Spain No Longer a Soccer Colossus


Vincenzo Camuccini, “Death of Caesar”

Sports Saturday 

The World Cup almost always offers us dramatic story lines–Costa Rica’s amazing success, France’s resurgence–but perhaps none is bigger than Spain’s spectacular flameout. The team that has dominated world soccer for years, winning the last World Cup and the last two European championships, received a revenge thumping from the Dutch and then was ignominiously ousted from the tournament by the Chileans.

When I think of Spain, a passage from Julius Caesar comes to mind: they did “bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.” For a while, all other teams did walk under their huge legs (and fancy footwork) and “peep about” to find themselves “dishonorable graves.” Teams were so intimidated by Spain’s free flowing tiki-taka style that they would resort to desperate measures, including a Holland player delivering a karate kick to the sternum of fullback Xabi Alonso.

Perhaps envy and resentment fed on them as it feeds on Cassius. Here’s his reaction to the cheers Caesar is getting from the crowds:

Brutus: Another general shout!
I do believe that these applauses are
For some new honors that are heap’d on Caesar.
Cassius: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that “Caesar”?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ‘em,
“Brutus” will start a spirit as soon as “Caesar.”

Let’s say that “lean and hungry” Cassius is the spirit of those ambitious teams seeking to take Spain’s place. As Caesar rightly notes (he’s speaking of Cassius),

 Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.

Well, the world’s teams have had the knives out for “La Roja” for some time and it is perhaps fitting that Spain’s last World Cup victim–the Dutch–administered the unkindest cut of all. The tournament is now wide open for a new Caesar to be crowned.

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Elizabeth & Darcy, The Perfect Couple

Firth and Ehle as Darcy and Elizabeth

Firth and Ehle as Darcy and Elizabeth

This coming fall, for the first time, I will teach Pride and Prejudice in my Jane Austen First Year Seminar (Topic: “Austen and the Dating Game”). Because the course is designed to teach “the four fundamental skills”—writing, oral presentation, critical thinking, and information literacy—we are advised to cut back on content in order to spend more time on method instruction. As a result I have limited myself to teaching five of her six major novels. In the past, I have skipped the one I figured everyone had already read.

But the students love Elizabeth Bennet and her relationship with Darcy and want to talk about it. Here’s my theory about what makes the couple so magical.

I begin with an explanation by Thomas Moore in Soul Mates as to why we are so drawn to the idea of marriage itself:

In a sense, the person we marry offers us an opportunity to enter, explore, and fulfill essential notions of who we are and who we can be.  In this sense marriage is not fundamentally the relationship between two persons, but rather an entry into destiny, an opening to the potential life that lies hidden from view until evoked by the particular thoughts and feelings of marriage.

So how do Elizabeth and Darcy represent for each other an opening into destiny. Darcy, I think, represents for Elizabeth the social base she needs for her intelligence and sprightliness to move powerfully in the world.  Given her beauty, forcefulness, intelligence, wit, and strong values, Elizabeth, more than any other Austen heroine, can make a significant impact on the larger society.  Becoming wife of a society leader and patroness of a county will allow her to exercise her leadership abilities.

For Darcy, on the other hand, Elizabeth represents the liveliness and humor that will make his spirit soar.  She will also draw him out of his upper-class isolation into a network of economic and social relationships that in Austen’s time were redefining England.  Elizabeth dreams of a self that Darcy will help her achieve, and Darcy does the same.

Darcy and Elizabeth have become a legendary couple for readers because they evoke a wholeness for which we all long.  To see how this dynamic works in more recent times, think of some of our great movie duos. In Casablanca, the dark and brooding Humphrey Bogart is lifted up by the ethereal beauty of Ingrid Bergman while she finds in him a solidity lacking in Paul Henreid, who plays her fair-haired, too conventionally handsome husband.  In Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts’ little girl smile plays dynamically against the lines of Richard Gere’s world weary face. In Annie Hall, Diane Keaton’s upbeat WASP cheerfulness makes for a fascinating contrast with Woody Allen’s urban Jewish cynical and self-deprecating humor.

Some directors, often for comic purpose, will work against gender stereotypes, such as playing Katherine Hepburn’s masculine qualities against Cary Grant’s effeminate ones (Bringing Up Baby).  When there is not this drama of opposites, the potential isn’t as evident.  Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan don’t work for me as a couple because both seem so nice.  Similarly (returning to the novel), Jane and Bingley may be too much alike to capture our imaginations.

The following contrasts show up between Elizabeth and Darcy:

Elizabeth: lively, energetic, fluid, individualistic, mercantile (on her mother’s side), ironic, outgoing, witty

Darcy: solid, stable, grounded, communal, gentry, straightforward, reserved, earnest

If, together, Elizabeth can develop her Darcy side and Darcy his Elizabeth side, how are they lacking before their union? Let’s look at Elizabeth first.

For all her virtues, Elizabeth lacks grounding and fails to acknowledge her precarious economic situation.  Perhaps because she is reacting against her mother, she does not take marriage seriously enough.

This isn’t entirely bad.  We’re glad she is not a mercenary like Caroline Bingley (and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte Lucas).  We certainly don’t want her to marry Collins or even an arrogant Darcy.  However, Elizabeth gives the impression that she can maintain a satiric distance from the whole messy business of marriage.

Yet Austen saw marriage as the only viable career path for a gentleman’s daughter, showing us the humiliations of being a governess in Emma (through Jane Fairfax) and of being a dependent in Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.  Elizabeth’s future, not to mention her family’s, may depend upon her marrying.  Others, particularly Charlotte, are far wiser to the ways of the world than she is.

Elizabeth is her father’s daughter in this regard, and he serves as a valuable object lesson.  Irresponsible himself, he has failed to provide for the futures of his daughters or his wife.  When Elizabeth warns him that Lydia’s irresponsible behavior threatens the marriage prospects of her sisters, he can’t see the danger.  Instead he asserts, idealistically but impracticably, that Jane and Elizabeth’s qualities alone will draw truly worthy men.

Elizabeth is similarly impractical when she fails to heed Charlotte’s warning that Jane’s qualities alone are not enough to capture Bingley.  Elizabeth could advise Jane to use existing social conventions to let Bingley know that she reciprocates his affection, but she doesn’t, and Jane comes very close to losing him.  Mr. Bennet is more interested in laughing at the follies of humanity than entering into human entanglements, and his daughter shares some of these same tendencies.

Because Elizabeth enjoys “willfully misunderstanding” people (Darcy’s phrase), she almost misses out on the man most capable of making her happy.  To be sure, we must admit she has very good reasons for hating him.  He insults her on their first encounter, and he proves to be intolerably stuck up.  As she will learn later, however, he has good principles underneath these appearances, and she willfully fails to observe them.

Too often we get stuck in our first impressions (the original title for Pride and Prejudice) and fail to see what is truly before us.  We may even find confederates in our opinions. Elizabeth is drawn to Wickham, not only because he is handsome, but also because they share a mutual dislike of Darcy.  As a result, she fails to see into Wickham’s character, a misjudgment that almost has catastrophic consequences for the entire Bennet family.  Elizabeth’s pride in her discernment, amounting almost to smugness, is overthrown when Darcy’s letter shows many of her prejudices to be groundless.

Married to Darcy, she would learn to live effectively and forcefully in the world.  Because Darcy has experience with this world, Elizabeth realizes that he has a lot to teach her.  She comes to this realization when it appears that she has lost him:

She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her.  His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes.  It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.

As “Mistress of Pemberley,” Elizabeth will contribute to the very important bridging of classes that Austen saw as vital to England’s stability and well-being.  (Austen wanted middle class families like her own to merge with the upper classes, although she was content to have the lower classes remain where they were.)  Imagine Elizabeth wielding the power of a Lady Catherine, only doing so wisely and well.

One doesn’t necessarily need to marry into an estate to influence the world—Austen herself took a very unconventional path by writing novels—but entering Darcy’s mansion is a powerful symbol for stepping into one’s powers.  Elizabeth’s attraction to Pemberley is not what it is for Caroline Bingley, who sees it as a prop for her vanity.  Rather, for Elizabeth, the estate is a set of relationships and a social order that need her leadership.

For Darcy, the problem is the opposite one.  Think for a moment of the confining circle of people in which he moves.  It has little vitality and is in danger of becoming insular and cut off.  His aunt is dictatorial, his sister shy and confused, his cousin anemic and listless, his best friend wishy-washy.

In the larger historical picture, Darcy represents landed wealth, a way of life that was being eclipsed by urban growth and middle class trade.  The Gardiners, Elizabeth’s mercantile uncle and aunt, point to the future.  To be sure, land and blood continued to command immense prestige, and Darcy is proud of his connections.  But his pride pushes him to the edge of dance floors and into exclusive conversations.

In Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” Darcy sees the energy, the outgoingness, and the excitement that is missing from his world.  To put himself in touch with those energies, to marry into his Elizabeth side, he discovers himself willing to do almost anything, even if it means humiliating himself.

The books itself is a holistic blend of Elizabeth comedy and Darcy seriousness.  Although Pride and Prejudice may have important lessons to teach, it always assumes that we like a good laugh.  Austen takes as her motto Mr. Bennet’s words, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn.”

True, we cannot just laugh and then retreat into our libraries.  Our deepest happiness and well-being are at stake, and the book, Darcy-like, makes clear what is right and what is wrong.   But it also reminds us that, when we work on our relationships, we should not take ourselves too seriously.

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Into the Mind of a Portrait Painter

Marguerite Gérard, "Painter Painting a Lute Player"

Marguerite Gérard, “Painter Painting a Lute Player”

I stumbled across Iain Pears’ novel The Portrait (2005) and couldn’t help but notice its resemblance to a Robert Browning dramatic monologue. It particularly reminded me of “The Last Duchess,” which also dramatizes the relationship between a portrait painter and his sitter. I didn’t care a great deal for the novel, which I found to be mechanical and cold. But I appreciated that it taught me something about the painting.

The novel features a Scottish portrait painter who invites an old acquaintance, a famous art critic, to visit him in his Brittany retreat. The painter does most of the talking and, as in “My Last Duchess,” we have to infer his interlocutor’s reactions and responses. The critic is supposedly there to have his portrait painted but there’s a deeper mystery that is revealed as the novel unfolds.

I found the characters so disagreeable that I sometimes found it hard to keep reading. What kept me going were the insights The Portrait gave me into art, portrait painting, art criticism, and the art battles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the book is set. But this led to an interesting theoretical question.

Is a novel worthwhile if it conveys information in a compelling way, even if it is otherwise lacking? Several years ago I encountered Dwight MacDonald’s Against the American Grain (1962), where the anarchist culture critic attacks such novels. MacDonald was worried that many Americans are so utilitarian that they will find value only in those novels that add informational value to their lives. Why, McDonald wondered, can’t we appreciate  art for art’s sake.

MacDonald is right that the style of a novel is more important than the factual information contained therein. However, we no longer contend, out of some formalist urge for purity, than a novel is tainted if it contains a lot of facts (think of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell). In fact, we may well criticize novels that get their facts wrong.

I discovered that, if the information is interesting enough, I’ll plow through it, even if the prose is less than scintillating. Here are some of the passages I appreciated:

[On painting the portrait] Ah! Such an impenetrable face you have, my friend! Such control. You are a painter’s nightmare, you know. It was something I once admired greatly. The stoicism of the English gentleman is a wonderful thing, unless you are trying to capture it on canvas, because emotions bounce off it and never reveal themselves. Tell you something shocking or wondrous, insult you or compliment you, and that same inscrutable expression comes back. It is like trying to peer through a dirty window: you do not see true, and end up seeing only your own faint reflection instead. That will not do. You must show some strong emotion for me before you leave or I will throw down my brushes and stamp out in a painterly rage. Haven’t had one of those for years.


[Reminiscing about the old artistic battles of the past] We sat long hours in Paris bars and London pubs, sneering at the likes of Bouguereau and Herkomer and Hunt, deriding their pomposity, the prostitution of their skills into sterile emblems for the bourgeoisie—those were the glorious rolling phrases, were they not? How good they made us feel. But what would those below say about me now? What are they called again? Vorticists, Cubists, Futurists or some such? Too weird even for you, I imagine… 

We weren’t really very good, you know. Think of all those acres of canvas we churned out when we came back from Paris, all that semi-digested Impressionism. We got rid of the wistful peasants and the studies of girls knitting, true enough; but we replaced them with unending landscapes painted in muted greens and browns. Thousands of them. Didn’t really matter if it was Cumbria or Gloucestershire or Brittany, they all looked pretty much the same. I don’t know why English painters loved brown so much. It’s not as if it is so much cheaper than any other color…

It is the violence these new people bring to their work which interests me; what they produce may be revolting, incompetent, the antithesis of real art; they may be frauds and fools. Who knows? But they tap into the violence of men’s souls like the first roll of thunder on a summer’s day. They have extended their emotional range into areas we never thought of. There was nothing of that in our work. We challenged those old men in so many ways, but our notions of violence. General Wolfe capuring Quebec, Napoleon crossing the Alps. No blood, no death and no cruelty. We produced studies of sunlight on cathedral walks and thought that was revolutionary enough.

[On a trip the two of them made to France] I remember the trip to Saint-Denis best of all, the great cathedral with the sepulchers of the kings in that grimy industrial suburb. It was one of those revelatory moments that come only rarely in a life, all the more so for being so very unexpected. Particularly Louis XII and his queen, those statues; showing both of them in their full glory, regal and powerful, and underneath as corpses, withered, naked and disgusting. As you are, so were we; as we are, so will you be. No sentimentality or hiding. No black crepe or fine words to hide the reality. These people were able to confront the inevitable full on, and show that even kings must rot. It is our final destination, and something artists have shied away from for generations.

