Obama Is No King Lear (Thank Goodness!)

Ian McKellen as King Lear

Ian McKellen as King Lear

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik makes great use of a King Lear passage to dismantle accusations that Obama is weak and effeminate. Gopnik observes that Obama’s critics aren’t actually advocating, with regard to foreign policy, that Obama do anything other than what he is doing. They just want him to look fiercer:

The curious thing, though, is how much the talk about manliness—and Obama’s lack of it—is purely and entirely about appearances. In the current crisis over the downed Malaysian plane, all the emphasis is on how it looks or how it might be made to look—far more than on American interests and much less on simple empathy for the nightmarish fate of the people on board. The tough-talkers end up grudgingly admitting that what the President has done—as earlier, with Syria—is about all that you could do, given the circumstances.  Their own solutions are either a further variant on the kinds of sanctions that are already in place—boycott the World Cup in Russia!—or else are too militarily reckless to be taken seriously. Not even John McCain actually thinks that we should start a war over whether Donetsk and Luhansk should be regarded as part of Ukraine or Russia. The tough guys basically just think that Obama should have looked scarier. The anti-effeminate have very little else to suggest by way of practical action—except making those unambiguous threats and, apparently, baring your teeth while you do.

The Shakespeare passage that Gopnik quotes occurs at the moment where Lear’s heartless daughters have just ruthlessly and systematically stripped their father of all dignity, denying him even a single retainer. Sputtering like a child, Lear brandishes nameless threats:

No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall–I will do such things,–
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

The United States is not as impotent as Lear in this moment although crippling itself through its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan bears some resemblance to Lear crippling himself through giving up his kingdom. The invasions of the Bush years have left the United States exhausted and unwilling to start any more wars. As a result, our neoconservatives can do no more than throw temper tantrums. Here’s the continuation of the Lear passage:

You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

At this point Lear plunges into the storm and proceeds to rail, Dick Cheney-like, at the unfairness of his fate.

There’s a glimmer of hope in King Lear, however. His utter humiliation leads him to discover the love of Cordelia. By the end of the play, tragic though it is, Lear has gotten his priorities straight.

Gopnik wonders whether we can as well:

We don’t need tough guys. We need wise guys. We’ve tried tough guys, and it always ends in tears. Tough guys you know right away because they’re never scared of a fight. Wise guys you only know in retrospect, when you remember that they quietly walked away from the fight that now has the tough guy in a hospital. Wise women do that, too.

Will we appreciate Obama only in retrospect?

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Poetry, the Road to Virtuous Action

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney

I am currently writing a book on—surprise!—how literature can change our lives, and I am currently rereading what some of the world’s great literary theorists have said about literature’s impact. This means that you can expect to get periodic posts on what people in the past have said on the subject. Today you get Sir Philip Sidney, who I am thoroughly enjoying and who is proving to be remarkably relevant.

The Defense of Poesy was written in 1579 (for point of comparison, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were born in 1564), probably as an indirect response to attacks on poetry by Puritan moralist Stephen Gosson. I’ll get to the attacks in a moment.

Sidney believes that the chief end of “earthly learning” should be “virtuous action.” Poetry, he asserts, is more effective than any other endeavor in getting us there.

Sidney sees poetry’s two main competitors as moral philosophy and history, and each comes up short. Moral philosophy, he essentially says, is hard to understand and not much fun to read while history is limited by what actually happened. Only poetry can delve beneath appearance to grasp deep truths and serve them up in ways that we find delightful.

I particularly enjoy the passages where Sidney talks about what we learn from the different literary genres. Comedy, he says, gives us examples of how not to behave (“it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one”), as does tragedy (which “openeth the greatest wounds, and showest forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue”). Lyric poetry, meanwhile, “giveth  praise, the reward  of virtue, to virtuous acts”; sets forth moral precepts and natural problems; and sometimes sings “the lauds of the immortal God.” Finally there is heroical poetry, which Sidney sees as the highest form of poetry. He especially waxes eloquent about The Aeneid. As you read it, recall that Sidney was regarded as the quintessential Renaissance man, a fine poet, courageous soldier, and polished courtier:

For, as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy. Only let Æneas be worn in the tablet of your memory, how he governeth himself in the ruin of his country; in the preserving his old father, and carrying away his religious ceremonies; in obeying the god’s commandment to leave Dido, though not only all passionate kindness, but even the human consideration of virtuous gratefulness, would have craved other of him; how in storms, how in sports, how in war, how in peace, how a fugitive, how victorious, how besieged, how besieging, how to strangers, how to allies, how to enemies, how to his own; lastly, how in his inward self, and how in his outward government; and I think, in a mind most prejudiced with a prejudicating humor, he will be found in excellency fruitful…

The attacks that Sidney mentions being directed against poetry we still see today. They include:

–poetry is a waste of time
–it is the mother of lies
–it is effeminate
–it infects us “with many pestilent desires, with a siren’s sweetness drawing the mind to the serpent’s tail of sinful fancies.”

In this last attack, I think of criticism directed over the ages against such books as Sorrows of Young Werther and Lolita, not to mention current day attack against young adult fiction like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Perks of a Wallflower.

Sidney counters each attack, famously saying in response to the charge of falsehood that the poet doesn’t claim that his stories are literally true but that they reveal a deeper truth. (The poet “nothing affirms.”) At one point he essentially calls Jesus a poet for his use of parables. And while he must acknowledge that his beloved Plato wants to banish all the poets from his ideal republic, he notes that Plato himself uses metaphor, drama, and other literary conceits in his writing.

Sidney concludes his counterattack by asserting that poetry is not

an art of lies, but of true doctrine; not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage; not of abusing man’s wit, but of strengthening man’s wit…

There are questions that Sidney’s argument dodges. To cite one example, he says that virtue is taught by comedy if the comedy is used right, which begs the question of when comedy is used wrong. I’m actually open to the argument that a distinction between right and wrong use could help us distinguish between great and not-so-great literature, but that’s a topic I’ll return to on another day. It’s enough to note here that Sidney’s essay indirectly raises the issue, even if it doesn’t explore it.

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Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day

Henry Scott Tuke, "The Sun Bathers"

Henry Scott Tuke, “The Sun Bathers”

Today was a perfect summer day—not too hot or humid—which led me to compare it, and find it more lovely, than a summer’s day. Have you ever noticed that the young man that Shakespeare finds superior to a summer’s day probably resembles it all too closely? All the things that threaten summer threaten our love as well. Our relationships are often shaken by the rough winds of May, our warm passion hath “all too short a date.” Sometimes we are hot tempered, sometimes overcast and depressed. And always at our back we hear the winged chariot hurrying near as time etches lines into our faces.

The young man to whom the sonnet is addressed is saved only by the intervention of the neo-Platonic poet, who is able to stop the moment through the eternal medium of poetry. But the speaker is hardly benign. He is letting the young man know who really wields the power. Without the poet, he will go the way of all summer days.

So don’t leave me.

Sonnet 18 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.     
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,     
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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Groucho’s Night with T. S. Eliot

Night at the Opera

Night at the Opera

My son Toby recently alerted me to a fascinating New Yorker article on a correspondence between T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx. Eliot was a huge fan and Groucho, somewhat flattered, eventually accepted a dinner invitation. Lee Siegel believes that, upon further scrutiny of the letters, he has uncovered a simmering tension in what he once believed to be a warm relationship.

In retrospect, there was every reason to anticipate tension. As Siegel notes,

Groucho, a highly cultivated man whose greatest regret in life was that he had become an entertainer rather than a literary man—he published some of his first humor pieces in the inaugural issues of this magazine—could not have been unaware of Eliot’s notorious remarks about Jews. 


Groucho was a pop-culture celebrity, a child of immigrants, an abrasive, compulsively candid Jew. Eliot was a literary mandarin, the confident product of St. Louis Wasp gentry, and an elliptical Catholic royalist given to grave, decorous outbursts of anti-semitism.

I’ve quoted before Jewish poet Philip Levine’s own mixed feelings about Eliot. Even while acknowledging his admiration for Eliot, Levine sometimes quotes a line from “Gerontion”—“the jew squats on the window sill”—and follows it up with the complaint, “and the son of a bitch didn’t even capitalize ‘Jew.’”

Siegel describes Groucho wanting to have a serious intellectual discussion and Eliot not wanting his beloved film star venturing into his realm of “high culture.” Eliot might go slumming into Jewish vaudeville—it allowed him to feel not quite so prissy and stuck-up—but he didn’t want Jews and entertainers moving into the neighborhood.

After studying the letters, Siegel concludes that things could not possibly have gone well. (As far as Siegel can tell, the correspondence ended after the meal.) Note how, in the following interchange, Eliot comes across as a patronizing snob, triggering a very understandable fury:

Eliot seems to have wanted Groucho to consider him a warm, ordinary guy and not the type of stiff, repressed person who disdained from a great height “free-thinking Jews.” He can’t quite bring it off—his acquired British self-deprecation stumbles into an American boorishness. On the eve of Groucho’s visit to London, Eliot wrote, “The picture of you in the newspapers saying that … you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.” 

Compared to the buried anxieties that Eliot stirred in Groucho, though, Eliot’s strenuous bonhomie seemed like the height of social tact. The font of Groucho’s and the Marx Brothers’ humor was an unabashed insolence toward wealth and privilege. Born at the turn of the century to an actress mother and a layabout father in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, the brothers turned the tumult of their hardscrabble origins into a universal reproach to the rigidity of social class. The encounter with Eliot brought out Groucho’s characteristic tendency to hide his embarrassment about his origins by pushing them in his audience’s face.

The Marx Brothers were hypersensitive to the slightest prerogatives of power; a person in authority had only to raise a finger to turn them hysterical and abusive. “I decided what the hell,” Groucho said once. “I’ll give the big shots the same Groucho they saw onstage—impudent, irascible, iconoclastic.” They fought with studio bosses and alienated directors and comedy writers. The humorist S. J. Perelman found the brothers to be “megalomaniacs to a degree which is impossible to describe.” There was a tremendous release in watching them utter and enact taboos in the face of power and privilege. That sense of liberation—of something unthinkable and impossible being deliciously actualized—is what makes even their less funny movies enthralling.

In the meal, apparently, Groucho wanted to talk about King Lear and Eliot (as Groucho saw it) wanted to talk about the movies. Here’s Groucho’s account of the meal:

According to Groucho’s letter to Gummo—the only existing account of the dinner—Eliot was gracious and accommodating. Groucho, on the other hand, became fixated on “King Lear,” in which the hero, Edgar, just so happens to disguise himself as a madman named Tom. Despite Tom Eliot’s polite indifference to his fevered ideas about “Lear” (“that, too, failed to bowl over the poet,” Groucho wrote to Gummo), Groucho pushed on. Eliot, he wrote, “quoted a joke—one of mine—that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile politely. I was not going to let anyone—not even the British poet from St. Louis—spoil my Literary Evening.” Groucho expatiated on Lear’s relationship to his daughters. Finally, Eliot “asked if I remembered the courtroom scene in Duck Soup. Fortunately I’d forgotten every word. It was obviously the end of the Literary Evening.

I would love to have heard what insights Groucho had into both Edgar and the fool, given that he plays the truth-telling fool in his movies and may have seen himself as having to assume the disguise of a madman in Wasp America. Siegel thinks that Eliot may have appreciated some of what Groucho had to say but that Groucho couldn’t hear his praise:

In the trial scene in “King Lear,” Edgar/Tom protests the Fool’s own nonsense, saying, “The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.” Perhaps that was Eliot’s inner cry of protest at dinner, too. But Groucho was so defensive in the presence of the “British poet from St. Louis” that he seems to have missed Eliot’s subtle homage to his intellect. Groucho still could not shake the primal shame that was the goad of his comic art as well as the source of his self-protective egotism.

If I understand Siegel’s point, he is suggesting that Eliot may have signaled to Groucho that he was already a genius and that he need not be defensive–feel haunted–but that Groucho could only hear an elitist putting him down.

