Trollope, Obama, Schmoozing, & the Media

Anthony Trollope, Prime Minister

The last two summers I’ve been driving my mother around the country to visit old relatives. Last summer we visited her Jackson and Montgomery cousins in Des Moines, Iowa, and this summer it was the Bates family reunion in Maine and the Brewster Conants in Acton, Massachusetts. She tells me old family stories as we drive and we listen to Anthony Trollope novels.

My mother has long been a Trollope fan and now she has me hooked as well. On our most recent trip we listened to Trollope’s last and relatively short An Old Man’s Love (1884) and then launched into the formidable Prime Minister (1876), the fifth of the Palliser novels. I’m still listening on disk but my mother couldn’t wait and checked out the library copy as soon as we got back to Sewanee.

Prime Minister is very relevant to our current political turmoil. Or at any rate, it captures the centrist dream that opposing parties can be persuaded to peacefully coexist. The Prime Minister of the title is heading a unity government of Tories and Liberals—Victorian England’s version of Republicans and Democrats—and appears headed for success. After all, he has a great deal of integrity and is respected. Unfortunately, he doesn’t like politicking or schmoozing and refuses to engage in polite political fictions. As a result, he makes enemies out of people whom he could have placated and storm clouds begin to gather.

As I was listening to Prime Minister, I thought of the attacks on President Obama from columnists like Maurine Dowd for not being a shrewd arm twister like Lyndon Johnson or a smooth schmoozer like Bill Clinton. Somewhat like Obama in his early years, the Duke of Omnium prefers to stay above the fray. To be fair to the president, I don’t think George Washington himself could bring our country together today, but Trollope’s novel reminded me of the criticisms.

Here’s the Duke realizing that his wife’s highly successful parties appear to be accomplishing more than Parliamentary debate:

And now, gradually,—very slowly indeed at first, but still with a sure step,—there was creeping upon him the idea that his power of cohesion was sought for, and perhaps found, not in his political capacity, but in his rank and wealth. It might, in fact, be the case that it was his wife the Duchess,—that Lady Glencora of whose wild impulses and general impracticability he had always been in dread,—that she with her dinner parties and receptions, with her crowded saloons, her music, her picnics, and social temptations, was Prime Minister rather than he himself. It might be that this had been understood by the coalesced parties,—by everybody, in fact, except himself. It had, perhaps, been found that in the state of things then existing, a ministry could be best kept together, not by parliamentary capacity, but by social arrangements, such as his Duchess, and his Duchess alone, could carry out. She and she only would have the spirit and the money and the sort of cleverness required.

He complains about the situation to an old friend:

The idea of conquering people, as you call it, by feeding them, is to me abominable. If it goes on it will drive me mad. 

One of the people the Duke could have placated with food is Quintus Slide, editor of The People’s Banner. Instead he rebuffs Slide when the latter tries to inveigle an invitation, and from then on the editor determines to bring him down.

I share with you Trollope’s depiction of Slide because it exposes the egotism found in too many media personalities. In fact, Slide goes after Omnium on grounds that are as baseless as the New York Times’ recent charges against Hillary Clinton. In the novel, the Duke sees his wife, against his orders, unofficially encouraging one Ferdinand Lopez, the novel’s villain, to run for a Parliamentary seat. Once Lopez understands he can’t count on the Prime Minister for support, he withdraws and complains to Omnium about his election expenses. The Duke sees his point and pays them, even though he doesn’t have to. Slide learns that money has been paid and is self-righteously indignant:

But certainly the thing must not be allowed to pass away as a matter of no moment. Mr. Slide had almost worked his mind up to real horror as he thought of it. What! A prime minister, a peer, a great duke,—put a man forward as a candidate for a borough, and, when the man was beaten, pay his expenses! Was this to be done,—to be done and found out and then nothing come of it in these days of purity, when a private member of Parliament, some mere nobody, loses his seat because he has given away a few bushels of coals or a score or two of rabbits! Mr. Slide’s energetic love of public virtue was scandalized as he thought of the probability of such a catastrophe.

It’s irrelevant to Slide that the Duke’s motives are pure and no one has been hurt. More important are the headlines to be made:

To his thinking, public virtue consisted in carping at men high placed, in abusing ministers and judges and bishops—and especially in finding out something for which they might be abused. His own public virtue was in this matter very great, for it was he who had ferreted out the secret. For his intelligence and energy in that matter the country owed him much. But the country would pay him nothing, would give him none of the credit he desired, would rob him of this special opportunity of declaring a dozen times that the People’s Banner was the surest guardian of the people’s liberty,—unless he could succeed in forcing the matter further into public notice. “How terrible is the apathy of the people at large,” said Mr. Slide to himself, “when they cannot be wakened by such a revelation as this!”

Slide publishes his findings and, while there is a small stir, the affair dies down. To make it bigger, Slide needs someone in Parliament to challenge the Duke. If he were operating today, he’s be a big advocate of the incessant Benghazi! committees:

Who was to ask the question? If public spirit were really strong in the country there would be no difficulty on that point. The crime committed had been so horrible that all the great politicians of the country ought to compete for the honor of asking it. What greater service can be trusted to the hands of a great man than that of exposing the sins of the rulers of the nation? So thought Mr. Slide. But he knew that he was in advance of the people, and that the matter would not be seen in the proper light by those who ought so to see it. There might be a difficulty in getting any peer to ask the question in the House in which the Prime Minister himself sat, and even in the other House there was now but little of that acrid, indignant opposition upon which, in Mr. Slide’s opinion, the safety of the nation altogether depends.

Yes, newspapers sell a lot more copies, television programs draw a lot more viewers, and blogs get a lot more clicks when there is acrid, indignant opposition. Some things never change.

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On Choosing Works for the Canon

Joshua Reynolds, "Portrait of Samuel Johnson"

Joshua Reynolds, “Portrait of Samuel Johnson”

The most recent New York Times “Bookends” column has two authors taking on an always interesting question for those of us who teach college literature surveys and period courses: which works should be in the literary canon? While James Parker gets sidetracked, Francine Prose makes some good points.

Parker tells us he wants to banish Wordsworth from the canon because he mistreated Coleridge. Parker does so even after acknowledging that

if we started giving writers the boot for bad behavior, there would very soon be no one left. To demand spotlessness from our writers is the literary version of Donatism — the fourth-century heresy so energetically opposed by St. Augustine, which held that only a priest of pure character was fit to administer the sacraments. A disastrous man or woman can write truly and beautifully: We all know that.

Yet Parker wants to make an exception in Wordsworth’s case, asserting,

Words­worth’s mistreatment of Coleridge was an artistic crime. He hurt Coleridge in the springs of his inspiration. He injured him as a poet. And that’s what qualifies him for the heave-ho.

Parker speculates that, had Wordsworth not refused to publish Christabel in Lyrical Ballads and publicly criticized Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge could have been a contender. Or as Parker puts it,

Coleridge, profoundly hurt, went spiraling off into opium and German philosophy; he would never again achieve anything like The Ancient Mariner. His generous muse, poleaxed by Wordsworthian severity: I get blubbery psychic tremors just thinking about it.

Parker tries to be somewhat fair by putting some of the responsibility on Coleridge, noting that his “creativity was a wild laboratory.” But he’s so angry that he hijacks the column to settle a pet peeve.

If we were to give the “heave ho” to the author of Tintern Abbey and Intimations of Immortality, however–if we were to exclude the man who pioneered nature poetry and who remains one of England’s most beloved poets–then compiling survey reading lists would become far easier. We could teach Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare and let everyone else go.

In contrast to Parker, Francine Prose takes the question seriously. She begins with the case of Alexander Pope, whose reputation has diminished since her college days:

When I was in college, he was considered canonical, and we — by which I mean we English majors — actually read him. I think that if one were to ask most literature professors about Pope, they would say: Of course! Alexander Pope’s place in the canon is assured, now and forever! On the other hand, were one to extend that survey to include college students graduating with a degree in literature, you might have a harder time finding graduates who’d read The Rape of the Lock — or even heard of it. Does that mean that Alexander Pope has been dropped from the canon, almost without anyone — except Pope scholars — having noticed? And should he be excluded from the company of his contemporaries (Swift, Fielding, Johnson) who have a better chance of recent-lit-grad name recognition?

Pope gets taught at my college, although not to a great extent. I do assign Rape of the Lock in my 18th Century Couples Comedy class and my students find his observations on sexual harassment, celebrity worship, and consumer culture to be timely. I also have colleagues who teach excerpts from Essay on Criticism or Essay on Man in their surveys, and I disagree with Prose that Fielding or Johnson is more likely to be taught than Pope. (Swift is another matter, surpassing them all.) But I grant Prose’s point. We no longer reverentially refer to “the Age of Pope,” and I suspect that, say, Defoe’s rough but explosive prose is more to the taste of many readers than Pope’s flawlessly executed couplets. If the canon has tiers, then Pope is no longer in the highest ones.

I love the books that Prose mentions as must-reads (with the exception of Virginia Woolf’s essays which, while good, don’t in my opinion belong in the same pantheon of works as the others). I also appreciate her new criteria for canonicity, even though it may seem terribly subjective: how well does a work tell us who we are?

I do think that there are works that everyone should read because they tell us who we are as human beings living in history. I would start with the Bible, the Odyssey and the Iliad, the works of Sophocles, Chaucer, Shakespeare. I think everyone should read David Copperfield, Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights, the essays of Virginia Woolf…

With such a vague standard for inclusion, one needs to be fairly open, and Prose indeed is willing to let a lot of people in:

Given how nebulous and (despite the efforts of Bloom and others to codify matters) how personal the list of canonical authors seems to be, I would be in favor of expanding the canon rather than narrowing it down, of enlarging the guest list rather than disinviting the writers we no longer want at the party.

It’s worth noting that the Norton and Longman anthologies in British Literature and the Heath anthology in American lit unofficially function as arbiters of canonicity. With every edition get they longer.

Then Prose expands on his idea of her idea of privileging the works that tell us who we are:

Since the question of canonical versus noncanonical seems to matter most urgently in academic circles, I would argue for an approach to teaching literature that focuses less on some notion of literary immortality than on those works that still have the power to engage us. Rather than the dutiful slog through everything of importance written during a particular century, perhaps professors might want to choose from that time the half dozen books that they most passionately love, books that have awoken them to the pleasures and beauties of that period in our history and culture.

A lot of college professors take Prose’s advice—“the theme of this course is books that I love”—although I’d add that good teachers also take into account those books that awaken our students as well. To cite one instance of how students have changed me, I have dropped from my 18th century course the book that initially drew me to the period. I may find Henry Fielding’s comedy in Tom Jones to be brilliant, but my students have alerted me to the author’s defensiveness over the way that the rising middle class is threatening his sense of gentry entitlement. This now grates on me in a way it didn’t used to and I can no longer justify to myself the 3-4 weeks required to teach it. (If it were shorter, that would be a different matter.)

In English, we’ve long ago dropped the idea that we can any longer cover all the books that should be read. In this, we are like every other subject—history, art history, biology, they’ve all been swamped by the knowledge explosion.

But that being said, the works we finally suggest for our survey courses will take on a canonical feel to our students whether we want them to or not. If I choose, in British Literature I, to teach Doctor Faustus rather than The Faerie Queene, George Herbert rather than Sir Philip Sydney, Aphra Behn rather than John Dryden, an informal canon emerges.

And while I love Prose’s openness, I must admit I haven’t heard of a single one of the authors she wants to add to the canon:

The house of art, after all, is large enough to have room for many guests. Robert Walser? Amos Tutuola? Patrick Hamilton? Jane Bowles? Elizabeth Taylor? Naguib Mahfouz? You’re on the list. Welcome to the canon.

And here I thought I was well-read.

Posted in Fielding (Henry), Pope (Alexander) | 2 Comments

Recollecting Summers Past in Tranquility

Renoir, "Woman at the Garden" (1873)

Renoir, “Woman at the Garden” (1873)

Last week when we visited Maine for our triennial family reunion, we buried some of my father’s ashes in the Bates plot at the Turner cemetery. (The rest of the ashes we buried two years ago in Sewanee.) Turner is close to the apple orchards where his grandmother Sarah Ricker was born and raised and where she built a cottage that we still visit to this day. I of course read one of my father’s poems for the occasion.

I turned to his juvenilia and chose the first poem he wrote. He was 14, a sophomore at Evanston Township High School, and the poem was an in-class assignment. One sees in it his love for the boyhood summers he spent in Maine, and I liked that we were returning him to the place of his childhood innocence.

The poem is clearly inspired by Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” which perhaps he encountered in the same English class. Like Wordsworth, my father was a “worshipper of nature” all of his life, all 90 years of them.

Last summer I went to Maine
And I saw in the windblown skies
As I was walking down a lane
The fluttering butterflies
Drifting gently ‘cross the grain
Where the daisy lies

And I wondered when the skies were dark,
And when the sun no longer shined,
If they would vanish like a spark
And leave no trace behind;
Leaving only one soft mark
Across the poet’s mind.

My father too has vanished like a spark. He too has left a mark across our minds.

Added note: I’ve never mentioned the plaque that my mother put up to mark the rest of my father’s ashes in Sewanee, where my father taught his entire life. Taken from an essay by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, my father’s major research subject, it reads, “L’art, de plus en plus, aura une patrie.” Which means, “Art, more and more, will have a homeland.”

My father dedicated his life to making this a reality.

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Black Lives Matter: Tearing Down the Walls

Cast of "Women of Brewster Place"

Cast of “Women of Brewster Place”

What are we to make of all the egregious police affronts to African American citizens that we’ve been witnessing recently, most recently the unjust jailing of Sandra Bland that contributed to her suicide? I can’t tell if there’s been a national uptick in racist cop behavior or whether, thanks to police videos, cell phone technology and increased scrutiny, we’re just seeing more of what has been happening all along. I do know there has been an upsurge in overt racism throughout the country since the election of Barack Obama, perhaps inevitable given the momentousness of the event, and that may have spilled over to the police.

As a Marylander, I’ve been revisiting the deep history of Baltimore segregation that contributed to the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. (After having been arrested for no offense, Freddie died from the “rough ride” that the cops gave him in the back of a paddy wagon.) Looking at neighborhoods that are still separated by race, I’ve wanted to say, as Ronald Reagan did in another context, “tear down this wall.”

