Robert Durst’s Iago-Like Soliloquy

Branagh as Iago

Branagh as Iago

Here’s a novel use of Shakespeare: use the Bard to interpret the words and uncover the confession of a possible murderer.

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker is intrigued by the enigmatic statement by Robert Durst that everyone is talking about. The HBO documentary The Jinx overheard the suspected murderer saying something that Gopnik describes as “two parts Shakespeare to one part Samuel Beckett.”

As you probably know, Durst is suspected of having committed three murders, although he was found innocent (on grounds of self defense) after he killed and cut up his next door neighbor. A hot mic, however, picked up the following monologue while he was going to the bathroom:

There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.

Gopnik observes that the words have

inspired an entire vein of interpretation. Some are exculpatory, or try to be: perhaps he was imagining others saying these things about him, rather than saying them about himself. But, more often, his guilt has been assumed, and its mechanism explored. “In art, illumination comes in many guises: the soaring strings, the poetic monologue, the soul bared suddenly in a glance,” one interpreter wrote in the Los Angeles Times, adding that Durst “creates a deeply disturbing prose poem to the human drama, culminating in what sounds eerily like the call and response of good and evil.”

Gopnik leans towards a guilty interpretation given that the words resemble the soliloquies of Shakespeare villains like Edmund in King Lear and Iago in Othello. Each is an evil man who

speaks out loud of his own capacity for evil, and then assures us that there’s nothing really shocking there. It’s just the burping.

We’d all prefer it, Gopnik notes, if we just had Durst’s final two sentences, delivered unambiguously:

What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.

Shakespeare’s villains, however, don’t give in so easily to the existing moral order. They soliloquize not to confess but to justify their actions. Gopnik explain that

the keynote in Shakespeare’s villains’ self-directed speeches isn’t ambivalence or tormented self-recognition but complacency. It is the “of course” that electrifies our conscience. Iago does not say, “Heaven forgive me for wronging this innocent couple,” nor that he is heavy with envy and jealousy…Instead, he says:

Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.

In other words, God knows why I’m doing this (in every sense), but then, I am not what I am. “Nobody tells the whole truth,” is the way that Durst put it. And I shall enmesh them all, because I sort of can. It is a struggle not for self-explanation but for self-justification: I’m sorry this is happening but, really, they drove me to it. Or, I might as well. Not to have done it, well, that would have been ridiculous.

Gopnik observes that Iago never feels remorse and continues to justify himself to the end. Edmund does ultimately repent, but in his famous “stand up for bastards” speech, he just shrugs off the law:

Even Edmund in “Lear,” a jealous brother like Durst, about to destroy two families and a kingdom, embraces his nature and shrugs at that “curiosity of nations,” the law. What the villain always knows, ultimately, is not why but why not.

Gopnik makes another couple of interesting points. While Edmund, Iago and (if he is guilty of murder) Durst are all psychopaths, their self-justifying is something that we all do to an extent: we all find ways to rationalize our questionable acts. This may be why we may experience a thrill of recognition in Iago and Edmund’s soliloquies. Shakespeare understood well that

no one looks in the mirror in the morning and thinks, I’m a bad guy. Rather, we say: They shouldn’t have let me. I felt terrible for her when I killed her. What else could I do? If only it hadn’t come to this.

Gopnik makes one other point that I find fascinating, even if I’m not entirely sure that he and those he quotes are correct. Moral consciousness, he says, was an invention of Shakespeare’s time. We can see this through the evolution of drama, which moved from the good and bad angels of Medieval passion plays to Renaissance soliloquies. (Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus veers between the two.)

Shakespeare’s advance, as Gopnik sees it, was to show how problematic this interior voice could be. The soliloquy may be “the sound of that self keeping score,” but even the best of us tilt the field in our favor. This goes for good as well as bad. As Reinhold Niebuhr noted, “No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint.”

And so, returning to Durst’s speech, what most stands out for Gopnik is the “of course.” For all his rationalizing and self-justifying, deep down Durst knows the score. Which is to say that he, like Iago and Edmund and all of us, hears the good angel:

The evil little monologue has its hold on us because it reminds us that, in life, everyone has a hot mic on—the ancients called it the soul, we still call it a conscience. (In contemporary life, soul or conscience most often gets forced out by technology, as with the undeleted tweet or e-mail.) Over the noise of our own animal functions, we basically know the score. Of course.

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Train Surfing: Thrilling but Chilling

The deadly art of train surfing in South Africa

The deadly art of train surfing in South Africa

A recent article in the New York Times about thrill seekers who use cityscapes as high-risk arenas brings to mind Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell’s chilling novel King Solomon’s Carpet. The book’s title refers to the London Underground or Tube.

The New York Times article describes the activities and then moves quickly into the dangers:

Buildings become soaring peaks to climb, their rooftops high-risk plateaus separated by canyons to vault with a daring leap. A skateboarder can grab the bumper of a passing vehicle and add a thrill to a prosaic ride. And who needs ocean waves when one can clamber atop a subway and surf it to the next stop, even if it is illegal?

But sometimes these exploits do not go as smoothly as the imagination would have it, ending in tragedy.

Such was the case on Thursday when Tyreek Riley, a 15-year-old playing with friends on the roof of a four-story apartment building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, tried to leap across an eight-foot gap to the rooftop next door. He missed, and plunged to his death in a concrete alley.

Rendell shows what novels do better than journalism, which is take us inside the experience. We learn first of all about the thrills of subway “sledging,” as it is called in the book:

In spite of the heat, [Jasper] understood why it was called sledging. This was what it must be like on a toboggan roaring down the snowy slope of a mountainside. A great exhilaration filled him. The train was going fast, rushing along now, and the clatter of it sang in his ears. He bounced a little, pleasantly, not alarmingly. Why had no one said it was like this? Why had no one told him how marvelous it was?

Jasper would have liked to yell and sing and shout, if he had dared lift up his head. He would have liked to stand on the roof of the train and leap along from car to car like one of the bad guys in that Western. But he dared not move, not this time, not yet, and he held on tight, lying there with his body ten times more thrillingly alive than he had ever known it.

A great joy possessed him as the train bore him on, on, on through the sunshine, down the line to Loughton.

Later in the book, however, we are taken inside a nightmare. One of the boys doesn’t want to venture onto the roof but is goaded up there by taunts of cowardice. We experience what happens next from Jasper’s vantage point:

The mouth of the tunnel received them, and for the first time Jasper was aware of the downward gradient, that the train was descending. Perhaps he noticed it because he was concentrating so hard on everything to do with the train, the behavior of the train, because he was so aware of Damon, who was unpracticed and had been afraid, on top of the car ahead.

He was concentrating but he was unprepared for what happened. Everyone in the car was unprepared. The train braked and gave one of those shuddering lurches which, if people are standing, are enough to knock them over. No one was standing in their car but at the second lurch they had to hang on to the seat arms to avoid being thrown on to the floor. One of the women cried out.

Time seemed to cease and there was silence. It endured and it did not. This might have been ten seconds which passed or ten hours. Afterward Jasper could not have said, except that the former was more likely. He was petrified by the silence, a silence that seemed outside this world and beyond time. His hands had fastened themselves to the arms of the seat and he had grown numb, his whole body was numb, but his brain raced.

From outside, up ahead somewhere, suddenly, came a scream, the like of which Jasper had never heard before. All the terror of every frightening thing in the world was in it. And it went on and on. The people in the car jumped up. Jasper stayed where he was. Jasper saw. He saw it come past the window, a mass of something dark and twisted, fighting the side of the car and screaming. He saw a foot stamp at the glass as the train tore it away and plunged on down into the deep, leaving the dying scream behind.

In short, don’t do it.

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How To Reflect upon the Death Penalty

Matt Damon in "All the Pretty Horses"

Matt Damon in “All the Pretty Horses”

Sordid news regarding the death penalty continues to make its way into the national headlines. First there was the schizophrenic Missouri man missing twenty percent of his frontal lobe (from a lumber mill accident) who was executed for killing a policeman. Then there was the state of Utah declaring that, if it ran out of lethal injection drugs, it would resort to firing squads. And finally there was a woman declared innocent of killing her son after spending 22 years on death row.

I am against the death penalty but, if we keep it, I ask that people, starting with our lawmakers and judges, at least acknowledge the immensity of the punishment. As far as I tell, sentencing people to death has become a far too casual affair for many. Cormac McCarthy in All the Pretty Horses provides a model for the kind of serious reflection I have in mind.

John Grady, the novel’s principled protagonist, returns to America after some hair-raising adventures in Mexico and seeks out a judge to help him process the experience. While a prisoner, Grady kills a man in self-defense—the man has been hired to kill him—and then later he kidnaps a lawman who has shot Blevins, a 13-year-old friend, in his presence. Blevins has himself killed a man (while retrieving his stolen horse), but the informal execution circumvents the law. The lawman is taken off Grady’s hands in a mysterious manner, but Grady is haunted by the thought that he was angry enough to have killed him.

Grady’s conversation with the judge goes through several stages as he strives to understand why he’s feeling so bad. He begins with the man he killed, wondering whether he was just “a good old boy.”

The judge is able to take that worry off the table and relates a story of his own. He describes how he didn’t want to be a judge in the first place, precisely because of the responsibility to hand out the death penalty. But because he witnessed other judges botching the process, he decided to become one. Upon occasion he sentences people to death, but he never stops thinking about them, even twenty years later. My point is that he takes his task absolutely seriously. Here’s their conversation:

I didn’t want to be a judge. I was a young lawyer practicing in San Antonio and I come back out here when my daddy was old and I went to work for the county prosecutor. I sure didnt want to be a judge. I think I felt a lot like you do. I still do.
What made you change your mind?
I dont know as I did change it. I just saw a lot of injustice in the court system and I saw people my own age in positions of authority that I had grown up with and knew for a calcified fact didnt have one damn lick of sense. I think I just didnt have any choice. Just didnt have any choice. I sent a boy from this county to the electric chair in Huntsville in nineteen thirty-two. I think about that. I dont think he was a pretty good old boy. But I think about it. Would I do it again? Yes I would.

Grady gets the point and so moves on to a second explanation for his guilt—that he was prepared to kill the captain, even if he didn’t actually do so. He even has an understandable explanation for his feelings. After all, the man killed Blevins. But because Grady is relentlessly self honest, he rejects this comforting rationalization.

Finally he puts his finger on the real explanation: when Blevins was being shot, Grady remained silent. If he had been true to his personal code, he should have protested, even though it wouldn’t have done any good. His anger at the captain, in other words, is primarily anger at himself for violating his code:

He picked up his hat and held it in both hands. He looked like he was about to get up but he didn’t get up.
The reason I wantd to kill him was because I stood there and let him walk that boy out in the trees and shoot him and I never said nothing.
Would it have done any good?
No sir. But that don’t make it right.

In other words, Grady understands that our desire to kill another human being can arise from problematic reasoning. He is determined to uncover what really moves us in our actions.

We see that the captain has meted out death for far worse reasons. Originally, he agreed to allow relatives of Blevins’ victim to avenge him. When they lost their nerve, the captain, afraid of losing face, shot Blevins himself. In other words, he killed a man because he was afraid of being embarrassed.

The judge recognizes in Grady a man who would himself be a great judge. As he puts it, “There’s nothin wrong with you son. I think you’ll get it sorted out.”

When we as a society decide to execute someone, we set ourselves up as God, committing an act that can never be taken back. We stain our honor if we allow revenge or politics or anything less than a love of justice guide our actions. Keep that in mind next time you hear people glibly talking about the death penalty.

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GOP Budget Proposes Gruel Cuts

Cruikshank, "Oliver Twist"

My paternal grandfather, a staunch Illinois Republican, was a huge fan of Charles Dickens, who influenced how he saw the poor. This meant that he was somewhat paternalistic, but paternalism is an improvement over the mean-spiritedness of today’s young rightwingers. Paul Ryan and Scott Walker appear to have walked straight out of Oliver Twist, what with their comparisons of social safety nets to hammocks, their determination to take health care away from millions, their advocacy for humiliating drug testing for welfare recipients (but for no other recipients of government funds), and their attempts to slash the food stamp budget. Mr. Bumble would approve.

Andrew O’Hehir of Salon makes the connection with Dickens although I urge caution if you read his article as it contains a significant factual error regarding Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. But what O’Hehir says about Oliver Twist is accurate enough, and the parallels with the current GOP House budget proposal are striking:

As Dickens observed in Oliver Twist, in essence a satirical broadside directed at the Poor Laws of his time, the unequal distribution of wealth was understood to demonstrate character and to reflect the dispensation of Providence. Those who fell into poverty or were born into it, like the novel’s hero, clearly lacked moral fiber, and were prone to laziness and ingratitude.

O’Hehir notes how the “sage, deep, philosophical men” on the workhouse’s board of directors discover that paupers like the workhouse too much:

It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work.

To solve the problem, they come up with their own version of cutting food stamps.

‘Oho!’ said the board, looking very knowing; ‘we are the fellows to set this to rights; we’ll stop it all, in no time.’ So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. 

Initially these measures appear a false economy since the undertaker’s and tailor’s bills go up. Then, however, the poor adjust:

For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, the system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies.

For current day legislators, the monetary rewards go to those who will sacrifice the poor in order to finance sizable increases in military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy. In fact, Cotton attended a major meeting with arms manufacturers shortly after attempting to scuttle the president’s negotiations with Iran, and Ryan and Walker are pulling in millions from ultra-conservative billionaires. Think of them caring for America’s vulnerable in the way that Miss Corny cares for Oliver and the other children under her care:

The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.

Dickens did social good by shaming people into better behavior. Our young rightwing legislators seem beyond the power of shaming.

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When American Fantasies Are Dangerous

American Gods

Teaching an American Fantasy Literature class is helping me better understand denialism, which has come to define a major element of the Republican party. When the world takes a disturbing turn, one response is to fantasize that change isn’t happening.

In my class, we’re discovering that there are two kinds of fantasy. The lesser fantasies are shallow wish fulfillments while the greater fantasies involve uncompromising authors penetrating appearance to uncover deep truths. People indulge in the lesser fantasies when they want to avoid facing up to the truth.

Refusal to acknowledge that the earth is warming up, of course, is the most egregious example of denial. Recently we have learned that Florida’s Governor Scott signaled to state employees that they are not to speak of climate change, even though Florida will be impacted by rising sea levels as much as any state. House Republicans, meanwhile, want the Pentagon and the CIA to stop factoring climate change into their planning, even though it has major military ramifications.

To cite another recent example, the Congressional Republicans’ new budget contains what The New York Times’ Paul Krguman labels as two “trillion-dollar magic asterisks”:

[T]he just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.

And further on:

[A]bout those budgets: both claim drastic reductions in federal spending. Some of those spending reductions are specified: There would be savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies. Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance. But both also claim more than a trillion dollars in further cuts to mandatory spending, which would almost surely have to come out of Medicare or Social Security. What form would these further cuts take? We get no hint.

Meanwhile, both budgets call for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the taxes that pay for the insurance subsidies. That’s $1 trillion of revenue. Yet both claim to have no effect on tax receipts; somehow, the federal government is supposed to make up for the lost Obamacare revenue. How, exactly? We are, again, given no hint.

And there’s more: The budgets also claim large reductions in spending on other programs. How would these be achieved? You know the answer.

Krugman traces it all back to Ronald Reagan’s supply side economics, which believed that tax cuts for wealthy Americans would pay for themselves. George H. W. Bush derided this as “voodoo economics” when campaigning against Reagan in 1980, then subscribed to it as a loyal vice president, and then was crucified by his own party when, as president, he had to acknowledge that government programs require tax revenue. Bush probably would have been elected to a second term if he hadn’t had to confront an early version of a Tea Party revolt.

