Turn Life into a Great Jamesian Novel

Nolte, Beckinsale in "The Golden Bowl"

Nolte, Beckinsale in “The Golden Bowl”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Centrality of Fiction to Our Lives

Matisse, "Reading Woman with Parasol"

Matisse, “Reading Woman with Parasol”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which Gottshall adds,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am of Ireland

Paul Henry, "Storm in Connemara"

Paul Henry, “Storm in Connemara”

St. Patrick’s Day 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those Dancing Days Are Gone 

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

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

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

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

Who Has Seen the Wind?

John Waterhouse, "Wind Flowers"

John William Waterhouse, “Windflowers”

Spiritual Sunday

In today’s lectionary reading (John 3:1-17), Jesus uses wind as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. It’s a good passage to keep in mind when reading the well-known “Who Has Seen the Wind?” by the pious Christina Rossetti.

The story in John has a slightly comical opening. We learn that Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, comes to question Jesus in the night, presumably because, while he senses that Jesus can answer his burning question about how to touch the divine, he doesn’t want to be seen taking lessons from this unorthodox preacher. After all, isn’t he himself supposed to already know? Or as Jesus puts it, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

When Jesus tells him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Nicodemus gets very literal:

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus replies that Nicodemus must start thinking in spiritual rather than material terms:

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Wind, of course, has a material explanation involving differences in atmospheric pressure, temperature, and other factors. Rossetti, however, is thinking more along the lines of Jesus. When the wind is passing through, it is she herself who hangs trembling, she herself who bows down her head:

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

Posted in Rossetti (Christina) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Rock-Paper-Scissors = Bad Relationship

Turner,, Douglas in "War of the Roses"

Turner,, Douglas in “War of the Roses”

Sports Saturday

Yesterday I was thumbing through This Sporting Life: Poems about Sports and Games and came across this very clever poem that frames rock-paper-scissors as a game about dysfunctional relationships.

The analogy works because the game involves extending one’s hand to another person. As in those relationships where to show vulnerability is to be shredded, the partners take turns violating each other. In such relationships as in the game, it’s always win-lose.

The final creepy image—stone surrendering to paper’s suffocating embrace—reminds me of the codependent clod of clay in Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble.” In this case, however, it’s the pebble that surrenders.

Or maybe the two are engaged in make-up sex. But it’s not a healthy resolution, what with all the sharp edges, the cold hardness, and the paper-thin sensitivity that can be turned into a weapon. It’s a game that healthy couples refuse to play.

Playing the Game

By Barbara Goldowsky

You stick out your fist: stone
Breaks my two fingers playing scissors.

You offer your hand, open.
I shred the palm: it’s paper.
I am still scissors.

Have you no heart? you ask.
But I am stone.

Your hand is still paper,
you wrap me up:
closer than blades,
harder than hearts. 

Posted in Goldowsky (Barbara) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Literature as an Ethics Laboratory

Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Samuel Johnson"

Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Samuel Johnson”

My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a Paula Moya article in The Boston Review about whether reading literature makes us more moral. I remembered the article when my Restorative Justice Faculty Reading Group was discussing Iris Young’s Responsibility for Justice, which tackles the daunting question of who is guilty and who is responsible when group crimes are committed. “Crimes” for Young include not only events like the Holocaust but also the continuing existence of poverty in a prosperous nation.

As this is not a philosophy blog, I won’t do a deep dive into the book here, but to give you a taste of Young’s approach, I note her interesting distinction between guilt and responsibility. The first, she says, looks backward, the second forward. While she of course believes that meting out justice to the guilty is important, Young notes that we must also find ways for those who have indirect responsibility—say, through voting or passively acquiescing or having benefited from the crime—to acknowledge their part in it (say, through apology and reparations). To do so is to move toward social healing.

As the group was discussing the book, I thought about the important role that literature can play in such a process. Moya shows us how literature helps bring us to moral clarity, although she does so only after first asserting that literature does not make us more moral. She begins her article with a description of a panel discussion she participated in devoted to the question:

The answer to the question was a definitive “no.” No, because, as Debra Satz admitted in her introductory remarks, “the Marquis de Sade read and wrote lots of novels.” No, because, as Joshua Landy, Professor of French at Stanford University, reminded the audience, tyrants and Nazis alike delighted in the works of Sophocles, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Herman Hesse. And No, because, as I noted, there is a long tradition extending back to the first modern novel, Miguel De Cervantes’s Don Quijote, that sees reading literature as profoundly corrupting. Its own conceit is that the inimitable Don “became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk ‘til dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.” Of course, reading literature is no more certain to drive us insane than it is guaranteed to make us more moral. As Landy quipped: “Results may vary.”

Moya goes on to probe what we mean by “moral,” which can vary between cultures and even between individuals. (I would add that we should also examine what is meant by “make, “ since I think there’s debate to be had about whether literature can make us doing anything.) She also explores why so many of us (me included) are interested in proving literature’s utility, as though a work is of worth only if we can prove it has some measurable payoff. While properly skeptical of a Gradgrindian view of literature, eventually Moya does make a case for literature’s ethical usefulness. Her argument is a variant of Shakespeare’s view that literature holds a mirror up to nature:

Regardless of use or morality, literature, I submit, is brilliantly suited to the exploration of what it means to be an ethical human being in a particular socio-historical situation. Works of literary fiction represent a creative and formal linguistic engagement—in the shape of an oral or written artifact—with the historically- and geographically-situated socio-political tensions found at the level of individual experience. It is a formal representation that mediates an author’s (and subsequently a reader’s) apprehension of her own “world of sense.” Because works of literary fiction engage our emotions and challenge our perceptions, they both reflect on and help shape what we consider to be moral in the first place. Importantly, this can be the case as much for the author as for the reader

Moya turns to Toni Morrison to help make her case. The choice makes sense since Morrison makes her home in vexed moral questions and talks frankly about her ethical agenda:

Elsewhere in that same interview [about the novel Sula], Morrison explains that she views writing as a way of testing out the moral fiber of her characters in order to see how they respond to difficult situations: “Well, I think my goal is to see really and truly of what these people are made, and I put them in situations of great duress and pain, you know, I ‘call their hand.’ And, then when I see them in life threatening circumstances or see their hands called, then I know who they are.” Moreover, because Morrison regards writing as a process of moral and epistemic investigation, she does not write about ordinary, everyday people or events. Instead, she plumbs the hard cases—the situations where “something really terrible happens.” She explains: “that’s the way I find out what is heroic. That’s the way I know why such people survive, who went under, who didn’t, what the civilization was, because…our existence here has been grotesque.” The process of writing a novel can be mode of inquiry in which the “answer” surprises even the author.

“Hard case” doesn’t even begin to do justice to questions raised in Beloved, which I was discussing Wednesday with a student. If an escaped slave kills her child to keep her owners from taking them and her back, then where do guilt and responsibility lie? Iris Young’s ethical questions seem much more urgent to us when we are emerging from a Morrison novel.

Moya’s concludes by arguing that literature functions as a kind of ethics laboratory:

How else are we to know where [ethical] lines are located in a given situation—unless we explore and probe? How better to conduct that exploration than through literature? In theory, we could round up actual people and run experiments; we could put them in “situations in which something really terrible happens” in order to find out “what’s heroic.” But this, of course, is not ethically or morally permissible in our society. For now, literature remains the most significant venue through which authors and readers alike can examine the myriad and complicated reasons that people—as inescapably situated beings—think and behave the way they do.

The philosopher Suzanne Langer has argued that literature (along with the other arts) is “virtual life.” Ethicists, Moya is saying, can take advantage of that virtuality.

So can the rest of us as we figure out how to respond to social injustice.

Posted in Morrison (Toni) | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Jane Eyre: Poverty Is No Crime

Jane Eyre on the moors

Jane Eyre on the moors

We all know that much of politics is driven by narrative, and few things depress me more than seeing those narratives driven by demeaning caricatures. I have in mind how Rep. Paul Ryan says that entitlement programs function as hammocks for the lazy poor and that free lunches jeopardize the souls of their children. And how Rand Paul claims that long-term unemployment insurance saps the initiative of job seekers. And how Newt Gingrich calls Barack Obama the “food stamp president,” even though food stamps spiked only after the recession of 2007-08, set up by banking deregulation and Wall Street shenanigans.

Jane Eyre provides a narrative that comes closer to the our actual situation. I have in mind that part of the novel where Jane ends up in a remote locale without money or friends. Like most able-bodied Americans, she doesn’t like the fact that she needs handouts. She just wants enough aid to get back on her feet and start working again.

Jane is in her situation because her shock over Rochester’s duplicity has caused her to flee Thornfield. Although she has held a position of prestige in a wealthy family, Jane is prepared to take any job. Unfortunately, there’s nothing for her to do:

A pretty little house stood at the top of the lane, with a garden before it, exquisitely neat and brilliantly blooming.  I stopped at it.  What business had I to approach the white door or touch the glittering knocker?  In what way could it possibly be the interest of the inhabitants of that dwelling to serve me?  Yet I drew near and knocked.  A mild-looking, cleanly-attired young woman opened the door.  In such a voice as might be expected from a hopeless heart and fainting frame—a voice wretchedly low and faltering—I asked if a servant was wanted here?

“No,” said she; “we do not keep a servant.”

“Can you tell me where I could get employment of any kind?” I continued.  “I am a stranger, without acquaintance in this place.  I want some work: no matter what.”

But it was not her business to think for me, or to seek a place for me: besides, in her eyes, how doubtful must have appeared my character, position, tale.  She shook her head, she “was sorry she could give me no information,” and the white door closed, quite gently and civilly: but it shut me out.  If she had held it open a little longer, I believe I should have begged a piece of bread; for I was now brought low.

Millions of Americans have been in Jane’s situation in recent years and many still are. The difference is that our society at least provides them a safety net that catches them when they fall, although rightwing members of the GOP are seeking to end that. In Jane’s case, her hunger overcomes her pride and she starts begging:

At the door of a cottage I saw a little girl about to throw a mess of cold porridge into a pig trough.  “Will you give me that?” I asked.

She stared at me.  “Mother!” she exclaimed, “there is a woman wants me to give her these porridge.”

“Well lass,” replied a voice within, “give it her if she’s a beggar.  T’ pig doesn’t want it.”

The girl emptied the stiffened mould into my hand, and I devoured it ravenously.

Unable to find anything in town, she sets off across the moors and comes across a lone house. Although the housekeeper initially refuses to help her so that she almost dies, eventually St. John Rivers appears and brings her in. Later, when she is recovering, Jane scolds the housekeeper in words that I’d like rightwing Republicans to hear:

“[Y]ou wished to turn me from the door, on a night when you should not have shut out a dog.”

“Well, it was hard: but what can a body do?  I thought more o’ th’ childer nor of mysel: poor things!  They’ve like nobody to tak’ care on ’em but me.  I’m like to look sharpish.”

I maintained a grave silence for some minutes.

“You munnut think too hardly of me,” she again remarked.

“But I do think hardly of you,” I said; “and I’ll tell you why—not so much because you refused to give me shelter, or regarded me as an impostor, as because you just now made it a species of reproach that I had no ‘brass’ and no house.  Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime.”

St. John understands that Jane is uncomfortable with receiving charity—as are most Americans—and just needs a helping hand. Here’s their conversation:

“You would not like to be long dependent on our hospitality—you would wish, I see, to dispense as soon as may be with my sisters’ compassion, and, above all, with my charity (I am quite sensible of the distinction drawn, nor do I resent it—it is just): you desire to be independent of us?”

“I do: I have already said so.  Show me how to work, or how to seek work: that is all I now ask; then let me go, if it be but to the meanest cottage; but till then, allow me to stay here: I dread another essay of the horrors of homeless destitution.”

Think what our politics would be like if Ryan, Rand, and their GOP buddies thought of destitute Americans as Jane Eyres rather than hammock-seeking wastrels. America would be a lot less tight-fisted and mean-spirited.

Posted in Bronte (Charlotte) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Lewis Carroll’s Revolt against “Reality”

Tenniel, "Alice in Wonderland"

Tenniel, “Alice in Wonderland”

I’m currently teaching Alice in Wonderland in my British Fantasy class and am using today’s post to sort out some of the ways that Carroll protests life in Victorian England. But first an update on how my literary weather forecasting is faring.

A couple of weeks ago I reported that my British Fantasy reading list was predicting the weather. When we were reading about Lyra’s arctic adventures in The Golden Compass, it snowed. The following week, a tornado touched down in our county at the exact moment that we were discussing The Tempest. As in the play, no one was hurt.

Noticing the pattern, I predicted that the following week would be bitter cold (on the basis of The Eve of St. Agnes) and that the week after would be garden party warm (Alice in Wonderland). So last week temperatures dropped into the teens (which is bitter cold for Maryland) while yesterday temperatures soared to 73.

What’s ahead? We have spring break next week but the week after we’ll be reading Goblin Market. Expect “summer weather,” “fair eves,” and the cries of sexually charged goblin men.

Now to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice is like the Gulliver of Book I insofar as she is an innocent observer wandering through a fantastical world that points to significant problems in our own. Like Gulliver, Alice herself doesn’t judge—in fact, she’s a good girl who believes what she is taught and does what people tell her to do—so it is up to us as readers to apply judgment.

