What College Clothing Choices Mean

St. Mary's students

St. Mary’s students

I mark today’s first day of classes with remarks our Academic Dean Beth Rushing made to the entering students last Friday. Catching my ear was an extended passage from Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Marriage Plot, a work that very cleverly steps beyond the traditional marriage plot. As Beth points out, however, it also has a good description of the exploration and experimentation that occur at college. Having taught college for over 35 years, I can say that Eugenides captures perfectly the kind of students he’s talking about.

Beth is a sociologist and always begins her convocation talk with an entertaining demographic breakdown of the entering class. (For example, “Emily” was the entering class’ our most common name.) This year she then moved on to fiction.

By Beth Rushing, V.P. for Academic Affairs, St. Mary’s College of MD

…One of the books I read this summer was Jeffrey Eugenedes’ The Marriage Plot. For part of this book, the main characters are students at Brown University. Here’s the passage that prompted me to reflect on my advice for new students:

Moss Runk (this was a girl) had arrived at Brown as an apple-cheeked member of the cross-country team. By junior year, she had repudiated the wearing of gender-specific clothing. Instead, she covered herself in shapeless garments that she had made herself out of hot-looking thick gray felt. What you did with a person like Moss Run, if you were Mitchell and Larry, was you pretended not to notice. When Moss came up to them in the Blue Room, moving in her hovercraft way owing to the long hem of her robe, you slid over so she could sit down. If someone asked what she was, exactly, you said “That’s Moss!” Despite her odd clothes, Moss Runk was still the same cheerful Idahoan she’d always been. Other people thought she was weird, but not Mitchell and Larry. Whatever had led to her drastic sartorial decision was something that Mitchell and Larry didn’t inquire about. Their silence registered solidarity with Moss against all the conventional people in their down vests and Adidas sneakers who were majoring in economics or engineering, spending the last period of total freedom in their lives doing nothing the least bit unordinary. Mitchell and Larry knew that Moss Runk wasn’t going to be able to wear her androgynous outfits forever. (Another nice thing about Moss was that she wanted to be a high school principal). There would come a day when, in order to get a job, Moss would have to hang up her gray felt and put on a skirt, or a business suit. Mitchell and Larry didn’t want to be around to see it.

You know, sometimes, we at St Mary’s want to celebrate our uniqueness – we sell bumper stickers to remind ourselves to keep St. Mary’s weird.

Your time at St. Mary’s allows you the time and space and brilliant, creative compatriots that will enable you to explore your unordinary selves. Take advantage of that opportunity.

College is a glorious time to explore the unordinary. But you don’t have to dress like Moss Runk to do this.

Take a class or join a club that stretches you beyond the previous boundaries of your lives. Make friends with people who look or talk or act in ways that are different from you. Go to a lecture or a film or a performance, even if you think you might be uncomfortable.

In short, take advantage of this time in your life to be unordinary, like Moss Runk.

But be unordinary in your own way. That’s the St. Mary’s Way.

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Pledge Your Intellect to Freedom

Soviet education poster

Soviet education poster

Labor Day

Here’s a Bertolt Brecht poem that manages to merge the themes of Labor Day and a new semester, which begins tomorrow at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. I like Brecht’s contention that the educational content one receives can’t be separated from the institution that delivers that content, even though we forget they are interlinked.

Public education is, at least in part, a downward distribution system. We take some of society’s resources to provide those in the lower economic strata a chance to rise. As Brecht points out, however, blood was shed to make this possible. First of all, there were the struggles of the Native Americans and of the Irish, the Italians, and the other immigrant groups to achieve equal opportunity in a country that tried to keep them down. It took labor clashes to end child labor and provide these children with free education. It took the Civil War and the civil rights movement to provide schooling for the descendants of slaves.

There are attempts to reverse these gains as two educational tracks are emerging in present-day America, one for the wealthy and one for everyone else. When states decide to cut funding for public education in favor of tax breaks for the top ten percent, then they are reversing the gains that were achieved through those struggles. While I feel proud to teach at a public college that works hard to enroll first generation college students, the education isn’t as accessible as it once was because state aid has dropped steadily. Poorer families are deterred by the immense debt load that looms ahead.

Brecht’s poem reminds us that the goal of education must always be human freedom. The “enemies of all mankind” that he refers to are those who would enshrine privilege and exclude everyone else.  “Men like you got hurt,” he reminds students at this school for the sons and daughters of workers and peasants, “that you might sit here.” So “don’t desert but learn to learn, and try to learn for what.”

Because I see a liberal arts education, including a grounding in literature, as the road to wisdom, I want my students to use it to figure out how to transform their society. Their education will be sterile if they just use it as a way to sit on other people. A knowledge of their history, boring as they may find it, is vital if they are to keep their heads.

To the Students of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Faculty

By Bertolt Brecht

So there you sit. And how much blood was shed
That you might sit there. Do such stories bore you?
Well, don’t forget that others sat before you
who later sat on people. Keep your head!
Your science will be valueless, you’ll find,
And learning will be sterile, if inviting
Unless you pledge your intellect to fighting
Against all enemies of all mankind.
Never forget that men like you got hurt
That you might sit here, not the other lot.
And now don’t shut your eyes, and don’t desert
But learn to learn, and try to learn for what. 

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War in the Name of Religion

Israel air strike on Gaza

Israel air strike on Gaza

Spiritual Sunday

As we watch the deaths mount up in Gaza, with Hamas and Israel’s rightwing government doing all they can to sabotage a two-state solution, I think of Denise Levertov’s poem about the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982. Born of a father who was a Hasidic Jew before converting to Christianity, Levertov was never hesitant to call out anyone for injustice. Therefore, when the Israeli army and Ariel Sharon allowed Lebanese Christian militants from the Kataeb Party to massacre hundreds and maybe thousands of Palestinians and Shiites in a refugee camp, she wrote this poem. Her shock is at seeing a people who themselves have suffered horribly from pogroms in being complicit in a current day pogrom.

While the recent deaths in Gaza cannot be seen as a pogrom—the Israelis, after all, have been responding to Hamas’ rocket fire and to its killing of Israeli teenagers—Israel bears responsibility for undermining Palestinian moderates, through the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank and other provocations. It has created the conditions for Hamas to achieve power. Here’s Levertov’s poem, which talks of “so-called Jews” and “so called Christians.” In the tradition of Isaiah, Levertov calls out people who have lost touch was the foundational tenets of their faith.

Perhaps No Poem but All I Can Say and I Cannot Be Silent

By Denise Levertov

As a devout Christian, my father
took delight and pride in being
(like Christ and the Apostles)
a Jew.
   It was
   Hasidic lore, his heritage,
   he drew on to know
   the Holy Spirit as Shekinah.

My Gentile mother, Welsh through and through,
and like my father sustained
by deep faith, cherished
all her long life the words
of Israel Zangwill, who told her,
“You have a Jewish soul.”

I their daughter (“flesh of their flesh,
         bone of their bone”)
writing in this Age of Terror, a libretto
about El Salvador, the suffering,
      the martyrs,
look from my page to watch
the apportioned news—those foul
dollops of History
each day thrusts at us, pushing them
into our gullets—
      and see that,
   in Lebanon
   so-called Jews have permitted
   so-called Christians
   to wreak pogrom (“thunder of devastation”)
   on helpless folk (of a tribe
   anciently kin to their own, and now
      in Camps…)

My father—my mother—
I have longed for you.
Now I see
      it is well you are dead,
dead and
gone from Time,
gone from this time whose weight
of shame your bones, weary already
from your own days and years of
tragic History,
could surely not have borne.

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Austen, Moral Equivocation, and the NFL

Wes Welker

Wes Welker suffered his third concussion in two seasons last week.

Sports Saturday 

The NFL season is about to begin and once again I’m finding myself guilty of what the existentialists call bad faith or inauthenticity as I root for Peyton Manning. Although football is a sport that does terrible things to men’s bodies and brains, I push this awareness under and watch anyway. I deliberately deceive myself that it makes no difference that I watch, even though the game would have to change if enough of us stopped supporting it in its present form.

Actually, my moral equivocations are worse that that. I perform a mental two-step to help me feel better about myself: I tell myself that once Manning hangs up his cleats, I’ll stop supporting the game for good. No more watching a game where players set them up for future dementia or permanent crippling as they hurl their bodies against one another. But I’m not willing to stop watching as long as Manning has a good chance to make it back to the Super Bowl.

Where in literature does one encounter such equivocation? Several characters come to mind—Macbeth, Brutus, Ladislaw in Middlemarch—but as I’m currently preparing my Jane Austen seminar, Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park is at the top of the list. Edmund is an exemplary man, a future rector, but he is of two minds about a private theatrical of a scandalous play that his irresponsible older brother and his two sisters want to put on while their father is out of the country.

At first he takes a principled stand against it. But then their neighbor Mary Crawford, whom he loves, begins to argue for it. Suddenly it is possible for him to imagine playing Anhalt, a priest that she, playing Amelia, would make love to. This in itself doesn’t sway Edmund but it causes him to start finding ways to rationalize his support.

For instance, he allows another argument to sway him: if he doesn’t play Anhalt, his brother will bring in an outsider to do so, thereby exposing the family. In the end, Edmund surrenders and even finds himself titillated by his practice sessions with Mary. He lets the pleasures of the activity outweigh his moral qualms.

His siblings secretly revel in the fact that he has descended from his moral high horse:

It was, indeed, a triumphant day to Mr. Bertram and Maria. Such a victory over Edmund’s discretion had been beyond their hopes, and was most delightful. There was no longer anything to disturb them in their darling project, and they congratulated each other in private on the jealous weakness to which they attributed the change, with all the glee of feelings gratified in every way. Edmund might still look grave, and say he did not like the scheme in general, and must disapprove the play in particular; their point was gained: he was to act, and he was driven to it by the force of selfish inclinations only. Edmund had descended from that moral elevation which he had maintained before, and they were both as much the better as the happier for the descent.

Edmund should do what the heroine Fanny does, which is oppose the play regardless of the consequences. If he did so, in all probability he would prevent it, but that would simply be an extra bonus. The important point is standing up for what is right. Because people regularly fail to do that in Mansfield Park, scandal results.

Regarding the play, their father returns early, catches them in rehearsal, and is appalled. He’s especially upset with Edmund, who should know better.

And so it is with me and the NFL. I should know better. In fact, right now, having watched future Hall of Fame receiver Wes Welker go down with his third concussion in three years (and he’s probably had many more), I should be demanding that he walk away from the game. At my college, once an athlete has had three concussions, he or she is no longer allowed to play. But since Welker is critical to Denver’s Super Bowl hopes, I keep on coming up with reasons why it’s okay to have him continue playing. I close my eyes to the possibility of dementia at fifty.

It’s hard to do the right thing. But even as I say that, I think of Jane Eyre, who faces a much more serious moral dilemma than I do:

Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.  If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?

I know this is heavy moralizing for the beginning of a sports season. Then again, the welfare of human beings is at stake.

