot wants God to “teach us to sit still.” Once we do so, then we can sincerely call out the words of the “Hail Mary” prayer: “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Achieving a state where we can truly listen and pray–that is what Lent is all about.

Ash Wednesday

By T. S. Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

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Spend Valentine’s Day with a Novel

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre”

Valentine’s Day

Better than going out on a Valentine’s Day date, curl up up with your favorite literary hero. Or so advises Claire Fallon of The Huffington Post, who provides a witty Rorschach test which informs why they fall in love with the male characters that they do. She sets up her choices with the following explanation:

Over the years, I’ve giggled with friends over various fictional studs, but, just as in real life, we often disagreed as to which romantic figure reigned supreme. In high school, I was Miss Sarcastic, and Mr. Darcy did seem like the ultimate — a handsome foil for my sharp comments who would be won over by my spirit and sass. Other friends prized dark, brooding men, like Mr. Rochester, whose melancholy seemed to promise sensitivity, an artistic nature, or a painful secret (in this case the last, unfortunately, but they can’t all be winners). Some women preferred carefree rogues who represented freedom and fun. And more often than not, our tastes in fictional men seemed to say far more about our true natures than we realized.

I recognize all those that Fallon has chosen from the classics. Some of the others are unfamiliar:

Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables)
Laurie (Little Women)
Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)
Benedick (Much Ado about Nothing)
Four (Divergent)
Mr. Knightley (Emma)
Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)
Dean Moriarty (On the Road)
Rochester (Jane Eyre)
Levin (Anna Karenina)
Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)
Edmond Dantes (Count of Monte Cristo)
Uncas (Last of the Mohicans)
Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind)
Will Ladislaw (Middlemarch)
Aragorn (Lord of the Rings)
John the Savage (Brave New World)
Edward Cullen (Twilight)
Caspar Goodwood (Portrait of a Lady)
Jaime Lannister (Song of Ice and Fire)

It’s a good list for the most part although why any woman would choose Heathcliff is beyond me. (Then again, two female characters do.) Here’s Fallon’s explanation:

You’re drawn to troubled, even dangerous men — maybe it’s just your fear of boredom, maybe it’s a secret desire to be the woman he would reform himself for, but probably it’s a little bit of both. But whether he reforms or not, you’d rather risk his unpredictable moods than trudge through a dull routine with a more stable guy. Anyway, what’s more romantic than a man’s love for you driving him half insane? 

I’m really impressed with the inclusion of Will Ladislaw, who has always been a favorite of mine. But I like even better the woman he marries, Dorothea Brooke, which gave me the idea to make up a list comprised of my favorites among the female partners. What emerges is an even stronger list:

Dorothea Brooks
Jo March
Elizabeth Bennet
Scout Finch (we’re about to discover what she’s like when she grows up)
Jane Eyre
Kitty Levin
Cora Munro (a fitting partner for Uncas)
Isabel Archer
Catherine Heathcliff II (but not her mother)

If one were allowed to keep the author but make substitutions, I would choose

Viola over Beatrice
Anne Elliot over Emma
Eowyn over Arwen

Who would you add?

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Sarah Palin as Dorothy

red pumps

In yesterday’s post I shared the kind of interpretation of The Wizard of Oz that gives English teachers a bad name. When students hear us claiming that the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan or that the Wicked Witch of the East stands in for Wall Street banks, they feel confirmed in their suspicion that we are either magicians or bullshit artists. Many of them see little point in mastering such an arcane art.

They don’t realize that they themselves are constantly drawing such symbolic equivalencies. They see, say, a movie about a U.S. sniper in Iraq and feel reassured that the United States is not in decline. They don’t have to think twice that the sniper symbolizes America. Their own symbol-reading and symbol-making capacities are constantly at work.

So as teachers, how do we take the mystery out of what we do? I like Robert Scholes’ suggestion, in The Crafty Reader, that we spend more time teaching literary biography and historical context. If students get to know an author’s life and times closely, they can begin to understand why he or she would be drawn to certain images and narratives. There’s even more reason to identify if the authors  struggle with issues close to the students’ hearts.

In my teaching of Wizard of Oz, this means bringing the students into the ambitious Baum’s struggle to achieve the American dream during an economic depression. Because they themselves are wrestling with student debt and an uncertain future, these biographical facts hit home.

I think the story’s mythical power comes from how it simultaneously captures our longing for the American dream and our fear that the dream is “somewhere over the rainbow.” The original book grew out of the recessions and depressions that ended the 19th century. The legendary film appeared in 1939 during the Great Depression at a point when people were losing hope in Roosevelt’s New Deal. Now, in the uncertain economic times of the early 21st century, we have audiences flocking to see the long-running musical Wicked (2003).

My students weren’t terribly taken with the idea of the Cowardly Lion as Bryan—who’s he?—but they perked up at my suggestion that we had a Dorothy running for vice-president during the 2008 economic meltdown. I have in mind, of course, Sarah Palin.

Now that much of the Republican Party is bailing on the former governor of Alaska, we may forget just how much symbolic power she wielded at the time. Wearing her famous red pumps, she was for many the populist savior that was going to lead America out of its economic doldrums. A pioneer spirit like Dorothy, she claimed to represent “real America” as she opposed the evil witches of the east and west coasts. Anticipating the Tea Party, she convinced her fans that she was the exposing “great and powerful” humbugs, whether they be the government or the GOP establishment. Throughout the south there were billboards with the single word “Sarah!”

She hasn’t fared well since then and, for that matter, Dorothy herself begins to fade in the later Oz books. No one ages in the Land of Oz and the enterprising innocence act gets old. But the lesson for our purposes is that the politicians who capture our imaginations are those who tap into deep mythologies. The symbolic power of Wizard of Oz became a bit clearer to my students when they saw it in the context of contemporary politics. Once they could imagine Palin as Dorothy, Bryan made more sense as the Cowardly Lion.

English teachers are not magicians. We are just attuned to how human beings use images and narrative to understand the world. We empower our students when we pass that knowledge on.

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Wizard of Oz, America’s Greatest Fairy Tale

Wizard of Oz

I’m currently teaching L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900) in my American Fantasy course and am discovering that Baum’s book was a watershed event in American fantasy, comparable to the publication of Lord of the Rings in England.

It’s an open question which of the two works has been more influential. Tolkien’s trilogy has certainly had more of a literary impact, spawning the “sword and sorcery” genre that shows no appearance of abating. The Wizard of Oz, on the other hand, can be seen as leading to Walt Disney and the Disney empire.

I’ve asked my students to write about how The Wizard of Oz is an American fairy tale. In certain ways, Oz hearkens back to John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” that Puritan vision of America as a place to step beyond history and build God’s kingdom on earth. The vision inspired the building of “the white city” for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which is where Baum probably got the direct inspiration for Oz. Carl Sandburg might describe Chicago as the “hog butcher of the world,” but for Baum it was the Emerald City.