Thinking about Baltimore’s invisible walls reminds me of a Gloria Naylor novel about an actual wall. The Women of Brewster Place is set in an urban neighborhood on a street that, years before, has been closed off from the main thoroughfare years thanks to some shady deals. It is first occupied by Italian immigrants and then African Americans.

While Brewster Place has its own vibrant culture and features several strong African American women, it is also beset by black-on-black crime. The wall seems to trap both criminals and victims, including a lesbian who is gang raped by boys raised in the neighborhood. Her blood is on the wall and Mattie, essentially the matriarch of Brewster Place, has a dream of a block party erupting into a riot and pulling down the wall.

I’ll quote from that powerful passage in a moment, but first it’s worth reposting an observation about Baltimore that I quoted in an essay a couple of months ago. It appeared in a Vox article about the findings of Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander:

Alexander and his colleagues found a terrible trap that affected the lives of Baltimore’s poor black people, but not its poor white people. According to their study, poor black kids and poor white kids used drugs and committed crimes at roughly similar rates — if anything, there was a bit more drug use among the white children in the sample. But poor black kids were much more likely than poor white kids to be arrested. And once they were arrested, a criminal record was a much bigger hindrance to a poor black man getting a job than it was for a poor white man.

At the same time, due to their income composition, demographics, location, and so on, black neighborhoods had a lot more crime than white neighborhoods. And so, even putting aside any issues of racially biased policing, they were policed more intensely.

This created, in essence, a trap that closed in on poor black kids. Their neighborhoods had more crime, and so they were policed more heavily. That meant that even though they didn’t commit any more crime than poor white kids, they were arrested more often. And when they got arrested, it was harder for them to get a job after prison than it was for a white kid who got arrested, so it became that much more likely they would turn to illegal ways of making money, which meant more crime in the neighborhoods, which meant more aggressive policing, which meant more black kids getting arrested, which meant more young black men held back by criminal records, and so on.

I’ll add that the differences between Baltimore’s neighborhoods are so stark that it’s impossible to miss them. A former St. Mary’s student who lived with us and helped us raise our children is now a pastor at the New Elizabeth Baptist Church in an African American neighborhood. To visit him, we travel through an upscale Jewish neighborhood with neatly manicured loans and beautiful synagogues. Then, after crossing a single street, it’s as though we have left Technicolor Oz and entered black and white Kansas. There are old row houses, bars on the windows of the businesses, and trash on the sidewalks.

The “Black Lives Matter Too” movement is important because, like the Civil Rights and Black Power movements before it, people are insisting on their rights to the same privileges enjoyed by white Americans. Recently there were boos at a gathering of progressive activists when presidential candidate and former Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley responded to “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter,” and it’s worth examining the difference. Of course, all lives do matter, but America has a bad history of valuing only white lives. With heavy incarceration rates, high unemployment, and selective police harassment, African Americans are asking that attention be paid.

Mattie’s dream occurs the night before a block party designed to raise funds to take the landlord to court. When the residents see the blood on the wall, they attack it with everything they have:

Women flung themselves against the wall, chipping away at it with knives, plastic forks, spiked shoe heels, and even bare hands, the water pouring under their chins, plastering their blouses and dresses against their breasts and into the cracks of their hips. The bricks piled up behind them and were matched and relayed out of Brewster Place past overturned tables, scattered coins, and crushed wads of dollar bills. They came back with chairs and barbecue grills and smashed them into the wall. The “Today Brewster—Tomorrow America” banner had been beaten into long strands of red and gold the clung to the wet arms and faces of the women.

And further on:

The blunt-edged whoop of the police sirens could be heard ramming through the traffic on its way to Brewster Place. Theresa flung her umbrella away so she could have both hands free to help the other women who were now bringing her bricks. Suddenly, the rain exploded around their feet in a fresh downpour, and the cold waters beat on the top of their heads—almost in perfect unison with the beating of their hearts.

The chapter doesn’t end with a riot, however, but with a party—a sign that it’s better to be “for” than “against.” Mattie wakes up and, although the wall is still there, she is greeted by the first sunshine in a week. Although Naylor’s book appeared four years before Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign, Naylor’s vision is very much in that spirit:

“It’s just like a miracle,” Mattie opened her window, “to think it stopped raining today of all days.”

The sun was shining on everything. Kiswana’s gold earrings, the broken glass out on the avenue, the municipal buildings downtown—even on the stormy clouds that had formed on the horizon and were silently moving toward Brewster Place.

Etta came out on the stop and looked up at Mattie in the window.

“Woman, you still in bed? Don’t you know what day it is? We’re gonna have a party.”

With Confederate flags coming down, with the real possibility for bipartisan action on sentencing and prison reform, with renewed attention on police violence and the state of black neighborhoods, dare we hope for such a party in our own future?

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Death and a Night Powdered with Stars

Van Gogh, "Starry Night over the Rhone"

Van Gogh, “Starry Night over the Rhone”

Spiritual Sunday

Neurologist Oliver Sachs, famous for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other works, is dying of a metastasized ocular melanoma. In a beautiful New York Times essay, he quotes Milton as he talks about how he has rediscovered an early fascination with the physical sciences. Further examining the Milton passage enhances the poignancy of Sachs’s observations.

First, a personal note. My father too, in his final years, became fascinated with physics and was excited about the Large Hadron collider and the discovery of the Higgs boson or “God particle.” He had planned to major in physics before he was drafted into World War II but ended up becoming a French professor. Sachs helps me understand why he returned to the inert world at the end of his life:

I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss — losing people dear to me — by turning to the nonhuman. When I was sent away to a boarding school as a child of 6, at the outset of the Second World War, numbers became my friends; when I returned to London at 10, the elements and the periodic table became my companions. Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.

And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, “Happy Thallium Birthday,”a souvenir of my 81st birthday last July; then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated 82nd birthday earlier this month. Here, too, is a little lead casket, containing element 90, thorium, crystalline thorium, as beautiful as diamonds, and, of course, radioactive — hence the lead casket.

The Milton allusion occurs after Sachs has been lamenting that he will never see the revolution, predicted by Nobel-prize winning Frank Wilczek, where nuclear physics will reach “the level of precision and versatility that atomic physics has already achieved.” Thinking of all that he will miss leads him to describe a star gazing experience:

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

The Milton passage occurs when the angel Raphael is explaining to Adam how God made the heavens. There are several references to stars in his account. Raphael mentions how God

sowed with stars the Heaven thick as a field

and how one can see a

thousand thousand stars…spangling the hemisphere.

Raphael goes on to describe the rest of God’s creation process but then returns to the stars. This return reminds me of how both Sachs and my father, after spending a lifetime exploring the mysteries of human beings, returned in the end to their early fascination with the impersonal universe. In Book VII we see God involved in the intricate work of creating animals and humans (close-up), after which He marches back to Heaven (long shot):

The great Creator from his work returned
Magnificent, his six days work, a World.

But God has not left permanently. Rafael assures Adam that He

                                                      will deign
To visit oft the dwellings of just men,

When He visits, the road God takes will be paved with stars:

A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold
And pavement stars, as stars to thee appear,
Seen in the galaxy, that milky way,
Which nightly, as a circling zone, thou seest
Powdered with stars.

Sachs does not speak in religious terms and my father was a professed atheist, but something transcendent traveled to them by way of the stars. The wonders of the cosmos, poetically described by Milton and scientifically charted by our great physicists and astronomers, conveyed a sense that they were part of some grand process. “God” is the image that Milton uses while Sachs talks of a “sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity.” As we approach death, the little things fall away and we are uplifted by an unknowable immensity.

Or as Sachs puts it, none of his earthly accomplishments nor the plaudits of his fellow humans hit him as hard as “that night sky full of stars.”

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For Depression, a Nature Walk

Renoir, "La Promenade"

Renoir, “La Promenade”

New brain research is affirming a truth that William Wordsworth discovered long ago: walking in nature helps treat depression.

Writing in the New York Times “Well” column, Gretchen Reynolds reports,

A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health, according to an interesting new study of the physical effects on the brain of visiting nature. 

The head of the study is Stanford University student Gregory Bratman at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. Bratman came to his insights while studying the psychological impact of urban living. Living in cities can be bad for us.

City dwellers also have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers, studies show.

These developments seem to be linked to some extent, according to a growing body of research. Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.

In the first phase of his study, Bratman discovered that “volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier afterward than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic.”

In the second phase, he looked at the impact of nature walks on people who brood:

Brooding, which is known among cognitive scientists as morbid rumination, is a mental state familiar to most of us, in which we can’t seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives. This broken-record fretting is not healthy or helpful. It can be a precursor to depression and is disproportionately common among city dwellers compared with people living outside urban areas, studies show.

Perhaps most interesting for the purposes of Mr. Bratman and his colleagues, however, such rumination also is strongly associated with increased activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex.

Examining the brain, Bratman discovered that, for those walking by the highway, “[b]lood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged. By contrast,

the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.

They also had less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of their brains were quieter.

Wordsworth was definitely a brooder and he describes urban living as being damaging to his mental health. In Tintern Abbey he talks of living in “lonely rooms” and being disturbed by “the din of towns and cities.” He experiences “the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world” and later mentions “the fretful stir unprofitable, and the fever of the world” and “the dreary intercourse of daily life.”

Luckily, he has visited the Wye River and so has memories he can fall back on—“emotion recollected in tranquility” as he describes the process in the preface to Lyrical Ballads.

I have owed to them [my memories],
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration…


To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Think of this as another way of saying that the brain is quieter because there is “less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex.” Guess which articulation I prefer.

Like a good scientist, Bratman acknowledges that we don’t yet know precisely what about nature walks changes the brain. He wonders how long the walk must be, what within the walk we find the most soothing, and whether it matters if we are alone or accompanied. With regards to this final question, Wordsworth has something to say.

While many of his walks are solitary, something is added when he visits the Wye with his sister Dorothy, whom he describes as his “dear, dear Friend.” Being with her, he says, enhances the experience:

[Nor] wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

So go out and take a walk. Alone or with someone else.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream Wedding

The lovers in "Midsummer Night's Dream" (1999)

Bale, Flockhart, West, Friel in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1999)

A few months ago a former student of mine informed me that she was going to have a Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed wedding in June. Danie was a political science major who took an Introduction to Literature course where I taught the play. I asked her to send me pictures and got her permission to blog about it.

She hasn’t contacted me since the wedding—other things on her mind?—but I’ve gone ahead and written about why she couldn’t have chosen a better literary work for the occasion. MND represents the perfect balance between social ritual and our sexual urges.

Along with my congratulations, I sent Danie several questions after hearing about her plans. Here’s my e-mail message:

I want to hear a full account of your MND-themed wedding! If you sent me a photo, I’ll even write a post about it since I’m so in love with the idea. Certain questions come up, however. Are you marrying an ass? Will the bridegroom wear a donkey’s head? …Or are you Hippolyta and did he woo you by his sword, doing you injury? (But now will wed you in a different key, with pomp, with triumph, and with reveling.) Will you have really bad theatrical entertainment after the wedding? Will there be children dressed as fairies strewing rose petals? Will it be outside and will you go barefoot?

To which Danie replied,

I joke that I am marrying an ass! Even though the marriage in the play is between Hippolyta and Theseus, I love the idea of dressing up as a fairy queen, so my fiancé and I are going as Oberon and Titania. Our officiant is a Shakespeare enthusiast as well so she’ll be adding a lot of Shakespeare quotes to the ceremony. And yes, I plan to have two lovely flower girls dressed as fairies. It will be outside and I do plan to go barefoot! Ha ha! You know me too well.

I have asked my friends about putting on the play within a play, so I am hoping to pull that together in time for the wedding. Not sure if I will be able to pull that off, so fingers crossed!

You can see why I’m anxious to hear from Danie about how it went.

But I can use my imagination. First of all, I hope that the two did not quarrel before the wedding, since they would have triggered torrential floods. I wonder if, like Lysander, Danie’s fiancé made moves on her the night before the wedding and then went running after someone else before returning to her. I hope that they won’t have a marriage where he, like Oberon, makes  imperious demands upon her: “Am not I thy lord?”

Danie married an Englishman so they spent many months apart while she finished up college. They therefore must have felt time passing as slowly as Theseus does:

O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man’s revenue.

In my note I told Danie about my deep belief in marriage and how important I consider the rituals that join two people. Midsummer Night’s Dream honors both the urgent desires of the young lovers and society’s insistence on tradition and ritual. When balance is lacking—when society oppresses, as it does in the first act, or when sexual desire runs unchecked, as it does in acts two and three—then unhappiness ensues. The play is about getting everything just right.

This being the twenty-first century, I suspect that Danie and her husband aren’t planning on having children right away, but they might still take seriously the blessing that Oberon bestows upon the newly married couples once they have gone to bed. He promises that they will have healthy babies and that they themselves will “in safety rest”:

Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be;
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand;
Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.
With this field-dew consecrate,
Every fairy take his gait;
And each several chamber bless,
Through this palace, with sweet peace;
And the owner of it blest
Ever shall in safety rest.

One other note: Theseus chooses Bottom’s play because the couples have to fill up the time between the marriage ceremony and bedtime. After all, some are anxious, others impatient. A serious play would not serve their purposes whereas one that allows them all to be silly is ideal.

Having some form of distraction from the intense anticipation of consummation may not be relevant today except to those couples that have “saved themselves for marriage.” In other words, those who have been sexually active–who have been cavorting in the woods, as it were–will see the play differently than lovers did in Shakespeare’s time. They haven’t had to push their desires under or rebel against tyrannical fathers and oppressive men. Some of Shakespeare’s tensions have lessened.

But that being acknowledged, there remains something fairy-like about the wedding ritual. It acknowledges the spiritual bond that accompanies the physical coupling. That part of the play is as powerful as ever. As Danie wrote in her note to me, she sees her wedding play as “a stabilizing ritual for us as we hope it will signify the end of our long distance relationship.”

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Turning at Last to Home Afar

Bilbo (Freeman) returns home

Bilbo (Freeman) returns home

I drove 11 hours yesterday and am driving another 11 hours today as I return from Maine with my mother to her home in Sewanee, Tennessee. Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking of the poem in The Hobbit that Bilbo’s chants as he nears the Shire.

When I went to Wikipedia to find “The Road Goes Ever Ever On,” I discovered that there are three versions of the poem. The first one alludes to many of the adventures in The Hobbit:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

I can imagine that “fire and sword” and “horror in the halls of stone” had echoes for Tolkien of his trench warfare experiences in World War I. England’s meadows, trees, and hills look very good after that.