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Is Poetry in Decline? Nope


Thalia Flora-Karavia, “Boy Reading” (1906)

English professor William Logan wrote a quirky column about the decline of poetry in Saturday’s New York Times. It’s not a great article—in fact, it’s unclear either what Logan is protesting or what he is proposing—but the piece serves as a useful launching point for reflections on the current status of poetry.

Logan observes that “[t]he dirty secret of poetry is that it is loved by some, loathed by many, and bought by almost no one” and that poetry “has long been a major art with a minor audience.” He then takes us back to a time when poetry had a larger audience:

Many arts have flourished in one period, then found a smaller niche in which they’ve survived perfectly well. A century ago, poetry did not appear in little magazines devoted to it, but on the pages of newspapers and mass-circulation magazines. The big magazines and even the newspapers began declining about the time they stopped printing poetry. (I know, I know — I’ve put the cause before the horse.)

And further on:

Poetry was long ago shoved aside in schools. In colleges it’s often easier to find courses on race or class or gender than on the Augustans or Romantics. In high schools and grade schools, when poetry is taught at all, too often it’s as a shudder of self-expression, without any attempt to look at the difficulties and majesties of verse and the subtleties of meaning that make poetry poetry. No wonder kids don’t like it — it becomes another way to bully them into feeling “compassion” or “tolerance,” part of a curriculum that makes them good citizens but bad readers of poetry.

I partially agree with Logan but disagree much more. First, where we agree: I can testify, on the basis of a 19th century British poetry course I taught in a senior center, that poetry used to be more public in the past than it is now. My elderly students talked about reading daily poems in The Baltimore Sun (many of them not very good but it was still poetry), and they could still recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade” or “Kubla Khan” or stretches of poetry by Longfellow. So that’s an argument for poetry’s higher profile.

I should caution that these students were not a representative sample of the broader population. After all, they had chosen to sign up for a 19th century British poetry class. Still, it sounds like different cultural institutions paid more lip service to poetry than they do today.

But, except for the fact that they had had more life experience, my senior citizens weren’t more attuned than my English majors to “the difficulties and majesties of verse and the subtleties of meaning that make poetry poetry.”  In some ways, people of earlier generations seem to have memorized poetry in the same way that they dressed up to go to church: it was a gesture of respect to high culture, a sign that they were civilized.  But just as wearing a hat and gloves doesn’t necessarily enhance the spiritual experience, so reading and reciting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere doesn’t necessarily deepen one’s understanding of poetry.

To be clear, I’m all for memorizing poetry and treasure the fact that, when I went to a Parisian school at 13, we spent an hour memorizing poetry every day, 30 minutes at the end of the morning session and 30 minutes at the end of the afternoon. I sometimes have my own students memorize the opening lines of Canterbury Tales and appreciate how it gives them a deeper appreciation of rhythm and rhyme. So yes, schools could and should do more along these lines.

But Logan is just riding a private hobby horse or indulging in a caricature of current day professors by talking about today’s students being bullied into “feeling ‘compassion’ or “tolerance.’” I’m not even sure what he’s talking about unless he’s still fighting the early 1990’s culture wars. Students today respond to poetry is a wide variety of ways, just as they always have. Sometimes they are inspired, sometimes intrigued, sometimes aroused. Like Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, often they turn to poetry for purposes of lovemaking:

Claudio: And I’ll be sworn upon’t that he loves her;
For here’s a paper written in his hand,
A halting sonnet of his own pure brain,
Fashion’d to Beatrice.

Hero: And here’s another
Writ in my cousin’s hand, stolen from her pocket,
Containing her affection unto Benedick.

In other words, poetry has always mixed it up with life.

Standing on shaky ground, Logan then engages in a little self-satire. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to disguise just how curmudgeonly he’s sounding:

My blue-sky proposal: teach America’s kids to read by making them read poetry. Shakespeare and Pope and Milton by the fifth grade; in high school, Dante and Catullus in the original. By graduation, they would know Anne Carson and Derek Walcott by heart. A child taught to parse a sentence by Dickinson would have no trouble understanding Donald H. Rumsfeld’s known knowns and unknown unknowns.

Logan admits, “We don’t live in such a world, and perhaps not even poets alive today wish we did,” and he ratchets down his goals to children memorizing a poem a week.

Then he makes a declaration that irritates me no end:

The cigar-chewing promoter who can find a way to put poetry before readers and make them love it will do more for the art than a century of hand-wringing. He might also turn a buck.

I’m all for doing whatever it takes for spreading the gospel of poetry, with or without a cigar. What I find irritating is that Logan has no clue that English teachers and poetry lovers all over America are already finding imaginative ways of introducing young people to poetry. To cite one instance that I’ll bet Logan knows nothing about, there is “Poetry Out Loud,” a recitation contest that students compete in from all over the country. In some ways, rap has reintroduced students to rhythm and arresting images and, so introduced, students suddenly find “Tiger, Tiger” or “Kubla Khan” to be marvelously modern. I don’t know that people are turning many bucks as they excite young people about poetry but they aren’t hand-wringing. They leave that up to people like Logan.

The columnist is more interested in complaining about political correctness and our decadent times than in discovering what is already going on.

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Earth Hath Nothing to Show More Fair

London at dawn

Early yesterday morning I bicycled around Madison’s Lake Monona, a 12-mile trek, and was able to view the Madison skyline across the water in the dawn light. I thought immediately of a Wordsworth sonnet.

“Composed upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802” is somewhat unexpected in that Wordsworth usually enthuses about nature, not cities. His normal attitude shows up in Tintern Abbey where the poet resorts to pastoral memories when he is feeling depressed in his urban apartment:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din      
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them       
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet…

To be sure, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” includes some nature images. Because it is early in the morning, the London smog hasn’t settled over the city. As Dorothy Wordsworth reported on this particular excursion,

It was a beautiful morning. The City, St pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand Spectacles.

Her brother picks up on this purity. However, he then surprises the reader by saying that he is far more moved by the massed humanity than he is by valleys, rocks and hills:

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 

Earth hath not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

It’s wonderful how works of art can provide a frame through which to view landscapes. In the early 19th century amateur artists would take “Claude glasses”—tinted dark mirrors– into the country so that they could see the landscape as French painter Claude Lorrain viewed it. As I bicycled around Madison’s southern lake, Wordsworth’s poem provided me with my own Claude glass.

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Principle or Expedience?

Mr. and Mrs. Crawley in "Last Chronicle of Barset"

Mr. and Mrs. Crawley in “Last Chronicle of Barset”

I’ve been traveling through the Midwest with my mother to see relatives. First we traveled to Des Moines and I met for the first time a set of cousins connected to my maternal grandmother. Then we swung through Madison (WI), Iowa City, and Clarksville (TN) to see my three brothers. As we have driven, my mother has been talking about her life with my late father and raising four boys. We’ve also been listening to Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset.

Trollope is so thoroughly Victorian that he is a hoot to listen to. It’s a relief, for instance, to go back to fiction written before modernism when people believed that clear communication was possible and the truth ultimately knowable. When people used to say, “They don’t write novels like they used to,” I suspect their longing was for novels with such clarity. There are no unreliable narrators in Trollope’s works.

Dated thought Trollope may be, however, The Last Chronicle of Barset has some useful lessons for us. In today’s post I apply it to contemporary politics.

One of the main tensions in the novel is between principle and expedience. The plot involves a parish priest, Mr. Crawley, who is accused of cashing a check that is not his. Given that he has a great deal of integrity, it’s inconceivable that he would do so. Nevertheless, the facts of the case all point to his guilt. He himself can’t remember what has happened and fears that he may be mad.

He is indicted, the bishop’s wife goes out of her way to humiliate him, and no one knows how the trial will go. Those who care about him are worried about his family, but that is not their only concern. They also have their own private quarrels with the bishop. In other words, humanitarian concerns are intermixed with various political agendas. The Barsetshire novels–there are six of them–are filled with non-stop Anglican internecine warfare that often appears to have little to do with living a godly life.

But Crawley won’t enter into their schemes. Once he becomes convinced that he must be guilty, he decides to resign his parish living, even though it will mean poverty for him and his family (not to mention a triumph for the bishop). One of his advocates, a Rev. Robarts, resorts to various practical arguments in an attempt to dissuade him from resigning prior to the trial. He gets this response:

“I have been growing to feel, for some weeks past, that circumstances,—whether through my own fault or not is an outside question as to which I will not further delay you by offering even an opinion,—that unfortunate circumstances have made me unfit to remain here as guardian of the souls of the people of this parish… What could I do then, Mr. Robarts? Could I allow myself to think of my wife and my children when such a question as that was before me for self-discussion?”

“I would,—certainly,” said Robarts.

“No, sir! Excuse the bluntness of my contradiction, but I feel assured that in such emergency you would look solely to duty,—as by God’s help, I will endeavor to do. Mr. Robarts, there are many of us who in many things, are much worse than we believe ourselves to be. But in other matters, and perhaps of larger moment, we can rise to ideas of duty as the need for such ideas comes upon us. I say not this at all as praising myself. I speak of men as I believe that they will be found to be;—of yourself, of myself, and of others who strive to live with clean hands and a clear conscience. I do not for a moment think that you would retain your benefice at Framley if there had come upon you, after much thought, an assured conviction that you could not retain it without grievous injury to the souls of others and grievous sin to your own. Wife and children, dear as they are to you and to me,—as dear to me as to you,—fade from the sight when the time comes for judgment on such a matter as that!” They were standing quite still now, facing each other, and Crawley, as he spoke with a low voice, looked straight into his friend’s eyes, and kept his hand firmly fixed on his friend’s arm.

“I cannot interfere further,” said Robarts.

“No,—you cannot interfere further.” Robarts, when he told the story of the interview to his wife that evening, declared that he had never heard a voice so plaintively touching as was the voice of Mr. Crawley when he uttered those last words.

Following the scene, Crawley goes back into his house to read the Greek poet Pindar.

If one follows politics these days, much of it seems driven only by expedience. At times, however, we witness a revulsion, which may explain House Major Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking primary defeat to an unknown Tea Party candidate who Cantor outspent 20-1. Cantor comes across as someone who doesn’t have a single principled bone in his body and a number of voters took offense.

But Trollope doesn’t entirely come down on Crawley’s side. In fact, the reverend can be infuriating at times and, as my mother and I were listening to Barset, we would periodically stop the disk to complain about him. (In Victorian times, couples such as George Elliot and George Henry Lewes used to read aloud to each other, and I’m sure they also would stop and discuss.) Sometimes Crawley’s principles are guided by pride and he seems prepared to sacrifice his family on the altar of a stiff-necked rigidity.

Returning to David Brat, the man who defeated Cantor, he appears to be one of those Tea Party members who is more interested in ideological purity than responsible governance. Cantor, political hack though he may be, at least believes that the government should stay open and that some political compromising is necessary. Too little concern for practical concerns is as bad as too much. I don’t think we want the Crawleys of the world running the government.

Read literature and you will get a deep political education.

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Remembering a Father’s Tenderness

Georges de la Tour, "Joseph and Jesus"

Georges de la Tour, “Joseph the Carpenter”

Father’s Day

Here’s a lovely Li-Young Lee poem for Father’s Day. Not all of Lee’s poems about his father are positive and one finds even in this one a hint of violence, a hand that could be raised to discipline. But that makes the tenderness of this remembered act even more poignant. The poet recalls a moment when his father removed a splinter from his hand and he draws on that remembered tenderness when, years later, he himself removes a splinter from his wife’s hand.

What he remembers is not the story that his father told to distract his attention but the sound of his father’s voice, “a well of dark water, a prayer.” Something precious was planted deep within him at that time:

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.

Now, as he works to removed his wife’s splinter, he can see that the long-ago planting has yielded a rich harvest. Life at its most meaningful is not made up of loud and dramatic moments—the poet imagines overdramatizing his encounter with the splinter—but of tiny acts of quiet concern, of silver tears and tiny flames. The tenderness of the boy’s thank you is reflected in his kiss, which is on a par with his father’s act. He was given this gift to keep and now he is passing it on to those he loves.

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,

Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does

when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

Posted in Lee (Li-Young) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

U. S. as Prey in Most Dangerous Game?

Banks in "Most Dangerous Game? Or America's next opponent in Group of Death?

Banks in “Most Dangerous Game” or America’s next foe in Group of Death?

The World Cup has commenced and almost every American I know is rooting for two teams. First of all, of course, we support the American team. Then we all have the team we will support as soon as America loses. I myself root for France since I used to go to school there, but I like other teams as well. For instance, I find myself attracted to Holland after its impressive performance over Spain. (Four years ago I criticized the Dutch in their finals loss to the Spanish.)

The United States will be playing Germany, Portugal and Ghana in what many people are calling the Group of Death. Going with the death metaphor, in today’s post I apply Richard Connell’s short story thriller “The Most Dangerous Game” to the upcoming contests.

First of all, however, I must say I’m not convinced that Group G is the Group off Death. If you are a lesser team—as we are—then every group must seem death-like. I can’t imagine that Germany was terribly worried when the United States and Ghana showed up in its foursome. Group B, with the Netherlands, Spain, and Chile, would have seemed far more formidable.