And what do we find problematic? Here’s a partial list:

–the new 19th century obsession with time (the White Rabbit, the Mad Tea Party);
–boring history teachers (such as the Mouse, who helps all the animals get dry by telling them the driest story he can think of);
–utilitarian fact-based education (satirized by Alice’s wonderful distortions);
–censorious adults who order children around, making them recite poetry and follow rigid rules (the Caterpillar, the Duchess, the Mock Turtle, the Queen of Hearts);
–boring adults who pontificate (Robert Southey’s Old Father William, parodied by Carroll);
–dogmatic poetry which must be memorized for the sake of a child’s salvation (“How Doth the Little Busy Bee”);
–dominating women and timid men (the Queen and King of Hearts);
–obnoxious little boys (who are much preferable as pigs);
–the loss of childhood innocence.

Child though she may be, however, Alice is also subversive. Time and again she finds ways to strike back, although always in spite of her best intentions, which allows her to retain her innocence. For instance:

–she unintentionally offends the disagreeable Mouse, who has fallen into the pool with her, by talking about her cat’s hunting habits;
–she unintentionally exposes heavy-handed religious instruction for children by revising “How Doth the Little Busy Bee”–with its appalling line “For Satan finds some mischief still/For idle hands to do”–into a poem about a seemingly kindly but actually voracious crocodile, who “welcomes little fishes [children?] in with gently smiling jaws”;
–forced to recite poetry for the authoritarian caterpillar, she unintentionally ridicules both teachers and those students who take them seriously by transforming Southey’s stodgy Father William into a man who turns back somersaults in at the door and balances eels on the end of his nose;
–she exposes the Queen and King of Hearts as uttering nonsense in the trial.

Unlike her previous rebellions, however, this last act is not unintentional or innocent. She is no longer “a little girl” (as she describes herself to the pigeon) or “only a child” (the King of Hearts’ excuse for her) but suddenly “almost two miles high” (the Queen of Hearts). When she stands up to authority as if on equal terms, she is leaving childhood innocence and the fantasy life that accompanies it.

I used to find the card attack on Alice to be terrifying, perhaps because it echoed what I thought would happen to me if I stood up to adults. Alice has called out grown-ups for their absurdities and they react with fury.

But even more frightening to Carroll may be the fact that little Alice is growing up. He invested his imaginary world in her, and the danger of dull and stifling adult reality winning out is a dark theme running through both Alice books, especially the second. The world of imagination is in danger when little girls grow tall and claim that the world of the imagination is “nothing but a pack of cards.” Or when they change from pawns into queens and realize that their kittens are nothing more than kittens.

In a sense, Carroll is using his dream of Alice’s childhood innocence to keep his own imagination alive. Her growing up puts everything at risk. The nurturing shelter of nonsense, to which we retreat as the hot sun of adult common sense beats down upon us, threatens to collapse like a house of cards.

Or as Wordsworth puts it, “Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy.”

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Milton Would Call Paul Ryan a Wolf

Image: Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan lectures the poor

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) convened this past weekend, and when speakers weren’t going after President Obama, they were beating up on the poor. Particularly egregious in my eyes was Rep. Paul Ryan. Although Ryan, unlike many on the right, at least gives lip service to caring about the poor, his “poverty program” is an assault on programs that support our most vulnerable citizens. He reminds me of the Christian hypocrites that Milton attacks in Paradise Lost.

In Ryan’s CPAC speech, he told a story—later revealed to have been garbled by his source—about a hungry child that didn’t want a free school lunch but

his own lunch — one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids’. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.

Ryan concluded from this that Democrats are offering America “a full stomach and an empty soul.”

This isn’t the only time that Ryan has used spiritual language to excuse his cuts. You may remember the time two years ago when, in defense of his draconian budget plan, he told the Christian Broadcast Network that he was guided by Catholic principles of “subsidiarity” and “the preferential option for the poor”:

Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.

To use such arguments as the rationale for cutting food stamps to hungry families is not exactly what the Catholic Church had in mind. At least it wasn’t Ryan but another Congressman who misapplied St. Paul’s dictum that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

Before going further, let me share my own experience with hungry children. When I was growing up in Appalachian Tennessee, I remember some of the poor mountain kids at my school. I recall once we were served a dessert where something had gone wrong—it was so rich and sweet that not even kids would eat it. And yet I saw Johnny Hoback wolfing down everyone’s leftovers. I also remember another time when he won a large caramel popcorn rabbit in a school contest, and I was in awe at how voraciously he devoured it. I realized, even at ten, that I was in the presence of real hunger.

Did Johnny’s impoverished parents love him less because they weren’t sending him to school with his lunch in a bag? Was his soul in peril because he was receiving free lunches? Maybe those in soul peril are the ones who would deny him sustenance.

And Ryan is leading the way, posing as a friend of the poor and serious “poverty wonk” (Jonathan Chait’s phrase) as he proposes his measures. His much ballyhooed poverty plan, however, has been attacked by the academics whose studies he cites, who accuse him of misapplying their data. Chait explains why Ryan has chosen the route that he has:

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

And Ryan’s budget absolutely slays the budget for anti-poverty programs –the vast majority of his spending cuts come from the minority of federal programs aimed at the poor. That fact has led to his current predicament: Democrats have painted him as a cruel social Darwinist, causing him to become concerned about his image as an “Ayn Rand miser,” causing him to re-brand himself as a poverty wonk, causing him to dive into scholarly literature. But scholarly literature is never going to show that his plans to impose massive cuts to the anti-poverty budget will help poor people.

Milton does not hold back as he goes after those Christians who invoke the Holy Spirit as a cover for their rapacious behavior. In the final book of Paradise Lost he refers to them as “wolves”:

Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,
Who all the sacred mysteries of Heaven
To their own vile advantages shall turn
Of lucre and ambition…
Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places, and titles, and with these to join
Secular power; though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God…

Milton predicts dire days ahead for such as these—although what he has in mind is Judgment Day, which may be a ways off:

Truth shall retire
Bestuck with slanderous darts, and works of faith
Rarely be found: So shall the world go on,
To good malignant, to bad men benign;
Under her own weight groaning; till the day
Appear of respiration to the just,
And vengeance to the wicked…

I’m not holding my breath for the day of vengeance. But at least we can expose Ryan for his shameful hypocrisy.


Added note: Milton uses a wolf metaphor one other time in Paradise Lost, this time to Satan preying upon innocents. As in the above passage, he also applies it to those who have usurped the spirit of Christianity for their own selfish ends:

As when a prowling wolf,
Whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for prey,
Watching where shepherds pen their flocks at eve
In hurdled cotes amid the field secure,
Leaps o’er the fence with ease into the fold
Or as a thief, bent to unhoard the cash
Of some rich burgher, whose substantial doors,
Cross-barred and bolted fast, fear no assault,
In at the window climbs, or o’er the tiles:
So clomb this first grand thief into God’s fold;
So since into his church lewd hirelings climb.

Adam and Eve can’t imagine what is about to hit them.

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An Afghan Vet’s Green Knight Encounter


Student gifts arrive daily when one is a literature teacher. I received a wonderful reading story recently from Matt Alexander, a former Marine twice deployed to Afghanistan, which has caused me to further appreciate Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

A discussion of John Keats actually sparked the conversation about the medieval romance. We were talking about Keats’ relationship to death in “Bright Star,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in a British and American Lit survey class, and Matt opined that Keats, who died at 25 of tuberculosis, was overly obsessed with mortality. Marines in Afghanistan, Matt said, just acknowledged that death was a possibility and then pushed it out of their minds.

I said in response that his comment reminded me of Sir Gawain’s reaction to his upcoming rendezvous with the Green Knight, along with his almost certain death. I had in mind the moment when Gawain’s fellow knights are urging him to forego his appointment with the axe-wielding giant, even though Gawain has promised to receive a return blow. Here’s Gawain’s response in the Marie Borloff translation:

He said, “Why should I tarry?”
And smiled with tranquil eye;
“In destinies said or merry,
True men can but try.”

I explained that, as I interpret the poem, Gawain thinks that he can shrug off his death but this is just a knight’s way of coping. In fact, if the Green Knight stands in for nature, including our internal nature, then he knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows that we are just playing “head games” in our denial (thus the significance of the beheading contest). The Green Knight goes on to prove that Gawain does indeed care for his life.

My brief comment sent Matt to the bookstore to buy a copy of the poem. He then proceeded to stay up all night reading it and, as a consequence, missed our class on Jane Eyre. I told him that, in 32 years of college teaching, I had never heard as good an excuse for an absence.

The two moments where Gawain reveals that he cares for his life is when he surreptitiously accepts a green girdle from the knight’s wife after being told that it will save him and when he flinches before the descending axe. Here are the two relevant passages, the first beginning with the words of Lady Bertilak:

“For the man that possesses this piece of silk,
If he bore it on his body, belted about,
There is no hand under heaven that could hewn him down,
For he could not be killed by any craft on earth.”
Then the man began to muse, and mainly he thought
It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come
When he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward:
Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!
Then he bore with her words and withstood them no more,
And she repeated her petition and pleaded anew,
And he granted it, and gladly she gave him the belt,
And besought him for her sake to conceal it well,
Lest the noble lord should know—and the knight agrees
That not a soul save themselves shall see it thenceforth
with sight.

In the second passage, Gawain has his head on the block:

But Gawain at the great axe glanced up aside,
As down it descended with death-dealing force,
And his shoulders shrank a little from the sharp iron.
Abruptly the brawny man breaks off the stroke,
And then reproved with proud words that prince among knights.
“You are not Gawain the glorious,” the green man said,
“That never fell back on field in the face of the foe,
And now you flee for fear, and have felt no harm…”

The scene where Gawain takes the girdle struck Matt like a thunderbolt. Looking back at his time in Afghanistan, he said he now realized that his actions contradicted what he told himself. For all his appearance of accepting death, he still was very careful to don his Kevlar body armor every day. Or as he put it to me in a follow-up e-mail,

[For Gawain] the belt is his safety net in a way, and even though he didn’t care about dying, the belt gave him a sense that he wouldn’t [die], much like the way that Marines, or any combat person, pick up their helmets before going out.

There were other points in the poem that struck Matt as well. Camelot as it is depicted is a youthful court and Gawain is the youngest of the knights. Their youth, Matt noted, means that they don’t think much about the future:

 The Vietnam War was fought by kids that kept going up hills and through forests just to go back home again. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the same: fought by kids, won and lost by kids. I heard once from a psychology teacher that that is a quality found in young men. They want to prove themselves, they want to help their unit in any way possible, so they run up those hills, walk through those jungles, or in our case, find those IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices], to make things better, whether or not it’s helping a country or slowly tearing it apart.”

Until hearing Matt’s reaction, I had never thought to focus on the youth of Camelot in the poem or on how Nature, in the form of the Green Knight, might be jolting young men out of their sense of being invulnerable.

About the seductive lady in the castle, Matt said that a Camelot reference was actually applied in instructions to him and his fellow (male) Marines: “No Guineveres.” The commanders feared that having women in combat would disrupt troop unity. As I think about this perspective in the framework of the poem, I wonder if thoughts of women threaten the denial of death that seems central to a combat soldier’s mental make-up. Although Gawain never gives in to Lady Bertilak’s sexual advances, maybe it is the sweetness of life that she represents that causes him to accept her belt. Have been softened up, he turns from an automaton blindly moving forward into a human being.

Put another way, maybe the concern with having women in combat patrols is not so much that women can’t handle the situation. Maybe it’s that commanders are worried that the presence of women will cause men to start thinking about, and caring about, life.

Matt also enjoyed the poem’s ending. Gawain returns to Camelot ashamed that he hasn’t lived up to the perfection that he expects of himself. Matt saw this as paralleling the way that Marines internalize the ideals of the corps, and he appreciated the way that Gawain’s fellow knights demonstrate solidarity by donning versions of the green girdle, symbol of his failure. This solidarity, he said, is central to being a Marine.

He then told me a story about how, after losing a comrade, his unit all donned black armbands. Again thinking about the incident in terms of the poem, it’s as though this death, like Gawain’s stumbles, was a reminder to Matt and his fellows that they were all vulnerable. The solidarity was a way of both acknowledging their fears and then reminding themselves that they had the corps to help them rise above their doubts.

As I say, Matt presented me with a gift.


Added note: I had forgotten when writing today’s post that I once applied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to my father’s own experiences with sex and death in World War II. You can find it here.

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“Jane Eyre” as Lenten Meditation

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre and St. John Rivers"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre and St. John Rivers”

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve been teaching Jane Eyre this past week and therefore have an example fresh in my mind of what Lent is not. Lent is not St. John Rivers.

