Shakespeare in the Courtroom

Thomas Sully, "Portia"

Thomas Sully, “Portia and Shylock”

I’ve just come across dramatic proof that Shakespeare is essential reading for the legal profession. (Not that I needed proof.) Apparently U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. of Georgia’s Northern District looks to Shakespeare for guidance and occasionally cites the Bard in his rulings.

I have the story from Meg (Lines) Thrash, a childhood friend of mine from Sewanee who is also his wife. An account of Judge Thrash’s admiration of Shakespeare was described by one R. Robin McDonald in an article for The Daily Report (April 8, 2014), a publication that serves lawyers in the Atlanta area.

McDonald dramatically begins the article by telling how Thrash, as a young prosecutor, quoted Hamlet’s father in his summation against a man who had strangled a prostitute and dropped her body into a storm sewer. “Remember me, remember me,” he quoted to the jury. Whether or not Shakespeare made a difference, the man was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

And then there’s a story that I particularly appreciate in which Thrash, now a judge, turned down a plea from a man complaining that his attorney had given him bad advice, The man was the ringleader of the largest mortgage fraud scheme ever prosecuted in Georgia and, after he rejected a 12-year plea deal, he went on to receive a 28-year sentence instead. In his ruling upholding the sentence, Judge Thrash quoted Edmund, the bastard son in King Lear:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on…

In the passage Edmund is mocking his father Gloucester for attributing the chaos caused by Lear to “late eclipses in the sun and moon.” We make our own destinies, Edmund claims. In the Georgia case the defendant was blaming his lawyer, not heavenly bodies, but I can imagine Judge Thrash being just as impatient as Edmund with the whining.

Of course Edmund is the consummate bad guy so this is an example of one villain instructing another. Unlike the Georgia banker, however, Edmund at least goes down with class. When he is dying, he tries to undo the harm he has unleashed, telling his brother Edgar (unfortunately too late) about the plot against Lear and Cordelia.

Judge Thrash tells McDonald that he became interested in Shakespeare when he was a young prosecutor:

New to Atlanta, with few friends, Thrash would go home to his apartment at night and read. Shakespeare’s histories, he said, became one of his favorite pastimes. “I thought that Shakespeare would enrich my rhetorical ability as a trial lawyer,” he explained.

His favorite Shakespeare play is Richard II and I’m struck by the two passages he singles out. I can see why both would have particular significance for a judge.

In the first, Richard has just learned that his army has been routed and Bolingbroke has won the day. Stepping back and taking almost a judge’s lofty perspective, he surveys the calamities that kings have encountered:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp…

To be sure, there’s a chance that Richard is in denial here, not acceptance, because, in the other passage that Thrash cites, he’s not quite so calm. The man who will become Henry IV has shown up and Richard is resorting to the consolation of a man who perceives himself as a wronged innocent. Sooner or later, he declares, God will punish his tormentor. If not Henry himself, then his descendants:

And though you think that all, as you have done,
Have torn their souls by turning them from us,
And we are barren and bereft of friends;
Yet know, my master, God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot,
That lift your vassal hands against my head
And threat the glory of my precious crown.

I wonder if Judge Thrash, reflecting upon people found guilty in his courtroom, has encountered similar righteous anger. It can be noted in this case that Richard’s predictions will be borne out. Shakespeare, having the advantage of hindsight, knows that Henry’s coup will set the stage for the War of the Roses.

Here’s one final example from the McDonald article. Thrash’s favorite Shakespearean passage, it turns out, is the one you would hope that a judge would favor. Can you guess what it is?

It involves a “lawyer” arguing against a plaintiff who is demanding his agreed upon pound of flesh. Judge Thrash calls it “the most eloquent plea for mercy you will ever hear in a court of law”:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. 

Unfortunately Shylock doesn’t heed Portia’s eloquent speech, at which point she resorts to her famous Plan B: take your flesh but no blood. Thrash notes that the case’s outcome “counsels us against overreaching and making unfair demands of our adversaries.

“I often think of Shylock demanding his pound of flesh,” he adds, “when I am hearing a particularly nasty discovery dispute.”

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Lit’s Contribution to the Civil War

Daniel Day Lewis in "Lincoln"

Daniel Day Lewis in “Lincoln”

Have you heard how Jim DeMint, head of the once respected Heritage Foundation, explains the end of slavery? “The move to free the slaves came from the people,” he declared recently,

 did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people.

I’m not writing today’s post only to lambaste DeMint’s idiocy, however. An Adam Gopnik response to DeMint in the New Yorker has further clarified for me the role that literature played in the lead-up to the Civil War. Gopnik’s discussion of how whites had to be brought around to sympathize with the black cause draws our attention to the importance of such works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

First, however, a few words on DeMint. When he talks about people of faith, he’s thinking of people like himself. But many people of faith in the antebellum South didn’t oppose slavery. As I wrote last January, Harriet Beecher Stowe demonstrates in Uncle Tom’s Cabin how may used religion to justify slavery. (The cynical slave owner Augustine St. Clair lays this out quite clearly.) Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that DeMint would not be a fan of certain Christians that opposed slavery, such as John Brown, a millenarian who saw slavery as a blight on the nation that needed to be eradicated if Jesus was to return. (Thanks to Rachel Kranz for alerting me to John Stauffer’s book on this subject, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race.)

The best response I’ve seen to DeMint’s statement is Jonathan Chait’s sarcastic quip, “Bzzt. Everybody knows the slaves were freed by Ronald Reagan, and he did it by cutting taxes.”

Gopnik is equally dismissive but goes into more detail. Here he is drawing from James Oakes’s forthcoming book The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War:

[DeMint’s claim] is, in plain English, so ignorant that, as I say, there has been no shortage of corrections. A debate about whether big government freed the slaves is pretty much the only debate that a liberal is guaranteed to win. The Civil War was the original big-government overreach: it came from Washington, D.C.; it involved raising new taxes (in fact, it is the origin of a number of taxes); it confiscated rifles from rebels; it did special favors for minorities (in this case, the special favor of recognizing them as human beings and setting them free from lifelong bondage); and, in the end, it imposed a bureaucracy on an unwilling population (that is, it imposed the Union Army on the South). Many things can be said about the Civil War, but not that it was done with the benign neglect of the federales. The moral point was argued for decades, as it is with most issues in a democracy. But that big government freed the slaves is as sure a fact as any in history.

Oates, Gopnik reports, believes that the Civil War was caused by an unsustainable situation, which is that the North was against the South extending slavery and the South recognized that slavery could only survive if it could be extended. No middle ground was seen as possible, which is why DeMint’s home state of South Carolina seceded when an antislavery president was elected.

And now to literature. For the North to act on the behalf of the slaves, Gopnik asserts, the conscience of the ruling class needed to be appealed to. Change, he and Oates believe, does not happen because of “inexorable social or economic forces” but through vigorous top-down action by sympathetic elites. The situation required a combination of pity and politics (this is also the position of Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln), and literature was vital in helping build that pity. Here’s Gopnik on the importance of compassion and sympathy:

[W]e want oppressed people to free themselves—we want the Israelites to have crossed the Red Sea without help from empathetic Egyptians. But pity, in the famous sense that Shakespeare evoked it in “Macbeth”—as a loud, awakening emotion, empathy on horseback [passage cited below]—is central to change. It was compassion and sympathy for the suffering of others that provoked the abolitionist movement. Sometimes this was, indeed, deeply rooted in Christianity and in the church. At other moments, as with the young, freethinking Lincoln, who was antislavery as a young man, when he was still aggressively atheist—it was not. Sometimes it was idiosyncratically American-spiritual. 

And further on:

A generation ago, it was considered the essence of wisdom to accept that vast, impersonal forces made history happen without the condescending assistance of anyone’s awakened conscience. But, today, Oakes reminds us of the essential truth that what makes human lives change is restoring agency to altruism. 

In other words, Stowe, Douglass and Jacobs were instrumental in the altruism department.

Gopnik cautions that the agency that must accompany altruism isn’t always pretty. Just as conservatives want to inveigh against big government, liberals often want to steer clear of dirty politics. Gopnik says that they need to wake up to reality:

Change is achieved, as are the victories of a government in a democracy, by way of painful coalition-building, hypocrisy, occasional violations of apparent principles, ugly if short-term violations of civil liberties, tactical duplicity and long-game strategic thinking, and, often, disingenuous dealings around the goals and the scope of an operation.

Maybe this is how we should see the civil rights achievements of the wheeler-dealer Lyndon B. Johnson, whose signing of the Civil Right Act fifty years ago we have been celebrating. In addition to admiring his agency, we should also mention works like Raisin in the Sun, To Kill a Mockingbird and James Baldwin’s fiction and essays for making the case for altruism.


*And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other. (Macbeth, I.7, ll. 21-28)


Posted in Douglass (Frederick), Jacobs (Harriet), Stowe (Harriet Beecher) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Invasion of the Ants

Joan Weldon in "Them!" (1954)

Joan Weldon in “Them!” (1954)

Warm weather has finally arrived in southern Maryland and with it, of course, ants.  When my family moved here years ago, I felt overwhelmed with swarms that seemed everywhere. After I saw the film Poltergeist, I wondered whether our house had been built on some sacred ant burial site, prompting the ants to wreak revenge.

I called our county extension agent and he basically said that complaining about ants was like complaining about the weather. Years later, when we were selling our house and needed an exterminator, we discovered that there was a large colony within one of our walls.

Maryland ants, however, are a picnic (should I use that metaphor?) compared to the “crazy ants” that have been invading southern Texas. (“Crazy ants” is their actual name.) According to one article, they are “mysteriously attracted to electrical equipment,” sometimes causing power shutdowns, and they have the potential to devastate ground-dwelling bird populations, just as, in the past, Texas fire ants devastated the quail population.

Which reminds me of the apocalyptic H. G. Wells story that enthralled me as a boy and an even more frightening tale, “The Argentine Ant” by Italo Calvino, that I read more recently. If we can’t stop ants, at least we can write fiction about them.

Wells predicted in “The Empire of the Ants” (1905) that ants would one day take over the world. An encounter with these ants in the Amazon changes the worldview of British engineer Holroyd:

[I]n England he had come to think of the land as man’s. In England it is indeed man’s, the wild things live by sufferance, grow on lease, everywhere the roads, the fences, and absolute security runs. In an atlas, too, the land is man’s, and all colored to show his claim to it–in vivid contrast to the universal independent blueness of the sea. He had taken it for granted that a day would come when everywhere about the earth, plough and culture, light tramways and good roads, an ordered security, would prevail. But now, he doubted.

And further on:

In a few miles of this forest there must be more ants than there are men in the whole world! This seemed to Holroyd a perfectly new idea. In a few thousand years men had emerged from barbarism to a stage of civilization that made them feel lords of the future and masters of the earth! But what was to prevent the ants evolving also? Such ants as one knew lived in little communities of a few thousand individuals, made no concerted efforts against the greater world. But they had a language, they had an intelligence! Why should things stop at that any more than men had stopped at the barbaric stage? Suppose presently the ants began to store knowledge, just as men had done by means of books and records, use weapons, form great empires, sustain a planned and organized war?

Things came back to him that [Captain] Gerilleau had gathered about these ants they were approaching. They used a poison like the poison of snakes. They obeyed greater leaders even as the leaf-cutting ants do. They were carnivorous, and where they came they stayed…

I like that ellipsis, which is the author’s. The story concludes with one of Wells’ famous predictions:

By 1911 or thereabouts, if they go on as they are going, they ought to strike the Capuarana Extension Railway, and force themselves upon the attention of the European capitalist. By 1920 they will be halfway down the Amazon. I fix 1950 or ’60 at the latest for the discovery of Europe.

Okay, so army ants aren’t swarming over Europe. Calvino’s tale, on the other hand, appears entirely plausible. “The Argentine Ant” (in The Watcher and Other Stories) begins quietly enough and then becomes a terrifying allegory of modern day life.

A couple and their baby move to what appears to be an idyllic house by the sea, only to discover that the entire town is infested with “the Argentine ant.” They freak out when they discover ants crawling on their child. One gets into his ear. Their neighbors, they learn, have been fighting the ants for years.

One couple has purchased a bewildering array of poisons, none of which work. Another man devises elaborate ant traps, including one where ants are enticed across a thin wire with a bend in it that drops them into a gasoline bucket:

“Tic, tic.” (This “tic, tic” accompanied the fall of two ants.) “Tic, tic, tic…” continued the captain with his steely, stiff smile; and every “tic” accompanied the fall of an ant into the can where, on the surface of an inch of gasoline lay a black crust of shapeless insect bodies.

Different classes respond differently. The upper class landlady refuses to acknowledge that the village has an ant problem, even as ants crawl all over her body. The lower class villagers have fatalistically surrendered to the ants. Only the middle class villagers think they can do anything. The narrator finds himself thinking of nothing else:

But as I went along the road, things all around seemed different from yesterday; in every kitchen garden, in every house I sensed streams of ants climbing the walls, covering the fruit trees, wriggling their antennae toward everything sweet or greasy; and my newly trained eyes now noticed at once mattresses put outside houses to beat because the ants had got into them, a spray of insecticide in an old woman’s hand, a saucerful of poison, and then straining my eyes, the rows of ants marching imperturbably around the door frames.

“Argentine Ant” is Calvino at his Kafkaesque best. The story effects me because of my own ant experiences, but it also functions as an allegory about how small irritants come to dominate our lives and preoccupy our waking consciousness. Instead of ants, we could be talking about the deluge of e-mails and texts, car problems, cluttered houses, dirty dishes, dirty laundry, constant bills, student papers and exams, committee reports, overgrown lawns, weeds in the garden, health issues, weight regimens, political anxieties at home, political anxieties abroad, work place tensions, retirement anxieties, concerns about the children, unending insurance forms (car, house, health, retirement, flood, theft), grocery shopping, house repairs, unending commercials…should I go on or have you already fled the room?

After watching Calvino’s family go through its ant nightmare, we cling with relief to the image of clean, white shells that ends the story. The family has found temporary refuge in a walk by the seaside:

And so we reached the port and the sea. There was also a line of palm trees and some stone benches. My wife and I sat down and the baby was quiet. My wife said: “There are no ants here.” I replied: “And there’s a fresh wind; it’s pleasant.”

The sea rose and fell against the rocks of the mole, making the fishing boats sway, and dark-sinned men were filling them with red nets and lobster pots for the evening’s fishing. The water was calm, with just a slight continual change of color, blue and black, darker farthest away. I thought of the expanses of water like this, of the infinite grains of soft sand down there at the bottom of the sea where the currents leave white shells washed clean by the waves.”

Unfortunately, in a few minutes they will have to get up and return to their house. The screams that you hear will be your own.

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The Journeys of the Night Survive

Benedetto Caliari, "Flight of the Israelites from Egypt"

Benedetto Caliari, “Flight of the Israelites from Egypt”

Passover Week

I have come late to an extraordinary Passover poem by Muriel Rukeyser entitled “Akiba,” which begins with images from the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and then moves out to embrace other liberation journeys. In a note on the poem, Rukeyser identifies Akiba as

the Jewish shepherd-scholar of the first and second century, identified with the Song of Songs and with the insurrection against Hadrian’s Rome, led in A. D. 132 by Bar Cochba (Son of the Star). After this lightning war, Jerusalem captured, the Romans driven out of the south, Rome increased its military machine; by 135, the last defenses fell, Bar Cochba was killed, Akiba was tortured to death at the command of his friend, the Roman Rufus, and a harrow was drawn over the ground where Jerusalem had stood, leaving only a corner of wall.

In further notes, Rabbi Arthur Waskow helpfully identifies the poem’s allusions to other historical movements by oppressed peoples: the Mormons escaping from the riots against them in Nauvoo, Illinois; the American slaves escaping via the underground railroad; the Chinese communists barely surviving the fabled Long March; and the Parisians establishing the Paris Commune in 1870 before being massacred. Suggesting that the poem be read during Passover and perhaps during the all-night Torah study for Shavuot, Waskow hopes that “it will increasingly be understood as a sacred text rooted in Jewish tradition but reaching far beyond it to the whole of Humanity — which indeed it celebrates.”

Although “Akiba” is long, you will find is accessible and well worth your time. Consider following Waskow’s advice and using it as a Passover meditation. If you are Christian, it works as a Lenten reflection.


By Muriel Rukeyser

The Way Out 

The night is covered with signs. The body and face of man,
with signs, and his journeys.      Where the rock is split
and speaks to the water;              the flame speaks to the cloud:
the red splatter, abstraction, on the door
speaks to the angel and the constellations.
The grains of sand on the sea floor speak at last to the noon.
And the loud hammering of the land behind
speaks ringing up the bones of our thighs, the hoofs,
we hear the hoofs over the seethe of the sea.

All night down the centuries, have heard, music of passage.

Music of one child carried into the desert;
Firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
Led by the water drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,
The burning, the loving, the speaking, the opening.
Strong throat of sound from the smoking mountain.
Still flame, the spoken singing of a young child.
The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.

Music of those who have walked out of slavery.

Into that journey where all things speak to all things
Refusing to accept the curse, and taking
For signs the signs of all things, the world, the body
Which is part of the soul, and speaks to the world,
All creation being created in one image, creation.
This is not the past walking into the future,
the walk is painful, into the present, the dance
not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.

We knew we had all crossed over when we heard the song.

