Going to Bed before It’s Dark

Myrtle Sheldon, illus. from "Child's Garden of Verses"

Myrtle Sheldon, illus. from “Child’s Garden of Verses”

I’m currently visiting my two-year-old grandson Alban and remembered a poem from my own childhood as he was being put to bed last night. There was still some daylight left, and Robert Louis Stevenson “Bed in Summer” captures a child’s sense of injustice at having to go to bed before it’s completely dark.

I devoured Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses when I was young and part of the reason may have been that I always felt that he understood me and was on my side. The greatest children’s poetry always gives that sense.

Bed in Summer

By Robert Louis Stevenson

In winter I get up at night   
And dress by yellow candle-light.   
In summer, quite the other way,   
I have to go to bed by day.       

I have to go to bed and see          
The birds still hopping on the tree,   
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet   
Still going past me in the street.       

And does it not seem hard to you,   
When all the sky is clear and blue,   
And I should like so much to play,    
To have to go to bed by day?

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It’s Not Always More Blessed to Give

Mary Snow

Millais, “Angel of Light” (Trollope’s Mary Snow)

I want to follow up yesterday’s post about idealizing self-sacrifice. If I have suddenly and unexpectedly become enthralled with the novels of Anthony Trollope, it is in part because I find in them many of the Victorian values that I was raised on. One of these is denying one’s own desires to help someone else out.

In yesterday’s post I gave an example of a narcissist, Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, who thinks she is selflessly giving up a painter with whom she flirts but, by any objective measure, she is guided only by her own selfishness (which includes seeing herself as a heroic self sacrificer). But while she herself is a fraud, Trollope has any number of heroines who heroically surrender their own claims for the happiness of the man they love.

I remember ascribing to this vision of virtue when growing up and of burying many of my own needs. I felt guilty asking for things that I wanted—would I be seen as greedy?—and regularly censored my desires. The result was that I didn’t know what it was I truly wanted. I was impressed with people who demanded that things be a certain way since I was always willing to be satisfied with whatever I received.

Some deep part of myself must have chafed against this vision, however, because I thrilled to authors who challenged this perspective. I now realize they were rebelling against visions such as Trollope’s.

First of all, there was Shaw’s devil in Man and Superman, which I read as a high school senior. At one point he asserts that “an Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable.” Shaw was drawing on Nietzsche, who I encountered in a sophomore ethics class with a thrill of recognition. In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues Christian self-sacrifice is not noble but rather a plot of a slave religion to subjugate the the free spirited Ubermensch/Superman.

Above all, I was drawn to D. H. Lawrence, also inspired by Nietzsche, who in The Man Who Died imagines a different Jesus than the one Victorians conceptualized. This Jesus lives for himself rather than sacrificing himself for others. A characteristic passage from the novella is this post-crucifixion interchange between Jesus and Mary Magdalene:

 “Do you want to be alone henceforward?” she asked. “And was your mission nothing? Was it all untrue?”

“Nay!” he said. “Neither were your lovers in the past nothing. They were much to you, but you took more than you gave. Then you came to me for salvation from your own excess. And I, in my mission, I too ran to excess. I gave more than I took, and that also is woe and vanity. So Pilate and the high priests saved me from my own excessive salvation. Don’t run to excess now in living, Madeleine. It only means another death.”

She pondered bitterly, for the need for excessive giving was in her, and she could not bear to be denied.

“And will you not come back to us?” she said. “Have you risen for yourself alone?”

He heard the sarcasm in her voice, and looked at her beautiful face which still was dense with excessive need for salvation from the woman she had been, the female who had caught men at her will. The cloud of necessity was on her, to be saved from the old, wilful Eve, who had embraced many men and taken more than she gave. Now the other doom was on her. She wanted to give without taking. And that, too, is hard, and cruel to the warm body.

“I have not risen from the dead in order to seek death again,” he said.