Be that as it may, I’m imagining that America, like Rainsford, has somehow ended up on “Ship Trap Island” and is facing General Zaroff, the avid hunter who enjoys hunting shipwrecked sailors. The key is not to panic when you realize that men with the equivalent of Zaroff’s advantages (he has a hunting rifle, a gigantic Russian, and dogs) are stalking you with your hunting knife. Here’s Rainsford trying desperately to compose himself as the U. S. will need to compose itself:

He had not been entirely clearheaded when the chateau gates snapped shut behind him. His whole idea at first was to put distance between himself and General Zaroff; and, to this end, he had plunged along, spurred on by the sharp rowers of something very like panic. Now he had got a grip on himself, had stopped, and was taking stock of himself and the situation. He saw that straight flight was futile; inevitably it would bring him face to face with the sea. He was in a picture with a frame of water, and his operations, clearly, must take place within that frame.

Rainsford resorts to every stratagem he can think of. He sets up a log that will fall on his pursuers, he digs a hidden pit with spikes, he fastens a knife to a sprung branch trap. Nothing works, however, and he ultimately throws himself into the sea to escape the dogs. And then, because Zaroff thinks he is dead, Rainoff is able to catch him off guard.

So maybe that’s what the U.S. needs to do: play dead and then strike.

Of course, the story never explains how Rainoff manages to survive the dive into the sea. Sadly for the U.S., Connell has indulged in a fantasy.

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Superstition & Power Relations

Jim listens to the hairball

Jim listens to the hairball

Friday the 13th

I grew up with the cartoon strip Pogo, which in its early days was funny although it had become somewhat stale by the time I started paying attention. There was one running joke I enjoyed, however. Periodically a character would announce that “Friday the 13th is on Monday this month” (or Tuesday or whatever day the 13th was).

Well, I found it funny as a kid.

Anyway, as today is Friday the 13th, I thought I’d highlight one of the great novels in which superstitions are featured. In the process, I also talk about race and oppression.

Time and again in Huckleberry Finn we see Huck’s superstitions at work. Here’s a instance:

Pretty soon a spider went crawling up my shoulder, and I flipped it off and it lit in the candle; and before I could budge it was all shriveled up.  I didn’t need anybody to tell me that that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck, so I was scared and most shook the clothes off of me. I got up and turned around in my tracks three times and crossed my breast every time; and then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to keep witches away.  But I hadn’t no confidence.  You do that when you’ve lost a horseshoe that you’ve found, instead of nailing it up over the door, but I hadn’t ever heard anybody say it was any way to keep off bad luck when you’d killed a spider.

And then there’s the moment when signs indicate that Pap is returning (although Huck doesn’t know this yet):

One morning I happened to turn over the salt-cellar at breakfast.  I reached for some of it as quick as I could to throw over my left shoulder and keep off the bad luck, but Miss Watson was in ahead of me, and crossed me off. She says, “Take your hands away, Huckleberry; what a mess you are always making!”  The widow put in a good word for me, but that warn’t going to keep off the bad luck, I knowed that well enough.  I started out, after breakfast, feeling worried and shaky, and wondering where it was going to fall on me, and what it was going to be.  There is ways to keep off some kinds of bad luck, but this wasn’t one of them kind; so I never tried to do anything, but just poked along low-spirited and on the watch-out.

Huck has someone to turn to, however. African-Americans are assumed to have a deeper connection with the spirit world than rational whites and so he goes to Jim:

Miss Watson’s nigger, Jim, had a hairball as big as your fist, which had been took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it.  He said there was a spirit inside of it, and it knowed everything.  So I went to him that night and told him pap was here again, for I found his tracks in the snow.  What I wanted to know was, what he was going to do, and was he going to stay?  Jim got out his hairball and said something over it, and then he held it up and dropped it on the floor.  It fell pretty solid, and only rolled about an inch.  Jim tried it again, and then another time, and it acted just the same.  Jim got down on his knees, and put his ear against it and listened.  But it warn’t no use; he said it wouldn’t talk. He said sometimes it wouldn’t talk without money…

Huck gives Jim a quarter and gets the following result:

Yo’ ole father doan’ know yit what he’s a-gwyne to do.  Sometimes he spec he’ll go ‘way, en den agin he spec he’ll stay.  De bes’ way is to res’ easy en let de ole man take his own way.  Dey’s two angels hoverin’ roun’ ’bout him.  One uv ‘em is white en shiny, en t’other one is black. De white one gits him to go right a little while, den de black one sail in en bust it all up.  A body can’t tell yit which one gwyne to fetch him at de las’.  But you is all right.  You gwyne to have considable trouble in yo’ life, en considable joy.  Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.  Dey’s two gals flyin’ ’bout you in yo’ life.  One uv ‘em’s light en t’other one is dark. One is rich en t’other is po’.  You’s gwyne to marry de po’ one fust en de rich one by en by.  You wants to keep ‘way fum de water as much as you kin, en don’t run no resk, ‘kase it’s down in de bills dat you’s gwyne to git hung.

Huck has a mixed relationship with Jim on the subject of superstitions. Sometimes he regards him as an authority and sometimes he looks down on him. Those who see Twain as making fun of African Americans sometimes don’t account for the fact that we are seeing Jim through the eyes of 13-year-old Huck. But I think an even more interesting point can be made.

The oppressed find power where they can find it. Jim doesn’t have autonomy over his own body but he has found out a way to carve out an area in which he is an authority. Take the scene where Tom and Huck play a trick on him, for instance. The scene appears to anticipate the book’s conclusion, where Jim becomes Tom’s plaything. But if Jim is ignorant, he’s ignorant like a fox. See if you can figure out how:

As soon as Tom was back we cut along the path, around the garden fence, and by and by fetched up on the steep top of the hill the other side of the house.  Tom said he slipped Jim’s hat off of his head and hung it on a limb right over him, and Jim stirred a little, but he didn’t wake. Afterwards Jim said the witches be witched him and put him in a trance, and rode him all over the State, and then set him under the trees again, and hung his hat on a limb to show who done it.  And next time Jim told it he said they rode him down to New Orleans; and, after that, every time he told it he spread it more and more, till by and by he said they rode him all over the world, and tired him most to death, and his back was all over saddle-boils.  Jim was monstrous proud about it, and he got so he wouldn’t hardly notice the other niggers.  Niggers would come miles to hear Jim tell about it, and he was more looked up to than any nigger in that country.  Strange niggers would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder.  Niggers is always talking about witches in the dark by the kitchen fire; but whenever one was talking and letting on to know all about such things, Jim would happen in and say, “Hm!  What you know ’bout witches?” and that nigger was corked up and had to take a back seat.  Jim always kept that five-center piece round his neck with a string, and said it was a charm the devil give to him with his own hands, and told him he could cure anybody with it and fetch witches whenever he wanted to just by saying something to it; but he never told what it was he said to it.  Niggers would come from all around there and give Jim anything they had, just for a sight of that five-center piece; but they wouldn’t touch it, because the devil had had his hands on it.  Jim was most ruined for a servant, because he got stuck up on account of having seen the devil and been rode by witches.

Jim has figured out how to turn Tom’s trick into a means of drumming up an audience and getting out of work all at the same time. And who knows why the slaves are congregating—is it out of superstitious credulity or because they know a good storyteller when they hear one? Huck thinks he is superior but then poor whites have always had a big investment in feeling superior to blacks. I’m not ready to buy his account of the affair.

Added note: It just so happens that I am writing this post in a motel in Hannibal, Missouri. My mother and I are traveling north to see relatives.

Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Poems Celebrating My Birth

Jack and Jill

Anon., from 1806 edition of “Jack and Jill”

Today is my birthday, the first one in which I am present in the world while my father is not (he died last August). In today’s post I want to revisit the joy that he felt when I showed up, as indicated by two poems he wrote for the occasion . I previously shared these two poems when my first grandchild arrived on the scene. I can’t help but be grateful that my father was so thrilled at my arrival.

As I wrote in my earlier post, the first of the poems celebrates the miracle of conception and birth, echoing a famous medieval lyric in which the speaker marvels at the conception and birth of Jesus. (You can read my post on that lyric here.)

In my father’s poem, the sun shining through the glass is the magic of conception. The Virgin Mary conceived Jesus after being filled with the Holy Spirit, but conception is miraculous even when it takes the more conventional form.

The joy of birth, meanwhile, is well captured by the image of a robin singing after rain. Maybe that’s in part how I got my name—my father was in love with birds and bird song—although Christopher Robin entered into the naming process as well.

Robin Carol

By Scott Bates

As the holly in the ivy,
As the redness in the rose,
As “the sunne it shineth through the glasse”
So Jesus in his mother was;
As the robin singeth after rain
So Jesus from his mother came.

Each new birth recalls the miracle of Jesus in that it promises fresh hope for a fallen world. Perhaps I represented a new hope for my father in that I showed up six years after he experienced the Battle of the Falaise Gap and Dachau (he arrived three days after the concentration camp was liberated) and the beginning of the nuclear age. My mother says that he was smitten with me.

The other poem is more playful. My father was in love with the Mother Goose rhymes—he raised his four boys on them—and he was acutely aware that many are filled with adult themes. For instance, here’s what a historic guide says about “Jack and Jill”:

The small village of Kilmersdon in north Somerset claims to be the home of the Jack and Jill rhyme. Local legend recalls how in the late 15th century, a young unmarried couple regularly climbed a nearby hill in order to conduct their liaison in private, away from the prying eyes of the village. Obviously a very close liaison, Jill fell pregnant, but just before the baby was born Jack was killed by a rock that had fallen from their ‘special’ hill. A few days later, Jill died whilst giving birth to their love child. Their tragic tale unfolds today on a series of inscribed stones that leads along a path to that ‘special’ hill.

In his own poem, my father takes full advantage of any sexual puns he can find—intended or not—to describe the history of my begetting and birth. I’m assuming you don’t need a lot of assistance here but, with a tip of the cap to Freud, you will see that phallic images are rampant. You can also assume that every room image is a womb image. Incidentally, my mother tells me that my fetal name was Omar, after the poet Omar Khayyam. “Khayyam” means tent maker, and my father remarked that I turned every one of my mother’s dresses into a tent. Here’s the poem:

Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
(Peaseporridge hot, peaseporridge cold)
Jack met Jill on top of the hill
(Humpty Dumpty’s in the pot, nine days old).

Simple Simon ran up the clock
(Sitting in the parlor, eating curds and whey)
Rub-a-dub-dub in a pumpkin shell
(Over the hills and far away).

Little Jack Horner had a great fall
(Hi-diddle-diddle, the cupboard is bare)
ROBIN goes roaring down the hall
(Going to the Fair).

If it took Jack and Jill falling down that hill to bring me into the world, I’m all for it.

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

How Jane Eyre Is Not Twilight

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre”

Among the gifts I received from my students last semester was a new understanding of how Jane Eyre provides a healthy relationship model for young women. I particularly have in mind essays written by Michelle Williams and Tessa Haynes.

Michelle was distressed by the number of “warning signals” that Jane overlooks in her relationship with Rochester. As Michelle laid them out, they comprise an impressive list:

–Rochester keeps his identity secret upon their first encounter;
–He disguises himself as a gypsy to draw her out;
–He invites Blanche Ingram over to make her jealous (Jane learns this on the day before the wedding);
–He fails to provide a comprehensive explanation for the madwoman in the house;
–He makes strange pronouncements, like the following:

“God pardon me!” he subjoined ere long; “and man meddle not with me: I have her, and will hold her.”

“There is no one to meddle, sir.  I have no kindred to interfere.”

 No—that is the best of it,” he said.  And if I had loved him less I should have thought his accent and look of exultation savage; but, sitting by him, roused from the nightmare of parting—called to the paradise of union—I thought only of the bliss given me to drink in so abundant a flow.  Again and again he said, “Are you happy, Jane?”  And again and again I answered, “Yes.”  After which he murmured, “It will atone—it will atone.  Have I not found her friendless, and cold, and comfortless?  Will I not guard, and cherish, and solace her?  Is there not love in my heart, and constancy in my resolves?  It will expiate at God’s tribunal.  I know my Maker sanctions what I do.  For the world’s judgment—I wash my hands thereof.  For man’s opinion—I defy it.”

And lest she miss the hint, heaven sends its own warning:

But what had befallen the night?  The moon was not yet set, and we were all in shadow: I could scarcely see my master’s face, near as I was.  And what ailed the chestnut tree? it writhed and groaned; while wind roared in the laurel walk, and came sweeping over us.

And then the next morning:

Before I left my bed in the morning, little Adèle came running in to tell me that the great horse-chestnut at the bottom of the orchard had been struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away.

So, ladies, if you’ve already got doubts about him and then the tree under which you passionately kiss is struck by lightning later that night, take a hard second look.

Only, according to Tessa, it is the very desire for thoughtless immersion that draws Jane to Rochester. In her essay Tessa smartly compared Jane’s attraction to Rochester with Belle’s attraction to the vampire Edward in the teenage gothic sensation Twilight. I think Tessa got the emotional dynamics right in both works.

Tessa began her essay with a discussion of the unhealthy attraction that teenage girls have for certain romances:

 Despite an increase in female authors over the past century, there is still a surprising lack of realistic heroines with self-conviction and independence, particularly in popular young adult literature. The entire plot for many heroines is driven not by psychological development (as in most cases with male characters) but by romance. These characters achieve happiness by cultivating or creating a relationship with a man. Modern stories like Twilight and The Last Song fall under this category. Even Hunger Games and City of Bones, despite being fantasy adventure novels, still have main female protagonists who find their happily-ever-after through male dependency. I am not saying these are horrible books. Some of them, I adore. But as a collective, they are sending the message that a woman’s happiness is dependent on a man. Twilight, in particular, has a negative impact on young readers. The book teaches women that emotionally abusive relationships are fine as long as you love each other.