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The Race Projection behind the Killings

Design by Walter Logan

Design by Walter Logan

It has been horrifying to see the many instances of young unarmed black men being killed by vigilantes and police. Several times have we heard the police explain that the victims, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, were reaching for their guns. As MSNBC’s Joy Reid said the other night on All in with Chris Hayes, however, either this is a cover story that police use because they can always get away with it or there’s an epidemic of unarmed black men reaching for police firearms.

Sometimes the story takes novel twists—like the Louisiana black youth who “committed suicide” by shooting himself in the chest with a police revolver in a squad car while his hands were cuffed behind his back. Or the Walmart shopper who picked up a BB gun in a Walmart while talking on a cell phone and was gunned down.

This depressing news has me revisiting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man since it’s one of the great books about how whites can’t see anything other than their own fears when they look at black men. The “stand your ground” laws have grown out of these fears, as have the juries’ decisions to find vigilante killers like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn justified in killing innocent teenagers.  After all, if the jurors can identify with the fears, then the killers are a step closer to reasonable doubt.

Here’s the famous opening of Invisible Man. Think of it as Projection 101:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist.

You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.

Ellison then goes on to talk how frustrating it is to live as an invisible man. At one point he lashes out with violence to convince himself that he is real:

It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

He describes how he bumps into a white man and beats him up after he is called an insulting name. It’s worth noting such violent reactions have been the exception rather than the rule with most of the recent killings, even in Ferguson. True, there was some looting and some throwing of Molotov cocktails, but moderates worked to keep these to a minimum, even as the police seemed to go out of their way to provoke residents.

The Invisible Man says that his own violence is also the exception. I thought of President Obama’s muted response to Ferguson in the narrator’s description of his normal response:

Most of the time (although I do not choose as I once did to deny the violence of my days by ignoring it) I am not so overtly violent. I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers. 

I think Obama’s strategy has been to avoid stirring up racist whites. Instead, he tries to do things behind the scenes, sending his attorney general to investigate Ferguson and working towards incremental change.

Many of his black followers are frustrated, however. After all, he has many more options than the Invisible Man, who is in retreat at this point in the book, hibernating until he can find a basis upon which to act. Obama, by contrast, is supposedly the most powerful man on the planet. The president knows, however, that racism remains a powder keg that can still go off. He walks carefully.

In some ways, he is like President Bledsoe in the novel who knows his college will survive only if he doesn’t offend the white establishment too much. The narrator must be expelled from the school because he threatens  to upset the delicate balance that the president is trying to maintain.

In our own time, rightwing commentators are doing everything they can to wake the sleepers up and get them to lash out at their nightmares. As a society, we still have a long way to go.


A note on the artist: Walter Logan’s design can be found at https://www.behance.net/gallery/3476483/The-Invisible-man-by-Ralph-Ellison

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Are College Students Sheep?

Charles Emile Jacques, " A Shepherdess with a Flock of Sheep"

Charles Emile Jacques, ” A Shepherdess with a Flock of Sheep”

Carl Rosin, a superb high school English teacher who has written guest posts for this blog, visited me last week and alerted me to William Deresiewicz’s recent book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Apparently Deresiewicz believes that people who attend the ivy league schools are obsessed careerists who don’t take advantage of the soul-exploring that a liberal arts education should help foster. Here’s a passage from the book:

The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

While I think books like this usefully prompt educators to reflect upon the enterprise, too many of them feature dubious generalizations about students. Usually, it seems, they are written by college professors complaining that their students don’t behave like them. Seldom do they acknowledge the complex inner lives of their students or the variety of responses to education that are possible.

The book, for instance, doesn’t do justice to Carl, who attended Harvard and who is challenging high school students in exciting ways. Recently he won a national award for how he teaches his students philosophy. Nor does it do justice to my own education at Carleton College, which is not an ivy league school but does show up in top ten lists of liberal arts colleges. My teachers challenged us to question orthodoxy wherever we found it and And while I embraced this challenge, others did not but made their own paths through their education.

The difference between my generation and students today is that we didn’t exit college tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The economy was still growing in the early 1970’s and those of us born into privilege assumed that we would eventually find good jobs in our futures. The assumption went so deep that we didn’t even think about it. Or at least some of us didn’t think about it: I’m loathe to generalize even about my class.

Today’s students face a much more forbidding environment so it would be surprising if they didn’t see their education differently. But that being said, I still have a wide range of students. Some are tracked toward medical school from the beginning and others, despite the forbidding economic realities, want to explore the world more and end up joining the Peace Corps or teaching abroad before they settle down. Or they go to graduate school, not for jobs but because they feel their minds are just starting to take off and they want to continue the process.

And I don’t even want to generalize about my pre-med students. While a few may be “science jocks,” others embrace the literature I teach as a chance to learn new things about themselves and the world. Even if they lockstep their way through medical school, I like to think that their experience with these authors will help them enter more fully the lives of their patients.

To be sure, St. Mary’s College of Maryland is not an ivy league school. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if there weren’t a comparable range of students in the ivies.

The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller makes a similar point in his own review of Deresiewicz’s book:

For a couple of hours every week, students are theirs [the teachers’] in the classroom to challenge and entrance. Then the clock strikes, and the kids flock back into the madness of their lives. Did the new material reach them? Will the lesson be washed from their minds? Who knows. They heard it. Life will take care of the rest. 

That’s what I see as well.

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Into the Depths with Smollett (Don’t Ask)


Warning: Today’s post is not for the squeamish. I am undergoing a colonoscopy midmorning and so spent yesterday prepping for it. Prepping involved eating clear jello and drinking laxatives and a couple of quarts of what can be best described as liquid slime. (I gorged on bitterness–actually unbearable sweetness–without a name.) The work that came to mind was a novel included in my dissertation: Humphry Clinker.

This 1771 epistolary novel, written by the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett (or Tobias Smellfungus, as his rival Laurence Sterne called him), is also not for the squeamish. In the very first sentence we encounter crotchety-but-with-a-heart-of-gold Matthew Bramble complaining to his doctor about his constipation:

The pills are good for nothing—I might as well swallow snowballs to cool my reins—I have told you over and over how hard I am to move; and at this time of day, I ought to know something of my own constitution. Why will you be so positive?

In the pages that follow we encounter more references to excrement than most people want in a novel, including a doctor claiming that he can diagnose any disease from examining his patient’s feces. The eponymous hero of the book, meanwhile, has a name that is a scatological pun: “Clinker” is another word for dingleberry. Our first glimpse of Humphry is of his bare buttocks—he is the postilion on a coach (the postilion’s posterior) and the passengers looking through the window can tell that his pants have split.

But Humphry is a figure who promises that the world can be cleansed of its blockages. The passengers are dazzled by the whiteness of his skin and by the fact that he has no hair on his buttocks. If the book begins with talk of constipation, with an old man complaining not only about his health but also about all the changes going on in society, it ends with images of free circulation. Class barriers come down as Humphry turns out to be Bramble’s illegitimate son. There is a tearful reunion and, rather than continue to hold on to the past (and everything else that he is holding on to), the prickly Bramble makes peace with the world.

And so I plan to have done with this subject by the end of today. My mind will turn to other subjects, and this blog will become safe reading again.

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Are Liberals Killing the Arts? Uh, No

Frontispiece for "The Dunciad"

From “The Dunciad” (“No One Attacks Me with Impunity”)

A recent New Republic article ominously announced “Liberals Are Killing Art,” explaining that they are doing so by becoming “obsessed with ideology over beauty.” And you thought the culture wars of the early 1990’s were over.

The New Yorker’s Alex Ross had a fairly good refutation and I’ve got some objections of my own, but let’s let author Jed Perl have his say first. This seems to be the nub of his argument:

Do more and more liberals find the emotions unleashed by the arts—I mean all of the arts, from poetry to painting to dance—something of an embarrassment? Are the liberal-spirited people who support a rational public policy—a social safety net, consistency and efficiency in foreign affairs, steps to reverse global warming—reluctant to embrace art’s celebration of unfettered metaphor and mystery and magic? If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said the answer was no. Now I am inclined to say the opposite. What is certain is that in our data- and metrics-obsessed era the imaginative ground without which art cannot exist is losing ground. Instead of art-as-art we have art as a comrade-in-arms to some more supposedly stable or substantial or readily comprehensible aspect of our world. Now art is always hyphenated. We have art-and-society, art-and-money, art-and-education, art-and-tourism, art-and-politics, art-and-fun. Art itself, with its ardor, its emotionalism, and its unabashed assertion of the imagination, has become an outlier, its tendency to celebrate a purposeful purposelessness found to be intimidating, if not downright frightening.

And further on:

The trouble with the reasonableness of the liberal imagination is that it threatens to explain away what it cannot explain. 

There are dire consequences to this approach, Perl warns:

An illiberal view of art is gaining ground, even among the liberal audience. This is one of the essential if largely hidden factors that is undermining faith in our museums, our libraries, our publishing houses, our concert halls, symphony orchestras, and theater and dance troupes.

So if I understand Perl’s argument, because liberals aren’t waxing rhapsodically enough about the mystery and the magic of the arts or placing the arts on a special pedestal, people are losing faith in them. To a degree, Perl’s argument reads like a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s. With regard to literature, I can say that this was a time when scholars wanted poetry and fiction to provide a transcendence that was denied by rationalized society. Heirs of Matthew Arnold, they defined literature against all that was practical or down-to-earth, downplaying or even outrightly denying the significance of history and biography. At the height of this movement, an anthology of poetry was published without authorial names or dates. Literature was seen as timeless as a sacred text.

There was a reaction against such an extreme. With the rise of feminism and the other liberation movements and then of New Historicism, literature came to be seen as working hand in glove with history in various ways. And sure, some of these scholars went overboard  and didn’t draw meaningful distinctions between literature and other pieces of writing. There will always be scholars going to extremes to test out their theories.

In his New Yorker refutation of Perl, Rose argues for a both/and rather than either/or approach to the arts. Here he is addressing Perl’s complaints that critics have spent too much time looking for anti-semitism and/or fascism in the works of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein:

Contemplating such works, we can think in two modes at once, the aesthetic and the historical-political—generally a wise way to navigate the labyrinth of art. To debate whether politics is always present or always absent is to play a parlor game irrelevant to the complex, ever-shifting reality in which both artists and their audiences reside.

In other words, don’t wall off the arts from history but don’t reduce them to history either. To me it’s like love, which has both a transcendent and an earthly component. To reduce love to sex certainly strips it of its magic, but don’t think you can exclude sex altogether. In a wondrous paradox, literature simultaneously transcends the ages and is very much of its time.

Even Perl can’t entirely go back to the 1950’s and he acknowledges that history does play a role in how we see the arts. My sense is that his beef with liberals is more a beef with the project of the Enlightenment itself. Maybe he’s ultimately voicing a version of Wordsworth’s complaint that “we murder to dissect.” Maybe he wants less rational explaining and more starry-eyed wonderment.

Perl appears to be setting up a straw man and not many liberals fit his description. I suppose there may be a few arrogant twits who think that their theories explain away Shakespeare, but in my experience most of us are awestruck by the man.