By the end of the work, Jesus is having an affair with a priestess of Isis and learning what it is to accept the body. To a college student in the flush of his hormones who felt vaguely guilty about sex—who felt the virtue meant denying the desires of the body–this was powerful stuff. Looking back, Jesus’ climactic moment some sees overwrought but it didn’t read that way to a 21-year-old:

Now all his consciousness was there in the crouching, hidden woman. He stooped beside her and caressed her softly, blindly, murmuring inarticulate things. And his death and his passion of sacrifice were all as nothing to him now, he knew only the crouching fullness of the woman there, the soft white rock of life…”On this rock I built my life.” The deep-folded, penetrable rock of the living woman! The woman, hiding her face. Himself bending over, powerful and new like dawn.

He crouched to her, and he felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent.

“I am risen!”

Magnificent, blazing indomitable in the depths of his loins, his own sun dawned, and sent its fire running along his limbs, so that his face shone unconsciously.

He untied the string on the linen tunic and slipped the garment down, till he saw the white glow of her white-gold breasts. And he touched them, and he felt his life go molten. “Father!” he said, “why did you hide this from me?” And he touched her with the poignancy of wonder, and the marvellous piercing transcendence of desire. “Lo!” he said, “this is beyond prayer.” It was the deep, interfolded warmth, warmth living and penetrable, the woman, the heart of the rose! My mansion is the intricate warm rose, my joy is this blossom!

I learned from Lawrence that too much self denial is as bad as too little and that it is as bad to give without taking as it is to take without giving.

To be sure, I never took Nietzsche to the point that someone like Ayn Rand did, embracing a philosophy of selfishness. Taking without giving bends the stick too much in the other direction. It still seems heroic to me to sacrifice myself for others, which in my case means for my family and my students.

I’m still Victorian in the sense that I continue to have difficulty acknowledging what I want and valuing my desires. But a stick that was bent too much in a 19th century direction is now a bit straighter.

For all his Victorian sensibility, Trollope has a balance worth striving for. In Doctor Thorne, his wonderfully spunky heroine Mary may be willing to sacrifice her claims on the high-born Frank Gresham but, very refreshingly, she won’t deny that she loves him. She doesn’t censor her desires, even though she governs her conduct carefully. In that way, she is a healthier figure than, say, Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette,who denies her feelings so much that she has a mental breakdown.

Trollope offers us a healthy mixture of principled behavior and healthy desire. I’m reluctant to condemn our culture today as shallow, materialistic, and narcissistic because there are many exceptions. But to the extent that this characterization rings true, Trollope provides us with a healthy antidote.

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Reveling in Isaac’s Self Sacrifice

The painting of "Jael" in "Last Chronicle of Barset"

The painting of “Jael” in “Last Chronicle of Barset”

Spiritual Sunday 

Today’s Old Testament reading is Abraham’s planned sacrifice of Isaac, one of the most disturbing stories in the Bible. To approach it on a lighter note, I look at Trollope’s comic use of the passage in The Last Chronicle of Barset. In the process, we are given insight into the machinations of a passive aggressive personality.

In Trollope’s novel, the shallow Mrs. Dobbs Broughton (originally Maria Clutterbuck) spices up her dull marriage by flirting with painter Conway Dalrymple and assisting his project to paint her friend Clara as Jael, the Hebrew heroine famous for driving a stake through the head of attacking general Sisera.

She also takes a hand at matchmaking—between the painter and her friend—but here she is neither honest with herself or with them. Even as she seems to work on their behalf and applauds herself on her heroic self sacrifice, she also sabotages the match at every opportunity.

She borrows from the Biblical story the image of Issac gathering the fagots that will be used in his own sacrifice. Here she is arranging Clara’s costume for the painting:

Mrs. Broughton had twisted a turban round Clara’s head, as she always did on these occasions, and assisted to arrange the drapery. She used to tell herself as she did so, that she was like Isaac, piling the fagots for her own sacrifice. Only Isaac had piled them in ignorance, and she piled them conscious of the sacrificial flames. And Isaac had been saved; whereas it was impossible that the catching of any ram in any thicket could save her. But, nevertheless, she arranged the drapery with all her skill, piling the fagots ever so high for her own pyre.