Out of a life of building lack on lack:
The slaves refusing slavery, escaping into faith:
An army who came to the ocean: the walkers
Who walked through the opposites, from I to opened Thou,
City and cleave of the sea. Those at flaming Nauvoo,
The ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
Swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
And the glass black hearses: those on the Long March:
all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man.

Where the wilderness enters, the world, the song of the world.

Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death
By his disciples carried from Jerusalem
in blackness journeying to find his journey
to whatever he was loving with his life.
The wilderness journey through which we move
Under the whirlwind truth into the new,
The only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.

Barbarian music, a new song.

Acknowledging opened water, possibility:
Open like a woman to this meaning.
In a time of building statues of the stars,
Valuing certain partial ferocious skills
While past us the chill and immense wilderness
Spreads its one-color wings until we know
Rock, water, flame, cloud, or the floor of the sea,
The world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.

Ways to discover. The song of the way in.

For The Song of Songs

However the voices rise
They are the shepherd, the king,
The woman; dreams,
Holy desire.

Whether the voices
Be many the dance around
Or body led by one body
Whose bed is green,

I defend the desire
Lightning and poetry
Alone in the dark city
Or breast to breast.

Champion of light I am
The wounded holy light,
The woman in her dreams
And the man answering.

You who answer their dreams
Are the ruler of wine
Emperor of clouds
And the riches of men.

This song
Is the creation
The day of this song
The day of the birth of the world.

Whether a thousand years
Forget this woman, this king,
Whether two thousand years
Forget the shepherd of dreams.

If none remember
Who is lover, who the beloved,
Whether the poet be
Woman or man,

The desire will make
A way through the wilderness
The leopard mountains
And the lips of the sleepers.

Holy way of desire,
King, lion, the mouth of the poet,
The woman who dreams
And the answerer of dreams.

In these delights
Is eternity of seed,
The verge of life,
Body of dreaming.

The Bonds

In the wine country, poverty, they drink no wine –
In the endless night of love he lies, apart from love –
In the landscape of the Word he stares, he has no word.

He hates and hungers for his immense need.

He is young. This is a shepherd who rages at learning,
Having no words. Looks past green grass and sees a woman.
She, Rachel, who is come to recognize.
In the huge wordless shepherd she finds Akiba.

To find the burning Word. To learn to speak.

The body of Rachel says, the marriage says,
The eyes of Rachel say, and water upon rock
Cutting its groove all year says All things learn.
Me learns with his new son whose eyes are wine.

To sing continually, to find the word.

He  comes to teaching, greater than the deed
Because it begets the deed, he comes to the stone
Of long ordeal, and suddenly knows the brook
Offering water, the citron fragrance, the light of candles.

All given, and always the giver loses nothing.

In giving, praising, we move beneath clouds of honor,
In giving, in praise, we take gifts that are given,
The spark from one to the other leaping, a bond
Of light, and we come to recognize the rock;

We are the fire acknowledging water, and water
Fire, and woman man, all brought through wilderness;
And Rachel finding in the wordless shepherd
Akiba who can now come to his power and speak:
The need to give having found the need to become:

More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to give suck.

Akiba Martyr

When his death confronted him, it had the face of his friend
Rufus the Roman general with his claws of pain,
His executioner. This was an old man under iron rakes
Tearing through to the bone. He made no cry.

After the failure of all missions. At ninety, going
To Hadrian in Egypt, the silver-helmed,
Named for a sea. To intercede. Do not build in the rebuilt Temple
Your statue, do not make it a shrine to you.
Antinous smiling. Interpreters. This is an old man, pleading.
Incense of fans. The emperor does not understand.

He accepts his harvest, failures. He accepts faithlessness,
Madness of friends, a failed life; and now the face of storm.

Does the old man in uprising speak for compromise?
In all but the last things. Not in the study itself.
For this religion is a system of knowledge;
Points may be one by one abandoned, but not the study.
Does he preach passion and non-violence?
Yes, and trees, crops, children honestly taught. He says:
Prepare yourselves for suffering.

Now the rule closes in, the last things are forbidden.
There is no real survival without these.
Now it is time for prison and the unknown.
The old man flowers into spiritual fire.

Streaking of agony across the sky.
Torn black. Red racing on blackness. Dawn.
Rufus looks at him over the rakes of death
Asking, “What is it?
Have you magic powers? Or do you feel no pain?

The old man answers, “No. But there is a commandment saying,
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy
soul and with all thy might.
I knew that I loved him with all my heart and might.
Now I know that I love him with all my life.”

The look of delight of the martyr
Among the colors of pain, at last knowing his own response
Total and unified.
To love God with all the heart, all passion,
Every desire called evil, turned toward unity,
All the opposites, all in the dialogue.
All the dark and light of the heart, of life made whole.

Surpassing the known life, day and ideas.
My hope, my life, my burst of consciousness:
To confirm my life in the time of confrontation.

The old man saying Shema.
The death of Akiba.

The Witness

Who is the witness? What voice moves across time,
Speaks for the life and death as witness voice?
Moving to night on this city, this river, my winter street?

He saw it, the one witness. Tonight the life as legend
Goes building a meeting for me in the veins of night
Adding its scenes and its songs. Here is the man transformed,

The tall shepherd, the law, the false messiah, all;
You who come after me far from tonight finding
These lives that ask you always Who is the witness –

Take from us acts of encounter we at night
Wake to attempt, as signs, seeds of beginning,
Given from darkness and remembering darkness,

Take from our light given to you our meetings.
Time tells us men and women, tells us You
The witness, your moment covered with signs, your self.

Tells us this moment, saying You are the meeting.
You are made of signs, your eyes and your song.
Your dance the dance, the walk into the present.

All this we are and accept, being made of signs, speaking
To you, in time not yet born.
The witness is myself.
And you,
The signs, the journeys of the night, survive.

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Is Tiger, Like Sherlock, Presumed Dead?

Tiger Woods

Sports Saturday

I am barely aware that the Masters tournament is currently underway and you can probably guess the reason why: back surgery is preventing Tiger Woods from playing. For the first time in twenty years, he is missing the tournament that he has won four times.

I am one who didn’t watch golf before Tiger played but found myself riveted when he exploded on the scene with his 12-stroke Masters victory in 1997. Fair weather fan that I am, when he ceases to be competitive I may stop watching again.

For a literary instance of someone leaving such a hole behind him, I came up with Sherlock Holmes. I’m hoping that the parallel is apt as Holmes, after being presumed dead, comes back for some of his greatest victories: Charles August Milverton, the Six Napoleons, the Dancing Men, The Solitary Cyclist, the Hound of the Baskervilles, the Valley of Fear, Wysteria Lodge. That’s not a bad second act.

Recording what Sherlock’s death means to him in “The Final Problem,” Watson writes,

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished.

I’m feeling heavy as well. Watching golf without Tiger is like Watson surveying a crime scene without Holmes around. Here’s Watson in “The Adventure of the Empty Room”:

As I read the evidence at the inquest, which led up to a verdict of willful murder against some person or persons unknown, I realized more clearly than I had ever done the loss which the community had sustained by the death of Sherlock Holmes. 

Although Tiger’s return, unlike Sherlock’s, is expected, I still anticipate feeling some of Watson’s joy when Tiger returns for the British or U. S. Open:

I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.

     “My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, “I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected.”

     I gripped him by the arms.

     “Holmes!” I cried. “Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?”

Can Tiger climb out of his own abyss, which is not only his health problems but his title drought? (He is still four titles shy of Jack Nicholson’s record 18.) Or is his ailing back the medical equivalent of Moriarty? Did Tiger die at Reichenbach Falls after all?

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Mowgli, a Tea Party Libertarian?

John Lockwood Kipling, "Mowgli"

John Lockwood Kipling, “Mowgli”

I’ve been having a strange experience teaching Kipling’s Jungle Books (1893-95) in my British Fantasy class. On the one hand, I love Mowgli’s rapport with all the animals of the jungle and find myself cheering for him in his adventures. Unfortunately, the books also read like a social Darwinist forerunner of Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan, and the Tea Party. In today’s post I’ll explain what I mean by this and explain how there is a liberal as well as a conservative fantasy in Kipling’s work.

We all know about Mowgli escaping from the lame man-eating tiger Shere Khan and being adopted by the wolves. The wolves refer to themselves as “the Free People,” as in this scene where Mowgli is introduced to te pack:

Akela [the head wolf] never raised his head from his paws, but went on with the monotonous cry: “Look well!” A muffled roar came up from behind the rocks—the voice of Shere Khan crying: “The cub is mine. Give him to me. What have the Free People to do with a man’s cub?” Akela never even twitched his ears. All he said was: “Look well, O Wolves! What have the Free People to do with the orders of any save the Free People? Look well!”

Kipling here is echoing the Brits’ vision of themselves, even under the monarchy, as ultimately free. “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/”Britons never will be slaves,” wrote the 18th century poet James Thomson in what would later become the lyrics of an unofficial national anthem.

There were many reasons for the British to feel good about themselves in 1893. They did in fact rule the waves, and social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer viewed British preeminence as proof that, evolutionarily, they were the lords of creation. That’s one reason why Kipling is so keen on “the law of the jungle.” Mowgli may technically be Indian but he is really British, wielding his technological superiority (fire, knife, brain, adaptability) to lord it over all other animals. Furthermore, as my students pointed out, there is something very British about thinking of the jungle being ruled by such laws as fair play.

But all is not well in the wolf world, which seems to be veering from the ideals of its founding fathers—or rather, from the ideals of the lords who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta to insure their rights. As Mowgli grows older, Shere Khan begins corrupting the young wolves, who become lawless and participate in a coup attempt against Akela. It fails only because Mowgli brings fire into the animal world, and “free people” becomes a phrase that one uses sarcastically. Here’s Bagheera the Black Panther after the young wolves are not willing to honor the bull price he paid for Mowgli’s life years before:

“Also, I paid for him with a bull when he was accepted. The worth of a bull is little, but Bagheera’s honor is something that he will perhaps fight for,” said Bagheera in his gentlest voice.

“A bull paid ten years ago!” the Pack snarled. “What do we care for bones ten years old?”

“Or for a pledge?” said Bagheera, his white teeth bared under his lip. “Well are ye called the Free People!”

Historically speaking, I think doubts were beginning to creep into Britain’s imperial enterprise, doubts that would be expressed more directly six years later in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Whether the impotent tiger represents an aging and parasitical monarchy or, more generally, an existential malaise, there is a sense that Britain’s founding vision was in trouble. This of course is how originalists like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Tea Party types see the American Republic today. They believe something has gone terribly wrong.

I’m not bothered by this aspect of The Jungle Books.  People of all political persuasions routinely complain about how their country has veered from its founding ideals and point to different culprits depending on their values and agendas. What bothers me is the libertarian fantasy that Mowgli and his wolf brothers can just walk out of society altogether, shoving the young wolves’ decision in their faces. “I see ye are dogs,” says Mowgli as he threatens his fellow wolves and Shere Khan with fire. It’s a little like Ayn Rand’s fantasy of how society will miss the supermen when they’re gone. Here’s how the third chapter ends:

Ever since Akela had been deposed, the Pack had been without a leader, hunting and fighting at their own pleasure. But they answered the call from habit; and some of them were lame from the traps they had fallen into, and some limped from shot wounds, and some were mangy from eating bad food, and many were missing. But they came to the Council Rock, all that were left of them, and saw Shere Khan’s striped hide on the rock, and the huge claws dangling at the end of the empty dangling feet. It was then that Mowgli made up a song that came up into his throat all by itself, and he shouted it aloud, leaping up and down on the rattling skin, and beating time with his heels till he had no more breath left, while Gray Brother and Akela howled between the verses.

“Look well, O Wolves. Have I kept my word?” said Mowgli. And the wolves bayed “Yes,” and one tattered wolf howled:

“Lead us again, O Akela. Lead us again, O Man-cub, for we be sick of this lawlessness, and we would be the Free People once more.”

“Nay,” purred Bagheera, “that may not be. When ye are full-fed, the madness may come upon you again. Not for nothing are ye called the Free People. Ye fought for freedom, and it is yours. Eat it, O Wolves.”

“Man-Pack and Wolf-Pack have cast me out,” said Mowgli. “Now I will hunt alone in the jungle.”

“And we will hunt with thee,” said the four cubs.

So Mowgli went away and hunted with the four cubs in the jungle from that day on.

In other words, I’m so disgusted with you that I’m just going to leave and start my own society. And you’ll be sorry.

Nor is this the only problematic answer that Kipling proposes to social threats that he perceived. Two forces in the Europe of his day that worried him were the anarchists, whom he depicts through the monkey people or Bander-log, and the communists, whom he depicts through the red dogs or the dhole. Both of these mass movements represented threats to traditional individualism and the British Way and in each case we can see his panic through the extremity of his solutions.

When Mowgli is kidnapped by the rule-breaking, attention-deficit Bander-log, Baloo and Bagheera are forced to do something they would rather not: enlist the services of the fascist Kaa. If you think I’m exaggerating when I describe the python this way, check out how he operates:

 ”Bandar-log,” said the voice of Kaa at last, “can ye stir foot or hand without my order? Speak!”

“Without thy order we cannot stir foot or hand, O Kaa!”

“Good! Come all one pace nearer to me.”

The lines of the monkeys swayed forward helplessly, and Baloo and Bagheera took one stiff step forward with them.

“Nearer!” hissed Kaa, and they all moved again.

Mowgli laid his hands on Baloo and Bagheera to get them away, and the two great beasts started as though they had been waked from a dream.

“Keep thy hand on my shoulder,” Bagheera whispered. “Keep it there, or I must go back—must go back to Kaa. Aah!”

What does it take to rid the world of a massive threat that doesn’t play by the rules? Bring in a leader who mesmerizes people and twists them to his ends.

Communists get a taste of their own medicine in “Red Dog” when the relentless and well-organized wild dogs, or dhole, are defeated by “the Little People of the Rocks.” The “place of Death” is a vast wasteland inhabited by millions of bees that will sting to death any living thing that gets close. Although the chapter ends with a heroic fight for civilization against the few dhole that survive the bees, it’s clear that British rules of fair fighting could never stand up to the hoards. Kipling all but says that the future of the world belongs to the masses, whether dog packs or bees.

Kipling, in other words, has written a fantasy in which heroic individualism is fighting for its life against the forces of modernism. I find it particularly interesting that Kipling wrote Jungle Books after spending four years in America, where he came to admire our entrepreneurial spirit.

For all of his suspicion of the faceless masses, however, I don’t see The Jungle Books as altogether a reactionary fantasy. Progressives should applaud individual initiative no less than conservatives. Marx, after all, believed that society should be reorganized, not so that we would become faceless, but so that we would cease to be faceless. Only when we are not underfed or trapped in mindless work can we begin to achieve our full individual potential.

Furthermore, it’s noteworthy that Mowgli never achieves his successes by himself. He always works with others to achieve his ends, whether with Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa, his wolf brothers, Kathi the elephant, or countless others.

Now that I look back, I realize that what I loved about The Jungle Books as a child was Mowgli’s collaborative work. What made me uncomfortable was Kipling’s insistence on Mowgli’s superiority.

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The Minefield of Talking about Race


This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the debate between liberal bloggers Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates on “race and the culture of poverty.” Today I attempt to be a bit more focused by applying a single passage from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko to Chait’s contention that we are focusing too much on race in our political battles.

Chait believes that there’s a major problem with liberals automatically tarring conservatives as racist whenever those conservatives embrace policies that hurt minorities. Those policies, he says, may be driven by something besides racism, and he worries that all-encompassing race charges cloud the issues:

Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history, has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world. Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.

Amongst the liberals that Chait criticizes is Ed Kilgore of Washington Monthly, who has responded that he is actually trying to separate out subjective racism from objective racism. By this he means that it doesn’t matter what conservatives think they think. It doesn’t matter if they tell themselves they are not being racist as they pass Stand Your Ground laws or voter suppression laws that disproportionately impact people of color. What matters is the objective laws themselves.

Chait’s concern about conservatives who plead innocent to charges of racism reminds me of a dark scene from Behn’s work. Oroonoko, called Caesar by the colonialists, has been captured, mercilessly whipped, and had hot pepper rubbed into his wounds after his aborted slave rebellion, His purported friend Trefry, the overseer who assured Oroonoko safe passage, claims that he was given false assurances by Lieutenant Governor Byam. Behn, meanwhile, is worried that Oroonoko will associate her with the tyrannical slave masters. Trefry and Behn both want Oroonoko to think of them as people who wish him well:

  We were no sooner arrived but we went up to the plantation to see Caesar; whom we found in a very miserable and unexpressable condition; and I have a thousand times admired how he lived in so much tormenting pain. We said all things to him that trouble, pity, and good-nature could suggest, protesting our innocency of the fact, and our abhorrence of such cruelties; making a thousand professions and services to him, and begging as many pardons for the offenders, till we said so much that he believed we had no hand in his ill treatment: but told us, he could never pardon Byam; as for Trefry, he confessed he saw his grief and sorrow for his suffering, which he could not hinder, but was like to have been beaten down by the very slaves, for speaking in his defense: but for Byam, who was their leader, their head- and should, by his justice and honor, have been and example to ‘em- for him he wished to live to take a dire revenge of him; and said, “It had been well for him if he had sacrificed me instead of giving me the contemptible whip.”