Tessa pointed out that Twilight and Jane Eyre (up to the wedding) are not all that different. Here’s her description of the Twilight plot:

Bella Swan is virtually adaptable to fit the needs of any adolescent girl in America. She is an angst ridden teenager with low self-esteem coping with the woes of every other person her age; making friends in a new place, getting through high school, and finding a boyfriend. She might be a little bit whiny but at base level, Bella is an incredibly vague set of boots to fill for any pubescent girl who picks up the book. That is why so many girls like her and like Edward even more, the sparkling knight in shining armor that makes her feel loved.

But that is where the storyline gets scary. Bella quickly falls in love with this golden eyed, pale teenage boy and completely ignores the warning signs that something very sinister is going on. All her new friends in Forks don’t seem to like him or his family and they verbally warn her about him. One moment, he is incredibly interested in her and the next, he won’t even talk to her. His eyes change color, something that she has a sneaking suspicion has to do with his eating habits. Sometimes he stares at her hungrily, as if she could become a part of those eating habits. The list of warning signs is endless but Bella gets pulled in anyway.

And when it is revealed that Edward is a vampire that is intoxicated with the smell of her blood, Bella stays instead of running thousands of miles away. This is supposed to be seen as a sign of faith and love in the books—she tells Edward that it doesn’t matter what he is—but nestled within her persistence is a very real metaphor for someone stuck in a horrible relationship. She sees Edward as someone who can love her and give her attention because she can’t love herself. She is entirely reliant on him, to the point where it is dangerous. When Edward leaves her, she commits suicidal acts in order to “feel” him with her, and throughout the series she asks Edward to essentially kill her so that she can be a vampire and live with him forever. At one point in the first book, he nearly does but this does nothing to deter her affection.

Tessa then went on to note Jane’s resemblances to Bella:

Jane in the beginning of the novel is very similar to Bella, although her back story is much worse. She is abused and neglected at a young age, which teaches her how to bear pain and move on with little to no retaliation. This can be seen as a good thing. It allows for her own form of strength, a strength in endurance that helps her survive many hardships that others would be unable to. But these abuses also teach her to think very lowly of herself–just like Bella–and this is what her initial toxic relationship with Rochester stems from.

From the moment she begins loving him, she is convinced it is unrequited. She feels that she is completely under his control and that there is no reciprocal emotion. “He made me love him without even looking at me,” she states, when she first discovers her feelings for him.

Like Michelle, Tessa pointed out the danger signs:

Even before Rochester even reveals his feelings for her, there are various warning signs of the toxicity of their relationship. Similar to Edward, Rochester’s actions towards Jane are very polar. When the two of them are alone, he loves talking to her but then completely ignores her in instances with less privacy. When Miss Ingram and her mother are talking badly of Jane and other governesses while she is within hearing distance, Rochester does nothing to steer the conversation in another direction; in fact, he provokes it by egging her ladyship into telling the audience Jane’s noticeable faults. Later in the book, we find out that Rochester does have feelings for Jane, but he toys with her as if she were an emotionless object rather than a human. He constantly pays attention to Miss Ingram and practically marries her just to play a game with Jane’s feelings. Jane, who is used to being treated poorly, does not care, for she could not un-love him

merely because [she] found he ceased to notice [her]—because [she] might pass hours in his presence, and he would never once turn his eyes in [her] direction—because all his attentions appropriated by a great lady, who scorned to touch [Jane] with the hem of her robes as she passed.

The house itself seems to be giving Jane warning signs; eerie laughter echoing through the halls, beds catching fire, guests getting attacked. But Jane chooses to turn a blind eye and remain embroiled in this messed up relationship because she believes that no one else cares for her except for Rochester.

Even after he reveals his feelings, their relationship remains one of dependence on Jane’s part. She continuously refers to him as sir and still looks down upon herself despite the fact she knows that he loves her. “Don’t address me as if I were a beauty,” she tells him. “I am your plain, Quakerish governess.” These small negative interactions between Rochester and Jane build up to the climactic reveal on their wedding day. He has been hiding a mad wife in his attic, an interesting parallel to Edward’s vampirism.

At this point, however, the parallels end. Tessa examined Jane’s internal conversation about whether she should become Rochester’s mistress or leave him. Here’s the key passage from the novel:

 “Oh, comply!” [her compassion] said.  “Think of his misery; think of his danger—look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair—soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his.  Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?”

Still indomitable was the reply—“I care for myself.  The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.  I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.  I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now.  Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.  If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?  They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.  Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”

Tessa wrote that this is one of “the shining moments in literature” and noted that Jane does something that Bella fails to do:

 Jane Eyre acknowledges that their relationship is toxic and she acknowledges that she needs to leave it. “You shall tear yourself away,” a voice within her tells her. “None shall help you.” What is even more important about this scene is that she realizes that Rochester is not the only person who cares for her. She cares for herself. It takes every single bit of strength within her but, in the end, she leaves him sobbing on the sofa while she herself forces down all her desire to stay. Knowing that she will not be able to turn him down again, Jane leaves the house in the middle of the night. She has nowhere to go and very little money but the alternative of remaining at Thornfield is unthinkable. We can clearly see what would have happened to Jane if she had stayed just by looking at the events in the Twilight series where Bella eventually transforms into Meyers’ version of the mad woman in the attic: a vampire.

Tessa went on to describe how Jane builds up her self-esteem at Moor House and in her school, returning to Rochester only when she is strong enough to be her own woman. Tessa concluded by imagining a different ending for Twilight and, by extension, all such adolescent novels:

Now, imagine Bella Swan going through a similar transformation. Imagine that she sees the toxicity of her relationship with Edward and takes a step back, that she doesn’t keep coming back again and again whenever he tries to leave her. Instead, imagine Bella leaving and learning how to love herself without him, how to love being human. And then, in the end, she can choose whether their love is strong and pure enough to create a healthy relationship out of a toxic one. Think how much better it would be for all of those adoring adolescent fans to have a role model who learns to become an independent and happy human being instead of spending the entire series pining over a flawed, egotistical man.

If we teach our girls to love a man more than they love themselves, we are setting them up for an emotional disaster. Charlotte Bronte gives us not only a relatable heroine in Jane Eyre but a heroine who adheres to modern feminist ideals of independence, equality and self-acceptance. Jane is a role model that I want my daughters to have, someone who learns and grows through her experiences throughout the book. She is not the weak-willed dependent heroine who spends the entire book searching for love instead of emotional stability. Neither is she the perfect warrior princess who is not allowed to have flaws and spends the entire novel being the eye candy of a more imperfect man. She is not a trope or stereotype but a relatable character.

Reading this book has made me wish that, instead of having heroines like Bella Swan during my adolescent years, I had a heroine who was flawed but learned how to accept these faults, who taught herself how to survive not only on human compassion but on hard work and emotional strength, who realized in a circumstance as universal as a bad relationship that you need to find the will power to save yourself.

Let me hear an amen.


Additional note: I love how, by teaching in a small college, I often have students multiple times and can watch them grow. Michelle and Tessa are rising juniors who were in my Jane Austen first year seminar where we wrestled with relationship dynamics. Michelle in her final essay was inspired by the quiet strength of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park while Tessa was interested in how Anne Elliot finds her bearings again after losing Captain Wentworth. Tessa was also intrigued by young Catherine Moreland’s attraction to the gothic in Northanger Abbey and how she must learn to grow beyond it.

Posted in Bronte (Charlotte), Meyer (Stephenie) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

I Went Out with a Bird on My Head

Illus. by Tarmasz

Illus. by Tarmasz

Over the weekend I went to my 45th Sewanee Military Academy class reunion. It’s the first high school class reunion I’ve attended, in part because I’ve always had mixed feelings about my years at SMA. On the one hand, I loved how the teachers introduced me to British literature and to Dostoevsky, Kafka, and the 20th century existentialists and to ancient and medieval history. I had some good friends and I was excited to play on the tennis team and be part of the debate team. But I didn’t like the military in the slightest.

I was sent there because the academics were good and because the local high school down in the valley was terrible. Parents who wanted their children to attend good colleges generally sent them to one of the two preparatory schools on the Sewanee mountain.

I will be reflecting a bit more on my reunion experience in upcoming posts but for today I’ll just share a Jacques Prévert poem that helped get me through the drills and the bullying and the Saturday morning inspections (SMI’s). Maybe it also inspired an underground newspaper that I put out. (I got caught because, pretentious little bugger that I was, I used a French expression in an article about the hazing of freshmen and there was only one student at the Academy who was fluent in French.*)

It’s a good poem to keep in mind as we see right wing Republicans unloading on Bowe Bergdahl before hearing his side of the story.  It may be that Bergdahl did something that warrants a court martial but my initial sense is that he is more weird than criminal. At any rate, we need to wait rather than leaping to conclusions. What I know from my own modest experience is that different people respond to military authority in different ways, and if we find guilty every member of the military whose actions don’t conform to the hero ideal, many will stand condemned.

Prévert’s bird is the anti-authoritarian imagination that speaks its mind when released from its cage. (I’ve posted on a couple of other Prévert bird poems, here and here, in which the birds function in similar ways.) The poem also shows us a good way of responding to sarcasm:

Free Bird

By Jacques Prévert

I put my army cap in the cage
And went out with the bird on my head

What’s this!
We’re not saluting any more
Shouted the Major

We’re not saluting any more
Said the bird

Ah in that case
Excuse me I thought we were saluting
Said the Major

You’re excused anyone can make a mistake
Said the bird.

(Translated by Scott Bates)

Simple, quirky, and quietly rebellious, the poem sticks a pin in military bloviating. We need it now as much as ever.

*Actually my brother Jonathan was also fluent in French but he was only a freshman at the time. He would publish his own underground newspaper a couple of years later. Mine was called The Mirror of Galadriel, his The Subway Wall (after the Simon and Garfunkel song).

Note on the artist: Tarmasz’s website can be found at

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Atwood vs. Unregulated Capitalism

Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill

Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill

I’ve just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, the third novel in her post-apocalyptic trilogy. In the future that she envisions, unregulated high-tech capitalism has led to extreme class inequality and wholesale environmental devastation. The upper classes live in gated communities and everyone else lives in a blighted urban wasteland. Manhattan is underwater.

In other words, it’s a good warning for us today. As Ursula LeGuin once wrote, in science fiction the future is a metaphor for the present. Science fiction hasn’t always been good at predicting the future, but the best works come up with powerful plots and situations that symbolically express and explore present day problems.

In Atwood’s trilogy, the brilliant scientist Crake, working for an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company (it engages in irresponsible genetic engineering and also deliberately gives people diseases so they will have to buy its high priced drugs), becomes an environmental anarchist and deliberately unleashes a toxic pleasure/death drug on humankind. His reason for reenacting a waterless version of Noah’s flood is so that he can save the environment. The only survivors are a few survivalist gardeners, some very scary cage match killers, and a new race of genetically engineered and environmentally correct humans (the Crakers).

The first two books in the trilogy (Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood) give us the background of the “flood” and how people respond to it. MaddAddam shows us the survivors struggling with the cage match killers to make the world safe for themselves and the Crakers.

In Atwood’s other post-apocalyptic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, the author warns about the rise of religious fundamentalism as well as environmental devastation. The novel was written in 1985, which is to say when feminism was experiencing a backlash and religious fundamentalism was on the rise in both the Middle East and America. The current trilogy is less focused on gender issues than it is on economic and technological ones.

As I read Atwood’s fiction, I keep on thinking of an essay that the Canadian author wrote in 1972 about “survival,” which she identifies as the unifying trope of Canadian literature. (America’s unifying trope, she says, is the frontier.) Unlike American novels, which feature miraculous escapes and bright futures (or endings in which bright hopes are dashed), Canadian novels are about just hanging in there. Atwood’s works don’t feature high hopes and when come to a close, we’re just relieved if her characters are still alive.

Given all the challenges that we’re facing from growing income inequality, unbridled capitalism, unfettered technology, environmental devastation, and crazed politics, mere survival doesn’t sound so bad. Here’s a representative passage indicating how the politics of oil and evangelical Christianity have become entwined. Think of the Koch brothers as you read it:

By the time Zeb came along, the Rev [his father] had a megachurch, all glass slabbery and pretend oak pews and faux granite, out on the rolling plains. The Church of PetrOleum, affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists. They were riding high for a while, about the time accessible oil became scarce and the price shot up and desperation among the plebes set in. A lot of top Corps guys would turn up at the church as guest speakers. They’d thank the Almighty for blessing the world with fumes and toxins, cast their eyes upwards as if gasoline came from heaven, look pious as hell…

The Rev had nailed together a theology to help him rake in the cash. Naturally he had a scriptural foundation for it. Matthew, Chapter 16 Verse 18: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

Zeb continues his account to his friend Toby:

“It didn’t take a rocket-science genius, the Rev, would say, to figure out that Peter is the Latin word for rock, and therefore the real, true meaning of ‘Peter’ refers to petroleum, or oil that comes from rock. ‘So this verse, dear friends, is not only about Saint Peter: it is a prophecy, a vision of the Age of Oil, and the proof, dear friends, is right before your eyes because look! What is more valued by us today than oil?’”

“He really preached that?” says Toby. Is she supposed to laugh or not? From Zeb’s tone she can’t tell.