I like the way the other two versions capture the different feelings between the beginning and end of a journey. The first poem, as the Wikipedia article notes, talks of “eager feet” while the second of “weary feet.” Right now, like many travelers reaching a journey’s end, I’m experiencing weary feet. The first poem is spoken by Bilbo as he sets off for Rivendell in the third chapter of Fellowship of the Ring. The second is spoken by Bilbo in Rivendell in The Return of the King after Frodo and the others return, weary and in shock, from the ring quest. I’ve labeled them “before” and “after.”


The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.


The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Let others eagerly set their sights on exotic journeys. I, at the moment, am more than ready to meet up with my evening-rest and sleep.

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A Novel That Inspired Governesses

Morton as Jane Eyre

Morton as Jane Eyre

Yesterday I explored how my great-grandmother Lizzy Scott turned to the sentimental novels of Susan Warner and Charlotte Yonge to negotiate a difficult childhood that included the death of her mother and baby brother. Today I write about a book that she doesn’t specifically mention but that I’m positive that she read avidly: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

I was tipped off by a word that Lizzy uses when she decides to leave her father and become a governess. Here’s the passage from her memoir:

Father made strenuous objections at first, but I was glad to have the prospect of a change and of earning a little money. I was not needed at home and was restless at having nothing to do.

There are few words more important in Jane Eyre than “restlessness.” She uses it when, as a governess at Thornfield, she chafes against domestic restraints:

I climbed the three staircases, raised the trap-door of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line—that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen—that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach.  I valued what was good in Mrs. Fairfax, and what was good in Adèle; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold.

Who blames me?  Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented.  I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes

Because women of the time were supposed to find complete fulfillment within the home, Jane’s reflections were revolutionary—so much so that reviewer Elizabeth Rigby attacked the novel for being unfeminine, antichristian, and communist (“chartist”). I can imagine Lizzy Scott, like many women of the time, recognizing her own inner longings in Bronte’s passage, which concludes with Jane complaining about the gender double standard:

Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it—and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement, which, while it swelled it in trouble, expanded it with life; and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence.

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.  Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot.  Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth.  Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.  It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

This passage echoes an earlier one that, while it doesn’t use the word “restlessness,” nevertheless captures the same sentiments. Jane is teaching at Lowood school and sees herself going nowhere. Most governesses and prospective governesses embraced Jane Eyre—it was practically a Bible for some—and I think the novel helped Lizzy Scott articulate feelings and longings that her society didn’t acknowledge, as well as the courage to venture out into the world. Here’s Jane bolstering up her own courage:

  My world had for some years been in Lowood: my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.

I went to my window, opened it, and looked out.  There were the two wings of the building; there was the garden; there were the skirts of Lowood; there was the hilly horizon.  My eye passed all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks; it was those I longed to surmount; all within their boundary of rock and heath seemed prison-ground, exile limits.  I traced the white road winding round the base of one mountain, and vanishing in a gorge between two; how I longed to follow it farther!  I recalled the time when I had travelled that very road in a coach; I remembered descending that hill at twilight; an age seemed to have elapsed since the day which brought me first to Lowood, and I had never quitted it since.  My vacations had all been spent at school: Mrs. Reed had never sent for me to Gateshead; neither she nor any of her family had ever been to visit me.  I had had no communication by letter or message with the outer world: school-rules, school-duties, school-habits and notions, and voices, and faces, and phrases, and costumes, and preferences, and antipathies—such was what I knew of existence.  And now I felt that it was not enough; I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon.  I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing.  I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: “Then,” I cried, half desperate, “grant me at least a new servitude!”

Lizzy looked for a place without telling her father and found what first appeared to be broader horizons with the Martin family. Her mistress, she discovered, had literary connections:

Mrs. Martin was the eldest daughter of Mark Lemon, the well known editor of Punch, an intimate friend of Charles Dickens, Macauley, and all the literary men of the day.

Lizzy felt daunted by her duties, however. Perhaps Jane set the bar too high. At any rate, Lizzy began to feel not up to the job:

I realized almost at once that I was not qualified to teach those children. My education was so limited, and they were very bright. I knew only a little of music and French, whereas Mrs. Martin was an accomplished musician and spoke French and Italian fluently.

When she expressed her self doubts and offered to resign, however, the Martins persuaded her to stay another year. And then, as in Jane Eyre–“Reader, I married him.”

In fact, like Jane, Lizzy received two marriage proposals in one week. Edwin, who had dated her before he left for America (he took her to hear the Fisk Jubilee Singers!), sent a marriage proposal by letter. So did another man, who had been reticent about expressing his love. Lizzy didn’t accept the man with the steady job, however, choosing instead the one who would take her to (in Jane’s words) ” the busy world, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen.” They went to America, then to South Africa, and then back to America. She also encountered “more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character,” as Edwin experienced many business reversals, often as a result of men taking advantage of his trusting character. Yet despite the hardships, she never expresses any regrets in her memoir. The marriage appears to have been  a love story worthy of her romances.

When I visited my “Granny Bates,” Lizzy’s eldest daughter, I was struck by all the editions of Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope, and many, many others on her shelves. I’m pretty sure they came from Granny’s mother rather than from her father, who viewed Dickens as a man who lived a scandalous life.

Lizzy Scott passed her love of literature along to my grandmother, who passed it along to her youngest son Scott, who passed it along to me and my three brothers. I in turn passed it along to my three sons, one of whom is currently completing his dissertation in Victorian literature. What a heritage to have received!

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Sentimental Fiction Comes to the Rescue

Wetherell's frontispiece to Warner's "Wide, Wide World"

Wetherell’s frontispiece to Warner’s “Wide, Wide World”

I’m returning south today after spending a week in our Maine cottage. We had a large “Bates Bash,” complete with lobster dinners; we interred my father’s ashes and those of my Aunt Betty in the Turner cemetery; and we spent hours catching up with distant cousins, some of whom came from as far away as England and California. I also perused some of the old family histories in the cottage, including the memoirs of Edwin Fulcher and Lizzy Scott, the parents of my Grandmother Bates.

As this is a literature blog, I won’t regale you with the stories of Edwin’s encounters with Cecil Rhodes, the great imperialist, when he was an accountant in a Kimberley diamond mine. (As bookkeeper, he saw up close a couple of Rhodes’s shady dealings as he gained monopolistic control of Kimberley’s diamond and gold mines.) Nor will I take tell about the many, many business failures, bouts of sickness, and deaths that Edwin and and Lizzy suffered as they made their way from England to America to South Africa and back to America, finally ending up in Evanston, Illinois. But I will recount how literature entered their lives, especially Lizzy’s. From her memoir I have a better sense of where my own love of literature comes from, and I am also moved by the way that she used literature to get through tough times.

The first literary connection is one that Lizzy doesn’t make but that the rest of us will. Her father, my great-great-grandfather Thomas Scott, was the manager of Lord Bunbury’s estate. Yes Bunbury, which is also the name of Algernon’s fictional friend in The Importance of Being Earnest.

I assume Wilde chose the name because it sounds so whimsical. Also, given that “buns” and “bum” are slang for buttocks and Algernon’s excursions into the country can be read as an account of life in the homosexual closet, “bunburying” hints at anal sex.

I don’t know if Wilde knew the actual Lord Bunbury, but Eliza says that other significant figures visited him, including novelist Charles Kingsley:

Some distinguished peopled visited the Bunburys, whom it was Father’s privilege to meet, amongst them Lord Napier, Sir Charles Dyell, geologist, and Charles Kingsley, who usually took a walk with Father, and preached at our church if he was there over Sunday. He had a nervous twitch in one eye, which resembled a wink, and caused much amusement to the young members of the congregation. Our Vicar had been one of his curates, and had imbibed many of his broadminded views. We all enjoyed Mr. Kingsley’s books, especially Water Babies and Two Years Ago. We were too young to appreciate Hypatia and other works.

Lizzy was a sickly child and so did not begin her formal education until age 12. But her Aunt Polly, recently widowed, taught her how to read, and Eliza also picked up some knowledge from her brothers. Looking back, she compared herself to the protagonist of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss:

I picked up a little knowledge from helping the boys with their work. They went to a private school at Bury, being driven there by Trudgett in the mornings and walking home. They had to memorize a good deal, and were glad for me to hear them repeat their assignments. I also enjoyed working at their arithmetic problems. When, some years later I read The Mill on the Floss I saw myself in Maggie Tulliver, running wild, thinking my own thoughts imaginative and somewhat secretive, delighted when the boys would let me follow on one of their bird nest or rabbit hunting expeditions, and playing cricket. I could climb trees, walk on high walls, jump as high as any of them, and run as fast, but only for a short distance, a pain in my side always interfering with my reaching the goal.

Tragedy was ahead for little Lizzy. Her mother was sickly and, when she undergoing confinement following a pregnancy, she and her daughter read Susan Warner’s Wide, Wide World (1850), described by Wikipedia as “a work of sentimentalism based on the life of young Ellen Montgomery.” The plot parallels the trials that Lizzy herself was about to undergo:

The story begins with Ellen’s happy life being disrupted by the fact that her mother is very ill and her father must take her to Europe, requiring Ellen to leave home to live with an almost-unknown aunt. Though Ellen tries to act strong for her mother’s sake, she is devastated and can find solace in nothing.

Eventually the day comes when Ellen must say goodbye to her mother and travel in the company of strangers to her aunt’s home. Unfortunately these strangers are unkind to Ellen and she tries to leave the boat on which they are traveling. An old man sees Ellen crying and tells her to trust in God. He teaches her about being a Christian, as her mother had done, and asks her if she is ready to give her heart to Jesus.

Ellen’s mother eventually dies and so did Lizzy’s. Lizzy’s mother may have had a premonition that this would happen and used Wide, Wide World to prepare her daughter to be brave and not to cry during her upcoming trials:

On my 10th birthday, Mother gave me the Wide, Wide World and as a new baby arrived a few days later, she and I read it together while she was confined to her room. We both thought Ellen cried too much, but I thought she was very wonderful. Mother did not get well and during the summer went to the seashore for awhile, Nellie coming home from boarding school to help care for the little ones.

After Lizzy’s mother and her baby brother died, Thomas Scott hired a housekeeper, Mrs. Wyburn, to raise the children. Lizzy wishes that he had married Aunt Polly but alludes to a law, later annulled, forbidding a widower to marry his wife’s sister. There was a clash between Mrs. Wyburn and Aunt Polly, and Eliza turned to books to help get her through the emotional turmoil:

Miss Wyburn’s influence upon me was not good. She took an unreasonable and entirely unwarranted dislike to Aunt Polly, and tried to set me against her. Nellie, Richard and Robert being away at school, I had no companions of my own age, excepting in vacations. I had little to do that was interesting. I read all the books I could get and amused myself with the young children, but had to spend most of the time with Miss Wyburn, for whom for diplomatic reasons I pretended to have an affection, which I did not feel. I really mistrusted and disliked her, and was becoming as deceitful as she, but Charlotte Yonge’s books, particularly The Daisy Chain and The Heir of Redcliffe, our good Vicar’s preparatory lessons before confirmation, and later Miss Drake’s influence [a teacher] helped restore me to normal thinking. Miss Yonge’s characters were human and natural, with faults which by persistent efforts, though with frequent failures, they were finally able to overcome. They lived with me and were a continual inspiration. I was also reveling in Dickens’ and George MacDonald’s books at that time.

Like Susan Warner, Charlotte Yonge was a sentimental novelist whose stories are filled with courageous, principled, and unacknowledged sacrifice. The Daisy Chain features a bookish heroine while The Heir of Redcliffe (1853), a favorite of the March sisters in Little Women, has an heir (Guy) who works secretly to pay off the debts of a profligate uncle. He unjustifiably gets the reputation of being a gambler, which keeps him from getting the heroine. Then, when he is cleared and they marry and go off to Italy on a honeymoon, he nurses his cousin Philip back to health—the man who spread the nasty rumor in the first place—but dies in the process. Philip inherits his estate but is so moved by what Guy has done that he reforms. The novel was supposedly the most popular of the age, surpassing Dickens and Thackeray.

I suspect that Yonge helped my great-grandmother see her own suffering as noble and to rise above resentment and a sense of injustice.

Lizzy mentions one other work. Her father, with the three older children in boarding school, couldn’t afford to send Lizzy to school. “He seemed to think that I could acquire sufficient knowledge by reading and observation as he had done,” Lizzy observes.

She therefore applied herself to memorizing poetry and at one point recited for him all eleven verses of Tennyson’s May Queen , the tenor of which you can get from the second stanza:

There’s many a black, black eye, they say, but none so bright as mine;
There’s Margaret and Mary, there’s Kate and Caroline:
But none so fair as little Alice in all the land they say,
So I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

I can imagine Lizzy reciting this to cheer him up and assure him and herself that she can put a bright face on things. Between Ellen Montgomery, Maggie Tulliver, and Alice, one sees Lizzy forging an identity for herself as a strong woman in the face of adversity.

I’ll report tomorrow on how this strong identity helped her leave her home to become a governess. I’m pretty sure that Jane Eyre helped her as well. Stay tuned.

Posted in Kingsley (Charles), Tennyson (Alfred Lord), Warner (Susan), Wilde (Oscar), Yonge (Charlotte) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Blessed Be the Peace Makers

Carl Bloch, "Sermon on the Mount" (1890)

Carl Bloch, “Sermon on the Mount” (1890)

Spiritual Sunday 

“Blessed be the peace makers,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be called the children of God.” This past week, the world got a little closer to peace as two enemies signed a peace accord that may keep nuclear weapons out of the Middle East.

It is fitting that the agreement with Iran was signed just as the holy month of Ramadan was coming to an end. We hear so much about killings during Ramadan that it was wonderful that some more fitting event should occur.

It’s easy to look out at the world and despair. “For hate is strong, and mocks the song/Of peace on earth, good will to men,” Longfellow writes in his well-known poem. But if, as people of faith, we truly believe that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep,” then we shouldn’t be entirely surprised to see moments of peace on earth. “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail” became a little more believable this past week.

Christmas came early.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play, 
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men. 

I thought how, as the day had come, 
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men. 

And in despair I bowed my head: 
‘There is no peace on earth, ‘ I said 
‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’ 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good will to men.’

Till, ringing, singing on its way, 
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, 
Of peace on earth, good will to men. 