I’ll get to the fantasy tradition out of which Ronald Reagan arose in a moment, but first I turn to a passage in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that provides a good account of denial. In one of the novel’s historical flashbacks, we see Southern American slave owners confronted by Haiti’s successful slave rebellion. Mama Zouzou, a slave who practices genuine voodoo, observes how they respond to their worst nightmare:

She listened when the white folk spoke of the revolt in St. Domingo (as they called it), and how it was doomed to fail—“Think of it! A cannibal land!”—and then she observed that they no longer spoke of it.

Soon, it seemed to her that they pretended that there never had been a place called St. Domingo, and as for Haiti, the word was never mentioned. It was as if the whole American nation had decided that they could, by an effort of belief, command a good-sized Caribbean island to no longer exist merely by willing it so.

Fantasy involves an effort of belief, and I have written about how L. Frank Baum, inspired by John Winthrop’s vision of a city on a hill and by Chicago 1893 “white city,” thought he could banish shadows. Disney grew out of this vision and so did Ronald Reagan, who tried to turn back the clock. Visions of Mapleton Drive (from Leave it to Beaver) danced in people’s heads when “the Gipper” spoke of morning in America.

This is why the GOP has almost a cultish reverence for Reagan. They’re not interested in his practical problem solving, which included negotiations with Democrats (over tax hikes) and with the Soviet Union (over armaments). They would probably impeach any Democrat president who, like Reagan, secretly sent missiles to Iran.

No, they are drawn to the fantasy that Reagan represents. I’ve written about how Stephen King’s It, written during Reagan’s presidency, challenged this vision of an idealized America. Throughout the novel, adults cannot see what is evident to the children. In fact, time and again we see them deliberately closing their eyes to the horrifying reality.

Perhaps the best explanation for GOP fantasizing is that it’s an understandable and even predictable response to modernity. Literature has been charting that reaction for a long while now—since the advent of Modernism in the early 20th century–and the pressures to retreat into fantasy become more intense as change speeds up. When same sex marriage is suddenly declared legal in Alabama, is there any wonder that people would go into hysterics?

Many commentators, and even GOP Senate Speaker Mitch McConnell, have stated that the GOP must demonstrate that it is capable of governing. Governing, however, calls for acknowledging reality as it is, not as we wish it could be. I am rooting fervently for “reformicons” and others who can return their party to a reality base. At the moment, however, I’m worried that to think they can prevail is itself a shallow wish fulfillment.

Added note: Even more than Gaiman, Stephen King provides passages of characters, usually adults, refusing to face up to reality. Here’s one passage from IT when Beverly is on the verge of being raped:

Âcross the street–Bev saw this quite clearly–Herbert Ross got out of the lawn-chair on his porch, approached the porch rail, and looked over. His face was as blank as Belch Huggins’. He folded his paper, turned, and went quietly into the house.

And here’s a passage from IT I cited previously in a post about how Oklahoma wants to whitewash American history:

The museum was sponsored by the Derry Ladies’ Society, which vetoed some of Hanlon’s proposed exhibits (such as the notorious tramp chair from the 1930s) and photographs (such as those of the Bradley Gang after the notorious shoot-out). But all agreed it was a great success, and no one really wanted to see those gory old things anyway. It was so much better to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, as the old song said.

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From the Dark, Cold Grime a Flower Comes

king_cups_alderbeds_small

Spiritual Sunday

Dan Clendenin at the indispensable Journey with Jesus alerted me to the following Lenten poem, which should strike a chord with any of you enduring what feels like an endless winter. Even in Maryland it snowed this past Friday.

I like the many ways that poet Mary Ann Bernard shows spring coming with difficulty. Initially the poem gives no indication how hard it will be, what with Bernard’s easy rhyming couplets. Our dreamy idealism flows quickly off the tongue. Then, however, a line is interrupted by a rhythm-disrupting “(But),” and after that the rhymes often become half rhymes. The final couplets labor to emerge.

Yet in spite of that, a flower still comes: “It groans, yet sings,/And through its pain, its peace begins.” Or as Percy Shelley puts it, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Resurrection

By Mary Ann Bernard

Long, long, long ago;
Way before this winter’s snow
First fell upon these weathered fields;
I used to sit and watch and feel
And dream of how the spring would be,
When through the winter’s stormy sea
She’d raise her green and growing head,
Her warmth would resurrect the dead.

Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would pass
With winter’s pain, and peace like grass
Would simply grow.  (But) The pain’s not gone.
It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
It cuts so deep and fear within.

Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold.  I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.

Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by spring.
Now, I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and from the dark, cold, grime
A flower comes.  It groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins.

From Rueben Job and Norman Shawchuck, eds., A Guide To Prayer (Nashville: The Upper Room)

A note on the artist: The photo, along with reflections upon kingcups, can be found at ecoenchantments.blogspot.com/2014/03/flowers-of-fairies-kingcups-golden.htm.

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Milne’s Old Sailor & ADD

S. H. Shepard, "The Old Sailor"

E. H. Shepard, “The Old Sailor”

I have been having illuminating conversations with a good friend who has long experienced the ups and downs of severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I can’t do justice to all that she says about the condition, but she points out that in many ways the United States is an ADD culture, throwing a daunting range of stimuli, activities, and options at us. ADD can’t entirely be seen as a negative condition, my friends says, because it can lead to immense creativity and achievement. But some become so overwhelmed that their circuits fry and they shut down, experiencing something akin to PTSD. Of the three characteristic responses of those with ADD—fight, flight, or freeze—my friend experienced a 25-year freeze from which she’s only beginning to emerge.

I observed that I was put in mind of A. A. Milne’s “Old Sailor.” When I read it aloud to her, she said that Milne for the most part captures the ADD mind very well, both its creativity and its sense of being overwhelmed. Milne’s one mistake is his unsympathetic description of the sailor as “basking.” We should rather see the him as so under attack from his overactive mind that he must shut down and wrap himself in a shawl to protect himself.

The Old Sailor

By A.A. Milne

There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew 
Who had so many things which he wanted to do 
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin, 
He couldn’t because of the state he was in. 

He was shipwrecked, and lived on a island for weeks, 
And he wanted a hat, and he wanted some breeks; 
And he wanted some nets, or a line and some hooks 
For the turtles and things which you read of in books. 

And, thinking of this, he remembered a thing
Which he wanted (for water) and that was a spring;
And he thought that to talk to he’d look for, and keep
(If he found it) a goat, or some chickens and sheep.

Then, because of the weather, he wanted a hut
With a door (to come in by) which opened and shut
(With a jerk, which was useful if snakes were about),
And a very strong lock to keep savages out.

He began on the fish-hooks, and when he’d begun 
He decided he couldn’t because of the sun. 
So he knew what he ought to begin with, and that 
Was to find, or to make, a large sun-stopping hat. 

He was making the hat with some leaves from a tree, 
When he thought, “I’m as hot as a body can be, 
And I’ve nothing to take for my terrible thirst; 
So I’ll look for a spring, and I’ll look for it first.” 

Then he thought as he started, “Oh, dear and oh, dear!
I’ll be lonely tomorrow with nobody here!”
So he made in his note-book a couple of notes:
“I must first find some chickens” and “No, I mean goats.”

He had just seen a goat (which he knew by the shape)
When he thought, “But I must have boat for escape.
But a boat means a sail, which means needles and thread;
So I’d better sit down and make needles instead.”

He began on a needle, but thought as he worked,
That, if this was an island where savages lurked,
Sitting safe in his hut he’d have nothing to fear,
Whereas now they might suddenly breathe in his ear!

So he thought of his hut … and he thought of his boat, 
And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat, 
And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst) … 
But he never could think which he ought to do first. 

And so in the end he did nothing at all, 
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl. 
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved – 
He did nothing but bask until he was saved!

Imagining the sailor as someone with ADD makes me wonder whether Robinson Crusoe, his literary predecessor, is also ADD. I used to attribute Crusoe’s manic activity to a Calvinist fear of damnation, as described by Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. (The theory goes that the Calvinists, who include the American Pilgrims, were so worried about predestination that they worked incessantly to reassure themselves they were among God’s elect.) Then again, if capitalism both stimulates and burns out people with ADD, these two interpretations of Crusoe may be complementary.

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Violating Political Norms Exacts a Price

Kinnear as Bolingbroke

Henry IV (Kinnear) overthrew Richard II to become king

I’ve been thinking a lot about social and political norms recently and so was pleased to see The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik recent article about norms. When I was young (I’m 63 now), the norms we experienced as suffocating were those that privileged white heterosexual patriarchs. While progressives are still going after some of those old norms (traditional marriage, marijuana laws), most of the current norm breaking is coming from the right. Most dramatically, the GOP is actively attempting to undermine a president engaged in delicate international negotiations. Gopnik mentions The Iliad and John Updike’s Rabbit books in his discussion, to which I add Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Gopnik begins with a David Brooks article claiming that the poor stand to gain more from following traditional social norms, starting with marriage, than they do from cash handouts or good government. Gopnik sees an inconsistency here:

In an ironically parallel move, the same Republican moralists who condemn the poor, or their politicians, for not enforcing social norms were accused all week of betraying an essential constitutional norm themselves—in this case, that you don’t effectively tell the nation’s enemies to ignore its twice-elected leader. Their pay-no-attention-to-the-President letter to the Iranian government wasn’t illegal, much less “treasonous,” but it certainly and grossly violated an unwritten but widely understood norm of political behavior. It wasn’t that no one had ever done something like this before. It was that there had been an assumption that it wasn’t remotely doable. That’s what made it a norm. If Barry Goldwater had written a letter to Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban missile crisis insisting that anything J.F.K. promised to do to resolve it should be ignored, it wouldn’t have just seemed destructive. It would have been unimaginable.

Gopnik points out that the republic itself is at risk when we cavalierly mess with established political norms:

Political norms matter because any constitutional arrangement known to man can break down if it isn’t played by the laws as well as by the rules. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” a great Justice famously said, but in truth any constitution can become a suicide pact if people ignore what’s left unwritten in it. If people choose not to buy the basic premise, the joke won’t land. Any social arrangement can disintegrate as much from misuse as repeal. If, as has happened in many an empire, the army figures out that it can buy and sell the emperors, pretty soon you no longer have an empire, or at least no longer much of an emperor. One shockingly violated norm of American constitutional practice was the old one against impeachment on a party-line vote. It’s always been the case that a simple majority in the House can send an American President to a Senate trial, with all the costs that involves. It was just taken for granted that no one would try this without bipartisan support and the likelihood of a conviction. Back in 1998, the Republicans decided to do it anyway—Why the hell not, the country’s booming and can run itself—at a cost that is still not fully understood.

This observation reminds me of the overthrow of Richard II in Shakespeare’s play. Now Richard, much more than either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, deserves to be overthrown. Furthermore, Henry Bolingbroke proves to be a far better king, what with his political savvy and his common touch. Shakespeare, however, points out that his usurpation also has negative ramifications: to topple a divinely anointed king means that your own kingship will never go unquestioned.

Indeed, Henry IV, Part I begins with the country in turmoil over Henry’s action. Rather than journey to Jerusalem to atone for Richard’s assassination, Henry must stay to battle uprisings by the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, and his former allies. He can’t even assert full authority over his son, who is partying with Falstaff.

Those Republicans who accuse Obama of breaking norms and becoming an imperial president need to be very measured in their criticism. I’m not sure how much is hyperbole and how must is legitimate, but if they are at all correct–say, with regard to the executive directives concerning immigrants–then we all should join them because Democrats shouldn’t want an imperial president any more than Republicans want one. By the same token, the GOP’s scorched earth response to Obama, opposing everything from routine cabinet nominations to policies they themselves once advocated, will come back to haunt them if the roles are reversed. All of us, left and right, must be willing to scrutinize our political maneuvering and respect tradition. Once broken, norms are very difficult to restore.

Gopnik makes a useful distinction between laws and norms. One can break a norm without, strictly speaking, breaking any laws:

A law is something that exacts an announced cost for being broken. A norm is something that is so much a part of the social landscape that you wouldn’t think, really, that anyone could break it. Laws are plans, like the city grid, that must be followed; norms are landmarks, like the old Penn Station—you don’t think anyone could tear them down, and then someone does.

Literature provides useful instances of the differences:

The play between norms and laws is one of the great subjects of literature. Should Achilles give back Hector’s body to the Trojans? It’s only a battlefield norm, but the Iliad turns on it. The great novels of norms—American norms, at least—are the four books in John Updike’s Rabbit series, which are, exactly, all about the price of accepting the norms that a middle-class society imposes on the average sensual male (or female) citizen. Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom marries his pregnant girlfriend, stays with her dutifully after various failed attempts at escape to a life of more immediate gratifications, and then has the ironic sense, as the books go on, that he is the only one in America still sticking to the old self-imprisoning norms. Group sex comes in the door, and the inhibitions go right out the window. Is it an entrapping net or a reassuring pattern of premade choices? It depends on which side of the norm you’re sitting.

Certain norms, such as segregation, must be challenged. That’s the strength of liberalism. Conservatism wisely responds that tradition deserves a certain amount of deference and slow change is better than fast. The overly rapid social change of the 1960s led to the reactionary backlash of the 1980s.

Unfortunately, today’s rightwing conservatives are not truly conservative but are as radical as the leftwing radicals I remember from my college days. The country paid a price then and it will pay a price now.

Further thoughts: Salon’s Kim Messick today examines the breakdown in political norms from a historical vantage point and foresees a grim future. What we are seeing, he says, is the logical outgrowth of the GOP realizing that it is primarily a congressional party:

Constitutions matter, but every political system depends as well on informal norms, a more or less tacit consensus on how things will be done and what kind of behavior is and isn’t acceptable. This is especially true in America, where our constitutional separation of executive and legislature, and extra-constitutional devices like the filibuster, require compromise and cooperation if the government is to function effectively. Political actors must accept the constraints laid down by the rules (formal and informal) that define legitimate behavior, and must trust that others will do so in turn. When this trust lapses, confrontation replaces compromise and the political system lurches into crisis.

There have been three moments in our history when something like this happened. The first arose very early, when anxieties about revolutionary France led the Federalist administration of John Adams to propose a number of measures, including the infamous “Alien and Sedition Acts,” intended to enhance executive authority and to repress domestic dissent. This led the Anti-federalists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to draft a series of resolutions defending the right of states to nullify federal statutes they deemed unconstitutional. Adopted by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures, these ignited a confrontation between proponents of Federal power and advocates of “states’ rights” that roiled our politics until the Civil War, and beyond.

The second moment, of course, was the Civil War itself. The third is much more recent, extending over at least the Obama presidency but with roots as far back, perhaps, as the Clinton impeachment. It involves the readiness of Republicans to violate long-standing norms of institutional conduct in order to advance a highly divisive, intensely partisan agenda. Impeachment and the threat of impeachment; the use of primaries to defeat Republican incumbents judged to be insufficiently “conservative”; a willingness to default on the debt or shutdown the government; the indiscriminate use of the filibuster to require super-majorities in the Senate on virtually every issue— this pattern of increasingly radical behavior may certainly be associated, in any given case, with the anger or pique of particular politicians. But its deepest source is in the political attitudes of an increasingly radical party.

There are several different levels of explanation here. To some degree, the Republican obsession with impeachment and the filibuster— and the Iran letter too — simply reflects the GOP’s growing sense of itself as primarily a congressional party. As it gradually loses the ability to compete for the presidency — it has lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections — its power base in Congress and legislative prerogatives generally are more important to it. The party that fought pitched battles during the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan years — and even as recently as the Bush II presidency — to safeguard executive authority from congressional “overreach” now defends the right of freshman senators to conduct foreign policy.

Messick’s major explanation, however, is that we are witnessing a wholesale rejection of modernism and the modern state. Until recently, Democrats and Republicans both regarded the modern state as a necessary compromise with modern life, only with the Republicans offering more caution.