In an article entitled “There’s No Place But Home,” Jerry Griswold points out that Oz is a version of the United States. In the East there are the Munchkin farmers, versions of the prosperous and well-mannered Pennsylvania Dutch. The West, the country of the Winkies, is a wild and savage wilderness of wolves, savage crows, and killer bees and also a land filled with Indians (the winged monkeys) and Asian immigrants (the yellow Winkies). The South, the Quadlings, has both hammerhead hillbillies and dainty china people. The north, the Gillikins, has the hills and lakes that Baum associated with his vacation home in Michigan.

American politics as well as geography enter into The Wizard of Oz. In 1964 high school English teacher Henry Littlefield argued that Wizard of Oz was a satiric allegory of late 19th century populism. The idea enjoyed popularity for a while but then fell out of favor, in part because scholars started unearthing new facts about Baum’s political leanings. For instance, rather than a supporter of populism, he may have been a critic, which turns Littlefield’s interpretation on its head.

I’ve just read Quentin Taylor’s “Money and Politics in the Land of Oz,” however, which has convinced me that many of the populism parallels stand up, even though the overall idea needs tweaking.

Here’s the gist of the argument. Baum witnessed up close the Midwest’s drought and economic recession when he was a newspaperman in 1880s South Dakota and folded those conditions into his book. At the time, there was a major clash between East Coast banks, which wanted to return America to the gold standard, and Midwestern farmers, who were seeing their farms go under and hoped that they would be saved by moving to a bimetallic currency that included silver. (Gold and silver, incidentally, were weighed in ounces or oz.) Having silver in circulation would lead to some inflation, thereby raising the price of the farmers’ crops while effectively decreasing the cost of their fixed mortgages. At the height of the conflict, William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination for president with his legendary “thou shalt not crucify mankind on a cross of gold” speech.

As Littlefield and others have seen it, one finds the following equivalencies in the novel:

Dorothy – America’s innocence and can-do spirit
Yellow brick road – gold standard

Wicked Witch of the East – eastern banks
Silver slippers (changed to ruby in the movie) – silver coinage
Cyclone – Mary Lease, a firebreathing populist orator known as “the Kansas Cyclone” (Dorothy’s last name is “Gale”)
Toto – teetotalers, allied with the populists
Scarecrow – farmers
Tin Woodman – industrial workers
Cowardly Lion – William Jennings Bryan (get the rhyme?)
Giant spider killed by lion – corporate monoliths
Wicked Witch of the West – grim natural conditions
Wizard of Oz – Washington politicians

In this allegorical reading, if the electorate, operating out of Dorothy’s pioneer woman optimism, can march on Washington (like Coxey’s “Army” of the unemployed in 1894), free itself from the East Coast banks, and pressure slippery politicians to endorse bimetallism, the Midwest will be returned to prosperity. To do so, however, they must live up to their potential, which includes farmers using their brains, industrial workers discovering their hearts, and leaders displaying courage.

As Taylor notes, there are far too many correspondences to throw the theory out altogether. The problem lies in the heavy-handed way in which people have applied the symbols. Baum’s grandson declared such allegorizing to be “insane” given the fact that no one had picked up on it for 64 years. What good is an allegory if no one recognizes it as one?

It’s safe to say that The Wizard of Oz is not an allegory the way that Animal Farm or Gulliver’s Travels are allegories. Those works point to our own world to make their satiric points. Orwell meant for us to see how the descendants of Marx and Lenin had betrayed the ideas of the Russian Revolution. We are not reading too much into the work if we see Old Major as Marx/Lenin, Snowball as Trotsky (also some Lenin), and Napoleon as Stalin.

But I don’t think that Wizard of Oz is as innocent of allegorizing as, say, Tolkien claims Lord of the Rings to be. Tolkien insisted that his book should not be read as corresponding to current events, even though it is hard not to see the Shire as England, Tom Bombadil and Britain’s ancient Celtic roots, Sauron as Hitler, the Nazgul Black Riders as Nazi Storm Troopers, Saruman as Stalin, etc. I’m sympathetic with Tolkien’s point, however, because, unlike Orwell, he is creating a self-contained fantasy world. If it reflects the events of the time, it does so as all literature does. Tolkien doesn’t want us to see our world in Middle Earth. He wants to escape our world.

Taylor gives us a third way of looking at Wizard of Oz: it’s a children story that doubles as a private joke. In this joke, Baum is not promoting any particular cause but is having fun along the way. For instance, he’s neither for Bryan nor against him but having fun at his expense, including joking about his supposed cowardice for opposing American imperialism into the Philippines and (equating him now with the Wizard) seeing him as a Nebraska blowhard full of balloon-like hot air. The fantasy would win out over the satire, however, and Oz took on a life of its own in the numerous sequels.

Although few outside Ron and Rand Paul-type libertarians argue about gold and silver anymore, other themes from Baum’s time are alive and well today. It’s why Wizard of Oz has become like Cinderella or Snow White, an archetypal fairy tale capable of generating ever new versions. I’ll have more to say about Baum’s creation in future posts.

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An Ideal Place to Study Lit

Shangri-La in Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" (1937)

Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon” (1937)

High school English teachers sometimes have to remind themselves that Shakespeare wasn’t targeting adolescents in his plays, and college English teachers similarly need to shake free of early adulthood framework that begins to define the works that they teach. It’s an occupational liability that we encounter.

This was the subject of a conversation I had this past December with my 32-year-old son Darien and with John Grammer, who runs the University of the South’s School of Letters each summer in Sewanee, Tennessee. Darien talked about how reading Moby Dick after spending several years in the world of business made the novel a far richer experience than it would have been had he encountered it in college.

Reading the novel on the New York subway, Darien was very attuned to Pequod’s hierarchy, which was not unlike that of an advertising firm he had once worked at. He loved the images of the men working together with urgency and a sense of common purpose. He was also attuned to how bad management can run an enterprise off the rails. The Quaker investors who are financing Captain Ahab would be more than a little concerned if they knew about his obsession. One hopes they are insured.

John talked about how wonderful it was teaching adults in the Institue of Letters. Many of them are high school teachers, who prize the chance to explore literature with other adults before returning to the classroom. Sewanee sits 2000 feet up atop a plateau, making it an idea place to read and discuss.