I don’t blame the defensive Groucho for having misunderstood, given that Eliot did come across as an elitist. In some ways, Eliot resembles the pretentious Margaret Dumont in Night at the Opera. To be sure, Eliot genuinely understood high culture. But he had his own American defensiveness, which took the form of longing for upper class British status, and it sounds like Groucho picked up on this defensiveness and went on the attack, seeking to bring deflate Eliot’s pretensions by calling him “Tom.”

As I think about it, both Eliot and Groucho can be seen as reacting to modernism, only in different ways. In Eliot one finds a nostalgia for a lost order so that the tone of the Wasteland is both elegiac and despairing. But the stress of upholding the ideals of high civilization was so draining that, for comic relief, he turned to dark Jewish humor. As the despised Jew, meanwhile, Groucho had no reason to be nostalgic for high Western ideals—Tudor England, for instance, banished all Jews—and so responded to the world falling apart with a cynical humor that dismantled every institution. Duck Soup’s wholesale anarchy was too disturbing for many people in 1933 but Eliot got it.

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Loud Sneezes, a Sign from the Gods

Telemakhos sneezing, Penelope laughing

Telemakhos sneezing, Penelope laughing

My father used to have a very loud sneeze and I have carried on the family tradition. This became a point of discussion yesterday when I startled my wife and my son with a loud exhalation. Darien, who has not carried on the tradition, pointed out that one can train oneself to sneeze quietly.

My response was that my sneeze was a sign of good luck sent from the gods. I had in mind Telemakhos’ sneeze in Book XVII of The Odyssey.

The situation is as follows. Odysseus has returned and is disguised as a beggar in his own hall. Penelope wants to see him, and a timely sneeze from her son signals that her fortunes are about to change. Here’s the passage:

Then wise Penélopê said again:
“Go call him, let him come here, let him tell
that tale again for my own ears.
                                                            Our friends
can drink their cups outside or stay in hall,
being so carefree. And why not? Their stores
lie intact in their homes, both food and drink,
with only servants left to take a little.
But these men spend their days around our house
killing our beeves, our fat goats and our sheep,
carousing, drinking up our good dark wine;
sparing nothing, squandering everything.
No champion like Odysseus takes our part.
Ah, if he comes again, no falcon ever
struck more suddenly than he will, with his son,
to avenge this outrage!”
                                               The great hall below
at this point rang with a tremendous sneeze
“kchaou!” from Telémakhos—like an acclamation.
And laughter seized Penélopê.
                                                           Then quickly,
lucidly she went on:
                                       “Go call the stranger
straight to me. Did you hear that, Eumaios?
My son’s thundering sneeze at what I said!
May death come of a sudden so; may death
relieve us, clean as that, of all the suitors!

A sneeze, in other words, can signal that a final cleansing is at hand. Which means that I don’t have to change my behavior.


Further thought: The 18th century, which idolized Homer, marveled at how the bard could could touch all aspects of the human experience, from the most sublime sentiments to the tiniest human details. In the end, this is what led them to rank the rough Homer over the more polished Virgil, who had been preferred in the 17th century. Telemakhos’ sneeze could be exhibit A for tiny human details. It’s also good to see Penelope laugh.

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The First Day of the Feast Has Come

Ramadan feast

Ramadan feast

Spiritual Sunday

Here’s a poem by the sublime Rumi to celebrate tomorrow’s end of Ramadan. According to Wikipedia, Sufis read the story of Zulaikha’s lust for Joseph as the soul’s longing for God. (Jews and Christians know Zulaikha as Potiphar’s wife.) The Ramadan fast has sharpened this longing for the divine, which Rumi also expresses through (if I read the poem correctly) Mary’s assumption into heaven and Jacob joining with Rachel after 14 years of waiting. The poem explodes with images of freedom:

Do not despair, my soul, for hope has manifested itself;
the hope of every soul has arrived from the unseen.

Do not despair, though Mary has gone from your hands,
for that light which drew Jesus to heaven has come.

Do not despair, my soul, in the darkness of this prison,
for that king who redeemed Joseph from prison has come.

Jacob has come forth from the veil of occlusion,
Joseph who rent Zulaikha’s veil has come.

You who all through night to dawn have been crying “O Lord,”
mercy has heard that “O Lord” and has come.

O pain which has grown old, rejoice, for the cure has come;
O fastened lock, open, for the key has come.

You who have abstained fasting from the Table on high,
break your fast with joy, for the first day of the feast has come.

Keep silence, keep silence, for by virtue of the command “Be!”
that silence of bewilderment has augmented beyond all speech.

From the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi,
translated by A.J. Arberry, Mystical Poems of Rumi, 1968


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To Hear an Oriole Sing



Sports Saturday

I don’t multitask well with sports, so only now that the NBA finals, the World Cup, and Wimbledon are over have I looked at the baseball standings. I was amazed to discover that my team, the Baltimore Orioles, are in first place in their division. I don’t expect it to last but I’ll enjoy it in the mean time.

In their honor, here’s one of Emily Dickinson’s numerous Oriole poems (I know of at least three). As you read it, see if you can anticipate how I apply it to the O’s:

To hear an Oriole sing
May be a common thing—
Or only a divine.

It is not of the Bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto Crowd—

The Fashion of the Ear
Attireth that it hear
In Dun, or fair—

So whether it be Rune,
Or whether it be none
Is of within.

The “Tune is in the Tree—”
The Skeptic—showeth me—
“No Sir! In Thee!” 

Dickinson is talking about  how a poem will move some people while leaving others cold, but here’s the baseball application: To most people, the Baltimore Orioles are just a common team. To a fan, however, they are divine. The “Fashion of the Ear”—which is to say, the predilection of the spectator—determines whether a team is dun or fair, whether it is filled with mystical promise (like a rune) or not. We give the team credit for the joy we feel—the tune is in the tree—but the skeptic points out that it is actually we the crowd who are bestowing meaning.

So we root, root, root for something that is within ourselves.


Further thought: The poem shares some ideas with a Wallace Steven poem that I particularly like, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” (which I write about here).

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Books about People Reading Books

Illus. from E. Nesbit, "The New Treasure Seekers"

Illus. from E. Nesbit, “The New Treasure Seekers”

Wednesday’s post has me thinking about my fascination with stories about people who read stories. When I was a child, my reading set me apart from others, and my current theory is that reading about people who love books as much as I did made me feel less alone and less weird. In today’s post, I’ve begun a list of all those books that I remember turning to for consolation, up through adolescence.

E. Nesbit, The Treasure Seekers and The Would-be-goods

My father read me these E. Nesbit books about the Bastable children who, in spite of their best intentions, are always getting into trouble. Oswald Bastable and his siblings are great fans of Kipling’s The Jungle Books and greet each other with the words, “Good hunting.” Their love of Kipling pays off as it wins over a rich uncle, who saves them from poverty.

My friend Rachel Kranz told me that she was raised on the Edward Eager Magic books (like Half Magic and Seven Day Magic), where the children refer to Nesbit’s books. I’m sorry that I didn’t know about them as a child as I’m sure I would have fallen in love with them.

A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh and Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows 

These works don’t entirely fit my schema since Pooh and Ratty are not readers but poets. Nevertheless, it made sense to me that they would be drawn to poetry and that those around them wouldn’t understand this attraction. (Mole is respectful, Piglet less so.)

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons

The children in the Ransome books (all of which I read) are drawn to Stevenson’s Treasure Island to help them in their imaginary play.

Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Land of Story-Books”

Speaking of Stevenson, I related to this poem from A Child’s Garden of Verses:

At evening when the lamp is lit, 
Around the fire my parents sit; 
They sit at home and talk and sing, 
And do not play at anything. 

Now, with my little gun, I crawl 
All in the dark along the wall, 
And follow round the forest track 
Away behind the sofa back. 

There, in the night, where none can spy, 
All in my hunter’s camp I lie, 
And play at books that I have read 
Till it is time to go to bed. 

These are the hills, these are the woods, 
These are my starry solitudes; 
And there the river by whose brink 
The roaring lions come to drink. 

I see the others far away 
As if in firelit camp they lay, 
And I, like to an Indian scout, 
Around their party prowled about. 

So when my nurse comes in for me, 
Home I return across the sea, 
And go to bed with backward looks 
At my dear land of Story-books.

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

When I read Huckleberry Finn in high school, I recognized that Tom was borrowing from Alexander Dumas, either The Count of Monte Cristo or the sequel to The Three Musketeers (Twenty Years After) when he concocts an elaborate escape plan for Jim.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

David doesn’t have much going for him when he finds himself thrust into a boarding school by his evil stepfather Mr. Murdstone, but he has read a lot of novels. Steerforth, the boy who all but runs the school, admires David for this knowledge, which raises David’s status with the others. I dreamed that my own reading would raise my stature in some way.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

I related to Jane’s desire to withdraw from her unkind surroundings into a world of books when she is a child.

As I compile the list, I realize that these books were the exceptions rather than the rule. Most of the characters in the books I loved were not readers (Alice, Jack Hawkins, Frodo Baggins). In fact, sometimes the characters actually leave books in order to have adventures: the Penvensies decide to explore the house rather than drearily read in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Mary pulls Colin away from his books in The Secret Garden. It’s as though the authors are like the hypocritical lady authors that Jane Austen censures in Northanger Abbey. Defending Katherine for her love of gothic novels, Austen writes,

I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?

C. S. Lewis, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and others may not censure their characters for reading novels, but they certainly don’t show them reading as avidly as they themselves read.

Maybe there’s a good reason for this. Maybe reading for them felt so real that they had to talk about their characters as if they had stepped out of books and obliterated all the traces. The Pevensies aren’t shown to be readers but a very bookish soul created them.

Now I, as a literary scholar, seek to rediscover those traces, hearing echoes of (in The Narnia Chronicles) Nesbit, Grahame, Jonathan Swift, John Milton, James Barrie, George MacDonald, and countless others. I no longer require that the books that inspired the authors be explicitly named.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Bronte (Charlotte), Dickens (Charles), Grahame (Kenneth), Milne (A. A.), Nesbitt (E.), Ransome (Arthur), Stevenson (Robert Louis), Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Textualist Judges Out of Control

William Hogarth, "The Bench"

William Hogarth, “The Bench”

I’ve been following with some concern a D. C. Circuit Court ruling on Obamacare that only citizens who sign up under state exchanges are eligible for federal subsidies to help them purchase it.

In case you haven’t heard, two conservative judges on the D. C. circuit court have said that people who signed up for Obamacare in the federal exchanges cannot receive federal subsidies on the grounds that the language in the law seems to say so. Although those who wrote and passed the law claim otherwise—that federal subsidies should be available to all those who are eligible in every state—the judges claim that they are textualists following the letter of the law. As a literature professor, I’ve seen up close the problems with extreme textualism. More on that in a moment.

First of all, however, here’s Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast looking at the D.C. court’s 2-1 decision. As he sees it, the judges are seizing on a typo to (this in the words of the third judge) “gut” the law. Tomasky associates the justices with Justice Antonin Scalia:

[T]ypically, Scalia is a textualist. You can tell what that means, I’d wager, without me even explaining it, and in this case, it ain’t good: “I can’t read legislators’ minds. I can go only by the words in the bill. If they left out a word, they left out a word. Tough.”

In fact, there are other sections of the ACA, say several experts, that clearly at least imply the presence of or need for a federal exchange. And plain common sense tells you that Congress didn’t pass this huge and elephantine—and federal—law, whose very point was to enable more Americans to purchase health coverage, with the expectation that said coverage would be limited to the citizens who happen to live in some states but not others. It is facially, as they say in the law business, absurd.

In other words, while the words may be vague, one can tell by looking at the bill as a whole what Congress intended.