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Imagining Peace with iran

Picasso, "Dove of Peace"

Picasso, “Dove of Peace”

As of this past Monday, we are less likely to go war with Iran. Less likely, that is, if Congress allows the recent agreement, signed by Iran, the United States, China, Russia, Germany, Britain, and France, to stand. As Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine succinctly sums up the situation,

The best argument for the agreement with Iran is that there is no realistically better alternative. The United States has only managed to hold together international support for sanctions based on the promise that they’d be used to leverage a deal with Iran. Without a deal, the sanctions would disintegrate, leaving war as the only option.

Congress responds to the American people, so, to avoid war, we will need to reject the angry voices that are trying to panic our legislators. Despite our disastrous invasion of Iran, I’m not sure we have learned to ignore the war mongers. After all, when one has more firepower than anyone else in the world, the temptation is to attack. Diplomacy requires a major mental shift.

Denise Levertov addresses this shift in her poem “Making Peace.” As she sees it, we are so in thrall to “the intense, familiar imagination of disaster” that we have difficulty imagining peace. The poem explores what it will take to change the balance.

First, a note on the agreement. The levelheaded Kevin Drum of Mother Jones magazine alerted me to a very positive assessment of the treaty by “arms control guru Jeffrey Lewis.” Lewis gives it an A:

It’s a good deal because it slows down their nuclear program — which they say is for civilian purposes but could be used to make a bomb, and which we think was originally intended to make a bomb. And it puts monitoring and verification measures in place that mean if they try to build a bomb, we’re very likely to find out, and to do so with a enough time that we have options to do something about it.

There’s a verifiable gap between their bomb option and an actual bomb. That’s why it’s a good deal.

And further on:

As a deal, this is what deals look like. Actually, they usually don’t look this good….I see it as a really straightforward measure to slow down an enrichment program that was going gangbusters.

So you ask, “Does it slow it down?” Yes. “Does it slow it down in a way that is verifiable?” Yes. “Does it slow it down more than bombing it would?” Yes. “Okay, good deal.”

In her poem, Levertov asks what it would take for “peace, a presence, an energy field more intense than war,” to pulse forth. We have to change the fulcrum, she says, and to do this, we must change the way we are living our lives. No longer can we see “profit and power” as the most important things, and we must become more reflective:

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . .

Here’s the poem:

Making Peace

By Denise Levertov

A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal. 

Practically speaking, this agreement will not usher in a new era of peace in the Middle East. Iran will continue its aggressive ways, as will Syria, ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and others. Shiites and Sunnis will continue to murder each other. The agreement does no more than prevent a nuclear arms race.

But do you understand what that means and how it differs from our previous incursions in the region? The invasion of Iraq gave us ISIS whereas this 20-month diplomatic effort has potentially made the world a safer place. Why are we even listening any more to those who stampeded us into our last war?

If the “words” of diplomacy bear some positive fruit, then we may come to see the process of negotiation, messy as it is, as the real pathway to peace. No less a figure than Winston Churchill argued that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” and words, as Levertov points out, can begin to gives us new metaphors for imagining peace:

each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal. 

We as individuals have limited influence on world affairs, but we can at least begin to think, to talk, and to live differently in our lives. That is how we begin to restructure the sentence our country is making.

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Turning and Turning: A Tern’s Dilemma

Artic Tern

I’m currently visiting our family cottage atop Ricker Hill Orchards, which was built by my great grandmother Sarah Ricker over a hundred years ago. It’s located just outside the small town of Turner, Maine, which gives me an excuse for posting this poem by my father about a tern from Turner. My father loved both birds and puns.

The poem appears in Lupo’s Fables, a collection of animal stories, but for the life of me I can’t figure out its moral. Maybe it’s a feminist poem (it was written in the early 1970s) about women needing to stand up for themselves: stop going around in circles or looking for a man to save you. In any event, I like its playfulness. Use it to brighten your day.

The Fat and Unliberated Female Tern

By Scott Bates

A fat and unliberated female Tern was trying to turn
     through a ternstile
To take a train
To Turner Maine
She was dressed in the very latest Tern style
She turned and turned
She turned in vain
She turned her ankle stomach tail
To no avail
She even turned
The other cheek
She would turn that ternstile
If it took all week
Or all night
Or if she had to turn into a Termite
A Termite had stolen her purse
Things were looking worse and worse
When who should turn up
But a Turnip
Who had always wanted to do a good turn
So he took her in his plane
To Turner Maine
Where they married and lived happily ever after
Until he gaffed her
With a rafter
Until he hit her
With a baby sitter
Until he got her shot
On pot
(Since it was his principle
never to leave a Tern
Until she left him one night to take a little Tern around the bend
A friend
Who had always wanted to do a good turn
Because as he always said one good Tern deserves another
She soon became a Mother
Of twenty-eight
I am here to state
She was done to a turn
She was done in!
Which was as it should have been
Or which is as it should be
Because birds of a feather deserve a Father

Added note: I’m sure I’m reading too much in the poem to see a reference to another poem about a bird turning:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer

Yeats laments the bird slipping the leash. Scott Bates encourages it.

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Apple Picking Has Changed Since Frost

Ricker Hill cider operation

Ricker Hill cider operation

I’m currently in Maine for the triennial Bates Bash that we have at our family cottage at Ricker Hill Orchards outside of Turner, Maine. The cottage was built by my great-grandmother Sarah Ricker, who married Thomas Bates, and my third cousins currently operate the farm.

They have just started making “Mainiac hard apple cider,” and we got a tour of the bottling and canning operation yesterday. When I think of making cider, a few lines from Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” come to mind. I asked Jeff Timberlake about the passage as he took us through the plant:

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.

Jeff said that, while they do indeed use a lesser grade of apple for cider, they don’t rely on apples that have hit the ground. Their machinery is such, however, that they can remove bruises from the apples that they do use. Jeff also said they have been planting new trees that yield a better cider apple.

The machinery is impressive. Ricker Hill Orchards is one of Maine’s bigger apple farms, and they made a million dollar investment in their cider operation. I can’t begin to describe all the intricate machines they have or the complex chemistry involved. Jeff says that the single greatest challenge is ensuring that every can of cider tastes like every other can of cider.

The operation made the poem’s images of a farmer reaching out and plucking apples seem a long-ago relic from the past:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

And further on:

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.

Not everything has changed. Jeff tells me that the farm still uses ladders for the tall trees (but not the many dwarf trees), and one still hears during harvest season the “rumbling sound of load on load of apples coming in.” But the ladders now are easier on the instep—they are made of aluminum, not wood–and the pickers are imported migrant laborers from Jamaica rather than grizzled New England farmers but. And then there is that processing plant that looks like a science fiction setting.

Farming, in other words, has changed drastically. But that being said, it’s also still the case that a single hailstorm can wipe out a year’s crop. For all their technological control, farmers are still dependent on the weather.

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Atticus Finch Exposed in Sequel

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

I’m traveling to a Maine family reunion at the moment and so have time only for a short comment. I haven’t yet read Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s recently published sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but what I’ve heard about it gives me hope for the book. Beloved though Atticus Finch is, there are ways in which he is a fantasy, and it sounds as though Lee has used her novel to explore the cracks in that fantasy.

Flannery O’Connor, who understood well how race works in the south, wondered that readers didn’t recognize To Kill a Mockingbird as a fairy tale. After all, it’s about a benevolent white father finding a silver lining in a seemingly intractable problem.

Only technically, he doesn’t solve anything. His innocent client is found guilty and dies and it takes a vigilante killing, overlooked by the sheriff, to conclude the book with anything resembling justice. Yet people fall in love with Finch and with Gregory Peck’s depiction of him because he represents white longings to rise above all the ugliness. When the African Americans in the court room rise to honor Finch, we whites can imagine that we are being honored for our benevolent dispositions and good intentions. We are absolved of guilt over our privilege and our complicity.

A few years ago I reported on Malcolm Gladwell’s criticisms of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many white moderates believed that segregation would eventually wither away on its own. Then the Supreme Court demanded integrated schools in Brown v. Board of Education and people saw what desegregation really looked like. They were also not pleased with the way that black World War II vets were demanding more respect and with the early stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, George Wallace and other rabid segregationists rose to power and the KKK, previously looked down upon, became seen as a necessary evil.

I am reminded of a passage from Citizen Kane which I think applies to certain white moderates. It’s about the working class but applies to how they saw African American rights as well. Kane has just lost his election for governor and a drunk Leland is castigating him:

Kane: All right, that’s the way they want it, the people have made their choice. It’s obvious the people prefer Jim Gettys to me.
Leland: You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you. Goodness. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you can make them a present of Liberty, as a reward for services rendered…Remember the working man?
Charles: I’ll get drunk too, Jedediah, if it’ll do any good.
Leland: Aw, it won’t do any good. Besides, you never get drunk. You used to write an awful lot about the workingman…He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your working man expects something is his right, not as your gift! Charlie, when your precious underprivileged really get together, oh boy! That’s going to add up to something bigger than your privileges! Then I don’t know what you’ll do! Sail away to a desert island probably and lord it over the monkeys! 

My student Wick Eisenberg, studying the depiction of the white liberal in 1960s literature, concluded that there was no comfortable place for white liberals in civil rights battles. They were either pushed to the margins by segregationists or spurned by black militants. Those who modeled themselves on Atticus Finch found themselves irrelevant. They bore some resemblance to moderate Republicans today.

Lee’s version of Atticus Finch reflects one way that he might have evolved given these pressures. New York Times article describes how the depiction will challenge Finch fans:

Atticus Finch — the crusading lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose principled fight against racism and inequality inspired generations of readers — is depicted in Watchman as an aging racist who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, holds negative views about African-Americans and denounces desegregation efforts. “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Atticus asks his daughter, Jean Louise (the adult Scout), in Watchman.

It sounds from this short excerpt that Lee is writing what she knows. This is what Atticus looks like when his housekeeper and his yard man no longer pay him due deference. When we move from the 1930s to the 1960s. Keep that in mind as you read the novel. I’ll write more once I read it myself.

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Dickens against the Death Penalty

Cruikshank,  Bill Sikes in "Oliver Twist"

Cruikshank, Bill Sikes in “Oliver Twist”

Liberals cheered for many of the recent Supreme Court rulings but not for the decision, in Glossip v. Gross, to allow the continued use of midazolam in executions. I have been appalled at the way that the Supreme Court has supported the death penalty over the years and this was their latest refusal to face up to the horrors. Charles Dickens would share my disgust.

I’ll have more on Dickens after laying out the case against midazolam. The sedative has entered the picture because states are having to scramble to find lethal injection drugs.  Increasingly, pharmacies are refusing to allow their drugs to be used for lethal injection, prompting states like Oklahoma to either illegally import drugs or experiment on prisoners with drug cocktails. New Yorker author Lincoln reports that, ever since sodium thiopental has become unobtainable, there have been “dozens of accounts of ghastly executions by lethal injection gone wrong.” One of the worst occurred with Clayton D. Lockett.

Here’s Caplan’s account of what occurred in the Lockett execution:

The executioner tried and failed at least twelve times to find a usable vein for delivering the injections. After almost an hour, he found one in Lockett’s groin. Seven minutes after he was given a sedative, Lockett was deemed ready and the lethal drugs were administered. Then, “after being declared unconscious,” lawyers for the death-row inmates told the Court, “he began to speak, buck, raise his head, and writhe against the gurney.” A federal appeals court reported, “In particular, witnesses heard Lockett say: ‘This shit is fucking with my mind,’ ‘Something is wrong,’ and ‘The drugs aren’t working.’ ” About twenty minutes later, when the state’s director of corrections thought that Lockett had not received enough of the execution drugs to kill him and that there was not enough of them left to complete the execution, he ordered the executioner to stop administering any drugs. Lockett died anyway soon after.

Caplan explains why Oklahoma’s use of midazolam, regardless of what the Supreme Court declares, is problematic:

In executing Lockett, Oklahoma used for the first time as the anesthetic a sedative called midazolam, which is usually employed to treat serious seizures and severe insomnia. As lawyers for the inmates told the Court, it has no pain-relieving properties, hasn’t been approved by the F.D.A. to maintain general anesthesia in surgical operations, and has a “ceiling effect,” meaning that even a large dose of it may not put someone under. The lawyers noted that “there are actual scientific and medical data demonstrating that midazolam cannot reliably render a person unconscious and insensate for purposes of undergoing surgery.”

I consider the death penalty itself to be “cruel and unusual punishment,” but there’s no doubt about it when extreme pain enters the picture. Yet whenever executions go wrong, we hear voices on the extreme right crowing that the prisoners are getting a taste of their own medicine. These are the same voices that have applauded America torturing prisoners.

Here’s where Dickens comes in. His concern is that executions dehumanize the rest of us. We see such dehumanization at work in the mob scenes in Oliver Twist.

There is little to be said in favor of Bill Sikes and Fagan, one of whom dies when he is being chased by a mob and the other when he is officially hanged. Dickens gets us to hate both men. And yet, he uses their deaths to call the death penalty into question.

According to my son Toby, who just taught Oliver Twist in a Charles Dickens class, the author was appalled at the carnival atmosphere that surrounded public hangings. In the presence of death, spectators lose their individuality and are overtaken by a kind of animal ferocity. We see the process at work as the mob chases Sikes:

Of all the terrific yells that ever fell on mortal ears, none could exceed the cry of the infuriated throng. Some shouted to those who were nearest to set the house on fire; others roared to the officers to shoot him dead. Among them all, none showed such fury as the man on horseback, who, throwing himself out of the saddle, and bursting through the crowd as if he were parting water, cried, beneath the window, in a voice that rose above all others, ‘Twenty guineas to the man who brings a ladder!’

The nearest voices took up the cry, and hundreds echoed it. Some called for ladders, some for sledge-hammers; some ran with torches to and fro as if to seek them, and still came back and roared again; some spent their breath in impotent curses and execrations; some pressed forward with the ecstasy of madmen, and thus impeded the progress of those below; some among the boldest attempted to climb up by the water-spout and crevices in the wall; and all waved to and fro, in the darkness beneath, like a field of corn moved by an angry wind: and joined from time to time in one loud furious roar.

The “man on horseback,” Toby pointed out to me, is Harry Maylie, a very sympathetic character who will marry Rose. Yet in this scene, he loses his name and is barely distinguishable from the others.