“Don’t forget the Oleum part. It was even more important than the Peter half. The Rev could rave on about the Oleum for hours. ‘My friends, as we all know, oleum is the Latin word for oil. And indeed, friends, as we all know, oil is holy throughout the Bible! What else is used for the anointing of priests and prophets and kings? Oil! It’s the sign of special election, the consecrated chrism! What more proof do we need of the holiness of our very own oil, put in the earth by God for the special use of the faithful to multiply His works? His Oleum-extraction devices abound on this planet of our Dominion, and he spreads his Oleum bounty among us! Does it not say in the Bible that you should forbear to hide your light under a bushel? And what else can so reliably make the lights go on as oil? That’s right! Oil, my friends! The Holy Oleum must not be hidden under a bushel—in other words, left underneath the rocks—for to do so is to flout the Word! Lift up your voices in song, and let the Oleum gush forth in ever stronger and all-blessed streams!’”

The moral? Be very suspicious of libertarian snake oil salesmen who tell you that regulation is tyranny and only the unfettered free market is freedom.

Added note: It so happens that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman addresses libertarian orthodoxy in today’s column. Here’s his explanation for why climate change denialists are so heated:

[T]hink about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview.

And the natural reaction is denial — angry denial. Read or watch any extended debate over climate policy and you’ll be struck by the venom, the sheer rage, of the denialists.

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I Carry Your Heart with Me

Georges Barbier, "Spectre de la Rose"

Georges Barbier, “Spectre de la Rose”

Spiritual Sunday

Today Julia and I are spending our wedding anniversary apart as I am in Tennessee visiting my mother. I therefore send this e. e. cummings poem out to her. Although it’s not directly related to Pentecost Sunday, which we celebrate today, it’s not altogether unrelated either. I met Julia 42 year ago and felt a deep love flow through me such as I had never before known. I didn’t speak in tongues but the world seemed brighter and sharper.

Notice how, in the poem, cummings eliminates some of the spaces between words and punctuation,emphasizing closeness. It doesn’t matter that Julia and I are separated(well, it matters some)because “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart).” Happy anniversary,my dear.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

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Miami Heat Stymied by Heat

Lebron James cramps up in game 1

Lebron James cramps up in game 1

Sports Saturday

So it took the heat to stop the Heat in the first game of the NBA playoffs. Miami appeared to be on the way to stealing game 1 in the San Antonio arena with a slight lead in the final quarter. But the game was being played in 90+ degree temperatures because the air conditioning had broken down, causing the best player on the planet to go down with leg cramps. After that, it was curtains for Miami, which is more dependent on a single player than the Spurs are.

Here’s an H.D. poem about heat, which you can apply to whichever team you are rooting for. An imagist poet who suffered from depression, H.D. may be praying for something to cut through her emotional state. Note how the heat saps the life out of fecund pears and grapes. Or perhaps this is a poem about the dark night of the soul and a prayer to the Holy Spirit—the breath of God—to intervene.

In our case, however, we can see it either as (1) a Spurs prayer to help them cut through the suffocating Heat defense which, until James went down, pressed up and blunted point guard Tony Parker, forcing 22 Spur turnovers; or (2) an unanswered prayer by Miami for the air conditioning to revive and plough through the thick air.

Take your pick.


By H. D.

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters. 

Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air–
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes. 

Cut the heat–
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

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My Father Moved through Dooms of War

D Day Invasion in "Saving Private Ryan"

D Day Invasion in “Saving Private Ryan”

70th Anniversary of D Day

I grew up hearing a lot about D Day. Seventy years ago my father knew that something was up when, reading For Whom the Bell Tolls while doing night guard duty in Coventry, England, he looked up and saw the sky filled with airplanes. The date was June 5, 1944.

My father would be dropped off two weeks later on a Utah Beach that by then was relatively safe. Last June, when he emerged from temporary dementia caused by a kidney infection, he had a flashback to the night he spent on the beach and to the German planes that were flying overhead.

I’m not sure why this would have been the memory that came to mind when he was reestablishing connection with reality. Maybe that occasion 70 years ago was marked by his sense that the war had finally become real. He and five fellow soldiers had been assigned to administer the city of Avranches in Normandy, and they were expected to wend their way through the countryside and catch up with the American troops that had gone on ahead to liberate it. As the interpreter, my father played a significant role.

When the memory of those days came back, my father was enthralled to have recovered his cognitive functions. So enthralled, in fact, that in the weeks that followed, he became obsessed with “telling the truth.” I thought of my father’s favorite ant-war poem when he talked this way—“I mean the truth untold,/The pity of war, the pity war distilled” (Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”)—although in my father’s case it was the truth about all the sex that soldiers were having in first France and then Germany. I’ve written about what the proximity of death and sex might have meant to him.

Mentoring a project on World War II vet Kurt Vonnegut this past year has given me extra insight into how much vets were silenced when they returned home. They were silenced not only by a society that wanted to hear only superficial war stories but also by their own inability to fully process and convey what they had seen. As my student noted in his senior project, it took  29 years and an elaborate coded language (science fiction) before Vonnegut could directly talk about what occurred to him in the firebombing of Dresden. My father didn’t go through anything so traumatic, but he once wrote a story for his Carleton College literary magazine about a virginal soldier getting multiple cases of venereal disease in various French brothels. He claimed that President Larry Gould “nearly threw me out of the college” and that the English Department had to come to his defense.

(Come to think of it, while my father only had sex once during the war and didn’t get an STD, the story captures his own loss of innocence and how the war changed him dramatically. To the horror of his teetotalling Evanston family, he returned to the States drinking, smoking and having voted for Roosevelt.)

My father conveyed some of the problems of articulation several years later in a poem prompted by a question put to him by my son Toby (changed to “Mike” in the poem):

The Greatest Generation

“What was the Second World War like?”
I am asked by my youngest grandson, Mike,
Who has just remembered that he has
To write a paper for his English class
And hopes his grandfather will tell him a story
Like Private Ryan, full of guts and glory.
“That’s easy,” I answer—I am the One
Who Was There, the Expert, the Veteran–
(Who has read in the paper, by the way,
That thousands of vets die every day),
“It was boring, mostly,” I say, “and very
Gung-ho.”  I think.  “It was pretty scary.
And long.  And the longer it got, the more idiotic
It seemed.”  I stop.  “It was patriotic.”

How to tell the kid the exciting news
That we survived on sex and booze.
And hated the Army and hated the War
And hoped They knew what we were fighting for . . . .
And I remember my buddy, Mac,
Who got shot up in a tank attack,
And Sturiano, my closest friend . . .

It is still going on.  How will it end?

“It was people surrounded by dying men.”

“But what was it like?” asks Mike again.

I note in passing, given all the garbage that is being dumped by right wingers on recently released P.O.W. Bowe Bergdahl, that if we didn’t rescue Americans that “hated the Army and hated the War,” we would leave a lot of people behind. Such sentiments would also mean disregarding Wildfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Eric Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Vonnegut–and those are only some of the famous vets.

With my father, it took a bout with dementia to unlock something that he had kept stored up all these years.  Upon recovery, he became (I think I’ve used this Prufrock analogy before) “Lazarus come back from the dead, come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.” He saw this second chance at sanity as giving him the opportunity and the responsibility to cut through hypocritical facades and show reality as it really was. He was like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.

And it wasn’t only the facade of  World War II heroism that he wanted to explode. He also wanted to tell the truth about the sexual escapades of all the “holier than thou” Episcopalians at the University of the South where he taught for 35 years. He turned to a former Sewanee student who had written such an article, John Jeremiah Johnson of the Paris Review, to see if he would help him write a book on the subject.

And then, to our relief, he calmed down and life went back to normal. In July he was interviewed by the Smithsonian about his Civil Rights experiences and in August he contracted pneumonia and died. But throughout that summer, which I’m deeply grateful to have spent with him, I gained new insight into what members of “the greatest generation” went through, both in the war and after. Such experiences would make an indelible impact on American life.


Related Posts

 Through World War II My Father Carried Poetry 

The Meaning of Soldiers and Sex

What Light Verse Meant to My Father

Lesson of War: Fear+Fear=Hate

Drones Put Heaven in a Rage

A “Greatest Generation” Vet Reflects

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How to Compile a Summer Reading List

Robert James Gordon, "A Woman Reading"

Robert James Gordon, “A Woman Reading”

The New Yorker recently had a fascinating article about “stunt reading.” As author Christine Smallwood describes it, stunt reading is reading a more or less arbitrarily defined set of books. The article focuses especially on The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, in which author Phyllis Rose describes reading all the books on a particular library shelf.

Smallwood’s article and Rose’s project raise very interesting questions about how to choose which books to read. A number of years ago David Denby decided he wanted to read the western canon’s “great books” (to cite the name of his book about the project) and so went back to school at Columbia University. On his list were classics that undoubtedly belonged, but equally striking were all the works that got left out, especially when he moved into the 17th century and beyond. The authors on Denby’s list—I mention just the ones coming after Shakespeare–are Hegel, Austen, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, Woolf, Conrad and Beauvoir. Among those not on the list were Donne, Milton, Moliere, Goethe, Schiller, Swift, Dickens, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Tennyson, Browning, Balzac, Proust, Stendahl, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Dickinson, etc., etc, etc.

I bring up Denby’s project here, not to criticize it, but to dramatically make the point that it too could be seen as a stunt. Any reading project, even one as seemingly lofty as Denby’s, has to set bounds that are more or less arbitrary. We can’t simply sit down and read all the “great works” because too many works compete for the designation. With English language literature alone, I can report that my department’s three required survey courses only dip into certain representative works. Every year the Norton anthologies get thicker and we’ve long ago given up on “coverage.”

Meanwhile, the thicker Nortons are now being described as only the tip of an even larger iceberg. For instance, here’s one project described by Smallwood:

In 2000, Franco Moretti, then a professor at Columbia, published “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” an article that revealed his own fear of missing out. Moretti had always been interested in the history of literary form, but he found himself more and more uncomfortable making any claims about it, because he could no longer ignore the fact that his conclusions were based on only a handful of examples. The canon of nineteenth-century British novels, he pointed out, consists of, at most, two hundred works—half of one per cent of what was published in the period. How could anyone pretend to say what the novel is or does based on a sample size that small?

Rose is content with a random assortment, but for Moretti one shelf would never be enough. He didn’t merely want to study more books; he wanted to study all of them, or as many as he could. He began by “reading” in a targeted way, searching for specific motifs, and mapping and graphing what he found. In 2010, he stopped reading like a machine and started using machines. He and his colleagues undertook “distant reading,” feeding thousands of novels into computers and scanning the texts for patterns. How long are the titles of the novels written in the eighteen-twenties? Does the word “the” appear more often in gothic novels than in bildungsromans? What does the plot of “Hamlet” look like as a diagram of the verbal exchanges between its characters?

Moretti’s project may sound more sociological than literary—computer reading isn’t a way of determining worth—but it raises the question of how the canon is formed. Is it just a matter of a few readers’ taste that certain works enter into competition for canonical status while others don’t?

We know that certain historical currents elevate some works and downgrade others so that the canon changes from epoch to epoch. Even the sonnets of Shakespeare, so highly prized today, haven’t always been respected. We sometimes talk about applying “the test of time” to sort things out, assuming that certain works will draw rise to the top and others won’t, but how they rise or fall is not an infallible and unmediated process. The taste that prizes modernist angst at one point may well prize social realism at another.

And then, “test of time” leaves unanswered the length of time we’re talking about. Certain works pass that test very well, such as Homer and Shakespeare. Virgil, on the other hand, hasn’t done as well over the past three hundred years as he did in the 1700 hundred years prior to that. And then there’s Beowulf, which was seen as no more than an interesting historical artifact for a thousand years until a certain scholar (J. R. R. Tolkien) elevated it to the status of literature in 1936. Now we regard it as one of the world’s great epics.

Given the ever shifting landscape, a project mentioned by Smallwood that would once would have seemed self-evidently worthwhile now comes across as a reading stunt: I’m thinking of Christopher Beha making his way through The Whole Five Feet (his book title) of the Harvard classics. “Harvard” and “classic” seem to bestow a certain aura of legitimacy to the project, but some of editor Charles Eliot’s 1909 selections, appearing in 51 volumes, are quaintly anachronistic today. For instance, Richard Dana’s 1840 novel Two Years Before the Mast makes the cut while no novel by Jane Austen does.

So how is one to set up one’s summer reading? I like Susan Hill’s project in Howard’s End Is on the Landing (2010) where she reads only unread books in her library. (Jorge Luis Borges, himself a librarian, said somewhere that anyone who owns a large library will always feel somewhat guilty about the unread books.) But ultimately I recommend just keeping a running list of titles that happen to cross your radar screen.

This admittedly seems unsystematic, but I have a mystical belief that the works we need will somehow find their way into our hands. Jotting down titles that somehow sound intriguing is the best way I’ve found of finding those works.

For the record, the four works I’ve read so far this summer are Margaret Atwood’s MadAddam (I collect Atwood novels and this is the latest), Charles Brockton Brown’s  1798 gothic novel Wieland (I’ve always been intrigued by the author’s name and someone was cleaning out their bookshelves and gave me a copy), Fanny Burney’s comedy The Witlings (which I liked a lot but will not include in my 18th Century Couples Comedy course), and Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset (my mother, who I’m visiting at the moment, is a huge Trollope fan). Also on my summer list are Wycherley’s Plain Dealer (I’ve always wanted to read it) and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch. I also want to read Haruki Murakami’s latest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (due out in English on August 12) because I collect Murakami the way I collect Atwood. And we’ll see what else floats up.

I know that there will be thousands of worthwhile books that I’ll miss out on, but I no longer let that fact haunt me. Rather, I now feel that if I keep my sensors on alert, I’ll have a chance of coming across that one novel that I’ve been waiting all my life for. It happened three years ago with The Brothers Karamazov and it could happen again.

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Reflecting on “A Little Learning”

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” I find myself quoting this Alexander Pope line regularly as I see half-baked ideas guiding public policy.