Scalia is the most ardent textualist on the Supreme Court, claiming that he just follows the words of the Constitution (or in cases such as this, a Congressional bill) without looking at context. But that’s not how language works, as Nicholas Bagley of The Incidental Economist points out:

To understand the legal fight, keep in mind that words don’t have meaning in a vacuum. Words have meaning only because they mean something to those who speak and to those who listen. They’re communication devices. (As Ludwig Wittgenstein famously explained, you can’t have a private language. Language is public or it’s not really language at all.)

So if you’re trying to make sense of a statute, the question for an interpreter is what Congress meant to communicate by the words that it chose. Usually, that’s easy to figure out. Words are not infinitely malleable. They have meaning in our linguistic community. And it’s a good rule of thumb that Congress means what it says and says what it means.

But not always. Sometimes a statute uses words that don’t track what Congress meant. Sometimes that’s because Congress made a mistake. But more often, loose language fails to get corrected because, when taken in the context of the statute as a whole, the meaning of the statutory text is pretty clear.

This is not an especially controversial point. Words always accrue meaning from context, and that context can affect the meaning of the words that the speaker selects to convey that meaning. If my wife says to me, “Do you mind taking out the garbage?” and I say “yes,” even as I dutifully take out the garbage, it’s clear from context that by yes I meant no. And yelling “fire!” means something very different in a crowded theater than it does at a firing squad.

So too with statutes. Text really is the best guide to meaning. But sometimes the broader statutory context demonstrates that Congress meant to convey something very different than what a literal construction of an isolated snippet of a statute might suggest.

This is what appears to have happened here. Congress got sloppy in some of its language and foes of Obamacare seized on their words and pushed a point in an effort to undermine Obamacare as a whole. A 4th Circuit Federal Court, ruling on the same case later in the day, descried what it saw as an attempt “to deny to millions of Americans desperately needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction” of the law.

And now to textualism. In the 1950s, American literature professors wanted the same kind of certainty that scientists had and so claimed that text was paramount. What mattered more than anything else was the words on the page.

And to a degree they were right. After all, we read literature because of the language, and the greatest authors are the best wielders of language. But the formalists, as they were called, went further. They tried to exclude all that was not language from the discussion. Therefore, the historical context was unimportant. So was what the author intended (the intentional fallacy). Readers with their various biases were definitely unimportant (the affective fallacy). Only the words mattered.

At the height of formalism, an anthology of poetry was published that omitted all authors and all dates as being irrelevant.

This led to some comic situations. One I recall involved the interpretation of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Many formalists found this to be a perfect poem but there was one sentence that caused confusion:

My vegetable love would grow
Vaster than empires and more slow.

To understand “vegetable love,” it is useful to go back to the Renaissance, where one discovers that a distinction was drawn between the vegetative, the sensitive, and the rational soul. (This is laid out in Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.) Vegetative would be our corporal side. But note how this requires a journey back in history. Reading the poem without any historical sense, one might conjure up images of giant cauliflowers.

Now, one can somewhat figure out, from the context, what the image means. If one has the philosophic and historic context, it becomes even clearer.

Or here’s another example. In Laura Bohannan’s famous essay “Shakespeare in the Bush,” the text of Hamlet gets subjected to wild interpretations by Nigerian villagers who approach it from an entirely different context. Although they do manage, in spite of the cultural distance, to make some observant points, nevertheless they would do more justice to the play if they factored in the British Renaissance context.

Textualism, like formalism, may claim to hold the words sacred, but textualists are more apt to be blind to their biases than those who look at context. As someone described their approach, textualists are like people who arrive at a party and only see the people they want to talk with. In the case of Obamacare, Congress intended that as many Americans as possible have access to health care. To interpret their words otherwise is to be guilty of willful blindness.

Posted in Marvell (Andrew) | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Reading Lit through the Eyes of Others

Joseph Severn, "John Keats"

Joseph Severn, “John Keats”

A recent Page-Turner column in the on-line New Yorker touches on a subject that is close to my heart: “Reading through Someone Else’s Eyes.” Regular readers of this blog know that I talk constantly about the significance of how different readers respond to literature. In the New Yorker piece, author Brad Leithauser reflects upon the pleasures involved in doing so, which he finds to be even “more rewarding” than figuring out what an author was thinking:

But more complicated still—and, in some ways, more rewarding still—is the attempt to read a book through someone else’s eyes. Your thoughts triangulate. You wonder. What did person X feel when he read Y’s book. 

It needn’t be a novel. Maybe it’s a collection of stories, poems, even essays. Someone you’re interested in—your person X—found this book entrancing. It’s no longer sufficient to know what the author was thinking. Now you want to know what person X thought the author was thinking.

Perhaps you read a book that you don’t much care for. Then you discover that some writer you adore, and with whom you feel psychologically aligned, loved it. So you open it once more, this time attempting to apprehend it through his eyes. “What did he see in it?” you ask yourself. The question provides a rhythmic march through its pages: What did he see? What did he see?

Leithauser cites a number of examples. For instance, Ovid, especially in the 1567 Arthur Golding translation, becomes especially interesting when one learns that he was a major influence on Shakespeare. Literary scholar Helen Vendler’s view of Milton changes when she reads him through the eyes of Keats, as signaled by the Romantic poet’s marked up version. Here’s Vendler:

To read Paradise Lost through Keats’s eyes is to see it in part as a poem of Shakespearean characterization, but chiefly as a poem of luxuriant and opulent description, full of growth, change, ripening, delectable sweets, and golden profusion.

And then there’s Leithauser reading the poetry of New Yorker poetry Howard Moss through the eyes of poet May Swenson, whose underlined copy of Moss’s poetry he just happens to own:

How would she ever have supposed that her dialogue with Moss would become a trialogue, in which another reader would materialize to question and puzzle over her annotations?

But the best part of Leithauser’s essay is imagining why his mother would have loved the Elsie Dinsmore books. In the process of exploring her affection for them, he understands more about her childhood.

Leithauser even finds himself trying to figure out who he himself was at an earlier age on the basis of some marginal notes he wrote:

Of course, it’s a highly conjectural, iffy business—trying to read through someone else’s eyes. Or even, I’d add, through one’s own. Given enough years between visits, rereading a book can feel startlingly alien. Recently, I opened a collection by a contemporary poet who had meant much to me in college. Here was a stanza beside which I’d written in the margin, in a penmanship larger and somehow more hopeful-looking than my present hand, “Brilliant!” I stared and stared at the passage, seeking to reawaken a distant excitement: What did he see in it? But I couldn’t. The moment would have been less unnerving, I suppose, if I’d scrutinized the passage and determined, with some comforting recourse to the superior discernment of age, that it was, in fact, clumsy or orotund or emptily romantic. But it seemed merely bland. I longed to get back into the head of that fervent undergraduate, to read sympathetically through his eyes. I was naturally quite interested in him, and approached him with good will, but for all his fervency he remained stubbornly aloof. In the end, he was a stranger.

Leithauser’s article got me thinking about why I myself am so fascinated by other readers reading, and I plan to write about this quite a lot in upcoming weeks. Here’s one theory:

Maybe I’m interested in other readers reading because it makes me feel part of a community. Unlike most of the kids around me, I spent my childhood immersed in books, and knowing that others were out there having intense experiences made me feel less weird. I admit to being a very impressionable person, one who likes to fit in, so when I heard about people having strong responses to works, it was as though I had been given permission to have strong responses.

That’s one possible explanation. More are on the way.

Posted in Keats (John), Milton (John), Ovid, Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why the Wealthy Get Wealthier

Colin Firth as Darcy

Colin Firth as Darcy

As growing income inequality becomes a pressing problem, one of the unexpected hits of the past year has been Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century. Piketty believes that, under capitalism as it is presently practiced, the income gap between the wealthy and the rest of us will inevitably grow wider because there will always be more money to be made from capital investments than from economic growth. Therefore, those who inherit money will always be able to make more money than those who work for it. Piketty’s suggested solution is greater taxation on the wealthiest in order to redistribute the income downward.

A blog post by Tim Fernholz at Quartz takes note of how Piketty draws on Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac to make his points. Novelists are very useful to economists because, according to Piketty, they

depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that neither statistical nor theoretical analysis can match.

Here’s Fernholz describing Piketty’s use of Austen and the Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk. Piketty explains why, in Jane Austen’s world, the income of the wealthy is fairly predictable:

Among many things I learned reading Piketty’s book was how to understand the class dynamics of 19th century literature. The characters are always talking about their incomes, but never seem to be doing any work. Turns out that “in the novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, the fact that land (like government bonds) yields roughly 5 percent of the amount of capital invested is so taken for granted that it often goes unmentioned. Contemporary readers were well aware that it took capital on the order of 1 million francs to produce an annual rent of 50,000 francs.”

One reason that they could be so certain about these numbers is because inflation wasn’t really part of the picture. Monetary stability lasted from the 18th century through World War I, when massive government borrowing combined with massive physical destruction to upend economic affairs. That’s the reason, Piketty says, that novelists aren’t specific about money anymore. He cites the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, whose novelist protagonist in Snow says “there is nothing more tiresome for a novelist than to speak about money or discuss last year’s prices and incomes.”

The exception, I suppose, would be Persuasion, where Captain Wentworth is able to amass a fortune by capturing French ships. But once he does so, he settles down, buys land and makes investments, and joins the rentier class.

The self-made man is the exception rather than the rule, however, as Piketty illustrates through his use of Balzac’s Pere Goriot:

The Balzac novel that Piketty draws on most is the tale of an entrepreneur who makes a fortune in the lucrative pasta business in revolutionary France, before cashing out—”much in the manner of a twenty-first-century startup founder exercising his stock options”—to invest his wealth and give his daughters a substantial enough inheritance that they can marry well.

Was this obsession with inherited wealth just a byproduct of writerly envy from Balzac, who was perpetually in debt from failed business ventures? Not necessarily—Piketty’s data shows that inherited wealth was about 20% of national income in the France of that time. This created a nasty situation where it was impossible to work enough to match what one could earn with inheritance. In Le Père Goriot, this is made explicit through an ambitious young man, Rastignac, who comes to understand that no matter how long he works as a lawyer, he will never have the fortune he could gain by marrying a wealthy heiress.

What does that mean in practice? A society where the main standard of success is earning 20, 50, or even 100 times the average annual income. Similar standards are found in the pages of Britain’s Jane Austen, but also in the US: In Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square, a key plot point revolves around an engagement broken off when the dowry is only 20 times the average income, rather than 60. “It was perfectly obvious,” Piketty writes, “that without a fortune it was impossible to live a dignified life.”

It’s worth noting that Balzac was Karl Marx’s favorite novelist. Although Balzac was a monarchist—note how he added the “de” to his name to mimic nobility—Marx said he learned more about how capitalism works from the novelist that he did from the leading economists of the day. Truth trumps ideology in the hands of a great artist. Piketty shares Marx’s admiration of the reactionary novelist.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Balzac (Honoré de), James (Henry), Pamuk (Orhan) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Children’s Hour, Pros and Cons

Eastman Johnson, "Christmas Time"

Eastman Johnson, “Christmas Time”

Over the weekend I got to wrestle on the living room floor with my two-year-old grandson Alban. As I did so, I flashed on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Children’s Hour.”

This 1863 lyric was a popular favorite for decades, one of those poems that children were regularly required to memorize. I encountered it first when my father read it to me as a child, and my second encounter was when I saw Don Martin’s Mad Magazine spoof of it. Martin, of course, took shots at its sentimentality.

But Mad wasn’t the first publication to question “The Children’s Hour.” Lillian Hellman in 1934 played off against the poem by using its title for her own play about a disaffected girl in a boarding school. In order to avoid being sent back to the school, she accuses two of her teachers of having a lesbian love affair, thereby destroying their lives. In other words, so much for the innocence of little girls.