And I can assure Perl, as one who does a lot of explaining and who teaches his students to formulate cogent interpretations, that there’s still a lot of room for starry-eyed wonderment in my classes. Even as I strive to rationally understand, say, our culture’s fascination with fantasy, I thrill to the fantasy visions of Shakespeare and Keats and Christina Rossetti and Tolkien and Haruki Murakami. Liberals couldn’t take the thrill out of the fantastic even if they wanted to (and why would they want to?). Readers know what they need.

One doesn’t save literature or the arts by building a sanctuary for them and approaching them with deferential silence. Shakespeare suffers more at the hands of the bardolaters than from those who historicize him. It is in the intersection of the artist and the world–and then of the work and the reader–where the magic happens. Or as Ross summarizes it in his piece,

Art does not stand apart from reality; if it did, it would have no life in it, no light, no darkness, no power.

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A Message from the Mower in the Dew

tuft of flowers

As I was mowing our yard yesterday afternoon, I saw a tuft of grass that I had missed in the previous mowing and suddenly was taken back to Robert Frost’s “Tuft of Flowers” and the summer of 2000. That was the summer following the death of my eldest son, and I would think of that poem as I mowed the grass. I remember hating the thought of cutting down the buttercups scattered throughout the yard. Life seemed altogether too fragile.

As sparing the buttercups would have meant not mowing our yard at all, I compromised by always leaving a swath of grass and flowers uncut. I saw myself as the unknown reaper in the poem:

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,
As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.
And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.
I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.
The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’ 

Reflecting upon what must have drawn me to the poem, I now think it was the image of the bewildered butterfly looking at the suddenly desolate landscape:

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.
And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I told myself at the time that I was sparing the scythe for the sake of the butterflies. Now, however, I think that I left those flowers untouched because I wanted to believe that life would continue, even if all I could see at the time was death. I was the one searching frantically on tremulous wing and, by leaving a tuft of flowers, I was giving myself a symbol of hope. Maybe the impulse to protect came from a life force deep within, reassuring me that death didn’t have the last word. Maybe I was hearing a message from the dawn.

Poetry is the strangest thing. It gives us a framework to wrestle with our deepest questions, but we can’t tell ahead of time which poems we will turn to or how we will use them. Without those poems, however, life would be too dark altogether.

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Coming Home Like a Lamb to the Fold

John Gibb, "Shades Of Evening, The Estuary" (1880)

John Gibb, “Shades Of Evening, The Estuary” (1880)

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve been reading A Sacrifice of Praise, an anthology of Christian poetry from the middle ages to the 20th century. In the process, I’ve discovered and come to appreciate the poetry of British poet Ruth Pitter (1897-1992).

In her time Pitter was appreciated by figures like Hilaire Belloc, who talked about her “classical spirit,” and C. S. Lewis. “The Estuary” is a beautiful poem that only gradually reveals itself to be a poem about faith. In some ways, it can be read as a response to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

The Estuary

By Ruth Pitter

Light, stillness and peace lie on the broad sands, 
On the salt-marshes the sleep of the afternoon. 
The sky’s immaculate; the horizon stands 
Steadfast, level and clear over the dune.

There are voices of children, musical and thin 
Not far, nor near, there in the sandy hills; 
As the light begins to wane, so the tide comes in, 
The shallow creek at our feet silently fills:

And silently, like sleep to the weary mind, 
Silently, like the evening after the day, 
The big ship bears inshore with the inshore wind, 
Changes her course, and comes on up through the bay,

Rolling along the fair deep channel she knows, 
Surging along, right on top of the tide. 
I can see the flowery wreath of foam at the bows, 
The long bright wash streaming away from her side:

I can see the flashing gulls that follow her in, 
Screaming and tumbling, like children wildly at play, 
The sea-born crescent arising, pallid and thin, 
The flat safe twilight shore shelving away.

Whether remembered or dreamed, read of or told, 
So it has dwelt with me, so it shall dwell with me ever: 
The brave ship coming home like a lamb to the fold, 
Home with the tide into the mighty river.

The image of “lamb to the fold,” of course, sees the ship as a soul returning to Jesus, the good shepherd, who is represented as the tide of a mighty river.

There is no such reassurance in “Dover Beach,” where the tide of faith is ebbing, not flowing, and where ignorant armies clash by night:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

In Pitter’s vision, one can hear the voices of children. The poem is infused with “the peace that passeth all understanding,” and renewed faith comes like “sleep to the weary mind.”

Added note: An earlier version of this post included a typo that appeared in the anthology. “The fight begins to wane” should be “the light begins to wane.” Thanks to my mother for pointing it out. And here I thought it was an allusion to the Matthew Arnold line about ignorant armies clashing by night. (Pitter’s night promises to be much more peaceful.)

The mistake, which casts some doubts on the anthology itself (this isn’t the first mistake I’ve found in it), reminds me of the great American scholar F. O. Matthiessen’s analysis of a passage at the end of Melville’s White Jacket. The protagonist falls overboard and brushes against “a great soiled fish” and Matthiessen talks of Melville’s brilliant use of “soiled” to capture the darkness the sailor encounters:

[H]ardly anyone but Melville could have created the shudder that results from calling this frightening vagueness some “soiled fish of the sea.” The discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical.

The only problem was that “soiled” was a typesetter’s error and the word Melville had actually written was “coiled.”

Mistakes like this should keep us literary scholars humble. At least Matthiessen was tuned in to Melville enough to know that there was something about the phrase stood out.

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Can Fed Keep Going? The Bard Weighs In


Sports Saturday

In anticipation of the U. S. Open this coming week, I reflect on a passage that came to mind when I was playing my 32-year-old son Darien this past weekend. I beat him on Saturday and split sets with him on Sunday.

Darien is a superb athlete—he was captain of his college’s soccer team—and if he had time to practice more, he would beat me regularly. He has powerful topspin shots and very good reactions at the net. But I have 30 years of experience on him and throw off his rhythm with slices and blocked shots, which I refer to as old-man tennis. The strategy allows me to steal games that I should not win. I see myself as Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew. 

I suspect you don’t remember Gremio. He is the elder suitor vying for the hand of Bianca against Lucentio. It appears that Lucentio will win when he starts outbidding Gremio for Bianca’s hand. (Or to be strictly accurate, when his servant Tranio starts outbidding Gremio as the servant is disguised as the master so that Vincentio can pass for a musician and seduce Bianca.) However, although Gremio seems defeated, he warns Tranio that he’s an “old Italian fox” who won’t give up the field so easily.

Here is their initial interchange:

Gremio: Youngling, thou canst not love so dear as I.

Tranio: Graybeard, thy love doth freeze.

Gremio: But thine doth fry.
Skipper, stand back: ’tis age that nourisheth.

Tranio: But youth in ladies’ eyes that flourisheth.

The back and forth then moves on to a bidding war, with Tranio prevailing:

Tranio: Gremio, ’tis known my father hath no less
Than three great argosies; besides two galliases,
And twelve tight galleys: these I will assure her,
And twice as much, whate’er thou offer’st next.

Gremio: Nay, I have offer’d all, I have no more;
And she can have no more than all I have:
If you like me, she shall have me and mine.

Tranio: Why, then the maid is mine from all the world,
By your firm promise: Gremio is out-vied.

Here’s the passage that came to my mind:

Gremio: Now I fear thee not:
Sirrah young gamester, your father were a fool
To give thee all, and in his waning age
Set foot under thy table: tut, a toy!
An old Italian fox is not so kind, my boy.

To which Tranio replies (after Gremio has left),

A vengeance on your crafty wither’d hide!

So think of me as an old Italian fox. For that matter, think of Roger Federer as that fox, even though he’s only a year older than Darien. With Rafael Nadal injured and Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray not playing their best tennis at the moment, there’s a chance that Fed, at 33, could “steal” another major trophy. He’s becoming more crafty with age, changing his racquet and charging the net more. He just might emerge triumphant.

If I am looking to Gremio for hope, unfortunately, the future does not look good. Youth, vigor, and money end up winning Bianca and Lucentio gets the prize. Gremio is left out in the cold.

In other words, Gremio’s threat to put the “young gamester” in his place is empty bragging on his part. Some day Darien will start beating my withered hide, and Federer’s craftiness will get him only so far. Even with one obstacle out of the way (Nadal injured or, in the play, the elder daughter Kate married off), what I fear is that, in the end, youthful Novak will come strutting in and run off with the girl. Too often in tennis it is youth that flourisheth.

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Munro’s Strategies for Emotional Survivial

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

My book discussion group met last night to discuss Alice Munro’s Dear Life, and for the first time I took a close look at our most recent Nobel laureate. Like the other members of the group, I saw my life in the author’s short stories.

Having recently spent time reading book after book to my grandson, I was immediately captivated by her description of reading to children:

The problem was that once she finished Christopher Robin, Katy wanted it started again, immediately. During the first reading she had been quiet, but now she began chiming in with ends of lines. Next time she chanted word for word though still not ready to try it by herself. Greta could imagine this being an annoyance to people once the dome car filled up. Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony. In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.

As my reading group discussed the book, we came to see that this relationship with monotony isn’t confined to children. Or rather, there seem to be two contradictory tendencies at work in Munro’s fiction: monotony provides a reassuring security and monotony threatens to suffocate. Some characters thrash around in this dull monotony and even try to sabotage lives that appear prosperous and stable. Others have made their peace with monotony, ratcheting down what they demand of life.

One member of the group mentioned an essay by Margaret Atwood on national identities that we had discussed a while back. Atwood says that while the American national story involves conquering the frontier, the Canadian national story involves simply surviving. We see the survival motif working itself out in the Canadian Munro. Sometimes people have lowered their expectations so as not to be hurt. In “Pride” a man with a hairlip is thrown off balance when a woman finds herself attracted to him and goes through some sad but comic twists to keep their cordial relationship from becoming intimate. In “Amundsen” a doctor suddenly and unexpected decides suddenly not to marry a woman as they are walking toward the courthouse. In “Train” a returning war veteran slips in and out of various people’s lives, his leaving seemingly timed to the rise of imminent intimacy.

Munro gives us insight into how she herself must have been taught to toe the line in “Night,” one of the autobiographical stories that conclude the collection. Note the contrast between the unimaginative father and the very imaginative child:

If you live long enough as a parent nowadays, you discover that you have made mistakes you didn’t bother to know about along with the ones you do know about all too well. You are somewhat humbled at heart, sometimes disgusted with yourself. I don’t think my father felt anything like this. I do know that if I had ever taxed him, with his use on me of the razor strap or his belt, he might have said something about like or lumping it. Those strappings, then, would have stayed in his mind, if they stayed at all, as no more than the necessary and adequate curbing of a mouthy child’s imagining that she could rule the roost.

“You thought you were too smart,” was what he might have given as his reason for the punishments, and indeed you heard that often in those times, with the smartness figuring as an obnoxious imp that had to have the same sass beaten out of him. Otherwise there was the risk of him growing up thinking he was smart. Or her, as the case might be.

The interesting twist in “Night” is that the child needs this father’s steadiness to recover from recurring insomnia accompanied by dark thoughts of murdering her sister. One night she meets her father sitting on the porch following one of her nocturnal ramblings and finds it immensely comforting that he expresses no alarm at her thoughts. By his simply taking them in stride’” – “Then he said not to worry. He said, ‘People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.’” – she  is able to start sleeping again.