When she leaves the room so that Dalrymple can propose to Clara, we learn that he sees through her:

Dalrymple was aware that Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, though she was very assiduous in piling her fagots, never piled them for long together. If he did not make haste she would be back upon them before he could get his word spoken.

And sure enough, she returns to the room in time to interrupt the proposal:

“Just to show you that it is not for the sake of the picture that I come here. Clara—” Then the door was opened, and Isaac appeared, very weary, having been piling fagots with assiduity, till human nature could pile no more. Conway Dalrymple, who had made his way almost up to Clara’s seat, turned round sharply towards his easel, in anger at having been disturbed. He should have been more grateful for all that his Isaac had done for him, and have recognized the fact that the fault had been with himself. Mrs. Broughton had been twelve minutes out of the room. She had counted them to be fifteen,—having no doubt made a mistake as to three,—and had told herself that with such a one as Conway Dalrymple, with so much of the work ready done to his hand for him, fifteen minutes should have been amply sufficient. When we reflect what her own thoughts must have been during the interval,—what it is to have to pile up such fagots as those, how she was, as it were, giving away a fresh morsel of her own heart during each minute that she allowed Clara and Conway Dalrymple to remain together, it cannot surprise us that her eyes should have become dizzy, and that she should not have counted the minutes with accurate correctness.

We think of the Biblical story as being about Abraham, but the Victorians, who valued self denial, were able to identify with Isaac. Even when they weren’t actually self sacrificing, they were fantasizing about doing so.

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Bram Stoker’s Cure for Biting

Suarez bit

Suarez’ bites Italy’s Chiellini

Sports Saturday

What a memorable World Cup this has been! There have been unexpected winners (Costa Rica, U.S.), fabulous saves, and lots of goals, a number of them of the last second variety (Switzerland, Argentina, Portugal). On the negative side, the tournament will also be remembered for Luis Suarez’s bite.

The Uruguayan scoring sensation was caught biting for the third time in his career and has now received a stiff four-month sentence. One ESPN commentator said that the player must be in need of help, which prompted me to check out the solution proposed in the ultimate book about those with biting problems. I have in mind, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In the novel, vampire hunter Van Helsing explains why certain people bite:

Before we do anything, let me tell you this; it is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality; they cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world; for all that die from the preying of the Un-Dead becomes themselves Un-Dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water.

I guess this means we should keep a close eye on Italian player Giorgio Chiellini, the victim of Suarez’s chomp.

Special treatment is required if a vampire is ever to find peace again. In this case, Van Helsing informs Arthur Holmwood that he must take drastic action to save the soul of his fiancé-turned-vampire Lucy. Think of Arthur as a member of FIFA, soccer’s governing board that handed down the Suarez punishment:

Brave lad! A moment’s courage, and it is done. This stake must be driven through her. It will be a fearful ordeal—be not deceived in that—but it will be only a short time, and you will then rejoice more than your pain was great; from this grim tomb you will emerge as though you tread on air. But you must not falter when once you have begun. Only think that we, your true friends, are round you, and that we pray for you all the time.”

“Go on,” said Arthur hoarsely. “Tell me what I am to do.”

“Take this stake in your left hand, ready to place the point over the heart, and the hammer in your right. Then when we begin our prayer for the dead—I shall read him, I have here the book, and the others shall follow—strike in God’s name, that so all may be well with the dead that we love and that the Un-Dead pass away.”

Arthur took the stake and the hammer, and when once his mind was set on action his hands never trembled nor even quivered. Van Helsing opened his missal and began to read, and Quincey and I followed as well as we could. Arthur placed the point over the heart, and as I looked I could see its dint in the white flesh. Then he struck with all his might.

The Thing in the coffin writhed, and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam. But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set, and high duty seemed to shine through it; the sight of it gave us courage so that our voices seemed to ring through the little vault.