The problem with oversentimentalizing children is that it doesn’t do justice to their full personhood. When one has rigid expectations of what innocence is supposed to look like, one doesn’t give children room to breathe. I get a sense of suffocation when the narrator of Longfellow’s poem talks of trapping his three daughters, even though the trap is “the round tower of my heart”? That image, it is worth noting, follows up a genuinely disturbing image of Bishop Hatto being eaten alive by the mice that invaded the tower where he was hoarding grain from the starving peasants. I wonder if some part of Longfellow doesn’t feel nervous about how vulnerable children make him feel.

But that being said, I felt no cynical distance when I was wrestling with Alban. Instead, “The Children’s Hour” affected me as Longfellow no doubt intended. I was totally sentimental. Here’s the poem:

The Children’s Hour

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Between the dark and the daylight,
     When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
     That is known as the Children’s Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
     The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
     And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
     Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
     And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
     Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
    To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
     A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
     They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my turret
    O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
     They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
     Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
     In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
     Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
     Is not a match for you all!
I have you fast in my fortress,
     And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
     In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
     Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
     And moulder in dust away!

One other thought: We had a party for two-year-olds yesterday afternoon and I recalled another association I had for “the children’s hour” when my own were small. Successful though the party was, at around 5 all the children began to get tired and to melt down. Each parent there recognized the signs.

Julia and I used to call this “the arsenic hour” although I can’t remember why. Maybe it was because our children seemed poisonous to us at those moments. Or maybe it was because we thought that only arsenic would quiet them. At these moments, sentimental poems about children seem a mockery and one resorts to gallows humor to survive.

I once hypothesized that child cuteness, starting with those large eyes, is a biological defense mechanism to protect children from the parents who they are preventing from sleeping and who are crazed with fatigue.

Of course, the nice thing about being a grandparent is that you get to pass the child back to the parents when he or she starts acting up. You can wrestle with them to your heart’s content. Someone else gets up in the middle of the night.

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A Divine Stairway of Sharp Angles

William Blake, "Jacob's Ladder"

William Blake, “Jacob’s Ladder”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Old Testament reading in our church is about Jacob’s ladder, the dream vision that Jacob receives from God about his future. Denise Levertov uses the story to describe how poetry is composed.

First, here’s the account in the Book of Genesis (28:10-19a):

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.

In Levertov’s 1961 poem, the stairway is the transcendent poem. It must be built of the tool we have, which is imperfect language. Rather than directly expressing radiant and evanescent angels, the poet must deal with sharp angles. The doubting night gray of the sky testifies to the challenge he or she faces.

It is a theme in much of Levertov’s poetry, however, that struggling in the face of doubt is how we experience the divine. Men may not be angels and the rocks we use for building may scrape our feet.  Nevertheless, just as Jacob, his head pillowed on a rock, sees a stairway to heaven, so does our rock have “a glowing tone of softness.” The poet feels the light brush of angel wings and the poem ascends:

The Jacob’s Ladder

By Denise Levertov

The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence
for angels’ feet that only glance in their tread, and
need not touch the stone.

It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a doubtful,
a doubting night gray.

A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next, giving a little
lift of the wings:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
The poem ascends.

I pick up at least two other poems that Levertov may be alluding to. In “The Altar,” George Herbert talks about the paradox of a hard stone altar being a means of opening a hard heart to God. (See my post on “The Altar” here.)

A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.

The other is Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which has an image of a ladder. The poet laments the end of his youthful romanticism, which once gave him marvelous poetic images (his circus animals). Now, however, he feels trapped in his own grimy and mundane reality.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. 

The miracle is that, out of this unpromising material, Yeats constructs the ladder that is his poem. For those of you wrestling with your doubts about whether transcendence exists, you can look to the miraculous existence of poetry and be reassured.

Posted in Herbert (George), Levertov (Denise), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Strong in Will vs. Time & Fate


Sports Saturday

A couple of times over the past two years I have invoked Tennyson’s “Ulysses” while talking about my favorite aging athletes, Roger Federer and Peyton Manning (here and here). Ulysses starkly sets forth two possible futures for those heroes who continue to defy Father Time:

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

The gulfs washed Manning down last February and they did the same to Federer two weeks ago in the Wimbledon finals.

For a few brief moments, it appeared that Federer might indeed touch the Happy Isles of an improbable Grand Slam victory to add to his record total. Down 5-2 in the fourth set after having dropped two of the first three, he somehow fought back to extend the match into a fifth set.

But in the end, the younger Djokovic, who in commentator John McEnroe’s opinion boasts the best return-of-service in the history of the game, pounced on three of Federer’s second serves to break him in the tenth game to take the tournament. Being strong in will may not ultimately save one who has been made weak by time and fate:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And yet maybe, after all, Federer did touch those happy isles where, according to Homer, Achilles strides over fields of asphodel. Ulysses is talking about the Elysian Fields, that place in Hades reserved for heroes and mortals related to the gods. If any tennis player has touched those shores while still alive, it is Roger Federer. There were people calling for his retirement two years ago and had he done so—think of retirement as a metaphorical death—he would have received a direct ticket. Instead, he chose to keep on seafaring, even though few thought he would make it to another grand slam final, much less win one.. Yet there he was, playing beautiful tennis and almost, almost, pulling out a victory.

“I’ll see you next year,” he said in the awards ceremony afterwards. One could almost believe him.

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The Tiny Rituals that Make a Marriage

Hopper, "Room in New York"

Hopper, “Room in New York”

My book discussion group talked about Alice McDermott’s luminescent novel Someone (2013) last evening. Among the virtues of this quiet story about the life of a woman growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1930s and ‘40s is the way that it captures small precious moments in ordinary lives. Because I have been married for 41 years, I was particularly attuned to its description of the routines that Marie and Tom settle into. Profound conversations often occur in the bedroom.

In one scene, Marie is worried that her brother Gabe is gay and, indeed, a mental asylum appears to have attempted to “cure” his homosexuality. Her big-hearted husband calms her with a wonderful plea for openness. The conversation has a special glow because of how the author frames it within the couple’s routines. To show McDermott’s touch, I quote here the frame rather than the conversation itself (although I do include Tom’s final words):

I went through my fusty bedtime routine. Turned the clock around on my night table. Poured some hand cream into my palms and spread it up and down my arms. Placed a pale blue hairnet over the back of my head. Turned off the lamp that had been my mother’s in the old apartment and slipped off my glasses. The room contracted and lost every edge. I got into bed and, as was our routine, turned on my side to face Tom as he read. I closed my eyes. As was his routine, Tom lowered his arm to the mattress beside me, giving it to me. I put my two hands on his forearm, moved to put my lips to his skin.

And later:

Tom flipped the magazine closed with one hand and placed it on his nightstand. He took his reading glasses off and leaned toward the light, keeping his arm on the mattress beside me, pulling away just a little to reach the cord. He sat back. It was his habit to ease himself into bed as a man might sink into a tub. He moved under the sheet just a little, keeping his back against the pillows that were piled against the headboard. Again, idly, he moved his hand against my breast.

And later:

In the darkness, I felt him sink himself a bit farther into the bed, as was his routine.

And finally:

I felt Tom lean down in the darkness to kiss the top of my head, and in doing so, he put his hand to my arm, my elbow. “Now, I’m not saying I know anything about this guy who was here tonight,” he said. “All I’m saying is, we should let Gabe be. He’s been poked and prodded and shocked and, worse yet, talked at till he’s blue in the face, out there in that place.” The awful name now forever expelled from our conversation with his turn of phrase. “I got sick of it myself, and I was only visiting, the way they wanted to reduce everything to a couple of easy words about sex.” He paused, as if to consider. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “Maybe it’s me. Maybe I see things too simply.” He eased himself down, into the comfort and the darkness of our bed. “Who can know the heart of a man?” he whispered, and pulled the thin sheet up, over my shoulders and his, as was his habit before we went to sleep. “Especially a man like your brother.”

I found myself reliving Julia’s and my bedroom rituals and our late night conversations as I read Someone. Fiction is amazing that way.

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Silko Foretells the “Brown Surge” North

children on the border

The images of children crossing the U. S. border, sometimes accompanied by their mothers and sometimes alone, has gotten me thinking about Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead. The novel is a dystopia foretelling increasing instability in the Americas. Among the characters are two twin brothers who, taking instructions from macaws and their own dreams, are walking north towards the U.S.-Mexico border followed by a “brown surge” of hundreds of thousands of people. Although they are “unarmed and humble as they walk[ ] northward to fulfill an ancient prophecy,” there are so many of them that no fence and no army will be able to stop them.

Silko is a Laguna Pueblo writer who believes that the Indian Wars have never ended in the Americas. She says that the Native Americans “acknowledge no borders; they seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands.” As she sees it, the European settlers are just a blip in American history. The Indians were here long before the Europeans arrived and will outlast them. This is what is known as taking the long view.

Published in 1991, Almanac of the Dead is a grim novel that puts its finger on a number of the challenges we face, including unscrupulous realtors draining the aquifers, frightened millionaires retreating into gated communities and hiring private militias to protect them, and drugs-for-arms dealers whose lawlessness is driving people northward. It’s worth noting that, while the book appeared before all the talk of climate change, Silko predicts significant droughts.

Silko is best known for her 1977 novel Ceremony, which is more hopeful in that it concludes with a belief that Indian stories and Indian wisdom will save Indians and whites both. The author appears to have become much more pessimistic since then. Almanac of the Dead is unrelentingly grim unless you think that the reappearance of the Pueblo’s giant stone snake at the end of the novel presages some kind of hope. If nothing else, Almanac of the Dead provides a narrative articulating much of our current dysfunction.

Here’s a passage, set in Albuquerque, that seems particularly relevant today:

Albuquerque appeared to be booming. Sterling looked out the window at people walking to their cars from the shopping malls and from the K marts. The faces he saw were placid. The shoppers didn’t seem to have a clue about what was happening. Maybe they had noticed a few more U.S. government cars on the street, or increased military-helicopter flyovers, but that was all. On the West Side, Sterling could tell the people didn’t know either, because the faces had been excited, happy, even joking. They didn’t know, and Sterling knew even if someone told them, they would not believe it. Sterling had not believed the old prophecy either, but he had seen what was happening in Tucson with his own eyes…

What would these people in Albuquerque do when they heard about the twin brothers and their followers? How would the Native Americans and Mexican Americans in New Mexico react when the U.S. military opened fire on the twin brothers and thousands of their followers, mostly women and children? How many of these Chicanos and these Indians had ever heard the old stories? Did they know the ancient prophecies? It all seemed quite impossible, and yet one only had to look as far as Africa to see that after more than five hundred years of suffering, slavery and bloodshed, the African people had taken back the continent from European invaders. Sterling shuddered when he remembered the terrible price the tribal people of South African had had to pay while the nations of the world had stood back and watched.

Lecha warned that unrest among the people would grow due to natural disasters. Earthquakes and tidal waves would wipe out entire cities and great chunks of U.S. wealth. The Japanese were due to be pounded by angry earth spirits, and the world would watch in shock as billions of dollars and thousands of lives were suddenly washed away. Still there would be no rain, and high temperatures would trigger famines that sent refugees north faster and faster. The old [Mayan] almanac said “civil strife, civil crisis, civil war.” Allies of the United States would decline to intervene or send military aid. England and France would cite the distances and the costs and point out that no “armed force” threatened the U.S. border, only thousands of defenseless and hungry refugees from the war-torn South…Of course all of the northern European nations would find themselves in similar predicaments with massive onslaughts of refugees from the South.

In some ways, Silko shares an apocalyptic vision with those right wingers who also describe the current situation in extreme terms. I like to think that there are certain things we can do, such as working to promote economic and political stability in Honduras, El Slavador, and Guatemala, stemming the flow of guns into Central America, changing our strategies for dealing with drugs, passing comprehensive immigration legislation, and the like. Apocalyptic thinking can lead to fatalism or (if you see yourself on the right side of the apocalypse) magical optimism. But that being said, I find it unsettling that so much of Silko’s dark vision appears to be coming true.