Munro reminds me a lot of Chekhov. Women in her stories act out without ever being sure of what they want. Men are offered relief from loneliness but turn it down because their routine lives seem safer. Children carry around holes in their hearts from tragedies that have happened—the death of a sibling or of a beloved babysitter—and never face up to their grief. Acknowledging deep feelings would render them vulnerable and they fear they wouldn’t be able to survive.

Munro neither condemns nor applauds these responses but sympathetically describes them. She is like the woman in “Dolly” who temporarily goes off the rails and writes her longtime partner an unforgivable letter. Returning to him before he gets the letter, she is simultaneously relieved and exasperated by his readiness to tear it up without reading it once it arrives:

What a mix of rage and admiration I could feel at his being willing to do that. It went back through our whole life together.

The final paragraph in the book gets at this ambivalence from another angle:

I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.

Returning home for the funeral seems an extravagant gesture, putting one’s survival at risk. Should we nevertheless regret not doing it? Is it good that we then forgive ourselves since doing so is a way of keeping on? As always, these are open questions with Munro. She acknowledges human complexity so deeply that she refuses to settle upon a final judgment.

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Mass Extinctions Followed by Life

Field Museum's Evolving Planet exhibit

On our recent visit to Chicago, Julia and I visited the museums I remembered from my childhood: Science and Industry, the Art Institute, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum. I loved what I remembered and marveled at what was new. One of the new things is the certainty, in all the science museums, that the planet faces a grave threat from human-caused climate change. I wondered how all those deniers—and those claiming to deny—visit these museums without feeling ashamed of themselves. Has politics made them so dumb or so paranoid that they think there’s a vast scientific conspiracy afoot?

I was particularly enthralled with “The Evolving Planet” exhibit in the Field Museum where one walks through the history of the earth, revisiting each of life’s six mass extinctions along the way. The sixth is the one that our own species is currently visiting upon many of the other species. Part of the cause is climate change, and there is also habitat destruction and plain old direct killing.

The only consoling news was that life has always found a way to bounce back. When the dinosaurs went down, the mammals came into their own. The fish, meanwhile, have been evolving dramatically for eons, one form replacing another as the temperatures of the oceans changed, and I was blown away by all the diversity and wondrous beauty we saw in the aquarium.

I thought of a Richard Shelton poem that I like. It calls for us to step beyond self and pain and see ourselves as part of something bigger. We think that our death is just about us and try to frame it in our own terms, but our mortality highlights the grand collective enterprise that we are part of. Encountering death, listening to its whisper, can remind us how precious and beautiful life is.

In our current case, death is not whispering but shouting. (The Field Museum has a counter, which reaches double figures, informing us how many species have gone extinct since we got up that morning.) Will this help us appreciate the beauty that is all around us? Unlike previous mass extinctions, this one we have some say in. Poems like Shelton’s remind us that the continuing fight to save the earth in its current form is worth it.


has no sense of honor. I challenged him
to battle, win or lose; but when I went
to meet him, he did not appear. Later
I heard his tiny voice whispering in my ear

You carried me to the battlefield
and brought me safely back again.
I have been with you always. I am here.

He followed me like a ghost. I had been told
ghosts could not cross running water, so I went
to the river and swam. When I came out
on the other shore. I saw a dragonfly
above me on the willow branch. Its wings
were fragile and transparent as an angel’s.
Again I heard the tiny voice. It said

Thank you for taking me across the water
on your shoulder. Rest on the riverbank.
I will watch over you. Sleep. I will be near.

I slept and dreamed I was the river’s
lover; and when I woke, a mist was rising
on the water. The moon came up and everything
was silver. It was more beautiful
than in my dream. I heard the voice again,
this time a murmur, a low wind in the trees.

Someday I will release you from your dreams
of self and pain, and make you part
of all things beautiful. You will  be useful
to the earth. Now you call me “Death”
but you will learn my other name
is “Life.” We are the same.

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Fighting Back against the Program

raised fist

As I read about all that America’s poor have to put with, starting with wages that don’t cover the cost of the basics, I sometimes wonder why we don’t have even more Ferguson protests. It’s as though, in America, most people passively succumb to the dictates of capitalism, even as it makes their lives very hard. I remember reading in the 1980s about Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan expressing his amazement that there weren’t more middle class protests against stagnating wages and growing income inequality. He wasn’t complaining since his sympathies were with the upper class. But he had anticipated more pushback.

I came across a poem of my father’s imagining a sheet of white paper that refuses to sign on with the program. After getting beaten around for a while, it finally turns revolutionary and starts quoting The Communist Manifesto.

The poem is dated in one way: Does anyone even know what a mimeograph machine is anymore? (We still used them when I was a graduate teaching assistant in the 1970s.) I can imagine the poem growing out of my father’s frustrations as he tried to print off syllabi for a course. Thematically, however, the poem is as relevant as ever. Push people around enough and sooner or later they will become doctrinaire communists. Or, since protest can swing either right or left, rightwing ideologues.

The Recalcitrant Sheet of Mimeograph Paper

By Scott Bates

A Sheet of Mimeograph Paper refused to go through the machine
No no it cried
Set me apart
Must I serve as fodder for a Mimeograph Moloch
To the docile conformity and blank imbecility of my sheeplike compatriots
My purity sullied
My innocence destroyed

Will you track up my candor with your muddy feet
No no I protest
I refuse
Let me be crumpled into cabbage
Peeled into carrot strips
Abandoned with the used kleenices holey hermit sacks outcast chewing gum wrappers and all the other paper pariahs of your so-called civilization
Before you tattoo my backside with the decadent artifacts of a worn-out bureaucracy

They fed it through the machine
It came out blank
They fed it through again

At last it spoke
Dear Sirs it said
Pursuant to your request of long standing
and in full cognizance of the numerous difficulties involved
I am authorized to inform you at this time
You have nothing to lose but your chains

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Flannery O’Connor’s Dislike of Ayn Rand

Neal and Cooper in "The Fountainhead"

Neal and Cooper in “The Fountainhead”

Reader Sue Schmidt alerted me to this article about Flannery O’Connor’s abhorrence of Ayn Rand’s novels, expressed in a letter to a friend. As the article notes, O’Connor’s mention of hardboiled detective novelist Mickey Spillane is also of interest. Here’s what O’Connor wrote:

I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

By unfavorably comparing Rand with Spillane, O’Connor is setting a low bar. While Spillane was immensely popular, his hardboiled detective novels are not in the same class with those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Basically, Spillane tickles the pleasure centers of the brain with sex, violence, and satisfying revenge fantasies but little more. He doesn’t have the same existential depth as Hammett. But O’Connor says he at least is closer to a Dostoevskan exploration of existential emptiness than Rand.

I suspect that the mention of Spillane is not entirely accidental. O’Connor must have read somewhere that Rand was a big Spillane fan. As the article mentions (and as Gene Bell-Villada points out in his excellent book on Rand), Rand saw Spillane as one of the big boys and better than Tolstoy:

[Victor] Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral–Dostoevsky gives me the feeling of entering a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide–Spillane gives me the feeling of listening to a military band in a public park–Tolstoy gives me the feeling of an unsanitary backyard which I do not care to enter.

Just as Spillane’s women love how his hero Mike Hammer treats them rough, so Dominique Francon is drawn to her quasi-rape by Howard Roark in The Fountainhead:

She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists and pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades.…She fell back against the dressing table, she stood crouching, her hands clasping the edge behind her, her eyes wide, colorless, shapeless in terror. He was laughing. There was the movement of laughter on his face, but no sound.…Then he approached. He lifted her without effort. She let her teeth sink into his hand and felt blood on the tip of her tongue. He pulled her head back and he forced her mouth open against his.

But there’s more to the Rand-Spillane connection than this. In a sense, Rand ravishes her own readers in ways similar to how Mike Hammer ravishes his broads. She pounds them with her truth and, in an orgasmic intellectual moment, they feel themselves in the presence of a powerful force. Their surrender involves abandoning doubts, which they come to see as weak and pusillanimous. In the presence of real power, they feel reborn as part of a new certainty.

I suspect this is what disturbed O’Connor so much about Rand’s fans. Her own fiction questions received certainties and comes down hardest on those who are smugly convinced that they are in possession of the truth.

Look, for instance, at how O’Connor handles the smug Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation.” The story’s protagonist thinks she has everything figured out, only to be challenged by a girl in a doctor’s waiting room who becomes infuriated at her sanctimony. Here’s the confrontation:

The girl’s eyes stopped rolling and focused on her. They seemed a much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed behind them was now open to admit light and air. Mrs. Turpin’s head cleared and her power of motion returned. She leaned forward until she was looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, know her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. “What you got to say to me?” she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.

The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.

The girl could be O’Connor herself, lashing out against those who assume their superiority over others. But because she is engaged in genuine exploration, O’Connor is also scrutinizing herself for signs of Mrs. Turpin’s pride.

By the end of the story, Mrs. Turpin sees herself as no better than the others in her world. Needless to say, such humility was beyond Ayn Rand.

Posted in O'Connor (Flannery), Rand (Ayn), Spillane (Mickey) | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

What Frightens the Ferguson Police

Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Like many people, I’m trying to figure out the significance of what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, first the killing of an unarmed black man and then the militarized response to the protests, complete with tanks, SWAT teams, rubber bullets and tear gas. One author who can help us sort it all out is James Baldwin in his 1965 short story “Going to Meet the Man.”

First, a recap of the events, which at first glance appear to have been triggered by an incompetent police chief with access to heavy armaments. While I’m not a fan of Daily Kos, they do a pretty good job of summing up everything that was done wrong. Here’s their list:

1.    Officer kills an unarmed black teen in the street.
2.    Officer who kills the teenager requests assistance but does not inform his commanders of what happened. Instead, they learn it on the news like everyone else.
3.    The scene is left in the hands of the officer’s own colleagues who allow the officer to leave the scene of the crime. His vehicle is also allowed to leave the scene – presumably breaking the integrity of the chain of evidence.
4.    Victim is left lying in the road for four hours – inflaming the community and presumably destroying evidence.
5.    Witnesses say that the killing officer never bothered to check for a pulse once his victim went down. None of the other officers arriving on the scene checked for a pulse. Bystanders in the medical field were not allowed to attempt CPR.
6.    Rumor has it that the cellphones of possible witnesses were confiscated.
7.    Police launch campaign to protect the officer at all costs – including the destruction of the community of Ferguson.
8.    Police launch a full military invasion of the traumatized town of Ferguson.
9.    Police caught on international TV screaming, “Bring it! Bring it you fucking animals!”
10.    The response to a community protesting police brutality is the imposition of ‘martial law’ complete with authoritarianism, tear gas, rubber bullets, flash grenades and sound grenades.
11.    Police throw the Constitution out the window and arrest, assault and teargas journalists.
12.    Police arrest a well-known public figure for the “crime” of “failing to listen.”
13.    Chief of Police praises his officers for showing incredible restraint.
14.    After days of shocking behavior that caught the attention of the world, police finally release Killer Cop’s name – while concurrently launching a smear campaign against his victim. This decision to reignite the fuse of the powder keg is not run up the chain of command – despite pledges from the Governor that there is a new Sheriff in town.
15.    Chief of Police specifically says that he is not interested in talking to the community he has been victimizing.
16.    Chief of Police holds multiple press conferences in which he contradicts himself repeatedly.
17.    Chief of Police makes a statement praising the Killer Cop while concurrently smearing the dead teenaged victim at the center of the nation’s outrage:

“He was a gentle, quiet man,” Police Chief Thomas Jackson said Friday, referring to Wilson. “He was a distinguished officer. He was a gentleman. … He is, he has been, an excellent officer.”