The mob scene that continues is reminiscent of those found in Barnaby Rudge and Tale of Two Cities:

There was another roar. At this moment the word was passed among the crowd that the door was forced at last, and that he who had first called for the ladder had mounted into the room. The stream abruptly turned, as this intelligence ran from mouth to mouth; and the people at the windows, seeing those upon the bridges pouring back, quitted their stations, and running into the street, joined the concourse that now thronged pell-mell to the spot they had left: each man crushing and striving with his neighbor, and all panting with impatience to get near the door, and look upon the criminal as the officers brought him out. The cries and shrieks of those who were pressed almost to suffocation, or trampled down and trodden under foot in the confusion, were dreadful; the narrow ways were completely blocked up; and at this time, between the rush of some to regain the space in front of the house, and the unavailing struggles of others to extricate themselves from the mass, the immediate attention was distracted from the murderer, although the universal eagerness for his capture was, if possible, increased.

 The mob gets their hanging. Through an accidental slip of the rope that he is using to escape (see the illustration above), Sikes accidentally hangs himself. The mob, we assume, is satisfied.

But to make sure that we don’t feel too good about what has happened, Dickens has the faithful Bulldog leap to be with his master. He sees something in the man, even if the rest of us don’t. He misses and his brains are dashed out on the pavement.

The official hanging of Fagan also has its down moment:

Day was dawning when they again emerged. A great multitude had already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarrelling, joking. Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all—the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.

 Dickens understands that, when we succumb to our bloodlust, we put ourselves on a level with the basest forms of humanity. We become lost in a Kurtzian heart of darkness and are capable of anything.

That’s what’s at stake in these Supreme Court cases. Our hope is that our humanity will become so offended at what has been happening that we will end this barbaric practice. The good news is that more and more states are doing so.

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Pope and St. Francis vs. Climate Change

Albert Chevallier Tayler, “St. Francis”

Spiritual Sunday

 Who could have predicted that Pope Francis, when he took his name from the most environmental of saints, would set out to save the world from climate change? Naomi Klein in a New Yorker article is impressed with the papal encyclical that has emerged:

In the opening paragraph, Pope Francis writes that “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” He quotes Saint Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures,” which states, “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”

Several paragraphs down, the encyclical notes that Saint Francis had “communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them ‘to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.’ ” According to Saint Bonaventure, the encyclical says, the thirteenth-century friar “would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’ ”

Later in the text, pointing to various biblical directives to care for animals that provide food and labor, Pope Francis comes to the conclusion that “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”

In honor of what Pope Francis is doing, here’s St. Francis’s prayer/poem:

Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord, All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor and all blessings.

To you alone, Most High, do they belong, and no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.

Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
By which You cherish all that You have made.

Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.

Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
Through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
Mother Earth
Who sustains and governs us,
Producing varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Praise be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.

Blessed are those who endure in peace, By You Most High, they will be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death,
From whom no-one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.

No second death can do them harm. Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks,
And serve Him with great humility.

As I read St. Francis’s words, I am reminded of my recent trip to Peru, where I learned that the Incas worshipped many of the symbols mentioned, especially the sun and the moon. When the Inca religion merged with Christianity, Mary became seen as an earth goddess.

Making note note of this, Naomi Klein attributes some of Pope Francis’s concern for the environment to the fact that he comes from Argentina:

This [care for the natural world] reflects the reality that, in large parts of the global south, the more anti-nature elements of Christian doctrine never entirely took hold. Particularly in Latin America, with its large indigenous populations, Catholicism wasn’t able to fully displace cosmologies that centered on a living and sacred Earth, and the result was often a Church that fused Christian and indigenous world views. With “Laudato Si’,” that fusion has finally reached the highest echelons of the Church.

Whatever the origins of the pope’s message, the world desperately needs it. And that of St. Francis as well.

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Rising to the Author’s Challenge

Fragonard, "The Reader"

Fragonard, “The Reader”

 I’ve been meaning to blog on this New York Times “Opinionator” piece for a while. Written by novelist Lily Tuck, it talks about readers’ responsibilities to the literature they encounter. Although, with all its talk about the role of the reader, it may sound somewhat cutting edge, the argument has much more in common with theorists from the 1950’s. Not that this is entirely bad.

The article begins with a wonderful Sartre quote about what the author wants from the reader:

“Reading,” Jean-Paul Sartre writes in his essay “What Is Literature?,” “is a pact of generosity between author and reader. Each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.” Literature, he maintains, is a shared experience, and a literary work’s reception and success is integral to it. “What the writer requires of the reader is not the application of an abstract freedom but the gift of his whole person, with his passions, his prepossessions, his sympathies, his sexual temperament, and his scale of values.”

Tuck talks about what follows from such a vision:

Thus, since in Sartre’s view a literary work is a such close collaboration between writer and reader, it must necessarily follow that a “good” reader produces “good” literature while a “bad” one, “bad” books. “The bad novel,”Sartre writes, “aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith.”

While Tuck is worried about bad readers turning great literature into something lesser—say, Pride and Prejudice into a cheesy romance—the process is not as symmetrical for her as it sounds. That is to say, I don’t think she believes that great readers could turn a lesser work into something great. For all the talk of collaboration, readers play second fiddle.

At one point, it sounds like she wants reader to kneel before the altar of literature:

In the Middle Ages, reading was regarded as a contemplative act. It was lectio divina and limited to sacred texts that, for the most part, were read out loud and optimally, the words read were repeated by the listeners in order to fill body and soul with their significance. Reading then was essentially a form of prayer. 

Such an approach is far preferable, Tuck says, to reading for pleasure and reading for information (a dichotomy that sounds suspiciously like Horace’s “sweetness and light”):

Today, however, most people read to be informed and instructed — where to take a vacation, how to cook, how to invest their money. Less frequently, the reasons may be escapist or to be entertained, to forget the boredom or anxiety of their daily lives. These are valid reasons, but I believe most of the reading one does for these reasons is actually a “bad” practice for reading literature.

Fiction especially suffers from this approach, Tuck writes:

Fiction, which I believe suffers most from modern readership, is by definition not factual. It may be about the real world and it may try to illuminate some facts about the real world or how real people behave in it or, as is so often the case in modern literature, it may also be about the impossibility of portraying any such reality since the very nature of art is artifice.

Many of the New Critics in the 1950’s and early 1960’s believed that literature’s role is to raise us above the sound and fury of the world. Because they went to such an extreme, however, arguing that literature should haven’t any truck with history or biography, they invited an inevitable backlash. New Criticism came to be seen as anemic and New Historicism gained ascendency. Suddenly literature was mixed up with all the other conversations we have about life.

Now it sounds as though Tuck wants to remove literature once again from the realm of the everyday and into a special sanctified realm .

For all her talk about the power of the reader, she is not that distant from those New Critics who dismissed audiences as secondary to text. True, she approvingly cites reader response theorist Wolfgang Iser, but, as Stanley Fish famously pointed out in a slashing attack (“Why No One’s Afraid of Wolfgang Iser”), Iser claimed more for the reader than he delivered. While texts might be indeterminate and require readers to fill in gaps, those gaps are determined by the author. The reader is just supposed to follow along, not genuinely collaborate.

One can make the same criticism of the quotation with which Tuck concludes her piece. Geoffrey Hartman, the New Critic-turned-deconstructionist, said that literature should be “an encounter of imagination with imagination,” which sounds he’s raising the reader to an equal plane with the author. And while some of the deconstructionists believed that they themselves were the author’s equal, nevertheless their practice elevated the text above everything, including reality itself (“there is nothing outside the text”). So again, while Tuck talks about collaboration between author and reader, she doesn’t see the two imaginations as equal. Tuck ultimately wants the reader to fall in line.

Although drawn to reader response theory myself, I am not entirely hostile to Tuck’s view. I think the author does have a special genius and that we should, in the presence of a work, open ourselves to all it has to offer. Great works of literature are always smarter than we are, and I believe we can indeed treat them as a special place.

But literature has to be more than a church-going type experience. I believe we should also allow literature to face off with reality and see what emerges. Literature, as I note in this blog’s mission statement, is meant to mix it up with life, not separate us from it. It takes us out of the world only to plunge us more deeply into it. The author, meanwhile, can’t entirely control what the reader will do with the work and that’s okay–something even more amazing emerges from their encounter than either author or reader could have accomplished on his or her own.

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The Inner City: Stay or Leave?

Dr. Samson Davis returns to his Newark classroom

Sampson Davis, author of “Living and Dying in Brick City: An ER Doctor Returns Home”

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a fine article by an inner city high school teacher about the desire of certain students to escape their surroundings. Clint Smith reflects upon James Baldwin’s decision to move to France and, while sympathetic, hopes his own students will stay at home.

In his most famous short story, Baldwin gives us a narrator who, unlike himself, returns to Harlem. More on that in a moment.

Clint thought of Baldwin’s decision after taking his students on a field trip to Paris. They left the day after the Charleston shooting so escape was on his mind:

When we arrived in Paris, I was reminded of the American writer James Baldwin. His departure from Harlem in 1948, aged 24, with only $40 (£25) in his pocket was an attempt to escape the pernicious racism of the US. This decision, he claims, saved his life. “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France – it was a matter of getting out of America,” he said in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review. “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail; I was going to kill somebody or be killed.”

Smith has taught high school English just outside of Washington, D.C. and now teaches art in the Boston City Schools. He has seen close up how his student live in communities “that have been subjected to generations of underinvestment and discrimination.” He understands why Baldwin saw the choice as one between leaving and dying:

For my entire life, I have watched the realities of racism slowly kill those around me. I have watched food insecurity and unequal access to healthy meals saturate black communities with diabetes and heart disease at disproportionate rates. I have watched the residue of federally-sanctioned redlining create small apartheids in cities for decades, generating breeding grounds for crime and poverty. In Baltimore, for example, local policies have existed since 1910 to isolate the city’s black population. To the present day federal housing subsidy policies still result in low-income black families being segregated from richer neighborhoods.

Given this reality, many teachers and school administrators convey a “do well so you can leave this place” narrative to their best students. Smith himself internalized this message and left New Orleans to be educated elsewhere. But he has returned to the inner city and wants the exodus to stop, asking, “How will our communities ever grow into their true potential if we continue to tell our most successful students to leave?”

Here’s his conclusion:

While systemic injustice is suffocating and can often seem immutable, things can change. But we must engage our students honestly, and remind them that we are the architects of the world we live in. That is what I would have wanted my teachers to tell me. That is what I try to tell my students. Perhaps then we can collectively re-create our reality so that one day no one is forced to “escape.”

So what does Smith teach his students so that they can collectively recreate their reality? He introduces them to texts and conversations about racism:

We, as educators, must directly address the realities that cause them to want to leave in the first place. That, in part, means we must discuss racism candidly – both the interpersonal and the systemic.

This does not mean adding a perfunctory Martin Luther King Jr speech to be skimmed over during Black History Month. It does not mean reading the only writer of color in the curriculum and analyzing their work devoid of any historical context. This means holistically broadening the range of texts we expose our students to and having them interrogate why certain voices have been, and continue to be, left out of the literary and historical canons.

And further on:

As teachers, we have a responsibility to our students to provide a more holistic and honest definition of what racism is in this country, so that we might better push back against it as we move forward.

“Sonny’s Blues” would help in this endeavor. Baldwin may have escaped Harlem, but in his story he gives us two characters who return after leaving. Sonny’s brother returns to the city to teach and Sonny comes back after running away to join the army. Here’s the narrator explaining his ambivalence about Harlem after picking up Sonny following a stint in prison for heroine possession:

So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly studied Sonny’s face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It’s always at the hour of trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches.

Describing the inner city as a death trap, of course, might not encourage people to stay. But the story goes on to capture the vibrancy of Harlem. In fact, by trying to build a “good, clean, faceless life” for himself, the narrator has cut himself off from his community–the missing limb–even though he has come back to live there. Through Sonny’s music he is reminded that only in Harlem can he truly be alive.

I like to think that this epiphany will lead him to become a better teacher. He has already begun to open himself in new ways to a former student in the story’s opening, and one imagines that the process will continue on. For instance, while he initially wonders whether his students get more from shooting up in the bathrooms than taking his math classes, he might think otherwise if he saw himself out to convince them that they are “the architects of the world we live in.”

Baldwin may have had to leave, but he recognized the price he paid for doing so. He felt keenly the ache of the amputated limb. Clint Smith wants to spare his students from having to gnaw off their connection with a community than can nourish them more than any other.

We should all be giving the inner cities the support they need to hold on to their best and their brightest.

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A Weed’s Zen Acceptance of Fate

Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer

The other day, to help out a friend undergoing surgery for ovarian cancer, I joined supporters weeding her garden. I was feeling fairly antagonistic towards weeds by the time we were done, even while knowing that certain poets have sung their praises.

So I turned to these poets to get a more positive perspective.

Walt Whitman, of course, praises leaves of grass in Song of Myself, seeing them as a quintessentially democratic life form. Mary Oliver, meanwhile, marvels at “the reckless blossom of weeds” in a poem about a stillborn kitten with a single eye. The weeds for Oliver stand for nature’s extravagant way of throwing infinite variety our way.

Less positively, Carl Sandburg describes grass as oblivion, covering over humanity’s greatest atrocities as though they had never happened.

Here’s a very Zen Scott Bates poem about a “Contented Weed.” This particular plant has found a way to accommodate herself to whatever happens. Like a Sartrean existentialist, she asserts that she always has the freedom to choose.

Maybe she is exhibiting a higher wisdom, consciously and deliberately giving herself over to a higher power. Or maybe she’s just rationalizing, convincing herself that she has power when really she doesn’t. Knowing my father, I think he would see the poem as more about self deception than genuine inner peace. But because both interpretations are possible, we as readers may choose based on our own particular life outlooks. Where do you come down?

The Contented Weed

By Scott Bates

A Weed next door
Lives happily
Persuaded of
Her liberty

Each morning
When the Sun is low
She says to herself
I choose to grow

Each evening
When the Moon is bright
She says to herself
I choose the night

Each time she bows
Before the Wind
She says to herself
I choose to bend

And when at last
She wilts and dies
I’m sure she’ll choose
To fertilize

So all the weeds I pulled went on to fulfill a higher purpose.

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Read Poems for Life w/o Boundaries

Ignat Bednarik, "Young Man Reading"

Ignat Bednarik, “Young Man Reading”

Here’s a poem by America’s current poet laureate about what poetry contributes to our lives. Among other things, it beats shopping malls.