There is a lot going on in this passage, just as there is in our own race debates. Behn and Trefry are the white liberals here, and while they sympathize deeply with Oroonoko, they almost seem more worried that he will see them as Byam-style racists. They therefore badger him into absolving them of responsibility:

[We were] making a thousand professions and services to him, and begging as many pardons for the offenders, till we said so much that he believed we had no hand in his ill treatment…

Oroonoko, who we can assume is more focused on his flayed back than on the guilty feelings of white liberals, nevertheless forgives them. In the passage Behn focuses more on her subjective state than on his objective reality, which is Kilgore’s criticism of Chait.

More positively, having witnessed Byam’s brutality, Behn appears sympathetic with Oroonoko’s expression of black rage. America regularly freaks out when confronted with black rage, real or imagined, which is one reason why Obama has walked so carefully.

Oroonoko’s qualified defense of Trefry is also interesting. Although he notes that he defended Trefry to the other slaves, they were prepared to beat him down for doing so. Why? Because Trefry is the plantation overseer, and although he has treated Oroonoko with respect, he has acted very differently with them. As a result, Trefry appears less racist to Oroonoko than he does to the lower class slaves. This, as I noted in yesterday’s post, is one of Coates’ criticisms of Obama: the president, like Chait but unlike Coates, doesn’t acknowledge the full extent of racism in America.

So who is right here? Behn and Trefry are focused on an issue, their inner guilt, that seems laughably small compared to Oroonoko’s enslavement and death. They can never fully grasp what it’s like being a slave. So chalk one up for Coates.

Then again, they are paying attention to Oroonoko’s suffering, which was very unusual in the 17th century. As I noted yesterday, the real life Behn was so haunted by what happened to the real life Oroonoko that she wrote a book that would go on to play a significant role in the British and American abolition movements. Although Behn is often myopic, her vision of how race, gender, and class inequality undermines even the most promising of friendships stirred the consciences of white audiences. In short, we need Chait as well as Coates.

The conversations about race are so difficult that we must fumble through them together. As we do so, we must avoid both self-righteousness and claims of innocence.

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Race Disagreements amongst Friends


“Aphra Behn” by Mary Beale

Over the past three weeks we have been witnessing a fascinating debate on “race and the culture of poverty” between two of America’s smartest liberal columnists. Although generally eloquent and on target, there have been times when Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic and Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine have talked past each other, with Chait at one point noting that he himself doesn’t agree with the “Jonathan Chait” who is described by Coates. Aphra Behn’s 1688 memoir-novel Oroonoko helps us understand what is going on.

The debate began when Republican Congressman Paul Ryan essentially blamed young urban black men for inner city poverty. (I blogged on that here.) Coates of course took exception but then went a step further. Ryan, he said, was saying something similar to what President Obama has been saying about a culture of poverty. Both blame the victims rather than the conditions leading to the problem. The problem isn’t debased culture, Coates maintained. It’s the result of institutionalized racism, which includes the absence of inner city jobs.

The link between Obama and Ryan drew the respectful ire of Chait, who argued that it would be surprising if there were not a culture of poverty left over from years of slavery and Jim Crow. Coates countered that Chait was ignoring what it is like to be a black man in current day America and accused Chait of underplaying the impact of current day racism. Chait wondered why Coates was so pessimistic given the strides that have been made since slave times. And so on.

Debates like this are very useful if people are open to the insights that they yield. They are not if they prompt people to hunker down into entrenched positions. Here’s how Oroonoko helps us open up to what can be learned.

The purported memoir of a white woman who befriends a slave in colonial Surinam, Oroonoko dramatizes the differences that can arise between purported allies in intolerable circumstances. The work makes clear that those who are directly impacted by injustice will always see the world differently than those who are not, no matter how sympathetic the latter may be. Throughout Oroonoko Behn-the-character counsels patience to the slave Oroonoko and Oroonoko is sometimes reassured and sometimes not. Ultimately he instigates a slave revolt that fails, leading to his grisly execution.

I’ve described the ins and outs of their friendship in another post so I won’t repeat myself here. I’ll just note that Behn bends herself into contortions as she tries, like Chait, to maintain a positive outlook while Oroonoko, like Coates, finds himself alternating between hope and despair. (Coates is in despair in this debate but that’s not always his stance.) Sometimes Oroonoko buys Behn’s assurances, flimsy as they are, and other times he flares up at her, even though she is the only real white friend he has. To be sure, she’s an unreliable friend, but she’s still a friend.

Inequality leads to problems with other friendships in the book as well. Behn, as a woman, wants to be respected by the male colonialists, but they give her a place at the table only to the extent that she will keep an eye on Oroonoko. Think of this as Chait trying to maintain a bridge with conservatives, even though they might well use his words in support of Ryan’s attempts to slash anti-poverty programs. (“See, even Chait agrees with Paul Ryan.”)

For his part, while Oroonoko wants to be friends with his fellow slaves, they see him as a privileged black man who is using them for his purposes. In one way, Coates is like one of these slaves in his accusations of Obama: he claims that the president is currying favor with whites by his “culture of poverty” remarks while refusing to talk about America’s continuing racism. If part of Obama’s appeal was that he would lead us into a post-racial America, then it wouldn’t serve his purposes to admit to how little he has moved the needle, how entrenched racism continues to be. But lumping potential friends together with enemies isolates one as the revolting slaves are isolated. Unlike Ryan, Chait and Obama are not out to savage America’s safety net.

I take two major lessons away from Oroonoko. The first is that, in a situation where there are no good options, alliances between black and white liberals will always be tense. In Behn’s case, the very fact of slavery inevitably puts a strain on her relationship with Oroonoko. Even if she were ten times more sensitive than any of us ever are, conflicts will arise. Similarly, in a society where levels of black poverty are unacceptably high and where many in Congress want to make the situation even worse, Chait and Coates will fight over how to make the best of a bad situation. Do you trumpet the fact that things are getting marginally better or focus on how bad things still are?

The second lesson is that friends and allies need to keep trying to work things out, uncomfortable though their conversations may be. Behn and Oroonoko can never see the world in the same way, and neither can Chait and Coates. But if they keep talking—and more important, keep listening—they have a better chance of focusing on the real culprit and figuring out a meaningful response.

This won’t necessarily yield immediate results. British slavery continued on for almost 150 years after Oroonoko appeared. On the other hand, the work, turned into a theatrical drama, did play a role in both the British and the American abolition movements.

Literature can provide us a space outside our own battles to understand what is going on. Then we can apply what we have learned.

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Spring’s Triumph over War

Bees assaulting and fumbling an almond blossm

Bees assaulting and fumbling an almond blossom

V E Day (correction: not!)

My brother Jonathan  has just informed me that we are in the month of April rather than the month of May. Which tells you the state of my mind at present. Oh well, any day is a good day for a good anti-war poem.

Today is Victory in Europe Day and I no longer have my father to talk to about World War II. In the final years of his life he spent a lot of time reminiscing about his time in France and Germany, and I came to understand how deeply those events shaped his views on religion, on race, on war, on sex, on the meaning of life.

In memory of him, I share one of his favorite anti-war poems. I love the contrast between the bureaucratic drill sergeant and the sublimely indifferent spring, which captures my father’s own irreverence for authority. A PFC in the Third Army, he was always a life-affirming anarchist at heart.

The Latin epigraph is a variation of a line from Horace’s Odes (3.26.1-2) in which World War II vet Henry Reed substitutes the word “duellus”—battles—for “puellus”—girls. The revised passage reads, “Lately I have lived in the midst of battles [no longer girls], creditably enough,/and have soldiered, not without glory.”

Despite the drill sergeant’s determined efforts to keep his men focused on duellus, however, the men’s minds invariably wander to puellus. The sexual drives of soldiers were one of the things that my father most remembered about World War II. Troops could invert any “d” to a “p.”

In other words, the sexual puns that you detect in the following poem are fully intentional. Like Emily Dickinson in “Come slowly–Eden!,” the recruits imagine themselves “lost in balms.”

From Lessons of the War

By Henry Reed

To Alan Mitchell

Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine Gloria

I. Naming of Parts

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.


Previous World War II Posts

V-E Day, Whitman, and My 15 Minutes

World War II Internment Still Resonates

School Begins with Internment Camp Novel

Lesson of War: Fear + Fear=Hate

My Father Carried Poetry through World War II

Vonnegut’s Sci Fi, a Response to PTSD

Author PTSD Led to Billy Pilgrim, Holden

What Light Verse Meant to Scott Bates

A “Greatest Generation” Vet Reflects

Brother Fire Unleashed in Libya

Drones Put Heaven in a Rage

The Meaning of Soldiers and Sex


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Melville’s Parable of American Denial

“The San Dominick” – Focal Stage of “Benito Cereno”

“The San Dominick” – Focal Stage of “Benito Cereno”

Last week I set forth a theory of how social inequality generates disturbing fantasies and how, conversely, we can analyze fantasy literature to better understand our social problems. Look at all the pundits–for instance Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and Salon’s Aaron Kase– who have been examining today’s world through the lens of Game of Thrones. Today I am writing about Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, which shows the mental games we play when facing intractable problems and which I’m teaching at the moment in Literature in History II. I’ll also be discussing what has become known as Obama Derangement Syndrome.

First, however, let me give a nod to my favorite instance of a fantasy classic that grew out of rage over growing social inequality. In my book How Beowulf Can Save America, I argue that its trolls and dragons are symbolic versions of resentful warriors and greedy kings who were sabotaging the fundamental social contract of early Anglo Saxon society. The contract called for warriors to fight loyally for their kings and give them the wealth they acquired and for kings to redistribute that wealth fairly and generously. If Beowulf continues to pack a punch today, it is because we have our own version of trolls and dragons in a society that is experiencing growing levels of inequality that threaten our democracy.

Now on to Benito Cereno, which, while purportedly realistic, ventures into strange gothic territory of vaporous mists and ominous chanting where nothing is what it seems. Most striking about the story, however, is the cluelessness of Captain Delano, who climbs aboard a ship in distress but doesn’t realize that a slave rebellion is underway. Instead, he posits a number of other theories about why Captain Benito Cereno is distressed and why his seemingly faithful slave Babo follows him around so closely.

I’ll talk in a moment about why I think the story gives us insight into today’s conservative extremists and “truthers” but let’s first situate the story historically. It was written in 1855 and was based on a real life incident in 1805 of slaves  seizing the Spanish ship that was carrying them to the Americas. As in the story, slaves deluded Captain Delano for an entire day until Cereno leapt into his rowboat as it was pulling away and revealed that he was being held captive.

The story was relevant in the years immediately prior to the Civil War for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, the South was trying to present slavery as a benign and humane institution and many northerners like Delano were willing to go along with this charade. Self-delusion was preferable to attempting to end slavery itself, which seemed beyond the realm of possibility.

Following the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1850, the fiction that slavery was benign became harder to maintain, requiring even higher degrees of denial if Americans were to think well of themselves. In that way Delano’s blindness is not just a personal failing but an understandable response to intolerable historical pressures:

Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. 

Melville’s story goes on to show that denial can go hand in hand with elaborate conspiracy theories. The very factors that prompt us to see less than what is before us also cause us to see more. In Delano’s case, he begins to attribute Cereno’s strange behavior to a concerted plot that the Spanish captain and his slaves are hatching to seize his own ship. Likewise, in the American South those slave owners who saw their slaves as stupid and childlike also saw them as capable of mounting vast and intricate rebellions. Babo is at once a friendly Newfoundland dog (so Delano describes him) and a fiendish mastermind.

Today, those on the far right have a similarly contradictory vision of their black president. On the one hand, he is a stupid man who got into Harvard Law School through affirmative action and who needs a teleprompter when he speaks. On the other hand, he is a diabolically clever man who time and again gets away with scandals.  He is a clueless naïf who gets rolled by Vladimir Putin and he is a lawless dictator who tyrannically imposes his will. Liberals mock how the right can’t get its story straight, but the contradictory images arise out of the right’s hysteria over what they see as an apocalyptic situation.

That situation involves frightening climate change, rampant gun violence, soaring income inequality, stagnating wages, and dramatic demographic shifts.  The response: deny where you can and devise conspiracy theories about the rest. Oh, and when it comes to legislating, pass more abortion restrictions.

At the end of Benito Cereno, the whites seize control of the ship and the slaves are either hanged or sold. Many on the American right dream of impeaching Obama (although they can’t agree on what grounds).

But here’s the problem: they can never be free of Obama because the president is not real to them. He is a projection of their dark fears, and those fears will still be in full force after he leaves office. Delano is upset to see Cereno downcast after he is free and avenged but receives this explanation:

“You are saved,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

“The negro.”

If Hillary is our next president, I predict rightwing fears will switch to devouring female monsters. Wild conspiracy stories will continue to emerge.

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Hope Out of a Dry Bones Wasteland

Gustave, "Valley of Dry Bones"

Gustave Doré, “Valley of Dry Bones”

Spiritual Sunday 

I find one of the strangest passages in the Bible to be Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, which we will hear in church today. Although Ezekiel envisions a happy ending for his bones, the image of death and sterility is so grim and unsettling that T. S. Eliot uses it as one of his foundational images in The Waste Land (1922). Yet for all his pessimism, Eliot’s hints at a possibility of spiritual renewal.

Here’s the passage from Ezekiel (37:1-14): 

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord. 

My friend John Morrow, a retired Episcopal priest, says that the story reflects God’s deep and abiding love for his people. If He can create Adam out of dust, He can breathe new life into those who have lost touch with Him.

Eliot is describing a world where people feel cut off from spiritual meaning. His first reference to the bones occurs as part of a sterile domestic conversation in Part II (“The Game of Chess”), a scene that may be based on Eliot’s own troubled relationship with his first wife. Hearing her incessant complaining, he silently thinks of Ezekiel’s valley:

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

The poem continues on with an ironic allusion to the divine breath that God promises the people of Israel. In this case, the wind is empty: 

  “What is that noise?”
                        The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
                           Nothing again nothing.

Bones show up twice in Part III (“The Fire Sermon”), the first time in a terrifying echo of a line from Andrew Marvell’s famous carpe diem poem “To His Coy Mistress.” Pleading for his mistress to give yield to his overtures, Marvell’s speaker comes up with a startling version of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”:

But always at my back I hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

Eliot drops Marvell’s cavalier tone and describes only our grim condition:

But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

The poet then returns to the image of the impotent fisher king that is at the core of the poem. At the same time, rats make a repeat appearance, prompting us to wonder about the state of Eliot’s London apartment. The passage also has images of death (Ferdinand in The Tempest mourning his father’s apparent death) and of sterile sexuality (“white bodies naked”):

A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.

In Part IV (“Death by Water”), there is another image of bones being picked clean, although this time they are not dry bones. Nevertheless, the image has the same effect:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                   A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. 

Finally, in Part V (“What the Thunder Said”), we have yet images of death with no resurrection: a decayed hole (Jesus’ tomb?), overgrown graves, an empty chapel, and a door swinging helplessly in the wind. These dry bones will “harm no one”:

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
     Dry bones can harm no one.

Despite the grim images, however, there is subsequently a hint that resurrection may be on its way, although Eliot detects no more than a hint. A cock crows—think of Henry Vaughan’s poem about the resurrected Jesus as a rooster—and then there is a flash of lightning and “a damp gust/bringing rain.” This is not “the dry sterile thunder without rain” from earlier in the poem. There may be hope after all.

Eliot does not offer us easy grace in this poem. He does not have Ezekiel’s energizing faith as he struggles with deep spiritual depression. But because his hints of spiritual redemption are so hard won, they have a ring of truth to them.

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The Zen of Basketball


Sports Saturday 

Other than the fact that all the faces in the NCAA men’s final four are familiar—I believe that three of the final four teams have won multiple national championships—it’s been a good tournament. Here’s a strangely alluring poem about basketball players who are in the zone. I call on readers to help me interpret it.

The poem begins with images of desperation and violence but transitions into Zen Buddhist peace. These players are so tuned in that they practice non-resistance as a defense strategy. And it’s true that, upon occasion, players will miss an easy layup when the contact they expect never comes.

I’m afraid I don’t know who Sardria Char is but I enjoy how he receives a rebound like one of life’s blessings, opening his hands in praise. And how Gandhi completes the fast break with the ball going through the net “like a good soul coming into eternity.”

To play well, the poem tells us, be at peace with yourself. The rest will follow.

New World In The Morning

By Norman German

Somewhere on the outskirts
of a southeast Texas town
where you burn your neighbor’s house
for revenge
and then your own for insurance money
to leave the county
the Zen Buddhist basketball team
is practicing for its next game.

Friday night on the court,
at peace with themselves,
the fans, the refs, and other players,
they make their baskets every time
and never trip their opponents on fast breaks
or pull their shorts down on jump shots.

Flowing to the rival end of the court
they politely step aside as the Cobras’
star player drives for a layup and,
having nothing to fight for, misses.

Waiting underneath, docile as a doe,
Sardria Char opens his hands
like a baby bird’s mouth, open in praise.
Avoiding the karma-disturbing thuds of a dribble,
he takes the ball and hands off to Krishna,
who passes to Gandhi sitting cross-legged
and sleepy-eyed under the home town hoop.
The ball rises in a perfect, silent curve.
Never touching the rim, it swishes through the net
like a good soul coming into being.

Tonight they subdue with serenity.
Next year they take the title.

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Will Oliver Finally Get Health Care?