Thinking about John’s institute, I was put in mind of James Hilton’s description of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, also perched high in the hills. One could do worse than model a school on the monastery that Conway encounters there:

He did not think he had ever been so happy, even in the years of his life before the great barrier of the war. He liked the serene world that Shangri-La offered him, pacified rather than dominated by its single tremendous idea. He liked the prevalent mood in which feelings were sheathed in thoughts, and thoughts softened into felicity by their transference into language. Conway, whom experience had taught that rudeness is by no means a guarantee of good faith, was even less inclined to regard a well-turned phrase as a proof of insincerity. He liked the mannered, leisurely atmosphere in which talk was an accomplishment, not a mere habit. And he liked to realize that the idlest things could now be freed from the curse of time-wasting, and the frailest dreams receive the welcome of the mind. Shangri-La was always tranquil, yet always a hive of unpursuing occupations; the lamas lived as if indeed they had time on their hands, but time that was scarcely a featherweight. Conway met no more of them, but he came gradually to realize the extent and variety of their employments; besides their knowledge of languages, some, it appeared, took to the full seas of learning in a manner that would have yielded big surprises to the Western world. Many were engaged in writing manuscript books of various kinds; one (Chang said) had made valuable researches into pure mathematics; another was coordinating Gibbon and Spengler into a vast thesis on the history of European civilization. But this kind of thing was not for them all, nor for any of them always; there were many tideless channels in which they dived in mere waywardness, retrieving, like Briac, fragments of old tunes, or like the English ex-curate, a new theory about Wuthering Heights. And there were even fainter impracticalities than these. Once, when Conway made some remark in this connection, the High Lama replied with a story of a Chinese artist in the third century B.C. who, having spent many years in carving dragons, birds, and horses upon a cherrystone, offered his finished work to a royal prince. The prince could see nothing in it at first except a mere stone, but the artist bade him “have a wall built, and make a window in it, and observe the stone through the window in the glory of the dawn.” The prince did so, and then perceived that the stone was indeed very beautiful. “Is not that a charming story, my dear Conway, and do you not think it teaches a very valuable lesson?”

Conway agreed; he found it pleasant to realize that the serene purpose of Shangri-La could embrace an infinitude of odd and apparently trivial employments, for he had always had a taste for such things himself. In fact, when he regarded his past, he saw it strewn with images of tasks too vagrant or too taxing ever to have been accomplished; but now they were all possible, even in a mood of idleness.

Having grown up in Sewanee, maybe it is nostalgia that causes me to think that time stops there as it does in Shangri-La. On the other hand, retreating from the world to bury oneself in books sounds idyllic to me. If you think you might be interested in John’s program, it runs this year from June 7-July 17.

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If Beowulf Went to War with ISIS

Beowulf vs. Grendel's Mother

Beowulf vs. Grendel’s Mother

If you want to see Grendel’s Mother in action, look at current events in the Middle East. Even Beowulf would have difficulty defeating this incarnation of the monster.

I teach my students that the monsters in Beowulf are symbolic articulations of various destructive human angers. Grendel anger, the hot rage of those who feel left out, passed over, or otherwise aggrieved, drives many of our mass killers. The Dragon is the frozen rage of the deeply depressed, which is capable in an instant of spouting fire and leveling everything around it when it feels encroached upon. And then there is Grendel’s Mother, the grieving anger of those who have lost someone precious.

After seeing an ISIS propaganda video of a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive, Jordanians are in the grip of this last anger. Just as Grendel’s Mother feels compelled to make someone pay for the death of her son, so Jordan immediately executed some of the terrorists that they had contemplated trading for the pilot, and they have upped their aerial bombardments.

It’s not only Jordan that is dancing with this monster. Americans have been fantasizing about their own scorched earth response to ISIS beheading American captives.

Anglo-Saxon society understood such intractable anger well because it had a significant problem with blood feuds. One encounters multiple stories in Beowulf of kings either engaging in such feuds or trying to tamp down the anger that the feuds have unleashed. Take, for instance, King Finn of the Frisians, who first tries diplomatic marriage and then anti-hate laws to defuse a powder keg of hate. Neither approach works.

Finn at first tries to ensure peace with the Danes by marrying the Danish princess Hildebuhr. Fighting still breaks out between the Danes and the Frisians, however, and Hildebuhr sees both her Danish brother and her Frisian son killed in the battle. Then, because neither side triumphs, the two warring sides must figure out a way to coexist. Finn forbids his men to provoke King Hengest and his Danes:

With oaths to Hengest
                                          Finn swore
openly, solemnly,
                               that the battle survivors
would be guaranteed
                                      honor and status.
No infringement
                              by word or deed,
no provocation
                           would be permitted.

Unfortunately, these well intentioned efforts fail as emotions run too deep. The Danes take to arms again:

                                 The wildness in them
had to brim over.
                               The hall ran red
will blood of enemies.
                                       Finn was cut down…

One can think of the current situation as a continuing blood feud brought about by grieving anger. When the U.S., grieving over 9-11, attacked Saddam Hussein (not that he had anything to do with it), we helped propel a number of Hussein’s Baathist forces into their own grieving anger. Some of these people are key figures in ISIS.

Meanwhile the Shiites, who we helped to power and who had their own scores to settle with the Sunnis, unleashed their own set of  Grendel’s Mothers. Revenge killing leads to revenge killing leads to revenge killing. Invading Iraq was insane because we needlessly introjected ourselves into someone else’s blood feud.

As a hero, Beowulf finds productive ways to deal with the angers that rip societies apart. Is there anything that he can teach us?

First, we learn what does not work. When Beowulf is battling Grendel’s Mother at the bottom of the her monster-infested lake, he learns than sword blows have little impact. In other words, to respond to ISIS with mere sword blows (or bombs) is ultimately ineffective.

Beowulf also learns that the iron grip that worked against Grendel will not work against grieving anger. An impressive show of strength and an iron will are not enough. ISIS is not going to back down.

What does work for Beowulf, however, is the invocation of a higher ideal, represented by the great sword that he finds in the underwater hall. This sword has been forged by giants in the golden age before the flood and represents a higher warrior authority. Beowulf uses this sword to kill the monster.

Our own version of such authority, I think, is a political solution. Yes, swords must still be involved, but ISIS can ultimately be stopped only if the area’s nations come together to oppose it and if the Iraqi Shiites move beyond sectarianism and include Sunnis in the government.

Delicate diplomacy will be critical so don’t listen to those blustering war hawks that fantasize hacking away with swords. Beowulf is impressive because he refuses to be overwhelmed by the murky depths of the Mother’s anger. He maintains his poise even when things are at their worst.

In other words, like Beowulf we need to keep our heads, which is awfully hard when we see people being beheaded and burned alive. No one said that being an epic hero is easy.

Do our leaders have it in them to be Beowulfs? Do we?

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The Unassailable Thankfulness of Life

Joseph Wright of Derby, "The Orrery"

Joseph Wright of Derby, “The Orrery”

Spiritual Sunday

Before sharing today’s poem, I take a side-glance at Barack Obama’s prayer breakfast reflections, which the usual suspects are attacking. The president is being accused of smearing Christianity, but a post I wrote a while back on Uncle Tom’s Cabin bears him out.