St. John is the fervent Calvinist who wants Jane to accompany him to India as a missionary—and incidentally, to marry him. When I teach the book, many of my students find it difficult to understand why St. John has such power over Jane. After all, why would anyone want to subject oneself to his austere discipline. Jane’s description of a sermon gives us a sense of the man:

It began calm—and indeed, as far as delivery and pitch of voice went, it was calm to the end: an earnestly felt, yet strictly restrained zeal breathed soon in the distinct accents, and prompted the nervous language.  This grew to force—compressed, condensed, controlled.  The heart was thrilled, the mind astonished, by the power of the preacher: neither were softened.  Throughout there was a strange bitterness; an absence of consolatory gentleness; stern allusions to Calvinistic doctrines—election, predestination, reprobation—were frequent; and each reference to these points sounded like a sentence pronounced for doom.  When he had done, instead of feeling better, calmer, more enlightened by his discourse, I experienced an inexpressible sadness; for it seemed to me—I know not whether equally so to others—that the eloquence to which I had been listening had sprung from a depth where lay turbid dregs of disappointment—where moved troubling impulses of insatiate yearnings and disquieting aspirations.  I was sure St. John Rivers—pure-lived, conscientious, zealous as he was—had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding: he had no more found it, I thought, than had I with my concealed and racking regrets for my broken idol  and lost Elysium [Rochester]. 

Though Jane is disturbed, however, she can’t help but admire St. John’s deep devotion to God. He is a man of pure faith, so focused on union with the divine that he turns away from all worldly temptation. For instance, he rejects the beautiful and wealthy Rosamond Oliver because she doesn’t have the depth of spirit he is looking for, a depth that he does find in Jane. In other words, he has a quality that many associate with Lent: his life is a rigorous shedding of that which separates him from God.

Although Jane hears no call to undertake missionary work—in fact, she experiences St. John as an “iron shroud”–nevertheless she is prepared to accept his invitation. After all, did not Christ tell his followers to leave everything and follow Him?

[I]s not the occupation he now offers me truly the most glorious man can adopt or God assign?  Is it not, by its noble cares and sublime results, the one best calculated to fill the void left by uptorn affections and demolished hopes?  I believe I must say, Yes—and yet I shudder.  Alas!  If I join St. John, I abandon half myself: if I go to India, I go to premature death.  And how will the interval between leaving England for India, and India for the grave, be filled?  Oh, I know well!  That, too, is very clear to my vision.  By straining to satisfy St. John till my sinews ache, I shall satisfy him—to the finest central point and farthest outward circle of his expectations.  If I do go with him—if I do make the sacrifice he urges, I will make it absolutely: I will throw all on the altar—heart, vitals, the entire victim.  He will never love me; but he shall approve me; I will show him energies he has not yet seen, resources he has never suspected.  Yes, I can work as hard as he can, and with as little grudging.

One can understand why Jane would be attracted. A powerful strain within Christianity regards mortification to be in and of itself virtuous. Lent isn’t Lent unless it involves discomfort. This message is beaten into Jane at Lowood School where the girls are taught that Christian humility calls for them to have their beautiful hair cropped, to be half frozen and starved, to wear drab clothing, and to be harshly disciplined. William Blake had people like their hypocritical schoolmaster in mind when he sarcastically wrote, in his scathing poem about the church’s message to abused chimney sweeps, “So if all do their duty they need not feel harm.”

The training has influenced Jane particularly deeply because she has seen her admirable schoolmate Helen Burns getting with the program. Helen is periodically beaten and shamed but always forgives and blesses. By going with St. John to India, Jane can be another Helen.

What saves Jane, however, is her insistence on human love. She will not marry John, she tells him, but will go instead as his assistant. She believes in marriage too deeply to accept his sham version. He will not accept her condition and goes to India by himself, all but consigning Jane to hell. In the process, we are given insight into the true meaning of Lent.

Lent is following your own calling, not another’s, in a disciplined way. It must come out of a fullness of heart rather than self-laceration. Jane was made for human love, not the life of an ascetic, and when she prays for guidance, she hears the voice of her true love calling her. She couldn’t stay with Rochester originally because doing so would have meant abandoning her moral compass and losing herself in her passions. This time around, however, her Lenten discipline, if we can call it that, is to find him and, when she discovers that that he has been badly injured in a fire, to care for him, love him, and marry him.

We have no doubt that she is fulfilling God’s plan for her as she does so. By returning to Rochester in a spiritually disciplined way, she finds supreme joy.

Yet even so, she can’t help but see St. John’s path as nobler and greater than hers. She signals this by concluding the book with him:

St. John is unmarried: he never will marry now.  Himself has hitherto sufficed to the toil, and the toil draws near its close: his glorious sun hastens to its setting.  The last letter I received from him drew from my eyes human tears, and yet filled my heart with divine joy: he anticipated his sure reward, his incorruptible crown.  I know that a stranger’s hand will write to me next, to say that the good and faithful servant has been called at length into the joy of his Lord.  And why weep for this?  No fear of death will darken St. John’s last hour: his mind will be unclouded, his heart will be undaunted, his hope will be sure, his faith steadfast.  His own words are a pledge of this—

“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me.  Daily He announces more distinctly,—‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond,—‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’”

No, Lenten self-sacrifice doesn’t have to look like this, although it can. We each of us must find our own way and, if it honors who we are, it is no better or worse than another.

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

Lebron James, Poetry in Motion

Lebron scores 61 against Charlotte

Lebron scores 61 against Charlotte

Sports Saturday

What a game Lebron James had last Monday, scoring a career-high 61 points on 22-33 shooting (including 8-10 from three-point range) against the Charlotte Bobcats. Unfortunately for Miami, it wore him out for the next two games, and the Heat lost to Houston and San Antonio. Nevertheless, it was spectacular basketball.

Here’s a Kent Cartwright poem about a basketball shot to celebrate the achievement. Note the many times that the poem’s format mirrors basketball moves. And how, in the final stanza, it captures the way that our attention leaves the player and focuses exclusively on a ball hanging on the rim:


By Kent Cartright

The pass raps
from behind a back like a mad electron
blasting free,
crackles to his hand, then,
jabs away at the court,
high bounding and hard.
Possessed, pounding,
he fuses in circuit
to the weird ganglions of
bobbling rubber,
stutter-dribbles, hesi-
tates, head fakes,

and breaks,
slicing the stunned circle,
a dazzled filament,
a shard of crystal
splintering clean.
Driving the hoop, he launches,
leaping like energy sizzling
between hot copper points.

Arched for the lay-up,
sculptured in the detonation
of desire, a glazed arm above
into the stillness,
a touch as soft as fur,
he shoots,
sweeping the volt away,
breaching Zeno’s paradox,
crashes to the floor:

Saucy and coy, the ball
jolts a smudgy kiss
on the cold, clear glass,
hangs away on the lip,
moody, weighing the balance,
sighs through the net
like the whisper—
of love.

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New Grandchild Born under a Dancing Star

Mary Cassatt, "Mother and Child"

Mary Cassatt, “Mother and Child”

I am now a grandfather thrice over as Etta Lawrence Wilson-Bates was born yesterday afternoon at 3:15 (ht: 20”, wt: 7 lbs 12 oz, 8-hour labor with four of them in the birthing center). The only famous Etta I know is Etta James, the gospel and blues singer famous for “At Last” and, like our Etta, born of a black mother and white father. “At Last” seems appropriate for our Etta since she arrived six days after her due date.

I don’t know any literary Ettas, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6 (also Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Michelangelo) so here’s a passage from Aurora Leigh describing the love of a mother for her child. An essay by literary scholar Sandra Donaldson notes that, while Barrett Browning wrote many motherhood poems, they didn’t begin to do justice to the experience until she herself had a child (at 43). Aurora Leigh was written after:

She threw her bonnet off,
Then sighing as ’twere sighing the last time,
Approached the bed, and drew a shawl away:
You could not peel a fruit you fear to bruise
More calmly and more carefully than so,–
Nor would you find within, a rosier flushed
There he lay, upon his back,
The yearling creature, warm and moist with life
To the bottom of his dimples,–to the ends
Of the lovely tumbled curls about his face;
For since he had been covered over-much
To keep him from the light glare, both his cheeks
Were hot and scarlet as the first live rose
The shepherd’s heart blood ebbed away into,
The faster for his love. And love was here
As instant! in the pretty baby-mouth,
Shut close as if for dreaming that it sucked;
The little naked feet drawn up the way
Of nestled birdlings; everything so soft
And tender,–to the little holdfast hands,
Which, closing on a finger into sleep,
Had kept the mould of’t…

The light upon his eyelids pricked them wide,
And staring out at us with all their blue,
As half perplexed between the angelhood
He had been away to visit in his sleep,
And our most mortal presence,–gradually
He saw his mother’s face, accepting it
In change for heaven itself, with such a smile
As might have well been learnt there,–never moved,
But smiled on, in a drowse of ecstasy,
So happy (half with her and half with heaven)
He could not have the trouble to be stirred,
But smiled and lay there. Like a rose, I said:
As red and still indeed as any rose,
That blows in all the silence of its leaves,
Content, in blowing, to fulfill its life.
She leaned above him (drinking him as wine)
In that extremity of love, ’twill pass
For agony or rapture, seeing that love
Includes the whole of nature, rounding it
To love…no more,–since more can never be
Than just love. Self-forgot, cast out of self,
And drowning in the transport of the sight, 
Her whole pale passionate face, mouth, forehead, eyes, 
One gaze, she stood! then, slowly as he smiled,
She smiled too, slowly, smiling unaware,
And drawing from his countenance to hers
A fainter red, as if she watched a flame
And stood in it a-glow. ‘How beautiful!’
Said she.

The mother in the poem is Marian, a woman that protagonist Aurora believes to be a fallen woman but who owes her baby to a rape. This sight of Marian responding to her child, along with Marian’s story, prompts Aurora to change from condemnation to all out admiration.

And here’s another literary passage to honor Etta’s arrival. On Wednesday night Julia and I, watching Josh Wheedon’s Much Ado about Nothing, were entranced by Beatrice’s description of her birth. When Don Pedro observes to Shakespeare’s most fun-loving heroine that “You were born in a merry hour,” Beatrice replies,

No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.

Your mother went through pain to give birth to you, little Etta, and the world you have entered has much crying.  Nevertheless, I have no doubt that a star danced when you were born and that you will go through life laughing.

Posted in Browning (Elizabeth Barrett), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Pope’s Longing for a Spotless Mind

Winslet, Carrey in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

Winslet, Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

In a continuing education film course that I am teaching on “mind bending films,” I recently had a chance to rewatch the Jim Carrey film Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004). I had forgotten that the title comes from an Alexander Pope poem and am using today’s post to reflect upon the film’s use of it. I also will be talking about John Keats’ Eve of St. Agnes, which I’ve recently become obsessed with.

“The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” appears in “Eloisa and Abelard,” which is about the famous medieval lovers who were separated when Eloisa’s family had their servants break into Abelard’s house and castrate him to end their love affair. He went to a monastery, she to a convent, and the letters they would eventually exchange would become the stuff of legend.

In Pope’s poem, a lonely Eloisa is imagining how much easier her life would be if she could forget about her passion and live as an innocent vestal, ignoring the world and devoting her life completely to God:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
“Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;”
Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,
Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n.
Grace shines around her with serenest beams,
And whisp’ring angels prompt her golden dreams.
For her th’ unfading rose of Eden blooms,
And wings of seraphs shed divine perfumes,
For her the Spouse prepares the bridal ring,
For her white virgins hymeneals sing,
To sounds of heav’nly harps she dies away,
And melts in visions of eternal day.

Instead, however, Eloisa is tormented by thoughts of Abelard—who, having been castrated, is unable to return her passion. Only in sleep can she find him again:

When at the close of each sad, sorrowing day,
Fancy restores what vengeance snatch’d away,
Then conscience sleeps, and leaving nature free,
All my loose soul unbounded springs to thee.

The film (spoiler alert) follows the poem in some interesting ways. It also offers viewers a profound insight into relationships.

Joel, a socially maladroit introvert, meets the outgoing and whacky Clementine at a beach party, and an improbable relationship develops. We learn from flashbacks that they had many magical moments together but also some very painful clashes. After an argument where he says something seemingly unforgivable for something seemingly unforgivable that she has done, she runs off and has all memories of him removed by a special psychological process. When he learns about it, he undergoes the same procedure.

Much of the movie occurs on the night when his memories are being removed. Midway through the process—and too late to stop it—he decides that his good memories are too precious to surrender. We, who are sometimes in his mind and sometimes with the technicians working on him, watch him trying to escape their computers. Finally, realizing that he will lose everything, he and his memory of Clementine agree that they will meet up again at the beach house.

Joel’s dream is not quite as unbounded as Eloisa’s but enough gets through so that both he and Clementine board the same train car the following day, although they don’t know why. Unfortunately Joel seems like a mentally castrated Abelard when they meet and can’t even remember Huckleberry Hound, his favorite cartoon strip. Clementine is persistent enough to jumpstart the relationship, however.

The movie opens with this train encounter, which grows into a promising relationship. All appears to go well until a discontented employee from the firm sends them their files, which alerts them that they have already had a relationship and that it ended on an ugly note. They prepare to break up a second time but then, even after learning about themselves at their worst, decide to give it another shot. The film ends with them back on the beach.