Barney Clark as Oliver Twist

Barney Clark as Oliver Twist

In what I recently discovered is the best selling novel of all time, Dickens famously writes,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—

And then he adds,

–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

For liberals like myself, what we saw this past week invites a superlative degree of comparison. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

On the one hand (the best of times), insurance sign-ups on the Obamacare exchanges passed the 7.1 million mark, meaning that the Affordable Care Act appears to have survived everything, both unrelenting opposition from the GOP and the website’s troubled rollout. When you add to this figure all the working poor who have signed up for expanded Medicare; all those 20-somethings who can stay on their parents’ plans; all those getting the extra benefits that Obamacare provides; and all those who now can rest confident that, regardless of life’s reversals, they will always have access to affordable healthcare, then you have an America that suddenly seems much more welcoming. Anyone who has a heart must be glad to see all Americans—well, most Americans—on their way to having health insurance.

On the worst of times front, we saw our conservative Supreme Court continue its steady march toward “one dollar, one vote” with its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling. As with the Citizens United decision, wealthy Americans will have plentiful opportunity to buy our democracy, and the New York Times tells us that more such rulings are on the way. In short, this past week the poor got something and the rich got something.

In today’s post, I’m focusing on the best of times. And as I’ve used Dickens in the past to comment on Obama’s outreach to our embattled middle and lower classes, I turn to the great Victorian novelist once again.

Think of those who have had to go without health insurance as Oliver Twist. Poor and vulnerable, they are in the grip of rapacious forces that threaten to destroy them. Then, almost miraculously, they find themselves supported by the Affordable Care Act, just as the wrongfully accused Oliver finds himself saved by the kindly Mr. Brownlow. In the case of Americans without healthcare, it appears that their fortunes have turned around when Obamacare is passed by Congress and signed by the president.

The story is not yet done, however. Relentless forces are at work and Oliver is not yet safe, getting pulled back into the life of the gutter. He has to be saved a second time (maybe this is the Supreme Court upholding the law), and even then he is not yet home free. Malevolent individuals continue to target him.

Why would a poor orphan boy be singled out this way? Why, for that matter, would certain politicians seems to have such an animus against the poor that they not only go after their health care but also seek to deprive them of food stamps and extended unemployment insurance?

In Oliver Twist the explanation lies in the vendetta that Oliver’s half brother has against him. I’m not sure what Paul Ryan’s explanation is, his Scroogean budget being another item that made this a worst of times week. (Food stamp and Pell cuts to further subsidize oil companies?!)

Dickens’ novel, of course, ends happily as Oliver is reunited with Mr. Brownlow. Think of him as the patient who can finally imagine treatment for the worrisome cough or the painful hip that has been making his life miserable. Think of the joy that comes with returning health.

When Dickens has the chance to describe such scenes, he holds nothing back. Here is Oliver reuniting with the old nurse who thought she had lost him for ever:

[Y]ielding to his first impulse, [Oliver] sprang into her arms.

“God be good to me!” cried the old lady, embracing him; “it is my innocent boy!”

“My dear old nurse!” cried Oliver.

“He would come back—I knew he would,” said the old lady, holding him in her arms. “How well he looks, and how like a gentleman’s son he is dressed again! Where have you been, this long, long while? Ah! the same sweet face, but not so pale; the same soft eye, but not so sad. I have never forgotten them or his quiet smile, but have seen them every day, side by side with those of my own dear children, dead and gone since I was a lightsome young creature.” Running on thus, and now holding Oliver from her to mark how he had grown, now clasping him to her and passing her fingers fondly through his hair, the good soul laughed and wept upon his neck by turns.

This is what those 7.1 million sign-ups mean. They are not a political abstraction but literally millions of people who have been living for years in anxiety and often pain. Imagine them safe in the arms of a nurse.


Previous posts on Dickens and American hard times:

Dickens, We Need You (and also FDR)

Dickens Children Expose Class Unfairness

What Dickens Would Say to Today’s GOP

E. W. Jackson, a Modern Day Bounderby

Are There No Emergency Rooms? 

Compassion for the Poor Is Not Enough

Joe Biden Debates Bounderby

Gingrich Auditions for a Dickens Villain 

Mitt Romney, an American Podsnap

Warren Buffet, Dickensian Philanthropist  

Hard Times in 1854, Hard Times in 2010

Forget Bootstrapism–We Need Each Other  

Obamacare to Tiny Tim’s Rescue 

Posted in Dickens (Charles) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Analyze Fantasy Projections

Ursula Andress in "She"

Ursula Andress in “She”

In my British Fantasy class this past week we have been discussing Rider Haggard’s She. While the novel may be campy, sexist and colonialist, it’s important in a class like this because of its tremendous influence on C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and other fantasy writers, not to mention on such works as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Even today it appears on the top ten list of bestselling books of all time. (Don’t be too impressed, however: Dan Brown’s dreadful Da Vinci Code is also on the list.)

In the final essay that I am assigning, my students are to analyze a favorite work of fantasy, along with a theory that helps them make sense of what that fantasy means. To model what I have in mind, I turned to She to articulate my own theory of fantasy. Why, I asked, would readers in the 19th century and early 20th centuries have been so enthralled with this work?

She begins with two Victorian gentlemen and a servant journeying deep into Africa to find a woman mentioned in an ancient text. They find Ayesha, a powerful sorceress who is 2000 years ago and whose unearthly beauty causes men to grovel at her feet. My theory is designed to explain how England’s oppressive social relations (with women, with Africa) found their way into fantasy and then how we can analyze fantasy to understand those relations.

Here’s my theory reduced down to 15 steps. I draw on ideas gleaned from (among others) Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Hegel, Karl Marx, Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Fredric Jameson, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Norman Holland, Rosemary Jackson, and Richard Matthews.

  1. The conditions for fantasy are laid down when one group conquers or oppresses another group;
  2. The oppressor never justifies this oppression on the grounds of mere power because power relations can be reversed; instead, oppression is universalized by means of a cultural and/or religious rationale;
  3. This justification involves celebrating one’s own characteristics while denigrating the characteristics of the other;
  4. In the process, the other becomes the Other. Oppressor and Other define themselves against each other with the Other often internalizing the oppressor’s justification;
  5. This means, however, that oppressors must denigrate in themselves whatever traits they share with the Other;
  6. The more investment one has in one’s superiority, the more intolerable it becomes to find traits of the Other within oneself; those who are insecure in their identities are particularly motivated to deny those traits;
  7. Denial involves ruthlessly pushing this side of ourselves into the unconscious;
  8. Freud and Jung tell us that whatever is pushed under or repressed becomes toxic; “secrets make us sick” Freud is supposed to have said;
  9. That which is repressed expresses itself in dream symbols or archetypes; symbols are necessary because, even in dreams, the anxieties that have been pushed under are too painful, too shameful, to be faced and expressed directly. Freud says that the dream disguises the anxieties in order to bypass the internal censor;
  10. Literary fantasists (like Haggard, Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling) function as shamans, articulating their society’s dark dreams as uncanny stories and poems;
  11.  We are drawn to these fantasy works even though they disturb us because we recognize within them the traits that we have denied and repressed. In Heart of Darkness Conrad calls this attraction “the fascination of the abomination”;
  12. Fantasy scholars use the work of Jung, Freud, Campbell and others to interpret fantasy’s symbols and archetypes, discovering what is being repressed;
  13. Readers can also use these tools to analyze their own responses to a powerful work of fantasy, thereby discovering what they themselves are denying and pushing under;
  14.  If we recognize how we are crippled by our repression, we can begin to address the healing process. This may involve reaching out to those that we either directly or indirectly oppress. It may involve doing what we can to change a system of oppression from which we benefit.
  15. To summarize:
    –Oppression makes us sick by prompting us to deny important sides of ourselves;
    –Fantasy indirectly expresses our sickness;
    –An analysis of fantasy can help us understand this sickness and set us on the way to finding individual and/or social solutions. 

Let me know if you have comments, criticisms, questions, or addenda. I’d be glad to apply these steps to a fantasy work that you find particularly powerful.

Posted in Haggard (Rider) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

#CancelColbert, #CancelMarkTwain

Huck and Jim

Carl Rosin, a high school teacher I admire tremendously, shares below how he will be using a recent public dust-up about a Stephen Colbert tweet to help his students understand the power and danger of satire, especially as it applies to Huckleberry Finn. I love the tweet that Carl imagines could have emerged out of Huck and Jim’s debate over King Solomon.

Carl argues that context is everything, which is absolutely right. At the same time, he makes the point that satire always risks being misunderstood. If it didn’t take chances, it wouldn’t be worth anything. My own favorite example of a satire that everyone misinterpreted, foes and friends alike, is Daniel Defoe’s Shortest Way with Dissenters. Defoe was a Dissenter (or Puritan), and his essay about how Dissenters should be tortured—he was satirizing unjust practices against them—was praised by hostile Anglicans and attacked by his fellow Dissenters. When it was discovered that the article was satirical, Defoe was placed in the pillory.

You can go here if you want to learn more about Carl, including how he left a software engineering job to teach high school and how he recently won a prestigious state teaching award. On top of that, he just learned Friday that he has also won the PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) national award for high school teaching.

By Carl Rosin, English teacher, Radnor High School

The Internet, that cauldron wherein outrage-soup is stewed daily, has served up a spicy bowl of accusation to satirist Stephen Colbert and Comedy Central, the network that hosts his Colbert Report. Commentators from all corners quickly re-entrenched themselves in established positions about various political alignments, racism, white privilege, victimization, Twitter, censorship, and offensiveness, but perhaps the most intriguing commentary to have come from this is that which reflects on the noble, storied act of committing satire.

Colbert’s Wednesday show featured a bit (the third part in the linked-to segment) mocking the Washington NFL team and its owner Daniel Snyder, who has started a foundation designed to benefit American Indians. The satire used the fact that Snyder’s generosity may help improve his team’s image during the ongoing controversy about the racist team name, while pointing out how Snyder unapologetically perpetuates the racist name itself. Colbert juxtaposed his commentary on Snyder with a reference to his own offensive character, an outrageously hyperbolic Asian stereotype named Ching-Chong Ding-Dong, and constructed an analogous foundation. The bit was edgy, to say the least, leaning deeply into offensive stereotyping to satirize other offensive stereotyping.

Comedy Central inadvertently (I think) ratcheted up a controversy the next day when its Twitter feed promoted Colbert’s punchline without the full satirical context, tweeting, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Activist Suey Park exploded upon seeing what appeared to be a racist blurb, blasting out a “CancelColbert” hashtag that was clearly intended to hold Colbert to account for his offensive approach. Others, like Brittney Cooper at, followed up in a similar vein.

My first thought: ask Mark Twain to comment.

Satire is an exalted literary form, with a noble history of communicating difficult ideas in insidiously persuasive ways. As Prof. Bates has often noted, here and via Prof. Ben Click here and in many other related posts, a literary satire like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn both gains power and incurs risk by developing the ironic gap between its literal level and the level of design or intent. Few novels have been banned as often as Huck, and few have incurred more vitriol. At the same time, few have earned more praise, and few have more power.

An example from the novel that illuminates this is chapter XIV’s argument between Huck and Jim, which culminates in their disagreement about whether King Solomon was wise. Huck, despite his love of freedom and his incessant resistance to authority, has started to internalize what society has to say: his first claim in favor of King Solomon’s wisdom is that the widow Douglas told him Solomon was wise. We readers whiff danger, knowing as we already do about the virulence of conformity within the corrupted slaveholding society in which Huck was raised.

Jim protests that some of Solomon’s famous exploits don’t show wisdom at all, and the two go back and forth about whether the famous splitting-the-baby episode proves the king to have been clever to have devised a solution (Huck) or barbaric even to suggest it (Jim). Huck cannot convince Jim, and Jim cannot convince Huck. The scene cleverly and subtly portrays the uneducated slave as a person of compassion who is capable of constructing a viewpoint that responsibly challenges conventional wisdom about the Bible – a conventional wisdom that Twain loved to tweak. Huck, exasperatedly unable to recognize any value in Jim’s position, ends the scene by saying, “I see it warn’t no use wasting words – you can’t learn a nigger to argue. So I quit.” Woe to us all if we “quit” challenging entrenched perspectives. Twain’s satire has dug a foundation for the novel’s developing challenge to racism.

Imagine, however, Twain’s publisher sending out a tweet to plump for that chapter. The tweet says only, “I see it warn’t no use wasting words – you can’t learn a n***** to argue.” (Update: I wrote this post before seeing Colbert make essentially this same point in his Monday night show, only he imagined someone sending out a passage from Swift’s “Modest Proposal.”)

Even in context, the chapter is challenging, edgy, many might say offensive. Out of context, it’s wildly inflammatory.

Commentators wise and foolish have all brought up the power of context in the Colbert/Snyder/Park situation. Colbert’s defenders on Deadspin and elsewhere opined fiercely that readers had to consider context or else satire makes no sense, or, even worse, it often seems to make “sense” that is the opposite of its designed intent.

Several defenders seemed to start, interestingly enough, from the context that Colbert has had such an impressive history of skewering racism that he deserves the benefit of the doubt, which pushes us to consider the double standard that Bill Maher pointed out this week in comparing statements by Paul Ryan (who tends not to get the benefit of the doubt, thanks to his record) and Michelle Obama (who does, thanks to hers). Several of the articles on the flap feature reader comments that say that the team name is not racist at all, because it is in the context of a proud, 77-year football tradition. Someone invariably brings up the difference between the use of the “n-word” by African-American and non-African-American speakers. I don’t agree that those latter two cases are equivalent, by the way, but both scream to us about how much context matters.

A novel, unlike the Internet, demands sustained attention and careful consideration. It is a world into which the reader embeds herself or himself. Some satires may be briefer, but any satire’s ethos must be established before its intent can be judged reasonably. To call “Satire!” is not to give an airtight excuse, though; poorly targeted satire simply fails, which thoughtful readers have the right to evaluate. In fact, as much as I love Colbert as a satirist – he is arguably the best one going today, with all due respect to other brilliant purveyors like Jon Stewart and Andy Borowitz – I find his original Ching-Chong Ding-Dong (the 2005 clip embedded in last week’s show) painful to watch, and I consider that an example of a rare failure for him.

My interdisciplinary Viewpoints on Modern American class of 30 high school juniors recently discussed literary tragedy in the context of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman’s suicide evokes powerful, conflicting feelings, providing a culmination of the pity and fear that Aristotle asserts that we audience members feel upon witnessing a tragic circumstance. I asserted that suicide in literature tends to be more about life than death, but for the many of us who have been touched by a suicide in some way, we may struggle to distance the concept from the literal instance of an individual taking his or her own life.

Catharsis is a powerful tool in comedy, as it is in tragedy. My teaching partner raised the concept of “too soon,” referring to Gilbert Gottfried’s ill-fated attempt to joke about 9/11 back in 2001. Taboos and the act of giving or withholding permission play powerful roles in our public discourse. Some topics, like slavery or rape, may always be off-limits to some people. The conversation about them is itself illuminating, even as it often raises welts. Distance runners and people who identify strongly with Boston tend to react more viscerally than the general public do to last year’s bombing, and will be more deeply affected by the upcoming anniversary of that devastation; for Jews like me it tends still to be “too soon” to joke casually about the Holocaust. Individuals relate to narrative in ways constructed by the author but which are also deeply informed and affected by their personal experience and position. The modernists and post-modernists might say that we must be wary of fooling ourselves about the pre-eminence and inviolability of Text.

But, as Better Living Through Beowulf has pointed out in dozens of insightful ways over the years, literature is essentially about empathy, profoundly and unrelentingly. Is it possible to make an evaluation on a normative level about the suitability and effectiveness of a satire while also addressing the fact that individuals may perceive that in a highly offensive – and thus unsuitable, ineffective – way?

Were our great writers afraid of offending, the bar would be set too low for literature to perform its sacred ministrations. Stephen Colbert may not be perceived as literature, but his satire is part of an invaluable tradition. We protect it by putting more of the onus on ourselves, the readers and viewers, instead of letting our viscera spill out.

That being said, however, we also do a disservice to all readers when we demand that they distance themselves far enough from the blast zone that they not feel personal hurt. That disservice smacks of imperialism. Literature’s task, therefore, is to keep contact with both shores, in a dialectic that is impossible to simplify.

Is satire, and arguably any edgy piece of literature, ever truly safe? No, and that’s why we need it.

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Meditation upon a Broom (April Fool!)

Vincent Van Gogh, "Man with a Broom"

Vincent Van Gogh, “Man with a Broom”

April Fool’s Day

One of the greatest April Fool’s jokesters of all time was Jonathan Swift. I’ve written in the past about one of his best jokes, how he posed as Isaac Bickerstaff and predicted that the astrologer John Partridge was a fraud because he hadn’t predicted that he would be dead in two months. But this wasn’t the only one.

Of course “Modest Proposal,” which wouldn’t have looked any different in the book stall that the other proposals for social improvement around it, would have worked as a joke. I don’t know what time of year it appeared.

Another prank, which I can well imagine occurring on April Fool’s Day, was Swift’s “Meditation upon a Broomstick” (1701). Supposedly he was accustomed to read aloud from Robert Boyle’s Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects (1665) to the ladies in the Earl of Berkeley’s household, whose chaplain he was. Boyle can find a religious message in just about anything—giving meat to a dog, getting caught in a storm, cleaning the house—and one can imagine Swift becoming impatient with how mechanical Boyle could be. One day he substituted his own meditation.