In case you didn’t hear about the comments, Obama said that we should never judge a religion by its extremist elements. If we were to do so, we would need to dismiss Christianity no less than Islam:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often [were] justified in the name of Christ.

Harriet Beecher Stowe makes it clear how often slave owners quoted the Bible in defense of their ownership of other human beings, even as she also makes a religious case against slavery. Nor, as the president notes, did using the Bible to justify discrimination end with slavery. Growing up in the segregated Tennessee Bible Belt, I heard people claim that African Americans were black because they bear the curse that Noah bestowed on his son Ham.

And now to another issue that riles up the Christian right: evolution.

Robert Barasch, a regular reader of this blog, wrote to me about how he came to write “Miracle, Anyway” (2003).  At 37 he went back to school to take a zoology course and found himself fascinated by the origins of life:

These early organisms, consisting mainly of alimentary functions, moved through their world staying alive by partaking of nourishment, processing it, and moving the waste out. Along the way these tube-like structures changed (in some individuals) to include gills where there had been only perforations. These in turn evolved into mandibles, fins, air bladders, and lungs, and along the way we had fish, amphibians, primitive hominids, and finally us.  All this, according to Darwinian theory, occurred without being directed.

I love how the poem reminds us that, in our impassioned debates about creation, we sometimes lose sight of (to quote Lucille Clifton’s “the inner child”) “the damn wonder of it.” These include those “Darwinites” who militantly refuse to consider the possibility that life has a spiritual dimension and those “designerites” who just as militantly insist on reducing creation to their own simplistic formulations. When terror of the unknown rules people’s theories, then “all discussion, all wisdom, all art, all science” are indeed put at risk.

Barasch answers these debates in the same way that e. e. cummings describes the universe responding to the philosophers, scientists, and theologians who seek to uncover its secrets: “thou answerest them only with spring.” In “Miracle, Anyway,” they are answered by life’s “unassailable thankfulness.”

“Thankfulness” is not a word that scientists generally use, just as creationists don’t have a very good explanation as to why God would keep tinkering with creation. Yet Barasch captures both the marvels of evolution and the passionate way that life seeks that which is beyond itself, eventually taking a form that “hungers for the moon.” Again quoting from his note,

I think I have always been aware of the contingencies surrounding individual lives, hence terror and existential anxiety. How could one not be appreciative of the obstacles each of us has overcome? It seems miraculous to me. 

Here’s the poem, which appeared in the literary journal Confrontation:

Miracle, Anyway

By Robert Barasch

Say Darwin was right,
that the busy muscles I saw working
on the sigmoidoscope monitor
were performing their ancient task
of pushing casts down and out
while the front end was gobbling aliment
and moving forward to new ground,
that front end grown articulate
with new mouthparts to sample,
to explore and extract, to chew
and spit and make sounds,
having grown an organ of memory
for returning to choice places,
pulling the new partners along,
using the heart, lungs, and other additions
to go further and further,
the simple ameba and the complex worm
grown into the giant with the tongue
that reaches, that tastes, that speaks,
that hungered for the moon.
Say Darwin was wrong,
and the designer of the miraculous tube
saw it was good and could be better,
starting simple, adding complexity
until there were more parts than we can count.
Say Darwinites are terrified at the thought
of a source of knowledge beyond their ken;
say designerites are terrified at the thought
of no mind beyond our own.
Say terror rules all discussion,
all wisdom, all art, all science.
Say those simple tubes know no terror –
only fleeting dissatisfactions
that flicker and fade
in the seamless fabric
of their voraciousness and motility
and their unassailable thankfulness.

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Clifton Brings Black History Alive

Winslow Homer, "The Cotton Pickers"

Winslow Homer, “The Cotton Pickers”

Black History Month

Black History Month begins this week so I’m turning to Lucille Clifton reflections on the importance of looking back. Her book “quilting” ((1991) is particularly rich in the number of poems it has on this subject.

In “i am accused of tending to the past,” Clifton insists on talking about things that others would like to remain buried. Because history’s winners always want to forget the people they walked over to get where they are, history’s downtrodden need spokespeople to reconstruct the obliterated past. Clifton believes that the poet must provide history “faces, names, and dates” for this history, even if she offends when she does so:

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.  

One piece of “History” that Clifton fills in is the Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina. In an interview with Bill Moyer, Clifton recounted how her tour made no mention of slaves, as though a small white family had managed a two thousand acre plantation by themselves. She discovered unmarked stones in a cemetery indicating where slaves had been buried and insisted on seeing the plantation’s inventory. The following poem was the result:

at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies

The word “lies,” of course, works as a pun, as does the final “hear.” The shift in spelling and the sudden silence, however, suggests another possibility. If we listen hard enough, we can “hear” the truth in the blank space. The poet’s job, Clifton told Moyer, is to point us to that truth:

Clifton: [W]e cannot ignore history. History doesn’t go away. The past isn’t back there, the past is here too.

Moyers: Is it part of poetry’s job to recover history, to proclaim it, and to correct it when necessary?

Clifton: Yes. All that may be needed is that the injustice in the world be mentioned so that nobody can ever say, “Nobody told me.”

When one gives faces and names to History, the descendants of those who have been erased can begin to walk tall. Clifton makes this point in “lucifer speaks in his own voice.” Lucille feels a kinship with Lucifer, with whom she shares the Latin prefix “lux” or light. In her version of the story, Her Lucifer is not an evil devil but a perceived troublemaker who upsets the established order of Eden. She, who “has some of the devil inside her,” sees Lucifer and herself herself upsetting people with their uncomfortable truths.

Truth-telling is vital because “some must walk or all will crawl.” Which is to say, only if we have justice for all will we have a truly just society. As a subversive poet, Clifton must “slither” into our lives to awaken us:

i who was called son
if only of the morning
saw that some must
walk or all will crawl
so slithered into earth
and seized the serpent in
the animals… i became
the lord of snake for
adam and for eve
i   the only lucifer
light bringer
created out of fire
illuminate i could
and so
illuminate i did

Black History Month is about illumination. The truth shall make us free.

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Pesticides vs. Sweetness and Wings


Barbara Kingsolver gave eloquent fictional testimony to the plight of the monarch butterfly in her 2012 novel Flight Behavior, and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is consider declaring it an endangered species. According to a recent blog in Scientific American,

Populations of the iconic and beloved monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) have dropped an astonishing 96.5 percent over the past few decades, from an estimated 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million in early 2014. 

Apparently the major cause is the decline of milkweed, often brought about by the rise of herbicide-resistant crops. (These crops survive being sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup but the milkweed dies.) Other pesticides are also to blame, as is logging and a killer storm in 2002 that killed 500 million monarchs.

Here’s a Scott Bates poem pointing out that we lose more than just butterflies with mass exterminations. We lose a source of spiritual regeneration.