Like all good dystopian literature,  Almanac of the Dead can be seen as a wake-up call.

Added note: I’d forgotten that I’d applied Almanac of the Dead to the situation at the border two years ago. I repeat here some of the ideas in the previous post but the passages I use are different. You can go here to read it.


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In Praise of Light Summer Reading

Paul Louis Oudart, "French Nightingale"

Paul Louis Oudart, “French Nightingale”

Here’s an enjoyable summer fable by my father, who was a French professor. In this poem, the heaviness and earnestness of the classical languages have given way to the lightness of the romance languages—which I suppose could be seen as analogous to serious literature giving way to beach reading.

Tereus is the Thracian king who in Greek mythology raped his sister-in-law Philomela and then pulled out her tongue and held her captive so that she couldn’t expose him. After an act of revenge which involved Tereus’ wife discovering the crime and serving up their son for dinner, Philomela was turned into a nightingale. The nightingale in the poem isn’t anywhere near so tragic as she chooses to read the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir and whistle tunes from a popular French opera.

Or maybe the poem is about how women’s lives becomes a lot less tragic–a lot less Greek–once they embrace feminism and become empowered. The sad story of Manon Lescaut becomes an opera comique from la belle époque.

Anyway, enjoy the poem as you sink into your summer reading:

The Romantic Nightingale

By Scott Bates

A Nightingale I know
Has learned to speak
Romance Languages
She has forgotten Greek

And although she still sings in the middle of the night
Like Homer
And still detests Tereus
With all her might

I find her now in hedgerows
Of a summer’s day
Reading Simone de Beauvoir
Or whistling Manon by Massenet.

Further thoughts: I’m already beginning to think that I’ve misinterpreted the poem. Now I’m wondering if it’s a poem about a rape survivor, especially after hearing a segment on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes yesterday. The show was about how there is an epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses, so much so that that one expert said that, if a college doesn’t acknowledge that date rapes are occurring, then it is covering them up.

Anyway, from that point of view, Simone de Beauvoir is helping with the recovery process as Philomela is venturing out into the world. The singing in the middle of the night sounds as though she is still having nightmares, and she hasn’t forgotten what happened to her. But she has found a way to move on.

But if that’s what the poem is up to, then “Romantic Nightingale” seems to sound a false note. The poem sounds too light for the subject matter, which is what threw me off about it. So I’m still not sure.

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Whisky, an Ethereal Marchioness

Edgar Degas, "L'Absinthe"

Edgar Degas, “L’Absinthe”

Here’s a novel to enhance the food that you eat and (in line with today’s theme) the alcohol you drink. Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody (2000) is about a famed food columnist who is dying. In the process, he revisits his most memorable food moments as he attempts to recall “a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart.” As he notes,

I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced. I know that it is a flavor from childhood or adolescence, an original, marvelous dish that predates my vocation as a critic, before I had any desire or pretension to expound on my pleasure in eating. A forgotten flavor, lodged in my deepest self, and which has surfaced at the twilight of my life as the only truth ever told—or realized. I search, and cannot find.

The man’s relatives, and also the reader, await to hear what he will order for his last meal, understanding that he will reveal this ultimate flavor at that point. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing what food he settles on.

I thought of the book recently as Barrett Emerick, a philosophy colleague who is staying with us this summer, offered me some of his Famous Grouse Scotch whiskey. We sat around drinking it and talking about a conference paper he is writing on how social justice requires us to acknowledge our biases (we all have them) as we deal with issues of race and other charged subjects. I also told him about Barbery’s testimony to whisky.

The food columnist is remembering an adolescent experience in a wine cellar. At this age he has not learned to appreciate wine. His host, understanding his situation, offers him another drink. Here’s his experience:

[T]he unfamiliar aroma unsettled me beyond anything I thought possible. Such formidable aggressiveness, such a muscular, abrupt explosion, dry and fruity at the same time, like a charge of adrenaline that has deserted the tissues where it ordinarily resides in order to evaporate upon the surface of the nose, a gaseous concentration of sensorial precipices…Stunned, I discovered that I liked this blunt whiff of incisive fermentation.

Like some ethereal marchioness, I cautiously ventured my lips into the peaty magma and…what a violent effect! An explosion of piquancy and seething elements suddenly detonates in my mouth; my organs no longer exist, no more palate or cheeks or saliva, only the ravaging sensation that some telluric warfare is raging inside me. In raptures, I allowed the first mouthful to linger for a moment on my tongue, while concentric undulations continued to engage it for a long while. That is the first way to drink whisky: absorb it ferociously, inhaling its pungent, unforgiving taste. The second swallow, on the other hand, was undertaken precipitously, as soon as it had gone down, it took a moment to warm my solar plexus—but what warmth it was! The stereotypical gesture of the man who drinks strong liquor—swallowing down the object of his desire in one gulp, then waiting, then closing his eyes from the shock and exhaling a sigh of mingled ease and commotion—offers a second manner of drinking whisky, where the taste buds are almost insensitive because the alcohol is merely passing through one’s throat, and the plexus, perfectly sensitive, is suddenly overwhelmed by the heat as if a bomb of ethylic plasma had landed there. It heats, and heats again, it disconcerts and rouses. It feels good. It is a sun whose blessed rays assure the body of its beaming presence.

The memory occurs near the end of the novel, and although whisky is not the flavor that the columnist is searching for, the vividness of the memory makes him realize that he may have to focus on unsophisticated foods. (The whisky description comes two chapters after a paean to the American breakfast, which the critic finds far superior to the French.) As he explains his rediscovered infatuation,

 [T]hroughout my career I have never considered whisky to be anything more than a drink which, however delightful, is nevertheless of secondary importance: only the gold of wine could deserve my praise and the most significant prophecies of my oeuvre. Alas…it is only now that I understand: wine is the refined jewel that only a grown woman will prefer to the sparkling glossy trinkets adored by little girls. I learned to love what was worthy but in doing so I neglected to entertain the sudden passion that had no need of education. I truly love only beer and whisky—even though I do acknowledge that wine is divine. And as it has been decreed that today will be little more than a long series of acts of contrition, here is yet another: oh, Mephistophelean whisky, I loved you from the first swig, and betrayed you from the second—but nowhere else did I ever find, amidst the tyranny of flavors imposed upon me by my position, such a nuclear expansion capable of blasting my jaw away with delight… [all the ellipses are Barbery’s]

The description takes me back to my own experience as an adolescent with Normandy calvados, which is an apple brandy. When I was studying in Caen during my sophomore year of college, I had a friend, a farmer’s son, who would fill bottles from his father’s operation (which was highly illegal) and we would take it on picnics. I told my father about this and he recollected carrying calvados around Normandy in his canteen during World War II. He said he traded it for items from the supply sergeant.

And one final story: In 1978, when I revisiting Caen, the head of a pastry shop—the father of one of my father’s colleagues in the Sewanee French Department—introduced me, my wife, and my food chemist sister-in-law, to the farmer who supplied him with his butter, cream, and cheese. (My sister-in-law was the reason we asked for the introduction.) The farmer liked Americans because he had been imprisoned by the Germans and so served us up 35-year-old calvados in large coffee cups.

I have never been able to drink calvados since because every other version is just a pale imitation of what I remember.

Added note: My colleague Ben Click, a Mark Twain specialist, pointed out to me this passage on whisky (or whiskey) from Life on the Mississippi:

How solemn and beautiful is the thought, that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the Sabbath-school, never the missionary–but always whiskey! Such is the case. Look history over; you will see. The missionary comes after the whiskey– I mean he arrives after the whiskey has arrived; next comes the poor immigrant, with ax and hoe and rifle; next, the trader; next, the miscellaneous rush; next, the gambler, the desperado, the highwayman, and all their kindred in sin of both sexes; and next, the smart chap who has bought up an old grant that covers all the land; this brings the lawyer tribe; the vigilance committee brings the undertaker. All these interests bring the newspaper; the newspaper starts up politics and a railroad; all hands turn to and build a church and a jail– and behold, civilization is established for ever in the land. But whiskey, you see, was the van-leader in this beneficent work. It always is. It was like a foreigner–and excusable in a foreigner– to be ignorant of this great truth, and wander off into astronomy to borrow a symbol. But if he had been conversant with the facts, he would have said–

Westward the Jug of Empire takes its way.

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Deutschland über Alles

Mario Gotze's spectacular goal

Mario Gotze’s spectacular goal

I was rooting for Argentina in yesterday’s World Cup because I love the play of Lionel Messi, but I was relieved that the game didn’t go to penalty kicks and that it was won with a spectacular goal. I was also very impressed with the German team, which swarmed relentlessly every chance it got.

I remember watching Germany play Brazil in the 2002 finals. I didn’t have a rooting interest for either team and decided that I would root for the one that was playing the most interesting game. It only took me five minutes to choose the Brazilians as the Germans were hunkered down in an unimaginative defensive posture.

This team, by contrast, was anything but dull. They attacked constantly and moved the ball in intricate ways. Argentina fought back valiantly in a thoroughly entertaining game but in the end were outclassed. The Germans are worthy successors to the great Spanish team that won the World Cup four years ago.

In their honor, here are the words of their national anthem, written by the poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841. At the time the words were associated with liberals who wanted to unify Germany and the poem was considered to be radical. Because German nationalism acquired such a bad reputation with the Nazis, however, the post-World War II government chose to sing the third stanza rather than the first, which had been emphasized by the Nazis. You’ll see why when you read the poem in its entirety:

Germany, Germany above everything,
Above everything in the world,
When for protection and defense, it always
takes a brotherly stand together.
From the Meuse to the Memel,
From the Adige to the Belt,
Germany, Germany above everything,
Above everything in the world! 

German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song
Shall retain in the world
Their old beautiful chime
And inspire us to noble deeds
During all of our life.
German women, German loyalty,
  German wine and German song!  

Unity, Justice and Freedom
For the German Fatherland!
Let us all strive for this purpose
Brotherly with heart and hand!
Unity, Justice and Freedom
Are the Pledge of Happiness;
Bloom in the Glow of Happiness,
  Bloom, German Fatherland!

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Broken in Pieces All Asunder

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

Spiritual Sunday

I use today’s post to call your attention to a wonderful website. Daniel Clendenin’s superb weekly essays at Journey with Jesus are thoughtful meditations on religious poetry. This week’s post also examines the Christian vision of Flannery O’Connor, who Clendenin says walked a fine line between (in her words) “Despair and Presumption.” O’Connor turned to both her faith and her writing to handle the lupus that killed her at 39. As Clendenin writes,

[L]iving in the tension between despair and presumption is a good if difficult place to live as a believer. We should be wary of both extremes.

We ping pong between the realities of human nature (described so graphically in her fiction) and our hope to experience the mystery of divine grace. Between the Already of God’s kingdom and the Not Yet of its consummation.

I love the George Herbert “Affliction” poem that Clendenin chooses to capture this tension:

Affliction (IV)

By George Herbert

BROKEN in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortured in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart ;
As wat’ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face :
Nothing performs the task of life :
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God !  let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life : dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief :
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, Thee.

Clendenin concludes,

Despite her many “passive diminishments” (a concept from Teilhard de Chardin that she liked), O’Connor stayed true to God’s call on her life. She rejected pious platitudes and sentimentality for the hard truths of Christian realism. She reminded us that “grace changes us and [that] change is painful.”

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The Return of King James

Lebron James

Sports Saturday

I’m struck by how moved many people are—and how moved I myself am—by Lebron James’ decision to return to Cleveland. We are impressed in part because of James’ heartfelt explanation in Sports Illustrated, but I think there is also something archetypal about the decision. It’s a “return of the king” story.

The returning king I have in mind is not Arthur but Odysseus, the protagonist of what in my mind is literature’s greatest story. “King James” left the Cleveland Cavaliers four years ago to fight in foreign lands but now, citing a calling higher than basketball, he is returning to his home team. Here’s an excerpt from his explanation:

I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.