It starts sedately enough, perfectly capturing Boyle’s style. While his listeners may have been surprised by someone choosing a broomstick as a subject for meditation, everything else would have sounded right:

THIS single stick, which you now behold ingloriously lying in that neglected corner, I once knew in a flourishing state in a forest. It was full of sap, full of leaves, and full of boughs; but now in vain does the busy art of man pretend to vie with nature, by tying that withered bundle of twigs to its sapless trunk; it is now at best but the reverse of what it was, a tree turned upside-down, the branches on the earth, and the root in the air; it is now handled by every dirty wench, condemned to do her drudgery, and, by a capricious kind of fate, destined to make other things clean, and be nasty itself; at length, worn to the stumps in the service of the maids, it is either thrown out of doors or condemned to the last use — of kindling a fire. When I behold this I sighed, and said within myself, “Surely mortal man is a broomstick!” Nature sent him into the world strong and lusty, in a thriving condition, wearing his own hair on his head, the proper branches of this reasoning vegetable, till the axe of intemperance has lopped off his green boughs, and left him a withered trunk; he then flies to art, and puts on a periwig, valuing himself upon an unnatural bundle of hairs, all covered with powder, that never grew on his head; but now should this our broomstick pretend to enter the scene, proud of those birchen spoils it never bore, and all covered with dust, through the sweepings of the finest lady’s chamber, we should be apt to ridicule and despise its vanity. Partial judges that we are of our own excellencies, and other men’s defaults!

At this point, however, Swift’s satire turns dark. Not only does he lament that those who set themselves up as reformers accomplish nothing—in fact, they do more harm than good—but he talks of the broom being enslaved by women and exploited. As someone who was frustrated that his many career ambitions were being thwarted and that he was confined to being a country chaplain and reading meditations to women, did he have himself in mind? It’s a fact that he himself had been kicked out of doors following the death of William Temple, his previous employer.

But a broomstick, perhaps you will say, is an emblem of a tree standing on its head; and pray what is a man but a topsy-turvy creature, his animal faculties perpetually mounted on his rational, his head where his heels should be, groveling on the earth? And yet, with all his faults, he sets up to be a universal reformer and corrector of abuses, a remover of grievances, rakes into every slut’s corner of nature, bringing hidden corruptions to the light, and raises a mighty dust where there was none before, sharing deeply all the while in the very same pollutions he pretends to sweep away. His last days are spent in slavery to women, and generally the least deserving; till, worn to the stumps, like his brother besom [broomstick], he is either kicked out of doors, or made use of to kindle flames for others to warm themselves by.

The story goes that his auditors didn’t catch the joke until the next day, when they returned to the book to revisit this curious topic and found his version stuck inside. The best April Fool’s jokes are those that take a while to recognize.

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Is Bridget Kelly a Femme Fatale?

Astor, Bogart in "Maltese Falcon"

Astor, Bogart in “Maltese Falcon”

Of all the twists and turns that the Chris Christie scandals have taken, I never would have imagined that the story would begin to look like a hard boiled detective thriller, complete with a femme fatale. Like The Maltese Falcon, for instance.

That, at any rate, is what the law firm hired by the governor of New Jersey to investigate the George Washington Bridge lane closings wants us to think. According to their report, the cause of Fort Lee’s four-day traffic nightmare was the bruised love sensibilities of one Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff.

Apparently Kelly, distraught over the end of a love affair with Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien, chose to unleash her fury upon Fort Lee commuters. As a result, a good and honorable man (i.e., Christie) had his presidential aspirations jeopardized.

Of course the report, written by people with Christie connections, doesn’t talk about his political goals. But it does exonerate Christie in every possible way and even imagines defenses he could use if further evidence against him emerges. The sexual speculation may be a preemptive strike against anything Kelly might say (so her lawyer contends), and there appears to be a similar preemptive strike against her co-conspirator David Wildstein. Many skeptics are taking note of the following run-on sentence in the report:

Wildstein even suggested he mentioned the traffic issue in Fort Lee to the Governor at a public event during the lane realignment—a reference that the Governor does not recall and, even if actually made, would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable.

Oh, so Christie told the investigators that he can’t remember what would be the most damning piece of evidence? Well, that settles it. New York Times columnist Gail Collins unleashes her characteristic sarcasm upon the report’s depiction of the governor:

The governor was, indeed, portrayed in a light of near-beatific proportions. He had absolutely no role in the most infamous traffic jam since Woodstock. He was too good, and too busy doing other things, like comforting the victims of a fire — an act of mercy he felt driven to perform even though he had to cancel “a planned trip to Florida with his wife for her birthday.”

Amy Davidson of the New Yorker is also a doubter:

How has Chris Christie “carried himself”? In a way that supports any story he wants to tell, apparently. There is a good man in the governor’s office of New Jersey—the lawyers whom he hired figured that out, after spending a million dollars in taxpayer money on an internal investigation into the decision to choke the town of Fort Lee with traffic. Their report clears Christie of blame entirely; while they’re at it, the lawyers say that Christie didn’t go after political opponents, didn’t encourage or create a culture that encouraged such actions, and was an all-around beacon of bipartisanship. 

Kelly, on the other hand, seems tailor-made for the villainess. Her “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” e-mail, sent to Wildstein, will go down in American political lore. The report concludes that she went rogue and it comes up with only one possible reason for her having done so. Here’s Collins again:

[T]he investigators’ description of her behavior was unusually — personal. They noted that Kelly had been dating Christie’s political adviser, Bill Stepien. And they suggested that she might have thrown herself into the bridge plot during a breakup funk. (“Events in Kelly’s personal life may have had some bearing on her subjective motivations and state of mind.”)

Then when Christie (ever truthful, ever brave) “demanded straight answers from his senior staff,” the report says Kelly “panicked.” Perhaps this was because she was “habitually concerned about how she was perceived by the Governor,” something which is, of course, extremely unusual for people working in a state capitol.

You may recall how, in his two-hour press conference last January, Christie appeared chastened as he (in the opinion of many) threw Kelly and Wildstein under the bus. He used the word “sad” 16 times. Here’s a sampling:

“I’m sad. I’m sad. That’s the predominant emotion I feel right now is sadness – sadness that I was betrayed by a member of my staff, sadness that I had people who I entrusted with important jobs who acted completely inappropriately, sad that that’s led the people of New Jersey to have less confidence in the people that I’ve selected,” Christie said. “The emotion that I’ve been displaying in private is sad.”

Following that conference, I compared him to Rabbit at the end of the Winnie-the-Pooh story “Tigger Is Unbounced”:

This Christie was, to paraphrase A. A. Milne in House at Pooh Corner, “a Humble Christie, a Sad Christie, a Melancholy Christie, a Small and Sorry Christie.”

On Friday, by contrast, Christie appeared to have his mojo back. A dangerous woman had threatened to take him down but now he was back to his old contentious self. Here he is dressing down a reporter for asking him why he didn’t ask Bridget Kelly for her side of the story before firing her last January:

 I don’t know if you can’t take notes or you’re not listening. For you to characterize my last answer as ‘I didn’t want to ask her because I didn’t want to know’ is so awful that it’s beneath the job you hold.

Christie is following the pattern of the hero in those hard boiled detective stories. Under the spell of the femme fatale, the man appears weak and unsure. In order to regain his masculinity, he must resort to dramatic measures. Sometimes, as in Double Indemnity, he even shoots the woman.

In The Maltese Falcon we have another Irish Bridget, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who has hired Spade to find a statue of immense value. He falls in love with her and she uses the love to her advantage, twisting him around her little finger. Note how tangled he gets, how unsure he is of his footing, while trying to get the truth from her. Then imagine that he is Christie in a staff meeting with his own Bridget:

 He turned to face her. The two vertical lines above his nose were deep clefts between red wales. “I don’t give a damn about your honesty,” he told her, trying to make herself speak calmly. “I don’t care what kind of tricks you’re up to, what your secrets are, but I’ve got to have something to show that you know what you’re doing.”

“I do know. Please believe that I do, and that it’s all for the best, and—”

“Show me,” he ordered. “I’m willing to help you. I’ve done what I could so far. If necessary I’ll go ahead blindfolded, but I can’t do it without more confidence in you than I’ve got now. You’ve got to convince me that you know what it’s all about, that you’re not simply fiddling around by guess and by God, hoping it’ll come out all right somehow in the end.”

Spade thinks he can become a man again only by cold-bloodedly turning Brigid over to the authorities:

“I’m gong to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”

Will Christie always remember Bridget if she goes to jail? Will he, like Spade, emerge from this drama with more or less clean hands?

Or will the public see him more as Gutman, a.k.a. the Fat Man, who wheels and deals behind the scenes? Christie certainly has the girth to play Hammett’s other antagonist, who cheerfully casts off his associates when they get between him and the falcon. Here he is cutting his bodyguard loose when he decides he needs a fall guy:

The boy looked at Gutman.

Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: “Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but—well, by Gad!—if you lose a son it’s possible to get another–and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”

If more Kellys and Wildsteins cause problems for Christie, will he throw them over as well. After all, if one loses an associate, one can always get another. But there’s only one presidency.

We don’t yet know how the story is going to end. It’s important to remember that the femme fatale in this case hasn’t yet been neutralized. Sure, Christie has had the field free to beat up on Kelly since January since she has been holding her tongue. Word is that she is angling for immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony. What will she say if she starts talking?

Will she, for instance, report the Christie instructed his subordinates to put the squeeze on local politicians for their endorsements, even though he may have left the details up to them? Will she have anything to say about Christie using Hurricane Sandy money as a slush fund? Or that Christie’s appointees in the Port Authority, particularly the Authority chairman David Samson, used their positions there to set up sweet real estate deals for their clients?

The report relies on the Congreve portrayal of hell having no fury like a woman scorned. If it has any accuracy on this account, then Christie may have a lot to worry about. After all, he’s scorning Bridget Kelly plenty.

What if he discovers that he’s dealing, not with Brigid O’Shaughnessy, but with Medea? Does he really want to be in Jason’s shoes?

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The Opening of Eyes Long Closed

El Greco, "Christ Healing the Blind Man"

El Greco, “Christ Healing the Blind Man”

Spiritual Sunday

My friend Sue Schmidt has alerted me to a wonderful website, Journey with Jesus, which often finds poetry appropriate to the weekly gospel readings. Today it offers up a penetrating David Whyte poem to accompany the story of Jesus and the blind man (John 9:1-41). I’ll share it in a moment but, after noting the Biblical passage, I want to first take a side trip into an Islamic story by Salman Rushdie.

The story of the blind man is fascinating because of the back and forth between the man and some Pharisees after the healing:

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

They don’t like the implications of the miracle, so after the man says, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing,” they reply,

You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

“The Prophet’s Hair” by Rushdie is a comic but ultimately compelling account of how an outbreak of faith creates chaos in the normal functioning of the world. A hair of the Prophet Mohammed is stolen and then begins changing the lives of those who come into close proximity with it, beginning with a tight-fisted money lender who starts insisting that his family follow strict Sharia law. The story, which is well worth reading, can be found here.

The miracle that is relevant to today’s Gospel reading occurs at the end of the story in the household of a thief who has stolen the hair and is then killed by the police:

But before its [the hair's] story can properly be concluded, it is necessary to record that when the four sons of the dead Sheikh awoke on that morning of his death, having unwittingly spent a few minutes under the same roof as the holy hair, they found that a miracle had occurred, that they were all sound of limb and strong of wind, as whole as they might have been if their father had not thought to smash their legs in the first hours of their lives. They were, all four of them, very properly furious, because this miracle had reduced their earning powers by 75 per cent, at the most conservative estimate: so they were ruined men.

We all become so accustomed to our crippled existences that we don’t know what to make of a sudden encounter with the divine. Rushdie’s satiric genius—which led (through Satanic Verses) to the fatwah that for year’s threatened his life—is to expose the contortions of “true believers” when they attempt to balance faith and life.

In the case of the blind man in the Book of John, we don’t hear what happens to the blind man following a subsequent encounter with Jesus. John, of course, is no satirist. Unlike Rushdie, he is too focused on the divine itself to explore in any depth the complications that arise when it enters the everyday world;

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

And now for David Whyte’s poem, which also focuses on how faith opens our eyes and gives us the solid ground that we may sense but don’t dare to believe in:

The Opening of Eyes

David Whyte

That day I saw beneath dark clouds 
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.

From Songs for Coming Home (Many Rivers Press, 1984).

Posted in Rushdie (Salman) | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bat Waits for Ball to Mate

Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera

Sports Saturday

Baseball begins this week so here’s a very effective May Swenson poem about the sport. The poem’s power lies in the way it boils the game down to its basics. What comes across is a primal love of the game:

Analysis of Baseball

By May Swenson

It’s about
the ball,
the bat,
and the mitt.
Ball hits
bat, or it
hits mitt.
Bat doesn’t
hit ball, bat
meets it.
Ball bounces
off bat, flies
air, or thuds
ground (dud)
or it
fits mitt.

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat’s
bait. Ball
flirts, bat’s
late, don’t
keep the date.
Ball goes in
(thwack) to mitt,
and goes out
(thwack) back
to mitt.

Ball fits
mitt, but
not all
the time.
ball gets hit
(pow) when bat
meets it,
and sails
to a place
where mitt
has to quit
in disgrace.
That’s about
the bases
about 40,000
fans exploded.

It’s about
the ball,
the bat,
the mitt,
the bases
and the fans.
It’s done
on a diamond,
and for fun.
It’s about
home, and it’s
about run.

Posted in Swenson (May) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Rumsfeld through the Looking Glass

Tenniel illus. from "Through the Looking Glass"

Tenniel illus. from “Through the Looking Glass”

My son Toby alerted me to a recent New York Times article that alludes to Alice in Wonderland as it tries to understand former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the Iraq War. To emphasize the Alice connection, Rumsfeld’s face is superimposed upon Tenniel’s famous illustration of the Cheshire Cat.

The Lewis Carroll reference comes as the author describes the press conference where Rumsfeld made his famous distinction between the known known, the known unknown and the unknown unknown when asked whether he was sure that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction:

It was at a Pentagon news conference on Feb. 12, 2002. Reporters filed in to the Pentagon Briefing Room — five months after 9/11 and a year before the invasion of Iraq. The verbal exchanges that followed provide an excursion into a world no less irrational, no less absurd, than the worlds Lewis Carroll created in Alice in Wonderland.

The author, Errol Morris sounds very Carrollian himself when he describes the experience of interviewing Rumsfeld:

When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?

Put in terms of the Alice books, interviewing Rumsfeld is like running with the Red Queen: one goes on and on but never gets anywhere:

Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’ but Alice felt she COULD NOT go faster, though she had not breath left to say so.

The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. ‘I wonder if all the things move along with us?’ thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, ‘Faster! Don’t try to talk!’

Not that Alice had any idea of doing THAT. She felt as if she would never be able to talk again, she was getting so much out of breath: and still the Queen cried ‘Faster! Faster!’ and dragged her along. ‘Are we nearly there?’ Alice managed to pant out at last.

‘Nearly there!’ the Queen repeated. ‘Why, we passed it ten minutes ago! Faster!’ And they ran on for a time in silence, with the wind whistling in Alice’s ears, and almost blowing her hair off her head, she fancied.

‘Now! Now!’ cried the Queen. ‘Faster! Faster!’ And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, ‘You may rest a little now.’

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in OUR country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

Alice at least doesn’t go backwards, as she does in another scene. When trying to advance into the garden, she finds herself a bit like Errol in his interview: a step forward is actually a step back:

[Alice] set off at once towards the Red Queen. To her surprise, she lost sight of her in a moment, and found herself walking in at the front door again.

Another Looking Glass character also comes to mind. Rumsfeld was often like Humpty Dumpty, insisting on his own definition of reality and pulling reporters into his maze by the force of his assertive personality:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

The nature of Carroll’s fantasy world is that is has an internal coherence—the logic of nonsense—even though it has little to do with reality as we know it. Throughout the Iraq conflict, Rumsfeld sounded as though he was making sense–or he did as long as one didn’t try to square what he said with the facts on the ground. Which pretty much describes the rhetoric we regularly heard coming out of the Bush administration.

All of which would be somewhat humorous if Rumsfeld hadn’t used such rhetorical stratagems to plunge us into one of the great foreign policy disasters in American history. Much money and countless lives were devoted to turn a country from Sunni to Shia control.

One other note: I hadn’t realized, until I read the second of Errol’s articles on Rumsfeld, that “known unknown” has origins in two British poets. Keats first used the phrase in Endymion (famous for “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”) and Robert Browning then used it in the dauntingly long Ring and the Book.

The poets apply it far differently than Rumsfeld, however. For Keats, a mortal shepherd longs for immortal love with Diana, goddess of the moon:

O known Unknown! from whom my being sips
Such darling essence, wherefore may I not
Be ever in these arms? in this sweet spot
Pillow my chin for ever? (Endymion, Book II, l. 741-44)

Browning, meanwhile, has a pope utter it. He is trying to render verdict in a murder case and, unlike Rumsfeld, has no confidence in his judgment. Whereas Rumsfeld was sure—or said that he was sure—that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, Browning’s Pope contrasts the tiny amount that he knows with all that God knows. Who is he but a tiny atom who picks up a few scattered points from the immensity of the sky?

O Thou, — as represented here to me
In such conception as my soul allows, —
Under Thy measureless, my atom width! —
Man’s mind — what is it but a convex glass
Wherein are gathered all the scattered points
Picked out of the immensity of sky,
To re-unite there, be our heaven on earth,
Our known unknown, our God revealed to man? (The Ring and the Book, ll. 1308-15).