I’m not entirely sure who the poem is addressed to. Maybe Herrera, who has been described as “a performance artist and activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth,” is thinking of gang members, what with his references to razors and leather jackets. Perhaps his audience has been taught that they must aspire to consumer society’s fashion mall, even as they feel themselves continually judged and found wanting.

If so, then Herrera is here to tell them that this life offers them nothing of substance. It is a world of hostile waters, a storm. You think that you are being entertained but instead “your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold standing still.”

With poetry, on the other hand, “you can bathe, you can play, you can even join in on the gossip”–which is to say, you are accepted by the community. If you have dreams of freedom, well, poetry provides you with a genuine vision of “a life without boundaries.” Poems may seem as insubstantial as mist, yet you will discover that this mist is “central to your existence.”

Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings

By Juan Felipe Herrera

for Charles Fishman

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.

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Mood Swings: Inside Out, Rape of the Lock

Joy and Sadness in "Inside Out"

Joy and Sadness in “Inside Out”

I saw Insight Out over the weekend and heartily join the chorus of praise. It’s a smart look at the inside of an 11-year-old girl’s brain.

As imaginative as the film was, however, it wasn’t the first time that someone has created a dramatized version of a young woman’s mind. While I doubt that Pixar had Rape of the Lock in mind when it made the film, Pope’s mock epic has influenced other Disney films. The ice fairies in Fantasia, the blue birds in Cinderella, and the animal chorus in The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss the Girl” scene can all be traced back to the sylphs in Rape of the Lock.

At first we appear to have a sylph-like helper in the movie: Joy, Riley’s upbeat emotion, tries to make everything wonderful. But Riley’s family has moved to San Francisco and eventually she can’t hold on to Joy and Anger, Fear, and Disgust take over. According to Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, two neuropsychologists who were consulted for the film, it is common for positive emotions to “drop precipitously in frequency and intensity” once one turns 11.

Pope’s Belinda is older than 11—I’m guessing 16 or 17—but we see her undergo a similar drop. At first she is under the protection of the sylph Ariel, who helps her maintain her poise as a gay coquette. When she is humiliated in public by “the Baron,” however, she plunges into depression. It’s at that point that Pope takes us inside her mind.

Here’s Pope’s description of her fall into depression after the Baron cuts off one of her locks with a pair of scissors:

But anxious Cares the pensive Nymph oppressed,
And secret Passions labored in her Breast.
Not youthful Kings in Battle seized alive,
Not scornful Virgins who their Charms survive,
Not ardent Lovers robbed of all their Bliss,
Not ancient Ladies when refused a Kiss,
Not Tyrants fierce that unrepenting die,
Not Cynthia when her Manteau’s pinned awry, 
E’er felt such Rage, Resentment and Despair,
As Thou, sad Virgin! for thy ravished Hair.

Just as Riley loses Joy, so Belinda loses Ariel, who is replaced by the gnome Umbriel.

For, that sad moment, when the Sylphs withdrew,
And Ariel weeping from Belinda flew,
Umbriel, a dusky melancholy Spright,
As ever sully’d the fair face of Light,
Down to the Central Earth, his proper Scene,
Repairs to search the gloomy Cave of Spleen.

The spleen was seen as the anatomical cause of female depression in the 18th century, and in Pope’s poem the goddess Spleen is portrayed as an ill-tempered old maid who has lost joy. Instead, she lounges around in self pity making life miserable for everyone. She represents a possible future for Belinda:

Here, in a Grotto, sheltered close from Air,
And screened in Shades from Day’s detested Glare,
She sighs for ever on her pensive Bed,
Pain at her side, and Megrim [migraine] at her Head.

   Two Handmaids wait the Throne: Alike in Place,
But diff’ring far in Figure and in Face.
Here stood Ill-nature like an ancient Maid,
Her wrinkled Form in Black and White arrayed;
With store of Prayers, for Mornings, Nights, and Noons,
Her Hand is filled; her Bosom with Lampoons.

Just as we get a surreal interior landscape in Inside Out, so do we get one in Rape of the Lock. Pope’s images, many of them drawn from the stage, suggest madness and/or sexual repression. I’ve never understood all of them but, as with Inside Out, sometimes it’s best just to give yourself over to the wild phantasmagoria:

   A constant Vapor o’er the Palace flies;
Strange Phantoms rising as the Mists arise; 
Dreadful, as Hermit’s Dreams in haunted Shades,
Or bright as Visions of expiring Maids.
Now glaring Fiends, and Snakes on rolling Spires,
Pale Spectres, gaping Tombs, and Purple Fires:
Now Lakes of liquid Gold, Elysian Scenes,
And Crystal Domes, and Angels in Machines.

   Unnumbered Throngs on ev’ry side are seen
Of Bodies changed to various Forms by Spleen.
Here living Teapots stand, one Arm held out,
One bent; the Handle this, and that the Spout: 
A Pipkin there like Homer’s Tripod walks;
Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose Pie talks;
Men prove with Child, as powerful Fancy works,
And Maids turned Bottles, call aloud for Corks.

Umbriel asks the queen to “touch Belinda with chagrin,” explaining that “that single Act gives half the World the Spleen.” The goddess complies, presenting him with two gifts guaranteed to ensure a major temper tantrum:

A wondrous Bag with both her Hands she binds,
Like that where once Ulysses held the Winds;
There she collects the Force of Female Lungs,
Sighs, Sobs, and Passions, and the War of Tongues.
A Vial next she fills with fainting Fears,
Soft Sorrows, melting Griefs, and flowing Tears.
The Gnome rejoicing bears her Gift away,
Spreads his black Wings, and slowly mounts to Day.

Just as, in Inside Out, we cut between the inside of Riley’s head and what other people see, so Pope too moves between interior and exterior. Following the assault, Belinda is in the arms of her best friend, the fiery Thalestris:

Sunk in Thalestris’ Arms the Nymph he [Umbriel] found,
Her Eyes dejected and her Hair unbound.
Full o’er their Heads the swelling Bag he rent,
And all the Furies issued at the Vent.
Belinda burns with more than mortal Ire,
And fierce Thalestris fans the rising Fire.

After Umbriel breaks the bag of wind, Belinda goes and screams at the Baron, demanding that he return her lock. Then she breaks down in tears after Umbriel delivers the vial of tears:

   But Umbriel, hateful Gnome! forbears not so;
He breaks the Vial whence the Sorrows flow.
Then see! the Nymph in beauteous Grief appears,
Her Eyes half languishing, half drowned in Tears;
On her heaved Bosom hung her drooping Head,
Which, with a Sigh, she raised; and thus she said.
For ever curs’d be this detested Day,

Which snatched my best, my fav’rite Curl away!

There’s a significant difference between poem and film, however. In the poem, Belinda is urged by another character to laugh the whole thing off and to emerge with a more mature view of life:

What then remains, but well our Pow’r to use,
And keep good Humour still whate’er we lose?
And trust me, Dear! good Humor can prevail,
When Airs, and Flights, and Screams, and Scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.

I can report that my women students generally have violent objections to responding thus to what is, after all, a case of sexual harassment.

Inside Out, by contrast, doesn’t advise pushing the hurt under. Instead, Riley needs to acknowledge her sadness to her parents, who then can commiserate. As the psychologist consultants explain,

Toward the end of the film, it is Sadness that leads Riley to reunite with her parents, involving forms of touch and emotional sounds called “vocal bursts” — which one of us has studied in the lab — that convey the profound delights of reunion.

Inside Out offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.

The difference between poem and film may expose a weakness in Pope’s poem. By essentially telling Belinda to “suck it up,” he doesn’t acknowledge her sense of loss. Then again, we are much more sensitive to the child’s feelings than they were in the 18th century.

At least Pope knows enough not to show Belinda following such advice, which would be utterly unrealistic. The character of Rationality shows up in neither Rape of the lock nor Inside Out. Belinda instead, pushed past endurance by the Baron’s smugness, throws snuff in his face:

But this bold Lord, with manly Strength indued,
She with one Finger and a Thumb subdued,
Just where the Breath of Life his Nostrils drew,
A Charge of Snuff the wily Virgin threw;
The Gnomes direct, to ev’ry Atom just,
The pungent Grains of titillating Dust.
Sudden, with starting Tears each Eye o’erflows,
And the high Dome re-echoes to his Nose.

Riley’s consolation is a reunion with her parents and the fabrication of new core memories that will help her survive hard times in her future. Belinda’s consolation, Pope tells her, is that his poem will make her famous for all eternity. And indeed we still know about Arabella Fermor, the real life Belinda upon whom the poem was based.

I like Inside Out’s resolution better, in large part because it seeks to understand rather than satirize the heroine. Perhaps Pope could have found ways to get Ariel and Umbriel to work as a tandem rather than seeing Belinda only in the grip of one or the other. Her society, on the other hand, seems to have less forgiveness for screw-ups.

Further thought: Of course, one reason Inside Out has a more comfortable resolution is that Riley hasn’t yet turned 13. There’s a big button labeled “Puberty” on the console and the characters wonder what it does. To quote Al Jolson, Riley and her parents “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Belinda reminds me of a character in a May 18 New Yorker short story I just read by Justin Taylor. Charity, a teenager, exchanges a single sex text with a much older man she sits next to on a plane and suddenly finds herself overwhelmed by his flood of desire (all expressed via text). Out of her depth, she cuts off correspondence with him and the story’s title–“So You’re Just What, Gone?–is his last text. The following passage from the story describes Belinda to a “t” and may soon apply to Riley:

The Mark thing will make so much less sense out loud than it did when she did it, or even than it does now as she goes over it in her head. That’s the most unfair part. Everyone will have their own version of “What were you thinking” and “Why did you do that?” Like her life is some book she needs to write a report about, identifying key themes and meaning, when, really, texting Mark was like peeking in the doorway of a bar or the teachers’ lounge–someplace you could get in trouble for going into but were curious to glimpse the inside of, just to be able to say that you knew what was in there. And maybe someone had dared you to do it and maybe you had had to dare yourself.

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Look Down on Us Who Journey by Night

Van Gogh, "Starry Night over the Rhone"

Van Gogh, “Starry Night over the Rhone”

Spiritual Sunday

Alfred Noyes, most famous for his poem “The Highwayman,” wrote a number of religious poems as well. I particularly like this one which, like “The Highwayman,” has a nighttime setting:

Night Journey

Thou who never canst err, for Thyself art the Way, 
Thou whose infinite kingdom is flooded with day; 
Thou whose eyes behold all, for Thyself art the Light, 
Look down on us gently who journey by night. 

By the pity revealed in Thy loneliest hour 
Forsaken, self-bound and self emptied of power, 
Thou who even in death hadst all heaven in sight, 
Look down on us gently who journey by night. 

On the road to Emmaus they thought Thou wast dead, 
Yet they saw Thee and knew in the breaking of bread. 
Though the day was far spent, in Thy face there was light. 
Look down on us gently who journey by night.

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Obama’s Eulogy & Beloved’s Baby Suggs

Beah Richards as Baby Suggs in "Beloved"

Beah Richards as Baby Suggs in “Beloved”

This past weekend one of my favorite talk show hosts, the African American political science professor Melissa Harris Perry of MSNBC, quoted a long passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved in response to Barack Obama’s Charleston eulogy. A close look at the passage explains why she made the connection, which is not immediately apparent. It also explains why the president’s words struck such a deep chord amongst African Americans.

I’ll share the passage in a moment but first let me set the scene. The words are those of Baby Suggs, a former slave who functions as a healing earth mother for the black residents of Cincinnati. She is also the mother-in-law of Sethe, who escapes to join Baby Suggs after being raped and then brutally beaten by her Kentucky master.

Harris-Perry may have thought of Baby Suggs in part because she operates as an “unchurched preacher” bringing comfort, which is the role that Obama assumed as he stood before the assembled mourners. Here’s Morrison describing Baby Suggs’s “ministry”:

Who decided that, because slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue,” she had nothing left to make a living with but her heart— which she put to work at once. Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it. In winter and fall she carried it to AME’s and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds, the Church of the Redeemer and the Redeemed. Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beating their presence.

Baby Suggs conducts her services in a “Clearing” in the woods. Like Obama in his eulogy, she gets everyone involved:

After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the tree. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted. “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.

“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringling trees.

“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and ground life shuddered under their feet.

Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure. 

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

Obama too talked of grace, how we have been blind to it but that it is there for us to see if we only we open our hearts. It is up to us to receive it:

We don’t earn grace.  We’re all sinners.  We don’t deserve it.  (Applause.)  But God gives it to us anyway.  (Applause.)  And we choose how to receive it.  It’s our decision how to honor it.  

Baby Suggs shares with her “congregation” what it means to live with an open heart. This is the passage cited, at least in part, by Harris-Perry:

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.

Note how Baby Suggs mentions both African Americans suffering and how, if they love their big hearts, they can stand strong against oppression. Obama maintained a similar balancing act.

On the one hand, he pointed to the hurt that the African American community has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of whites:

For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens.  (Applause.)  It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders.  But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge — including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise — (applause) — as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.  (Applause.)  For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.  We see that now.  

Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — (applause) — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.  (Applause.) It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.

On the other hand, he talked about the large heart of the victimized community:

A roadway toward a better world.  [Rev. Pinckney] knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.  

That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart.  That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  

That reservoir of goodness.  If we can find that grace, anything is possible.  (Applause.)  If we can tap that grace, everything can change.  (Applause.)  

When you have been living long years in a country where those who have power wish you ill, it is almost inevitable that you will come to feel worthless, as though black lives don’t matter. Obama acknowledged the full force of white oppression, including endemic poverty, underfunded education, a warped criminal justice system, gun violence that disproportionately harms blacks, and systemic racism—ills so entrenched that even the most powerful man in the world can’t bring an end to them.

But if one stops there, one sinks into passive victimhood. Obama also reminded the black community that they are a big hearted people that can rise to these occasions and turn them into something good. He also invited the rest of America to enter into generous vision of Reverend Pinckney and the others souls at Emanuel AME Church:

Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.  The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.  He couldn’t imagine that.  (Applause.)  

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley — (applause) — how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

No wonder Harris-Perry thought of Beloved.

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Plato Anxious about Lit’s Pyschic Impact

Rafael Sanzio, "School of Athens"

Rafael Sanzio, “School of Athens”

This is a follow-up to last week’s essay about Plato, where I didn’t dwell enough on Plato’s anxieties about the danger of people imitating literary characters. I’ve been thinking about this issue in terms of recent brain research, both on mirror neurons and on the psychological impact of literature. Once one sees just how deeply literature can reach into the psyche, one can understand Plato’s worries.