Drawing on the erotic spirituality of Song of Solomon (a.k.a.,  Song of Songs), Bates imagines the butterfly gathering place as a sensual and nurturing womb. We don’t need to go to heaven to find solace for our existential despair. When we open ourselves to nature, we touch the divine:

The Underside of Heaven’s Gates

By Scott Bates

“Blessed is the man that heareth me, Sophia, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.” –Proverbs 8:34 

“Open to me, my sister, my life.” –Song of Solomon 5:2 

Swarms of golden butterflies
pour into the secret gardens of Mexico.

Through the gates and
into the temples
of the Sierra Madre
to sleep like gods,

rocked by the quiet
breathing of the moon.

               I touch
               your wings

Since I’ve raised the issue of precious insects threatened by the irresponsible use of pesticides, this is a good place to mention a progressive action group demanding that Home Depot and Lowe’s remove neonicotinoid pesticides from their shelves. According to Credo Mobilize, last summer 60 thousand bees died when neonicotinoid pesticides were sprayed on linden trees in the Portland, Oregon suburbs. If you’re not worried about hive collapse, you’ve forgotten where your food comes from.

Mary Oliver imagines herself as a bee in her joyous poem “Happiness.” This too is a poem about the healing capacity of nature. Notice how she starts off depressed, thinking of herself as a lumbering bear and “a black block of gloom.” Once she encounters “the honey-house deep as heartwood,” however, she is transformed into “an enormous bee/all sweetness and wings.”

Hold these images in your mind next time you hear about Congress opposing environmental regulations.


By Mary Oliver

In the afternoon, I watched
the she bear; she was looking
for the secret bin of sweetness–
honey, that the bees store
in the trees’ soft caves.
Black block of gloom, she climbed down
tree after tree and shuffled on
through the woods.  And then
she found it!  The honey-house deep
as heartwood, and dipped into it
among the swarming bees–honey and comb
she lipped and tongued and scooped out
in her black nails, until

maybe she grew full, or sleepy, or maybe
a little drunk, and sticky
down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.
I saw her let go of the branches,
I saw her lift her honeyed muzzle
into the leaves, and her thick arms,
as though she would fly–
an enormous bee
all sweetness and wings–
down into the meadows, the perfection
of honeysuckle and roses and clover–
to float and sleep in the sheer nets
swaying from flower to flower
day after shining day.

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On Poe & the Paranoia of Anti-Vaxxers

Norman Rockwell, "Before the Shot" (1958)

Norman Rockwell, “Before the Shot” (1958)

What’s with all the craziness on immunizations? Certain public figures (Chris Christie, Ron Paul, Bill Maher, Robert Kennedy, Jr.) are saying that it should be a matter of personal choice whether people get their children immunized. Because enough parents have chosen wrongly, we are witnessing a dangerous outbreak of the measles, a disease that we had all but eradicated. Do you remember the good old days when everyone agreed that vaccinations should be mandated to achieve “herd immunity”?

Some of the current thinking reflects a suspicion of science and some a suspicion of government. Unscrupulous politicians, preying on these fears, are making life unsafe for all of us.

It’s not a bad thing to express skepticism about science and scientists. Literature has been doing so since Mary Shelley in Frankenstein and, even before that, Jonathan Swift in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels. In my American Fantasy course at the moment, we are discussing how positivist science’s one-dimensional view of the world has prompted us to turn to fantasy, which articulates truths about the human condition that such science can’t touch.

But science properly understood and responsibly practiced is a boon to humankind, as witnessed by the fact that measles, mumps, small pox and other diseases are currently exotic outliers rather than the common experience of childhood that I remember them as.

My fantasy course provides some insight into America’s new anti-science bent. I especially have in mind Freud’s famous essay “The Uncanny,” which I taught last week. It may explain why a significant part of our population is falling for paranoid narratives that seem immune to rational discourse.

Freud talks about how we push under or repress fears that we recognize but don’t want to face up to. When we shove these fears into our unconscious, they become toxic. They emerge in uncanny stories that induce feelings of dread.

The major fear Freud writes about is fear of death. He also points to various desires, the incest desire being the most dramatic, that we experience innocently as children but come to regard as abhorrent. It strikes me, however, that science and social science have been so effective at revealing new threats to us that we have a whole new set of fears that we may be tempted to close our eyes to. Among the new threats are:

–human-caused climate change
–technologically doctored food
–an exploding world population that requires increasingly complex management
–the cultural dislocations caused by globalization and the internet

Often fears related to these issues are addressed by dystopian science fiction, with Margaret Atwood making particularly important contributions in recent years with her Oryx and Crake trilogy. Our narratives move from science fiction into gothic horror when we push under the fears triggered by these developments. Sci-fi horror is good at capturing how we feel when we repress the fears generated by modernity.

I’ve been teaching various Edgar Allen Poe short stories where scientific insight fails to provide the confidence and security we expect. At first glance, to be sure, science promises to banish the shadows of the uncanny, just as Freud’s psychological science strove to banish the hysteria caused by (to put it simplistically) shame over having sexual urges. In a story like “Murders of the Rue Morgue,” super detective Auguste Dupin shows that the mysterious murder of two women in a seemingly locked room actually has a logical explanation.

The story is eerie or uncanny because we recognize, but then deny, that humans have it within them to commit such horrific acts as decapitating a woman with a razor. Learning that the perpetrator is an escaped orangutan, not a human, should come as a relief. But one of my students said that she found this development to be the most uncanny thing about the story. That’s because, in the primate, we recognize a double of ourselves that we don’t want to admit to.

Another uncanny masterpiece, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, relies on this disturbing resemblance between humans and apes.

And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman. The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted. (emphasis mine)

Stevenson’s novel, of course, is about how the civilized Doctor Jekyll is so horrified by his potential for savagery that he seeks to expel it. By pushing it away, unfortunately, he just renders it toxic and more powerful. He becomes Mr. Hyde.

Evolutionary science, rather than clearing up the uncanny with the light of truth, only further confirmed the unsettling kinship that people felt with apes. This is why many in the 19th century were as horrified by Darwin as they were by Freud—they were repulsed because, deep down, they saw some truth in their theories.

Poe’s insightful observers, like today’s scientists, do not dispel shadows but create new fears. Roderick Usher’s exquisite sensitivities pick up realities missed by the narrator, who tries to apply common sense to the strange sounds emerging from Madeline’s vault. Even Dupin, who seems to represent the triumph of logic over magical thinking, sees himself as a creative genius rather than as someone prosaically making sense out of “just the facts, m’am.” It’s a short jump from Dupin to the narrators of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-tale Heart,” who use their considerable intellects to wall up their murder victims.

To repeat my general point, scientists and social scientists are opening up powerful insights into all kinds of things, from the climate to human behavior to economics. Then they are bewildered when people resist their conclusions and think they have to become yet more convincing. People don’t reject their theories because they are unconvinced, however, but because they are unsettled. They move into avoidance, and their avoidance leads to paranoid fantasies about scientists, the president, the government, big business, and God knows what else.