People often operate with only a little understanding of biology when they protest vaccinations, with only a little understanding of economics when they think that budget cuts+tax cuts will reinvigorate the economy, with only a little understanding of history when they downplay the significance of slavery, with only a little understanding of sociology when they characterize urban youth, with only a little understanding of science generally when they advocate the teaching of “intelligent design.” I therefore thought it would be worthwhile to see what Pope had in mind when he penned the line.

It appears in Essay on Criticism (1711), the virtuoso poem that made the 23-year-old Pope instantly famous. Pope actually is criticizing ambitious young writers who are puffed up with pride as they think they know more than they do. Pope’s analogy involves a mountain climber who thinks he has conquered the mountain range because he has climbed the first mountain. He does not yet see that, in the distance, “Alps on Alps arise”:

A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts, [220]
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc’d, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas’d at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o’er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th’ Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen’d Way, [230]
Th’ increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

Sadly enough, Pope’s warning would probably have little effect on current day policy makers. Pope assumes that we want to know at least a little. He doesn’t anticipate that policy makers want only the veneer of academic respectability to give their ideas credibility and nothing more.

Take Paul Ryan, for instance, who wants to be regarded as a policy wonk, even if his numbers don’t add up and the people he quotes complain that he is misusing their statistical studies.  He’s not interested in drinking deeply or even, for that matter, shallowly. He knows ahead of time what policy he wants and his seeming wonkery is merely striving for what Stephen Colbert has immortally described as “truthiness.”

In other words, I have been misapplying Pope’s line It’s not that today’s policy makers  are only partially informed and would be much better public servants if only they drank deeply of the Pierian spring. Rather, they’re not interested in knowledge at all. Knowledge is a brand name that they use to sell their product.

And if it doesn’t help them—if, say, a knowledge of climate change will get them in trouble with their political base—then they pull a Marco Rubio and pretend to know nothing. Or as Rubio put it, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”

Actually, I take that back. Rubio took so much flack for such blatant no-nothingness that he has since backtracked. The GOP needs at least some academic veneer for their ideas. Therefore, they are learning to use John Boehner’s escape hatch: “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change. But …” That at least acknowledges that there is science out there, even if one then ignores it.

Which I guess counts as some kind of progress.

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GOP Denies a Giant Problem

Gulliver's Travels

To help save the planet, the president has done something big, using his executive authority to cut carbon emissions from existing coal burning plants. As Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine puts it,

Obama has done everything within his power to fight the most urgent crisis of our time. That is to say, he has put in place a climate-change policy agenda that is likely, though not assured, to be regarded as a historic success.

Of course, even more could be accomplished if the GOP were willing to work with him, but most politicians on the right are denying that there’s even a problem. Which means that it’s time to bring in Jonathan Swift.

The great 18th century satirist well understood how and why people refuse to acknowledge facts staring them in the face. He would understand why so-called conservative intellectuals like Charles Krauthammer and George Will twist themselves into pretzels rather than face up to the fact that the globe is warming up. He would understand why the House of Representatives recently voted, on almost a straight party line vote, to forbid the Pentagon to use any of its funds to study the impact on military preparedness of climate change and rising sea levels. The vote resembled another that occurred in the North Carolina legislature a couple of years ago when the state was banned “from basing coastal policies on the latest scientific predictions of how much the sea level will rise.”

In short, he’d say that conservatives at the moment are behaving like Lilliputian philosophers.

The Lilliputians have a gigantic problem on their hands. Literally. Not only has a giant entered their realm but he has informed them that he is not the only giant in the world. There are entire nations filled with people that are his size. Gulliver’s Lilliputian friend Reldresal informs him how his news has been received:

For as to what we have heard you affirm, that there are other kingdoms and states in the world inhabited by human creatures as large as yourself, our philosophers are in much doubt, and would rather conjecture that you dropped from the moon, or one of the stars; because it is certain, that a hundred mortals of your bulk would in a short time destroy all the fruits and cattle of his majesty’s dominions: besides, our histories of six thousand moons make no mention of any other regions than the two great empires of Lilliput and Blefuscu.  

The paragraph that leads up to this instance of Lilliputian denial provides special insight into our own situation: it offers an extended description of party factionalism and international rivalries. The Lilliputians are concerned more with their own comparatively small battles than with the threatened end of their existence. Indeed, it may be because they can have an impact in local battles but feel impotent in the face of the Gulliver problem that they focus on the one and not the other. Maybe that’s what ‘s driving GOP denialism as well: it is easier to engage in party politics than do anything constructive.

Here’s Reldresal laying out the political landscape:

[Y]ou are to understand, that for about seventy moons past there have been two struggling parties in this empire, under the names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan, from the high and low heels of their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.  It is alleged, indeed, that the high heels are most agreeable to our ancient constitution; but, however this be, his majesty has determined to make use only of low heels in the administration of the government, and all offices in the gift of the crown, as you cannot but observe; and particularly that his majesty’s imperial heels are lower at least by a drurr than any of his court (drurr is a measure about the fourteenth part of an inch).  The animosities between these two parties run so high, that they will neither eat, nor drink, nor talk with each other.  We compute the Tramecksan, or high heels, to exceed us in number; but the power is wholly on our side.  We apprehend his imperial highness, the heir to the crown, to have some tendency towards the high heels; at least we can plainly discover that one of his heels is higher than the other, which gives him a hobble in his gait. 

“Neither eat, nor drink, nor talk with each other”: that about sums up our two political parties today. The difference in our case, however, is that one of the parties is willing to face up to the giant problem whereas the other is not.

There are, to be sure, Republicans who wobble like “his imperial highness” on the issue. Take for instance GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman’s twitter statement in 2012: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Unfortunately, that’s what the other candidates did, bringing his presidential campaign to an early halt.

In the meantime, the earth warms up. Thankfully, Obama is doing what he can.

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A Kipling Response to the V.A. Scandal



The news about long waits and manipulated figures in the V.A. system is very depressing but not at all surprising. In fact, Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem “Tommy” lets us know that we have been treating our military personnel this way for a long time. (Thanks to my brother David for reminding me of the poem.)

In case you haven’t been paying attention, General Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, resigned on Friday because V.A. facilities were caught cooking the books on wait times. Sometimes it takes a veteran half a year or longer to enter the system, and financial incentives to speed things up have instead led to fraud. The Los Angeles Times provides some perspective on the problem:

There have been problems and questions concerning the delivery of some healthcare services from Veterans Affairs for years, and the issue has been investigated both internally and by Congress many times. In recent weeks, though, the complaints have taken on a greater urgency with many veterans returning from long stints in Iraq and Afghanistan flooding the beleaguered system, which operates 1,700 hospitals and clinics and handles 85 million appointments a year.

The affair is a political embarrassment for the Obama administration, which had promised to fix the problem. But Democrats and Republicans both bear responsibility since both parties have proven more willing to start wars than face up to the resulting human and financial repercussions. Sometimes the pressures on the system have been made even worse by doing the right thing–for instance, acknowledging that Agent Orange took a toll in the Vietnam War and that PTSD takes a toll at all times, especially on men and women undertaking multiple deployments.

Kipling is sometimes guilty of our contradictions. For instance, he embraces the colonial mission and celebrates the sacrifices that it entails in his cringe-inducing poem “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands”:

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need…

A poem like “Fuzzy-Wuzzy,” meanwhile, makes light of blood and slaughter in a macho sort of way. Try not to be seduced by the respect that the speaker, a common soldier, gives to the Sudanese enemy. After all, we’re talking about the horrors of war here:

We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
 An’ some of ‘em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
 But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot.
We never got a ha’porth’s change of ‘im:
 ‘E squatted in the scrub an’ ‘ocked our ‘orses,
‘E cut our sentries up at Sua~kim~,
 An’ ‘e played the cat an’ banjo with our forces.
   So ‘ere’s ~to~ you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
   You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
   We gives you your certificate, an’ if you want it signed
   We’ll come an’ ‘ave a romp with you whenever you’re inclined.

To Kipling’s credit, however, he at least calls out the hypocrites who, after glorifying soldiers, then give them the shaft when they return home. He especially does this in “Tommy”:

I went into a public-’ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

There’s more in this vein as the poem progresses (you can read it in its entirety here), but it’s the final stanza that is particularly relevant to our current situation:

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Savior of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees! 

Yes, Tommy is not a bloomin’ fool. He (and now she) sees as he has always seen. Hopefully, the publicity from this on-going scandal will mean that the rest of us see as well and that we pressure both political parties to bring the necessary focus and resources to the problem.

And while we’re at it, let’s also reject all those calls we hear for more military interventions.

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A Bright Torch Shines to Show the Way

Raphael, "The Transfiguration"

Raphael, “The Transfiguration”

Spiritual Sunday 

Today’s lectionary reading describes Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Symbolically, the ascension symbolizes the belief that humans can fully embrace, can fully step into, the divinity that is within them. Here is Luke’s version (Acts 1:6-11):

When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

And here is John Donne’s response:

The Ascension

By John Donne

Salute the last, and everlasting day,
Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth he by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me!
Mild lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark’d the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise

Note the use of the word “batter’d,” which Donne also uses in his famous “Holy Sonnet 14″  (“Batter my heart, three person’d God”). Donne is capturing the paradoxes of the resurrection and the ascension, noting that while it has taken the violence of Christ’s sacrifice to batter through Donne’s hard heart, Jesus is a mild lamb as well as a strong ram. Also paradoxical is Jesus/God quenching His own wrath with His own blood. In doing so, Jesus is showing “the way” to the rest of us.

The “crown of prayer and praise” mentioned at the end is the poem itself. The Holy Spirit that will be sent—“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”—manifests itself within the poet as his muse. Thus divinity reaches through the “drossy clay” of language and human intelligence to speak to us.

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Titanic Struggles, on the Court & at Home

Russell vs. Chamberlin in 1969 NBA finals

Russell vs. Chamberlain in 1969 NBA finals

Sports Saturday

As we move towards the NBA finals, here’s a poignant poem where a speaker recalls being in a bar with his father and watching the legendary 1969 NBA championship series in which Bill Russell outdueled Wilt Chamberlain. Basketball is not the subject of the poem, however, but the occasion. The speaker, who has moved a long way from home, recalls a moment in that bar that brought home to him the silences in the relationship. Although father and son love each other, the love can’t be spoken. Perhaps the father, having lived a hard life of double shifts after high school stardom, feels too vulnerable to open himself to his son. The unfortunate result is a defensive awkwardness that ruins everything.

That awkwardness has driven the son a long way from home. He notes that, wherever he goes, he posts on the wall a photo of Russell and Chamberlain, perhaps (he suddenly realizes) because they remind him of his own struggles. By “nothing has changed,” I assume he means that the relationship with his father continues on as usual. Like the basketball titans, father and son are “elbowing & snatching at a basketball/as if it were a moment one of them might stay inside forever.”

And yet, somehow, “all is different”—perhaps because the speaker has just been blessed with new insight. Although, like Russell and Chamberlain, he and his father may always be joined in battle, he now understands why.

Fall River

By David Rivard

When I wake now it’s below ocherous, saw-ridged
pine beams. Haze streaks all three windows. I look up
at the dog-eared, glossy magazine photo
I’ve taken with me for years. It gets tacked
like a claim to some new wall in the next place—
Bill Russell & Wilt Chamberlain, one on one
the final game of the 1969 NBA championship,
two hard men snapped elbowing & snatching at a basketball
as if it were a moment one of them might stay inside
forever. I was with
my father the night that game played
on a fuzzy color television, in a jammed Fall River bar.
Seagram & beer chasers for hoarse ex-jocks,
smoke rifting the air. A drunk called him “Tiger”
and asked about the year he’d made all-state guard—
point man, ball-hawk, pacer. Something he rarely spoke
of, & almost always with a gruff mix of impatience
and shyness. Each year,
days painting suburban tract houses & fighting
with contractors followed by
night shifts at the fire station
followed by his kids swarming at breakfast
and my mother trying to stay out of his way,
each of the many stone-hard moments between 1941 & 1969—
they made up a city of granite mills
by a slate & blue river. That town was my father’s
life, & still is. If he felt cheated by it,
by its fate for him,
to bear that disappointment, he kept it secret.
night, when he stared deep into a drunk’s memory,
he frowned. He said nothing. He twisted on the stool,
and ordered this guy a beer.
Whatever my father & I have in common
is mostly silence. And anger that keeps twisting
back on itself, though not before it ruins,
often, even something simple
as a walk in the dunes at a warm beach.
But what we share too is a love so awkward
that it explains, with unreasoning perfection,
why we still can’t speak
easily to each other, about the past or anything else,
and why I wake this far from the place where I grew up,
while the wall above me claims now
nothing has changed & all is different.

From Torque, University ofPittsburgh Press, 1988.

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Books Helped Free Angelou’s Caged Bird

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

I’m sure that you’ve of the death Wednesday of Maya Angelou, whose inspirational I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has buoyed many of those experiencing adversity (check out this Charles Blow column in The New York Times). Since she herself was supported by the books of other authors in her difficult childhood, I quote a couple of relevant passages from her famous memoir.

Here’s one recollection:

During these years in Stamps [Arkansas], I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love. Although I enjoyed Kipling Poe, Butler, Thackeray, and Henley, I saved my young and loyal passion for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Litany at Atlanta.” But it was Shakespeare who said, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” It was a state which I felt myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it couldn’t matter to anyone anymore.

Bailey [her brother] and I decided to memorize a scene from The Merchant of Venice, but we realized that Momma [her grandmother] would question us about the author and that we’d have to tell her that Shakespeare was white, and it wouldn’t matter to her whether he was dead or not. So we chose “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson instead.