Telling the plot doesn’t do justice to the film because the pleasure lies in sorting through the jumble that was their relationship. The work that we as viewers must do is a version of what couples do after they have emerged from a painful breakup, remembering both bad and good moments as they strive to figure out what it all meant. One of the students in the class compared it to Groundhog’s Day and there are indeed many resemblances.

In Groundhog’s Day, the film’s organizing trope is that every day in Bill Murray’s life will be the same and every relationship will turn out the same until he undergoes an internal transformation. As the movie is set up, Murray will always fail in his relationship with Andie MacDowell, but that is just a dramatic way of making the point that the same narcissistic behavior will always lead to the same outcome. The identity of the other person is immaterial.

In Eternal Sunshine, we can imagine a similar repetition ahead. The relationship that begins the film, which is actually the second time these two have come together, could easily duplicate the first go-round. Like the first time, the second begins with a fantasy projection that could well proceed to disillusion and conclude with a desire to forget everything—to find a spotless mind—and begin again.

Only in this instance, Joel and Clementine decide to continue on, even though they know in advance the worst that they are capable of saying about each other. This second chance will be based on honesty, not fantasy projection. They know that the relationship will require hard work but undertake it anyway.

This is what reminds me of Eve of St. Agnes. As I noted in Tuesday’s post, Madeline wakes up from her fantasy version of her lover to see the actual man but decides that she wants a life with him regardless. Together they walk out into the storm. Both the movie and Keats’ poem would make for great date discussions.

Unfortunately Pope’s poem of frustrated love, although tremendously popular with young lovers in its day, won’t go over as well. Heroic couplets and stories of frustrated passion don’t cut it anymore.


Additional note: I learn from Wikipedia that scriptwriter Charlie Kauffman also references “Eloisa and Abelard” in On Being John Malcovich. They appear in the erotic puppet show. Not bad for an all-but-forgotten poem.

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A Modest Proposal for Shooting Students


With a bill allowing students, staff and visitors to carry guns on Idaho state university campuses about to be passed by the Idaho legislature, one professor has opted for a Jonathan Swift-style protest.

My brother Jonathan sent me this column, which appeared in the New York Times as a query to the chief counsel of the legislature about gun protocol. Professor of biology and criminal justice Greg Hampikian wants to know when it will be permissible to shoot a student:

I am a biology professor, not a lawyer, and I had never considered bringing a gun to work until now. But since many of my students are likely to be armed, I thought it would be a good idea to even the playing field.

I have had encounters with disgruntled students over the years, some of whom seemed quite upset, but I always assumed that when they reached into their backpacks they were going for a pencil. Since I carry a pen to lecture, I did not feel outgunned; and because there are no working sharpeners in the lecture hall, the most they could get off is a single point. But now that we’ll all be packing heat, I would like legal instruction in the rules of classroom engagement.

And further on:

I assume that if a student shoots first, I am allowed to empty my clip; but given the velocity of firearms, and my aging reflexes, I’d like to be proactive. For example, if I am working out a long equation on the board and several students try to correct me using their laser sights, am I allowed to fire a warning shot?

If two armed students are arguing over who should be served next at the coffee bar and I sense escalating hostility, should I aim for the legs and remind them of the campus Shared-Values Statement (which reads, in part, “Boise State strives to provide a culture of civility and success where all feel safe and free from discrimination, harassment, threats or intimidation”)?

Like the Swift of  “Modest Proposal” and “Abolishing of Christianity in England,” Hampikian makes his points obliquely. His side glance at the university’s Shared-Values Statement gets readers to examine that text with renewed respect.

Unlike Swift, however, the document that sounds most like “Modest Proposal” is the gun bill itself. In any country other than the NRA-cowed United States, the bill would sound like a sick joke. To put Hampikian’s letter in a Swiftian framework, it’s as though the Irish satirist has encountered a Parliament that is actually proposing to slaughter and eat babies and has written a response designed to bring people to their senses.

How successful will Hampikian’s letter be? If Swift is any measure, it’s discouraging to note that his satires didn’t stop England from exploiting Ireland, didn’t prevent England from introducing copper currency into the country, didn’t stop astrologer John Partridge from plying his craft, and didn’t (as Gulliver hoped) bring an end to party factionalism or cause judges to be learned and upright, lawyers honest and modest, women to be virtuous, honorable and truthful, journalists to be… In other words, even good satire has limited effectiveness.

Then again, Swift’s major goal was to raise awareness, even when it didn’t change behavior. Hampikian’s letter has done that.

One other thought: If Swift’s “Modest Proposal” is the most famous essay ever written, it’s not only because it is a rhetorical tour de force. It also has a dark energy that packs an extra punch. The modest proposer demonstrates such relish in describing baby recipes (and recall that Gulliver too is skinning babies by the end of Book IV) that one can’t help but wonder about Swift himself. If one were to plunge into his psyche, would one discover that he had a problem with babies? Or as I see it, that he was felt so painfully sensitive that he indulged in dead baby jokes to cover over a sense of violated innocence.

I bring this up because Hampikian is having a little too much fun imagining himself shooting students. Not that any of us would really shoot our students. But there are times in the semester when some of us might fantasize about it.

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Fantasy Provides Aid for Life’s Storms

William Holman Hunt, "Eve of St. Agnes"

William Holman Hunt, “Eve of St. Agnes”

As a child who grew up immersed in fantasy fiction, I knew, as deeply as I knew anything, that these books put me in touch with something that was deep and true. As I grew up, of course, I learned that I had to move beyond fantasy just as I had to move beyond childhood. In my particular reading framework, this meant transitioning from Lord of the Rings to Catcher in the Rye, and my intense teenage dislike for Salinger’s novel—assigned in sophomore English and now a work I admire—stemmed from my fear that I was losing something precious that I could never get back.

I came to realize, however, that we never lose the truths bound up in our childhood love of fantasy. In “The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming,” Freud writes that we don’t give up childhood pleasures but instead find adult versions of them. I learned to find deep pleasure in non-fantasy literature, in Jane Austen and John Steinbeck and even Salinger, and I left Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other such authors behind. Yet I continued to find a special pleasure in those works with fantasy elements, such as the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, and Haruki Murakami.

(For that matter, fantasy hovers around even realistic fiction: Pride and Prejudice is a version of the Cinderella story while Steinbeck bases a number of his novels on the Arthurian legends. Freud, meanwhile, talks about fiction as a more complex way of playing with dolls and toy soldiers.)

As I was teaching The Tempest and The Eve of St. Agnes these past two weeks, I sensed I was witnessing my own transition from children’s fantasies to adult versions. Prospero once thought that he could live forever immersed in his magic books, and in his island fantasy he conjures up storms and marvelous pageants. Then, however, he decides to grow up, breaking his staff and drowning his books. Rather than surrendering his magic, however, he has evolved to a deeper magic, one that involves love and forgiveness. To borrow from Wordsworth, he may have relinquished one delight but he continues to live beneath fantasy’s habitual sway, which is all the more powerful for having found a way to persist in the mature world of adulthood.

Or think of what happens to Madeline in Keats’ poem. She goes to bed on the eve of St. Agnes in order to dream of her true love. The dream that she has is a girl’s dream of Prince Charming. Unbeknownst to her, however, the real life subject of her dream has crept into her bedroom so that, upon awaking, Madeline finds herself caught between two images.

Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.

“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thy diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”

My class had a spirited debate about the bedroom scene since some of them found Prophyro’s stalking to be “creepy,” and others all but accused him of taking advantage of Madeline’s befuddled state to commit rape (or as Keats exquisitely puts it, “Into her dream he melted, as the rose/Blendeth its odour with the violet”).

Part of me was heartened that my students were attuned to good relationship practice so I didn’t disagree. What caught my eye, however, was how Madeline adjusts to discovering that the world isn’t childhood fantasy. To be sure, she starts off with initial disappointment that Prophryo isn’t Prince Charming (“How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!”) and then moves on to the horrified realization that she has just been ruined (“No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!/Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine./ Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?) Then, however, she decides she will not fight this new reality but accept it (“I curse not”), even if it brings disgrace. Note how the action is set against a raging winter storm (such as the one that blows against my own windows as I write this), a symbol of the cruel world that is set against her fantasy illusions:

‘Tis dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
“This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!”
‘Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:
“No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!
Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.—
Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?
I curse not, for my heart is lost in thine,
Though thou forsakest a deceived thing;—
 A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing.”

Porphyro likewise steps up to the occasion. He, like she, may have been drawn by a fantasy vision, but what he offers her now is a partnership that involves the two of them venturing out together into the storm:

Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest
Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think’st well
To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.

Hark! ’tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
Arise—arise! the morning is at hand;—
The bloated wassaillers will never heed:—
Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,—
Drown’d all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee.

It must be acknowledged that Keats ends his poem on a down note, concluding not with images of the lovers but of bitter cold and death. I think to do otherwise would be to retreat into empty illusion while ignoring the harshness of the world. Madeline and Porphyro may well die in the storm and even if they survive and grow old together, Angela’s and the Beadsman’s infirmities invariably await them:

And they are gone: aye, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar’d. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.

So yes, palsy and bitter cold threaten to blast our fantasies. But what the lovers have, and what those of us enamored with the poem’s romance have, is Keats’ “once upon a time/ages long ago” fantasy vision of their love. Although it is true that they/we will be confronted by bleak midwinter, their fantasy love story keeps us warm and guides us.

In a discussion with one of the students in the class who will be getting married this summer (Meg Gruen), I noted that St. Agnes can work as a powerful description of marriage: as initial fantasy images are pounded (as they inevitably will be) by iced gusts of reality, young couples can remember the dream that brought them together. If it had substance then, it will have substance when the weather turns.

It’s instructive to compare the ending of St. Agnes to that of another Keats fantasy vision, which also returns to reality with a thud. Enchanted by the song of a nightingale, the suffering poet finds himself wafted into “Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam,/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.” Then, however, he finds himself abruptly brought back to his current state:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self! 
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well 
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Lest this lead us to decide that fantasy is no more than a deceiving elf, however, Keats concludes with an open-ended question: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?” So were the speaker and Madeline asleep before, only to be awakened into reality? Or were they awake before, only to have fallen into “the dream of life” (to borrow a phrase from Shelley’s elegy on Keats).

In other words—and I made this point last week in my Tempest post—maybe fantasy serves us as a guide when the world seems too much with us. If we cling too tightly to fantasy, then we will not grow but will remain forever Peter Pan. If we accept our adult responsibilities, however, we may rest assured that fantasy will never abandons us. It will be a precious resource as we venture out into the storm.

Posted in Keats (John), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Expect No Second Charge in Ukraine

Charge of the Light Brigade

Whatever is going on in Ukraine? Actually, Julia Ioffe says the Russian incursion into the Crimea is dully predictable. As she puts it in her New Republic article,

One of the reasons I left my correspondent’s post in Moscow was because Russia, despite all the foam on the water, is ultimately a very boring place. Unfortunately, all you really need to do to seem clairvoyant about the place is to be an utter pessimist. 

Her assessment of why Putin has sent troops in the Crimea is “because he can. That’s it, that’s all you need to know.” Russia, she believes, experiences “phantom limb syndrome” with the former republics of the Soviet Union. Given that there are sizable Russian populations in Estonia and Kazakhstan as well as Ukraine, Ioffe predicts that, according to Putin’s “unspoken doctrine,” at some point in the future we can expect them to declare Russian Ukrainians in those countries at risk as well, justifying  more “Mother Moscow” forceful intercessions.

Ioffe adds that there’s nothing, apart from largely symbolic gestures, that the rest of the world can do. To send in troops would be to duplicate what happened to a certain light calvary brigade in the Crimea 110 years ago. Here’s a poetic reminder:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Kevin Drum, in a grimly humorous Mother Jones article, seconds Ioffe’s pessimism and follows it up with a prediction about America’s response. The only positive, as he sees it, is that no one will blunder. Which is to say, Obama will not send troops into the”jaws of Hell.” There will be no “wild charge,” and “Cossack and Russian” will not find themselves reeling from any sabre stroke. There will be no occasion to lament and celebrate a doomed charge.

Here’s Drum with the steps that he predicts:

–Republicans will demand that we show strength in the face of Putin’s provocation. Whatever it is that we’re doing, we should do more.
–President Obama will denounce whatever it is that Putin does. But regardless of how unequivocal his condemnation is, Bill Kristol will insist that he’s failing to support the democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people.
–Journalists will write a variety of thumbsuckers pointing out that our options are extremely limited, what with Ukraine being 5,000 miles away and all.
–John McCain will appear on a bunch of Sunday chat shows to bemoan the fact that Obama is weak and no one fears America anymore.
–Having written all the “options are limited” thumbsuckers, journalists and columnists will follow McCain’s lead and start declaring that the crisis in Ukraine is the greatest foreign policy test of Obama’s presidency. It will thus supplant Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran, and North Korea for this honor.
–In spite of all the trees felled and words spoken about this, nobody will have any good ideas about what kind of action might actually make a difference. There will be scattered calls to impose a few sanctions here and there, introduce a ban on Russian vodka imports, convene NATO, demand a UN Security Council vote, etc. None of this will have any material effect.
–Obama will continue to denounce Putin. Perhaps he will convene NATO. For their part, Republicans will continue to insist that he’s showing weakness and needs to get serious.
–This will all continue for a while.
–In the end, it will all settle down into a stalemate, with Russia having thrown its weight around in its near abroad—just like it always has—and the West not having the leverage to do much about it.