A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia,

is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

The research into how mirror neurons work is still in its infancy, but the evidence seems to indicate that (speaking of infancy) new born babies imitate at far deeper levels than we were previously aware. They appear to pick up on everything that the people around them are doing, including how we move our facial muscles to form words. They miss almost nothing.

Now let’s take a step away from actual people to representations of people in literature, what Plato would denigrate as third order imitation. Recent brain research reaffirms what every avid reader has always known: the characters seem like actual beings. Here’s from a report on the research in The New York Times:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. 

And now take a step beyond. There are currently neuroscientists who argue that the greater the literature, the greater the impact. Thus Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park will stimulate more regions of the brain that a bestselling potboiler. I wrote about this in a past blog but here again are some of the highlights, including this note from a New School newsletter:

[P]sychology Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor Emanuele Castano have found that those who read great literature do better on various psychological tests than do those who read either popular fiction or non-fiction.

New York Times blog essay summarizes Kidd and Castano’s findings. It opens with an engaging paragraph that I urge you to take seriously as job hunting advice, even though it sounds flip:

Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.

The article elaborates:

The researchers…found that people who read literary fiction scored better than those who read popular fiction. This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much. Literary fiction readers also scored better than nonfiction readers — and popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing.

In explaining the results, the researchers sound like English teachers:

Kidd and Castano suggest that the reason for literary fiction’s impact on ToM [the Theory of Mind test] is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.” (Science Now)

Most of these researchers seem to focus on fiction but I would extend their observations to literature in general. After all, every work of literature plunges us into imagined life, what philosopher of art Susanne Langer refers to as “virtual life.” (Langer, incidentally, is examining all the arts, not just literature.) To cite three random examples, in “To His Coy Mistress,” we put ourselves in the position of a lover longing for a woman, in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” to a man observing and then reflecting upon daffodils, in The Wasteland to someone experiencing existential despair.

Now back to Plato. After asserting that the ideal republic will need reliable warriors to function as “guardians,” he then says that the guardians themselves need to be protected from fiction, where they could get the wrong ideas. In his mind, this fiction includes Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, and countless others. Too often in those works, he complains, we see the gods setting bad examples:

Neither, if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarreling among themselves as of all things the basest, should any word be said to them of the wars in heaven, and of the plots and fightings of the gods against one another, for they are not true. No, we shall never mention the battles of the giants, or let them be embroidered on garments; and we shall be silent about the innumerable other quarrels of gods and heroes with their friends and relatives. If they would only believe us we would tell them that quarreling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarrel between citizens; this is what old men and old women should begin by telling children; and when they grow up, the poets also should be told to compose for them in a similar spirit. But the narrative of Hephaestus binding Hera his mother, or how on another occasion Zeus sent him flying for taking her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer –these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

This sounds like a prescription for dull, didactic morality tales, not for great art. Plato, however, is interested only in the smooth functioning of his republic, not our aesthetic sensibilities. And he’s only getting started in bashing the poets:

And if any one asserts that the violation of oaths and treaties, which was really the work of Pandarus, was brought about by Athena and Zeus, or that the strife and contention of the gods was instigated by Themis and Zeus, he shall not have our approval; neither will we allow our young men to hear the words of Aeschylus, that God plants guilt among men when he desires utterly to destroy a house. And if a poet writes of the sufferings of Niobe–the subject of the tragedy in which these iambic verses occur–or of the house of Pelops, or of the Trojan war or on any similar theme, either we must not permit him to say that these are the works of God, or if they are of God, he must devise some explanation of them such as we are seeking; he must say that God did what was just and right, and they were the better for being punished; but that those who are punished are miserable, and that God is the author of their misery–the poet is not to be permitted to say; though he may say that the wicked are miserable because they require to be punished, and are benefited by receiving punishment from God; but that God being good is the author of evil to any one is to be strenuously denied, and not to be said or sung or heard in verse or prose by any one whether old or young in any well-ordered commonwealth. Such a fiction is suicidal, ruinous, impious. 

And finally:

These are the kind of sentiments about the gods which will arouse our anger; and he who utters them shall be refused a chorus; neither shall we allow teachers to make use of them in the instruction of the young, meaning, as we do, that our guardians, as far as men can be, should be true worshippers of the gods and like them. 

As I noted last week, Plato must be given credit for acknowledging the power of literature. Of course, those of us who think that the guardians would be better served by learning to think for themselves rather than being mindless rule followers have no problem with them reading the great Greek poets.

The fear of readers imitating bad actions remains to this day. We still have people voicing Plato’s objections to works like Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I plan to return to this issue again in an upcoming post, this time checking out what Plato’s most famous pupil had to say on the subject.

Advance notice: Aristotle is far more positive about the effects of literature.

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The Wicked Witch, Disillusioned Dreamer


This past semester while teaching my American Fantasy class, I wrote several posts describing The Wizard of Oz as a quintessentially American fairy tale. Dorothy Gale is raised in the drought stricken years of the late 19th century’s “long depression” but refuses to give up hope, as Uncle Henry and Aunt Em have done. Combining a childhood idealism with a pioneer woman’s can-do spirit, she manages to restore self-belief in her traveling companions. Thanks to her, they find the wisdom, the heart, and the courage that was always within them. American can be strong again.

Baum’s book was an instant success, as was the 1939 MGM film, which tapped into the same American dreaming. Both book and film have achieved archetypal status and consequently have merged in the popular imagination, just as different versions of Cinderella have merged. We are no longer dealing with specific texts but an American myth.

Because it is a myth, it provides contemporary authors with a rich reservoir of images. My student Abby Doyle alerted me to how Gregory Maguire uses the Oz story in his novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995).

The novel speaks to the existential crisis that America has been undergoing for several decades now with the hollowing out of the middle class. In other words, the myth appears to resurface when the American dream clashes with the economic facts on the ground.

Maguire’s Oz has many of the same problems as contemporary America. Whereas the Munchkins for Baum were idyllic Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, for Maguire they are narrow-minded people who are torn between religious fundamentalism and a pornographic longing for the pleasures they have repressed. Meanwhile the country as a whole is socially stratified, with discrimination directed against both Animals (which can talk) and animals (which can’t). The Wizard of Oz is a manipulating autocrat.

Elphaba, who will become the Wicked Witch of the West, is initially an idealistic college student who believes that Animals should have equal rights and animals as well. Ultimately she goes crazy over the unfairness that she witnesses and that she herself experiences as a result of her green skin. Her clash with Dorothy is almost accidental.

Maguire’s Dorothy is not the confident little girl of the Baum novel and MGM movie. Guilt-ridden over what she has done to Elphaba’s sister, she is seeking to make amends. The people of Oz, however, do not see her this way. Rather, they project their hopes on to her, regarding her as a savior for her victory over the witch. They call her self-delusional when she describes it as an accident.

In other words, Maguire sees the Oz fantasy as denial about the real character of America. He is critiquing the willful self-blindness that has arisen in a country that wants to see itself as exceptional, his bitter vision counteracting the sugary sweet fantasy that we as a country feed on.

Meanwhile, those social reformers who see reality for what it is become disillusioned and go mad. The rest of the country condemns them for their lack of faith and regards them as witches.

Previous posts on the Oz story

Wizard of Oz, America’s Greatest Fairy Tale

If Oz Became Modern Day America

Sarah Palin as Dorothy

Dreaming about Ozma of Oz

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Justice Scalia, Blind Like Pentheus

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia has been outdoing himself in recent days with his over-the-top dissents to recent rulings. He reminds me of Pentheus in The Bacchae.

To bring you up to date: On Thursday, the outspoken justice blasted his fellow justices for saving Obamacare, asserting it should be renamed SCOTUScare as a result. Then on Friday, in response to the Supreme Court legalizing same sex marriage, he wrote,

Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.

And further on:

This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

As The Hill reported, Scalia was particularly upset that the justices didn’t represent a cross-section of America:

He notes that all the justices graduated from Harvard or Yale Law School, eight grew up on the coasts, and that not one is an evangelical Christian or a Protestant, religions that make up significant chunks of the American population.

Here’s Scalia again:

To allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation.

What bothers me about Scalia is less his strongly held views than his blindness to his own inconsistencies. He self-righteously attacks his fellow justices others for usurping legislative power but has no problem with gutting Congress’s Voting Rights Act or overruling its limits on campaign contributions (in Citizens United). He insists on a narrow textual reading of what is essentially a typo when he wants to gut Obamacare, but he has had no trouble looking behind the words to determine legislative intent in the past (say, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency). And he didn’t mind stopping the Florida recount in Bush v. Gore to assure that a Republican president would be elected. This Supreme Court has been more activist than any we have seen in decades, but Scalia objects only when the vote doesn’t go his way.

At least he wasn’t as intemperate this session as he was ten years ago when he attacked the Court for throwing out Texas’s sodomy laws. At that time he wrote,

State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity … every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision.

Of course, “significant chunks of the American population” now are fine with same sex marriage—recent Gallup polling puts approval at 60% and rising –just as, ten years ago, they found sodomy laws outdated and absurd. At such moments Scalia sounds more like the ranting uncle who watches too much Fox News than a Supreme Court justice.

Which brings me to Pentheus. When he returns to Thebes and finds that all the women are out dancing in the woods in honor of Dionysus, he goes ballistic. Then, when he discovers that wiser heads—Teiresias and his grandfather—approve, he directs his fury against them. He sounds a lot like Scalia excoriating his fellow justices:

I am ashamed, sir! How can a man so old
be so devoid of sense!
Take off that ivy, will you?
And drop that thyrsus [wand]. Now! Do you hear?
This is all your doing, Teiresias! Using him,
to launch this new God to the masses.
Convenient, isn’t it? Give religion a boost
and prophets grow fat, raking in the profits
from reading the stars and fire-magic.
You can thank your white hairs for being here and not in prison,
chained with those raving females; just the place for frauds
who encourage their obnoxious rituals.

Teiresias and Cadmus bowing to the new god are like Americans, including Supreme Court justices, evolving on the subject of same sex marriage. Acceptance of homosexuality is the new order of the day, and it is particularly impressive when old people come around. Pentheus attacking the city’s seer and the city’s founder is like Scalia sneering at at Justice Kennedy for authoring an option “couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.”

Unlike Kennedy, Teiresias hits back. Wouldn’t it be satisfying to see someone deliver a version of the following speech to Scalia?

When a sensible man
has a good cause to defend, to be eloquent
is no great feat. Your tongue is so nimble
one might think you had some sense, but your words
contain none at all. The powerful man
who matches insolence with glibness is worse than a fool.
He is a public danger.

And further on:

Nor should you boast of wisdom, when everyone but you
can see how sick your thoughts are…
And nothing you can ever say will make me
turn against the Gods. For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure
no madness can undo.

Eventually in the play, Pentheus is exposed as a hypocrite and is torn apart for his failure to honor the new force that has entered his world. Sadly, Supreme Court justices, with their lifelong tenure, seem immune to any such comeuppance.

Added note – Looking back at Scalia’s dissent in the sodomy case, another couple of Pentheus rants seem appropriate. Like this one:

The rest of you,
scour the city, find this effeminate stranger

who afflicts our women with this new disease
and who befouls our beds. And when you catch him,
drag him here in chains.
He’ll taste the people’s justice when he’s stoned to death,
regretting every bitter moment of his fun in Thebes.

Scalia might add “afflicts our men.” Incidentally, I am citing from the wonderful Michael Cacoyannis translation, now sadly out of print.

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The Bard Endorsed Same Sex Marriage

Frederick Richard Pickersgill, "Oliva wooing Viola"

Frederick Richard Pickersgill, “Oliva wooing Viola”

If he were alive today, Shakespeare would be in the streets celebrating the Supreme Court’s Friday ruling in favor of same sex marriage. In Twelfth Night he all but gives us two same sex marriages.

I say “all but” because, of course, Shakespeare couldn’t outwardly advocate such marriages. He was writing 400 years too early and he had to resolve the play with a series of socially acceptable couplings. While the comedy is still unfolding, however, we can imagine other possibilities. Not for nothing is the play subtitled “What You Will.”

First, we encouraged to imagine a marriage between Count Orsino and Cesario. Yes, of course Cesario is really Viola disguised as a man. When we’re watching the scene where Orsino instructs Cesario/Viola to woo Olivia on his behalf, however, we see someone who looks like a man–and who, in Elizabethan times, would actually have been played by a man–expressing desires for another man:

Viola: I’ll do my best
To woo your lady:
yet, a barful strife!
Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.

At the end of the play, we have a scene reminiscent of those marriage proposals we have been watching on television ever since courts and state legislatures began allowing same sex marriage: a man proposing to (someone who looks like) a man:

Orsino: Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.
Viola: And all those sayings will I overswear;
And those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbed continent the fire
That severs day from night.
Give me thy hand…

And further on:

Here is my hand: you shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.

Or course, Orsino doesn’t have the Supreme Court to step in and tell him that it would actually be permissible for him to marry a man. He’s stuck with heterosexual marriage. As long as Viola wears male clothing, however, he can dream a little longer, pretending that she is still Cesario:

We will not part from hence. Cesario, come;
For so you shall be, while you are a man…

Television has been showing us women proposing to women as well as men proposing to men. Here’s Olivia doing the same:

Olivia to Viola:
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honor, truth and every thing,
I love thee so, that, maugre [despite] all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

Of course, technically Olivia thinks Viola is a man so she’s within the letter of the law. One can make a strong argument, however, that Oliva falls in love, not with a man, but with a strong woman. Viola is the kind of woman that Olivia dreams of being so it makes sense that she would be drawn to her. Marrying Sebastian is like settling for a consolation prize, necessitated because the Supreme Court has not yet changed what is permissible. Olivia can’t have Viola so she settles for her twin.

I’ve written in the past that Twelfth Night’s magic lies in the way it allows us to dream of relationships that were not allowed by the society of the time. Shakespeare, who understood human beings as well as anyone ever has, knew that conventional definitions don’t capture the full complexity of who we are. Orsino at times feels like a woman trapped inside a man’s body and Viola embraces the chance to dress up like a man. Antonio is definitely gay and Sebastian, who is “near the manners of my mother,” may swing both ways. Biologist Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii, noting that “biology loves diversity, society hates it,” has documented many of the different ways that x and y chromosomes have lined up in the human body, and that doesn’t even bring in social influences. Through the chaos of his comedy, Shakespeare acknowledges that complexity.