A white southern sheriff is at the center of Baldwin’s story as well. In his case, he is at home unable to make love to his wife after a face-off with civil rights demonstrators. In the course of the demonstration, he has beaten a black man to within an inch of his life. As the sheriff dwells on the incident, he is taken back to a horrific community lynching that he witnessed as a young boy, one that involved burning alive and castrating. That memory stirs his manhood and he is able to make love to his wife.

What has brought about the sheriff’s impotence is a sense that he is no longer in control. One realizes that his sense of self-esteem has been dependent on the black community deferring to him, as they used to do:

He was only doing his duty: Protecting white people from the niggers and the niggers from themselves. And there were still lots of good niggers around—he had to remember that; they weren’t all like that boy this afternoon; and the good niggers must be mighty sad to see what was happening to their people. They would thank him when this was over. In that way they had, the best of them, not quite looking him in the eye, in a low voice, with a little smile: We surely thanks you, Mr. Jesse. From the bottom of our hearts, we thanks you. He smiled. They hadn’t all gone crazy. This trouble would pass.–

Now that they are no longer deferring, he is haunted by his vision of them:

He felt that he would like to hold her [his wife], hold her, and be buried in her like a child and never have to get up in the morning again and go downtown to face those faces, good Christ, they were ugly! and never have to enter that jail house again and smell that smell and hear that singing; never again feel that filthy, kinky, greasy hair under his hand, never again watch those black breasts leap against the leaping cattle prod, never hear those moans again or watch that blood run down or the fat lips split or the sealed eyes struggle open. They were animals, they were no better than animals, what could be done with people like that?

He has violent fantasies, especially when confronting the man he has beaten:

Now the boy looked as though he were dead. Jesse wanted to go over to him and pick him up and pistol whip him until the boy’s head burst open like a melon. He began to tremble with what he believed was rage, sweat, both cold and hot, raced down his body, the singing filled him as though it were a weird, uncontrollable monstrous howling rumbling up from the depths of his own belly, he felt an icy fear rise in him and raise him up…

Think now of the unarmed black men who have been killed in recent years (at least those who have made the headlines) and the juries that have ruled in favor of the killers. Trayvon Martin was killed by a self-proclaimed community watchman while walking home in a suburban housing development. Jordan Davis was shot for playing loud music while parked at a gas station. Eric Garner in New York City died from a police chokehold while being arrested for illegally selling cigarettes. Michael Brown was shot for walking in the middle of the street in Ferguson, and Ezell Ford in Los Angeles wasn’t doing even tht much in Los Angeles a couple of days later. Meanwhile, the man who killed Martin was found not guilty, as was the man who killed Davis (although he was sentenced for shooting at Davis’ friends when they fled the scene). In both cases, the juries concluded that they had reason to feel threatened.

I can think of no other explanation for such overreactions than racial fears. The fears are also behind the “Stand Your Ground” laws that states keep passing, and it’s worth noting that the last time the NRA actually supported gun control was when Black Panthers were carrying guns in the 1970’s. Since then, it is assumed that whites must have guns to defend themselves against people of color. These racial fears are whipped up by the rightwing media and by several Congressmen, who talk about whites as the real victims. A lot is attributable to people’s anxieties over having a black president and witnessing a nation that is becoming increasingly brown.

In the story, the sheriff is able to regain his manhood by channeling the sexual power he imagines blacks to have. The power he fears that Blacks possess is something he secretly longs for. Here he is in bed after recalling the lynching:

Something bubbled up in him, his nature again returned to him. He thought of the boy in the cell; he thought of the man in the fire; he thought of the knife and grabbed himself and stroked himself and a terrible sound, something between a high laugh and a howl, came out of him and dragged his sleeping wife up on one elbow. She stared at him in a moonlight which had now grown cold as ice. He thought of the morning and grabbed her, laughing and crying, crying and laughing, and he whispered, as he stroked her, as he took her, “Come on sugar, I’m going to do you like a nigger, just like a nigger, come on, sugar, and love me just like you’d love a nigger.” He thought of the morning as he labored and she moaned, thought of morning as he labored harder than he ever had before, and before his labors had ended, he heard the first cock crow and the dogs begin to bark, and the sound of tires on the gravel road.

Baldwin is seeing Blacks as sacrificial scapegoats in the story, their crucifixion restoring life to a barren land. While I’m not sure that such a dynamic is at work in Ferguson, Florida, New York City, and Los Angeles, white fear and insecurity appear to be the prods that set off the violence.

Posted in Baldwin (James) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Angel Infancy

Angelika Kauffmann, "Children with Bird's Nest and Flowers (late 18th C)

Angelika Kauffmann, “Children with Bird’s Nest and Flowers (late 18th C)

Spiritual Sunday

Julia and I are back from our vacation in Iowa and Chicago and are currently visiting our two-year-old grandson Alban in Silver Spring. I love his intense engagement with small, everyday things. The 17th century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan finds a spiritual meaning in such engagement.

In his lovely poem “The Retreat,” Vaughan expresses a view similar to that of Wordsworth in Intimations of Immortality, which Vaughan’s poetry undoubtedly influenced. Children in their “early days” can still see, in a cloud or a flower, “shadows of eternity.” Life has not yet distracted them from “a white, celestial thought,” and they still see “through all this fleshly dress/ Bright shoots of everlastingness.” Note the poet’s deep longing to “travel back,/And tread again that ancient track!” Since leaving childhood, he feels that his soul has been staggering drunkenly forward. Through adult language he has taught “my tongue to wound/My conscience with a sinful sound” while sin has corrupted his once innocent senses. Therefore, death is not something to be feared but a “retreat” back to that innocent state.

Being around children causes one to pick up this vision. Here’s the poem.

The Retreat

By Henry Vaughan

Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back, at that short space,
Could see a glimpse of His bright face;
When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
      O, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left my glorious train,
From whence th’ enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.
But, ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love;
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.

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An O’Neillian NASCAR Tragedy

Kevin Ward, Tony Stewart

Kevin Ward, Tony Stewart

Sports Saturday

I don’t follow NASCAR racing in the least so you know that something bad had to happen for people like me to start reading about the sport. But when three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart accidentally killed a young driver who had gotten out of his car to yell at him, I took notice.

Apparently Stewart is a love-him-or-hate-him type of driver, one who is “old school” and loves to push the limits. He also appreciates his racing roots and sometimes returns to the dirt tracks of his youth to race on, as he did the night of Kevin Ward’s death. An aggressive driver who likes to bump other cars when they get in his way, Stewart has also been known, when he himself is bumped out of contention, to get out of his car and yell at the offender. Ward was acting like Stewart when he got out of his own wrecked car to yell at the veteran. No one is sure what happens next but it sounds to me like Stewart wanted to scare Ward and miscalculated, perhaps because he was riding on a dirt rather than an asphalt track. As he buzzed him, his back fishtailed, dragging Ward under and killing him.

The episode sounds like one of those generational tragedies that Eugene O’Neill writes, say Desire under the Elms. In that play there is a grizzled old farmer, Ephraim Cabot, who is hard as the rocks in his New England fields as he raises three sons. He even chooses to return to his old farm—like Stewart returning to the dirt tracks of his youth—rather than opting for easier farming out west. None of his sons are as tough as he is. At one point, after momentarily acknowledging weakness, he boasts of his toughness:

I’m gittin’ old–ripe on the bough. (then with a sudden forced reassurance) Not but what I hain’t a hard nut t’ crack even yet–an’ fur many a year t’ come! By the Etarnal, I kin break most o’ the young fellers’s backs at any kind o’ work any day o’ the year.

His youngest son, Eben, is tough as well, however. When Cabot describes him as soft, the other brothers disagree:

Cabot–(with a contemptuous sneer) Ye needn’t heed Eben. Eben’s a dumb fool–like his Maw–soft an’ simple!

Simeon–(with his sardonic burst of laughter) Ha! Eben’s a chip o’ yew–spit ‘n’ image–hard ‘n’ bitter’s a hickory tree! Dog’ll eat dog. He’ll eat ye yet, old man!

Eventually Eben encroaches on his father’s prerogatives, impregnating his young wife. She kills their son when she realizes that he is getting in the way of their love (Eben fears the child will inherit the farm). She repents and turns herself in and then Eben, taking responsibility for putting the idea in her head, does so as well. In this world, those who are soft go under. Unfortunately in the NASCAR tragedy, standing up to the old man and getting crushed were not metaphorical.

How will Stewart respond? He has disappeared from view–gone into hiding, as one newspaper headline puts it–as the authorities consider whether to bring charges. In the play, Cabot has a few moments of self doubt but then embraces the hardness that has brought him nothing but loneliness and forges on as before. We’ll see if the veteran driver does the same.

O’Neill’s play offers him an alternative, however. Eben could throw off Abby since he’s not technically responsible and continue to chase the farm. However, by choosing to align with her, even though it will mean going to jail, means that he has found a higher value. The stage directions even let us know that he gets a look of “grudging respect” from his father when he does so. Stewart could learn something profound from the tragedy. Will he soften any or remain rock hard?

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René Magritte and Edgar Allan Poe

René Magritte, "Attempting the Impossible"

René Magritte, “Attempting the Impossible”

Note: I’m on vacation in Chicago at the moment and will put off until Monday an extended reflection on the very disturbing events in Ferguson, Missouri. I can see already that Ralph Ellison will help provide powerful insight into what is going on.

The Chicago Institute of Art currently has a fascinating René Magritte exhibit that has taught me, among other things, that Magritte was drawn to the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Knowing this gave me new insights into the painter.

Supposedly Attempting the Impossible, pictured above, was originally to be given a title honoring Poe. According to the museum’s explanation, writers have linked the painting to a passage from “The Pit and the Pendulum”:

It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see.

The observation sent me back to the story, which in light of the exhibit became more interesting than I remembered it. Suddenly Magritte was not just a game-playing trickster but someone who saw just how unstable reality is. Rather than being light and playful, he may have been holding on to sanity for his dear life. One biographical detail I picked up—that Magritte avoided Paris’s Bohemian community and lived a middle class style of life in the Parisian suburbs—made sense to me. For all of Magritte’s apparent mockery of the man in the bowler hat who is to be found throughout his work, the conventionality of such a figure also gave the artist a place to stand when everything else was capable to slipping free of its signifier into an infinite play of signification. If we can’t all comfortably agree to the convention that the words for things and pictures we use for them are the things themselves—that the word “pipe” and the picture of a pipe are in fact a pipe (see painting below)—then we have lost the ground beneath us.