And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the teeth seemed to champ, and the face to quiver. Finally it lay still. The terrible task was over. 

The intervention proves successful:

There, in the coffin lay no longer the foul Thing that we had so dreaded and grown to hate that the work of her destruction was yielded as a privilege to the one best entitled to it, but Lucy as we had seen her in her life, with her face of unequalled sweetness and purity. True that there were there, as we had seen them in life, the traces of care and pain and waste; but these were all dear to us, for they marked her truth to what we knew. One and all we felt that the holy calm that lay like sunshine over the wasted face and form was only an earthly token and symbol of the calm that was to reign forever.

And then there is one final procedure:

Arthur bent and kissed her, and then we sent him and Quincey out of the tomb; the Professor and I sawed the top off the stake, leaving the point of it in the body. Then we cut off the head and filled the mouth with garlic. We soldered up the leaden coffin, screwed on the coffin-lid, and gathering up our belongings, came away.

Is this equivalent to a four-month, nine-game suspension with a heavy fine? Has FIFA, by putting a metaphorical stake in Suarez’s heart, exorcised the biter within so that the player can emerge cleansed and at peace? Given that the suspension begins with Uruguay’s match in the knockout rounds with Columbia, FIFA has certainly cut off the head of the Uruguayan team, which must feel that that everything is coming up garlic rather than roses.

But if it saves a great soccer player, it’s worth it, right?

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Ask Jane: Advice for Lovers

Knightley, Macfadyen in "Pride and Prejudice"

Knightley, Macfadyen in “Pride and Prejudice”

Last Friday I suggested that the Elizabeth-Darcy union in Pride and Prejudice captures our imaginations because it represents the perfect archetype of marriage. My argument was that it fits Thomas Moore’s description in Soul Mates that marriage is

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.

By marrying each other, I claimed, Elizabeth and Darcy each take significant steps towards fulfilling inner potential that before they only sensed.

In today’s post I’ve extrapolated a set of relationship guidelines from the Elizabeth-Darcy courtship to help you find your own soul mate (if that’s something you want). Think of it as using Jane Austen for self-help.

I pay particular attention to the friction between the couple after essayist Elizabeth Marcus, in a comment on last week’s post,  mentioned her interest in Elizabeth and Darcy’s initial antipathy. As you will see, I argue that the crisis points in the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship are moments of opportunity that point to transformational possibilities. These they can choose either to reject or embrace.

We all encounter such crisis points in our relationships, and they will be presented to us again and again until we deal with them.  It is with all of us as it is with Darcy and Elizabeth. Even were they to seek other partners, the same issues would come up because they are who they are.

In the following guidelines, you can check to see whether you recognize moments in your own relationship(s) and where, in the future, you can make changes. If anyone would be attuned to what it takes to find a soul-filled relationship, it would be Jane Austen. Think of this as the groundwork necessary for finding a soul mate. 

I. First Encounters

 –Initial resistance, even antagonism, towards a person who attracts you

In his first encounter, Darcy may shy away from Elizabeth because he intuitively senses that she represents an opportunity for painful growth.  If we take seriously the antagonism we feel, we may learn something important about ourselves.

–Reluctance to put yourself forward

Luckily for Elizabeth (as it eventually turns out), she has a Sir Lucas who forces her to meet Darcy.   Opportunities may present themselves, even against our will, to enter into a growth possibility.  We need to be aware that they will happen and note how we fight them. We should also be prepared to step forward without help from others, no matter how frightening it may be.

–Emotionally charged exchanges

Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth on the grounds that he is in no humor “to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men,” and Elizabeth at one point tells Darcy that his major defect is “a propensity to hate every body.”  Early conversations can go poorly, especially if there is a lot of potential in a relationship.  Again, the awkwardness may signal deeper attraction at work.