This began to change in response to the racial and cultural politics of the 1960s. The white Southerners who bolted the Democratic Party for the GOP didn’t view the modern state as a necessity; they saw it as apostasy. It wasn’t a pragmatic compromise with the changed landscape of modernity, but a monstrous conspiracy to replace true American values with a spurious and corrupt humanism. In doing so, it sought to blot out God-given distinctions between the races and the sexes — and between the productive and the unproductive — in the name of an artificial equality that would both require and justify constant Federal intrusion.

To maximize its appeal to these new Southern voters, the Republican Party adopted an increasingly radical version of conservative thought and expressed it in increasingly harsh rhetoric. As liberals and moderates in the North and upper Midwest began to desert the Party, its Southern supporters became ever more important to it — which led to even more extreme advocacy and another round of desertions and defections.

So when it comes to norm-breaking, Messick says that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet:

Full of scorn for their own government, the ideologues who control today’s GOP feel free to disregard any limitation on their pursuit of conservative purity. The letter to Iran, and the invitation to Netanyahu, merely enact this principle in the realm of foreign affairs. The real concern of the Tea Party isn’t the modern American state, which it despises, but its own hermetic vision of the conservative “cause”– a cause that transcends national boundaries. Its adherents find it easier to cooperate with the leader of Israel’s Likud Party than with their Democratic colleagues in the American Congress. Tom Cotton’s dispatch to Tehran — or something like it — was the inevitable outcome of the process set in motion by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. We should expect more of the same in the future.

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Don’t Shoot the Truth Tellers

"Hands up, don't shoot"

“Hands up, don’t shoot”

I write today to compliment Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart for “the hardest piece I’ve ever had to write.” I contrast Capehart’s courageous article with the decision made by a historian in Borges’ short story “Theme of the Hero and the Traitor.”

The African American Capehart, who I’m proud to say graduated from my alma mater (Carleton College), has concluded that Michael Brown was in fact reaching for Officer Darren Wilson’s gun in the shooting that triggered the Ferguson protests and that led to the “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan. The Department of Justice cleared Officer Wilson and Capehart agrees:

The DOJ report notes on page 44 that Johnson [a witness] “made multiple statements to the media immediately following the incident that spawned the popular narrative that Wilson shot Brown execution-style as he held up his hands in surrender.” In one of those interviews, Johnson told MSNBC that Brown was shot in the back by Wilson. It was then that Johnson said Brown stopped, turned around with his hands up and said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” And, like that, “hands up, don’t shoot” became the mantra of a movement. But it was wrong, built on a lie.

The article was hard for Capehart to write because such a truth could undermine efforts to hold the Ferguson police force, not to mention police forces around the country. accountable for the times when they are in fact guilty. Capehart expresses this concern by hoping for the opposite:

Yet this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown’s death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger “Black Lives Matter.” In fact, the false Ferguson narrative stuck because of concern over a distressing pattern of other police killings of unarmed African American men and boys around the time of Brown’s death. Eric Garner was killed on a Staten Island street on July 17. John Crawford III was killed in a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio, on Aug. 5, four days before Brown. Levar Jones survived being shot by a South Carolina state trooper on Sept. 4. Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was killed in a Cleveland park on Nov. 23, the day before the Ferguson grand jury opted not to indict Wilson. Sadly, the list has grown longer.

Whether or not it undermines activists for social justice, however, a journalist’s first responsibility is to the truth:

But we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong. And when we discover that we have, we must acknowledge it, admit our error and keep on marching. That’s what I’ve done here.

Capehart stands in contrast with the historian in Borges’ story, who is researching the life of an Irish freedom fighter who mysteriously dies on the night before his greatest success:

Kilpatrick perished on the eve of the victorious revolt which he had premeditated and dreamt of. The first centenary of his death draws near; the circumstances of the crime are enigmatic; Ryan, engaged in writing a biography of the hero, discovers that the enigma exceeds the confines of a simple police investigation. Kilpatrick was murdered in a theater; the British police never found the killer; the historians maintain that this scarcely soils their good reputation, since it was probably the police themselves who had him killed.

It so happens that, the further the historian gets into the issue, the more things fail to add up. Ultimately he discovers that Kilpatrick was not a hero but a traitor and that this fact was learned just prior to the revolt. Fearing that the revelation would undermine the cause, Kilpatrick asked that he be executed in such a way that would further Irish liberty. His execution was carefully orchestrated to make it appear as though the police were the actual killers.

The story has further Borgesian twists and turns, all of them deliciously complex, that need not concern us here. I’m interested in what the historian chooses to do with what he has learned:

After a series of tenacious hesitations, he resolves to keep his discovery silent. He publishes a book dedicated to the hero’s glory…

Borges captures how we can be drawn into a fictional labyrinth and lose our way. If we don’t have honest arbiters who are dedicated to truth, then the fabulists win.

In our society our arbiters include, in addition to historians and journalists, scientists, economists, political scientists, doctors, the courts, and professors and teachers in general. Granted, complete objectivity is never possible, which is why rigorous self-scrutiny and genuine open dialogue are essential. This is why scientists and social scientists must check each other’s results, why historians most scrutinize each other’s prejudices, why legal minds must examine court decisions, and why news organizations must call out people like Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly. (NBC did, Fox didn’t.)

Truth is not always entirely clear, especially in the humanities, but even there we have disciplinary standards of evidence and argumentation that must prevail. Just because truth is elusive doesn’t mean that we should cynically give up on it. When falsehood is discovered, we must censure those who are guilty and, in some cases, drum them out of the profession. If veritas doesn’t come first, then everything else we do is put at risk.

Unscrupulous men and women constantly strive to undermine the arbiters of truth. To cite one recent revelation, we have learned that Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims that global warming is caused by variations in the sun’s energy rather that human activity, has collected

$1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

If we want to hold on to our souls, we must reject such Faustian offers. Capehart is holding on to his, and justice will be served as a result. “Hands up, don’t shoot” has struck a chord because it taps into a reality that African Americans recognize all too well. Worrying that the actual story about a false martyr will diminish the power of the symbol is to underestimate the power of truth to set us free.

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Yeats & Ireland’s World of Faery

Glencar Waterfall

Glencar Waterfall

St. Patrick’s Day

What would St. Patrick’s Day be without a poem by William Butler Yeats? Here’s an early lyric from his most romantic period, written in 1886 and appearing in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems. In response to a weeping adult world, our child self imagines escaping to a magical fairy world.

As wonderful as the Celtic fairy world appears, however, the child will give up something vital if he or she runs away:

He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest

Okay, for some of us mice in the cupboard aren’t in the same category as lowing cattle and bubbling kettles. Still, there’s something lacking in the fairy world of frothy bubbles. As Frost would say, “Life’s the right place for love, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” While it’s fine to venture into fantasy from time to time (or climb high into birches), warm-blooded Ireland is ultimately Yeats’ place for love.

The Stolen Child

By William Butler Yeats

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest
For he comes, the human child
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand

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What Lemming Migrations Mean

Granger, "Lemmings in Migration"

Granger, “Lemmings in Migration”

I’m traveling today so here is a poem by my father about our feeble attempts to understand what moves history. Three birds and the wind address lemmings as they launch into their migrations. The first bird warns them about their insanity, the second wonders whether they are propelled by hunger or boredom, and the third imagines that a higher destiny dictates their movement.

The wind, however, sees their movement as no less random than its own. Speaking in French, perhaps because hard truths sound more poetic in a foreign language, it says lemmings are merely driven by blind forces. They are rats following an invisible piper to their deaths. The last stanza can be translated as

They don’t know what they are seeking to find
Sighed a wind out of Sault-au-Mouton
These aren’t anything but rats that follow the Piper
These are nothing but blind forces that move

I sense, the the wind’s words an echo of Francois Villon’s sad longing as he grappled with the fact of death. Seeking to understand why beautiful ladies die, the medieval poet famously wrote,

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with this much for an overword,
–But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

I’ve come to understand that my father’s World War II experiences, especially witnessing Dachau and then feeling shattered by the atom bomb, led him to conclude that life is meaningless. He identifies with the wandering lemmings in his poem. Yet rather than succumb to pessimism, he decided to make meaning for himself, working tirelessly for social justice and turning his fatalism into sometimes haunting poetry.

That is about the best response I can imagine to existential despair.

The Wandering Lemming
By Scott Bates

The sea is too wide cried a circling skua
To the river of wandering lemming
The sea is as wide as from here to disaster
And too bloody icy for swimming

What drives you to suicide out on the water
Called politely a kittiwake kiting
Was the land of the tundra too barren of pasture
Or the call of the sea too inviting

The lemming are moving through Destiny’s talons
Said a venerable sea eagle climbing
Their swim is a Symbol of Life’s Aspirations
Of Seeking and Striving and Find

Ils ne savent rien de chercher de trouver
Sighed a wind out of Sault-au-Mouton
Ce ne sont que des rats qui suivent le Pipeur
Ce ne sont que des forces qui vont

Further thoughts: I just realized that the wind is actually Paul Verlaine’s wind from “Autumn Song” and that the lemmings are like his dead leaf, blown hither and yon. I’ve posted here on the poem, which also harkens back to Villon’s deep sense of loss. The wind speaks in French because it speaks with Verlaine’s voice. The poem ends as follows:

And I depart
On an ill wind
That carries me
Here and there,
As if a
Dead leaf.

Previously posted Scott Bates animal fables

Paradise Lost (Mole Version)

What Light Verse Meant to Scott Bates

Pesticides vs. Sweetness and Wings

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

Keeping Environmental Hope Alive

In Praise of Light Summer Reading

Christmas Bird Count from Santa’s Sleigh

The True Meaning of the Holy-Days

My Father’s Love Song to Phoebe

In Praise of Irreverent Squirrels

A Sleepy Bird Dog Ballad

Drones Put Heaven in a Rage

A Hunchback Dreams of Swallows

A Snake that Refused To Be Used

Moments of Perfection in the Sun

America’s Avian Maestro, the Mockingbird

The Day Rabbits Attacked Napoleon

A Poetic Skylark and an Introspective Snake

Rhinos and RINOs, Both Endangered

The Cosmic Meaning of Flushing Flies

7 Reasons We Help Others

Epiphany from a Camel’s Point of View

A Roc for Christmas (Annual Bird Count)

A Whale Poem to Lift the Spirits

Mama Grizzly vs. Real Grizzlies

Dr. Doolittle vs. the Oil Spill

The Birds of War-Torn Afghanistan

Revolution in Tunisia—a Good Thing?

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O’Connor’s Christianity and Racism

lawn jockey

Spiritual Sunday

Last Sunday I reported on a Lenten series featuring Flannery O’Connor that my colleague Ben Click is teaching. I attended the second class, on “The Artificial Nigger,” and, as with Ben’s ideas on “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” came away impressed with O’Connor’s religious exploring. Ben sees “Artificial Nigger” as a Lenten tale of pride humbled and grace received.

The story is about a grandfather from rural Georgia who takes his grandson Nelson to Atlanta to make him realize how dependent he is on the grandfather:

“The day is going to come,” Mr. Head prophesied, “when you’ll find you ain’t as smart as you think you are.” He had been thinking about this trip for several months but it was for the most part in moral terms that he conceived it. It was to be a lesson that the boy would never forget. He was to find out from it that he had no cause for pride merely because he had been born in a city. He was to find out that the city is not a great place. Mr. Head meant him to see everything there is to see in a city so that he would be content to stay at home for the rest of his life. He fell asleep thinking how the boy would at last find out that he was not as smart as he thought he was.

Of course, the trip doesn’t go as planned. Guilty of an overweening pride, Mr. Head (not Mr. Heart, Ben noted) commits a Peter-like betrayal in a moment of panic. He has played a trick on Nelson, only to see the boy, in his own panic, collide with a woman and knock her over:

Mr. Head was trying to detach Nelson’s fingers from the flesh in the back of his legs. The old man’s head had lowered itself into his collar like a turtle’s; his eyes were glazed with fear and caution.      
“Your boy has broken my ankle!” the old woman shouted. “Police!”          
Mr. Head sensed the approach of the policeman from behind. He stared straight ahead at the women who were massed in their fury like a solid wall to block his escape, “This is not my boy,” he said. “l never seen him before.”           
He felt Nelson’s fingers fall out of his flesh. 

After such a betrayal, what forgiveness?

Mr. Head began to feel the depth of his denial. His face as they walked on became all hollows and bare ridges. He saw nothing they were passing but he perceived that they had lost the car tracks. There was no dome to be seen anywhere and the afternoon was advancing. He knew that if dark overtook them in the city, they would be beaten and robbed. The speed of God’s justice was only what he expected for himself, but he could not stand to think that his sins would be visited upon Nelson and that even now, he was leading the boy to his doom.

Ben made the point that, for the first time in the story, Mr. Head has begun to think not of himself but of Nelson, which is a step in the right direction. What ultimately brings them back together is their encounter with an African American statue in someone’s lawn:

He had not walked five hundred yards down the road when he saw, within reach of him, the plaster figure of a Negro sitting bent over on a low yellow brick fence that curved around a wide lawn. The Negro was about Nelson’s size and he was pitched forward at an unsteady angle because the putty that held him to the wall had cracked. One of his eyes was entirely white and he held a piece of brown watermelon.          
Mr. Head stood looking at him silently until Nelson stopped at a little distance. Then as the two of them stood there, Mr. Head breathed, “An artificial nigger!”          
It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either. He was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead.          
“An artificial nigger!” Nelson repeated in Mr. Head’s exact tone.          
The two of them stood there with their necks forward at almost the same angle and their shoulders curved in almost exactly the same way and their hands trembling identically in their pockets.
Mr. Head looked like an ancient child and Nelson like a miniature old man. They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy. Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now.

The symbol is ambiguous. On the one hand (this was Ben’s argument), the two see their own suffering in this African American figure, and it is through their recognition of the humanity of the Other that they are able to forgive and be forgiven. Ben linked this to the moment in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” when the smug grandmother sees the humanity of the mass murderer and reaches out to touch him.

Making such a connection is particularly significant in this story as Mr. Head has been teaching Nelson how to be a racist all throughout the trip. Nelson ends up with prejudices that he didn’t have at the beginning of the day. Perhaps they are saved because they rise above their racial fears and embrace a common humanity.

The element of race in the story suggests an alternative explanation, however–that the African American figure works as a cleansing scapegoat here. Perhaps Mr. Head and Nelson come together because, like the self-satisfied Pharisee, they thank God they are not like other people. Christianity can become tribalistic, with group members bonding out of fear of the unknowable world. I’ve explored the scapegoating interpretation of the story here.

I had to acknowledge, however, that Ben’s more generous reading seems borne out by the story’s penultimate paragraph, which shows a human being fully admitting his sins and gazing in awe at God’s infinite power to forgive:

Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame chat he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no Sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.

Then again, the very last paragraph shows us a Nelson with his new prejudices seemingly fixed:

Nelson, composing his expression under the shadow of his hat brim, watched him with a mixture of fatigue and suspicion, but as the train glided past them and disappeared like a frightened serpent into the woods, even his face lightened and he muttered, “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!”  

Mr. Head and Nelson may think that they have returned to the Garden of Eden and regained their innocence and that the tempting serpent has fled, but this sounds like a case of arrested development. Our discussion ended with us debating this point.

Ben argued that, if Mr. Head has had a genuine revelation, then maybe he will go on to teach Nelson love rather than fear, which is a powerful way to combat racism. Nelson may be drawing the wrong lessons now—that urban settings filled with Blacks should be avoided at all costs—but he’s only a child and maybe he’ll grow up to be someone different. All is possible with God.

How about this for an approach: we should let our actions in response to the story determine its meaning. We can settle for a false grace, one rooted in our smug superiority over others who don’t look like us or believe like us. Or we can draw on the humility of Christ and step past our pride, loving all our neighbors–all of them–as we love ourselves.

There are both kinds of Christians in America today. Tribal Christians, like tribal Muslims and tribal Jews, generally make the most noise. Maybe, through her ambiguous ending, O’Connor is challenging us to make a choice.