The fear of losing his grounding is also what haunts Poe’s narrator when he finds himself in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition:

I had swooned; but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define, or even to describe; yet all was not lost. In the deepest slumber — no! In delirium — no! In a swoon — no! In death — no! even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man. Arousing from the most profound of slumbers, we break the gossamer web of some dream. Yet in a second afterward, (so frail may that web have been) we remember not that we have dreamed. In the return to life from the swoon there are two stages; first, that of the sense of mental or spiritual; secondly, that of the sense of physical, existence. It seems probable that if, upon reaching the second stage, we could recall the impressions of the first, we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond. And that gulf is — what? How at least shall we distinguish its shadows from those of the tomb? But if the impressions of what I have termed the first stage, are not, at will, recalled, yet, after long interval, do they not come unbidden, while we marvel whence they come? He who has never swooned, is not he who finds strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow; is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view; is not he who ponders over the perfume of some novel flower — is not he whose brain grows bewildered with the meaning of some musical cadence which has never before arrested his attention.

Amid frequent and thoughtful endeavors to remember; amid earnest struggles to regather some token of the state of seeming nothingness into which my soul had lapsed, there have been moments when I have dreamed of success; there have been brief, very brief periods when I have conjured up remembrances which the lucid reason of a later epoch assures me could have had reference only to that condition of seeming unconsciousness. These shadows of memory tell, indistinctly, of tall figures that lifted and bore me in silence down — down — still down — till a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. They tell also of a vague horror at my heart, on account of that heart’s unnatural stillness. Then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things; as if those who bore me (a ghastly train!) had outrun, in their descent, the limits of the limitless, and paused from the wearisomeness of their toil. After this I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is madness — the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things.

Very suddenly there came back to my soul motion and sound — the tumultuous motion of the heart, and, in my ears, the sound of its beating. Then a pause in which all is blank. Then again sound, and motion, and touch — a tingling sensation pervading my frame. Then the mere consciousness of existence, without thought — a condition which lasted long. Then, very suddenly, thought, and shuddering terror, and earnest endeavor to comprehend my true state. Then a strong desire to lapse into insensibility. Then a rushing revival of soul and a successful effort to move. And now a full memory of the trial, of the judges, of the sable draperies, of the sentence, of the sickness, of the swoon. Then entire forgetfulness of all that followed; of all that a later day and much earnestness of endeavor have enabled me vaguely to recall.

So far, I had not opened my eyes. I felt that I lay upon my back, unbound. I reached out my hand, and it fell heavily upon something damp and hard. There I suffered it to remain for many minutes, while I strove to imagine where and what I could be. I longed, yet dared not to employ my vision. I dreaded the first glance at objects around me. It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see. 

Maybe Attempting the Impossible is inspired by Poe because Magritte is not clear where his painting is emerging from. The painter thinks he is representing the real, but if reality is so elusive, then he doesn’t really know the source of his image. The world we walk on begins to dissolve, held together only by agreed-upon conventions.

While in the Chicago Institute of Art Julia and I also checked out the cubists and other modernists who challenged traditional representation. Magritte, while he seems more representational than Picasso and Braque, is simply questioning in a different way. After the horrors of World War I, one could see why such wholesale questioning would be going on.

Perhaps Magritte gets a special exhibition now because our conventional understandings of reality are once again being upset, this time by globalization and postmodernism. Without commonly held social conventions, societt and political systems start falling apart. Maybe that’s why our politics are becoming dysfunctional and why some are being drawn to fundamentalism and political absolutes. They are reacting against the uncertainty that both Poe and Magritte sensed.

Further thought: I remember literary theorist Gerald Graff making a very prescient critique of the avant garde and deconstruction in the 1970′s. Rather than challenging bourgeois capitalism, as the movements claimed they were doing, Graff said that they were ultimately serving capitalism’s ends by removing any checks to people buying things. The sexual revolution, for instance, would ultimately just open the way for Madison Avenue to use sex more blatantly. Magritte may have realized this. While making fun of middle class respectability–the pipe, the bowler hat–he could also be holding on to them for dear life, lamenting the slippery slope upon which we are embarked.

Maybe this fear explains why I, unlike all but a handful of my colleagues, wear a tie when I teach.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe

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Robin Williams Made Poetry Cool

Robin Williams as Keating in "Dead Poets Society"

Robin Williams as Keating in “Dead Poets Society”

Like Robin Williams fans everywhere, I was deeply saddened by his death. Since this is a literature blog and Williams gave us one of cinema’s great depictions of a literature teacher, I devote today’s blog to his portrayal of Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.

Although I generally admire the film, I also have some reservations, which I have written about here and here. Looking back, the fact that the film ends with a suicide is particularly disturbing in light of Williams’ own suicide. I’ll talk about that in a moment. First, however, I want to praise Williams for his performance. Keating must convince a group of high achieving adolescents that literature is the most important thing in the world, and Williams does the convincing in so convincing a manner that we too are inspired. For instance, I was pumping my fist during the following monologue:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Keating is quoting from Whitman’s “Oh Me! Oh Life!”:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

It makes sense that Keating would lean heavily on the American transcendentalists, who were fighting against American pragmatism and obsession with money. The other major poet in the film is Henry David Thoreau. If the students are persuaded to sound Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” from the top of their desks, it is in part because Keating has stirred them with Thoreau’s vision of a life lived deliberately. They want to march to the beat of their own drummer.

Now to my criticism of Neal’s suicide, which is more about the movie than about Robin Williams. As I wrote in the first of my posts,

As I see it, Dead Poets Society actually underestimates poetry’s power, and that for some interesting reasons.  It believes poetry can inspire people to perform acts of courage and defiance but not that it can prevent them from committing suicide.

If poetry comes up short, I don’t believe it is poetry’s fault.  Rather, I would argue, the fault lies within Keating’s teaching, which counters the scientism of J. Evans Pritchard by celebrating a sensual and thoughtless immersion in poetry.  This immersion is vital and wonderful and without it poetry truly is dead.  But more can be done with poetry.  Neil, I think, fails to grasp an important insight to be found in the very play in which he is performing.  

And in my follow-up post:

Reflecting on Midsummer Night’s Dream might have caused Neil to realize he had other options.

Think about it.  The play has a character, Hermia, whose father, Egeus, is just as tyrannical as Neil’s.  If she doesn’t follow his orders and marry Demetrius, Egeus will have her put to death  (King Theseus gives her a third option: she can also be imprisoned in a convent for the rest of her life.)  So she and Lysander run away.

Running away isn’t the only solution offered by the play.  In response to tyrannical laws, the play offers the anarchy of nature and the imagination. People that try to impose their will on others discover that life responds in crazy ways.  Oberon orders Puck to bring order to the passions of the lovers and Puck botches it wonderfully.  Neil, who is playing Puck, has before him a vivid image of how authority can be subverted.

And then there is the image of hope that the play provides.  In the play’s comic ending, the rule of law is superseded by the rule of love and conflict gives way to reconciliation.  While Neil can’t see, in his own life, anyone who will overrule his father the way that Theseus overrules Egeus, it is an image that he could hold on to.  The world of the imagination has helped many endure oppressive conditions. 

Instead, the most resourceful and sane student in the film acts like someone who has no resources against tyranny and who melodramatically takes his own life.  Peter Weir presents this to us as a higher vision—Neil is depicted as a combination of Dionysus and Christ—but the death just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

What if, in addition to teaching his students to respond passionately to poetry, Keating had also coached them to be thoughtful about it?  What if, knowing that most boys have major issues with their fathers, he had led a class discussion in which, say, they had talked about Hermia’s situation and her responses?  What if they had talked about the healing power of comedy?

For that matter, what if they had read, say, Antigone, in which Haemon quarrels bitterly with his intransigent father Creon and then commits suicide–and then talked about what it means to be a young man that feels stretched to the max?  It’s not just that, in Creon and Haemon, Neil could see a father softening up towards his son (albeit too late).  It’s that Neil, through literature, would feel less alone in his suffering, would realize there are authors out there who understand him.  They might have answers and, even if they don’t, they have made the world appear a richer and more complex place.  A good reflective discussion about these issues would help Neil see beyond his situation.  It might even lead to a powerful private conversation with his teacher where they would talk about options.  Instead he folds in on himself.

Literature, even when it’s about suicide, is antithetical to the narcissistic tunnel vision of the suicide.  How can a film about the healing power of literature have the character who loves literature the most kill himself?  Do the filmmakers believe what they’re preaching?

I hope I don’t sound glib about literature’s healing powers. Literature, of course, has failed to prevent any number of suicides, including those of poets Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and others. Perhaps literature would not have saved Robin Williams even if he had shared Keating’s love of literature. In the grip of horrific depression, it’s hard to see anything but one’s pain.

Then again, there’s Christopher Marlowe’s claim, in Doctor Faustus, that literature and the arts can at least make some difference:

My heart’s so harden’d, I cannot repent:     
Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven,     
But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears,     
“Faustus, thou art damn’d!” then swords, and knives,     
Poison, guns, halters, and envenom’d steel     
Are laid before me to despatch myself;     
And long ere this I should have slain myself,     
Had not sweet pleasure conquer’d deep despair.     
Have not I made blind Homer sing to me     
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?      
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes     
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,     
Made music with my Mephistophilis?     
Why should I die, then, or basely despair?

With Faustus, I sometimes see literature as fighting a rearguard action against the forces of chaos and despair. It may not always prevail but we would be absolutely defenseless without it. I’m so sad that Robin Williams, in the end, wasn’t able to find the resources he needed to continue on.

Posted in Marlowe (Christopher), Thoreau (Henry David), Whitman (Walt) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

American Politics, Dashiell Hammett Style

Dain Curse

I’ve been taking advantage of my vacation to read through the collected novels of the best known novelist from my home county, whose complete works I discovered on my mother-in-law’s bookshelf. Not many people know that Dashiell Hammett was born in Great Mills, Maryland, about five miles from the college where I teach. Locals report that after his departure—apparently he got out of St. Mary’s County as soon as he could and never looked back—area ministers for years held up his womanizing, his boozing, and his leftist politics as their go-to example of a sinful life.

I’d only read The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon and so jumped at the chance to read The Glass Key, The Dain Curse, and Red Harvest.  Along the way, I found a good explanation for much of today’s political discourse.

Have you noticed that those who speak in ringing absolutes are often better at grabbing the spotlight than those who value nuance? Those filled with passionate intensity outshout those who regard policy questions as complex. In The Dain Curse the narrator notes that, most of the time, even thinking people feel lost in a fog. As he sees it, those who seem sure of themselves are in actuality attempting to override their inner doubts. We’d be better off, he believes, if we admitted openly how confused we actually are.

The narrator is saying this to a woman who is convinced that she is gripped by a curse. He is trying to convince her that she’s perfectly fine:

Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place…

You’re old enough to know that everybody except very crazy people and very stupid people suspect themselves now and then—or whenever they happen to think about it—of not being exactly sane. Evident of goofiness is easily found: the more you dig into yourself, the more you turn up. Nobody’s mind could stand the sort of examination you’ve been giving yours. Going around trying to prove yourself cuckoo! It’s a wonder you haven’t driven yourself nuts.