And the paranoia leads to a measles outbreak.

Posted in Poe (Edgar Allan), Stevenson (Robert Lewis) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Super Bowl, Comic & Tragic Versions

Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge

What a Super Bowl that was, with amazing twists and turns all the way through! Depending on who you were rooting for, it was either heartbreaking tragedy or exhilarating comedy. A work comes to mind for each.

If you were one of the few Americans who did not see the game, here’s a recap of the final minutes. After having given up a first half lead and then going down by ten points in the third, the Patriots fought back to take a four point advantage with just under two minutes left in the game. Seattle then drove the length of the field in a minute and had the ball on the one-yard line with a minute to go and three chances to punch it in.

For good measure, they had a timeout left and they had “Beast Mode” running back Marshall Lynch to do the heavy lifting. Lynch may be the premier short yardage runner in the National Football League and he had been carrying tacklers with him all day. Even if the Patriots were to stack the line, few doubted that Lynch would break through for the winning score.

Instead, hoping to catch the Patriots off guard, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass. And was intercepted!

If you were rooting for the Patriots, the ending of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera is what you want.

Throughout the play, highwayman Mac the Knife has effected a number of miraculous escapes, just as the Patriots escaped the Baltimore Ravens and appeared ready to escape Seattle. In the end, however, he is betrayed to the authorities and is sentenced to be hanged. A player who has been watching the play objects to such an ending:

Player. But, honest Friend, I hope you don’t intend that Macheath shall be really executed.

Beggar. Most certainly, Sir.—To make the Piece perfect, I was for doing strict poetical Justice.—Macheath is to be hang’d; and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience must have suppos’d they were all either hang’d or transported.

Player. Why then, Friend, this is a downright deep Tragedy. The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily.

So what does the playwright do? He arranges a timely interception–I mean, intercession:

Beggar. Your Objection, Sir, is very just, and is easily remov’d. For you must allow, that in this kind of Drama, ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about—So—you Rabble there—run and cry, A Reprieve!—let the Prisoner be brought back to his Wives in Triumph.

The Patriots’ escape was an absurd ending, but that is the very essence of comedy. No one predicted that the game would conclude like this. Joy reigned supreme in New England.

Seattle fans, by contrast, must have felt like they were being toyed with by the malevolent gods mentioned in King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

They experienced as well the hellish torment of Tantalus, who is teased with luscious fruit, only to have it snatched away the moment it approaches his lips.

The story that comes to mind involves another man about to be hanged, which makes for a nice symmetry. Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” made into an Oscar-winning short film in 1962, gives us a Confederate sympathizer and saboteur who has been sentenced to be dropped from the bridge. If you don’t want me to spoil the ending, you can first read it here before concluding this post.

In the story, the rope breaks and, by swimming downstream, the man is able to escape, diving deep every time he sees the troops preparing to fire. The river then turns into rapids, taking him far beyond their reach. His neck hurting and his throat parched, he then plunges into the forest and runs all night, working his way back to his plantation. Here’s how the story ends:

Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene—perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

This is how the game’s ending felt to Seattle fans: they were on the verge of a beautiful delirium, they were springing forward to clasp the object of their desire, and then reality set in, bringing them up short with a cold, hard shock.

Sports can be cruel that way.

Posted in Bierce (Ambrose), Gay (John) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Lit Make the Rich More Empathetic?

Jean Georges Ferry, "Two Women Reading in an Interior"

Jean Georges Ferry, “Two Women Reading in an Interior”

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist known for his support of the downtrodden, has written a column about failures of compassion in our country and what we can do to build empathy. I was glad to see that he included reading literature among his recommendations.

First to the problem. Kristof cites various studies that suggest that those who are wealthy and isolated are less empathetic than the rest of us. Take, for instance, charitable giving:

[T]he wealthiest 20 percent of Americans give significantly less to charity as a fraction of income (1.4 percent) than the poorest 20 percent do (3.5 percent), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

That may be partly because affluence insulates us from need, so that disadvantage becomes theoretical and remote rather than a person in front of us. Wealthy people who live in economically diverse areas are more generous than those who live in exclusively wealthy areas.

Kristof cites a neurological study about how fiction increases empathy, with great fiction proving more effective than beach reading or non-fiction. (I’ve posted on that study here.) Kristof also cites Thomas Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence, which argues that the world is increasing in empathy. Pinker traces some of this back to the 18th century and expanding literacy.

Although I’ve shared Pinker’s ideas in the past (here and here), they’re worth revisiting. You can check out this excerpt for what Pinker says about fiction, but I’ll sum up his major observations.

First, he notes the power of satiric fiction such as, say, Gulliver’s Travels:

We have already seen how satirical fiction, which transports readers into a hypothetical world from which they can observe the follies of their own, may be an effective way to change people’s sensibilities without haranguing or sermonizing.

Turning then to realistic fiction, Pinker borrows a number of ideas from historian Lynn Hunt:

In [the epistolary novel] the story unfolds in a character’s own words, exposing the character’s thoughts and feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator. In the middle of the century three melodramatic novels named after female protagonists became unlikely bestsellers: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), and Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Hélöise (1761). Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had nothing in common. A retired military officer, writing to Rousseau, gushed: You have driven me crazy about her. Imagine then the tears that her death must have wrung from me … Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during that supreme moment.”

French philosophe Denis Diderot was also a Richardson fan:

One takes, despite all precautions, a role in his works, you are thrown into conversation, you approve, you blame, you admire, you become irritated, you feel indignant. How many times did I not surprise myself, as it happens to children who have been taken to the theater for the first time, crying: “Don’t believe it, he is deceiving you.”… His characters are taken from ordinary society … the passions he depicts are those I feel in myself.

Pinker cites Hunt’s causal chain, in which “reading epistolary novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights.” While he rightly acknowledges that attributing the decline of violence to literature must be seen with with some skepticism, he still comes down in favor it:

But the full-strength causal hypothesis may be more than a fantasy of English teachers. The ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. And in some cases a bestselling novel or memoir demonstrably exposed a wide range of readers to the suffering of a forgotten class of victims and led to a change in policy. Around the same time that Uncle Tom’s Cabin mobilized abolitionist sentiment in the United States, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1839) opened people’s eyes to the mistreatment of children in British workhouses and orphanages, and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea (1840) and Herman Melville’s White Jacket helped end the flogging of sailors. In the past century Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse- Five, Alex Haley’s Roots, Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy (a novel that features female genital mutilation) all raised public awareness of the suffering of people who might otherwise have been ignored.