II. Retreats

–Rejection and mortification

Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s marriage proposal, and his refusal to apologize for his mortifying comments on her family, point to the hard work the two must undertake.  Conversations that, at first, lead to emotional devastation can be the first steps to a new honesty.  The intense psychic energy in the exchange (not to be found, say, in Elizabeth’s firm and rational rejection of Collins, which hurts his ego but not his heart) points to the great potential in the relationship.  In other words, we should not necessarily take rejection as the final word.

–Blaming the other person

Darcy and Elizabeth’s first inclination after the failed marriage proposal is to blame the other.  We need to move beyond this understandable reflex if we are to grow.

–Severe self-doubt

Coupled with blaming the other is blaming ourselves.  Darcy is mortified by Elizabeth’s rejection, Elizabeth by the contents of Darcy’s letter.  Again, in order to grow, we need to forgive ourselves, just as we must forgive the other.

–Reversion to previous behaviors

Each retreats to isolation.  Darcy returns to the insulated world of his friends while Elizabeth dreams of going to the Lake District, where she can laugh at humankind from a safe distance.  (“What are men to rocks and mountains?” she exclaims.)  When undergoing strain, we may retreat into our most characteristic behaviors, even if they haven’t served us well in the past.  A retreat can also be positive, however, if we use it to engage in honest and clear-headed self-assessment.

III. Process of Change


Darcy and Elizabeth give each other an invaluable gift, albeit a very painful one: honest feedback.  After initial resistance, they then listen to what the other has to say and take an honest look at themselves.  Such self-assessment is imperative if we are to move beyond our wounded feelings.

–Taking Action

Darcy works to become less proud, Elizabeth to become less judgmental.  Each is prepared to treat the other differently should the occasion arise.  Past mortification and suffering can be a blessing if we learn from them and take steps to change.


After they work on themselves, Darcy and Elizabeth coincidentally come together at Pemberley and recognize the changes.  If we improve ourselves, we will get second chances, although we cannot predict the form those chances will take.


Just when Darcy and Elizabeth appear to be heading towards a second proposal, Lydia runs away and Darcy learns that marrying his love will also involve dirtying his hands in the world he has tried to avoid.  Then Lady Catherine shows up at Elizabeth’s doorstep, showing her the arrogance and contempt that Elizabeth will encounter if she marries the man she loves.   A relationship will not survive merely surface change, and the universe will invariably find ways to test our transformations.  We can use these challenges to further our growth.

IV. Happy Endings

–Strong sense of self worth 

Darcy and Elizabeth appreciate the new people they have become.  One of the deepest joys of partnership is the coaching you get to come into alignment with yourself.


Once Darcy and Elizabeth have worked on themselves, the romance novel can close with a convincing and compelling marriage.

V. Conclusion

If the courtship journey seems treacherous and fraught with emotional risk, well, that’s the call for us to become heroes in our own romance novel. We are all potential Darcys and Elizabeths, prone to missteps but also capable of breakthroughs.

What becomes clear from the novel is how much is at stake in our journey.  If we remind ourselves of that in our moments of doubt and draw strength from Austen’s protagonists, we will do all right.  It may not be a truth universally acknowledged, but when you take risks, learn from your mistakes, and work on self-transformation, you draw other worthy people to you.

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Paradise Lost (Scott Bates’ Mole Version)

Romney, "Milton and His Daughters"

Romney, “Milton and His Daughters”

Here’s a satire of Milton by my favorite poet of light verse (my dad). Appearing in his collection of animal fables (Lupo’s Fables), the poem features a mole delivering his version of Paradise Lost. (Paradise is down, not up, for moles.) The “epic mole” promises to justify the ways of God to man, warns of apocalyptic punishments, and promises the “Holey Moley Firmament” to those who behave.

And how is our mole received? Like many poets and prophets, he is all but ignored since most moles are just trying to get by. The poem ends fatalistically with a mole’s version of “sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.”

I’ve written about how my father was always suspicious of claims of transcendence. He may have idealistically worked for social justice, but he always claimed that people were deterministically guided by self interest and their own material concerns.