Sadly, in 1602 humans couldn’t express their full multidimensionality. The play may seem to end happily with a string of heterosexual weddings, but the fool’s final song is filled with grim visions of marriage. In one, a man realizes that he can’t find happiness by swaggering like a man: “But when I came, alas! to wive, By swaggering could I never thrive.” In another, it sounds like someone–he or the wife–must get drunk to handle the marriage bed: “But when I came unto my beds,/With toss-pots still had drunken heads.”

As the fool puts it, once one grows up and gets married–comes into “man’s estate”–the reality of life is “the wind and the rain.” Feste punctuates the grimness of this reality with his refrain, “And the rain it raineth everyday.”

On Friday, the sun came out.

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No Room in This House for Two “I”s

Gustav Adolph Hensel, "Painting of a Mosque"

Gustav Adolph Hensel, “Mosque”

Spiritual Sunday

Although Ramadan is a holy month meant to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, it seems increasingly to be a time when Muslims kill other Muslims. The most recent instance is Friday’s suicide bombing in a Kuwait City Shiite mosque that killed 27 and injured 227. ISIS claims responsibility.

Meanwhile, America was mourning the nine people who also died in a place of worship. Barack Obama’s moving eulogy of Reverend Clem Pinckney brought to mind a parable by the Sufi mystic Rumi that touches upon some of the same themes. Sufism is the inner mystical dimension of Islam.

Obama’s remarks were an extended meditation upon grace. Acknowledging that we are sinful beings caught up in petty hatreds, he asked for God’s grace to descend upon America so that we can embrace others who are different from us. He quoted Pinckney, moved on to words by novelist and essayist Marilyn Robinson, and then led the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace”:

Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history—we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.” What is true in the South is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past—how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind—but, more importantly, an open heart.  

That’s what I’ve felt this week—an open heart.  That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think—what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  

That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.

Amazing grace.  Amazing grace. 

(Begins to sing) –

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now I’m found;
Was blind but now I see.  

After naming each of the victims and noting that each had “found that grace,” the president concluded,

Through the example of their lives, they’ve now passed it on to us.  May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.

In Rumi’s poem, there is also an image of homecoming. The man, however, can only come home to his beloved, to God, after he sees beyond himself:

A man knocked at the door of his beloved.
“Who are you, trusted one?” thus asked the friend.
He answered: “I!” The friend said: “Go away,
Here is no place for people raw and crude!”
What, then, could cook the raw and rescue him
But separation’s fire and exile’s flame?
The poor man went to travel a whole year
And burned in separation from his friend,
And he matured, was cooked and burnt, returned
And carefully approached the friend’s abode.
He walked around it now in cautious fear
Lest from his lips unfitting words appear.
His friend called out: “Who is there at my door?”
The answer: “You, dear you are at the door!”
He said: “Come in, now, that you are all I—
There is no room in this house for two ‘I’s!”

I am struck by the misery of living in separation. Dylan Roof and the Isis bomber were rawer and cruder than most, but all who shut themselves against divine love experience suffering. It is particularly ironic when people do so in the name of God.

Fortunately, the man in the parable learns from his suffering. His maturation as he is “cooked and burnt” may involve a spiritual discipline, including Ramadan fasting and prayer. His salvation lies in the realization that he will enter into communion with God once he releases his attachment to Self.

The sectarian hatreds in the Muslim world and the racial hatreds in our own country block entry into the presence of God. Sometimes it seems like we will be always be lost inside our individual fears.  In the face of that despair, however, the president assured us that, with grace, “anything is possible.” Or to borrow from another president speaking at an even darker time, we will enter the house of the beloved once we stop warring against “the better angels of our nature.”

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Poetry Enlarges the Moral Imagination

Joseph Severn, "Posthumous portrait of Shelley writing 'Prometheus Unbound'"

Joseph Severn, “Posthumous portrait of Shelley writing ‘Prometheus Unbound'”

It’s often said that everything of importance has already been said, perhaps by Plato and Aristotle. As I look back at what thinkers of the past have written about literature’s power to change lives, I’m finding that there is some truth this. Rereading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, for instance, I’ve discovered that ideas I thought were my own I actually borrowed from his famous 1821 essay 35 years ago.

I’ll share these in a moment. But first, I want to qualify my opening statement. Even if nothing is new under the sun, ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. They must constantly be reframed for the world we live in now. This is true of literature as well, which must be reinterpreted by each new generation. Our needs change, as do the obstacles we must surmount, and texts and ideas that were once timely can go in and out of relevance depending on the circumstances.

In other words, it doesn’t matter that no idea is entirely new. What matters is that we are on a ceaseless quest to make sense of the world, and thinkers of the past help us find our place in it.

I had forgotten that Shelley’s essay directly takes on the project that is at the center of this blog. As he sees it, the great authors change the way we see the world. Ethics may give us rules to live by but poetry enlarges the moral imagination:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. 

It’s hard to sum up all that Shelley is saying here, but I take away that poetry puts us in touch with what is noblest in humanity, even as it also shows us where we fall short. Love for humankind, imagining ourselves in the place of others, is what elevates us. Through reading literature we move beyond our narrow prejudices and are inspired to achieve our potential as a species. In his concluding paragraph Shelley writes,

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry.

And in his final lines:

It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants [interpreters of sacred mysteries] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.


I know that my own project doesn’t sound quite so elevated. And yet, even in my small and everyday examples, I see literature enlarging us in the ways that Shelley talks about. Our daily chores and interactions, our workplace frustrations and our political disagreements, our joys and our tragedies take on a larger dimension when they are viewed through literature’s lens. Or rather, literature opens us up to see their deeper significance.

Shelley describes what this world would look like without literature. He is describing “the dark ages” here, which doesn’t do full justice to that time in history. Think of it rather as any society which can’t think beyond its own smallness:

Whatever of evil their agencies [ medieval institutions] may have contained sprang from the extinction of the poetical principle, connected with the progress of despotism and superstition. Men, from causes too intricate to be here discussed, had become insensible and selfish: their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of the will of others: lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud, characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of creating in form, language, or institution.

Shelley makes another point that particularly intrigues me—the poetic vision is bigger than the poet, who can be just as prejudiced and narrow as the rest of us. Just as I become smarter and more sensitive when I am reading literature—so do poets when they are composing it:

The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. 

The best poets, Shelley says, are those that rise above their local prejudices and give themselves over entirely to artistic vision, which he compares to participation in a cause. Poets like Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare have entirely joined this cause whereas some others fall short:

A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause. There was little danger that Homer, or any of the eternal poets should have so far misunderstood themselves as to have abdicated this throne of their widest dominion. Those in whom the poetical faculty, though great, is less intense, as Euripides, Lucan, Tasso, Spenser, have frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this purpose.

In other words, we need to keep reading and writing with courage and integrity to stay in touch with our deep nobility. Otherwise, we become slaves to the wills of others and our own base appetites.

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Plato’s Warning: Beware of Poets

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, "Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Grasp of Sensual Pleasure"

Regnault, “Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Grasp of Sensual Pleasure”

For years I’ve heard about Plato wanting to kick poets—and artists in general—out of his ideal republic, but I’ve never scrutinized the particular passages. Today I do so.

My first impression upon rereading The Ion and the final book of The Republic is that Socrates loves Homer. He quotes a number of specific passages in his conversation with Ion, a “rhapsode” who is famed for his dramatic readings of Homer.

As a result, I wonder about Socrates’s seriousness.  Is he just undertaking a thought experiment, positing a deliberately perverse argument to see what ideas will emerge?

Michael Taber, a colleague in our Philosophy Department who teaches Plato and Aristotle, helps me out. Apparently The Republic is indeed a thought experiment in which Plato tries to imagine an ideal state. He is not being perverse, however. Rather, he is so worried about the destructive potential of passionate people that he argues that passion must be tightly controlled, if not outright banned. Literature and music are among those things that sway our passions.

If nothing else, The Republic is an indirect testimony to literature’s power. Plato sees poetry as a force that must be corralled.

Before I continue on, it is useful to provide some background on Plato’s argument. Using Socrates as his vehicle, he makes the case that literature is a third order imitation. First there are the eternal forms—say, the idea of a chair. Then there is the manifestation of the form in the world, so that one has a carpenter making a chair. Then the artist comes along and imitates what the carpenter has made.

I worry that Socrates sounds a bit like Thomas Gradgrind from Hard Times in that the Greek philosopher doesn’t regard poets as people who actually do anything useful. Along with carpenters, Socrates mentions charioteers, captains, and doctors, who are all mentioned in Homer’s epics. Homer may dazzle us with all that he knows about these professions, but Socrates uses his descriptions to take him down a peg. We don’t want Homer managing our horses, sailing our ships, or performing surgery, do we? For that matter, wouldn’t we rather have politicians rather than poets running the country?

Then, I said, we must put a question to Homer; not about medicine, or any of the arts to which his poems only incidentally refer: we are not going to ask him, or any other poet, whether he has cured patients like Asclepius, or left behind him a school of medicine such as the Asclepiads were, or whether he only talks about medicine and other arts at secondhand; but we have a right to know respecting military tactics, politics, education, which are the chiefest and noblest subjects of his poems, and we may fairly ask him about them. ‘Friend Homer,’ then we say to him, …’if you are able to discern what pursuits make men better or worse in private or public life, tell us what State was ever better governed by your help? The good order of Lacedaemon is due to Lycurgus, and many other cities great and small have been similarly benefited by others; but who says that you have been a good legislator to them and have done them any good? Italy and Sicily boast of Charondas, and there is Solon who is renowned among us; but what city has anything to say about you?’ Is there any city which he might name? 

Socrates then pushes his argument even further. If poets can’t be called upon to rule, how about at least making people more virtuous? Since this is one area where some of us see artists playing a role—Sir Philip Sidney, Matthew Arnold, Wayne Booth, Robin Bates—it’s interesting to see Socrates taking even this claim apart:

But can you imagine, Glaucon, that if Homer had really been able to educate and improve mankind –if he had possessed knowledge and not been a mere imitator –can you imagine, I say, that he would not have had many followers, and been honored and loved by them? Protagoras of Abdera, and Prodicus of Ceos, and a host of others, have only to whisper to their contemporaries: ‘You will never be able to manage either your own house or your own State until you appoint us to be your ministers of education’ –and this ingenious device of theirs has such an effect in making them love them that their companions all but carry them about on their shoulders. And is it conceivable that the contemporaries of Homer, or again of Hesiod, would have allowed either of them to go about as rhapsodists, if they had really been able to make mankind virtuous? Would they not have been as unwilling to part with them as with gold, and have compelled them to stay at home with them? Or, if the master would not stay, then the disciples would have followed him about everywhere, until they had got education enough? 

Socrates is right about one thing. There are any number of authors who I would not want to see as ministers of education or, for that matter, classroom teachers. I don’t like how Socrates resorts to a utilitarian argument, however, which reminds me of those state legislators who rail against the liberal arts. Some of them would even be willing to cut philosophy.

So what does Socrates say about what authors do better than the other professions, which is immerse us in the beauties of language and story? Socrates does not merely see this skill as less useful than others but actually as damaging. Literature, as he sees it, prompts us to act irrationally, and the ideal state must be guided by Reason. Poets, unfortunately, target “an inferior part of the soul,” indulging “the irrational nature”:

[T]herefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small–he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth. 

As I understand this, Socrates is suspicious of the way that literature immerses us in its fictions rather than allowing us a place to stand outside of reality. We might counter that passionless Reason doesn’t exactly have a stellar record. Pure reason, even if it were possible (and it’s not), would not be a good thing. Here is Socrates setting Reason at war with Emotion and seeing literature as being on the wrong side:

But we have not yet brought forward the heaviest count in our accusation: –the power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed), is surely an awful thing? 

Yes, certainly, if the effect is what you say.

Hear and judge: The best of us, as I conceive, when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast –the best of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most. 

Yes, of course I know.

But when any sorrow of our own happens to us, then you may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality –we would fain be quiet and patient; this is the manly part, and the other which delighted us in the recitation is now deemed to be the part of a woman.

Very true, he said.

Now can we be right in praising and admiring another who is doing that which any one of us would abominate and be ashamed of in his own person? 

No, he said, that is certainly not reasonable.

Nay, I said, quite reasonable from one point of view.

What point of view?

If you consider, I said, that when in misfortune we feel a natural hunger and desire to relieve our sorrow by weeping and lamentation, and that this feeling which is kept under control in our own calamities is satisfied and delighted by the poets;–the better nature in each of us, not having been sufficiently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic element to break loose because the sorrow is another’s; and the spectator fancies that there can be no disgrace to himself in praising and pitying any one who comes telling him what a good man he is, and making a fuss about his troubles; he thinks that the pleasure is a gain, and why should he be supercilious and lose this and the poem too? Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves. And so the feeling of sorrow which has gathered strength at the sight of the misfortunes of others is with difficulty repressed in our own. 

Ah, so now we’re getting down to the nub of it. Real men, including philosophers, don’t cry. (To riff off of Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, there’s no crying in philosophy.) Crying is for inferior souls and for women.

Although we as a society have become more open to crying men, I’m struck that literature itself still carries some of these old associations. Women are more likely to major in the English (and the other arts) than men. In my book discussion group, it’s been years since we’ve had a man other than myself attend. Fiction to many men seems impractical and indulgent, not concerned enough with shaping the world.

In defense of the emotions, I note that we don’t have hard evidence that “rational” men have been better at running our republics than “irrational women” would. In fact, I would argue that those who know and honor the emotions, those who dance to Pan pipes and light up at a dramatic reading of Homer, would be better philosopher kings than those steeped only in macho philosophy. And 100 times better than soulless technocrats.

Turning to The Ion, Socrates is a little more subtle in his critique of poetry but makes similar points. The question is whether Ion, as a dramatic reader, owes more to artistic inspiration or to calculated artifice. Socrates gets Ion to admit that his powers stem from inspiration–which is to say, when he is performing, he is in the grip of a divine passion. His power lies in the way he passes that passion along to his auditors.

This seems harmless enough in The Ion, which doesn’t make clear why inspiration is inferior to artifice. It is in The Republic where Socrates discusses the danger of the passions.

In sum, Plato regards literature as a powerful emotional force, and he worries that people will make bad use of that force. Therefore poets need not apply for jobs in the ideal republic.

Posted in Plato | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment


  • 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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