Some of these works young Maya would have turned to when she was suffering from PTSD after having been raped at seven. She retreated into silence but continued to read. I suspect the Shakespeare scene would have been Shylock’s famous speech, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” while Poe would have articulated for her the experience of being trapped in a nightmare. I can’t figure out what Kipling, Butler, and Thackeray works she has in mind and I don’t even know who Henley is. However, it’s easy to imagine how the African American poets and writers would have spoken to her pain and to the sense of hope that she would become famous for.

Literature also played a role in bringing her out of her silence, thanks to a neighbor lady, one Mrs. Bertha Flowers:

She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud. She suggested that I try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible.

“I’ll accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been badly handled.” My imagination boggled at the punishment I would deserve if in fact I did abuse a book of Mrs. Flowers’. Death would be too kind and brief…

As I ate she began the first of what we later called “my lessons in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.

When I finished the cookies she brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. I had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life.

“It was the best of times and the worst of times . . .” Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word.

“How do you like that?”

It occurred to me that she expected a response. The sweet vanilla flavor was still on my tongue and her reading was a wonder in my ears. I had to speak.

I said, “Yes, ma’am.” It was the least I could do, but it was the most also.

“There’s one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you pay me a visit, I want you to recite.”

I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done . . .” tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.

The title of Angelou’s first memoir, by the way, comes from a Dunbar poem.

When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,   
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings–
I know why the caged bird sings!

Thank God that Angelou found her voice and sang for us.

Added note: 
Here’s her best known poem/song. One sees in it Angelou’s debt to Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and also, in the final two stanzas, Walt Whitman:

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise. 

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room. 

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise. 

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries? 

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard. 

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. 

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs? 

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

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Benito Cereno on War, Racism


Before I get too far into the summer, I want to write a couple of posts about students responding to works I taught this past semester. Today I report on how Matt Alexander and Tori Poffenberger used Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855) to sort through two of the biggest issues that Americans face—issues that have recently been making headlines.

As the president fixes a date for America’s final withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s worth looking at what Matt, a Marine who was deployed four times to the country, learned when he applied Melville’s novella to his experience there. And as we see renewed conversations about racism in our country (thanks in part to comments by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and Senator Rockefeller and to a brilliant article about reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates), it’s illuminating to see how Tori uses Benito Cereno to make sense of the race sentiments she encountered in her small Maryland town.

To quickly summarize the story, which is based on a real life incident, the gullible Captain Delano comes aboard a slave ship experiencing distress but fails to realize that there has been a slave rebellion and that Captain Benito Cereno is being manipulated to hide it. All Delano can see is a seemingly faithful slave attending his master whereas Babo is actually the rebellion’s mastermind. Only after Cereno escapes the ship by leaping into Delano’s rowboat does the American captain understand what he has actually been witnessing.

As I’ve noted in the past, Delano’s gullibility stems in part out of wishful thinking. The idea that the slaves are not just faithful Newfoundland dogs (the phrase is his), overgrown children, or docile earth mothers—that they are capable of pulling off an astounding rebellion—is a reality that he doesn’t want to face up to. After all, if slaves have this kind of intelligence and plotting skills, then the antebellum south is not a bucolic land of mint juleps on the plantation porch but a tinderbox that could go up at any moment.

Matt had his own awakening in Afghanistan. For him, Benito Cereno reminded him of how little Americans understand other cultures:

Like Captain Delano’s confusion throughout the story, I was confused about the foreign lands I traveled to in the name of American freedom. Before deploying, the Marines are trained to look at the Afghani nationals in a way to say that we’re better than them because we’re there to help their failing country get where they need to be in the world. Like Delano, I found out that this was not the truth and that the Afghani nationals never wanted or needed Americans there in the first place. While talking to our interpreter about his home country, I found out that Afghanistan is much like Vietnam in many ways. They have been fighting wars for over thousands of years, and need zero encouragement from a super power like America. Their culture and society have been built thousands of years before I ever came into existence, so what was I to say about the ways those people lived? The Marine Corps taught me to look at them like brutes, savages, monsters, and even second-rate human beings, but that wasn’t the truth at all.

In Tori’s situation, the Other were not people of a different nationality but of a different race. She uses Benito Cereno to understand those Americans who blithely state that racism is a thing of the past while secretly–and sometimes not so secretly–expressing fears of young black men. Benito Cereno, in other words, is an articulation of the outwardly sunny disposition that hides mind-bending fear. Her analysis begins with a description of her hometown:

In the small town where I grew up, I had a lot of friends who just loved the idea of the town, B____. They loved the people, loved the atmosphere, and loved the attitude. As you walk down Main Street of the “Historic Town of B____,” you see cute little family owned shops that you think would be fun to take a peek at. There are people constantly waving to each other from across the street, friendly conversations coming from the direction of the local tap house, and a few tourists exploring the history of a town that is way off any traditional map. With a contented sigh and a smile you think that this is just a perfect little Mayberry, a safe haven. A lot of the parents and kids in the town agree. Why go anywhere else when you have a perfect little life here?

…But there’s one group that, while they walk down the street with smiles on their faces, as soon as they walk by they get talked about right behind their backs. There weren’t many African Americans in my school, but when a few started to attend B____ High School, the news spread like wildfire through the medium of racist jokes. Everyone knew about them, but for some reason, there was this clear divide in every aspect between “us” and “them.” The African American kids sat amongst themselves in the cafeteria, at one table, while the rest of the kids spread out and took over the rest of the cafeteria. After school, the African American students would hang out near the gym to wait for their bus, while everyone else stood on the steps outside. Now, why would the cute, little, ideal town of B____ act so strangely towards a group of people that are citizens just like us? Why is there this split between what everyone in the town shows on the outside and what they whisper under their breath? 

Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno gives us insight on this split between what people pretend is going on and what is happening in reality… Melville shows us that American whites have a duality when it comes to addressing inequalities such as the one Melville focuses in on, which is between white people and slaves. If the ship upon which the story takes place, the San Dominick, is a metaphor for the self, then the conscious desires are reflected by Captain Amasa Delano, while the unconscious fears are seen in Benito Cereno’s character… Benito Cereno’s character [represents] the underlying fears that whites had towards slaves in the 1850’s. The people in B____ and the whites that had slaves in the 1800’s are constantly living in a mixture of obliviousness and fear, part Delano, part Cereno. 

Tori goes on to see the same dynamic at play wherever there is oppression or inequality. As soon as one group rises above another, it becomes afraid of that group. Suddenly the black barber who is shaving you is a potential executioner, a Babo. Suddenly the black teenager in a hoodie walking in your neighborhood or the black teenager playing loud music is a thug.

Tori concludes her essay with a plea for economic equality:

This duality isn’t just true for the inequality between whites and blacks. Cereno and Delano are a part of every person on the better end of inequality: first world countries, men, whites, the rich, and the list goes on and on. To solve the problem in B___ and throughout the world, people need to open up their minds, their hearts, and their wallets to raise the unequal to equal status with the higher of the two. The rich must open up their wallets to the poor, men must open up their minds to women, and whites must open up their hearts to blacks…Instead of creating separate human cultures that inhibit certain people, humans need to create a culture that is universal. We need to take the St. Mary’s Way of accepting people of all sizes, shapes, colors, gender, and sexuality and make it global. We need to use it to make sure culture is not subject to change and is not unstable.

Benito Cereno reveals the nightmares that arise when we fail.


Previous posts on Benito Cereno

Melville and Climate Change Denial 

Melville’s Parable of American Denial

Barack and Huck, Babo, Hamlet, etc.

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Haikus Make Econ Less Dismal

Matsuo Basho, great haiku poet

Matsuo Basho, great haiku poet

I’ve written in the past about Steve Ziliak at Chicago’s Roosevelt University who practices what he calls “haiku economics.” Recently Ziliak sent me a link to a fascinating article (you can download it here) on how he has his students engage in haiku competitions—or what in medieval Japan were known as “rengas.”

At Ziliak describes it,

A renga is in general a spontaneous, collaboratively written linked haiku poem with stanzas and links conventionally arranged in 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic order. In medieval Japan renga gatherings were social, political, and economic exchanges – from small to elaborate parties – with a literary end: a collectively written poem to provoke and entertain the assembled audience about a theme, mood, and season.

Ziliak requires his students to stick to economic themes but otherwise allows them freedom in what they do with them. Renga, he notes,

 can be sarcastic and provocative. Renga parties can get downright raucous, with and without the sake. Just stick to the economy, and to the 5-7-5-7-7 uta form, those were our main rules. After 12 years of teaching haiku economics I find that students are typically stimulated by this combination of rules and freedom, and especially in an economic class, where they do not normally expect to have so much freedom to express ideas and feelings.

You can go to the article to check out the renga that won the competition. As a bonus to the reader, Ziliak throws in a set of haikus that I particularly like about key figures and moments in the history of economics. One of Ziliak’s former students, Samuel Barbour, wrote them after encountering haiku economics .

Fashions of Economics: Haiku

By Samuel Barbour

Finance and fashion
Go well together putting
models on catwalks.

We are eminent
respectable men in suits
you’ve never heard of.

What pure, white as snow
Bristled monument adorned-
Alfred Marshall’s face.

In Eighty-Three we
shook off inflation like ash
from Volker’s cigar

Far more numerous
than the quantity supplied
soldiers marching feet.

Bring silver and gold!
They say the hangman’s price is
quite inelastic.

J. P. Morgan’s nose;
That slant snarling purple bulb
Secret of his charm.

The eloquent Smith
wore a wig, lived with his Mom
like Andy Warhol

Oh starry eyed Reich
his hobbit beard is dancing
‘mongst the Berkeley groves.

Turns out, Valhalla
for moral scientists is
Sweden’s Central Bank

Who knows what might lurk
underneath in the shadows
of Krugman’s grey beard

A marvel of style
sophistication and wit
frames Bernanke’s lips.

Money illusion—
adjusting for inflation,
savings disappear.

They say a crisis
Is not truly a crisis
‘til the banks panic.

Check out as well Ziliak’s website and his article “Haiku Economics: Little Teaching Aids for Big Economic Pluralists.” In addition to explaining haiku economics, the article offers some of Ziliak’s own contributions to the genre, including my favorite:

Invisible hand;
mother of inflated hope,
mistress of despair!

In Ziliak’s hands, what Thomas Carlyle described as “the dismal science” seems less dismal.


Previous posts on Ziliak linking literature and economics

Poems that Help Us See the Economy

Steinbeck Makes Microeconomics Real 

Haikus for Economic Crisis

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Beowulf Blog, 5 Years Old Today

Frederic Soulacroix, "The Tea Party"

Frederic Soulacroix, “The Tea Party”

Today is the five-year anniversary of this blog. I can’t quite believe that, in that time, I’ve written close to 1700 posts and probably over a million words. I have never had so much fun writing.

I have particularly enjoyed my interactions with readers. Each month during the school year, around 10,000 different individuals visit the blog (traffic slows down during the summer), and some I have gotten to know: a church educator, a high school English teacher, a Slovene professor, a Ugandan business woman, a Tolsoy enthusiast. And then, of course, there are all those I already know and with whom, in this way, I maintain a kind of contact.

All along, I have felt honored that you would allow me to expand my teaching beyond my classroom and enter into your lives.

In my first post, I cited one of my favorite passages about what stories mean to us. It appears in the novel Ceremony by the Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko:

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren’t just for entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

In that first post, I wrote:

Like Leslie Marmon Silko, I believe that stories are essential to our existence. Maybe not as essential as food and shelter, but they come close. This website and blog are dedicated to exploring the power of stories and the critical role that they play in our lives. 

I am particularly interested in the potential of literary classics to impact our lives. A second goal of this website is to convince readers to give the classics a chance. Or a second chance if the first encounter was a bad one.  I want people to think of the classics as stories, not as dusty artifacts in a museum.  Works like Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Doctor Faustus are a lot more accessible if you think of them as gripping stories rather than as “great literature.”

And then I mentioned the work that lends its name to this website:

Take Beowulf, for instance, since I have named my website after this marvelous epic. When Anglo-Saxons in 8th century Mercia or Northumbria gathered to listen to this tale of warriors and monsters, they weren’t doing so in order to think of themselves as highly cultured. Nor were they academically analyzing the poem as they listened. They went because it was a good story—a story as exciting as our most exciting action adventure films, as blood curdling as our scariest horror films. Now, why they were entertained by such fare—and why we ourselves are entertained by having the wits scared out of us—are fascinating questions that I will be taking up time and again in blog posts. But the point is, they regarded England’s first great literary work as no more (and no less) than a really good story.

I emphasize the story-telling dimensions of literature because I never want to lose sight of literature’s entertainment dimension. After all, everyone loves a story. While I can be terribly earnest at times, I always try to hold on to my sense of play. Literature is all about play—about playing with ideas, with characters, with images and words and sounds. As Freud points out, it is through play that we learn how to engage with the world.

I have in mind his famous essay “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” where he argues that literature grows out of children’s play—and that children’s play is more than play:

The child’s best-loved and most intense occupation is with his play or games. Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real. In spite of all the emotion with which he cathects his world of play, the child distinguishes it quite well from reality; and he likes to link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and visible things of the real world. This linking is all that differentiates the child’s “play” from “fantasying.”

Reading literature, then, is an adult version of playing with dolls and toy soldiers:

As people grow up, then, they cease to play, and they seem to give up the yield of pleasure which they gained from playing. But whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure which he has once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate. In the same way, the growing child, when he stops playing, gives up nothing but the link with real objects; instead of playing, he now fantasies. He builds castles in the air and creates what are called daydreams.