At the very least, such skepticism serves to check head-in-the-clouds idealism and overly grandiose claims for poetry. “Epic Mole” has a touch of Auden’s contrasts in “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood…

And now for the poem:

The Epic Mole

By Scott Bates

A blind and
Philosophic Mole
Too old
To cultivate his hole

Dictated to
His daughters three
Immortal Epic

He sang of Heaven
Deep inside
The Earth and of
The Sin of Pride

That Satan Mole
Was guilty of
And how he fell
To Hell above

And how he tried
To discontent
The Holey Moley

He sang how every
Mole could find
The awful truth
Of all Molekind

And how it went
From Bad to Worse
In his
Apocalyptic verse

And how a few
Still might be saved
If Mighty Mole
Thought they behaved

He sang
And found himself ignored
By all the lesser
Molish horde

Who went on
Careless of their souls
Pursuing worms
Pursuing moles

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Monarch Butterflies in Danger

Monarch migration

Monarch migration

Earlier this month I came across a discouraging Slate article about how habitat destruction is threatening the monarch butterfly. I can recommend a very good novel about dwindling monarch populations if this is a subject that interests you.

First of all, here’s Slate’s explanation: 

The long-term loss of habitat has been due to the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops. As herbicide-tolerant crops really began to increase in about the year 2000, then we began to see an impact on the population. The reason for that is monarchs are dependent on milkweeds, and it turned out that milkweeds were actually growing in corn and soybean fields, in modest numbers — not enough to cause crop damage or interfere with crop production. Monarchs are totally dependent on milkweeds to reproduce; without milkweeds there are no monarchs. So as these herbicide-tolerant plants were adopted more and more, we saw progressive elimination of milkweeds in the field crops. I should mention that the reason the milkweeds still persisted in the field crops was that prior to the year 2000 most of the weeds were controlled by tillage. Milkweeds survived that better than most weeds did, and that’s why they still persisted in those fields despite the fact there was weed control. But once we had the herbicide-tolerant plants coming into the system we lost the milkweeds.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012) describes what happens when millions of monarchs suddenly appear on a mountaintop in southern Appalachia. The main character is a sheep farmer’s wife, Dellarobia, who feels stuck in a rut, and the monarchs open up new possibilities for her.

As one who was raised in the Appalachians (albeit in a more privileged environment than Dellarobia’s), I can vouch for the accuracy of Kingsolver’s descriptions. She gives us characters who want to make a buck from irresponsibly logging the mountainsides, even though such logging could lead to the same kinds of mud slides that displaced the monarchs from their Central American home, and characters who are so struck by the beauty of the butterflies that they unexpectedly become environmentalists. But even as Kingsolver finds hope for the environmental movement in unexpected places and even as she rakes over the media for its unwillingness to fully acknowledge global warming, she also satirizes professional environmental activists, noting that some fail to acknowledge the needs and sensibilities of the lower middle class.

Like many of Kingsolver’s novels, Flight Behavior is a story that uses an engaging, tough-talking woman to raise environmental awareness. Here’s a passage that describes Dellarobia’s first encounter with the insects. She is climbing a mountain on her way to an adulterous rendezvous that will probably ruin her family. She’s not sure what she is seeing because she has forgotten her glasses, but the seemingly miraculous vision sets her on a healthier track:

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense. The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again. No words came to her that seemed sane. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush. Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel, words from Scripture that occupied a certain space in her brain but no longer carried honest weight, if they ever had. Burning coals of fire went up and down among the living creatures.

The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against gray sky. In broad daylight with no comprehension, she watched. From the tops of the funnels the sparks lifted high and sailed out undirected above the dark forest.

So much beauty threatened by our never ending assault on the earth.

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Oedipus in Iraq


What a whirlwind we are reaping in Iraq! Unfortunately, it is not only the United States that is paying the price of having opened Iraq’s sectarian can of worms. For all the money and human resources America squandered in this endeavor, the Iraqi people have suffered ten times as much, and there don’t appear to be any good options ahead of them.