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Would I Were in Grantchester

Shelton, Norton in "Grantchester"

Norton, Shelton in “Grantchester”

Julia and I have become fans of Grantchester, BBC’s crime show about an Anglican vicar who thinks he is returning to bucolic bliss after the horrors of World War I, only to find himself solving a murder a week. When I heard that the story owes its source to Rupert Brooke’s “The Old Vicarage: Grantchester” (1912), I of course had to track the poem down. I discovered that it contains some of the tensions, in embryo, that appear in the television series.

The poem is pure Georgian pastoral. Brooke wrote it during a trip to Germany when he was recovering from a mental breakdown, caused in part by a woman rejecting him, in part by confusion over his sexual identity. Looking at Berlin’s “keep off the grass signs,” its tulips blooming “as they are told,” and its spirited beer-drinking Jews (his discomfort sounds anti-Semitic), he is overcome by nostalgia for England.

England has wild flowers and mysterious streams and (“Du lieber Gott!”, sweet God!) nude bathing. Like Kenneth Grahame in Wind in the Willows, Brooke imagines the “Goat-foot piping low” amongst the foliage. He pictures Granchester as inhabited by the ghostly presences of Byron, Chaucer, and Tennyson, who are sporting on the green along with departed vicars and deans. At one point he waxes so poetic that he becomes a little self-conscious, as though realizing that he’s overdoing it:

The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I’m told) . . .

As it turns out, he’s nostalgic only for Grantchester, not the rest of England. I don’t know the country well enough to identify his topical allusions and regional sterereotypes—for instance, who are these strong Madingley men who “blanche and shoot their wives, rather than send them to St. Ives”?—but the contrast is clear. He doesn’t go for “mean and dirty” Ditton girls, Cockney-speaking Barton men, crime-committing Cotonites, etc., etc. That’s not real England, as Sarah Palin might say.

But it’s into this world that Sidney Chambers ventures, often in the company of  a hard-drinking, hard-smoking urban detective. Other things intrude as well, including the jazz age (Sidney’s sister has an African American boyfriend who runs a nightclub), PTSD from the war, a reticence that sabotages Sidney’s relationships with beautiful women (is there a hint of Brooke’s bisexuality in Sidney?), and modernity in general. Even in Barchester we run up against abusive and philandering husbands, homophobia, xenophobia, and other ills. A deep part of us wants Sidney to restore order so that he can go back to worrying about the wisteria that is taking over the rectory.

In that way Grantchester is in the tradition of Agatha Christie, where murder is mainly objectionable because it is socially gauche. This series is more interesting, however, because of the Anglican sermons that we get from Sidney and sometimes his curate. Unlike the poem, which ends with a call for teatime, the series wants to make sense of the challenges England is facing.

Brooke himself, not only his poem, helps shape Grantchester. Like Brooke, Sidney is a beautiful man, but unlike Brooke he has (obviously) survived the war. The series is therefore able to imagine how Brooke might have developed had he lived.

He certainly would have become less naive. Brooke is most famous for the starry-eyed “Soldier,” written with the same nostalgia that we see in “The Old Vicarage”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
   That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
   In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
   Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
   Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
   A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
   Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
   And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
   In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Brooke could remain sentimental and patriotic because he never saw live battle and then died of an infected mosquito bite before the horrors of trench warfare set in. Two years later, it would be impossible to read “The Soldier” without a bitter laugh. Wilfred Owen’s “Futility,”  for instance, takes Brooke’s sweetness and turns it on its head.

The television series, to its credit, uses “The Old Vicarage” as a jumping off point. We may think we want to return to Georgian England but we don’t really. The world outside, dangerous and messy though it is, is also vibrant and exciting. Barchester becomes less of a destination and more of a retreat that we go to for spiritual renewal.

Here’s the poem. The Greek expression is translated in the phrase the follows it.

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester

By Rupert Brooke

(Cafe des Westens, Berlin, May 1912)

Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
                            ‘Du lieber Gott!’

Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; — and THERE the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten’s not verboten.

ειθε γενοιμην . . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! —
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird’s drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.

God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England’s the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there’s none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton’s full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you’d not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There’s peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I’m told) . . .

Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

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Lear’s Lesson: Dividing Leads to War

Ian McKellen as Lear

Ian McKellen as Lear

Teaching King Lear while watching GOP members of Congress attempt to sabotage negotiations with Iran is prompting me to make some unexpected connections. It’s certainly got me focused on the politics of the play.

Those politics were problematic from the first. When France invades English shores, who were British audiences supposed to root for? Shakespeare couldn’t let France win, but having it lose leads to the death of Cordelia and Lear. For that matter, theatergoers must have felt somewhat queasy that both Kent and Gloucester are collaborating with an invading army.

Here’s Kent behaving a bit like Senator Tom Cotton and the other members of the Senate by making contact with the enemy:

But, true it is, from France there comes a power
Into this scatter’d kingdom; who already,
Wise in our negligence, have secret feet
In some of our best ports, and are at point
To show their open banner. Now to you:
If on my credit you dare build so far
To make your speed to Dover, you shall find
Some that will thank you, making just report
Of how unnatural and bemadding sorrow
The king hath cause to plain.
I am a gentleman of blood and breeding;
And, from some knowledge and assurance, offer
This office to you.

And here’s Gloucester confiding to his son Edmund (who will betray him) that he is secretly dealing with “a power already footed” (the French). The vision that “these injuries the king now bears will be revenged home” sounds as though he’s hoping that the French will make his current king pay for Lear’s mistreatment.

I have locked the letter in my closet: these injuries the king now bears will be revenged home; there’s part of a power already footed: we must incline to the king. I will seek him, and privily relieve him: go you and maintain talk with the duke, that my charity be not of him perceived: if he ask for me. I am ill, and gone to bed. Though I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the king my old master must be relieved. 

To be sure, the GOP may not mind being compared to Kent and Gloucester. Shakespeare’s two lords are dealing secretly with the enemy for a noble cause and the GOP senators are claiming the moral high ground. If Cornwall, Regan and Goneril are perturbed by their behavior, just as Obama doesn’t want the GOP appealing to Iran’s rightwing mullahs to blow up his deal, well, that means that Obama is like these awful characters and doesn’t deserve to be followed.

But let me suggest a different parallel. In working actively against the president as he tries to hammer out a deal with Iran, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, the GOP resembles Lear, who divides a country that should remain united. Lear’s wildly irresponsible action ensures that a civil war will break out, which in turn sets up a scenario where a foreign country will invade. Governing is hard and Lear would rather carouse in his daughters’ houses with his hundred knights, which in our case is throwing red meat to your base by behaving like a rightwing talk show host. It feels good but it’s not what grown-ups should do.

The United States isn’t in danger of being invaded, but these divisive politics—I include John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu in this—threaten to involve the United States in a disastrous war. If the talks break down and Iran goes full steam ahead on a nuclear bomb, then the United States might choose to attack. The resulting conflagration would be far, far worse than anything we have seen in Afghanistan or Iraq.

But why should I strive to describe a world in chaos when Shakespeare does it so much better. Here’s Gloucester:

[L]ove cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there’s son against father: the king falls from bias of nature; there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves. 

There are two paths we can follow. Like the egotistical Lear, we can act out of our insecurities and petty resentments and set the world on fire. Or we can transcend self and work together for the good of all. The choice is between an uneasy peace and a stage strewn with bodies.

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The Return of Debtor Imprisonment?!

Arthur Clennam in the Marshalsea, "Little Dorrit"

Clennam (from “Little Dorrit”)  in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison

One doesn’t expect to hear debtors’ prisons mentioned in the 21st century, but the horrifying facts coming out of Ferguson, documented in a recent Department of Justice report, reveals that some Americans are still living in a Dickensian world. The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus remarks that “community policing” has become “community fleecing” as poor communities—not only Ferguson–are treated as sources of revenue. More bluntly, Ta-Nahisi Coates compares the Ferguson police to an officially sanctioned gang plundering the populace. Here’s Marcus:

The 102-page report depicts a department — indeed, an entire city bureaucracy — more focused on raising revenue than protecting public safety. Ferguson used its police force and court system to make ends meet — on the backs of poor and minority residents.

As described in the report, Ferguson police, under pressure to bring in fines to boost the city’s coffers, pile on multiple, often bogus, charges for minor infractions. Then they top that up with additional charges, fines, fees and even jail time for those who fail to pay promptly and in full.

Police see residents, especially African Americans, “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” the investigation found. 

And then there’s imprisonment for debt:

Most disturbing, Ferguson residents are at risk of being jailed not for committing crimes or posing a danger to the community if released before trial but because they can’t pay fines or post bonds on arrest warrants for offenses as minor as traffic tickets.

“There have been many cases,” the Justice report noted, “in which a person has been arrested on a warrant, detained for 72 hours or more, and released owing the same amount as before the arrest was made.” Asked why time in jail is not tracked as part of a case, “a member of court staff told us: it’s only three days anyway.”

Imagine if you were imprisoned for “only three days” over a parking ticket.

Marcus points out out that debtors prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States although it wasn’t until 1983 that the Supreme court ruled against “punishing a person for his poverty.” When a man was ruled as having violated his probation by not paying a fine, the Court ruled that the equal protection clause had been violated.

The Ferguson story stands out for the contempt its governing institutions have for its Black citizens. The lack of respect shows up most clearly in racist e-mails but it’s in evidence everywhere. The casual indifference behind that “only three days” signals that Black lives do not matter. In fact, one sees a contradiction at work. On the one hand, the authorities see Ferguson residents as takers looking for “free stuff” (to borrow Mitt Romney’s phrase). At the same time, they themselves are takers, regarding the residents as ATM machines to balance the city’s ledgers.

So why haven’t people been pushing back against this state of affairs? Why did it take the police killing of an unarmed black man to lead to protests and a DOJ investigation? Why don’t people vote since their votes would cause politicians to take them more seriously. Al Sharpton voiced his shock at low voter turnout when he visited Ferguson during the protest marches and Obama expressed the concern more generally in his Selma speech. Wasn’t this what civil rights protesters fought and sometimes died for?

Dickens helps us understand why the downtrodden don’t become politically engaged through the good-hearted Plornish in Little Dorrit. A plasterer who spends a week in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, Plornish lives in a London slum called Bleeding Heart Yard. He is so focused on just getting by that he doesn’t see the larger picture. Dickens describes Plornish as

one of those many wayfarers on the road of life, who seem to be afflicted with supernatural corns, rendering it impossible for them to keep up even with their lame competitors. A willing, working, soft hearted, not hard-headed fellow, Plornish took his fortune as smoothly as could be expected; but it was a rough one. It so rarely happened that anybody seemed to want him, it was such an exceptional case when his powers were in any request, that his misty mind could not make out how it happened. He took it as it came, therefore; he tumbled into all kinds of difficulties, and tumbled out of them; and, by tumbling through life, got himself considerably bruised.

When Arthur Clennam, the novel’s protagonist, asks Plornish about life in Bleeding Heart Yard, he gets a confused account. Plornish resents how the wealthy constantly berate the poor for being “improvident,” perhaps for taking an occasional trip to Hampton Court (which he essentially describes as a mental health excursion). He also knows that those in the Yard don’t have a lot to show for all their hard work. He doesn’t hold anyone responsible for this state of affairs and figures that no one would listen to him if he did. Fatalistically, he believes that even well-wishers can’t change anything. Ultimately he settles into the stance that, if you’re not going to help him, then at least stop taking away the little that he has. Dickens masters the rhythms of working class speech as he sets forth Plornish’s reasoning:

They was all hard up there, Mr Plornish said, uncommon hard up, to be sure. Well, he couldn’t say how it was; he didn’t know as anybody could say how it was; all he know’d was, that so it was. When a man felt, on his own back and in his own belly, that poor he was, that man (Mr Plornish gave it as his decided belief) know’d well that he was poor somehow or another, and you couldn’t talk it out of him, no more than you could talk Beef into him. Then you see, some people as was better off said, and a good many such people lived pretty close up to the mark themselves if not beyond it so he’d heerd, that they was ‘improvident’ (that was the favorite word) down the Yard. For instance, if they see a man with his wife and children going to Hampton Court in a Wan, perhaps once in a year, they says, ‘Hallo! I thought you was poor, my improvident friend!’ Why, Lord, how hard it was upon a man! What was a man to do? He couldn’t go mollancholy mad, and even if he did, you wouldn’t be the better for it. In Mr Plornish’s judgment you would be the worse for it. Yet you seemed to want to make a man mollancholy mad. You was always at it—if not with your right hand, with your left. What was they a doing in the Yard? Why, take a look at ‘em and see. There was the girls and their mothers a working at their sewing, or their shoe-binding, or their trimming, or their waistcoat making, day and night and night and day, and not more than able to keep body and soul together after all—often not so much. There was people of pretty well all sorts of trades you could name, all wanting to work, and yet not able to get it. There was old people, after working all their lives, going and being shut up in the workhouse, much worse fed and lodged and treated altogether, than—Mr Plornish said manufacturers, but appeared to mean malefactors. Why, a man didn’t know where to turn himself for a crumb of comfort. As to who was to blame for it, Mr Plornish didn’t know who was to blame for it. He could tell you who suffered, but he couldn’t tell you whose fault it was. It wasn’t his place to find out, and who’d mind what he said, if he did find out? He only know’d that it wasn’t put right by them what undertook that line of business, and that it didn’t come right of itself. And, in brief, his illogical opinion was, that if you couldn’t do nothing for him, you had better take nothing from him for doing of it; so far as he could make out, that was about what it come to. 

Convincing Plornish that his life matters would be an important first step toward persuading him to become more engaged in civic life. That’s why, throughout America’s urban communities, building respect is key, both self respect and respect between the people and the police. That first step is difficult, however, when so many people are telling our Bleeding Heart residents that their poverty is their fault.

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An Inspiring Speech Draws Upon Poetry

Obama in Selma

Over the weekend in Selma, the president gave one of his great speeches as he honored those who marched in Selma 50 years ago. In today’s post I examine the four literary figures that he drew on: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I note first his challenge to us to possess the “moral imagination” of the protesters.

This is work for all Americans, and not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.

Poets are critical in that imagining process, which is why Obama went on to mention them:

We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

Obama was concerned that we see Selma as living history rather than a memorialized past. Although he said that much progress has been made since 1965, the events in Ferguson and elsewhere remind us that much still needs to be done. He quoted Baldwin’s The Fire Next Times (1963) to emphasize that we must face up to the reality of America as it is rather than the America we wish it were.

Baldwin was discussing how, instead of supporting dictators like Spain’s Franco and Cuba’s Batista, with our power and our values we should have been supporting freedom movements. This commitment to the world he calls a “burden” that we are “capable of bearing”):

“We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.” 

Obama’s speech was striking for how it gloried in people’s racial, ethnic, gender and occupational identities rather than playing them down. America’s strength lies in its diversity, the president asserted, and he drew on both Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman to make the point. The Hughes passage—“[We] build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how”—is from his 1926 essay “The Negro and the Racial Mountain” and speaks to Obama’s own racial pride.

The essay is addressed to a young Black poet who wants (so Hughes interprets his words) to “write like a white poet.” Hughes admonishes him that he can’t run away from his Black identity but must stand strong in it:

An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose. Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy,” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas’s drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

I hear Hughes here echoing Walt Whitman’s unapologetic assertion of self in Song of Myself, also referenced by Obama. For Whitman, each individual is distinctive and therefore beautiful. The line quoted by the president—“I contain multitudes”—grows out of passages such as the following:

I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their
counterpart of on the same terms.

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generation of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and
of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.