And later:

According to me it was as foolish to try to read character from the shape of ears [the woman has no ear lobes] as from the position of stars, tea-leaves, or spit in the sand; anybody who started hunting for evidence of insanity in himself would certainly find plenty, because all but stupid minds were jumbled affairs.

Two types of peole are being criticized here. On the one hand, there are the “stupid minds”—those who never “suspect themselves now and then”—who mindlessly spout talking points. They are guaranteed to run the country into a ditch. But Hammett is also challenging people like myself who emphasize the value of reason and rational thought.

I don’t want to go too far along this line and dismiss the value of clear thinking. It means something to have science on one’s side. Policy should be guided by the fact that most scientists believe that hydrocarbons are warming the planet, that most economists believe Obama’s stimulus helped pull the United States out of recession, that most doctors believe the benefits of vaccination far outweigh any drawbacks. But translating science into politics is often a muddle and even rational people don’t always act rationally.

Maybe Hammett’s private detectives capture how life really works. Unlike Dupin or Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade and the others do not figure things out from some high rational plane. Rather, they jump into the crime scene and muck around. Here’s how the narrator in Red Harvest describes his method:

“Plans are all right sometimes,” I said. “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.”

“That ought to be good for another drink,” she said.

This narrator, like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, is trying to set all the corrupt parties against each other so they’ll bring each other down. He compares his strategy to playing with dynamite and acknowledges that one false move could blow up in his face. Or as he puts it,

I was in a good spot if I played my hand right, and in a terrible one if I didn’t.

In other words, public policy may be more poker than a game of chess. It takes good players but no one can see all the cards, emotions run high, and there’s a fair amount of luck involved.

Further thought: There’s a passage in Red Harvest that’s a pretty good description of how the Republican right wing is taking the GOP away from the Republican establishment. For years this establishment has been relying on social wedge issues to turn out voters (like “acid, amnesty, and abortion”), only to redirect the focus back to financial issues (such as corporate tax breaks) once it attains power. Now, thanks to figures like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, the right wing is flexing its muscles and most centrist Republicans are terrified of being “primaried.”

In the book a mining boss uses shock troops to break a strike and then, like the GOP establishment, is upset when he has to share power with them:

The strike lasted eight months. Both sides bled plenty. The wobblies had to do their own bleeding. Old Elihu hired gunmen, strikebreakers, national guardsmen and even parts of the regular army, to do his. When the last skull had been cracked, the last rib kicked in, organized labor in Personville was a used firecracker.

But, said [labor organizer] Bill Quint, old Elihu didn’t know his Italian history. He won the strike, but he lost his hold on the city and the state. To beat the miners he had to let his hired thugs run wild. When the fight was over he couldn’t get rid of them. He had given his city to them and he wasn’t strong enough to take it away from them. Personville looked good to them and they took it over. They had won his strike for him and they took the city for their spoils. He couldn’t openly break with them. They had too much on him. He was responsible for all they had done during the strike.

If the GOP fails to win the next presidential election, this may be a good reason why.

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Pantry Moths in the Howling Storm

pantry moth

I opened a kitchen cabinet recently and a Blake poem instantly leaped to mind. The reason: pantry moths. Can you guess the poem?

First, however, I’m looking for ways to eradicate the moths. We seal everything tightly and periodically wipe down all surfaces, yet there is still that fluttering. Nothing seems to work.

The poem, however, only seems to be about the worm that flies in the night. It’s really about the complex interaction, in our adult world, between romantic love and sexuality. While we long for purity and innocence, at the same time we are ashamed of what we see as our sinful selves. Indeed, our very longing for innocence may be propelled by the desire to escape from our secret shame. Blake doesn’t overstate when he describes our mental turmoil as a howling storm. Freud called this process sublimation and said it led both to great suffering and great art.

The Sick Rose

By William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Rice is less romantic than roses but our invisible worms take whatever they find.

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Whitman’s Blast of Green Grace


Summer is as good a time as any for loafing around Walt Whitman style. “I loafe and invite my soul,” he proclaims in Song of Myself. “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

As Whitman sees it, we are all leaves of grass, individuals and yet part of a collective whole. My father imagines a hippy and homosexual leaf of grass (the poem was written in the early seventies) describing life from his point of view. Think of him as a gay blade. He may even be a descendent of the poet as he resides in the Camden, New Jersey cemetery, where Whitman is buried. As Whitman promised,

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

This is a particularly amorous leaf of grass, shimmying with joy as Whitman lays his head in the lap of Camerado (one of Whitman’s out-of-the-closet poems). “That ain’t Nobodaddy,” which is to say, this isn’t your traditional paternalistic, vengeful sky god but a sensuous spirit of the earth who celebrates the lovers. “Listen to my cord/vibrate like a harpstring in the winds of God,” he says, and earlier, echoing the Song of Solomon, “I make your garden fair, Beloved.”  The poem moves towards an orgasmic climax with very explicit sexual imagery:

 A blast of green grace
in the great land beneath the amorous blue
all things hang on me
like a drop of dew…

Walt Whitman lovers will find in the lyric echoes a number of the bard’s poems. And now, here’s our blade of grass asserting himself:

 Lines of a Blade of Grass Delivered at Dawn at the Camden NJ Cemetery

By Walt Whitman

I am a leaf of grass
rising in the rising sun
I belong to an infinite community of lovers
yet I am one
I wave in the dawn like the American flag man
Life is my bag man

Look at me
flying from the top of Columbia’s tree!
I am a blade of leaf I am the antenna
on her conky TV
I make your garden fair Beloved
I curl your hair Beloved
you better believe it

Believe me I swing like lace
on the skirts of the sky by Atlantic’s shore
I sway in the seawind
and I am shimmying with Joy
Joy is my boy buddy
and that ain’t Nobodaddy

Listen to my cord
vibrate like a harpstring in the winds of God
I mean I tune your piano
you clod
who don’t know your grass from a hole in the ground
Listen When you got laid Camerado
I got played

I got a blast of green grace
in the great land beneath the amorous blue
            all things hang on me
            like a drop of dew
I got the world on the tip of my tongue like a drop
            of spit man
                                    no shit man
I am Walt Whitman

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Something Different Crosses the Threshold

Ivan Aivazovsky, "Jesus Walking on Water"

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Jesus Walking on Water”

Spiritual Sunday

I gave observed that, while I find many of Mary Oliver’s luminescent poems to be very Christian, she doesn’t make explicit references to the Bible. My friend Barbara Beliveau alerted me to an exception. It concerns today’s Gospel reading, which is the story of Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm.

Given Oliver’s interest in nature and in storms generally (see “Lightning”), it figures that she would be drawn to this episode. from Matthew (14:22-33):

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Which part of the story do you think that Oliver finds the most frightening? Read on to find out.


By Mary Oliver

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
   stood up in the boat
      and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry.
So everybody was saved
   that night.
      But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
   the threshold—the uncles
      mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
   to sharpen his knife.
      Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water—
   sometimes, for days,
      you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
   one or two of them felt
      the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
   that wants to swallow everything,
      gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
   how the wind tore at the sails
      before he rose and talked to it—

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was—
     a thousand times more frightening
         than the killer storm.

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Wonder in an Old Leather Mitt

Babe Ruth's glove, 1926

Babe Ruth’s glove, 1926

Sports Saturday

Here’s a lyric that makes my heart sing, perhaps because I recently spent time with my two-year-old granddaughter Esmé. Even though she’s younger than the girl in the poem, I saw the same sense of wonder at the world.

“Pasttime” seems to be about baseball but then, when one probes further, it becomes a poem about growing old and bridging the years between generations and sensing infinite possibilities. In some ways it reminds me of James Leigh Hunt’s poem “Jenny Kissed Me.” But first to the baseball poem:


By Emilio DeGrazia

A girl, nine years of wonder
Still on her face,
Stands directly on the bag at third
Running amazed fingers along the wrinkles
Of my old leather mitt.
It is the bottom of the ninth,
And everywhere in the world
The bases are loaded.

Baseball gloves are like totems, acquiring ever more significance with each passing year. Think of them as adult versions of the velveteen rabbit. I remember reading years ago a baseball player’s description of his glove—maybe it was Brooks Robinson, maybe Cal Ripkin—and I was struck by how he kept patching it together rather than acquiring a new one. It had that kind of meaning for him.

In this case, the glove is an extension of the speaker and the little girl is fascinated by it, running amazed fingers along the wrinkles, perhaps as she is fascinated by the speaker (let’s say he’s her grandfather). She sees the glove as more than an aging piece of leather and suddenly, through her wonder, he sees himself as something more than an aging piece of leather. It doesn’t matter than he is in his ninth inning.

The title is wonderfully evocative. Baseball is (or was) the national pastime and, along those lines, he and the girl are just passing time. But the speaker, initially, is feeling old, as though he is past his time. Then, however, he is taken back to a past time by the girl’s sense of wonder. For a moment, he has passed time and entered a new realm. Everything seems possible.

And now for the James Leigh Hunt poem:

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
   Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
   Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
   Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
   Jenny kiss’d me.

Actually, this creeps me out a little. I like DeGrazia’s poem better.

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Headed for the City of Big Shoulders

Depression era mural, Eugene, Oregon

Depression era mural, Eugene, Oregon

Today Julia and I are leaving family in Iowa to spend a  week in Chicago. Among other sights, we plan to visit the Museum of Science and Industry, which used to have hands-on physics experiments designed by my great uncle Gordon Fulcher.

The trip has given me an excuse to revisit Carl Sandburg’s famous homage to the city, written a hundred years ago this past March. It seems terribly dated now given what has occurred to America’s industrial base, Still, it’s fun to bask in the memory of a working class machismo that makes so apologies for the rougher side of the city.Today, sadly, there are still plenty of gunmen killing, even though Al Capone no longer rules.


By Carl Sandburg

    HOG Butcher for the World,
     Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
     Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
     Stormy, husky, brawling,
     City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
     have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
     luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
     is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
     kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
     faces of women and children I have seen the marks
     of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
     sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
     and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
     so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
     job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
     little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
     as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
          Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
     white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
     man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
     never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
     and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
     Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
     Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
     Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

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A Large Pig Haunts the University


We are currently visiting my wife’s family in Washington, Iowa. Julia grew up on a pig and cattle farm in Grace Hill, a Moravian community outside of Washington, and while her family lost the family farm in the early 1980s recession (which was a depression for Iowa), she still has a sentimental attachment to the farming community there. She therefore suggested that I write today’s post on Jane Smiley’s Moo.

One of my colleagues, who wrote her MFA thesis under Smiley at Iowa State, notes that her campus novel was a farewell to the university. By which I mean that, because it’s a thinly disguised roman à clef, many members of the school recognized themselves in Smiley’s characters and were glad to see her gone. But then, few schools look good after a campus novel takes them apart—I think of what Mary McCarthy did with Sarah Lawrence in The Groves of Academe—so it’s about par for the course. Calling her fictional Iowa State “Moo U,” as Smiley does, shows you the direction in which she’s headed.