Rumsfeld, on the other hand, routinely spoke with a godlike confidence. He even knew unknown unknowns and his cocky assurance helped make the case for war.

Update: In the final article of the series, Morris concludes that Rumsfeld was the Cheshire Cat. There was a confident smile there but there was nothing, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, backing it up:

Rumsfeld, too, may believe what he is saying. But believing something does not make it true. The question is why he believed what he believed. On the basis of what evidence? Mere belief is not enough.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice, perplexed by her encounter with the Cheshire Cat, says, “I have seen a cat without a grin, but I have never seen a grin without a cat.” I had a similar experience with Donald Rumsfeld — his grin and my puzzlement about what it might mean. I was left with the frightening suspicion that the grin might not be hiding anything. It was a grin of supreme self-satisfaction and behind the grin might be nothing at all.


Previous posts applying Lewis Carroll posts to GOP politicians:

Scandal? Nothing but a Pack of Cards

Medicare Politics and Gullible Oysters

Romney and Ryan’s Gently Smiling Jaws

Mitt Romney and Looking Glass Politics

The Presidential Candidates in Wonderland

Rightwing Rewrites Reality

Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Medi(s)care

Believing 6 Impossibilities before Breakfast

It’s Been a Mad Tea Party

Posted in Carroll (Lewis) | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Whither Flight MH370? Shangri-La?

Scene from Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon"

Scene from Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon”

After days of wild speculation, it appears that Malaysian Flight MH370 crashed somewhere in the South Pacific and that there are no survivors. It is all very sad. For a long while many clung to desperate hopes, including to one crazy rumor that the flight might be headed for the wilds of China. This particular imagined outcome caught my eye since that is, after all, what happens to the plane in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. There, the wayward plane ends up in Tibet.

The story begins with one of literature’s first described hijackings, although this one is relatively benign. Hugh Conway and three other passengers find that their plane has been diverted from its original flight path and they are flying over the Himalayas. Given that MH370 apparently flew hours on autopilot–we don’t know what crew or passengers were doing during this time–it’s at least possible to imagine conversations like the following occurring on board:

It was after the flight had lasted more than an hour that Mallinson said he thought the pilot wasn’t keeping a straight course. 

And a little later:

“My God!” Mallinson cried, peering through the window. “Look down there!”

Conway looked. The view was certainly not what he had expected, if, indeed, he had expected anything. Instead of the trim, geometrically laid-out cantonments and the larger oblongs of the hangars, nothing was visible but an opaque mist veiling an immense, sun-brown desolation. The plane, though descending rapidly, was still at a height unusual for ordinary flying. Long, corrugated mountain ridges could be picked out, perhaps a mile or so closer than the cloudier smudge of the valleys. It was typical frontier scenery, though Conway had never viewed it before from such an altitude…

Conway was not apt to be easily impressed, and as a rule he did not care for “views,” especially the more famous ones for which thoughtful municipalities provide garden seats. Once, on being taken to Tiger Hill, near Darjeeling, to watch the sunrise upon Everest, he had found the highest mountain in the world a definite disappointment. But this fearsome spectacle beyond the window-pane was of different caliber; it had no air of posing to be admired. There was something raw and monstrous about those uncompromising ice cliffs, and a certain sublime impertinence in approaching them thus. 

Their destination, it turns out, is Shangri-La, a Buddhist Monastery high in the Himalayas. Conway finds a deep peace there and then is offered the opportunity to succeed the 300-year-old lama, who is dying. (There’s a western fantasy for you!) The lama sketches out the following prospect:

Yet it is, nevertheless, a prospect of much charm that I unfold for you —long tranquillities during which you will observe a sunset as men in the outer world hear the striking of a clock, and with far less care. The years will come and go, and you will pass from fleshly enjoyments into austerer but no less satisfying realms; you may lose the keenness of muscle and appetite, but there will be gain to match your loss; you will achieve calmness and profundity, ripeness and wisdom, and the clear enchantment of memory. And, most precious of all, you will have Time—that rare and lovely gift that your Western countries have lost the more they have pursued it. Think for a moment. You will have time to read—never again will you skim pages to save minutes, or avoid some study lest it prove too engrossing. You have also a taste for music—here, then, are your scores and instruments, with Time, unruffled and unmeasured to give you their richest savor. And you are also, we will say, a man of good fellowship —does it not charm you to think of wise and serene friendships, a long and kindly traffic of the mind from which death may not call you away with his customary hurry? Or, if it is solitude that you prefer, could you not employ our pavilions to enrich the gentleness of lonely thoughts?

Although deeply tempted, Conway nevertheless chooses to leave. He then regrets his decision and spends the rest of his life trying to find his way back. He never succeeds.

Although I last read Lost Horizon in high school, I still remember it vividly and used it to cope with my sadness over Flight MH370. What if, instead of dying, the passengers were taken to a mountain utopia where time stands still and there is no conflict.

The book was written out of a similar need for consoling. Hitler and Stalin were on the rise and Europe, which had emerged from one world war just 15 earlier, sensed that it might be on the verge of a second one. Today Hilton’s dream seems even more fanciful given that the world has grown smaller. The Chinese claim to have located the original Shangri La and have turned it into a tourist resort. The Dalai Lama, meanwhile, having been pushed out of Tibet, has become a globetrotter and recently spoke at the American Enterprise Institute (!).

But literature, even when set in specific geographical locations, always seems to be in contact with a spiritual reality. Lost Horizon allows us to dream of a world beyond tragic plane crashes.

Posted in Hilton (James) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Top 10 Hellish Child-Parent Relationships

Delacrois, "Medea"

Delacroix, “Medea”


I reported yesterday that, as I was trying to think of literary depictions of positive parent-child relationships, for a while I could only think of bad ones. The post was to help out a friend who will soon be a mother. Elizabeth, if you’re reading today’s post, go no further because the following works will have you second guessing your decision to have a child.

As the father of three sons (and now with three grandchildren) I can assure you that most relationships do not resemble the ones below. Literature likes to visit the extreme cases to figure out what human beings are made of.

Although I came up with ten works, I could easily have gone on for much longer.

Aeschylus, Oresteia

It’s hard to do worse than Agamemnon’s family. First Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to get a good wind, then his wife kills him, then their other kids (Orestes and Electra) kill her, then the furies of intense guilt unload on Orestes. Whee! Sartre also writes up the story in The Flies.

Sophocles, Oedipus

I guess we can’t overlook the archetype himself.

Euripides, Medea

Leave it to the three great Greek dramatists to cover all the possibilities for killing family members. Let’s see, with these three plays we have father kills daughter, wife kills husband, daughter and son kill mother, son kills father (and marries mother), mother kills sons.

 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov

Daddy Karamazov is so bad that it’s unclear which of his sons kills him. Three of the four are possibilities. It’s not the one you think.

Sylvia Plath, “Daddy” 

The final stanza says it all:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint

Portnoy’s complaint is his mother. Enough said.

Flannery O’Connor, “All that Rises Must Converge”

Imagine you’re a college graduate in his thirties who still lives with your mom. She irritates and embarrasses you so frequently that you wish you were rid of her. Then she dies. So what do you do now?

D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers

You have to look long and hard to find a writer with a more screwed-up relationship with his mother than D. H. Lawrence, whose protagonist Paul Morel bears more than a little resemblance to himself. First Paul’s mother suffocates him and then he suffocates her. (Read the novel to see what I’m talking about.)

William Shakespeare

If I hadn’t decided to give no author more than one mention, I could have filled up the whole list with Shakespeare, who has King Lear and his daughters, Gertrude and Hamlet, Henry IV and Hal, Egeus and Hermia, Capulet and Juliet, Richard III and his nephews (the princes in the tower).

Richard Shelton, “Poem to a Dead Father”

I conclude with a Richard Shelton poem because it’s so straightforward in its hatred that, for a moment, one may feel exhilarated and free. But maybe the speaker doth protest too much. I have doubts about his concluding claim.

Five years since you died and I am
better than I was when you were living.
The years have not been wasted.
I have heard the harsh voices
of desert birds who cannot sing.

Sometimes I touched the membrane
between violence and desire
and watched it vibrate.
I learned that a man
who travels in circles
never arrives at exactly the same place.

If you could see me now,
side-stepping triumph and disaster,

Still waiting for you to say “my son, my beloved son.”
If only you could see me now, you would know that I am stronger.

Death was the poorest subterfuge you ever managed, but it was permanent.
Do you see how that fathers
who cannot love their sons,
have sons who cannot love?
It was not your fault
and it was not mine.
I needed your love but recovered without it.
Now I no longer need anything.

Perhaps these works can make you feel better about your own life. As Aristotle might point out, there’s something cathartic in observing relationships that are worse than yours.

Posted in Aeschylus, Dostoevsky (Fyodor), Euripides, Lawrence (D. H.), O'Connor (Flannery), Plath (Sylvia), Roth (Philip K.), Shakespeare (William), Shelton (Richard), Sophocles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Top 10 Parent-Child Classics (Positive)

Eliza's flight

Elizabeth Applegate, a colleague in the French Department who is seven months pregnant, asked me if I knew of any classics about parents and children that she could read to bolster her spirits. She insisted that they be positive, which rules out the Oresteia.

As I tried to generate a list, I found it much easier to think of dysfunctional relationships, thereby affirming Tolstoy’s famous maxim that happy families are all alike whereas every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I’ll post that list tomorrow.

I discovered, however, that if I expanded the parameters slightly and included surrogate parents, there were some real gems. It may be that authors opt for substitutes as there a lot of emotional baggage in relationships involving direct blood ties. Parents, after all, must be the rule enforcers, which is why children often turn to their grandparents for support. We get to be the good guys.

Please send in your own suggestions as Elizabeth needs you. And as she will be giving birth to a boy, she’s especially open to mother-son stories. Here, in no particular order, is my Top Ten List of Classics with Positive Parent-Child Relationships.

1. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

This will be on everyone’s list. With the death of her mother, Scout gets Atticus all to herself.

2. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

I’ve written in the past about how much I love the David-Betsy Trotwood relationship. But one caution: Betsy enters the picture only because of the spectacular failure of David’s biological mother, who doesn’t protect him from his stepfather and then dies.

3. George Eliot, Silas Marner

Again we have a surrogate parent so another caution is in order. In this instance, Silas saves Eppie’s life and Eppie saves his soul. And then refuses to leave him.

4. Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son”

Hughes knew about strong black mothers and how they could inspire their sons.

5. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

Can I count Jim as the father—or maybe mother—that Huck has always needed? It may be that when Jim discovers Pap’s body, he sees a need to step into his role.

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

6. Maybe it’s okay that Squire Allworthy banishes Tom from his estate, thanks to the machinations of the unscrupulous Blifil. If they were biological father and son, Tom wouldn’t have gone out into the world and learned prudence and religion.

7. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

We can’t leave out Eliza and her daring dash across the ice to save her child from being sold away from her. Tom, meanwhile, is a kind of surrogate father to little Elsie, much more responsible than her actual father.

8. Henry James, The Golden Bowl

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum sees Adam-Maggie as the quintessential example of a sensitive father-daughter relationship (see last week’s post on her article).

9. Shakespeare, The Tempest

Okay, so Prospero can be cranky at times but he throws Miranda a lovely wedding. He also tells her, in a beautiful passage, how she kept him alive when they were cast off to sea:

O, a cherubim
Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile.
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have deck’d the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burthen groan’d; which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue.

10. Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees and Flight Behavior

Two engaging novels about a young woman who learns how to become a good mother.

11. Bonus pick: Francis Hodgson Burnett, Little Lord Fauntleroy

Most people today would find this novel by the author of The Secret Garden to be overly sentimental, but as a child I was riveted by its account of the son of an earl’s younger son who is banished when he marries an American and who then dies. Fauntleroy, who refers to his mother as “dearest,” then discovers that he is the heir when the earl’s older son dies.

Coming tomorrow: Parent-Child Relationships from Hell.

(Elizabeth, you can skip this follow-up post.)

Posted in Dickens (Charles), Eliot (George), Hughes (Langston), Lee (Harper), Stowe (Harriet Beecher) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Female Freedom Drives Right Crazy


For all their expressed concern about joblessness and the state of the economy, the GOP rightwing appears more interested in female sexuality. Their target is mostly abortion rights, of course, but we’re also increasingly seeing attempts to limit access to contraception. After years of forward strides for women, it’s as though Pentheus has come back from his voyage and is trying to reassert control.

Pentheus is the Theban king in Euripides’ The Bacchae who returns to discover that the women of the city have abandoned their looms to go worship Dionysus in the woods. I’ve applied the play to reproductive rights in the past, but I’m taking it up again because of how successful rightwing legislators are proving to be. As Euripides would point out, it appears that certain men become unhinged when women assert control over their own bodies.

Literally millions of women would be affected if zealous abortion opponents entirely got their way and banned all abortion. Here are a few useful figures from the Guttmacher Institute:

–half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and about four in 10 of these end in abortion;
–about half of American women will have an unintended pregnancy, and nearly 3 in 10 will have an abortion, by age 45;
–9 in 10 abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy;
–Some 1.06 million abortions were performed in 2011, down from 1.21 million abortions in 2008, a decline of 13%.

The decline is interesting and the figure may drop further, given that  Obamacare requires health plans to offer women free contraception and contraception counseling. Yet many on the right are fighting this requirement. Oh, and many are against sex education as well (although they do support the practically useless “abstinence education”). And while we’re making a list, many are also against food stamps and other assistance to the poor families into which unintended babies are born.

Thanks to our modern Pentheuses (this according to the National Women’s Law Center ), in 2013 “22 states enacted a total of 70 abortion restrictions – the second highest number of abortion restrictions to become law in a single year.”

Here are some of the legislative developments.

–28 states regulate abortion providers beyond what is necessary to ensure patient safety. These so-called “trap laws” are “meant to drive abortion providers out of practice, and are a back door ban on abortion.” A third of Texas’ abortion clinics have been forced to close as a result.
–9 states (including North Dakota, Arkansas, and Texas) have been trying to roll back abortion to 20 weeks or even earlier, which is to say before women may even know they’re pregnant or whether their fetuses have severe problems. Texas and North Dakota do not allow exceptions for rape or incest.
–10 states, most recently Wisconsin and Indiana, require medically unnecessary ultrasounds;
– 24 states now prevent women from obtaining a comprehensive health plan that includes coverage of abortion services. Most recently, Michigan passed a law that refuses to allow employer insurance plans to cover a woman’s abortion, even in the case of rape or medical necessity.

What is striking about these efforts is the zealotry with which they’re carried out. Legislators who deviate even slightly from Right to Life orthodoxy are punished. These people do not acknowledges the struggles that pregnant women often go through as they make difficult choices. No wavering, even in the difficult cases of rape, incest, and severe fetal abnormality, is tolerated.

As I noted, it is not only abortion that is under attack. The owners of Hobby Lobby currently have a case before the Supreme Court arguing that they should be able to refuse women contraception coverage, and even preventative counseling, because it violates their consciences. As though they and not their employees own the insurance.

It’s interesting that people who generally think that the government is too intrusive—say, in monitoring gun purchases—should be so ready to intrude into women’s lives. But maybe that particular pairing is significant. Maybe this is a gendered drama, with men using guns to prop up a masculinity that feels threatened by sexually active women. Throw a sluggish economy into the mix—nothing undermines a man’s dignity more than not being able to find good work—and perhaps that accounts for the Right’s desperation. One grabs control wherever one can.

A desperate striving for control certainly drives Pentheus. Here he is freaking out that women aren’t behaving as women should. I quote from Michael Cacoyannis’s wonderful translation.

No sooner does one venture on a journey
than rumor plagues the town and things get out of hand.
Our women, I am told, have left their homes,
in a religious trance—what travesty!–
and scamper up and down the wooded mountains, dancing…

[Their] performance reeks more of Aphrodite than of Bacchus…

I’ll put a stop this orgiastic filth!

Later on there’s a passage that always gets a laugh out of my students but that reminds me of Susan Patton’s argument that women are responsible for alcohol-fueled date rapes:

Take my word
when women are allowed to feast on wine, there is no telling
to what lengths their filthy minds will go!

I note in passing that many who see filth in women’s sexuality also see it in same sex partnerships. At an anti-gun control conference Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas equated same sex marriage with bestiality, while Rick Santorum said that it would lead to polygamy.

Where Pentheus sees only filth, the wise seer Teiresias sees a holy ritual where one honors Dionysus, without and within. “No amount of Bacchic revels,” he tells Dionysus, “can corrupt an honest woman.” Think of this as permission for women to honor their sexual feelings.

Such freedom, however, drives Pentheus off the deep end, prompting a lecture from Teiresias that could also be directed at some of our abortion-obsessed legislators:

Do not mistake the rule of force
for true power. Men [and women, he could add] are not shaped by force.
Nor should you boast of wisdom, when everyone but you
can see how sick your thoughts are.


For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure,
no madness can undo

Later the Bacchae make a similar observation about Pentheus:

What fury, what venomous fury
rages in Pentheus,
the earthborn and earthbound,
spawned by the sperm of the snake!
No man,
but a monster caged up in a man,
leaping through eyes of blood
to strike at the kill,
a vicious dwarf with giant dreams
pitting his strength against the Gods.