In this passage, along with prisoners and slaves, the diseased and despairing, prisoners and dwarfs, Whitman mentions his homosexuality. He would have loved hearing the president of the United States talking about gays being “out and proud.” Here’s Obama expressing both Hughes’ pride in our identities and Whitman’s love of diversity as he lays out what makes America exceptional:

That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea – pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some; and we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That’s our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

And further on:

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe age of 25 could lead a mighty march.

It is fitting to conclude with Emerson, who contributed a line from the “Beauty” chapter of nature and a line from “A Nation’s Strength.” (Correction: The president actually conflated two different Emersons–an Emerson scholar [see note below] has just informed me “Nation’s Strength was written by Emerson’s cousin William Ralph Emerson.) In “Beauty” Emerson writes, “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” (Obama quoted the second sentence.) From “Nation’s Strength” the president borrowed the passage, “Men who for truth and honor’s sake/Stand fast and suffer long”:

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

America is not exceptional because of its wealth or its military might. If we become puffed up with pride on that score, Emerson reminds us that God has struck down that “bright crown” throughout history. No, we are great because because of our people. Perhaps Emerson ending his poem with an image of flight inspired Obama to do the same:

Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding, our union is not yet perfect. But we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.”

We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.

May He bless those warriors of justice no longer with us, and bless the United States of America.

Dare to dream.

Correction – According to Jeffrey Cramer, editor of The Portable Emerson, the president could not have been aware that he was misattributing authorship of the poem as people have been conflating Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ralph Emerson since the early 20th century. You can read Cramer’s account here. I love the caution with which Cramer ends his essay: “Quote responsibly.
The line you save may be your own.”

Added note: The reference to the 9-11 firefighters in a speech that quoted Song of Myself made me wonder whether Obama knew of Whitman’s own reference to firemen:

I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken,
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of my
comrades,
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,
They have clear’d the beams away, they tenderly life me forth.

Related post:

Whitman & Hughes Hear America Singing

How Beowulf Can Save America

Posted in Baldwin (James), Emerson (Ralph Waldo), Hughes (Langston), Whitman (Walt) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Literature Fills Your Life with Color

Picasso, "Woman with Book"

Picasso, “Woman with Book”

Recently my English Department invited several alumni back to campus to share job stories. Their accounts confirmed for me that one can do practically anything with an English degree: the five students were a legal secretary, a software writer, a midwife, a technical writer, and a human resources worker. In their presentations and their answers to questions, they laid out the specific ways that their English education had prepared them for the work world.

As could be expected, they explained the value of being able to synthesize information, break it down into pieces, and set forth what one has found in a clear and cogent way that will reach different audiences. All reported loving their jobs, even though they couldn’t have imagined themselves doing such work on the day of commencement.

Nor was this all. As one of them noted, she also feels a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that she is one who loves literature and delves deeply into it. This thought comes to her both on the job and away from it. With all the emphasis on the financial payoffs, we need constant reminding that a liberal arts education is about more than a job, although it also about that.

I thought about her comment Saturday as Julia and I traveled to Staunton, Virginia to watch a production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover. Literature flooded into our lives every step of the way.

Because it’s a long trip—three and a half hours each way—we were able to listen to a considerable portion of Joyce Carol Oates’ The Gravedigger’s Daughter. We were enthralled by the story of a woman and her son in 1950s America escaping from an abusive husband and inventing new names and building a new life for themselves. I’ve been listening to the book in 15 minute segments for several weeks now so that I sometimes feel as though I am driving through upstate New York and seeing people dressed as they were when I was a child. It’s as though life around me has extra dimensions to it. Its variety and resonances seem inexhaustible.

Then we got to the theatre and left New York for 1672 London. I was struck, even more than when I teach the play, by how Behn plays a dangerous game with her audience, just as the gravedigger’s daughter does with her husband as she tries to keep him from beating herself and her son. Behn, the first woman playwright and first British woman generally to earn her living by public writing, had to keep a misogynist audience from booing her plays off the stage.

Although The Rover is a comedy, it contains angry moments. Angellica’s heart is broken by the male protagonist and Florinda is twice almost raped, once by the protagonist and once by a gang of rakes. The Staunton audience was uneasy: were we supposed to make historical allowances and laugh when Florinda gets tossed around or was it okay to feel a contemporary revulsion. Our mixed feelings were entirely appropriate because Behn herself was walking a delicate line. She couldn’t be too angry because that would alienate her mostly male audience. She plays the scenes for comedy but we sense the extra energy.

I could see exactly how her original audience might have disrupted her play had she failed to placate them. That’s because Julia and I were able to sit on stage (we were waved down from our cheap seats in the balcony). In the 17th century, these were prized seats because audience members could interact with the players. The result could be mayhem, as can be seen from a scene in Wycherley’s Country Wife. The fop Sparkish explains why he goes to plays:

Harcourt: But I thought you had gone to Plays, to laugh at the Poet’s wit, not at your own.
Sparkish: Your Servant, Sir, no I thank you; gad I go to a Play as to a Country-treat, I carry my own wine to one, and my own wit to t’other, or else I’m sure I shou’d not be merry at either; and the reason why we are so often louder than the Players is because we think we speak more wit, and so become the Poets’ Rivals in his audience: for to tell you the truth, we hate the silly Rogues; nay, so much that we find fault even with their Bawdy upon the Stage, whilst we talk nothing else in the Pit as loud.

Across the channel a few decades earlier, Cyrano de Bergerac was also interrupting a play that offends his artistic sensibilities–or so Edmund Rostand says in his 1898 play.

I imagined Behn teasing her audience but being careful not to go too far, shifting quickly to comedy when the melodrama becomes too heated. With this crowd, she couldn’t afford to appear as an angry or aggrieved woman.

All in all, we returned to St. Mary’s refreshed and invigorated. So returning to my point about the importance of encounters with literature in school: if you seek out literary experiences and have them playing in the back of your head, the world pulsates with meaning and color.

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A Good Faith Is Hard To Find

Artist unknown, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

Artist unknown, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”

Spiritual Sunday

My colleague Ben Click, who teaches Mark Twain and American humor courses, is conducting a Lenten series on Flannery O’Connor for area Episcopal churches. I’ve long noticed the importance of grace in O’Connor’s work, but Ben, who is Catholic, has opened my eyes to just how much her Catholicism shapes her stories.

Ben challenged his first class with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” one of the most shocking short stories ever penned. The class came to see it as a profound meditation on doubt and faith.

The story is about a field trip taken by a family, and we see the action mostly through the eyes of the grandmother, a self-righteous and self-absorbed woman who smugly spouts platitudes and is more interested in social propriety than right relationship. At one point in the story she triggers a set of mishaps that sends the car off the road, and the family is discovered by “The Misfit” and his murderous gang.

While the gang proceeds to execute the family, including the two children and the baby, the grandmother invokes prayer and Jesus in an attempt to awaken The Misfit’s conscience. Instead she finds herself gazing into a spiritual abyss. Describing life in prison, The Misfit essentially describes an absurd world of unexplained suffering. She contends that prayer would have saved him but he reports seeing only walls. Think of it as a Dostoyevskan depiction of existential hell:

“Pray, pray,” the grandmother began, “pray, pray . . .”
“I never was a bad boy that I remember of,” The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, “but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive,” and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.
“That’s when you should have started to pray,” she said. “What did you do to get sent to the penitentiary that first time?”
“Turn to the right, it was a wall,” The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. “Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain’t recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come.”

The Misfit’s words remind me of George Herbert’s anguished cry to God in “Denial”:

    O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
                               To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
          My heart was in my knee,
                               But no hearing.

The grandmother invokes Jesus, but more out of fear than in any meaningful way. (“[S]he found herself saying, “Jesus. Jesus,” meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.”) This prompts The Misfit to describe the dread implications of a world without faith. If we don’t have a spiritual touchstone, ethical choices become meaningless and personal pleasure appears the only reliable guide:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

With this stark declaration, uttered with absolute certainty, The Misfit pulls the grandmother into his dark universe so that she commits an act of Peter betrayal. He himself follows this up with a version of Thomas’ doubt:

“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.
“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” 

And then, improbably, grace intervenes. Seeing his intense misery, the grandmother is somehow able to reach beyond her own fear, self-absorption, and sin-filled existence to a place of genuine compassion. It costs her her life but, as my colleague notes, she dies in a state of grace.

His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.

Note the child image and the smile. The grandmother early in the story would never have wanted to be seen in such an unladylike posture, but now the clouds have cleared. In the story’s most famous line, The Misfit bears witness that she has found what he longs for:

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

He, on the other hand, is condemned to a life of perpetual misery. Despite his earlier claim that one can find pleasure in meanness, he knows that he is condemned to a life of despair:

“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.
“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

This is rough stuff, but that makes it all the more appropriate for Lent. Real faith isn’t easy.

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Selma’s Bloody History

Selma's Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965

Selma’s Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first of the marches for voting rights in Alabama when protesters walked, or tried to walk, from Selma to Montgomery. Poet Gregory Orr’s prose poem is not about the marches themselves–he went down to Alabama a few months later–but it captures the tenor of the times.

On a Highway East of Selma, Alabama

By Gregory Orr

July 1965

As the sheriff remarked: I had no business being there. He was right, but for the wrong reasons. Among that odd crew of volunteers from the North, I was by far the most inept and least effective. I couldn’t have inspired or assisted a woodchuck to vote.

       In fact, when the sheriff’s buddies nabbed me on the highway east of Selma, I’d just been released from ten days of jail in Mississippi. I was fed up and terrified; I was actually fleeing north and glad to go.

 

In Jackson, they’d been ready for the demonstration. After the peaceful arrests, after the news cameras recorded us being quietly ushered onto trucks, the doors were closed and we headed for the county fairgrounds.

       Once we passed its gates, it was a different story: the truck doors opened on a crowd of state troopers waiting to greet us with their nightsticks out. Smiles beneath mirrored sunglasses and blue riot helmets; smiles above badges taped so numbers didn’t show.

       For the next twenty minutes, they clubbed us, and it kept up at intervals, more or less at random, all that afternoon and into the evening.

       Next morning we woke to new guards who did not need to conceal their names or faces. A little later, the fbi arrived to ask if anyone had specific complaints about how they’d been treated and by whom.

       But late that first night, as we sat bolt upright in rows on the concrete floor of the cattle barn waiting for mattresses to arrive, one last precise event: A guard stopped in front of the ten-year-old black kid next to me. He pulled a freedom now pin from the kid’s shirt, made him put it in his mouth, then ordered him to swallow.

 

That stakeout at dusk on Route 80 east of Selma was intended for someone else, some imaginary organizer rumored to be headed toward their dismal, godforsaken town. Why did they stop me?

       The New York plates, perhaps, and that little bit of stupidity: the straw hat I wore, a souvenir of Mississippi.

       Siren-wail from an unmarked car behind me—why should I think they were cops? I hesitated, then pulled to the shoulder. The two who jumped out waved pistols, but wore no uniforms or badges. By then, my doors were locked, my windows rolled. Absurd sound of a pistol barrel rapping the glass three inches from my face: “Get out, you son of a bitch, or we’ll blow your head off.”

      When they found pamphlets on the backseat they were sure they’d got the right guy. The fat one started poking my stomach with his gun, saying, “Boy, we’re gonna dump you in the swamp.”

 

It was a long ride through the dark, a ride full of believable threats, before they arrived at that hamlet with its cinderblock jail.

       He was very glad to see it, that adolescent I was twenty years ago. For eight days he cowered in his solitary cell, stinking of dirt and fear. He’s cowering there still, waiting for me to come back and release him by turning his terror into art. But consciously or not, he made his choice and he’s caught in history.

      And if I reach back now, it’s only to hug him and tell him to be brave, to remember that black kid who sat beside him in the Mississippi darkness. And to remember that silence shared by guards and prisoners alike as they watched in disbelief the darkness deepening around the small shape in his mouth, the taste of metal, the feel of the pin against his tongue.

       It’s too dark for it to matter what’s printed on the pin; it’s too dark for anything but the brute fact that someone wants him to choke to death on its hard shape.

       And still he refuses to swallow.

From The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (2002: Copper Canyon Press, 2002).

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Gaga Feminism & 12th Night

Pop singer Lady Gaga

Pop singer Lady Gaga

Is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night an example of “gaga feminism” at work? That’s a question I asked my class after reading to them excerpts from Judith Jack Halberstam’s book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012).

To understand the concept, some history of how Halberstam came up with the designation is useful. Halberstam, born anatomically female but generally seen as male, talks of how the children of his partner, 3 and 5, labeled him:

Both were at an age when gender is not so fixed, and so, upon meeting them for the first time, I got what was for me a very predictable question from them both: “Are you a boy or a girl?” When I did not give a definitive answer, they came up with a category that worked for them—boy/girl. They said it just like that, “boygirl,” as if it were one word, and moreover, as if it were already a well-known term and obvious at that. Since naming has been an issue my whole life (as a young person I was constantly mistaken for a boy; as an adult, my gender regularly confuses strangers), this simple resolution of my gender ambiguity within a term that stitches boy and girl together was liberating to say the least.

Gaga feminism, Halberstam says, involves applying such child’s openness to the complexity of relationships. As Halberstam notes,

Children are different from adults in all kinds of meaningful ways. They inhabit different understandings of time, and experience the passing of time differently. They also seamlessly transition between topics that adults would ordinarily not connect in polite conversation…; and often, they place the emphasis differently than adults might by making questions about sex and gender as important or as inconsequential as questions about animals, vegetables, and minerals. The training of children is as much about teaching them where to place the emphasis as it is about giving them information. But the training of children would proceed much more smoothly if there were more exchange and if adults were willing, in the process, to be retrained themselves. The whole notion of a generational exchange as a one-way process informs our way of parenting, and it keeps us stuck in profoundly limited and conservative models of the family and childrearing.

Incidentally, this passage nicely sums up the Stephen King vision of childhood that I was trying to articulate in Tuesday’s post.

Gaga feminism, as Halberstam acknowledges, has echoes of surrealism, Dadaism, and postmodernist deconstruction. Its aim is to playfully put what we regard as certainties into play. Here are some “what if” questions that a gaga feminist might ask:

What if we gendered people according to their behavior? What if gender shifted over the course of a lifetime–what if someone began life as a boy but became a boy/girl and then a boy/man? What if some males are ladies, some ladies are butch, some butches are women, some women are gay, some gays are feminine, some femmes are straight, and some straight people don’t know what the hell is going on? What if we live in a world where things happen so fast that the life span, and progress through it, looks very different than it did only two decades ago? What if you begin life as a queer mix of desires and impulses and then are trained to be heterosexual but might relapse into queerness once the training wears off? What if the very different sexual training that boys and girls receive makes them less and less compatible? What if girls stopped wearing pink, boys started wearing skirts, women stopped competing with other women, and men stopped grabbing their crotches in public?

Twelfth Night seems to have been written very much in this “what if” spirit. I’ve written in the past about its fluidity. One finds a man who wishes he had the sensibilities of a woman (Orsino) and a woman who dresses up like a man (Viola). Olivia is attracted to Viola, Antonio is attracted to Sebastian, and Orsino wants Viola to stay dressed as a man as long as she can. In my post I talk also about how there are many ways into the play and how you can make of it “what you will” (the play’s subtitle). Meanwhile language itself refuses to stay steady, so that Malvolio can see in the letters M.O.A.I. a confirmation of his deepest desire and words can slip their leash and mean something other than what their speaker intends:

Viola: They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.
Feste: I would therefore my sister had no name, sir.
Viola: Why, man?
Feste: Why, sir, her name’s a word, and to dally with that word might make my sister wanton. But, indeed, words are very rascals since bonds disgraced them.
Viola: Thy reason, man?
Feste: Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words, and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them.