I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.

Perhaps one can think compare Lebron’s four years in Miami to Odysseus’ sojourn on Circe’s and Calypso’s islands (eight years in all). Calypso promises Odysseus immortality if he were to reside with her always, and while Miami General Manager Pat Riley couldn’t promise the same, Lebron achieved one kind of immortality through his two championships with the Heat. In the end, however, Odysseus feels compelled to return home and sets out on an uncertain path to get there. Likewise, it’s not clear that Lebron will ever win an NBA championship in Cleveland, surrounded as he will be by young (albeit talented) players. Nevertheless, he has launched himself into the sea.

It’s worth noting that Odysseus’ homecoming doesn’t look like he must have imagined it, and I’m not just talking about the suitors. (By the way, I see Cleveland’s owner as no less boorish and conceited than some of the suitors, say Antinous.) When Odysseus first returns to Ithaka, he doesn’t recognize it because it is covered by a mist, and I suspect that Lebron too will encounter some adjustment issues.

But in Odysseus’ case, all the toil and danger are repaid when Athena lifts the fog and he sees his homeland. Here’s Athena:

“Now I shall make you see the shape of Ithaka.
Here is the cove the sea lord Phorkys owns,
there is the olive spreading out her leaves
over the inner bay, and there the cavern
dusky and lovely, hallowed by the feet
of those immortal girls, the Naiadês—
the same wide cave under whose vault you came
to honor them with hekatombs—and there
Mount Neion, with his forest on his back!”
She had dispelled the mist, so all the island
stood out clearly. Then indeed Odysseus’
heart stirred with joy. He kissed the earth,
and lifting up his hands prayed to the nymphs:
“O slim shy Naiadês, young maids of Zeus,
I had not thought to see you ever again!
O listen smiling
to my gentle prayers, and we’ll make offering
plentiful as in the old time, granted I
live, granted my son grows tall, by favor
of great Athena, Zeus’s daughter,
who gives the winning fighter his reward!”

James may not kiss the Cleveland court, but we can think of the Cavaliers as his tall son. If Athena proves kind, the king and his court will receive a winning fighter’s reward. Or as James puts it in his article, “what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”

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Austen on Bad Reasons for Getting Married

Scott, Bamber and Benjamin as Charlotte, Mr. Collins and Sir Lucas

Scott, Bamber and Benjamin as Charlotte, Mr. Collins and Sir Lucas

When I attended grad school (Emory University) in the second half of the seventies, formalist criticism still held sway, although just barely. The purpose of literary criticism, we learned, was to uncover the underlying unity of a work. (Structuralism, which was coming in, seconded this agenda and then deconstruction exploded it–although deconstructionists relied on someone else insisting on a supposed unity so that they would have something to unravel or deconstruct.)

I remember my Shakespeare teacher, Frank Manley, both teaching this approach and questioning it. On the one hand, he introduced us to Francis Fergusson’s theory in The Idea of a Theater, which ultimately goes back to Aristotle, that a play is the working out of a single central action. (Thus, as Fergusson sees it, Hamlet is the attempt to find out and destroy the rottenness that is eating away at Denmark.) On the other hand, Manley told us a funny story about teaching Fielding’s Joseph Andrews. Thinking that he had done a brilliant job showing how the same theme recurs repeatedly throughout the novel, thereby proving that it has dramatic unity, he was blindsided by a student who said he didn’t like the book. “It says the same damn thing over and over,” the student reportedly complained.

I reveal my own early formalist training in the way I read Pride and Prejudice, even though I am anti-formalist and don’t believe that unity is a good in and of itself. There are more interesting things to do with a novel than show how all the different parts cohere. But when I scrutinize how Pride and Prejudice can help us live better lives, I am struck that the entire novel seems to revolve around a central question: what should one look for in a partner? While presenting us with the good reasons that guide her hero and heroine (see my recent post on this subject), Austen systematically and efficiently examines a number of bad reasons as well. It’s as though she’s presenting us a do’s and don’t of marriage in disguise.

Here are her examples of bad reasons for getting married:

Security – Charlotte Lucas and George Wickham want someone to support them and will marry virtually anyone with money (Collins, Mary King);

Vanity and a desire for power – Caroline Bingley is driven by the dream of becoming mistress of a great estate while Mrs. Bennet vicariously pursues the same dream through her daughters;

Custom – Collins marries because Lady Catherine de Bourgh expects her rector to be married.  Miss de Bourgh, similarly under the sway of Lady Catherine, might also feel pressured by custom;

Sexual desire – Mr. Bennet, to his everlasting regret, has married a once pretty face, and Lydia is attracted to anyone in a soldier’s uniform.  Lydia needs marriage if she is to follow her inclinations legally.    

These motivations aren’t limited to early 19th century century Regency England, as you will realize if you think of broken marriages you yourself have witnessed. Perhaps you know people who have married for money or because they thought marriage would impress others or because they didn’t like the image of themselves unmarried or because the partner was drop-dead good looking. Of these various motivations, Austen is most tolerant of the desire for security. Elizabeth comes to appreciate, if not approve of, Charlotte’s decision to marry Collins. Security also factors into her decision to marry Darcy, although it’s a secondary reason. But ultimately Austen sees marriage as a sacred union. To treat it otherwise is a violation.

Note that the society as a whole bears much of the blame for the bad marriages in Austen because it threatens to reduce the sacrament from a union of souls to a mercantile exchange. In one of literature’s most famous openings, Austen uses economic language to show how marriage has become tainted. Especially worrisome is the word “property”:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.

This is comic irony at its best.  Through it, Austen invites us to join her in criticizing her society while getting our own values straight. Irony involves saying one thing while meaning another, and by being ironic Austen treats us as intelligent and moral beings who share her beliefs and understand what she means. We are in with her on the joke, knowing that she doesn’t really think that a young man with a fortune must be in want of a wife. We can join her in laughing at the Mrs. Bennets and Lady Lucas and any other matrimonial horse traders. If more of us reject our materialistic tendencies, fewer will “universally acknowledge” the Bennet/Lucas truth.

Unfortunately, materialism is as formidable a force in Austen’s world as it is in our own. The mothers function as entrepreneurs, seeking to parlay limited financial resources into substantial pay-off. At stake are the financial futures of their daughters, not to mention bragging rights. The fathers, by the way, are not blame free. They just leave it up to their wives to do the dirty work.

Austen admits that young people can’t live without money and knows they must be practical. But money as an obsession sullies everything. When Mrs. Bennet, the poster child of greed, thinks Jane’s marriage to Bingley is certain, she is “incapable of fatigue” as she enumerates all the advantages of the match to the Lucases.  (“In your face, Lady Lucas!” one imagines her saying. And then one sees the Lucas family’s immense satisfaction—payback time—when Charlotte, not Elizabeth, marries Mr. Collins.) Following Jane’s marriage proposal, Mrs. Bennet tells her, “I was sure you could not be so beautiful for nothing!” Her favorite daughter is whoever manages to land the richest husband. When Elizabeth proves to be that “dearest child,” all Mrs. Bennet can think about is the pin money, the jewels, and the carriages. Without defending Lydia, Charlotte or Wickham, one can see where they get their values.

Novels are more powerful than advice books because they plunge us into lived situations so that we experience their wisdom, as it were, from the inside. It is up to our reflective process to ferret out the lessons. So here is the advice that I extract from Pride and Prejudice on the danger of marrying for the wrong reasons, presented as a self-help questionnaire. The advice is still timely:

Desire for Security (Charlotte Lucas and George Wickham)

Do you long for someone to enter your life and take care of your problems for you?  You may make do in such a relationship.  But by focusing only on how another can support you, you don’t acknowledge that you have the capabilities of supporting yourself.

Vanity (Caroline Bingley)

Do you imagine exciting the admiration and envy of those around you with a partner, and do you hope that his or her glory will rub off on you?  Do you think everything will be wonderful once you are Mistress of Pemberley?  Be aware that borrowed light satisfies for only a short time and doesn’t encourage you to develop your own light.

Sexual attraction (Mr. Bennet, Lydia Bennet)

Are you attracted to a pretty face or handsome man in a blue coat coat?  The problem with appearances, of course, is that they are only skin deep and can condemn you to a shallow or a loveless relationship.

Custom (Mr. Collins)

Do you think that your life is supposed to look a certain way, which is to say, partnered?  Are you prepared to partner up just so that you can assure others, and yourself, that you are doing the right thing?  As long as you are obsessed with what others think, you will not concentrate on finding your own happiness.

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Raised in Foster Care, Saved by Oates


My novelist friend Rachel Kranz sent me a must-read Buzzfeed article about the impact that Joyce Carol Oates’ Wonderland Quartet had on a woman who grew up in foster care. Since I wrote on Tuesday about how Alice in Wonderland changed Oates’ own life, it seems appropriate to write about how the author did the same for someone else.

Marsha Chadburn begins her article by talking about her reading experiences in a group home:

When it came time for lights out in the group home, I’d keep reading, blanket over my head, flashlight in my hand. Books can take you somewhere else, can be a balm and comfort both. The flip side is that they can hurt you just as deeply. Reading under that blanket, I was assaulted again and again by bootstrap narratives of self-resilience. You know the ones: With enough determination and enough perseverance you too can accomplish anything. Oh, could I? All these novels were just an incredibly fancy way of saying, “Try harder.” It was as if someone had a pen to write with and instead used it to stab me in the heart — me, or any of the kids in the home. 

I like how Chadburn mentions the damage that fiction can do (she particularly has Ayn Rand in mind). As Wayne Booth observes in The Company We Keep: The Ethics of Fiction, we can’t legitimately say that fiction can do great good unless we are willing to acknowledge its capacity to do great harm. Chadburn found great good in the Wonderland Quartet:

It wasn’t until years later, when I was in my twenties, that I found the counternarrative, the response I had been seeking for so long. In a set of four books collectively called the Wonderland Quartet, Joyce Carol Oates redefined for me what books could teach me about the world I’d grown up in. In the small world where I grew up, there was only fast food and public transportation and cockroaches and rabbit ears extended with hangers on top of the television and having to stand in the right place for reception. What I knew were stories of a cycle that held people down. The Wonderland Quartet gave words to things I already knew: The problem faced by poor people is poverty. Or rather, the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. The sort of terror that dwells deep in the meat of my psyche — everything I need to tell you about me, about people, about power — is brought to life by the men and women of these books. 

Chadburn finds passages in each of the novels that articulate her childhood reality. Her favorite is them, the third book in the quartet:

Of the four books in the Wonderland Quartet, I related to the central character Loretta of them most. If you have time for only one of these novels, or if you have time for only one more novel in your life, read them. Love-struck, 16-year-old Loretta, hours after losing her virginity, loses her first lover to a bullet fired by her brother. Within a few desperate hours, she gains a husband. Loretta then moves to roaring Detroit, where she grapples with desperation and hunger. This was my plight, thinking a powerful person would be my solution, when powerful people only exacerbated my powerlessness. 

Reflecting on what drew her to Oates, Chadburn says that the author helped her both to make sense of a confusing world and to escape the destructive cycles that poverty sets in motion:

I am drawn in by all our naughty raw bits. I want to know your insides, your intentions, but only to put my fingers to the keyboard over and over again to attempt to make sense of things, attempt to not repeat things.

Ultimately, the Wonderland Quartet taught her that poor people, including herself, are not inherently vicious but can be rendered so by inequality, systemic exploitation, and the fear of being poor and powerless:

In the afterward to them, Oates quotes the poetic epigram from John Webster’s tragedy The White Devil, which asks the vital question, “…because we are poor/Shall we be vicious?” This is the question to which the Wonderland Quartet provides an extended answer. The short answer is no, that in fact most of the central characters begin poor and powerless and as the narrative progresses they gain some wealth or power, sometimes it is artificial or fleeting, and therefore is rooted in fear and insecurity. It is the greed and the desire to hold on to any gains that make them vicious, even more so the systemic exploitation, the inequities overall. Like my loving terrier guarding her food against a lion or a banker. It is not the terrier that is vicious, nor has the food made her vicious — but the disparity of the thing.