The only unpredictable thing in the whole affair, Drum says, is what Ukraine itself will do. I suppose there’s a chance that the Ukrainian army will embark upon a doomed charge of its own, with perhaps similar results. All the world would wonder.

Another perspective: An article in Slate suggests that it may be Russia that is charging into the cannons. Not only does mainland Ukraine have power over Crimea’s water and electricity but Crimea has a large minority of Tartars, many of whose families were deported by Stalin but who have returned and have no friendly feelings towards Russia. Things could get bloody.

Posted in Tennyson (Alfred Lord) | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

To the Pure All Things Are Pure

Rafael, "The Transfiguration"

Rafael, “The Transfiguration”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s lectionary readings include two moments when humans met the divine face to face: Moses receiving the ten commandments from God and Jesus being “transfigured” by his encounter with Moses and Elijah. In a wonderful poem by Edwin Muir, we are reminded that we can all catch a glimpse of the divine in our fallen and broken world.

Here’s the reading from Matthew (17:1-9):

Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

In Muir’s version, for a moment it is as though “the source of all our seeing” is “rinsed and cleansed/Till earth and light and water entering there/Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.” The soot covered stones appears “clean at the heart/As on the starting day,” and the lurkers, the murderers, and all who are “entangled in their own devices” step out of their dungeons and are free. For a moment we have a glimpse of life as it could be and then

                                                                   the world 
Rolled back into its place, and we are here, 
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn, 
As if it had never stirred…

But if we use that glimpse to guide our steps, we will not be overwhelmed by the inevitable reversals that bedevil our attempts to build a better world. Here’s Muir’s poem:

The Transfiguration

By Edwin Muir

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch 
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists 
As fresh and pure as water from a well, 
Our hands made new to handle holy things, 
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed 
Till earth and light and water entering there 
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world. 
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness, 
But that even they, though sour and travel stained, 
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance, 
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us 
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined 
As in a morning field. Was it a vision? 
Or did we see that day the unseeable 
One glory of the everlasting world 
Perpetually at work, though never seen 
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere 
And nowhere? Was the change in us alone, 
And the enormous earth still left forlorn, 
An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world 
We saw that day made this unreal, for all 
Was in its place. The painted animals 
Assembled there in gentle congregations, 
Or sought apart their leafy oratories, 
Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together, 
As if, also for them, the day had come. 
The shepherds’ hovels shone, for underneath 
The soot we saw the stone clean at the heart 
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps 
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world; 
For he had said, ‘To the pure all things are pure.’ 
And when we went into the town, he with us, 
The lurkers under doorways, murderers, 
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came 
Out of themselves to us and were with us, 
And those who hide within the labyrinth 
Of their own loneliness and greatness came, 
And those entangled in their own devices, 
The silent and the garrulous liars, all 
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free. 
Reality or vision, this we have seen. 
If it had lasted but another moment 
It might have held for ever! But the world 
Rolled back into its place, and we are here, 
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn, 
As if it had never stirred; no human voice 
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks 
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines 
And blossoms for itself while time runs on. 

But he will come again, it’s said, though not 
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things, 
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas, 
And all mankind from end to end of the earth 
Will call him with one voice. In our own time, 
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe. 
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified, 
Christ the discrucified, his death undone, 
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled— 
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood 
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree 
In a green springing corner of young Eden, 
And Judas damned take his long journey backward 
From darkness into light and be a child 
Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal 
Be quite undone and never more be done. 

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Sex without Love

Gustave Moreau, "Leda and the Swan"

Gustave Moreau, “Leda and the Swan”

Sports Saturday

Does sex count as a sport? How about if you compare it to pair skating or to long distance running? That’s what Sharon Olds does in her enigmatic and disturbing poem “Sex without Love.” To this day I’ve never been able to entirely wrap by mind around this poem, which uses stirring athletic analogies to make a case for sex without love.

On Valentine’s Day I discussed Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble,” and Olds’ poem is about a pebble—which is to say, one that “seeketh only Self to please,/To bind another to its delight.” Perhaps because she leans toward the self-sacrificing clod herself—the clod doesn’t honor its own needs—Olds sounds somewhat admiring. There’s a purity in those who focus only on their own pleasure, who “come to the still waters” without loving their partner (“come” is a pun). They demonstrate the kind of singlemindedness that one finds in saints and professional athletes.

When Olds switches to a runner analogy, she continues to sound positive. Great sexual performers are alone against a series of factors, including “the road surface, the cold, the wind, the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-vascular health.” Then, however, Olds adds “partner in bed” to the list. Once the partner is seen as just another factor, the instrumental and dehumanized dimension of such coupling is exposed. “Every woman loves a fascist,” Sylvia Plath has written, and this love affair with oneself– “the single body alone in the universe against its own best time”—has the narcissism of the fascist.

As to the why clods find pebbles to be beautiful, maybe they find it beautiful to be hooked, thinking they can leach off a confidence that they themselves lack.

So how do the ones who make love without love do it? Olds gives us a clue in the reference to children “whose mothers are going to give them away.” Such people fear abandonment so deeply that they wall themselves off from humanity.

The price they pay is that they are alone in the universe.

Sex Without Love 

By Sharon Olds

How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health–just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.

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Using Lit to Predict the Weather

John William Waterhouse, "Miranda"

John William Waterhouse, “Miranda”

For those of you in the Midwest getting pounded by cold temperatures at the moment, you can blame me. I’m currently teaching John Keats’ Eve of St. Agnes

My British Fantasy accused me of having Prospero-type powers when I was teaching The Tempest last week. About ten minutes into the class, the sky darkened to such a degree that none of us could keep our minds on the discussion. Tornado warnings started popping up on my students’ smart phones and then a deluge was unleashed. It was quite something.

Critical thinkers that they are, my students then made a connection with the week before when heavy snow cancelled classes. At the time we were reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, much of which takes place in the polar north.

They therefore wanted to know what the weather would be like the following week. If Eve of St. Agnes is any indication, I replied, it’s going to be bitterly cold. And while not cold by Midwestern standards, Maryland today is still in the teens:

St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

Some of my students wear flip-flops in such conditions but the old Beadsman has them beat. He’s barefoot:

His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Imprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

By the way, going by the next assignment, don’t expect spring next week either. Keats informs us that the sedge will still be withered from the lake and no birds will be singing.

But we should be getting Alice in Wonderland garden weather the week after that.

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Prospero’s Magic, a Model for Fantasy Lit

William Hamilton, "Prospero and Ariel"

William Hamilton, “Prospero and Ariel”

Teaching Shakespeare’s Tempest in my British Fantasy class has been revealing. We have approached the play from numerous angles, from talking about the kinds of magic practiced by Prospero to 17th century England’s views regarding magic and science to why Shakespeare would conclude his career by writing fantasy (his late romances).

I assigned my students Barbara Mowat’s 1981 essay “Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus” to better understand the nature of Prospero’s magic. Mowat argues that, at different points in the play, Prospero is a white magic magus, a black magic sorcerer, a repentant wizard, and a street magician.

White magic magi were interested in using the intellect to reveal higher truths in the natural world while black magic sorcerers were more interested in controlling this world for their base ends. The wizard was regarded as a pagan figure (think Merlin) who would eventually embrace Christianity and “burn his books.” Street magicians, finally, were like our own sleight of hand entertainers.

For much of the play Ariel, whom Prospero has released from the tree in which the witch Sycorax has imprisoned him, appears to represent the magic of the magus. Released from the material world that bound him, Ariel carries out cerebral magic. The tempest occurs within the minds of the shipwrecked company, just as the wedding masque arranged by Ariel is designed to ensure that Ferdinand and Miranda rise about their lustful desires and the music he conjures up awakes the king and company from their trance and brings them—or at least some of them—to a higher understanding. As Prospero describes this latter process,

The charm dissolves apace,
And as the morning steals upon the night,
Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
Their clearer reason. 

Black magic is not interested in clearer reason but in manipulating the natural world and is mostly associated with Sycorax, Caliban’s mother. There are moments, however, where Prospero too sounds like a sorcerer, such as in this passage in Act V:

I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. 

Ariel, however, does not appear to be involved in this particular magic, nor do we ever see Prospero actually carry it out. In fact, Mowat sees Prospero at this juncture as more the penitent wizard returning to the orthodox fold.

The fourth possibility—of Prospero as street or parlor magician—certainly fits Prospero when he orchestrates various scenes. In these instances, Ariel is less spirit and more magician’s assistant, helping his master engineer illusions until the term of his indenture expires.

Perhaps by having Prospero shift between the different registers, Shakespeare is making his fantasy alternately serious and light, both an absorbing drama and a lark. Of course, this describes as well the magic of the theater, which feels simultaneously like intense experience and “play.” Of Shakespeare’s plays, Tempest and  Midsummer Night’s Dream are the two that most reveal to us the strings behind the production.  In Prospero we see the delight of the stage manager.

In exploring differences between white and black magic, Shakespeare is also foretelling the dual sides of modern science as it will emerge in the 17th century, science both as illumination of truth and as ego-driven desire to control. Contemporary fantasy has a decidedly anti-science, anti-technology bent because, as I have noted in previous posts, our emphasis on scientific reason seems to close down certain possibilities within us that fantasy opens back up. It is therefore interesting to examine a fantasy written at the beginning of the age of science. Prospero’s white magic, unlike science as we may experience it today, liberates and reconciles rather than shuts down.

That being said, however, Prospero is not always a benign figure, at times using his magic to mete out punishment. We can use our powers for ill as well as good. Indeed, once Prospero acknowledges his kinship with Caliban (“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”), he gives up his magic altogether. By magnanimously foregoing revenge and choosing forgiveness, he has discovered a greater magic and can release both his aerial and his earthly servant.

Aside from magic within the play, it is interesting to think of The Tempest and Shakespeare’s other magic-filled late romances (Pericles, Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale) as an attempt to do justice to the restorative dimensions of the human spirit, which get short shrift in the tragedies that came before (Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens). Many of the elements that lead to those tragedies can be found in Tempest, such as irresponsible kings, jealousy, usurpation, and a settling of scores. But in this most delightful of resolutions, Shakespeare is able to reconcile the warring sides and end with a vision of harmony. Courts masques, music, and enchanting verse signal that a lost unity that has been lost can be regained. Fantastical though it may sound, there is more to humans than agony and death.

We sense this about fantasy generally, which is why it attracts us. When the world seems broken, we find something healing in our favorite fantasy works. More than escapism, fantasy reminds us of a part of ourselves that, in our resigned surrender to external reality, we have lost sight of.


Further thought: Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces makes a useful contrast between tragedy and “unrealistic” comedy/fantasy that applies well to Tempest. Think of it as the enlightenment Prospero achieves as he moves from thoughts of revenge–which would only add to the brokenness of the world– to acceptance and forgiveness:

The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest–as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars. Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible.

And further on:

It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs…The passage of the mythological hero [Prospero in our application] may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward–into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space; but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing, all-sustaining love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power. Something of the light that blazes invisible within the abysses of its normally opaque materiality breaks forth, with an increasing uproar. The dreadful mutilations are then seen as shadows, only, of an immanent, imperishable eternity…

Or as Prospero articulates his new revelation,

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

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Memorializing Gay Martyrs in Poetry

Charlie Howard

Almost thirty years ago—on July 7, 1984—a gay man drowned after three Bangor, Maine teenagers threw him over a bridge. The incident was memorialized in a powerful Mark Doty poem that came to my mind yesterday as I heard about Uganda passing “fascist” legislation condemning gays to life prison sentences. (“Fascist” is the term once applied to the bill by the Ugandan president, who then executed a turnabout and is now embracing it.) Even as liberals celebrate judges increasingly ruling in favor of same sex marriage, it is no time to relax as blatantly discriminatory anti-LGBT measures have been forwarded in the Kansas legislature and passed by the Arizona legislature, although the latter may be vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer. Apparently the virulent propaganda of American Christian conservatives, which led to the Kansas and Arizona legislation, is also being used as justification in Uganda and in Russia as well. 

In his poem Doty writes that for all of Charlie Howard’s life, he was falling down a gulf between “what he knew and how/he was known.” Doty imagines how Howard incorporated the anti-gay slurs into his sense of self—“faggot was the bed he slept in”—and so found ways to transform his victimization into a kind of grace. A  Ploughshares article about Doty notes how important it was for him to take on such subjects in the 1980′s:

Doty took bold steps toward becoming the first post-Stonewall gay poet to emerge as a major voice in American letters. His predecessors, such as James Merrill, William Meredith, and Richard Howard, had all favored a more privileged tone and vocabulary, elaborate ventriloquism through personae, or occluded references to homosexuality. On the opposite spectrum, Ginsberg used an expansive self-mythologizing strung along an elastic line to address topics that placed him on America’s sexual margins. With Turtle, Swan, Doty effectively merged the political with the aesthetic, uniting a taut line with a lyric voice and an imagination that included notions of activism. Simply by being open about his sexuality, by using it as a subject for his poems without having it be the subject, Doty created a new model for gay and lesbian poets and poetry. 