I don’t want to sentimentalize sexuality in this post. It has always been an explosive force–Dionysus is not a tame god–and societies have always had to engage in a complicated dance with it, regulating but not overregulating. Dionysus must be balanced with Apollo, with each god receiving due observance, and the Bacchic rituals were one attempt to put a framework around this inescapable fact of human nature. The problem with fundamentalists like Pentheus is that they think that can enchain the god, and they invariably learn that no prison can hold him. Regardless of what legislation is passed, women will have sex and women will find ways to deal with the consequences of sex.

I want to leave ideologues behind for a moment, however, and end this post on a more positive note. Here are the Bacchae telling us what women really want: not orgiastic filth, as the Rush Limbaughs of the world contend, but sweet freedom to honor their sexuality as they see fit. Bromius is another name for Dionysus:

Oh, to be in Cyprus,
the island-home of Aphrodite,
where the spirits of love
thrill the blood of men with magic breezes.
Or in that mythical land of the many-mouthed river
whose floods make deserts bloom.
Or where the muses play, Pieria,
whose peerless beauty
lovingly hugs the slopes of Olympus.
Oh, Bromius, my Bromius take me there!
Pave the way with romp and with prayer,
to the land of the Graces,
the land of Desire!
Where freedom is law
and women can revel with Bacchus.

Do I hear an amen?

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Chaucer’s Riff on the Woman at the Well

Wife of Bath

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s lectionary reading about Jesus’ encounter at a well with a Samaritan woman gives me an excuse to write about the Wife of Bath, one of my favorite characters in all of literature. Chaucer probably got the idea of Alison’s five husbands from the New Testament story and even has Alison refer to it. His use of the story adds to the ways we can interpret the Wife of Bath. If Alison shares traits with the Samaritan woman, then perhaps her telling her tale is like the Samaritan woman proclaiming Jesus’ Word. Perhaps the Wife is proselytizing about God’s love, albeit very indirectly.

If that’s the case, she gets a worse reception than the Samaritan woman. In Chaucer’s fallen world, those who have ears–which is to say, the other pilgrims–hear not. We ourselves, however, can listen up.

I begin with the wonderfully rich New Testament story:

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him…

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

I turned to a friend, retired Episcopal priest John Morrow, for help understanding the passage. John notes that coming to the well at midday was unusual as

“watering” was usually done in the cool of the morning with several family members participating.  Her coming alone suggests that perhaps she was not socially acceptable in her community because of her five husbands and now living with a paramour. 

John suspects that the woman had been divorced five times and provides useful background on divorce in the culture of the time:

 Divorces could be obtained for the simplest reason (even the wife’s cooking!!!).  All a man had to do was write a paper with intention to divorce his wife and she would have to leave.  Obviously, the woman in today’s story must have gone through this 5 times and certainly her reputation would be in question, even though it might not have been her fault or due to some serious accusation.

John adds that a widow could remarry many times without criticism, another contrast with Chaucer’s society.

A couple of other observations from John:

Jews never spoke to Samaritans, never would drink from a Samaritan vessel, and certainly would not go to their home socially. Most Jews even avoided walking through the region of Samaria and would go around the area. Jesus had no trouble walking through the region, speaking to a Samaritan, and even asking for a drink of water.  I think the purpose of telling the story (it is probably the longest story in the New Testament) is to show that Jesus came to all, his love is unconditional, and his compassion causes him to let go of Jewish legalism.  He sees her as an intelligent person but perhaps troubled and in need of love and forgiveness.  One of the great lines in the NT is, “He told me everything I ever did.” One could spend pages discussing this for Jesus obviously had the spiritual gifts that enabled him to know her situation.  I agree that she almost “spars” with Jesus in asking why he would want her to give him water, testing to see what his motive was.  One fact that is often overlooked is that, when Jesus talks about “living water” he isn’t referring to Himself but to the Holy Spirit.  When the Holy Spirit enters a person’s heart, He brings renewal, refreshment and spiritual power, just like a river.  Don’t overlook the fact that when the Samaritan woman goes back to her village she tells her story and moves many of the people in the village who then come out to see Jesus for themselves, invite him to their homes, and eventually become believers.  This one woman had a powerful influence on many of the people of her village. The story is a wonderful example of how, when Jesus came to a village or location, the people were not the same after he left. 

Now to Chaucer. Alison is one of only two women amongst his 30 pilgrims, and to say that she makes her presence known would be a gross understatement. She is loud, she has a hat at large as a shield, she ostentatiously wraps herself in yards and yards of cloth, her boots have spurs, and, although she is an elderly widow, she wears red stockings. As such, she stands in dramatic contrast with the other woman in the company, a prioress who, despite her large girth, likes to think of herself as dainty and ladylike.

Alison has had five husbands, all of whom have died, and she may be on the lookout for #6. Although widows were technically allowed to remarry (as she points out), nonetheless her many marriages are regarded with suspicion. Alison senses that the other pilgrims are condemning her, and her long, rambling prologue—it’s the longest of all Chaucer’s prologues—is in large part a defense of her life.

It’s not a successful defense since she (1) has difficulty staying on topic; (2) engages in a debate format reserved for university-educated male theologians; and (3) titillates and/or scandalizes her auditors rather than convincing them. She starts off arguing that nothing in the Bible forbids her from marrying multiple times, but after she sees her audience laughing at her, she switches gears and plays the lecherous black widow role to the hilt. Seeing offense as the best defense, she figures that at least this way she gets some respect.

Her tale, however, reveals her yearning. More to today’s point, she shows herself to have paid more attention to Jesus’ words to the woman than have many of the more respectable pilgrims.

Alison mentions the Samaritan woman early in her prologue. She knows the story well, in part, I suspect, because ministers have passive-aggressively used sermons on the text to strike out at her. (No one in the church has the courage to stand up to her directly: we are told that she throws a temper tantrum when anyone tries to precede her in the church offering line.)

It sounds like these sermons often yolk the woman-at-the-well story with the wedding at Canaan. Here’s the Wife of Bath, first in Middle English and then modern:

But me was toold, certeyn, nat longe agoon is, 
That sith that crist ne wente nevere but onis
To weddyng, in the cane of galilee,
That by the same ensample taughte he me
That I ne sholde wedded be but ones.
Herkne eek, lo, which a sharp word for the nones,
Biside a welle, jhesus, God and man,
Spak in repreeve of the samaritan:
Thou hast yhad fyve housbondes, — quod he,

And that ilke man that now hath thee
Is noght thyn housbonde, — thus seyde he certeyn.
What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn;
But that I axe, why that the fifthe man
Was noon housbonde to the samaritan?
How manye myghte she have in mariage?
Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age
Upon this nombre diffinicioun.
Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;
That gentil text kan I wel understonde.


But someone told me not so long ago 
That since Our Lord, save once, would never go
To wedding (that at Cana in Galilee),
Thus, by this same example, showed He me
I never should have married more than once.
Lo and behold! What sharp words, for the nonce,
Beside a well Lord Jesus, God and man,
Spoke in reproving the Samaritan:
‘For thou hast had five husbands,’ thus said He,
‘And he whom thou hast now to be with thee
Is not thine husband.’ Thus He said that day,
But what He meant thereby I cannot say;
And I would ask now why that same fifth man
Was not husband to the Samaritan?
How many might she have, then, in marriage?
For I have never heard, in all my age,
Clear exposition of this number shown,
Though men may guess and argue up and down.
But well I know and say, and do not lie,
God bade us to increase and multiply;
That worthy text can I well understand.

John tells me that he doesn’t know the significance of the number five any more than Alison does, but one can see how her priest (if I’m right about the source of her information) has been using the two texts. He doesn’t, as John does, emphasize that Jesus is offering the Samaritan woman access to the Holy Spirit. Rather, he accuses Alison of unlawful sexual conduct and flouting God’s law by marrying multiple times.

Feeling bruised, Alison takes refuge in a more comforting passage from Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Nevertheless, the Samaritan woman appears very much on her mind. Instead of dwelling on Jesus’ implied condemnation, she’s puzzled that the woman would be living with a man without being married to him. She hadn’t realized that this is an option—it isn’t for her—and she’s intrigued. Further, I think she’s touched by the respect that Jesus shows the woman. He listens to her in a deep way and I’ve written in the past about how, more than anything else, Alison longs to be listened to. She’s hungry for respect, which she doesn’t get from any of the men in her world. Fear, oftentimes, but not respect.

In her tale, she imagines someone knowing her the way that Jesus knows the Samaritan woman. The old crone of the story—Alison is clearly projecting her own anxieties onto the figure—is married to a young knight who is disgusted by her appearance, her poverty, and her lower class status. To convince him that he should be happy with her, she talks about the qualities in life that we should all focus on: a good character and a beautiful soul.

Thy gentillesse [true gentility] cometh fro God allone. 
Thanne comth oure verray gentillesse of grace…


Poverte ful ofte, whan a man is lowe, 
Maketh his God and eek hymself to knowe.  

Alison knows that men see only her external appearance. That is why she has set up this knight’s quest as she has: if he is to avoid execution (for raping a woman), he must spend a year listening, truly listening, to women. Just as Jesus saw past the Samaritan’s ethnicity and her sketchy conduct, the crone wants the knight to see past her age and low status.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t arrive there, getting hung up on prevailing social standards. But because he gets closer than most men did at the time—he at least respects her to the degree that he allows her some decision-making powers in their marriage—she gives him what he wants: a young, beautiful, and loyal wife. (Being a fairy, she has the power to transform herself.)

When I teach the poem, I make the case to my students that the story works as an allegory for love. If we truly love our partner, we will see past the wrinkles and focus only on the beautiful soul underneath. As Shakespeare puts it (albeit to make a different point), we will “see Helen in the brow of Egypt” (a lower class gypsy woman).

Sometimes I mention an interesting Meg Ryan-Alec Baldwin movie, Prelude to a Kiss, where Ryan somehow (don’t ask) ends up in the body of a toothless old man and, in that state, gets a passionate kiss from Baldwin, who has gone looking for her after realizing that his “wife” is someone else. (The bartender is so impressed by the kiss that he doesn’t charge them for their drinks.)

My belief that the knight gets a glimpse of this vision is admittedly optimistic and many of my students don’t buy it. They argue, very plausibly, that she gives up on guys ever having any sensitivity and, with a sigh of resignation, provides the knight with a conventional happy ending. As in, “I tried to get you, a former rapist, to open your soul’s eye and all you could see was skin-deep beauty. So okay, you win. Here’s the happily-ever-after ending you wanted.”

If that’s the case, then Chaucer has shown us a scandalous woman revealing her soul to a group of men and none of them realizing the precious gift she has shared. Not the avaricious Pardoner, who says that she has provided a good argument against marriage. Not the lecherous Friar, who hypocritically pretends to be offended by her life even as he himself uses the power of the confessional to seduce young women. Not the despicable Summoner, who sees only a bawdy lady with (he hopes) a randy tale to tell and who is probably bored by the old crone’s pious disquisition.

Alison would love for the pilgrims to acknowledge her as the Samaritan villagers acknowledge the woman in the Biblical story:

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.

She would love to have it confirmed that she is right:

They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Unfortunately, Alison’s testimony falls on barren ground.

Those, however, who want true love to undergird their lives—who want to drink at the spring that gushes up to eternal life—will listen.

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The Call of the Steel Hoop

jump shot

Sports Saturday

March Madness is upon us and, once again, people are tearing up their brackets after the first night. Few sports events, especially in the early rounds of play, seem to generate the same excitement as this tournament, and already we’ve been treated to thrilling upsets (Harvard! Dayton! Mercer!!).

Although some people are predicting comparable excitement for NCAA Division I football, which will be replacing the problematic BCS format with a tournament of its own, I’m not convinced. College basketball seems more innocent that college football, maybe because the players aren’t helmeted so that one can see their youth. A poem like Ray Fleming’s “One on One Basketball” captures the moments of transcendence that we watch for.

Fleming is describing an out-of-body or in-the-zone moment when a player feels controlled by something outside him/herself. “I seemed to watch myself go up effortlessly for the basket,” Fleming’s speaker says and then, as the ball drops through the net, “I had done it, though I could not explain it.”

The player discovers himself in a whole new relationship with his hands and his body, which “belonged to no one there while it hung in the air of the gym.” Nor is his opponent, the one who imitates his movements, entirely real. While his teeth or fingernails may have exacted some damage on the speaker’s knuckles, those body parts are “not really his.” In my favorite line of the poem we are told that “Possession/is a dubious affair without resonance/in this heavy air.”

What calls for this effort from the two players, the speaker tells us, is neither material (“physiological”) nor spiritual (“mystical”) but something “rooted in a steel hoop/beyond the innocence of our/accustomed matrix.” Only after the ball drops through the net and they both fall away does the speaker reclaim something. Is he reclaiming that movements that, during the shot, appeared to have belonged to no one? Or is he taking possession of this extraordinary moment. Maybe the latter since he says that, good as were his “mine but not mine” movements, he can only reclaim them “momentarily”—which is to say, for the duration of a momentary ellipsis (“…”).

After that, I suppose, everything returns to the god of the steel hoop. Which this weekend is attracting millions of worshippers, who are also seeking out-of-body experiences.

One on One in Basketball

By Ray Fleming

I seemed to watch myself go up
effortlessly for the basket,
and saw the ball drop through the net.
I had done it, though I could not explain it.
It was a jump-shot, and my hand flicked
at the basket. Swish! I saw hands
that were too small for the game, hands
that were unblistered, coffee-colored,
and wrinkled, and that belonged to me.
The skin around the knuckles had been broken
by a tooth or a fingernail…not my own,
but not really his either. Possession
is a dubious affair without resonance
in this heavy air. The body that raised
itself toward its ringed-empty goal
belonged to no one there
while it hung in the air of the gym.
The muscles, the movements of wrist,
finger, leg, and elbow were controlled,
but not by me, not by him, but by a desire
rooted in a steel hoop
beyond the innocence of our
accustomed matrix. It had nothing to do
with physiology or mysticism: only basketball.
I gave myself over to a winning and
a dropping away (he imitated me),
and reclaimed some of those movements
…momentarily. It was good

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When the World Is Puddle Wonderful

Singing in the Rain1It was the first day of spring yesterday and in Pittsburgh, where I’m visiting my son Toby and his family, it was raining. The rain gives me an excuse to post one of my favorite spring poems, which describes the world as “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful.” It also describes the freshness I feel as I play with my two granddaughters.

 e. e. cummings describes bettyandisbel dancing, and while three-week-old Etta is too young to move about on her own, her older sister Esmé, just under two, makes up for it. She has learned to jump and takes every opportunity to do so. She also loves costumes and yesterday, at the local Jewish Community Center, insisted on being dressed up as Little Elmo.

As she cavorted about the playroom in a large sleeper suit with Elmo’s head as her hood, I thought of Little Toby in John Cheever’s short story “Country Husband”:

He loops the magic cape over his shoulders and, climbing onto the footboard of his bed, he spreads his arms and flies the short distance to the floor, landing with a thump that is audible to everyone in the house but himself. 

The imagination soars higher than facts on the ground at this age.

And as Esmé was dancing, in the background the goat-footed balloon man–which is to say Pan, the Greek god of animal spirits–was whistling.

[in Just-]

By e. e. cummngs

in Just-

spring          when the world is mud-

luscious the little

lame balloonman


whistles          far          and wee


and eddieandbill come

running from marbles and

piracies and it’s



when the world is puddle-wonderful


the queer

old balloonman whistles

far          and             wee

and bettyandisbel come dancing


from hop-scotch and jump-rope and










balloonMan          whistles




Posted in cummings (e.e.) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why GOP Right Is Beating Up on the Poor

Heart of Darkness

Paul Ryan is at it again. Last week I discussed his attack on free school lunches for the poor (“What the left is offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul”), and now he’s stigmatizing inner city young black men.  In the past I’ve talked about how we project our fears onto the Other (for instance, here) and it appears time for me to do it again. For help, I’ve turned this time to Nobel laureate Chinua Achebe’s famous critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Ryan’s recent interview, in case you haven’t heard, included the following:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

Let’s pause a moment to note the factual inaccuracy of the statement before looking at why someone would make it. First of all, to use young black men as the face of cultural tailspin plugs into various racist stereotypes which have gripped our country for decades and which have led to higher incarceration rates for Blacks than for whites committing similar crimes and to Stand Your Ground laws. No matter that most of the poor in this country are white rather than of color (43%); that poverty is more endemic in rural areas than in the cities; that there are plenty of people in the cities who are desperate for work (note the long lines that form when a new hotel or other large business opens); that most poor people work constantly to make ends meet even as people like Ryan oppose spending more on infrastructure projects and raising the minimum wage; and that, most significantly, rising poverty in the inner city has one major cause that swamps all other explanations: not laziness, not drugs, not hip-hop, but the steady exodus, beginning in the 1970’s, of manufacturing.

But it’s much easier and more politically advantageous to beat up on a caricature. Achebe’s takedown of Conrad reveals how projecting upon the poor and oppressed works.

Conrad, Achebe notes, is concerned about a certain corruption of spirit—a heart of darkness—within Western civilization and the white psyche. In that Conrad is on solid ground. [Note: Achebe doesn’t distinguish between Conrad and his narrator Marlow and, on the subject of race, I think that’s justified.] Unfortunately, Conrad chose to use Africans to stand in for the darkness. The problem with Kurtz, Conrad’s exemplar of European civilization is that he has an African side.