Applying Halberstam’s framework, Shakespeare’s play is an imaginative exercise designed to jolt us out of our rigid tracks. The fact that he does so in an improbable comedy seems very much in the spirit of gaga feminism, which is serious exploration masquerading as gaga:

“Gaga,” a term newly popularized by the American singer born Stefani Germanotta, is a child word, a word that stands in for whatever the child cannot pronounce. It is also a word associated with nonsense, madness (going gaga), surrealism (Dada), the avant-garde, pop, SpongeBob; it means foolish or naïve enthusiasm, going crazy, being dotty; it sounds like babbling or idle chatter. With this constellation of meanings and in its most current incarnation in the person of Lady Gaga, the term may hold some promise as a form of feminism. Gaga feminism, I will demonstrate, is a form of political expression that masquerades as naïve nonsense but that actually participates in big and meaningful forms of critique. It finds inspiration in the silly and the marginal, the childish and the outlandish. Gaga feminism grapples with what cannot yet be pronounced and what still takes the form of gibberish, as we wait for new social forms to give our gaga babbling meaning.

I believe that Shakespeare dearly would have loved new forms that would have allowed him to express his many selves more fully, but he certainly couldn’t express such social alternatives in 1602. So he wrote his cross-dressing comedies, which aren’t taken as seriously as his tragedies but which grapple nonetheless with serious questions of identity.

So yes, I’m willing to describe the bard as going gaga.

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Atwood and a Woman on Death Row

aliadgrace

Once again the country is paying attention to a prisoner on death row, this time to Kelly Gissender, whose execution in George has just been postponed because of problems with the drug. It apparently takes a woman prisoner or a botched drug for most of us to pay attention anymore to executions. In this case, Christian groups are advocating for a commutation of the death penalty on the grounds that Gissender has turned her life around.

I’m all for commutation but that’s because I’m against the death penalty. What worries me is that inmates who look one way are more likely to have defenders than those who look another. It’s why a disproportionate number of people on death row are Black men.

It so happens that Margaret Atwood shares my concern about appearance, as evidenced by her smart 1996 novel Alias Grace. Based on a famous 19th century Toronto murder, the novel recounts how Grace Marks and a fellow servant kill an employer and his housekeeper/mistress. Atwood never confirms for us whether Grace is an innocent girl caught up in the machinations of her fellow servant or the orchestrator of the murder. Her co-conspirator insists to the end that Grace was the instigator and finds it deeply unjust that she herself isn’t hanged with him because of her show of penitence.

As occurs so often in her novels, Atwood plays against stereotypes of women. With only a couple of exceptions, most of the characters buy Grace’s sweet exterior. Atwood, on the other hand, is not so sure. Grace may just be skilled in performing a role, a performance that involves hiding a deep anger at those who have abused both her and her best friend Mary Whitney. Whitney dies after a back alley abortion, and Grace may have channeled Whitney’s anger while perpetrating the murders. Seeing her as an angel who went wrong, Atwood suggests, is society’s way of downplaying the depth of her anger.

In the end, Grace is rewarded for conforming to the penitent girl stereotype. After many petitions, she is set free and her old lover marries her. Indeed, her angelic exterior combined with her criminal past makes her irresistible to men, who prefer her to repressed “nice” girls. For that matter, these girls themselves are drawn to her because she symbolizes an anger they are not allowed to express. In our response to crimes and criminals we reveal ourselves.

The Gissender case is related but has a different ending. Gissender persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband and he did so. Because he turned state’s evidence, however, he received a life sentence with the possibility of parole while Gissender received the death penalty. Gissender’s defense attorney, anticipating a sexist Georgia jury, figured that they wouldn’t vote to have a woman executed, but they proved him wrong. I suppose this can be seen as a blow for women’s equality.

We’re now back on the stereotype track, however, with publications like Christianity Today telling conversion stories of “Mama Kelly” and advocating for commutation to life imprisonment. In Gissender’s defense, they point to statements such as this:

I have learned first-hand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy. I have learned to place my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And to behavior like this:

There are many stories of “Mama Kelly” talking women out of suicide, warning guards about potential problems in the block, learning theology classes through the prison’s theological certificate program, and generally making a positive difference at Arrendale State Prison.

The evidence is clear: Kelly has turned her life around. There is testimony after testimony of not only a changed life but also positive changes in the lives of others because of her ministry in prison. 

I should be clear that I’m willing to believe that Gissender has genuinely reformed, despite Atwood’s cautions about playacting women. I only request that this option be open not only to Christian women but to all prisoners, even those that don’t fit the stereotype. Our social goal should be to rehabilitate every prisoner who is capable of rehabilitation.

Sadly, at this late date even conforming to a stereotype may not be enough to save Kelly Gissender. Continued problems with the lethal injection drugs may be her last hope.

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Is It Time to Bring Out Twain’s War Prayer?

Boehner and Netanyahu

Boehner and Netanyahu

I’ve been discouraged in recent weeks by how easily war fever returns, even after our disastrous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only does polling reveal increased popular support for “boots on the ground” to fight ISIS, but the GOP. Benjamin Netanyahu, and a handful of Democrats are trying to sabotage the president’s negotiations with Iran. It may be time to pull out Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” again.

I mention “War Prayer” because it reminds us to be careful what we pray for. An aged stranger, hearing a fervent war prayer designed to inspire the troops and the populace, talks about there being two prayers, not one. Shouldering aside the minister, the old man announces,

“I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken.”

The uttered war prayer he responds to concludes with the words, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!” Here’s an excerpt from the unuttered prayer behind the prayer:

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst…

You can go here to read the entire prayer.

Say that Netanyahu and the GOP’s prayer is answered and they succeed in disrupting the current negotiations with Iran. The unuttered prayer is for a war with Iran.

Because—let’s be very clear about this—there is no other plan than war to what Obama is currently doing. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones came to this conclusion after spending the weekend watching “an endless procession of talking heads spend time talking about what we should do about Iran”:

The striking thing was not that there was lots of criticism from conservatives about President Obama’s negotiating strategy. The striking thing was the complete lack of any real alternative from these folks. I listened to interviewer after interviewer ask various people what they’d do instead, and the answers were all the weakest of weak tea. A few mentioned tighter sanctions, but without much conviction since (a) sanctions are already pretty tight and (b) even the hawks seem to understand that mere sanctions are unlikely to stop Iran’s nuclear program anyway. Beyond that there was nothing.

That is, with the refreshing (?) exception of Jason Chaffetz, who sounded a bit like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men after being badgered a bit by Wolf Blitzer. Military action? You’re damn right I want to see military action. Or words to that effect, anyway. But of course, this sentiment was behind the scenes everywhere, even if most of the hawkish talking heads didn’t quite say it so forthrightly. I noticed that even President Obama, in his interview with Reuters, specifically mentioned “military action,” rather than the usual euphemism of “all cards are on the table.”

What would war with Iran entail? Twain only talks about what would happen to the other guys. Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner lays out what it would mean for America, including American Jews:

The dismantling of the regime in Iran…would likely yield power to forces even worse than the current Iranian regime and more likely like the Islamic state in Iraq . It is unwinnable, and it will lead to the loss of many lives, the possibility of terrorism being spread to the U.S. as many people around the world see and resent the U.S. once again intervening in a country that is not intervening here in the U.S.

And this will be a huge disaster for the Jewish people. Americans will quickly see that the resulting war was brought about by those who wanted to put the supposed (though mistaken) interests of Israel above the interests of Americans. The outcome could well be a new flourishing of anti-Semitism in our society that has, since the end of the Second World War, managed to keep our home-grown anti-Semites out of positions of power. As American casualties increase, and Iranian terrorists strike inside the U.S., the anger will almost certainly explode against Jews, whereas it should be only directed at the militarists who once again lead us into war.

At the end of Twain’s story, the aged stranger asks the priest and congregation to think twice about what they say they want: “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

The outcome is predictable:

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Will the country also conclude that Obama’s current negotiations are lunatic? Or is lunacy invading the Middle East over and over and expecting a different outcome?

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King Looks to Children for Hope

The Losers Club in "IT"

The Losers Club in “IT”

I ask indulgence for one last post on Stephen King’s IT, which I’ve been teaching in my American Fantasy class. I chose It not because it is great literature but because I have become convinced that King is today’s Edgar Allen Poe, an author who dreams America’s nightmares. Since I’ve been presenting the problems that King sees in America—the dark aspects of itself that it refuses to face up to and therefore is crippled by—I want to spend a post looking at what he offers by way of solution.

First of all, however, let me theorize about how an author dreams our nightmares. Narrative fiction, as Jonathan Gottschall notes in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, is a powerful way to find meaning in the world. It is also a double-edged sword, however. While stories can plumb the depths of the human soul (The Odyssey, The Brothers Karamazov), they can also be used by paranoid conspiracy theorists to link things that have no real connection. For instance, this past year there were some who claimed that an outlaw president who hates America deliberately allowed illegal Hispanic immigrants with Ebola to cross into the United States.

I use this as an example because, as unhinged as it is, it actually sounds a bit like a Stephen King novel. To be sure, the conspiracy theorists claim that their theories are true while King only claims to write fiction. A thematic reading of King’s fiction, however, shows that he makes his own far-flung connections.

For instance, in IT we see him connecting environmental destruction, murderous homophobia, domestic abuse, pedophilia and child molestation, sexual assault, race lynching, horrific union busting, prison brutality, and unrestrained gun violence. Michael Hanlon, the narrator, is a Derry librarian and historian who digs through the town’s archives to look for patterns. In each of Derry’s periodic outbreaks of violence (every 27 years or so, which is to say, once a generation), he discovers that a manic clown has made an appearance. Hanlon works as a stand-in for King, who uses his fiction to understand America’s penchant for violence.

Many authors have piled up connections to define America, most notably Walt Whitman. With each author we must ask about the truth of their vision. If authors are our prophets, as I believe, then it must also be acknowledged that there are false prophets and true prophets, those who feed off of paranoid fantasies and shallow wish fulfillments and those who are committed to truth. I would argue that our greatest writers are those who are the most unwavering in this commitment.

If King is at all accurate in his description of America, then does he have any useful solutions? As I see it, IT is telling us that, to successfully fight the clown, we must reconnect with our childhood imagination and idealism.

Several years back a student, Marjorie Kates, wrote a senior project for me in which she argued that King owes a lot to William Wordsworth, especially Intimations of Immortality. Like Wordsworth, King sees us entering the world “trailing clouds of glory.” We feel alive as children and are filled with hope, refusing to be discouraged by reversals.

Many of King’s child characters have special powers, which are symbolic of their special relationship to life. As we grow older, however, we lose the connection–“Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy”—and become dull and listless. Or at least some of us do. Others, more sensitive, become angry over this lost connection and lash out in violence, especially against the children who have what they have lost. But whether they are dull or actively destructive, the republic suffers.

If we get back in touch with our childhood selves, however, we have a fighting chance. In a sense, King is giving us a version of Jesus’ admonition, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In King’s view, the difference between entering and not is that between “disquiet” and “desire”:

Disquiet and desire. All the difference between world and want—the difference between being an adult who counted the cost and a child who just got on it [a reckless bicycle] and went, for instance. All the world between…

Disquiet and desire. What you want and what you’re scared to try for. Where you’ve been and where you want to go.

Or as William Carlos Williams puts it in Paterson, it’s the difference between a calculating, acquisitive approach to the world and an open and wondering approach. (I write about Paterson’s influence on King here.)

IT is about a group of children who save the world because of their special powers of imagination. Everything is vibrant because they are still connected with what Wordsworth calls “the Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star.” But the real drama of the book is the children returning as adults to defeat the forces tearing apart America.

In one respect, they don’t have a lot of motivation to do so because all are living comfortable and successful adult lives. Something is missing, however, a something that includes their inability to have children–which is to say, an inability to move confidently into the future. If they, and America, are to go forward, they must go back and reclaim who they were as children. The memories involve pain, which is one reason it is so hard to go back. But more powerful than the pain is the intense aliveness they felt, which includes the deep love they had for each other.

Childhood pain is something that one finds in King but not in Wordsworth. King knows that children don’t live the seemingly carefree life of Wordsworth’s shepherd boy. (“Thou child of joy, /Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy/Shepherd-boy!”) But that difference being granted, the message is the same. Just as Wordsworth finds a way to recapture childhood intensity, building on the intimations he has of some deeper spirit at work, so does King.

Wordsworth talks about catching at “shadowy recollections” and realizing that they are

the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing 

If we connect with this master-light, then we can ward off both “listlessness” and “mad endeavor,” a good description of modern life. Wordsworth assures us that we get a second chance:

Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
               Which brought us hither;
               Can in a moment travel thither–
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore. 

Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Losers Club in IT and another stand-in for King, has Wordsworthian intimations that our children and memories of own childhood play can reconnect us with a healing force. In IT’s penultimate paragraph, Bill sounds like a combination of Wordsworth and the sister at the end of Alice in Wonderland:

It is good to be a child, but it is also good to be grownup and able to consider the mystery of childhood…its beliefs and desires. I will write about all of this one day, he thinks, and knows it’s just a dawn thought, an after-dreaming thought. But it’s nice to think so for awhile in the morning’s clean silence, to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love. To think that what has looked forward must also look back, and that each life makes its own imitation of immortality: a wheel.

Mortality may be heir to heartache and a thousand natural shocks, yet children’s beliefs and desires, their courage and love, “confirms” it—which is to say, certifies that life is worthwhile. In a play on the poem’s title, King says that, by acting upon our intimations of immortality, we create lives that imitate immortality. Wordsworth assures us our life is guided by the fact that we never lose sight of that “immortal sea that brought us thither” while King describes life as a wheel.

So the next time you find yourself discouraged by the news, look to your children or remember your own childhood. Then live your life accordingly.

One final thought: King sets the childhood portion of IT in 1958 when he, like his child protagonists, was 11. He dedicates the book to his three children, who were 14, 12, and 7 in 1985 when the novel came out and when the adult portion is set. Depressed though he was by the state of America at that time, he looked at his children, remembered his own childhood, and found hope.

Previous posts on Stephen King

Imagination Unleashed: Children on Bikes

Stephen King: Tax Me, Save America

The Ebola Epidemic, a Stephen King Nightmare

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

Unlike Oklahoma, King Wants Real History

King’s Vision of Environmental Devastation

And for an earlier version of today’s post, although far less developed:

How Lost Innocence Can Breed Monsters

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Bigger Thomas, Clarence’s Shadow

Native Son

Over the weekend The New York Times had two authors of color look back at Richard Wright’s Native Son, which sold “an astonishing 215,000 copies within three weeks” when it appeared 75 years ago. Ayana Mathis and Pankaj Misra help me make sense of a topic that has fascinated me: why is Native Son one of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas’ favorite books. I’ve written about this in the past but have now achieved new clarity.

First a note on Thomas, considered the most radical justice on the Supreme Court and, by critics, the cruelest. He has famously voted against affirmative action and voting protections and in general sides with the wealthy and the powerful against minorities, prisoners, students, voters, and consumers. More than any other justice in a long time, he is willing to override precedent in favor of his vision. Some believe that his uncompromising stances, which early on often made him a minority of one, have had the effect of pulling the entire court to the right. That’s because he has given other conservative justices the courage to go further than they otherwise might have gone.

So why would someone like this be a fan of Native Son. The two New York Times authors talk about Wright’s self-hatred, and I think Thomas has a similar self loathing.

Both Mathis and Misra refer to James Baldwin’s famous charge that Wright gives us a caricature of African Americans rather than actual flesh and blood people. Mathis agrees:

I don’t imagine many black people would have embraced such a grotesque portrait of themselves. Bigger Thomas is a rapist and a murderer motivated only by fear, hate and a slew of animal impulses. He is the black ape gone berserk that reigned supreme in the white racial imagination. Other black characters in the novel don’t fare much better — they are petty criminals or mammies or have been so ground under the heel of oppression as to be without agency or even intelligence. Wright’s is a bleak and ungenerous depiction of black life. 