Yet one more inspiring example of how novels throw us vital lifelines.

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Fences Entrap Rather than Protect

Robinson Crusoe

We are, it seems, becoming more and more a nation of gated communities. As the income gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else grows ever greater, we see an increased use of fences and gates, whether literal (gates for wealthy mansions and for high-end housing developments) or metaphorical (special preserves, including schools, which only the wealthy can afford) or legal (restrictions designed to keep poor people from voting). The country itself functions as one giant gated community, attempting to bar entrance to the waves of immigrants coming from the south, whether to escape violence or just to find better economic opportunity.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has cautionary words for those who think that well constructed fences will keep them safe. There is a psychological price paid by those who insist upon absolute borders: the thicker the barrier, the thicker  the fear and paranoia. This helps explain why the hysteria of American nativists is swamping the efforts of moderate Republicans to work with Democrats to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

Crusoe engages in incessant labor to build an impregnable fortress for himself—but in an ironic twist that I think shows how walling out the world actually increases feelings of vulnerability, his own security becomes trap.

First of all, we see Crusoe completing what appears to be a perfect enclosure:

I worked excessive hard these three or four months to get my wall done; and the 14th of April I closed it up, contriving to go into it, not by a door but over the wall, by a ladder, that there might be no sign on the outside of my habitation.

April 16.—I finished the ladder; so I went up the ladder to the top, and then pulled it up after me, and let it down in the inside.  This was a complete enclosure to me; for within I had room enough, and nothing could come at me from without, unless it could first mount my wall.

The problem is not from without, however, but from within. Less than 24 hours after he completes his fortress, he is almost buried by it:

The very next day after this wall was finished I had almost had all my labor overthrown at once, and myself killed.  The case was thus: As I was busy in the inside, behind my tent, just at the entrance into my cave, I was terribly frighted with a most dreadful, surprising thing indeed; for all on a sudden I found the earth come crumbling down from the roof of my cave, and from the edge of the hill over my head, and two of the posts I had set up in the cave cracked in a frightful manner. 

Crusoe, who spends much of the book acquiring or constructing possessions, comes to define himself by them and appears almost more worried about losing them than he does about his own personal safety:

I was so much amazed with the thing itself, having never felt the like, nor discoursed with any one that had, that I was like one dead or stupefied; and the motion of the earth made my stomach sick, like one that was tossed at sea; but the noise of the falling of the rock awakened me, as it were, and rousing me from the stupefied condition I was in, filled me with horror; and I thought of nothing then but the hill falling upon my tent and all my household goods, and burying all at once; and this sunk my very soul within me a second time.

The more one has, the more frightened one becomes of losing it. In a further ironic twist, Crusoe discovers that he must cut a hole in his fortification to keep from drowning:

But the rain was so violent that my tent was ready to be beaten down with it; and I was forced to go into my cave, though very much afraid and uneasy, for fear it should fall on my head.  This violent rain forced me to a new work—viz. to cut a hole through my new fortification, like a sink, to let the water go out, which would else have flooded my cave. 

This isn’t the only time in the book when that Crusoe regards that which is supposed to keep him safe as a liability. His feelings of mastery are later undermined and he suffers an acute panic attack when he encounters the footprint. All that he has built now seems useless:

Oh, what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear!  It deprives them of the use of those means which reason offers for their relief.  The first thing I proposed to myself was, to throw down my enclosures, and turn all my tame cattle wild into the woods, lest the enemy should find them, and then frequent the island in prospect of the same or the like booty: then the simple thing of digging up my two corn-fields, lest they should find such a grain there, and still be prompted to frequent the island: then to demolish my bower and tent, that they might not see any vestiges of habitation, and be prompted to look farther, in order to find out the persons inhabiting.

These were the subject of the first night’s cogitations after I was come home again, while the apprehensions which had so overrun my mind were fresh upon me, and my head was full of vapors.  Thus, fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself, when apparent to the eyes; and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about…

Even when he is not dealing with a footprint but an actual person, Crusoe continues to construct elaborate defenses. Note how he deals with the newly rescued Friday:

The next day, after I came home to my hutch with him, I began to consider where I should lodge him: and that I might do well for him and yet be perfectly easy myself, I made a little tent for him in the vacant place between my two fortifications, in the inside of the last, and in the outside of the first.  As there was a door or entrance there into my cave, I made a formal framed door-case, and a door to it, of boards, and set it up in the passage, a little within the entrance; and, causing the door to open in the inside, I barred it up in the night, taking in my ladders, too; so that Friday could no way come at me in the inside of my innermost wall, without making so much noise in getting over that it must needs awaken me; for my first wall had now a complete roof over it of long poles, covering all my tent, and leaning up to the side of the hill; which was again laid across with smaller sticks, instead of laths, and then thatched over a great thickness with the rice-straw, which was strong, like reeds; and at the hole or place which was left to go in or out by the ladder I had placed a kind of trap-door, which, if it had been attempted on the outside, would not have opened at all, but would have fallen down and made a great noise—as to weapons, I took them all into my side every night. 

Eventually he learns that his fears are groundless and he has nothing to worry about—which America might conclude as well if it were to stop obsessing over dark-skinned people:

But I needed none of all this precaution; for never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me: without passions, sullenness, or designs, perfectly obliged and engaged; his very affections were tied to me, like those of a child to a father; and I daresay he would have sacrificed his life to save mine upon any occasion whatsoever—the many testimonies he gave me of this put it out of doubt, and soon convinced me that I needed to use no precautions for my safety on his account.

Okay, so this is paternalistic and I’m not holding it up as a model for white-black friendships. But I do find it interesting how Crusoe periodically has his cultural assumptions upended. At one point he discovers that Europeans—I have in mind the mutineers who find their way to the island—can be no less savage than the cannibals.

The bigger point is that, when we insist on fences, we become defined by our fears, which threaten to bury us like Crusoe’s earthquake. Whereas when we open ourselves up to the Other, we may find a friend. May all Americans be open to this truth as we deal with the latest Latin American immigrants.

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“Alice” Shaped Joyce Carol Oates

Tenniel, "Alice in Wonderland"

Think of Oates as Alice in this Tenniel illustration

It’s always great to hear a shout out to Alice in Wonderland, which Joyce Carol Oates does in the recent issue of AARP (June/July 2014). According to the novelist, it’s “the book that changed my life—that made me yearn to be a writer as well as inspired me to ‘write.’”

Joyce reports that,

Like any child enraptured with a favorite book, I wanted to be Alice. It must have occurred to me that Alice was unlike any girl of my acquaintance; she seemed to belong to a foreign, upper-class environment with custom (teatime, crumpets, queens, kings, footmen) utterly alien to the farming society of Millersport, New York. I think that I learned from Alice to be just slightly bolder than I might have been, to question authority—that is adults—and to look upon life as a possibility for adventures.

Oates continues,

If I’d taken Alice for a model, I was prepared to recognize fear, even terror, without succumbing to it. There are scenes of nightmare illogic in the Alice books—dramatizations of the anxiety of being eaten, for instance—yet Alice never becomes panicked or loses her common sense and dignity.

Joyce adds that she was also aware that Alice wasn’t telling her own story—that someone called “Lewis Carroll” was—and this realization opened up the possibility that she could become a storyteller as well. (Maybe it helped that they sort of share a name.) She therefore spent hours as a child, on lined tablet paper, creating a fantasy world, “not of adults or even children but of cats and chickens.”

Joyce concludes,

Out of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have sprung not only much of my enthusiasm for writing but my sense of the world as an indecipherable, essentially absurd but fascinating spectacle.

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Steinbeck Described Anti-Migrant Protests

Murrietta residents protesting Latin immigrants

Murrietta residents protesting Latin immigrants

Yesterday in our church choir we led the congregation in singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” it being the July Fourth weekend. Encountering the Biblical allusion to “the grapes of wrath” was timely as I had been thinking of Steinbeck’s novel after seeing a California community lash out against the wave of immigrants we are seeing. Here’s from the account in the New York Times:

When the three busloads of immigrant mothers and children rolled into town for processing at a Border Patrol station this week, they were met by protesters carrying American flags and signs proclaiming “return to sender” as they screamed “go home” and chanted “U.S.A.” Fearing for the safety of the migrants and federal officers, immigration officials decided to reroute the buses to San Diego, an hour south.

And a day after many here celebrated what they saw as a temporary victory, more than a thousand residents packed a high school auditorium on Wednesday night for a town-hall-style meeting that lasted more than four hours, voicing fears about an influx of migrants.

“What happens when they come here with diseases and can overrun our schools? How much is this costing us?” one resident, Jodie Howard, asked the mayor.

And now here’s the description of California protesters as described in Grapes of Wrath. In Steinbeck’s case, the migrants are small farmers thrown out of work by the Dust Bowl and by the rise of technology. But whether driven by hunger or by fear of Central American violence, the migrants trigger a similar sequence of events. Here’s Steinbeck:

The great highways streamed with moving people. There in the Middle—and Southwest had lived a simple agrarian folk who had not changed with industry, who had not farmed with machines or known the power and danger of machines in private hands. They had not grown up in the paradoxes of industry. Their senses were still sharp to the ridiculousness of the industrial life.

And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways. The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them—hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people.

In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. Those goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ‘em?

The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them—armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these Okies get out of hand. And the men who were armed did not own the land, but they thought they did. And the clerks who drilled at night owned nothing, and the little storekeepers possessed only a drawerful of debts. But even a debt is something, even a job is something. The clerk thought, I get fifteen dollars a week. S’pose a goddamn Okie would work for twelve? And the little storekeeper thought, How could I compete with a debtless man?

And the migrants streamed in on the highways and their hunger was in their eyes, and their need was in their eyes. They had no argument, no system, nothing but their numbers and their needs.

The United States is now facing what other countries around the world have faced when their neighbors face human upheavals. Think of it as a test of everything that we, an immigrant nation, believe in.

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The Evil I Do Not Want Is What I Do

John Eames proposes to Lily Dale (illus. George Housman Thomas)

Eames proposes to Lily  (illus. George Housman Thomas)

Spiritual Sunday 

In today’s Episcopal service we encounter a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that I particularly like, in large part because it captures an internal conflict that we can all relate to. It also reminds me of a passage from Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867).

First, here’s St. Paul talking about his internal battle with sin:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.  But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,  but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15-25a)

In the Trollope novel, a young man, John Eames, wants to marry Lily Dale, but she repeatedly turns him down. He resolves to always be true to her, even if she never accepts him, but in the meantime he also decides to amuse himself (innocently, he tells himself) with another woman. Note the Pauline conflict about wanting to do what is good while succumbing to “sin that dwells within me”:

He got into a cab, and bid the cabman drive hard, and lighting a cigar, began to inquire of himself whether it was well for him to hurry away from the presence of Lily Dale to that of Madalina Demolines. He felt that he was half-ashamed of what he was doing. Though he declared to himself over and over again that he never had said a word, and never intended to say a word, to Madalina, which all the world might not hear, yet he knew that he was doing amiss. He was doing amiss, and half repented it, and yet he was half proud of it. He was most anxious to be able to give himself credit for his constancy to Lily Dale; to be able to feel that he was steadfast in his passion; and yet he liked the idea of amusing himself with his Bayswater romance, as he would call it, and was not without something of conceit as he thought of the progress he had made in it. “Love is one thing and amusement is another,” he said to himself as he puffed the cigar-smoke out of his mouth; and in his heart he was proud of his own capacity for enjoyment. He thought it a fine thing, although at the same moment he knew it to be an evil thing—this hurrying away from the young lady whom he really loved to another as to whom he thought it very likely that he should be called upon to pretend to love her. And he sang a little song as he went, “If she be not fair for me, what care I how fair she be.” That was intended to apply to Lily, and was used as an excuse for his fickleness in going to Miss Demolines. 