With every novel or poem or play you read, you are practicing vital life skills. My aim is to help you make conscious connections. As you do, you enhance your life.

Posted in Freud (Sigmund), Silko (Leslie Marmon) | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

He Sleeps Less Cold Than We Who Wake

C. R. W. Nevinson, "Paths of Glory"

C. R. W. Nevinson, “Paths of Glory”

Memorial Day 

Let the taps play, let the flag be lowered, and let a poem by Wilfred Owen be read. Sometimes Owen lashes out in anger against those who make war, but in “Asleep” he just gazes in sorrow, and even a little bit of envy, at a comrade who has died:

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars,
–Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas! 

Who cares whether he has gone to heaven or merely mingles with the earth, the narrator says. At least he sleeps “less tremulous, less cold,/Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!” There is a touch of Shelley’s elegy to Keats in these closing lines:

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

If you want proof of the horrors of war, it’s that sometimes our combat troops envy the dead.

Posted in Owen (Wilfred) | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Hermit of the Rocks, Wind & Mist

Gustave Doré, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Gustave Doré, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Spiritual Sunday

Today is the Sunday prior to the Ascension. According to John (14:15-21), before ascending to heaven Jesus promised his disciples that he would ask the Father to provide them with “another Advocate, to be with you forever.” This advocate, he explained

is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

Knowing that his simple reassurance wasn’t enough, he then elaborated:

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.

Keep these words in mind as you read R. S. Thomas’ amazing poem “Sea Watching.” He has Jesus’ promise in his mind as he looks out over the grey waters of his life. Instead of perceiving the Holy Spirit, however, he reports, “Nothing/but that continuous waving/that is without meaning/occurred.” In other words, he is gazing into the abyss.

Rather than give up hope, however, he compares his search to bird watching:

Ah, but a rare bird is
rare. It is when one is not looking
at times one is not there
                                  that it comes.

Although this doesn’t sound promising, nevertheless he devotes his entire life to watching for this bird, becoming “the hermit/of the rocks, habited with the wind/and the mist.” Thomas is describing here the path of the mystic.

He doesn’t experience the Holy Spirit directly. But he witnesses, through his holy watching,

so beautiful the emptiness
it might have filled,
                          its absence
was as its presence…

The Holy Spirit doesn’t appear in response to an act of will. It may never show up as a presence. Paradoxically, however, its presence is felt in its absence. It is manifest in the beauty we experience as we gaze out to sea watching for it.


By R. S. Thomas

Grey waters, vast
                       as an area of prayer
that one enters. Daily
                      over a period of years
I have let my eye rest on them.
Was I waiting for something?
but that continuous waving
                             that is without meaning
              Ah, but a rare bird is
rare. It is when one is not looking
at times one is not there
                                  that it comes.
You must wear your eyes out
as others their knees.
               I became the hermit
of the rocks, habited with the wind
and the mist. There were days,
so beautiful the emptiness
it might have filled,
                          its absence
was as its presence; not to be told
any more, so single my mind
after its long fast,
                          my watching from praying. 

From Laboratories of the Spirit, 1975

Posted in Thomas (R. S.) | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Chris Andersen as Queequeg

Chris Andersen

Chris Andersen

Sports Saturday

In one of the smartest sports articles I have seen in a while, ESPN’s on-line magazine recently turned to Moby Dick to better understand the enigmatic Chris Andersen of the Miami Heat. Known as “Birdman,” Andersen was instrumental in the Heat’s championship last year, bringing to the floor tremendous energy and a high shooting percentage. The Heat will need all of that energy in their title quest this year.

But Andersen is best known for his tattoos, which cover almost his entire body. To say that he is a colorful character is, in this case, literally true.

The tattoos are the starting point for author Jeff MacGregor, who begins his article with Ishmael’s description of the harpoonist Queequeg:

“And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to molder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.” 

And now here’s MacGregor, first describing Andersen’s own tattoos and then attempting to unfold Andersen’s riddle:

Even in the half-light of the tent, the ink tells his story. But tells it only to him. The player at the rim, in the clouds. The great crowned skull. The chains and the ideograms. The Celtic cross. Pit bull and bulldog. Real Rock N Roll. Good ol boyz. Dead End. Honky-tonk. Country. Screw you. Punk ass. Dollar sign behind the right ear; 11 behind the left. The Viking. The bat. Stars on his earlobes. Swifts and swallows flying up out of his shoes. Phoenix rising at his throat. That Free Bird turtleneck, neon green and acid yellow on a field of purple flames. All of it under skin so pale it’s luminous. And the wings. Those wings.

His arms and legs and back and chest are stitched with ink, with story, but in a secret language. He commemorates adversity and what didn’t kill him. He records his happiness. He just doesn’t say how. Which image stands for what? Which for abandonment or a broken heart? Which for anger or loneliness or joy? Which is the picture of his sadness, his ambition, his regret? Which defines him? Even in this unknown language, he’s no hero, and every story is true and not true, because everything is complicated and because the ink hides as much as it reveals. All the success and every failure, crowded now with line and color, has been made beautiful. “It is what it is,” says Chris Andersen. He is half a mystery, even to himself.

I love the idea that the tattoos hide as much as they reveal. Or as MacGregor puts it:

You can’t miss him. But because he’s wrapped in a kind of camouflage, you wonder whether anyone can really see him, either. 

And further on:

The tattoos are reminders, cues and prompts right out of Memento. But the ink is also a way to hide in plain sight. A disguise. A body double. Armor. As much an erasure as a declaration, Birdman is a fiction. A character. He tells his story at the same time he edits it at the very moment he hides inside it. New ink covers old. Life is pain.

And then the following insight:

[T]here’s no denying Chris Andersen is a canvas on whom every one of us paints. And like every other American, he lives in a constant state of personal reinvention. His is just easier to see.

MacGregor has grasped Melville’s insights at a deep level. In certain ways, Melville is America’s ultimate existentialist author, a Kafka before Kafka. Identity is never stable for him but always shifting. In certain ways, he is a complement to Walt Whitman. Whereas Whitman embraces the multitudinous identities that comprise America, Melville questions each and every one of these identities.

I particularly like how MacGregor points out Andersen’s luminous pale skin (his father was Danish), which recalls Melville’s famous chapter on “the whiteness of the whale.” It is Moby Dick’s whiteness that most appalls Ishmael:

Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.

While admitting that the color white  is often a positive sign, associated with innocence and purity, Ishmael notes that it can also signal a terrifying void. This may be key in understanding Andersen’s attraction to tattoos. Here’s part of Ishmael riff on whiteness:

 Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all- color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge — pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like willful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino Whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

So maybe Andersen, whose rough life is outlined in the ESPN article, feels naked and empty in his white skin. Maybe he experiences, as some level, an existential emptiness—a “dumb blankness”—which he tries to cover over with color. If so, does he realize that such colors may be just “subtle deceits” that hide the “charnel-house within”?

Maybe he does because, as MacGregor mentions in passing, Andersen is also reading Buddhist philosophy, which provides a much different interpretation of emptiness. Buddhists believe one should empty the mind to move beyond the self and find peace. Rather than writing meaning upon the abyss, they declare that the the idea that we can impose meaning is illusion. Maybe at some level Andersen gets this. As MacGregor reports,

Andersen, who can never escape your notice, succeeds in part by setting aside his identity and his past, just like Ray Allen, two lockers over. “We’re devoid of ego. We’ve been around long enough to understand where we fit in, and we have to find a way to fit in by adding whatever is missing. As veterans you do whatever you do to help the team win.”

In other words, no “I” in team, no existential crisis in whiteness, and mystic body runes that spell out the enigma of life.

Posted in Melville (Herman) | Leave a comment

Why Christie Aides Targeted Sokolich

The Execution of Admiral Byng

The Execution of Admiral Byng

We still don’t have a definitive answer as to why, last September, aides of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie closed down two of the three access lanes to the world’s busiest bridge, thereby creating gridlock in Fort Lee, New Jersey for four straight days. The common belief has been that Christie wanted to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse his reelection bid. However, after reading about the testimony of  Matt Mowers before a legislative investigative committee this past Tuesday, I’m beginning to think that Voltaire’s Candide provides the real answer.

To bring you up to date on the latest developments, Mowers, a former staffer in Christie’s administration and later his campaign,  was questioned about a list of Democratic mayors that Christie targeted for endorsement. The more Democratic support he could get, the Republican governor figured, the more he would appear a crossover candidate in the 2016 presidential race. Mowers told of a conversation he had with Christie aide Bridget Kelly asking him if Sokolich would be endorsing Christie. Mowers told her no, to which she reportedly replied, “Okay, that’s all I need to know.” It was early the next morning when she sent the infamous e-mail, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

It sounds like the plan to close access lanes was already in place and Kelly was just double checking on whether Sokolich had changed his mind. Upon learning that he remained recalcitrant, she signaled to Christie’s man in the Port Authority, David Wildstein, to pull the trigger. (His e-mail reply, delivered within minutes, was, “Got it.”)

But although it now seems clear that Sokolich was the target, the question still remains why. Why would the Christie administration take all this trouble to single out one mayor of a fairly small city when all the signs were that Christie was headed for a comfortable reelection. This is where Voltaire helps us see clearly. The episode in Candide is based on the real life execution, pictured above, of Admiral John Byng:

As they were chatting thus together they arrived at Portsmouth. The shore on each side the harbor was lined with a multitude of people, whose eyes were steadfastly fixed on a lusty man who was kneeling down on the deck of one of the men-of-war, with something tied before his eyes. Opposite to this personage stood four soldiers, each of whom shot three bullets into his skull, with all the composure imaginable; and when it was done, the whole company went away perfectly well satisfied.

“What the devil is all this for?” said Candide, “and what demon, or foe of mankind, lords it thus tyrannically over the world?”

He then asked who was that lusty man who had been sent out of the world with so much ceremony. When he received for answer, that it was an admiral.

“And pray why do you put your admiral to death?”

“Because he did not put a sufficient number of his fellow creatures to death. You must know, he had an engagement with a French admiral, and it has been proved against him that he was not near enough to his antagonist.”

“But,” replied Candide, “the French admiral must have been as far from him.”

“There is no doubt of that; but in this country it is found requisite, now and then, to put an admiral to death, in order to encourage the others.”

Or to quote the original French, “pour encourager les autres.”

Sokolich may have just been small fry but perhaps the signal wasn’t just for him. To bend the state to his will, perhaps Christie needed examples. Why is it found requisite, in New Jersey, to now and then put the screws to a mayor?

Pour encourager les autres.

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Libertarian Conmen Want Your Fatted Calf

Rembrandt, "Return of the Prodigal Son"

Rembrandt, “Return of the Prodigal Son”

A couple of months ago I came across an article in The Huffington Post that verified something I’ve heard about for a while: that the states that take the most from the federal government are generally the strongest advocates for self sufficiency and the most vociferous complainers about “big gummint.” I share a poem today that does a pretty good job of describing them.

First, a few statistics. According to the piece, the biggest beneficiaries are generally in the southeast although a few are elsewhere. They include Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and (the elsewhere) New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, and Maine. According to author Ben Hallman,

The “takingest” states, in a tie, are Mississippi and New Mexico, according to the analysis. Both states take about $3 in federal spending for every $1 contributed in taxes. Both states are highly dependent on federal funding as a percentage of state revenue. And New Mexico, especially, has lots of federal workers.

The state with the lowest return on taxpayer investment is South Carolina. Its citizens pay $1 in taxes per capita for every $7.87 in federal funding received.

Scott Bates’ “The Return of the Prodigal Son” plays with the well known parable from Luke (15:11-32). As Jesus tells the story, a younger brother demands his inheritance from his father and then proceeds to squander it. Poor and starving, he returns to his father, who welcomes him with open arms, killing a fatted calf to honor the occasion. When the obedient elder brother complains, he gets the following explanation:

“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Jesus is reassuring us that, even if we sin, we will be welcomed back by God if we repent. We can make up for squandering the blessings that have been bestowed upon us.

It’s not clear what the son in the poem has been up to but he doesn’t come back entirely destitute, even though he’s fallen from where he was. It sounds he like a made a killing and then lost it. I imagine him selling Enron futures or Bernie Madoff investments or subprime interest loans. Now he is on the lookout for a new business opportunity. The poem is chilling:

The Return of the Prodigal Son

By Scott Bates

Prodigal, hell. I worked out there.
I worked like a bastard. But I got paid.
If I come back a millionaire,
I earned every goddamned dollar I made.

Brother, I got to the top and I bounced—back to here.
You better wise up. Your place is a mess,
Your calf looks like hell. I’ll buy you a beer.
Then we’ll talk business.

This poem reminds me of just how many conmen (and women) there are out there. Trumpeting libertarian ideals while crying victimization, they raise millions from sweetheart business deals and generous tax breaks and fear-based fund raising and book deals and television gigs. Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle rancher, is only the latest example: after being called to account for grazing his cattle for free on federal land for over 20 years, he calls in armed militia to defend his “ancestral land rights,” even though it turns out his family bought the ranch he runs in 1948 and even though the grazing fees he chooses not to pay are already dirt cheap because they are subsidized by the federal government.

We don’t see the father in Bates’ poem but it sounds like his “penitent” son has pulled the wool over his eyes. Perhaps he’s a naive leader who believes people when they claim to have the good of the country at heart. The elder brother sees what’s going on but is powerless to stop someone who is willing to pull out all the stops.

In short, it looks like the meek will have to settle for heaven. In the here and now, someone else is taking over the farm.

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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