Misra, meanwhile, notes,

[Baldwin’s] main objection to Native Son was that it confirmed the damning judgment on African-Americans delivered by their longstanding tormentors. Damaged by hatred and fear, Bigger Thomas tries to redeem his manhood through murder and rape. But this vengeful cruelty only validates “those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth,” reinforcing old degrading notions about black men. 

We see only too vividly what happens today when police and vigilantes hold such caricatures. Baldwin wanted more nuance, and Mathis points out that other African American authors delivered. For instance, Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jean Toomer in Cane and Ann Petry in The Street gives us African American characters with rich and complex lives.

Seeking to give Wright some credit, Misra observes,

With Bigger Thomas, Wright courageously defied those who would have preferred a milder character, a less provocative commentary on the “problem of the color line” (as Du Bois called it), one that would reassure white readers rather than terrify them. 

There are problems with this line of argument, however, which anticipates Eldridge Cleaver’s defense of the novel (and his attack of Baldwin’s critique) that it is better to be feared than to be loved. (I’ve written on that debate here.) But Cleaver himself became a caricature, and Misra can’t defend Wright beyond his time period. She concludes that Native Son

is limited by a circumscribed vision that fails to extend much beyond the novel’s moment in 1940. 

That doesn’t keep it from resonating with the Supreme Court justice, however. What Clarence Thomas sees in Bigger Thomas, I think, is his own Black rage. He then projects this rage outward and sees Blacks and other minorities as Biggers needing to be constrained. Clarence’s stances in favor of brutal policemen, prison guards, and government torturers are motivated, I suspect, by his belief that extreme measures are necessary. I have little doubt whose side he would take if any of the cases involving unarmed black men shot by police showed up before the Supreme Court. Bigger is Clarence’s shadow, and what we cannot face up to becomes monstrous in our eyes.

For an example of how to face up to one’s shadow in a healthy way, Misra gives us Baldwin, who is relentlessly honest with himself. Rather than dismiss Native Son altogether, Baldwin realizes that he has a “baffling and dangerous place” within himself. “For who has not hated his black brother?” he asks. “Simply because he is black, because he is brother.”

We might get true justice from Clarence Thomas if he engaged in such introspection. I fear his rage will prevent him from ever getting there.

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How to Keep Beauty from Vanishing Away

Sandro Botticelli, "Ideal Portrait of a Lady”

Sandro Botticelli, “Ideal Portrait of a Lady”

Spiritual Sunday

The first poem I shared with the woman who would become my wife was a very Lentenesque lyric by Gerard Manley Hopkins, although I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time. At the time, I also had no idea that Julia and I would become close, much less married.

Julia was a good friend of my college roommate and, when visiting him one day, invited me to her poetry club. I showed up and belted out the Hopkins poem, which I had memorized. Because of its sprung rhythm, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” makes for a very dramatic reading and apparently I made quite an impression on Julia. The following trimester we started dating and we were engaged by the end of the year.

Perhaps there are no accidents when it comes to the literature we are drawn to. Looking back at the poem now, I can see it mirroring my love life that year. In the fall of 1971 I was reeling from a very painful break-up (my own leaden echo). By March of 1972, I was ecstatically in love. I realize that this isn’t exactly what Hopkins has in mind, focused as he is on a more spiritual awakening. Then again, much of Hopkins’ power lies in the way that he uses images of natural beauty to capture the joy he feels in the presence of the divine.

In the “Leaden Echo” half of the poem, Hopkins laments that there is nothing to “keep back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away.” Ultimately good looks will yield to “ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay.” Like Lear’s “never, never, never, never, never” following the death of Cordelia, Hopkins concludes part I with “to despair, to despair,/Despair, despair, despair, despair.”

Then, miraculously, the poem turns around. “Despair” shifts to “Spare!” signaling the Easter promise. Yes, there is a key to keeping beauty from vanishing away, the poet assures us. The beauty Hopkins now has in mind is the beauty of the human soul. Lent understands that sometimes we have to be stripped down to our despairing ashes to see it.

The poet acknowledges that this is not a rational hope (reason is symbolized by the “singeing” sun), but the beauty of his images and the ecstatic rhythm of his words signal his conviction. When Hopkins speaks of “beauty-in-the-ghost,” he has in mind the Holy Ghost. God, who numbers every hair on our head (Luke 12:7), will see to it that none of this beauty is lost. God created earth’s beauty, God revels in earth’s beauty, and God will receive earth’s beauty back.

Our job is to both celebrate God’s beauty and to “freely forfeit” it. We are not to make an idol of beauty and therefore should not mourn when fair faces give way to “these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep.” After all, when we enter the realm of “yonder,” we will find that nothing has been lost.

The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Leaden Echo

HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep 
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away? 
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep, 
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?  
No there ’s none, there ’s none, O no there ’s none, 
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,       
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,    
And wisdom is early to despair:           
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done   
To keep at bay       
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay; 
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.           
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none: 
Be beginning to despair, to despair,                   
Despair, despair, despair, despair.           

The Golden Echo

        Spare!     
There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!); 
Only not within seeing of the sun,       
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,      
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,      
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,     
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,   
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,  
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet  
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,  
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth 
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth! 
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—     
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath, 
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver 
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death    
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.  
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair        
Is, hair of the head, numbered.      
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould    
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold    
What while we, while we slumbered.      
O then, weary then why         
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,    
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept     
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder 
A care kept. — Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. —
Yonder. — What high as that! We follow, now we follow. — Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,
Yonder.

Yonder, incidentally, is not only life after death but a different way of living life now. After 42 years of marriage, I can report that Julia remains the beautiful girl I saw when I first met her. Ruck and wrinkle have become irrelevant.

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In Support of School Prayer (with a Twist)

Sophie Anderson, "Foundling girls in their school dresses at prayer" (1877)

Sophie Anderson, “Foundling girls in their school dresses at prayer” (1877)

Here’s a story I’ve been sitting on for a while but that’s okay since new versions of it keep popping up. In March of 2012 Florida passed a bill allowing students to “read inspirational messages of their choosing at assemblies and sporting events.” As Huffington Post reported at the time,

Although the word “prayer” was explicitly struck from the bill’s language, the legislation is largely seen as a way for the State to sneak in religion into public schools.

At the time the Governor Rick Scott signed the bill, however, some unexpected support for it came in. Satanists saw the new law as an opportunity for them to get their own message out. In other words, rather than attempt to separate church and state, some are taking an opposite approach and arguing that all religions should be allowed in. Needless to say, this is not exactly what those proposing the bill had in mind.

A similar drama occurred this past December in Detroit when Satanists received permission to erect a Christmas display alongside a Christian crèche. As the Associated Press reported,

Christians and Satanists put up competing displays Sunday on the Michigan Capitol grounds as Christmas week got underway.

The Detroit chapter of the Satanic Temple set up its “Snaketivity Scene” featuring a snake offering a book called “Revolt of the Angels” as a gift. The snake is wrapped around the Satanic cross on the 3-feet-by-3-feet display. 

I don’t know what has been happening in the Florida school system since the bill was passed, but here’s a poem by my father offering the children some suggestions. It was written in the 1990s so the reference to “the Bulls” is to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Juxtaposing the pop star Madonna with the NBA team, however, also suggests the myth of Zeus and Europa, as well as Cretan bull worship. In the end, though, America’s deepest religion may be the trinity that concludes the poem.

The Lingam, incidentally, is male sexual energy, which means that the bored children in the poem should, for balance’s sake, also pray to the Yoni.

School Prayer, Semester Schedule

By Scott Bates

Begin with Lucretius’s prayer to Venus,
         Alexandrian prayers to Pan,
The Golden Ass’s prayer to Isis,
         Humanist prayers to Man;

Continue with Baudelaire’s prayer to Satan,
         Huxley’s prayer to Henry Ford;
And there’s always a Tantric prayer to the Lingam
         Whenever the children get bored.

You can finish with prayers to Gods of the Hour
Like Madonna, the Bulls, Sex, Money, and Power.

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King’s Vision of Environmental Devastation

IT

As I teach Stephen King’s IT in my American Fantasy course, I’ve become fascinated by his allusions to an epic poem written by William Carlos Williams. King has multiple epigraphs for the different sections of his book, and five of those epigraphs are taken from Paterson. King’s references to Williams help clarify my sense that King dreams America’s nightmares. For Williams, a place defines a people, and King’s fictional city of Derry, Maine has a corrupt foundation that taints everything connected with it.

In past posts on IT, I’ve examined America’s penchant for violence and how America seeks to whitewash its dark history. Today I focus on those forces that are threatening the environment.

Williams famously wrote “no ideas but in things,” and the thing/place he chooses to explore in his five volume poem is Paterson, New Jersey. The central image of the poem, Williams notes, is of “the city as a man, a man lying on his side peopling the place with his thoughts.”

Paterson, as Williams sees it/him, is defined by two conflicting American strains: a paranoid, acquisitive Puritan strain and an open-minded, inquisitive strain that Williams associates with the French Jesuit missionary Father Rasles. Williams scholar Walter Scott Peterson lays out the contrast:

The “Puritans,” most simply, symbolize the kind of mind which, pursuing only pragmatic ends, views the world with mistrust or even fear. Such a mind seeks to isolate itself by retreating into conventionality and solipsism. Rasles and Williams’ other heroes, on the contrary, symbolize the kind of mind which, pursuing only the wonder and beauty freely given by its local surroundings, views the world with trust and courage. Through love and imagination such a mind seeks a mutual relationship with its world that is both vital and creative.

In IT, Derry fits the Puritan mold, although only a few sensitive adults sense that something is rotten at the core. The rottenness becomes apparent when one looks into Derry’s history, which includes a horrific treatment of the environment. King describes the clear-cutting of Maine’s “virgin” forests as a rape:

The other members of the [Library] Board are the descendants of the lumber barons. Their support of the library is an act of inherited expiation: they raped the woods and now care for these books the way a libertine might decide, in his middle age, to provide for the gaily gotten bastards of his youth. It was their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who actually spread the legs of the forests north of Derry and Bangor and raped those green-gowned virgins with their axes and peaveys. They cut and slashed and strip-timbered and never looked back. They tore the hymen of those great forests open when Grover Cleveland was President and had pretty well finished the job by the time Woodrow Wilson had his stroke. These lace-ruffled ruffians raped the great woods, impregnated them with a litter of slash and junk spruce, and changed Derry from a sleepy little ship-building town into a booming honky-tonk where the ginmills never closed and the whores turned tricks all night long.

And further on:

So that was Derry right through the first twenty or so years of the twentieth century: all boom and booze and balling. The Penobscot and the Kenduskeag were full of floating logs from ice-out in April to ice-in in November. The business began to slack off in the twenties without the Great War or the hardwoods to feed it, and it staggered to a stop during the Depression. The lumber barons put their money in those New York or Boston banks that had survived the Crash and left Derry’s economy to live—or—die—on its own. They retreated to their gracious houses on West Broadway and sent their children to private schools in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York. And lived on their interest and political connections.

Today, our versions of these timber barons are the Koch Brothers and other fossil fuel magnates, who seek to do away with environmental regulations (which means buying the politicians who will do so) so that they can open up the country to unfettered fracking, tar sand oil extraction, pipeline construction, unfiltered coal emissions, and the like. As a result, we are seeing a marked increase in oil wells exploding, train cars catching fire, oil tankers foundering, pipelines rupturing, and coal ash ponds polluting major waterways. Meanwhile fracking, which is occurring even in residential areas and national parks, is leading to earthquakes and groundwater contamination. King’s maniac clown is on the loose.

Both Williams and King look to love and imagination as the forces that must stand up to the devastation. In King’s novel, these are found in the children, whose minds have not yet been colonized by the adults. I’ll talk about how they defeat the clown next week.

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Hoping against Hope in the Face of Death

Ruth Robbins, Ged and his otak

Illus by Robbins, “Wizard of Earthsea,” Ged and his otak

My faculty reading group grappled with the issue of hope last week. Specifically, we discussed philosopher Adrienne Martin’s book How We Hope: A Moral Psychology. My philosophy colleagues explained to me that Martin is a Kantian, which helps explain why I found the book so difficult. (I still feel the bruises from my college encounters with Kant.) Nevertheless, I emerged with some powerful perspectives on hope in the face of death, including how it played a role when my oldest son died 15 years ago.

Martin asks how it is possible to hope when there seem no rational grounds for hoping, what she calls “hope against hope.” Must one have religious faith to have such hope, she wonders, or can one ground one’s hope in something more secular as well? To answer the question, Martin draws on Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, which I’ve written about  here and here. Martin argues that Chief Plenty Coups’ “unimaginable hope” that the Crow people would survive, even though he had no rational basis for such a hope, can have a non-religious as well as a religious dimension:

I aim to show that the hope Lear identifies has a kind of essential sustaining power lacked by hope in general, and that it has this power because it targets an outcome that is, for the hopeful person, unimaginable. I then draw from Immanuel Kant’s and Gabriel Marcel’s discussions of religious hope, in order to develop a detailed account of unimaginable hope, and to argue that it is best conceived as a kind of faith. Of course, both Kant and Marcel have in mind a specifically religious form of hope, and, in fact, Plenty Coups’ hope was also religious—it was grounded in a spiritual vision he had as a young man, and it relied on the Crow people’s shared belief that they were the favored people of the god Ah-badt-dadt-deah. However, Lear also suggests such a hope could be secularized—i.e., there is a form of faith available to atheists as well, and it is one that constitutes a virtuous and sustaining response to cultural collapse.

To make sense of this, I turn first to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then to Justin’s death, then to Beowulf, and finally to Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea.

I’ve posted in the past how I came to see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight differently after watching a former Marine respond to it. Matt Alexander, who served two tours in Afghanistan disassembling IEDs, used the poem to get back in touch with certain feelings he had pushed under. Thinking about his experience in terms of Martin’s book as well as the poem, I now see how deep a role hope played in helping Matt hold on to his humanity.

You can read the previous post for more details. I’ll just mention here that Matt thought, when he was in Afghanistan, that he had learned how to shrug off his fear of death. When he saw Gawain taking the green girdle from Lady Bertilak, however, he suddenly realized that he hadn’t accepted death as much as he thought. Rather, he had simply numbed himself to his fears. Matt realized that the care he took in donning his body armor, even though it wouldn’t protect him from an exploding IED, meant that he cared more about his life than he was admitting. The discovery hit him with seismic force, and he stayed up all night reading the poem.

Martin would say that, by putting on the armor, Matt was expressing hope. This hope is so fundamental a part of what it means to be human that, when we abandon hope (as Dante understood), we become inhuman. That’s what Nature, in the form of the Green Knight, is telling the knights of the Round Table. The Green Knight warns us that we can’t let our heads become separated from our bodies, and he himself offers us an example of one who is so in touch with nature that he can’t be beheaded. The fact that Gawain takes the girdle and that he flinches when the axe descends means that he is still human. His challenge is to love the human side that makes him vulnerable, not be ashamed of it.

Matt’s acknowledgement of his humanity has helped in his reintegration into civilian society.

After telling Matt’s story to my  faculty book group, I then shared my experience following Justin’s death. Right after Justin drowned, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever be happy again. And yet I remember making certain decisions that very night that Martin would call expressions of unimaginable hope. I determined that I would not let death Justin’s death blight my family’s life, that I would do whatever it took to find what was life-sustaining about what had happened. To do so, I declared that I would follow grief, unresisting, through whatever paths she led me.

The hope was unimaginable because I couldn’t imagine what my grief would look like or how I would emerge from the ordeal. It was hopeful because I felt sure that the mind has healing properties and knows what is best for us. My job, as I saw it, was to follow grief’s dictates. In other words, I got out of my head and into my body.

What did this look like? Each day I accepted whatever grief had in store for me. Some days I was raging, some days deeply sorrowful, some days more exhausted than I thought it was possible to be. There were also days when I felt fairly calm. In each case, I would see the mood as my agenda for the day—as in, “Okay, today I’ll be really, really tired. I feel this way because of how much I loved Justin. I don’t wish for anything else.”