Charlie Howard’s Descent

By Mark Doty

Between the bridge and the river
he falls through
a huge portion of night;
it is not as if falling

is something new. Over and over
he slipped into the gulf
between what he knew and how
he was known. What others wanted

opened like an abyss: the laughing
stock-clerks at the grocery, women
at the luncheonette amused by his gestures.
What could he do, live

with one hand tied
behind his back? So he began to fall
into the star-faced section
of night between the trestle

and the water because he could not meet
a little town’s demands,
and his earrings shone and his wrists
were as limp as they were.

I imagine he took the insults in
and made of them a place to live;
we learn to use the names
because they are there,

familiar furniture: faggot
was the bed he slept in, hard
and white, but simple somehow,
queer something sharp

but finally useful, a tool,
all the jokes a chair,
stiff-backed to keep the spine straight,
a table, a lamp. And because

he’s fallen for twenty-three years,
despite whatever awkwardness
his flailing arms and legs assume
he is beautiful

and like any good diver
has only an edge of fear
he transforms into grace.
Or else he is not afraid,

and in this way climbs back
up the ladder of his fall,
out of the river into the arms
of the three teenage boys

who hurled him from the edge—
really boys now, afraid,
their fathers’ cars shivering behind them,
headlights on—and tells them

it’s all right, that he knows
they didn’t believe him
when he said he couldn’t swim,
and blesses his killers

in the way that only the dead
can afford to forgive.

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In Defense of Arcane Scholarship

Domenico Fetti, "Portrait of a Scholar"

Domenico Fetti, “Portrait of a Scholar”

If you are a pundit who wants your column to receive a lot of responses, write about how professors don’t blog enough. When Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times complained about this recently, hundreds of professors wrote blog reactions.

Kristof didn’t have literary blogs in mind but I thought I’d use the occasion to reflect on the different kinds of writing that English professors engage in.

First to Kristof’s complaint. He quotes Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation, to sum up his concern:

All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public.

Although Kristof acknowledges that there are exceptions, he worries that there are “fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.” The problem, as he sees it, is publish-or-perish culture:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the  ch tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

I teach at a small liberal arts college, not at a research university, and so I can’t speak to what it’s like to work at such high pressure environments. But my own trajectory is not unlike ones I’ve witnessed elsewhere. Early in my career, I was trying to master my discipline and wrote complex and narrowly focused articles that engaged with other scholars. I was smart but not yet wise. That, however, didn’t keep me from contributing interesting insights from time to time.

Then, as I got older, I became more interested in reaching a wide audience than in advancing in the profession. I wanted to write pieces that reached more than a few hundred people (at best). I longed to have the impact that Kristof mentions.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not grateful to those articles and books written for select audiences. When I thumb through scholarship on a work I’m teaching, I arrive at new understandings. For instance, I’m currently teaching The Tempest for the first time in decades and am enthralled with the historical research into Renaissance views of magic. Is Prospero a magus practicing white magic, a witch practicing black magic, or something else? There are extensive debates on the subject.

In other words, hard scholarly work provides me with texts that are more or less definitive, illuminates obscure historical references, works through tangles in theories that I use, pioneers new approaches that yield new insights (Animal Studies, for instance). To an outsider, academic debates may appear arcane quibbles over trivia, but I am reassured that disciplined minds insist on rigor. It means that, when I write blog posts designed for a very different audience, I’m not speaking off the top of my head.

It’s a bit like dog breeds, which my son explained to me once when I casually dismissed people who are obsessed with dog shows. Without purists, he said, we wouldn’t have breeds at all but just a general mush. Yes, the family mutt is wonderful, but it is defined against a world in which distinctions mean something.

Or it’s like the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), a somewhat reluctant assistant at a high-end fashion magazine, rolls her eyes at a spirited debate about which of two similar belts should be chosen for an outfit. High priestess of fashion Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) calls her out:

Miranda Priestly: Something funny?
Andy Sachs: No. No, no. Nothing’s… You know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. You know, I’m still learning about all this stuff and, uh…
Miranda Priestly: ‘This… stuff’? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.

Something similar goes on in our reading of literature. For instance, when I choose a work to teach, when I engage in a close reading of that work, when I draw upon theories to make an assertion, I am aware of the shoulders that I stand upon. Although I myself now write only for my students and the general public, I have been assisted by my specialized training, which included some graduate professors who were ruthless when I got sloppy. The lumpy blue sweater that is my blog can be traced back to these fashion monitors.

I now see one of my jobs as communicating exciting literary ideas to people outside the profession. I spent two years changing my writing from something more academic to something more journalistic—it wasn’t easy—and now feel so at home in the new style that I’m not going back. But I wouldn’t want every literature professor to be like me. How many literary blogs do we need anyway?

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“Everybody Wants a Black Man’s Life”

Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin

So we have another appalling trial verdict allowing a white man to get away with shooting an innocent black teenager. Although the jury’s hung verdict leaves open the possibility for another trial and although Michael Dunn may go to jail for life for the other counts against him (attempted murder for firing at the other three youths in the car as they fled), his killing of 17-year-old Jordan Davis was the latest graphic instance of “stand your ground” at work.

As a number of people have pointed out, if Dunn had killed everyone in the car, he might have gotten off. Others have noted that the law appears to be a successor to the old lynching laws: if a white feels threatened by a black man, it is his or her right to kill him.

Of course the law is understood to sanction only white on black violence, not black on white. Responding to an earlier killing, Barack Obama asked what we all recognize as a rhetorical question: “If Trayvon Martin was of age and was armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”

After the verdict was announced, I found myself thinking, “Everybody wants a black man’s life.” The line is from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) so I went back to check the context.

One of Obama’s favorite books, Song of Solomon is the account of a young black man of privilege (Milkman) who doesn’t know what he wants in life.  He embarks upon what becomes a roots quest, but before he does so, he has a serious talk with his one-time best friend Guitar, who has become obsessed with killing innocent whites as payback for the killing of innocent Blacks. Here’s Guitar:

 Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet—which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, “universal,” human, no “race consciousness.” Tame, except in bed. They like a little racial loincloth in the bed. But outside the bed they want us to be individuals. You tell them, “But they lynched my papa,” and they say, “Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.”

In his quest Milkman experiences what Joseph Campbell would describe as a belly-of-the-whale moment: alone in a dark wood, he questions his identity and takes stock of his life. This occurs when he finds himself, improbably, involved in a night hunt for a bobcat. During the hunt, he almost dies—and speaking metaphorically, he does die, coming back to life with a new love of life and a new sense of purpose. In the killing and skinning of the bobcat he sees, in all its clarity, his own situation. (His last name is Dead.) This blunt assessment of his condition is the first necessary step to envisioning new possibilities for himself.

He thinks of Guitar’s words as he watches his fellow hunters skin the bobcat. The scene is a tour-de-force. On the one hand, it captures without flinching the violence that is being enacted upon black men. (Earlier in the novel there are references to the Emmett Till lynching, and we ourselves can think of Trayvon and Jordan.) On the other, by joining Guitar’s framework to multiple genital references, it indicates how whites, threatened by black masculinity, seek to emasculate young black men:

Omar sliced through the rope that bound the bobcat’s feet. He and Calvin turned it over on its back. The legs fell apart. Such thin delicate ankles.
“Everybody wants a black man’s life.”
Calvin held the forefeet open and up while Omar pierced the curling hair at the point where the sternum lay. Then he sliced all the way down to the genitals. His knife pointed upward for a cleaner, neater incision.
“Not his dead life; I mean his living life.”
When he reached the genitals he cut them off, but left the scrotum intact.
“It’s the condition our condition is in.”
Omar cut around the legs and neck. Then he pulled the hide off.
“What good is a man’s life if he can’t even choose what to die for?”
The transparent underskin tore like gossamer under his fingers.
Everybody wants the life of a black man.”
Now Small Boy knelt down and slit the flesh from the scrotum to the jaw.
“Fair is one more thing I’ve given up.”
Luther came back and, while the others rested, carved out the rectal tube with the deft motions of a man coring an apple.
“I hope I never have to ask myself that question.”
Luther reached into the paunch and lifted the entrails. He dug under the rib cage to the diaphragm and carefully cut around it until it was free.
“It is about love. What else but love? Can’t I love what I criticize?”
Then he grabbed the windpipe and the gullet, eased them back, and severed them with one stroke of his little knife.
“It is about love. What else?”
They turned to Milkman. “You want the heart?” they asked him. Quickly, before any thought could paralyze him, Milkman plunged both hands into the rib cage. “Don’t get the lungs, now. Get the heart.”
“What else?”
He found it and pulled. The heart fell away from the chest as easily as yolk slips out of its shell.
“What else? What else? What else?”

Grabbing the heart is important. Guitar claims to love blacks, but he has allowed white racism to so twist his heart that he turns to violence, not only against innocent whites but also against Milkman, his best friend.

Milkman, by contrast, is asking, “What else?” What other possibilities are there? In the course of his subsequent roots quest, he will discover he has a large heart—for his ancestors, for the people in his life, even for his friend who is trying to kill him. When Guitar guns down his aunt, Milkman hears her say, “I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ’em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

As Aunt Pilate dies in Milkman’s arms, Morrison writes,

Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly. “There must be another one like you,” he whispered to her. “There’s got to be at least one more woman like you.”

The flying images point to something bigger than hatred. Morrison contends that black solidarity and black love will carry the day.

When I look at the families of Trayvon and now of Jordan, I am struck by their strong determination not to be defined by the hatred of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Even as vile racist voices in the culture and in the rightwing media seek to characterize their sons as thugs, these families focus on the light.

Morrison’s book too ends with a leap into the light, a black man not having his life taken but risking that life instead to advance into an unknown future. It’s a dazzling conclusion with an element of magical realism that allows us to imagine something beyond imagining: something other than Guitar’s revenge can arise out of these heartrending tragedies. The scene has Guitar with his rifle on one crag and Milkman on a facing one. “Shalimar” is Milkman’s slave ancestor who, according to legend, flew back to Africa:

 Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew. If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

Innocent black men may die, but flight is still possible.

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Cain: A Positive Way Past Collective Guilt

Gustave Doré, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Gustave Doré, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Spiritual Sunday

This past week I attended a fascinating faculty seminar where my Religious Studies colleague Katharina von Kellenbach talked about her recent book, The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators. The talk has me thinking about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Katharina, who recounts in her introduction how she herself is the niece of an SS officer who oversaw mass executions, has been studying Christian pronouncements by perpetrators. “As a theologian,” Katharina says, “I wanted to find clues in the empirical evidence that would point toward the possibilities of redemption and release from guilt.”

I can’t do justice to her remarkable book here but her dispiriting discovery is that, while a number of perpetrators embraced Christian notions of forgiveness, mercy and amnesty—and German churches after the war universally used those concepts as a “rallying cry”—she found almost no instances of genuine repentance. As she notes,

The documentary record reveals that, almost without exception, [the perpetrators] were unable to openly admit culpable wrongdoing. They could not bring themselves to articulate remorse and were devoid of contrition. Their texts were characterized by the same cold logic and dispassionate indifference toward victims that had overridden feelings of compassion and empathy in the first place. They were driven by an obsessive need to minimize moral agency, and they strenuously avoided specific memories of doing harm. They could not speak truthfully about some of the most traumatic moments in their lives, and their convoluted explanations and deceptions oozed into many of the communications. Although outwardly they were successful in their professional and private home lives, they could never fully entrust their secrets to the postwar world. Their guilty secrets bound them into the past.

This was even true of a German officer who went on to become a Catholic bishop. Matthias Defregger ordered reprisal killings in the final weeks of the war, even when subordinates begged him not to. (Everyone knew that American troops were less than a week away.) As bishop, Defregger never faced up to what he had done. Katharina reports on his performance in a television interview:

He was unwilling and unable to express regret and acknowledge responsibility. Instead, he attacked the media and defended himself by painting himself as an obedient servant of the church…Defregger had apparently not anticipated that his denial of responsibility would undermine the credibility of his assertion of an inner burden.

Katharina, however, is not interested in just calling perpetrators out for their evasions. She wants a positive way forward for cultures that have tied themselves in knots over “forgetting, erasing, and burying the guilt of the past.” For that, she finds her looking not towards Christ’s sacrifice but towards God’s marking of Cain:

With a few sparse lines, the Genesis account outlines Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy and outrage over God’s alleged favoritism. His attempt to hide the deed is futile, and he is punished by God. But he is allowed to live and is protected from retaliatory violence by a mark. Cain’s mark is a public signifier of his guilt. It protects him and prevents the erasure of memory. There is no miraculous purification of guilt in the story of Cain. No sacrifice cleanses the stain of Abel’s blood. No ritual absolves Cain from the guilt of the past. Instead, God’s protective mark imposes radical transparency and links Cain’s redemption to memory. Truth-telling becomes the basis of moral and spiritual recovery. Cain lives a successful and productive life as a married man, father, and founder of a city as he grows into the memory of fratricide and (re)gains moral integrity.