One caution is in order. As I’ve noted in the past, if people can play upon the emotions to promote progressive causes, they can also do the same to promote reactionary ones. Here’s a passage from that blog post:

A colleague of mine, Christine Wooley, studies the sentimental novel and talks about how sentiment can be used for less than noble purposes. For instance, late 19thcentury African American novelist Charles Chestnutt was concerned that readers would bathe in novelistic scenes of pathos but not do anything about it. (As a countermeasure, he turned to realism and naturalism, providing almost scientific descriptions of the lives of African Americans.) More perniciously, Thomas Dixon in The Clansman, which D. W. Griffith turned into Birth of a Nation, used emotional scenes of brutish Blacks assaulting virginal white women to justify Jim Crow laws. Emotions can be used for reactionary as well as progressive causes, 

Perhaps a point to be made here is that we must distinguish between different levels of empathy. Great literature opens us up to our full humanity whereas lesser literature does not. For instance, Dixon may open our hearts to Little Sis as she flees from a black rapist, but he reduces us to our primal fears in his depiction of this man. For that matter, Dixon also reduces women to heavenly creatures in his melodrama. By contrast, a great author, even if he’s reactionary (say, Balzac), shows us the full range of what it means to be human.

Put another way, an author who subordinates art to an agenda cannot do justice to our capacity for empathy. Pinker is not a literary historian and so doesn’t dwell on this distinction between good and bad literature, but we can appreciate its importance. And apparently even brain scans are now picking up the difference.

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The Golem, A.I., and God

Golem of Prague

Rabbi Loew and the Golem of Prague

Spiritual Sunday

My friend Jackie Paskow alerted me to this post where a Jewish rabbi takes on Steven Hawking’s confident and unequivocal assertion that there is no god. The article deals with the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Hawking is very pessimistic on this score. As he sees it, we are well on the road to creating computers that can outthink us and ominously warns, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Rabbi Benjamin Blech turns to the 17th century Jewish legend about the golem of Prague to reflect upon the matter. While the story, a forerunner of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, gives us ample reason to be worried, it also points to what is missing in Hawking’s thinking.

In the legend Rabbi Judah Loew uses Jewish mysticism to turn a lump of clay into a monster that will defend the Jewish people. He makes it come alive by inscribing the word “emet” or “truth” upon the creatures forehead.

Things go wrong, of course, and the creature slips the bounds of control. Blech explains:

Much to his consternation however, Loew soon realized that once granted its formidable strength, the golem became impossible to fully control. Versions of the story differ. In one the golem fell in love and, when rejected, turned into a murderous monster. In another the golem went into an unexplained murderous rampage. In perhaps the most fascinating account, Loew himself was at fault — something akin to a computer programmer’s error — by forgetting to deactivate the golem immediately prior to the Sabbath, as was his regular custom. This caused the golem to profane the holiness of the day and be guilty of the death penalty.

One sees the template here for not only Frankenstein but also those dystopian movies like Terminator and The Matrix. The golem also makes an appearance in the Michael Chabon novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

There is nothing in Hawking’s universe that can stop the unleashed monster, but the same is not true of the golem:

The rabbi erased the first letter of emet — the aleph with a numerical value of one, representing the one God above who alone can give life. That left only the two letters spelling the Hebrew word for death, “met.” No longer representing the will of the ultimate creator, nor bearing the mark of God on his forehead, the golem turned into dust.

Put another way, there may be a power beyond ourselves that can save us from ourselves. If there is not, then Hawking’s pessimism is full warranted. As Blech puts it:

Perhaps the biblical God in whom I and so much of the world believe must also deeply regret the “artificial intelligence” with which he imbued mankind. Perhaps we are the greatest illustration of the fear we now verbalize for our technology — creations capable of destroying our world because we doubt our creator. 

To be sure (as militant atheists never cease to point out), belief in a god has not stopped people from doing awful things. Indeed, the Bible itself is filled with countless examples of this occurring, and often atrocities are committed in the name of God. But in those instances, people have turned their back on divinity and made false idols of their own fears and desires. They have reduced God to themselves rather than humbled themselves before God and taken guidance. If people like Hawking are right and there is no God—if there is nothing but a materialistic universe—then there is indeed no check.

Faith in God is a faith in a higher wisdom and a higher love that we can invoke to step beyond our darkness. Take that away and, okay, the end of the human race may well be at hand.


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The Miraculous Ride of Tom Brady

Tom Brady

Tom Brady

I’ve been avoiding thinking about the Super Bowl, largely because Tom Brady is playing in it and Peyton Manning is not. But as much as I root against Brady and the Patriots, I have to admit that they are a marvel. Since they are named after the Massachusetts revolutionary heroes, I quote from the best known poem about those earlier patriots.

I have in mind, of course, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” To be sure, the poem is historically inaccurate, with Samuel Prescott and Williams Dawes getting left out. They had the misfortune to have names that didn’t scan or rhyme as well as Revere, which is how history sometimes gets written. Still, it’s a stirring poem, written in the early days of the Civil War to inspire the North to battle.

Unfortunately for Seattle, they have to stand in for the British. That’s not entirely inappropriate as they are the reigning power. Unlike the Red Coats, however, they are not heavily favored.

There are more resemblances on the other side. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is like the patriots of old in that he has a genius for adapting his game plan to fit whatever circumstances he meets and to bend the rules in ways that infuriate the enemy. He figures out when the opposing team is signaling “one if by land and two if by sea,” and, like the embattled farmers, his attacks are versions of firing “from behind each fence and farmyard wall.” If he’d been commanding the 1775 patriots, maybe he would even have found a way to change the flight of the musketballs.

For the record, I think the Patriots are guilty of deflating the footballs in the same way that Henry II was guilty of Thomas A Beckett’s death or Henry IV of Richard II’s. “Have I no friend will rid me of these rock hard balls?” (My post on plausible deniability can be found here.) Luckily for football, this did not change the outcome of the Colts game.

The Patriots are hoping for a reprise of the Battle of Concord:

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled, —
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

If Belichick and Brady really do route the enemy, then their names will become as legendary in sports history as Paul Revere’s exploits are in American history. Years from now we will be recounting how a coach and his quarterback dominated for league, winning their first Super Bowl and their last (if it’s their last) an amazing 13 years apart. Listen my children…


Previous Posts on the Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks Prepared to Swoop and Kill 

Seahawks: Unleashed, Endlessly Hungry 

Zeus Predicts Broncos Will Win 

Competing Narratives in the Superbowl

Previous Posts on the New England Patriots

Belichick Ranks with Lit’s Great Plotters

Tom Brady Channels Medea’s Fury 

Mannings vs. Brady, Hector vs. Achilles 

Bill Belichick as Professor Moriarty 

Belichick and Saban: Infernal Machines 

No Man Is an Island (Not Even Reavis) 

A Poem for Every Playoff Team 

Schadenfreude and the NFL 

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Media Is Like White Queen: Scream First

Tenniel, "Alice through the Looking Glass"

Tenniel, “Alice through the Looking Glass”

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker makes great use of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen in writing about New York’s blizzard-that-wasn’t. I’m talking about the snowstorm that didn’t happen this past Tuesday.