Lest it sound that I was only caught up in my own emotions, I should mention that I was also looking out for those I loved. In a previous post I’ve written about how one can interpret Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s Mother as a struggle with grief and take inspiration from his wielding the giant sword, which in my case was my commitment to those I loved. It sounds like a contradiction but I both stood up to Grendel’s Mother and let her drag me through her dark waters.

In neither case did I try to dictate what the future would look like. I didn’t demand a certain happy outcome. Nevertheless, I somehow knew, in a deep way, that healing would occur. I never lost that hope, which felt like a certainty. Or as Kant, Marcel, and Martin would say, a faith.

Although I’m Christian, it didn’t seem like a particularly Christian faith in that it didn’t involve images of Jesus. But it seemed to go deeper than psychology. Thinking about Matt, perhaps it involved getting in touch with some deep life force that that wouldn’t allow me to retreat into my head.

I have one more literary image, this one taken from Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, which I taught last week. Ged carries a weasel-like creature called an otak on his shoulder and, at a crisis point when a deep spiritual malaise grips Ged and threatens to bury him, the otak reconnects him with life:

Later, when Geld thought back upon that night, he knew that had none touched him when he lay there spirit-lost, had none called him back in some way, he might have been lost for good. It was only the dumb instinctive wisdom of the beast who licks his hurt companion to comfort him, and yet in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry. From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.

I’ll let you decide whether this deep power, this hope, is religious or secular. Whatever it is, it guides us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Posted in Beowulf Poet, LeGuin (Ursula K.), Sir Gawain Poet | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Unlike Oklahoma, King Wants Real History

Stephen King dreams America's nightmares

Stephen King dreams America’s nightmares

For the first time in my life I’m teaching a novel by Stephen King, whom I have come to regard as today’s Edgar Allen Poe. Last week I talked about how King puts his finger on a deep strain of violence that runs through America. Today, after hearing about how Oklahoma legislators want to whitewash the new American history Advanced Placement curriculum, I return to It since the novel is filled with such instances of covering up.

Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed has a good account of what is happening in Oklahoma. Recently a legislative committee passed a bill declaring that the new curriculum is an “emergency” threatening the “public peace, health and safety.” It’s not entirely clear what’s in the new curriculum but one sees the rightwing fears at work in the concerns mentioned by Flaherty:

Among the Republican committee’s more specific concerns were that the framework “includes little or no discussion of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history and many other critical topics that have always been part of the APUSH course” and that it “excludes discussion of the U.S. military (no battles, commanders or heroes) and omits many other individuals and events that greatly shaped our nation’s history (for example, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Tuskegee Airmen, the Holocaust).”

In response to the criticism, the College Board released a practice exam for the new framework, hoping to reduce suspicions about the test. The questions suggest that, contrary to the Republican resolution, students will study the founding of the United States and the civil rights movement, but also will explore topics such as poverty in American life that are less triumphal than battle victories. 

The committee is being ingenuous when it mentions Parks and King since I doubt if it really wants its history teachers teaching anything but anodyne versions of these two radicals. If it mentions the Holocaust, I’m sure it has in mind Americans heroically liberating the concentration camps rather than, say, America sending back to Nazi Germany the boat filled with Jewish refugees. What the legislators really want is for students not to delve too deeply into our wars, our race history, and our class history.

Harold Bloom has said of Poe that he “dreamt America’s nightmares” and I see King doing the same. We have nightmares when we push under aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge. What gets repressed, of course, becomes toxic. In It, this other America is represented by Derry, Maine, whose bloody history reaches back to the 18th century.

King has a special vantage point from which to view America’s dark underside. Born in 1947 and raised in the hardscrabble industrial city of Lewiston, Maine by a single mother, he witnessed an America different than the one that people saw in Leave It to Beaver. Derry, which shares certain similarities with Lewiston, is the America that Americans want to pretend never happened.

Take, for example, how Derry sets up an “I love Derry” day:

A Canal Days Museum was installed in three empty storefronts downtown, and filled with exhibits by Michael Hanlon, a local librarian and amateur historian. The town’s oldest families loaned freely of their almost priceless treasures, and during the week of the festival nearly forty thousand visitors paid a quarter each to look at eating-house menus from the 1890’s, loggers’ bitts, axes, and peaveys from the 1880s, children’s toys from the 1920s, and over two thousand photographs and nine reels of movie film of life as it had been in Derry over the last hundred years.

The museum was sponsored by the Derry Ladies’ Society, which vetoed some of Hanlon’s proposed exhibits (such as the notorious tramp chair from the 1930s) and photographs (such as those of the Bradley Gang after the notorious shoot-out). But all agreed it was a great success, and no one really wanted to see those gory old things anyway. It was so much better to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, as the old song said.

The dark side of Derry, symbolized by a horrible clown, is acknowledged only by the seven children who set about to defeat it. The year is 1958 and they are all 11, as was King in that year. One of the characters, now an adult who is returning to confront the return of the clown, explains why he is taking this awful trip down memory lane and why he has forgotten the reality he witnessed as a child:

I’m going because all I’ve ever gotten and all I have now is somehow due to what we did then, and you pay for what you get in this world. Maybe that’s why God made us kids first and built us close to the ground, because He knows you got to fall down a lot and bleed a lot before you learn that one simple lesson. You pay for what you get, you own what you pay for…and sooner or later whatever you own comes back home to you.

America is a great nation and one that I love very much. A lot of blood has been spilled to get where we are, however, and we will continue to make terrible mistakes if we don’t face up to our history. What the Oklahoma legislators fail to realize is that grappling with the past, the bad as well as the good, makes us stronger. Patriotic platitudes, by contrast, are dangerous because too many people act out their rage and disappointment when reality fails to go along.

Unfortunately, they may well get their way. Mike Hanlon, the Black librarian and unofficial historian who stays on the lookout for It, tells what happens when people reveal historical truth. The rich folk from Derry, he notes,

would take “my library” away from me in jig time (pun definitely intended) if I published anything about the Legion of Decency, the fire at the Black Spot, the execution of the Bradley Gang…or the affair of Claude Heroux and the Silver Dollar.

Just as the younger generation turns to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report for news voices they feel they can trust, so they may, if the Oklahoma legislators prevail, turn to Stephen King for how history really works. Unlike their frightened and patronizing elders, he acknowledges the dirty secrets.

Further thought: George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Stephen King would say, “Those who refuse to remember the past will be driven mad by it.”

Posted in King (Stephen) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Motion Picture Industry, It’s You I Love!

Jeanette MacDonald of the flaming hair and lips and long, long neck

Jeanette MacDonald of the flaming hair and lips and long, long neck

For a poem that captures our ambivalent feelings about Oscar night, Frank O’Hara’s “To the Film Industry in Crisis” is as good as it gets. Written in 1955 when television was seriously threatening the film industry, the poem simultaneously mocks and celebrates Hollywood.

On the one hand, O’Hara captures the breathless adulation of fans with lines like “Motion Picture Industry, it’s you I love.” By ending his poem with an echo of Byron’s “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean roll!/Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain,” O’Hara is satirically comparing the movies with the irresistible power of nature. Such over-the-top statements are entirely in line with how Hollywood sees itself and how last night’s red carpet announcers breathlessly ushered in the stars. Hollywood has always been puffed up with self importance, and O’Hara mocks us for going along.

But that being acknowledged, O’Hara is perfectly serious that Hollywood has an energy and allure that are missing from poetic quarterlies, experimental theater, and opera. Celebrity culture has a stature that the Catholic Church and the American Legion (God and country) have trouble competing with. The poet wouldn’t lovingly enumerate so many star performances if he himself weren’t in thrall to the movies.

The 1950s saw many high art vs. low art debates amongst cultural critics. Was high art elitist and out of touch with the masses? Did the allure of the movies threaten to drag us all down to the lowest common denominator? O’Hara doesn’t give us a definite answer. He obviously likes the vibrancy of the silver screen but statements like “may the money of the world glitteringly cover you” makes the poem sound like less than a full-throated endorsement.

Incidentally, there’s a Walt Whitman-quality to the poem, and Whitman presented his own challenge to high art critics 100 years before with Leaves of Grass.

Unless you know your film history, many of the names in the poem may be obscure. It’s not hard to imagine an updated version of the poem, however. As you read it, have fun laughing at the film industry, even as you revel in fond memories. Perhaps you were of the same two minds last night.

To the Film Industry in Crisis

By Frank O’Hara

Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
with your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants,
nor you, experimental theatre in which Emotive Fruition
is wedding Poetic Insight perpetually, nor you,
promenading Grand Opera, obvious as an ear (though you
are close to my heart), but you, Motion Picture Industry,
it’s you I love!

In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.
And give credit where it’s due: not to my starched nurse, who taught me
how to be bad and not bad rather than good (and has lately availed
herself of this information), not to the Catholic Church
which is at best an oversolemn introduction to cosmic entertainment,
not to the American Legion, which hates everybody, but to you,
glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope,
stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all
your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms! To
Richard Bartelhmess as the “tol’able boy” barefoot and in pants,
Jeanette MacDonald of the flaming hair and lips and long, long neck,
Sue Carroll as she sits for eternity on the damaged fender of a car
and smiles, Ginger Rogers with her pageboy bob like a sausage
on her shuffling shoulders, peach-melba-voiced Fred Astaire of the feet,
Eric von Stroheim, the seducer of mountain climbers’ gasping spouses,
the Tarzans, each and every one of you (I cannot bring myself to prefer
Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker, I cannot!), Mae West in a furry sled,
her bordello radiance and bland remarks, Rudolph Valentino of the moon,
its crushing passions and moonlike, too, the gentle Norma Shearer,
Miriam Hopkins dropping her champagne glass off Joel McCrea’s yacht
and crying into the dappled sea, Clark Gable rescuing Gene Tierney
from Russia and Allan Jones rescuing Kitty Carlisle from Harpo Marx,
Cornel Wilde coughing blood on the piano keys while Merle Oberon berates,
Marilyn Monroe in her little spike heels reeling through Niagara Falls,
Joseph Cotten puzzling and Orson Welles puzzled and Dolores del Rio

eating orchids for lunch and breaking mirrors, Gloria Swanson reclining,
and Jean Harlow reclining and wiggling, and Alice Faye reclining
and wiggling and singing, Myrna Loy being calm and wise, William Powell
in his stunning urbanity, Elizabeth Taylor blossoming, yes, to you
and to all you others, the great, the near-great, the featured, the extras

who pass quickly and return in dreams saying your one or two lines,
my love!
Long may you illumine spaces with your marvelous appearances, delays
and enunciations, and may the money of the world glitteringly cover you
as you rest after a long day under the klieg lights with your faces
in packs for our edification, the way the clouds come often at night
but the heavens operate on the star system. It is a divine precedent
you perpetuate! Roll on, wheels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!

Posted in O'Hara (Frank) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Tracking Eliot’s Spiritual Journey for Lent

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve decided to make it my Lenten quest to come to terms with T. S. Eliot’s religious poems. They have always confused me—at times I have no idea what Eliot is talking about—and I took a stab at one last Sunday with my post on Part I of “Ash Wednesday.” Though I have mixed feelings about Eliot, he and I go far enough back that I’m sure to learn something. I’m hoping the immersion will help me understand my own grappling with faith..

Like many literary geeks, I fell in love with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when I in high school. As a freshman, I overheard an English teacher discussing it with a sophomore and felt that being able to enter such conversations would be like joining an exclusive club, one that had a special language and knew special things. “Prufrock” was the first poem that felt adult to me.

This perspective of Eliot was only reinforced when, my junior year, I encountered “The Hollow Men” and saw Eliot in dialogue with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Although Eliot, even at 27 when he wrote “Prufrock,” sounds like a man going through a midlife crisis, his world-weariness speaks directly to intelligent but insecure adolescents, who know all about putting on a face to meet the faces that you meet and stumbling around avoiding eye contact in death’s other kingdom. I was drawn to Eliot for the same reason I was drawn to Sartre, Camus, and Dostoevsky. I thought it profound to describe the world as meaningless.

In my defense, I was an adolescent at a very confusing time. All around me I saw the race hatred of George Wallace and heard the drum beat of the Vietnam War. In 1968 when I turned 17, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, Wallace was shot, the Soviets quashed the Czechoslovak awakening, Chicago police beat up protesters at the Democratic National Convention, and Richard Nixon was elected president. No wonder I put on a cynical mask.

Eliot also seemed important because I grew up in Sewanee, Tennessee and Eliot was a major influence on The Sewanee Review. As an Episcopalian college, Sewanee liked the fact that Eliot found his way to Anglicanism.

For the longest time I only liked the early poems and reacted against Eliot’s reactionary politics and his high church sensibilities. Looking back now, I realize I was reacting against Sewanee as well as Eliot. Then, after a long hiatus, I made my way back to the Episcopalianism of my youth, although I was attracted more by the poetry of its liturgy than by its high church rituals. In the last couple of years, I have also found my way back to The Waste Land, in part because I was interested in how poetry could comfort a man who felt like the world was flying apart. Last week, “Ash Wednesday” seemed to be a good poem to reflect on as we move into Lent. And here I am.

In reading articles about Eliot’s religious poetry, I am struck by two different views. Joseph Bottum, in “What Eliot Almost Believed” (1995), writes that Eliot was never able to move beyond the intellect. Bottum believes that the poet wrote eloquently about what stood in the way of belief but never truly believed. Of “Ash Wednesday” Bottum writes,

It is a poem not so much about God as a prayer for God, and not so much about prayer as about the effort of the poet to put himself in the attitude of prayer.

Bottum contrasts Eliot was St. Augustine, who he argues was driven mad by his intellect but then, propelled by grace, made a leap of faith into faith:

Augustine falls further and further into self-willed madness as he advances further and further into self-willed self-consciousness, and at last (in a garden as the Confessions tells the story) he converts by the grace of God from madness to that pure and selfless act he sought. But it is a pure and selfless act of will and not of intellect. Augustine becomes an unthinking, irrational, and motiveless desire for the Will of God. And when a child’s voice-saying, “Take up and read”–wafts over the garden wall, Augustine drifts as gently as a leaf across the garden and over to the table where he finds the letters of St. Paul.

That Eliot was never able to so drift, Bottum contends, can be seen in the closing lines of “Ash Wednesday” where, addressing Mary and the Holy Spirit, he describes union with God by what it is not. Rather than asking to be filled with God’s grace, he asks not to be separated:

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

C.E. Chaffin also sees Eliot exploring in “Ash Wednesday,” describing the poem as “more an approach to faith than a record of conversion or a revelation of wisdom.” Chaffin agrees with Bottum that Eliot was stumbling towards faith after having written himself into a corner with “The Hollow Men”:

If Eliot had not been converted after writing “The Hollow Men,” what more could he have written? It is hard to imagine him re-working the theme of worldly despair more vividly. Without some tangible hope to follow that dark poem it seems to me his only options were either suicide or to stop writing poetry altogether.

Happily, Eliot’s body of work chronicles a spiritual and artistic journey that rebounds from such things. Thus we might call “The Hollow Men” his artistic “dark night of the soul.”

But where Bottum sees subsequent failure, Chaffin sees an ever more confident journey:

One might say Eliot was always and only working on one poem, the record of his spiritual journey—from the timid neurosis of “Prufrock” through the superannuated persona of “Gerontion” to the psychotic pilgrimage of “The Waste Land,” on to the hopeless limbo of “The Hollow Men,” through the delicate negotiation of faith in “Ash Wednesday,” finally arriving at the triumphant resolution of “Four Quartets.”

Since I am not familiar with Choruses from the Rock or “Four Quartets” and since I read Eliot’s religious plays (The Cocktail Party, Murder in the Cathedral) at a very different time in my life, I’m curious about what I will learn. I promise to report back.

Posted in Eliot (T.S.) | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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