In other word, Cain provides a model for grappling with and moving beyond collective guilt—which includes guilt over slavery as well as guilt over the Holocaust. As Katharina notes in her conclusion,

The mark signifies a path or moral repair based on openness and transparency. The mark invites memory and facilitates mourning. It was the vigorous and continuous debates over the “guilt question” that changed the perspective of Germany on the history. Not one decade went by in which the topic of the Nazi past was not debated on the front pages of national and international newspapers. The result of these often painful reminders was the restoration of moral health and political conscience. By all accounts, contemporary Germany has developed a unique way of integrating its history of perpetration into its cultural and political identity.

And further on,

Since the Holocaust has become a universal symbol of modern collective evil, Germany has embraced its role as Cain. Its political legitimacy, economic success and international integration are staked on moral responsibility and historical transparency. Like Cain, Germany finds itself under special obligation. Its postwar history demonstrates that its desperate attempts at closure and escape served to endow this history with uncanny power. But those willing to accept the obligations arising from the commission of collective evil experienced the liberating qualities of repair.

Someone else who embraces the role of Cain is Coleridge’s ancient mariner. After killing the albatross, he falls into a “life in death” state until, thanks to an act of celestial grace, he is able to pray again and experience God’s love in the world. When he does so, he has already progressed further than the perpetrators described by Katharina. Then later on in the poem, he confesses his sins to the hermit in the wood and again receives absolution:

“O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!”
The Hermit cross’d his brow.
“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say—
What manner of man art thou?”

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrench’d
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

But his process is not yet over. “This man hath penance done,” says a spirit earlier in the poem, “and penance more will do.” The mariner spends the rest of his life telling others about his crime, including the wedding guest whom he collars at the beginning of the poem:

Since then, at an uncertain hour, 
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land; 
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

Here’s his message:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell 
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best 
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.

The mariner is working within a Christian framework so we can’t dismiss a Christian solution altogether. Katharina’s examples, however, indicate that emphasizing Christian mercy and forgiveness can be twisted by a desire to forget rather than by a longing to get right with God. When that happens, those who claim to have been absolved are not truly free.

In some ways Katharina, herself a Christian, is like the ancient mariner, seeking out people who need to hear the tough truths that she has to tell. Those who truly wish to experience the joy of God’s love will open their ears.

Posted in Coleridge (Samuel Taylor) | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Women Hockey Players in a State of Nature

Canadian women against Switzerland

Canadian women against Switzerland

Sports Saturday

What an amazing comeback for the Canadian women’s hockey team! Down by two goals with little over four minutes left to play against the U.S. in the gold medal game, they pulled their goalie from the net and went all out. A shot by the Americans that would have cinched the game missed the open goal by inches. Canada scored twice to tie and then won the gold in overtime.

Although, as an American, I was disconsolate, I consoled myself with the thought that hockey seems much more important to Canadians, who claim that they invented the sport. Besides, I was able to imagine my friend Jason Blake celebrating. Jason is a Canadian expat who teaches at the University of Ljuljana and author of Canadian Hockey Literature,

Here’s a wonderful prose poem about hockey by Robert Bly, much of which draws on the author’s fascination with fairy tales and primal animal imagery. Lose yourself in the sheer joy of the images and then use it to gear up for the two final hockey games as Canada battles Sweden for the gold and the U.S. goes against Finland for the bronze.

The Hockey Poem

For Will Duffy

By Robert Bly

1. The Goalie

The Boston College team has gold helmets, under which the long black hair of the Roman centurion curls out….And they begin. How weird the goalies look with their African masks! The goalie is so lonely anyway, guarding a basket with nothing in it, his wide lower legs wide as ducks’….No matter what gift he is given, he always rejects it….He has a number like 1, a name like Mrazek, sometimes wobbling his legs waiting for the puck, or curling up like a baby in the womb to hold it, staying a second too long on the ice.

The goalie has gone out to mid-ice, and now he sails sadly back to his own box, slowly; he looks prehistoric with his rhinoceros legs; he looks as if he’s going to become extinct, and he’s just taking his time….

When the players are at the other end, he begins sadly sweeping the ice in front of his house; he is the old witch in the woods, waiting for the children to come home.

2. The Attack

They all come hurrying back toward us, suddenly, knees dipping like oil wells; they rush toward us wildly, fins waving, they are pike swimming toward us, their gill fins expanding like the breasts of opera singers; no, they are twelve hands practicing penmanship on the same piece of paper…. They flee down the court toward us like birds, swirling two and two, hawks hurrying for the mouse, hurrying down wind valleys, swirling back and forth like amoebae on the pale slide, as they sail in the absolute freedom of water and the body, untroubled by the troubled mind, only the body, with wings as if there were no grave, no gravity, only the birds sailing over the cottage far in the deep woods….

Now the goalie is desperate … he looks wildly over his left shoulder, rushing toward the other side of his cave, like a mother hawk whose chicks are being taken by two snakes…. Suddenly he flops on the ice like a man trying to cover a whole double bed. He has the puck. He stands up, turns to his right, and drops it on the ice at the right moment; he saves it for one of his children, a mother hen picking up a seed and then dropping it….

But the men are all too clumsy, they can’t keep track of the puck … no, it is the puck, the puck is too fast, too fast for human beings, it humiliates them constantly. The players are like country boys at the fair watching the con man— The puck always turns up under the wrong walnut shell….

They come down the ice again, one man guiding the puck this time . . . and Ledingham comes down beautifully, like the canoe through white water or the lover going upstream, every stroke right, like the stallion galloping up the valley surrounded by his mares and colts, how beautiful, like the body and soul crossing in a poem….

3. The Fight

The player in position pauses, aims, pauses, crack his stick on the ice, and a cry as the puck goes in! The goalie stands up disgusted, and throws the puck out….

The player with a broken stick hovers near the cage. When the play shifts, he skates over to his locked-in teammates, who look like a nest of bristling owls, owl babies, and they hold out a stick to him….

Then the players crash together, their hockey sticks raised like lobster claws. They fight with slow motions, as if undersea . . . they are fighting over some woman back in the motel, but like lobsters they forget what they’re battling for; the clack of the armor plate distracts them, and they feel a pure rage.

Or a fighter sails over to the penalty box, where ten-year-old boys wait to sit with the criminal, who is their hero…. They know society is wrong, the wardens are wrong, the judges hate individuality….

4. The Goalie

And this man with his peaked mask, with slits, how fantastic he is, like a white insect who has given up on evolution in this life; his family hopes to evolve after death, in the grave. He is ominous as a Dark Ages knight … the Black Prince. His enemies defeated him in the day, but every one of them died in their beds that night…. At his father’s funeral, he carried his own head under his arm.

He is the old woman in the shoe, whose house is never clean, no matter what she does. Perhaps this goalie is not a man at all, but a woman, all women; in her cage everything disappears in the end; we all long for it. All these movements on the ice will end, the seats will come down, the stadium walls bare…. This goalie with his mask is a woman weeping over the children of men, that are cut down like grass, gulls that stand with cold feet on the ice…. And at the end, she is still waiting, brushing away the leaves, waiting for the new children developed by speed, by war….

Further note: It’s not every day you see Alexander Pope quoted in a hockey article, but the New Yorker has managed to pull it off. Here’s an author lamenting how we have brought ourselves to prefer small rink NHL-style hocking to the open and free hockey of the large-rink Olympics:

That intelligent hockey lovers can have eyes and souls sufficiently corrupted to prefer the N.H.L. variant to the real thing reminds me of Alexander Pope’s lines on vice: “Vice is a monster of such hideous mien/that to be hated needs but to be seen/But seen too oft, familiar with her face/we first endure, then pity, then embrace.” Anyone who watched the Soviets play the Canadians in the seventies knows what hockey can be, and wants it back that way again. We can pity the contemporary N.H.L. game, and sometimes endure it, but we must not embrace it. 

Posted in Bly (Robert) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Super Rich: Great Gatsby Redux

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

Have you noticed that, while the stock market and corporate profits keep rising, so do the number of complaints by petulant billionaires? But none of this should come as a surprise to those who have read The Great Gatsby.

Think “Tom Buchanan” as you survey Joan Walsh’s summation of recent outbreaks:

From Tom Perkins comparing the ultra-rich to Jews during “Kristallnacht,” to tycoon and newspaper-destroyer Sam Zell insisting “the top 1 percent work harder,” to investment banker Wilbur Ross proclaiming that “the 1 percent is being picked on for political reasons,” there’s an epidemic of plutocrat self-pity afoot. Just last week ex-CEO of Morgan Stanley John Mack told the media to “stop beating up on” CEOs Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein after they got obscene raises from JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

And now here’s Tom:

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be–will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—-”
“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.
“You ought to live in California–” began Miss Baker but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.
“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are and you are and—-” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod and she winked at me again. “–and we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization–oh, science and art and all that. Do you see?”

As Walsh goes on to note, it’s not as though wealthy Americans are being actively threatened, with a few exceptions (such as New York mayor Bill de Blasio proposing to raise their taxes to pay for universal preschool). This class hasn’t had it so good since the Gilded Age.

In the puzzle lies the explanation. It’s not because they are being attacked for their privilege that they are whining. It’s because they are privileged that they feel people must be sharpening their knives. The wealth gap generates the paranoia. (I explored this idea further last month in Beowulf post.)

New York Magazine reporter Kevin Roose explains the psychology  in a remarkable account of the time he secretly crashed a party of a society of millionaires calling itself Kappa Beta Phi. What he saw were very rich people “making homophobic jokes, making light of the financial crisis, and bragging about their business conquests at Main Street’s expense.” Roose notes that many were from firms that had collectively wrecked the global economy in 2008 and 2009. And yet here they were

laughing off the entire disaster in private, as if it were a long-forgotten lark. (Or worse, singing about it — one of the last skits of the night was a self-congratulatory parody of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” called “Bailout King.”) 

Roose could have been Nick Carraway watching Tom and Daisy only Tom doesn’t have a sense of humor. Here’s Roose trying to figure out the behavior he witnessed:

The first and most obvious conclusion was that the upper ranks of finance are composed of people who have completely divorced themselves from reality. No self-aware and socially conscious Wall Street executive would have agreed to be part of a group whose tacit mission is to make light of the financial sector’s foibles. Not when those foibles had resulted in real harm to millions of people in the form of foreclosures, wrecked 401(k)s, and a devastating unemployment crisis.

The second thing I realized was that Kappa Beta Phi was, in large part, a fear-based organization. Here were executives who had strong ideas about politics, society, and the work of their colleagues, but who would never have the courage to voice those opinions in a public setting. Their cowardice had reduced them to sniping at their perceived enemies in the form of satirical songs and sketches, among only those people who had been handpicked to share their view of the world. And the idea of a reporter making those views public had caused them to throw a mass temper tantrum.

The last thought I had, and the saddest, was that many of these self-righteous Kappa Beta Phi members had surely been first-year bankers once. And in the 20, 30, or 40 years since, something fundamental about them had changed. Their pursuit of money and power had removed them from the larger world to the sad extent that, now, in the primes of their careers, the only people with whom they could be truly themselves were a handful of other prominent financiers.

Perhaps, I realized, this social isolation is why despite extraordinary evidence to the contrary, one-percenters like Ross keep saying how badly persecuted they are. When you’re a member of the fraternity of money, it can be hard to see past the foie gras to the real world.

Roose’s summation is not unlike that of Nick’s assessment of Tom and Daisy:

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. . . .

Nick doesn’t even attempt to explain things to Tom, figuring that it would just be like talking to a child.

In our case, these people didn’t only create a mess. They’ve spent the last six years, along with their GOP enablers, trying to keep the rest of us from cleaning it up.

Posted in Fitzgerald (F. Scott) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Out of Denialism and into Responsibility

John Ireland in "All the King's Men"

John Ireland as Jack Burden in “All the King’s Men”

I think I’ve finally found a literary passage that effectively describes the denialism that is proving so damaging to American political discourse these days, especially with regard to climate change. Here’s Jack Burden, the narrator in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, describing himself in the days that he worked for “Boss” Willie Stark. The “somebody” in the passage is Stark, who is about to take Burden with him to strong arm the man who mentored and loved Burden:

I heard somebody open and shut the gate to the barn lot, but I didn’t look around. If I didn’t look around it would not be true that somebody had opened the gate with the creaky hinges, and that is a wonderful principle for a man to get hold of. I had got hold of the principle out of a book when I was in college, and I had hung on to it for for grim death. I owed my success in life to that principle. It had put me where I was. What you didn’t know don’t hurt you, for it ain’t real. They called that Idealism in my book I had when I was in college, and after I got hold of that principle I became an Idealist. I was a brass-bound Idealist in those days. If you are an Idealist it does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn’t real anyway.

The college book I suspect is Bishop Berkeley’s  Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, which I wrote about years ago in my dissertation. Here’s Wikipedia’s description of Berkeleyan idealism:

This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived.

Ontology aside, one sees how damaging this approach can be when applied to America’s challenges. If you don’t know about climate change, it “don’t hurt you, for it ain’t real.”