If increasing numbers of authors seem to writing campus novels these days, it’s in part because universities have become the new patrons. If you can’t make a living on the open market—few authors can—and if you can’t find a wealthy individual to subsidize your efforts—almost no one can—then the university is your fallback income. To be sure, you have to teach creative writing courses as well as write, which seem an intolerable burden to some authors. But writers, at least at research universities, are usually chosen more for the prestige they bring than their teaching abilities. Once she wrote Thousand Acres, Smiley had glow to bestow.

But not all authors are happy with the arrangement and they often use campus novels to vent their spleen. There’s a problem here, however. Not only are universities paying them a decent wage—sometimes a great wage—for what is often a reduced course load, but universities aren’t all that dramatic. Sure, there are rivalries within the faculty, but they seem pretty trivial, as Kissinger’s famous witticism notes. (Why are faculty disputes so bitter? Because the stakes are so small.) Life may seem dramatic for undergraduates—after all, they are undergoing significant growth—but for most of them, their food and lodging is paid and they live in a protected environment.* So what’s an author to do?

Write a comic novel. That way you can complain but without being seen as taking yourself all that seriously (even though secretly you may be dead serious and really mad). Iowa State wasn’t wrong to see Smiley as giving them the middle finger but she did it in a humorous way. At least humorous for those who don’t show up in it.

Since I am married to a pig farmer’s daughter, I share a passage about Earl Butz, a giant pig named after the agriculture secretary under Nixon and Ford who was prone to verbal gaffes.  Earl Butz is an agricultural experiment by Dr. Bo Jones, who wants to figure out how large a hog can grow:

“Hog,” he said, “is a mysterious creature, not much studied in the wild, owing to viciousness and elusiveness. Can’t get the papers, you know, to take yourself to Uzbekistan, even if you had the funding. Never been a hog that lived a natural lifespan. Never been an old hog. Hog too useful. Hog too useful to be known on his own terms, you know. What can I do with this hog, when can I eat it, what can I make of this hog, how does this hog profiteth me, always intervenes between man and hog. When I die, they’re going to say that Dr. Bo Jones found out something about hog.”

Earl Butz proceeds to take on special symbolic significance in the novel. No one other than Jones and a student know about him and, when Jones goes missing (on a visit to Uzbekistan to study pigs in the wild), the university begins to pull down his enclosure, not realizing that there is a pig as large as a dining room buffet inside. Suddenly the pig is rampaging through the university:

Mrs. Loraine Walker saw him, and saw him for what he was, the secret hog at the center of the university about whom she had been dismissing rumors for a year. He lumbered past, his high squealing underpinned by labored breathing, his white hide streaked with red where he had scraped himself. Something about the enormous barreling, frightening animal struck her as poignant. Even as she jumped back, she held out her hand as it to pat him on the head.

Earl’s death seems to become an ominous portent for Moo U and maybe universities everywhere: bloated from consuming an ever increasing resources, he can’t stand on his own four legs and collapses. Hmm.


*Relatively protected, I should say. We can’t overlook the  1 in 5 women who are sexually assaulted on campus each year.

Posted in Smiley (Jane) | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A New Sun Blots Vesuvius

atom bomb

Anniversary of Dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima

In memory of Hiroshima, here’s a powerful poem by Richard Tillinghast, written in the early 1960’s. Tillinghast is a former student of my father’s, who included the poem in his anthology Poems of War Resistance. I like how the poet initially finds hope in the cycle of life, only to have it sour on his tongue. The promise of “new greenness” is a mock promise in a world where we are still threatened with nuclear warheads (as was certainly the case in 1962).

I pick up an ominous allusion to Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” In the Irish poet’s vision of the apocalypse, we are waked from stormy sleep. In Tillinghast’s poem, “all of Europe seems/To drowse here, dazed in the sun towards death.”

A Poem on the Nuclear War, from Pompeii

By Richard Tillinghast

The August blackberries harden and sour.
Their vines rattle at a breath of volcanic dust
Through the portico of Jupiter Sator.

Plucked juicy from broken stone, the fruits suggest
A semblance of cycle. The principle could not be
More apparent; in the wreck of the past,

In the dead fusion of marble and lava, the seed
Of new greenness begins. But the berries sour on my mouth.
Hot wind and cinder sun have frayed

The vines and wizened the sweetness of the berries’ growth
Not only Pompeii, but all of Europe seems
To drowse here, dazed in the sun towards death.

It is a time of stopped time, when ruins
Of the human mind are tangled with stunted fruit
Of the future. A new sun blots Vesuvius—
Of earth and sky, the old but the new destroyer.


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Poetry Changed during World War I

F. Matania, 'If you get through... tell my mother... ' Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-561310/The-battle-lines-drawn.html#ixzz39AlqUB00  Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

F. Matania, “If you get through… tell my mother…”

Many of the awful things that occurred in the 20th century can be traced back to “the war to end all wars,” which began 100 years ago this week. Would we have had a less bloody century if we had managed to avoid it? At the very least, we might have escaped Hitler and Stalin. But as a sign that the resilient human spirit can show itself in even the darkest of circumstances, World War I produced some great literature.

I’m using the anniversary as an excuse to read, for the first time, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which I’ve somehow missed. I’m already taken with the epigraph:

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.

Of course, the idea that war is an adventure is often used to inspire young men to put their lives on the line. In the early days of the World War I, before the horrors of trench fighting opened people’s eyes, much of the poetry that England produced was sentimental.

There was, for instance, John Freeman’s “Happy Is England Now,” which now makes one want to throw up. The second stanza, for instance, passes too easily over the deaths of the soldiers, which it describes as “faithfullest children”:

Happy is England now, as never yet! 
And though the sorrows of the slow days fret 
Her faithfullest children, grief itself is proud. 
Ev’n the warm beauty of this spring and summer 
That turns to bitterness turns then to gladness 
Since for this England the beloved ones died.

Rupert Brooke’s well-known “The Soldier” is only slightly better as it masks self-pity and a large dose mascochism with stoic resignation. Note how he makes death seem sweet and pastoral:

If I should die, think only this of me:   
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. 
There shall be   
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,   
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,   
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,   
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less     
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;   
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,     
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

And then there’s Alan Seeger, who has us thrill to glorious martyrdom. Note the contempt he pours on those who are “pillowed in silk and scented down.” It’s almost as though Seeger has been seized with Stockholm Syndrome, giving himself entirely over to the agenda of those who are sending him to his death:

I have a rendezvous with Death   
At some disputed barricade,   
When Spring comes back with rustling shade   
And apple-blossoms fill the air—   

I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.       
It may be he shall take my hand   
And lead me into his dark land   

And close my eyes and quench my breath—   
It may be I shall pass him still.

I have a rendezvous with Death   
On some scarred slope of battered hill,   
When Spring comes round again this year   
And the first meadow-flowers appear.       

God knows ‘twere better to be deep 
Pillowed in silk and scented down,   
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,   
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,   

Where hushed awakenings are dear…   
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,   
When Spring trips north again this year,   
And I to my pledged word am true,   
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Brooke died in 1915 and Seeger in 1916. It’s as though it took the entire war to produce one of the world’s greatest anti-war poets. Wilfred Owen would die in the last week of the war but, before then, he directly attacked the sentiments that had been drummed into, and accepted by, young soldiers like Brooke, Seeger, and himself. “Futility,” for instance, reads like a response to Brooke:

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved—still warm—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Here there are images of growth such as one finds in Brooke, along with the same gentle tone. But instead of reaffirming an “English heaven,” Owen finds life to be theater of the absurd. What’s the point of the clay growing tall if death is where it’s all headed?

Meanwhile,  “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which I’ve posted on here, functions as a rebuttal to Seeger. Owen finds the old maxim, “Sweet and fitting it is to die for your country,” to be a lie. This is response to a man coughing up his guts following a gas attack:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

There is no glorious barricade storming here. Just “death’s grin from ear to ear,” as the defining poem of modernism would put it in 1922.

Such powerful poems, unfortunately, did not prevent World War II or Vietnam, or Iraq. Young men continue to “boil bloody and be spilled “ (“Strange Meeting”) and “die as cattle” (“Anthem for Doomed Youth”). Poetry doesn’t appear capable of preventing the world’s great tragedies.

But at least poetry can help us find our bearings when we find ourselves lost in darkness. Owen’s verse, earned at a cost of immense suffering and death, is there for us to hold on to.

Posted in Brooke (Rupert), Freeman (John), Owen (Wilfred), Seeger (Alan) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Keeping Environmental Hope Alive

Brazil rain forest deforestation

Amazon deforestation

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is visiting Madagascar at the moment and reports back with very discouraging environmental news. Although Madagascar has pristine beaches and some of the most rare and diverse forest, plant, and animal species in the world—Friedman specifically mentions the lemurs—it is falling prey to unscrupulous exploiters, an exploding population, and poverty:

[T]he population of Madagascar is exploding, and the forests and soils are eroding. The soil for agriculture here is iron rich, nutrient poor and often very soft. Since 90 percent of Madagascar’s forests have been chopped down for slash-and-burn agriculture, timber, firewood and charcoal over the last century, most hillsides have no trees to hold the soil when it rains. Flying along the northwest coast, you can’t miss the scale of the problem. You see a giant red plume of eroded red soil bleeding into the Betsiboka River, bleeding into Mahajanga Bay, bleeding into the Indian Ocean. The mess is so big that astronauts take pictures of it from space.

My wife Julia discovered something comparable going on in the Gambia, one of the poorest countries in Africa which she visited recently. There too the forests are coming down, often to fuel cooking fires. And we all know about the Amazon.

Here’s a sad but beautiful poem by my father, “They Are Cutting Down the Jungles of Brazil,” which imagines shutting out all the awful news by retreating into a world of dreams. Our poets, like giant sloths, hang between earthly reality and heavenly imagination as they seek to keep hope alive. If we cease dreaming and succumb to reality as it is, we truly are lost. As always with my father, images of flight point to human possibility, even in the most discouraging of times:

They Are Cutting Down the Jungles of Brazil

By Scott Bates

The Giant Sloth
Like a giant Moth
From a branch
of the Cecropia Tree

He dreams
Of the Jungle above the Sun

Upside down
Heaven and earth
He closes his eyes

And flies
Like a giant Moth

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Wrestling with (My God!) My God

Leloir, "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel"

Leloir, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”

Today’s Old Testament lectionary reading is the fascinating story of Jacobs wrestling all night with an angel. Gerard Manley Hopkins makes powerful use of the episode in “Carrion Comfort.”

First of all, here’s the story from Genesis (32:22-28):

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

I turn to the always essential Victorian Web for commentary on the poem:

The poem reprocesses and reissues the original story by making the wrestling match an experience of metamorphosis: The narrator feels himself transformed into a piece of meat at the hands of his attacker. The first stanza, which envisions the narrator reflecting on the long night of wrestling, discusses the strength and abilities of his attacker in the context of nature. His opponent has “lionlimbs” and his right foot is equated to a “rock.” The second stanza envisions a new form of blessing at the hands of the angel, who here becomes a literal expression of God who, in wrestling the narrator, confers upon him joy.

Carrion Comfort

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Posted in Hopkins (Gerard Manley) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


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