It’s another example, if another example is needed, that literature provides lots of material for moral instruction.

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World Cup: Some Said It Couldn’t Be Done

U.S. vs. Belgium in World Cup

U.S. vs. Belgium in World Cup

Sports Saturday

As a fan of the American soccer team, I am, like many, very proud of the effort they put forth in the Round of 16. Belgium was clearly the better team, running circles around us for much of the match, so it was probably right that they prevailed in the end. Still, I loved how we never hesitated to attack when we could and how we almost overcame a two-goal deficit at the end.

I found myself applying a whole series of clichés to the team, sounding a bit like an Edgar Guest poem as I did so. I said that we were gritty and determined, that we demonstrated our “never say die” spirit and refused to give up against even impossible odds. My language sounded utterly hackneyed.

Guest was one of America’s most popular poets in the early part of the 20th century, publishing over 11,000 poems in 300 newspapers and other venues including, eventually, The Reader’s Digest. Most famous for his poem “Home” (“It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home”), Guest captured a certain strain of can-do American optimism in pithy doggerel.

The poem that came to mind as I watched America emerge from “the Group of Death” and hold its own against Belgium was “It Couldn’t Be Done.” “Quiddit,” incidentally, is an obsolete word meaning equivocating:

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
      But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
      Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
      On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it!
Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
      At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
      And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
      Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
      There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
      The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
      Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
      That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it. 

Yes, I know it’s pretty awful. In fact, those who romanticize the days when poetry was much more a part of everyday life need also to remember that this was the kind of poetry that people often turned to. It has been argued, with some justification, that the major reason to read Guest is so that one can appreciate Dorothy Parker’s succinct putdown. Referring to a medical procedure used to detect syphilis, Parker wrote,

I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test
Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest.

If one knows Guest, one can also better appreciate a parody of “It Couldn’t Be Done,” which unfortunately more accurately describes what happened to the U.S. soccer team:

Somebody Said That It Couldn’t Be Done


Somebody said that it couldn’t be done– 
But he, with a grin, replied, 
He’d never be one to say it couldn’t be done– 
Leastways, not ’til he’d tried. 
So he buckled right in, with a trace of a grin, 
By golly, he went right to it! 
He tackled The Thing That Couldn’t Be Done! 
And couldn’t do it.

Oh well, just wait until 2018.

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Learning to Love America

Chaplin, Purviance in "The Immigrant"

Chaplin, Purviance in “The Immigrant”

Fourth of July

It’s difficult to feel entirely celebratory about the 4th of July this year, what with thousands of children trying to crash the border while American nativists raise a hue and cry. Some members of the GOP are actively talking about deporting the so-called Dreamers as well, those people who crossed the border as children years ago and who know no other country than this one.

It’s a wrenching drama but hardly a new one. Many of those Americans who are now comfortably ensconced as citizens had forefathers and mothers who were similarly spurned. If we don’t want waves of immigrants from Latin America, then we need to support those countries so that their people don’t have to leave. Barring that, we must be as humane as we can. Fanning the flames of xenophobia creates nothing but toxicity.

Here’s a poem by a Malaysian-Chinese immigrant that reminds us that those who come here, if allowed to stay, will come to love America just as we who came earlier have come to love it. This process is what we celebrate today.

Learning to Love America

By Shirley Geok-lin Lim

because it has no pure products

because the Pacific Ocean sweeps along the coastline
because the water of the ocean is cold
and because land is better than ocean

because I say we rather than they

because I live in California
I have eaten fresh artichokes
and jacaranda bloom in April and May

because my senses have caught up with my body
my breath with the air it swallows
my hunger with my mouth

because I walk barefoot in my house

because I have nursed my son at my breast
because he is a strong American boy
because I have seen his eyes redden when he is asked who he is
because he answers I don’t know

because to have a son is to have a country
because my son will bury me here
because countries are in our blood and we bleed them

because it is late and too late to change my mind
because it is time.

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SCOTUS Traps Women in Doll’s House

Fonda in "The Doll's House"

Fonda, Warner in “The Doll’s House”

I’ve always been reluctant to use “war” as a metaphor in our political battles, such as “war on crime,” “war on drugs,” and (most recently) “war on women.” There’s enough hyperbole already in politics without having to supercharge the language. That being said, however, I think significant elements in the GOP, while not “waging a war” on women, are in fact trying to reassert control over women.

We’ve been seeing this especially in the systematic attempt in many states to deny women access to abortion and in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise to pass more restrictive abortion laws if the GOP wins back the Senate. We also saw increased attempts to control women’s reproductive choices in the Supreme Court’s decision Monday to allow certain companies to refuse women access to free contraception in their health plans.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the issue was religious freedom. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, noted that the ruling only affected contraception, not other health considerations (such as, to cite Justice Ginsburg’s examples, “blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations.” No, the Hobby Lobby owners believe that certain forms of contraception are tantamount to abortion and, whether they are right or wrong, a “sincerely held religious belief” (Alito’s phrase) is what matters.

Justice Ginsburg further pointed out that “[t]he exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would…deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage” and that “[i]t bears note in this regard that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month’s full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.”

So why all this focus on contraception and abortion in recent years? A cynic might see this as the ultimate wedge issue, a way that the establishment GOP can continue to hold on to its Tea Party base while still keeping its Wall Street constituents happy. But I think the reason goes deeper than this and that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) casts some light on what’s going on.

I think that the GOP no longer thinks it can manage the economy or the climate or the demographic future of the United States. To restore a feeling of masculine control, it seeks therefore to control what it can—which in red states is America’s women, especially poor women. Women are hearing the message which is why, in increasing numbers, they are voting Democratic, especially those who are young and/or single.

Before I turn to Ibsen, here are a couple of women columnists pointing out what is frightening about the Supreme Court’s recent decision. First, Kate McDonough of Salon:

To sum it up, five male justices ruled that thousands of female employees should rightfully be subjected to the whims of their employers. That women can be denied a benefit that they already pay for and is guaranteed by federal law. That contraception is not essential healthcare. That corporations can pray. That the corporate veil can be manipulated to suit the needs of the corporation. That bosses can cynically choose à la carte what laws they want to comply with and which laws they do not. Each specific finding opens a door to a new form of discrimination and unprecedented corporate power. If you think this ruling won’t affect you, you haven’t been paying attention. If you think these corporations are going to stop at birth control, you’re kidding yourself.

And now Slate columnist Amanda Marcotte writing for Reproductive Health (although unfortunately she uses the “war on women” metaphor):

Bit by bit, they can make us accustomed to the idea that contraception is “controversial” and whether or not you get pregnant is a matter of public debate instead of a private choice.

Why should they doubt that this strategy will work? It took four decades, but the chipping away strategy has started to pay off in the war on abortion access, with many states on the verge of having no abortion providers whatsoever. They may never be able to get contraception banned, but they can definitely do some serious damage to women’s ability to access it. They are waging a “war on women,” after all, so every woman felled by unwanted pregnancy is a victory in and of itself.

In The Doll’s House, Nora Helmer for years plays along with—enables—her husband’s need to feel in control. She uses her “feminine wiles” (now there’s an outmoded expression) to get him to take a life-saving trip to Italy and she hides her means of financing it. (As she puts it, “how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything! It would upset our mutual relations altogether; our beautiful happy home would no longer be what it is now.”)

When the truth comes out that she has forged her father’s signature to obtain a loan (women can’t get loans without a man’s signature) and that she has been secretly paying off the loan with her household allowance (Torvald thinks she’s a spendthrift “little squirrel”), there is a blow-up. But the blow-up proves salutary because Nora suddenly acknowledges that her husband has no real respect for her. It’s the moment of truth she needs if she is to grow. Here’s their conversation:

Nora [shaking her head]. You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.
Helmer. Nora, what do I hear you saying?
Nora. It is perfectly true, Torvald. When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you–
Helmer. What sort of an expression is that to use about our marriage?
Nora [undisturbed]. I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you. Or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which–I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman–just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.
Helmer. How unreasonable and how ungrateful you are, Nora! Have you not been happy here?
Nora. No, I have never been happy. I thought I was, but it has never really been so.
Helmer. Not–not happy!
Nora. No, only merry. And you have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child…

And then Nora states what she must do:

Nora. I must try and educate myself–you are not the man to help me in that. I must do that for myself. And that is why I am going to leave you now.

I suspect one reason why so many women are leaving—or not joining—the GOP is because they are educating themselves about Republican positions. They feel patronized and unsupported.

The Doll’s House holds one thread of hope for Republicans. If Torvald’s fundamental attitude were to change—if he were to truly respect Nora, allowing her autonomy and deciding that she is capable of making her own decisions—then their marriage could be saved. As Nora puts it, “the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.”

Helmer. Nora–can I never be anything more than a stranger to you?
Nora [taking her bag]. Ah, Torvald, the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.
Helmer. Tell me what that would be!
Nora. Both you and I would have to be so changed that–. Oh, Torvald, I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening.
Helmer. But I will believe in it. Tell me! So changed that–?
Nora. That our life together would be a real wedlock. Goodbye. [She goes out through the hall.]
Helmer [sinks down on a chair at the door and buries his face in his hands]. Nora! Nora! [Looks round, and rises.] Empty. She is gone. [A hope flashes across his mind.] The most wonderful thing of all–?

So can our Torvald Helmers decide that women should be free to make their own reproductive choices? It would mean taking abortion and contraception out of the public realm and leaving it up to women and their doctors. That indeed would be the most wonderful thing of all.

Posted in Ibsen (Henrik) | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Viagra and the Drums of War

Former Vice President Dick Cheney

Former Vice President Dick Cheney

As Iraq has been falling apart, many are wondering why the original architects of the war aren’t keeping their mouths shut. Shouldn’t they be humble and contrite over the fact that practically every one of their predictions has been wrong? But no, they loudly accuse Obama of pusillanimously pulling out American  troops and losing the country. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has all but accused the president of treason and Senator John McCain hammers him mercilessly.

Over the past few years McCain, who appears regularly on the Sunday morning talk shows, has called for invading or militarily intervening in Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, (to oust the Russians), Libya, Iran, Syria, the Crimea (to oust the Russians), Nigeria (to free the girls captured by terrorists), and now Iraq again. Imagine if he has been elected president!

How is one able, especially at Cheney’s and McCain’s ages (73 and 77), to remain in what appears to be a perpetual state of belligerence? If my father were alive today, I suspect he would points us to the following poem, which appears in his ZYX of Political Sex.

As a soldier in the Third Army of General Patton, whom he despised, my father worried a lot about the harm that machismo was visiting upon the world. (Check out this poem where he goes after the National Rifle Association.) In “Viagra,” he counts on the natural cycle to offset Yeats’ predicted second coming. That is, until men find new ways to stay pumped up.


By Scott Bates

According to sleep scientists,
every man has a minimum of four to six
erections a night
during his dreams,
so why does he need Viagra?

A minimum of 1,174,944 erections a night in
the city of Milwaukee alone!
not to mention the suburbs and outlying precincts;
and in Chicago,
it staggers the imagination.

What a rising and falling of tents!
What a mustering of ammunition!
Spermatazoa of the universe arise,
you have nothing to lose but your asteroids!

But no,
the erection apocalypse is not upon us yet,
the final shoot-out is not imminently forthcoming;
the fireworks fizzle,
the dynamite dampens,
the tide retreats;
Peter Pan panics and peters out;
the sleeping spouse sighs and turns over on her stomach;
blood slips back to the edge of the world;
dawn breaks.

Dark beasts yawn and amble home to their dens;
soldiers fall asleep by the dying embers of their fires;
paleolithic night succumbs
to polluted sewer pipes
and dangling day.

And then he takes his Viagra.

Dangling day isn’t half as exciting as armed combat. But maybe Cheney and McCain don’t need viagra. Maybe war fervor has the same effect.

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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