In the novel, what Burden does and what goes on around him–Stark’s ruthless political tactics–is about to become painfully real. For present day America, reality is also knocking at the door.

Fortunately in the novel, Burden finally jettisons idealism and goes on to engage seriously with the world. Unfortunately, it takes tragedy for both him and his wife to get to that point, but by the end of the book they are walking out of their ancestral homes and into new responsibilities. Or as Burden puts it, “soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”

Would that our own idealists would step out of a history they long for and into the convulsion of the world. Only by facing up to the awful responsibility of Time can we make the world better.

Posted in Warren (Robert Penn) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Stages of Creativity

Rousseau, "Landscape with Monkeys"

Rousseau, “Landscape with Monkeys”

I’m sharing today a magical Jacques Prévert poem about the different stages of the creative process, including choosing the subject, “capturing” it (perhaps on canvas, but the process applies to any artistic medium), erasing the scaffolding, and finally deciding whether your depiction is authentic. If it is, Prévert, tells us, you can sign your name.

The poem was translated by my father. I’d love to hear from artists about whether they’ve experienced any or all of these stages. Enjoy:

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

 By Jacques Prévert

First paint a cage
with the door open
next paint something pretty
something simple
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
then place the canvas against the tree
in a garden
in a wood
or in a forest
hide behind the tree
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but it can also take years
before making up its mind

Don’t be discouraged
wait years if necessary
the time of the bird’s arrival
having nothing to do
with the success of the painting

When the bird arrives
if it arrives
observe the deepest silence
wait until the bird enters the cage
and when it’s in the cage
carefully close the door with your brush
erase all of the bars once by one
taking care not to touch a single feather of the bird
Next paint the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful branch
for the bird
also paint the green leaves and the coolness of the wind
the sunbeams
and the rustling of the animals in the grass during the heat of the day
and then wait until the bird decides to sing

If the bird doesn’t sing
it’s a bad sign
a sign that the painting is no good
but if it sings it’s a good sign
a sign that you can sign

So you very gently remove
one of the feathers of the bird
and in a corner of the painting you write your name

Trans. by Scott Bates

Posted in Prévert (Jacques) | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ayn Rand Likes Systems, Not Humans

Gary Cooper in "The Fountainhead"

Gary Cooper in “The Fountainhead”

I’ve been reading Gene Bell-Villada’s excellent book On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind (Cambridge Scholars, 2013) in an attempt to better understand the outsized impact impact that Ayn Rand’s two novels have had on the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, to the detriment of the country as a whole. Why do politicians like Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Paul Ryan go out of their way to sing the praises of Atlas Shrugged? (It sounds like a game: Ayn Rand—Rand Paul—Paul Ryan.)

I’ve always been puzzled by the hold of these novels on people given that Rand’s writing style is, as we used to say, nothing to write home about. Here’s Bell-Villada describing Fountainhead:

This is not one of those complex cases in which you reject an artist’s repugnant world view yet can admire their artistry—as progressives at times do with, say, T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, D. W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl. Fountainhead in this regard qualifies as a competent, commercial middlebrow novel, neither better nor worse than dozens of such titles cranked out by trade houses year after year. A suspenseful page-turner with a serviceable if not stunning prose style, it has able plotting and an impressive command of snappy, wise-guy sorts of American dialogue and street corner speech (skills Rand learned in Hollywood), along with high charged eroticism, albeit of a particular type.

Bell-Villada does acknowledge that the story and doctrine are ably integrated (unlike in Atlas Shrugged) but notes that, as in the later book, every character falls into “an ideological or moral type, a mouthpiece for this philosophical position or that.”

Atlas Shrugged is even worse:

This is a narrative inordinately made up of relentless speechifying and counter-sermonizing, the contents of which are thoroughly predictable and lacking in subtlety of any sort. The big brown book of Chairman Rand’s thought is, quite simply, a very bad long novel that nonetheless has moved and inspired countless true believers out there, and still does.

So why do these novels draw devoted followers? Bell-Villada believes it’s because they plug into a central American narrative:

Self-help. The self-made man. These are among the most treasured folk ideas in the American civil religion. They predate Rand and would have remained as a force with or without her, but she brought to them the combined allure of “science,” theory, and sexual intrigue.

Bell-Villada notes that it takes a certain kind of reader to thrill to such fiction:

[M]any of Rand’s youthful admirers have been science-and-math wonks, whiz kids with a considerable gift for abstract cerebral schemes but whose knowledge of emotions and understanding of human ties is at best slight.

And further on:

Whatever quotable passages exist in Rand are so because of the shock value of the outrageous arguments therein trumpeted (as well as the subjacent values and hatreds therein implied)—and naught else. Quite simply, there is little of beauty in Ayn Rand, save for the seductive beauty of the system itself, so alluring to the young, the susceptible, the incompletely educated, and the unhappy.

This preference for abstract system over human beings is worth noting given the economic pronouncements coming out of today’s GOP rightwing–such as that long-term unemployment insurance is doing a “disservice” to the unemployed (Sen. Rand Paul); that those receiving food stamps are “unwilling to work” (Rep. Stephen Fincher); and that social entitlement programs are “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives” (Paul Ryan). These politicians don’t see real people. They see abstractions.

They are are also blind to how they themselves have been helped, just as Ayn Rand was. Bell-Villada takes particular pleasure in showing the disconnect between Rand’s pronouncements and her actual life. He sets this up first by setting forth her philosophy of self-sufficiency:

Hand in hand with Ayn Rand’s absolute anti-determinism goes her personal cult of the free-standing individual who allegedly depends on no one. The motto of John Galt and the concluding words in his seventy-page manifesto readily sum up his position. Citing again: “I swear—by my life and my life of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The declaration would become the proud motto of many a would-be John Galt around U.S. college and corporate corridors.

Similarly, in Rand’s epilogue to the novel, she briefly describes her development as a writer, and in her second paragraph she proudly proclaims, “No one helped me, nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.”

Only that’s never the way it happens. Bell-Villada details the help that Rand did in fact receive on her way to wealth and fame, from her mother’s jewels that financed her trip to the United States; to the free room and board, money and reference letter she received from her American relatives; to the subsidized housing she got at the Hollywood Studio Club; to… The list goes on and on, all the way to the cancer surgery that would have bankrupted her had it not been for Medicare.

Read Bell-Villada’s book, which proves once and for all that Ayn Rand’s novels are fantasies. Unfortunately, they are fantasies that have infected the minds of people with the power to make your life miserable.

Posted in Rand (Ayn) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

Chris Christie as “Boss” Willie Stark

Broderick Crawford in "All the King's Men"

Broderick Crawford in “All the King’s Men”

I have been watching the ever burgeoning Chris Christie scandal with amazement as the man many thought would be the GOP 2016 presidential nominee disintegrates before our eyes. At first his staff closing down Fort Lee’s access lanes to the George Washington Bridge seemed like a petty act of spite against a mayor who had refused to endorse the governor. If I had applied America’s greatest political novel to the affair, however, I would have realized that there had to be a lot more to the affair.

The novel I have in mind is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which dazzles me every time I pick it up. To compare Christie to strongman “Boss” Willie Stark is to cast some light onto what is going on in New Jersey.

If you don’t know the novel, it is about the rise and fall of a populist politician turned tyrant. It is told through the vantage point of his press agent Jack Burden, who believes that Stark represents the best chance to clean up Louisiana’s fabled corruption. Stark is based on Huey Long, Louisiana governor and senator from 1928 until he was assassinated in 1935.

Stark and Christie even have some physical resemblances although Stark isn’t quite as heavy. Here’s Warren’s description:

Fate comes walking through the door, and it is five feet eleven inches tall [Christie is five feet eleven inches tall] and heavyish in the chest and shortish in the leg and is wearing a seven-fifty seersucker suit which is too long in the pants so that the cuffs crumple down over the high black shoes, which could do with a polishing…

Both Stark and Christie make/made their way to the governor’s mansion by going after corruption. Stark exposes a fraudulent contractor whose rotten bricks, bought from a relative, result in the collapse of a school and the killing and maiming of several children. His signature line becomes “Gimme that meat axe” as he lets his constituents know what he plans to do to corrupt contractors and officials.

Christie, meanwhile, became famous for going after corrupt New Jersey politicians, whose numbers apparently are legion. The “perp walk” became the signature of his days as federal attorney, as did the many leaks from his office. He rode New Jersey residents’ longing for a clean government to the governorship.

Then scandals begin to arise. In Stark’s case, one of his underlings, state auditor Byram B. White, is guilty of graft and subject of an impeachment attempt by Stark’s political rivals. Stark, although he knows White is guilty, sees the impeachment attempt as really an attack on himself and goes on the offensive, digging up dirt on his foes and also organizing mass rallies. He wins reelection in a landslide.

Christie’s go-to strategy is also attack although, unlike Stark, he was more than willing to throw his underlings (David Wildstein, Bridget Anne Kelly, Bill Baroni) under the bus. Or at least, he sacrificed these particular underlings. There may be others that he is protecting.

The more we hear about Christie, the more accounts of intimidation we learn of. As I reread All the King’s Men, I wondered could imagine Christie versions of Stark’s attempt to talk Judge Irwin out of endorsing one Callahan, who is running against Stark’s candidate Masters:

“No man,” Judge Irwin said, and stood up there straight in the middle of the floor, “has ever been able to intimidate me.”

“Well, I never tried” the Boss said, “yet. And I’m not trying now. I’m going to give you a chance. You say somebody gave you some dirt on Masters? Well, just suppose I gave you some dirt on Callahan?—Oh, don’t interrupt! Keep your shirt on!”—and he held up his hand. “I haven’t been doing any digging, but I might, and if I went out in the barn lot and stuck my shovel in and brought you in some of the sweet-smelling and put it under the nose of your conscience, then do you know what your conscience would tell you to do? It would tell you to withdraw your endorsement of Callahan. And the newspaper boys would be over here thicker’n bluebottle flies on a dead dog, and you could tell ’em all about you and your conscience. You wouldn’t even have to back Masters. You and your conscience could just go off arm in arm and have a fine time telling each other how much you think of each other.”

“I have endorsed Callahan,” the Judge said. He didn’t flicker.

“I maybe could give you the dirt,” the Boss said speculatively. “Callahan’s been playing round for a long time, and he who touches pitch shall be defiled, and little boys just will walk barefoot in the cow pasture.” He looked up at Judge Irwin’s face, squinting, studying it, cocking his own head to one side.

There’s some resemblance between this story and the account of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, whose city was pounded by Hurricane Sandy, being told (so she asserts) that Hoboken receiving Sandy aid was contingent upon her agreeing to a high-rise development in which associates of the governor have a stake. (Lt. Governor Kim Guatagno, supposedly the one carrying the governor’s message, has denied that she pressured Zimmer.) Other suspicious handling of Sandy money is now coming to light, causing the Star Ledger to retract last year’s endorsement of Christie.

In fact, Alec MacGillis of the New Republic has written a remarkable article contending that Christie’s fabled corruption-busting was actually more selective than it once appeared. McGillis claims that Christie targeted small fry while currying favor with large city bosses, thereby helping both them and him. If that’s the case, then the bridge scandal may be more than just a temper tantrum directed at a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse the governor. It’s the way the Christie administration conducts business. Why make life miserable for Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich? In the words of Voltaire, “pour encourager les autres.”*

We shouldn’t be surprised that each day brings news stories of Christie government corruption. As Stark himself says in a riff on the 51st psalm,

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.

Following the money is usually a good way to understand politics, and money in New Jersey is often tied to real estate. It could well be that the explanation for the Fort Lee gridlock is a parcel of land waiting to be developed—a parcel tied to the GW Bridge’s access lanes.

There’s another point of comparison between Stark and Christie worth noting: both are similarly obsessed with running for higher office (as perhaps are all such people). Here’s Warren describing Stark’s first run for governor. Unbeknownst to him, he is being used to split the “hick vote” by one Tiny Duffy:

He had been called. He had been touched. He had been summoned. And he was a little bit awestruck by the fact. It seems incredible that he hadn’t taken one look at Tiny Duffy and his friends and realized that things might not be absolutely on the level. But actually, as I figured it, it wasn’t incredible. For the voice of Tiny Duffy summoning him was nothing but the echo of a certainty and a blind compulsion within him, the thing that had made him sit up in his room, night after night, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, to write the fine phrases and the fine ideas in the big ledger or to bend with a violent, almost physical intensity over the yellow page of an old law book. For him to deny the voice of Tiny Duffy would have been as difficult as for a saint to deny the voice that calls in the night.

There’s one key difference between Christie and Stark, however. For all his ego and eventual corruption, Stark at least operates from a populist vision of standing up for the rights of working people (or “hicks” as he calls them and himself). For instance, he dreams of building a state-of-the-art hospital for Louisiana whereas I don’t see Christie standing for anything other than his own aggrandizement. He doesn’t have, as Stark does, the love of the people to fall back on. His main supporters are Wall Street financiers and Roger Ailes.

That may ultimately mean that he doesn’t recover.

*The line, “to encourage the others,” is offered as an explanation to Candide about why a British naval officer is being shot.

Posted in Warren (Robert Penn) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment


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

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