Just talking this way already indicates how the situation invites comparisons with Carroll’s Looking Glass world. Gopnik then very cleverly uses Carroll’s reversals to make an even broader point about how, thanks to the media, we spend a lot of time getting worked up over potential crises and scandals, only to act (if they fail to materialize) as though we had been calm all along.

Gopnik associates the White Queen with Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen before labeling the former as ruler of “the Kingdom of the Snow That Fell Before It Started Falling.” He sets up the parallel by quoting instances of the media hysteria that preceded the non-storm:

“In New York City, the latest National Weather Service update hints a bit more strongly that this storm could over perform there, saying, ‘It should be a raging blizzard,’ ” read one report. It continued, “Although official forecasts say 20-30 inches for the city, a top-end scenario of three feet is still possible, which could break the city’s all-time single storm snowfall record (dating back to 1869) by 5 to 10 inches.” The report said that the N.W.S. office in Boston warned that the storm’s “central pressure will explosively deepen on Tuesday, at a rate twice that of a ‘bomb’ cyclone.” One N.W.S. forecaster said, “It’s bombogenesis, baby!” The storm was called “historic” and “crippling.” And “explosively deepening”—this is snow porn, of course, and for some reason it excites us. We like the Armageddon until it’s here.

The actuality in New York (although not in Boston) was closer to what a rabbinical student says in an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story that Gopnik quotes:

Snow comes from heaven, and brings us the peace of a better world.

Here’s the scene with the White Queen:

The Queen began screaming so loud that she had to leave the sentence unfinished. “Oh, oh, oh!” shouted the Queen, shaking her hand about as if she wanted to shake it off. “My finger’s bleeding! Oh, oh, oh, oh!”
Her screams were so exactly like the whistle of a steam engine, that Alice had to hold both her hands over her ears.
“What IS the matter?” she said, as soon as there was a chance of making her heard. “Have you pricked your finger?”
“I haven’t pricked it YET,” the Queen said, “but I soon shall—oh, oh, oh!”
‘When do you expect to do it?’ Alice asked, feeling very much inclined to laugh.
‘When I fasten my shawl again,’ the poor Queen groaned out: ‘the brooch will come undone directly. Oh, oh!’ As she said the words the brooch flew open, and the Queen clutched wildly at it, and tried to clasp it again.

Then the crisis occurs:

‘Take care!’ cried Alice. ‘You’re holding it all crooked!’ And she caught at the brooch; but it was too late: the pin had slipped, and the Queen had pricked her finger.
‘That accounts for the bleeding, you see,’ she said to Alice with a smile. ‘Now you understand the way things happen here.’
“But why don’t you scream now?” Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again.
“Why, I’ve done all the screaming already,” said the Queen. “What would be the good of having it all over again?”

After quoting Carroll, Gopnik moves on to media behavior and our responses generally:

The Queen’s final remark is the motto of the modern American media, apropos of pretty much anything. We get hysterical at first, and by the time the snow explosions don’t take place, or it emerges, say, that Benghazi isn’t a scandal, or we experience the American Ebola epidemic that never happened—Why, We’ve Done All the Screaming Already! With our doom prophets, no one even recalls the snow warning that went wrong, the super predators who didn’t appear.

And further on:

We live … every morning[ ] in the White Queen’s Kingdom.

Gopnik points out that, unlike the case with many of our hysterical forecasts, the White Queen’s finger actually bleeds. Also unlike us,

at least the White Queen knows that she is having the emotions in the wrong sequence.

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No-Name Women vs. Anti-Abortionists

Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston

I can’t believe that once again Republican politicians are discussing legitimate vs. illegitimate rape. This time the culprit is South Carolina Lindsay Graham. This time even anti-abortion GOP congresswomen rebelled.

In past posts I’ve sometimes turned to Tess of the D’Urbervilles to explain why rape and abortion are far more complex than rightwing activists claim (see below), but today my choice is Maxine Hong Kingston’s story “No Name Woman.”

To be absolutely fair, Graham didn’t actually use the phrase “illegitimate rape.” Rather, he asked anti-abortion activists to provide him with “a way out of this definitional problem with rape.” In other words, he was asking for a way to distinguish between so-called legitimate and illegitimate rape without shooting himself in the foot. At the heart of his question was his belief that (in the words of New Republic writer Brian Beutler) “women will lie about rape if that’s what it takes to get an abortion.” And of course at the heart of that belief is that he knows better than women about what they should do with their bodies.

The reason rape won’t leave the abortion conversation is because it is the grayest of the three exceptions that some (but far from all) anti-abortionists are willing to grant: “rape, incest, and the health of the mother.” So after already splitting hairs, the rightwing are splitting subhairs. What they aren’t prepared to acknowledge is that lives are immensely complicated and that women often have deep and powerful reasons for choosing to abort.

Kingston’s powerful story (or quasi family memoir) tackles the complexities although, in her protagonist’s case, the victim is not a fetus but a live baby. Kingston’s aunt, back in China, had a child through an adulterous affair and then committed suicide by jumping into the village well with the baby in her arms. This occured after the outraged village had torn apart the family’s house, trampled its crops, and destroyed its livestock. They don’t stop to ask about the specifics of the case.

Kingston can only speculate upon what these specifics are. One is that her aunt had been raped:

My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family.

Perhaps she had encountered him in the fields or on the mountain where the daughters-in-law collected fuel. Or perhaps he first noticed her in the marketplace. He was not a stranger because the village housed no strangers. She had to have dealings with him other than sex. Perhaps he worked an adjoining field, or he sold her the cloth for the dress she sewed and wore. His demand must have surprised, then terrified her. She obeyed him; she always did as she was told.

Another imagined scenario is that her aunt, whose husband had left years ago for America and who was living in barren circumstances, acted upon deep and forbidden longings.

Whatever the reasons, they don’t matter any more to the villagers than the reasons for an abortion matter to anti-abortion radicals. It is enough that a woman broke their rules. As a result, they are willing to unleash unholy hell upon her and her family.

Kingston writes of how the villagers punished her aunt “for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them.” Maybe that is what infuriates our own anti-abortionists: that women want to have a private life, secret and apart from them.

Previous posts on America’s abortion and reproduction debates

John Irving’s Defense of Abortion 

Imagine Austen vs. War on Women

SCOTUS Traps Women in Doll’s House 

GOP vs. Women=Pentheus vs. Bacchae

How the Rightwing Would Respond to Tess 

Ryan, Abortion, and Hardy’s Angel Clare 

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True? 

A 17th Century Comedy Addressing Rape 

Threatened by Female Empowerment

Unruly Women Playing Cards

Purity Tests Kill the Patient  (Hawthorne’s The Birthmark)

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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