The life that attracts Kurtz has little to do with real Africans. Achebe shows the stereotypes at work in the following Marlow passage:

We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly as we struggled round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy… 

Then we see Marlow all but acknowledge that he is projecting his own fears upon the Africans—although despite his flash of self awareness, he still thinks he is describing the Africans as they actually are:

The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there — there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly and the men were …. No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you, was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you — you so remote from the night of first ages — could comprehend.

When I teach Heart of Darkness, I follow it up with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart so that my students will move beyond stereotypes and see Africans—Ibo-Nigerians in this case—with names, personalities, virtues and vices, individual dreams, and all the rest. Conrad, by contrast, is not interested in Africans except to the extent that he doesn’t like King Leopold’s treatment of the Congolese.

But the problem was not only with Leopold, although his Belgian colonialism was the worst. The British, while more humane, were also grabbing land and resources. To justify their rapaciousness, they told themselves they were bringing Christianity and enlightenment to the heathen. The contrast between ideals and actual practice, which even the English were beginning to acknowledge at the time Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness (thus public ambivalence toward the Boer War), led to Conrad’s crisis of faith.

Marlow lies to Kurtz’s Intended upon returning to Europe, even though he loathes falsehoods, because he depends on her faith in colonialism’s stated ideals. Without her belief, however ill-founded, that Europe is engaged in more than a greedy plunder mission, he himself would sink into abject despair.

Allow me a digression here about a family connection with British colonialism. My grandmother’s father, Edwin Fulcher, was in South Africa in the late 19th century as an accountant for a diamond operation and knew Cecil Rhodes personally. (To his credit, he couldn’t stand Rhodes, although the reason was not because the “great imperialist” was envisioning a British African empire stretching “from Capetown to Cairo” but because he was a jerk.) Cheated by his partner, Fulcher immigrated to the United States and gave lectures designed to sway American sympathies from the Boers to the British. Sounding a bit like the idealistic women in Conrad’s novel, Fulcher argued that the Brits would be more humane to the Blacks. Come of think it, my grandmother (“Granny” we called her) was a dead ringer for the Intended. Born in 1889, she was very sweet and very innocent, a veritable Victorian angel on the hearth.

Back to Heart of Darkness and how it applies to Paul Ryan. If Great Britain had a spiritual crisis because its civilized ideals clashed with its colonial practices, then America has a spiritual crisis because its dream of itself as an equal opportunity society clashes with the growing reality that the privileged keep getting wealthier while everyone else stagnates. As Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine noted recently, Ryan is a deficit hawk who is

committed to balancing the budget within the next decade. But he wants to prop up defense spending, refuses to increase tax revenue, and has promised to maintain Social Security and Medicare benefits for all current retirees. He recently cut a deal with Democrats to ease cuts in the main domestic spending programs. Having taken everything else off the table, the only place left for his cuts is programs that benefit the poor.

Ryan tries to argue that genuine concern for their welfare drives his cuts, just as the Brits expressed concern for the souls of the Africans whose resources they were taking. I don’t think that even the Intended, however, would fall for Ryan’s line of reasoning. (Last week I imagined how John Milton and Jane Eyre would respond.)

At a time when the stock market is soaring and income disparities are reaching Gilded Age levels, expect to see a lot more attacks on America’s poor. It’s easier than facing up to what’s really causing our “tailspin of culture.”

Posted in Conrad (Joseph) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Turn Life into a Great Jamesian Novel

Nolte, Beckinsale in "The Golden Bowl"

Nolte, Beckinsale in “The Golden Bowl”

In response to last week’s post on whether literature makes us more moral, a colleague in our philosophy department, Barrett Emerick, sent me a superb essay entitled “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible”: Moral Attention and the Moral Task of Literature.” Although written by philosopher Martha Nussbaum for a philosophy journal, the essay is the kind of interpretation that more literary scholars should engage in.

Nussbaum draws on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl to make several profound points about the relationship of literature to ethical behavior. Nussbaum is focused on how to live well—this is our ethical challenge—and to that end she sees parallels between the moral imagination and the creative imagination. She finds novels to be “the most appropriate articulation” of moral attention and moral vision. Or putting it slightly differently, she claims that a novel itself can be a work of moral achievement. The novels of Henry James, she believes, are particularly good exemplars of moral philosophy at work.

But Nussbaum doesn’t stop there. She says that, in the very process of reading Henry James, we exercise our own moral imaginations, which we can then apply towards our behavior in the world. A well-lived life, Nussbaum says, is like a work of literary art.

These are exciting but dense claims so here’s my attempt to unpack them. Nussbaum focuses on the point in The Golden Bowl where Adam must let his daughter Maggie go so that she can marry the man that she loves. We all recognize how emotionally fraught such a situation is since fathers frequently want to hold on to their daughters and daughters frequently feel guilty about leaving their fathers. Nussbaum is dazzled by Adam’s sensitivity and delicacy as he sacrifices his desires without imposing an emotional burden on Maggie.

Although, as Nussbaum notes several times, no paraphrase can begin to do justice to how well James handles the separation, here’s a sampling of her attempt to capture James’ moral complexity:

This daughter and this father must give one another up. Before this “they had, after all, whatever happened, always and ever each other…to do exactly what they would with: a provision full of possibilities.” But not all possibilities are, in fact, compatible with this provision. He must let her go, loving her, so that she can go live with her husband as a real wife; loving him, she must discover a way to let him go as a “great and high” man and not a failure, his dignity intact. In the “golden air” of these “massed Kentish woods” they “beat against the wind” and “cross the bar”: they reach, through a mutual and sustained moral effort, a resolution and an end. It is moreover (in this Tennysonian vision) their confrontation with death: her acceptance of the death of her own childhood and an all-enveloping love (her movement out of Eden into a place of life and death); his acceptance of a life that will be from now on, without her, a place of death. She bearing the guilt that her birth as a woman has killed him; he “offering himself, pressing himself upon her as a sacrifice—he had read his way so into her best possibility.” It is a reasonable place for us to begin our investigation; for the acts to be recorded can be said to be paradigmatic of the moral: his sacrifice, her preservation of his dignity, his recognition of her separate and autonomous life.

James articulates the intricacies so expertly that we as readers are challenged to make fine ethical distinctions. As we work through James’ sensibilities, we ourselves become more sensitive people. By capturing the complexity of the moral situation, The Golden Bowl prompts readers to exercise their moral faculties. Here’s Nussbaum again:

For (as James frequently reminds us by his use of the author/reader “we”) our own attention to his characters will itself, if we read well, be a high case of moral attention. “Participants by a fond attention” (Art of the Novel) in the lives and dilemmas of his participants, we engage with them in a loving scrutiny of appearances. We actively care for their particularity and we strain to be people on whom none of their subtleties are lost, in intellect and feeling. So if James is right about what moral attention is, then he can fairly claim that a novel such as this one not only shows it better than an abstract treatise, it also elicits it. It calls forth our “active sense of life,” which is our moral faculty. The characters’ “emotions, their stirred intelligence, their moral consciousness, become thus, by sufficiently charmed perusal, our own very adventure” (Art of the Novel). More: the novel guarantees by its fictionality that we will be free of jealous possessiveness and “vulgar heat” toward its characters. So it offers us, by the very fact that it is a novel, training in a tender and loving objectivity that we can also cultivate in life.

As we read The Golden Bowl—if we read it sensitively and intelligently—we are developing skills that we can apply to our own relationships, which often seem hopelessly muddled. Think of how much baggage we bring into every personal encounter as you read this James passage, which Nussbaum quotes to open her article:

The effort to really see and to really represent is no idle business in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement.

In real life, to be sure, we don’t often display Adam’s sensitivity in fraught emotional situations where things seem pretty much muddled. For that matter, Henry James didn’t always demonstrate sensitivity in his own relationships. But just as he tapped into his bigger self to write The Golden Bowl, so we can get in touch with our bigger selves as we work through great novels, and we can become bigger people if we apply what we have learned from the experience. Our lives can become our own works of art.

If we work hard enough, we may even produce a masterpiece.

Posted in James (Henry) | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The Centrality of Fiction to Our Lives

Matisse, "Reading Woman with Parasol"

Matisse, “Reading Woman with Parasol”

As a Spring Break gift to myself, I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. It’s a short and very readable account that draws on the latest scientific research to explain why we are so drawn to stories.

Gottschall says that humans are wired for stories and that stories are central to who we are and how we function. We can’t help but think in terms of stories so that, even when we are given random sentences or encounter random events, our natural inclination is to weave them into stories. This is how we make sense of the world and how we bond as communities.

Stories and literature, of course, are not synonymous, but what Gottshall says about the power of story gives us insight into great novels, plays and poems. For that matter, Gottschall singles out the influence of certain literary works to make his point about the centrality of story to human experience. Gottschall talks about the significance of literary fiction in a chapter entitled “Ink People Change the World.

He starts off with a negative example: when Adolph Hitler was sixteen, his megalomania was triggered by Richard Wagner’s opera Rienzi, and Hitler relied on Wagner ever after. Indeed, Gottschall argues that Hitler essentially

ruled through art, and he ruled for art. In his book Hitler and the power of Aesthetics, Frederic Spotts writes that Hitler’s ultimate goals were not military and political; they were broadly artistic. In the new Reich, the arts would be supreme. Spotts criticizes historians who treat Hitler’s devotion to the arts as insincere, shallow, or strictly propagandistic. For Spotts, “Hitler’s interests n the arts was as intense as his racism; to disregard the one is as profound a distortion as to pass over the other.”

Gottschall notes that Hitler and Goebbells burned books that were “un-German in spirit” to ensure that their own story would prevail. Consigning to the flames such writers as Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Glaser, Erich Kastner, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Heinrich Heine, and Thomas Mass  was testimony to the Nazis’ awareness that

ink people are among the most powerful and dangerous people in the world. And so they committed a holocaust of undesirable ink people so there would be fewer barriers to a holocaust of real people.

Gottschall follows up this negative example with a positive one, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I have blogged on in the past (here and here). Stowe’s history-changing novel not only bolstered the anti-slavery cause but also helped persuade England not to aid the south.

Gottschall also mentions Christmas Carol’s influence on Christmas; Homer’s influence on Alexander the Great (novelist Samuel Richardson once wondered whether Alexander would have been “so much a madman” had it not been for Homer); Young Verther’s influence on suicidal teens (I’ve posted on this here); 1984’s and Darkness at Noon’s effect of “steel[ing] a generation against the nightmare of totalitarianism”; and Invisible Man’s and To Kill a Mockingbird’s impact on racial attitudes.

How exactly is it that these works have such an impact? Gottschall quotes Tolstoy that we are infected with an author’s ideas and emotions and that “the stronger the infection, the better is the art as art.’” Gottschall also borrows from Somerset Maugham to describe how fiction writers

mix the powder (the medicine) of a message with the sugary jam of storytelling. People bolt down the sweet jam of storytelling and don’t even notice the undertaste of the powder (whatever message the writer is communicating).

Further developing this line of thought, Gottschall draws on psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock, who claim that the more a story grips us, the more we are changed by it. According to Green and Brock,

Fiction readers who reported a high level of absorption tended to have their beliefs changed in a more “story-consistent” way than those who were less absorbed. Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer “false notes” in stories—inaccuracies, infelicities—than less transported readers.

From this observation, Gottschall draws a conclusion about “the molding power of story”:

When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.

From my point of view as a literature teacher, the biggest strength of The Storytelling Animal is also, necessarily, its biggest weakness. To make his overarching claims for the power of story, Gottschall must mash together everything from videogames to War in Peace. It’s a problem that anthropologists and evolutionary biologists often run into when they tackle culture: they have difficulty distinguishing between the biological/social function of the arts and their spiritual or transcendent dimensions.

To be fair, at the end of the book Gottschall, a literature professor himself, gets nervous about the way he has seamlessly moved between high and low stories:

There’s an analogy to be made between our craving for story and our craving for food. A tendency to overeat served our ancestors well when food shortages were a predictable part of life. But now that we modern desk jockeys are awash in cheap grease and corn syrup, overeating is more likely to fatten us up and kill us young. Likewise, it could be that an intense greed for story was healthy for our ancestors but has some harmful consequences in a world where books, MP3 players, TVs, and iPhones make story omnipresent—and where we have, in romance novels and television shows such as Jersey Shore, something like the story equivalent of deep-fried Twinkies. I think the literary scholar Brian Boyd is right to wonder if overconsuming in a world awash with junk story could lead to something like a “mental diabetes epidemic.”

To which Gottshall adds,

Similarly, a digital technology evolves, our stories—ubiquitous, immersive, interactive—may become dangerously attractive. The real threat isn’t that story will fade out of human life in the future; it’s that story will take it over completely.

What he suggests, in his final summation, is that we become like disciplined dieters and make nutritious choices. This would seem a good place to separate out literature from story. It is the distinction made by reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss.

Jauss distinguishes between great literature that changes one’s “horizon of expectations” and consumable literature (formulaic, predictable) that simply confirms that horizon. For Jauss it’s the difference between Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Feydeau’s Marianne, a light drawing room comedy. Both works may deal with bourgeois infidelity, but Flaubert challenged the way we see and describe relationships while Feydeau’s audiences left the theater all but unchanged.

Gottschall, however, can’t go there. His anthropological train of thought has been steaming along a different track so that he’s ultimately unwilling to elevate one kind of story over another. For instance, he states that “even the pulpiest fare usually pulls us together around common values.”

I become absorbed in pulpy fare from time to time and sometimes can point to new insights I have gleaned. But when I discover that my emotions have been twisted for the purposes of some stale cliché, I feel ripped off. To return to the junk food analogy, it’s as though I’ve gorged on Halloween candy.

So while I agree with Gottschall that artistic and non-artistic stories appeal to some common appetites and serve some common functions, I suggest that we step out of psychology and anthropology and bring in the discriminating mind.

As an example of one such mind, I turn to Jane Austen. In Northanger Abbey, she has a heroine who is besotted with the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe. I’ve written in the past about the good things that gothic novels do for Catherine, including helping her bond with a new friend and make some sense of an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous world. In the end, however, Catherine must abandon a shallow narrative for a complicated one if she is to do real justice to her inner potential. For that, she would be much better served by reading the novels of—oh, let’s say, Jane Austen.

In other words, while we may be a story telling animal, we become a higher life form when we choose literature. The better the novel, the better we process reality.

Posted in Austen (Jane) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

I Am of Ireland

Paul Henry, "Storm in Connemara"

Paul Henry, “Storm in Connemara”

St. Patrick’s Day 

We may grow old but the myth of Ireland keeps us young. So William Butler Yeats contends in “I Am of Ireland” and “Those Dancing Days Are Done,” two good poems for St. Patrick’s Day.

The first poem is inspired by a 14th century poem by an anonymous author:

I am of Ireland
And of the holy land of Ireland
Good sir I pray of ye
For saintly charity
Come dance with me
In Ireland.

In Yeats’ version, there are two aging speakers, both of whom have seen better days. “Time runs on,” the woman acknowledges, and she asks the man to dance with her “out of charity.” If she were still young and beautiful, presumably she wouldn’t have to ask.

The man, meanwhile, is alone now, and although he may be stately, his clothes are outdated (“outlandish”) and “the night grows rough.” How can he dance if he is nothing more than “a tattered coat upon a stick” (“Sailing to Byzantium”) or “a comfortable old scarecrow” (“Among School Children”)?

When the woman continues to insist, he details all his infirmities, which suggest sexual impotence. The fiddlers are all thumbs, the fiddle string is accursed, and the drums, kettledrums, trumpets and trombone are all burst.

Yet still Ireland, the Holy Land of Ireland, calls the two of them on, hearkening at least as far back to the 14th century, as it counters the ravages of time: “Come out of charity/And dance with me in Ireland.’

I Am of Ireland

“I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,’”cried she.
“Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland.”

One man, one man alone
In that outlandish gear,
One solitary man
Of all that rambled there
Had turned his stately head.
“That is a long way off,
And time runs on,” he said,
“And the night grows rough.”

“I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,” cried she.
“Come out of charity
And dance with me in Ireland.”

“The fiddlers are all thumbs,
Or the fiddle-string accursed,
The drums and the kettledrums
And the trumpets all are burst,
And the trombone,” cried he,
“The trumpet and trombone,”
And cocked a malicious eye,
“But time runs on, runs on.”

“I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,’ cried she.
“Come out of charity
And dance with me in Ireland.”

“Those Dancing Days Are Gone,” functions as a sequel (it comes next in the collection) as the man appears to have harkened to the Holy Land of Ireland. No matter that he and she are old, no matter that they are wrapped in foul rags or lean upon sticks, no matter that their former loves and their children are dead. If the Irish can put pretense away and sing and sing until they drop, it’s because their rich tradition encourages them to draw upon the golden pulsating energies of the sun and the shadowy mysteries of the moon.

Those Dancing Days Are Gone 

Come, let me sing into your ear;
Those dancing days are gone,
All that silk and satin gear;
Crouch upon a stone,
Wrapping that foul body up
In as foul a rag:
I carry the sun in a golden cup.
The moon in a silver bag.

Curse as you may I sing it through;
What matter if the knave
That the most could pleasure you,
The children that he gave,
Are somewhere sleeping like a top
Under a marble flag?
I carry the sun in a golden cup.
The moon in a silver bag.

I thought it out this very day.
Noon upon the clock,
A man may put pretense away
Who leans upon a stick,
May sing, and sing until he drop,
Whether to maid or hag:
I carry the sun in a golden cup,
The moon in a silver bag.

Posted in Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments


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

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

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