Literature can’t begin to do justice to the horrors that we are witnessing, but Tom and Daisy Buchanan come to mind in describing America’s instigation of the war:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Even more than The Great Gatsby, however, Oedipus Rex helps us see the situation clearly.

First of all, there’s George W. Bush’s Oedipal conflict with his father George H. W. Bush. Regarded as the lesser of the Bush sons, George W. may have been trying to prove himself by doing what his father wasn’t willing to: depose Saddam Hussein, the tyrant who enjoyed railing at the United States.  As in the play, where the killing of King Laius opens up a leadership vacuum into which Oedipus steps, so the overthrow of Hussein propelled the United States into “nation building.”

And then there was George W’s cocky confidence, which is a lot like that of Oedipus. George W declared “mission accomplished” and proclaimed America’s special mission. Oedipus, meanwhile, sets forth his accomplishments in a tirade against Creon and Teiresias, whom he thinks are trying to undermine him. Note how little humility he shows in his mention of the gods:

When that hellcat the Sphinx was performing here
What help were you to these people?
Her magic was not for the first man who came along:
It demanded a real exorcist. Your birds–
What good were they? or the gods, for the matter of that?
But I came by,
Oedipus, the simple man, who knows nothing–
I thought it out for myself, no birds helped me!

Instead of ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity, however, Oedipus has unleashed a plague by having killed his father. The Iraqi version of this plague is sectarian strife, which Hussein brutally kept in check, sometimes through massacring Kurds and Shiites. Once Hussein and then the U. S. were gone, it could break out again in full force.

Oedipus, a compassionate man who feels his people’s suffering, thinks that, through force of will and personality, he can straighten everything out. He’s a can-do leader who won’t let anything stand in his way. Bush was not headstrong in this particular way, but as a “compassionate conservative” he thought that he could impose a U. S. style democracy upon Iraq. Like Oedipus, he had no clue what he was dealing with.

Interestingly, I detect an underlying lack of self-confidence in both Bush and Oedipus. If Oedipus is as paranoid as he is, sensing conspiracies all around him and lashing out, it may be because he doesn’t feel an entire confidence in his position. Perhaps Bush too, in the Oedipal drama I have mentioned, felt that he could compensate for perceived weakness by involving America in two simultaneous wars. As often occurs in Oedipal dramas, his father, who showed restraint, now appears the bigger man.

With the disintegration of Iraq, the truth of the situation is breaking in on America and perhaps on George W, just as the consequences of his regicide eventually break in on Oedipus. Only one of the two appears to take responsibility and experience self-lacerating shame, however.

Oedipus provides America with an important object lesson. Whenever we think we can use our immense wealth and overwhelming military power to impose our will on the world, the play reminds us that there will always be much that we don’t understand. In our blindness, we are always capable of unleashing a plague.

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Trollope and a Family Road Trip

Mangle and Crawley in "Last Chronicle of Barset"

Mangle and Crawley in “Last Chronicle of Barset”

Last week I took a road trip with my mother through the Midwest, starting with a wedding in Des Moines (or rather a wedding-turned-family-reunion as the wedding itself was canceled at the last moment) and moving on to visits with each of my brothers (in Madison, Iowa City, and Clarksville, Tennessee). As we drove, my mother told me family stories, filling in the gaps about my Iowa cousins, some of whom I was meeting for the first time. When we weren’t talking, we were listening to Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). After a while, family history became suffused with a Trollopian aura.

Trollope’s Barsetshire novels—there are six of them—describe the loves, ambitions, rivalries, and other interactions of a set of families in a fictional British county in the mid-19th century. Characters who are peripheral in one novel become central in another while formerly central characters play bit parts in subsequent novels.

This is also how my lessons in family history functioned. There were names that, while I had heard them all my life, were only vague markers. My mother’s grandmother, our common ancestor, was Elvine Robins Jackson, her sister was  Phoebe, and the names “Jackson,” “Robins” and “Phoebe” appear regularly in the family genealogy. My mother is Phoebe Robins Strehlow Bates, and I, of course, am Robin. (My father was a poet and, while the family didn’t approve of my parents dropping the “s,”  “Robins” doesn’t scan well with “Bates.”)  Figuring out all the family members was like reading a novel and stopping for a moment to get all the characters straight. Likewise, meeting Phoebe Cornelia Montgomery, now retired in Des Moines, and Phoebe Robins Hunter, who works in the Student Life office at the University of Montana, was like witnessing minor characters who suddenly bloom into major figures.

Also resembling a novel were the fascinating career arcs, tragedies, marriages, and divorces connected to the names. Also novelistic were the small personal incidents, which added color and cast light on the different personalities. I found myself drawn to stories of cousins interacting at Lake Okoboji during summer vacations and at Peoria during Thanksgiving reunions.

I came to Trollope, as I did to my family history, in a disjointed way, checking out whichever disk versions of Trollope the library happened to have. I therefore started with the second novel in the series (Barchester Towers, 1957), moved on to the sixth novel (Last Chronicle) and am now listening to the third novel (Doctor Thorne, 1958, which promises to be one of the best). I therefore have a sense that, while I am privy to only sections of a larger picture, I am making progress towards mapping the whole. Names start sticking after I have encountered them two or three times. Of course, every advance involves new names that await further exploration.

Adding further to the enjoyment is Trollope’s Victorian setting since both my mother’s and my father’s family have English roots in the 19th century. I am well aware, however, that my own family, had they shown up in the novels, would be the domestic servants and gamekeepers, the brick makers and coachmen, that are peripheral to the lives of Trollope’s main characters. “Jackson” is hardly an elevated named and “Bates” may be a diminutive of the trade name “boat’s man.”

In some ways, my mother’s and my journey through the Midwest was itself a means of shoring up a family narrative. America, of course, is a far more mobile society than Europe, especially 19th century Europe, and my siblings and I are now spread over the landscape. And to take a step up the family tree, the larger Bates clan—my father was one of three boys—is now trying to figure out how to handle the increasing expenses of our Maine cottage, built by my great grandmother Sarah Ricker on an apple farm that my cousins the Rickers still run. If we were to relinquish the cottage, a symbol of our connection, would we disintegrate into an atomistic existence, located as we are in Maine, New York, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, California, and Oregon?

While life in Barsetshire sometimes feels claustrophobic to those living in it, it has a certain attraction for American readers today, given the diaspora that is an integral part of American history. Maybe that’s why there are a number of enthusiastic Trollope readers in this country. It doesn’t matter that many of the characters are petty, snobbish, vindictive, manipulative and self-absorbed. What matters is that they are part of a larger web.

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A New Song Comes out of the Fire


Spiritual Sunday

Ramadan begins this coming Saturday so it’s fortuitous that today’s Old Testament lectionary reading should overlap with the Muslim faith. The story tells of Hagar and Ishmael’s exile, which is believed to have resulted in the founding of the Arab people.

Here’s a Rumi poem celebrating Ramadan. Note that the Sufi poet himself has no problem with borrowing images from other faith traditions to capture his deep sense of divinity moving in the world. The Kaaba, incidentally, is the sacred mosque in Mecca towards which all Muslims direct their prayers.

There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less.

If the soundboxes stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean with fasting,
every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you run
up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.

Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.
When you’re full of food and drink,
Satan sits where your spirit should,
an ugly metal statue in place of the Kaaba.
When you fast, good habits gather
like friends who want to help.
Fasting is Solomon’s ring.

Don’t give into some illusion and lose your power,
but even if you have, if you’ve lost all will and control,
they come back when you fast,
like soldiers appearing out of the ground,
pennants flying above them.

A table descends to your tents, Jesus’ table.
Expect to see it, when you fast,
this tablespread with other food,
better than the broth of cabbages.

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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.

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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 http://www.tarmasz.com/2011_11_01_archive.html

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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.

Posted in Atwood (Margaret) | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

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)

Posted in cummings (e.e.) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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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